RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Flexibility and Failure

Battle FlexibilityTheme Thursday: Flexibility and Failure

Part of the genius of the Pathfinder RPG and D&D lies in the class system, providing instant fun and a role for players. However, that same genius can also be the game’s downfall.

Players tend to think of their role in the party first, and that’s perfectly reasonable; it’s better and easier, as well as more fun, to play a particular role. Specialization and focus make a party more powerful. However, the moment a player decides not to try something out of their comfort zone, whether because they’re dealing with monsters that resist their attacks or a social situation with high skill checks, that player has failed to be flexible.

Because anything can happen in a pen-and-paper game, a player needs to be up for anything. There will be all kinds of different encounters, and you have to keep in mind that just because your character doesn’t specialize in something, you shouldn’t ignore or avoid it.

Don’t be afraid of failure. Failure is good.

Even if things don’t go your way, any story will be much more interesting (and amusing) if the characters fail occasionally. That’s the nature of storytelling; that’s how we know that the challenges are real. And everyone having more fun should always be your goal as a player, not just getting more powerful. If you design your character to do just one thing really really well, that’s fine unless you stand around doing nothing in every other situation. There are a vast number of ingredients in the stew that makes a good roleplaying game; being flexible and willing to fail really spices things up.

-Max Porter Zasada


RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Motivation

dragon_battle_by_mobius_9Not-so-common Pitfall: Motivation

There’s plenty of great GM advice out there, and by now everyone has heard about railroading, saying yes instead of no, and DMPCs. However, there are all kinds of pitfalls, and what are GMs to do when they run into issues that aren’t so commonly talked about? Well, they come to Gamingmage. Let’s take a look at Motivation from both sides of the DM screen. This is a big one that the Pathfinder and D&D community doesn’t really talk about enough, because it’s very difficult to communicate about motivation well. In the case of railroading, the players know exactly how they feel. Lack of motivation is a vague beast, amorphous and transient. The players won’t be able to explain the problem. 

 Motivating the players is easy; all it takes is the promise of gold or an annoying villain who gets away. Motivating the players’ characters is not easy.  It is an incredibly difficult yet vital tool to immerse the players in the world and the story, to make them actually care a little bit about the events unfolding in your world and their role in them. 

Remember always that the specific beats the general when it comes to adventures. It will be an interesting adventure to save Brian, the one-eyed innkeeper with the sharp tongue who was stolen away by a demon disguised as his daughter. This adventure is fun because it is about something very specific, very personal. The End of The World, however, may not be enough motivation. If the players feel that someone else can or ought to save the world, it’s far too vague of a problem for them to get a grip on. It’s boring.

Motivation is a very tricky thing. It seems like a good idea to link the adventure you have written to the personal backstories of the PCs, and while that might work for one or two of them, the PCs without that backstory link will feel less motivated than ever: nothing could have less to do with them than another character’s mentor getting into legal trouble. The thing to keep in mind is the purpose of motivation: to keep the characters moving through the story or the world, keep them doing things other than pursuing the whim of the moment. 

Planning a PartyOne way to patch up the inherent weakness of the backstory-motivation is to insure that all of the characters have the same element in their past that they need to use moving forward. Avoid the antithesis of this principle, where you put in elements from every players’ unique backstory, as this will result in a scattered adventure with no real aim or purpose, further weakening motivation. Instead, backstory-based motivation has to come from the very beginning of the game. One design that works wonders is to require the players to take levels in a certain class or certain pool of classes at the very beginning of the game, and explain that the player must be from a particular region or belong to a certain organization to begin the game. This ensures that they have elements of backstory that they all share, and thus may all share a similar motivation. 

Avoid the ‘meet in a tavern’ beginning at all costs. It is the bane of good motivation.

Thoughts? Comments?

-Max Porter-Zasada

RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Influence of Video Games

BardThe Video Game Influence

Plenty of words have been written about the influence of pen-and-paper RPGs on video games. But what about the other way around? Even if you’re still playing 2nd Edition or some such, your GM’s style has had influence from video games in some small way, and if you’re playing a more recently released game then the influence is more pronounced. Even if you deplore video games for some reason, don’t be afraid to take good ideas and use them. A good GM never lets a good idea go to waste.

The central similarity of video games and traditional RPGs is clear: they are both interactive storytelling. There are advantages and disadvantages to both media, but we’re more interested in the cross-pollination. So, you should ask yourself, what can we learn? What pitfalls can we avoid?

Positive Factor: Encounter Design. There may be as many encounter styles as there are people who play games. Everyone likes things a little bit different. That said, there are some broad trends we can identify and use. The encounters you might term “video-gamey” can be extremely fun. This kind of encounter design entails highly pre-planned encounters, with special rules or specific events that the players have to figure out how to trigger. A couple examples might include deadly mushrooms in an underground lair that can be attacked from range to explode, or magical standing runestones with various helpful auras placed around the battlefield.

The point is to have clearly defined, exciting events in the encounter that the players can enjoy figuring out without being too creative themselves, and thus focus more on the tactical fun. This can be a really fun, memorable encounter, although it’s perhaps not the best idea for a truly climactic, story-ending battle; the story part of the encounter tends to feel a bit thin, because the strategy comes from the GM, not organically from the players. That’s more than fine for less story-critical encounters, however, and can be a really fun thing to design!

Pathfinder AlchemistNegative Factor: Calcification. One of the most amazing things about playing Pathfinder or D&D occurs when you realize that anything can happen, and any player can interact with any object or person in any way. Yes, it’s probably not going to be very good for the game if your character paints themselves pink and jumps off the nearest cliff or attempts to murder all the other party members at the start of every game session, but the possibility that your character could do that brings an incredibly powerful aura of realism and engagement in a character or story that no video game can ever quite replicate–although video games have their own amazing qualities and advantages. By their very nature, video games cannot do everything that pen-and-paper RPGs do. A preset game needs to have a limited number of outcomes to any story or battle or any interaction, whereas a human GM can allow anything to happen. Video games are therefore designed with an “intentional” way for the players to interact with everything in the world–even if the players discover other options, there’s definitely a way that things are “supposed” to work, because there has to be. 

The negative influence of video games on pen-and-paper games is that they make players calcify their thinking. Because people are becoming used to the idea that interactive stories have a way they’re “supposed” to play out, GMs tend to think in those terms, and players tend to either “game” an encounter by manipulating a rule to their advantage or brute force their way through. It’s not that simplicity is a bad thing–many adventures are the better for being simple–but it’s not good to be simplistic. Not every story point or adventure decision should come wrapped up in a nice, neat little package (or be aimlessly nasty). Leave room for players or GMs to breathe by looking for creative possibilities in every aspect of the game. Keep in mind the mantra that anything can happen. And sometimes, events venture into unexpected territory.

-Max Porter Zasada

RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Quest Rewards

Quest rewardsTheme Thursday: Quest Rewards

If you’re the sort of GM (and hopefully you are) who wants players to remember their adventures, to think of them often with a fond laugh, a wry smile, or even a bitter grimace, then you may want to consider adding some better quest rewards. Nobody really remembers which part of the frost giant adventure they got their +2 frost axe from, or which level of the Abyss they found that Helm of Teleportation–indeed, in my games these are considered onerous bookkeeping activities.

The solution is to give your players rewards that are inherently tied to each adventure. Unfortunately, no one wants to bother with named magic items, because “I attack it with the sword of Dead King Jorgrim the Unyielding Warrior that we got from the Necropolis of Demondread with a +14 modifier including the magic bonus” is far too much of a mouthful. Instead, it has to be a reward that stands outside the basic rules, so that there’s no need to boil the reward down to a number. On the other hand,  adding capabilities and power to the players runs the severe risk of unbalancing the game. The solution is to make the quest rewards a one-time-use proposition; after being expended, the reward is gone forever.

Quest Rewards faceFor a long time, I’ve given out one or two action points and (with the advent of the Advanced Players’ Guide) hero points at the end of adventures or for doing heroic deeds. These work, in that players feel personally rewarded for going beyond the call of duty or for playing with panache. However, given a little time the memory of how someone got those 5 action points fades, leaving us with the mere numerical bonuses. It became a little boring.

Thus, we have quest reward power cards. These are one-use cards with unique powers and abilities on them, each themed on some part of the completed adventure. But don’t let the players throw them away once used! There may be mysterious methods of re-activating the cards for a second round–such as the expenditure of action/hero points.

I simply take a couple of index cards, cut them in half, and write the power on the lined side. On the back of the card, write the name of the completed adventure–I add a little illustration of what the power does, because I like to place the cards face down on the table at the end of the adventure and let the players each choose one based on the illustration. If you design highly tailored cards, such as spellcasting-related cards that could be drawn by a fighter type, either allow the players to trade cards or dispense with the face down idea.

It’s best to design cards without too much power, even if they are one-use. Best of all are cards that refresh power or abilities in some way, because these unbalance the game the least while giving players an enormous satisfaction.

These cards have revolutionized the game I’ve tested them in– the players are more involved, more interested, and remember the story much better than before.

Let me know what you think!


Max Porter Zasada




RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Designing Apocalypse

Theme Thursday: Designing Apocalypse

A classic setting of fantasy and adventure, the magical apocalypse can be extremely difficult to get right. The difficulty lies in the way that an apocalypse challenges the assumptions that everyone normally has. In any game, players have certain needs; in Pathfinder, they need to shop for magic items, sell their loot, and rest to regain spells.

However, the point of designing an apocalyptic setting is to challenge the assumptions of a normal world. A player needs to feel that things are drastically different, and the best way to achieve that sense of loss is to do away with the perks of civilization. However, at the same time, a setting can’t be so frustrating and difficult that no one wants to play.

Unfortunately, most apocalyptic settings tend to fall to the other extreme and make most amenities available in some form, only using the apocalyptic setting to justify new powers and abilities. This often makes the characters into unstoppable badasses roaming the landscape as they please, since the rest of the world has been hit harder by the end of days. This kind of thing can be fun in its own right, but doesn’t really accomplish the goal of a world-ending setting.

To achieve the right feel, you have to make frustration work for you instead of against you. Make limitations, but make things available. Instead of a magic shop, there’s a mad old peddler with cracked teeth; he sure as beans won’t have the selection of one of the old magic emporiums, but every now and then he’ll have some unusual, crazy-strong item that someone really wants. Let the players feel like they got a little something in return for everything the apocalypse took away. Let the players feel like badasses only in comparison to their bleak surroundings.

The manner of the apocalypse might well affect the characters’ options. If it was an arcane explosion, perhaps some magically protected locations survived. If a flood, or divine fire, or icy doom befell the world, then certain creatures may have survived; the point is to remember that anything that survives the apocalypse becomes much more important as a result.

Perhaps that’s how the characters become heroes.


Max Porter-Zasada

RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Magic as World-Builder

Theme: Magic as World-Builder

The use of magic is incredibly important to the background of your fantasy world. Not only do magical locations settle your game firmly within a genre, they are precise calibrators of theme and a player’s position in a world. Nothing evokes a sense of wonder so much as having an adventure that takes you to a manor on a turtle’s back, a wizard from a forgotten world, or the strange rituals that take place within the world tree.

Magic and its uses are vital to your setting and your game. The trick lies in mixing the two kinds of magic properly to create both wonder and engagement.

Engaging Magic

This type of magic shows up in your world in forms that are clearly understandable to the players. If they get high enough level or put enough work into it, they themselves could create that dramatic stone bridge with a wall of stone spell, or held back the hordes of undead with a consecrate. Players of an RPG must feel that most things in the world are understandable or could have been done by the players themselves (speaking strictly from a 3rd edition viewpoint). This allows the players to matter, to present themselves on the stage of history and be prepared to make their marks.

Wondrous Magic

You just can’t ignore the big ideas. Any fantasy world requires an occasional sense of wonder at some sheer impossibility. Once in a while, your players should see or experience magic that lies beyond the realm of the Core Rulebook, beyond the realm of the known or the safe magic. There must be places within a fantasy world that defy explanation of any kind; the places where time runs backward, or cities float via forgotten spells, or spells come alive and dance. The sense of wonder keeps people interested, sustains them as they seek the mystery or the life beyond understanding. The moment your daily memorization of spells starts to become a chore, the world needs to remind you that it is a place of fantasy.


Generally speaking, your world needs a somewhat imbalanced mix: most magic should be understandable, something grasped and hungered after by the players. Yet here and there the truly wondrous magic must reside.

-Max Porter Zasada

RPG Design: Theme Thursday: Micro-stories

Theme Thursday: Micro-stories

Well, I’m going to share one of the great secrets of awesome campaign design, and indeed any interactive story. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

The essential point to keep in mind when designing a campaign is that you’re not writing a novel. You don’t have complete control over the characters, the events, or even the plot–you only have control over the setting. The challenge lies in creating a story with all the things good stories have–interesting characters, engaging plot, and a dramatic story arc that suspends disbelief and keeps a disparate audience enraptured. This task might seem impossible given the lack of control you have over the elements of the story, but at least you have one great tool in your arsenal: the micro-story.

The term “micro-story” refers to the way that tiny, minuscule interactions with a game can form their own stories. In a single encounter, tensions rise as the monster takes more and more damage, while the players have to struggle harder and harder to defeat it, until (if things go well) in one spectacular finish, the beast is destroyed, and the micro-story resolves as the heroes count up their treasure.

Better yet, in a D20 system the micro-stories go even deeper. The reason so many people find the 20 system so satisfying is because of the micro-stories inherent to the game. Every time you roll a die, you participate in an extremely brief dramatic tale: with a specific goal in mind, you roll the die across the table. The tension rises as it slows, stops, and a number appears…a flurry of checking modifiers follows, and the story resolves in either triumphant success or dismal failure!

As a gamemaster, you can harness this power of good gaming if you wish. Sure, great campaigns can consist of strict storylines and linear dramatic arcs–but that’s a lot less fun for the players. The truly fun campaigns aren’t simply “sandbox-style” either, where the players are essentially involved in a massive board game. The best kinds of campaigns have plenty of leeway for the players yet feel satisfying no matter what choices they make or how they shape the story. No matter what happens, it should feel right, as well-crafted as the best novel, yet still full of possibility for the players.

The only way to make this freedom into a cohesive story is through micro-stories. They make the campaign satisfying. You need to think in micro-stories: design adventures around the idea, as well as encounters and even small things like skill checks. You can make climbing a mountain memorable if you think of it as a story arc–an easy climb check followed by a hard one, followed by a dramatic rise all the way to a combat with vrocks on a swinging rope bridge (an encounter that itself possesses dramatic tension as the vrocks increase one by one).

Perhaps you never expected the players to go up that mountain. Heck, maybe it was a random decision by one of the players who’s ignoring a major plot-directed adventure in a completely different direction. That doesn’t matter. Maybe you have to slip in a clue or hook somewhere on this mountain that sends the party back in the direction of the main storyline; that’s fine and necessary. It’s going to feel organic to the main story, it’s going to feel right–all because this mountain adventure felt like a story in itself.

An interactive story, whose main characters can make independent decisions, only feels right when the story happens in every direction. Your story arc can be as twisted as a corkscrew, but with the right application of micro-stories it will seem, looking back, that there was only one way the story could have happened.