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Explaining Board Games

I play a lot of board games. I’m the person who reads the rules and then tells everyone else who didn’t read the rules how the game works, so we can all have fun playing. This is how I do it.

“In this game we will be _____s trying to do _____.”

That should be the start of every game explanation. If you can’t fill in the blanks on that sentence, you need to read the rules again and figure them out. Knowing who you are and what the end goal is makes every other part of the game make sense. You can’t skip this.

In this game we will be rival kingdoms trying to build the biggest empire on Catan.

“On your turn you will do _____ to try to _____.”

Take it one step down and let the student know what their short term goal is. New players can’t conceive of the vast opportunities that lie inside the ruleset, so you need to let them hit some wins right off. Tell them how they do that, and why they would want to.

On your turn you will use resources to build new roads and cities to try to get more resources to grow faster next turn.

“You have the option of doing _____ or _____ or _____. You’ll weigh _____ against _____ to make your decision.”

Explain breadth-first: skip the details to sketch out the broader picture, letting the student understand which options are available and why they play against each other. If you dive into each option as it presents itself, the core mechanic of “pick an option” will get lost among the noise of the options themselves.

You have the option of building cities or roads or development cards. Roads let you capture territory, but settlements let you use territory.

“If you see this symbol, it means _____.”

Most games have lots and lots of iconography. You need to note the important ones up front, and show where in the rulebook it’s all laid out, so the students can do lookups without revealing their hand.

These pips show how often each number will roll, and how often you’ll get resources if you settle around that territory. More pips means it’s more valuable.

“That part’s confusing, so we’ll get to it in a minute.”

Explain things such that they get a feel for the forest, not for whichever tree happens to be nearby. They’ll understand the pieces better by playing with them, but they need to understand the board to know why the pieces matter.

Development cards can be all sorts of things, so let’s scan through this deck to see a few.

“You want to make sure to _____ because _____.”

Time is a scare resource in all games, and letting people learn that they made a mistake last round that has already irrevocably hurt their chances is no fun, especially if they’re playing against people who knew better. Doubly so if that person is you, who should have told them.

You’ll try to use up resources so they don’t get stolen by the robber, but horde enough resources to build bigger things.

“Maybe you’ll win by _____, or maybe _____.”

Explain a few strategies, and how they work. Say which one you’ve won with before. Give options so they know that they shouldn’t just try to copy you one turn after you’ve done it. If there’s only one way to win, say so.

You can make a lot of cities to win, or get the longest road, or the longest army. Cities can’t be taken away, but the road and army are hard to keep. I like the road, but I know people who go all-in on development cards.

“Maybe you’ll get _____, or maybe _____.”

If there is randomness, let them know the scale of the randomness. Is my reward one-or-two things (normal part of game), or one-or-ten things (outsize wins make game swingy)?

Looking at the pips, this board looks like it’s gonna be starved for ore. That won’t matter much as we start, but it’s going to make the endgame tough. Try to plan ahead to claim ore early or find a way to not need it.

“When you need help, just ask.”

Competitive games often require secrecy of some sort, which makes it very hard to ask for help mid-game. Make it explicit that you’re available to help afterward, and that you won’t abuse the knowledge you gain.

Some development cards or some trades are hard to wrap your mind around at first. Just ask; I won’t cheat you out of your moment to shine.

Now go out there and play some games!

Automatically and Smartly Moving Fonts to a New Machine

I recently got a new computer at work, and after a week of using it I realized I was missing a few fonts. I wanted to move over the old fonts to the new machine, but I knew there would be some wrinkles.

An Aside About Library Folders

If you know OS X, you know that it allows for three levels of configuration1 :

  • The /System/Library directory affects everyone, and should be untouched by the user; this is for Apple only.
  • The /Library directory affects everyone, but can be changed by the user to make computer-wide changes
  • The ~/Library directories affect just the user whose home directory they’re in

Whenever an app needs, say, a preference for the desktop background, it looks through that list from bottom to top, so user settings override computer settings, which override the system defaults.

Alternatively, the system can amalgamate the list from the union of the group, so each level can contribute some items to the set, again with more specific levels overriding. This is exactly what it does with fonts; each level has a list, and the font list you see inside apps is the combination of all the lists. But if I have a custom copy of Apple Chancery in my ~/Library/Fonts directory, it will override the one in /System/Library/Fonts.

The Problem At Hand

So the problem I had is that, when I moved to the new computer, I copied my ~/Library folder as part of the move2. But some fonts I use were apparently in /Libary, despite my best efforts to keep my settings in my home dir.

But I couldn’t just copy all those files into my ~/Library, because I didn’t want some old version of a font sitting in my home dir blocking me from seeing the new updated font installed by the OS.

So I needed to look at each of the fonts from my old computer, see if they had analogues in the new computer somewhere, and only move them if they did not have an analogue.

The Solution

So I wrote a ruby script that does exactly that:

Font =, :hash) do
  def name

  def to_s
    "#{name} • #{hash} @ #{path}"

  def self.list_from_dir(dir_path)
    %x{md5 #{File.expand_path(dir_path)}/*} do |line|
      _, path, hash = /MD5 (@?(.*)) = (.*)/.match(line).to_a, hash)

new_fonts = Font.list_from_dir '~/Desktop/OldFonts'
user_fonts = Font.list_from_dir '~/Library/Fonts'
lib_fonts = Font.list_from_dir '/Library/Fonts'
sys_fonts = Font.list_from_dir '/System/Library/Fonts'
old_fonts = user_fonts + lib_fonts + sys_fonts

outcomes =

new_fonts.each do |font|
  if dup = old_fonts.detect {|f| f.hash == font.hash}
    puts "# #{} has hash match #{dup}"
    outcomes[:hash_match] += 1
  elsif dup = old_fonts.detect {|f| ==}
    puts "# #{} has name match #{dup}"
    outcomes[:name_match] += 1
    puts "cp '#{font.path}' ~/Library/Fonts/"
    outcomes[:move] += 1

puts "# #{outcomes.inspect}"

This script looks through a folder on your desktop named OldFonts for fonts. For each one, it looks to see if there’s an identical item in your ~/Library, /Library, or /System/Library folder. If it doesn’t find an identical one, it will match by name in the same directories. If it doesn’t find that, it spits out the command to move the file into your ~/Library/Fonts directory, so it will follow you the next time you move computers.

It does not move any files; it just gives you the commands you can run to do so. In these kind of cases, where a mistake would be very bad, I often like to write my scripts so that they output another script, and I can review that script before running it.

In my case, it matched 158 exactly, 68 by name, and it let me move 132 files. Writing this script was way quicker than figuring out what to do in those 358 cases, so it saved me some time; I hope it saves you time, as well!

  1. well, four if you count the network, but I don’t know if anyone does that anymore 

  2. as I’ve done for every move since the Public Beta in 2001; my home folder is very old and assuredly full of cruft, but also full of gems I’d never remember to pull on their own or recall how to do again if I had to start over 

Spotlights Add Story Focus to 13th Age

It has been just over a year since I started GMing our optimized-for-play campaign of 13th Age, and it’s time that I take a look back at what has worked and what hasn’t, and what I’ve changed in the process. I’ve already talked about Cold Opens and Flashbacks. Now let’s talk about building stories around your characters by using the Spotlight.

My highest priority running a role playing game is the story being told. When you’re optimized for play, you have to build that story on the fly, and make it relevant to the characters to boot. Spotlights are a way to share that work with everyone at the table, player and GM alike.

The idea and the name come from Primetime Adventures, where each character’s gets one “Spotlight episode” per “season” of 8(ish) episodes. The spotlight makes one character stand out from the crowd, making it obvious that this is the focus this week. In PTA, each character, as part of character creation, identifies an “issue” that they will be working through this season. The producer— PTA’s GM role— then uses that issue to frame the character into a situation that will uniquely highlight their issue and force them to show the audience something interesting about their character or their world.

In 13th Age, you don’t have an explicit “issue” on the sheet but you have a ton of other hooks to use:

  • Did the player leave something unfinished in a previous session, especially in a Flashback? Bring it to the fore with a recurring character, a debt called in, or a delayed consequence.
  • Does the character’s One Unique Thing suggest a conflict with outside powers, or internal turmoil? Find a way to make those dangerous in the present and put them on display.
  • Did the player get a complicated Icon roll? Make the situation about how they pay the cost to get the benefit.
  • Did the player get a hit on an negative Icon relation? Let them show off their knowledge of the baddies by dropping the PCs behind enemy lines.
  • Does the character have a background that suggests backstory but hasn’t been used much? Highlight it with a trip to the PC’s hometown/dojo/boot camp/college arcana/whatnot, or a trip by an NPC from same to find the PC.

Any one of these will provide a well-lit road into the character’s story, at varying levels of importance: backgrounds are great fodder, but hitting an icon roll is nearer to their core. Hitting a Unique will show off why this particular character is different, but I have found that the best route is to circle back to the spotlights that have come before, to highlight continuity and build upon what everyone at the table knows, which is ultimately as unique as you can get. The players get to invest in each others’ stories, and the interconnections that result are one of the best surprises a GM gets.

The cold open will put the spotlight character into a position to make the story go, and when I finish reading the cold open I ask the spotlighted character the question1: “what do you do?” It’s at that point that the player in the spotlight gets to take control and determine the tenor of the game to follow. It is their point of maximum leverage, where they get to decide if tonight will dive straight to combat, veer to diplomacy, or jump to a chase. Using that moment to control the narrative is huge, but it is not immediately obvious to the players, so it’s best to point that out a few times.

Narrative control is great, but most players want some crunch, so our spotlight provides some, although the specifics have shifted a few times over the course of our game. It began as a simple pile of three bennies given to that player, to allow them to emphasize what was important to them (“I really need to convince this guard we’re legit, so here’s a Bennie before I roll.”). Ultimately that freeform method diffused the spotlight too much: there was no real direction for the character to go beyond what the cold open provided, which is as often as not more of a team effort than an individual one. We needed something more focused.

Spotlight Questions

Spotlight Questions are written out on 3×5 cards in big letters, asking the player to emphasize or show one specific, important thing about their character. Some examples:

  • Pick another player. How did you meet them, and why are you still traveling with them? 🔗
  • The Elf Queen knows your destiny and has been preparing for your arrival. How do you overcome the obstacles she’s put in your path? 🔗
  • If you had to pick one of your friends to save, which would it be? 🔗
  • Are Arroway and Vessel actually a couple? 🔗
  • You share a mystical connection with The Lich King; explain what it is. 🔗
  • Dral has become an ally, but not all orcs are. Show us how you deal with that. 🔗
  • Why did you leave the Order of the Closed Fist to go adventuring? 🔗
  • Will you serve the One True God now that you know his true nature? 🔗
  • We know that The Orc Lord supports what you are attempting. Show us what that is. 🔗
  • How did you adapt to the current Age and how did you fall in with The Prince of Shadows? 🔗

A good spotlight question2 is a one-two punch, laying down a fact and then asking for clarification on it. Often the fact stated is from a previous episode, but I find that it is a simple and effective world- building tool, letting me extrapolate on what has been said to what has happened “off screen” since then. The question follows a similar dynamic: mix in the mysteries that are left unsolved, but do not be afraid to introduce new ones.

The important thing is that the question should encourage focused storytelling. This is a tool that allows and demands player input, and there will necessarily be world building on their part as well. This is frankly my favorite part of the mechanic: it lets everyone advance their own story while the shared story of the group advances as well. Think of it as the “b plot” of the episode, where the more-personal story emphasizes the main action thematically and tonally.

The players love getting the spotlight. It means that their creation gets to shine, and it means that they get to do a bit of showing off. This is exactly the kind of game I want to play: where everyone gets to toss in their ideas, and everyone else gets to be impressed and amaed. Getting your character’s first spotlight is a right of passage, where the team’s new guy stops being just another token on the combat map and becomes a real part of the story, growing connections into the world and the group. And as the GM I love seeing what crazy obstacles the players are willing– eager, even– to throw into their own paths to make their eventual triumph all the more sweet.

The Mechanics

I write all the questions ahead of time3, and have them ready. Before the cold open, we decide on the spotlight.

  • I lay down 3 or 4 cards, each with a different question on it, and I read them aloud so the whole table hears.
  • Upon each card I lay a poker chip that acts as a bennie4: the spotlight means the character should shine, not just be the center of attention.
  • Then, each player who is not the spotlight gets two bennies to assign as they wish to the questions (Yes, you can drop both on one question): this is a story we are all telling together, so getting input from the table on what is and is not interesting is important.
  • Finally, the spotlight player picks a question. They collect their bennies, but they’re also committing to answer the question. That gives them a single task to accomplish, which can be as simple as a one scene flashback, but it lets them guide the larger story to make that flashback a payoff worth waiting for.

Using this mechanic, the whole table gets to push in directions they like, but the choice and the responsibility ultimately lie with one player. We have started to think of ourselves as the show’s “Writers Room”, where different people throw out ideas and everyone else refines them, but in the end the “script” for each episode has one name on it.


Spotlight Questions are a terrific way to give the players a way to shine that is completely divorced from their luck with the dice, by giving their character center stage. It allows you as the GM to guide the growth of those stories without requiring you to plan out every plot twist, and it allows the players to guide the growth of the world toward topics and themes that interest them. They will make your games more interesting and your characters more memorable, and your table will always be excited about what happens next.

Are you using spotlights? I’d love to hear all about it! Regale me with your stories on Twitter at @TALlama!

  1. Stolen directly from Dungeon World, which you should certainly pick up and read. 

  2. Note that not all of them are strictly questions in the gramatical sense, but they all direct the story in one particular way. 

  3. Making these questions is the only addition to my routine prep work I’ve allowed in the course of the game. I’m lazy and try to remain so 

  4. Our bennies started as a static +2 bonus when spent before a roll, but they were little used in that way. They have since become akin to D&D’s advantage, but still have to be spent before the roll, and they see much more use 

Playbooks for The Sprawl

My gaming group is starting a campaign of The Sprawl tonight, and because you are the sort of fine person who loves cyberpunk and Apocalypse World mechanics, you no doubt have backed the kickstarter and are soon starting your own campaign full of cybertechnology, shady deals, and double crosses. Of course you are!

And of course to start out campaign we needed some nice playbooks, and of course I made some. And if I went to all that trouble then you, dear reader, should benefit, and if you click the following links you shall.

  • Playbooks in two-sheets-per-playbook format, which is probably what you want
  • Playbooks in single-sheet-per-playbook format, which omit some things (contacts, obligations, links) you can just write on back if that’s your thing
  • And of course the Basic Moves so you can have those for easy reference

So get out there and have some fun stealing from the megacorps to feed your megacorp paymasters.

Using Flashbacks to Make 13th Age Stories Sing

It has been just over a year since I started GMing our optimized-for-play campaign of 13th Age, and it’s time that I take a look back at what has worked and what hasn’t, and what I’ve changed in the process. I’ve already talked about Cold Opens and why you want to start in the middle of the action. Now let’s look at how you jump back before that start by incorporating flashbacks.

The traditional role playing session is linear: it moves forward in time and only forward. Flashbacks let you break that mold and act like almost every other medium used for storytelling.

If we take a moment to examine why all those other media use flashbacks, it will quickly become apparent why you want to use then, too. Without flashbacks your story reveals new information to the audience by revealing it to the characters in the story. There might be some characters caught out of the loop, but the audience always has the upper hand: they see it all as it happens. Flashbacks allow us to break that rule: now you can reveal new information to the audience that the characters already know.

In role playing terms, the audience is the players at the table, plus any lucky Obsidian Portal followers you’ve got. If you’re optimizing for play, the audience of your story also includes the GM, who gets to be surprised by stuff just like everyone else.

So a flashback lets the characters tell the players stuff, inverting the normal relationship. This is extraordinarily powerful: now you can recontextualize character actions in the same way that classic GM plot twists allow you to recontextualize NPC actions. Suddenly it makes sense why the dwarf hates this orc more than most: the orc killed his own sister to stop her from marrying the dwarf! I see now why you made that crit: these bandits burned down your village! Now I understand why you want the Starbox: your soul is trapped inside!

This trick is important if you’re trying to mimic a television show like us, and want the feel that flashbacks give you: of a story so large it runs deep in the bones of the world, connecting mythic past with epic present. But even in smaller games, flashbacks allow you to give the characters backstories as they need them, instead of all at once in a quickly-forgotten Bluebook before the first session1.

So flashbacks and great and wonderful and you what to use them right away. How do you do so?

We enter a flashback only when someone at the table calls for one. That’s often my job as the GM, asking for a flashback to explain something just said (“I never wanted to return to the Queen’s Wood.” / “Flashback! Show us what happened when you last left the Queen’s Wood and why you avoid it now.”), or to shed light on something implied (“I drop the chest and run to help!” “Okay, as the chest hits the floor we hit a flashback: why is this so important to you?”). But we have certainly had players call out each other (and themselves!) as well.

The best flashbacks work in a purely narrative sense: they help the table to tell a story by giving the audience new information. Flashbacks should be short (a few actions long) and punchy (something interesting and/or exciting should be happening), and at the end it should be obvious why the flashback ties into the present. If the player doesn’t make that connection, I step in as GM and do so, not always in the most flattering way (“You failed at this kind of thing before, and your thoughts dwell on that. Roll with a -2.”).

Since we are playing 13th Age, our flashbacks have no mechanical weight: there is no quota to hit, and you earn nothing for telling us the flashback, unless you do so well that you earn fan mail, our all-purpose Bennie that players give to each other to reward excellent (or hilarious) play. If I were designing a game around flashbacks those deficiencies would be a problem, but in practice we see a lot of good flashbacks without addressing them.

My favorite time to use flashbacks is during combat. Before the PC rolls to hit with their basic attack yet again, ask them about the last time they fought this foe. Or when they got that axe. Or when they stole that axe from the corpse of the soldier whose animated corpse they’re about to swing it into now. The more detail you set them up with, the better the flashback will be.

And like any new gaming technology, as you get used to the flow of flashbacks, you’ll find a few ways to make them even more interesting.

Try making the flashbacks tie together into a past adventure. Each time you jump back, deliver your new information (“that’s when I learned the Crusader’s marching song”), but also progress the story of the past (“when First Conquest was established”), and leave some unanswered question (“how did we escape the Crusader’s army that time?”). This gives you a great point to come back in a scene or two and continue the flashback story, often with simple but epic “off-screen” events (“they hid in the dwarf fortress, of course!”).

But keep flashbacks—especially cliffhangers— super simple. The purpose of the flashback is to give some new information, but it is easy to mix in new questions (“Unbeknowst to the other characters but now known to the players, I am working for the Prince of Shadows, so that he will ‘return what he stole’, whatever that is.”) Even this can be fun if you’re fishing for ideas, but if you aren’t careful it quickly leads into Lost territory, where you keep asking new questions and never answering them. The example is actually pretty close to the worst way to do this, as it means that no one at the table knows why a certain PC is acting how they are acting, which means that no one can engage that PC to help tell the story.

Don’t ever flashback from a flashback, as it’s just confusing. Reframe it as a flashback with a time-jump in the middle: the character did setup action, and then much later they did concluding action. If you really want to tell the story in the opposite order, split it into two flashbacks at two different times.

Speaking of time jumps, jump way way back. You can show the childhood of the PCs just as easily as last Tuesday. Don’t be afraid do do so. The formative years are called that for a reason, and exploring the origin of a character’s skills and attitudes is a perfect flashback.

While you’re at it, lose the PCs occasionally. Not every flashback has to be from their point of view. Think of the start of Return of the Jedi: none of the protagonists are present or even nearby when Vader goes to the new Death Star, but it gives us the framework we’ll be working in: the Emperor is coming to a place that would make a great series-finale climax.


Flashbacks are a great way to allow yourself to tell better stories by filling in the details as you need them and as soon as they are relevant. They make the narrative flow better and let you be surprised by what happens. If you use them right, they allow you to tell multiple intertwined stories at once, transforming even simple fights into memorable character-building moments. They are easy to try out, and I’m sure you’ll find fun ways to use them in your campaign.

And I’d love to hear all about it! Regale me with your stories on Twitter at @TALlama!

  1. Incidentally, flashbacks have absolutely killed Bluebooking at our table: there’s no need to write a bit of fanfic when you do it every week at the table in the excitement of the moment. 

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In Praise of Cold Opens

It has been just over a year since I started GMing our optimized-for-play campaign of 13th Age, and it’s time that I take a look back at what has worked and what hasn’t, and what I’ve changed in the process. Let’s start at the beginning, where I’m sitting all alone figuring out what comes next.

Cold Opens rock. If you do nothing else, adopt the maxim of starting in media res: immediately put something the players care about in danger, make the danger interesting, and ask them what they’re doing about it. That doesn’t mean you always start with a fight: we’ve had cold opens that found the PCs asking what to do with forbidden treasure from an offscreen adventure; defending themselves in court; even in a meeting.

The primary job of the Cold Open is to plant a seed that you will then grow into a story as a table. It is explicitly not the first scene in the story; there are already things happening, and now it is time to Be Awesome in response. Instead, it is the first part of the story where what the PCs do is interesting enough that everyone needs to be involved in deciding it. Things that happened before can be decided later, when they become important. If that background is interesting use a flashback and set a scene; if it’s not, just use a simple statement of fact and move on.

The Recipe

So your ideal Cold Open is evocative as all get-out: drop hints and leave blanks, and make the table want to fill ‘em in. But there are some things you should never leave out:

1. Establish the Location

Tell everyone where the heck they are. In a globe-trotting game like ours it defines what resources the PCs have available to them and what major NPCs are likely to be in play. But even if the scope of your campaign is a single hamlet, you should always place the PCs at a definite location. Not only will you be hinting at how tonight’s game fits into the overall narrative (“the abbey again, so I’ll watch out for vampires”), you’ll also give them something concrete to build on (“I’ll move to protect the nuns, as any good paladin would”).

I don’t think I’ve ever broken this rule: it’s the primary thing I strive to do in my cold opens1.

2. Establish the Stakes

Make it very clear what the initial goal is. Give the players something to do right now that will give them a reason to answer the question that every Cold Open ends with: “What do you do?”

Note, though, that this is the initial goal, and not the goal of the night. This is the first obstacle to be overcome, and how that happens will set the stage for the next one. My absolute favorite part of running Cold Opens is seeing how the initial goal plays into what actually happens that night. In my favorite example of this our sorcerer for the world’s Three evil dragons had an initial goal that boiled down to “explain your shady behavior to your friends”, and that night turned into the sorcerer doing increasingly shady things and her friends becoming increasingly wary of helping her out. The first obstacle led directly into the later ones, even though the actual plot (“rescue/kidnap this guy”) had very little to do with the intra-party dynamics of the group.

I’ve broken this one all the time, and it always leads to a slow, aimless start to the night. The cold open should make something exciting happen right away and set the pace for the night. You only get one chance at that, and if you miss it you’re leaving it to the players to find something to care about in whatever setting you’ve given them, and when they eventually find three of them no one’s quite sure why everyone else should care as much as they do.

3. Re-establish the History

As the GM I have the whole campaign history loaded into my brain at all times, and I can recall that the audience overheard two random silhoettes plotting to kill the Dwarf King back in S2E3, but no one else does2. It’s important to make the Cold Open feel like it’s a continuation of what came before, by including a callback or two to previous exploits or open questions. Maybe we see an old NPC in a new role, discover something important about an old mystery, or simply mention why everyone is together for tonight’s run.

But while this is my favorite thing about writing the cold opens, it is very definitely the least important of the trio: a cold open can be all new and still be the start of a great episode, and by definition you’ll have to start that way, so don’t sweat it if you’re short on callbacks. Just don’t ignore callbacks completely, or you run the risk of letting your campaign sprawl too widely and no one will care about those two silhoettes, since there are so many other silhoettes plotting in other windows.

Hiding Hooks

The hardest part of writing the Cold Open, though, is hiding the hook. Oftentimes I want to see some important plot point during the episode, or find out more about something in one of the PCs’ pasts. Sometimes it’s fine to just put them in the middle of stuff and see what happens((A great time to “just see what happens” is in the denouement after a particularly big event. When our party’s longtime cleric met his God and had to be killed by the other PCs, we spent the next episode figuring out how the party worked without their onetime axis.)), but in my one year of doing this I’ve gone from planning nothing but the Cold Open to having a mystery or two waiting to be discovered.

There are two major reasons for that shift: first, my players told me that creating all the time was fun but too much work: they enjoyed having something out there to find out, and they wanted to be surprised when they found it. Secondly, the collaborative creation process was slowing things down at the table, with too many “what ifs” and diversions, many of which would have been cut out of the movie before it hit theatres. So nowadays I will use my aforementioned encyclopedic knowledge and a few Dungeon World-esque Fronts((about which more later, because that’s a post on its own)) to figure out what the baddies are up to, then hint at that in the Cold Open.

The trick is finding how to hint at the hook without violating step two of the recipe: the initial goal should be immediate and obvious, whereas the goal of the night should be a much longer ordeal. Here’s a few ways that have worked for me:

  • Provide an NPC to push a bit of history to the foreground. When an old friend or enemy appears it will stir the pot, and if you make the current situation reflect the old one you have some great potential for flashbacks, callbacks, and real evidence of character growth. Reacting to the NPC’s appearance can be the initial goal, with the relationship’s resolution a goal for the night or an even longer term goal((One of the most beloved NPCs in our game is an orcish priest who began life as a Cold Open callback character, and whose relationship with one PC has redefined everyone’s understanding of that PC’s One Unique Thing.))
  • Let them go home again. This is similar to the NPCs above, but whereas before the NPC is out of their element, this is putting the PC back into an element they have, for whatever reason, left. Are they still at home there? Why did they leave again? This works a treat for exploring backstories and especially for muddying what seemed to be simple origins.
  • Call in an obligation that the PCs owe someone. This works well for employers, old mentors, blackmailers, etc. It puts the PCs into a new situation that they might not want to be in, which can open up some hooks you might not otherwise have access to. The cautious group has to work quickly, or the smash-and-grab team has to be sneaky, or the diplomats have to do a bit of espionage. Change up the roles and let the players see a new side of the world.
  • Make someone mad at them. Probably for something they’ve legitimately done, because most groups of PCs are sketchy at best. This puts them in a spot that they have to get out of, and you can use the external pressure to show how the PCs interact in those situations, especially if the pressure is being applied to some PCs more than others.
  • Give them a mystery. Most everyone likes to solve a puzzle, so never be afraid to deploy one. The hook can be the solution to the puzzle (“I got this note from my boss Mr BigBad with the instructions”), or just as easily an “innocent bystander” that gets tied into it (“we will not let you look at our security tapes for a break in, we don’t want you to see the occult rituals!”). Or maybe the focus is on how the PCs solve the mystery rather than the mystery itself: the method shows a lot about who they are.
  • Drop them behind enemy lines. If you’ve got a recurring villain whose plot needs a bit of exposition, let the PCs into one of her important bases and let them see the goods. None too subtle, but it does the trick and it allows for a lot of neat character asides: long stretches hiding lead to good conversations between bored PCs, and everyone needs to question their motives for being on this crazy mission anyway. Squeeze that information out of ‘em to avoid the one-trick pony.
  • And if all else fails, you can simply call out the plot in question, point out how it’s relevant to the current situation, and make the PC explain themselves. If you need to make absolutely sure no one misses where the focus is, it’s often best to just put it in the cold open, then as soon as you’re done make sure everyone understands that this is what’s going down tonight. I’ve got some more tricks to do this guidance in more subtle ways, but those will come in a later post.


Cold Opens are the pace car of your game: they start you off with a bang and don’t let you slow down. When used well, they can also tie you into the campaign’s grand history, kicktart the story of the night, and point the way forward. Why aren’t you using them already?

  1. Of course, now that I’ve written it down as a rule I’m curious what will happen if I break it, so I’ll probably do that soon 

  2. No really: the player of the PC whose job is literally to be on the watch for threats to the Dwarf King had forgotten this detail 

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Endless Waves in 13th Age

This week’s 13th Age game was a send off to Gabe, one of our players, who is moving out of state and refuses to accept a multi hour commute just to play with us. This particular player is great at the “story” part of our game, and consistently brings us all up a level in making our choices matter and move the world forward, but in his heart he plays tabletop games to kill monsters. He doesn’t even care about taking their stuff.

So for his final night we had to finish up the plot of his character, Vessel, which revolves around his One Unique Thing: Vessel is Moses to the Dragon Empire’s Egypt. He can meet and exceed all the other gods’ signs and wonders, for he and only he can hear the One True God. Throughout our campaign he has demonstrated compassion, fostered understanding, and been forgiving. But at his direction, we’ve learned bit by bit that the One True God is a fake, a bright facade over a dark heart. Indeed, the One True God is mad, having been locked in a chest for a dozen Ages, and thinks himself the True God because he killed and devoured all the other gods that the Wizard King locked in the chest with him. Now, having found the chest, the PCs were taking it back to Omen to put it to rest… when the One True God objected to that plan. How will Vessel react?

But to put that story into play, I wanted to fulfill one of Gabe’s long-ago wishes: he said that he’d be perfectly happy to play a whole night where we fought wave after wave of monsters, with no reason for the waves other than “here come some more”. This poses some challenges to the battle-orientation of a lot of 13th Age, since the PCs’ powers and effects will cascade and run out in weird ways. So I had to figure out a few fiddly bits to make it work.

The Schtick

The basic structure, then, is a succession of almost-full-strength battles. If you make them full-strength you have to fall back to the normal economy, which you do every night anyway. We are changing it up here. So instead I built the battles to be a little easier than normal. This actually meant that I built them according to the normal rules in the rulebook, as I normally overpower to account for the fact that this party is quite adept at taking down baddies. If you find the normal rules suit you, I’d suggest building as if you had one fewer PC, or as if the PCs were one level lower.

The Timing Mechanic

To compensate for the lower-strength battles, I explicitly told the PCs that they were in control of when they got their quick rests. They got three (which in retrospect should have been two), and could use them whenever there were no baddies on the board. When they used them we’d “flip” to a new encounter, and they’d get back all per-battle powers, lose all status effects, drop temporary HP, be able to use recoveries, etc. But as long as they didn’t use the rest, the escalation die would stay out and incrementing, so there was a benefit for them to push themselves. Coming into the night already hurting from a previous battle (one PC was at 4 HP), they smartly chose to use one immediately.

Wave 1: Smoke and Mirrors

The PCs have just escaped last week’s battle by conveniently falling into a pit. It’s dark down here, and dust from the collapse that introduced them to the pit is still hanging in the air. They see four figures on the opposite side of the room…

This was more a puzzle than a combat, involving a magic mirror that reflected attacks back on the PCs. The room was set up symmetrically, with the PCs on one side and the “enemies” on the other side, mirroring the movements of the party (and, if they looked closely, their worst traits).

To make the puzzle work, we played it as if it were a combat, so the PCs rolled initiative and took turns attacking the mysterious figures, and then later in the round I attacked a random PC with the same attack. Whenever an attack crossed the mirror, I recorded the amount of damage and the to-hit roll. The damage dealt back to the PCs started at 1/4th of what they dealt in round 1, then became 1/2 in round 2, 3/4 in round 3… and would gave been full strength after that, but they figured out the trick.

They did so because I had them Roll WIS when they got close to the mirror, and also when particularly flashy ranged attacks happened (a magic arrow, in our case). Our party is pretty WIS-heavy (ranger, wis-commander, cleric, and a WIS 8 sorcerer) so they figured it out pretty quickly. You could easily change the scale to accommodate other parties who might be in the dark longer.

Once they saw the mirror, they could attack it directly: it was stat’ed as a normal monster of their level; no need to draw that out because the trick here is already done, and it’s time to move on to new stuff.

Wave 2: The Assassins

The same cave-in that brought the PCs into the temple also brought two Cambion Sickles (5th level) who had been chasing them, and now it turned out they were behind the mirror, gating in a Cambion Katar (6th level) ally to make the battle more balanced.

This could have just been a hack and slash, but instead I employed some of Mike Shea’s excellent environment effects to populate the temple with some fun. In particular I laid down two evil runes (which also worked for Vessel, since it’s his god’s temple) and a sniper’s perch for our ranger.

This was a nice quick wave, but the PCs were pretty beat up by the end of it. They contemplated taking a rest here, and I described the roar of dragons above, but they decided to press on to take advantage of that escalation die, already sitting at 6.

Wave 3: Gorge Dragons

You see their mistake, here: dragons in 13th Age also get to take advantage of that escalation die. They figure that out as soon as I landed a near-miss with the breath of the first dragon (there were 2; large 5th levels).

This wave went poorly for the PCs, with two of them hitting 0 HP. The cleric managed to use his last two heals to bring them back, but this was the darkest moment. That’s not in any way a problem: this was supposed to be a brutal night of combat, and getting them this close to a TPK meant that this felt like a real challenge.

After this was when the party took their well deserved rest.

Wave 4: Triggered Wave

This one was another wrinkle, because I wanted there to be a random event that could trigger extra badness. I set up a few triggers (a cursed magic item one PC is wearing, a complicated icon roll, and a backstory callback), just to make sure this wave would happen some time, and it turned out that it waited all the way until the final wave.

The wave itself consisted of four Orc shamans who sprang fully-formed from the walls, Captain Eo style. Due to their timing, it turned out that they flanked the party and hit the squishies, which was a better use than I expected to get from them.

This wave actually had two parts: if it had triggered earlier, I had a never-ending mook mechanic set up, so that each round a few more low-level orcs could crawl out of the walls and make positioning more and more difficult. But as they came out during wave 5 when I already had a ton of mooks, I decided to skip that bit. Sad, because endless mooks are one of my favorite schticks: they give a great mow-through-baddies feel while also putting a real time pressure on the group and giving the crowd-control powers a time to shine.

Wave 5: Big Boss

Finally, after all this, the God of the Temple shows up and lays down the hurt. Surrounded by the forgotten gods he has destroyed (re-skinned Kobold Shadow Warriors, 4th level mooks, which meant I should have used 3/.15=20, but I only used 10), the God makes himself seen as a vain Eye (a re-skinned Drow Spider Sorceress with a ton extra HP, so somewhat above 6th level).

As it happens the party’s cleric, Gabe’s PC, gave into the evil god, and for his troubles was summarily killed by another PC, whose One Unique Thing is that he purges evil from the world. So now the group is down one man and it’s their healer (who fought in spirit for this wave). Predictably, the sorcerer broke out her crazy big guns and they tried to just burn their way through.

This wave featured the trigger for the optional wave, as well as the now-you-see-me-now-you-dont kobolds, but the party focused all fire on the Eye, hoping it’d all end when that thing fell. It did, but only after the sorcerer was again bleeding out on the ground.

This wave was probably the one that felt least interesting, to be honest. The story was taking a lot of attention, so I don’t think anyone was disappointed, but the Eye should have been a bigger threat (hitting multiple enemies would have accomplished that) and the Kobolds just seemed like a nameless mass of guys who missed (higher level and fewer would have been better, but rolling well was their biggest problem).


The basic structure of multiple weak battles interspersed with player-picked quick rests worked fantastically well. The individual battles worked when they changed the norm in some way: the trick mirror, the environmental effects, the dragons getting the escalation die. But in the quick succession of battles all taking place in one room, it felt flat when it was just more bodies to stab. Luckily, the “boring” waves coincided with the story getting heavier, which might have been for the better in any case.

The next time you want to hunker down and just get some murder hobo action going, consider changing up your norm with an “endless wave” night. Just remember to tone it down a notch and give each wave a little something to make it different than the one before it. And if you do try it, I’d love to hear how it goes!

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13th Age: The Lay of the Land

My ongoing 13th Age Campaign just finished “Season 2″, and as the GM I’ve been looking back over what we’ve done and thinking about what we should do next. Because our campaign is very freeform, what happens in each session/episode is very fluid; I come prepared with the first scene and the table fills in what that means. So end-of-season is when I take stock and try to figure out what we’ve done that we all like, and how to steer the ship in that direction.

If you’re like me, that means you think to yourself,

“Self, I’m feeling retrospective, and I want to look back and see all the various threads we’ve started and which things tie together. If only I had a huge map to lay it all out.”

Well, that’s crazy. I didn’t make a huge map to lay it all out; I made five.

The first is a throwback to the idyllic end of season 1, and where we stood back then (click to embiggen):

Season 1 Map

You can see that most of this revolved around a few key players: mostly it’s PCs and Icons, with a few interesting NPCs and groups in there. The interplay between the islands is pretty small. (The yellow highlights are for later; ignore them for now.)

If you look closely you’ll find some stuff you’ve probably forgotten; some lady told Vessel to beware “the one without a name”; the Invaders escaped but we never found out who they were; etc. I’m curious what the answers are to all those questions, but I’m not really sure we’ll ever know.

But I was curious who got the most screen time, so I made a heat map with a 15% opaque box that covers the major players in each of the eight episodes:

Season 1 Heat Map

You see that Arroway is featured a lot (4 eps), which jives with my recollection. But Vessel (4 eps) and Nameless (4 eps) were very good at bringing themselves into the stories in big ways even when the story wasn’t about them per se. Törk (3 eps) plays a more supporting role, but does something interesting: he brings in two of the big NPCs we’ll love most: The Butcher and Dral. The only other contender for lovability is Silor, who by virtue of being in the 2-parter wins the screentime race.

Now let’s skip to the end of Season 2 and check our map again (our new PCs get blue lines to help us distinguish them):

Season 2 Map

Things are starting to get complicated. We’ve got a lot more groups vying for attention, and lots of them are starting to interact with each other as a result. We see the Obsidian Salamanders and the One True God nestle up close; we see the Törk’s little triangle with the Orc Lord and Dral get a center of gravity; wee see Silor connect himself to everything he can; we see him get beat out by the Elf Queen and the Priestess as they each pick up a pair of new related PCs; and we see the icons get beat out by the 8-outgoing connections of Arroway, still the most-connected thing on the map.

The yellow boxes are those elements with large unresolved story points that I’m aiming to be the tentpoles of season 3. What is the Butcher out for? What does his gauntlet do? What’s Törk’s grand attempt? Who are the Fallen? Who survived the wreck of The Resolute? Why was it carrying the Devouring Chest and the Guantlet? What happens to Ethril? Who is Silor working for? What’s up with the Salamanders and the One True God? And the Undead are a problem, but we have no idea why…

For fun, take your favorite Grand Unified Theory and draw a circle around the elements that make it up. See how big of an area it covers. See what else seems to want to fall inside.

Let’s look at a heat map for season 2:

Season 2 Heat Map

Nameless (+6 eps) and Vessel (+5 eps) are starting to pull ahead, but Törk (+6 eps) has really found his footing, while Arroway (+2 eps) falls behind. The new PCs are all in lighter sections (1 for Nat, 2 for Malena, 3 for Eyon and Purge), but that’s to be expected as they joined so late

Finally, I made a heat map that combines season 1 and 2:

Season 1-2 Heat Map

Look for shapes more than details, and this shows the focus of the show so far: the major PCs light up, and various areas around them and relationships from them come into view. You can also clearly see which of the Icons are featured most (Priestess, Three, and Dwarf King), which jives with the other graph I sent out before.

I encouraged my PCs to take some time to look at these graphs as they leveled up to 5th Level: maybe that icon relationship they were thinking about would be better spent on some other thing they want to see featured more. Maybe they wanted to play a slightly different style to lean their little blue blob toward some other direction.

But whatever you think of them, these graphs show that together, we’ve created something big and interesting, with lots of nooks and crannies left to explore. I can’t wait to check a few more of them out.

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Life, of a Sort

They guys at Obsidian Portal posed a challenge on this week’s podcast: come up with a more interesting origin story for Dungeons & Dragons, in a paragraph or so. Here’s mine:

Gary set the quill down eagerly, stretching his raw fingers and checking the folds of his skin for burn marks. When he was satisfied of their absence, he scanned back through the parchment that littered his heavy oak desk, perusing the sigils that opened each chapter, the formulae that called forth the contained drama, the wards that kept the monsters in their proper section. He smiled as he recalled his friend the Fighting man, and mourned that the writeup for the Cleric did not do justice to the wonder of his remembrances. But they had life, of a sort. He had given them that much. They had sacrificed their lives to fold the world upon them, and as he escaped he had promised to tell their tale, to let their exploits be never forgotten, to let the dungeons and dragons carry their world on forever, in the imaginations of so many. Life, of a sort.

In truth, I owe a lot to Jerry Holkins’ Gygax obituary and its wonderful line “Some books contain the machinery required to create and sustain universes”. A lot of power there; I hope I put it to good use.

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Breaking Up Is Unnecessary To Do

The Question of the Week on Haste this week was “How do you break up with your gaming group?” and while I normally like Micah and Jerry’s answers, I think they totally flubbed this one.

The presumption of this question is that you have a person in your group that you’ve let ruin your Game Night. They’re so toxic that they make it less fun for everyone involved, and now it’s gotten so bad that you need to escape.

This gets just about everything backward. Go back to those presumptions and note who the subject of those sentences are: you’ve let them ruin it, and now you need to escape. The reality here is that there is some kind of pattern of behavior on the other person’s part, and you let it slide. You let it slide so often that it became not an annoyance but a big enough problem that it ruins your fun, and now you’re just going to run from the mess you allowed to happen.

Gaming is what it is because it’s a collaborative exercise played purely for the enjoyment of those playing. While I write a whole lot of Adventure Logs, I do so with the understanding that basically no one is following along in rapt attention. You are not the guys at Penny Arcade, and the twists and turns of your campaign are never going to matter to thousands of adoring fans. So do what you do because it makes the people at your table laugh, cry, huzzah, and generally revel in the awesome. Anything that’s interfering with that should be dealt with immediately.

When someone tells someone else what to do with their turn, tell them to be quiet. When someone makes an inappropriate “joke”, pull out the X Card. When someone is hogging the spotlight do what you can to shift it elsewhere. When someone keeps interrupting tell them to wait for a break.

You wouldn’t let them re-roll their attack until they get a crit; why would you let them break the social rules of your table?

Your game is made up of a thousand little moments, and it’s your job– not as the GM but as a decent human being having fun with your friends– to make sure those moments contribute to the fun instead of detracting from it.

If your friends are also decent human beings, they’ll take the hint and shape up, and no break-up will be necessary. But if your constant vigilance is still not enough to turn someone around, it’s not going to come as any surprise to them or the rest of the group when you tell them that they’re not welcome anymore. The truth might hurt, but your game night shouldn’t.

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