Thanks to the overwhelming generosity of our Hillfolk Kickstarter backers, we are able to bring you the DramaSystem Series Pitch of the Month Club – 2000+ words of setting material written by a stellar cast including John Wick, John Kovalic and Hal Mangold.
Each month from November through to November you will get a new pitch – new subscribers will get all pitches to date.
If you are a backer, you should have received a voucher for your free subscription. Email support if not.
1. No Crowns
Sean Patrick Fannon (Shaintar, Star Wars: Edge of Darkness) unleashes the struggles of democracy and free market capitalism in a high fantasy world. Discover the answer amid the greed, passion, and power plays of No Crowns.
Jesse Scoble (Wizard101, Game of Thrones d20) sings a narcocorrido for you on The Devil’s Highway: narco traficantes and border patrol circle each other in the canyons and deserts between North and South.
3. Honor Among Thieves
John Wick (Legend of the Five Rings, Seventh Sea, Houses of the Blooded) steps into a world of sorcerers, crowded cities, corrupt nobles, eldritch assassins and big payoffs in Honor Among Thieves. In a world where everything is illegal, everything is a crime, and it only pays to be a thief.
4. Hold the Chain
By Matthew McFarland. You are the entertainment in the gladiatorial arena of a steam-powered flying city on the brink of revolution.
Rob Wieland (Shadowrun, Star Wars Saga Edition) shows you his jazz hands in Encore, following the dreamers, has-beens and never-will-be’s who make up the cast of a touring jukebox musical.
6. Iron Tsar
ASH LAW (The Reliquary) cranks up Iron Tsar: engineers battle zombies in the Imperial court of a magical 1920s Russia.
7. Sheep’s Clothing
Jerome Larre (Qin, Tenga) takes you inside the Sheep’s Clothing of a tranquil bedroom community for cops—as a massive Internal Affairs bust threatens dozens of its key citizens.
8. Art and Murder
By Robin D. Laws. In a post-scarcity economy, there remain only two routes to status: Art and Murder. As guardians of the Great Museum, you struggle to protect the world’s cultural patrimony from outside marauders—and your own ambitions.
Raven Daegmorgan (Orx) sails the black tides of the cosmos in Niflgap. As the universe dies, you, the fractious Norse gods, set forth in starships from lonesome Midgaard, hoping to find salvation in the void where armies of the hungry dead writhe endless beneath black suns.
10. Promised Land
By Caias Ward (Strike Force 7, Noumenon) In a far-future religion based on enlightenment through genetic engineering and organic technology, a squad of young cadets struggles with their commanders, their fellow cadets, the outside universe and crises of faith.
11. Terminal X
Hal Mangold (Atomic Overmind, Green Ronin) loses your luggage in Terminal X: A fractious circle of modern sorcerers wage a subtle turf war within one of the world’s busiest airports, while fending off occult forces threatening to erode the very source of their power.
12. Campus Desk
John Kovalic (Dork Tower, Munchkin) returns to ink-spattered halcyon days with Campus Desk: students behind the Daily Forward, newspaper of Wisconsin State University, figure out life, love, and burying the lede.
A stand-alone roleplaying game by Robin D Laws
You are elite investigators combating the plots of the Esoterrorists, a loose affiliation of occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world. The Esoterrorists introduces the GUMSHOE rules system, which revolutionizes investigative scenarios by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward.
Upgrades, Improvements and New Content for the 2nd Edition.
This new edition of The Esoterrorists is 4 times longer and allows you to:
- Equip your characters with fine-grained investigative abilities, ranging from Interrogation and Data Retrieval to the ever-popular Forensic Entomology and always useful Bullshit Detector.
- Round them out with 13 crucial action abilities, which help you fight, run away, and retain your mental stability when the horrors come knocking.
- Absorb the latest, in-depth intelligence data on the terrifying world of the Esoterrorists.
- Learn the never-before-revealed inner workings of the Ordo Veritatis, the secret international agency that sends you out to smash the foe.
- Recoil at raw reports detailing all-new creatures of unremitting horror.
- Root yourself in a site of small town menace with the new Station Duty campaign frame and scenario.
- Confront fever dreams of the apocalypse in a brand new introductory scenario, OPERATION: PROPHET BUNCO!
Also included, for gamemasters:
- Data on the terrifying world of the Esoterrorists, and the Ordo Veritatis, the benevolent global conspiracy that fights them
- Creatures of unremitting horror.
- Detailed instructions on structuring investigative scenarios for the innovative GUMSHOE system
- Advice on bringing those scenarios to life in play
- Operation Slaughterhouse, an advanced example scenario of geopolitical horror
The Esoterrorists is easy to learn, easy to play and replayable by design.
Incorporating years of advice, actual play experience, and design evolution, The Esoterrorists Enhanced Edition includes all the rules you need to play the game that revolutionized investigative roleplaying. Dripping with ichor and jammed with content, this is the heftier, meatier, definitive tome gamers have been crying out for ever since they laid their paws on the original.
Reviews of The Esoterrorists:
… the game does deliver on its promise. You could easily explain the rules to someone in 15 minutes enough so that they could play. You can also learn them enough to run the game in about an hour.
I was apprehensive about the system but I was wrong – it worked really well for me.
The rules are incredible – I honestly think this is the best investigation-based RPG ever printed.
|Stock #: PELG012
||Author: Robin D. Laws with Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
|Artist: Phil Reeves, Kyle Strahm
||Pages: 160 page perfect bound
FanExpo Canada rolls out this weekend at the Metro Toronto Convention Center. Robin will be joined this year on his home turf by his fellow Pelgranista Kenneth Hite. Their various appearances include a special live episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff. Gather up your questions and catch them in the flesh at 3:45 pm on Saturday, in room 705.
See P. XX
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
For a pivotal feature of the roleplaying experience, the ability of players to make choices that alter the course of events can be awfully easy to lose track of.
The way in which an adventure is devised and delivered tends to alter both the number of choices given to the players, and the impact of those choices.
In a purely improvised adventure, a collaborative GM can most easily respond to player initiative. She doesn’t have to envision a complex set of branching eventualities. When the party encounters a challenge, players tell her what they plan to do about it. They conference about this before arriving at a proposal, giving the GM time to imagine likely approaches and outcomes. Or she can sit there attending to some other bit of planning and respond with well-honed common sense to whatever the plan of action turns out to be. Through some combination of rules resolution and fiat, she works out whether the plan succeeds or fails. Then she narrates the consequences of that outcome. Bingo, the players have made a choice, seen a result of that choice, and now move on from that result to their next obstacle, where the pass/fail cycle repeats itself. Choices not made remain invisible, except to the extent that the players consider making them during the conference phase, but then don’t.
In a prepared adventure, and most particularly in an adventure written by a designer for another GM to run, the introduction and communication of choice points complicates itself.
When you prep an adventure for yourself, you’re probably leaving in room for adjustment and improvisation as you go. You likely don’t write it out in full prose, as a designer of a published adventure has to do. You only need enough notes to remind you of what had in mind ahead of time. Within the bullet points lies lots of room to improvise.
Published adventures have to spell out much more of the author’s intention. In this process the author can constrict his intention, limiting player choice—or force you to compensate on the fly when you hit a result that should have been accounted for. To compensate for this, adventures should explicitly include plenty of choice points and make it easy for GMs to spot and deploy them.
A couple of obstacles stand in the way of that, though.
One, it’s all too easy even for an experienced adventurer writer to slip into full-on narrative mode, describing what’s happening as if in a screenplay, rather than sticking to a blueprint for the GM so she can tell the story. Some of my earliest adventures fall into this trap. You might call this the distinction between story-mapping, in which you lay out choices for the GM to set out in front of the players, and storytelling, in which you present a vivid chain of events she somehow has to wrangle them into. Storytelling tempts the adventure writer because it is more fun to write and therefore to read. People who buy adventures to imagine running them, as opposed to actually running them, may enjoy a storytelling style more—it’s clearer and more exciting.
A story-mapping style, on the other hand, bursts with if-statements.
- If the PCs go down into the basement, they encounter the charioteer’s ghost.
- If they decline to go down there, they’re confronted by the caretaker.
- If they present themselves to the caretaker as reliable citizens, he warns them to leave.
- If they upset him somehow, he calls the cops.
To test an adventure for choice points, see if it keeps using, along with a profusion of ifs, words like might, probably, possibly, perhaps and maybe. A story-mapped adventure has to lay out a variety of roads, most of which will not be taken, and their consequences. Then it has to make them easy to find during play.
Certain tricks can aid in this. If the main choice before the players is which scenes they involve themselves in, and in what order, the individual scenes don’t necessarily require a ton of if-statements that chain into other if-statements. On a macro level, GUMSHOE scenarios often work like this. It doesn’t mean much, though, unless the order in which scenes occur makes a difference to the overall outcome of the story, or introduces some other long-term effect into the series.
Zooming in further, a GUMSHOE investigative scene also poses the choice of where to look for clues, how to gather them, and, most importantly, how to put those clues together to either move forward toward the ultimate solution of the mystery.
Fight scenes offer an array of choices—perhaps too many if you like your scraps simple but the rules system doesn’t. As with the clues in an investigative game, these are baked into the structure of the rules set. The designer or GM drops the creature stats, terrain and situation into play, and the game’s basic dynamic takes care of the rest. When the fight starts, players decide who to engage, what to hit them with, and then how to change the situation to their benefit as the dust-up continues. That’s why they work so well and are such a staple of roleplaying, as we see gloriously celebrated in 13th Age. Fights offer an array of choices all bundled together outside a messy nest of if-statements.
It’s scenes between the extremes of mystery solving and head-bashing that require the greatest attention to bake in meaningful choices. These scenes include negotiation, politicking, and exploration, to name a few.
As pure text, even with bullet points, a scene consisting of possibilities and if-statements can prove hard to decipher. For a recent Pelgrane adventure I visually mapped a couple of particularly branchy scenes to bring the text into focus. This is not only clearer for the GM who has to untangle the thicket of choice points, but forces you as adventure designer to consider dangling options and ensure that the choices matter to the players.
This is a model any GM can follow when prepping a scene. When writing an adventure only for yourself, branching diagrams might largely replace text. That makes your adventure not only tighter and richer, but faster to notate.
In this diagram, you’ve chosen to grant the most benefit to the risky move of hiding from the caretaker—if it succeeds. The less dangerous choice of talking to him misses out on the documents, which happen to be wherever the group chooses to hide.
During the game, refer to your scene map not only to bring in the choice points, but to remind you to show the players that their choices mattered. Find a way to hint that they did something well, and that it helped them in a concrete way. In the above example, you might note that if they hadn’t hidden from the caretaker, they would never have found the documents.
See P. XX
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
The text of 13th Age refers at several points to the tradition of “d20-rolling fantasy games.” The result of a super-designer team-up between boon pals Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, the game arises very much from the the legacy of D&D. For legal reasons related to its use of the D20 license, it can’t evoke that hallowed trademark by name. I can mention that big kahuna of fantasy gaming in this column, because I’m using it for commentary and not to confuse anyone into buying my product instead of the item they really want. But we’ve reached an era in the development of the flagship fantasy game where we need two terms: one for D&D as it is published by our friends at Wizards of the Coast, and another for a tradition of gaming that has now expanded far past that simple demarcation.
Dungeons & Dragons at this point is not just a game but a series of expectations players carry with them down into the monster-haunted depths, packed just as surely as their fifty feet coils of rope. These expectations apply not just to D&D games, but to Pathfinder, which courtesy of the D20 license speciated out from D&D3E in response to the business ecosystem disruption initiated by a previous WotC brand team during the transition to 4E. They also permeate those pole-axe wielding revanchists of the Old School Roleplaying movement—branches of it, anyway.
This places on the table the question: what is D&D these days, anyway? Not coincidentally, that’s the core design challenge of DNDNext, the new version given the self-appointed task of doing away with the whole concept of new versions, in favor of a constantly renewed constellation of variations.
Discussing this would be much easier if we had a term that was less of a mouthful than “d20-rolling fantasy games.” Under its umbrella we want to encompass all versions of D&D, including the one in progress. Along with it we want to bundle the D20 fantasy games that must respond in one way or another to the assumptions Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson rolled out nearly four decades ago—but not other D20 games that dispense with the halberds and dungeon-bashing model. That is, Pathfinder and 13th Age but not D20 Modern or Cthulhu. And the OSR games that seek to replicate various elements of early D&D play, but not the ones reverse-engineering classic Traveller or Marvel Super Heroes. You might argue whether a particular game on the fringe of this definition fits within it or sits outside of it, but to do that we need a simple term.
You could say D&D&D, for Dungeons & Dragons and Descendants. As much as it gets at the idea, it’s still inelegant to say and on the page looks like an eruption of machine code into the surrounding text. DDD looks better in type but when you try to say it sounds like you’ve swallowed a chickadee. 3D might work, if it weren’t already taken by something much bigger than the hobby game industry. Triple-D invites innuendo.
I crashed on the rocks of acronym despair, until in front of my eyes, I saw it: F20. It takes the key elements in “d20-rolling fantasy games” and rolls them into a short-form that looks all right on the page and is easy to say.
Let’s all practice saying it:
“Hey, Mike, are there elements of the F20 tradition you tried to fit into D&DNext, but no longer see as an option?”
“Pathfinder does the best kobolds of any F20 game.”
“I’ve scheduled my game slots at this con as a progression through F20 history.”
Since it’s a blueprint for the actual fun had at table, any roleplaying game creates a tradition larger than the rules set itself. Especially in the early days, assumptions about how games ought to feel, and the division of responsibility between GM and players, came about as much from oral tradition as what was on the page in the game books themselves.
Love it or roll your eyes at it, Dungeons & Dragons has always occupied a flagship position in the roleplaying field. The state of F20, whether it’s on an upward curve or cycling down, ripples through what the rest of us do. Even if you’ve never gone near D&D and don’t plan to anytime soon, the industry that sprang up around it created the infrastructure that made possible the slice of the hobby you do enjoy.
The D20 revolution that accompanied 3E brought about a reversion to the mean, as the flow of design and commercial energy previously devoted to other standalone RPGs largely diverted itself to a re-engagement with the latest take on D&D. That in turn left another field of exploration open for the storygame movement to go in a completely different direction.
After the less attractive strictures of the open license accompanying 4E, the attendant growth of Pathfinder, and then the early setting aside of 4E for the deliberative roll-out of DNDNext, we are now in the complicated taxonomic world of F20. Here, multiple takes on the tradition try to decide what is core to the experience and can’t be dispensed with, and what is unnecessary outer detailing that can profitably be stripped away.
In each case the designer works not just with the rules, but with the expectations of players. When examining an apparently unbalanced element of F20, you have to ask yourself—is this just getting in the way of fun? Or is it intrinsic to the F20 feel that so many gamers cherish, even with the various taxes on learning curve and pacing it levies on GM and players?
Grappling with what is and isn’t essential to make an F20 game resonate with players, then, goes to the heart of roleplaying’s balance between math and art. The more choices F20 offers us, the more it helps us as individual gamers to articulate what we like about the set of ingredients that go into our favorite recipe for F20.
For example, within the F20 umbrella you might play on a grid and carefully track positioning, which forms a hook on which to hang various mechanical effects, from flanking on down. Or you might reach for the miniatures only when you’ve lost imaginative track of what’s going on in the fight. Both feel very differently from one another. Depending on the latest thinking from Wizards, one of these might be D&D at the present moment—or both of them, depending on which module you choose. But these choices are F20.
By framing it in this way you sidestep the definitional argument in which many of the geek tribe prefer to conceal their preferences. Instead of saying, “this doesn’t feel like my game,” you might be able to grope your way to why you like the one choice better than the other, and what that says about what you want to happen in your games.
In the shadow of empires, an epic saga of ambition and desire!
In an arid badlands, the hill people hunger. Your neighbors have grain, cattle, gold. You have horses and spears, courage and ambition. Together with those you love and hate, you will remake history—or die.
With the Hillfolk roleplaying game, you and your group weave an epic, ongoing saga of high-stakes interpersonal conflict that grows richer with every session. Its DramaSystem rules engine, from acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws, takes the basic structure of interpersonal conflict underlying fiction, movies and television and brings it to the world of roleplaying. This simple framework brings your creativity to the fore and keep a surprising, emotionally compelling narrative constantly on the move.
As you build your story, you mold and shape the Hillfolk setting to fit its needs. Do you entangle yourself with the seductions of your wealthy cousins to the north? Do you do battle with the fearsome sea people to the west? Or do you conquer the scattered badlands tribes to forge a new empire of your own?
Detailed play style notes show you how to make the most of DramaSystem’s new tools. Once you’ve mastered DramaSystem’s nuances, you’ll hunger to take them to new vistas. A stunning talent roster brings you 30 additional series settings. From Cthulhu cult family drama to ninjas, pirates, and steampunk cowboys, Hillfolk offers years of play value.
Contributors from every corner of the gaming scene and beyond include Ed Greenwood, Gene Ha & Art Lyon, Jason Morningstar, Kenneth Hite, Rob Heinsoo, Meg Baker, Wolfgang Baur, Jesse Bullington, John Scott Tynes, and Keith Baker.
|Authors: Robin D. Laws, Jason Morningstar, Michelle Nephew, Kenneth Hite, Matt Forbeck, T.S. Luikart, Jason L. Blair, Chris Pramas, Emily Care Boss, Rob Wieland, Steven S. Long, Eddy Webb, Jesse Bullington, Gene Ha & Art Lyon, James Wallis, Chris Lackey, John Scott Tynes, Ryan Macklin, Graeme Davis, Dave Gross, Allen Varney, Meguey Baker, Sarah Newton, Kevin Kulp, Mac Sample, Jason Pitre, Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Will Hindmarch, Rob Heinsoo, Ed Greenwood
||Artists: Aaron Acevedo, Andrew Gustafson, Gene Ha, Jon Hodgson, Rachel A. Kahn, Jason Morningstar, Scott Neil, Jan Pospíšil, Hilary Wade, Jonathan Wyke
|Pages: 240pg A4 Hardcover
||Stock #: PELD01
A DramaSystem Companion
Kick your mastery of Robin D. Laws’ DramaSystem, the roleplaying game of epic interpersonal conflict, into high gear, with this essential companion volume. A fervent crowd of backers demanded it, and here it is — an imagination-stretching compendium of DramaSystem insights and ideas.
Blood on the Snow contains:
- LARP rules from Emily Care Boss. Take the drama off the couch and up onto its feet with two live action applications. Play richer and bolder live characters than ever before.
- DramaSystem MasterClass. A fierce vanguard of early adopters expands the margins of the game. Unlock its prequel potential. Free your scene calling. Tune to single session play.
Also by popular demand, we present a veritable deluge of character, setting and genre from 33 top gaming talents, from the gurus of today to the shapers of tomorrow.
- Dive with dolphins, flee genetic persecution, or rule a fantasy city.
- Explore histories alternate and accurate.
- Find out how DramaSystem provides the ideal vehicle for science fiction’s idea-driven tradition.
Series Pitch creators include John Rogers, Mark Rein•Hagen, John Kovalic, David L. Pulver, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Lester Smith, Greg Stolze, Paula Dempsey, and James L. Sutter.
You’ll need Hillfolk, the original book of DramaSystem roleplaying, to enjoy Blood on the Snow.
|Authors: Angus Abranson, Kevin Allen Jr., Scott Bennie, Jennifer Brozek, Ken Burnside, Emily Care Boss, Jon Creffield, Marcos Dacosta, Steven Darlington, Paula Dempsey, Steve Dempsey, Cédric Ferrand, Ian “Lizard” Harac, Chris Huth, Richard Iorio II, John Kovalic, ASH LAW, Robin D. Laws, Antti Lax, Phil Nicholls, Jack Norris, Andrew Peregrine, Mike Pohjola, Sean Preston, David L. Pulver, Mark Rein•Hagen, Jeff Richard, Josh Roby, Wade Rockett, Mark Ryan, John Rogers, Aaron Rosenberg, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Ralf Schemmann, Lester Smith, Greg Stolze, CA Suleiman, James L. Sutter, Mark Diaz Truman, Nick Wedig, Pedro Ziviani
||Artists: Aaron Acevedo, Andrew Gustafson, Rachel A. Kahn, Jon Hodgson, Jérôme Huguenin, John Kovalic, Pierre Legay, Jan Pospíšil, Mikko Vihervaara, Hilary Wade, Jonathan Wyke,
|Stock #: PELD02
||Pages: 208pg A4 Hardcover
Now the war’s over, and you and your crew of freelance effectuators patrol the edge of civilized space, trying to pay the bills while you keep the peace.
But the competition in this line is fierce, and sometimes you have to cut corners — which makes you wonder if justice bought and paid for is any justice at all…
The Justice Trade contains three adventures for Ashen Stars – The Justice Trade, Terra Nova and Tartarus – written by Leonard Balsera, author of Profane Miracles and co-author of the smash hit Dresden Files; GUMSHOE designer and gaming luminary Robin D. Laws, and Bill White, author of The Big Hoodoo. It also includes a bonus twenty-minute demo game by Kevin Kulp to introduce players to the world of Ashen Stars.
The Justice Trade
When the PCs answer a distress call from the planet Cabochon, they become embroiled in the political machinations of two powerful figures who each seek to shape the future of the Bleed. Will they choose to do good and make the Bleed a better place – or to do well for themselves?
In a devastatingly hostile environment, hard-bitten lasers – who know enough not to touch the gooey stuff or take off their helmets in an untested biosphere – investigate the demise of a survey crew doomed by the above mistakes.
The Terra Nova, last of the great luxury liners from the Combine’s heyday, is dead, a victim of disaster now drifting in the space between worlds. The last of the survivors clutch desperately to life, waiting for rescue. All but one; who waits only for a chance to finish the job, uncovering a secret which the Terra Nova has kept hidden for decades.
A twenty-minute demo, which is a great introduction to Ashen Stars and includes six pre-generated characters.
|Stock #: PELGA07
||Author: Leonard Balsera, Kevin Kulp, Robin D. Laws, Bill White
|Artist: Chris Huth, Pascal Quidault, Kyle Strahm
||Pages: 96pg Perfect Bound
Christian is very close to being finished with the layout for Hillfolk, and it’s really capturing the feel of the game. We’ve also had a picture from the printers of one of the bags for the Hillfolk tokens. Here are some initial mock-ups of how the books, the cards and the bag will look.
Talking at Yourself
by Robin D. Laws
Experienced GMs know to avoid situations in which multiple NPCs carry on a conversation. These conversations with yourself are hard for GMs to sustain and for players to follow.
Most of the time you can engineer events so that this doesn’t happen. If one or more PCs are present in the scene, you can have one of the NPCs draw them into the discussion. This slices up a group scene into mini-scenes, mostly between an NPC and at least one PC.
Let’s say the king and his chancellor, both NPCs, are conferring to decide what to do about the bandits up north. The party stands by as they hash the issue out. The king prefers caution; the chancellor, decisive action. Express this not with long snippets of dialogue from each, but with leading questions that draw the PCs into the scene.
The chancellor might throw the question to a hotheaded player character: “Sir Eobald, I see you champ at the bit to put down that impudent rabble!”
The king might address the most cautious of the player characters: “Cedric, I see the rashness of Eobald’s proposal disturbs you.”
This allows you to establish the king’s reluctance and the chancellor’s hard line, without having them speak much at all to one another.
If you find yourself having to avoid these scenes often, take it as a sign of a larger problem. It suggests that you’re letting your own supporting characters upgrade themselves to protagonist status and drive the plot. It implies that the PCs have become spectators. The process of putting them back into dialogue is just part of the broader objective: to return them to a central place in the storyline. Give them the power to move events. Have powerful NPCs work through them, giving them the leeway to make the key decisions that propel the narrative. Think of the NPCs as supporting characters who bring out aspects of the main cast, whether as foils or antagonists.
Still, sometimes you’ll find events pushing you toward inter-NPC dialogue.
In many cases you can simply keep the conversation brief, boiling it down to a couple of sentences per NPC. Dialogue sequences in roleplaying games go on for much longer than their equivalents in fiction. As we improvise them, we repeat ourselves, include placeholder pleasantries as we buy ourselves time to think, and fumble around in pursuit of the main point. In other words, we speak like we do in real life. Screenwriters in particular compress dialogue to the essential core, leaving in only as much of this extemporization as needed to make the words feel real. Do the same when forced to stage a self-conversation. Unlike a scene between you and a PC, or two PCs, you know what both characters want and what the upshot of the conversation will be. You’re improvising the words but know the outcome already. So compress like a screenwriter and get to it in as few words as possible.
But let’s say the premise of the scene calls for an extended conversation. A PC might be eavesdropping on two NPCs without their knowledge, preventing you from having the supporting characters acknowledge them and draw them into the dialogue. Player characters might listen to an already recorded conversation. Or the story might take you to a situation where it strains credibility for the NPCs to care about what the PCs have to say—for example, when a conversation occurs between two jailer NPCs keeping them prisoner.
A simple trick allows you to turn even these seemingly closed conversations into exchanges—not between characters, but between you as the GM and the players.
Elide these conversations the same way you would the details of a long journey, with summary narration instead of dialogue:
- “The king and chancellor argue for a long time about your usefulness to the court, and whether he should risk your lives sending you up against the bandits.”
- “On the tape, Chu and Big Head discuss a laundry list of triad business, most notably the pressure from the mainland cops to replace the rotating leadership with a single gang leader handpicked by them.”
- “Your captors, clearly not suspecting that any of you speak their tongue, mostly make bored small talk about this crappy assignment and the pleasurebots back on Araatis Station. But they do let slip some guesses about the coming succession war.”
- “Each of the cultists rises to toast Ephraim on the occasion of his one hundredth birthday. Bloch speaks wittily, Howard with inebriated gusto, while Derleth gives a fussy genealogical discourse. Smith finishes with a poem of cosmic insanity that sends you reeling, blood dripping from your left ear.”
These recaps invite the players to then ask for more details, which you can answer on a Q&A basis, in GM-to-player mode:
Ken (a player): Did they mention the name of the mainland cop?
You: It didn’t seem like they knew.
Ken: Any idea from the tape who might know?
You: Big Head was passing on gossip from his boss.
Ken: (consulting his notes) That’s Uncle Bell, right?
Ken: Any idea where this mainland cop operates from?
You: Big Head says that Uncle Bell just got back from Guangzhou.
Carrie (another player): Do they say anything about who hit Uncle Gong?
You: Both agree that it was an inside job, but Chu thinks it was a spontaneous mutiny, while Big Head says they must have been paid off by Wai.
Daniela (another player): Do they say anything else interesting?
You: They mostly talk about the leadership situation and the pressure from the mainland. Anything else you’re looking for?
Sometimes conversations between NPCs just provide flavor, as in the above case of the toasting cultists. But if a player does come up with an interesting question, the answer to which would move the scenario onward, you can improvise an answer to it.
When you have preplanned information to impart, make sure to imply a clear line of questioning the players can pursue to get it out of you. Otherwise your solution to the talking to yourself problem mutates into another classic dilemma, the pixel-hunt.
This month’s topic comes courtesy of “Professor” Ken Thronberry, as a perk of his Badlands Overlord reward tier from the Hillfolk Kickstarter. Thanks for the great question, Ken!