GM Quickies

VasilisaGamemastering is a combination of art and science, and like any skill, is improved by doing more of it. As you run RPG sessions, you’ll pick up your own style, voice, and tricks of the trade. Here a few that I use on occasion when I run games — I hope they serve you well.

Open with a Conflict

When kicking off a campaign or chronicle, open the proceedings with some sort of conflict. Deliver a few lines of scene-setting and then let all hell break loose. A fight, naturally, works great for a combat-focused game, giving the players a chance at the beginning to see which of their abilities complement one another and any team tactics or combos that can arise. But opening conflicts can also help set the stage in more cerebral or social games, in which players can learn things about the world through experiencing them firsthand — especially if dubious loyalties are part of the game’s theme. Opening with a conflict allows the game to begin with everyone participating, as opposed to a lore dump that begins with the players’ eyes glazed and hands tied.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This

Sometimes, an NPC wants the PCs to thrive, no strings attached. No bargaining for favors or information. No desperate pleas to save the village or stop the dread doom. No “I’ll give you this if you do that.” Just a minor boon or item from a person who genuinely wants to see the PCs succeed.

One Down, the Rest to Go

Before entering a combat sequence, describe the heroes’ effortless dispatching of one of the enemies. Minion types work great for this, but feel free to take out a pernicious named underling. Very often, we see “the big bad gets away” or other acts of GM fiat that seem to work against the characters’ interest. This technique reminds them that occasionally, GM fiat works in their favor as well. And it hypes them up for the combat to come.

Loot Drop

lootWithin the first session, the players find a trove of cash, contraband, or beyond-their-level items that pose a dilemma. Do they return the discovered loot to its (perceived) rightful owner? Or do they keep it for its initial advantage and risk being found out and earning the ire of the (rightful?) owner? This initial choice has a meaningful effect on the session/ campaign/ chronicle, kicking it off in high gear with an immediate emphasis on player communication and decision-making.

Blow up the Death Star

Construct an early session so that the players can enjoy a seemingly outsized victory that would normally be out of their league. The players will appreciate the sense of accomplishment, and you can design follow-up stories to take advantage of the initial event. For example, the player could destroy a very powerful vampire in the first session… which paves the way for her lieutenant to become a more powerful, recurring antagonist in the campaign. The entire campaign need not revolve around the initial outsized event, either: a future encounter or three can “call back” or refer to the initial victory can generate a strong sense of relatedness for the players.

Start Ugly

The early drafts of a game you’re designing probably won’t resemble the final game. You’ll be testing rules, ideas, even the essential experience itself, and changing them repeatedly. You’ll test version 0.8, then 0.9, then 1.0, then 1.2 (1.1 didn’t stand up to scrutiny), and you’ll change a little here and a little there each time. The Space Marines will become the Border Rangers. The +6 modifier will become the ALPHA STRIKE trait. You’ll add a texture for the back of the printed playtest materials because players can see the information on the other side that’s supposed to be hidden.

Everything will be in flux, and that’s good. During prototyping, you owe it to your game to critically consider every facet if you want to improve quality and playability. It’s like writing a novel: Your goal for the first draft should be to get the words down on paper, and you’ll rewrite it over time. In game design, get the basics of your game out there and playable, and then focus on improving it.

Visually, that means you’ll want to keep things cheap and ugly. Don’t spend a lot of time or money finding or buying art to use for those Space Marines until you know damn well for the production version of the game that they’re going to be Space Marines and not Border Rangers. Given that so many things will change during prototyping and playtesting, you should minimize the time and money devoted to making it look pretty. In fact, your prototype shouldn’t look pretty. It should look cheap — because you want it to be cheap. You want to minimize the loss each time you commit some element of a given draft to the trash.

Here’s a screenshot of some of the version-one prototype materials for the Prince’s Gambit:


UGLY. So ugly. A throwaway layout with some non-optimized graphics that I reused from other projects. Laid out in an AV presentation program. But:

  • It’ll be inexpensive to print, and for playtesters to print (don’t impose on your playtesters more than you have to; they’re doing you a huge favor),
  • All the materials need to do is convery the important information, and
  • The game will receive a complete art and graphic design treatment when it’s closer to final state

When to Pretty It Up

If your game is final or suitably close to being so, you can start thinking about final production assets like art, logos, and even demo materials. All those Kickstarter videos you see that have nice materials — those are games that are done or almost done and are looking at kickstarting their print run and delivery costs, they’re not games still in full-throttle prototyping or playtesting.

If you’re trying to sell your game to a publisher, you might want to invest in some amount of visual presentation. This is a gamble, though, because a publisher likely has a production team, and if you sell them the game, their visual desires for it might not match yours. Sometimes a publisher buys a game from a designer because it looks good and they run from there. But more often, a publisher buys a game from a designer because of its play value, and they let their own team of professionals handle the trade dress. (In fact, most times, a publisher buys a game from a designer and sends it to a developer for further cultivation into a saleable product, which would potentially change thos visual elements further.)

Eventually, all your ugly prototyping should result in a beautiful game.


What is the Prince’s Gambit?

You are a vampire; you own the night. And you’re not alone. There are others of you out there, the Kindred as you call yourselves, and your world is one of secret sects and hidden agendas. Some of you belong to the Camarilla, the aristocracy of the undead, holding yourselves above the mortal world in an ivory tower. Others of you belong to the Sabbat, a medieval death cult that believes the living are little more than animal to be fed from.

But who can you trust? You’re all blood-drinking monsters, after all. Your loyalty to your sect is a secret, and those who make a grand show of fidelity may be hiding ambitions of their own.


Vampire: Prince’s Gambit is a social deduction game in which a number of players seek to bolster the Prince’s claim to praxis, the right to rule her domain. That’s no mean task, though, as traitors lurk among these Kindred. The city’s Camarilla has been infiltrated by the Sabbat, who aim to topple the Prince and claim the city for their own.

Inspired by games like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Diplomacy, Mafia, and the Resistance, Vampire: Prince’s Gambit hides a number of betrayers among a number of vampires loyal to the Prince’s cause. The hitch is that the traitors know who each other are while the loyal Kindred must trust their wits and instinct in order to discern who’s acting in their same interest and who’s trying to subvert the Prince’s will.

In Vampire: Prince’s Gambit, you might encounter situations like these:

Draft one is done and playable, which I’m going to make available via Open Development after a few loose ends are tied up. Development commentary will be collected at the Onyx Path website, as well, so keep an eye on that if you don’t already.

The game is built for 5-10 players, and while it’s not a “roleplaying” game per se, I think it’ll provide great opportunties to indulge in as much or as little characterization as individual players prefer. If you like, go all the way: Speak in character, wear a costume, and really dig into the role. Or you can simply play to your hidden loyalty and let your actions in-game speak for you.

Vampire: Prince’s Gambit is designed for sessions of 30 minutes to an hour, and to offer just a taste of the high politics and low treachery of the world of the Kindred. It’s a great game to play before a traditional RPG session starts, or at a convention or party with new or old friends.

Money Problems

The dragon’s hoard is a mountain of gold pieces. Who doesn’t want a mountain of gold pieces? It’s a fairly safe assumption that almost every player wants a mountain of gold pieces. Given that the hobby grew out of fantasy stories, and that piles of money are a staple of the genre in both fiction and visual arts, money is a very common element of games, for better or for worse.


What’s not so safe an assumption is why each player might want them or what each character might do with them.

Most often, money is used as a type of progression currency. It’s the stuff with which players buy more “features” for their characters. Whether weapons, magic items, starships, armor, or what have you, money represents a sort of wild-card approach to improvement in the game. The problem with money is that where the player spends it doesn’t necessarily translate into what’s happening in the game. Money is a sort of carte blanche for general improvement of one’s character. What does your character want to do with the money he collects? Adventure to get money to upgrade your gear so you can undertake more perilous adventures to get more money to upgrade your gear….

But once your character has all the stuff that’s in the book… what then? When your character doesn’t need another sword or blaster or cyberdeck or armored SUV, what do you do with the money that’s accumulating in her various accounts? Video games see this problem frequently. Without finely balanced economies, the money inputs outpace the money sinks, and characters simply sit on wealth because there’s not enough for them to spend money on. And player retention in video games drops once the player feels there’s no more “content” to consume. Once the player has the best available gear, what’s left for her to do? Players almost always migrate to a different game when the game offers nothing more to “get,” because the player has been trained to see acquisition itself as the metric of success.

In a tabletop RPG, a good GM can account for this. A player spending money is very much like a player taking a feat or increasing a skill — it’s a way for a player to say, “I want to do this, GM, so please notice what I’m buying.” In most cases, though, other game mechanics exist for bringing those abilities to that character. Leveling systems, experience points, magical items, access to new equipment and the like all serve for a more focused increase in player character competencies. Such being the case, money is a less effective way to acquire a magic sword, say, than going on an adventure in which the reward is a magic sword.

Most roleplaying games handwave away or bundle the less-glamorous aspects of everyday life. Things like rent or mortgage costs (assuming the PCs aren’t murderhobos), access to food, and general living amenities and utilities are absent or abstracted in most games. And for good reason: They’re not good vehicles for representing the elements of adventuring, heroism, or many of the themes that provide the essential experience of a good game. But many games still dangle cash as a material reward because it speaks to our modern mentalities.

(By contrast, Fantasy Flight Games’ Midnight setting inverted this assumption, and suggested making food and subsistence survival goods potential rewards for certain encounters. The idea was that survival itself was an act of rebellion, and the game’s themes revolved around the supposition that a great evil had enslaved the land and that standing against it was the core conflict.)

This is why the earliest versions of D&D assumed you wanted to build a stronghold. Traveller often started the players out in debt, with a share of a ship that hadn’t been paid off. These aspirational sinks were built into play from the beginning, proposing a goal that would almost always underlie the player’s decisions. Other games, like Victory Games’ James Bond 007 and most of the World of Darkness titles, don’t bother with money outside of the theoretical. Specific amounts of money just aren’t important to the themes the game proposes.


Nickels and Dimes

Some games require the players to keep a close watch over resources consumed while on adventures. In games where resource consumption is a key component of the game — old-school fantasy dungeon crawls are a great example of such — every arrow and foot of rope is a critical asset that may make the difference between being overrun by orcs or having to leave the cleric at the bottom of the pit. In practice, though, these sorts of small-scale purchases, especially for things like supplies and sundries, often serve only to create minor bookkeeping tasks that aren’t really very engaging. While minding these resources can certainly provide mounting tension, the gameplay becomes more provisioning than roleplaying, and much of it is guesswork.

The Panacea Problem

Many games also assume an availability of problem-solving effects that runs counter to the dramatic presentation of the game.

This recently came up in my Belluna Pathfinder campaign. On the party’s way back to the city at the foot of the mountain megadungeon, werewolves ambushed the them and the bard found himself afflicted by the curse of lycanthropy. However might the players overcome this heinous turn?

By spending 375 gp. After all, Pathfinder assumes a ready availability of magical items, especially consumable ones, and the reward structures for the challenge ratings of encounters are built to offer a quantity  of either those magical items or money (or its equivalent). So the dread horror of lycanthropy is a non-issue. Once the players make it back to the city, they just find a cleric, pay his fees, and forget the whole thing ever happened. The same thing happened when the party’s cleric had been turned to stone during the previous session. Pathfinder makes no illusions about this. It plainly positions itself as a game of managing resources.

For the GM’s part, sure, it’s possible to say, “There’s no one in the nearby metropolis who can scribe that scroll for you.” It’s more effective to make addressing the troubling issue part of gameplay itself, however. Thinking endogenously, going on a quest to remove the curse creates more play. From a purely selfish point of view, creating a game session in which the players address the problem likely yields more progression of various types. All the GM accomplishes by assessing a fee-to-solve money sink is to take away some of the very reward the players earned previously — and some of it likely came from the encounter that generated the curse anyway, making for a dissatisfying sunk cost.

A Greater Goal

When I run games, I encourage players to imagine a bigger picture objective for what they want to do with adventuring proceeds. I’m generally moderate to stingy with cash rewards, but tailor frequent’ feature progression rewards to the individual characters. Encouraging the players to express their characters’ greater goals goes a long way toward making those characters memorable, as well as helping me to understand their motivations.

I’ve talked before about intrinsic rewards, that gameplay is its own reward, and that other rewards point back into the game. Money works well as a sort of low-intensity reward that can be collected at a variable pace without risking the players’ investment in the game itself. Particularly with games that rely more on proactive players, setting one’s own goals can be extremely satisfying, allowing players to determine how important monetary rewards are to them, if at all, which generates both relatedness and autonomy. If the monk doesn’t care about money, that means a greater share for the fighter and wizard, who want to build a ludus and a laboratory, respectively, but no one misses out on any of the game rewards they deem primary (whether narrative or feature). In games with more abstracted monetary rewards, like Vampire, the general idea of money is supported by the system more than any specific amounts. The Resources Background, should one player choose to cultivate it, represents a more general access to money, and the focus of the game shifts to the resource more important to the vampires: blood. Of course, that’s a whole separate input-and-sink economy, and it comes with a built-in morality cost….

Player’s Toolbox: The Three-Sentence Character

I’ve spent many years of my career expanding characters into prose-length works, establishing elaborate backgrounds for them and giving them extensive histories. Because those books are intended for commercial sale, those characters are designed to have broad appeal. Somewhere in those 2,500-4,000 words is a hook almost anyone can use in a chronicle. Whether your setting involves attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion or a vampire coup in Chicago, you should be able to grab a character published for your game of choice, find an engaging hook, and fit it into your campaign. It might require a little fine-tuning, but that’s okay – fine-tuning is less cumbersome than whole-cloth world- and character-building, and that’s what published source material is all about. You trade a couple bucks and save several hours of campaign engineering. As well, hobby games draw on a variety of loquacious literary traditions, so it’s often appropriate to the genre to run off a bit at the pen in published material. (Dirty secret: Writers are paid by the word, so there’s some “enlightened self-interest” in effect.)


It’s different at the table, though. When you’re a player in a specific gamemaster’s campaign, you want gameplay and your GM wants a way to engage you. As fulfilling as it can be to write an 8,000-word biography of your character, that’s an endeavor entirely separate from playing the game. A lengthy character background doesn’t guarantee a playable character.

Instead, summarize your character for the GM in three sentences. They can be whatever you want, but a) seriously, keep it to three sentences and b) present them in terms of the game’s subject matter. You’ll find them most fruitful, too, if c) they’re related to a character’s goals or history. These can be ambitions or dreams, or they can be biographical elements that add color and resonance to an encounter. They can be tragic, comic, or dramatic – whatever you want. Just create them with the intent to be used in the game, and set them up so that there’s creative wiggle room for the GM to do something interesting with them.

When you do this, what you’re really doing is giving your GM a short list of things you’d like to see happen to or involve your character. These background sentence are like skills in that mechanical regard. You’re telling your gamemaster, “I’d like to do this.” Your three background sentences also convey the added benefit of shaping the character’s personality or history. Eventually, you’ll accomplish by starting with those three sentences and involving the other players what the 8,000-word bio attempts to do by itself, which is telling the story of the character. You’ll be doing it as the core activity of the game with others rather than the solitary metagame activity that lies on top of it, however.


Check out some examples:

“My character comes from a merchant family that traveled the three kingdoms and never settled.”

This speaks to a broad understanding of cultures and their artifacts. You recognize the brooch in the treasure hoard as valuable. Your family used to deal in jewelry like this occasionally. But this isn’t three kingdoms workmanship, it’s from the city-states past the Golden Peaks. How did this brooch make it all the way down here and end up among the refuse in this particular troll cave?

“My character belonged to a faith persecuted for heresy.”

That must have been harsh, but growing up, you learned the location of the secret tunnels beneath the Cathedral of St. Venetus. It also suggests a desire to be an underdog or perhaps antihero, lining up some antagonists – Inquisitors, for example, or secret police – who can show up and add drama to an encounter.

“My character has a dark secret.”

Very bold! You’re giving the GM carte blanche to summon that skeleton from your closet whenever she finds it most appropriate? Fantastic. Over in her campaign notes, she has a betrayer/ double agent/ chaos cultist who needs a compelling way to enter the story. Years ago, you heard a knock at your door and a scream in the darkness….

“My character occasionally doesn’t know that what she’s doing really matters, and she’s looking for a sign.”

This indicates a player wanting to make an impact on the world, which speaks to Relatedness. Since the town’s only temple to the Redeemer burned and the burghers have denied all new construction, the faithful have been seeking one who could hold a candle against the darkness encroaching from the Frozen Wastes. The handwritten journals your party found beneath the temple’s ruin spoke of just such a bleak time before the coming of the Redeemer, and how He brought solace to a wicked folk. You are a vessel for His Word.

“My character wants to join the Friends of the Night.”

Players very often want their characters to belong to established and significant organizations within the game world. In this case, you’ve actually come to the attention of the Amici Noctis, and they’d like to have someone of your caliber as well, but they want to test your mettle first. How committed are you? Committed enough to risk the favor of your sire, who it turns out betrayed the Amici Noctis long ago? Committed enough to trust the Friends of the Night over your sire’s sire and Mentor? Committed enough to endanger your coterie? Committed enough to risk your Humanity? All you have to do is deliver this mortal vessel — this bound, gagged, and blindfolded mortal vessel — into the cellars beneath your Mentor’s estate. If you’re capable enough, your Mentor never even has to know….

“My character is a lone badass. His family was killed and he’s practiced with his katana relentlessly for every waking hour since their death.”

Okay, fine. Tonight, though, the party is digging up dirt on the dragonborn sorcerer and — what’s that on the villain’s desk? It’s the title to the house your parents were living in the year you left home. What does it have to do with him, and why does it look like he’s doing something with it now?

Those are just single statements or sentences. Putting together a three-sentence character creates connections between those statements, and potentially those of other players (which is important, since you’re going to spend four-hour blocks of time working together with those other players). Those sentences also suggest details that can be discovered, described, or created during play. Thus, the three-sentence character becomes more than the simple sum of her three sentences.

Away from the game table, go ahead and indulge that 8,000-word character vignette. Just know that you may not be able to use it in the game as such. Manage your expectations and respect your GM’s time and that of the other players. If they want to read that bio because of its entertainment value alone, that’s great. Just remember that reading is separate from playing, and the game is that which is played.

GM’s Toolbox: Blow Up the Death Star

Narrative progression is the advancement of the story as a result of the player’s actions. Whether a sandbox or a theme park, whether events advance at the pace of the players’ activity or whether time moves forward even while the players discuss their next course of action, narrative progression provides an answer to “and then what happens?” during the course of play. By its nature, narrative progression exhibits the fruits of player autonomy (since the players decided on the course of action that will affect the game world) and should result in relatedness as well (as the game world changes to account for their actions, and other PCs and NPCs can be affected by their deeds, which may color their interactions with them).

Narrative progression follows an identifiable or at least understandable pattern of cause and effect. Your game doesn’t have to have a conventionally defined plot to have narrative progression. All it needs to do is present the outcomes of the players’ actions, to let them see the results of what they did.

For almost every player, some sort of story reward helps frame the experience, because without some amount of narrative framing, the game is just an abstract comparison of values or states. While it may seem like a “soft” reward, especially to more systems-minded players, narrative progression packs a punch when used in tandem with the mechanics. (Remember the essential experience: The game is the story its players tell by using the rules within the construct of the game world.)


Some examples of narrative progression:

  • The party defeats the marauding dragon and saves the kingdom.
  • The coterie finds the Sabbat spy and brings him before the Prince.
  • The bard takes the bones of his father to their ancestral lands and lays him to rest.

Elevating Tension via Narrative Progression

One good GMing technique is to build on the players’ successes and use those to introduce the troupe to the next challenge. Stories rarely depict only a single point of conflict, and instead bring their tension from a simmer to a boil across multiple points of conflict and resolution. A progressive series of narrative “checkpoints” can build dramatic tension by escalating the stakes of the story. For example:

  • The heroes destroy a key enemy stronghold, discovering later that the enemy has regrouped at the stronghold and rebuilt it to be even more perilous.
  • The party “disappears” the crime boss, only to see the boss’ lieutenant assume control of the operation and begin a reign of terror.
  • The players help fortify their community against a harrowing storm, but in doing so, they anger the denizens of the nearby forest…
  • …and in placating the forest tribes, earn the ire of the unhallowed lord who considers the forest his domain.

Escalation shouldn’t always be the outcome, however. Allow your players the chance to genuinely enjoy success. If the players feel that every victory comes with a greater punishment attached, or believe that their accomplishments only pave the way for worse misfortune, they’ll disengage. Think of narrative progression in terms of story: Every story has an end, and a satisfying conclusion should accompany every major conflict. Sometimes an exploding Death Star is just an exploding Death Star.

A Satisfying End

deathNarrative progression doesn’t always have to be tied to victory. “Accomplishment” isn’t always a “win.” Remember that the players are the main characters of the story. Even if they don’t survive to the campaign’s conclusion, a dramatic end can be its own memorable narrative reward. Examples of particularly satisfying ends:

  • The paladin sacrifices herself holding the Gravemaker at bay so that the rest of the party can escape with the Book of Lost Saints.
  • The Toreador uses Celerity to sprint through the fire, revealing the treasonous elders’ identities to the pack as the flames consume him.
  • The engineer opens the airlock, taking the launch codes with him into the cold depths of space as he explosively decompresses.

GM’s Toolbox: Just the Facts

Managing a sandbox game can be hard. Although they’re my favorite types of RPG, sandboxes ask a lot of a GM. Unless the GM plans to improvise, sandboxes require that the GM have a great deal of cause-and-effect committed to memory, and portray a broad ensemble of NPCs, each with their own objectives and motivations.

I’m running one sandbox-style game and one theme-park-style game right now, and I’ve borrowed one of the techniques from the theme park game to help me manage my loose ends in the sandbox game. For each NPC the players may encounter, I bullet a few of the most important elements of gameplay that the NPC needs to communicate. Often, these are pieces of information, but they can just as well be personality characteristics or other discoverable actions that the players can reveal.

In much published game material, NPCs are represented by stat blocks and/ or character descriptions. That’s fine and good, but in practice, at the table, I don’t need a bunch of stats unrelated to the interaction at hand, nor do I need a paragraph-formatted character history and profile. I need a concise summary of what the players can discover or do when interacting with that NPC. I can always look up the stat block or re-read the description, but in play, a bulleted list is a very convenient shorthand. The key is to make a note of the items that are immediately important to play.

Since I do so much of my own setting and encounter design instead of using published materials, I often simply create the bullet points themselves, and let the actual personalities emerge from the interactions with the players. Despite the gloriously inefficient nature of roleplaying games, this allows me to direct my attentions to the characters and locations my players find interesting without spending unnecessary effort on people and places that don’t strike their fancy.


Depending on how much of an enthusiast for maps you are, you can use a similar approach to geography. (Robert E. Howard’s initial conception of his fantasy world started with an essay, “The Hyborian Age,” from which a hand-drawn map emerged.) Rather than physical geography, the bullet points can suggest locations and characteristics, allowing for actual play an exploration to fill in, much like character personalities. Too much detail, especially described orally, can harm immersion, so emphasize only the most valuable descriptions. Especially if you handle travel in montage sequences, using bullets gives you potential discoveries or conflicts to encounter, while providing enough detail for supporting the fantasy.


And extending from there, you can apply the bullet-point highlight method to any concept your game seeks to explore. The value of the bullet points is that they can be dropped into the game conversationally, simply as a statement of fact or perception. The lack of detail is the defining feature: As GM, you present the concept in broad strokes, and the details emerge as player interactions give substance to the encounter.

Distinctions: Deeds Make the Character

b3One bit of emergent setting from the earliest days of D&D that intrigued me have been the titles characters earn upon attaining levels. Older versions of D&D assumed that the players wanted their characters to eventually establish some sort of personal strongholds. Fighters’ keeps, wizards’ towers, clerics monasteries or temples, and the like. The titles were a nice, flavorful way of suggesting progress along that path, that the characters progressively grew in renown and were acknowledged for the deeds they had been performing (which dovetailed nicely into their gaining levels as they performed the deeds that elevated them to such esteem).

But roleplaying games and the stories they tell are rich with titles of distinction. Harouk Orc-Slayer is a foe to the the orcish tribes. Reeva the Shadow is as silent as her namesake. Dyff Iron-Gut can drink his mass in beer without staggering and never takes ill from poisons he consumes. Cagey Pete the Brujah. “Cash” Tempest, the most profitable scrounger in the spiral arm.

I’ve been working on some systems to model these personal distinctions with an eye toward addressing the “big three” player motivations of Mastery, Autonomy, and Relatedness.

  • Mastery: The distinction should provide a system that allows the player to perform acts of greater expertise (whether as a player or character).
  • Autonomy: The player should be able to interact with the distinction system through acts she chooses of her own volition.
  • Relatedness: The system should provide an anchor that grounds the character in the world and the player with other players.

You’re likely to find Harouk Orc-Slayer in the act of slaying orcs, and he’s damned good at it. It’s how he earned that distinction, after all. Cagey Pete is notorious for his ability to sniff out intrigue among vampires. “Cash” Tempest always takes home more credits for his haul than other scavengers think his junk should fetch. So how can we illustrate those via game systems?

How Distinctions Work

The system of distinctions is built on the principle of endogenous rewards: distinctions acknowledge and reward the player for participating in the action that earned her the sobriquet in the first place. With that assumption as a baseline, the system is already well on its way toward demonstrating the principle of Autonomy. Distinctions reward the sorts of actions in which the player has already demonstrated an interest, thereby encouraging her to continue engaging in those actions.

I’ll start by using D&D 5e for the initial modeling of the system, and I can adapt to other systems as I see fit to use them in other chronicles or campaigns. (Pathfinder, for example, would be a very easy port, and might not require any adjustment at all.)

The design starts with a very simple system. A character gains a +1 modifier to rolls related to actions related to his specific distinction. (I can add complexity to the system later, but a system is easiest to test  and observe for function when it has as few variables acting on it as possible.)

With just that simple new rule, Harouk gains a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls when fighting orcs. Reeva the Shadow gains a +1 bonus to her Stealth rolls. Dyff gains a +1 to booze-related Constitution checks and saving throws against ingested poisons. These bonuses increase the character’s capacities, obviously, by increasing their likelihood of performing these tasks of note, and they provide a benefit for players to think creatively about how to apply their distinctions to the challenges posed by the game, both of which demonstrate an increased Mastery.

Just like that, a characters’ reputation provides her a tangible benefit to the sorts of things she’s demonstrated through play that she’s interested in doing. But how does a character gain that reputation?

Earning Distinctions


Characters may gain distinctions through a variety of in-game events. (Remember, we’re using 5e as the systems baseline here.)

  • A player character may acquire a distinction whenever he would gain Inspiration for an action, but the distinction must relate to that action. At the DM’s discretion, this includes the ability for a player to recognize a player for Inspiration-worthy action. (Relatedness among players!)
  • The GM may choose to bestow a distinction on the character as a reputation or a form of permanent acknowledgement following an important game event or narrative benchmark. (Relatedness between the character’s actions and the game world or its NPC denizens. Ex. “The dragonslayer has returned victorious! Hail Ophelia Dragon’s-Bane!”)
  • A player may choose a distinction instead of a feat or other feature at new levels for which her class would qualify. (Autonomy for a player indicating which the sorts of in-game activities he’d like to engage in more of.)
  • Upon attaining a new level, the player may substitute a distinction for the material benefit already being provided by his selected background, with the provision that the distinction must be presented in terms of relation to the background. (Autonomy as above, with the added benefit of acting similarly to how many Backgrounds already operate.)

In practice, the mechanical benefit becomes one that reinforces the distinction and thus the identity of the character. Depending on how your players interact with one another, they may come to refer to each other’s characters by their distinctions. As well, they may use the distinctions by which to introduce each other’s characters’ to other world elements — “I present to you craven burghers the renowned Harouk Orc-Slayer, who can bring cease to the Moon-Eye tribe’s raids, at but small costs to yourself….”

Many games have some amount of systems that model a similar aspect already, but often they’re build into character creation systems. The Specialty rules for the World of Darkness, for example, allow a player to choose a narrow sphere of particular excellence for her character. And several games use tags or keys to indicate specific fields of typed bonuses or penalties.

Iteration and Adaptation

The next step is to test distinctions in play, or to bring them into the game of choice if it isn’t D&D 5e.

At first blush, they seem like they won’t break play, and in fact may be underpowered. There’s currently no provision for scaling them, and characters’ basic proficiency bonus is greater than the value of the distinction. Still, this isn’t intended to be a massive advantage, it’s intended to indicate a hallmark or calling card for a character.

Some DMs might wish to restrict the breadth of range for actions benefitting from distinction, but that’s not something that stands out as immediately flawed. Fear of munchkinism probably undermines more games than actual munchkinism, and it’s always better, in my opinion, to err on the side of the player being able to do something cool, fulfilling, and memorable. “The Adventurer,” a distinction granting +1 to all rolls a character right make while adventuring really isn’t a “distinction,” anyway. It’s a generalization, and not really anything that helps distinguish one character from another, and thus not really something that fits the terms of the system.

On to collect data from actual play, and to refine the design! If you end up using this system, please let me know your impressions as well.

Randomizers and the Essential Experience

Hobby gamers of a certain age know exactly what this is:


It’s the bell curve for Attribute distributions generated by rolling 3d6, which was how many a D&D session began. Throw three dice six times, record the scores next to the Attributes in sequence, and charge into the dungeon with your voulge drawn.

In addition to looking pleasantly symmetrical, that bell curve says something. It says that, when you roll multiple dice to obtain a single outcome, you’re likely to see a cumulative number in the middle of the possible range of outcomes. That’s why an average Attribute in D&D is a 10; it’s why you rolled 3d6 instead of 1d20. Indeed, if you rolled 1d20, the bell curve would look like this:


That’s not a curve at all. That’s an equal likelihood of any given outcome, with no range more common than any other. In the 3d6 bell curve, a 10 or 11 is more likely the outcome than a 3 or 18. In the 1d20 curve, 3, 10, 11, and 18 are all equally likely (as are all other numbers in the 1-20 range), at a five-percent chance of occurrence each.

Now, everyone around the table is disappointed when a cleric calls up a healing spell and, after much anticipation, rolls a 1. Rolling 1d8 for cure light wounds or cure wounds, depending on your edition of preference, is a bit of a letdown. It’s good for creating a hardcore, let-the-dice-fall-where-they-may moment, but it’s not good for creating a heroic moment. That standard 1d8 curve looks almost exactly like the 1d20 curve. Each outcome is equally probable, since you’re rolling only one die.


Taking a cue from that 3d6 bell curve, we can make it more likely for the cleric’s spell will generate a greater number of hit points cured. By making the cleric’s cure spell heal 2d4 hit points as opposed to 1d8, the flat curve instead becomes a peaked line, with the most likely outcome being a 5 — and, most importantly, that 5 is four times more likely to be the result than the lowest yield, the humble 2 (which, itself, is still twice the recovered hit points than the possible 1 from 1d8 allows…).2d4

In fact, the 5e rules have an element of this in place. Cure wounds still operates on a flat 1d8 roll, but potions of healing do indeed use a 2d4 base roll, with an additional +2 modifier to that roll, which keep the peaked line but just shifts the range of values up by two.


But you know this, so let’s get to the point.

Deciding how to distribute your randomized outcomes plays a large part in supporting the essential experience of your game. If you want more of those satisfying, “heroic” moments in which a supportive character can generally be relied upon to give a substantial boon to the other characters, consider house-ruling to a 2d4 per level roll instead of the standard 1d8 per level. To represent those high-tension, what-does-Fate-have-in-store moments — a decidedly old-school flavor in which the gods’ favor is fickle, even for their chosen — the 1d8 method works well. Think about the campaign you’re running. Are the players’ characters considered to be “heroes”? Or are they more morally ambiguous, dime-a-dozen “adventurers”? Later editions of D&D embrace the former, while earlier editions and games like Dungeon Crawl Classics posit the latter.


Obviously, working with your probabilities and value ranges need not stop with D&D. Using the Life Sphere in Mage, for example, a Storyteller may set the difficulties for healing magic at 1 lower than standard, if she wants the chronicle to feature more durable characters, or if the theme of the game revolves around healing or nurturing. A Call of Cthulhu Keeper may grant a bonus to an experience check to represent characters who rapidly increase in competency. A Dungeon World GM may halve common monster damage rolls but increase the number of monsters the characters encounter, to give a sense of high-powered adventurers possessing advantage over lesser foes, while keeping the damage rolls of boss-type monsters unmodified — or even increased, to highlight the disparity between monstrous rabble and more significant antagonists.

That essential experience is key, and I’ll return to it frequently when discussing design. The systems of the game must support what the game intends to communicate, otherwise the rules won’t convey the setting, nor will they help communicate what the game is “about.”

Thanks to for the dice probabilities calculator.

Invoking Fail States

When it comes to game resolution systems, the question each system attempts to answer is fundamental: Is it interesting to either fail or succeed?

If either the failure to perform an action or the success in performing an action is interesting in terms of the game outcomes, that’s when you allow fate to intervene (i.e. roll dice or use whatever resolution mechanic exists).

If the either/ or isn’t interesting — if it does not provide a new choice to be made — don’t roll dice. At best, they’re an obstacle in that case. At worst, you’ve created a false expectation for the player.

Certainly, acknowledge the player input:

“I use Egyptology to search for clues.”

“You spend an hour comparing your notes to the strange cartouche, but the hieroglyphics don’t actually seem Egyptian at all, and you’re unable to decipher them.”

And note that, adjudicated wisely, even failure can yield information. In this case, the fail state indicated which direction not to go, pointing the players toward another decision on the manner of approach.

It’s important to construct your game progressions so they don’t rely on a certain die roll — again, unless the failure to achieve that progression is part of the game. If the players can’t find the clue because they failed a die roll, that stops the game. If the players can’t find the clue because of a certain die roll but they have other avenues of progressing the game available to them, that’s fine, but only if the possibility of exhausting the failed avenue leads them to another decision point. Relying on dice or other randomizers to determine an outcome skews the game away from a game of decisions toward a game of chance. Skill systems, in particular, which can create choke points in either information flow to the players or can block narrative progression, are particularly susceptible to these systemic blockers.

“We have exhausted our options because the dice say so” is bad game design, as it subsequently prevents players from interacting with the game and making the decisions that are fundamental to the definition of gameplay.

Best Construction


With this construction, the players know what they need to do and have choices to make as to how to arrive at the goal. (They may or may not know how to approach the challenge, and some choices may not work at all, but they can get what they need to overcome it and can choose from among their options.)

Good Construction

imageThe players know what they need to do and how to arrive at the goal. (They may or may not know how to approach the challenge, but can get what they need to overcome it.)

Bad Construction


The players know what they need to do and how to arrive at the goal, but have minimal to no control over that action’s success.

Worst Construction


The players know what they need to do and how to arrive at the goal, but have minimal to no control over that action’s success. Even worse, they have the illusion that their choice really matters, when it ultimately comes down to chance.

Important: Remember, this is not an argument against all dice rolls, but against dice rolls that would result in a hard stop in the progression of the essential experience.