Thursday, 21 August 2014

Beyond the Wall: Community and Adventure

So, previously I mentioned my latest play session of BtW.

The players loved the character generation phase, but didn’t interact so well with the rest of the adventure, and part of the issue was the failure to establish the stability of the village.

To address this, I propose two phases: the Community Phase (where the players interact with the rest of the village, resolve domestic plots, etc.) and the Adventure Phase (responding to threats, “traditional D&D stuff”).

The Community Phase is already implied by a lot of the adventure setup — it’s the Ordinary World in your heroic cycle of leaving the village and returning; it also emerges as part of the playbook cycle.

Transition

To make the Community Phase completely explicit, we now deliberately change the mode of play in the Village. Interaction is entirely social. Adventuring skills, spells and weapons have no place in the village, so the associated game mechanics have no place either. In their stead we consider a set of Community Markers:

Domestic_Adventure_BtW_Sheet

This is a section from one of the “south oriented character sheets” I’m designing (analagous to a southern oriented map). The Markers on the left are derived from the bonuses for the traditional stats on the right. If you have a bonus (or a penalty) mark it in the space on the left in the appropriate row, then circle one descriptor you feel represents how you interact with people.

For example, if I had a 13 in Wisdom I’d have a +1 in the row on the left, and I might circle “sensitive”.

Now, when we come to interact with other characters, roll some dice. I like 2d6, but 1d6 or 1d10 will work too. It all depends on what scale you want and how much of a difference a +1 will make. I’ve picked 2d6 to function like Apocalypse World.

I’ve assumed in the Community Phase that the GM will throw a random NPC at each PC and force some kind of interaction. This could also be formalised, although I haven’t worked out a system for that just yet. The freeform method would probably be

  1. GM chooses to target a PC with a certain NPC, who has something happening in their life.
  2. Player then rolls to see how they’re involved with the NPC. They get to add the bonus they think is appropriate, based on the behaviour they’re likely to show to that person.

Example: In the Community Phase*, my wise and sensitive PC is approached by a young NPC with a crush on another character, and is seeking advice. If the character chooses to give advice in a sensitive fashion, they get the bonus.*

If the 2d6 + modifier result is 8 or better, the outcome is a positive one for the PC, and the PC gets a positive tie to that NPC.

If the outcome is 7 or less, it could be a complication, creating a dilemma that must be resolved in the future. The PC still gets a neutral tie, but this time it’s something that needs to be resolved — if it isn’t, it could become a negative tie and affect the PC’s relationship with the NPC, their family, and possibly the whole community.

Possibly the character doesn’t care about their negative ties — after all, they have little or no effect when the PC is aventuring Beyond the Wall.

(You could even give positive and negaitive ties an effect in the Adventuring Portion — using them in lieu of Fate Points (or as “GM’s Fate Points” for negative ties). But this is probably a bit metagame-y for some players. I would probably just use them for flavour in the Community section).

Once the PCs go Beyond the Wall, the Adventure begins: here their Community Markers are irrelevant. Note that out in the wilds Charisma has a different function than in a domestic setting, because the PCs are accepted in the Village and don’t have to make reaction rolls or loyalty tests.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Beyond The Wall: Play Report

I’m not used to writing actual play reports, but anyway: I ran Beyond the Wall for the second time, with a slightly more involved session than the 9 Worlds game. This time I ran a scenario pack of my own, called Merrow’s Watchers (documents available at the page at the top).

Character Generation

This is the area I think BtW really shines, and I was pleased that the players really got into developing their PCs and the village along with it. We roughly paced the game like this:

  1. Childhood (first 3 tables)
  2. First village drawing session
  3. Self-discovery (remaining 4 tables where the PC develops as a particular character class)
  4. Second village session
  5. Wrapping up with stats, equipment, etc.

I went around the table inviting each player to roll the die and talk about the outcome. Once we’d done three rounds (for the first 3 tables) I started going around the tables asking for details on the map, e.g.

Rowan, your parents are shepherds; where does the flock graze?

In general there were two new features to be added per player, and in the process other features were added spontaneously.

If I’m about to marry into the Miller’s family, there must be a mill here, and a river to drive the water-wheel.

We also added a few details that were just integral to the given playbooks, such as the ring of standing stones where the Fae Foundling was found by her parents.

Adding the details like this became even more interesting when the characters began to go through ordeals; nearby tombs were plundered, a cursed spot where a Chaos Spirit was imprisoned was marked on the map, etc.

In fact, the only part the players didn’t like was the number crunching at the end. I thought it was pretty straightforward, but to be fair the last time some of them played D&D it was in our student digs in a very atypical game of Ravenloft.

The Game

I think the game went well, although it managed to subvert a lot of the structure I’d assumed from the standard scenario packs. Halfway through the scenario the players decided to turn back, for a perfectly valid reason (they perceived the village as under threat) and missed out a lot of wilderness and dungeon exploration.

As a consequence the second half was not about adventuring but about interacting with the domestic side within the village wall, and making appeals to authority to deal with the threat instead of dealing with it themselves.

Scenario Design Issues

I realised afterwards that the scenario I designed had subtly deviated from the standard formula in the official BtW packs. Firstly I’d unwittingly placed large-scale features on the world map, to wit:

  • the village is on a frontier between two nations at war
  • soldiers had just passed through the village

We take for granted that the village is a place that must be defended from time to time. However placing it next to an actual empire put its scale into perspective; suddenly the players were not thinking of a village community with externalised low-level threats, but a fragile settlement between two large civilisations that could be upset at any moment. A lot of the power of BtW’s setup comes from establishing stability, and I wonder if this underminded that process.

Additionally the presence of soldiers undermined the characters as the prime movers in terms of exploration and defence. Maybe not directly (because the soldiers had gone, and weren’t there to help), but indirectly it implied that the adults in the village should be the decision makers and risk-takers.

Appeals To Authority

I ran into this issue before when I ran Sunder’s Children, the games’ predecessor. The players were explicitly the adventurers, the ones who could take affirmative action; the rest of the village were not inclined to either flee their settlement or to venture west to discover the source of various attacks from outside.

This concept came directly from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the reward structure of which involves (a) “retrieving treasure from remote and dangerous locations” and (b) killing things. In other words

  • this is not a game about domestic life (something for which D&D is not well suited as a simulation tool)
  • adventurers are in the minority; the majority of humans want to stay at home and live unremarkable lives
  • therefore, most humans are poorly equipped to deal with the decision-making process to address external threats.

All this means that, no matter how junior the PCs are they are the ones best equipped to make decisions about external threats; it’s logical that the rest of the village should look to them as the experts in dealing with monsters, supernatural threats, etc.

However when you’re playing characters who are explicitly youngsters, this doesn’t make sense. My players mostly deferred taking action themselves, instead trying to draw the attention of authority figures to the dark happenings around the village, which is a logical step — and yet completely disruptive to the game we were trying to play because the next logical step is for the adults to say “well done, now go home while we deal with this”.

D&D Quirks

As soon as the focus shifted from external adventure to internal domestic interaction, D&D’s shortcomings became more apparent. All the interaction becomes (mostly) freeform, perhaps only modified by Charisma checks.

Although some of the party had skills like Command these were largely forgotten. I wonder if this is due to skills being overshadowed by Attributes and Saving Throws; even LotFP’s sheet which has a big section for skills still prioritises the traditional D&D moving parts at the top of the sheet. It makes me wonder what would happen if we just inverted the sheet, much like inverting the world map.

This might not completely solve the issues inherent in appeals to authority (q.v.) but raising the visibility of skills (as one might do with a skills-based CV) might go a long way to making the players feel more proactive in non-combat situations.

Other areas of D&D that didn’t work so well for use were mainly to do with hit points and damage; even if we use the logic that HP are not wounds, but some kind of “luck running out” the massive loss of 5 HP for a 1st level character is enough to make them think about just turning around and going home again.

Sine Nomine’s Scarlet Heroes has a few tricks to convert traditional D&D damage into something more manageable for solo adventures; Scarlet Heroes damage is usually one or two points per swing, but it comes directly off monster’s hit dice, and PCs are likely to only suffer a couple of points of damage per attack. Keeping the amount of damage in the low integers could also help with keeping the general fantasy feel low-key. To balance this out you might need to adjust PC HP gains, although they could be just fine as they are. I probably wouldn’t use the other rules like Fray dice or post-combat healing.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

What do we say to the God of Death?

Last weekend I went to the 9 Worlds convention. It was awesome, and I totally recommend it. The combination of many different cultural tracks and a really strong focus on being inclusive made for a great atmosphere.

This is what I saw:

  • Dr Who Fanvids
  • Archaeology of Fantasy Worlds
  • Urban Fantasy Worlds (All the Books)
  • Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (Retro Fandom)
  • Identity and Sex Work in ASOIAF
  • Whedon vs Tropes in Cabin in the Woods
  • Fight Choreography for Writers
  • Storygasm, including River’s Absolution
  • Bechdel Film Test
  • Gin Appreciation
  • Queer Cabaret, and Steampunk Cabaret
  • “Chains of Transformation” for Fanfic Remixes
  • Assaulting the Narrative
  • Water Dancing with Syrio Forel
  • Marketing Monsterclass
  • Environmental Narratives in Video Games

Needless to say there was also a lot I didn’t go to but would have liked to, owing to clashes. Here are some of the real highlights:

Archaeology of Fantasy Worlds

This was an early start on Friday on the Academic track, and proved to be one of the best talks in the whole Con. The premise was how one would go about archaeology of Middle Earth and other worlds, and what you might find — how one might gather evidence of how dwarven and orcish societies may have interacted over centuries, for example.

Sex Work and Identity in A Song Of Ice And Fire

This one was in a small room in the post-lunch slot. Mostly it covered the dehumanising and othering of sex workers by the various characters in the series. Both panel and audience generally took GoT’s misogyny and sensationalising of the subject as a given, but what made the talk was the attention to detail (detail which I’m not really inclined to dig for myself) such as the way certain characters personify attitudes to be the hate figure when those attitudes are shared by supposedly “good” protagonists as well, or the way most sex workers have not been given real names in the text.

Gin Appreciation

This was on the Steampunk track. For a 10 quid ticket, we got to drink a lot of gin.

The talk began with a history of gin, including a dissection of Hogarth’s Gin Lane and the Gin Reform Act and its effect on bathtub gin-making. Then we went on to distillation methods, which was where I got my chemistry geek on.

The five main ones on offer were:

  • Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell (not bad for a tenner, I can see how this would make a great martini)
  • Adnam’s Copper House Gin (really fantastic herby gin with a lot of character, apparently contains hibiscus botanicals)
  • Plymouth Gin (a very well balanced gin, not as dry as a London Dry gin)
  • Hendricks (needs no introduction, it’s a firm favourite — though we did learn some cool things about its multi-stage distillation)
  • Burleigh’s Gin, a new gin from Jamie Baxter launched that very evening somewhere else in London. Possibly we got to taste it before the official launch, but we were all a bit sloshed by then and having trouble with time. Very interesting one with silver birch and iris flowers.

Of those five, I still love the Hendricks but they were all very fine — even the cheap one from Aldi. The newcomer is apparently rare as hen’s teeth, being a small batch production. Ah, well.

We also learned about enjoying gin with water instead of tonic. I still prefer a decent tonic, but water really brings out the interesting notes in exotic gins like Gin Mare.

Other gins on offer included Hoxton’s with grapefruit and coconut (didn’t like it) and a brussel sprout gin which tasted like a watered-down absinthe.

Storygasm

This was the gaming track. I spent a lot of Saturday gaming, running a Beyond the Wall scenario in about 75 minutes (testament to its pick-up friendliness) and then playing River’s Absolution, a Firefly hack of Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne in the afternoon.

I’ve only played a few GMless games, but the session crystallised some thoughts on the nature of storygames and how they differ from trad RPGs. Some of the players in RA were at ease with the whole shared ownership of the story and scene; others occasionally looked to the facilitator for both descriptions of the scene, and to arbitrate over the scene’s events. Much of this comes down to leadership and decision-making norms in our hobby. Generally the GM provides the leadership when framing a scene, and leaves the decision making to the players. But in GMless games there is no real decision-making: often events are assumed to come to pass, and the game is about exploring why those decisions are made.

That’s all fine when all the players buy in, but it falls apart when you take expectations from trad gaming. In some examples I might make a suggestion that is reasonable in-character, but highly disruptive — such as declaring that I am putting the witch to the sword right now, never mind our journey. Here I’m relying on my fellow players to block me in this action, and they are relying on me to acquiesce no matter what. Such was the case when I jokingly suggested to float River out of the cargo hold and save us an inconvenient journey in the first scene.

I think it boils down to this: it’s counter-intuitive to frame a scene where there is an apparent decision to be made, and then assume that the decision has been made and instead explore only the motivations. I get the feeling that this will always be a hurdle with this type of game.

Water Dancing with Syrio Forel

Finally, I got a lesson from Syrio Forel, First Sword of Braavos! Well, technically the lesson came from Miltos Yerolemou who plays Syrio in GoT.

(No, I haven’t suddenly turned into a GoT fan. I just like sword choreography)

Serious Business
Serious Business

This was one of those things I had to attend just to say I’d done it, but it ended up being one of the best parts of the convention. The lesson was strongly tipped towards choreography as opposed to martial, but was great fun. My only regret was doing it in boots and jeans, which proved to be a bit uncomfortable to train in.

I even got a souvenir:

What do we say?
What do we say?
Not today!
Not today!

With this blade I will be inwincible.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

I’m a real weird one and I like a weird fun

“What’s you’re weirdest RPG?” asked the #rpgaday mouthpiece. Jolly good! I like weird rpgs.

At least, I think I do. Let’s consider a few definitions of “weird”:

  • uncanny, supernatural or unearthly.
  • fate or destiny.
  • (v) alienate, or promote disbelief or unease (“that weirds me out”).

I’m going to stick my neck out and say weirdness is a default state for games. Strange and uncanny is our (gluten free) bread and butter in roleplaying worlds. Now, it’s obvious what #rpgaday means by “weird” — we have our mainstream weird, and then we have the really weird that doesn’t fit into our normalised weird world that is the gaming weird. That’s a bit weird, don’t you think?

And gamers are weird anyway. Some are uncanny, some are fated, and some of us alienate the rest of humanity.

Furthermore most people equate RPG product with setting. In the weirdness league tables I fully expect Over the Edge to be right up there in the top three — and almost certainly overshadowing similarly arty games like Don’t Rest Your Head (one for Dark City fans) and Itras By, which is of course consciously surreal. Then there’s the kitchen sink settings like Rifts and Synnibarr and Planescape, which most gamers probably wouldn’t consider weird except they have such incongruous components. I guess alternative settings like Dark Sun could be considered weird by the way they mess with expectations, if it weren’t for the fact that those expectations are, frankly, weird to begin with.

I don’t feel alienated by the surreal, nor do I feel the surreal is necessarily uncanny or otherworldly in the context of a surreal setting. I expect surreality from David Lynch. It is not weird, it is a norm. I’m sure plenty of other people feel Lynch is pretty damn weird, but it’s just not a vibe I get from him. That’s the thing with weirdness, it’s highly subjective.

Let’s consider something objectively weird, then; consider Raggi’s definition of the weird:

amoral forces from outside which are inimical to humanity

This is a distinctly Lovecraftian weirdness, and I’d say that the definition is apt, and that Lovecraft qualifies — but not because of the ghosts and monsers and tentacles. No, we have plenty of those already. What’s truly weird is the crushing nihilism of anything approaching a Lovecraftian setting, such as Call of Cthulhu (where the game is a slow spiral into madness unless it’s cut short with a quick death), Lamentations of the Flame Princess (which is technically D&D, but it’s nihilistic in the way that every official module I’ve seen exists to punish the players) and specifically LotFP’s Carcosa which is just horribly horribly bleak (never mind the coloured humans and the dinosaurs and the ray guns). Why would anyone ever enjoy fiction in such an irredeemably grim setting? That’s weird, if you ask me.

What about procedural weirdness? Apocalypse World’s “fiction first” procedures turn our traditional approach to skill checks on their head. Don’t Rest Your Head rolls dice in odd ways, and Amber doesn’t even have dice. Perhaps not uncanny, but certainly capable of alienating players. What about games with no plot up front, like Sorcerer’s story now approach? What about games where the characters just wander a sandbox aimlessly — isn’t that a bit weird? What about games with no GM, with player narrative control, with limitations on the language you can use?

None of these seem strange to me. So I’ve concluded that either all my games are weird, or none of them are. To find a game that is truly uncanny, inexplicable or alienating I will have to think laterally, and the best I can come up with is my original copy of Maelstrom, simply because it has some unidentifiable and potentially toxic stain on the back cover, hence me picking it up for 50p in a secondhand bookshop a few years ago. Handle with gloves.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Too Cruel For School

One of our engineers recently professed to being “old school”. What he meant by that was an old-school work ethic, as in you stay until the job’s done, never mind the hours.

But that’s not what Old School usually means around engineers. It has quite a sinister meaning; learning through pain and adversity, being left to try and fail on your own until you finally learn all the tricks that aren’t written down — tricks and that all the older engineers know but won’t tell the newbie, because that’s just the way it was for them back in the day.

Is this what we mean by Old School gaming? I’m not sure it’s anything to be proud of. I know there are some gamers with exactly this macho attitude, that the dungeon is something to be conquered, that deaths are inevitable and that the DM exists to punish. If that’s true the most old-school products I own are probably LotFP modules such as The God That Crawls that take a pretty punitive approach to dungeoneering. The funny thing is the punitive nature of such games is not advertised, it’s just a piece of collective wisdom about D&D and specifically OSR-style D&D that we’ve collectively picked up. OSR games are meant to be hard, stop whining.

Compare this to Call of Cthulhu, which is punitive by design. Punishing the characters is baked into the system yet the Keeper is rarely such an adversarial figure.

I don’t care for the worst attributes of “the Old School” such as being a gatekeeper to a hobby or profession. I’ve seen it in martial arts schools where to be accepted, you need to be punched in the head. I’ve seen it when crossing over from the world of chemistry to chemical engineering. Adversity teaches experience but since we have choice (at least in a hobby) it’s not necessary.

But as Silver says, “our ancesters were wise, yet our age accounts them foolish”. So respect your elders, respect the Old School, learn about it, and then make a choice. Just don’t appropriate the Old School and make it a meaningless phrase.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Beyond the Roll: Alternative Skill Rolls

Here’s a thing. Beyond the Wall follows the old-school logic regarding any kind of skill check, which is to try to roll under one of the six attributes with a d20. This is a fine and elegant way of handling the skill system.

However… it’s a bit counter-intuitive because the other two times you roll a d20 require a roll high. Even the BtW core book acknowledges this.

So, here are two alternative ways to make skill checks. Both use d6 rather than d20 to make rolls. Doing so separates the rolls vs. threats (saves and to-hit) from the more freeform skill checks.

Summerland’s Method

The first one is borrowed from Greg Saunder’s Summerland. The player takes an number of dice and tries to roll under the appropriate stat. The GM sets the difficulty of the task by the number of dice rolled. 2 dice is going to be a fairly easy task (average of 7 should fit under most stats), 3 dice will be medium to challenging and 4 dice will be quite hard.

Skills (and help) function as per the rulebook, giving a bonus to the stat under test.

The WaRP Method

WaRP uses 2 dice for an untrained character, 3 dice for skilled and 4 dice for exceptional rolls. Taking that example add 2d6 to the stat for an unskilled roll; for a skill, add 3d6 (or 4d6 if the character has doubled up on the skill).

For a simple skill test, the target is 15; increase the difficulty by increments of 5 (or 3 for more granularity) for something harder.

WaRP also handles advantages and disadvantages with a bonus or penalty die; an extra die is rolled and the worst number (bonus) or best number (penalty) is dropped. The bonus die might work for giving help and any time the GM wants to shade the roll in the player’s favour.

Dx

Beyond the Wall: Merrow

This is my last instalment of my Beyond the Wall planning tools. This one is for tackling scenario packs.

This should be blindingly obvious but I’ll say it anyway: even if you design based on the mythic cycle that assumes all the foreshadowing, threshold crossing, progressing towards the climax and denouement, there’s no guarantee that the players will play ball.

What if the characters decide not to proactively attack the problem, but stay in the village — even after they are supposedly prompted to action (mentor phase)? Well, then you’ve got to be creative. But even then you can take steps like taking the Threat within the dungeon (approaching the inmost cave) and using it to attack the village, to bring the hazard closer to the village itself.

We’ve assumed a particular mode of play based on a shared appreciation of a particular genre of fiction. Probably, probably, everything will run according to expectations. But never just assume.

Blank Scenario Workbook

I went through several iterations of brainstorming tools for the Scenario Pack: first using OmniOutliner, then Freemind. While I still like those methods the best is still probably the spreadsheet, just because it’s easy to see what’s going on (helps if you have a big monitor!). The alternative files are linked below, but TBH the best is still the spreadsheet.

  • This is the Blank Spreadsheet on Google Docs (recommended)
  • This is my OmniOutliner file
  • This zip archive is a dynamic HTML rendering of the OmniOutliner. Just unpack and click on the .html file. Read only, so not much use for a blank form, but…
  • This is an OPML file generated by OmniOutliner, if you want to do something clever (like import into Scrivener)
  • This is a Freemind mind map

Be warned that the order of presentation here is different from the one in the existing scenario packs. That should be no big deal; it should be clear to the GM at which stages the tables become important.

Once you’ve hacked through the spreadsheet you can cut and paste the tables into a nice document, if that’s what you want.

Example: Merrow’s Watchers

I’ve repurposed a LotFP scenario I wrote for this format. I think it actually works a lot better in this shape than the previous one.

Merrow’s Watchers
Additional Notes (in pdf)
Additional Notes (in markdown)

Sorry, the pdf is a bit rough and ready. But you probably get the idea.

Special notes for people who know me: this is based on Sunder’s Children, but it’s quite different. Don’t read if you think you might be playing it in the near future 🙂

I’ve not put this into any nicely formatted Word document, sorry. This is just and example (and for my personal use).

Closing the Cycle

Previously I made a big deal of the Monomyth in planning out the scenario, and this theme continues. To round it out I’ve added procedures for the last two stages: Resurrection, and Return with the Elixir.

Here’s how they work. These are closing remarks from the players (as their characters) and from the GM (as the Village). These happen after the Road Back where the PCs have found their various hints.

Resurrection

This is a bit metagame-y, a bit storygame-y. It may put some people off, and that’s OK. If you’re not keen, skip it. There are no dice involved, no actions taken by characters, it’s just a wrap up.

  1. Go around the table and invite each player to speak in turn.
  2. This is an internal monologue, so other players don’t get to interrupt.
  3. Ask the player to talk about how the adventure may have changed them. This could be emotionally (they discovered something about friendship), or a new motivation (I really want to know where that map will lead), or objectively about how they’ve matured, etc.
  4. To prompt some thoughts, rather than just asking the open question “what did you think of the adventure” the GM could ask some more direct (but still open) questions:
    • “who did you bond with on this adventure?” (“no-one” is an OK reply)
    • “what do you want to do next?”
    • “how do you feel about returning to the village?”
  5. Optionally the GM might also ask these questions of the group and encourage a group discussion:
    • Who delivered the final blow?
    • Who did something that was critical to your success?
    • Who really suffered in this adventure?
    • What is the first thing you all do when you get back to the Village?

This isn’t meant to be super formal. GMs should recognise that it may be hard for some players to engage with this conversation if they’re with strangers (e.g. at a convention) so the leading questions may help this. If you don’t like the individual monologue bit you could leave that out and just ask group questions.

Return with the Elixir

This is the bit where the GM narrates the end. They do these important things:

  1. Tie up loose ends with the Villagers (e.g. from the “domestic distractions” table).
  2. Put the end of the adventure in context for the Village. Will it change life long term? How will the Village adapt?

Updated cycle:

Scenario Pack revised


And that’s the end. Hopefully you’ll like the tool and find it useful. Please give me feedback here or on G+.

All of the Beyond the Wall posts are collected on the page above.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Suitably Motivated

I’m going to state the obvious.

Threat Cycle

When you run a game, the thing that motivates PCs to action is the perceived Threat. Without any threat there’s no pressure to act, and without PC action there’s no game.

Now, the word “opportunity” may work better than threat for you as a motivating factor — it certainly makes sense for sandbox type games.

But, let’s assume a classic “there’s a bad guy! Stop him!” scenario. We get that the bad guy does something bad, and the PCs respond. At some point they may even change from being reactive to proactive.

Logically if the PCs perceive a threat and respond, the bad guy will do exactly the same if they see the PCs taking that action. They will either adapt their plans or they won’t. This is a decision point for the GM:

  1. Did my Big Bad spot the PCs?
  2. Can and will they change plans if they did?

This decision making works on all levels. At the lowest troop level it’s pretty obvious that if the guards spot the PCs sneaking into the compound, they’ll raise the alarm and double patrols.

However, the Big Bad can only take actions if they’re actually aware that the threat exists. So, if their lieutenants fail to inform the command that their base is under attack, they can’t actually take decisions to change the plan.

The Big Bad is at the mercy of informed Lieutenants. To the BB the Lieutenants are one big happy interoperating team in a well-oiled machine. Actually the Lieutenants are all individuals, and they wouldn’t be where they are today without ambition. Each of them is probably capable of running the show, and some of them know just how ambitious their peers are.

This means that while the BB’s instructions downwards are pretty unambiguous, the feedback they get from their lieutenants is coloured by internal disputes from middle-management (as well as general competency). Naturally BB can manage poor performance with judicious recruiting practices and terrifying disciplinary procedures, although the first one may not be an option if the plan for world domination is on a schedule.

Evil Empire

The information the Lieutenants can give is only as good as they get for their subordinates, too. It’s going to be nonexistant if their own downward communication is weak (on the left). Their team could also be steady eddies, very reliable with routine tasks but generally having trouble with adapting to change (on the right). And it’s only a matter of time before the highly-performing mooks in the middle look to their own masters and think “I could do their job…”

All this is great news for the PCs. Suddenly, sneaking into that fortress with a hundred heavily armed soldiers doesn’t seem so bad, if the bad guys are hamstrung by bureaucracy.

Now, on to the next question: let’s say the BB’s command structure doesn’t let them down and they do find out that the PCs are making a move. What can they do?

  1. Fortify. Just make it harder for the PCs to attack by increasing traps, patrols and barricades; or even taking proactive steps to neutralise the PCs. What are the big guns that they’ve been saving for a rainy day?
  2. Misdirect. Send the PCs to the wrong location. Where can they misdirect the PCs? What is the misdirection — a confusing trail, incorrect evidence, an unreliable guide?
  3. Complete early. Take risks so that even if they PCs get through, it will be too late. What are the consequences of advancing their programme? Will the finished plan be weaker? Will completing the plan harm some of the organisation in the process?
  4. Shut down operations and plan again. Pretty boring, but viable. What does stopping the plan and starting again later mean for the plan?
  5. Concede. Why on earth would the BB concede? Is it a trick?

Organisations have strengths and weaknesses. Strengths include resources and a plan that isn’t obvious to the PCs. Weaknesses are a large corporate machine that might not communicate perfectly with itself. So, if the PCs want to attack the organisation:

  1. Where can they insert themselves?
  2. Who can they turn?
  3. What relationships can they exploit?

It can get you in a lot of trouble, thinking, Errol, I shouldn’t do so much of it.