Advancement Systems In RPG Design


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I recently had a fun conversation with a friend of mine who is designing a tabletop RPG about what kind of advancement system to use for his game. It got me thinking about the pros and cons of all of the various methods games use for character advancement, mostly in tabletop but also drawing from video games. I thought I would lay out the various options as I saw them and discuss each in turn, both as a way to organize my thoughts a bit further and also to show the wide variety of methods there are out there.

How you use an advancement system for your game is a core question both for game designers and also for those running games. Many advancement systems leave a lot of flexibility based on play style – one D&D game for example might have characters leveling every four or five sessions of play, and another might have them leveling every session. One is a story of slow development where there have to be a lot of rewards that aren’t experience points while the other is a roller-coaster ride to power that won’t leave as much time for character development, since everyone will always be learning and trying out their new abilities. Designers should let GMs know where they think the “sweet spot” is for their game, as this can be a very helpful guide. Trial-and-error also works, but can lead to a lot more frustration among players.

Experience and Leveling (D&D)

Of course, the granddaddy system, the default in most people’s minds, is leveling. You accumulate experiences points doing whatever it is that the game wants to reward, and when you hit a particular break-point you have a sudden increase in your character’s abilities. This is true of many RPGs whether on console or tabletop, and was the method introduced by D&D and many of the very first tabletop RPGs forty years ago.

The important thing here is that the game gives experience points for what you want players and characters to be doing most often. In fact, if you want to know what a game is about, look to what it rewards – and if your game rewards something that you don’t want your game to be about, change your experience system. (This is true for all of the advancement methods I’ll discuss, and also true for any reward system or cycle you have in your game, period.) Reward the behavior you want. Don’t give experience points for killing monsters in your supposed political intrigue game.

You also want to have your level progression lean toward incremental and not be too jarring. Unless it is an intentional aspect of your game, a character shouldn’t be twice as capable after achieving a single level. Not only is it ‘unrealistic’, it is jarring to the fiction. Suddenly, things that were dire threats to you last session are a breeze now because you crossed an arbitrary threshold. Thing through how often you think characters should level – multiple times per session? Every two or three sessions? Every month of play? Etc. And tune your game accordingly.

Incremental Leveling (D&D 4E, D&D Online)

Kind of a subset to the above is something I really liked about Dungeon & Dragons Online, and how it used leveling to make the experience of play more similar to other MMOs (where there tend to be 100 or so levels, each only slightly different from the others). I’ve written about it here in the past, but in brief, DDO took each level in D&D and broke it into 10 mini-levels that were incremental points between. So, for example, instead of being 10% more likely to hit an enemy, you would be 1% more likely at each increment. Instead of 10 hit points, you would get 1. Ten of those increments would add up to a full level that one might recognize from the tabletop version of D&D.

D&D 4th Edition did something similar by making the three tiers of play explicit. First the Heroic tier, from level 1 to 10, then the Paragon tier from 11 to 20, and then the Epic tier from 21 to 30. At each tier different abilities became available, and it was intentional that there be a bigger difference between 10 and 11 than between 9 and 10 for example.

Advancement through Failure (Powered by the Apocalypse games)

When thinking of earning experience or character points or whatever it is that makes a character advance, we often think of achievement. Starting with Apocalypse World, there have been a series of games that root advancement in failure. Generally speaking, in games based on AW, you mark experience or gain experience when you fail in a roll. This is in part so that you can ‘fail forward’, so to speak, and I’ve also found it to be an encouraging aspect of these systems for people who feel like they don’t roll well. It’s also fun to crap out on an important roll, knowing it’ll hurt, but sit back and say, “You know, I learned something today…”

This is really just an example of another type of behavior  you want to reward – specifically, the behavior of taking risks in-game and using abilities you aren’t very good at. However many abilities a game might have, a given character will usually only use maybe a half dozen of them regularly. Characters tend to be specialists in RPGs, and players tend to want their characters to succeed, meaning players will want to only try things their characters are good at. This is doubly true if they only get experience points, or only move toward advancement, when they succeed. Actively rewarding failure is a good way to encourage players to have their characters try new, dangerous, and often entertaining things.

Edit: It was pointed out, correctly, that it is specifically Dungeon World that grants xp for failure, not Apocalypse World.

Ongoing Point-Buy (GURPS, WoD)

Leaving aside “leveling” altogether, there is the system where experience points are points that one can spend to improve specific abilities. This system is easier to customize, and can be less jarring. When a character levels, they often increase a number of different abilities and capacities, but with a point-buy or character point advancement system, the player can choose to improve some abilities and not others.

Often the choice for the player is whether to spend advancement points frequently on minor new abilities, or to save up the advancement points to buy more powerful abilities. In all World of Darkness games, as well as in GURPS, players are presented with this decision at the end of each session. Some players will want to advance a little bit each session, while others will save up for big abilities. Many will alternate between the two based on how they want their characters to develop.

For these and similar systems, the question for game designers becomes one of pricing. Pricing decisions can be a function of demand, how popular an ability is likely to be, as well as impact on the story. Check out what I wrote about frequency and payoff a while back, and think about how low-frequency and/or low-payoff abilities should be cheaper, in a point-buy system, than high-frequency and/or high-payoff abilities.

Advancement as Currency (Shadowrun, sometimes GURPS)

Often a subset of the point-buy system is when the points you use for advancement can also be used as in-game currency. This adds a layer of decision-making for the player, since they can either have the immediate payoff of spending a point in-game, or the quick payoff of spending the point on some small incremental advancement, or the delayed gratification of saving up for a powerful ability.

Shadowrun is the best example of this I could think of with its karma system, where you can spend karma in-game for benefits, but karma is also what you spend on new abilities for your character. GURPS has a version of this, where you can spend character points earned in play (or even left over from character creation) to do something in-game like have a suddenly wind-fall of cash. The big challenge here is human psychology. It is easy to, without thinking about it, use up a lot of your potential for advancement in-game, making up for unlucky rolls or ensuring your character shines in particular scenes. Players who don’t like to trust to luck will also tend to make more use of things like karma than others. This can lead to a discrepancy in advancement over time. Not necessarily a flaw, just something to consider.

Advancement by Use (Torchbearer, Call of Cthulhu, Skyrim)

Some games do away with experience points or character points granted for victories in the story or for certain player behaviors and simply link advancement to skill-use. The two biggest examples of this I could think of from tabletop games are Call of Cthulhu (the percentile versions) and the various games based on Burning Wheel, the most recent of which is Torchbearer. These systems take a bit more tracking than the ones above, but you don’t have to worry as much about pricing abilities or tuning the leveling system.

A system that links advancement to ability use seems to work better for less high-fantasy or high-powered games, at least where tabletop RPGs are concerned. And even in Skyrim, your Shouts are earned by completing the main storyline’s quests, or by exploring dungeons, rather than advancing based on use. In fact, that is probably a limitation on a system like this for a tabletop game – it would add a lot of complexity to do any kind of calculation – i.e., to make some abilities harder to raise than others based on use. I can also see limitations here – what to do about fantasy tropes like wizard spells, or psychic abilities, which are usually much more powerful than other abilities? Should your Cooking ability advance the same way that Fireball does? Maybe, but I can see a problem there.

Another challenge here is going to be ability-spamming. Players are going to be trying to use every conceivable ability as much as possible during a session if ability use is what is rewarded. This can have a similar effect to rewarding failure, mentioned above – it will make players branch out more in what they want their characters to try. It can also get repetitive, as in each session every character takes a moment to make a Photography roll, and then an Academics roll, and then a Gambling roll, or whatever. (I’ve definitely seen this come up in Call of Cthulhu.) A designer can find ways around this spamming issue, like limiting the total number of abilities that are counted in a given session, but it can definitely be a problem. On the other hand, this system does model reality pretty well (you get better at what you practice) and does reward a much more broad list of activities than leveling systems tend to.

Milestones (Fate Core, Parsec)

I’m sure other systems do this, but the example I came up with was Fate Core for a system that rewards characters based on reaching particular points in the story. (I mention Parsec because that game, which I designed, includes a system where players define obstacles and characters advance when those obstacles are faced in-game). A lot of video games do this with the main storyline or main quest-line – do whatever you want, take however much time you want, but you won’t advance until you get to a particular part of the story. This is, of course, significantly easier for a video game where the story is laid out ahead of time by the designers and writers.

But most games have an over-arching storyline of some sort. The DM or GM has come to the table with some kind of plan, much as players love to deviate. And a system like this could be an alternative to railroading, or designing every adventure as a box canyon. You can have more of a sandbox situation, but one that only rewards certain story milestones. Carrot rather than stick, so to speak, or honey rather than vinegar.

A story milestone system can be the way that each of the above systems are handled. The milestone could grant you a level, or character points, or a milestone could even be when the players have used a certain number of abilities in-game. In Fate Core, it functions a bit like leveling, as a milestone is a time you can improve your character as well as move abilities around or change them rather than improving them mechanically. Which brings us to…

Adjustment rather than Advancement (Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files)

In some RPGs, you don’t advance in any way that is marked on your character sheet. The story advances, and your character can change over time, but they don’t get better, or gain new abilities. Whether characters advance or not is a matter of taste, and will determine the kinds of games you play. Some games that include advancement can be played without, especially in the short term, and most games played as a one-shot will not include advancement.

Do you have more, or better, examples? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments or on Reddit/Facebook/Twitter.


Works in Progress

I have way too many irons in the fire. I have a lot of things to work on (in addition to, you know, work) – far too many to actually finish any of them. As a friend reminded me recently, finishing things is a skill. I have that skill, but I need to sharpen it. Sometimes it helps to write everything out – and who knows? Maybe something here will be of interest to a reader. So, in no particular order:

Servants of the Secret Fire

Yes, this is a fantasy hearbreaker. A Tolkien-esque one no less! Until Cubicle 7 put out The One Ring, I was working on a system that actually reflected Middle-Earth. When TOR came out, I really felt that they did a good job at my task, so I let it languish.

The system as it is still has some interesting things about it. I wrote a post about attribute decay, for example, that is part of SotSF, and there are other elements in there that I like. But, an obvious problem: I do not work for Cubicle 7, which currently has the right to publish a RPG based on Middle-Earth. So whatever I do to complete this project would just be for me, for groups I game with, or maybe to release out into the world for free.

Simplified D&D

Years ago – eight years ago now? – before 5th edition existed for D&D, I hacked 4th Edition in order to run a game for a group that wanted to play D&D but wasn’t interested in learning a lot of rules. Or, in some cases, any rules. Though that hack was designed with 4th Ed in mind, I could definitely adapt it to 5th Ed. It’s even something I’m still interested in playing and running.

Rewilding the Bible

One of my problems is that I am interested in too many things. Scattered. But one thing I’m interested in is rewilding, and more than that, the idea that for the most part our civilization is not a good idea, certainly not in the long term, and that some other way of life is probably the way to go.

There are plenty of other people who know a lot more about this, who are working to learn self-sufficiency, and becoming ungovernable, and training in prehistoric survival skills. I’m not very good at any of these things, yet.

I have noticed, though, that I know more about the Bible than other people who are interested in rewilding. What I would like to do is to create a resource, probably the length of a short book, that looks at passages in the Bible that reflect this worldview. There is actually plenty there. And based on the reception of a recent sermon, I think there are people who might be able to hear what I have to say.

95 Tweets Expanded

A few years ago, two friends of mine and I assembled 95 Tweets, our homage to Luther’s 95 theses, all arguing against the idea of a Hell of eternal conscious torment. Even from a purely Christian standpoint, even from a literalist, the arguments for Hell are incredibly week, and the counter-arguments kind of overwhelming. So we overwhelmed, with 95 tweets.

The problem is that, with a barrage like that, there’s no point at which to engage. Even if someone wanted to argue a contrary position (and I know many do) it’s hard to get a hand-hold. So, I feel like I need to expand the ideas and claims that we made in the 95 Tweets. Part of what makes me hesitant is that there is already a lot out there about this issue, and I need to make sure that what I would contribute would be worthwhile, and not just replicating someone else’s work.

5E Setting: Dragonblade

I started a D&D 5E game set in what I’m not calling Tianxia, but that was just called Dragonblade at the time. It’s a south and east Asian mashup in the way that a lot of fantasy settings are a north and western Europe mashup, primarily drawing on Japanese, Chinese and Indian history and mythology. It’s fun, and I’ve posted a bit of my work on this blog before. It’s also the result of my frustrations with other attempts to do the same thing. Does that make it a hearbreaker? Sort of. Oh well. I think it’s a cool setting, and I’ve run the first part of a game in it. My rule is that I design settings that I would be excited to play in, and this one fits the bill.

5E Setting: Twilight of the Gods

I recently completed a long-term campaign called Twilight of the Gods. The setting is mythic Scandinavia, and beyond that, Europe and the wider world. The setting takes Ragnarok literally, and a campaign set in it will begin when Ragnarok is just about to. The advantage here is that the setting is actually slightly simpler than the base setting for 5th Edition. I’ve also already put in a lot of the work already, having run a full campaign.

5E Setting: Alaam

This is a cool setting that I’ve sketched out, but in which I have yet to run a campaign. It is inspired by the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights as well as aspects of Islamic mythology, blended with Dungeons & Dragons of course. It has a monotheistic religion, and godlike genies ruling a realm of raw and exaggerated elements, and other coolness. Less developed than Dragonblade or Twilight of the Gods, but still really cool.

This Blog

I’ve been blogging since 2006, and have carried over two other incarnations of my blog to this site. So, if you want, there are 11 years of my writing to choose from. Can’t recommend it all, though.

I’ve been working to be more consistent in writing, and I’ve found some cool connections on Reddit, as well as continued connections through social media. I’m trying to build up weekly, ideally daily, writing discipline. I’m not there yet, but it’s a vehicle for sharpening my skills. It always has been.

Ability Frequency vs Payoff

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I’ve been thinking about an issue in game design, and in running games. The issue is the relationship between the frequency with which a player uses an ability and the amount of “payoff”, or impact on the fiction, that the ability provides. For this consideration, an ability might be an ability score, or proficiency, or skill, or move – whichever things a character has to influence the fiction directly. Whatever point of contact there is between the character sheet and the shared imaginary space.

I’m going to use 5th Edition D&D as one example, but I think this line of reasoning is important for any game, whether one you’re designing, or hacking, or running.

High and Low Frequency

When I talk about high frequency, what I mean is those abilities that get rolled or used often. A good example from many games is the perception skill, or whatever the equivalent is (perception, awareness, alertness, notice, listen/spot, etc.). I wrote about perception previously, and I won’t go over any of that here. The point is, simply, that some abilities get used significantly more than others in a given game. After a while, experienced players figure out what those abilities are, and often give every character at least a little bit of capability there. Perception rolls can be called for in every scene, to detect monsters or notice NPCs or find clues. These rolls can also provide a road-block to the game when the clue isn’t found.

Lower frequency abilities often include lore-related abilities. In D&D, knowledge skills are generally only used for two things: answering questions about the setting and background, which may or may not have any impact on the game, and giving the character knowledge about  monsters that the player knows from the Monster Manual. Other abilities are aimed only at rogues, or in the case of performance, only at bards. These can be low frequency abilities, because only one class will generally be rolling them – though sometimes that class will roll them a lot.

I imagine, in an average D&D 5E game, there could easily be 10 or more Wisdom (Perception) checks rolled, 2 or 3 Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Stealth) checks rolled, 1 Intelligence (Religion or Arcana) check rolled, and zero Charisma (Performance) checks. Each of these abilities, though, costs one proficiency pick at character creation. In terms of character generation, they have the same weight, but in play, they have drastically different weights.

High and Low Payoff

I’m comparing abilities by frequency and also by payoff – by what the ability gets you. Charisma (Performance) is another example of a low-payoff ability. If you use it, you might get a small amount of money or briefly entertain a crowd. Importantly, it doesn’t help you do anything central to any edition of D&D – explore set pieces and fight monsters. By contrast, Strength (Athletics) lets you do things that are central to D&D, like climbing and swimming – things that actually let you navigate a dungeon or outdoor setting. Dexterity (Stealth) lets you avoid combat when you want to, or set an ambush, or gain an advantage in combat. And we’ve already talked about Wisdom (Perception).

Some abilities are high frequency and high payoff, like perception abilities in many games, while other abilities are low frequency and low payoff, like performance or artistic abilities in most games. Other abilities lie somewhere in the middle. I don’t necessarily want to go through an inventory here, just put forward this way of understanding abilities in games and game design.

Frequency and Payoff in Running Games

When running a game, it’s good to keep in mind what abilities your players have invested in, and to make sure that all of them come up in the game at some point. You can also give insight when planning a game, which abilities will come up most often. For an urban campaign, maybe investing in Wisdom (Survival) won’t be all that useful, but Intelligence (Investigation) could come up frequently. In a game that will focus on cults and the undead, Intelligence (Religion) might come up a lot more often.

Some payoff can be in the fiction itself. For the example of performance or artistic abilities, which tend to be low frequency and low payoff, you can have a higher payoff in the fiction. The crowd can go wild, and the character can gain new fans. Maybe they get to stay in the inn for free whenever they’re in town. Later, when they want a hireling to come with them, they get one that is extra competent, or cheaper, or at least really loyal and enthusiastic. For a more concrete payoff, maybe there is a noblewoman in the audience who decides to become the character’s patron, paying her will to perform when not adventuring.

In the example of a knowledge skill, instead of giving basic Monster Manual information on a creature, perhaps each creature could have a particular weakness, or condition that the characters can exploit in conflict. Something like T-Rex in Jurassic Park supposedly not being able to see things that aren’t moving.

Frequency and Payoff in Game Design

Ideally, the frequency and payoff of abilities in game design should balance out. Low frequency should correspond to high payoff, and high frequency with low payoff. I think that this option is more interesting than having abilities be low frequency and low payoff (why have them all). High frequency and high payoff  would work well, though it might at some point become monotonous to have every ability have a huge impact every time.

The key to figuring out both frequency and payoff is playtesting. You’ll see how players use various abilities, and how much the enjoy the payoff you’ve designed in to them. You can not how often the abilities are used, and then when revising, tune the payoff up or down, or perhaps redesign the abilities so that they come up more or less frequently.

What are your thoughts about frequency and payoff in the games you design, play and run? 

Attribute Decay in RPG Design

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“You cannot pass,” he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”

This isn’t an original idea – I know that in Misspent Youth for example, your attributes change as part of the game – but attribute decay is something I have been using in Servants of the Secret Fire, my Middle-Earth RPG that I’ve been poking around at forever. I also just brainstormed an attribute-change system for another person’s game, so it’s on my mind.

In brief, the idea is that your attributes, or ability scores, or whatever the name is in the game for you character’s basic capacities, change over the course of the game. In Servants of the Secret Fire, that change is through decay which I’ll discuss below, as an example of this idea in practice.

To begin with, a character in Servants of the Secret Fire has five attributes: Bearing, Grace, Might, Wisdom and Wits. They’re in alphabetical order, but also in order of priority when conflicts arise, and they each interact in different ways that don’t matter for the purposes of this blog post. Those are the five attributes, and many other things in the system derive from them, just like the classic six ability scores in D&D or attributes in 99% of RPGs out there. Not trying to innovate here.

But one of the design goals for SotSF is to model the moral structure of Middle-Earth as Tolkien wrote about it. It isn’t just any generic fantasy world – it is a particular world with particular assumptions behind it. One of those assumptions is that evil is powerful but limited. Here, my mind goes to a W. H. Auden quote from his review of The Lord of the Rings that I love, which includes the following: “Evil has every advantage save one; it is inferior in imagination.” Evil is less flexible, and those corrupted by evil are unable to see beyond their own machinations – and that is how they are overcome.

In order to bake this into the system, I decided that each attribute would decay to a lesser attribute, and that this would reflect moral corruption, or the influence of the Shadow. It would make it possible to see corruption as an incremental loss of creativity and capacity, which I think fits well with Tolkien’s moral universe. (The decay breaks the alphabetical order, but no-one’s perfect.)

Bearing decays into Dread. Where you once had a magnetic personality and a larger-than-life presence that could inspire, you are now only able to coerce and threaten. We see this in the Orcs and the way the treat each other, or in Sauron overwhelming power that only manifests as fear.

Grace decays into Quickness. For Grace, imagine the way that Elves move through the world, both physically and interpersonally. This decays to mere Quickness, like the Orc stabbing Frodo in Moria, or Gollum lunging for the ring.

Might decays into Force. One might use Might to defend the weak, or even as Boromir does to plough through the heavy snows on Caradhras. But it decays into Force, useful only for violence and to impose your will on others.

Wisdom decays into Cunning. As an example, we can look to Saruman of Many Colours versus Gandalf the Grey, and then White. Saruman literally comes from Angl0-Saxon for “cunning man”, and he retains his ability to create engines of destruction but loses the insight and deep lore that made him a Wizard. He still knows how to do things, but not whether he should.

Wits decay into Subtlety. Instead of broadly useful cleverness that would let you solve a puzzle, or a riddle, you only have the ability to hide and dissemble and subvert.

Functionally, each decayed attribute is the same as the previous one but with diminished options.With Bearing, you can do four or five things, but with Dread, you can only do one or two. If this was an Apocalypse-style game, you would simply crossed off some of your moves. Your options narrow, so that you can still be powerful and formidable in a conflict, but you are less of a person.

I like this system, in part, because it reflects my own view of morality and my own experience of the world and other people. People who are evil are so often people who see few possibilities. People who resort to violence often do so, in my view, because of a lack of creativity and imagination. As someone committed to nonviolence in my own life, I have had this conversation many, many times. I say I’m a pacifist, and people ask what I would do in a certain situation, where they can only imagine doing nothing or using violence. My response is that I have an infinite number of options minus two – I can’t do nothing, and I can’t resort to violence. And then I list a bunch of other options off the top of my head, because I’ve practiced this kind of thinking.

Evil is so often justified as necessity, but to me, it is just a failure in the person in question. They have allowed some of their capacities to decay, to become corrupted, until their options narrow and their imagination is strangled. This is so common in the world that I wanted to reflect it in this game.


Fixing the Merit/Flaw Issue (Somewhat)

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I’ve been listening to a lot of the System Mastery podcast lately, and one thing those guys hate is merit/flaw systems. And they have a good point. It is something that Burning Wheel seeks to fix by simply charging you for flaws as well as merits.

The issue is that many flaws fall into one of two categories: 1. the flaw doesn’t really matter and is for min-maxing, and 2. the flaw is actually a merit because it means more screen-time or attention for the player during the game.

The Flaw Doesn’t Matter

GURPS is a major example of this problem, but any merit/flaw system that I’ve seen has it. There are always flaws (or Disadvantages in GURPS) that a player can take that the player doesn’t care about so that they can take some merits that they do want. For example, if your GM forgets to use reaction rolls then Disadvantages in GURPS that reduce your reaction rolls are basically free points. Another example would be in-game-only flaws, like the idea that this particular race has great stat bonuses but people in the world hate them. Supposedly this balances out, but in play it is just a benefit with a hand-wavy, occasional problem. But really, if your half-orc has their huge strength bonus and encounters hatred, judicious use of the strength bonus can address the intolerance pretty readily in most games.

The Flaw Is A Benefit

World of Darkness games are a major culprit here, and the two big examples of this problem are dark fate and enemies. A character’s dark fate is almost always something that will happen after the main campaign is over – it is a way of creating a big problem but putting it off so you can front-load your character with lots of juicy merits that’ll count for almost the entire game. The worst example of this would be a dark fate that affects the rest of the party, so you screw everyone and get points for it.

The other problem is with taking an enemy as a flaw. An enemy means more attention for your character – your agenda, your story, drives more than your share of the overall story. And 10 times out of 10, your friends will end up having to fight this enemy too, just like every enemy you face. And in exchange for this increased creative influence and attention, you get character points. It wasn’t long before every White Wolf player I gamed with realized that taking an enemy was the way to go, every time.

The Fix: Flaws Are Foes’ Merits

Taking an enemy as a flaw still exerts influence on the story, but in this reworked version of the flaw, what happens mechanically is the enemy has an advantage against the character who has taken the flaw. As a generic example, a PC has a 2pt flaw that gives them an enemy, so whenever they come up against this enemy, the enemy gets +2 dice against them (or +2 to rolls, or to damage, or whatever would hurt). This makes the enemy worse for the PC than for the rest of their party at the very least. The GM has to integrate the enemy into the storyline as before, but now when the enemy comes up, the PC pays for their extra points by getting their ass kicked. This one NPC just has their number, it seems.

This can be extrapolated out, and I like it being a general bonus. Maybe if you are a hated race or species, then all prices are doubled, and everyone does +1 damage to you in combat. Now that flaw has teeth that will matter in the two situations where most players care – combat and shopping. The important thing to think through is how to make this Flaw bad for the character in a way that isn’t bad for the whole party, and in a way that doesn’t just thrust the character into the spotlight.

RPG Trap Design

One of the things that I want to be better at, when I am designing D&D adventures, is designing traps. When I think about this, I think about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where three traps and a puzzle are the focus of the action and do a lot for the story. Their solutions are embedded in the film’s themes and the stick in the mind when I think about the movie.

There are a lot of issues that come to mind when I try to come up with traps for a D&D adventure. I wanted to write out my thoughts on traps, just in case some of you have the same challenges designing your own adventures.

Previous Victims

Think about who built the trap, and why. Are they still maintaining it regularly? Checking for dead victims and clearing their bodies out? If so, are there signs of their passage? Maybe they don’t clean the blood-stains completely enough, and this could be a hint for the PCs as they explore. If there is a pit-trap, for example, with spikes at the bottom, is anyone climbing down there to remove the dead bodies? Is there a trapdoor down below to allow access? If so, the PCs might climb down, find the trapdoor, and circumvent other traps, or ambush whoever it is that created the traps in the first place.

If the bodies aren’t being cleared, there might be some obvious hints that there is a trap nearby. These hints could be great foreshadowing, actually. There is a fantastic illustration in the 5E DMG, seen below, that is an example of what I have in mind here. The wizard is reaching toward what is obviously a trap, and you can clearly see the bloody marks and hand-prints from previous victims. This trap might even require a Wisdom save to force yourself to reach in there without shaking or hesitating. But I love the idea of bloody marks, or the stench of decaying bodies beneath a trapped floor, warning the PCs that something bad is ahead.

This foreshadowing effect of non-maintained traps also solves the problem of PCs calling for Perception rolls every 10 feet as the move through a dungeon. If you are exploring an ancient tomb, defended by traps that re-arm themselves and don’t require maintenance, then you’ll run into previous victims, and might even get some hints as to what threats await.

How Does It Actually Work?

Things like “pressure plate” are kind of thrown around, without always thinking about they really work. I’m not saying you have to go get an engineering degree to come up with traps for your D&D game, but take a moment to think through how the trap could work. If nothing else, when your PCs start prying it apart to disable it, you’ll be able to give a good description.

But, if nothing else, how does the trigger activate? Does the pressure plate work a lever, or is there magic that simply detects when someone steps on a particular stone in the floor? Is the poison needle in the lock spring-loaded, or does it use the force of turning the knob, or is it just hidden in the mechanism so that whey you reach to push the door open, you prick yourself?

Think about how it resets, and think about what it means if the trap is a one-off. If the trap can’t reset itself, then it will only work once, and either you will need NPCs to periodically reset the trap, or you will be able to follow a path of dead predecessors and unlucky adventurers pretty far into the dungeon before you encounter a trap you’ll have to bypass.

I would say, rather than see these as problems, make them features. Built the menace in your deathdrap dungeon by showing a dozen previous adventurers (their equipment stripped of course) who died in gruesome and horrific ways before the PCs ever arrived. Maybe describe them as apparently more accomplished and powerful than the PCs. Maybe one of them was famous, or a member of an Adventurer’s Guild that the PCs recognize. Then, suddenly, no dead bodies. Now the PCs know they’re in for it.

Not Built to Wound

Much as I hate to just kill PCs outright with a single die-roll, one has to consider the fact that traps would not be build to wound intruders in most cases. They would be designed to kill. Now, PCs are obviously extraordinary people, but in the Monster Manual most basic humanoid NPCs listed in the back have two hit dice, meaning any given trap, even the most basic sort, should do at least 10 damage on average. This would be enough to kill curious farmhands, and who would go into the trouble of building a trap when someone who isn’t even an adventurer could just take the damage and continue? This means, in DMG terms, that we’re looking at at least 2d10 damage for any trap that isn’t designed to be a nuisance, or a warning, or only designed to stop kobold children.

Other Senses

Think about how your traps function – what is necessary? And then what would those necessary elements smell like? Sound like? Would they have an effect on the texture of the walls, ceiling or floor? Would they kill off the local lichen that has covered other passages? Would they attract insects?

I had fun looking up what various highly flammable fluids would smell like when building a trap in a previous game. So the PCs encountered this sweet, chemical smell in a certain corridor, and didn’t know what to make of it (failed Intelligence: Nature check). So when they set it off, they got doused and then set on fire.

But if there is, say, ten gallons of highly corrosive acid suspended above the PCs’ heads, ready to sluice down onto them and melt their faces, what does all that acid smell like? Is it in an airtight container? If not, it’ll be possible to smell it, or even hear it bubbling menacingly. (I know acid doesn’t just sit there bubbling, but let me remind you, we are playing pretend.)

Simple Magic

Speaking of playing pretend – given the resources available to the average D&D dungeon-builder, I’d expect a lot more magical traps than mechanical ones. Your usual D&D world has little or no gunpowder, but a significant number of people who can throw fireballs. Even for first-level casters, you have magic missiles that can’t miss, and alarm spells that can’t be circumvented, simple illusions, color sprays and thunder waves. Why build a complex mechanism to push people over a ledge when you can just have a triggered thunder wave to shove them off? The DMG doesn’t have a lot of details around how to build traps, and only a few examples, but I’d take as a starting-point any spell with an interesting effect in the PHB. Why have darts shooting at your PCs when there could be rays of frost, both damaging them and slowing their escape? Why have a poisoned needle in a lock’s mechanism when it could just trigger a poison spray? And at higher levels, I’d expect far worse.

The Trap Is People!

In a previous game, I planned a series of ‘traps’ that were actually just kobold-like creatures being assholes. They had constructed these no-win situations where it looked like the PCs could get their hands on treasure, or even objects that were needed to solve a puzzle-door that would enable them to continue, but while they tried to get to these things, there would be creatures in various parts of the room, fully prepared, shooting them or lighting them on fire or flinging things at them.

So imagine even a group without a lot of resources at their disposal, but they know that adventurers will come to try and take what they have, and they have weeks, or months, or hears to decide how to mess with those adventurers. Having the trap be people has the added benefit of letting them taunt the PCs while they damage and hinder them. Of course, if you choose this option, when the PCs finally get their hands on the culprits, expect some epic butchery.

What is Magic?

I recently posted about the intersection between magic and technology, riffing off of the well-known Arthur C. Clarke quote, and then applying my thinking to various kinds of speculative fiction. But this of course begs questions – what is technology, is one question, but I think that we have a good sense of this, living in a technological society. What is magic, though?

I’m not going to get anywhere a definitive answer. Magic always has an imaginative definition because, as far as I understand the world we all share, magic is imaginary. Or, at best, metaphorical perhaps. We create the meaning of magic, through art and culture – we also create the meaning of technology, of course, but through distinct means because our activity in the world and understanding of it is mediated through technology. (It’s something to think about and explore, though – to imagine how the world would appear if our activity in it and understanding of it was entirely mediated through magic. But that’s another question for another time)

First I’ll talk about what I think magic is, and then I’ll talk a bit about what I think magic should be in order to be compelling and meaningful.

Magic is Minority Religion

This is always my starting point with  magic, because it is where magic comes from in our own world. If you think about it – druidism, kabbalah, hermetic magic traditions, secret societies and so on, where we get our magical traditions in our world, are all just minority religion. Imagine the pre-industrial world: a priest chants a prayer to a god, expecting a supernatural outcome, and that’s religion. A wizard chants a spell to the spirits of the world, or in the Old Tongue, etc., expecting a supernatural outcome, and that’s magic. Sorcerers and djinns in Islamic stories are similarly holdovers from the pre-Muslim belief systems and animism that existed in the regions that Islam conquered. “Medicine men” and “witch doctors” are just practitioners of religious that existed before the currently dominant ones came to power.

Magic is Intrinsic (Arises from Character, Situation, Place)

Technology differs from magic in that technology is always instrumental. Anyone can pick up a smartphone and, theoretically, use it to do the same things. Not so with magic. Magic arises from a person’s identity, or from a particular situation, or from a specific place, in a way that technology does not. In the classic example, a person often must be born with the ability to use magic – like Harry Potter compared to a Muggle. Often this is literally genetic, with magically gifted bloodlines, or is because of someone having elves in their ancestry, or dragons, or demons. A person might be changed by contact with magic, or by a trip to the Perilous Realm, and when they return, they are attuned in a new way to the supernatural.

Magic might also arise from a particular situation, or confluence of events – the Night of the Eye on Krynn, or Tarmon Gai’don in the Wheel of Time, or an astrologically auspicious day in Chinese legend. This could be as simple as when the shards of the magical sword are reforged, or as complex as the interweaving of deceptive prophecies in the Mistborn trilogy.

Magic can be intrinsic to a place. The One Ring can only be unmade in Mount Doom where it was forged. The True King can only come from Avalon when the time is right. Sun Wu Ying is born on the top of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit and nowhere else. This place might be a place in the world, or a place that is in itself magical, like the classic Faerie, or Shangri-La, or Atlantis.

Magic Arises from Story

Magic is always an element from a story. One does not need a story to understand the functioning of an internal combustion engine, but one does need a story to understand the functioning of magic. This is true whether it is the magic intrinsic to a person, a situation, or a place. In some situations, like the Neverending Story, it is the story itself that is magical. Otherwise, the magic will only function in, and make sense as part of, a story. Even in the coloquial meaning of “magical”, referring to something that was especially interesting or unexpected or moving in our lives, we will have to tell a story to make sense of it to ourselves and to others. And sometimes, “you just had to be there.”

Magic is Numinous

In this case I am using numinous in its philosophic sense – the sense of an encounter with Other, sometimes seen as a divine or supernatural or otherworldly presence or truth. As much as magic can be intrinsic to character, story, situation and place, magic is also an intrusion into the everyday world. To be in the presence of magic is to be in the presence of Other, of something that is outside of our normal experience. Magic an have its own rules, different from the rules of everyday life. There is a sense of joy, or wonder, or fear, or even alienation in the experience of magic. This is why in our descriptions of events, we might describe an experience as “magical” because it stands out from the rest of our lives.

So, then, what is thoroughly imagined magic, that makes for compelling stories and games?

Magic Should Have a Cost

Hopefully this is something more than the “cost” of studying and learning magic, which almost always happens off-screen (though Rothfuss does a fantastic job of showing us the cost of learning magic as a real thing by I think, as does LeGuin in a very different way). In your classic fantasy game setting, you create a wizard character who already has spells, and who will continue to advance and learn more magic, and it would make a boring game if every time she learned another spell she had to go to school for a semester. The study that made her a wizard in the first place happened before your story begins. This means that it isn’t really a cost at all.

And this is something more than the mere opportunity cost of having to use one kind of magic rather than another – cast this spell now instead of that one, etc. Because every action has that same cost. I’m saying that magic should cost something as magic, per se. Whether this is sacrifice, or a limited supply of cosmic energy, or the need to grow in wisdom before you can control it, magic should have a cost beyond opportunity cost, and this cost should be exacted as part of the story.

Magic Should Have Rules

“Because it’s magic” is not a sufficient explanation for anything. It might be a stop-gap, like saying “the spaceship moves at the speed of plot”, but it’s hardly satisfying, and basically closes the door on ways to leverage magic in a story or game. When magic has rules, those rules can be enforced in interesting ways (as it is for Harry Dresden), or they can be hacked and manipulated to achieve surprising things (in every Brandon Sanderson story), or they can be used to raise the stakes and further the story (as with Earthsea).

The need for magic to have rules is basic if this magic is part of a game, but is also important for stories. If there are no rules to magic, you can’t create expectations and then break them, or set up foreshadowing, or provide a meaningful surprise. Magic without rules is just the arbitrary whim of the creator or storyteller, and quickly reduces to boring, or a succession of Deus Ex Magica.

Magic Should Serve the Story

As I said above, magic comes from story, and to that end, magic should serve story. Magic should be driven by what is ironic, or dramatic, or moral and immoral. Magic should have an emotional impact on the creator and audience, like any good artwork. As Brandon Sanderson advised on his podcast Writing Excuses (and doubtless others have elsewhere), magic should be both surprising and inevitable. It should elicit responses of “I can’t believe it!” and “Of course!” simultaneously, just like any good twist in any good story.

This is of course hard to do, but what worthwhile magic is ever easy?