Illusions of Choice

December 12, 2018
There's a bit of misdirection involved in all RPGs. The core misdirection is that the PCs need to feel that they might not win each confrontation, but end up winning nearly all of them. Success shouldn't be automatic, of course, but it should feel a lot more unlikely than it actually is. This misdirection falls on the GM a lot of the time (for example, to play up how fierce an ogre is when the PCs can easily defeat it, by the numbers) and the game system a lot of the time (to provide, for example, Hero Points or Fate Points that allow players to recover from bad rolls and turn failure into success), but some of this falls on the adventure designer, as well. Here are a few ways to deceive the PCs in a way that makes them feel successful, even when the odds aren't really as stacked against them as it seems. 

High Roll Wins. This example is something I see quite often. The PCs have to notice something--a mugging in a nearby alley, for example--and they all make Perception checks. The highest roll successfully notices the clue, no matter the result of this roll. I used to deride this as poor design--after all, if the PCs literally cannot fail to notice something, why not just dispense with the rolls and pick someone to notice it? But then I remembered how much players like feeling that their rolls matter. So requiring a roll and revealing something to the player that rolled the highest is saying, "good job, you JUST succeeded at a thing," which feels good for the player. So there's a place for this kind of trickery in adventure design, I think.

A Sandbox that Isn't. I mentioned this in my last blog. PCs like to have a lot of choice, and "sandbox" style adventures give that to them. They feel like they can go anywhere in the world and face any kind of challenge. But if some of the encounters would be much too easy for them and some much too hard, what should an adventure designer do to avoid boredom or overwhelming PC death, respectively? One solution is to scale the PCs' challenge based on where they are. If they hit the orc caves while still low level, there's just a few orc warriors. If they hit the orc caves at a much higher level, there are orc warlords and death priests and so on. I witnessed this myself playing Mass Effect. Near the end of the game, I went to a planet with exceptionally tough mercenaries who carried fantastic gear. Neat! On my second playthrough, I went to this planet very early on, hoping to sneak in and steal some of the fantastic gear. I failed, started a fight--and won pretty easy. Then, it turned out, the gear wasn't so great. The game had scaled to "level appropriate" enemies and gear behind the scenes. If I hadn't been playing through it twice--and few tabletop RPG players ever play through the same adventure twice--I wouldn't have ever noticed that the "sandbox" wasn't really a sandbox at all.  

Mystery Solved! A much more rare example of design is in a mystery adventure. This adventure puts several options in front of the PCs--someone's been murdered, for example, and the PCs must discover which suspect is the murderer--and has the PCs do legwork to solve it. After a few encounters, which normally depend on the suspect being investigated or the ritual being pursued or what-have-you, the PCs are informed enough to make a decision. And they're right! Success, praise, and XP all around! Sometimes this type of adventure is designed so that the PCs are always right, no matter who they pick: if they say the scarred sailor did it, then she did! If they instead think the shifty watch captain did it, then he did! (And the sailor would, in that case, be innocent.) This seems the most like "cheating" if the PCs discover it, and it can lead to a bad taste if revealed. But solutions like this appear often in mystery fiction, and it has to do with the scope of the narrative. A mystery novel has the investigator hit just as many dead-ends as needed to discover the culprit by the last page. An investigator in a half-hour mystery show wraps it up in that time, while an investigator in a three-hour movie takes six times as long to wrap up a similar mystery. If you're trying to solve a mystery encounter in a single evening of gaming, there isn't time to have the PCs hit several dead-ends (although they can and should hit dead-ends, and be wrong, early in the session). At some point, they have to be successful, and this design ensures that the success is paced with the medium.

I once asked a non-gaming friend about this sort of "heroes are always correct when they get around to making an accusation" storytelling, and she was initially very put off by it. But the more she thought about it, the more it made narrative sense to her, and she had a lot of good insights about how to pull it off. Most importantly, the heroes shouldn't ever know about it or it spoils the victory. She also pointed out that the final culprit should be believable from the beginning and, ideally, the threads that pointed to the other suspects should be quickly revealed as false (or, better, as planted by the final culprit to throw off suspicion). These are good insights to make this final type of misdirection really work!
 

How to Build a Sandbox

December 10, 2018
Players really like sandbox adventures. The term "sandbox adventure" implies an adventure (or even campaign) in which the characters are free to go wherever they'd like, and address adventure elements in whatever order they choose. There's a real sense of player agency there, and that's one of the reasons they're so popular. They also seem more realistic, as the players know there's something going on all over, and not just waiting for their interaction, just like in the real world.

Yet buildi...
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Adventures as Skeletons and Zombies

December 4, 2018
I've had a general frame of mind when writing that I used when writing papers in graduate school, when writing memos as a lawyer, and in writing adventures. It's a fairly simple way of viewing a writing project, and I wanted to speak about it in reference to adventure writing.

Your adventure is a skeleton, or it's a zombie.

A skeleton has a solid, visible frame. You start with an outline, and the outline is detailed enough to hang all the "meat" on: you know what encounters are going to happen ...
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Frosty the Graveknight

December 3, 2018
At the suggestion of a friend of mine, who pointed me toward a discussion about Frosty the Snowman being a lich, I've worked up some stats as well. But I don't think this beloved children's character is a lich. No, I think he's a graveknight. His hat isn't a phylactery, but durable armor into which his immortal essence is infused. As he plainly has the ability to compel children and cops alike, I'm assuming he's also a bard. What is this nefarious creature's end goal? Eternal survival, no dou...
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Building Monsters from Both Directions

November 29, 2018

I’ve been designing a lot of monsters in the past year, and I’ve noticed that I tend to do so from one of two directions regarding the art: either my text comes before ordering the art, or my text comes after the art exists. Both directions warrant some careful consideration to make sure the creature’s powers align with its image. A GM often shows a picture of the monster to the players (“you see…THIS awful thing!”), but the players also get a sense of the monster ...


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Monsters Should Know Their Neighbors

November 27, 2018

A classic, old-school dungeon is a series of connected rooms, each containing traps or monsters. This is fun, but modern RPG players expect more verisimilitude from dungeon inhabitants. If there’s an ogre in one room and a roper in the next, a lot of questions naturally arise: do they know about each other? Do they get along? Will one come running if the other cries out for help when outmatched by intrepid adventurers?

In any dungeon you design (and I use the term “dungeo...


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I Found a Secret Monster!

November 26, 2018
Here's a short update about a neat thing I just discovered. The Pathfinder RPG Bestiary has several monsters with variants listed. The stone giant, for example, has stone giant elders that are a bit more powerful and lead their people. Wights have brute wights (ones made from giants), cairn wights (powerful wights that guard crypts), and so on. These variants are called out with their own headers or boldface entries. They're also listed in a table at the back of the Bestiary for ease of refer...
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Rule of Three Clues

November 21, 2018
There's a very good piece of adventure design advice that goes like this: you must leave at least 3 clues for something you want the PCs to do. As they could miss one, or even two, of these clues, you need to have enough there to point the PCs in the right direction. I wanted to talk about why this rule works, and give some advice about putting it in action.

As an initial matter, this rule isn't about getting the PCs from one room of a dungeon to the next room of a dungeon. They'll just walk t...
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Spells to Cause Fights

November 20, 2018
I was kicking around some ideas for new Starfinder spells with my friend Conor last night. We were reworking many of them to either dial up the space-fantasy theme or to work around the rough edges of some rules. He'd suggested one spell that would deal damage in an area based on the number of electronics in that area--you'd just count the squares in the area with electronics, and more electronics-filled squares meant more damage dealt by the spell. I spotted a problem with this: there's an i...
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Tying Forward and Back

November 14, 2018
I've got the great privilege to be developing the Tyrant's Grasp Adventure Path here at Paizo. Although I know quite well where the entire 6-part arc is going, I'm currently just over halfway through the development. I've done enough now to categorize in my mind the connections I'm working hard to make across all the adventures. They make good points for any adventure author to keep in mind, whether writing a simple 5-room dungeon or an entire campaign. I call them seeds, callbacks, and theme...
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Never the Ideal Party

November 13, 2018
Many adventure authors assume that players are going to have the key bases covered: a tank-y fighter type, a nimble rogue type with a lot of skills, a healer, and a blasting spellcaster. These follow from the core classes of fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard, but there are many combinations that make up a balanced group like this (and some classes, like an oracle, can do nearly any of them depending on specializations). 

This leads into a few suppositions that adventure authors make: that PCs...
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Be the Beasts!

November 9, 2018
"Hey, is it true that in the upcoming adventure A Bad Day for Trolls, everyone plays trolls?"

"Indeed! You're all monsters! Grawr!"

"Can I see one?"

"Sure! Here's Maggrak Bigmaw!"
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What Failure Feels Like

November 8, 2018

I mentioned in my previous blog that I’m part of a group playing through Doomsday Dawn, the 7-part playtest adventure to test very specific parts of the proposed 2nd Edition Pathfinder rules. We went into this knowing that the playtest adventure isn’t like other adventures—although we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the plots thread running through it. One thing we’ve noticed about the game, though, is that it feels pretty punitive overall. That's particularly obviou...


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Through the Grinder

November 7, 2018

Even though I work here at Paizo and have close access to the designers, playtest materials, and the first of the Pathfinder 2nd edition material, there’s no substitute for actual table play. I have a group that’s been going through the Doomsday Dawn playtest adventure, in all 7 of its parts. Like many people playing this adventure, our group is behind the formal “one part per two weeks” schedule. We rotate through GMs and play every other week, but life happens to get...


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What PCs Love to Kill

November 2, 2018

No adventure author or GM can really predict what their players are going to truly love and remember about any particular session or campaign (in my experience, it’s often to be a groan-worthy joke as anything else*), but you can get a sense of what monsters they’ll remember fighting. If you plan out encounters with these monsters carefully, you can craft encounters they’ll remember long after the campaign is done.

Players’ stories about satisfying, memorable victorie...


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A Hobgoblin for Halloween!

October 31, 2018
A Bad Day for Trolls is coming from Run Amok Games soon (check out the Upcoming tab above), and I wanted to show off one of the enemies that that the troll "heroes" will face. In this adventure, the PCs all play trolls, and I needed an enemy that would put a bit of a scare into them. I decided that an acid-flinging sorcerer would do, but I didn't want to wholly build one from the ground up. I took the draconic sorcerer from the Pathfinder RPG NPC Codex and made a few key edits: I changed the ...
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You Can't Get Away So Easily!

October 29, 2018

I recently talked a lot about why flying foes can cause problems for low-level PCs, and it reminded me about a related topic from one of the first published adventures I wrote. There’s a monster in 3rd edition D&D called an ethereal marauder. It lives in the Ethereal Plane, from which it can see into the regular world but can’t be spotted or attacked except by certain specific, high-level magic. It darts in from the Ethereal Plane, attacks, and retreats there all in the sp...


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Giving Your PCs "The Talk," Part 4 of 4: GM Text

October 26, 2018

A critical part of many adventures is when an NPC gives the PCs the quest, a summary of the situation, or critical information about upcoming events. There are a couple of ways to present this information: in boxed text, in bullet-point lists, in likely-questions-and-answers format, or just in text informing the GM to convey how she sees fit. This week, I’ll break down a few of these and how and when to use each in your adventure prep or adventure writing.

Today I'm talking...


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Giving Your PCs "The Talk," Part 3 of 4: Question and Answer

October 25, 2018

A critical part of many adventures is when an NPC gives the PCs the quest, a summary of the situation, or critical information about upcoming events. There are a couple of ways to present this information: in boxed text, in bullet-point lists, in likely-questions-and-answers format, or just in text informing the GM to convey how she sees fit. This week, I’ll break down a few of these and how and when to use each in your adventure prep or adventure writing.

Today I'm looking ...


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The Trolls Are Coming!

October 25, 2018
I've finally had a chance to finish off my last Run Amok Games project for 1st Edition Pathfinder. It's also the most unusual project I've done, in that everyone plays trolls! In "A Bad Day for Trolls," you're the only trolls left in your clan after a bunch of dwarves wiped out everyone else. They thought they'd taken care of all the trolls--but not you! Now it's time for revenge!

I had a TON of fun playtesting this at a couple different conventions, and I'm excited to see it finally see the l...
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Giving Your PCs "The Talk," Part 2 of 4: Bullet Points

October 24, 2018

A critical part of many adventures is when an NPC gives the PCs the quest, a summary of the situation, or critical information about upcoming events. There are a couple of ways to present this information: in boxed text, in bullet-point lists, in likely-questions-and-answers format, or just in text informing the GM to convey how she sees fit. This week, I’ll break down a few of these and how and when to use each in your adventure prep or adventure writing.

Today, I'll talk...


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Giving Your PCs "The Talk," Part 1 of 4: Boxed Text

October 22, 2018

A critical part of many adventures is when an NPC gives the PCs the quest, a summary of the situation, or critical information about upcoming events. There are a couple of ways to present this information: in boxed text, in bullet-point lists, in likely-questions-and-answers format, or just in text informing the GM to convey how she sees fit. This week, I’ll break down a few of these and how and when to use each in your adventure prep or adventure writing.

Today I'll talk a...


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Flying Foes

October 18, 2018

In one of my recent blog posts, I talked about how flying foes might not be appropriate for low-level parties? But why not? And when might flying foes actually be good to use?

You can’t win if your enemy can strike you, but you can’t strike back. Flying foes seem like the ultimate creatures that can attack with impunity while laughing at land-bound PCs, but they aren’t. Look at the low-level flying foes common in many games, and you’ll see melee creatures that need to a...


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What Traps Say

October 17, 2018
Traps fill a lot of different roles in an RPG, and they usually say something. Be aware of the message your traps are sending in where they are placed and how they trigger.

Trap in an obvious place (like a vault door): "The builders were serious about this. You should take it seriously, too."

Trap in a not obvious place (like a hallway): "You weren't sufficiently attentive. Here is some injury. Move along."

Trap with effects over multiple rounds: "Pause to consider your abilities. This is an obs...
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Masked Mollusks!

October 16, 2018
The creepy mask-wearing Embri race were one of the handful of aliens I designed for the new Starfinder Alien Archive 2. There's a blog about the embri and much more here: https://paizo.com/community/blog/v5748dyo6sgbh?Alien-Archive-2-Eclectic-Boogaloo
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Bargain-Style Flying

October 16, 2018
I'm working on a faction of monsters for an upcoming project where, conceptually, they can all fly. But slapping a fly speed on a monster is often too powerful, particularly for low-level monsters. I instead had to do some thinking about what kinds of abilities give the theme of flying or aerial maneuverability, but are more limited in scope. In relative descending power order, here are some ideas:

* gains a fly speed; this is the most powerful option, especially if its fly speed is very fast
*...
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At the Forefront of Adventure

September 25, 2018
I don't think I mentioned this, but with the departure of the fantastic Crystal Frasier from Paizo about two months ago, I've stepped into her work. Instead of handling the backmatter for adventure path adventures, I'm handing the adventure path adventures themselves! It's a very different style of work--a series of single month-long projects instead of rapid-fire multiple-things-in-a-week projects, but I like being able to really dig in to these adventures.

I did the development on Cradle of ...
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Starships You Fly Around In

September 21, 2018
I've been doing a lot of writing for Starfinder, and that means a lot of designing starships. I've become pretty comfortable with the rules for this, which are different from (but overlap in some interesting ways with) the design of monsters. This is particularly noteworthy because I've been designing quite a few monsters that are so big they fly around in space and function just like enemy starships.

Starship-sized monsters are super interesting, but they pose a design challenge: they've got ...
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An Interview about Against the Aeon Throne!

September 4, 2018
Apologies for the long vacancy--working at Paizo is as fantastic as it is busy!

I was recently interviewed for my adventure "The Reach of Empire," the first adventure in Starfinder's Against the Aeon Throne adventure path. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I get to talk a bit about the adventure and a lot about working for Paizo in the hour-long interview here: 

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Starfinder!

March 29, 2018
Here at Paizo (for more than 3 months now! Yeep!), I've been primarily developing the articles in the back of the adventure paths, including both the War for the Crown Adventure Path and the upcoming Return of the Runelords Adventure Path (as well as a little bit for the As Yet Unannounced One After That). But I'm now picking up some development of Starfinder work, and that's pretty exciting! Currently, I'm not actually playing any Pathfinder games; I'm playing Starfinder, and some Pathfinder...
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About Me


I'm Ron Lundeen, developer for Paizo, Inc., active gamer, and RPG freelancer. I've recently had products in print for Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, Raging Swan, Open Design, Headless Hydra Games, and Rite Publishing. I'm still taking freelance writing assignments, but also focusing on writing for Run Amok Games.


 

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