When Games Reflect Real-Life Trauma

June 21, 2019
It's exciting to put very tense or dangerous situations in roleplaying games. Part of the fun--for some, the largest part of the fun--is participating in thrilling danger without actually being in any danger. RPG authors create the atmosphere for that. Yet RPG authors need to keep in mind that some concepts of danger or trauma can be triggering for players who've had similar traumatic real-life experiences. 

This came into the news recently when a gamemaster at UK Games Expo ran a game purported to showcase sexual abuse of minors, and put players in the role of the abused. UK Games Expo dealt with this swiftly, condemning it in an appropriate way that any game convention should look to as a good example of a proper response. Part of the overwhelming reaction to this situation was that sexual abuse can be so triggering to people who've been through it.

It's therefore good to evaluate the situations you're creating in your games and evaluate how players who've been through a similar situation might feel. I'm not saying there's no room for trauma or danger in games; even after evaluating how triggering a situation might be for some players, you may choose to include it by taking steps to ensure players can experience it comfortably (such as some steps I suggest below). Just be sure to put yourself in the mind of your players for a minute and think what types of players might find your encounters personally disturbing rather than thrilling. (Right now, I'm developing an awesome series of encounters where the heroes investigate a creepy circus. I'm aware that this might be triggering to anyone who's been scared at a circus in real life--or, frankly, anyone who's watched the opening scene of the movie Us--and knowing that there might be people disturbed by the setting helps guide my development.)

Here are some things you might want to include in RPG scenes you think might be triggering like this:

* A Clear Escape. Most dungeons have a built-in ability for the heroes to retreat whenever they want, usually to rest up and regain spells and such. The ability to retreat safely from a triggering scene may be helpful to some players, so perhaps eliminate or extend any time constraints pressuring them to rush into these situations.

* A Feeling of Control. Some of the problem with triggering trauma is that it incorporates feelings of helplessness or powerlessness. If the heroes have some clear advantage or aid they can rely on, even at some cost, this might be helpful as well. Allied NPCs or powerful one-use magic items work well for this.

* Shade into Comedy. Consider how you might make a tense scene a little more goofy, to allow humor to soften the effect. A kidnapper keeping children chained in a closet with giant spiders is problematic. A kidnapper keeping children locked in a big room with a rust monster that they've befriended and named Big Cricket Paddle-Tail is less so.

* Provide a Warning to Gamemasters. It's useful to include a sidebar specifically aimed at the GM to discuss how you see the scene playing out, and the types of players it might bother. This type of sidebar should include advice that the GM get buy-in from the players before running such a scene.

I read a good example of how games can sometimes reflect life just a little too much in an article about prison inmates playing D&D (it's here, and well worth reading). I thought the most chilling quote from this article was:

"I never ran or played in a game where the PCs had to escape from jail or prison," Micah says. "Too on the nose. Come to think of it, we tended to avoid the trope of being in a dungeon filled with monsters as we were already in a dungeon filled with monsters.
 

Second Edition Publishing License: What's Different?

June 19, 2019
So, Paizo just released their updated Compatibility License for Pathfinder Second Edition! What does it look like? Well, a lot like the Compatibility License for first edition. But it's not the same, and you can't use the first edition license for second edition products. You need to agree to the new license if you want to produce Pathfinder Second Edition products. But it's so much legalese! Is there anyone who can put these side-by-side and let an overworked third party publisher know what'...
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Avoid Punting from the Outline

June 14, 2019
My freelance workload is currently such that I prepared several adventure outlines at roughly the same time, then simultaneously built them into full adventures. This gave me a good look at my process, and specifically where a shortcut in my outline made much more work for myself in the adventure writing phase. So I though I'd share my list of "never do again" phrases from an outline (because I'm learning they make MUCH more work for me down the line). It's fine to punt on things like a speci...
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File an Evacuation Plan

June 11, 2019
I've talked before about thinking critically about how your monsters actually live in a dungeon setting--how they interact with their neighbors, the tasks they do on a day-to-day basis, and so on. Sure, undead and constructs can simply stand immobile for decades on end, but living creatures should have a bit more verisimilitude in how they utilize their home. One good way to think about this is to do the same thing you should be doing for yourselves--have an evacuation plan!

This process works...
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Understanding Your Contract

June 6, 2019

Hooray! You have a contract for your work! You look it over and are met with a wall of legal gibberish. But these things are probably standard, so you make sure the rate is correct and sign it and send it back in. You’re not a lawyer, after all, you’re a freelance writer. But in the back of your mind, you wonder (and maybe worry) about what you don’t understand in that contract. I’m here to help, with a breakdown of standard contract provisions! Complete with “Buts,” “Ands,” a...


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My Own Jargon

June 3, 2019
Last week, I posted about how using natural language instead of jargon in your game is useful, but I acknowledged that sometimes jargon can be necessary or helpful (such as when presenting game statistics). That got me thinking about some of the jargon I use in this blog, and how I'm long overdue to explain what I mean by some of these jargony terms. If these are all well-known to you, that's great (and you probably review lots of games and game blogs). I try to explain terms I focus on, like...
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Jargon in Your Games

May 29, 2019
I had a great PaizoCon last weekend. It felt more relaxed than last year, even though I participated in more panels, because I chose to "run" laid-back games of the revised Pathfinder Adventure Card Game rather than typical RPG sessions. As a big fan of the previous edition of the PACG, and the related modern-day game called Apocrypha, I was eager to give the revised PACG a try. I was a bit worried, because "old" PACG uses a lot of natural language on the cards, but Apocrypha uses so many sym...
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My PaizoCon 2019

May 22, 2019
We're gearing up for another great PaizoCon, where the company plans to show off a lot of the Starfinder Beginner Box, the revised Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, and (of course) Pathfinder 2nd Edition. Here's what I'll be doing:

Friday 5/24
8:15 am to 10:45 am: Helping with registration and handing out swag bags
11:00 am to 12 noon: Secrets of Golarion seminar (Cascade 13)
12 noon to 1 pm: Dungeon Dissection seminar (Cascade 13)
2 pm to 4 pm: Helping out at the Delve
4 pm to 5 pm: Solving Puzzles ...
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Final Push for the Gauntlet!

May 17, 2019
Sunday is the Gauntlet, the board game event for charity I'm participating in (along with the spectacular Joe Pasini, Katina Davis, and Whitney Chatterjee, we make Team Paizo). Please consider donating at at this link!
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Hand It to Your Players

May 14, 2019
Many adventures use player handouts: things the GM prints and hands to the players to look at. I'm personally a big fan of these, and an adventure can't have too many of them. They immerse the players in the adventure in a tactile way. But what materials make for a good player handout? What good are they? There are many answers!

* Art. First and foremost, player handouts are designed to be looked at. Although it's possible (and, in fact, common) to have a text-only player handout, it should st...
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Freelancing Process 4 of 4: After You're Done

May 10, 2019

Hey! If you've liked this blog series (or my blog in general), please consider donating to the Gauntlet, a charity board gaming event I'm participating in on May 19th. The link is here: https://thegauntlet2019.causevox.com/RonLundeen

Rather than talk about the nuts and bolts of rules and adventure design, I'd like to take a step back and talk about freelancing for a bit: specifically, some thoughts around freelancing RPG work for another company. This is the fourth in a series of four blog pos...


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Freelancing Process 3 of 4: When It All Goes Wrong

May 7, 2019

Rather than talk about the nuts and bolts of rules and adventure design, I'd like to take a step back and talk about freelancing for a bit: specifically, some thoughts around freelancing RPG work for another company. This is the third in a series of four blog posts on this topic.

It’s not uncommon for something to go wrong during your writing. Here’s how to handle some of the common problems that come up; nearly always, it involves talking to your developer (the person who assigned the pro...


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Freelancing Process 2 of 4: Day Planner

May 3, 2019

Rather than talk about the nuts and bolts of rules and adventure design, I'd like to take a step back and talk about freelancing for a bit: specifically, some thoughts around freelancing RPG work for another company. This is the second in a series of four blog posts on this topic. 

Once you’ve gotten your assignment, understood its scope, and signed (and returned) a contract, it’s time to dig in! But how?

Schedule Your Days. I’ve written before about how important it is to know your writi...


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Freelancing Process 1 of 4: When Not to Write

April 30, 2019

Rather than talk about the nuts and bolts of rules and adventure design, I'd like to take a step back and talk about freelancing for a bit: specifically, some thoughts around freelancing RPG work for another company. This is the first in a series of four blog posts on this topic.

It’s exciting to get the opportunity to write game material, and even more exciting when you know you’re going to get paid for it! Before you start any writing on a freelance assignment, however, you should do the...


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Building Connections

April 25, 2019
Something I run into frequently when writing (or developing) adventures is how to connect encounters in a meaningful way. Although there's nothing technically wrong with a string of unconnected encounters (fight an ooze in this room, fight some orcs in the next room, and so on), an adventure seems far more authentic if there's some connection between the heroes' fights. I talked about this in an earlier blog, remarking on how dungeon denizens should know their neighbors, but I wanted to branc...
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Your Half of the Trailer

April 22, 2019
My good friend Del, years ago, would hand out bonus rewards in-game (action points, hero points, possibilities, or whatever) for what he called a "trailer moment": when one of his players would do a stunt so awesome or produce a quip so funny that it would be in the trailer for the game, if it were made into a movie.

As an adventure writer, you'll want to think about how your adventure would look if it were made, beat for beat, into a movie. More importantly, you want to think about what the t...
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To Claim the Gauntlet! For Charity!

April 15, 2019
I'm participating in a board game competition for charity called the Gauntlet. This competition happens every year, and for the first time I'm in Paizo's four-person team to participate! I'm excited to be part of it, and particularly excited for the "vintage circus" theme they've picked for this year. Please consider contributing! My contribution page is thegauntlet2019.causevox.com/RonLundeen.
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Ending a Campaign

April 4, 2019
Here's some advice about how to effectively bring a long-running campaign to a close. I've done this a few times, most recently in the several campaigns I was running before moving from Chicago to Seattle. So I've put down several points of advice for GMs doing the same. I also want to give a shout-out to Mark Seifter, whose excellent thoughts about preparing a final encounter will appear in the upcoming Pathfinder #144: Midwives to Death.

* Get the Gang Together. When you're bringing a long-r...
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How to Incorporate Bonus Adventures

April 3, 2019
I've been watching the Paizo.com message boards about the Tyrant's Grasp Adventure Path very closely. Considering that this adventure path has been my primary work for the last 9 months, I'm very interested in what people think. I want to make it the best experience I can, especially because it's the last adventure path for Pathfinder First Edition (the last adventure in this adventure path is Pathfinder #144: Midwives to Death, which is followed by Pathfinder #145 Hellknight Hill, the first ...
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What Boxed Text Shouldn't Say

March 28, 2019
I've talked before about how boxed text, or read-aloud text, is the most direct way an adventure author speaks to the players. This kind of text is great for setting a scene, relaying critical mission information, or focusing player attention on specific elements. However, there are a several things good boxed text shouldn't include. Here are my rules for what you shouldn't say in your boxed text.

* It shouldn't mention creatures. Your boxed text shouldn't say things like "..and then four orcs...
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Game in a Game

March 27, 2019
Lots of adventures include subsystems. By "subsystem," I mean any kind of rules system that stands outside the core rules of the game and is useful for (and perhaps specific to) a particular adventure or campaign. One of the most well-known is Paizo's Kingmaker adventure path, which uses a complicated set of kingdom-building rules so the players can grow their empire as their characters advance in levels. But a subsystem can be simple and add a lot to your adventure. Here are 3 straightforwar...

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Common Words in Uncommon Settings

March 22, 2019
RPG settings are truly fantastical, with incredible terrain and inhuman opponents. As a result, the language we use in our everyday world requires careful consideration in RPG writing. Be aware of the following points, which I see from time to time and occasionally make myself:

Killing the Dead. You can't kill dead things, or even undead things. Undead don't fight "until slain" or "until killed"; they fight "until destroyed" or similar. The same goes for constructs, robots, or similar. Wheneve...

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ABM (Always Be Monologuing)

March 19, 2019
An important aspect of RPGs is their collaborative storytelling nature. The players are a key part of the storytelling, and if they don't get the story, that's a recipe for disappointment and missed opportunity. As a result, it's important to put as much information in the hands of the players as possible, particularly information about motivations and plans of the villains they face.

What's a good mechanism to communicate a villain's motives and thoughts? The monologue! Sometimes derided, the...
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Villains Do Villainous Things

March 14, 2019
Let's start with two quick lists: the first provides good traits to give a villain when you want to show they're villainous. The other list provides bad traits to give a villain when you want to show they're villainous. 

Good traits to show someone is a villain:
Cruelty or abusiveness
Hypocrisy
Sadism
Greed
Casual or wanton destructiveness
Corrupted motives 
Vengefulness

Bad traits to show someone is a villain:
Ugliness or disfigurement (especially facial disfigurement)
Exceptionally overweight or drama...

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Presenting Encounters

March 12, 2019
I've been thinking a lot recently about how to present encounters. Pathfinder and D&D do this very differently; here are a few examples showing what I mean.

* The Pathfinder Method: Makes encounters very long in column-length; different sections and effects are set apart; aims to be comprehensive.

D2. Goblin Prison
The goblins keep the rare prisoners they capture in the five wooden cages in the back of this room. They aren't particularly skilled at locksmithing, and have simply attached stolen d...
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Free Adventure: Against the Evil Keep!

March 7, 2019

Here’s an adventure! 

While the heroes are traveling through a narrow valley, they spot an evil keep. The massive fortress of dark stone is 35 feet across and nearly 50 feet tall. Flags hanging from iron spikes depict flames, gruesome beheadings, and other wickedness. Two massive iron ballistae are mounted atop the keep’s tall towers. 

Creature: If the heroes approach, the evil keep attacks!

The Evil Keep      CR 19

XP 204,800
Advanced fiendish mimic
NE Colossal aberration (shapechanger)
Init +3...


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The Secret Language of Character Descriptions

March 5, 2019
Adventure authors don't speak to players directly; the communications are filtered by the GM at the table. There are some obvious exceptions to this, such as boxed text meant to be read aloud to set a scene, but there are some secret ways an author can communicate tactics to savvy players. It's sort of like a hidden language. Much of it rests in how the adventure describes the enemies the players face.

An enemy's appearance doesn't just convey the likely threat (and armored hulk with a huge sw...
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Elbow Room

February 28, 2019
Here's a short piece of advice that's good to keep in mind: monsters need room to move. Even novice adventure writers know that you can't fit 12 orcs into a 10 foot-by-10 foot room. But with a dizzying array of monsters, most of which are presented with only a single standalone image in a bestiary or monster manual, it's easy to overlook how BIG many monsters are. A purple worm may seem like a good underground threat, but it's so big it can't fit in many tight subterranean tunnels and really ...
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How Long is Your Adventure?

February 26, 2019
My brother wrote a book. It's here, and it's really good. But this blog post isn't about shilling my brother's book; it's about being intentional about adventure length. When Robert was writing his book, he started with the seed of his story, but then he took a hard look at how long he wanted to take to tell the story. Final page count was something he had his eye on early in his process, and that struck me as similar to RPG adventure writing.

That's not to say you should focus on page count s...
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Strange Weather We're Having

February 25, 2019
You might have heard that we in the Pacific Northwest have been buried under a surprising amount of snow. That got me thinking about how most RPG adventures assume good weather (or at least no weather of note), but the reality is we sometimes experience downright bad weather. That's something to keep in mind during your adventures, whether you're running them or writing them. From a narrative perspective, weather can often help set the mood.

Now, most games have some weather-related rules in t...
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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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