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 sword is going to do a lot of melee damage, for example). It also conveys likely weaknesses, and experienced players can pick up on these. Some examples:

A foe described as nimble and wiry, like a sneaky rogue, will have great Reflex/Dexterity saves, might have good Fortitude/Constitution saves, and is likely to have terrible Will/Wisdom saves. The foe will have a high AC but not a lot of hit points. This description says "use enchantment or illusion spells" and "landing a hit will be tough, but you don't have to land very many to knock this foe down."

A foe described as a scholarly wizard, particularly one that casts spells that seem just a bit more powerful than the party could cast, will have great Will/Wisdom saves, might have good Reflex/Dexterity saves, and is likely to have terrible Fortitude/Constitution saves. The foe won't have a great AC or very many hit points, but could have a lot of surprising magical defenses. This description says "don't count on spells much, but ones that petrify or paralyze will work best" and "melee is where I'm weak, so close in to attack. Prevent me from casting spells." For the properly prepared and morally flexible party, it also says, "poison me."

A foe described as a muscled, armored warrior or a giant, will have great Fortitude/Constitution saves, but probably has terrible Reflex/Dexterity saves and Will/Wisdom saves. The foe might or might not have great AC but will have a lot of hit points. This description says "cast spells on me for greatest effect" and "meeting me in melee is to fight on my terms, and you'll do poorly; remain at a distance." 

A priestly foe--that is, one with a prominent unholy symbol or encountered within an evil temple or shrine--will have a great Will/Wisdom save, a good Fortitude/Constitution save, and a terrible Reflex/Dexterity save. This foe will have a surprisingly good AC, particularly if given even a few rounds to prepare, and a moderate amount of hit points. This description usually says "fireball me."

Although an adventure author might occasionally subvert these appearances (a scholarly wizard-looking foe might actually be a monk, for example), it's best to rely on them most of the time. These appearances are like a language to players. Players like to feel like they're employing good strategy, so rewarding them for relying on a description is fun for them. When a foe's apparent weakness turns out to be a strength, it teaches players that they can't rely on enemy descriptions to guide their tactics any longer, and that eliminates one of the ways PCs listen to GMs. A piece of the language is lost.

Note that these appearances virtually never apply to PCs, because they learn their own weaknesses over and over and delight in shoring them up with clever character builds. That's fine; the monk PC who dresses in a wizard's robe and pointy hat to lure melee foes close, and the priestly PC who prioritizes Reflex/Dexterity saves, are all speaking the same language; they're just trying to fool their enemies with that language. A GM should have foes "fall" for this from time to time to make the PCs feel clever, and adventure authors can help with this. A giant who attacks "the PC that most looks like a wizard" or a demon who casts fireball centered on "any PC wearing a holy symbol" lean into this.
 

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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Horseshoe Calamity Reviewed!

February 22, 2019
My adventure for Legendary Games, The Horseshoe Calamity, just received a four-star review from epic reviewer Endzeitgeist. Check it out right here.
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Words to Kill

February 1, 2019
Let's talk about words to avoid in your game writing (and, as a bonus near the end, what not to kill). These words and phrases generally produce weaker writing, so doing a find-and-replace for them prior to turning in a project makes the whole thing stronger. It also cuts a surprising number of words, if you find yourself over wordcount.

Will. This is the big one! RPGs should be written in the present tense, not the future tense. You don't say "The ogre will smash the first PC to walk into her...

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Your Best Resources

January 20, 2019

(Side Note: My hosting site was down for a bit, but is back up! Yay for more blogs!)

No author writes an RPG adventure or supplement in a vacuum. Resources are key to creating good, compelling adventures, and here are some of the most important on-line resources I use.

On-Line Rules. It’s nice to have the physical copy of the rules you’re writing for at hand, but nothing beats a searchable version of the rules—something like Archives of Nethys, or even .pdfs of the rulebooks. This is ex...


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Roll for Initiative!

January 4, 2019

I’m afraid I once deterred my younger brother from playing D&D by explaining it as “a game about doing math and waiting your turn.” But I’m not wrong. Taking turns is important in most RPGs, particularly in combat, and there are as many methods of doing so as there are RPGs. Here are some common ones, and a few observations about each.

Roll Once, Set an Order. D&D, Starfinder, and Pathfinder all work like this. Everyone has an initiative modifier. At the start of a fight, every parti...


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Let's Recap

January 3, 2019

Several blogs spend the first post of the new year recapping the previous year. That’s not the kind of recap that I’m talking about here. I’m talking about adventure recaps!

I like talking to players about the campaigns they’re in. Hearing things from the player perspective helps me see how an adventure is communicated to the ultimate recipient. I’ve had two different friends, in two different games, recently tell me that they have a lot of fun playing the games they're in, but the...


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Replaying Adventures

December 19, 2018
I've seen the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? more times than I can count. I've rewatched the first season of The Good Place three times in the past six months. I played through each of Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic at least twice. I know plenty of people who can recite huge sections of Star Wars by heart, or entire comedians' monologues--because they've seen them so often.

But RPGs are a different matter. Once you've played through an adventure, you've learned its secrets and s...
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Perfecting Your Angle

December 17, 2018
I have an image blog post today: how to draw angled walls for your dungeons. There's a common way that poses some problems, and a better way that makes a lot of things more clear. The images show this, but the key is this: draw angled walls from the midpoints of squares, not the corners



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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 exa...
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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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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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