Tag Archives: GMing Advice

Sea Dogs: Treasure Maps

Work on Sea Dogs season two continues, still with the expectation of running it after New Year’s. In the meantime, I thought I would discuss a mechanic I’m using in this campaign, which might be of use to someone out there.

When I started work on this campaign, I decided I wanted it to be a more player-driven sandbox than its predecessors. To that end, I denied the players the use of things like Patrons, so they would have no “NPC Authority Figure” whose orders they follow without question (as is generally the like-it-or-not case). But then, how do you motivate the characters to some end without such a reliable source of direction? My solution, in this case: “Treasure Maps.”

What’s All This, Then?

The idea is that each player would define a “treasure” he is attempting to find—though this treasure would not necessarily be “silver and gold,” but could be anything. In fact, I encouraged them to each come up with something unique among the group. I was really happy with the results, summarized here:

  • Artegal Spenser is looking for the means to free his wife from a fairy-prince, and knew to look for a “witch” in Port-de-Paix.
  • Claudia Lucroy has a small golden Skull she had stolen, that would lead to “something valuable”—I already had something in mind for this. It causes weird dreams of another Skull, and a “pull” in what is presumed to be its companion’s direction.
  • Davino Palange has The Gun™—in his case, he already possesses the “treasure,” and the conflict would come looking for him instead, though he had a clue regarding the former owner in Barbados, that leads to more information.
  • John Hayden is looking for his recently-discovered son, with the name of a ship he had served on, and the whereabouts of the lad’s good friend who might know where he went.
  • Sir Randel Payne had knowledge of a couple of items that would lead him to a “Treasury,” hidden by Captain Morgan near Campeche, and a journal containing more clues.
  • William “Buck” Rogers has a painting that he knows to be a map of the Amazon River, pointing to the location of something of great value, along with the name of the thief that stole it—it’s an actual treasure map

Many of these are in some stage of progress/completion as of the end of season one.

The Setup

After the players did their part, I decided to give each of these objectives three “steps” to completion (or thereabouts), and worked out what/who/where those steps would be—I tried to spread the locations around the Caribbean. (Many of these steps are unknown to the players until they find clues.) Using Payne’s example, being the most complete at the time of this writing: his step-one was to dive for the Coin at Port Royal; step-two was to find the Compass at Île-à-Vache; and step-three is getting to Campeche to put it to use, with guidance from his research of the journal. Three steps times six characters equals eighteen potential destinations with related events. That, combined with the other potential events occurring in between, including Enemies’ appearance, Secrets, and the like, amounted to plenty of campaign content. I left it up to the players, when the characters planned their expedition in-game, to decide in what order the steps would be addressed—I offered no guidance in that regard.

Behind the Scenes

Firstly, I decided to treat each Treasure Map like a Secret: I gave it a 6 on 3d6 roll per session, success indicating that some “related” event occurs. In many cases, this would be something the character experienced and had to deal with, but in others, it would be something occurring behind-the-scenes—the bad guys make a move, travel, a witness dies, something is exposed off-screen, or whatnot. I made a bullet-list of such events for each Treasure Map thread. In season one, I used this roll exclusively to determine when things happened, but in season two, I have many events (as made sense) actually scheduled to occur on a certain date (so they can be “missed”). It has been the case in the past that, with Secrets, that roll of 3d6 might never succeed during a given campaign run, so I decided to increment the target number by one for each failed activation—this way, it’s guaranteed to fire at least once during a twelve-session run.

Secondly, I gave each Treasure Map an antagonist: someone also seeking that treasure, for their own reasons and by their own means. Each of these characters are more powerful than the associated PC, and have their own organizations under their control, and their own agenda they are pursuing (whether or not the PC has anything to do with it—in most cases, they don’t). All these bad guys are “tied together at the top” to form the campaign’s “conspyramid” (see Night’s Black Agents). Their activities are worked into the Treasure Map event bullet-points, mentioned above, and make up a considerable portion of the behind-the-scenes ongoing content that will be revealed as the campaign progresses.

The End Results

Once a PC has completed all the steps and found the treasure…well, we haven’t gotten there yet. Obviously, they’re going to be more wealthy (or whatever), but since the players decided to take each one in turn, the first to complete will lack that motivating factor for the rest of the campaign, without some sort of continuation—and that’s generally covered by the individual antagonists, who will undoubtedly continue to pursue. I had originally expected that each season of the campaign would feature the completion of one of these goals, but (a) the first season ended before the first goal was reached, and (b) the characters’ itinerary has them completing many of their steps in parallel, for the most part. I expect Payne’s will complete in season two, so I guess we’ll see how that goes.

Going Semi-Mapless

Last Saturday, for the Olympus group, I ran another one-shot from our Supers campaign. I did a bit of an experiment I had been meaning to try for a while now.

Tactical combat—in pretty much any system, not just GURPS—tends to drag, for obvious reasons. We have experimented a few times with eliminating the tactical-map and going entirely theatre-of-the-mind. Sometimes it works. It does spare everyone some of the brain-cycles we use to process the tactical situation according to the grid, and reduces some weird meta-behaviors resulting from minding the rules. I’ve found that it helps—or maybe requires—some kind of graphic to establish the geography, to keep everyone on the same page about what’s where. But we’ve also done that, and in at least one instance, the confusion over who can see what, who can reach whom, etc., left a little to be desired. “Was he over there, or over there?” “How far is that?”

My experiment was to go “semi-mapless.” The players had no map, just an image reference of the combat area (in this case, first the alley, and second, the stairwell). But I, as GM, did have a tactical map, fully gridded and all that. I was tracking positions and moves based on the players’ descriptions, but I tracked facing, distance, etc., as usual, using my map grid. They had all the benefit of “mapless tactical combat” while I was able to keep everything (mostly) organized behind-the-scenes.

Afterward, I call it a success. There were a couple of places where I could have communicated the situation better—I think I need to remind the player-on-deck of the geography when their turn comes up. I felt free to fudge the details here and there, for simplicity, so it wasn’t too tedious, on my end. I definitely expect I’ll use it again in the future.

Universe Reaction, Extended


Some time ago, I introduced both of my player groups to my Universe Reaction idea. It has seen extensive re-use since then. We’ve found it quite useful. Along the way, I had planned to post some examples of how it might be used. I’m finally getting around to it now. (Since I don’t have much else to post about at the moment.)

Universe Reaction, Examples


Simple concept. Provides an answer to a yes/no question, like “Will it rain?” with a bit more granularity.

<=0 No, And+
1-3 No, And
4-6 No
7-9 No, But
10-12 Yes, But
13-15 Yes
16-18 Yes, And
19+ Yes, And+

This one is for questions like, “How much ammo do we find?” It depends on a rough idea, at least, how much is needed.

<=0 None at all
1-3 Hardly any
4-6 A little/half
7-9 Not enough
10-12 Almost enough
13-15 Enough
16-18 More than enough
19+ Plentiful

Actually, this is one of the earliest questions I was trying to answer that resulted in the idea of the Universe Reaction. It revolved around how early or late an “appointment” occurred, or what sort of delays a PC might experience in rush-hour traffic.

<=0 No-show
1-3 Really late
4-6 Late
7-9 A bit late
10-12 On time
13-15 A bit early
16-18 Early
19+ Really early

This question originally revolved around “scrounging” and how useful a found item might be to whatever-it-is. But it could obviously have much wider applications as well.

<=0 Worst possible match
1-3 Very bad match
4-6 Bad match
7-9 Poor match
10-12 Not quite good enough
13-15 Good enough
16-18 Close match
19+ Exact match
“Interesting Times”

By “interesting,” I mean the Chinese curse sense—May you live in interesting times. This question evolved from an attempt to work out some “random events.”

<=0 Most interesting (negative)
1-3 Very interesting (negative)
4-6 Interesting (negative)
7-9 Not interesting (maybe a little negative)
10-12 Not interesting (maybe a little positive)
13-15 Interesting (positive)
16-18 Very interesting (positive)
19+ Most interesting (positive)

Universe Reaction


AKA “The Universe hates/loves me”

Some time ago, I ran a Traveller one-shot that focused on a race-against-time to complete a rush-job. But as GM, I dislike arbitrating little things like how long someone has to stand in the queue at the bank, and in the case of this one-shot, it feels a bit like GM “cheating” anyway. So I came up with the concept of the Universe Reaction Check, to circumvent my arbitration-guilt. It works like this:

First, you mentally ask the question, “What is it the PCs are trying to do right now?” Then you figuratively turn to the Universe and ask if it will help or hinder their efforts, at which point you roll (for GURPS) an unmodified Reaction Check (B560) and consult the appropriate Request for Aid entry for the answer, as if it were an intelligent being with the power to smooth things along or get in the way. Simple.

In the case of the aforementioned one-shot, I translated this effect into minutes/hours/etc. of delay or acceleration of their timetable—because that’s what was at stake (a “base” time-increment will be required, though, to use it this way). But the effects would probably differ in other situations based on the PCs’ intentions. For example, if some post-apocalypse PCs are scrounging through some ruins for food, a “helpful Universe” would mean that some food is available at that location (the amount dependent on how helpful the Universe is feeling), and an “unhelpful Universe” would mean there is none to be found, or worse, an ambush awaits—this might be independent of whether or not the PCs are able to find that food, only indicating how much is available to be found. As some of the other GMs in both of my groups have started to use Universe Reactions in their games, I’ve seen it used during chases to determine if “suitable terrain” exists for a stunt. As it is, the concept is widely adaptable to any number of situations, but the more industrious GM could also build out more situation-specific Reaction tables for greater detail or less improvisation of effects.

Of course, the standard GURPS Reaction system allows for modifiers to the check, and that can still be incorporated. In the Traveller one-shot, a PC with Bad Luck insisted on penalizing those checks in his case. Conversely, “good” Luck is really just a favorable Reaction result, so one could reasonably treat is as an Influence success against the Universe. There’s no reason one couldn’t assign modifiers based on PCs “karmic” status, or add cumulative penalties as the adventure progresses to increase the stakes. Using GURPS Action 2, BAD could sensibly be applied as well.

Lastly, it is easily possible to use the same concept in other game systems, either using the GURPS check/table as-is or a similar mechanic from whatever system is being used.

Edit: See also Universe Reaction, Extended

GMing: The Bright Side of Failure


In my Olympus gaming group, my Saturday online game, in a recent fill-in session, we were playing a Mad Max-style post-apocalypse one-shot. Our fearless protagonists found themselves in the upper levels of a toppled skyscraper, both the walls and floors slanted such that a misstep would send unfortunate soul sliding toward the outer windows, and a long fall to their inevitable doom. Lacking the necessary skills and equipment to safely navigate this hazard, most of the PCs succumbed to the inevitable failure on the Climb checks to advance in a controlled manner, and slid down the canted floor toward the outer wall, breaking through the weakened window glass; one PC ended up hanging onto another’s leg, dangling out of the window, many stories above the river below. It was very dramatic, as you might expect, worthy of typical action movies.

That failure was frustrating, as it generally is. But I realized some time after the fact that the scene we were playing out would have been horribly boring without it—we would have walked in, got what we came for, and left. Failure made the scene entertaining.

Later I recalled another such incident: another one-shot with the Olympus group, this time an Infinite Worlds game. The PCs were in an American “Old West” timeline, and were to be “taken in” by the local constabulary, and we resisted. My character, a (decent) practitioner of Kali, was attempting to take down a rifle-wielding cavalryman, and over the course of 5-6 rounds of back and forth—attack, defend, attack, defend…actually, I don’t remember how it ended, except that it was really frustrating that I was having so much trouble connecting with this yokel. Afterward, I complained a little, but everyone else at the virtual table exclaimed at how cool it was, all the back and forth, like a martial arts movie. Again, that failure turned out to be entertaining—for everyone else, at least. I’ve endeavored to remember that incident since then any time I find my character unable to get past his opponents’ defenses.

To reference the image above: imagine the beginning segment of Raiders of the Lost Ark if Indy had succeeded in his attempt to spoof the trapped idol with the sandbag, and walked out—his failure made the scene memorable.

So what does it all mean, then?

I suppose the moral to this story is to treat failures as an opportunity to entertain. As GM, give a little leeway to the entertainment potential of failures. For example: there’s an option spoken of in GURPS Horror for Fright Check failures (“Not Just Stunned,” Horror p. 141), that allows sufferers of all those “Stunned for X Rounds” results to run around in circles, crawl randomly, scream or cry—things other than stand there and get hit, so long as it’s “useless.” Make it funny. Make it dramatic. Make it cinematic. Embrace failure as a necessary part of the storytelling.


This does present a bit of a problem when you consider Impulse Buys, Plot Points, or other mechanisms for subverting failure. If you can cancel out failures, it (obviously) eliminates any sort of entertainment value one might derive from them. For this reason, I’m considering whether or not to allow regular Impulse Buys for my upcoming Inception campaign, or if I should disallow the buying-off of failures. I don’t have an answer for this yet, but I’ll be thinking about it—we’ll see what I decide.

GMing: Paragon/Renegade, or the Ethics of Mass Effect


What is it?

The first encounter I can recall with this bit of digital game-design was a BioWare title, Knights of the Old Republic, a CRPG belonging the Star Wars game franchise. In that case, it took the form of the “Light Side/Dark Side” mechanic: actions taken resulted in accumulation of positive (light) or negative (dark) points to an overall total score for each character. The balance between the two had an effect on how the character was reacted to by other NPCs, and even had a physical “cosmetic” effect, in that the more the character favored the Dark Side, the more pale and haggard he would appear. Mass Effect, also by BioWare, included a similar mechanic using what was referred to as “Paragon/Renegade,” which differed from the former in that the virtues represented less of a “Good vs Evil” flavor, favoring something more like “Nice vs Mean.” Though less black-and-white and harder to judge the quality of a given action, it did mean that the Hero™ could favor one or the other and still be considered a “good person” in the end. I preferred the new mechanic. Naturally, I wanted to find a way to bring it into GURPS. Accumulation of Paragon/Renegade points can be a meta-system mostly independent of the rules; the GM can evaluate a PC’s actions and award points as he sees fit. However, there’s not much point to it unless there’s some tangible, in-game benefit, which is where the game-system gets involved.


How I’m doing it

I’m already using the official-alternative Impulse Buys in (most of) my campaigns, and have been, in some form or another, since 3rd Edition; details on my website. My first thought—which I’m currently planning to implement for the first time in the Inception campaign—was to allow the accumulation of Paragon/Renegade-specific points for this purpose, spendable only on actions that can be properly justified according to the associated virtue. In addition, currently, my plan is to allow the current balance between the two types—that is, the number of points by which one exceeds the other (FREX: Paragon 5 and Renegade 3 = balance of Paragon 2)—to be used as a sort of limited Reputation, positive or negative based on the situation (FREX: a Paragon Rep would be positive toward “do-gooders” folks and negative toward “mavericks”), the limitation being that the subject must witness or have witnessed the character’s behaviors, or at least, “read his file.” Gaining of such points in either direction will be evaluated on an action-by-action basis, and will be limited to one point of each per session. It is my opinion (not specifically backed up by my digital inspiration) that gaining of a new point in either direction should require an escalation—if a character gains a Renegade Point for stealing candy from a baby (in the name of justice, of course 😉 ), then to gain another the next time, he’d need to steal the baby’s blanket too—or maybe the whole baby. Spending of such points will be upon request, and also limited to one of each per session.

Other Means

I also briefly considered using Talents (B89 and Power Ups 3) to represent a Paragon/Renegade score; it could provide a bonus to a number of specific, appropriate social skills, and would have a built-in limited “reputation” similar to what I wanted. It would probably work well enough, but it would be a bit more complicated to employ—I opted for the KISS method. One could also treat Paragon/Renegade Points as a limited-use Higher Purpose (B59), applying its bonus only to ethically-appropriate actions; a score of more than one Paragon/Renegade point could be available as a combined, single bonus, or limited to +1 for an equal number of uses. Either of these would be suitable replacements if you aren’t using Impulse Buys or some similar meta-system.

My work on the Inception campaign has renewed, to my great relief. I’ll be sure to write about how this mechanic works out in play once it finally occurs.

GMing: A Carrot

…In the “carrot vs. stick” meaning, that is.

One of the problems I encountered in the After the End campaign, as previously detailed, was a lack of proper forward-motivation in the players’ characters that made them more difficult to direct, as GM. Since then I’ve found a potential solution from an unlikely source, my current computer game obsession, Crusader Kings II.


For those not similarly afflicted, I will explain. In CK2, any character that is a ruler can voluntarily specify an “Ambition” to pursue. Examples include “Get Married,” “Have a Son/Daughter,” “Amass Wealth,” etc. Each Ambition has specific requirements, and specific rewards for completion of its objective(s); for example, “Amass Wealth” requires accumulation 500 wealth points (and is unavailable if you already have that much), and if successful, the character gains a free point in his Stewardship trait-score. An Ambition not yet fulfilled can be changed to another after a cool-down period has expired.

I’d be willing to bet that it’s a rare GM that hasn’t asked his players to submit some sort of “personal goal” for their character—it’s just common sense, and almost a necessity for a good GM. My revelation as a result of my CK2 exposure is two-fold. First, a GM could create a list of available Ambitions for players to choose from (“multiple-choice” is always easier/quicker than “essay”), perhaps with a “custom” option; this channels the players motivations in a direction useful to the GM’s plan, and can give players some idea what to expect from the campaign in general. Second, a GM could provide specific rewards for completion of the specified Ambition, such as free character-points toward related Traits or new Traits themselves, or perhaps some meta-game benefits like Plot Points (or whatever). In my mind, these Ambitions need not be tied to specific Traits already possessed by the character, but they would certainly benefit role-playing of those Traits through the resulting action-focus. I would suggest that potential rewards be scaled to the difficulty/scope of the Ambition—small reward for easy objectives, large rewards for long-term or difficult ones. I’d suggest that the “cool-down” should also apply; maybe allow changing Ambition once per adventure/series, or at set stopping points, or maybe even just a fixed number of sessions.

Here’s a practical example of a few appropriate Ambitions, using After the End.

  • Turtle Up: Find a safe place to call home and get set up there; reward: 5pts to spend on crafting/survival/traps-type Traits
  • Find Missing Family/Friend: Success conditions are obvious; reward: 5pt Ally, or -5pt Dependent (and allow the 5pts to be recovered as usual, spent on whatever)
  • Acquire Favorite Weapon: Success conditions are obvious; free Weapon Bond Perk
  • Go Home: Success conditions are obvious; reward: free buy-off of related Disads (like Obsession), or just freebie Plot Points, but should scale with how far or difficult-to-reach “home” is—maybe allow a character “rearrangement”

I haven’t tested this yet, but I’m quite confident this would solve some problems and be extra fun to play with. I plan to use it in all my future campaigns, unless it turns out to not work for some reason. Of course, my examples here are assuming use of GURPS, but it could fit as easily in any system.