Author Topic: RPG Techniques  (Read 3410 times)


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RPG Techniques
« on: April 15, 2011, 08:36:32 am »
As a followup on the 'theory' thread, which was a bunch of very 'concept' and abstract stuff, I'm going to go over some concrete Techniques that you can use in pretty much any game.

I found a blog on the Wayback Machine ( which I though had been deleted from the web. There was something in the indie RPG community that went down, and the author closed his blog. The ideas are worth resurrecting, and because these are notoriously unavailable (and I can't get to them sometimes), I'm copying them here:

Flag Framing (using PC flags to aggressively open scenes and conflicts):

What is it?

This a method I've used to help myself improvise and scene frame, initially an outgrowth of techniques from my Feng Shui days to now.  It works with most traditional games and replaces the need to pre-plan events and scenes (whether linear or branching) and cuts down prep time by a LOT.

The Basic Idea

Traditionally improvisation has been considered an advanced technique.  Mostly because all the advice we've seen is about preparing adventures either like a videogame level (map, NPCs, monsters go here), or else preparing a set of events, either linear or branching and then trying to engineer the player characters into the events.

The players show up every week with just a character sheet and seem to improvise just fine.  "But wait!  Players only have to deal with just one character!  They don't have to figure out what will happen!"

But that's not the key difference in play.  The difference is that the players have prepared a tool for improvisation -the character.  With the character, the players don't need to prep a list of possible events and responses, they simply use the character as a focus to improvise with.  They can make up on the spot how a "hot-headed young knight out for glory" ought to act without thinking too hard.

What the GM needs is to prep tools that do the same thing.  Instead of trying to guess what might happen, what the players might do, what they might find interesting, you can instead prep tools that react to what IS happening, what the players SHOW you they want to do.

The GM's role really boils down to helping make interesting stuff happen.  This breaks out into framing engaging scenes (and conflicts) and presenting neat NPCs.  So let's talk about how to make that happen...


The Focus is the basic idea or situation of what the game is going to be about.  Everyone in the group ought to know what this is- "A fight for the throne!", "Destroy the One Ring", "The Battle of Troy", whatever.  The Focus can be created as a group, though one person can take the lead if the group doesn't really have direction.

The players need to know the Focus to make appropriate characters and know what kind of conflicts to expect in the game.  You, the GM, need them to know this because you're going to play off of what they do with it.

Character Creation

The players build their characters together, building with the Focus in mind, and also looking to build characters that play off of each other.  If the players build their characters seperately, you might end up with the usual rpg motley crew- "A rabbi, a monkey, and a half-elf necromancer walk into a bar..."  (aside from octaNe, I can't think of any games that this would be a good sign for the campaign...)


Flags are mechanics that the players can use to indicate what they find interesting in the game and what they want the game to be about.  Some games make this overt- such as Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, Sorcerer, Shadow of Yesterday etc.  They put up beliefs, ideals, or conflicts in a big way, saying to the GM, "Hey, do this!  Make the game about THIS!"  Flags are a way for the player to tell the GM what they think is interesting and important.


"What about games that don't have obvious flagging mechanics?"-  Most traditional games lack overt flagging mechanics, at which point you have to play detective.  Look at the things the player does to create the character in terms of taking goals, vows,  background traits, advantages, disadvantages, relationships, contacts, abilities, back story, etc.  If the player is playing a priest, but takes "Hated Enemy- The Bishop", there's probably something interesting going on there.  But don't just stop there, mention it- "Hey, it seems like this guy's thing is about THIS, what's your take on it?"  And let the player spill their guts.  Note it down and figure out what the big conflict, issue or ideals are behind that.

Making NPCs

Now, that the players are set up, you set up your characters.  You know what the players want the game to be about, so the NPCs are just tools to make that happen.  The NPCs exist SOLELY to produce scenes and conflicts that hit what the players have asked for via Flags.

Look at the Focus, build characters who fit in with that, and either oppose, support, or make things complicated for as many Flags as possible.  For example, if two Flags involve "Loyalty to Family" and "Always do what is right", it's easy to produce a family member who is corrupt.  Notice that two different PC's can have these flags, and it still will be interesting.

Any NPCs of importance want one of three things:
1) Help from the PCs
2) Oppose the PCs
3) Use the PCs


Good conflict happens when someone is:
1) Desperate
2) Overreacting
3) Violent
4) Irreponsible
5) Immoral
6) Irrational/Fanatical
7) Hiding Something
8) Jealous
9) Any/all of the above.

Basically, someone's willing to do something crazy and fuck someone over.  You don't even need a lot of characters like this- even one will do, provided he or she sets the rest of the characters off in a chain reaction.

The NPCs should be set up in a web of problems- some allied, some against each other, for a variety of reasons.  For short term play, you want between 1-3 problems depending on how likely the players are to buy into the conflict.  For most games, I'd recommend around 3-4 seperate problems tangled together.  In all likelihood, the players are going to latch onto one or more of them as interesting, and in the event you toss out a dud or two, you still have something to work with.

No NPCs should be isolated, you want to be able to follow a chain of connections between them (which can be blood, sex, friendship, opposition, duty, etc.)


Nameless minions

A lot of characters will have secondary allies, servants, minions, friends, gangs, etc.  These folks basically exist to serve main NPCs, you might have to stat them up for the system, but you don't need to give them motivations or consider them independently.  Only do the above process for characters likely to make their own decisions.

Your Conflict Sheet

Take a sheet of paper, down the left side, write down the names of the PC's and their Flags, relationships, etc.  Down the right side, write down the NPCs and their needs/wants, flags, relationships, etc.  Also include a little bit of personality bits to have in mind.  The players use their characters to help them improvise during play, you will use your Conflict Sheet.

Those of you experienced in this kind of play will recognize that this serves exactly the same purpose as Sorcerer's Relationship Maps or Dogs in the Vineyard's Towns.

Scene Framing

Throw a problem in the players' faces

Frame a scene with one or more NPCs that sets up a conflict or problem.  This shouldn't be hard- ALL of the NPCS on your list either want help, oppose, or want to use the PCs, so you ought to have plenty of ammo at your disposal.  The players will react, and whatever happens, you react in return.  How should you react?  Roleplay your characters!  It's just like what the players are doing!

When the scene slows down, cut away

Don't let the scene die out.  Cut it.  You want the excitement to carry over into the next scene, instead of having to build it back up again.  "Excitement" here doesn't have to be crazy action, good roleplaying produces excitement, tender moments produce excitement, etc.


Now, introduce a new situation and a new NPC.  You're going to introduce the whole cast, sooner or later.  They don't all need to be conflict based scenes, but you want to keep dropping tidbits of the NPCs Flags and keep hitting the PCs Flags at the same time.  Remember, every NPC wants something from the PCs.  And at least some of them are going to take drastic measures!  And some of the other NPCS are going to react to that as well!  When the players react, you react with your characters.  Other characters are likely to take actions, and then you can frame new scenes.

Using the List

Between Scenes, look down both sets of Flags and figure out which characters are going to fit together in exciting ways.  "Exciting" meaning trouble.  Put characters together who are likely to oppose each other.  Put characters together who ought to be on the same side, but will hate each other's guts.  Put characters together who will misunderstand and overreact.

It's not hard to think of worse-case-scenarios, and make them happen.  As both the players react and you react in return, it's easy to figure what kind of conflicts happen next, based on playing your NPCs and hitting the players' Flags.

The Classics

If things slow down, remember, you can always have an NPC:
- Get Violent
- Reveal a Secret
- Betrayal!
- Be an Asshole

These 4 things alone or in combination, always make for interesting times.

Reacting to the Players

Watch the players!  Traditionally the players have looked to the GM to pick up cues as to what they should do next.  NO! You watch the players to see what you ought to do next.  When the players are excited, you're doing good.  When the players are bored, you're doing bad!  There's no prepped events to distract you, there's no preplanned story for you to remember- just look around the table and pay attention in the game.

What you're doing is using the Conflict Sheet to crib note what the players want to see and things you think would be interesting.  If you throw out a scene, situation, and conflict that the players ignore, don't sweat it.  In fact, maybe you should note or cross it out on the Conflict Sheet, and circle the ones they do find interesting.  The players might actually be interested in something that ISN'T on their Flags, so note it for yourself.  Change the NPCs Flags in response to the actions of the PCs, perhaps enemies have become friends and friends enemies?  

The Conflict Sheet is a draft in progress- not set in stone.  Between sessions, you will make changes, but pretty much it'll just be cleaning up or rewriting what is there based on what has happened in play.

Between Sessions

Remove NPCs who no longer are part of the situation, change NPC Flags and attitudes according to the events in play, add another 1-3 NPCs if things are looking sparse but you want to keep going with the situation.  Or, you can let the situation keep going until it feels "done".  Then make a new one.  Making a new one is easier than making an initial set of NPCs, because you'll have a good feel for the PCs Flags.

How much work is this?

So, players generate characters- that's not much different than most games.  Initial set up requires thinking up good sets of NPCs that hit the PCs Flags.  At the least, you can make a bunch of NPCs opposed to the PCs Flags.  Me personally?  It's usually taken between an hour to a few hours, depending on the number of NPCs being made and how crunchy the system for character generation is.

But- between sessions?  Usually 10 minutes or less.  The initial setup is heavy (about as heavy as making characters) but after that, it's a breeze.  You don't have to generate new events for each session- you've got a tool to improvise.

What does this work for?

This technique works good for Narrativist style play, though I think it'd work just as well for Sim play as well.  The only thing it doesn't do good is Gamist play, mostly because Gamism isn't really concerned with these sorts of things.

The Short Version

1) Pick a Focus
2) Players make Characters
3) What are the Flags?
4) Make NPCs to hit the Flags.
5) Write down the PCs & their Flags, write down the NPCs and their Flags.
6) Look at the list- put characters together who will make drama.
7) Cut Scenes, Get Violent, Reveal a Secret, Betrayal, Be an Asshole


I use this for a LOT of games, mostly stuff like Riddle of Steel and Burning Wheel, though pretty much it's what I'll also use for traditional games if I run those as well.  It began when I realized that I was running Feng Shui by just running the NPCs as I would PCs, and things worked just fine.  Add in a few years of exposure to stuff like Sorcerer, Riddle of Steel, etc., and here we are.

I hope you find it useful for your games, and let me know how it works for you.

And, following up on that beastie, his description of a Conflict Web (a relationship chart):

The Conflict Web
      Yesterday I told you how to make Scene Frame on the fly, with an easy tool.  Here's another prep tool to make scenarios full of conflict for your games.  This is part brainstorming and part R-map.

How Big?

The first question is how big the conflict is going to be.  "Big", not measured by the number of characters, but by the number of potential "sides" and subconflicts that might emerge.  If you have armies of millions at war, but there's only 2 sides and no betrayals or secondary motivations- it's a very simple conflict (GI Joe).  If you have 3 people with multiple motivations, betrayals and layers, it can be terribly messy (House of Flying Daggers).

You don't need to nail down an exact number of potential sides, but you want a good idea before you get to work, so that you don't end up making an intense multilayered George R.R. Martin level of conflict for a one-shot.

A magic number to go with is 3 sides.  3 sides is enough to make things interesting, but not so many people get confused.

Building the Web

Start with any 2 characters in conflict over something.  They haven't taken action- yet, but at least one of them will, and the other will have to respond.  Write down their names on a sheet of paper, draw a line connecting the two.  Put a triangle through the center of the line.  The problem cannot end between the two- it has to drag in other people and affect others.

Now, add a character who has a tie to either one or both of the characters on the sheet.  Attach a line connecting the characters, and add a symbol based on the following:



Now, keep adding characters connected to other characters, and sub-situations to explain their relationships, particularly looking to stress other relationships.  For example, if Amy and Beth hate each other, and Clarissa is friends with them both, that stresses Clarissa's relationships (and makes good drama).

Feel free to add lines between any characters on the sheet if it would make sense for them to be connected.  This is a great place to set up sub-conflicts and crazy love triangles.

If you are prepping for a one-shot or so, you probably want to stop anywhere from 3-6 characters.  If you are planning on doing a short run, 5-8 characters is usually good.  If you are planning on doing something long, 8-20 characters is usually sufficient (you can always add more later...).

Rule of Two Supporters

For any character who is a figurehead to a particular "side", give him or her two supporters who provide different aspects of that particular side.  This is an excellent place to put in extreme views of a particular issue, or contrasting takes on it.

For example, if a new religious leader is trying to gain legitimacy for his movement, one of the followers might be an altruistic progressive sort, who just wants to help society, while another might be an extremist with a chip on his shoulder...

This lets you address the same issue from a few different angles, as well as build sub-conflicts within any side, or even alliances from different sides from the supporters...

How do you use this?

This gives a simple visual cue for motivations and relationships between various characters.  It also is a great brainstorming device.  All the characters end up connected, not a random assortment of disconnected characters who have nothing in common, plus it makes building sub-conflicts a snap.  Take the ideas you get from it, and apply it towards building a Conflict Sheet for Flag Framing, or whatever method suits your fancy.

In play, this doesn't see as much use from me, mostly because it charts highly changable relationships, and becomes a logistical hassle to try to upkeep during play itself.  It might inspire potential reactions or motivations, but I tend to use it more to prep play and occasionally muse on things between sessions.  Sorcerer's R-maps, which track non-changing relationships are a better tool for in play usage.

Advanced Web building

What happens if two characters have different feelings for one another?  If you want to get more complicated, you can put two symbols on each line, the one closest to the character's name representing how they feel about the other character.

For example, if Alvin looks up to his father Bill, but Bill only takes care of Alvin out of social pressure, you'd have a Circle next to Alvin, and a Square next to Bill on that line.  Ouch!  There's bound to be problems somewhere in that relationship, and it's easy to create conflicts based on that kind of stuff.


This may not be the BEST example, but I used this technique to write up the characters in the HeroQuest scenario, Well of Souls, which I wrote with Peter Nordstrand a couple of years ago.

A Standard Shape

Have 3 sides, give each side 2 followers.  Some of the followers will be allied, some will be against each other- regardless of the sides they actually hold.  This gives you 9 characters, and a couple of sub-conflicts.

Strong Points

This technique is specifically designed to create the crazy multilayered relationships you see in epics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Heroes of the Watershed/All Men are Brothers, The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, Njal's Saga, and more modern fiction like Artesia or A Game of Thrones.  I've found that it works really well for HeroQuest games, Riddle of Steel, and similar games where politics might play a large role.

Hopefully you will find this useful to generate scenarios, conflicts, and NPCs for your games.  I've been using it for a couple of years, and it's worked really well for me.  Give it a shot and let me know what you think!
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Don Coyote

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Re: RPG Techniques
« Reply #1 on: April 15, 2011, 04:11:11 pm »
Very nice find.
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Re: RPG Techniques
« Reply #2 on: April 16, 2011, 08:47:10 pm »
Thanks for posting this!