The Journal of Dungeoneering for Hip and Attractive Professionals releases the following call for papers and art to fill its fourth issue.
For this issue, we have several words for you: early science fantasy space goth.
That was a mouthful of a phrase. Let’s unpack it. We want science fantasy, we want Magic Missile asteroids, we want technology meets grimdark meets fantasy. Where does technology intersect with magic? Where does science meet nature? Think of the pulpiest paperback genre fiction you know – and put it in space.
We don’t want Star Wars and we don’t want Lovecraft. You know us better than that by now.
Give us alternate history James Webb Space Telescope. Give us what’s on the other side of the asteroid belt… but make it TTRPG. Somewhere between Dark Crystal and Farscape. We’re looking forward to what you cook up.
As of this morning, our third issue is live on DriveThruRPG. If you feel so inclined, you can add it to your library. There is a spot where you can make a donation, but it is in no way required. We just want you to read this amazing issue.
While many things continue into modern times from the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, most of them have either disappeared or shifted so much that anyone who played back in 1974 would find the modern iteration all but unrecognizable (and likely complain about how it had been ruined). Gone are the charts required to determine if a certain roll hit a certain armor class (and the incomprehensible design choice of making lower AC’s better–why did it take 25 years for someone to reverse that particular logic?). Saving throws have been consolidated down, simplified, and modified to actually take into account how dangerous the thing causing the saving throw is. Nonhuman races are no longer classes, the level caps for nonhuman races are gone, and the races a person can play aren’t taken directly from a Tolkien story. And a longsword, shield, and plate armor are no longer the clearly superior combination of equipment for all fighters. —
One thing that still exists, largely unaltered in 45 years of revisions and play, is the alignment system. Though originally just one axis (lawful through chaotic), the alignment chart has remained essentially unchanged since the second axis (good through evil) was added almost 45 years ago when Advanced Dungeon & Dragons came out in 1977. While it got a significant overhaul in 4th edition, like most things from 4th edition, the changes were abandoned by 5th edition. In fact, it has been such an integral part of the game for so long that people who have been playing long enough start seeing the abbreviations everywhere. For example, I always wonder for a moment how something can be Chaotic AND Neutral AND Good when I see the Compressed Natural Gas logo on the back of a car.
The crux of the alignment chart is to determine a character’s attitude about themselves, society, and the world along the two axes. Simple enough in and of itself, and an idea that is so popular that versions have popped up in both tabletop RPGs and video games, in one form or fashion. The Palladium system had alignments, for example, though they were standalone rather than on axes. These alignments were even more limiting than those in the “standard” alignment system, and it was difficult, if not impossible, to find one that fit a character concept.
There was an entire line of Star Wars video games that tracked whether or not a character was drifting toward the light or dark side, including advantages and disadvantages for being on one end or the other or right in the middle.
I always wonder for a moment how something can be Chaotic AND Neutral AND Good when I see the Compressed Natural Gas logo on the back of a car.
The ubiquity of the alignment system is strange, because it is arguably the least well-defined and least functional system in D&D or any of its numerous offspring. If you got nine different gamers together and asked them to describe the alignment system and define the alignments, you would get nine different answers. Perhaps ironically, you could then place these nine different answers on an alignment chart (and get nine different answers about whether or not your placements were accurate).
Even determining which alignments represent the best and worst possibilities is up for debate. While the neutral alignments are just that and no one would suggest they’re paragons of right or wrong (though some might suggest the middle path is the best), the question of whether a person who obeys all laws and is good (Lawful Good) is better than someone who cares more about the greater good than following all the rules (Chaotic Good) is a matter of opinion. We’ll call this the “Superman vs. Batman” question. Just as questionable is whether it is the person who eschews all order with no care for others (Chaotic Evil) or the person who only wants there to be laws that they control and that benefit them (Lawful Evil) is the worse sort of villain. This would be the “Joker vs. Darkseid” argument.
And the cultural norms underlying morality are constantly shifting, so even examples made at one point in time are no longer considered viable in another. For example, the creator of the alignment chart, Gary Gygax, apparently said that it was acceptable for a Lawful Good paladin to kill kobold babies because they were just going to grow up to be kobolds, an idea that is horrifying to most modern gamers and would be considered Chaotic Evil.
None of this would be an issue, were the alignments firmly established with objective rules in place the way things like spells and weapon attacks are. But since what a player may think fits with a particular alignment and what a game master thinks fits with a particular alignment could be completely different, a player could be subjected to a ruling with no real recourse to rules–which might be surprising to both. Debates about rules are common, and the usual rule is that the GM has final say, but this system is almost entirely objective.
This would also not be an issue if the alignment system only existed as an aide to role playing, but that is not the case. Several mechanics–from the damage weapons do, to how spells affect targets, to whether or not a character is even eligible for some options–hinge on a character’s alignment, and if a character has chosen a certain option then behaved in a way the GM thought was opposed to the character’s alignment, the character could lose out on abilities and become unbalanced compared to other characters.
Yet there is something so evocative and inviting about being able to break down a person’s whole personality into a couple of dimensions. All sorts of alignments get made up. Lawful Annoying, Neutral Jerk, and my personal favorite, Chaotic Stupid, which was once used to describe a player whose Chaotic Evil character went through an entire dungeon with a 10-footladder strapped to his back but didn’t use it until the characters got back to town and never once did anything even rude, let alone chaotic or evil.
I would say they’re the Myers-Briggs charts of memes, but Myers-Briggs charts are the Myers-Briggs charts of memes.
Perhaps this is the very allure that explains the otherwise baffling fact that the system has not only stayed a part of Dungeons & Dragons so long but also has wormed its way out into other systems and beyond into the larger world of pop culture.
You can find an alignment chart for pretty much anything. A quick search pulls up ones for gift-giving, what components are required to make something a sandwich, and texting techniques and etiquette. I would say they’re the Myers-Briggs charts of memes, but Myers-Briggs charts are the Myers-Briggs charts of memes.
And they are commonly distributed by people who not only have never touched a polyhedral die, let alone actually played D&D, but would likely consider D&D some form of devil worship and would be horrified to know that they’re passing on anything based on such satanism.
But then, it is probably the same things that makes the alignment chart so troublesome in a complex game system bounded by specific rules that makes them so appealing in the wider world. They are a way to quickly and visually break things down into finer components than just “there are two types of people in the world” generalizations, but not actually detailed enough to truly analyze things. The fact that there’s at least some aspect of them that is invariably thrown in as a joke (usually what is defined as Chaotic Evil) only makes them more popular.
So, the next time your Aunt Marjory sends you an alignment chart meme, ask her if she wants to join your Thursday night game session and find out if she’s Lawful Cool or Chaotic Clueless.
*If you have comments or opinions about alignment charts, or thoughts on your aunt Marjory being chaotic evil, write to us at email@example.com.
We were well on our way to having a regular issue. Not “regular” in a bad way, just nothing groundbreaking. Content with the great quality you’ve come to expect from our magazine. Gorgeous art. Editorial snark. Tongue-in-cheek reviews of upcoming TTRPG releases. We have also welcomed Brent Bowser as co-editor.
And then the employees of Paizo, Inc., raised their voices as one in a show of solidarity and union – like, a literal union. Of course we had to show our support for their incredible work, and so we set out to learn all we could about the unionization efforts, what went down behind the scenes, and what the next steps will be. (Read our statement of support of the unionization efforts at JoD4HAP.com.)
As Jason Tondro told us during our conversation, there has been talk of unionizing in roleplaying games in general for many, many years.
“But it’s been very hard to do,” he said. “Unionization is quite a bureaucratic challenge.”
It’s a challenge – but the workers and freelancers at Paizo have taken their stance and started down that path. We are here to uplift them and amplify their words.
In this issue you’ll find art, editorials, reviews, and interviews. But you’ll also find the beginning of a story that’s still ongoing, one that started, as these stories do, with whispers that grew into a cacophony. Thanks for sticking with us and thanks for supporting these fine folks.
And, as always, stay fashionable.
Elizabeth Parsons Alex G. Friedman Brent Bowser Editors
TTRPGs usually start with a founding fictional text they are trying to turn into gameplay. Lord of the Rings,Interview with the Vampire, Call of Cthulhu: Each of these spawned their own games. In modern times, we expect the systems that have arisen to answer these fantasies to be able to cover the new fantasies we conjure for each other. Yet, fiction tends to find or adopt storytelling styles that don’t neatly fit into our TTRPG systems, even as these systems expand and broaden their concepts. (My friends and I were briefly obsessed with capturing Mystery Men in TTRPG form, with some success.) So I can understand why, faced with creating a wholly new game or attempting to live the What We Do in the Shadows fantasy in Vampire: The Masquerade, Craig Campbell and his team opted for the former. Thankfully, they were successful.
Low Stakes is a GM-less rules-light RPG with a heavy emphasis on improvisation and story structure. It runs smoothly with a group of four adults with above average reading and improvising proficiency in about two and a half hours. For the purposes of this review, I played sessions with two different groups of four adults who varied widely in terms of familiarity with the source material* and TTRPGs.
Low Stakes weighs in at 34 pages. These are divided into a lean 14 pages of setup and rules, 10 pages of character options, and 10 pages of story options (seven episodes and instructions to build your own). The game does not assume that players are familiar with improv games, so the rules begin with a concise breakdown of that concept. The rules can be read or described very easily in 15 to 20 minutes, characters can be created in five, and the story outline is best determined by a few rolls of the dice. Within half an hour of being handed the book, a group should be ready to play. Materials required are pens, paper, and a fistful of D6s.
Low Stakes is a delightful book in both PDF and print-on-demand formats. The PDF reads well on a phone, tablet, or e-ink reader. The print-on-demand book is an inexpensive softcover, but the paper quality is high enough that I was able to repair a minor spill on an interior page with a little soap-and-water dabbing, no harm done. McCammon’s art is charming and presents a diverse cast of weirdos. Five of McCammon’s illustrations are present here, and while I always like more art in a book like this, it feels well populated enough due to the book’s layout. McCammon’s aesthetic is cute, textured, humorous, and packs plenty of pathos. Low Stakes is well laid out and well edited. My only complaint with the book is that it lacks a spine and will get lost in most physical displays. That said, McCammon’s cover art stands out very well in digital libraries.
The character options and storylines support a much broader scope of play than simply running a derivative retelling of What We Do in the Shadows. Rules are included to play as a human, vampire, psychic vampire, werewolf, ghost, and spellcaster. There is an “other” option for any other horror story trope or beast you might invent. Storylines present account for sitcom scripts that fit within two standard deviations of the collected bell curve of 20th and 21st century television. It would take a group roughly 15 hours to play through the content provided. In our two playtest games, one featured a Lady Bathory-type vampire and her variously creepy housemates dealing with a plumbing disaster (bathing in the blood of virgins generates a lot of laundry). The second featured a witch running a taxidermied bird-themed B&B haunted by a couple of flighty ghosts and a would-be murderous butler. We enjoyed both games immensely and by halfway through the second we had mastered the rules.
Gameplay in Low Stakes involves managing a couple of resources and once-per-game actions during improvised scenes with the objective of trading the upper-hand over other player character’s actions for better outcomes at the end of the story. While it is largely GM-less, certain game mastery duties are traded as part of the power trading gameplay cycle. Every player will generally get to act in every power dynamic role during a session as long as they play their resources when given the opportunity. Anyone with a basic understanding of television storytelling will find that the gameplay naturally flows with the storytelling framework of the game, usually with humorous and rewarding results. The most difficult part of the game is remembering to use your Confessionals, moments where your character speaks candidly to an imagined audience in order to shift the dynamic of a scene to your advantage (or gain resources). Representing resources physically with pawns or coins is usually enough to remind players to use them, but if your table forgets, it won’t break the game. The fun is in the structured improvisation and weird characters. If your TTRPG table collectively has a couple levels in Bard, you’ll find yourself in for a fun creative structure to play with.
Low Stakes is an excellent game presented in a well-dressed package. At its PDF price point, this game is a steal. NerdBurger Games has a real winner with this game and I hope it finds its audience.
*One of my players had not seen the WWDinS and I tried to explain: “It’s basically The Odd Couple but with vampires.” She replied that she had no idea what The Odd Couple was (the reference being older than the Carter administration), and I had to fumble around for an example of the format from the past decade. I settled on The Big Bang Theory (early seasons) and then promptly crumbled into Boomer-vampire corpse dust, as though exposed to the aging influence of a thousand suns.
The world is an unusual place full of unusual creatures. Anyone can have a pet tiger or wolf or even a big bat or small dinosaur. Only the most mundane people settle for such mundane companions on their adventures. Since adventurers are notorious for being anything but mundane, they commonly seek out, or simply stumble across, strange and bizarre creatures and form lifelong bonds with them. Just as often, an adventurer will find one of these creatures abandoned by its parents because of its unusual nature and hand raise it, garnering a powerful, loyal companion through their kindness.
Whatever the case, an animal companion says something about its partner. What will yours say about you?
Any character with an animal companion can use the options below when their animal companion reaches the appropriate level.
Fantastic specimens of creatures of all types with amazing and uncanny abilities and mutations appear either through the influence of wild or controlled magic, the interactions of the planes, the will of the gods, or simple random acts of nature. Those with an appreciation for the unusual often seek out and tame these unusual beasts. Any time your animal companion would become Nimble or Savage, it can instead become Fantastic.
To advance a mature animal companion to a fantastic animal companion, increase its Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom modifiers by 1. It deals 2 additional damage with unarmed attacks. It learns the advanced maneuver for its type. Its attacks become magical for the purpose of ignoring resistances. It also gains 2 abilities from the list of Familiar Abilities in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. These must be Familiar Abilities, not Master Abilities. Unlike a familiar, once these abilities have been chosen, they cannot be changed. Your companion’s type changes from animal to beast, but it otherwise functions as an animal companion.
In a realm of magic and mystery, some animals simply grow much larger than normal specimens of their kind. Despite their impressive size, these creatures are often as easy to tame and befriend as their smaller brethren, and many adventurers use them as steeds, taking advantage of their increased speed and strength to augment their own.
To advance a mature animal companion to a mount animal companion, increase its Strength modifier by 2 and its Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom modifiers by 1. It deals 2 additional damage with unarmed attacks. Increase its proficiency rank in Athletics to expert. It gains the mount special ability. If your companion is Medium or smaller, it grows to be one size category larger than you. Its attacks become magical for the purpose of ignoring resistances.
Some people simply cannot accept when their loved ones have passed on to another world. Others aren’t given the opportunity to. Whether brought back to pseudo-life intentionally or through a terrible accident, your animal companion joins the ranks of the undead. Any time your animal companion would become Nimble or Savage, you can instead select for it to become Undead.
To advance a mature animal companion to an undead animal companion, increase its Constitution modifier by 2 and its Strength, Dexterity, and Wisdom modifiers by 1. It deals 2 additional damage with unarmed attacks. Increase its proficiency rank in Athletics to expert. It gains negative healing and immunity to death effects, disease, mental, paralyzed, poison, and unconscious. It also learns the advanced maneuver for its type. Its attacks become magical for the purpose of ignoring resistances. The companion’s type changes from animal to undead, but it otherwise functions like an animal companion.
Some people like their companions loud… and everyone loves dragons. Your companion is a small drake with an oversized voice. Though it is not the most intimidating example of dragonkind, it is extremely dedicated to you and ferocious when riled up. A croaker drake has the dragon trait instead of the animal trait, but it otherwise functions normally as an animal companion.
Melee (1 action) Jaws, Damage 1d6 piercing
Melee (1action) Tail, Damage 1d4 bludgeoning
Str +1, Dex +3, Con +2, Int -4, Wis +1, Cha +0
Hit Points 6
Speed 20 feet, fly 30 feet
Your drake releases thunderous chirps, barks and croaks at your opponents. Until the start of your next turn, each time you Strike and hit a creature in the drake’s reach, the creature takes 1d4 sonic damage from the drake and is deafened for 1 round. If your drake is nimble or savage, the sonic damage increases to 2d4.
The croaker drake focuses a piercing shriek in a 30-foot line, dealing 1d6 sonic damage for every 2 levels the drake has to all creatures in the area (basic Reflex save). This uses a trained DC using the drake’s Constitution modifier or an expert DC if the drake is specialized.
The following fighting style is available to soldiers in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game.
The wargamer fighting style is one that takes the tactical and strategic approaches inherent to wargames and applies them to the battlefield. Soldiers that practice this style are able to coordinate their allies and control the battlefield by establishing control points.
War Zone [1st Level]: As a move action, you can establish a war zone, a 10-foot by 10-foot square area that extends 30 feet upwards, lasts until the end of your next turn, and is centered on one corner of your square, but does not move with you. Allies (including you) within your war zone gain a +1 morale bonus to damage rolls. This bonus increases by +1 at 5th level and every four levels thereafter.
Strategic Zoning [5th Level]: When you establish a war zone, you can choose one of the following benefits to apply to your war zone: Your war zone is a 20-foot by 20-foot square that extends 60 feet upwards, your war zone lasts for one additional round, or the damage bonus provided by your war zone is +1 higher.
Rallying Zone [9th Level]: You can spend 1 Resolve Point as part of establishing a war zone to apply two of the benefits described in the strategic zoning style technique instead of one.
Tactician’s Triumph [13th Level]: When you are within a war zone you’ve established, you deal 2d6 additional damage the first time each round you deal damage to a creature that is within the same war zone.
Checkmate [17th Level]: As a reaction, when you reduce a significant enemy to 0 hit points or score a critical hit on a significant enemy, you can establish a war zone.
New Gear Boosts
The following gear boosts are available to all soldiers. They all require a minimum level, and are grouped as such.
Imperial Coordinator (Ex): When you play imperial conquest (Starfinder Armory), it only takes 20 minutes per player to play, and each player other than you gains a +1 insight bonus to their Intelligence checks to resolve the game.
Imperial Strategist (Ex): When you play imperial conquest, you gain a +1 insight bonus to your Intelligence check to resolve the game, which increases by 1 for every four soldier levels you have.
An easy-to-recommend handbook of practical scenario design blended with an indie writing career retrospective.
Alex G. Friedman
Students of writing and design absolutely crave practical composition advice. I personally remember trying to explain as much to a professor or two during my graduate writing programs. As a neophyte, I was under the impression that if I could just follow a step-by-step guide to finish a first novel, regardless of quality, I would glean the core structure of the process. From there, I figured, it would become a skill to be honed instead of a feat to aspire toward. These days, as a professor of English myself, I see both how absolutely accurate and witheringly naive my scholarly desires were. In The Anatomy of Adventure, M. T. Black is largely successful in distilling classic TTRPG design within an accessible, entertaining essay collection.
The Anatomy of Adventure collects ten essays about the composition, publishing, and marketing of independent D&D 5e compatible adventure content. For fans of his popular D&D 5th edition adventure line, he provides very specific behind-the-scenes examples drawn from his own library of works. Even if you haven’t read his modules, Gen-X and elder-millennial lifelong fans of D&D and other old-school TTRPGs will be treated to some tasteful nostalgia about the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons era of gaming. Those with less of a background will have picked one up by the time they finish this book. The classics provide a context for Black’s writing and business advice. It’s a fun choice that also reinforces the legacy of the hobby.
Legacy is present in many of these essays. Black’s first essay, “Goblins in a Cave,” is about his beginnings writing adventures as pastiche projects. He describes the design and play of the famous module The Keep on the Borderlands. Black goes to lengths to explain how important “copying what you love” is to getting started as a module writer (a phrase he borrows from fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, very career forward my dude). In the third essay, “Nightmare in Amber,” Black traces the legacy of his own adventure Shadows on the Long all the way back to ideas first lifted from Clark Ashton Smith’s pulp fantasy stories by TSR author Tom Moldvay. Black’s scholarship really shines here due to his awareness of the shoulders upon which he built his career.
These essays encourage the reader to invest in their own careers as well. Aside from practical writing advice, the fourth essay gives readers real insight into how Black has successfully marketed his work. He includes his own early missteps as well as his breakdown of his own sales and marketing numbers, down to his spreadsheets and experiments in bundling products. Another essay describes practical dungeon design with randomly generated elements. Another details incorporating interactivity within your dungeons. The Anatomy of Adventure could easily serve as the text for a junior year college course on writing adventures. If the right people read it, that scenario may actually come to fruition. M.T. Black has even written an expanded reading list to accompany his TTRPG essays on his blog.
Overall, The Anatomy of Adventure is an easy book to recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in adventure design. Even veteran players who just want a peak behind the curtain will be educated and entertained. Pick it up on his site or on DriveThruRPG.
Using Virtual Tabletops in Hybrid and In-Person Games
Virtual tabletops (VTTs) have become a fact of life in the tabletop gaming community during the global pandemic of 2020-2021. If you’re like me, the prospect of games returning to the real-life tabletop is exciting! As it became safe for my gaming group to meet in person again, I got excited as I dusted off my minis, unfolded my battle mats, and rolled my favorite d20s once again. Yet there was so much I learned about VTTs before and during the pandemic, and I would hate for all of that to go to waste. I’d like to tell you about my journey with VTTs, and why they will continue to be a tool in my GM toolbox.
My first steps into remote gaming were primitive by today’s standards. I have friends who live across the country, and our first steps to try to game together involved using Skype with a laptop camera pointed at a physical map. It worked okay, and we had a lot of fun with those early remote games, but the introduction of VTTs made remote gaming feel much more like gaming in person.
As my experience with using Roll20.net, a virtual tabletop website, grew, it occurred to me that I could also use this tool in my in-person games. At the time, I was running Pathfinder’s Giantslayer Adventure Path, which unsurprisingly had some huge maps! My table was not large enough to draw these maps to scale. I remembered running TSR’s Against the Giants when I was a kid, and I thought about how I used theater of the mind to describe those combats, and I was sure that would work just fine. I saw an opportunity, however, to tell this story visually using this new technology, so I created a map representing a giant’s hall the size of a football field. Everyone brought their laptops, and we played a thrilling session in which the players felt absolutely tiny in this huge space with fearsome giants. This was when I fell in love with VTTs as a storytelling tool.
When virtual games became mandatory in 2020, my group already had some experience playing this way, so we made the switch without missing a session. During 2020, I attended virtual conventions across the country, and learned tips and tricks for using different VTTs. I went from dabbling into VTTs to becoming comfortable creating engaging virtual games. I started thinking about their potential to tell different kinds of stories–to be able to create puzzles, social encounters, chases, and complex skill challenges using the visual aspects of this storytelling tool.
As I move back into in-person and hybrid games, there are four ways I plan on continuing to use virtual tabletops:
One of my favorite features of VTTs are handouts. While I love a tangible handout I can place in the player’s hands, I don’t always find it necessary to print handouts that will just be tossed later. With virtual handouts, you can include visuals and player-facing information, while attaching hidden GM notes. Once they unlock the secrets of a message, character, or item that you’ve made the handout for, you can simply copy and paste them into the player information section.
2. Large battle maps
As I learned in my Giantslayer campaign, some maps are too large for most tables. Let’s say you want to play on a map of a ruined village, giant encampment, dragon’s cave, or chase across city rooftops. VTTs can do a nice job of conveying the scale of epic battles.
3. City and world maps
City and world maps are useful tools in any game, but VTTs can take your large area maps to a whole new level. With some VTT knowledge and a little bit of time, you can create an interactive city map, regional or world map. You can use tokens on the map to make clickable locations that have player-facing options and hidden notes. You can hide locations that have not yet been explored, and reveal them as players discover them. You can set the scale of the maps in the settings page, and then use the measuring tool to calculate the distance it takes to travel between locations. Virtual maps can be a great tool for setting up a sandbox-style campaign with well-organized notes.
4. Adding virtual players
Getting people together in physical space can be a challenge, even when there’s not a pandemic. Giving players the option of joining the game virtually can add more flexibility to your gaming schedule. If a player gets sick or is out of town but would still like to play, they can join virtually. If a player gets transferred to another city or even across the world, the campaign doesn’t have to end for them.
If you have some players who are virtual and others in person, I suggest everyone at the in-person table except for one person mutes their microphone, and you set up a speaker and table mic that everyone can use to communicate with virtual players. I’ve gotten excellent results from suspending my 40-dollar USB condenser mic from a cup hook in the ceiling over the table, or using a simple mic stand that is out of the way of the battle map.
Some people may not like VTTs, and if you are one of them, I am glad you may have the option of ditching them in the near future, because I think everyone should be able to play the kind of game they want to play. For me, they will be a tool I will continue to use sometimes. I’ve always had the option of using a battle map or using theater of the mind. VTTs give me a third option, and when I’m collaborating with my friends to tell a story, I like to have as many tools to convey that story as possible.
If you’ve ever crafted a fictional world, dropped your player characters into it, and asked them “So what do you want to do?” you may have encountered blank stares. Your players may be paralyzed by choice. You may need to run a different style of campaign.
Narrative-driven campaigns are a type of storytelling designed to follow the journey of heroes following the call to adventure to its epic conclusion, saving the universe from immeasurable evil. Before a Game Master can get into the minutia of encounters in story arcs, they first need to outline the plot points their story needs to hit. I would like to share with you a modern story structure that originated in The Round that will draw in your players and help them invest in their characters and your world. In this article, we will discuss how to structure your campaign using The Seven Steps of Professional Wrestling.
The common structure of the “seven steps of professional wrestling” is often seen in a five-minute wrestling match, with each step consisting of a series of maneuvers. Translating these concepts to your campaign should also be applied to events in the greater story. This should not be adapted to individual encounters. This thesis also operates under the assumption that the player characters (PCs) “always win.” As we dissect each step, I will explain how the party can technically win, while still losing, and generating “heat” for your antagonists.
Before a match begins, wrestlers are introduced to the crowd individually, with the villain entering first. This is done to introduce the threat to the audience: the millionaire oligarch, fan of the rival city’s sports team, or a large undead menace. By identifying the threat, it is then easy for the audience to identify the hero, which is why they enter second. Your session zero should follow a similar motif. You do not necessarily have to show Darth Vader capturing the princess, but you should at least introduce overarching threats the heroes will confront, such as the evil empire. Your players will create characters that exist in the world, and with a vested interest in protecting their attachments to that world.
1. The Shine
The first sequence of events to run your players through is the shine. In the shine, we prove our heroes’ formidability, and desire to see them win. This is where the party fights the giant rats in the tavern cellar, the goblins raiding the village, and possibly the foot soldier minions of the main antagonist. Use these opening adventures to establish the “normal life” the party will return to once changed, and get a sense for who the characters are. Slowly introduce the overarching plot by having the party deal with the collateral damage of the antagonist’s plans. Peaceful forest denizens turn violent from Fey influence. A mephit escapes the cultist that summoned it. Undead haunt a place the antagonist raided. Displaced kobolds attack travelers crossing their newly claimed domain. The antagonist may or may not be aware of the heroes, but the shine alerts the antagonist to their presence and the threat they pose.
2. The Cut-Off
Once there is momentum behind the heroes, and victory seems inevitable, we move to the cut-off. Our heroes encounter their first major blow. This is also where we first encounter the nuance of the players always winning while losing. The game master’s role is to provide challenge, but ultimately lose. Never plan to win a fight. Your dice will betray you, and you will betray the trust of your players. Instead, use this part of the adventure to have the heroes return to find their attachments beset upon by the antagonist. A much-needed caravan of supplies has not arrived yet. They return to find their quest giver is not around to reward them for the quest they just took. The McGuffin, stolen. Their village, destroyed. Their mentor, struck down by a dark force they have history with. You’ll want to craft adventures around fetch or escort goals. Don’t plan on defeating the heroes when your antagonist’s lieutenant attacks their village. Plan on the heroes successfully defending one particular area, but unable to interact with the lieutenant’s main goal. Perhaps make the goal of the adventure a successful escape by escorting the important McGuffin away from the conflict.
The game master’s role is to provide challenge, but ultimately lose.
A McGuffin, the term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, refers to a desired object or person that drives the plot. In film and literature, it compels the protagonist, and oftentimes the antagonist. The Holy Grail, The Death Star plans, and Infinity Stones are all examples. For the purposes of gaming, and particularly this narrative structure, I would encourage your antagonist to be primarily motivated by the McGuffin. Your players don’t have to be motivated by the McGuffin. They can be motivated by the actions taken in pursuit of the McGuffin.
3. The Heat
After the heroes are cut off, the villain starts The Heat. In professional wrestling, this is when the villain begins fighting back against the hero. Creating momentum behind your villain while still giving your players achievable goals can be difficult and may require some nudging by NPCs. I will start by reminding you don’t write encounters you expect to win. Your dice WILL betray you. More importantly, the goal is for your story villain to draw ire, not yourself as the storyteller. Giving the players an achievable goal will help maintain their trust in you as a storyteller, and thus keep the campaign progressing cooperatively. I would not recommend bringing in a strong encounter intended to defeat the party. Instead, give the party a McGuffin to escort away from the location. They may need to be prompted to do this. Perhaps let them successfully fend off the attack, but they were unable to protect a McGuffin. Find a resource the party needs and cut them off from it; money, a mentor, their NPC cleric, their base of operations. If you do plan to bring in the main antagonist or a lieutenant, give them a way out, like flight or teleportation.
Another aspect of the heat to be aware of is how long and how far reaching this time of strife lasts for the party. I would recommend a minimum of two scenarios or story arcs where they are struggling beneath the victorious villain. Your antagonists’ army may control several cities at once. Maybe other gods at other churches are not granting spells. Perhaps the next MacGuffin is already in their possession, but thanks to clues left behind in ancient texts, coupled with your MacGuffin, you know where to go next and the villain doesn’t. I would be very cautious to drag this out more than three story beats because you risk turning off your players’ investment if they don’t feel like they are making progress.
4. The Hope Spot
Your overall story may need “more heat,” but you will need to break it up with the fourth step, the hope spot. Give your players a decisive win. This provides a good point to force your villain to pivot their plan, or perhaps a revelation of something greater to strive for. The heroes might recover their denied resource, or replace it with something better.. You might also want to kill the villain’s lieutenant here, or… kill your main antagonist as their lieutenant presents themself as the true, greater threat. The hope spot concludes this specific subplot arc in your campaign narrative.
You may need to go back into the “heat” step if you introduce a new main antagonist, so you can establish the threat they pose to the heroes. I wouldn’t recommend dragging this out too long, probably no more than one scenario. If you increased the threat level of an existing antagonist, you could skip this altogether if you want. Your story should have enough backstop and unresolved plot elements to already establish the danger the party is facing. Dragging out the story too long where the party doesn’t actually feel like they are succeeding against the villain can discourage them from wanting to pursue further. They will either distract themselves with side quests so they feel adequately equipped to handle the threat, or they will check out of the story because they feel like the storyteller is going to win regardless.
Dragging out the story too long where the party doesn’t actually feel like they are succeeding against the villain can discourage them from wanting to pursue further.
5. The Double Down
After the hope spot, you’ll move into the double down. This is where the heroes place the villain between two pieces of fried chicken… No, this is where the heroes and the villain find themselves at their lowest point. The heroes score a victory, but at a cost so great, they feel as though they have lost. The party may have been unwitting pawns in the villain’s grand scheme, defeating a powerful guardian monster that appears when the McGuffins are aligned. The defeat of the villain may be the needed catalyst to reveal their true power. Perhaps their success requires the sacrifice of a beloved NPC. Despite the loss, this should open up a path for ultimate victory for our heroes.
6. The Comeback
All of the suffering the party has endured will begin to pay off as we then move into the comeback. Your players should recognize the opportunity or advantage they now have over the antagonist, and have some motivation to put an end to them once and for all. Their denied resources are renewed and expanded beyond their previous capability. This is when the players can begin eliminating remaining lieutenants, freeing previously occupied territories, breaking curses and healing wounds. Their power and experience are greater than when they first encountered these problems. Reluctant acquaintances become allies. The Gods judge them worthy of their boons. This should take a few scenarios to work through and be its own story arc as the heroes build up for the final confrontation.
7. The (False) Finish
Finally, you’ll end your campaign with a series of false finishes and the finish itself. In professional wrestling, both athletes have a maneuver they perform that is strong enough to finish off their opponent. Should their opponent break free from a three-count pin attempt after suffering such a devastating blow, there is shock and disbelief. Each opponent raises the stakes, hitting harder and harder strikes until their ultimate victory. You may recognize this as “Now, I’ll show you my true power.” “This isn’t even my final form.” The villain may also be aware of their own weakness, and planned for it accordingly. You may want to involve a short side quest prior to the final encounter that can weaken the Big Bad End Guy (BBEG). Perhaps you plan your fight in multiple phases, and the environment changes after a few rounds. The more damage the villain takes, the thinner the wall between the material plane and The First World becomes. The giant robot inflicts area of effect damage that destroys or weakens some of the landscape. The BBEG is simply stalling the party so the party cannot disrupt the ritual bringing the evil god into existence… and a tentacle just poked through a portal.
Your dice WILL betray you.
I’ve included some examples below of story beats that follow the professional wrestling narrative style to inspire your games. It requires a well-thought-out antagonist, an understanding of their plans, and how the players act as obstacles to those plans. The campaign can be run as a pseudo sandbox as the story arcs of the shine, heat, and comeback can be more open than a straight railroaded campaign.
I hope you have fun trying this narrative structure in your next game and playing, not just the game, but also with your players’ emotions.
The babyface punches and slams the heel.
Heel pokes babyface in the eye.
Heel punches and slams babyface.
Babyface dodges an attack, and gets a few hits in.
Babyface flies from the top rope to the heel, knocking both down for a while.
Both rise, babyface blocks heel’s offense and strikes back.
Heel blocks babyface’s finishing maneuver, tries to cheat. Babyface dodges the cheating, finishes heel and wins.
Infinity War/ End Game
Heroes stop Black Order from getting gems.
Thanos obtains the gems himself.
Ant-Man returns and the heroes discover time travel.
The heroes obtain the Infinity Stones in the past, ultimately gathering all the stones for Thanos and losing Black Widow.
The heroes restore their fallen allies and fight back against Thanos’s army.
Thanos wrestles the Infinity Gauntlet from Captain Marvel, who loses it to Iron Man, snapping away Thanos.
Obi Wan Kenobi saves Luke, Leia, and the droid from the Empire’s control.
Obi Wan sacrifices himself so the rebels can escape.
The empire prepares to destroy the rebel base on Yavin IV and nearly destroys the rebel fleet.
The Death Star Blows up. Literally a New Hope spot. Luke learns of Yoda.
The Empire taking Hoth and Cloud city are heat spots. Luke rescues most of the rebels, losing his hand and Han. Darth Vader fails to not only finish the rebellion, but fails to recruit Luke to the Dark Side.
The rebels rescue Han Solo and launch their attack to end the Emperor once and for all.
It’s a trap! Luke and the rebels appear to be defeated, but are rescued by Ewoks and Darth Vader turning good.