Friday, July 10, 2015

Story Seed - Missed the Boat

Image Source:

I drove down Exchange Street slowly, my eyes darting from the road to the wharfs and the ships moored there. My destination only partially known from a torn scrap of paper I had found in Dr. Ziegfreid's lab. The scrap said "ranean S" which wasn't much to go on, but if there was a chance I could intercept the doctor before he fled the country I might yet gain some measure of justice for his victims.

The weather wasn't cooperating. Thick gray blankets of clouds blotted out the sun making mid afternoon feel more like the hour of dusk before true darkness. Rain drizzled down as well, not hard, but enough to obscure my view even further. Luck broke my way (as it always seemed to) and I saw von Braun, the not-so-good doctor's Frankenstein monster of a lieutenant. Even in the dim and rain it was easy to make him out. The man, if one could call him that, stood nearly seven feet tall and was prodigiously strong. Strong enough that he could easily lift a crate that would need a team of three to maneuver.

von Braun was carrying such a crate up the gangplank of a steamer. I jammed on the breaks and my eyes darted to her prow where I read "Mediterranean Star." That fit well enough to my clue and von Braun's presence sealed it; Ziegfried was here, and he was preparing to flee back to Europe.

I quickly pulled the car over and checked my revolvers under my coat; both of the modified Colt single action army pistols were loaded and ready to go. I shut the engine off and shoved my hat onto my head; the rain was getting heavier and I saw the sailors loading the Mediterranean Star start to scurry a little faster as a shadowy form watched from the ship's deck.

I was barely out of the vehicle, turning to close the door, when a bolt of lightning hit it. The thunderclap concussion flung me through the air like a rag doll, which probably saved me from being electrocuted. If I hadn't known better I'd have been stunned by the seeming coincidence of the strike, but the bolt had not come down from above, but instead had traveled laterally from the direction of the ship.

I rolled to my feet, my guns drawn with barely a thought, and snapped a quick shot off in the direction of the lightning's source. My aim was true enough and I winged the brute von Braun, causing him to recoil. The weapon he carried discharged again, this time a white-hot lance into the sky thanks to my efforts. The thunderclap sent a handful of sailors either to their hands and knees or over into the cold harbor waters.

Blinking away the bar of purple afterimage I made for the gangplank, snapping off shots as I was able, hoping to maybe find some weak spot and end von Braun's unnatural existence, or destroy the weapon. I succeeded at neither and by the time I made is across the street and down the length of the wharf the brute had his foot on the plank. Sailors were cutting lines with short, sharp knives, and which a heave that probably amounted to very little effort indeed, von Braun kicked the gangplank away from the ship.

I skidded to a halt, arms corkscrewing to keep me from tumbling ass over teakettle into the ocean. A belch of diesel and the ship began to pull away. That shadowed figure standing at the stern, watching me. I knew it was Ziegfried, I could see the blue electric glow of the prosthetic eye that replaced the one I had destroyed so many years before.

His brute strode to his side and raised the weapon again, I got a good look at it as I sighted down the rails of both my guns. It looked a lot like the somebody had mounted a series of Tesla type coils of descending diameter onto a large rifle with a ball of copper at the very end. I wasn't eager to see it in action again and fired with both pistols until they ran dry, perhaps five shots. I was rewarded with a bright flash followed by the sight of the weapon being dropped overboard. As a secondary bounty I saw the larger of the two Germans stagger back, though I doubted sincerely that the big man would do more than shrug it off.

As the boat pulled away into the storm I stood, shoulders slumped, rain cascading down from my hat in near sheets and cursed Dr. Ziegfried's name once more. I mentally added three more to his tally, a register of death that now counted well over a hundred souls, and the luckiest of which had died quickly. What foul experiments he had conducted here in Baltimore I could not fathom, but three souls had had their brains cut from their skulls in the name of his twisted brand of science.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Pre-GenCon Discussions

 +James August Walls asked me to share my pre-GenCon thoughts alongside +Jeremy Land and +Michael Diamond. We four bantered for a little less than an hour about what we are looking forward to at this year's GenCon, our must buys, some tips, and the like. Take a gander below if you feel like it, and go on and give it a thumbs up if you enjoyed it so Jim knows to keep making videos with a bunch of chuckleheads like us in them!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #40 - Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #7 - Objects in Mirror ...

Welcome to the roundtable ... once again the GM's gather and ponder the following:
How do you scale encounters for a smaller or larger group than you had planned on. Or than the published adventure planned on? What works, and what does not? Do different systems affect how you scale? And what about fish? They have scales. 
 +John Marvin
Scaling is easy, I just use a ruler or a tape measure ... except for the fish thing, then I use a scaler...

I'll be honest, as good as this question is it's difficult for me to answer. I've only very rarely ever used published adventures, and for nearly my whole career as a gamer I have operated at the critical threshold of group size, e.g. one GM and two (rarely three) players. When you have so few players a single cancellation usually means rescheduling the evening's events. It's just the nature of the beast.

That said, I have run some stuff out of published materials, and since most published adventures are scaled for 4-6 players in my experience that means that I can still throw my limited two cents in; let's call it 1.5 cents because of devalued currency exchange.

"Balancing" encounters seems to trip on the toes of our previous subject some, and to a point there is the strategy of "it'll just be harder" or "it'll be a little easier".  There's nothing wrong with running your evening's session, planned for your X players, with X-1 players instead. Things will get a little harder, but unless you were already writing/planning for things to be difficult then there is probably not going to be a major power change. If its more like X/2 you may need to rethink the "fuck it" strategy above, but for normal sized groups (where "normal" is defined as four player characters) adding or losing one shouldn't kill things.

"That's all good and fine," you say, "but what if I was expecting six and I only four show up?"

Yes, yes, not everything is so easy, but really depending on your game system (mechanics) of choice this is still nothing to cry over.

Seriously, it's just a little milk ... err I mean it's just a couple of absent (or extra) players. So let's look at this in two ways: social encounters, and combat encounters...

For social encounters I think the only time that you will need to be concerned is if your group is currently missing its social heavies. Those characters who are best at negotiations, leadership, deceit, and the like will probably be missed, especially if the remaining party members are not skilled in these areas. Likewise the player(s) who are missing may be disappointed at their missed opportunity to shine. In cases such as this, and assuming you are not willing or able to stall for a session, you can either make the social encounter's easier for the remaining players, play the encounter without rules (or perhaps just rules light), or possibly introduce an NPC who can help the players out, but will extract a cost at a later time via a favor or some other connection.

None of those are perfect options, and none of those help the player who is missing the session feel better about missing a good chance for the spotlight, but they all work.  Another option, if your setting is flexible is to have what was planned to be a social encounter become a physical one. Perhaps the dwarves in question respond well to feats of strength and endurance. Allow the PCs the chance to show off their ability to toss rocks and drink wood alcohol as a means of lowering the eventual social roll difficulty. In this way the non-social PCs earn their advancement, and the social PC will feel a little less left out.

Image Source:

Adding players to a social encounter is both easier and trickier. Easier in that you will not need to work around a hole in the group's make-up, but more difficult in that you may have a hard time including the new players seamlessly.  Obviously the former isn't any kind of issue that needs to be dealt with, but the latter bears some thought. Primarily you will want to look at the way you set up social encounters. If you design them to have aspects to fit each of your players then you will need to beg off five or ten minutes and quickly build a couple of ideas to work for the new folks. If you don't usually tailor your scenes to that degree you might be ok. Just make a point of including those new players as you would your current players and you can probably get by.

Combat, as always, provides a different set of challenges. When you add more players a standard combat scene will become easier, possibly to the point of being too easy, while something meant to be difficult will move toward the center and feel more like a standard encounter. Neither of these is inherently a bad thing, but they probably aren't what you want (since if you took the time to plan things out ahead you probably balanced them according to your desire and intent). Luckily, no matter what system you are using, making enemies harder to defeat is actually pretty easy.

Let's say your party is 50% larger than you had planned. An easy solution regardless of the system you are playing in would be to add 50% more enemies. If there were to be ten skeletons in the tomb, make it fifteen. The attack power of the individual heroes isn't any different so the extra skeletons and the extra heroes basically cancel each other out. Problem solved easy peasy.

Unless of course you have reason to limit the number of enemy creatures... like maybe your combat encounter was a lone dragon.  Yeah, adding 50% of a dragon is going to A) make a mess, and B) not really balance things. Now there are two ways to fix this kind of situation. You can add the equivalent of half of a dragon. Perhaps this dragon has a child/spawn with roughly half the capability. Seems reasonable, and could totally work.

Or not.

If you cannot add additional creatures in the form of weaker versions, subordinates, minions, etc. then you can always add more hit points. The trick here is that you can't just add 50% more hit points because while that will make the creature 50% harder to take down it only raises the threat level by maybe 25% since it is not putting out more damage as well. You'll need to tweak that so that whatever the creature is it has more area of effect attacks, does a little more damage (adding maybe 20-30% more damage will probably work), or allowing it more attacks per round of combat. In this way the damage output will scale up, and when combined with the extra hit points your combat difficulty should work out OK.

Or you can cheat.

Some systems are built for this: the Cypher System has GM Intrusions, Mutants and Masterminds has complications, FATE has Compels. These are ways for the GM to "legally" alter the circumstances of the encounter mid stream. They work pretty well because they reward players with XP, Hero Points, FATE points, etc. This keeps the game "economy" working, and in general is how things are "meant to be played." Using these methods a little more aggressively to make an encounter more difficult is perfectly reasonable and should be encouraged.

Other systems don't have these kinds of methods. They use something else: a GM Screen. What your players don't know won't hurt them, so long as they are being entertained. Lying about your dice to ensure that the combat encounter is just difficult enough is, at least in my opinion, OK. Your milage may vary however, and some people refuse to consider this OK. If that applies to you I'd stick with the advice above then; add creatures, hit points, damage, etc to help scale up the encounter.

Those are my thoughts, but I welcome your opinions. I certainly don't think of myself as an expert in these kinds of situations. Rarely have I ever been in a position to suddenly have extra players, or to unexpectedly have fewer and still have enough to run a session with though, so don't take my word as creed, instead maybe check out some of the other GM's blogs listed below and see what they say.


Got a question or subject for the GM's? Ask in the comments or send it an email to and we'll put it into the hat for future round tables!


Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. Every GM has his or her favorite system, but in these articles we endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you are a blogger, and you'd like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at and supply the URL of your blog.

Want to see some other blogger's takes on this subject? Check out the following (I'll add post specific links as they roll out):

+Scott Robinson - The Perils of Scaling at

+John Marvin - Scaling Encounters for Small and Large Groups at

+Burn Everything Gaming - Scaling Adventures at

+Tom Harrison - Just Add Water at

+James August Walls  at

+John Clayton  at

+Lex Starwalker  at

+Peter Smits  at

+Arnold K. at

+Evan Franke  at

Thank you! 250 posts, +21k views

Yesterday's Story Seed was my 250th post since September 1st last year. I'm also well over 21K views in that time.

None of that could be done without, you, my readers.


Monday, July 6, 2015

Story Seed - Ambulance

Image Source:
The stolen shuttle approached the nebula at half a thousand klick per second. It felt absolutely ponderous to the pilot. Killian craned his head back and made eye contact with Hez, she nodded before tearing her eyes away. She deployed another layer of chemical bandages over Jak's chest, the prior layer having already gone damp with a deep red of arterial blood. "How much longer K?" Hez asked, "This is the last unit of synthblood and I think he's still leaking it out as fast as I can put it into him. Jak needs a proper doc and proper facilities or-"

"I know!" the pilot snapped. He growled a sigh, "Damnit, sorry. This bucket is half blind and steers like a sneg; if I try to put any more speed on we may not make it at all." Outside the thin gasses of the nebula were starting to become more dense, and less transparent.

"Do it, I don't wanna have to see my brother bleed out," Hez snapped back. She was barely holding together, and every time she looked down at herself covered to the elbows in her brother's blood she stepped a little closer to losing it.

Killian growled something and pushed the throttle forward another two notches. The shuttle lurched and gained another couple hundred klicks per second. He fingered the ring on his left hand, and cast another backward glance at the two bloodsoaked passengers. Grimacing he pushed the throttle forward another tick and felt the shuttle gamely pick up speed.

Almost immediately there was a sound of something pinging off the hull, and before he could swear a shape loomed out of the thickening mist at them. Killian yanked hard on the control yoke and jammed his foot to the floor actuating the dorsal thrusters on full. The craft protested as it slide down and to the left, sowing chaos in the passenger compartment as anything lighter than ten kilos went flying. "Next time," Killian grunted, "I steal something with full inertial control."

Outside the view panels the asteroid rolled overhead and new threats asserted themselves even as the gas and dust of the nebula continued to grow in opacity. "Everything alright back there?" he asked.

"NO!" came the panic is shaken reply.

"Oh good, cause things are going to get worse before they get better." Killian willed himself to put out of mind the fact that this was basically a suicide run at this speed. He put out of mind that the man he loved was bleeding out behind him and he couldn't even be there because Hez couldn't pilot an elevator let alone a shuttle. He put everything he could out of mind and concentrated on making a stolen shuttle that handled like a mulish sneg dance blindly through an asteroid field with the goal of finding the eye in the middle. He even put out of mind that he owed Teddy ten thousand credits and the station's owner might not agree that this shuttle was worth enough to cover the debt and the medical costs.

Killian set his jaw, blanked his mind, and gripped the controls so hard that his wedding ring bit into his finger. One damn thing at a time ... he told himself as he danced with death for the his life and the life of his husband and sister-in-law.