Your current RPG campaigns

Of course maybe it is just my players. In anything approaching SF - recently lots of Traveller and Achtung Cthulhu - there is always a lot of planning and scouting. So I always have to answer (mostly make up) hundreds of answers …

Their plan never works, mind … (ask me one day about the improvised grenades and their inability to throw straight).

I am drawn to, but have never tried, Blades in the Dark’s approach which is to get into the action but when there is an obstacle, the players have to set out, and role play, how they overcame the obstacle at the time they encounter it. Could be great, could be cumbersome, and my players would have to unlearn many years of practice! They may be too old for that!

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The next supplement for pendragon is all about playable magic users.

I’m not a fan of that being allowed either.


I have always felt that the original Pendragon magic system is impossible to improve on, for faithfulness to the genre:

A magician can do whatever the GM feels they need to do at the time.

(Whether faithfulness to the genre should be the primary goal is a separate argument.)


I have to disagree with that.

It’s part of my worldview that magic exists only in stories. But stories where the storyteller is free to introduce arbitrary developments any time they please, for any reason or none, aren’t good stories. They deprive the reader of the ability to anticipate what will happen, and wonder how things are going to turn out, and be surprised and gratified when the author comes up with a course of events that is at once completely logical based on what went before, but unanticipated and thus surprising. If the author’s hat is know to have an infinite supply of rabbits there can be no tension buildup over how the hero is going to be saved. And magic without rules is precisely such an infinite supply of rabbits; it leads to stories that have no more narrative value than the average dream. So there is no reason to tell such stories, and no reason for such magic to exist.

And player characters are often people who inhabit such stories. If magic is arbitrary and unlimited in the GM’s hands, they have no actual agency, and players hate their characters not having agency.

The trick is to make the rules logical on their own premises, but not tell the players what those premises are. I’ve been running my current fantasy campaign that way for several years now, and the players are really interested in it.

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I don’t find that a problem. When I run a science fictional campaign, for example, it’s set in a future world, and even if that world comes from a series of books, movies, or TV shows, most of the information about it is unknown to the players, because the world doesn’t actually exist. It’s really only a problem for campaigns set in the real world of the present or recent past, without any departures from actual history such as supers or Lovecraftian monsters.

Addendum: And, you know, it can be an advantage. I once ran a campaign based on the Laundry Files, with the PCs as agents of Australia’s agency for supernatural threats. In one scenario they needed to look into a situation in Papua New Guinea. We were able to use Google Maps to find a specific airport on the north coast for them to land at, and look up the population of the adjacent city, and see maps of it . . .

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I think that it is a mistake to plan plots or stories for an RPG, because in my view RPGs are at their best when all the players, GM and character-players alike, are sharing in an extempore collaboration. I reckon that the key technique is to plan conflicts and crucibles, and to let a course of events emerge naturally as character gives rise to incident and incidents arise out of character. So long as characters are steadfast to their natures and everyone avoids jumping conflict a plot will emerge.

Back in the Eighties I did develop a set of techniques for getting PCs to follow a predetermined course of events making up a planned plot; but I gave up using them about 1990 because I found it boring to GM when I didn’t get to extemporise.

As for magic, I am put in mind of a discussion which the Sages of High Wycombe had on the subject of Sanderson’s Laws of Magic, and in particular Sanderson’s First Law. Sanderson points out that an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic¹. Readers will not feel satisfied by a story if its conclusion turns on magic doing something that they had no reason to suspect that it could do. The same is true of explaining features of a world. “Magic did it” is not an explanation if magic can and will do things without limits or reason, because it conveys no understanding.

Returning perhaps to a theme, I think it is usually a mistake in RPG to give the players the impression that the world is not amenable to understanding. If the players have no understanding, then the characters have no effective agency; collaboration is impossible.

¹ The same is true of kisses and fistfights, actually. It’s just that we all think we understand kisses and fistfights.


Let me draw your attention to HindSight, where doing so is pretty much compulsory (when playing a magician).

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Whenever I gm on forums I always encourage discussion threads for the players to speculate what is going on.

(That way I can steal all the best ideas, and it lets me check my own internal logic.)


Yes, all the best plot points are stolen from players misunderstanding what is going on and actually coming up with better ideas


Or Ars Magica where there is a system, but that system allows for creativity and flexibility every time. That was a campaign I really enjoyed running - including a crusade that the characters got caught up in - and almost totally extemporised.

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Totally agree. As noted above my players are over-planners so I just listen intently and often I will pretty much give them the worst of their speculations on a plate. I think the gulps they emit mean they love it really…

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The great majority of magic in Mage: The Ascension is new spells invented by players or GMs.

Yes, I totally agree with that. I don’t come up with plots; I come up with situations. I plant the exposition; after that the plot emerges from what the players do.

I like to think of myself as being like Gromit riding the toy train, and frantically laying down track in front of where it’s carrying him—a very different sort of “railroading.”


Ars Magica is another system I really wanted to try, but my players didn’t go for.

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To me that’s one of the cardinal distinctions between RPGs and other sorts of fiction: the players need to feel that their choices are important to the progression of the narrative, and the more you try to force events into an existing plot structure the less enjoyable it’ll be as a game.

Which is the basis of my philosophical disagreement with Robin Laws: I think he would agree that a lot of his writing over the last decade or so, starting most clearly with Hamlet’s Hit Points (2010), has been about how to implement plot structures from other fiction in RPGs. (Dream Park (1992) got there first in terms of using beat analysis for RPG session management of course.) I feel on the other hand that such things are fun only insofar as they are emergent from the chaos of PCs and NPCs considering their individual goals and how to achieve them (which may involve helping or frustrating other people).

So the guiding principle of Dramasystem (frame every scene as “this is about X wanting Y from Z”) leaves me cold. Maybe neither of them will get what they want. Maybe they both will. Maybe they’ll go shopping and spend half an hour poring over the equipment catalogue. If the players are having fun, it’s a good game.

(The other cardinal distinction by my reckoning is that everything gets done in order; rewinding time is rare. Which means that you can’t go back and put in foreshadowing; which in turn means that any particular bit of foreshadowing you put in at the time may or may not actually come to anything.)


That’s why my approach to GMing involves what might be called “surplus foreshadowing”: I put in hints about things going on off camera, more than I will actually follow up on. And then as the narrative emerges I see ways to refer back to some of them . . .


Just a small note from my ongoing Roll 20 D&D Encounters Kit group. We are on what is essentially the penultimate dungeon. The characters have reached the heady heights of level 5. They manage to kill a group of marauding ghouls in two short, explosive rounds.

One of them asks: ‘Is it just me, or were we just competent?’

Suffice it to say, two fights later and their fighter was paralysed, their wizard out of spells, and the rogue seriously contemplating taking a long rest halfway up a chimney.


That’s the end of our D&D encounters kit adventure.

Spoilers for the finale:

the final fight with the white dragon was over in one round - the fighter had positioned himself in just the right place and, unusually, did not run away. 4 attacks in one round with dragon slaying sword, all hits, delivered 96hp damage - 8 over the dragons post fireball total

What next? With the knowledge we will still be restricted for some time I gave them options and they opted to start again, with new characters, and explore the jungles of Chult in Tomb of Annihilation.

Looking forward to it.

especially when they realise that they can’t b raised from the dead

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At the moment my gaming schedule is:

MONDAY: Running THE LAUNDRY RPG mostly with the published scenarios for five persons of my own age or older. Via Zoom because one of the players has a subscription and she and her other half have found Hangouts caused them to lose contact with the rest of them. This is going slowly… I think because the players find interaction over the net a little tricky. Age maybe.

WEDNESDAY: Playing in DUNGEON WORLD via Hangouts with a group all of whom are a bit younger than me. Drak, the GM, has us exploring a slightly sinister fairytale universe. We’re currently in a version of Sleeping Beauty’s castle about a hundred years after she was awoken. We suspect the descendent of the prince who freed her ‘by the usual methods’ of lying to us about the history of the place.

FRIDAY: Running MONSTER OF THE WEEK for one of my nieces and my nephew and their partners. We’re reaching about half way through what I think is a good length for a campaign. I’ve got to figure out how to tie the stuff from the earlier episodes into a season arc. I wish I hadn’t allowed my niece to write time travel into the canon of magic.

WEEKENDS: Alternating between Dr Bob’s Vampire game (set in Oldcastle, the serial killer capital of Scotland), GATES OF THE CITY, a fantasy multiverse game run in SAVAGE WORLDS. We’re about to start a FIREFLY game with Genesys.

Plans? Nothing fixed yet. I’m still pondering thoughts of ARS MAGICA though. And I’d like to run something GURPS-y.


Wow, you do a lot of RPGing! I try not to do more than one a week at most; I’m currently playing in one and running one. I would add running another if I could arrange face to face here in Lawrence. But four days a week is beyond anything I’ve ever tried.

I ran a variant Laundry some years ago. The setting was Australia (I did some online research and decided that their relevant agency was the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation, motto “See the unseen, know the unknown”); the player characters were a group of agents with extraordinary powers—an amazingly skilled aboriginal soldier with Deep One ancestry, a sorcerer, a genetically enhanced young woman inspired by the title character in Hanna, and a woman sharing her body with a djinn that gave her powers of geas, glamour, oneiromancy, and seeing through glamours. So it was a bit offbeat, but fun.