How To Craft And Use Superstitions To Enhance Your Game
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #351
- How To Craft And Use Superstitions To Enhance Your Game
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
According to Wikipedia, a superstition is the irrational belief that future events are influenced by specific behaviors, without having a causal relationship.
In game terms, superstitions are a fun device to add flavour, spawn encounters, and enhance gameplay. Following are a few tips on creating and using superstitions in your games.
Why Use Superstitions?
Superstitions are one of those niches, world-building ideas that get pushed to the far end of most to do lists. However, they are excellent GM tools because they have high impact with little effort.
Consider these potential uses:
Easy to GM
You can summarize the core elements of a superstition in a short sentence. This makes it easy to read while GMing and to incorporate into scenes on-the-fly.
While planning, a list of superstitions is quick to build and reference, making designing with them easy.
It’s the details that often bring a setting or encounter to life. Good game flavour stirs players’ imaginations and motivates roleplay. For GMs, flavor can inspire new or better designs, and encounters that seem rooted in the game world and not just tacked on.
It’s sometimes a struggle to roleplay NPCs. Superstitions provide easy and accessible roleplay material to help you GM NPC actions, behavior, and speech.
Whether the superstitions are real or not, if NPCs believe in them then they’ll behave or react accordingly. Superstitions add depth to NPCs.
Make Your World Unique
What makes one game world different than another? It’s hard to tell sometimes, so you need all the tools you can lay your hands on to help differentiate settings.
Regions also need distinct character. When the PCs travel from one village to the next, between kingdoms, or to new continents, you want each place to feel alive, strange, and new.
Superstitions create a small body of social rules that are easy to keep in mind and GM with, but have great impact on the flavour of a region and the feel of gameplay.
Grist For New Game Elements
A prize in the superstition giveaway being held in this issue is CMG’s Superstitions PDF. They make a good case in the product introduction for using superstitions to add new elements to your games:
“So what makes this product different and useful to you? Aside from the flavorful superstitions, some based on real world imaginings and others conjured up whole cloth, the opportunity has been taken to present many Advanced or Templated creatures, unusual Magic Items, and interesting Spells. While the backdrop of superstition is used as a premise to introduce and integrate these new or modified game components, one can certainly pick and choose which components suit your game then plug and play.”
Sprucing Up The Mundane
It’s the small details that bring a game and its world to life – animals, objects of daily living, and actions of regular folk. Keep a list of superstitions posted on your GM screen or handy in your GM binder. Pick a superstitious event and make it happen anytime a scene drags or feels mundane. Conjure up a black cat to cross in front of the bar maid, or have an owl hoot a PC’s name while trudging along a path. Spruce up the mundane.
Superstition – Real Or Not?
Fortunately for GMs, we can decide whether superstitions are real or not in our games. Most genres give us enough leeway to make superstitions real and binding, even if it’s just blamed on coincidence by the rational.
Before you start crafting superstitions for your campaign, decide first whether superstitions are real. Is there a reproducible cause and effect relationship?
This is important for a couple of reasons. If superstitions are real, you’ll want to limit their severity, or, at least, the consequences to the PCs.
For example, if a rare superstition predicts a person’s death, that shouldn’t be applied to and enacted upon a player character. If a kobold looks cross-eyed at you and the superstition is you become cursed with physical weakness, the PCs should be immune – or you should increase the challenge level of kobolds. 🙂
If superstitions are real, you also need to examine the consequences to the general populace. Would it be problematic to society? If so, craft ways the society would avoid or cope with the superstition (a great world development exercise), or change the superstition to be more benign.
In addition, you need to document superstitions that have real effects. They become new game rules you want to GM with consistency and fairness. You’ll need to communicate the new rules to the PCs, or plan for in-game discovery as long as the effects aren’t crippling or unfair, as mentioned above.
Design Specific Triggers
To make superstitions a fun and playable game element, they need clear parameters. A critical parameter is the trigger. How does a superstition come into effect? What must happen so you can identify what superstition from your list applies to any given situation, and how can you make this easy to GM?
A trigger is an event or situation that activates a particular superstition. Superstitions have requirements – specific objects, circumstances, actions. These requirements are like a recipe with a list of ingredients and instructions. If the ingredients and instructions – the trigger – of a particular superstition are met, then the superstition activates.
To make it easy to remember and GM, craft triggers with just one requirement, two at most. If you have a complex recipe, you’ll waste cycles trying to figure out if all the trigger conditions have been met, or worse, you won’t recognize a trigger while you’re busy GMing.
1) Many triggers are based on our fears and worries:
- Success at finding food: hunting and gathering
- Welfare of friends and family
- Money, wealthy, property
- Failure and success
2) Some triggers are based on a lost understanding of a process or series of steps. A middle part is missing or forgotten, so the beginning and end points seem magical because what happens in between is not understood or no longer performed. Therefore, control is lost and the end result truly is up to luck and circumstances.
For example, folks might believe a fire is coming if bats fly into your home. That might stem from bat guano being a spell component for Fireball, and a forgotten community past experience of enemy war mages harvesting components for their spells in the nearby caves and burning the village down in the process.
3) Triggers are often based on common themes:
- Luck (good or bad)
- Character classes
- Time, seasons, climate, weather
- Religion, gods
A great method is to pick one or two themes for a community and craft triggers around those. This not only keeps design focused and makes triggers easier to remember, but it leads you to ask, Why those themes? This question creates a natural hook for a bit history and community design. And, of course, you can then tie this type of design into adventure backgrounds, location possibilities, and encounter ideas.
A key benefit to creating specific triggers is portability to rules and house rules design. A trigger needs to be a clearly defined tangible recipe, which rules require.
Focus On Action-Based Superstitions
The best triggers are action-based. RPGs are interactive. PCs take actions, NPCs take actions. If you can match these actions to gameplay, and then to superstitions, you’ve got a great new interactive game element.
For example, http://www.oldsuperstitions.com/ lists a spider spinning in the morning as a sign of good luck. Perhaps in your world this equates to a +1 morale bonus for 2 hours. PCs can now perform Spot checks for spiders as they travel, giving players a new tactic and something action-based under their control. This also gives you something interesting to put in random wilderness encounters or planned encounters.
Another example, from the same website, is that playing cards with a dog in the room causes disputes. As part of a plan, the PCs might put a dog in a card room for just this effect, assuming superstitions are real. Alternatively, superstitions might not be real, but such a tactic could be used to throw off NPC card players.
Superstitions based on passive circumstances, things out of player or NPC control, are workable as well. The downside is you need to monitor the environment a bit more closely to catch any potential triggers.
Craft Specific Consequences
Along with a trigger, you need to craft a consequence for each superstition. Map out a specific rule, guideline, or effect. What happens when the trigger condition is met?
Keep consequences small in scale to protect game balance. Also think about what the players will do if the superstition is under their control. Can the effects be abused? Will everyone start spending hours at dawn searching for spiders and other triggers to buff up on bonuses?
You can mitigate abuse by increasing the time between trigger and effect. Spotting a spider spinning a web brings good luck at some point during the day (perhaps the next time a player rolls doubles).
You can also manage balance with vague definitions of effects, though being specific is often best. “Spotting a spider spinning a web in the morning brings some kind of good luck (GM’s pick).”
As with the ephemeral rules of magic, you might make some global rules for superstitions to better manage consequences. For example, you might rule that superstitions can only be triggered by accident or happenstance, and can’t be deliberately engineered.
Regardless of your approach, it’s important for players to learn about the consequences of superstitions to make superstitions a fun game element instead of useless trivia.
When designing consequences, try to craft a small number of superstitions that result in encounters.
- Dealing with reactions of NPCs who witnessed the trigger
- Presenting a puzzle or clue
- A critter or NPC is summoned – combat or roleplay
- A spell-like effect manifests
- An extreme environmental effect endangers PCs or others
These superstition encounters give you a tool to use for:
- Stalling (need time to think or to eat up the last 15 minutes of a session?)
- Distracting PCs
- Using up PC resources (are they too strong for the upcoming encounter?)
- Pacing (game slowing down or energy levels low?)
- Variation (need a combat to break things up?)
For example, some adventurers believe stepping on a green mushroom means treasure is nearby. You decide whether this is true or not, but curious PCs might choose to stop and investigate the area, which might lead to an unrelated encounter, or to actual treasure – and its guardian.
Superstitions might feel too much like GM fiat, especially if they bring bad consequences. To mitigate this, build counteractions PCs and NPCs can take to prevent or undo the consequences of a triggered superstition.
Counteractions take the form of instructions – what should you do when a certain superstition is triggered?
- Draw a symbol (in the air, on the ground, on paper)
- Bury something
- Kiss, rub, or brandish a lucky charm
- Utter a saying or phrase (perhaps a certain number of times)
- Pour or throw something
You might consider a passive counteraction. A superstition requires some form of inaction.
- Avoid the number 13 in buildings
- Don’t spill salt
- Don’t pull the dragon’s tail
- Don’t change a horse’s name
These things aren’t interactive and not as fun for the PCs. However, they are excellent world-building devices for adding flavour to societies, day-to-day life, and roleplaying.
Statement Method For Creating Superstitions
Fill in these statements with a variety of triggers and consequences:
- Don’t do [this] or else [this] will happen.
- A [thing/animal/item] in the [place/time/situation] will _____.
- If you spot [this] then [this] will occur.
- [This] is a sign of [this].
- Never do [this] or it will result in [this].
- If [this] happens, do [this] or else suffer from [this].
Superstition Stat Block
Here is a stat block to serve as a design checklist and to help you standardize your game notes and world development:
- Power level
First decide if the superstition is weak, average, tough, or powerful. This serves as a rough creation guideline to help you determine the severity or benefit of the consequences, and the nature of the trigger.
For example, a death or infertility related superstition would have a rating of powerful, a botched performance average, an itch to travel weak.
In addition, power level lets you quickly scan your superstition list and assess potential game consequences and campaign balance. If you need a minor superstition to dress up an encounter, look for one that’s weak. If you have a lot of powerful superstitions, consider adjusting a few to have weaker consequences.
This is another good decision to make before fleshing out a superstition. How often do you want a superstition triggered?
In addition, more powerful superstitions should have lower frequency to preserve game balance.
How is the superstition triggered? How many triggers are required? Is there a specific order in the case of multiple triggers?
What happens when the superstition is triggered? Is there a specific timeframe?
What should one do, or not do, to prevent a superstition from triggering? Not all superstitions will have possible preventative measures.
What should one do to counter the consequences of a triggered superstition?
- Superstitions, a d20 supplement by creative Mountain Games http://roleplayingtips.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=20386
- A great database of old superstitions
- Wikipedia Entry Superstition
- Creating And Using Omens
Hopefully you found these tips inspirational for using superstitions in your games. If so, don’t forget about the giveaway – send in your superstition ideas for a chance to win the Superstitions Book in PDF format, and to help your fellow GMs with ideas and examples.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Superstitious Reader Request And Giveaway
This week’s issue is all about creating and using superstitions in your games to enhance roleplaying and to serve as a world-building tool.
If you like the idea of superstitions in your game, why don’t we post some superstition examples in a future issue?
Please e-mail your superstition ideas to [email protected]
I’ll assemble and edit your entries, and then give them back out so all GMs can try using superstitions to enhance their campaigns and adventures.
As a cool bonus, Mark over at Creative Mountain Games has kindly offered 5 free copies of his Superstitions PDF. So I’ll do a random draw – one superstition entry gets you one entry in the draw.
For more info about CMG’s Superstitions and a free demo: Modern Dispatch (#87): Lindbergh kidnapping
I’m looking forward to your entries to learn what PCs and NPCs might be superstitious about!
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
From Soylent Green
I’m looking for suggestions about how to write and prepare an adventure. I personally don’t like running (or playing) adventures that are linear, but if I am just winging it the resulting scenes are often unimaginative and predictable. So, I am looking to find something in-between.
Though I am more interested in methods to structure ideas rather than actual adventure ideas, I thought it might be helpful to start with a concrete example from a supers game.
The adventure is a one-off, there is no existing campaign world to fall back on, nor do I know the background and personalities of the characters (beyond the basic assumption that all superheroes fight to right wrongs).
The premise is that a new supervillain in town, called Madam Mask, is stealing faces of celebrities and supermodels and holding them for ransom. Of course, the heroes won’t know all that to start with.
I figured the adventure could kick off at a beauty pageant where the heroes have been invited to be on the judges’ panel. During the event, some of MM’s henchmen will use the Face Stealing Device(tm) on the contestants, which will draw the heroes into the fray.
The heroes might succeed in capturing the henchmen and the device, or they might fail. Either way, once this initial sequence is down, the initiative is in players’ hands. They have a mystery to solve, a villain to track, and any number of ways doing that.
So how do I prepare the rest of the adventure?
1) One thing I can do is try to list things that are likely to come up. For instance:
- The face stealing device – If the heroes manage to capture this in the opening scene they will probably want to study it. So, I can prepare that and understand how it works and how it was made (could be a good way to introduce a secondary villain).
- MM’s hideout – At some point, the heroes should hopefully track MM down. So, I can prepare that. I am thinking it might be a yacht.
- The henchmen – There is a good chance some henchmen might be captured in the initial scene. At the moment, I am thinking the henchmen will be trained apes with jet packs and machine guns, so probably not much good for interrogating, but it’s something I can prepare for.
2) I can also make a list of things I can introduce to move things along if they stall:
- Ransom – MM will send the cosmetics company who sponsored the beauty queen a ransom demand. So, I can prepare an exchange scene, think in advance of a cool place to make the exchange, etc.
- Another victim – MM can strike again. As this is not an ongoing campaign, filling game time till MM next strikes might be too slow and awkward. Maybe the beauty pageant is not the first victim. The real first victim did not want to come forward till now, perhaps because she was embarrassed or afraid.
Anyway, you get the gist of it.
My question is how do you guys write your own adventures without actually “writing” it?
A trick I’ve found to running more entertaining and engaging games is to be sure to drink something caffeinated before I start playing. It helps keep me awake and focused on the game at hand.
A Reader’s Sample Excel Tracker
From Mark Sanderson
Wanted to share my enthusiasm for a recently discovered and now invaluable playing aid – Excel.
No more lost notes scribbled on a pad, no more re-drafting character sheets when up-levelling, and no more counting out on fingers what AC I’ve hit, or what damage I’ve done, nor even having to struggle over working out how to split copper and silver when divvying up treasure.
I must admit to being a fighter type. Excel probably benefits them more than other classes.
First off I created my character sheet in Excel. Then I did a formula table for weapons. Now, if I change the single THACO value, the table automatically works out all the other values.
After agreeing with the DM that I could do average rolled damage + bonuses on every hit, I did a weapon damage table. Any changed value for damage automatically updates all values for that and similar weapon types.
Keeping raw detail and adding notes to cells as required means the longer the character is played the less reference is required to the Player’s Handbook.
Then it was treasure headaches: how much do we get, how many gold does 2000 silver equate to, and so on. Another table whipped up in Excel and the party knows exactly how much they are worth at any given time. Magic is a different matter of course. :o)
Being a fighter isn’t much fun when you have to spend more time working out die rolls than actually swinging the sword. My initiatives have gone down from 3-5 minutes to as short as one minute. All I have to do now is roll D20s and kill things, I don’t know how I managed without it.
Here’s an example Excel file: Issue#351 Sample Char Tracker
Keeping Things Interesting
From Michelle Travis
Just wanted to pass along kudos to you and the other folks who contribute for sending me lots of good ideas! As a somewhat-novice GM, I’m still learning how to keep things interesting, fun, and intriguing for my players, and I look forward to getting the e-zine in my e-mail each week!
The GM burnout thing hit home for me because I currently run a game with six players in it (seven if you include my NPC) usually right after I get home from working all day on Saturday. Sometimes I come home and I want to chase them out of my house, so my husband stepped up to the plate and is starting to run a Champions game that I can either choose to join in or sit out as I see fit.
For my 7th Sea game, I tried to spice things up the following ways:
- I gave all of my players a questionnaire asking them what kind of game they wanted to be in, how their characters felt about “current political issues” in the game (along with their opinions of their own ruling monarchs), etc. It helped cement their feelings about things and gave them a sense of their own characters.
- Mood music is prevalent in my game (in fact, 90% of my game was based around different pieces of soundtrack music). Nothing sets the mood for my game faster than my players hearing the opening theme to “1492: Conquest of Paradise” (which is the unofficial group theme song, bombastic and heroic).
The music that helps inspire scenario ideas or that I use to solidify a feeling I am going for in the game, in rough order of use (plus the scenario title):
- Der Name der Rose – Main Titles [scenario: Honour is My Guide]
- The Lion King – To Die For [scenario: Secret Agendas]
- Braveheart – Revenge [scenario: The Court of the O’Bannon]
- Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric – Evil from the Dawn of Time [scenario: Alekto’s Ghost]
- 1492: Conquest of Paradise – Monastery at La Rabida [scenario: Knight versus Knight]
- The Truman Show – A New Life [scenario: Wanderers of the Waves]
- The Princess Bride – Once Upon a Time/Storybook Love [scenario: High Society]
- Quest for Glory V – Dance of Mystery and Intrigue [scenario: The Greatest Lover in Theah]
- Quest for Glory V – The Rite of Justice [scenario: A Long-Awaited Duel]
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra [scenario: A Night at the Opera]
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – Escape from Venice [scenario: Days of Wine and Roses]
- The Princess Bride – The Friends’ Song [scenario: … But Never Noble Memory]
- 1492: Conquest of Paradise – Conquest of Paradise [scenario: Destiny Has No Secrets]
- The Mask of Zorro – Stealing the Map [scenario: Las Munecas Rotas]
- The Truman Show – Truman Sets Sail [scenario: La Familia]
- Glory – The Whipping [scenario: Blood of the Martyrs]
- 1492: Conquest of Paradise – Hispanola [scenario: Sanctuary]
- 1492: Conquest of Paradise – Light and Shadow [scenario: Dying for the Faith]
- Gladiator – Sorrow [scenario: Dying for the Faith, Part II]
- The Hunt for Red October – Putin’s Death [scenario: Dance of the Fireflies]
- The Shadow – The Hotel [scenario: Alekto’s Ghost]
- The Truman Show – Underground/Storm [scenario: Time’s Tapestry]
- The World is Not Enough – Pipeline [scenario: Running Out of Time]
- Dark City – You Have the Power [scenario: The World is Unmade]
- Shrek – Transformation/The End [scenario: Free to Die at Last]
- Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust – Charlotte’s Love [scenario: I Could Not Save Her]
- The Last Unicorn – Haggard’s Unicorns [scenario: One Man’s Honor]
- Quest for Glory IV – The Rusalka [scenario: Rusalka]
- Hook – You are the Pan [scenario: Immortal Love]
- Shrek – I Object [scenario: Punishable by Death]
- Gladiator – The Might of Rome [scenario: Into the Heathen Lands]
- Romeo and Juliet – Escape from Mantua [scenario: Race Across the Desert Sands]
There are many, many more…
3) I encourage in-character stuff, even if it doesn’t directly relate to immediate action. To relieve the tension and boredom of a long sea voyage, three of my PCs (a knight, a courtesan, and the courtesan’s sister/bodyguard) decided to play matchmaker between a fourth PC (another knight) and a lovely NPC lady. They just happened to notice him staring longingly at the lady in question, and immediately launched a romantic story arc the likes of which I have never seen in a game before. “The course of true love never did run smooth….”
4) I take full advantage of any and all backgrounds, advantages, and arcana (personality traits) that my players have. The group tally includes: Hot-headed, Lecherous, Righteous, Loyal (not an advantageous thing to have), Reckless, Envious, Lost Love, True Identity, Hunted, and so on.
Even their skills make for great storylines. Their backstories keep showing up, just when they think they have left their painful/embarrassing/secret pasts behind… mwahahaha.
5) My group collects enemies, friends, and weird people like Imelda Marcos collects shoes. They just can’t help rubbing people the wrong way sometimes. And of course, a simple scolding won’t do for retribution…nope. And then when one person gets in trouble, the other six get involved in it too.