How to Get Your Game Unstuck => Trickster Generator
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #667
- Invoking Chaos: Adding a Trickster When Your Game Is Stuck
- Brief Word From Johnn
- How To Plot Adventures
- 12 Random Dungeon Generators
Invoking Chaos: Adding a Trickster When Your Game Is Stuck
From Phil Nicholls
What do you do when your game is stuck you need to kick-start the excitement again without appearing to take narrative control away from the Players? This article shows you how a trickster NPC can accomplish that.
A trickster NPC is an agent of change you throw into the story. Through intent or incompetence the trickster will add a dash of chaos to your game to liven it up again. Before the trickster’s arrival the players were bored and losing interest. Afterwards they will be thrown out of their boredom and ready to follow the story again.
The trickster is not a malicious assault on the players nor a way to spoon-feed new information. Think of the trickster not as an answer but as a way to unlock more opportunities.
Triggering the Trickster
“When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”
How do you know when you need a trickster NPC to stir thing up? Here are some signs:
- Boredom: Your game has stalled. Nothing has happened for ten minutes and the players are looking at you with blank eyes.
- A Dead End: Perhaps the players missed the clues to the secret door and cannot find the cultist basement. Maybe the tracks the PCs follow vanish. The party’s big plan has petered out and they have nowhere left to go.
- Analysis Paralysis: There is a reason why Ocean’s Eleven has a montage scene during the planning stage of the casino heist: planning is dull. Listening to the players debate the merits of plan A over plan B while somebody tries to propose their cherished plan C is just as boring. Half the table is dozing off or browsing their phones. It is time to jolt the players back into action.
- Argued Overlong: Is it the blue pill or the red pill? The debate has now reached the point of circling back round on itself and still the players cannot agree.
- Weak Story: The current plot fails to hold attention. Yes, the elaborate marriage ritual for the High King might reveal the subtleties of your setting. Yes, the debate in the Royal Chamber will set up the wars about to tear the kingdom apart. Yes, the lengthy negotiations for the construction of the party’s fortress was what the players asked for. Today your prepared plot simply does not hold the attention of the players and it is time for a pair of halfling thieves to burst into the room.
I have broken down the process of adding a trickster into three steps:
- Who is the trickster?
- What action does the trickster perform?
- How does the trickster change the scene?
Each option is presented as a table so you can roll up a random trickster or build one that suits your plot by choosing as you see fit.
Who Is The Trickster?
In order To unstick your game somebody becomes the trickster. They deliberately spread chaos, act recklessly, or are inept. Choose their motivations later. This is about putting your game back into gear right now.
Trickster Identity Table
|1||Ally||Political or business associate|
|2||Bystander||Stranger steps out of the crowd|
|3||Enemy||Known enemy stirring up trouble for the party|
|4||Fey||Sprite, faerie, or similar creature being mischievous|
|5||Friend||The party has a personal connection to this individual|
|6||Ghost||Restless ghost seeking revenge or redemption|
|7||Guardian||Misguided protector of the location such as a druid or town guard|
|8||Hireling||In the employ of heroes or their allies|
|9||Relative||A family member|
|10||Rival||Professional rival out to discredit the party|
|11||Spirit||Animated essence of a location or concept such as a disease spirit|
|12||Wandering Monster||Random enemy from the location|
What Action Does The Trickster Perform?
Once you have identified the trickster they must perform an action. This action triggers the subsequent chaos and kicks your game into gear. The action itself need not have a huge impact, but it sets in motion the change in scene suggested by the final table.
Each action is listed with a few sample behaviours. Improvise something suitable to match the current situation in your game.
Trickster Action Table
|1||Act of Larceny||Pickpocket a character or steal the Hierophant’s glowing staff|
|2||Clumsy||Knock over tables, drop a pouch of coins, or just fall over|
|3||Enters a Room||Per Raymond Chandler the trickster and their allies arrive|
|4||Exceeds Their Ability||Showing off to impress or simply inept at their job|
|5||Inappropriate Emotion||Laughing at a funeral or panicking in the dungeon|
|6||Prank||Kicketh me sign on a cloak, wine in a water flask, wooden sword|
|7||Random Violence||Attacks someone, anyone, may be in a berserk rage|
|8||Screams||Loud, scary and always attracts attention|
|9||Switches Sides||A new ally or enemy always changes the plot|
|10||Tinker With Machinery||Press a random button|
|11||Triggers a Trap||Ambush, hidden pit trap, or magical curse|
|12||Wanders Off||One of the party is missing, what trouble will they bring back?|
How Does The Trickster Change The Scene?
This is the crux of the why you are adding the trickster to your game. This table lists the new situation facing the heroes. The first two tables set up this new scene, designed to push the players into action and set your game in motion again.
Pick the flashiest, most exciting option you can justify. Adapt these brief descriptions to wrench the players out of their boredom and restore the excitement at your table.
New Scene Table
|1||Angers Guardians/Allies||Police or the church arrive to stop the party|
|2||Brings Down a Curse||Spirits, elementals or angels drawn by divine curse|
|3||Discovers a Horde of Animals||Rats, bees, wasps, or stampeding buffalo|
|4||Endangers Party||Trickster action itself is a threat, ramp it up|
|5||Environmental Collapse||Earthquake, wildfire, or ceiling collapse|
|6||Injures Themselves||Trickster bleeding out, needs rescue|
|7||Reveals a Betrayal||Party has been set up and now know who did it|
|8||Rouses a Wandering Monster||Classic monster arrives and attacks|
|9||Snake!||A lone poisonous creature in their midst|
|10||Summons Enemies||All subterfuge is lost, the enemy is closing fast|
|11||Uncovers a Secret||Secret door, hidden scroll, or revealed magical text|
|12||Unleashes Unknown Magic||Spell or hidden technology now activated|
Five Tips On Using Tricksters
Bear these points in mind when choosing and using a trickster at your table.
- Massage to Fit The Game: Use the tables as suggestions, adjusting any or all components to fit the current situation in your game. Make the trickster seem like a progression of the story so far, not a jarring interruption to the plot.
- Do Not Railroad: The trickster is intended to re-engage the players with the current game once the immediate chaos has calmed. Tricksters should not be used to push the plot towards a desired result.
- Short-Term Scene With Long-Term Impact: This is the heart of the trickster in your campaign. Yes, this is an immediate change of pace to revitalize the current situation. Regardless, be prepared to enforce any long-term change the trickster creates. If a hireling is revealed to be a traitor then build on this story later in the campaign.
- Chaos Now, Story Later: When the time comes to use a trickster you must embrace the chaos. Make the biggest splash you can for the maximum impact on the game. Once the players are engaged again you can worry about the reason for the trickster. You can adopt the best theory suggested by the players and run with that.
- Vary The Effects: Should you need another trickster moments later in the campaign, use a different combination of results. A string of hireling betrayals will fail to liven up the players. Change the components each time for maximum effect.
When your game stalls for whatever reason send in a trickster to kick-start the action. This article shows you more ways to enliven your game than just Chandler’s gunman bursting into the room. Use these trickster tables to add a bit of chaos to your game and watch the players come alive.
Brief Word From Johnn
I’ve just started tuning into Twitch, which offers live, streaming broadcasts of people playing games. There are several D&D and other tabletop RPG groups who broadcast their games using this service. And I’m finding it compelling entertainment. You can chat in the sidebar, check out group profiles, see past saved games, and interact with other viewers.
Twitch has caught my attention for a couple reasons. First, I enjoy watching GMs working their craft. I make notes and jot down ideas on how to improve my own games by tuning into the game streams.
Second, subscribers have been asking me for years to somehow see me GM. Twitch plus a virtual tabletop app might give me a great way to do that. I’m not sure, would you watch games I GM? At the least, you can heckle me and take notes on what NOT to do in your games, lol.
So, quick poll. Would you be interested in watch me GM?
Vote here: Strawpoll
This Month’s Blog Carnival: Convention Gaming
Creative Mountain Games is hosting this month’s RPG Blog Carnival, and it’s all about gaming at conventions. Perfect timing for summer gaming.
Thanks to August’s new Patrons: Philippe D., Steve Johnson, Felix Laurie von Massenbach, Sophia Brandt, Patrik Byhmer, Christine Hunnicutt, and Raging Swan Press.
How To Plot Adventures
The following great pieces of advice came up from a discussion last week in the Adventure Building Workshop, which is still going strong.
One workshop member asked for help on how to plot their adventure:
Right now I’m stuck on a problem. I know how to create plots (‘theres a goddess locked in the temple because she went out of control centuries ago’).
I know how to create obstacles tied to those plots (‘the temple is riddled with traps and there’s a not very helpful guard who has the key’).
I know how to create NPCs and Secrets (‘the guard is secretly in love with the mayors daughter and will be more helpful if you help him with that’).
I don’t know how to create what I call, for lack of a better word, ‘story obstacles’.
And I responded, along with other workshop members, with these thoughts:
Use Goal Blocking
I prefer “goal blocking.”
Write down 20 potential reasons the players might not be able to achieve each goal. Pick 1 or none of those to put into the adventure. This gives you the chance to brainstorm a bunch of ideas, and none of them have to be any good. If one is good, use it.
Don’t stress over creating the “ideal” obstacle. Be willing to create a bunch of bad ones – really bad ones if that is what comes to mind. Write them all down. Some people suggest writing them in ink, so there is no going back and thinking, “I can come up with something better than that,” and then not having anything written down.
I like to start with a pair of random words to trigger my first entry on the list. For acrobat and fire, I came up with:
The mayor’s daughter has been kidnapped by a troupe of circus performers to be their next blindfolded maiden for their knife thrower who tosses +1 Flaming daggers who is on a fumble streak.
From Johnn Four
I use NPCs. People in stories basically provide the best plots, and in RPGs those people are NPCs and PCs.
For example, give NPC1 a goal and NPC2 a conflicting goal. If the PCs like both NPCs there’s now rich plot material. If the PCs dislike one of the NPCs, you’ve got a natural villain. If PCs dislike both NPCs, then make sure the PCs’ goal conflicts with both NPCs’ goal for a great plot. NPCs as active agents in your adventure generate good plot ideas.
Second, grab a newspaper and clone news stories into your adventure. There was a massive explosion this week in China. Use the premise tool. Riffing off PolarSleuth, brainstorm 20 “What if” premises for that news story.
- What if it was terrorists
- What if it was nuclear
- What if it destroyed something secret and important
- And so on
Third, use soap operas. This site is a great resource: Soapcentral
Connect The Players
To me that awesomeness in plot design comes from the amount of player interest in the situation. If you can make a great hook you can get players invested in the outcome of a situation making for an awesome session. If you are writing for your own game knowing what your players are interested in should hopefully be easy.
You can always ask your players what motivates their characters to stay together as an adventuring party to metagame what your players are interested in.
Besides player investment, I’d say awesomeness comes from the depth and connections the plots have. I start by coming up with a rough idea I’d like to present to the PCs (i.e., your bucket list ideas) then finding a way of connecting something about that idea to at least one PC.
So if the idea is saving the village, put a PC’s family in the village (if they tell you they care about family), or put a magic item in the village that will make the bag guy twice as strong (if they tell you they want to fight the bad guy).
I think the underlying trick I’m seeing is whatever hook you give the players make sure they can ignore it. If there are consequences to ignoring it, that is what I would call depth. In the first example, if the players let the village be attacked maybe the bad guy was a necromancer…and he raises the PC’s family..and uses them to do evil things. That just went from common situation in every DnD campaign (village being attacked) to a slightly more interesting situation (PC’s family is threatened) to full awesome (necromancer has corrupted PC’s family to use against the PCs).
Fear, Hate & Anger
There are random word generators on the web and can be found via a Google search. The one I listed previously is: Random Word Generator. Most of them have just a couple hundred words in them. So, if all else fails, you can create your own with a bit of effort.
- Are character driven (as Johnn stated)
- Are player driven (as Fheor stated)
- Inspire GM excitement
- Have all of the plot ingredients
I tend to think of adventures as being something like a chess game in that the PCs move and plan and then the NPCs move and plan. If the guard with the key has a goal (attract the love of the mayor’s daughter), the PCs can play around that goal. Additionally, there is another side to characters.
(IRL) Decades ago, a pair of con men got together and compared notes. They determined that personalities of people are based upon (a) what they fear, (b) what they hate, and (c) what makes them angry. Armed with this insight, they changed their cons and became wealthy.
Does the guard fear he is unworthy of love? Is that why he is going after the affections of the mayor’s daughter? He is expecting her to reject him and confirm his self-image? (Confirmation of our beliefs is a powerful force even if it is to our detriment.) Does this provide the PCs another avenue to acquire the key? Can they find him someone who can actually love him? What actions will he take once he has confirmed that he is such a horrible person that no one can love him?
Beliefs from Burning Wheel is a good way for your players to set up PC goals and what they want to have played upon during the game. (A good primer of the idea is here). If each player builds out a few beliefs, you will have a rich resource from which to draw inspiration for events within the adventure.
(IRL) An author (I have forgotten his name) once stated our creative endeavors are about pitting our hopes against our fears and seeing which one wins.
This applies to players creating characters and GMs creating adventures. As such, you can mind map your hopes and fears. This should be strictly for you, and not available to your players, friends, family, or anyone else. Be morose, be bitter, and be brutally honest. If you want, you can add what angers you and those things you hate. Consider adding things you love.
Then categorize them, connect them, and drill down into them. If these things are going to appear in your games, you might as well be deliberate about their placement.
For each adventure, find something that excites you from your mind map and work it in.
As for the plot ingredients, they are: (1) the protagonist, (2) the antagonist, (3) the conflict, (4) a twist neither side sees coming, and (5) the setting. Hopefully, the PCs fill the designated protagonist role. The antagonist is whoever or whatever is keeping the protagonist from “succeeding.” This could be the main villain (for the campaign and later big boss battle adventure). It could be the guard who has the key the players need. Or, even the weather which is threatening the local crops.
The important parts are (a) it opposes the players’ actions and (b) the PCs can take action against it. Conflict need not be swords and sorcery; it can be just about any action verb that pits the protagonist against the antagonist. The twist is something which creates problems for both protagonist and antagonist or causes their conflict to change. And, the setting is where it all takes place.
The ingredients are like a fractal in that they are used for campaigns, adventures, encounters, and scenes.
An example 5-encounter sequence might start off with:
- Antagonist: The guard who has the key wants to attract the affections of the mayor’s daughter.
- Conflict: The players must barter with the guard in order to secure the key.
- Twist: The local LG priest has divined that the mayor’s daughter must be sacrificed to stop the rain else the gods will prevent the harvest from happening.
- Setting: Having this take place while watching a traveling circus performance has different connotations than in the pertinence chamber of the Saint Cuthbert church. Either selection should have implications for future parts of the encounter sequence.
Now ask the basic questions to fill in any blanks: how, what, when, where, who, and why. Add random words to the answers. Add a random item from you mind map to the answer. Anything to get you going.