What is the Bullseye Design Method? Three Wins in One!

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0573

Brief Word From Johnn

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What is the Bullseye Design Method? Three Wins in One!

With the Bullseye Design Method, you create things three times. At first, that seems like giving yourself extra work. But it’s not.

Before I get into the details of the method, I first want to introduce to you the principle of Simplicity.


I came across a detailed examination of this design approach from John Maeda’s book, The Law of Simplicity. The laws are outlined in the sidebar of his blog.

Simple is better. In the design world, simple means better experiences. Reduce clutter, noise and complication to make things easier to understand, use and appreciate.

This works very well in RPG. Simple is more fun.

From a game master point of view, simple game designs such as NPCs, villages and magic items are faster to create, easier to run and easier to communicate.

From a player point of view, simple game elements are easier to understand, they engage more imagination (read Scott McCloud’s awesome book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art to learn why) and they create more gameplay because they open up more choice.

Simple means things are easier to communicate and describe. They are easier to portray and roleplay. They are easier to remember and build on.

Simpler means more fun. And that’s the goal.

For example, in Faster Combat, Tony and I have used the principle of simplicity throughout the course to make combats simpler, easier and faster. In one lesson, we show you how to make a visual initiative system because it’s slick and simple. Its visual nature means everyone can tell at a glance how far through the round they are, and it tells who’s up next so they can be ready. Simple init beats complicated init every time.

In another section, we show you how to simplify complicated monsters so they are easier and faster to GM and yet become deadlier at the same time.

When you simplify, you increase the effectiveness of your game elements. It’s counterintuitive, but that’s how it works and why it’s such an effective design principle.

And that’s why it makes the Bullseye Method so effective.

What is the Bullseye Method?

For each important game element in your campaign, you create three versions. Each version has a small, simple difference.

From this three tier system, you generate an exciting dynamic that stays simple enough for you to control and run, and for players to understand and engage their imaginations with.

Most importantly, you use the tiers to populate your campaign and game world fast – with story built-in!

The three tiers are:

  1. Global (World)
  2. Regional (Campaign)
  3. Local (Adventure, Encounter)


You take a game element, such as a race, culture, spell, magic item or feat and describe it at the global level. This is how the thing works across the world. It’s situation normal or the default.

For example, skeletons. A classic staple of fantasy RPG. They’re boney, can live anywhere (so you can place them anywhere) and are frightening because they’re dead but alive at the same time. They are great foes for new heroes to cut their teeth on (but only for half damage).

Global game elements are usually the version found in your rulebook. If you’re creating something from scratch, then your first design should be for the global / world tier.


Next, you take the global version, tweak it and call it a regional variation.

Make the regional variation change simple and visceral. If the difference is too subtle, you lose the effect and players will not pick up on it.

Also make the tweak something that will affect gameplay. It must make a difference to player and character choice or experience.

For example, the skeletons in the region of Chaos Keep are unusual. Their bones are not as brittle, and are actually a bit rubbery. Something has happened to these creatures, and they glow a dull throbbing red noticeable in the dark. These skeletons take half damage from edged and blunt weapons.

Further, they have their own legends. The red glow gives me an instant hook to tell all kinds of stories and rumours around. One nearby village calls them the Red Terrors. Another to the south calls them the Crimson Death. Veterans tell new PCs to watch for the red glowing eyes, “‘Cause if their cold dead sockets be burnin’ dire, put away yer weapons and bring on the fire!”


Last, we take the regional variation and make another tweak to create a highly localized version.

Again, make the change simple, compelling and game-affecting.

For example, red skeletons in caves near the keep emit a terrible sound. Their groans carry on the winds, sometimes even during the day, and cause fear in anyone who suffers to hear them. They also have one divine insight – something that will come true.

Locals say they will call your name from their dark caves, and if you hear them calling then your doom is coming soon.

…Unless you find and kill the skelly that is moaning your name to the wind.

Ok, lots of cool possibilities pop up here from two simple changes. The Doomsayers, as they are known, cause fear, making them tougher and more exciting foes to fight than normal skeletons. Instant fun injection, especially when the PCs hear the rumours and stories about these particular nasties. Build up a little drama with storytelling.

And their ability to forecast one thing in the future makes a bunch of different hooks, encounters and quests possible.

  • The PCs might be hired to find and kill a doomsayer because it’s calling a noble’s name and he is willing to pay to save his life (believing the legends about name calling – you decide if it’s true).
  • The PCs might be hired to take an NPC merchant to his dead ancestor, who died somewhere a couple leagues down the road and has reportedly turned doomsayer, for a prognostication.
  • A PC might hear their own name on the wind some day.
  • While fighting a doomsayer, the creature drops a prophecy on the PCs or an intriguing plot hook.
  • People start seeing red glowing eyes in dark alleys within the keep. Some begin to hear moaning at night. People disappear. Fear and panic sets in, causing civil disturbances. The PCs are hired to find the creature and kill it.
  • On a dark and windy night, with rain blasting down and lightning clawing the sky, a doomsayer crashes through the tavern door and screams, “I’ll take an order of spare ribs. To go!”
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Why Does the Bullseye Method Work?

It works because it’s a fast and simple way to create depth and variation in your world.

You start with a base design and reuse it twice. That’s fast and efficient prep.

Each version needs just one or two small changes. Having a base to work with helps creativity. If you have writer’s block or what Stephen Pressfield calls The War of Art, needing to come up with just a couple of changes should not be too scary.

You are world building, campaign building and adventure seeding at the same time. Each level of scope gets new content.

It makes GMing easier. You are taking one set of rules (example: skeleton stat block) and making two sets of small changes. This is an additive process, and therefore easier to understand and remember. You are essentially working with the same stat block or rule three times.

Bake Story Inside

Now it’s time to level up our GMing. We are storytellers and our games are all about story!

Use the Bullseye Method to create great stories that smoothly integrate into your world tapestry, campaign plotting, adventure backgrounds and encounter gameplay. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for one design technique, so how is this possible?

Also, we’re simplifying the game here, so how can that make our stories deeper instead of shallower?

Here’s how.

Ask why there’s a difference between the global and regional version. Your answer, whether you realize it or not, is story. It might be a short and quick story, or it could be pages long as is your wont. But it’s a story.

Then ask why there’s a difference between regional and local versions.

And if you have multiple local variations, ask why for each variation there too.

Once you know the why of your bullseye (it could be one big why or several smaller ones) add a timeline to it. “This happened, then this happened, then this happened.”

Now you have a beginning and middle. You know when the change started and how it progressed.

All stories have a beginning, middle and end. You’ve now got two parts out of three.

The ending is up to you, which is the beauty of this system. Do you end the story in history, for the PCs to discover and be entertained with, making your world seem deep, mysterious and real?

Or do you leave the end unresolved, an open loop for the PCs to discover and close?

Tie Stories Together

This stuff practically writes itself. You are so far away from having a blank paper stare back at you and block you. You’ve got awesome clay here already shaped, ready to make final touches to and use as you see fit. It can all tie together to produce profound campaign revelations because the structure is built in!

What’s the structure, you ask? Well, the local version is related to – even tied to – the regional variant. And the regional variant has a global parent. Make this the order of your story progress. Go from global to local or vice versa.

And you can tie your bullseye story for one game element to other elements, make it a standalone plot or turn it into a PC side plot.

For example, in the world of Chaos Keep we’ve got regular skeletons using Pathfinder rules. In the 1000 square mile region of Chaos Keep, we’ve got the Crimson Death and Red Terrors. And in the 24 square mile hex of Chaos Keep, we’ve got the Doomsayers.

Going from global to local, we could say the gods got involved because of the divination aspect of the doomsayers. Perhaps an evil priest raised an army at the request of his god. He waged war and was losing. So he started animating his dead soldiers and began to win.

But then the forces of good earned new allies and turned the tide (sorry about the pun). The evil priest appealed to his brother, a necromancer across the sea (what a terrible family!) who joined the cause. Together, they created special units of skeletal soldiers who resisted even blunt weapons and glowed red with angry energy. These shock troops scored major victories.

The forces of good were losing. They would soon be overwhelmed because now their own fallen soldiers were being animated against them. It came down to one last stand at Summerwind Castle (thank you castle name generator).

Besieged by evil magic and legions of undead, the defenders made peace with their gods and readied for the end. But just as victory was within their grasp, the brothers betrayed each other!

Both planned to become the Dread Emperor, both planned a betrayal and both wanted to make the other an undead, chained and loyal servant. How evil minds think alike. And ghouls never differ.

It was the necromancer who struck first. This caused chaos on the battlefield as undead turned on each other. The forces of good looked on from their battlements bewildered but with renewed hope. They put together on final strike force of cavalry and light infantry and stormed out from the castle.

Their plan was simple. Strike into the heart of the enemy and slay the priest and necromancer. The force drove deep behind the enemy line and came upon the evil brothers locked in battle.

Just as they reached the scene, the necromancer struck a mortal blow. The priest fell, dying. As he bled out he cursed his brother, channeling the wrath of his god who saw his mortal host lost and plans ruined.

Unfortunately, the leaders of good who lead the strike were too close and suffered the curse as well. And the elite Crimson Death troops in the area were also caught up, many transforming into something even more dire.

Chaos Keep now stands where Summerwind Castle once ruled. And something in the area is stirring up history….

So that’s a potential top-down version of why and how the Red Terrors and Doomsayers came into being. What happened to the evil brothers? What happened to the forces of good caught in the curse? It’s up to you and for the PCs to discover.

Using the Bullseye Method we could easily go bottom-up. From local area to global. An ancient graveyard outside Chaos Keep lays buried and forgotten. Strange lava bubbling through a break in the crust underneath the graveyard has imbued the dead with strange properties.

In areas further away from the lava breakthrough, those fallen over the years in village cemeteries, farmers’ plots and the two nearby mines have also transformed, but to a lesser degree. Those dead are merely imbued with rubbery bones and a red glow, not the fear effect or one-shot divination ability.

A week ago, a local farmer fell into a pool of lava that had nearly eaten its way to the top and left just a thin and weak crust of ground. Instead of dying though, the man was reborn into something terrible. And now, in an ironic twist, he can call the names of the Doomsayers, who must come to him and obey….

Will the farmer use his followers to kill everyone in Chaos Keep and taint them with lava to form an army of Red Terrors, threatening not just the region but the whole kingdom and maybe beyond?

We do not know how either story will end. But in both we just asked why and out came some great plots, with scale built in because of the Bullseye.

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How to GM the Bullseye

Once you have your story mapped out a bit, whether it’s all interesting history or an open plot for the PCs to tackle, you should plan your reveals. How do you want to expose players to the Bullseye, and in what order?

There are at least two great surprises and twists built into the Bullseye. Those being the new variants of the game element.

Regardless of whether you go from center to outer ring, or the reverse, you should surprise your players in this order:

  1. Global
  2. Regional
  3. Local

You first introduce the global version. That’s the default and “normal world” in Joseph Campbell mythos terms.

Your players will not know there’s a new variation about to hit them.

And then bam! You unleash the regional variation in an encounter. Your players will love the surprise.

After you let them take in and grow comfortable with the regional variant, bam! You hit them with the local version and surprise them once more.

If you just start off with the local version, there’s no room now for juicy surprises. Because you have to subtract to get the regional and global versions. You’ll have lead with your most interesting and most-changed version of the game element. And that’ll ruin the surprises.

So order of reveal is very important.

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Make Some Gossip

You should also consider making a Rumours Table. Fill it with glimpses of the global, regional and local versions. Never give so much information that you ruin the surprise.

Use this table to build up the suspense and interest in your Bullseye. Give some table items out as character starter information, then use it to seed NPC roleplay and for making clues.

Add some false information to the table, as well. Fear, doubt and uncertainty create amazing anticipation and build-up.

For example, you would not add to your table that red skeletons are terrorizing country farms. Instead, you’d say something was terrorizing country farms. Or better yet, make several terrible rumours that describe how farms are being terrorized. Focus on describing the end result and let the PCs’ imaginations go wild.

Animals shredded to pieces, people shredded, bodies missing, no survivors, strange claw marks, unnerving red glow, terrible moaning, clattering sounds….

Then have the PCs meet plain old skeletons. That might explain some of what they’ve heard, but still leaves the glowing and moaning a mystery.

Then they encounter a band of Red Terrors. OMG! Glowing red skeletons resilient to bludgeoning weapons (that’ll fix the meta gamers).

Then they encounter a Doomsayer. OMG + fear! And what was that weird thing it kept saying about “beware the silver seal”?

Later, while dungeoneering, the party finds a great and tarnished valve. Behind it is a terrible force. With the time delay, do the players remember the Doomsayer’s warning and get a thrill they’ve put together the clue? Or do they open the valve and later make the connection for a forehead slap and appreciative nod in your direction for the setup? Either result is great storytelling.

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How to Build Surprise

Earlier in this article we already described how villagers call our skeletons the Red Terrors, Crimson Death and Doomsayers. We’ve already got legends about Doomsayers whispering the names of the doomed on the wind. And locals have knowledge about these creatures’ enhanced defense.

How do we build suspense and surprise and a juicy Rumour Table when this information has already leaked and reached the PCs?

The secret is partial reveals, misdirection and Hitchcockian dramatic build-up.

You might not brief your players at start about what the locals know of the skeletons, what they call them or recent events. Or if you do, you can hide the fact that the creatures are skeletons. Just use their names: Red Terrors, Crimson Death and Doomsayers. Go back to describing the effects of their attacks and not the sources.

Also, give players a few false alarms. These are both partial reveals and misdirection. Let’s say they’re expecting red skeletons with rubber bones that will utter the PCs’ names because the characters are doomed.

Well, they haven’t met these creatures yet, so there’s still lots of Bullseye play left yet.

First, you give them some normal skeletons. Then you have them hear beyond a door some moaning. “Ok, finally, here we go. Let’s kill these suckers.” Pulses racing, the group breaks down the door and discovers…more normal skeletons in a windy cave. Tricked!

Then you do it again. The PCs venture deeper. They see claw marks on the walls. Further down they see tons of blood sprayed all over the walls. Then they come upon dead monsters all shredded up, looks of fear on the creatures’ faces. Then they find a red skeletal hand wrapped around a dead monster’s throat. And then finally, up ahead, another door and more moaning filling the corridor.

The PCs approach cautiously. Hearts beating hard again. A PC reaches out for the door handle, ready to fling the door open and charge in.

And then suddenly they are hit by fleeing monsters from a side corridor! A frantic fight ensures. And still no sight of these Red Terrors….

You get the idea. Keep stringing the PCs along. When they finally do meet their much anticipated foes, they just meet a group of Red Terrors. That encounter will be interesting enough, and you still have a first encounter with Doomsayers in your back pocket, to build up tension and drama for once again!

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Don’t Forget the Why

You also have the Why? you can tell stories about. Even if the PCs know all about the skeletons, you can build a great Rumour Table from your backstory and the Why.

Eke out facts about how the variations were caused. Your backstory has a timeline. Give it out in bits and pieces, but reveal it in a mixed up order. Let the players puzzle over the sequence.

And again, give out partial bits and a few misleading bits to stir things up.

In our example, the PCs will eventually encounter the Red Terrors and Doomsayers. You can choose to reveal the backstory before, during and/or after these encounters.

If you choose before, you’ve got great stuff to increase the build-up and tension.

If you choose during, you’ve got a neat story structure where the PCs are encountering these mysteries as they learn about them.

If you choose after, you create a whole new context and appreciation for the PCs’ adventures, plus open the door for new adventures as the PCs’ mine the past for new adventure locations and hooks.

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Look to Other Sources For Tweaks

A quick comment on how to get inspiration for your tweaks.

I recommend creating 2-3 points of difference in your variations. The differences should have some effect on gameplay, else they become minor details the players brush aside and your game stays flat.

For example, say the Red Terrors are actually former pirates and they all wear red kerchiefs. Aside from switching out skeletons’ typical weapons for cutlasses, gameplay remains unchanged. These are boring changes. Make tweaks that will affect player decisions and how encounters play out.

I also recommend drawing from other sources for your tweak ideas. Sticking to just your game rules might create a boring recycle effect over time.

For my Pathfinder skeletons, I got my ideas from the Dungeonworld game. They’ve just posted their monster codex online, and reading through the entries gave me some great ideas.

Comb through your game library, draw ideas from shows and books, and don’t feel bound by your game’s rules. Game balance is important, but things that cause shock, awe and surprise get you better stories.

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Bullseyes For Other Game Elements

These tips have only talked about monsters. A badass skeleton Bullseye was the first thing that came to my mind when writing.

But you can and should use this great design method for other elements in your game, like spells, feats, classes, races, cultures and just about anything you can find in the table of contents in your game books.

For example, you pick up a book that has new combat feats in it. Your players will love having these cool new abilities.

Using Bullseye, you divide the feats into three pools.

The weakest and easiest feats are Global. Everybody has access to them.

The better and more powerful feats are Regional. Only those who are part of a certain culture, region or group in your world knows these feats. The PCs will have to find teachers to learn these feats. Or maybe you make these feats rewards when adventuring in this area.

The best feats are local. You can only find these feats in a certain adventure site. Or maybe just the Wu Zon Masters at the Temple of Alphai can impart the knowledge of these feats to others – if they so choose.

In this way, you’ve turned a bland list of feats into a feature of your setting and into potential rewards, roleplaying opportunities and quest hooks.

And when you figure out the Why? of this feat Bullseye, you’ll have a backstory to provide great context for the way the world is, and you can tell this story however you want as your campaign unfolds.

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Your Bullseye Method Checklist

Let’s wrap things up with the recipe for using the Bullseye Method and creating your Bullseyes. Feel free to change it to suit your GMing style and needs.

  1. Choose the game element to design for
  2. Decide the global version
  3. Tweak it to create a regional variation
  4. Tweak the regional variation to create a local version
  5. Figure out why the changes happened and create a timeline
  6. Integrate the Bullseye with your world, campaign or adventure plot
  7. Create a Rumours Table
  8. Make your reveal plan – what, when and how
  9. Have PCs meet the global version a couple of times
  10. Surprise PCs with the regional variant
  11. Surprise PCs again with the local version

Simplicity is hard to achieve, but it offers you many benefits. It makes it easier to GM and helps you engage your players better.

The Bullseye Method has simplicity built-in. Use it to create new levels of depth and story in your games while saving prep time and effort.

I find the Bullseye Method makes me even more creative. Rather than wrangling with a strange zoo of disparate ideas, it gives me a clear starting point and accessible base material to shape into clever campaign and world features.

It’s built-in structure also helps me think out my stories better.

Give it a shot and let me know how it works for you.