New in the Archive: Unframed – the Art of Improvisation for Game Masters

Improvisation is a crucial skill for a GM: whether you prefer to preplan you sessions in exhaustive detail, or to make it up as you go along, you’ll need to know how to take in the player’s input, keep the game moving, and react to the unexpected curveballs your players throw at you. Unframed is a book designed to teach you those skills, bringing together essays from GM and game designer legends to give readers tips on story planning, NPC roleplaying, and how to adapt to player’s preferences. It’s an entertaining and interesting read, with something interesting for novices and experienced GMs alike. I’m going to be posting more articles on GMing soon, but for now here’s a free excerpt:

Improvising Dialogue Sequences by Robin D. Laws

Robin D. Laws’ newest roleplaying game is Hillfolk, in which you weave an epic of dramatic interaction in an age of hungry empires. Previous RPG designs include The Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Feng Shui, and HeroQuest. His fiction projects include eight novels and the short story collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign. He comprises one-half of the Golden Geek Award winning podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, and can be found online at

As a GM your most extended exercises in off-the-cuff invention occur during dialogue sequences. Internalizing the simple structure behind character interaction in fiction, scripted and improvised, allows you to sharpen these scenes, making them fun, memorable, and rich in story opportunity.
Petitioner and Granter: Understanding the Scene
A simple structure powers scenes of any character interaction in drama, fiction, cinema, or TV. One character wants something from another character.

  • Wash wants Zoë to show that she cares more about him than she does about Mal.
  • Cersei wants to reestablish her position of superiority over Tyrion.
  • Loki wants Thor to let him out of his cell.

The first character makes a petition of the second character, hoping to get that thing. That makes the first character the petitioner. The character hearing the petitioner has the power to grant this request. That makes the character the granter—although granters refuse requests as often as they grant them. In the above examples, Wash, Cersei, and Loki take the roles of petitioner, while Zoë, Tyrion, and Thor are the granters.

(If this all sounds familiar to you, you perhaps recognize it as the heart of my game Hillfolkand its DramaSystem rules engine. The terms petitioner and granter come from The Conversations, a book-length interview of the legendary film editor Walter Murch by novelist Michael Ondaatje.)

Roleplaying dialogue scenes work the same way. The only difference is standard to RPGs, in that they frequently feature an ensemble of protagonists. Often they’ll make joint petitions of a single character, speaking en masse. Slightly more rarely, they’ll be petitioned as a group, acting as a granter together. Often, you as GM will make a petition in a two-hander scene (one featuring two characters), your NPC and one PC. The PC may then take the petition back to the rest of the group and they’ll debate what to do about it.

The first step, then, in sharpening your improvised dialogue scenes is to identify the petitioner and granter. Thankfully this is a simple call—if an NPC proposes something to the PCs, the NPC is the petitioner and one or more PCs acts as the granter.

  • The March Warden (an NPC) asks the PCs to clear the great swamp of encroaching orcs.
  • Euston Chau (an NPC) asks Dominic (a PC and his wannabe son-in-law) to have Mr. Bright (another PC) committed to a mental institution.
  • The Mugwump (an NPC supervillain) tells Redblade (a PC vigilante) to lay off, or he’ll reveal Redblade’s secret identity.

Petitioning is active; it seeks to overcome the granter’s resistance to put a new story point in motion. Assuming you’re letting the PCs drive the story, they’ll be making more petitions of your NPCs than vice versa.

  • The PCs ask the old hermit they encounter out in the great swamp if he’s seen any orc activity.
  • Dominic asks Euston’s chief security officer why he cares so much about Mr. Bright being sent to an institution.
  • Redblade pressures the gatekeeper of a criminal dark data network for access to the Mugwump’s file cache.

Identifying the petitioner helps by requiring you to pin down what the scene is about. When you’re playing the petitioner, you usually know that from the outset. (Sometimes you’ll shift your NPC’s goal in response to what the player says, which is good. But you still know in the first place what the character seeks, and you still know even if that changes in mid-scene.)
When you’re playing the granter, you find out what the scene is about partway through, when the players make clear their requests. You know your NPC is being petitioned, and immediately or gradually come to understand what the petition is about. When you figure it out partway through, it’s often because the players are also trying to work out what they want from the character. Expect this to happen when you introduce a new NPC without establishing right away what her role in the storyline might be.
When a roleplaying scene seems shapeless, it’s usually because neither you nor the players know what its purpose is, and are muddling around trying to find it. With the petitioner’s goal identified, you see how it can proceed to a resolution.


New Books for the Archive: Monsters and Other Childish Things

Monsters2CoverWhat if your imaginary friend was real? What if they were a twelve-headed frog from another dimension who hangs out with you because they think you’re destined to be the God-Emperor of the Multiverse, even though you’re flunking 7th-grade Math? And what if you didn’t just have to worry about the school bully but also his new ‘stepmother’ who you saw shedding her human skin behind the 7-11?

This is the world of Monsters and Other Childish Things, the newest addition to the society archive. Everyone plays a kid who’s formed an inexplicable bond with an inexplicable entity that’s mostly invisible to adults, and now must deal with their monster’s hungers and hobbies as well as their test scores and family life. When you mix in other kids with monsters, and cultists, MIBs and mad scientists all having nefarious designs on you and your monster, there’s plenty of problems to deal with.

The system is pretty simple. Kids have stats (guts, hands, feet, brains, face) and skills within those (Feet has P.E. for running and punching, Brains has Out-thinking for battles of wits, Guts has courage for staying your ground, etc). When you make a roll, you pick up a number of d10s equal to the relevant stat + skill and roll them, looking for matches of numbers – two 6s, five 2s, etc. The number on the dice is the quality of the roll, and the amount of dice is the speed. Different circumstances will call for quality or speed, and in combat it means your attack and your initiative can be tied up in one roll.

Monsters are a bit different (and very fun!) To generate a monster, you draw a picture of them and circle interesting bits – their big rubbery body, their ragged wings, their tentacle-y face and their maddening non-euclidean geometry, for example. Then you distribute 10 points between the different locations, and each point gives that part more health and more abilities to pick from. The system’s very flexible, and if you’d prefer to there’s a full system for randomly generating monsters. Monsters have their own personality, a way of hiding from mundane observation (shrinking really small, turning into a teddy bear, etc) and a favourite thing the kid can bribe them with. Monsters also love fighting each other, and for good reason; the winner of a battle between monsters gets to bite off bits of the loser and incorporate it into their own weird body.

As the books were bought in a deal with Arc Dream publishing, we have the entire game line in the archive. Here’s what else you can find:

  • Bigger Bads: A sourcebook on making your monsters huge. No, bigger than that. No, even bigger. Also includes a bunch of tips and tricks for running the game, and whole bundle of antagonists to use in your game.
  • Road Trip: A full campaign to use, where the weirdest summer vacation ever takes your players across the country following mysterious postcards and a cult trying to bring about the apocalypse.
  • Curriculum of Conspiracy: a fully detailed school to send your players to, with evil plots among the faculty and monsters and popular kids for the players to deal with.
  • The Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor: In this 1930s alternate setting, characters are orphans with mysterious pasts and creepy monster-like powers sent to the manor of reclusive Dr. Candlewick. Players untangle the mysteries and plots of Candlewick Vale, make connections with its monstrous residents and try to uncover their past. This book’s highly recommended if you’re looking for an alternative to the core setting, and really works in evoking an A Series of Unfortunate Events atmosphere.

If you’re interested, fill in the form on the Library List page and I’ll get the books to you!

New Books for the Archive: Fate Core

Have you ever wanted to play a kung-fu gorilla fighting ninja assassins from the future? A dashing young inventor using her gadgets to escape her father’s assassins? Or a cyborg policeman trying to keep the peace on Mars? Name your setting, and Fate Core can make it happen.

Fate Core is the newest iteration of the Fate system, and in the 10 years since its first edition the designers have created a slick system that’s simple to use but has plenty of depth. What makes the system so flexible is that it doesn’t concern itself with minutia like the range of a pistol or the jumping distance of an adult horse, but with the core concepts that make up your characters and the approaches they take to solving their problems.

This manifests in Aspects, short and snappy statements about characters, places and situations (Sucker for a Pretty Face, Dressed to the Nines, Silver-Tongued Scoundrel, Raging Inferno, etc), and Fate Points, chips you can cash in to invoke an aspect and get a bonus but only get back from your own aspects getting you in trouble. Together they create a natural rise and fall to a session; you’ll suffer setbacks just as much as fight your enemies, but it all helps you towards the final confrontation.

Character creation is pretty simple; each character has 5 aspects including one High Concept and one Trouble that between them give your basic character concept and what’s interesting about them, and picks some skills (Fists, Athletics, Lore etc) to particularly excel at. Finally, you pick three Stunts that boost or alter your skills and you’re done. The strength of the skill system is its flexibility – the core system handles guns and magic with equal aplomb, and even contains guidelines on how to make your own skills and stunts if you want to.

FAE-Bookcover_300x450Although Fate Core is pretty easy to pick up, Evil Hat Games went the extra mile to create a version of Fate designed explicitly for pick up and play games; Fate Accelerated. This 50 page book takes the further simplifying step of removing skills and replacing them with Approaches (Careful, Clever, Flashy, Sneaky). Thus the game doesn’t care what you do but how you do it, creating instant characterisation and even more flexibility – there’s no need for a magic subsystem when what matters is how flashy or clever your wizard is being with their magic.

If you have an idea for a game setting but aren’t interested into any particular system, I’d recommend you give Fate a try. The book’s light and easy to reference, the system’s very easy to pick up, and it’ll handle any setting you throw at it. As a plus, both games are available for free or pay-what-you-want at Evil Hat’s website!