Gameplay: Adding Drama to the Divine

“Knowledge has made you powerful, but there’s still so much you don’t know. Do you remember what you heard that night when the sorcerer tossed your parts in the fire? You heard a voice call out from the flames, do you remember? Should I tell you what the voice said? Should I tell you the name of the one who spoke?”

-Kinvara to Varys, Game of Thrones episode 6.5

So I’ve been watching the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones and if there’s one thing I like, it’s the presentation of the servants of the Lord of Light. Kinvara and Melisandre feel powerful and enigmatic. Even when she makes mistakes, Melisandre is driven by her mission and clearly has an interesting story yet to be revealed (on the show). And yet, watching the show, one thought occurred to me…  Clerics don’t feel this cool. Back when I started playing D&D, cleric was the class no one wanted to play; everyone else does cool stuff, and then the cleric fixes them up so they can do more cool stuff. The cleric felt like a box of band-aids, not a mysterious and dangerous vessel for cosmic forces.

There’s a lot of reasons for this. One of the things that drives these scenes is that they’re filled with mystery. WHAT exactly does Kinvara know? HOW does she know it? IS the Lord of Light what she says it is… or is she serving a darker power, knowingly or unwittingly? But that’s not how things work in most editions of D&D. Instead, the cleric is an armored spellcaster who heals and casts support spells, while the wizard is a glass canon with powerful offensive magic. Mechanically their magic serves different purposes – but aside from a few twists in how you select and memorize spells, it performs the same. Divine magic is just as reliable and predictable as arcane magic. Which is important if you’re playing a wargame and want to ensure that every character is balanced. But it doesn’t do a great job of modeling the theoretical differences between arcane and divine. A wizard approaches magic in a rational way. They learn formulas and rituals that allow them to manipulate magical energy. A wizard is like a scientist. By contrast, a cleric is a person who asks the universe to do something for them… and it does. Which raises all sorts of questions.

  • Can a cleric use divine magic to do something that’s against the principles of their faith? If so, why?
  • If the cleric’s deity will perform miracles on their behalf, why will they only do it two times a day (or whatever)? Why do they withhold the GOOD magic until the cleric goes up in level?
  • If the cleric is truly in need, shouldn’t their deity just, y’know, help them out?
  • If the deity has awesome power and can alter reality, why don’t they just smite bad things on their own, before the cleric even gets to them?

There’s lots of ways to deal with these questions. The simplest is to say that deities may maintain reality as we know it, but they can only directly affect things on a small scale through the medium of divine casters. There’s lots of possible explanations for this…

  • Cosmic Entities. The deity is so cosmic and vast that humans are like fleas to it; the cleric serves as a lens that allows the deity to focus on a specific situation.
  • Bound by Duty. The gods are occupied maintaining reality as we know it and if they stopped what they were doing to mess with things directly there would be consequences – Atlas can’t just stop holding up the sky. Perhaps, like the Silver Flame of Eberron, the deities are holding primordial fiends or aberrations at bay, and if they turn their power away from the struggle the world could be destroyed.
  • Bound by Rules. There is a strict balance of power between deities that prevents them from interfering in mortal affairs. Perhaps there was a cosmic conflict in the past that almost destroyed reality, and the gods agreed to abide by terms of a truce – should one intervene, all the others could as well. Or perhaps there’s a literal barrier erected that shields the mortal world from direct divine action. Whatever the nature, this divine armistice allows for mortal agents of the deities to act on their behalf. If you like the idea of gods that have stats, that you could find in the planes and potentially even beat up, this is the path to take. Because the gods COULD directly act on the world and many might WANT to directly act on the world, but there are cosmic rules that are preventing them from doing it – and so they need divine characters.
  • Abstract Entities. The gods don’t literally exist. They are concepts in the collective unconscious, and people’s belief in them generates power. So they can’t act on their own because they have no actual volition or consciousness; but the intense faith of a divine caster allows them to draw on this power. If you’re an atheist in Eberron, this is what you believe.

The point of these examples is to have divine powers that exist but that can’t directly intervene and that need mortals to work their will. They have vast knowledge and can channel power through their mortal vessels. As for the limitations of level, you can easily say that channeling divine power is dangerous for mortals, and that the amount of power a caster can safely channel grows with experience. It’s not that a god can’t grant a low-level cleric a powerful spell, it’s that casting that powerful spell would kill the cleric.

Note that none of these ideas prevent a deity from affecting the world in a PASSIVE way. In Eberron, followers of the Sovereign Host say that the Sovereigns are omnipresent – that every time a smith holds a hammer Onatar is there with them, and every time a soldier draws a sword Dol Dorn is there. But Dol Dorn doesn’t DECIDE the outcome of the battle; he just guides the soldiers, if they listen to his voice. This is part of the idea of the god “maintaining reality” – that things we take for granted ARE the result of divine actions.

Now: all of these ideas play off the foundation of gods that don’t directly incarnate or intervene – deities that can only affect the world through their clerics. This is how prefer to use them… but I’ll add a section about active gods to the end of this post.

So: what follows is a jumble of ideas for making divine character feel different from other spellcasters. Bear in mind: these are about making the story more interesting, not about maintaining perfect mechanical balance. I wouldn’t impose any of these on a player without discussing them first; ideally I’d have the player decide things like divine origin.


How common is divine magic in your world? Is it miraculous, or is it mundane? In our world, we don’t expect priests to perform miracles; the purpose of a priest is to provide spiritual guidance. In Eberron, most priests aren’t clerics; they’re experts trained in Diplomacy, Medicine, Insight, History – people who have practical skills for helping and guiding a community, but who can’t make light by snapping their fingers. The same is true in Game of Thrones – we don’t see priests throwing magic around left and right, which means that when one DOES perform magic they feel mysterious and powerful. Why can THIS person perform miracles? What are their full capabilities? In such a world, the question arises: how does the character perform divine magic? Is it something they studied and harnessed, or is it a gift? Consider the following ideas.

  • Faith Alone. The character has never had direct contact with the deity, but their faith is so absolute and deep that it allows them to connect with the divine power. This is the default concept in Eberron. It’s a good path if you want to use divine magic exactly as written, because there’s no outside power granting it; ultimately it’s all about the caster and their indomitable faith. They can do whatever they want with their magic, even if it violates the precepts of their religion, as long as they BELIEVE they are doing the right thing.
  • Divine Gift. The character had some form of direct contact with the deity – whether in an incarnate form or divine vision – in which the deity granted the character the ability to channel divine power. So the deity isn’t personally granting or sanctioning each individual spell the character uses; but the character’s ability to cast spells is a divine gift and proof of their role as an agent of the deity. Like faith, this is an easy way to allow the character to use magic even if a specific action doesn’t directly support their faith. If they go way out of line the deity could rescind the gift… but again, the gods don’t sanction each and every spell as they’re cast.
  • Patron Spirit. The divine caster is attended by a lesser intermediary of the deity. This being – angel, demon, saint, call it what you will – can’t directly interact with the physical world, but it can advise the caster and empowers them to cast spells. What’s nice about this is that it’s a way to give the player a direct connection to the divine, something they can talk to — without making the deity feel small. Aureon is busy monitoring the entire world, but his angel Caskelon is your personal spiritual guide. In the case of a Patron Spirit, you have a number of additional questions to ask. Can the character communicate with the spirit just as if talking to a person? Or is it that the character feels the presence of the spirit and knows it will respond to their prayers, but can’t speak with it directly unless using magic like commune? The idea here is that the Patron Spirit DOES personally perform the divine magic the caster calls upon (albeit acting through the vessel of the caster) – which means that it may refuse to perform spells that don’t support the goals of the faith, and that it could potentially take actions uninvited… more on this later.
  • Eyes of the Divine. Another option is that the character is literally a focus within the world for the attention of the deity. The deity uses the caster as both eyes and hands. To make this feel grander than the patron spirit, I’d clarify that the deity is simultaneously connected to all their divine casters and that the PC rarely has their full attention… and that when they do, it’s a transcendental experience. This is a good path if the player wants to have clear guidance as to what they should be doing; the god is literally looking over their shoulder and will judge their actions. In this path you can definitely have spells rejected if they don’t serve the divine purpose – or empowered or cast unexpectedly when it does serve the divine purpose. The goal of this path is to make divine magic absolutely different from arcane. The cleric isn’t casting a spell from a book; they are a vessel for a vast alien entity who is using them to enact its will on reality.


If you want to make divine characters feel distinctly different from other characters, emphasize that they have a purpose. As a divine caster, you didn’t just learn magic; you were given magic to help you accomplish the goals of your deity in the world.This purpose can easily be tied to the main story of a campaign; If the campaign is about defeating the Dark Lord, great: cleric, your deity has given you a vision, and it’s your job to make sure this group of adventurers defeats the Dark Lord. This isn’t just “I live in the world, so I might as well save it” – you’ve personally been given this assignment by the universe.

However, not every campaign has a goal that fits the sphere of a deity. Perhaps you’re just dungeon crawling for gold. Perhaps you’re playing a one-shot. But as a GM, you can still play with the idea that divine characters have a purpose… and that this can be updated at any time. At any point, you could hit a paladin or cleric with a new goal. For example…

  • Is your war cleric on a dungeon crawl? You have a vision of the tormented souls of soldiers bound to their bones and unable to find rest. Which is to say, there’s undead in this dungeon – but as a war cleric, it’s your duty to lay these warriors to rest.
  • Oath of Vengeance paladin who’s found the remains of a caravan struck by bandits? It’s your duty to hunt down the brigands and punish them for what they’ve done.
  • Life cleric passing through a village? Perhaps you know that you need to help the crying child on the corner. Or you can feel a darkness rising that is going to threaten this village… you don’t know what it is, but you need to protect these people.

In many cases, these might be things the players would choose to do anyway. The point is that the divine character has clear purpose: this is what you should do. With that said, a second question is how is this information provided? If your divine origin gives you a direct connection to your spirit or deity, you could have a booming voice in your mind giving you instructions. A patron spirit could be an entertaining partner – not unlike a familiar – who you can converse with an ask for casual advice. On the other hand, divine visions could be very abstract and open to interpretation. Arriving in the village, for a moment the cleric sees the crying child covered in blood. Does this mean you must save this child from a coming threat or you should kill this evil child? This sort of abstract vision can be very interesting from a roleplaying perspective. When you walk into the bar, for a moment you see a golden crown floating above the head of the innkeeper. Is he the forgotten heir of a noble line? Is he a tyrant in his tiny domestic kingdom? Should you do what he says? Note that this is exactly what happens with the Red Priests in Game of Thrones – they see visions in the flames, but these visions aren’t explicitly spelled out and we’ve already seen instances where the priest misinterprets the vision with terrible results.

If I was using this sort of communication, I’d probably let a divine character make a Religion check to get some hints about the vision, because part of the point of religious lore would be knowing about past visions, the meanings of specific icons in your faith, etc. With that said, in that innkeeper-crown scenario, I wouldn’t just respond to a good die roll by saying “It means he’s a secret heir to the throne” – I’d say “There are a number of accounts where servants of the Light have written about seeing a crown above the head of the true heir to the Golden Throne; Helekan the Wise said that the Light runs through the blood of the true kings, and described a crown almost exactly like this one.”

So again, you could just have a booming voice tell the paladin what to do… but it can be a more interesting story if visions are mysterious and have to be interpreted.


Arcane magic is a science. It make sense that it only works when called upon and that its effects are predictable. Divine magic is a gift, not something a caster can ever entirely master or control. Again, if you’re primarily concerned about balance and strategic reliability, you probably want to keep things as they are. But if you WANT divine characters to feel different, here’s a few things to consider.

  • A divine caster normally selects their spells from their class list. However, as divine magic is a gift you could choose to start the day off by replacing one or two spells on the character’s list with specific spells – essentially, these are what your deity wants you to have today. If these spells are going to be especially useful in the adventure, there’s no need for further modification. If not, you might empower the spells – when you cast this spell, it’s as if you used a higher-level spell slot – as a way of saying this is the power your deity wants you to use. It’s a simple way to push the idea that as a divine caster you don’t have full and rational control of your powers – while also compensating for that either with a slight boost in power or assured utility.
  • Likewise, it’s a relatively simple matter to empower spells used in direct service of a divine purpose or cause… and to minimize the effects of spells that don’t support that cause. This is something I’d avoid unless you have an absolute understanding with the player, and that they are prepared for the idea that their magic may not always perform at peak efficiency – but it is a concrete way to differentiate between a cleric and wizard. This could extend to a cleric being unable to heal or bless a party member whose actions are strongly opposed to principles of the faith. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that party members have to follow a cleric’s faith to receive healing… but a cleric of a god of Law might find that their deity won’t give aid to the chaotic evil rogue who’s always stealing from innocent villagers. With that in mind…
  • You could allow sacrifices, oaths and vows to have a direct impact on divine magic, or simply on the actions of the faithful. Perhaps that rogue can receive healing provided she swears not to steal from the innocent for the next three days. Perhaps the paladin can his smite empowered if he swears to give this bandit’s treasure to the local temple. The question is what consequences there are for swearing an oath and then breaking it.
  • Another possibility – tied to the idea that a divine caster is the deity’s tool in the mortal world – is that divine magic may trigger spontaneously when it serves the deity’s purposes. Someone who blasphemes against a cleric’s god might find themselves struck by sacred flame – even though the cleric didn’t cast it. A paladin hoarding their lay on hands pool could find some of that energy diverted to heal a sickly innocent. As a DM you don’t want to overuse this or take too much control away from a player… but it can be a way to clearly remind a caster of their deity’s will.
  • A less intrusive form of this is to have a divine character occasionally gain insights tied to their deity’s sphere. This is sort of like divine communication, but it doesn’t have to have a purpose attached to it. A favored soul of the goddess of Love might simply know when two people are in love. When the cleric of the Death God meets an old man, you might say By the way, he’s going to die tomorrow. Ideally, this is like the Kinvara quote that starts off this article: the PC suddenly has a piece of knowledge that they couldn’t possibly have. But again, the point here would be to say that they don’t know why they’ve been given this knowledge, and they can’t ask for clarification; they just suddenly know a thing.
  • A final twist on spontaneous divine magic would be death curses. Perhaps when a divine caster dies, the deity might take vengeance on the killer. The simplest way to implement this is to trigger one of the caster’s uncast spells; if the caster is out of spells, then their power is spent and there is no curse. Alternately, you could make a death curse a more abstract thing – but something that could linger until the deity is appeased. While this would occasionally help out divine PCs, it’s more likely that it would be something PCs would have to worry about when they end up fighting divine casters; it might be a reason that you want to subdue an enemy cleric instead of killing them, so as not to incur the wrath of their god.

Like I said: I wouldn’t institute any of these ideas unless you’ve discussed them with your players and everyone’s on board. But these are a few ways to make the divine feel a little more unpredictable. If you’ve got questions or ideas, add them in the comments below!


What I’ve suggested above is really focused on settings in which a deity can only affect the world through the medium of a divine caster. But what about settings where the gods DO manifest in the world, realms where you can meet – or  fight – a deity?

I generally don’t like these for the same reason I don’t like having powerful benevolent NPCs in the world. If the godess of justice can manifest in the world and take direct action, why doesn’t she? By making the paladin her hand in the world, you give a player character a vital role in the story; if she can show up and personally solve a problem, the paladin is suddenly the rookie cop who only gets to be special when the boss takes a day off.

Likewise, once you start getting into the idea that deities can arbitrarily affect the world – whether by smiting bad guys or giving advantage to their servants – you run into the question of so why aren’t they doing it all the time? If the paladin is serving their cause, why don’t they automatically heal him? By saying that the caster is the hand of the deity, and the magic they possess is the extent of the deity’s ability to alter reality in their vicinity, you clearly establish what is and isn’t possible… even if you decide to say that their magic could be empowered or could trigger spontaneously. This is what I like about the idea of saying that if the enemy cleric has cast all of her spells, you don’t have to worry about a death curse… because her deity has no power left to affect the area.

With that said, you could certainly say that the gods have the ability to manifest in the world and have the power to personally change events, but choose not to. Perhaps they are trying to teach or elevate mortals. Giving clerics divine magic is like an alien giving fire to a neanderthal. They are providing a tool, and offering guidance, and occasionally they may even show up in person… but they want mortals to solve their own problems, even if that means that they may suffer or die in the process.

The main thing is that in many myths where gods walk the Earth, the gods end up being the main characters of the story… and that’s a situation I always want to avoid.

A key point to all of this: My goal here is not to make divine characters more powerful than other characters – it is to BALANCE certain benefits with greater responsibility and unpredictability. You don’t always get to choose the spells you want – but your deity may give you the spell you need, or empower the gift they want you to use. They will have expectations of you that the simple fighter doesn’t have to worry about.

Anyhow, that’s all I have time for. Here’s a list of my upcoming events, including DragonCon – I hope to see some of you there! Share your thoughts and twists on divine magic below.

Music to Game By: Ink, Silence

This last weekend I was a guest at the G.A.M.E. convention in Springfield, Missouri. While it was a small convention, I had a fantastic time. I met many wonderful people, and had an opportunity to run an Eberron adventure and a Phoenix playtest. While I’ve run both scenarios before, both leave enough in the hands of the players that it’s a different experience for me every time. This collaboration is one of the things I love about roleplaying games; it’s like rereading a favorite story but having it turn out differently every time.

Quite often, gaming at conventions means running your game in a huge room filled with other people playing games of their own. G.A.M.E. gave me my own room for my sessions. Having this private space gave me the bring music to the table, something that doesn’t really work in the open air arena. It made for a great session… and that inspired me to write a little about music and games.

Music can be a powerful tool, if you have an environment that lets it work. In a story-driven game, we’re creating visions in our minds — imagining a setting quite different from the dining room or basement we’re playing in. Music can help ease that transition, and it can also help drive the mood of the moment. If you know the basic acts of your story and have time to create appropriate playlists. When you switch from the soft, eerie music of exploring a graveyard to the more dramatic combat music, it’s an instinctive cue to the players that the situation has changed and this scene is more active. In long running campaigns, I often like to establish a theme song for the game itself, and set that going when the session begins; it’s a nice way to start that transition from table to story, and to draw people back to the last session. You can even tie themes to individual characters… when people hear the Imperial March, they know Darth Vader’s just around the corner.

I don’t always have time for this level of preparation. I didn’t have time for this in my Phoenix session at G.A.M.E. Instead, I just picked a few things I knew fit the overall tone of the story and set them cycling. With that in mind, I thought I’d talk about a few of the tracks that often find their way on my gaming playlists. There’s dozens of excellent gaming soundtracks out there, and I’ll look at others in the future; and I’d love to hear about some of your favorites. Today I’m looking at two of mine: Ink and Silence of the Lambs.

INK (Jamin Williams, 2009) is a film about dreams. The soundtrack is quiet, eerie, and works through a small set of repeated themes. The repetition works to its advantage, because it means that a shift in track doesn’t automatically draw attention away from the game. One advantage is that it’s a fairly obscure film; the Game of Thrones soundtracks are excellent fantasy background, but when the title motif comes up it’s hard not to think “Game of Thrones!” While the primaryInkmotif is very distinctive, odds are good your players don’t have any prior associations with it. As I said before, it’s fairly slow, ambient, and eerie; I like to use it for exploration, investigation, and general background. It’s not TOO creepy, and it’s certainly not dramatic combat music… but it makes for a good background that won’t draw too much attention from your story.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (Howard Shore, 1991) is also good for general eerie ambience and the building sense that you’re building towards something terrible. It’s an orchestral score, and slightly more complicated than Ink. It also has a few themes that serve different purposes, so it’s not one you’re likely to want to play straight through. The Main Title, The Asylum, and the Finale are all excellent building/investigation music, if a touch more dramatic than Ink. On the other hand, The Abduction and Lecter Escapes both have SHOCKING DISCOVERY moments that can be distracting if you aren’t in a shocking discovery place. This was one of my go-to soundtracks for running Over The Edge, and I expect it to see a lot of use in my Phoenix tests.

Needless to say, this is only the tip of the iceberg; I’ll talk about more of my favorites in days to come. In the meantime, what’s some of your favorite music to game to?





RPG Ramblings: Death and Games

What follows is a random train of thought, so don’t come to this expecting a meaningful conclusion: it’s a ramble, nothing more. I hope that you’ll add your thoughts and experiences at the end.

Whether you’re designing an adventure or writing a novel, death is a tricky thing. If the players know that there’s no threat of death, then many things lose their bite. What’s the point of a fight scene if I know I can’t lose? Why don’t we skip all the dice rolls and just cut to the chase?

On the other hand, random death can be an even greater disappointment. I’ve developed this fascinating character. He’s the heir to a lost throne, and he’s got to follow this cryptic note from his mother to discover what happened to his vanished kingdom, and he–Oh, wait, he just got killed by an orc bandit on the road. Never mind.

In between these you have the typical MMORPG, in which death is essentially a speed bump; you lose a little experience or time, and then you’re back on your feet again. It’s a compromise that serves the needs of the game – it’s POSSIBLE to lose a fight, and there’s some consequences, but you don’t lose the character you’ve invested hundreds of hours in. On the other hand, it’s a necessary evil; again, if I’ve invested a hundred dollars and a hundred hours in this character, I’d be furious if I ended up losing it to some random unbalanced monster. But it certainly changes the story – and it’s not something I like in a pen and paper RPG. In my personal work on Eberron, I’ve tried to reduce the role of institutional resurrection. In Sharn: City of Towers, I added the following section (page 20):

In particular, raise dead is rarely used on Khorvaire, and it is highly unusual to find a cleric or adept who has the spell prepared. Followers of the Silver Flame believe that warriors who die in holy service join the Flame after death, while the Valenar elves believe their dead join with the spirits of their ancestors. Even among the followers of the Sovereign Host, using raise dead is viewed as a challenge to the will and wisdom of the gods. This does not mean that there is no hope for heroes who fall in battle—but it is not just a matter of tossing 5,450 gp at the local priest.

In City of Stormreach, I took things in another direction:

Strange events sometimes accompany the use of powerful necromancy in Stormreach. In a handful of cases, foreign spirits have seized the bodies of those being raised. When Jorasco sought to resurrect the Storm Lord Delera Omaren, the risen warrior cried out in the tongue of the giants and killed dozens with lightning before she was returned to the grave. Another time, a pack of marut inevitables appeared after a member of the Wayfinder Foundation (page 130) was raised. The outsiders slew the adventurer and devastated the enclave before vanishing. Today, Jorasco healers use augury before performing major necromancy. But divinations can fail, and at the DM’s discretion, resurrection might bring surprises.

These paragraphs were influenced by two things. First, Eberron is a world that seeks to explore the logical impact of magic. Institutionalized resurrection would have tremendous social impact – and Eberron isn’t designed with that in place. So I want reasons why, if the magic exists, it hasn’t become a part of everyday life. Beyond that, I want death to feel significant. You CAN be resurrected, but that should be a story in its own right and there should be consequences. In one adventure I ran, someone was killed in the monstrous city of Graywall and the group sought assistance from a priestess of the Shadow. She DID raise the victim… but he came back without a shadow. His shadow now belonged to the Shadow – and had the campaign continued, some very interesting things would have happened with it.

These three approaches – no death, trivial death, let-the-dice-fall-as-they-may random death – are just that, three approaches. There’s many other paths to generate tension even if the players aren’t personally worried about death. You can threaten allies or intangibles (reputation, rank, etc). Perhaps the danger isn’t THEIR death, but rather the broader impact of the failure of a mission. In one adventure I played in, our party was killed in battle & then resurrected by a traveling cleric – a perfect example of the MMO trivial resurrection style. But one of the PCs was pregnant, and it was an ongoing source of tension as to whether the battle had affected the child. I’ll note that sex and pregnancy in RPGs is an entire topic in its own right – “Life in RPGs”, if you will. I’ll simply say that in THIS campaign, it was a natural extension of a relationship that had developed organically and that it ended up being the driving story of the campaign, as opposed to some random DM caprice. As in this situation, where a threat to the child was a sufficient source of tension that it didn’t matter if WE weren’t going to die.

And even in a campaign where there’s no casual death, there’s always the opportunity for a GOOD death. I was a soft touch back in the day and would rarely kill players… but every now and then a situation comes up where a character SHOULD die: a heroic sacrifice, a shocking event that establishes the nature of the major threat, the successful completion of a character arc that really leaves no other story you want to tell. In such situations, it can be better to have the character die and move on than to live at the expense of the story. This is a strange thing about Fiasco. In most RPGs, we play characters we like or who we’d want to be, if we could. In many sessions of Fiasco, the point is to make a story about bad people making stupid decisions – and often these characters SHOULD come to a bad end. If you play your character as a hero and try to push him to a triumphant do-the-right-thing ending, you may well derail the story. It’s a game ABOUT exploring dark places and unpleasant consequences, and it can be a transition for people used to being the victorious good guys.

Another game with a different approach to death is Dread. In Dread, conflict resolution is done by pulling pieces from a jenga tower. If the tower falls, you die. First off, this means that at some point in the course of the game, you can be pretty darn sure someone will die. It doesn’t even leave the suspense in the hands of the gamemaster; the fate of your character rests solely in that tower. One way it does empower the player is offering the chance for a heroic sacrifice; any time you want, you can choose to knock down the tower, sacrificing yourself in place of another player having to make a pull. You don’t have complete control over your life, but you can always choose to die heroically

All this ties into my current project, Phoenix. In Phoenix, you are a unit of elite soldiers thrown into terrible situations. You may be in over your head, and there’s an excellent chance you won’t make it through your mission… and if you survive this one, the next one’s likely to be even worse. Luckily, you’re a Phoenix. When you die, you come back stronger than before; death is, in fact, the main method of character improvement. But you don’t come back right away… and you only get to come back eight times. This has two consequences: first, you can fail. Most missions are time sensitive. If your entire unit dies, the mission will fail. You’ll all come back – but the objective is lost and you’ll have to deal with the consequences. Second, while you CAN die and return, there is a clear end to the road. Your first death is no big thing… but by your sixth death, you need to start being careful. And without going into too much detail, the circumstances of your death affect your next life. What this means is that rather than working to avoid death at all costs, or ignoring death as meaningless or trivial, death becomes a critical part of the story. You are going to die, eventually – but can you make that death mean something? What lessons will you learn from it? Can you make it matter?

There’s a lot more to say about Phoenix, both the game itself and the other people working on it. It’s not an approach that would work for every campaign – but it’s ideally suited to the world we’re creating, and it creates an interesting and different sort of story. But more of that in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you handle death in your games? What do you do to raise the tension?

Fantasy Roundtable: Travel by Montage

In today’s adventure, the intrepid band of heroes has a long trek to reach their destination. The vast forest is infamous as a haven for bandits and ruffians, shunned by the wise… but it’s the only path to the ruined temple of the Holy MacGuffin. The fact of the matter is that the adventurers are far too skilled and accomplished for a typical band of brigands to pose any sort of threat. Having a random battle would simply waste time without adding any real tension, and compared to the story you have in mind, fighting bandits is a pretty dull story. You could take the red line approach, just cutting from point A to point B with a few sentences of description, explaining just how creepy the forest is and that the bandits are smart enough to avoid the party. But at the same time, the forest is really creepy, and the presence of the bandits is a well established part of the setting; you want them to feel like they’ve taken a significant journey. What do you do?

It’s possible for the journey to be the adventure. The Hobbit is a story about a group of adventurers delving into a dragon’s lair… but the bulk of the story is about the journey to the dungeon. Mechanically, bandits can’t pose a threat to the adventurers. Well, what if they can? What if they come back to life whenever they are killed—and the only way to stop them is to find and destroy the artifact or power source that’s empowering them? Or perhaps it’s a moral dilemma: the “bandits” are actually Robin Hood-style heroes robbing from the rich to raise money for some vital cause, like buying medicine to bring an end to a local plague? The adventurers are, in fact, incredibly rich by local standards; are they willing to help in some way, or do they slaughter the last, best hope of the stricken locals?

This sort of thing can be a lot of fun. The En Route series from Atlas Games presents a host of little scenarios designed to fit into the spaces between the major parts of an adventure—challenges that aren’t simply combat encounters, but interesting stories on their own. However, playing through such a scene takes time, and if the core adventure has a strong story, you may not want to water it down with a side scene. So you don’t have time to make a bandit encounter actually interesting; you don’t want to waste time on a pointless fight; but you also don’t want to just gloss over the journey. What do you do?

What I’ve been doing lately is using a travel montage. Come up with a few interesting things that could happen on the journey and put one of these situations in the hands of each player, giving each character their own spotlight moment. So if I’ve got an elf wizard, a dwarf fighter, a halfling thief, and a human priest, I might say:

  • Halfling thief: “Tell me how you help the group avoid a bandit attack on the first day.”
  • Elf wizard: “There are constant storms in this region. By the second day your clothes are drenched, and the bridge across the local river has been washed away. How does your magic help the party get across the river?”
  • Dwarf fighter: “This forest is older than human civilization. You’re sure you hear the howls of ghosts on the wind, and see things moving in the shadows. You’re a brave man… what’s the one thing that actually scares you on the journey?”
  • Human priest: “Tell me about the dream you have on the last night.”

The point of this approach is to give each character a chance to be in the spotlight for a moment, and to encourage the players to think about what makes the journey interesting for them. Sure, any of the characters could figure out how to cross a river, but this time, it was the wizard who figured it out… now tell me how. Depending what the players come up with, you could incorporate their answers into the later adventure. Perhaps the priest’s dream will turn out to be prophetic, or the thing that frightened the dwarf will return in some way. Perhaps the thief avoided the bandits because he actually knew the bandit leader from his first guild… in which case, that character could turn up again later in a more interesting role. Alternately, the players might just make jokes out of the scenarios; the one thing that actually scares the dwarf is watching the halfling eat, or the snores of the priest. There’s nothing wrong with this. The whole point is to let the players have a chance to tell the story they want; if they want to laugh, this is a great opportunity for that.

What’s your favorite approach for making travel interesting when it’s not a central part of the adventure? What’s worked well for you?

Fantasy Roundtable: Family Ties

The holidays are a time when families come together. The presence of my relatives got me thinking about games, and how RPG characters often exist in isolation. After all, if my goal is to make the most efficient dungeon delver ever, what practical benefit is there to having a kid sister or an aging mother? Sheer mechanics aside, how will it make the game experience more fun for me?

In general, exploring family is a way to add depth to a character. Where have they come from? What are their roots? Is the fighter carrying on a proud tradition, or is he a black sheep whose adventuring career is an embarrassment to his noble family? Is there a town he calls home, or are his kinfolk spread across the land?

Here’s a few of my ideas on the subject. Some of these I’ve used in the past; others I might try in the future. I’d love to hear what you’ve done with families in your games!


You want to be a lone wolf with no ties to the world? Nothing wrong with that. But if you don’t have any family, WHY don’t you have any family? A few scenarios:

  • Graven’s family were massacred by the Karrns in the Last War. This fuels his long-standing hatred of all things Karrnathi and general dislike of the undead. If he’s mainly a dungeon crawler, this might be as far as it goes. In a more intrigue-oriented campaign he might eventually learn that the attack was actually carried out by the Emerald Claw on behalf of Erandis Vol; his family held some secret that posed a threat to her. Can he uncover this and avenge the fallen? Alternately, some of his relatives could still be held in undead servitude. Can he lay them to rest?
  • Junius lost everyone and everything he knew in the Mourning (or Spellplague, or similar vast disaster). While it’s not a goal that drives him at the start, he might jump at the chance to uncover the mystery of the disaster that destroyed his loved ones. Another adventure might involve exploring the ruins of his family estate, salvaging family treasures still hidden there.
  • Sera has never known her family; she was raised in an orphanage/by wolves/by mercenaries. She’s never stayed in one place long enough to be friends. On the surface, this leaves the character with no story at all; however, it also means that there’s no facts in the way of making up a story, as when it is suddenly revealed that Sera is the long-lost last heir of the throne of Elf-dom, spirited away and hidden by a loyal retainer when her family was being hunted down by their rivals.

In popular fiction, Kvothe from The Name of the Wind is an orphan. Many of his adventures have nothing to do with this, but his desire to avenge his parents is an underlying theme that drives his long-term goals.


The Lord of the Rings and The Order of the Stick are both driven by quests handed down from previous generations. OotS’s Roy Greenhilt is bound to fulfill his father’s blood oath, while Frodo is given the task of carrying his uncle’s ring to Mordor. The heroes are also equipped by their elders; Roy wields his grandfather’s sword, while Frodo receives the sword Sting and a coat of mithral chainmail from Bilbo. By contrast, Thorin Oakenshield of The Hobbit has no special sword or armor, but he receives a map and a quest to reclaim his ancestral home. In all three cases, the inherited quest is the end goal of a campaign arc; all three have a host of adventures on the way to carrying out their heirloom quests.

This sort of story is easily adapted to a roleplaying game; it simply requires cooperation between the players and the GM when it comes to planning out the campaign arc. In terms of providing a character with an heirloom treasure, there are a number of ways to handle this. Each character could receive a treasure, so everyone is on even footing. It could be that only one character receives an heirloom, and this is balanced by increased responsibility or danger; the character is the subject of a vendetta and will invariably be the focus of enemy attacks. On the other hand, it may be that the heirloom drives the story but has no mechanical value. Thorin simply receives a map. And while Roy carries his grandfather’s sword, it only becomes a powerful magic item once he has it reforged. In this, there’s some similarity to Aragorn in Lord of the Rings; he has the pieces of a powerful sword from the very beginning of the “campaign”, but he is only able to reforge the sword after a series of trials and triumphs. In both cases, the sword has a personal meaning to the hero who carries it; it’s not just some random treasure plucked from a monster’s hoard. They effectively acquire the weapons through adventure – but the weapons have personal significance due to their family history.


Perhaps you are following a family tradition… in which case, other members of your family might be more advanced in your chosen field than you are. The wizard’s mother might be the Master Diviner at the Mage’s Guild. The father of the rogue could be a Boromar underboss who with a sizeable territory in Sharn. The fighter might be the son of a general in the army or the captain of the city watch.

This sort of connection raises a host of possibilities. The first is the question of the relationship between the player character and successful relative. Is the PC following in the footsteps of the parent? Does he expect to fill his forebear’s shoes, or is he following a different path? If the relationship is a good one, the relative could serve as a patron for the party… either directly supplying them with missions or simply cutting them a break on services they might not otherwise be able to obtain. Diviner Mom can help the party identify magic items, and she occasionally provides them with a free augury… but a time may come when they need to help mom overthrow the corrupt guildmaster, or exorcise the quori that has managed to weasel its way into her mind. If the family member does provide some sort of concrete benefit to the party—whether missions or services—it will make storylines that threaten her have that much more impact.

One question is whether or not you are aware of your family’s business at the start of your adventuring career. It could be that your ancestors are a secret order of demon-hunters, but your parents have kept the truth hidden from you because you weren’t ready to take on the responsibility/the stars weren’t right/your sister was the Chosen One. Now that the demons are rising/you found the sword of angels/your sister is dead/you’ve reached level ten, your ancient purpose is revealed… which might be just the thing to explain your new paragon path/prestige class.

A spin-off of this is the noble heir who starts off as a free-spirited adventurer, but who is eventually called upon to carry out the duties of his office. When King Bob is assassinated, it’s up to the fighter to take up his crown; he must deal with the problems facing the tiny kingdom. The party’s cleric must serve as his spiritual adviser, and the rogue is the spymaster. The little kingdom is caught between two greater powers; the PC King could escape much of this responsibility by swearing allegiance to the empire to the north, but will he surrender his kingdom’s independence so easily? Such a plotline is an interesting way to switch from a heroic arc to a higher level campaign. The PCs have honed their skills crawling through dungeons and fighting monsters; now they must deal with spies, assassins, and armies.

Another take on this is having the entire party be drawn from a single family. Looking to the Boromar crime family, you could easily have characters with different classes all pitching in to help the family business in different ways.


A family rival could be a friendly rivalry within your own family… the fighter’s sister is a sorceress, and has always been determined to prove magic superior to the sword. She has her own band of adventurers. Sometimes they help you; sometimes they beat you to something you were searching for; sometimes you only find out about an interesting dungeon because they got their first. This gives a possibility for cavalry to arrive when you bite off more than you can chew… but you might also end up having to bail your sibling out of trouble when they take on too much, and end up imprisoned/possessed/petrified/what-have-you.

Alternatively, you could be dealing with a rivalry between families. Capulets and Montagues, Hatfields and McCoys, Bagginses and Sackville-Bagginses. This could be primarily a political rivalry that has little direct affect on your adventures, and mainly comes out in the reactions of certain NPCs who either support or oppose your family. On the other hand, it could be simmering on the edge of violence, with a constant threat of assassins or attacks; between poking around in dungeons, you might raid the estate of an enemy family, or be sent as envoys to win the favor of a neutral family.


Epic level getting you down? Do you long for the simple days when a dire rat was a challenge? Perhaps it’s time to jump forward a few decades and start a new campaign based on the descendants of your current party. This works especially well if some sort of interparty romance has already formed over the course of the campaign; if the fighter and the wizard already hooked up, there’s a solid family that can be the backbone of the next generation. It’s possible for every player to play a descendant of their original character, but you shouldn’t feel tied to this; the core descendants will surely have friends and acquaintances from distant places. Likewise, use your imagination when asking where are they now for your original PCs. They could be happily married & running the local inn/wizard’s guild/kingdom. But perhaps the sorcerer vanished a decade ago, and no one knows what became of him. Maybe the rogue and fighter quarreled, and the rogue is now a legendary assassin whose name is spoken in whispers. The paladin has fallen and rules a dark kingdom with an iron fist. Perhaps the warlock’s child has inherited a problem from the original PC; it turns out that part of the warlock’s pact concerned the soul of his firstborn child, and it’s up to the next-gen PC to pay the price for her father’s lust for power.

These are just a handful of ideas; there’s many other ways that family could play a role in a campaign. An entire campaign could be based around dynastic conflict. Your kid sister is determined to be an adventurer and has followed you into danger… can you keep her alive? Your brother is getting married to the Inspired ambassador… do you trust her? What do you get as a wedding gift? Will you go to the destination wedding in Sarlona? Quests for vengeance, ancestral curses, the spell your great-grandfather never quite finished… delving into family can provide all sorts of interesting flavor and inspiration for good NPCs.

This is just a starting point. What have YOU done with family in your games? What would you like to do in games to come?