Roleplaying Games

While we are waiting to get our pool back into action for the summer, I needed something to do to keep my daughter busy, so I ran her a quick one-shot in Broken Compass, an RPG system by Two Little Mice out of Italy, that i had backed on Kickstarter. They did well with their first two campaigns — the first being the original game and “Golden Age” (1930s pulp) setting, and their second the Jolly Roger (pirates) and Voyages Extraordinaire (steampunk/Victorian sic-fi). The game system has been reviewed by me before, and our first run at it with the gaming group left us thinking it was an excellent lightweight set of rules that works better than Ubiquity or Fate for pulp settings. (Although it’s hard as the GM to get used to not rolling dice…)

The kiddo built a “gunslinger pilot”, so I tried to think of a quick game without digging into some of the Black Campbell stuff I’d already published. I wound up running a game set in early 1926, with her character — a Texan girl of 18 who had run away/had to run away for legal reasons. She had somehow wound up in Bimini, where she had been working as a speedboat and seaplane pilot for Gertrude Lythgoe, sometimes known as “Cleo” or “Cleopatra” for her exotic looks — the so-called “Bahama Queen” of the rum-runners. The adventure was designed to be a quick run, maybe two hours, for a solo character but could be easily buffed up.

Following a night of drinking and jazz music (put on some 1926 hits at this point for atmosphere) at the Port Alice Hotel in Alice Town, Bimini — Cleo, the Bahama Queen gets into an argument with an arrogant gangster in from “Fort Liquordale” (Lauderdale), who is trying to worm his way into the rum trade. Along the way, he insults her and the character — a “slip of a girl” and bets them his crew can get a ton (about twenty cases) of booze into Lauderdale before they can do the same in the plane. The boat can offload on the shoreline, but the seaplane (a new Fairchild 71 — yes, I know it’s a bit early for that particular bird to be out) has to have a more stable landing poinbt and it’s not inconspicuous, so they’ll be landing at a spot inland in the wood on a canal, about ten miles inland…just to make it fair. They load up at the same time in Alice Town in the morning, race the 45 miles (55 for the plane) to Florida and drop to the waiting crews, then return to Bimini. First back wins. To make this more fair if using this idea, you might have both use speedboats.

This led to a series of challenges, usually grouped in threes, at most, in Broken Compass: the first stand-alone challenge was a leadership to get the dock crew to load the plane properly. If failed, they’ll immediately need a successful critical pilot test not to crash; they will then need to set down on the water and balance the load properly with a pilot or observation test. If they need to rebalance, this will give the boat a 15 minute head start. Once in the air, they need to 1) do a basic navigation test to the drop zone using survival or observation, 2) a basic (or critical) if they had to land pilot test to fly there and arrive about the same time as the boat — roughly 50 minutes after they left Bimini, and an critical alertness to notice something new and dangerous — the Coast Guard makred Voight UO-1 seaplane (which had just been picked up and was radio-equipped) that will spot them and report back. Once over Florida, it’s a critical pilot test to put down in the canal where a truck and two man crew is waiting to offload the booze. To do it quickly, requires a critical stunt or leadership test and will take about 15 minutes (the boat crew can chuck the booze into the shoreline for their crew and it only takes 5 minutes.)

The next challenge/danger is the arrival of the T-Men warned by the Coast Guard — two cars of feds! It’s a basic alertness or observation to spot them and have time to respond by launching or shooting up their cars. (My daughter’s choice…she loves her Tommy gun!) A critical shoot to take out the lead automobile will leave the T-Men in the cars having to bail out on the small dirt road and run to the dock. This gives the plane crew time to get into the plane and take off, or to get into a shootout with the feds. To escape into the plane and launch, 1) a critical stunt test not to get shot up by the trigger-happy Treasury men, then 2) a critical pilot to get out of the area without the plane getting shot up. (And possibly an alert or observation to note if they were hit.)

By this time, the speedboat’s got a 15 minutes headstart, again, and they have to dodge the Coasties in the UO-1 and get out of US airspace. A critical pilot gets them out over the Atlantic and a critical observation or survival gets them back first.

If the characters do this adventure using a boat, there’s more opportunity for action with their offloading being interrupted not just by T-Men, but a Coast Guard “6-bit boats” or 75-foot cutter. Then, it can be a series of challenges like 1 critical stunt test to get the hooch over the side fast enough, then 2) a critical pilot to escape the cutter and get into the open sea, then another critical pilot test to beat them to the 12 mile limit, before having the race the other boat (if still in play). If they are caught by the Coast Guard, they can resist a 6-man crew as a 2 critical-level enemies.

We were again impressed with the speed and ease of play using Broken Compass, and I’ll have a nother play report for the daughter’s second adventure.

After months of waiting, the Colonial Marines Operations Manual has dropped for Free League’s Alien RPG. I got my PDF in the other week and intended to scope the gear assuming that was going to be the real meat of the book. While it’s good and adds a plethora of hardware — vehicles, vehicular-mounted weapons, small arms, spacecraft — it’s the world-building that really makes this worth a look. Andrew Gaska has really fleshed out the Xenoverse, with new history, material on colonies, new templates for marine characters, and gear.

Is it worth the price? Yes, and resoundingly so. If you’re running Alien, buy it.

Here was another Kickstarter that caught my eye last year (gah! it was an expensive year for me with Kickstarter last year!): The Troubleshooters, a Swedish game based on the old Franco-Belgian style of comics from the 1960s/70s. Think Tintin, and you’re on the right track; this is set in the Jet Age, when tourism became a think and much of these comics revolved around traveling the world for adventure (similar to the I,Spy series or James Bond movies…). The artwork was superb (I like it when I can identify gear in RPG art!) and caught the style of the comics, so I backed the project. After some delays caused by an injury sustained by the main writer/artist, the PDF dropped a week or so ago.

That gave me the opportunity to kick the tires on this games system with the wife and kiddo this weekend. It got a solid thumbs up from both of them, and I found it worked well to help the story along with only a few hiccups that were mostly the first play session blues of getting used to the system. We ran the quickstart adventure they dropped last year The Minoan Affair — a quick “save the friend and stop the dastardly smugglers” one-shot.

The basic mechanics: Troubleshooters uses a percentage test. You roll for a challenge and have to roll under your score in a skill like Agility or Drive. If you succeed and get “doubles” (say a 33 on a skill of 45) you also get good karma — this lends benefits to other test, etc. Likewise, a double on a fail is bas karma — your gun jams, and so on. You have certain abilities that allow you to use the game currency — story points — to either flip the roll (a 73 becomes a 37 for 2 story points, but if you have “Born Behind the Wheel” than allows the flip with a single point) and complications that give you story points when they affect you. Your health/damage is tracked with Vitality and is usually somewhere in the 4-6 range. You get hurt and lose enough to hit Vitality 0 and you’re “out cold.” You don’t die in this game unless its story appropriate, you do something really stupid, or you trade the Vitality hit for a “wounded” or mortal peril” tag — that puts you in danger of death, but keeps you in the action for longer.

The system also has an advantage/disadvantage system using “pips”. A +2 pip means that if you get a 1 or 2 on the ones die, you succeed, no matter the tens, and vice-versa for disadvantages. It’s a bit odd but works well. There’s also a tweak to allow you to use a +/- 5% per pip. We found the pip system worked fast and well. Karma, your signature item (be it a car, or a gun, or whatever), and more difficult tests give you an advantage or disadvantage rating, usually +/- 2 or 5. It sounds confusing when you’re reading it, I found, but played very well.

Combat is simple opposed tests, the character’s appropriate skill vs. the bad guys, who tend to have generalized skills like “basic” or “boxing” or even “bam! biff! whop!” to match the style of sound effect for their fighting. Challenges can be met with the appropriate skill, or sometimes a related one — agility or endurance for running away from a threat, for instance. There are also extended challenges that require multiple tests together (and often can be done by different members of the cast): looking for the island where the hostages are could take a Vehicles test to get there, a search to find them, an investigations to navigate properly…

Character creation: You get a group of templates you can tweak, otherwise you can put together your own with a set number of skills you can assign a percentage number to, pick a couple of appropriate abilities and complications, give the character a name and a look, and figure out how the characters net to allow them to get straight to it. It’s easy and fast. You get a signature item — like the pre-generated race car driver character’s Lancia Stratos, that give you benefits.

The game has it’s own comic universe set in the 1960s. Cool is definitely a factor here: the clothes, the cars, the look of the comics of that period will enhance the play. The stories are French comic styled — there’s danger and villains, but the gunplay is kept to a minimum, and characters are expected to punch or outsmart their way out of trouble. There’s the global bad guy organization, a la SPECTRE or CHAOS — in this case, the Octopus. In reality, the “Octopus” has been a name for various organized crime syndicates from the Cammora to a Bulgaria gang, and it was even the imagery used for the early capitalist trusts. SPECTRE in the James Bond books and movies used the Octopus as its symbol, linking it intentionally to these shadowy “Octopi” groups of the middle-20th Century.

The Kickstarter had a lot of extras with it — a few canned adventures, character “passports”, and a GM screen, maps, just for starters. I pledged at the Business class which was about $100US — so is it worth it? Yes — if you are looking for a game that captured the Jet Age cool and the comics or movies of the period, it’s a fun game that’s nice to look at and has mechanics that are easy to learn and help the flow of play. I’m not sure of Helmgast’s plans for producing and marketing this beyond the Kickstarter; my hope is that Mödipiüs or one of the other Euro-game publishers snaps it up and keeps it going.

A friend of mine turned me on to the Broken Compass role playing game that was being Kickstarted last year by a small Italian company, Two little Mice. (Man, the Italian RPG scene is hopping!) I’m a bit fan of the classic pulp era for a game setting (as evidenced by the plethora of 1930s stuff Black Campbell Entertainment has done for Fate and Ubiquity), so I dove in. About a month ago, all of the physical books and material came in. We had a week’s downtime from our Lex Arcana (another Italian game company!) to give it a try.

Broken Compass has the same goals that Fate and Ubiquity had — to make play fast and easy, and to get the rules out of the way. Fate does this well through extremely simple core mechnaics, but has a few elements — tagging scenes, for instance — that can be difficult for new players and for those used to the GM doing all the setting work to grab a hold of. Ubiquity does well until combat, where it bogs down into gronyard-like crunch. This system keeps it simple with core mechanics that do not change from managing a task, confronting a danger, or getting into a fight. the base die mechanic has the player roll a number of die equal to an attribute and skill and look not for a specific number, but for matches (kinda like Yahtze.) For basic tasks, you need a pair; for critical ones, three of a kind and so on. You could standard d6s or the company’s snazzy specialty d6s which feature the cardinal points of the compass (N,S, E, W, a broken compass, and a skull).

The character creation is simple and fast: pick two tags, like “action hero” or “femme fatale”, which give you an extra die on two of the six attributes (Action, Guts, Knowledge, Society, Wild, Crime) and on eight of the skills (there are three under each of the attributes. Simple. You’ll have between 3 and 6 dice to roll, not counting bonuses from gear and conditions. You get a two “expertise” tags that give you an extra die when appropriate. you start with 10 luck points — when you get to zero, you have a “luck coin” to help you out of danger. The system is not designed to kill a character (though it can), but give you conditions like, exhausted or scared — negative ones that take a die if you have it, or positives like confident or daring which add a die.

Villains and opponents are handled like a challenge (which don’t cause you to lose luck) or a danger (where you do get hurt.) A bunch of ordinary mooks attacking you might be a basic or critical danger, depending on their skill, or higher if they are a privileged henchmen or big bad. In a brawl, you roll an Action+Fight vs. the difficulty of the challenge, and take out the baddies dependent on how well you did, but if you fail, they do you an appropriate number of luck points (and possibly pick up a condition.) In a firefight, there’s the usual back and forth — first you shoot with Action+Shoot (or Guts+Shoot), then they shoot and you try to avoid with Action+Stunt. The GM rarely, if ever, rolls; it’s all on the players, who are encouraged to narrate their actions.

It plays very quickly and easily, and our first run of the game was as a playtest of an adventure for an upcoming product that usually would have been run in Ubiquity. I have to say, Broken Compass has won me over. It’s more intuitive than the +/0/- dice mechanic of fate, and simpler when it should be than Ubiquity — my go-to pulp action RPG systems to this point. The system is lightweight enough to carry any genre with a bit of tweaking.

The physical product is superb! The core book or Adventure Journal features a classic pocket journal look: faux-leather with a proper stitch binding and heavy gloss paper in 9.5×6″ (the same size as the Fate books). The edges are curved, it’s got a bookmark ribbon, an elastic strap to hold it closed, and elastic pencil holder. It’s a brilliant bit of design. Internal layout is clear and simple, with a minimum of nonsense to distract. The art is good (although these days, with Free League and Wizards’ art design doing stunning work, this is good for most products out there) and the typeface and sizing is clear and easy to read. (The more I publish stuff, the more impressed i am by these things.) Here’s the example from Two Little Mice’s Kickstarter page:

It came with a GM screen that is similarly sized: 9.5×6″/per panel, with a 4-panel spread on heavy cardboard with appropriate artwork on the player side, and most of the basic rules on the GM side. Again, clear, concise, and workable. I didn’t have to access the book more than twice during play. also included in my pledge was their First Season book Golden Age with some tweaks and canned adventures for the 1930s. A Spin Off: Luck Tales book similarly give a few new rules and adventures. There was a world map (circa 1999), a cloth bag of specialty dice, a plastic luck coin, and posters featuring the art from the book, as well as a Rival Passport (a listing of big bads for your game), an Adventurer Passport to record characters, and a selection of period postcards from exotic locales.

Two Little mice is currently running a Kickstarter for the next two “seasons” of the game — a pirate setting and a Victorian fantasy/steampunk setting, and the original books, GM screen, maps and dice with luck coin, and posters can be had with the right pledge.

So is it worth it? Absolutely. The physical materials are top-notch: the books are on good quality gloss paper, have a faux-leather cover, decent art with simple and clear layouts. The existing books can be had in PDF format on for $30 and $19.

It’s only been a few months since we got The Marvelous City out, our guide to Rio de Janeiro for the Ubiquity system. There’s been a few hitches with getting the book out in print with DriveThruRPG due to their new print setup, but it is live on Amazon.

While we were in the beginning stages of that book, we were approached by Scott Glancy about doing a book on Cairo. I had a look at his initial notes and material that had been developed for an abortive computer RPG and signed him up right away. He turned in the second draft of material in November, right as the Marvelous City was going online and we’ve been furiously working on getting “the Cairo book” finished.

Now, The City of a Thousand Minarets is live for PDF on with print versions coming soon. Then, this summer, we can turn our attention to getting the FATE version of book books out.

I have to thank one of my Facebook acquaintances and fellow game design/small publisher for this one: Lex Arcana. It looked interesting, and out Dungeons & Dragons campaign has been set in an alternate late antiquity Roman Empire, so i was interested in it for material to crib. After hearing it was a good system, but picked up the PDF and read through it. Then bought the Encyclopedia Arcana, their “sourcebook” on the setting in PDF. Then found a print version of both, plus the “Demiurge” (GM) screen at Miniature Market and picked them up. (I was really impressed with their selection, prices, and the speed of delivery — check ’em out.)

Back to Lex Arcana… Apparently, this had been a popular game in Europe in the 1990s, but recently was re-released through Kickstarter. First off: these books are gorgeous! The artwork is as good, and in some ways better than the stuff Wizards is doing for D&D and even the superb Odyssey of the Dragonlords. This holds through all of the products I’ve gotten, thus far, including a module in PDF on Constantinople. Production values are high — the paper quality, binding, layouts — it’s all just top shelf. This was easily one of the best buys for an RPG I’ve dropped money on in recent years.

So it’s pretty. How’s the system? Character creation can be a bit confusing at first, but I followed the flow they’d laid out in the book and had a version on one of my player’s characters from the D&D campaign banged out in under 15 minutes. Not bad — I do judge a game system based off of how long and how difficult character creation is. If I can knock out a character in 15 minutes or so and get playing, I’m not usually impressed. There’s a bit of weirdness where your attributes — strength, etc. don’t directly apply to things you do; they combine into….fields, I guess would be a good way to put it, like War or Nature or Society. This gives you a number from 2 to 18 being the top starting number, if i recall correctly. You pick skill, which give you a modifier to rolls in a certain field — bows in War, for instance. You pick your weapons and armor, and you’re ready to go.

The conceit here is you are part of a special force of the Praetorian Guard that hunts down mystic weirdness and threats to the Empire. There are rules for rising through the ranks, but also for magic and more importantly, for gaining favor from your patron deities. The piety score can be used to gain a bump in a test up to getting a bit of Olympian back-up. Magic here is not the “shoot fireballs from your fingers” stuff of D&D (thank the gods!) and focuses on pre and postcognition, interpreting omens and dreams, scrying, and manipulating the gods for favors. This is low magic that requires rituals, time, and effort to get something out of it.

The basic mechanics is a hit a target number system. How you do this is different…you get all the normal polyhedral dice for the game, but which ones you roll — that’s the difference. For instance, if I have a de Bello (War) of 16, I can chose dice that add to 16 (up to three dice, no more) — so I could do a d12+d4, or 2d8, or 2d6+d4. What’s the point of this? You ask. It does look like it could be confusing and slow play for new players, but for experienced folks, i think they could game the hell out of this for mathematical benefit. In the above example, you’re not rolling below a 2 (or 3 with the last option) which can be good for easier tasks. If you roll max on all dice, you roll them again and add to the original roll. What about odd-numbered die — d5, d7? Yes, that could be a thing. Combat is pretty straightforward, with damage based on the quality of your hit. For every three over, you gain a multiplier to the weapon damage. You’re not just getting up, either, if you get munched; damage here can be pretty deadly.

The downsides: there’s a lot of Latin used to give flavor. The character sheet and the used of terms like custodes, the agents of this group you’re supposed to be part of, might throw some folks but i suspect if you’re interested in this, that’s flavoring you might like.

The core book cost me $46. Is it worth it? Hell, yes. This is the first game one of my players — a Romanophile — is truly, actively interested in playing; another is a late antiquity historian turned acupuncturist — he’s in, as well. It’s pretty, well-designed, and there’s a lot you could crib for a setting or another game system. I fused the Piety system here with the one from the Odyssey of Theros book for Dungeons & Dragons 5e for our current game.

Instead of doing a different review, i figured I’d merge this with the other Lex Arcana products I picked up. Easily, the best sourcebook I’ve read in some time is the Encyclopedia Arcana.

This book is a genuine book of scholarship tweaked to be a setting guide for ancient Rome. There’s stuff on the road systems, the post service, the military (army and navy), shipping and trade, the ranks of government and society, as well as food, clothing, disease, and lastly magic. Written by Francesca Garello, it’s well worth picking up even if you don’t get the game; I’ve already be cribbing stuff for our D&D game. This was about $40 and yes, it’s worth every penny. The art, writing, research, and production values are sine que non.

Lastly, the Demiurge Screen.

Pretty much everything you need to quickly adjudicate social interactions, investigations, fights, experience — it’s there. The cardboard is thick and top-quality, the art is good and evocative of the setting, and it’s surprisingly cheap at $18 over on Miniature Market.


We’ve barely gotten The Marvellous City out the door before we turned our attention to a sourcebook for 1930s Cairo for use with Ubiquity and Fate. The turn around time was brutal, especially with a rough semester for the high school and community college I work at, plus an ongoing illness…but it’s on it’s way.

This one will be the first Black Campbell product not written by (or mostly written by) Scott Rhymer (yours truly). The author on this one is Adam Scott Glancy, who approached us through the Ubiquity RPG group on Facebook and asked if we would be interested in publishing him. After having a look at his initial notes and work, I was thrilled to welcome him aboard. I will be penning the adventure or two that will go with the city guide, but most of this is his baby. I am handling layout, editing, and the like, so right now the PDF is probably about a month away, and another for print — depending on if i can get DriveThruRPG to work with us.

That said, The Marvelous City and most of our back catalogue is hitting, as well as DriveThru. This book will most likely follow that route.

For those of you waiting for the FATE version of The Marvelous City, it’s on the way, and will get some love after this one drops for Ubiquity.

The Marvelous City, our pulp guide to 1930s Rio de Janeiro for the Ubiquity system that powers Hollow Earth Expedition and Space:1889 (among others) is now live on

The PDF version and now the print version is available at Amazon.

The Marvelous City is a 90-page book covering the neighborhoods and major sights of Rio, the culture of the city including music and dance, capoeira, and the more mystical aspects of macumba (or mandinga, if you’re not throwing aspersions), with an adventure written by Anthony “Runeslinger” Boyd. Cost is $9.99.

After a few trying day of attempting to teach well online while our district and governor keeping moving the kung flu goalposts, I’ve finally gotten a moment to sit down and bang out a post. Today’s prompt Investigate is a good one.

Everyone’s got that first RPG that really grabbed you. I started, like most, with Dungeons & Dragons (the original boxed set), but the first game to really grab me was James Bond: 007 by Victory Games. The movies were a staple of my teen years, along with other action fare, and this game helped me hone the storytelling art: how to rig together the classic three act adventure, having a good set pieces for action that were tied by character building/exposition scenes to move the action along. Central to the espionage genre, and really for a good dungeon crawl, is the idea of investigation — whether it is uncovering what’s in the next room, tracking down a conspiracy that leads to the big bad or some kind of eldritch horror, finding out who double crossed you on that deal gone bad, to wandering the setting looking for trouble to get into — discovery is ultimately at the heart of most role playing games.

There should always be something kept just outside of the characters circle during a campaign — that big bad you’ve been building up for the final confrontation (don’t bring him in early ’cause they’re going to get insanely lucky on rolls that night and slag him like a bar of lead), some aspect of the bad guy organization (For the first few Bond films, we never saw the head of SPECTRE…he was only “Number 1”.), don’t explain everything, leave some mystery there. Even when the campaign ends, there’s a certain joy in not quite knowing everthing that was going on. Think how much people enjoy throwing ideas around about what that scene meant or what was really going on behind the scenes. The internet is full of movie and TV conspiracy theories. Never reveal all your secrets.

Well, day 14 fell on a day that was supposed to be an easy day that turned into a heavy workload. That was fine by me, since the prompt for that day wasn’t inspiring anything in me.

Today’s prompt, however, is a good one. One of the parts of learning how to GM well is the same as any media of storytelling — framing a scene. Even for sandboxers that simply let players wander about their world looking for something to happen, framing is important. Scene framing involves spotlighting important events in a narrative, or character moments that aid the player in moving toward character growth.

For instance, players might be walking interminably to a mountain where their nemesis rules to destroy a magical McGuffin. The walking, let’s face it, is boring. The day to day mundanity of taking breaks, eating, foraging to find food, can be important for the story — say the characters are traveling through the Valley of Bones on their way to the mountain and after an attack by the adversaries they need to find food and water; that’s now an important, unusual event in their journey. They do it and survive; they don’t and fail. One of the way that RPGs have traditionally gotten around the boring travel bits is with random encounters. That’s certainly a way to go if you’ve had nothing planned for the session, but a better idea might be to do the equivalent of a fade or wipe to the next scene that had impact on the characters. This doesn’t have to be combat. It can be meeting an old friend or adventuring companion of a character that allows the player to build on their alter ego. t can be a short side quest — a traveling party was raided and their children/women/money to stake their new life was stolen forcing the characters to make the choice of staying on mission, or breaking to “do the right thing.” It can be some form of moral quandry — do they help the [your enemy here] who has been injured, is trapped in quicksand (or the equivalent trap), or something that ties tightly to a character’s flaws/goals/or moral structure.

All of the players should ideally get their own “beat”; their moment in the spotlight, but sometimes, you’ll find an event is so interesting or emotionally engaging that the players not involved are interested in the story, even if they aren’t the focus. That makes for a great session. A good example of this might be many of the ensemble Marvel movies — every character gets their moment to do their schtick or experience some milestone in their journey, even if it’s a short moment. In a game, this allows the players to be the star for a while.

Framing a scene involves creating the atmosphere you want. Perhaps you’ve beamed down to a distant outpost on a mostly barren world to find the facility empty. There’s no sign of a fight, there’s food half-eaten on the tables in the canteen — as if people had been mid meal when whatever happened happened. Eery quiet save for the ever-present sound of the air circulation system is all you here. However, there’s more than that.

Important scene will have a few factors to them. There will be an action of somesort that has to be reacted to. This can be physical, like an attack; it can be mental, the setting inspires an emotional reaction; it can be philosophical — you present them with a hard choice; it can be social — they have to convince an enemy to turn to their side. The action should have something to do with achieving their goal, whether for the party or a character. It should present them with a dilemma (it doesn’t have to be earth-shaking) that requires a response that could advance their cause, or creat a set-back but require them to “do the right thing”, or which requires some kind of change in the character.

When creating a story for your players, you can best do this by setting up what the outcome that is desired — the characters find the bad guy’s hideout and can rescue the hostages. You have several scenes that push the plot — 1) a discovery of a certain piece of evidence that 2) leads to an initial confrontation with the henchmen of the big bad, and 3) if they succeed pushes them toward the goal or should they fail requires them to regroup, perhaps do another scene requiring them to find evidence or clues, and eventually leads to the denouement. You can let the players wander and investigate the world all you want, but at some point, you drop one of these moments into the narrative, allowing them to move closer to the goal. This dispels the notion they are being railroaded, while still pushing them in the right direction.

So, simoply put, to frame a scene you 1) create the right atmosphere, 2) present a problem that requires 3) the characters to make a decision, and their reaction 4) leads to an outcome or corresponding reaction that moves the story along, or helps the character grow in some fashion.

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