Dramatic tension is created when the characters are faced with obstacles to a goal that is personal for them. Motivation is desire, be it love, revenge, redemption, freedom, survival, justice, or greed. The GM needs to tie the adventures to the desires or fears of the characters. What do these characters want? Then — how do you get in the way of that for a good story?

It doesn’t always have to be save the world from the bad guy with a superweapon. (Hello, every f’ing Star Trek movie since The Wrath of Khan.) Sometimes it can be very personal. The main conflict in Captain America: Civil War is Tony Stark’s guilt over his actions in the past and anger over the death of his parents. His obstable: Captain America’s desire to redeem his friend, Bucky, and remain free to help people has he sees fit. Cap’s main obstacle: his stubbornness and arrogance. The characters create the tension and motivations. The rather bland villain in the piece is actually incidental. He’s simply a catalyst to bring these characters into opposition.

Some of the best obstacles are: a foil they have encountered before and desperately wish to best (Belloq and Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark really aren’t so much interested in the ark, as they are beating each other at the game.), a thing they want badly (released from a curse, say), a person they care about is in trouble (every action movie involving a dad saving a kid), or they are trying to develop a relationship with (every romance movie), or they have to save the world! Which tends to be high stakes as a lot of people are involved, but funnily enough, only if you care about the world or the characters fighting for the world.

Case in point: The Man of Steel features Kryptonians coming to Earth and wrecking havoc. I didn’t really care about the world or the stakes, because the movie 1) had no engaging hero, and 2) the movie had no engaging villain. In counterpoint, the second season of Luke Cage has superbly crafted villains — the odious Mariah Stokes/Dillard, the damaged and vengeful Bushmaster, who but for his gangster connections is almost as heroic as, say, the Punisher; and the hero this season, is a much more engaging Luke Cage, a guy who wants to protect his adopted home, but really is motivated by a sense of sef-importance, some perfectly understandable daddy issues, and who is trying to regain his pride. This last trait is central to all three of the characters, so the stakes are personal, and that makes them important.

John Fredericks over at Gnome Stew has a nice piece on gamemasters and how they “level up” or get better over time. His skill progression idea is pretty close to what I’ve seen on a bunch of folks, and I myself arced through in a similar manner.

Read it here. 

I think that’s what I’m calling this volume of Dungeons & Dragons adventures: The Road to Heroism. Why? Because the Via Graiae features prominently in the campaign, thus far. They are in what is supposed to be deep inside Roman territory, 50 miles or so from the border, and all their adventures have been along the road.

This particular episode for the night was The Goblin Town. Our heroes had managed to convince the prefect of Vigiles in Ariolica to take a force and root out the nearby Vandal threat. With 80 men, 2 ballistas, and the party, they left the Via Graiae and headed into the snowy forests of the Jura Mountains. Along the way, it occurred to Quintus Marcellius — our former legionnaire, that they could use more aid, and that Jurahold, the dwarven village Carrus the Ranger is from, was nearby.

They arrived in a small valley where Juraborg, the dwarven town, is situated. Jurahold is carved into the mountain face above the picturesque village, and is a refuge against attack and the harshness of winter. On approach, the guard are shocked to see Carrus, but not their leader Smaigo the Zwergifuhr (who was killed prior to the introduction of Carrus, Icio the Monk, and Calvinus the bard in media res) a few weeks ago.

The force is invited into the hold and in the great hall, Lady Fega — Smaigo’s wife and ostensibly the new ruler of the tribe — does not handle the news of her beloved’s death well. The character’s stories are consistent, but biffed charisma roles meant that they were not given the warmest welcome at the news, but things did not go terribly. Carrus, however, was not content to be the guy that lost his tribe’s leader, and convinced an equal force of Jurazwergi to join them in the attack on the Vandal village nearby. (Benefits of a crit 20…) They stayed the night in the dwarven hold, Calvinus romanced a pair of dwarven twins while he was playing for the entertainment of all, and in the morning, they were off to find the Vandals.

As they were nearing the village, they could hear wolves baying — the goblins were not going to be surprised. Carrus and a few of his dwarves slipped forward to reconnoiter the location and confirmed an old Roman village that had been abandoned ages ago was inhabited and being repaired by the goblins. They got an estimate of the numbers — maybe 500, with 200-250 of that being children, and 100-150 women. That left about 100 warriors to worry about. They also spotted an old dwarven hold in the rockface of the hillside near the town that the goblins were operating out of. While watching the town, they saw a force of 50 Vandals leave to intercept the Roman advance and retreated to warn the others.

The decision was made to have a small force of the dwarves under the party raid the subterranean hold from the back door, hoping to find and free the prisoners, while the main force under Abrecan, the prefect, met the Vandals…maybe they were looking to talk? Either way, the main force has superior numbers and training; the smaller force would most likely only encounter a similar number in the hold. (The cleric stayed with the main force, as the player was out for the night.)

After slipping into the hold from the massive doors (we established that the dwarves always seem to overbuild…they’re on average 4’8″, but all their ceilings are 18-20 feet high; their door 12 feet tall! They walked straight into a guard and the monk dispatched him with a fantastic success on his attack. The next passage had three Vandals, and a cage full of the children taken from Timo’s Ford, the village from the first adventure. They dispatched the baddies and freed the kids, then pressed in, encountering 3-4 goblins per chamber.

The bard kept taunting the Vandals with “vicious mockery” — I’d never considered the hit points were as much a mental and physical structure; and this cantrip did hit points of damage. This led, in one of the fights, to me using that notion against Carrus. In one of the chambers, there were cages of prisoners under them, with a walkway running through the room. He had fouled an acrobat roll and slipped, nutting himself on the bars and temporarily at the mercy of one of the Vandals, who was able to strike at him. For the first few adventures, the characters have been first and second level, but the sheer numbers they’ve faced has allowed the to jump to 3rd level by this week’s game; a hit from a goblin a few sessions ago would have killed the character, but in this case only did about 40% in damage…I decided that was mostly from mental trauma: the swipe of the goblin’s scimitar lopped off one of Carrus’ beautiful twins braids of red beard! There was no damage, but the indignity of having his beard shorn off in combat was a distraction for the fight.

Eventually, they reached the main chamber where most of the survivors of Timo’s Ford were being shackled for the day’s work rebuilding the town. A half dozen or more Vandals were in the cavern, and before a fight could commence, Icio — the aasimar monk — lit himself up with the radiant soul ability: suddenly, this scrawny monk burst forth with inner light, glowing wings erupting from his back, and spouting off about the judgment of God and repenting their ways.

The goblins ran for their lives.

The towns folk were so awed by him, they started to ask about this god he spoke of while they were being released.

With the townsfolk released, they now had to either escape through the back door, or hold position in the defensible caverns of the hold and wait for their friends to arrive. They chose the latter. The Vandals made a perfunctory attempt to reconnoiter the hold, but a well placed pilum (javelin) by Marcellius drove them off. Weended the night with the Vandals rolling olive-oil covered burning barrels into the cavern to confuse and harass the party and their charges… (Yay! A cliffhanger ending!)

So, some of the things I/we took away from this: 1) hit points are both physical and mental damage…it is possible to describe a hit in D&D that doesn’t have serious effect as a distraction, or a momentary bit of fear or lack of surety; it doesn’t have to be an actual physical hit. 2) Fighters are much more bad ass in 5th edition at lower levels. 3) Likewise, low-level spells — even cantrips — are have more punch in 5e. Magic users are actually formidable. 4) The features and other customizable bits are fun, but can get a bit tricky to manage. 5) Having a rules lawyer when you’re still new to the system can be handy and annoying at the same time. (One of the guys has been running 5e for a while, now.)

We’ve been steadily building out this alternate-Roman setting, and one thing that’s been changing subtly is our initial take on Christianity, as a simple cult of Judaism, has morphed into an almost Alan Christianity: where 1) Jesus was an assimar, as was John the Baptist; 2) the rest of the story is pretty much the same; 3) Jesus is considered divine or divinely inspired, but not God, per se. 4) The cult of Jesus is still growing in strength and popularity, but is behind where it was in the real world. Even so, Christianity was still building, post Emperor Constantine, so we’re not as off the map as we were initially going to be. 5) Since I’ve established the Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons and creatures exist, Christianity is locked in a fight with the other religions for believers not just in temples; these gods are trying to keep their membership rolls up. This may tie into the monk’s antagonist — a nephilim (or cursed), what they call tieflings in the Levant — and what his mission for Lucifer might be.

So for fairly simple outings — defending a caravan and a town, and then rescuing the village population — the characters get to build their game world reputations, but we are steadily building out and refining the greater world, even while remaining in an area of play that is only 50 or so square miles.


I’ve already discussed this in a piece on romance in-game, but this posting will focus more on the physical act of love and how it can be used (or not) in your campaign.

First off, introducing sex into your game depends heavily on the maturity level of the players. You don’t want full-on X-rated game play with underage kids at the table. Or guys that haven’t yet realized that women are actually people, and not some breathing sex toy. (Rent Deadgirl for an interesting look into this mindset.) Secondly, make sure everyone is comfortable with the subject. Some people have no issues with sex being part and parcel of the gaming experience — it’s a major factor in people’s lives, after all; some find adding sex really spices up a game, especially in settings where romance is a key factor (the World of Darkness settings, for instance); others cringe at the very notion of sexuality, or are simply embarrassed in that contxt (you will find female players are often embarrassed to pursue this when they are a minority in the gaming group. Men, too, but that seems less common, in my experience…)

The level of comfort and maturity tells you what you can do. With kids at the table, you might want to keep it G-rated, where a kiss is the high point of the romantic pursuit. With mature adolescents and adults, PG or R is doable: you can keep it veiled — the old we’re in bed and the pan away to blowing curtails while the girl sighs, “Oh, James…” or you cut to the next morning. For most instances, this is where most games will leave it. And having read about troubles with maturity levels on other gaming blogs, it sounds like a good idea. (Man, I’ve been lucky with my groups..!)

But for campaigns where sex might be the goal of the character, or it is an integral part of the storyline, a bit of show and tell is not necessarily a bad thing. You can still keep it “clean” but onscreen — ala Battlestar Galactica, where the sexual relations of the characters was important; it was a motivator for some, a means of control for others. For instance, the classic femme fatale of pulp and spy soties uses her feminine wiles to control the male characters. When you’re thinking with the wee head, you can find yourself in a bad situation quickly…and you put yourself there because of a woman.

Example: in our current pulp game, one of the characters has the flaw “Sucker for a Dame” — this gives you an insight into the mindset of the man. Maybe he’s overly chivalrous, but more likely, he’s a horndog who gets emotionally attached or sexually fixated on a woman (or  more) a session. This has played directly against him in the game: he has a “girlfriend”, a half-Chinese smuggler that has bedded him senseless. He’s completely smitten, now, and she’s used this to her advantage to get him to help her buy a larger vessel, to gain access to important information on the mellified man, etc. He also gets sidetracked by other women, and this will most likely eventually bite him on the ass.

A man or woman desperate for love or affection is likely to be more easily swayed with a few honeyed words or a good shag. this puts them at a disadvantage when dealing with those that would use sex to manipulate them. A character that uses their sexuality for advantage tend to have certain modes of operation that once known, could be countered easily; more over, in certain times and cultures, being sexually rapacious or even simply “sexy” can get you into trouble: you’re scandalous and have trouble with certain elements of society, you might be branded a criminal or simply an acceptable target (if you’re talking money for sex, or homosexual…)

And there’s the obvious issue with sexual relations…what is the act for in the first place: procreation. You don’t want to be a super-spy or viper pilot who finds yourself pregnant in the middle of long-term mission or the robot apocalypse. The Walking Dead dealt with this the other night: you don’t want a squalling brat that will bring even zombie in a 5 block radius to your encampment, or alert the Cylons to your location, or have it get sick while you’re on the road to whatever destination in your fantasy world. It’s also hard to fight a pack of kobolds effectively with your bairn in a papoose.

Maybe you don’t get a kid out of it…maybe you just get a case of something unpleasant. If you’re sleeping around with the busty barmaids of the fine village of Whereverthehellweare in your D&D campaign, you might want to introduce a bit of the itchy-scratchy to the character…preferably once they’re already on route to whatever dungeon or adventure they’re headed for, just so they can enjoy the burning sensation for a few sessions. You could use it against them: hard to ride a horse, or run in those cool leather pants when a case of the crabs.

Sex doesn’t have to be about fantasy porn. A GM can use sex to enhance the motivations or characters, their relations with NPCs, and to be a right bastard from time to time.


Something I’ve always done when describing a scene is make noises. I describe the gunfight with a fairly descent representation of what they are hearing (well, as good as you can do with limited vocal talent…I’m not the guy from the Police Academy movies.) I’ve making a rumbling sound for a scene with a spaceship fly by (preferably accompanied by a miniature being presented) gives the players a bit more verisimilitude than just describing it as a “thunderous rumble”. A .45 auto has a deeper, less sharp crack than 9mm…you can replicate that.

Think of it as less writing a collaborative novel and more like a comic book, or a movie. A “THUD!” or “ffffffwunk!” is better than “He hits you…you take 3 points…”

Making noises improves your storytelling in another way…it requires a level of abandon. You throw yourself into the telling — doing whatever it takes to enjoy yourself, as much as entertain the players. It’s more fun for you, and for the players, as well; a happy GM is much more open to the fun of a game, than one who considers it an art (it is), a science (nope), or looks at it as a craftsman or a professional. When I’m writing up an adventure, I come at it from a writer’s perspective: I research, I grind out material…but when it’s time to play it’s time to PLAY!