Road mysteries

Way over a pond to reach the Khmer temple of Neak Pean, an artificial island that belongs to the Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia.Random encounters can accomplish a lot of things. Some groups see them as annoying obstacles. Others like them for a bit bonus XP while the GM puts a little extra strain on their resources. But they can also give a hint of weirdness to tell your players that the world has more going on than kobolds and goblins, even at low levels.

Your travelling party takes a rest on the side of the road. Or perhaps they have struck out cross-country, across farms and fields. What do you find, besides 2d4 goblins or whatever other ho-hum combat encounter your sourcebook says?

  1. Ring of standing stones. A sage pays you no mind while she takes astronomical measurements with a sextant.
  2. Child fleeing a scarecrow. Why is the scarecrow so angry?
  3. A halfling family is out enjoying a picnic. But their eyes have no irises…
  4. Four mules patiently pull a wagon with no driver.
  5. A shrub happily sings drinking songs. Maybe you want to join in.
  6. Two expert duelists put on an epic display. It is unclear whether they are practicing or fighting to the death.
  7. A parade of spirits crosses your path, taking no note. But the last one stops, stares at you, and you hear a voice inviting you to join them next year.
  8. The beauty of this rainbow doesn’t explain why it shines at night.
  9. A gnome tinker sells trinkets – but only accepts payments accompanied by clever limericks.
  10. Young lovers ride a draft horse, their faithful mastiff by their side. How odd that the animals’ legs stand straight as they glide forward.
  11. A bulette and an ankheg engage in conceptual intercourse. A philosophical discussion, that is – what were you thinking?
  12. Twelve will-o’-wisps swirl dazzlingly. Or are those just dancing lights?

Gamers who don’t enjoy combat

A recent question on /r/rpg caught my eye and I thought I’d write a bit more on my thoughts about it. Here’s the core:

I love the game but everyone (including myself) seems disappointed when combat happens. I try to narrate it a bunch and make it exciting with surprises and stuff but it still pails in comparison to the fun we have when we’re not in combat.

My question is, how can I…eh…reduce the length of combat while still making it seem important. I don’t want to remove combat entirely, I think it’s important my players fight monsters and the baddies. Afterall, fights are an amazing plot device. Still, it takes way to long and it feels like a necessary chore for everyone. Note that ALL of my players have expressed that they prefer non-combat scenarios.

Iconic photo of a lone man facing down four tanks in Tiananmen Square

He rolled a natural 20 on his saving throw against fear.

I feel like this isn’t so unusual. I’ve met many roleplayers who just don’t like tactical play. They want to focus on inhabiting a character, maybe throwing around some magic, solving puzzles, and interacting with people from behind a different pair of eyes.

But no one should feel guilty about this. There’s no shame that anyone should associate with enjoying (or not, as the case may be) certain play styles. Gamers who don’t like narrative and roleplay and instead prefer straight up dungeon crawls shouldn’t feel “guilty”, either. If you like vanilla ice cream more than chocolate, or just prefer carrot cake to ice cream, that doesn’t say anything about your value as a human being. No moral question arises here.

So if the group prefers other aspects of gaming like exploration and RP/social interaction, then the GM should lighten the mechanics considerably. Boil things down to a few numbers (ranged attack / melee attack / defense), roll against those things, then get back to what’s fun for everyone.

Perhaps the group should even switch away from Pathfinder (the system used by the group discussed in the initial post) to another game system that focuses on narrative, like FATE. Groups with philosophical objections to combat should consider this option, because nobody should feel compelled to engage in a pastime that runs counter to their morals for whatever reason.

Spending time on combat scenarios when you and all your players prefer something else seems like a waste of that time. And we all have finite time in life, much less for hobbies like this.

You can tell that…


You can tell that the goblin is lying. versus The goblin glances from side to side, looking for any excuse to cover his lies.

You can tell that the temple has not been visited in some time. versus  A thick layer of dust indicates that the ancient temple has not seen any visitors for years.

You can tell that the cultists don’t see you. versus  The cultists have their back to you and their chanting has not changed in pitch, giving no indication that they’ve noticed you.

Cover of "You Never Can Tell" by George Bernard ShawWhen watching or listening to other GMs, I’ve noticed something that really frustrates me. After an ability check or an inquiry to the GM about something in the game world, [1] have a bad tendency to say “you can tell that…” followed by the answer.

This sounds really dry and immersion-breaking. It doesn’t follow the guideline of “show, don’t tell” and it doesn’t give your players any flavor. Instead, help them understand what they see and how they can tell. This probably requires a little more visualization on your part, of course. You have to think about what that NPC might be doing or what might exist in the world to indicate the answer.

Because of that, however, you’ll end up doing more than just making the world come alive in your players’ minds. You’ll also inadvertently create more hooks for everyone to follow. Maybe that goblin is lying because there are factions back in her camp. Maybe the temple is filled with dust because of an unholy wind. Maybe the cultists are caught up in a frenzied ritual that the party has to interrupt right away.

Either way, don’t just give players answers. Give them a little picture of their world.

[1]: I probably do it sometimes, too.