Ok, I have 3 torches; rations, iron, 2 weeks; 1 waterskin and 20 arrows. We know the ruins are a week’s journey, one way. 

Time passes.

Now you are down to 5 arrows, no water, and the bear ate your food, what do you do?

This is a different type of game, but what challenges does it present to players? What now drives the direction? Instead of taking the road, we should probably travel along the river, but we know what lurks near the river…


Sean is working on an rpg youtube channel, the premise is to go over subsystems in rpg’s. Example, how does ship combat work in Stars Without Number? Coming soon!

Random Encounter

Voicemail from Chris Schorb

Voicemail from DM Cojo

Harrigan emails us about Weapon Damage and Tension aka applying pressure to PC’s

Brett and Sean,

Been a minute. Short one. Two topics.

First, Weapon Damage.

Quite a few OSR games do cool things with weapons and weapon damage these days. Group them into light (d4), medium (d6) and heavy (d8) kind of thing, but then allow either classes or abilities to mess with them. Warriors step all weapons up a die (from d8 to d10, for example), or Thieves do d8 damage with light weapons like daggers, that sort of thing. Simple, but still provides options and a little crunch.

Second, Tension, and some mechanics that can build it.

You guys mentioned a couple of these ideas in the last two episodes, but didn’t go into a lot of detail. In my experience, they can really work to build tension…

Use clocks and progress bars — counters that have been around for ages, but popularized and streamlined in games like Dungeon World and Blades in the Dark. It can be great fun to have competing clocks or progress trackers — will you run out of oxygen before the hyperdrive is repaired type stuff. Ticking these trackers is fun when time goes by or the PCs are making critical misses and the like, and keeping them visible can significantly add to the tension at the table.

Liberally use the “Die of Fate.” It’s had various names across various games, but never be afraid to just throw a single d6, even if no skill or attribute roll is called for. Comes up low? Complicate the scene, remove supplies, advance a clock, add tension.

Probably my favorite angle here — use a system that supports either partial successes, or pushing your luck mechanics. Partial successes are a key element to building tension in PbtA games, but that same method is easily ported to other systems. In my own Black Hack games, which are roll-under-stat, if you tie your attribute… you have succeeded at cost. You did it! But guess what…        And then there’s the idea of a pushed roll, as we see with something like 7th Ed Call of Cthulhu. Plug those *worse* failures right into making the whole scene start to come apart, not just a dropped weapon or stumble and fall.

One of my favorite takes on failing a roll lately is to say, “Hey, actually, you succeeded… but you wish you hadn’t. Here’s why…”

Generally, have a little list of things that can go wrong written down or in your head, and nail the PCs with those things when they crit fail, when they push and fail, when the Die of Fate frowns upon them, etc. If those things are wired closely into the character’s own backgrounds and foibles, awesome. Wired into the scenario? Sweet. Make their favorite NPCs and institutions suffer. Dog them with old injuries, old foes, and new twists.

Anyway. Just thought I’d put $0.02 in. I’m all about tension in most of my games. Forcing decisions, ideally ones that are not easy, ones that mean succeeding here results in failure or complication there. You know, like real life.

Stay safe, lads.


Comment on forum from Mike on Applying Pressure to PC’s

From the players side, I prefer to have the action be continuous. Not just battle after battle but I like the puzzle or the scenario that makes us have to think. It makes the game more “in the moment” playing and adds a lot of fun. I am with Sean I do not think I am in to the real big mega dungeon 7 year campaign, 4-8 sessions and make it a non stop thriller!

From the GM side, I like to do the same thing.

As always enjoyed the episode.


Gabe Dybing comments on the forums about applying pressure to pc’s

And now about the episode itself:

I’m beginning to think that the 2d20 system might synthesize the majority of rpg innovations and styles currently out there in the rpg jungle.

In Conan, the GM has a meta-resource called Doom. The GM uses this Doom to raise the tension and generally make things difficult for the PCs.

I know what Brett is thinking, and he is not wrong. You can raise the tension in any game, without a meta-currency. Some, even, may call this overall best GM practice.

But Doom in Conan is in a dynamic relationship with the players. Instead of using the PC resources of Momentum and Fortune—or when they no longer are available to them—players can “pay” the GM Doom for an immediate, though temporary, benefit, knowing full well that this assistance now is going to raise itself as a complication or obstacle later.

It’s gorgeous. Another reason why Doom is awesome is because it’s part of the game! Its use in D&D might appear arbitrary, petty, or adversarial in a bad way. Here it’s used to emulate the crises, twists and setbacks of pulp fiction.

Listening to Part 2!

Here’s some more love for Conan 2d20.

Conan recommends dealing with analysis paralysis by paying yourself, the GM, 1 point of Doom, incrementally, as the players deliberate.

One time, I had to say, “Okay, guys, I’m about to give myself a Doom.”

They resolved their conversation immediately.

PATRON George emails us about applying pressure to PC’s 

Sean and Brett,


I just got finished listening to both “pressure” episodes. I listened to the second one while running a 5k this morning, and I had my best time in ages. So, the episode was either really good, and propelled me forward, or really sucky, and I had  to get the whole thing over with ASAP. I’ll let you decide.

(Oh, who am I kidding? It is the first one—great episode!)

For me, there are two things that create tension or pressure, and you mentioned or alluded to both. One pressurizer is allowing the players to get into situations with no easy solutions: this is confinement, of course, just in other words. For example, my players were captured by a dragon—but instead of devouring them, he granted “freedom” if (and only if) they would do his bidding outside of his lair. This would allow the dragon to exert his will while remaining hidden. Already, the players were pushed toward death or dirty deeds (done dirt cheap!), neither one being what they would have wanted….but the situation became more complex as the players’ traditional patron asked them to report the source of disturbances in the area. The players had to lie to their patron, a good-hearted noble, or break the promise they made to the dragon, who will surely hunt them down and end their lives (or die trying). This particular system has rules for accumulating shadow when players commit misdeeds, so there were mechanical effects and story-based consequences in all directions.

No great options = tension, which leads to creativity.

You also brought up tension-building mechanics. I really liked Brett’s point about keeping those mechanics “running smoothly in the background.” For me, the best mechanics that in creating the right kind of pressure are the expendable or shrinking resources—primarily those that the players can choose to use at a cost. I think of the luck mechanic in LFG (as you pointed out), or Hope in The One Ring. Even sanity, in Call of Cthulhu, can be a choice-based pressurizer: If I read this tome, I may learn more, but I may also go a step or two more insane…

Use the resource (and have it diminish), or carry on without its benefit—that mental confinement is great, and leaves most or all of the control in the player’s hands.

You know all of this, of course, I just enjoyed listening and typing it through.

Stay safe, and game on.


Michael comments on applying pressure but addressing skill piling

“So a warning about 4th edition skill challenges. It took three renditions before there was a good explanation of how to run them. Running them out of the original DMG not only is the math bad, but they weren’t well explained. The way they were originally presented every test in the skill challenge had one thing that you could do to overcome it and you had to overcome a specific number of tests regardless of what the narrative would suggest you need to do. In the essentials book, which was the third version of skill challenges they published, they finally included suggestions for including options to mitigate failures, include non rolls as part of the success option (The players come up with a clever answer to a section of a skill challenge, that isn’t an ability check? Go ahead and count it as a success.) And perhaps most importantly, instructions to end the skill challenge if the narrative gets to a point where the player should be done even if they haven’t gotten to the success count that the difficulty calls for. To be fair all of this advice was published on the wizard’s website in the first couple of months of the games existence, but almost no one read it)”

Also still challenges are sort of a combination of the late third edition complicated skill checks and the general action determination system from mouse guard

Die Roll

  • DCC Days Online, event registration now open. June 11-14
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About the Author
The 'S' of Gaming and BS podcast. Besides producing and hosting the show, Sean enjoys long walks on the beach, running rpg's, and killing player...characters.