Thursday 9 April 2020

Cheap Tricks

There's a lot of good GM advice out there at the high end. How to ensure the players are engaged, that they have agency, that your world feels alive. Really lofty stuff.

These are the cheap little tricks down in the lower decks, the little things that can grease the wheels of your game if things start to stall. The salt of the RPG earth. They aren't going to win any awards as groundbreaking RPG theory, but I find it useful to keep some of them on-hand when running a game.

Cheap is not used here to mean unfair. Rather quick and easy things you can use without any forward planning.

Cheap Feelgood Tricks
Sometimes you just want to revel in the good times. Maybe you need a touch of relief after a tough situation or just want to reward the players for doing something really well.

  • Amplify their competence: When they do something well in an area the character should be competent in, make sure you really show well they do it.
  • Show how their planning paid off: If they put a careful plan in place and don't leave any loose threads, you don't always have to throw a spanner in the works. Let them revel in their master-plan going off without a hitch. Of course there will be a challenge to follow this, but reward them for their planning and put them in a strong position to move forward.
  • Shine a spotlight on a past good-deed: If they did something good a while back, show how it's paying off for them now. Think of strong relationships they've built and let them rep the benefits, or show how somebody they've previously helped is now flourishing.
  • Have the NPCs remember them: Everybody wants to be remembered. Have NPCs ask about something from their last conversation. You might know the answer, but the NPC doesn't, and it gives the players an opportunity to relive a positive moment in brief.

Cheap Failure Tricks
On the other hand, sometimes the players willingly put themselves in a situation ripe for consequences. These aren't things you should throw in without warning, but negative outcomes that should feel like the natural consequence of the players taking a risk and failing.

  • Show the collateral damage: Maybe they do what they wanted to do, but at the cost of hurting somebody else or damaging a valuable resource.
  • Start a ticking time-bomb: Immediate consequences are fine, but I like to set up for worse consequences and start a ticking clock (something literally). 
  • Exploit a flaw of a person or gear: Put the blame for the failure squarely on a piece of gear or an allied NPC, pinning it down on a weakness that the players knew about. 
  • Put somebody inconvenient in their way: Think of the person that the players would least like to see in the present situation and put them right there. This could be an old adversary, an inconvenient witness, or a friend that's now in the line of fire.
  • Cut a connection: You might avoid consequences yourself, but one of your allies or resources is now completely cut off. It won't be permanent, but you're going to have to operate without them for a while.
  • Leave a loose thread hanging: One of my favourites. Have things stay fine for now, but maybe you owe somebody bad a favour, or you left behind a trail that leads an enemy back to you. Do you risk leaving it, or waste valuable time going back to clean up after yourself?

Cheap Humour Tricks
Not every game benefits from humour. For more traditional D&D I like the idea that the game acts as the straight-man to the players, who will inevitably find certain situations funny. But for Bastionland I have some dark and absurd humour baked into the setting, so sometimes it's fun to lean into that. Humour is one of the hardest areas to apply universal cheap tricks to, but these have worked for me in the past.

  • Establish a genre trope before subverting it: Set up an expectation and then subvert it. This is a building-block of comedy. Maybe you're waiting to meet with a private detective in a smoky bar, soft jazz music is playing, the lights are dim and then... think of the least likely person to stroll to the table and announce themselves as a detective. Or maybe they've got the classic look, but their behaviour is utterly against type. Rather than hard-boiled they're more soft-poached. 
  • Have somebody treat a situation with a totally inappropriate tone: Somebody treating a trivial matter with the utmost gravitas, or somebody being jovially unconcerned about their house burning to the ground. 
  • Indulge in a silly amount of detail: In Bastion this is often done through Bureaucracy. I don't want to sit my players down and actually make them complete paperwork, but I like to show a window into that side of the city. This is a tricky balance, and if you mess it up you might bore your players, but sincerely describing every detail of the meticulously prepared afternoon-tea spread can also double as the perfect setup to having the ceiling collapse in and smash it to pieces.
  • Have the world drag the players down to its level: Put them in a position where they need to impress somebody that they wouldn't normally give the time of day to. Your only hope of chasing a new lead on the lost treasure of the narrow-boat-graveyard is to attend a meeting of the Fellows for the Discussion of Tug, Barge, and Other Civic Waterway Vessels and put up with the personalities within. 

Cheap Horror Tricks
Humour and horror are a often more similar than it might seem. Hear these are tricks mainly focused on building tension and creeping players out rather than causing sudden shocks.

  • Keep things in shadow: Use vague descriptions of your horrific elements and let their fear fill in the blanks. The bucket is filled with wet meat. The face beneath the robe looks like gnarled wood. Then before they can ask too many questions...
  • Cut off mid-sentence: The wardrobe is covered in cobwebs. You slowly crack it open and you feel the air get cold around you. You smell rotten wood and see...
  • Don’t give them time to look properly: Somebody is approaching from the other direction. Are you going to stick around to examine this wardrobe or find somewhere to hide? Maybe you'll just throw the doors open?
  • Have an NPC massively overreact or under-react: A widow that seems somewhat chirpy about the recent death of her husband in a mine collapse. The shopkeeper yelling till they're hoarse at the pigeon that won't stop perching on his sign, tears streaking down their face. 
  • Place something unusual next to something very mundane: The classic severed hand in the toy-box or untouched flute of sparkling wine in the middle of a pub levelled by an artillery barrage.
  • Equipment glitching out: More of a sci-fi thing, but we have electric devices in Bastion now. From the basic flickering lamps to record-players stuck on a looped phrase or radio static that sounds like screaming.
  • Give them the opportunity to escape at a cost: Put the doorway right there, the light becoming them back to safety, but they can only take it if they leave something behind.


  1. Great stuff - and really useful!

    This one - "Have somebody treat a situation with a totally inappropriate tone" - seems to me to the quintessence conveying eerie, otherworldly types: elves, dwarves and the like. I'm thinking here of Susannah Clarke's man with thistledown hair in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, who's always breezily saying unnerving things like "Excuse me - I've just been throwing some infants off a cliff".

  2. I like it. One extra humor tool that I would add– have someone display bizarrely weird priorities. Like, there's a werewolf killing people but they're still mostly concerned with winning the biggest watermelon contest next week. As I typed that I realized it's not far off from the plot of Hot Fuzz.