Death on the Tabletop

Death. Chances are, it features heavily in your games – after all, your PCs rack up quite the body count, don’t they? But what happens when PCs are on the receiving end of death? What happens when their saving throws just don’t quite save the day?

Well, they die. And maybe it’s forever. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that – it keeps the stakes high and lets your player roll a new character. But sometimes writing out a PC forever is not the right move. If your players are new or particularly attached, death might not need to be the end.

Like all tasks as gamemaster, this is a balancing act that requires buy-in from the players. Some players might prefer to hang onto their character where others see this as cheapening the game. After all, without consequences there is no drama, no tension.

No matter how you handle death, it is an important part of your campaign. It pays to understand how death works in your world and how you can use it to your advantage.

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Resources: Phoenix Art

I had this idea rattling around in my head: metal phoenix. I knew I had to get it out, so here it is. And once I started, I couldn’t stop there – I had to run through more elements.

There’s something really satisfying about taking a popular idea and twisting it. It doesn’t make sense to talk about non-fire phoenixes. On the other hand, I’m not the first person to do this.

I’ll be using one of these in a D&D campaign soon. Feel free to use them yourself. If you do, please drop me a line and tell me how it went.

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Hero Hunter: A Data Analysis Game

Vigilantes are bad for business. Crime used to be the most profitable game in town, back before that “superhero” started interfering. No one knows who she is. No one knows how to stop her. All who have tried before you have failed.

But you are patient. You’ve started making notes of her appearances. Sightings, response times. It isn’t much, but it might be enough. If you can figure out her base of operations, you’ll be one step closer to dealing with her once and for all…


So, yeah. I wrote this game in R. I doubt I’m the first to do that but, hey, it’s weirder than using Python.

This is a mock-up of a game where you test your data analysis skills against a vigilante crimefighter. As a villain on a budget, you’ve gone for the low-hanging fruit. You’ve paid local thugs to commit crimes and time the hero’s response. A simple strategy, but effective. How long can the superhero’s base remain hidden from your patient, data-driven eyes?

Answer: not very long, as it turns out. Even with such noisy data, the neighbourhood in question stands out like a series of rapid response times.

This is not a finished product. Future versions will be trickier, I can promise you that. I have a few ideas on how to take it further – if you have any, feel free to share below. But in the meantime… enjoy! The data is attached below, as is the R code for generating it.

GitHub: Hero Hunter



Idea Fragment: Ship Defender

I have this idea fragment of a ship in deep space, fending off attacks from waves of enemies. In defending itself, the ship can either disable enemies or destroy them outright. It can salvage disabled enemies and use them to build more weapons to defend itself. And so on and so forth.

That’s where the idea fragment ends. Ideas can be rich and detailed, but idea fragments? They tend to be short, vague, more of a feeling than a blueprint. Still, I was curious to see what this looks like.

I chose to build this as a board game. The idea fits that medium well. There’s no reason this couldn’t work as a tabletop RPG encounter. Who knows – maybe this idea fragment will find life as exactly that. Still, for now, this is the direction it has taken me.

This is not going to win any awards in Germany. It doesn’t have longevity or replayability. If you aren’t bored after five minutes, I’m impressed. Still, none of that matters. It is a board game about a ship in deep space that fends off attackers, and uses crippled enemies to build better guns – exactly what the idea fragment described. And it only took me about an hour to throw together.

This is not a finished game, though it was never intended to be. But as an exercise in creativity, it was pretty fantastic. I took a half-formed notion and ran with it, reaching a milestone. Moving things from thought to screen is good practice and it feels great. The end product is almost irrelevant.

Having talked it down so much, I will say this about it – it’s simple to learn and not a bad way to kill five minutes. I had fun mucking around with it. And with a few more idea fragments, extra features and balance tweaks, this could be a lot of fun. But for now, I’ll just leave this here. Criticise it, steal it, change it.

You have an idea fragment of your own. I don’t know what it looks like or what it entails, but you have one. Everyone does. So why not follow my example and bring it into the world? It’s going to be better than this and besides, you’ll feel awesome afterwards.

Game board: Ship surrounded by enemy approach vectors

Game manual: shipdefender_manual

Applied Kaijunomics

I recently unleashed the water demon on my unsuspecting PCs. I was unsure how they would react – facing an enormous creature that blots out the sun was outside the box enough that it made them rethink their default response (“kill, kill!”). It was a risk. It could easily have ended in confusion, arguments and accusations that I was designing unkillable monsters. Thankfully, none of that happened (much).

The encounter was, as I had hoped, a learning experience.

What went wrong

Things started going wrong before the encounter even started. Now, that sounds like a bad thing. It probably is most other contexts. But when running a game, it’s business as usual. Players like to behave unpredictably, jumping the gun and doing crazy stuff that isn’t the specific crazy stuff I had in mind.

As such, I had to rejig the conditions leading up to the fight. In terms of the scenario I outlined in the last post, it was like encountering the epic monster far away from Goodville, before meeting Baron von Nefarious, with no one else around for miles. It forced me to rethink everything about how the encounter started and thus how it could end.

The other problem was that I realised he was taking damage too quickly, so I boosted some of his HP by about 30%. But that’s a pretty basic tweak and certainly not the first time I’ve done that.

What worked

Oh boy. Oh boy. Where do I begin…

Firstly, I had fun. My players had fun. Not bad, given that I was messing around with the guts of combat mechanics.

I could leave it there because, really, that’s the main consideration. But so much went so well that I just have to brag. The kaiju showed up when the PCs were exploring a mansion (one of their childhood homes). It was clearly huge and powerful. The mere sight of it drove the PCs to race through the mansion, frantically scooping up whatever valuables and information they could. They wanted to bail as soon as possible. Epic monster looked epic: check.

When it arrived and started tearing the mansion to pieces, a frenzied debate emerged: fight or flee. They chose to flee (another point for how intimidating it was). Unfortunately for the PCs, the demon restrained one of the PCs. This tipped the decision the other way, ensuring that they stood and fought. Personally, I’m happy that they chose to fight. But the other possibility – somehow distracting it enough to let the slower people get away – would have made for a great encounter too. Had no one been slowed they could have simply run away – this would have meant not engaging it directly, which would have been disappointing. Still, in that case, I would have made sure it showed up somewhere down the road, threatening something they loved. But that would have meant postponing the fight (and my experiment).

In short, the circumstances encouraged (but didn’t force) the players to engage the threat. Good encounter design: check.

The players figured out how to fight the water demon very quickly. The strong visual clues and a little metagaming (ie, noticing that I was tracking more than one lot of damage) made it pretty obvious. I think the best case would have been if it had taken a bit of thought and experimentation to figure it out, but the worst case being the players giving up, thinking the creature was unstoppable. On that spectrum, this outcome sits strongly on the ‘win’ side. Especially since this was their first kaiju – the next one can afford to be trickier, as they now know they can deal with them.

Another awesome outcome was how creative the players became. Half of the party decided to attack the ‘foot’, which made good tactical sense. The others, though… one realised the head was in range of her Summon Monster spell. One PC climbed the crumbling mansion and leapt onto its shoulder. Another used the image of the water demon to argue that she could swim between the chest rocks and attack from the inside.

So, half the party is hacking away at ground level, frantically leaping out of the way of its rampages. Two heroes were clinging to its shoulders, striking at the head and chest. And one PC was swimming through its body, blasting it with area effect attacks. All while the mansion is crumbling around them. Epic? It sure felt that way. Check!

The party destroyed all the boulders. The water demon is still alive but is outside a protective shell, meaning they have defeated it. For now. But it took a lot of damage, a lot of firepower, to get it to this state. The kaiju absorbed enough damage to kill a dragon and is simply damaged, weakened. So that’s cool.

On the other side, one of the party dropped below zero hitpoints at the end of the fight. The others were in reasonably good health though. The good guys bled a lot, it’s true, but they came much closer to death that time they fought a gang of spiders. They suffered to cripple this epic monster, but they weren’t on the verge of a TPK. I’m not calling this aspect a success, but it was certainly no failure.

What I learned

  • I learned that I can pull this off. Everyone had fun and the fight felt properly epic.
  • If you want your players to stand and fight, make them invested enough to risk TPKs. A childhood home tugs on the heartstrings… but less than a hulking, evil monstrosity induces terror.
  • Overengineering encounters only sets you up for failure, since the PCs will do something unexpected. Guaranteed. At this stage in my game mastering career, I have learned that I tend to overcomplicate matters. On the other hand, I’m pretty good at adjusting things on the fly.
  • My party is light on healing abilities but they have powerful tanks and strong damage-dealers. They are tougher than I think they are. They can handle more damage than I think they can.

I’ll be using similar encounters in the future. This worked better than I had hoped. Experiment: success.