Posted in Gaming Advice, Set Piece

Set Piece: A Ship in a Storm

The deck bucked to the starboard as the wave crashed into the ship’s port side.  Sabastian could not keep his balance and slid across the quarter deck on his rear.  The jackline was the only thing that saved Sabastian from a watery grave.  He held onto the line with all his might as he slowly tried to get his feet below him. 

The captain was yelling orders from the wheel but Sabastian couldn’t hear a word of it above the wind and the rain and the churning seas.   This is bad.  The worst storm he’d seen.  Lightning arched across the sky above them, the thunder that followed did little to mask the load Crack that came from mizzenmast.  Even with sails stowed the mast had taken on more stress than it could bear.

Sabastian looked up just in time to dodge the tangle of rigging falling toward the deck.   Sabastian picked himself off the deck and found himself staring at the wave,  it was larger than their ship and was about to hit them once again on the port side.  It was then that he realized he no longer held the jackline. 

(image from The Perfect Storm ©2000 Warner Brothers)


I’ve been reading a lot of the 7th Sea Second Ed. Corebook lately and it’s got me jonesing for some high seas swashbuckling action.  A storm on a ship is a great encounter for the players to fight the elements rather than an enemy. (though having a ship battle in a storm is action extraordinaire) Now don’t think this Set Piece is only for ships at seas.  I’ve run this more times as a spaceship in an ion storm/nebula/fill in the blank/ type storm than I have one at sea.  I’ve even done this encounter with the players in an airship.  It’s always a fun time.


The players’ ship his run afoul of some nasty weather, can their ship survive? Can they stop themselves from going overboard? Continue reading “Set Piece: A Ship in a Storm”

Posted in General Writing, Set Piece

Set Piece: The Collapse

Zetov let out a primal roar as he swung his battle-axe at the chest of the Elder Lich, the axe head arced with lightning as it connected with the phylactery the Undead Lord wore brazenly around its neck.  The Gem shattered and the axe buried itself into the ribcage of the emaciating being. 

The Lich let out one last curse as it crumpled to the ground, the magic seeping from its bones.

“We did it!” Tholonious cheered as he put the arrow he had notched back in his quiver.  “How’s Tamra?”

“I’m… ok.” Tamra said with some effort as she gathered her spellbook off the floor and what components she could find that got scattered. She stumbled once more as the ground started to rumble.  “It’s not over…”

“Yes, it is.” Said Zetov, “he’s dead.  Truly dead this time.”   The ground shook once more and a few rocks fell from the ceiling.

“Tholo, help me,” Tamra ordered with concern. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Why? What’s happening.” Tholonious asked as he made his way over to the injured mage.

“The Lich’s magic was all that was holding this place together.  With him gone this whole temple is coming down.”

A large CRACK came from above them.

“But what about the Lich’s Treasure? We have to find it.” Zetov insisted.  Just then a rock from the ceiling slammed into the statue above the alter.  Zetov had to dive out of the way to avoid the massive rocks.

The floor under Tamra started to slip away. Tholonious quickly grabbed the mage and  they started running towards the exit.  “You can have the treasure or your life Zetov, but We’re leaving.” The elf replied.

(Image from Raiders of the Lost Arc ©1981 Paramount Pictures)


The players are in a mine, temple, burning inn, castle, cave, underground facility, space station… whatever, when something causes it to no longer be structurally sound.  It is coming down on the players and it is time for them to run.


Chaotic retreat is the name of the game.  Escape should not be straight forward there should be many many obstacles in the player’s path.

Setting future obstacles up ahead of time will pay dividends at the table. You know the place is going to collapse, so as the characters make their way in, describe large pieces of furniture, huge ceiling fixtures, chandeliers, statues, whatever you can think of that fits your setting.  On the way in the players will appreciate your attention to detail, then understand when that details become hazards as they make their escape. As they flee keep your description’s fast pace as you move quickly from one player to the next.

Don’t let “I run..” be an action the player can make. They need to be “I leap over the fallen statue” or “I try my best to prop the door for the others”


The environment is the biggest threat.  The oxygen seeping out of a hole in the hull, the boulders falling from the ceiling, the traps(or trap parts) the players bypassed on the way in, the big crevasse on the floor widening every turn, whatever fits your setting.  Make a short list of environmental problems the collapse can cause before you begin, so you can pull them out with a quickness to challenge your players.

Want an added threat?  What if this collapse happens when the players were confronting a rival group.  Maybe after one side  grabbed a McGuffin.  Having antagonistic NPC also in the mix makes for a very memorable scene.  (remember the antagonist want to escape as well though.. Make sure the players see them struggling to survive the environment along side them, not just attacking the PCs)


Skill checks rule the day in a scene like this.  There is many ways to run a scene like this.  You can set it up like an old school skill challenge (Ex.  Players need 3 successes before 2 failures)  Or you can go by a round timer (ceiling is going to collapse completely in 8 rounds, it takes 5 rounds of movement to get to the exit, failures in round means no or half movement).  Or the third options is going full narrative and have the thing collapse completely when it’s dramatically appropriate.

Failure to escape doesn’t have to mean you die.  You take damage, sure, knocked unconscious, most likely, but you could just find yourself buried in a whole lot of rubble trapped until the rest of the party digs you out.   Or maybe you stumbled upon a hidden passage.


This kind of scene can take 15 minutes to run or 45+ it really depends on the type of thing that is collapsing.  Try your best, however, to keep it brief.  It should be a desperate escape, not a long drawn out affair.  In that regard try not to make the rounds seem like combat rounds.  Your players aren’t rolling dice every turn, only when something gets in their way and makes it a challenge to progress further.  If you run the scenario like combat rounds it can wear out its novelty before the players have reached the exit forcing you to ‘fudge’ final run and collapse, making things a tad anti-climatic.

Let the players describe their actions. “I slide across the floor through the legs of the oversized sofa.” So that you don’t have to think up all the cool things, let them be descriptive.  If your players are inclined even ask them “What do you see up ahead that blocks your path?”  While they are describing the obstacle they are also thinking a cool way to get past it, which can make the player feel more heroic.   To keep other players engaged you can ask them “What difficulty does Jake encounter next?” allowing them to make it harder for each other.  This type of narrative involvement doesn’t work for all groups.  Try it, but don’t force it if it falls flat.

The PC will have to think fast, make your players do so as well.  Demand snappy answers.  If the player can’t think of something quickly say “you stumble on the shifting ground” and move on to the next player.  Go back to the stumbling player after the other players have gone.  (some players don’t like this kind of pressure or really perform poorly under stress… if you see this happening offer suggestions on what they can do, allow other players to as well, do not, however, decide for them or allow another player to… It’s their character)

The “BBEG dies and now you have to run”, and “you grabbed the McGuffin and now the place is collapsing” are pretty standard tropes, use this sparingly only once per campaign.  However, there are many different reasons why something the players are in is collapsing so you can use this few times.  “The Keep is on fire and collapsing around you” feels a lot different to “the temple is falling apart as it falls back into the sea”  So while different scenes, you can run them the same way.

If you are worried about being railroady, set a parameter on the collapse. “If the players do this ____ it will cause the place to collapse”  Make that ‘thing’ something that is ‘likely’ to happen but not mission critical or a definite. If you want  maybe put in a hard roll for the players to “spot” the trap before they spring it.

Posted in Gaming Advice, Set Piece

Set Piece: A Clear and Present Danger

If you see a cool scene in a book or movie and you think it will make a good scene in your game, use it.  With some retooling, you can make it your own.  I’ve used the below scene quite a few times and only once been called out on its inspiration.  But the player who figured out the inspiration said it only made the scene more fun for him.


The Players are in a vehicle(speeder truck, van, carriage, whatever) when an “incident” up ahead forces them to turn onto a narrow street with buildings on either side.   A vehicle pulls in behind them and up ahead  something blocks their path. That is when the ambush starts, usually with an explosion.


The mood in this scene is surprise and chaos. There are other factors that really depend on what the PCs are doing in the vehicle in the first place. Are they escorting an important figure, transporting a valuable McGuffin, moving stolen goods, or just going for a ride? Each reason can really effect the intensity of the scene.

An ambush like this just doesn’t happen out of the blue, make sure there is a faction that hates the PC enough, or wants what the PCs have enough, to pull this off.  This ambush  will have a better effect on the players if it is orchestrated by a returning villain/faction rather than a new one.  It will also let the players know that that faction/entity is really dangerous.

It should be clear to the PCs that the enemies have greater numbers, the better terrain advantage, and possibly better fire power than the PCs.  Getting out alive should be the number one goal of the PCs. If they have a large cargo they cannot easily take with them, then they may have to forfeit it to the enemy… for now.  If you don’t think your PCs will be inclined to flee; well you could kill one, if you want to send that kind of message, or takes them prisoner.(a set piece I’ll get to later)

This should not be unwinnable, just have the odd stacked against them.  But the PCs may need to change their parameters on what it means to win. Continue reading “Set Piece: A Clear and Present Danger”

Posted in Set Piece

Set Piece: The Hold-up

I was in the corner of the shop ogling the ornate clockwork pigeon on a perch when my ears caught the slightly elevated conversation going on at the counter.

“Hey Shamus, Miss Elvestean hasn’t paid us yet this week.”

“Yes… yes, I did,” Came the hesitant female reply. “I paid you on Tuesday… you came in on Tuesday… It’s only Friday today.”

“Is that right?”

“I don’t know boss…  We had that thing on Tuesday. We weren’t uptown.”

“Did you hear that Miss Elvenstean we had a thing on Tuesday. There is no way you paid us then.”

By this point in the conversation, I had snuck close up to the counter and sized the two thugs up.  The black haired one named Shamus was rather beefy, he was trouble. The store owner was trying to hold her ground, but  the other one, the tall and lengthy  one, he pulled his blunderbuss from his belt and pointed it at the store owner.

“Listen lady,  pay us, or else.”

This I couldn’t handle alone.

I slowly backed up toward the front of the store and flipped open my communicator to call Alexis, when disaster struck.

Hey, Conner.…We’ve got a lurker here… about to cause some trouble.”

(Image from Pulp Fiction ©1994 Miramax)

The Hold-up

(or The Extorion…. depends on how you set the scene.)


A lot of buying of gear is done off-screen in PRGs but when it takes place during the session it sometimes can be a slog for both players and the GM.  Now it’s time for you to spice things up.  While the PC’s are in a store browsing the wares.  Quite a few ruffians come in to hold up the shop owner.


The scene may seem simple, but it can serve many different purposes. All of which would help define the mood.  So as a GM decide what you want the hold-up to accomplish:

Establish the presence of a gang or organized crime in the town – Maybe the intruders are looking for protection money. They own this turf so a few bystanders seeing them accost this shop owner doesn’t bother them.   This is a good encounter for PCs that are new in town.  It sets up who some of the local groups are without using exposition.

Establish a McGuffin – the villains want something that the store owner has something special.  “We know you have it old man, hand it over and no one gets hurt.”  A good adventure starter if the PCs want to get involved.  This kind of quest start can feel more organic since it’s up to the players themselves to get involved or not.

Force PC’s out of their comfort zone –  The whole party doesn’t all shop together usually. Have this encounter happen to the rogue who was already pick-pocketing items, or the mage or the face character.  Can they talk or con their way out?  Depending on how they respond it could be a great chance for character defining role-play.

Establish Corrupt Law Enforcement – Maybe it’s the town guard harassing the merchant.  Accusing him of selling illegal goods.  (maybe the shopkeeper is)

This isn’t necessarily a combat encounter.  The PC may be able to defuse the situation with great cunning or a sharp tongue.  They may not even get involve.  Don’t force them too. Continue reading “Set Piece: The Hold-up”

Posted in Set Piece

Set Piece: Bad Shaft

Set Piece

Set Pieces are a weekly look at an encounter you can use at your table.  These small scenes are modular in nature and can be slot into adventures rather easily.  I will discuss the tone you can take in these scenes, the enemy types you can encounter and different options that you can make that will affect how the encounter could play out for your players.

(the following Set Piece is an expanded take on and encounter I wrote for D20Radio’s GM Holocron. If you are a fan of Star Wars and Star Wars role-playing you should take a look at and their Order66 Podcast)


Bad Shaft

Terry’s grip on the rope was slipping, Kate said the harness should hold him, but he had his doubts.

                “Hurry up would you,” Kate called from below. “Or I’ll unhook this rope tied to me and leave you up here alone”

Terry slowly continued his decent, but then a crash came from above. Terry looked up but his headlamp barely illuminated 10 feet.

                “What the hell was that?” He called.

                “I don’t know, but I don’t like…  Hurry up Terry!”

                “Look out!” Terry called as the rusted metal shield they had wedged in front of the shaft’s entrance came crashing down from above.  Kate propelled herself off one of the walls and her and Terry barely avoided the falling shield.  Terry looked down to see if Kate was alright.  Kate’s eyes were filled with terror as she was looking up… up past Terry to the shaft’s not so hidden entrance.

“Ohh God… it’s coming!”


The elevator is busted, the mine shaft has a lift no longer, or there is something shiny deep down in the well; for whatever reason, the PC’s are climbing up or down a very confined corridor. What a great location for an intense encounter.

The encounter works best if the threats are coming from the opposite direction that the players want to go, and not something they have to fight through in this space. The scene is best not as a straight fight but rather a desperate escape or a chase.


The type of threat really sets the mood in this scene.  A mindless horde or horrific monsters make this a desperate climb or decent, with a possible struggle here or there as a fast creature makes it to the players.

If the threats have ranged weapons things turn a bit hectic but less desperate.  A firefight as the players position themselves under(or above) bits of machinery or side support beams make things play out differently.  However, if their threat is above them, they may have to watch out for things they hit falling down on top of them.

Another take is having the threat environmental, rising lava, water, or an encroaching gas would make the climb just as desperate but change the threat from an enemy to something more inevitable.


Athletics or Climbing checks should or course be used in this encounter, but not every round.  If the players have a rope or climbing gear, or other means to making climbing easier they shouldn’t need to roll just to climb up or down at a normal pace.  However, if they are trying to go fast, or make a difficult maneuver, or a ghoul has jumped on their back and is about to bite into their neck, then you should probably have them make a check to make sure they don’t fall.

That said a failure on a check doesn’t mean they fell.  They just weren’t able to find purchase on that other wall or got held up and moved slower than expected, only a critical failure, despair or GM intrusion should have them falling into the depths. Even then some other save, or another player should be given a chance to save their friend.

Fighting of any kind should be made more difficult due the climbing situation.


Keep the players moving.  Forward moment is key to this scene being memorable rather than a slog.  If the players want to stay and fight the threats, ramp up the physical checks by having their ropes get cut, or climbing pick start to break.  If the players are getting bogged down with the threats, introduce and environmental one that affects both friend and foe to thin the enemy ranks and break the players free.  (a sudden explosion from above rocks the ground, water cascades from above…)

Don’t drag out the encounter unnecessarily.  If the players make great climbing checks to get out of their super quick let them.  Play up how big the horde is and how horrible the scene is they are leaving behind. Make it feel like their skill saved them from a horrible fate. Make them hope they can find ANOTHER way out.