Running the Game

Running the Game #

This is a chapter on how best to run the game in the GM role. The GM is responsible for a lot, but not everything - every player should be involved in many of these decisions.

Session Zero #

It’s almost always a good idea to establish your game with a Session Zero. This is a kind of pre-session Session where no (or limited) gameplay happens, but instead everyone establishes their expectations for the game. This is a good time to establish some of the safety tools in the next section, as well as the campaign Constraints.

Safety Tools #

Safety tools are helpful and important to make sure everyone at the table is having a good time. Feel free to re-communicate the presence and use of these tools at the start of every session.

Lines and Veils #

Before the game starts (ideally during Session Zero if you have one), everyone playing (including the GM) should try to identify types of content they want to limit in the game:

  • Lines are hard limits. Content declared as a Line should not show up at all.
  • Veils are soft limits. Content declared as a Veil can be alluded to or touched upon but should never be put into active focus. These should be re-examined and re-adjusted as needed throughout the game.

Check-Ins and the X Card #

During the game, everyone should feel free to check in and make sure everyone’s still comfortable. Anyone who isn’t comfortable should have the means to raise some kind of signal (sometimes a physical card with an X, sometimes something else, as long as it’s clear what it means) that indicates as much - when that gets raised, everyone should then alter what they do around it (be it undoing content until before things got uncomfortable, changing what happened, or skipping past it).

Everyone should feel free to affirmatively check in as well, especially when dealing with Veils.

Sources #

All of this and more useful techniques and tools can be found in the TTRPG Safety Toolkit:

Lines and Veils were designed by Ron Edwards.

The X Card was designed by John Stavropoulous:

Constraints #

The topic of Constraints comes up during character creation (it’s the first step), but it’s worth touching on not just for each player but for the GM. When considering a story, there are a lot of definitions worth setting around where it takes place, any expectation of structure, and what kinds of characters can exist.

Some light Constraints include:

  • What is the general intended genre of this game - High Fantasy? Low Fantasy? Space Opera?
  • What is the intended tone - Light? Gritty? Dramatic?
  • What is the expectation for the setting? Is there anything included or excluded from standard expectations for that genre?
  • If something’s not present by default in the setting, could it present as a One Unique Thing?

Once those have been established, think of how these interact with mechanics and characters.

  • If it’s a fantasy setting with no deities, how do characters who might mechanically interact with religion (like Clerics and Paladins) work?
  • If it’s a more science fiction setting and the base assumption is that everyone has ranged weaponry, do Engaged/Near/Close mean the same thing?
  • If there’s no magic in the setting, how are characters who use spells reflavored?
  • Are there any character options that are off the table? (Try not to restrict these much, and if you can, reflavor rather than remove.)

While the game does make some assumptions about the genre of game being played, it’s very much designed for reflavoring. By all means, tailor it to the game you want to play as a group.

Mechanical Changes #

Once you’ve established your genre and tone, if it’s extremely different from the base assumption of the game, everyone at the table might agree to changes to better match these as well as the pacing of the game. These might include:

  • Any of the optional rules about Relationships or Twists in the next section.
  • Inflicting fatigue penalties for being at half recoveries or less.
  • Establishing different standards for monetary rewards.
  • Adding mini-systems for something like a shared ship.

Make sure that everyone at the table can come to a consensus over any changes made.

Icons, Factions, Relationships, and Worldbuilding #

Icons and Factions are the backbone of a 36th Way setting. They define the movers and shakers that put forces into motion. They’re also a helpful way for players to indicate their interests.

Given their presence in character creation and some class abilities, the key powers in your setting help set the tone of the game. Use or define them in that way: generally, pick either Icons or Factions, and then tailor them to your needs, tone, and themes.

Story-wise, the Relationships that players pick should have some stake in the proceedings. If no players pick an Icon or Faction, they’re indicating less interest in that one.

Sample Icons and Relationships #

Icons are people whose identity has been subsumed into their setting-wide status. They’re better for campaigns and settings that lend themselves to conflicts and interplay between singular powerful figures and those who follow them.

The One True King
The heir to the beloved former ruler of the realm. He is popular among many who want a return to the monarchy of old, but others see his continued existence as a threat, be it to social progress or their continued source of power.

Positive: You served his father. You’d done a great service to the kingdom in the past. You helped his people at a key moment.

Negative: You’d been involved in the revolution that claimed his father’s head. You supported one of his usurpers afterwards.

The First Witch
Some say she brought magic to mortals, a gift stolen from a careless deity and then given freely. Others (wizards) say she is a corrupting influence that lures promising would-be apprentices to study at her swamp. Few pretend to fully understand her motives. Nobody can deny her power, her influence, her kindness, or her wrath. Positive: You studied under her. You gave shelter or aid to one of her disciples when you could have turned away. Negative: You persecuted or slighted one of her disciples. You were a prominent member of a wizardly academy.

The Firebrand
They were there when the old kingdom started to burn. They took up the banner of revolution to finish the fight when their beloved was struck down. Rumors swirl about their connection to forbidden methods, especially given the fate of the kingdom. But many continue to flock to their banner just the same.

Positive: You were involved in the revolution. You knew their beloved before the uprising.

Negative: You served the king before the uprising. You were implicated in the event that killed their beloved.

Sample Factions and Relationships #

Factions represent a distributed group of people bound together under a common purpose, whether that purpose is ideological or material. They work better for settings with more distributed, local governments and spread-out centers of power.

The Mercantile Guild
A trading network that helps connect the realm’s disparate settlements. They’re rumored to be very good at stifling competition, but people who talk too loudly about it turn silent soon enough.

Positive: You used to work for them. You took a job for them cleaning up a mistake.

Negative: You cheated them and lived to tell the tale. You know something inconvenient about their dealings.

The Hidden Path
A monastic order founded as a way for people to find enlightenment and derive divine power from within. Their monastery was razed and they were scattered across the world as a joint effort by several churches, but the survivors refuse to surrender.

Positive: You helped one of their number hide from persecution. You publicly subscribe to their theories of enlightenment.

Negative: You’re an evangelizing cleric, or a zealot in general.

The Praetorian Guard
Ten bodyguards who assassinated their emperor founded a realm-spanning paramilitary organization. They’re long gone, but the Praetorian Guard still remains. They offer their services to many caravans and settlements to protect from bandits, but some question who gets designated as a bandit, and many view this as a veiled threat and a pretext to future ambitions.

Positive: You had completed a tour of service with them. You were involved with them making a long-standing deal.

Negative: You were dishonorably discharged. You were a “bandit” that resisted “pacification”.

Rolling Relationships #

At the start of each adventuring day, it’s intended that you roll each relationship die. If you’d prefer, you can have your players roll at the start of each session. This gives them a bit more leeway to handle bad situations, so be sure to make things more dangerous in return.

Using Relationship Dice #

As mentioned above, the primary use for relationship dice is to replace key die rolls. If you’d like to expand upon these uses, you may add any of the following ideas:

  • Leveraging Fame or Infamy: When addressing an Icon, their followers, or a Faction’s members directly, players may spend a relationship die to have one roll gain two Advantage or two Disadvantage instead of replacing a die with that value.

  • Surprise Reveals: A player with a 6 or a 1 in a relationship die may use it to reveal some kind of surprise: The involvement of a negative-relationship icon, for example, or some aid from a positive-relationship icon. These can be altered by the GM as necessary but the GM should try to make them work as-is. A GM who isn’t comfortable with improvisation in this regard may also reserve the right to delay the reveal for a few sessions as they figure out how it makes sense.

Twists #

As mentioned previously, 1’s and 6’s often create Twists when used. Some class features also create Twists too. Twists should always be a “yes, but” situation: the drawback from them appearing should rarely directly undermine the success/failure of the changed roll in question, but should instead cause new problems. The GM should free to store Twists for later use (but rarely past the session and never past the end of the adventuring day unless there’s a really, really good reason). You might use the following as well:

  • Surprising Twist: When a player uses a relationship die that doesn’t normally create a Twist, the GM may ask the player if they want a Twist anyway. If the player accepts, they may immediately roll another relationship die, to be used before the end of the adventuring day.

Environments and Difficulty #

The base difficulty of an environment is determined by its tier. This is the difficulty for normal tasks (i.e. tasks that the party has roughly a 50% or better chance of succeeding at). For hard or very hard tasks, increase that number by +3 or +6.

Adventurer environments are suitable for level 1-4 characters. These are locations like city streets, wilderness areas, newly settled dungeons, and long-crumbled ruins. Their base difficulty is 15.

Champion environments are suitable for level 4-7 characters. These are locations like untouched ruins, horrid swamps, blazing deserts, and restricted areas of cities. Their base difficulty is 18.

Epic environments are suitable for level 7-10 characters. These include the domains of Icons, the lairs of legendary beings and unique villains, the highest peaks, and places beyond the world. Their base difficulty is 21.

Impromptu Damage and Attacks #

Sometimes, a situation calls for some damage that isn’t represented by any specific enemy’s attack. This is usually an obstacle or a trap of some kind, though sometimes this is a result of consequences for a failed action (like falling down when trying to climb, or probing something with a cantrip that shouldn’t be probed). When this happens, the target takes damage appropriate to the environment’s tier: typically 2d6 damage for Adventurer, 4d6 for Champion, or 8d6 for Epic. For effects that are nastier, increase the die size to d8’s or d10s. For damage that affects multiple characters from one effect, halve the number of dice.

An Impromptu Attack is usually potential Impromptu Damage triggered by a trap, though sometimes certain effects are more attack-like than others (such as a falling rock or an approaching shockwave). When you make an Impromptu Attack, make an attack roll against AC, PD, or MD as appropriate with +5, +10, or +15 for Adventurer, Champion, or Epic Tier. If the attack is particularly hard to avoid, add +5 or +10 to the attack, in the same way you would change the difficulty of a harder task. If the attack succeeds, deal Impromptu Damage as appropriate.

A given Impromptu Attack might also have secondary effects, like partial damage on a miss or one of its dice being ongoing damage

Environmental Hazards #

An environment is often defined as much by its inherent properties as by what lives there. Sometimes this is best represented by an overarching hazard that sets the tone. A couple of these are represented below.

  • Harsh Aura: This is a good way to represent a place that’s inherently inhospitable: blazing heat, freezing cold, or the constant presence of toxins in the air. If the players are unprotected while they rest, they lose a recovery during each rest taken in the environment. This can be avoided mitigated by appropriate equipment depending on the tier: mitigation affords players an 11+ save to avoid losing a recovery upon resting. Partially helpful or very helpful equipment/circumstances should give players a 13+ or 9+ save instead, as appropriate. Spending a Resistance potion of an appropriate kind should act as full avoidance for one quick rest.

  • Unsteady Footing: This is a good way to represent an area that’s excessively slippery or uneven, such as an area that’s partially wet or covered in moss. Skill checks to move provoke Impromptu Damage on a failure. Attacks against AC by obstacles, in surprise rounds, and against players or enemies who have moved, disengaged, or popped off in the past round gain 1 Advantage. This can be avoided or mitigated by having appropriate slip-proof gear for the environment and tier.

  • Slow Going: This is a good way to represent an area that’s excessively hard to move through, such as knee-deep water or huge amounts of mud. Attacks against PD by obstacles and in surprise rounds gain 1 Advantage. Players and enemies gain 1 Disadvantage on disengage checks and have to succeed at a 9+ save to pop off of an opponent (or if their opponent has Large, increase their Large amount by 2). This is harder to avoid but can be mitigated with smart footwear or certain kinds of training, depending on the environment.

  • Distracting: This is a good way to represent an area that’s excessively noisy, visually arresting, or filled with magical resonance. Attacks against MD gain 1 Advantage, but attacks by most players and enemies against an enemy’s MD gain 2 Disadvantage if the attacker doesn’t spend an extra move or quick action in addition to the first action. This can be avoided or mitigated through training or experience (such as involvement in a full-scale battle).

  • Physical Danger: This is a good way to represent an environment that presents a clear and constant danger, such as a pitched large battle, a nasty storm, or a crumbling mountainside. Whenever a player fails a skill check and at the start of every combat round (for all characters, players and enemies), they should make an 11+ save. On a failure, they suffer a normal-difficulty Impromptu Attack against an appropriate defense. This is hard to avoid but can mitigated in situational ways.

No hazard should be used without fair warning to the players prior to them entering. Unless there’s a very good reason, it should be made clear what kind of avoidance mitigation would help, if any. Mitigation is usually a partial measure that allows a player to avoid Advantage/Disadvantage or increase a save value, depending on the hazard.

Encounters and Leveling Up #

A typical adventuring day (a period of time between full rests) is 3-5 encounters. The high end makes sense if the encounters are relatively tame and short, while the low end makes sense if encounters are frequently higher-rated than what’s listed. If your players typically have 1-2 recoveries each left and each have 0-2 daily abilities or relationship dice left, the day is probably paced as you’d expect on average.

Depending on the pace of the game, leveling up typically happens after 2-4 full rests. At each full rest where players don’t level up, an Incremental Advance is a good idea.

Encounters and Game Pace #

Different players have different expectations for how casual or grueling a campaign should be. In general, a GM should talk with the other players to decide how harsh their game is expected to be. This extends to a per-encounter basis.

Keep in mind that more encounters in an adventuring day makes quick rest-replenishing and Recharge abilities stronger, while less encounters in an adventuring day makes Daily abilities stronger. A good mix helps ensure that all kinds of characters get the spotlight at different times.

Rewards and Treasure #

Players can expect certain tangible and intangible benefits from adventuring.

Money and Valuables #

Throughout every full heal-up, players should probably receive some amount of money or valuables if nothing else. This should be no more than 150gp per player in Adventurer tier, 300gp per player in Champion tier, and 600gp per player in Epic Tier. This can be from any combination of found money or rewards granted for tasks done. Feel free to give less.

Helpful Tools #

You might grant characters tools that do things like prevent spending a recovery when Pushing your Limits, prevent gaining Disadvantage when Embracing your Flaws, give 1 Advantage to a certain skill use, or let you use any skill for a certain kind of task. These kinds of things should be limited-use items: single-use is common, but for better tools, roll a die every time they’re used (such as a d3, d4, or d6), and its use is fully depleted if you roll a 1. These function well as rewards for tasks undertaken to prepare for a more consequential task. Items to mitigate a certain kind of hazard also make sense as rewards.

Favors and General Aid #

Sometimes a favor or a promise of help in general makes more sense than a tangible reward. When a player receives this, they can roll a special relationship die with no icon. This represents something that players can cash in for a favor, in the same ways they can use relationship dice normally. The player should describe how calling in that favor caused the resolution of the event to change. Sometimes favors expire (because they’re localized to an area or to one big event) but sometimes they don’t.

Minor Magic Items #

If it makes sense for players to find one or several minor meaningful items instead of money or valuables, either give them something appropriate or roll 1d6 and consult the chart below.

1Nothing of value.
2A potion of the character’s tier.
3A lesser rune of the character’s tier.
4A potion and a lesser rune of the character’s tier.
One greater rune of the character’s tier.
5A potion and a greater rune of the character’s tier.
Two lesser runes of the character’s tier.
5Two potions and a greater rune of the character’s tier.
One lesser rune and one greater rune of the character’s tier.

Augmentations #

Augmentations come in many forms. The traditional form to grant an Augmentation as a reward is through a magic item, like an enchanted sword or a divine amulet. Different methods for granting these exist, though: for example, as a reward, an influential person might let characters train with their subordinates or offer a blessing. And sometimes, depending on the encounter, the experience of how a player surpassed (or was laid low by) a challenge might spark an Augmentation. Consider the kind of setting you have and the nature of the player’s wishes for the character before picking an Augmentation’s source.

When granting Signature Augmentations, be wary about giving these out to players if they’re not Augmentations that players want or are ok with. If you do pick one without their say, make sure it’s one that they can actually use based on their abilities.