My Storytelling Guide Companion


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In this companion to My Guide to RPG Storytelling, I delve into the details on creating different kinds of crisis scenes, give a bunch of examples and a lot of lists of potential crisis stages and complications. The second half covers more about NPCs, including voices and mannerisms, NPCs in combat, as well as more examples of player favorite protagonists and antagonists.


What are crisis scenes?

If you haven’t read My Guide to RPG Storytelling, then you’re probably wondering what the hell a “crisis” is in the context of a role-playing game. When it’s time for combat, all the players roll initiative, then they and their opponents all start rolling attacks and defenses, and other stunts and tricks. A combat scene that lasts a minute and a half of in-game time may take an hour to play out. But oddly enough, a life-saving surgery or disarming a bomb usually comes down to a single roll or two, all done in thirty seconds, even though in-game, it could take hours. Why should field surgery, computer hacking, mountain climbing or gambling be any less exciting than combat in an RPG? That’s what crisis scenes are for.

I wanted my players to feel that way. I worked on creating non-combat crises in my games and now when I watch movies with my friends and someone falls off a rooftop or crashes in a car, they joke that the movie characters failed their crisis roll.

I like to think of crises as skill challenges with a shot of adrenaline. Instead of resolving picking a lock with a single roll, a crisis makes it more exciting by doing it in the middle of a firefight, or a fire, or at least while being fired from a fry cook opportunity. A crisis scene is a way to add some oomph to things the characters do outside of combat.

Using crises

So when do you use a crisis? If your characters are picking the lock on a door, that probably doesn’t need three or four rolls. Don’t worry about crises for anything simple or for things that don’t affect the story. Kicking in a door might be a single roll before a combat scene (or forget the roll and let it just be flavor), but getting an ally off of the landmine he stepped on before it blows is a scene all by itself and it deserves more than a single roll of the dice.

A crisis can be the focus of a scene all by itself, and many crises rightfully deserve to take center stage or even be the climax of an adventure, but they can also serve supporting roles in a scene. If your player group is on their way to a climactic confrontation with the villain, you could make them fight through several combats before the big fight. But just to shake things up, why not intersperse some crises in the fights, or replace a combat or two with the challenging climb up the slopes of the bad guy’s volcano lair or navigating a maze? Not only can crises serve to amp up the players and raise the tension level, but successive combats get repetitive after a while and crises can keep your game dynamic.

Those crises also serve the same purpose as combats. Take that daunting climb up the slope of a volcano. The characters must cling to scorching stone that might crumble under their fingers, threaten to spill them hundreds of feet, and have to avoid raining embers or leap across a rivulet of lava. The cost of failing these rolls? Hit point damage, usually. And you know the players will be expending their resources to gain whatever bonuses they can to avoid dying in a fire, so the net result is the same as having put them through a combat: they take some damage, they blow some of their resources and use up some powers. But what do you think they’ll remember longer after game? Fighting ten orcs in a cave before taking down the necromancer, or that time that Jeff almost got his face melted off by lava climbing that huge volcano before taking down the necromancer? Crises don’t replace combats, but they can soften the players up for them to make the next fight scene more challenging. They change up the pace, too, and make some memories.

And while crisis scenes can serve the same function as combat scenes, they offer as much or more to your players for role-playing opportunities. When a player has to make quick decisions, they are forced to step out of their head and into their characters’. And succeed or fail, when the crisis is over, they have to live with the consequences. Did they resuscitate the prince after his poisoning and he is now indebted to the character? Or did they fail, leaving the character to deal with the grief and enmity of his family? How many fight scenes give you that kind of opportunity for role-playing?

Published 04.30.2014 by Loose Leaf Stories