Running a game of Ruralpunk is built on the GM’s agenda and principles. The agenda is what you set out to do when you sit down at the table. The principles are the guides that keep you focused on that agenda.
The GM’s agenda and principles are rules just like corruption thresholds or progress clocks. You should take the same care in altering them or ignoring them that you would with any other rule. If you find yourself unsure what consequence you want to use, how to tie together the story across separate ventures, refer back to this agenda and these principles as a source of inspiration.
When you sit down at the table as a GM you do these things:
The players have it easy—they just say what their characters say, think, and do. You have it a bit harder. You have to say everything else. What does that entail?
First and foremost, you describe the immediate situation around the players at all times. This is how you start a session, how you get things rolling after a snack break, get back on track after a great joke: tell them what the situation is in concrete terms.
Use details and senses to draw them in. The situation isn’t just a ganger charging you, it’s a ganger swinging a chainsaw and smelling of burned wood. You can leverage a lack of information, too. The sudden turning on of a red light or the sound of a gun being cocked, for instance.
When you describe the situation, always end with “What do you do?” The game is about tension and conflict! Portray a situation that demands a response.
When in doubt, give them someone to react to. Someone who needs them to be different than who they are.
Their relationships are rarely “everything’s great, nothing to worry about.” They’re stuck in a dead-end town, at the mercy of powerful factions warring over scraps, and tangled up in the multigenerational drama. Every relationship is rife with potential conflict: secrets, broken promises, unspoken hopes.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and being ready to counter offer, especially when it comes to world building. Players picked souls that match the part of the world they want to explore; ask them for reasons and details for the fiction. Think of your role as being the creative director: you ask for the player’s input about the world, and it’s your job to make a cohesive experience for the game. You do not have to say yes to every idea. Be willing to say, “No, but . . .” If you say no, be willing to provide an alternative, so your players don’t feel shut down.
In all of these things, tap into faction goals and Contact roles. At any given time you have a list of factions who want specific things and Contacts known for acting out certain roles. Fill the world with people and groups who want things. Place a faction’s goal in conflict with the PCs. Have a Contact live up to their role...in the most inconvenient way. Factions and Contacts exist to create a dynamic and interwoven world. When in doubt, pull on one of those threads.
The GM agenda makes up the things you aim to do at all times when running a session:
Things that aren’t on this list aren’t your goals. You’re not trying to beat the players with an out-of-the-blue betrayal twist or test their ability to solve complex traps. You’re not here to give the players a chance to explore your finely crafted setting. You’re not trying to kill the players (though NPCs might be). You’re most certainly not here to tell everyone a planned-out story.
Your first agenda is to portray a dependent but divided world. This dynamic defines the PCs’ community. In their rural, remote community people must depend upon each other. No one has enough to survive on their own—except maybe the factions, and that’s part of why they are so destructive and selfish. Rivals will pitch in funds for one more tank of gas; feuding families will work together to board up windows before a storm; and estranged siblings will step up to protect each other from the Wild.
This dependence in no way means people get along, however. The town is defined by dozens of fractures: along generational lines, educational lines, family legacy, mutation status, money, politics, religion, neighborhood, fashion sense, music preference. If there is an opinion to be had, there is an argument ready to erupt.
Bring this tension alive by switching up tone between scenes and between encounters. If the PCs face down a squad breaking down the windows of their enemies, switch to a scene of a Contact giving them unasked aid. If a Contact is hostile when the PCs ask for help, show them assisting another Contact later. When possible, arrange it so Contacts have both bonds and grudges with the PCs.
Ruralpunk is all about guts, craft, and persistence against overwhelming odds. It’s about characters who know they can’t win the fight, not really, and choose to fight anyway. It’s your job to participate in that by showing the players a world in which their characters can find adventure. Without the characters, the world would be an even more corrupt place. It’s up to you to portray an equally challenging and fantastical world. Put enough good and fun in the world the players want to protect it, even if they will lose. Give them moments of triumph and fantasy, then threaten those fantastic elements of the world with scarcity and competition.
Ventures in the game never presume player actions. You portray a setting in motion—someplace significant with creatures big and small pursuing their own goals. As the players come into conflict with that setting and its denizens, action is inevitable. You’ll honestly portray the repercussions of that action.
This is how you play to find out what happens. You’re sharing in the fun of finding out how the characters react to and change the world you’re portraying. You’re all participants in a great adventure that’s unfolding. So really, don’t plan too hard. The rules of the game will fight you. It’s fun to see how things unfold.
Your principles are your guides. Often, when it’s time to name a consequence, you’ll already have an idea of what makes sense. Consider it in light of your principles and go with it, if it fits:
Show what they love, and make them choose
Listen for what excites your players and how they want to invest their time and favors. Notice when they describe a situation or action with more detail. This will give you hints to what your players care about most. Also pay attention to what their characters care about: their contacts, their downtime actions, their rebellion, how often they uphold or break the team’s ideal. Know what makes the most “sense” mechanically for the team, e.g. to make an employer happy, to avoid conflict with a high tier faction. When consequences begin to build, take two of these things, and make the player choose which they prioritize.
Always make sure the conflict makes sense in the narrative, and when you can, threaten the characters with a loss of something they value instead of only threatening with danger.
Keystroke hates it when people patronize her. She also really cares about being taken seriously in this town. The GM introduces a venture where the team is asked to help a cowardly and patronizing Contact. He ignores and talks down to Keystroke more than any others. She has to make a choice: finish the task and help this slimeball, or teach him a lesson and hurt her reputation.
Tempt them with easy success...at the cost of selling out
As the threats close in and problems mount, offer the characters a clear way out—all it will take is betraying their team ideal or exploiting someone who is less powerful than them. Never paint the characters into a corner where they have to sell out, but tempt them with it at every turn. Life is easier for the corrupt. See if you can get the characters to take the bait.
Complicate their ideals
Ideals are written in absolutes . . . and absolutes are the way to zealotry. Show the players all the shades of grey around their ethics. Even well intentioned actions can cause unintentional harm.
The team decided to take the protest ideal with the trigger “speak truth to power.” When they see some soldiers bullying an isolated mutant, they step in and tell the soldiers to back off. The Broker makes a rousing speech to sway the crowd to their side, but she rolls a 4, earning a consequence. The crowd rallies to her side, but a few members of the crowd take the protest to the extreme, and start rioting.
Paint the world with color
Give every location its own color. When you reveal a new location, choose a color theme. Describe the scene first in terms of physical color, then add in a vivid detail or two. Since you create the world collaboratively, you want to show the players an inspirational canvas with open spaces for them to add their own details.
The team is sneaking into the abandoned park warped by the Wild Strain. This is the first time the group has explored outside their town.
The GM builds the canvas: “You have reached the top of the cement barrier and see the park stretch out before you. The scene is a mix of intense red and blue that hurts your eyes. The land is a bright red dirt, flat, stretching out as far as you can see. At the horizon it meets a line of bright blue sky. You can see only a few scruffy plants, short, spikey, and dusted in red dirt.”
Give each NPC a fire and a shadow
You will not completely flesh out every NPC the character meets, but try to note down two core traits: the fire that inspires them, and the shadow they fear. These two elements will provide hooks for the PCs as they form the core motivations of the NPC. When an NPC feels more comfortable or strong, they will act on their ideals, feeding the fire. When an NPC feels threatened or insecure, they will act to avoid their shadow, sometimes taking extreme measures to destroy or escape what they fear. This balance will help you fit each NPC to a range of moods: lean into the hopefulness of their fire when you want to lighten the mood, and explore the fears in their shadow when you want to darken it.
Dahlia is a Contact and the town’s Champion role. I decide that Dahlia’s fire is focused on community. This fire inspires goals to improve commerce in the neighborhood and protect them from the corrupt corporation trying to buy up all the local real estate. Dahlia’s shadow is exposure. They are related to an infamous criminal who dumped active Wild Strain into the town water supply to see “what would happen,” causing the worst of the town’s mutations. They will do anything to hide these familial connections.
Give each action a context
The fiction comes alive when you ground it in the world. You can use this grounding to fill in small details about the setting as you go. The PCs struggle to sneak into the warehouse because they are swarmed by neon-purple fireflies; the car chase is during an eco-protest; their Contact describes the task they need completed inside an AI graveyard; the corporate office stinks of incense that amplifies the Feed advertisements all around. The world is alive and changing around the PCs; place their actions inside that larger canvas. Rather than dump world building on the players, develop it gradually through the details that surround their actions.
Ask questions and use the answers
Part of playing to find out what happens is explicitly not knowing everything, and being curious. If you don’t know something, or you don’t have an idea, ask the players and use what they say.
This can focus on the players’ actions (“What do you do?”), the world around them (“What do you see?”), and the attitudes running through the town (“What do you/they think of this?”).
Whenever you describe a conflict, consequence, or new location, end with a question for the players.
Be a fan of the players
Find out what the players want from their story and ways to engage those desires. Think of the players’ rebellion as the protagonist of the story. Cheer for their resistance and empathize with their selling out. Do not confuse the grimness of the world with a need to punish or defeat the players; you give them obstacles so their victories can be even more dramatic. When you describe the world’s corruption, do so to give the group an adversary to rally against, not to make the world seem dark for the sake of darkness.
Since Ruralpunk is about the team, community, and resistance against society, this may or may not be the same as being a fan of the characters. Take your lead from the group’s goals. If your group is strongly invested in the struggles and triumphs of their individual characters, focus the story in on the characters as the protagonists. But if the group is more interested in their neighborhood or the team’s legacy, they may be less invested in heroic moments for their PC and more interested in the larger faction politics. Maintain an ongoing conversation with the group about their interests, and adjust as you go.
Think in generations
The town and the PCs operate in the shadow of past generations. Bring this sense of time into the game when appropriate. If players used the life-path system for character creation, ask them how their past complicates the present. Have Contacts bring up their parents or grandparents life-paths.
When you paint the scene, layer on details from different lifetimes. The town may not use its water tower anymore, but maybe a local gang turned it into a party spot. When the PCs venture into the Wild, describe hints of the buildings that once stood there.
And when you think about character motivations, don’t be afraid to reach into the distant past. Maybe a Contact cares about recovering that trunk from the Wild because their grandma used to talk about it. Maybe the fight today was about a misunderstanding two generations ago.
Time is not linear in this game. When it makes sense, use a flashback that shows events from years, or even lifetimes, before. Back before the Wild. Back before the corporation monopolized the economy. Back before everyone got sick from factory waste. Every immediate need is shaped by past decisions...and consequences.
Begin and end with the fiction
Everything you and the players do comes from and leads to fictional events. When the players take action, apply the rules, and get a fictional effect. When you make a roll it always comes from the fiction and propels the fiction.
Contacts align with your agenda and principles: develop them from the questions players answer; give them a fire and a shadow; and find out who they are in play.
This section gives a few tools and guidance to carry this out. You do not need to use every one of these tools with every Contact. Define enough to give you some direction for roleplaying them, and let the rest develop with the story the group creates.
If This Role is True...
Every Contact is given a town role. This is the first fact you know about them. The role may not reflect who they are, but it does define how people in town view them. Use this role as a springboard for roleplaying and developing them.
Ask yourself, “If this is true, what else is true?”
For example, if a Contact is the town gossip, what else is true? Maybe they love to be the center of attention. Or maybe they attend a lot of social events. Or maybe they are a sneaky gossip, hovering silently in the corner, unnoticed.
What Fuels Them?
Most of life is built around the mundane moments. The every-day concerns and same interests. Give each Contact a source of fuel. This isn’t some driving conviction, but an every day joy. It could be a hobby. An interest. A habit or ritual that grounds them. A person whose company they enjoy.
Maybe they fish or fix cars or like reading books about chess or constantly repaint their home.
This fuel keeps them grounded and going, despite the hardship and conflict.
What Lit the Fire?
Give every NPC—including Contacts—a fire. This is what they hope for in the future. This is what they imagine Could Be. It may inspire them to action, or help them hold on, or keep them entertained during the long, dull days. You can decide this during prep or let it develop naturally in play.
Once you know their fire, you can use it to inspire their history: what made them hope for this? Did their family raise them caring about it? Do they believe it in defiance of past loss? Is it a childhood dream they never let go?
Why Do They Fear Their Shadow?
Give every NPC—including Contacts—a shadow. This is a secret they hide from almost everyone. This is a part of their past (or present) they believe would destroy their life if it came out. For some shadows, the fears may be founded in concrete loss, e.g. they killed someone and fear jail. Most shadows will have less clear consequences which is part of why the Contact is so afraid: anxiety likes to take ambiguity and forecast worst case scenarios. For example, someone might have made a mistake in the past they are ashamed of, and fear complete rejection from loved ones if it comes out.
Why someone fears their shadow reflects what is important to them. Possible losses could include losing:
What Are Their Extremes?
To create a clear distinction between Contacts it can be helpful to think about what makes them different from each other. This can be done by highlighting two aspects of their personality that are more pronounced than normal. In many cases, the way people respond and act depends on context. A person might be pessimistic about politics, but optimistic about their relationships. The context changes how pessimistic they are.
However, people tend to have some strong personality traits that come out regardless of context. These represent the extreme traits of their personality.
Giving each Contact two extremes to their personality can help separate them from each other. It can also provide guidance when you are unsure how they would react.
Below is a list of opposed personality traits. You are not limited to these by any means, but hopefully they provide some inspiration:
Traits need to be specific enough the players know when to use them for Contact rolls, but general enough they can apply to many different scenarios. A trait should be unique and noteworthy, similar to town roles. Saying a Contact is “the town gossip” implies a lot about them, while also leaving space to fill in details in play.
As the examples below show, a Contact trait can range from a personality feature (fearless) to a former role (former metropolis executive) to a resource (always knows a guy) to a hobby (art collector).
To create this Contact, I chose a town role and then chose the fuel, extremes, and fire. I purposefully made those decisions in an unrelated way to create a range in character traits. I chose a shadow inspired by the Contact’s extremes and fire: it made sense that someone who is impulsive and over-permissive may have lashed out at some point when they felt stepped on. This shadow might threaten their hope for a stable home.
I used all of these points to inspire the Contact’s traits. Someone who is over-permissive may be people pleasing or extremely loyal, meaning they highly value other people, so they would Never Leave Someone Behind. Since they lack a stable home, maybe they are used to chaos and disruption, leading them to develop a Sixth Sense for Conflict.