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GM Intrusions and Complications in D&D

by Mike on 12 April 2021

The excellent science fantasy RPG Numenera and its underlying system, the Cypher System, includes a mechanic known as the GM Intrusion. The Numenera supplement, Taking the Narrative by the Tail: GM Intrusions by Monte Cook, gives deeper insight into this mechanic for under a buck.

Monte Cook describes the GM Intrusion this way:

GM intrusions are the primary at-the-table tool for GMs to participate in helping to craft the story that the group is creating. In the same way that a player contributes by stating what her character will do as her action, a GM intrusion is the GM’s action. It’s the GM’s contribution to the ongoing events to make things more interesting.

Numenera and the Cypher System refine this sort of interaction with a mechanic—the GM Intrusion—but we can take the idea and bring it right into our D&D games. We can even use D&D's inspiration mechanic as the carrot of a GM intrusion stick. Something in the world complicates the lives of the characters, maybe one character in particular, and they gain inspiration for their trouble.

Adding Complications to Your D&D Game

I'm not much of a fan of the term "intrusion". It seems so...intrusive. I prefer the term "complication". As Monte Cook describes in Taking the Narrative by the Tail, this is a technique GMs have been using for decades, we just didn't have a mechanic for it. It may be something you already bring to your games. Sometimes a complication just feels right and so you drop it in.

Complications and Beats

Complications fit well with the idea of "beats" from Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws. Complications are downward beats, bad things happening to the characters, and we likely want another form of GM intrusion for an upward beat. Something nice that happens to the characters. That's a topic for another day.

The Nuances of Downward Beats

This is a bit of advanced DMing. Knowing how to bring in such complications so they enhance the fun of the game and don't just screw players is important. You don't want such complications to take away agency or just bone characters. You want such complications to move the story in new and fun directions. Think hard and watch reactions to see how such complications are taken in. Do they stay in character and seem genuinely excited about what will happen or do they get frustrated out of game? Knowing which complications to drop in when and how is a valuable skill that takes time to develop.

Twenty Complications

What do these complications look like? Here's a list of twenty example complications to inspire your own when you're running your game. You can see dozens of examples in Taking the Narrative by the Tail, making it well worth the buck.

  1. The main villain makes a surprise visit.
  2. That unoccupied garderobe turned out to be occupied after all.
  3. The local hobgoblins just began their infiltration defense drill practice.
  4. Something catches on fire.
  5. Mercenary reinforcements show up.
  6. The king's foppish advisor turns out to be an expert swashbuckler.
  7. The floor collapses.
  8. Someone has to sneeze.
  9. The evil prince keeps a pen of pet guard drakes.
  10. A parade of hooded monks turns the corner to walk through the middle of the street fight.
  11. Someone else is robbing the noble's manor at the same time.
  12. The king's daughter chooses right now to escape her overbearing father as the characters break into the castle.
  13. Of course there's a black pudding in the commode.
  14. Not the bees!
  15. That detailed trap was actually cover for another far more devious trap.
  16. Something is possessed.
  17. The guide has no idea where they're going and leads the characters into a trap.
  18. A strange magic item causes a wild magic surge.
  19. A sundered pillar causes a balcony to collapse.
  20. The boat starts sinking.

Complications: The World's Action

As Monte Cook describes, think of these complications as the actions of the world in the same way the players describe the actions of their characters. Sometimes the characters do something and the world responds. Other times, things just happen. Above all, these complications serve one goal—to make the story more interesting, more exciting, and more fun.

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