Oct 132011

It’s time for me to come clean. I don’t live up to my nickname or my finely honed “killer GM” act. Truth be told, I root for my players at every turn. And in my opinion, so should ever other GM.

I didn’t always have such a caring outlook toward my players. Back when I was a wee apprentice GM with his first handful of d20s I thought it was my job to destroy and hamper my players at every turn. That they weren’t having fun unless I brutally beat them down and pounced upon every little mistake. In short I was an utter bastard of a rules-lawyer and I cringe when I think about the first few games I ran back then. It’s taken me years and quite a few good examples to break out of that mold. I’m hoping that I can help others learn from my many mistakes.

When my friends and I gather around the table each week we’ve gathered to have fun. And what’s more fun than using all of your shiny powers and abilities to hack your way through hordes of enemies? Not much, if my own opinions and the words of my friends are any example. Every player crafts a character that can do awesome things and as such they would like to do those awesome things as many times as possible. If the character is dead, horribly mutilated, or otherwise shut down they can’t use their cool powers and thus the fun is reduced.

Now, this is not to say that I let my players walk all over me and my encounters. If every battle is a foregone conclusion there’s no fun in that either. No, a GMs job is actually quite a bit more difficult than you’d think. As a GM it’s your job to make winning hard but not impossible. You have to enter each fight with the idea that you’re going to be defeated every time. The real trick is making your defeat difficult and challenging without denying your players their fun (or your own fun, either). It takes a particular mindset to really get okay with the idea that you’re going to lose every time.

When you sit down at the table you have to wail, and gnash your teeth, and shout grandiose predictions of doom. You have to make the players sweat at every turn while knowing deep in your heart that the battle has already been won – unless the players get stupid or the dice go really wonky. You have to design fights and encounters that are beatable and designed to highlight the awesome abilities of each character. In boxing terms you have to be an “opponent” – a fighter destined to lose the fight and make the guy across from you look good.

While there are a great many skills required to really be a good GM, I’d argue that this mentality is one of the most important. You have to want the players to not only succeed but succeed in an awesome manner. You gotta lace up your gloves, step into the ring, and let them beat the crap out of you for ten rounds before finally falling to that knockout punch. In short, you have to learn how to lose.

Sep 212011

A short post to get me back into the swing of things. Also inspired by the new Kirby Krackle song Booty Do Math.

This post is inspired by a few friends who started running again after a long absence or for the first time ever. I’ll start by saying that the guys have been doing a great job. No major complaints from me and certainly nothing that can’t be solved with experience. But the one thing I’ve noticed in newer GMs is the tendency to call for dice rolls when they’re not really necessary. Which is a damn shame, because sometimes the dice can get in the way of good storytelling.

There are several books that have good advice on this subject (the best in my book is anything by Evil Hat, especially Spirit of the Century) but in my mind it’s really simple to determine. If your players have suggested via background or play that a character should be great at some non-critical (and combat is almost always critical) task then just let them succeed. If you have a character raised in a nautical culture don’t make them roll to navigate in calm seas. For that kind of character such rolls should always succeed. Just like the accomplished surgeon should never have to roll when lancing a boil. Or a soldier shouldn’t have to roll to identify a common firearm by sight.

Really this is a corollary to my “Rule of Awesome.” The Rule of Awesome is simple: “If an action would look awesome in a movie it should almost always succeed. If a roll is called for, make the difficulty low.” Or in other words, always err on the side of awesome and epic and damn what the dice would say. We’re playing games here, and at the end of the day games should be fun. And what’s more fun than succeeding at the things your character should be awesome at doing?

Mar 192011

Yes, advanced dungeons and dragons. The old one, by Gygax (or the 2nd edition by Cook if you will).
Although Runequest and Rolemaster are games we play more, I do have a soft spot for the original AD&D. I think it has a lot of scope and potential, and people usually respond to it very well, once they are at the table.
So since I am bored, here’s a few different musings on running AD&D games. These are things more specific to AD&D, than broad, generic gaming advice.
1: What do I roll for this?

Its a common complaint that dice rolls are all over the place, but in a lot of ways, that can be a strength. As the GM, you have a lot of options available to you. Some ways to have a player resolve an action can be: An ability check. A straight percentage chance. A saving throw. Use the “spell learn” or “bend bars” rolls. etc etc.There’s a lot of mechanics in there, and they can be used for a lot of interesting results.
2: Say no to skills.

Skills have been standard in RPG’s since Traveller and Runequest. For AD&D, I’d stay clear of them.Look at the character and judge the situation. A ranger should never be rolling dice to see if he can find shelter, and a cleric knows about ancient religions. No hero should roll dice to ride a horse.When you factor in race, class and their background, you’ll know if they can do it or not. Bring out the dice if the situation is truly challenging.
3: Dont roll dice constantly

Rolling dice can be fun, but it can also break the game if everything comes down it.If you look through the AD&D rules, dice rolls are not actually all that common. The implication is certainly that they are rarely rolled, unless the rules specifically bring it up.There’s really two paradigms here: Roll often or roll rarely. A lot of games assume that you’ll roll dice frequently, and that you’ll have a high chance of success. For AD&D, I find it fits the game better if you roll fairly rarely, and with average or even low chances of success. The player should in most cases have a chance to solve the situation without resorting to dice. Think of them as the saving throw. Your plan didn’t work out, so we’ll give you a chance to bail.
4: Thief skills.

A few simple pointers: The thief should never be punished more than another character would, just for attempting his skills.The thief should never be punished simply for being a thief. Examine the situation. If any character could attempt it, the thief can roll for his thief skill to do it faster, better etc. If he fails, he still gets the same chance everyone else would get.
5: Hit points.

Yes, hit points are a mess. They still are. That being said, exploit the fact that they don’t all represent physical punishment in your descriptions. A 5 damage hit when the fighter is at 30 HP is a staggering blow he barely parried. The same hit when he is down to his last 8 HP is a deep gash in his arm, with blood flowing everywhere.”Hitting” does not mean you wounded them until the very end. Until then, you are just wearing down their defenses.
6: Saving throws.

Same deal. Let the players determine how their character resisted. A fighter might just shrug off the spell through determination, while the magic user knew intricate counter measures. As saving throws are based on threat, not defense (reverse of post-AD&D editions) use the freedom.

7: Morale.

Whether you use the morale checks or not, the GM should always play creatures intelligently. Nothing saps suspension of disbelief faster than the heroes murdering 20 goblins, and the last 2 obligingly march up to get killed, just for the chance of inflicting 3 more HP of damage.When intelligent creatures are cut down, have them retreat, surrender, negotiate, etc. If the world seems to be a living, interesting place, the players will invest more in it, and may keep themselves alive longer.

8: Dont fudge dice.

Personal policy and some GMs hate this, so use if you please.All dice rolls I make are plainly visible to the players. If they know you will save them, the dramatic tension goes out of the scene. A little fear never hurt anyone in a game.On the flip side, don’t make impossible situations. Most fights should have alternate solutions, ways to improve the situation etc.Make them work for it.

Dec 202010

Game mastering is like any other skill – the only way to really get better is with practice and exercise.  To that end I like to keep sharp with several GM Exercises I’ve gotten on the web and made up myself.  One of my favorite exercises is 5 random songs.  Here’s how it works:

Open up your music player and select all of your music (excluding really long stuff like podcasts),  Put it on random and then start listening.  You have to take the next five songs and use them to create an adventure for your favorite game system.  I generally use one song as an overall theme, one as a showdown, one as a villain, and two as set-pieces but you can use whatever format you like.  The key is that you need to start thinking about how to weave different things together into a coherent whole.  Oh, and no cheating – you can’t skip a song if you find it hard (though songs you hate can be skipped, if you have them on your machine for some reason).

To give you an example, here’s my latest exercise:


  • Milktoast by Helmet
  • Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix
  • Nineteen by the Old 97’s
  • Run to Black by David Newman (Serenity Soundtrack)
  • At My Most Beautiful by R.E.M.

Looking over my list I think I’m going to use Shadowun for this one.  We’ve got one song about lies and deception, one about killing a lover, one about young love, a tense orchestral piece, and one about pleasing a lover.  Definitely something to work with here.

I’ll take Nineteen and At My Most Beautiful as my overall themes.  This is going to be an extraction run focusing around two young lovers.  Give the forbidden tinge I’m getting lets make one of them a corp girl and another one a lower class ork.  Classic Romeo and Juliet.  So far, so good.  However, Milktoast is all about lies and I think that’s where we introduce the Johnson.

The Johnson is the girl’s father.  He’s going to hire the runners to take out the ork, claiming that he’s been stalking his daughter.  If the team gets moral he’ll just insist that they plant evidence instead.  If the team gets lazy we get an unhappy ending and the ork dies/goes to prison.  But if they’re good, and they investigate further, they’ll find out that the ork and the girl want to run away together.  The ork will hire them to extract his girl instead.  (This bit is inspired by Hey Joe, at least the killing part).

So now the PCs have to break into a corp and get the girl.  We run this as a really tense scene to fit Fade to Black.  Hopefully the team triumphs and we get a happy ending with the two lovers re-united.

And that’s my GMing exercise for the day.  Give it a try and see if it helps.  This method can really be helpful if you’re stuck for adventure ideas.  Otherwise it’s just a fun little exercise.

Sep 012010

Skill Challenges are probably one of my favorite parts of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons.  I love the framework it provides to an ongoing situation or story.  I love that skills are actually really useful in a tangible and noticeable way.  I use them quite frequently in my games and they’re a fantastic tool.  Unfortunately they’re also quite hard to run in a fun and dynamic way.  It’s taken me a good deal of time and effort, but I finally think I’ve hit upon the core problem of skill challenges and a rather easy to implement solution.

The core problem with a skill challenge is that it’s dead easy to fall into a very static “roll and repeat” cycle.  The DM names a skill and difficulty, the player with the best bonus rolls, and you repeat the process all over again.  It’s easy to understand why this happens, too – that’s how the rules are more or less represented.  The Dungeon Master’s Guide does go into some good detail on framing the scene, but precious little is said about actually moving the story forward – and that’s what you have to do when running a skill challenge.

In my mind you should only make a roll during a “breaking point” in each scene of the skill challenge.  This is the point where the PCs have to act or react, for good or ill.  Furthermore, this action should move the story and change the situation regardless of success or failure.  The fastest way to fall into a static skill challenge is by not changing the situation after every roll.  If Bob the Bard fails his Diplomacy roll when speaking with the Duke that’s going to have as many consequences as a successful check.  Either the Duke leans in and whispers about the assassination plot or he calls for his guards to oust the PCs – either way something happens and the story moves forward.

By changing the situation, even slightly, after every roll you bring in new skills and change how the players see the situation.  The situation should never stay static once you roll.  Something has to happen, for good or ill, and new skills should come into play.  Which is easy to talk about here but hard to actually put into practice.  The simple fact is that running skill challenges like this requires a good deal of improvisation and thinking on your feet.  It’s not something that everyone is good at and I think it’s the main reason that the skill challenges are presented as they are now.

Furthermore, I don’t like listing what skills are used in the challenge.  Instead I frame the situation and ask my players “how do you resolve this issue?”  Players are a crafty bunch and often times they’ll come up with a unique solution that you hadn’t thought about using.  Try to roll with it, assign a difficulty as best you can, and keep the action moving.  This invests the players further into the story and lets everyone try and use their favored skills, ensuring that the action moves along at a brisk pace.  If your players get stymied or stuck you can suggest a few actions, but by and large try and let the players think of solutions themselves.  You’ll be surprised at how creative they can get when given the opportunity.

All of this is great on paper, but I know some of you are going “how in the hell do I plan for all these options?”  The short answer is that you don’t: there’s no way to know everything your players are going to do.  Instead I’ve found it’s much more useful to sketch out the situation and area and the possible reactions of all the characters involved.  I don’t need to know that Fytor is going to try and leap across the chasm and try to beat up my lizard shaman – all I need to know is that the shaman has henchmen and a few traps littered around.  Fytor goes from rolling Athletics to bridge the gap to rolling Acrobatics to evade all those nasty traps.

Even if you want something more structured you still need to move things along briskly.  Try to map out where each successful and unsuccessful check will take the PCs.  You don’t need a ream of notes, but knowing which skills the PCs will be rolling after every success and failure is rather helpful.  Even a simple outline of the flow of events can be hugely helpful when it comes time to roll the dice.

In short, remember the following:

  • Each skill check should change the situation and the skills available (even – or especially – on a failure).
  • Try to let the PCs name what skills they want to use, if at all possible.
  • If you know the situation and players involved you can wing everything else.
  • Either say yes or roll the dice.

Here’s wishing you luck on your next skill challenge!  They don’t have to be boring and they can add a lot to your game if you’re willing to just wing things a little.

Aug 302010

I’ve been running quite a few games lately and the one common theme between them all is outlandish actions.  We’ll be in the middle of a combat or negotiation and one of my players will invariably ask “can I blow up the car with a shot?” or “can I convince this villain that my spellbook is really just a book of Orcish mating rituals?”  They’re actions and suggestions so off the wall and awesome that I have to stop and sputter a bit.  And after thinking a bit I smile, say yes, and sometimes call for a roll.  Because some actions are just so awesome that they have to work.

These outlandish actions have only enhanced my games, but it’s taken me a long time and a lot of mistakes to get to the point where I can say yes.  When I was younger and less experienced I’d often just blurt out “No!”  The actions didn’t fit into the rules, or they seemed stupid, or I couldn’t think of how to make them work.  These days I’ve loosened up a lot and my games are far better for the change in attitude.

These moments now fall into my “rule of cool” philosophy (I know I’m cribbing this name from somewhere – probably an Evil Hat game – forgive me if I don’t cite the original source).  In essence this rule boils down to: if the action is outlandish and increases the fun at the table it’s going to work.  In some cases I might call for a roll, but if I do I always make sure that the rule is something that the PC is good at, because they should probably succeed at such a task.

For a lot of new GMs this sort of thing can really throw you for a loop.  It seems really cool (or really stupid) but you don’t know how to fit into the rules you’re using.  My personal suggestion is to just let it work outright or let it work with a common roll.  Now, this only applies if the action is going to make things more fun for everyone.  If the action really only serves to make one character better then it’s probably fine to say no, or yes, but…  To really qualify for the Rule of Cool your action has to really make things better for everyone at the table or at least make everyone at the table go “awesome!” or break up into laughter.

That’s the Rule of Cool in a nutshell.  It’s made my games a lot more fun and helped my players feel more empowered.  Hopefully it can do the same for yours.

Sep 302009

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

I always find my best inspirations for blog posts after I have played the worst RPG scenes.

This is a problem that plagues online roleplayoing, but I think it also ventures heavily into tabletop gaming across all genres of games – how do you make your game work for your group as a whole?

Lets go backwards on this a bit and look at the most basic question: why should you run for every player you have?  I swear it seems such a simple, stupid question but time and time again groups form where the ST/DM/GM gathers a big group of players and then proceeds to lead only for his or her best friends leaving the other players feeling useless.  The why is tied inextricably in the basic goal of roleplaying: fun.  Very few players find it fun to ride along on the coattails of others, and usually they are the sort of players who gain more fun by spectating rather than playing anyways.  Most players find it fun to affect the game and in return be rewarded for their actions.  Even in a game where there is a strict rank whether this is military or nobility – no one like to have thier options in a RPG limited solely to what someone else tells them to do.  We play RPGs to make choices and see how those choices affect the outcome.  No matter whether this is how does your combat strategy stack up against the DM’s baddies to how does your social manipulation scheme affect the plots of the ST’s villains.  So if you plot adventures that only appeal to a portion of your players – or worse can only be solved by a portion of your players the neglected players will start to resent the game and get very bored very quickly.

That is not to say that personal storylines or highlighting a character is a bad thing – as long as it is something that is shared equally among the playerbase.  The storyline that deals with a paladin fulfilling an oath to his order one session, afterward the fighter making a drunken bet and dragging his party into a monster-hunt; and then a gang of old enemies catching up with the rogue the next is cool.  The game where each and every problem is only solvable by some obscure spell your wizard possess while the rest of your party is getting mutilated and and doing zero damage is fundamentally broken.  Honestly – if you are running a tabletop game and you decide that you enjoy running for only a portion of your players and therefore favor them suck it up and either A. split the group or B. find ways to enjoy and/or run for your other players.

And if you’re running an online chat game, and you favor your friends exclusively you should probably admit that you’re not cut out to be a good GM and step down.  Period, end of story.

So now that the problem is defined, how do you kep your game running smoothly?  First – live by this rule: interested players make a more interesting game for all involved.  It takes some work, but in my opinion finding out what trips your players triggers is well worth the effort because once they are interested they will be giving both feedback and energy – and oftentimes story ideas through their play.

2. Give them what they want.  Some DMs I know specifically put something in every adventure for every character, some are more loose about it and just give open ended situations that are well suited for a variety of players – however you care to do it, make sure there are plenty of opportunities for everybody to think up solutions and act upon them.  This leads directly into …

3. Think before saying ‘No.’  Sometimes we trust our friends but don’t trust the new guy – so we’ll buy the wildly creative plan our best bud throws out but immediately shoot down the solution presented by the new player.  You know what?  If you trusted them enough to let them in your group give them a chance.  If everything goes to hell, kindly stop the session and either teach them the game or don’t invite them next time – on the flip side if they are wildly creative and make it work everyone might just be sold on the story and be thrilled with it.  I find too many GMs say ‘no’ too often and yet when you say yes not only do players feel like they are empowered in the game but they have more fun and are encouraged to be more creative.

4. If you have a railroader, stop them – even if (or especially if) it is you.  Some people feel that everything needs to go their way.  Some players like to order everyone else around and some GMs will force players into their tightly preplanned storyline.  But control isn’t fun.  No one likes playing out orders – people go to work to do what they are told.  They roleplay to have fun and explore the boundaries of their creativity.   So if you have a player who likes controlling everyone else, tell them to stop – trust me, even if the others aren’t complaining they will thank you.  And if it is you as a GM controlling them too strictly, start coming up with open-ended problems for them to solve.  This has the added benefit of taking stress off your shoulders.

5. If you are running a story based game, find out about all the PCs backgrounds and bring them into play.  If you are running a strategy or combat based game, find out each of the player’s tactical strengths/weaknesses and bring them into play.  Challenging each person individually or bringing up secrets of character’s pasts is a good way to get that player involved and tied to the other players in the game.

6. Personal SL are great.  Personal SLs that affect your entire group but can only be solved by one PC suck.  No one wants to stack dice and twiddle thier thumbs while waiting for one PC to finish defeating the big bad that only he or she can defeat.  Either run personal SLs on the side or make them so every player can get involved.

If all else fails, admit your strengths and weaknesses as a GM and run for only your close friends and let someone else run for everyone.  Because the game is fun, but sitting around watching someone else have fun isn’t.

Aug 042009

Super Mario STing
(or why White Wolf STs should go read a DMG)

“Thank you, Mario,
But our princess is in another castle…”

~Super Mario Brothers, NES

I have a confession to make: I play on online White Wolf chats.

As I am a fan of the Old World of Darkness, it’s tough to find players anymore.  Online chats were a natural interest as you could find players, even if physically they were hundreds, if not thousands of miles away.  And while I have found some terrific players and stories on those chats, I have also suffered through some of the worst games of my life online.  Recently I have been hit in the face with something that has become a massive pet peeve, something I call the ‘Super Mario Syndrome.’

How does that work in roleplaying?  Easy.  The ST schedules a scene (or a game session if you’re playing tabletop) and everyone gets together to solve problem A or seek out Badguy X.  And the PCs sally forth to the someplace (hideout 1) where they have a clue that Badguy X will be, encountering a big group of his goons or traps or what have you.  The PCs fight a valiant and (because it’s old White Wolf) exceedingly long battle with the goons, only to find that Badguy X is not there and they cannot get much useful information from the defeated goons.  Only “Sorry, PCs but the Badguy is in another hideout.”  So the session ends, you may or may not get XP, and you schedule to play again.  Next time you go to hideout 2, to find more of Badguy X’s goons, have another long fight, and find out once again that ‘Oh yeah, Badguy X is in another hideout…” and so on.

I can stomach the idea of having to defeat multiple villains to collect multiple MacGuffins (to continue the classic video game references: The Zelda Plotline) as long as every chunk of the game offers a tangible reward.  It is too easy to forget the ‘reward’ part of a poorly thought out, ongoing storyline.  This problem is complicated tenfold in White Wolf style games because the game does not offer inherent rewards for combat, unlike Dungeons and Dragons.  You might get a few XP, which in turn you can use to raise your physical stats, and fight more things.  But unless your players are completely content with fighting endless hoardes of baddies, rinse, repeat the game quickly becomes tiresome if they can never accomplish story goals.

I have a negative gut reaction against running a scene with no purpose.  Both as a player and as an ST I dislike the convention of fighting for no reason, or questing without reward.  Some STs use this to build up tension or to make the players ‘work’ for something in order to earn it, but I find all too often that it only builds frustration in the players and stretches out a watery plotline for longer than it is worth.  Having been victim of the Super Mario Syndrome in several games, in my experience it always ends the same way: sooner or later the players get frustrated without getting anywhere.  They get up the gumption, complain to the ST, and the ST in return gets angry because he or she feels like their hard work STing isn’t being appreciated.  In rare cases I have seen STs learn from their mistakes and reform their plots – but more often I see an ST go ‘well, if you want and ending, then fine!  I’ll end it!’ and they make up a sudden and unsatisfying ending to the plot.  Players and ST go home unhappy and the game starts to fall apart, which just isn’t fun in any sense of the word.

So, let’s dissect the possible reasons for the Super Mario Syndrome:

1.    The storyteller seeks to build tension.
Tension is an integral part of a dramatic plot.  However tension at the expense of the group’s enjoyment is a waste.  I find it far better to build tension with scene settings, good descriptions, and by making the villains connected to the PCs in some way.  By giving them a reason to give a rat’s ass about a villain (whether that means they have some positive connection to them or they have a deep and personal hatred of them) your players create tension for you through their PCs own personal struggles.

2.    The Storyteller seeks to challenge the players.
Oftentimes as an ST I worry about ‘is this challenge difficult enough for my players?’  Unlike 3.X DnD and beyond there are no ‘challenge levels’ in White Wolf.  There are no clear guidelines as to when something is challenging enough, too easy or too hard.  So, in order to get a proper sense of challenge, some STs like to drag things out to make sure the game is properly difficult.  But it is all too easy to drag things out too long.

My suggestion?  Make individual encounters more difficult.  Swallow your fear of killing your PCs and make each scene potentially deadly, and if they succeed, “Let it Ride.”  That’s a term pulled directly from Burning Wheel – which I highly suggest any ST should go pick up because reading the concepts in that system is well worth the $25 even if you never play it.  Anyways, let it ride is a mechanic that says you cannot call for re-rolls and you cannot reneg on success or failure.  If the PCs succeed on a roll (or working from there, succeed in a task) they succeed.  You cannot try to go back on your word and suddenly make the task again more difficult.  If need be pre-define the conditions for success and let the players know them.  If they succeed, they succeed and you move on.  And honestly, the game isn’t about the ST versus the PCs.  The ST doesn’t ever need to ‘win.’  The PCs do because the players play the game for success.  So if they succeed, let them win.  There is nothing wrong with that.

3.    The Storyteller wants to ‘hang on’ to a great recurring villain
Oh, the curse of the awesome NPC.  You created them in a burst of inspiration and now you can’t let them go.  The PCs love them – or at least you thought they did.  But now they can never reach their goals because he is standing in the way.  You can deal with this in a few different ways, and one of the simplest and best is sit down and talk to your players OOC.  Do they love the recurring villain as much as you do?  If the answer is yes, they all love to continually hate him, then structure your game with a smattering of other, defeatable villains and you know you will always have your ‘Lex Luthor’ around to show back up.  Or perhaps the PCs could confront their favorite recurring villain and cause him or her to convert to being a good guy.

The hardest part to this is when you find that no, in fact your players don’t share the same love of a particular NPC that you do.  Then there is really only one thing to do, and that is to go back to the above point, suck it up and let them have the chance of defeating him.   And if they do, you let the NPC go.  You’re an ST.  You should be able to create an equally awesome villain for the next plot – or save this one and reuse him in a different game with different players.

4.    The Storyteller hasn’t planned his or her story to the end.
This is the monster that destroys games: lack of follow-through on the part of the ST.  Sometimes it manifests in a wandering lack of plot while the ST searches for inspiration on how to draw it all into a conclusion and sometimes it manifests in the ST being wholly unable to tie all of his or her complex threads together.  Super Mario tends to show up while the ST is trying to stall for time.  Now, I do not believe that planning a game should feel like a chore, but that a good ST should put a reasonable amount of time and effort into planning.  Many good STs enjoy that planning.  But at base, your game needs a plan for what the problem is, what the resolution will be and what the reward for success is.  How the players get from problem to resolution is up to them and it can comprise the bulk of your game, but the ST needs to know what the eventual conclusion is.  If the game is long-term and/or epic there needs to be clear ‘chapters’ of play, allowing minor successes to add up to a final success in the overarching goal.

The difficulty with flexible story-based games is that you need to start with an interesting story.  Part of the job of the ST is to decide how long a planned story (or game) will last.  Some stories are far better suited for short campaigns, while others more able to sustain long-term play; and a smart ST can separate the two.  If you have a short-term story run it as a one-shot or a few-shot and don’t try to drag it out past its prime.  But most importantly: figure out what plot you are running before everyone sits down to play.  Not a railroad, but a general idea that “The PCs want X.  When they get X, they will get Y reward” or something that gives a sense of conclusion to the basic structure.

Getting over the roadblocks allows the players to feel like they are a contributing part of the game and that their actions have meaning because they advance the story somewhere else.  No one wants to play a game where they feel like they are at the whims of an ST.  If we wanted that we’d all go get cubicle jobs and get pushed around by our bosses all day and call it ‘fun.’  An ST needs to step back and let his or her players affect the game or story with their actions as much as the ST shapes them.

Then Super Mario will be the one in another castle.

Aug 032009

“It’s during long pauses such as these that we often grow philosophical and ponder the deeper questions of gaming…

Just where did that tiger keep those 20 silver pieces?”
~GM Hold music (sednagames.com)

Lately I have noticed the discussion crop up on a variety of message boards over ‘Is Dungeons and Dragons really all about killing things and taking their stuff?”  The discussion invariably then delves into people saying “Yes, but it can be about a whole lot more” or “Well X edition was a whole lot more about killing things and taking their stuff than Y edition” or the people who stick up and say “Yes, that IS what it is all about.”  Yet one of the things I always notice about the discussion is that while gamers spend a great amount of time arguing how DnD can be so much more than killing things and taking their stuff or lambasting their least favorite edition while supporting their favorite no one stops to ask: is it OK that the game could fundamentally be centered on killing things and taking their stuff?

Everyone pussyfoots around it, like it is some dirty little secret that didn’t make millions of dollars for the video game industry.  But, despite me being a White Wolf loving, story-based, hang-the-rules sort of roleplayer, I’m going to tell you straight: there is nothing wrong with the concept of a game being founded on ‘kill things, take their stuff.’

Now before you rush out and go have a Mountain Dew rampage on how plebian I am, let me explain.  Let us, for a second; break down the basic structure of the “Kill Things, Take Stuff” plot.  In my mind it has 4 stages:

Problem (There are monsters)
Action (The PCs go find the monsters – usually in the form of a ‘dungeon crawl’)
Resolution (The PCs kill the monsters)
Reward (The PCs get stuff from killing monsters)

The Problem -> Action -> Resolution -> Reward structure is a primer for a successful RPG story.  It is one of the most basic, tried and true plotlines of DnD – or any other game.  It can be as simple as shown about or it can be far more sophisticated:

Problem (Innocent children have been disappearing from the PCs hometown, and last night the mangled corpse of a child was found in a dark alleyway)
Action (The PCs start a careful detective-style investigation into the shady elements of this city)
Resolution (After many clues and some random encounters the PCs decide that one of the respected politicians of the town is actually a corrupt wizard who is responsible for this atrocity, so they confront him)
Reward (Defeating their foe, the PCs find and release the surviving children.  The Lord of the city gives them a generous reward – or conversely they loot the dead wizard and take his stuff 😉 )

Either way and everything in between, the structure gives players what they crave: the chance to take actions that bring about solutions and give them rewards so they can go solve bigger and badder problems.  To reiterate: players want resolution and reward.  They put the work into solving the problems the DM presents them with, and in order to make the game gratifying to them, they want rewards for taking that action.  While setting up a problem is easy for most any DM, working the game through to a conclusion is more difficult.  Dungeons and Dragons sets up an almost fail-safe game structure where getting rid of obstacles (killing monsters, defeating traps, ect ect) grants reward and leads to a conclusion.  At the end, the DM can tally up all of the treasure and XP and reward his or her players.

I’m going to argue that the creators of the original DnD intimately understood what made the game fun, and that resolution and reward were an integral part of the enjoyment of the game.  That is why by-the-book you get treasure for slaying monsters and why the game seems set up to kill things and take stuff: it provides inherent rewards.  I will go so far to say that the DMG should be required reading for anyone who wants to lead any game system, because beyond the rules specific to whatever edition of DnD you play, the book is filled with a wealth of information on how to structure a basic game plot.  Don’t scoff at the seemingly simple examples.  Because it is far more gratifying and fun to play in a campaign with a very simple plot that keeps you engaged, active and rewarded than playing in an interminably complex plot where you just keep running in circles never reaching a conclusion because you’re either not smart enough to figure out the clues or the DM just hasn’t figured out the end yet.  (I see the latter happen most frequently in White Wolf STs, but that is the subject for a different rant.)

The DMG urges new DMs to start simple and if they and their players want to, they can refine the subtlety and complexity of their plots, as they understand the game and how it is played.  Or don’t – if your players get their jollies by mashing monsters and saving villages from orc hordes, let them!  Follow the basic rules of resolution and reward; and no matter whether your game is about complex political scheming or killing things and taking their stuff, you will be surrounded by a group of your friends who are all having fun and enjoying the game.

And in the end, getting together with friends and having fun is what Dungeons and Dragons is really about, no?

Jan 132009

Often, when designing an adventure or, specially, a campaign, we have a preconceived idea of what we want to do, and start building a whole story from the ground up, and then we shoehorn the PC´s in, or request that the players create specific kinds of characters for the kind of game we are going to run. This, however, takes very little consideration of the players´ philias and phobias, and specially, it ignores what kind of game they want to play.

For this reason, it is often a good idea to ask players those very questions: what do they expect from this game, what is it that they´d like to see done, even if it´s on simple, abstract terms: for example, in a D&d game, do they want to play a game of high adventure and epic storylines, or a smaller, more down to earth game, with lots of side quests tied to specific locations?

Another thing that must be taken into consideration is the players you are dealing with. A friend of mine recently told me that after playing with some novice players (his girlfriend, a friend of his and his cousin, all of which were first-timers in gaming), he realized that the plot he had come up with was far too complex for them, and they were in over their heads. He reflected on the fact that, for a more experienced RP´er, the plot would have felt simple, and that they would have have no problem uncovering it if that was the case, but that due to their lack of experience, they could not follow what was going on behind the scenes. I pointed out that, for novice players, you needn´t complicated stories to surprise them or make them feel things are new and enthralling, and that often, something they can follow and get to the end of will feel satisfying enough.

Finally, you have to strike a balance between what you want to run and what your players want to play. If you are running something that has no appeal to you, you will soon lose interest in the game, and it will end up in a failure.

With all this in mind, the best way to plan what you want to do is, once you know what your players want, adapt what you want so that it fits both your desires and your players´. Making a rigid outline of the story won´t help. No matter how clever your plans are, your players will always break them in some way. For that reason, be sure to be flexible, and while you will need to plan ahead, don´t be afraid to improvise something out of the path. If you can be quick enough to make the players go back to the original plot without them feeling like they are being led by you, then all the better.

To sum up:

  1. Decide what you want to do.
  2. Learn what your players want you to do.
  3. Mix those two.
  4. Spice the result up with some good plots and ideas that fit your players.
  5. Be ready to improvise to correct the whole thing
  6. Profit.
 Posted by at 1:58 am