Archive for the Game Mastering Category

Character Mortality Is Not A Difficulty Slider

Posted in Game Mastering, Roleplaying Games, RPG with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2015 by Chall

Hi Folks,

A quick update on what I’m up to and then onto the meat of this blog:

As mentioned before Seith and Sword is out. If you like tragic Viking fiction, that’s all about good people trying to kill each other check it out.

Pretty soon I may be involved in another book. Can’t spill the details yet but I’m excited to be a part of it.

Now that that’s out of the way, onto the main event:

David Hill once tweetedEasy mode is for “players who prefer a narrative experience.” Normal mode is “recommended for most players.” Fucking AAA industry.” This echoes something that’s been rattling around in my head for quite some time.

Let’s talk about character mortality. I’m not talking about PC death, that’s something one can come back from. No, I’m talking about mortality, the moment a PC perishes, where the system says: no, this character’s done, you are not allowed to play him ever again. Has kind of a sting to it doesn’t it?

Not that kind of Sting.

Not that kind of Sting.

One reason folks play games that have high character mortality (which I now dub high mort) is for the challenge of it. The last letter in RPG means game, in a game there has to be winners and losers. Winning is character survival, losing is character death. Some feel that, without this simple scoring mechanism, a RPG  isn’t worth playing. If your character dies you must start over with a new one, deal with it, it’s part of the fun.

To bring this back to the above quote, some see high mort as the hard, or normal setting of RPGing. Low mort is easy mode. This is a simple concept, but it’s not one I buy into. More than ‘hardcore play’ goes into PC mortality, it’s no simple slider bar covering ‘narrative’ to ‘normal’. Everything can be narrative. ‘Normal’ is relative. Let us, then, explore deeper, meeting within the nexus of high and low mort.

Folks play high mort games out of a desire for…

Immersion

Let’s face it, slagging dice can be boring, especially when you get into a roll and miss till ad nauseum cycle. A high mort game gets rid of this tedium. If every single exchange could result in your character’s death, even if she’s fighting a foe way beneath her skill, then you can’t help but be pulled into the action. You feel a little of your character’s fear with every single roll.

This doesn’t have to be restricted to combat. In a horror game, fighting is akin to suicide. Every decision you make for your character, where to run, where to hide, who to turn to, becomes significant and meaningful because one wrong step leads to a grizzly end.

Immersion can be an adrenalin rush. One many players enjoy.

A Game That Relies On Smart Play

Let’s face it, standing in an open hallway opening fire against oncoming stormtroopers, charging archers across an open field, walking across a stream towards in cover gunmen, screaming “No.” while blasting your shotgun; these, while awesome, are also incredibly stupid. Many find such scenes jarring. They don’t want Star Wars, Willow or that particular moment from Tombstone. They want their spec. ops characters to plot things out smartly, they want their Shadowrunners to fear plans going awry, they want their hardboiled detectives to rush for cover.

You simply can’t run that sort of game with a system that is forgiving when it comes to defenses and wounds, in other words, something that is low mort. The funny thing is, this sort of game doesn’t set out to murder characters, it’s built into the system. Risks are part of the adventure, smart characters mitigate them. Yet the hard truth is even smart play might lead one to the reaper. Many folks thrive on this sort of dichotomy.

Less Violence

Wait, hear me out. Many games have incredibly lethal combat rules with the proviso: try to avoid it. These sorts of games push characters to sneakiness, cleverness and diplomacy over out and out battle. However, violence isn’t ruled out and, if it happens, some PCs should die, that’s the price one pays for violence. Survival then, in this sort of game, is not excelling at combat, it’s avoiding it.

Besides, there are innumerable other stakes than PC mortality. Will you be able to save your family and friends from a crippling illness? You’ve been betrayed by a loved one, but he’s still necessary for your community to thrive, how do you deal with it? Your lies are catching up with you, quick damage control! Your starship is running out of oxygen, you have three planets in range, which do you choose? And so on and so on…

In real life this is genius compared to solving all your problems with violoence.

In real life, this is genius compared to solving all your problems with violence.

Folks play low mort games out of a desire for…

Investment

I’ve said this earlier, creating characters is hard work. The time you spend doing  it is an investment. You are, in effect, crafting literary work that you hope to enjoy for the upcoming game. When your character dies for the final time, you cash in on that investment. A character you took two hours to write up, with balanced stats, history, background, appearance and ties with other characters, is a very poor investment if she dies in the first five minutes of play. Have that happen a few times and you’ll find yourself writing up such gems as: ‘1st level Fighter Steve: He’s an orphan who hits things’.

Players aren’t the only ones who might lose investment in a high mort game. If a GM has tied his adventure to the backgrounds and relations of the original PCs, her plots, plans, and dreams might go out the window as they croak.   ‘Well the Avatar’s dead, the woman I hoped would lead the Fire Nation out of chaos has just been shredded to bits, and the only original character left is the cabbage salesman who has no stake in any of this. *sigh* My game’s finished, anyone for Settlers of Catan?”

Low mort games offer insurance for this investment. Players feel safe writing up detailed backgrounds and GMs are more or less sure they can count on most of the PCs pulling through to the inevitable climax. Oh, there can still be curve balls, failure is still possible,and even this sort of game can’t 100% guarantee all the PCs will be there at the end. It’s simply likely most of them will be.

Also, this isn’t to say high mort games can’t have player investment. It’s just that, in my experience, said investment comes only after a few sessions of play. 1st Level Fighter Steve might actually make something of himself, but you’ll have to see if he survives a few sessions first.

1st Level Fighter Steve is actually started off a more indepth character than Super Oswald.

1st Level Fighter Steve actually started off a more in depth character than Super Oswald.

Cinematic Action

That woman standing out in the open in a hallway, exchanging fire with a dozen stormtroopers and living? Some people love that, they want their game to be all about that. Low mort games can offer the players exactly this, the breathing room to try outrageous things and maintain the same character throughout multiple adventures. Such players want to chronicle awesomeness as they web sling, light saber, pirate sail through a sea of adventure. The challenge with this sort of adventure isn’t surviving, it’s coming up with wacky ideas and epic scenes. If the group drives forward  a fun, fantastic, memorable tale, they win.

This isn’t to say characters in such games can never lose. Their big bads will cancel out PC plot immunity. When they appear the action gets really intense as legendary heroes and villains clash. In this case, one or all the PCs might die, but if they do, it’ll be in a blaze of glory.

This isn’t to say that high mort games can’t have amazing scenes. It’s just that they’re rare. Wyatt Earping your way across the stream, without cover, shouting “No!” and shooting down outlaws and surviving can happen, but it’s rare. In that specific case, Wyatt’s player was consigning him to death, he’s just lucky that it turned out the way it did.

A Bloodless Game

Believe it or not, there are some RPGs that have no combat what-so-ever. They’re rare, off the top of my head I was only able to think about two: Golden Sky Stories and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. I reached out to Machine Age Productions, cause I know they have games with no violence, and they cited Flatpack and Don’t Break the Caul. Unless they deal with combating calamity and disease, bloodless games are low mort.

It would be easy to assume that such games, with no violence and little to no character death, are unchallenging. This is simply not true. These stories can be deeply emotional. Golden Sky Stories deals with the primal childhood friendships and feelings that made us who we are. Pilgrims takes us on fantastic journeys that will stir smiles and laughter. Don’t Break the Caul is about pregnancy, it would be foolish to think such unengaging.

Yes he's a villain in a non-violent story. Still, No Heart's eons more intimidating than Skeletor.

Yes he’s a villain in a non-violent story. Still, No Heart’s eons more intimidating than Skeletor.

That about wraps these thoughts on character mortality, with one further note: It is incredibly reductive to pigeon hole the entirety of a game into high or low mort. Some games let crazy cinematic action be the mainstay AND  make combat  completely deadly. Others would be high mort if it weren’t for the hero point/fate point system. Some at their base are very deadly, I’m looking at you GURPS, but have options to make it less so. My point is there are numerous reasons, preferences, and options for folks to play games with varying degrees of character mortality. None of them are off or wrong. They are all open to incredible nuance. To reduce character mort  to an Easy > Normal > Hard mode slider is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

Addendum:

I’d like to give a quick shout out to games that handle character mortality in interesting ways:

  • Greg Stafford’s Pendragon: You’ll have many characters who will die, but that’s okay. Your story’s not about a single person but an entire legacy. Pendragon has managed to combine great instant investment and deep immersion into a single system and campaign setting. My hats off to the Pendragon.
  • Andrew Valkauskas’ Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok: You’re playing in a Viking saga, during the ages of Ragnarok, your characters are going to die. However, every character who has a good death, and gets to the heavens, offers your next character rising levels of perks. If you get five characters into the afterlife you can bring one of your old ones back as an Einherjar or Son/Daughter of Muspel. Full disclosure: I wrote a novel for Andrew, so I’m a little biased.
  • Kotodama Heavy Industries’ Tenra Bansho Zero: In this game losing all your vitality will just drop your character unconscious. However, rather than fall so easily you can choose, as your character gets hurt, to inflict wounded and even a death status upon him. Rather than decrease your character’s effectiveness, being wounded or near death makes him stronger. This is perfect for a game with rising action. It also assures that any characters who do die, go out with in a heroic fashion.

Game Master Musings: Player Agency

Posted in Game Mastering, Roleplaying Games, RPG with tags , , , on August 6, 2014 by Chall

A friend of mine quit a RPG group she’d been playing with for years. Her reason?

“One night I forgot my character sheet. They told me it was fine, we’d muddle through. By the end of the night, I realised it made absolutely no difference if I brought the sheet or not. So I left.”

For the past few months, she watched everyone else roleplay. She tried to contribute but was either beaten in initiative  or drowned out by the other players.  Hanging with friends is fine but sitting at a game and not being able to take part, is like sitting at a feast and not being allowed to eat; Aggravating, frustrating, and not something you want to do on a weekly basis.

What she didn’t have player agency. Player agency is the ability to affect your game. This can be done through roleplay, enacting cunning plans, slaying monsters, creating humorous/memorable moments at the table, and so forth. If a player finds herself regaling her old RPG stories then she had agency. If she feels the game would continue unchanged without her, she lacks agency.

This post covers ways players can lose agency and how to prevent such loss.

So without further adieu:

Table Drown Out

I love boisterous players, they drive the game and stage stunning scenes. However, they can also drive less boisterous players from your table.

Some players may be shy, new to the game, or so polite they kindly wait their turn. If you’re not careful said turn may never come. Boisterous players can snag every bit of agency from the quiet ones: At the end of every scene, they’ll immediately pull you into what they’re doing next. If another party member offers a plan they’ll shoot it down for their own. If you run a scene for someone else, they’ll jump right in and steal it.

What’s tricky is boisterous players aren’t aware they’re robbing agency, they’re having a great time and assume so is everyone else. Trickier still, you might not even notice; Quiet players are quiet and as such easily drowned out by the noisy ones.

Granted some quiet players may be fine with just hanging at the table. The danger is assuming all quiet players are like this. In my experience, most are not. They really want to play and find being drowned out aggravating. These players are the types who will leave your game for ‘real life reasons’, which is true because any outside interest has become more rewarding than game.

A further thing to note, boisterous and quite are relative terms. A boisterous player may become quite if introduced to a new game or new group of players, a quiet one might become boisterous if given the chance to shine.

How To Deal With It

Open communication is a good route. Suggest the quiet player talk to the boisterous ones about the issue or ask, in your capacity as GM, if he would mind you speaking on his behalf. Be careful with this option, though, you don’t want to go behind anyone’s back and cause hurt feelings, the goal is to help the quiet player become more comfortable not draw in conflict or ostracise anyone.

As for other techniques:

Keep a mental note of how much time you allot to the group and each player. If someone’s missing out then cut them in. Ask the player what he’d like to do. If he can’t think of anything throw something at him; an NPC needs his character’s unique skills, he falls across a piece of valuable information, draw in something from his character’s background and so on. . .

Just be thoughtful of what you throw at a quiet player. Make it light and fun, suited to his taste. For God’s sake do NOT throw something horrifying at him unless you know he and the group are okay with such things.  We’re GMs not dread bodhisattvas who enlighten through shock and terror.

Don't be like this arse.

Don’t be like this arse.

Finally, some players are absolutely fine having very little screen time. Respect this, and allow them to remain in the background. They key point is, always give them the option to be involved.

Min-Maxing

Min-maxing is not a GM only problem. If your game revolves around mechanics and certain players have broken said mechanics, then not only are you frustrated, but so are the players who haven’t done this. They get to sit and watch other people be awesome while sitting on the sidelines. They lack agency.

How To Handle This

If you’re okay with min-maxing: Give players of lagging characters advice on how to optimise. This way, you’ll be able to up the challenge of the whole group without having to make specialised challenges for two groups that are on completely different cales.

If you’re not: Let your players know before character creation that you won’t stand for these shenanigans. Be involved in character creation and nip any problems in the bud. Be involved with character advancement.  Feel free to be as meta as you want about this; ‘Yes the rules don’t specifically say you can’t make a character who can lift the Moon, but I’m asking you not to.’ Just be prepared to offer alternatives, minmaxers are players too.

 

The Solo Adventurer

Some players don’t like working with others. Every chance they get they’ll go off on their own happy fun me time. They are the thieves who wish to sneak through the entire dungeon (as opposed to just down the hall), they are the matrix cowboys who explore virtual worlds for hours on end, they are the Wolverine who’ll do the job himself bub. While they strike off everyone else at the table… waits, maybe they order takeout or something, regardless they lose agency.

How To Deal With This

A few ways actually:

  • Talk to the solo player and gently point out that you’d like to focus on everyone, not just him.
  • Solo adventures aren’t bad in of themselves, just try to keep them concise and offer all the players opportunities to take part in them.
  • Throughout character creation and the game work with the players to forge bonds between their characters. Many solo players will bring others into their plots if there’s an in game reason to do so.

Rules Confusion

It’s very easy for any player, especially new ones, to be confused with the rules.  This confusion can lead to indecisiveness and inaction. The player doesn’t know if the action she’s taking is smart so doesn’t do anything.  Worse yet, the player does something and the GM slaps her with a mechanics gotchya, stung she decides to play more cautiously aka: not at all.  Lack of agency all around.

How To Deal With This

During character creation explain the basics to everyone so they know what they’re getting into. This will ensure better characters and prep the players for the actual game.

Don’t engage in gotchya moments.  If a new player’s character is about to suffer an attack of opportunity, warn her. If her character’s first fireball will incinerate the party, warn her. If all she’s played is D&D and in your GURPS game her character is about to charge into 4 guys with prepped crossbows, warn her. In short: don’t be an arse to players new to the system. Your laughter will lead to an empty table.

It's not a good thing when Naga's shrill laugh echoes your own.

It’s not a good thing when Naga’s shrill laugh echoes your own.

 

Secondly, as a GM, take the brunt of the crunch. Know your system so well you can recite its grapple rules in your sleep. I ran a successful GURPS game for years with my players only needing to worry about whether their rolls were under their target; I shouldered the damage multipliers, spell costs, and reactions for them; just call me Saint Chris.

Railroading

This one’s on us GMs, if you design/run a game in a linear fashion, where characters have no choice but to follow a specific path no matter what, then all players lose some agency. This is especially a problem with some older adventure modules where generic characters, with no relation to anything in the plot, are the rule. Playing these can feel like being trapped in a computer RPG, you’re forced along the quest path and the results of your actions will always be the same, no matter what.

How To Deal With This

First get player buy in. Let them know the gist of what you’re running and that you can’t do it if they don’t play along. However, even with this buy in, you’re not done.

Know the adventure like the back of your hand. If the PCs go off the rails adjust dynamically. They chose another route to the abandoned keep? Random monster time. They spotted and killed the enemy spy right away? He doesn’t report in, so the main antagonists react accordingly. The characters decide to work for the antagonists? Roll with it, let them stomp  whomever they were supposed to protect.

Finally, roleplay your NPCs. If the PCs did something amazing the NPCs should comment on it. If the NPC was betrayed then she should be gunning for revenge. If the PCs saved the village they should get a free night or two at the inn. Portraying your NPCs as three-dimensional characters will make even a tightly railroaded adventure seem like a living world.

GM NPCs

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The game should be about the Player Characters. It’s all well and good to work on behest of a king, save a space princess (I wouldn’t though, it’s been done) and protect a village. That’s all fine because the PCs get to call all the shots and do all the things needed to resolve the main problem. However, having a GM ubermench call the shots, and do all the things will end up with your players planning a movie night for next game, and you getting back to your novel.

How To Deal With This

Don’t do it, no matter how much you want to. Yes, we all run games we’d love to play in and it’s likely your players will want to play in it too, but they do not want to watch your personal tale of glory. This is why, during character creation, make sure both your players and yourself like the PCs; they should be characters you want to write stories about, plotting adventures with them in mind should be a pleasure.

No, don’t  make a character to save the PCs butts “just in case”, that’s being patronising, it’s annoying.

If you absolutely must have specific characters as an active part of the game make them pregens.

In conclusion

I hope these tips help. If you find even one bit of this advice useful then I’ve done my job.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Game Master Musings – Why Do Players Not Write Backgrounds For Their Characters?

Posted in Game Mastering, Roleplaying Games, RPG with tags , , on June 18, 2014 by Chall

Recently a good friend of mine asked “Why do players never write backgrounds for their characters?” It’s a good question that’s stuck with me for weeks. Since I’m a player as well as a GM I thought I’d give a crack at answering it.

Here it goes:

1) Creating Characters Is Work

GMing will always require more work than playing but don’t belittle how much effort your players put into making their characters. Take standard D20 character creation for instance: There’s rolling and jotting down stats, choosing race (jotting down all the racial bonuses), choosing class (jotting down all the class bonuses), feats, skills, saves and that’s even before  rolling starting coin and jotting down, in pain staking detail, each and every piece of equipment and its corresponding weight.

Remember too that your players may not know character creation as well as you do. Much of their effort will be spent referencing the main book,  asking questions and helping other players create their characters.

Depending on the system character creation can be exhausting; Asking your players to then generate a background, right after their recent struggle, will seem as inviting as homework on a weekend.

2) There May No Viable Purpose Behind It

Every stat serves its purpose and you need to write down equipment in case the GM calls you on what your character has. Background on the other hand? In many games it’ll be something you write once, hand to your GM and it’ll never come up again.

This is a problem.

As a Game Master never tell your players to create backgrounds if you plan to do nothing with them. It”ll be wasted effort on their part.

Another friend of mine uses character backgrounds to drive his entire game. If you put a lot of work into yours then it’ll directly correspond with how much the game is about ‘you’. The family, friends and foes you draw up will show up as major plot elements. On the other hand if you don’t put anything into it, you won’t get much of the spotlight at all.

I trust you can see how this can motivate.

Even if you don’t take this approach, if you ask for a background make sure elements of it come up at some point during game. Otherwise, your players are just throwing their ideas into a vacuum and that’s no fun at all.

Note: Some games, such as Pendragon and Fate roll character background into the rules, therefore there is an immediate insentive to write them up. However, even in cases where there are no special rules why not award some sort of bonus or XP for such extra work?

3) You Will Use This As A Tool To Screw Me Over

If you’ve turned PC backgrounds against players before the y may be hesitant to let you do it again.

Players write backgrounds to compliment their characters. If I make a paladin I expect that I may need to rescue my wayward brother at some point. If I make an assassin I (the player) will relish the upcoming confrontation with my kingly father.

If you twist these in uncomfortable ways that make a character look foolish, it frankly sucks. As a paladin I don’t expect to be served my wayward brother in a meat pie without ever having the chance to save him. As an assassin I don’t want to be drugged in my sleep only to wake up naked to be ridiculed in front the court.

Before you do such horrible things be sure you know it’ll be something the player, if not the character, will like.

4) My Character Will Most Likely Die in 5 Minutes

Incredibly gritty and lethal games can be fun but don’t expect players to make detailed backgrounds for characters that you plan to Gorge R.R. Martin.

If you invest a ton in a character and he dies in the first round of the first conflict, that’s a lost investment.

5) I Don’t Have Any Ideas

It’s quite possible that a player may not have any immediate ideas for his character beyond race and class. Perhaps even a short creative writing assignment reminds him of his asshole English prof. Mr. Withers. Whatever the reason, if a player can’t or doesn’t want to write a background then don’t force the issue.

However, if he’s cool with, it there is a work around. Come up with a background for him. Either write it up on the spot or make up, and document, elements of it as the campaign progresses. I’ve found this technique has worked really well in drawing shy players in. Suddenly introducing the character’s Mother, who just happens to be the leader of the friendly resistance cell, does wonders for helping a player feel involved.

 

And those my answer to this question. I hope you’ve found them informative and helpful.

Chall’s Secrets of GMing

Posted in Game Mastering, Roleplaying Games, RPG with tags , on May 6, 2014 by Chall

A good friend of mine will be reclaiming the GM seat for our biweekly game. He asked if I had any advice. He doesn’t need it, he’s an awesome GM. However, I agreed to provide some pointers. So here they are:

Note: The following assumes you have a solid grasp of role playing game terminology and concepts.

PCs Are Important

Player Characters are the focus of the game. This doesn’t mean the universe revolves around them but it dose mean they must be the center of their story.

For example:

  • In Fantasy: The PCs aren’t Gods, they’re probably not royalty, the fate of kingdoms is not at their whim. However, they are the only ones capable of defending their Orcish village from the Paladins of Lord Genocide.
  • In Space Opera: The Galaxy’s huge and the Celestial Crest is everywhere. While masters of their world the PCs are in no position to take down the despotic Galactic Kings. However, they can make a fool out of their Star Archon and wrest local control from her iron grip.
  • In Steam Punk: The PCs’ air pirate ship is just one of many. They aren’t the most famous buccaneers, yet. They’re pushing for it.

How does one strive for this PC-centredness? Here’s some advice:

Character Creation

Usually players create characters together in the first game session; take advantage of this. The sentiment “Make anything you want.” signifies you simply don’t care. That’s bad.

Ask each player what they’d like to play. Watch for anything that doesn’t fit and offer alternatives. If a player asks what you’d like to see don’t say ‘oh anything really’you’re the GM you should know what you’d like. If a player can’t think of anything offer the types of characters you’d make for this game  as suggestions.

Have the players write out some general ideas about their characters before they jot down a single stat. Where did they grow up? What are their goals? Who do they know?

I highly recommend they also answer: How do I know the other characters? This can really help your game run smoothly. If the characters know each other they have a reason to stay together and are less likely to write problematic PCs.

Most importantly work with the players as to ensure you like each PC, if you don’t the rest of my advice won’t work.

 

Character Backgrounds

If the players have given you backgrounds for their characters don’t simply reward them with extra CP/Xp/Freebie Points; use these backgrounds in your game. Make family members, friends, rivals and foes as key NPCs. Have organizations they mention show up. Take them to places their backgrounds mention.

Your meta-plot doesn’t have focus exclusively on PC history but said history should be an important part of it. The PCs are works of art given to you by your players. Including their stories into the larger one shows that you’ve listened and care.

PCs > NPCs

As mentioned before the PCs must be the center of your game, as such do not regulate them to sidekicks to your NPCs. Taking orders from NPCs is fine, being motivated to help them is great but never put the PCs in a situation where it’s obvious a group of NPCs, who are readily available,  would do a better job. This doesn’t mean the party must be the best at what they do in the entire game world, just that, for the situation at hand, they are the the best choice available.

If you ever get to a point in a game where you’re talking to yourself as two or more NPCs, for more than 10 minutes, you’ve failed.

When writing  NPCs save yourself  time by jotting down only background, motivation, goals and necessary stats. Then, if the players end up liking, or loving to hate this character then you can flesh her out further.

Mortality wise be ruthless with your NPCs, they can die at any moment. Use your parties allies and friends to demonstrate how deadly the world can be. This includes villains, occasionally one-shotting the big bad is exactly what’s needed.

Planning and Running The Game

The following are some simple tips that I’ve found useful for planning and running my games.

 

Know Your Group

Character creation will give you a good idea what of your players want. That being said be sure to keep their tastes in mind and throw in little things that each player will like. If one likes romance, throw some his way. If another likes intrigue, mix some of that in. If a third likes building things, give her a chance to do so, and so on. . .

Also, if you know some of your player’s triggers DO NOT HIT THEM. If you do so knowingly you’re an asshole. If you stumble across one remove it from the game. RGPs are meant to be enjoyable and not destroy friendships.

 

Twenty Point Notes

When I write my adventure notes I simply jot down twenty things. A ‘thing’ in this case is:

  • Plot Summary: The basic idea of what I expect to happen.
  • PC Hooks: Specific notes on why this particular adventure matters to certain PCs.
  • NPCs: Short stat block. Notes. Plan. Motivation.
  • Scenes: A short note on a cool scene I hope gets played out.
  • Clues: If the adventure is a mystery add clues that will enable the party to find a way forward.
  • Troubleshooting: Some ideas on how to tackle things that would ‘break the game’.

Once an adventure is finished I copy my NPC notes to a Rogues Gallery document.

Depending on the game you may need maps.

Finally draft up some screen shots and music that  fit your game and you’re ready to go.

 

PCs > Plot

If a player comes up with something brilliant that circumvents your hard written scheme, go with it. Allow her action to change the scope of the adventure and perhaps even the entire campaign.  It’s scary, yes. You won’t get tell your story the way you wanted to but, it’s not your story, it belongs to the table.

This kind of flexibility is what makes table top games better than Computer RPGS:

  • In table top: Mario could convince the Koopa Kids to join his side and fight against their father.
  • In table top: Link can lure Gannon out of hiding with a clever plan.
  • In table top: Samus doesn’t have to follow her former commander’s orders to not use her armor to its full potential.

Furthermore, if a player comes up with a ‘fan theory’ that blows your actual plot away, change your plot to match. Let the player be right.

 

Setbacks Must Happen and They Must Be Awesome

The flexibility of table top goes both ways.

  • In table top: Mario might get captured.
  • In table top: Link could cheese off the Gorons and get chased away from Death Mountain.
  • In table top: Samus might screw up in such a way that leads to the death of her former troop.

This is okay, setbacks make everything more exciting. Just make sure the PCs can recover.

  • Peach escapes and saves Mario, now they both must fight to regain the Mushroom Kingdom.
  • Link is forced to defeat Darunia and become king of the Gorons.
  • Samus is on her own, but she works better that way.

Setbacks should be interesting and open new possibilities for the game. Allowing your PCs to experience failure increases their investment in the game; as long as you don’t make fun of them for said failures. PC decisions, victories and losses should all matter.

Note: ‘Setback’ can easily mean PC death.  Personally, I never go out of my way to kill a PC, they’re important to my game and losing even one can upset most of my future plots. I’d much rather let a PC live with failure than ice her. That being said, it still happens from time to time, but I try to make such death’s awesome.

 

Challenge

When you run a game do so with the lie that you’re aiming for TPK. You’re not but this lie makes things more exciting.

As for challenges, tailor them to match the party. If you know your PCs and the game system this shouldn’t be too hard.

You should ensure there are several tough challenges. You should also ensure there are one or two easy ones so the party can show off how awesome they are.

Don’t draw up rigid challenges that have only a set number of answers. If a player throws out an idea that you never thought of but would work, then roll with it; even if it turns a difficult challenge into cake walk.

When it comes antagonist NPCs try to err on the side of cunning. The ‘big bosses’ should be tougher than the PCs but only just. If they’re overpowered you’ll wipe out the party and your campaign. If they’re overpowered and you go easy on the party the players will resent you for it. In short make strong (not overpowered) foes and play them smartly.

An addendum:  If the PCs knowingly cheese off someone way more powerful. Someone you had no intention of throwing at them, someone whom you’ve warned is out of their league; then feel free to TPK.

Addendum II: On rare occasions it can be fun to throw uber-NPCs at the party IF there’s a way to deal with or defeat her non-violently. Make sure to give your players plenty of hints of what they’re getting into before they run into this situation.

Finally don’t hang your ego on challenge. Being a GM isn’t about showing how much cleverer you are. It’s far more about imagination and inspiring excitement.

 

Ensure Everyone Has A Part To Play

The initiative system is genius, it forces the GM to go to every single player and ask ‘what do you do?’ then each PC gets the spotlight for one, full round. Take this concept and apply it to the entire game.

There are boisterous and reserved players. The boisterous ones will hog all the game time if you let them; this will lead to the reserved ones getting board and frustrated. A good friend of mine nearly left gaming entirely because of this. It’s aggravating being part of a game that you don’t get to play.

When I run I describe every scene in detail and ask the group “What do you do?” I listen to those who speak  first, pause and then go to everyone else to make sure they participate. If a player can’t think of anything for his character to do I’ll throw something at him to keep him involved.

If the scene turns into a long role play session than I’ll be looser with this rule and  just allow everyone to talk. However, if I see a player doing nothing I will engage them.

The key is to give everyone, whether boisterous or reserved, roughly equal table time.

 

Flow With The Core Mechanics

Be familiar with the rules of your game and use them. Don’t be afraid to teach your players the rules, if they become more familiar with them they’ll enjoy the game more. That being said:

Try not to reference the book constantly.  If you run into a rules snag and find you’re taking over five minutes to look it up/debate make a solid ruling with what you know and move on. After the game  investigate in more detail and let your players know your final decision in the next session.

Keep the mechanics consistent. If the difficulty to lift a car is X in one scene keep it that way in another. Jumping around will only confuse players or convince them you’re railroading them.

Think about working with a problematic roll rather than fudging it. If your villain fails an easy save and gets turned into a chicken, let it happen, either his henchmen will flee with him or the PCs got an unexpected easy win. A critical takes out one of your PCs? Sure he drops but give another PC a chance to save him with an epic first aid roll.

Granted, in cases where a player has been rolling horrible all night you may want to fudge a small amount so he walks away with some victory.

The Plot Must Flow With the PC Decisions

Your NPCs aren’t static bits of code and graphics that respond only in set ways. While not as important as the PCs they should still have personalities, motivations and goals. When PCs do something to aid or stymie their plans have them react accordingly. The King the PCs saved will not just give them a reward and send them on their way; he’ll become a good friend. The supervillain they thwarted will keep them in mind for his next plot. The towns and villages around the PCs will hear of their heroism or cruelty and react accordingly.

In short your campaign should be a living one that enacts its plots on your PCs and reacts to how they deal with them. In that regard, make sure your metaplot notes are loose and leave plenty of room for change.

In Conclusion

Game Mastering is a rewarding experience. You get to craft a memorable stories with your friends. The with part is key; players must know the actions of their PCs are meaningful, otherwise you’re simply forcing them through your own personal novel.  Novel writing is a worthy and wonderful pursuit but it’s not the same as Game Mastering. Make sure the PCs are characters you like, throw them in the center of the narrative and let it all  live and grow based on the player’s actions and the dice. You’ll end up with a tale better than anything you could have created on your own.