Let's delve into a topic of tabletop RPGs that is a bit more controversial than most: what about running evil campaigns? That is, campaigns in which the party members are predominantly bad guys motivated by far less than noble goals. There are a lot of different positions that are held about this idea, ranging from nixing the concept entirely to endorsing it solely to enforce creative freedom at the game table.
But when it comes to evil campaigns, my main question is the same as it would be for any campaign: what is your purpose? What do you hope to achieve by setting your game to these parameters? In any normal campaign, the moral alignment of the characters is irrelevant to the main premise of the game. But I notice that a lot of people simply say 'Evil Campaign' as if that is an appropriate descriptor in and of itself. But, if you think about it, we don't describe any other game as 'good campaign' or 'neutral campaign.' They are simply a regular gaming session with characters of certain moral proclivities.
So what this basically comes down to is that you should never play an evil campaign for its own sake. That would demonstrate ignorance of both the nature of an RPG and the nature of morality. First off, evil can describe a wide range of things. But there are also a lot of things it does NOT describe. Some players I run into seem unclear as to what 'evil' actually means in the context of tabletop RPGs.
By the rules of Dungeons and Dragons, and by extension other game systems, evil is consciously taking action to hurt someone who has not caused you harm. This means that there are a number of actions that, while inappropriate in the real world, are not actually evil in the sense of game logistics:
Seducing a person away from their lover? Not evil, the target of affection is fully capable of making their own choices regarding their romantic liazons.
Seduction under false pretenses? Most likely evil, you can't consider it fully consensual if someone has based their romantic decisions on falsehoods.
Torturing a prisoner for information? Not evil, an action that can be justified by a morally neutral character.
Torturing a prisoner for revenge? Evil, it's harm being inflicted for personal satisfaction.
Executing an enemy combatant? Not evil, a lot of characters and cultures have a fight-to-the-death mentality or lethal code of personal justice.
Executing a civilian? Definitely evil, they have no stake in the fight.
Stealing? Certainly not an evil action. Neutral thieves do it all the time, and Robin Hood is an example of a classic good thief.
Stealing knowingly from those who can't afford it? Like orphans and beggars? Now that would be an evil action, certainly.
Now I'm not condemning or endorsing any of these actions for players at the game table, that's up to your own group and their personal preferences. Nor do any of these definitions reflect my views on real world morality. I am trying to clarify and define the issue so that we can get beyond calling any game that is not entirely "Lawful Good" an "Evil Campaign."
If you are running an evil campaign solely for the sake of acting out violent or anti-social power fantasies in which there are no limitations or consequences for the PC's actions... I really don't know what to say except to recommend seeking out healthier and more therapeutic outlets for those impulses. Role playing is a wonderful tool for creative expression, but like any form of expression, there are ways to use it that can be unhealthy and harmful. Being aware of this, and considerate of the feelings and sensibilities of the group, it is up to you as a player or DM to decide where to draw these lines to maintain a wholesome and friendly atmosphere at your game table.
If you truly want to play an evil aligned game to explore a different style or narrative perspective, you should be able to justify its purpose in your pitch. What is it that makes the game 'evil?' What are the characters' goals and could they change over the course of the game? A good story with a band of evil-doers typically requires some sort of unified goal or shared motivation that drives it forward, so they aren't just causing wanton destruction without purpose. You might even consider the fact that not every character would need to be technically "evil" in a campaign focused on bad guys. There are all sorts of morally grey archetypes that could fit well into scenarios like these.
This kind of thoughtful planning could lead to some very intriguing concepts for game sessions, such as:
A band of Imperial Stormtroopers assigned to enforce the will of The Empire, right or wrong.
A group of supervillains trying to save the world from destruction after aliens have abducted its heroes.
A gang of cut-throat thieves pulling off a series of elaborate heists in a dystopian future.
Think about what would make an interesting story in written or cinematic form before you lay it down as the basis of your game. Why should we care about the bad guys? What makes them so bad anyway? Now you're not running an evil game for its own sake, now you are telling a real story. And that's a big part of what role playing games are all about!
One last thing to note: There is one restriction that I always enforce in my gaming groups when it comes to moral alignment... Chaotic Evil should never be used for player characters. Chaotic Evil characters represent pure malevolent id. They make terrible teammates, and their purely selfish and sadistic motivations don't provide any room for development or growth. A character who follows this alignment not only acts on a whim, but also acts with intent to cause harm to others for their own pleasure. Look at how The Joker treats his allies in The Dark Knight. He quite literally throws them under the bus when given the opportunity. That's the epitome of chaotic evil. Don't inflict this on your gaming group. It's rude and obnoxious. Be considerate of your gaming group and they will surely return the favor.
Thursday, December 31, 2015
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
|NPC on NPC dialogue can turn your game into a puppet show if you're not careful.|
This is a classic problem I run into when I DM my games... what happens when you have more than one NPC in a scene? Eventually it may become necessary for them to interact. Then you will be placed in the awkward position of carrying on a one-man show, conversing back and forth with yourself in different voices. This can be both confusing and dull for players who will be forced to watch these interactions and try to follow them.
So what is to be done about this? Well, there are a few options that can minimize the problems that tend to crop up in these situations.
Firstly, you can usually avoid situations where more than one NPC is speaking by simply minimizing the number of relevant NPCs in each scene. This is a good idea for a number of reasons. Players that are presented with a number of important characters simultaneously are more prone to digression and confusion that will delay the game and over-complicate things. If there is a single important NPC in the scene then the players can focus exclusively on their relationship and interaction with that character and get to the core of the scene more easily. This doesn't have to be a blatant decision, it can be pulled off very subtly. Have a character step out of the room to get them out of the way, or make it so that certain characters are only available to converse with at certain times. Create convenient circumstances that avoid having more than one major NPC in the scene and you will be able to keep things simple and clear.
When it is unavoidable and you need to have NPCs interact, there are also ways to make the conversation more comfortable for yourself and your players. One such method is having a script written up ahead of time. If you know there is a chance or certainty that two NPCs can converse, you can prepare a pre-written dialogue that will clearly and concisely convey the content of their interactions, and allow you to improvise off of this outline. Performing the dialogue for a single character while playing into their motivations and goals is hard enough, but playing out two or more personalities and voices can swiftly become an ordeal. Having this framework to build off of will clear up a lot of issues.
Another option is to allow players to perform certain NPCs during these scenes. This is especially important in situations where the party is split and certain players don't have anything else to do while their character is "off screen." You may lay down the ground rule that players can't control an NPC to directly help or hinder the player characters. Otherwise, you can let them play the character as they see fit, so you can have exchange words with a real, interactive person rather than an imaginary dialogue of one.
If you absolutely must include more than one NPC in a scene and perform them yourself on the fly, keep dialogue short and sweet. Try to use distinct voices and accents for each character, or simply describe what they are saying to the characters in narrative form(Such as "They argue about the specifics of the sale, but the merchants eventually reach a consensus.") Make sure they address most of their dialogue to the characters and make sure the players have a clear understanding of who is speaking and who they are speaking to. Just like playing combat encounters without a map, social interactions can become very confusing when they are abstract and involve many moving pieces.
Whatever you do, don't have frequent NPC on NPC interactions! Keep them limited and concise to avoid making the players into passive spectators in a non-player melodrama. The players are the key to your game, and they are the ones who are the most important. Keep the spotlight on them and use these methods to keep things as clear and simple as possible, and you will be much more likely to have non player characters with whom your players will welcome interaction.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
There are a couple of elements that make up a credible threat. It is important to remember these concepts when setting up a compelling scenario for your players to overcome.
The first is that real threats escalate. If left unaddressed they will have worse consequences. That's why it is always best to ask the question "What would differently happen if the player characters did nothing?" If the answer is that things wouldn't end up very bad for the players or others, you should reconsider. A situation like that will make your players feel insignificant and bored, like spectators rather than participants. Maybe the city will be destroyed if the players don't stop the evil cult, maybe the players will be set upon by monsters if they make camp too often.
In any case, you also want to show the escalation whenever possible. The cult burns down a house, the players see the bones of the monsters' previous victims... make sure that these threats are clearly affecting the players. As the session progresses, don't be afraid to toss increasingly dangerous challenges at the players that reflect the rising suspense of the adventure, the need for the heroes to triumph. Show tangible damage caused by enemies, and make them genuinely threaten things the PCs care about.
When a dice roll goes bad or a player leaves themselves vulnerable to a danger, don't ignore the threat altogether. If a player leaves an opening or fails a roll and you avoid acting upon it, that will give them a sense that failure is a bad thing that you want to avoid. Quite the opposite, failure is a compelling consequence that provides both a sense of challenge in gameplay and a sense of drama in the story.
I myself am against adversarial GMing, in which the game runner treats the players as their opponent and seeks to 'defeat' them. However, it is important in most game systems to maintain a sense that failure is possible. In fact, failure is necessary to keep things fun for your typical player. Having everything handed to you with no risk isn't nearly as fun as facing situations that could go good or bad depending on your actions. That's why instead of erasing players' failures, a good DM should find a way to make that failure drive the adventure forward in a compelling manner.
what happens if the player fails? If the world ends, that's not going to be a very satisfying way to continue the adventure. Instead, you want to have consequences that can still move the story forward. If the players fail to stop their plane from crashing, they may all sustain heavy injuries going forward, but they won't all be wiped out in that single event. If Dr. Mayhem presses the button it will begin to lay waste to the city but it won't instantly destroy everything. Don't make complete and utter failure a possibility for your game unless you and your players are truly ready to accept that contingency.
There are many ways to make failures costly without being so terrible as to dishearten your players. Some players might be more easily discouraged by setbacks, of course. But that's why it is important to show them that it is okay and even fun when they do not succeed sometimes. Player character deaths are often the most discouraging of these events, but there are many ways to help players embrace it when it happens. You can offer a player a less final consequence of their defeat in order to survive. You can allow the character to be resurrected at a future point in the campaign. Or you could allow them the opportunity to play a brand new character and experience something new. This kind of logic can be applied to any bad situation the players face. What's the upside? What new opportunities are presented by this turn of events?
If you shield the players from failure, your players will start to fear it to the point that they panic when faced anything other than success. Or, more commonly, they will just start to feel invincible and get bored with the whole undertaking. Make the stakes of your game direct enough for your players to care about. Make them get worse if the players do not act on them. Control the dramatic tension and allow for setbacks and failures to drive the players to action. And above all, make sure your players are entertained and engaged when they are at the game table. When all this falls into place, you just might find you are having as much fun running the game as they are playing it!
Thursday, December 17, 2015
We now conclude our series on various player types with the final entry... the dreaded Power Gamer. This is the guy who wants to win but plans on achieving his triumph through the meta-game of character design and planning.
The power gamer wants to overcome a challenge before it is even presented. This means finding ways to optimize their character to its utmost potential and create the ideal build that will allow the player to immediately bypass obstacles that might oppose him in the game.
Perhaps the player builds a character with massive attack bonuses, or one that can turn invisible at the beginning of each encounter. Whatever the case, it will be a very powerful addition to the party, one that might cause problems if it steals the spotlight too often.
Fortunately, there is still a place for considerate power gamers at the game table. For many, clever character design is simply a part of the appeal, and they mean no harm in creating such powerful builds. The easiest way to deal with them is to challenge them at their own game... find ways to exploit their strengths and weaknesses. Target vulnerabilities they may not have considered. Throw the super-strong barbarian into a diplomatic crisis, or pit the invisible character against monsters with heat vision. Force the player to constantly adapt, as they try to figure out ways to respond to the new threats you present them with.
If your power gamer is disproportionately powerful compared to his team mates, it might even be fun for players to ask his advice on getting the most out of their characters as well. After all, if all the characters are excellently designed you can just send tougher encounters their way and it is all balanced out!
Of course there should be limits to character optimization. Don't let a power gamer build contradictory or nonsensical characters for the sake of minimizing weaknesses and maximizing strengths. And don't allow the exploitation of loopholes or glitches in the rules that produce game-breaking results. Use your judgement and ask the power gamer to limit their optimizations to some reasonable parameters that you will define for them. The two things you want to avoid are a power gamer hogging the spotlight from team mates (by winning encounters themselves every time) or succeeding at every encounter with no risk or challenge.
Besides that, let them have fun using the rules of the game to build something effective. If the game-within-a-game of character design is what appeals to them, base your challenges around that. Test their abilities and allow them an opportunity to shine. At the end of the day, fun is your foremost goal. And fun comes in many flavors and styles. Everyone has their own taste, so keep an eye out for these tendencies and techniques as you identify the classic player types in your own gaming group.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
The defining difference between actors and storytellers is whether they prioritize their own story or the broader storyline of the game. A PC played by an actor might reluctantly go on a mission because they were asked by their mentor, but storyteller's PC may go simply by virtue of the adventure it presents. The storyteller puts the main storyline, the adventure that the group is on, ahead of their character's own development.
Storytellers are experiencing the game like reading a book or watching a TV show. They want to find out what happens next. They will follow plot hooks based on what seems most interesting to them, rather than what would be most important to their particular character. Often they will adapt their own character to match the campaign's storyline rather than demanding the storyline be changed to fit the character.
Storytellers are most happy if the game has a compelling and interesting narrative. They are looking for high stakes and an emotional pay-off. They are looking for plot threads that unfold as the game progresses, leading to new situations and possibilities. Above all, they want a story that will be remembered fondly after the campaign ends.
There are an infinite number of stories to tell, so always challenge yourself to create something new and unique, and your storyteller players will have plenty of material to keep them amused. If your storytellers are happy and allowed to flourish, they will help you to craft stories that will not only be fun to share at the game table, but also great to reminisce about many campaigns later!
Thursday, December 10, 2015
Everybody knows the old standby of the class clown. The guy or gal who is always looking for a laugh. They crack jokes, put on voices, and generally goof off whenever they get the chance. These jokesters can be found in many tabletop gaming groups, and they often play a vital role in the entertainment.
Gaming is, of course, a form of entertainment. So a sense of humor and levity is a great for supporting a fun atmosphere. The jokester often does a great job of playing the comic relief or comedic counterpoint to the more dramatic moments in your campaign. They can help create some of the most memorable and hilarious moments of your tabletop interactions and help ease self-conscious anxiety with their light hearted hijinks.
Obviously, there are times in which the players may prefer a more dramatic tone. Rather than forcing jokesters to adopt a more serious demeanor, it is frankly better to direct the spotlight away from them during such moments. Let the actor types carry those scenes, and don't pressure the jokester to "take things seriously." At the same time, joking around shouldn't result in the player acting incompetently or purposely causing disruptions. The jokester's japes should be humorous for their fellow players, and deliberately sabotaging their efforts is certainly not.
Considerate jokesters in your group will understand that the best source of humor when role playing comes from playing a certain archetype to the hilt. The funniest moments in any campaign I have played have sprung from players reacting broadly in a manner that fits their character. Fans of any work of fiction will tell you that some of the best moments are the ones you can look back on and clearly identify with a particular character... Han Solo being overly confident, Sherlock Holmes being emotionally detached, or Liz Lemon stressing out. Jokesters don't even need to tell classical jokes to be funny, they can just play their character in an amusing way. And most of them do!
Tabletop gaming is a place of escape and socializing for many players, so let them have fun and unwind with a healthy dose of humor at your game table. As with any element of your game it shouldn't be overdone or distracting, but don't worry about it at all if your players are having a good time. If laughter is what they like, then throw some ridiculous scenarios at them. Introduce some quirky NPCs, give them some sillier missions and monsters. You can send them to sneak backstage to get a local bard's autograph or pit them against an all-too-familiar purple dinosaur with magic powers. Don't be afraid to play along to share in the jokester's tastes.
Don't let the jokesters be the only source of comedic entertainment either. Set up the situation and let the comedy be carried by the entire group's reactions, not just the humor of the GM or an individual player. Let the other players feel like they are part of the fun.
Once again, your players don't need to be trained comedians to do this, they can just play their roles to bring the joy. Macho players may entertain by tossing goblins through walls or giving the dark lord a noogie. Quieter players may be funny in the way they retreat from a high society ball like it's a war zone. Let the group feel like they are laughing with each other rather than at each other by not singling any one player out as a source of ridicule.
The party that laughs together can last forever, so embrace the jokesters in your own ranks and make their shenanigans an enjoyable aspect of your next hilarious and exciting campaign!
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
One of the easier player types to recognize at the game table is the guy who likes to fight. This one is your Slayer, the combat-oriented player who is most engaged when it is time to throw down and do battle. They are often the most familiar with the mechanics of the game rules, as the rules are what determine their advantages and disadvantages on the battlefield. Slayers love to rack up points through vanquishing enemies and winning glory and XP from combat encounters.
Since slayers are often very well versed in the game rules, it really pays to be aware of these rules as a DM. You can even learn from a slayer's knowledge and apply their lessons to your encounters as you develop them. Knowing the rules well allows you to challenge a player fairly, using the limitations and advantages agreed upon by player and game master alike.
Slayers also tend to think tactically about how to best their foes. For this reason, clear mapping and use of miniatures or some other signifiers are very important. These players care about the battlefield, so it is preferable to give them a clear overview of all its elements in relation to one another.
Try to challenge slayers with scaling encounters. Give them plenty of minions to fight and feel good about defeating, but gradually put their skills to the test. Slayer types want to overcome obstacles, and will embrace a good challenge (If they are a player who cares more about victory and being cool, they are probably a Macho instead of a slayer.)
Remember to implement combat encounters frequently enough to keep this player's attention. Include interesting hazards and enemy types to keep things fresh. Watch the player's strategy and find ways to counter it with the threats you present. Force the player to adapt their strategies and keep them on their toes. On the other hand, don't force them to sit through too many lengthy role-play sequences without any dangerous encounters for them to overcome. The slayer can bring a strong sense of excitement and strategy to your game. Let them do their thing. If things have been a bit slow, feel free to drop in the ninjas and let your slayers get to work!
Thursday, December 3, 2015
|A Macho character likes to keep things cool.|
The first step in bringing about this understanding is to make sure that you let this kind of player feel effective even when things don't go according to plan. Even when critical failures occur, you shouldn't make this kind of player feel foolish or ashamed of their bad roll. Instead, point out circumstances and conditions that might have caused this misfortune. Let them feel heroic as they face challenges and obstacles. Their barbarian didn't fall on his face wen he rolled a one, he was blindsided by a ninja's nimble dodge, or the power of his attack carried him all the way into the opposite wall! Sometimes a failure can be as impressive and cool as a success, like when a fireball wreaks havoc with collateral damage. As long as the player feels like they are a force to be reckoned with, they shouldn't mind the occasional setback.
Machos benefit most from vivid description of their character's actions. Take a moment every now and then to describe how they dramatically burst into a room. Give them opportunities to throw out witty one-liners before striking down a foe. Include NPCs to admire their reputation and skill, and reference their past victories as they press onward.
|Macho players don't look at explosions.|
Tuesday, December 1, 2015
Players with interest in drama and the performing arts make for very natural and entertaining participants at the game table. Though many spectators might consider it off-putting to to speak in character, immerse themselves in the role of their tabletop avatar, and base their most important decisions on their chosen motivations, this is the way of The Actor.
The actor wants to get into the headspace of their character, to find out what makes them tick. They want to explore and develop the story as it relates to their personal role in it. Unlike The Storyteller, who wants to see the overall plot unfold, The Actor is more focused on their own part of the tale and how they respond to its developments.
Actors can sometimes be intimidating to more self-conscious players when they really get into their roles. Talking in-character, sometimes with an invented voice or accent, they are the epitome of immersion in the story, and the kind of player that is most often recognized in mainstream depictions of tabletop gaming. Often viewed as quixotic and quirky, the actors are really just entertained by the idea of stepping into the shoes of their character in a world of fantasy and adventure.
The easiest way to please this kind of character is fairly simple: Give them lots of material to interact with, and include plot points and complications that are relevant to their character's background. Include NPCs related to their past, or perhaps just a situation that would have deeply personal stakes for the character. Maybe the character meets a child who was orphaned in the same manner as she was herself. Or perhaps the treasure hunter hears of an ancient artifact that he once thought to be a myth. Anything that gives the actor something to build upon to craft their own story.
Remember that actors tend to overshadow some of the less talkative player types, especially watchers. Don't let them monopolize your attention. Provide them with an engaging scenario and then shift your focus to include the other players as well. When one player is more active and immersed in a game than others, you should be careful to avoid having your campaign become a one man show.
Actors bring a lot of energy to the table, so they can be used to spread their enthusiasm throughout your gaming group. Give them opportunities to act out the roles of NPCs as well if the opportunity presents itself. Their infectious zeal for taking on roles will bring some welcome excitement to the table. A session full of fun dialogue and player interaction is going to be both memorable and fun, and is the type of environment in which the actor will excel. Seek out these opportunities to help actors in your own group to bring your game to the next level.
Thursday, November 19, 2015
Continuing our exploration of various types of players and their role at your game table, today we will discuss, appropriately enough, The Explorer.
You can typically recognize an explorer as one who likes to actively ask questions about their surroundings and the lore of the setting. Explorers are players who like to immerse themselves in the scenery, lore, and atmosphere of your setting. This means that they benefit most from details that you have prepared ahead of time. Pre-written blurbs that describe an environment and set the scene are very useful to keeping explorers engaged, and are good to include if you have the time to do so. Remember to describe how a scene interacts with all five senses. It's not just about how the dungeon looks and sounds, but also how it smells, how cold the air inside is, what the surface of the floor beneath your feet feels like. Think of how the PCs would actually experience being in the scene, rather than just viewing it from a detached perspective.
Maps are also good for explorers. Have some pre-made for them, and let the explorer help you manage and move around miniatures and props on the battlefield. Include both tactical maps and big picture world maps with borders and geographic features. If the game world feels like something tangible, something that really exists around their character and can be interacted with, they will be happy.
You can also improvise quite a bit to satisfy explorers. Adding history and 'window dressing' on the fly will make them feel more immersed in the game and give them more to discover. What's the name of the specialty drink served in this tavern? How do the elves celebrate birthdays? Minor details like this might be innocuous but they add to the appeal of the universe in which your game is set. You can deliver a lot of this information as knowledge that the player character already possesses, or even allow the player to fill out gaps in the lore with their own contributions.
Additionally, secret rooms and bonus loot scattered about like Easter eggs are another way to keep explorers occupied. Don't make them meticulously search a room by five feet at a time, or require a roll to see if they find things that are necessary to continue the game. Reward them for things like remembering to search under the bed or behind a wardrobe by providing the occasional secret passage or extra bundle of arrows. Make it worth their while to interact with the environment when they have the time.
Explorers will still need motivation to go on their missions, exploration is rarely the only reason their PC seeks adventure. But adding these elements is crucial to their enjoyment of the game and will keep them well satisfied with your campaign.
My number one piece of advice for implementing these details is to really enjoy the setting of your campaign. If you are really interested in fleshing out the details, your enthusiasm will spread easily to your players. You will have a solid grasp on the nature of the game and a sense of what you want it to be which will make it much more natural to share with players. Keep this in mind and you will all have an expansive and wonderful world to explore!
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
These Watchers can still be included in your games, and should certainly not be removed as a player as long as they are attending your sessions. One of my most strictly enforced rules at game night is that everyone present is a player. Adding non-playing spectators a tabletop game is distracting and boring, so in my group everyone who is present on game night gets a character sheet. This keeps both the new player and the group as a whole from being diverted or feeling self-conscious at having someone hanging around without being involved at all.
But keep in mind that some players glean most of their enjoyment from watching the game quietly. There are some players who are simply shy, and some who enjoy the company of the group and progression of the adventure without contributing frequently. This is fine, there is a place for these kinds of players at the table, as long as you know what to expect from them.
The number one challenge with watchers is keeping them from being a distraction for others. If they are not contributing when offered, or creating disruptions, then the game could easily fall apart. Try not to scold players for tangents and distractions, but direct the game back on track using your "DM voice." Describe something the players can interact with, and address them with questions to get them engaged and attentive. Get things moving again and put the onus on the players to point it in the right direction. I much prefer this technique to re-establishing order to enforcing 'no phone' policies and such. Too many restrictions at the game table can make things seem zealously authoritarian and not fun.
It's good to have a very enthusiastic player seated near a watcher to provide them with some much needed energy and keep them involved. However, you want to seat a watcher far from any player who is easily distracted, or somebody whose mind tends to wander from the game. The attention of a watcher may be prone to drifting, and if more than one player becomes distracted by something, it is much more difficult to get things back on track. You can draw a player back in from answering a text, but two players carrying on a conversation about a movie they just saw will be harder to break away from. Avoid these distractions from the start by separating the players who often get involved in tangental conversation. Encourage your players to sit near people they don't know as well, to make new friends and grow as a play group. Let them get to know their neighbors!
For those who are especially invested in a game, watchers can be frustrating and difficult to understand. Make sure that your quieter players are actually enjoying their participation in the campaign and then help them to relate to the other players with your occasional prompts for action. As long as they are still actively responding to these interactions, the other players should feel more comfortable about the watcher's role in the party. And of course, remember that many watchers may simply be shy or socially reserved, so addressing them kindly and patiently will go a long way towards getting a positive response from them. After all, it takes all kinds to make up a party, and even the quietest gnome or halfling can make up the difference between victory and defeat.
Thursday, November 12, 2015
|To quote Babylon 5: Who are you? What do you want?|
However, you will have to remember to provide opportunities for the players to open up about their character and history. One way to do this is to add occasional narrative prompts for the players to share certain details. These prompts are open ended questions, inquiries that direct the player to answer in a way that will provide a new insight into their character and the story as a whole.
For instance, I once ran a game in which the party was falsely accused of a crime and about to go to trial. Before the case began, the NPC defense attorney asks each PC to name one previous infraction that might be used against them in a court of law. This question requires each player to think about a way in which their character might have broken the law or at least incited a grievance against themselves.
Another classic one is having characters face a magic spell that brings their greatest fear to life. What is that fear? Only the player can answer that question, so the question is posed to them. Another might be to ask about what they did during a great war or major historical event that previously affected everyone in your chosen campaign setting.
The two main ways to present this question are in-story or as an aside. In-story questions may be asked directly by NPCs or when certain situations present themselves. If a character is asked by their mentor who their most hated enemy is, or stares into a magic mirror and sees their nemesis' face, that's a clear prompt for them to name and describe this individual. Remember to put opportunities like this in your game if your players are fans of character development. It is a natural way to present opportunities for creative choices.
Asides are questions that might come up at any point that you should use during character creation and throughout the campaign to encourage players to build upon their characters and add details to the story. Once again, use open-ended questions. Don't direct players to a specific answer right away, give them an opportunity to make the story their own. What was it that you left behind when you became an adventurer? Being a thief, what was the first thing you stole?
Some of these questions might be player-specific, but many of them could be asked of the entire group. The answers will provide you with more 'ammunition' for your campaign in the form of plot hooks and relevant details about the player characters. Just remember that you are in charge of directing these prompts, and unless you do this every now and then, your players won't have many opportunities to open up and add these details to the story.
I encourage you to think up your own ways to make these questions relevant to your campaign. Listen to your players and question them in response to them questioning you. Give them time to think about the questions before they answer, don't rush them. Do this and you will have a lot more material to work with, and more attentiveness and engagement on their part.
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Tabletop RPGs are a group activity, there's no avoiding it. By its very definition, a role requires a team of some sort. A role is a capacity that someone takes in relation to others, like a position on a sports team or a job in a company. If you are adventuring solo, you are doing everything yourself. But an RPG gives you particular responsibilities and positions to fulfill within your party.
Some players might choose to play characters who identify as loners or highly independent. But they should understand that even these individuals will have developed habits that are necessary to function effectively on a team. They should never abandon their party or act against their teammates. No matter what, the players should be collaborating in order to solve problems.
This isn't an aspect of the game intended to restrict the players fun, it's one of the core principles of gaming meant to keep the game from falling apart. The only major RPG to actively encourage players to work against each other is Paranoia, a farcical comedy which is fully intended to end up as a chaotic disaster. A game that's supposed to go smoothly does not put the players in an antagonistic position with one another.
A little bit of conflict between player characters is fine and there are ways to include tension or disagreement between party members without causing a problem. The problem comes when the conflict becomes disruptive and bleeds into gameplay. If a PC is at odds with the overall goals of the team, their player most likely needs to replace them with a more suitable character for the campaign.
Overarching goals (finding treasure, slaying dragons, etc.) are how PCs should stay on track. Even the most independent PC should share the overall goals of the party (otherwise he doesn't belong in the group anyway.) So in order to succeed in those goals, they must rely on cooperation with their teammates to ensure their success. This means they will help their teammates out, whether friends or not. To do otherwise would invalidate their purpose on the team. This is what needs to be understood by players during character creation as well as gameplay.
Here's one piece of advice I often give my players:
Imagine there are three things happening in a scene. One of these events affects you, and the others affect your team or something else in the encounter... see what you can do about those last two things first. (So, don't worry so much about that goblin shooting arrows at you when your ranger is hanging off the side of a cliff, or the Golden Grail is within reach) Interacting with other players and the environment is often more likely to:
1) Further the overall goals of the mission.
2) Keep things tactical and interesting.
3) Not alienate you at the game table.
This isn't as risky a proposition as it seems. If your whole party follows this principle, you will always have somebody watching your back. Let them help you out instead of being the sole caretaker of your own safety. Avoid situations where you are isolated and fighting for your own survival. Be part of something larger by fighting alongside others, and striving to complete the group's shared objectives.
As a DM, keep in mind that if your players are starting to fight against each others' characters more than the campaign's encounters, it may be because they do not feel sufficiently challenged. When players become disinterested in a storyline or bored with inactivity, they tend to create their own conflicts instead. Make sure this is not the case and see if you can address the issue with changes to the story or encounter design. Otherwise, strife between your PCs might be part of a larger problem between the players themselves, in which you will want to address before any feelings are hurt at your game table.
The cooperative aspect of the tabletop is one of the core appeals of the game, and should be understood by players and DMs alike. There is satisfaction to be found in working together, and amazing stories to be told of comrades-in-arms, begrudging allies, or long-time friends. Teamwork is a winning ingredient for a great game!
Thursday, November 5, 2015
Character arcs (storylines in which a player character develops and changes over time) are difficult to coordinate in a tabletop RPG. The very nature of the game, influenced by dice rolls and an entire group of players, makes it difficult to build stories for characters with a beginning, middle, and end. Typically, these kinds of stories need to be planned out and carefully designed in order to have a satisfying resolution. That's why I often resort to a little bit of collaborative scripting for certain events in my most character-driven campaigns.
Don't get me wrong, I am all for letting the story of a campaign develop naturally as you play. But sometimes the real key moments in a character's journey need to be included by design in order to be truly satisfying. If you are the kind of player or game-runner who values the story-telling aspect of gaming, you will benefit from this technique.
Keep in mind that any scripted moment is based on guidelines, not exact details. A scripted event is an important character moment or campaign event that will almost certainly occur at some point in your campaign. It doesn't mean that you need a literal script, just a general outline of when, where, and how something happens.
If it involves another player, you will need to collaborate with them seperately so they know what to expect. If you describe a scenario to the player ahead of time, then you can basically let them play out their actions and decisions in advance to help you both decide the direction the story is going to go from there.
Keep in mind that your game might go in surprising directions, so don't make any plans ahead of time that are too specific. My planned events might be as generalized as an old villain revealing himself to the party, or the rebels' secret weapon malfunctioning just when things seem the most dire.
If there are other players who aren't directly involved in this event, you probably want to keep it under wraps. It's usually more fun to be surprised by events as they unfold. Remember, if you and a player know about something you have planned, it will still be a nice surprise for everyone who doesn't. Don't be discouraged from collaborating with players in order to make certain moments play out in a very memorable way. You might even have a different scene arranged secretly between yourself and each player at the table! If there is more than one player involved, consider letting them hash out the details of the scene together before finalizing how it will play out. This is a safe way to handle potential problems like inter-party character conflict. You can have the players determine ahead of time how they will resolve their differences rather than risk an hour-long derailment during the game.
An example of these scripted character scenes would be something like a redemptive arc for a character. Here's a scene in the Disney animated feature Treasure Planet in which Long John Silver is forced to choose between saving his surrogate son and comrade Jim Hawkins or seizing the treasure he has spent his whole life pursuing. A moment like this is special, and might not have the same impact if it isn't planned out a bit. These are some things you can do to let the player character have their shining moment of glory.
So if you were running this scene as part of a campaign with your friends, you would want to do some preparation for it. First, you plan out that at some point, this treasure trove will activate a self-destruct. Maybe it's when a player triggers a trap, maybe it's when they start to leave with some treasure. Maybe a traitorous pirate NPC trips the alarm just to screw the party over and get more treasure for themselves. In any case, now you have the stage set up for Silver's ultimate choice.
Next you get into contact with the people playing Silver and Jim, letting them know about the concept. If they like it, you get an idea of how the scene is going to play out from them. Let's say Silver's player had previously expressed interest in having a redemptive moment at some point in the game. Now you've given them the opportunity to make the moment big and climactic. By providing advanced warning, they also have the opportunity to think out their words and deeds before the scene even happens. And Jim's player is secure in the knowledge that you aren't playing dice with his fate, but are setting up a new part of these two players' shared story.
Other situations you might set up include allowing a player to heroically sacrifice his or her character if they want to end that character's story in that manner. Or you might want to have the players be a part of a major battle that you have already set into motion within the game's fiction. These are all parts of your game that will happen because you aim to make them happen. You might even have some specific lines of dialogue or blurbs of narration to read when they occur, or use props and visual aids to make the moment more striking.
Working out little scenarios like this can be a very satisfying way enhance the storytelling and character development in your campaign. Remember that this technique is not recommended for frequent use. The game shouldn't be restricted by scripting and overly planning. Try not to make any plans like this until your game has been running for a while, when you have a firm grasp on the direction of the story and the character motivations. And as always, listen to your players and make sure they are happy and in agreement with the choices in these scenes if they affect their own character.
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
|Lore can make players feel like they are playing an important part in a much larger story|
Do you have to prepare this kind of information in minute detail? Certainly not! But the inclusion of additional aspects like these will provide a sense of scale and immersion that will hook your players in and keep them engaged.
The lore of your adventure and setting is often the most fun part of preparing a game session. In fact, it is often a little too enjoyable, as some GMs must beware spending too much time designing histories and geographic details at the expense of designing encounters and plot hooks for their players.
Moderation is better. Make sure you have at least a little bit of window dressing for each major part of your campaign. Don't prepare reams of history unless it will be relevant and interesting to your particular play group. Remember that the game is playground is for your players to explore, not for you to show off your own writing skills.
Encouraging your players to ask questions is important to the process of sharing these details. You don't want to foist a bunch of gratuitous details on your players if they don't want to hear it, and it can kill the pacing of a game to dive into long winded monologues about Elvish military tradition or the properties of magnetic ore. Instead, you want to drop in some leading hints that there is more than meets the eye about an element of the setting, and let your players ask directly for more details. Saying things like "There is something strange about the way this stone glows in moonlight," or "The elf holds his staff of command as if he is an archon of the Second Order," would be good ways to intrigue your players into finding out more details (Either by talking to NPCs or consulting their own character's innate knowledge of a subject.)
The kind of questions you want to wait for are anything related to putting a situation into context, such as:
Who made this thing?
Why is this event happening?
Has my character seen or heard of something like this before?
This is your cue to share more detail and make your players a part of the world you are creating together. Remember to provide this information a little bit at a time, don't drop it all on the players in a single big 'info-dump.' For instance, you might provide a little detail about an ancient war when your players discover the ruins of a lost fortress, and then talk about a particularly significant battle when they find a carving of it in the interior of the fort.
|Having a lot of details prepared isn't mandatory, but it can really pay off|
It goes without saying that you don't want to hide these prepared details behind intelligence-based dice rolls that could be failed. Save your dice checks for when the players need an additional detail that would give them an advantage in some situation. There is nothing worse than playing through a campaign without any idea of what's actually happening or missing out on all the interesting parts of the setting, so keep your players informed with the basic lore of your game world whenever they ask for it.
Another important thing to remember is that sometimes you won't have enough lore prepared to answer a question the players might have about something in the game. But keep in mind that there is always an answer. Even if you don't know right away, there is always an answer. This is what makes tabletop gaming so great, because you can create an environment filled with background details that develop organically and are as infinite as imagination. You might not have an answer for your player right away when they ask about the availability of dilithium in the delta quadrant, but you can bide your time and devise an appropriate answer for them shortly. Don't be afraid to improvise additional lore and facts about the game world. Look to your players for ideas as well, let them provide some of the details of the setting themselves. Don't be afraid of adding new ideas on the fly, that's what the game is all about!
|Real world elements don't need historical accuracy to be fun|
Thursday, October 29, 2015
|With a group this big, it's best to keep things moving fast. (Art by Madam-Marla)|
Running a game like this can be tricky. You are required to be expedient and efficient. You are working under a timetable for your players complete their mission. In some cases you might not be able to reassemble the same group for another session, so you will want to give them a satisfying resolution in one session. It's certainly do-able, and much easier if you follow these simple guidelines:
Build the adventure with a three act structure.
Build your adventure with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Have at least one memorable and impacting encounter for each of these stages. The beginning encounter should be simple and good for introducing the game mechanics to new players, the second encounter should bring the players into the story proper and raise the stakes... And the third should be the spectacular climax to the adventure. Consider switching things up between combat encounters, exploration, or social encounters for each of these sections. Even using this format each time, you will be surprised at how unique each adventure can be when you include unique scenes and types of encounters.
Find out how much time you will have to run the game and divide these acts into a rough schedule, so you know approximately when to transition to each scene. For instance, you might budget an hour of time for each of the three acts. Always give yourself a bit of leeway on this timetable, because nothing ever goes precisely according to plan. Leave thirty minutes or more of your playtime unaccounted for, so you can use that extra time to wrap things up or extend scenes that need more time.
Consider starting characters in media rez, or in the middle of an adventure in progress. Let them learn the ropes by starting out in the heat of battle against a nefarious foe, or during a frantic chase scene. This helps get the players involved in the game immediately, and smooths over the possibility of a rocky start.
Keep it linear.
This doesn't mean to keep it boring. In an earlier entry I have provided notes to help with running games that don't diverge much from a particular script. What I'm saying here is that you need to keep things from getting off course and taking a lot of time. Let the players do what they want, but direct the action back towards the conclusion. Your players don't have a lot of time to wander like you would in a full campaign, so you need to do your best to keep things on point.
Explain the rules once and keep it moving.
You might have players at the table from a wide range of experience levels. You probably won't have time to run through a complete explanation of the game rules before you begin. So instead, teach as the game progresses. Consider the first scene a tutorial level for those who might not be as familiar with the system. The first time something happens in the game, always explain how the game mechanic works in a clear, concise manner. Also let the players know what their options are when they are ready to take action. A little friendly coaching with rookie players can go a long way. There's no need to rush anyone, either... if a player is unsure what to do next, offer to let them hold their turn until later, and let another player take an action. This gives the first player more time to carefully consider their move without holding up the game.
Don't spend time quibbling over the rules during a one shot. Keep the game simple and swift, and avoid wasting valuable time flipping through books. Keep the game lean and mean, with a strong focus on getting things done rather than getting all the rules correct. You want the players to have a sense of progress and accomplishment when your adventure concludes. If the group has a good time, they may very well be interested in a more detailed ongoing campaign, and then you can really cut loose with some more elaborate plans and encounters.
I hope these techniques will be of use in running your own one shot tabletop scenarios, thanks for reading and happy ventures!
Tuesday, October 27, 2015
|Some rules are worth memorizing|
Decide how many times you can read the core rules.
Before running a game that you have not run before, I recommend reading the core books twice (the basic rulebook, players guide, or GM guide.) The first reading being a detailed one, paying special attention to the content and committing some of it to memory. The second reading is a skimming of the text, skipping over less important bits and focusing more on whatever you feel uncertain about. If you don't have the free time, this second read through can be postponed, but you want to be sure that you collect some very good notes for reference (more on that later.)
Being a player requires less reading than running one. If you join a game as a player it can also help you interpret a lot of what you are reading through actual experience. If you get the chance to do this, it can really help make the learning process easier as well.
Learn the Core Mechanic inside and out.
Every game system has a core mechanic, a basic outline for how an in-game action is executed and resolved. It might involve adding a pair of numbers and comparing them to a target value, or it might involve playing cards or building blocks. It might involve rolling higher or lower than a target number. However it is built, it is the most important part of the game. It is the answer to the question "how do I do things in this game?"
A core mechanic will have many rules associated with it, so you want to know these rules in great detail. Know all the different modifiers and exceptions that could effect the dice-rolling or how the basic actions are performed in the game world.
There are many rules that can be adjusted and retrofitted to the particular needs of your gaming group, but if you drastically alter the core mechanic, you're negating your own choice of gaming system.
Have the most important rules on hand when you run a game.
I like to switch up game systems a lot, which means that I don't always have time to read through the books as thoroughly as I would like. I prefer to read through the core books entirely at least once, but there are times when even that might be difficult. That's why I always keep a detailed GM screen or reference sheets on hand when running a game.
In extreme cases, I allot myself about a half minute to a minute of flipping through rulebooks to reference something in particular. Any more than that risks killing the momentum, but I like to remain as consistent as possible with my execution of the rules so that the players can interact with them in a way that seems fair and balanced. There will occasionally be an instance where a player is more familiar with the rules than the GM. The player should still remain respectful of the game master and adhere to their rulings on the matter of the game mechanics. However, this is why it is so important for the game master to make a legitimate effort on their own part to know the rules as well as they can. A player can't help but be frustrated if there are numerous mistakes in a game, even if they politely abide by them. Be empathetic of players and try to take the time to correct anything you might be missing in your game running whenever you have the chance. (And of course don't let anyone bully you with their greater knowledge of the rules. Everybody has to learn sometime, there's no reason to make someone feel bad about it.)
Of course, some groups prefer to leave the books alone altogether during gameplay, and resolve any uncertainty about the rules through on-the-spot judgment calls. This is a very valid approach, and may be best for your group if it tends to get bogged down with page-flipping and debates. Just remember to establish some kind of standard for correcting an error in future sessions so that you don't surprise your players by changing up the rules out of nowhere. And remember that part of the reason for learning the rules is so you can know how to bend them, or alter them as needed. It's better to understand when you are diverging from the rulebook than to bluff your way through a game session without reading it.
|And remember this advice from West End's Star Wars sourcebooks.|
There is still a small subsection of information that you can gloss over even on a first reading. In some cases, the GM guide isn't even necessary to run a game. Generally, most RPGs will have a list of books required to run the game on the back cover or in the introduction. If it's not on the list, it is not technically a 'core' book and can be set aside for later reading. You can generally skip information if it is just game statistics, generic advice, or ideas and inspiration for campaigns. You don't need to browse through all the character classes or monster statistics either.
That's not to say this info isn't important or useful, but it's not as pressing for you to learn as the other content in the books. If you have to learn the game in a hurry, you can leave out some of the extra fluff and stats that you won't need right away. Use your judgement to decide what you need to know right away.
Preparation like this is how you show your players you care about running a good game for them, and keep your campaign running smoothly on track. It is also a good rule of thumb to apply to any endeavor. If you're going to do something, it is most satisfying to to do it correctly and with a strong effort. Don't stress about preparation, just set aside a little bit of time to do it and keep these recommendations in mind when hitting the books. Soon you'll be an expert at the game table, and one heck of a game-runner!