Thursday, November 19, 2015

Explorers In Your Campaign: Find the Ranger With a Compass!

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!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Watchers In Your Campaign: Remember The Gnome In The Corner!

There are many kinds of players on the game scene. Some like to fight battles, some like to explore, some like to act out stories. But then there are players that express very little at all, who often blend in with the scenery and hang out unnoticed while others take action. Sometimes this may be the sign of an unhappy player, but for many people this is just their form of expression at the game table. These are the Watchers, players who prefer to observe the campaign as it unfolds without talking as much, and quietly monitoring its progress with only the occasional contribution.

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 enga
ged 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.

Watchers are the easiest to accidentally overlook or pass up during gameplay, so it is important to remember to actively engage them from time to time. Pace yourself when addressing the player. Don't pressure them to contribute exactly as much as others, but extend the invitation to participate. Being a watcher is simply a play style that is based on personality traits. Their enjoyment of the game isn't dependent on their frequent contributions. As long as the player is occasionally involved in the action, it is okay if their interactions are less frequent than some of their peers. If they are responsive when you call upon them to be so, it won't disrupt the flow of the campaign. Just remember to check in every once in a while to keep them connected to the game. 

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.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Building Character: Drawing Stories From Players

To quote Babylon 5: Who are you? What do you want?
You can't expect every player to who sits down at a game table to give you detailed plot hooks for their character right away. In fact, I have found that lengthy backstories and pre-made character backgrounds are often inflexible and tedious. Establishing details as the campaign progresses is a much better way to make everything mesh together and build a story that is collaborative and organic. Players have a better opportunity to tie their storylines together with each other and the game world in which they exist if they are allowed time to familiarize themselves with both.

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.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

There's No "I" In "RPG"

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!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Scripting Moments in Your Campaign

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.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lore and the Joy of Backstory

Lore can make players feel like they are playing an important part in a much larger story
For a lot of players, simply existing in a world of fantasy adventure is enough to provide a satisfying adventure at the game table. But for the more exploratory among us, for those who like to really get involved in the fiction, lore is the key to getting a bigger picture. I am using the term lore in this case to refer to the background details that provide context for everything within your game's particular fiction. Like the history of a nation or the scientific principle behind a certain technology. Every game needs at least some of these elements if you want the players to follow along and interact with the 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
Some of my favorite kinds of lore to include in a game are real-world science, history, and geography. In settings that take place in worlds much like our own, the inclusion of true to life subjects and events can be very fun to explore in a fictional context. It's also a lot of fun to research. I'm not talking about detailed study or absolute factual accuracy. It is just entertainment after all, and artistic liberties can always be taken. But the inclusion of background details like these can add an extra layer of fun and learning to your campaign. If your game takes place in ancient Egpyt, for instance, do a bit of reading about the culture and history of that era. Find out what the local industries and cuisine were like and work it into the background of the game. It's a great way to make your players feel like they are actually transported to a different time and place, and to keep them focused and engaged.

Happy ventures!