Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Game Mastering vs. Authorship

In my tabletop gaming experience, I have noticed that a lot of game masters also happen to be aspiring writers. They will take their  passion for creativity and focus it into the craft of building and running adventures. And yet there is a distinction between game mastery and typical creative writing that needs to be recognized in order to avoid some major pitfalls in your campaign.

Game mastering is not intended to produce stories worthy of publication, nor should it be used as a means to do so. It is a participatory creative writing exercise. It is ideas shouted out by friends around a table. It develops and changes at a whim, and the entertainment comes from the act of playing and experiencing the narrative.

Novels, movies, and other media don't work like this. They are crafted with time and care before they even reach the point of publication. Like a sculptor working a marble slab, parts are cut away and molded until they are just right. These stories are the result of outlines, revisions, rewrites, and planning in order to convey some very specific themes and ideas. You won't get a great novel out of a roll of the dice. Luke Skywalker's encounter with Darth Vader isn't contingent on either party scoring a critical hit. You'll never have total creative control over dice or players' actions. Nor should you! Someone who is trying to play author at the game table can be disruptive and creatively stifling to their fellow players.

Tabletop RPGs are a great creative exercise, but they are not a means for producing creative content worthy of publication. So don't try to force it into that. If you find that too much of your creative energy is monopolized by gaming, it is okay to take a break and work on your novels or short stories. Find the time to enjoy the freedom of creative control and free time to weave the kind of tale that you want to tell. You might even collaborate with someone. You will have the ability to incorporate specific themes and establish a beginning, middle, and end as you see fit. It's healthy, fun, and mentally stimulating!

But I have seen too many players and GMs try to apply these methods to the tabletop. They try to 'author' their campaign, and become frustrated when things don't work out like they planned... The players start burning down the world a GM tailored for a specific story, and they take it too personally. Or a player gets frustrated because the GM isn't focusing enough on his quest to find his long-lost parents. They need to take a step back and reconsider how they are approaching the game.

It's really fun to listen to a tabletop campaign featuring creative players, and there are many podcasts that give you the opportunity for just that... there are also places where you can watch creative people play video games with fun commentary. These are forms of entertainment that can be fun, emotional, or dramatic. But it's not authorship, and it doesn't need to be. 

So don't try to turn your boat into a car. If you find yourself running or playing a game with a specific story in mind, or hoping to publish the events of a Dungeons and Dragons adventure as a short story or novel I encourage you to consider it carefully. Because you'll find that authorship and role playing work cross-purpose. Instead simply use RP as an outlet to stimulate your imagination, and channel that energy into other creative endeavors away from the tabletop. The Dragonlance books and Steven Erikson's Malazan series were both inspired by the worlds and characters of the authors' RPG days. They used elements from their games and turned them into something they could work into a narrative. If you do the same, you can still be a good author as well as a good player. Both your campaign and fellow players will benefit greatly from it.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Asking the Right Questions

When you are a player at the game table, it is important to engage with your DM. Clear and open communication within a gaming group is one of the best qualities it can have. And there are certain kinds of questions that will serve to enhance your campaign when asked, just as there are certain unproductive questions that might slow things down.

The kind of questions that game master wants to hear are those that engage with the setting and help to define the details of the game. If the player is asking questions to clarify certain aspects of the game, that's great! What does the door in front of us look like? Can you remind me what the squire's name is? Sometimes the DM might even have failed to communicate an important detail, and it might be brought out because the players asked the right question. If there is a give and take between players and the person behind the screen, the game will run much smoother as a result.

At the same time, you will want to avoid questions that the DM is obliged to not answer. The DM's job is not making decisions for you, or providing obvious hints to guide your actions.

The DM is not supposed to answer questions like "Is this a good idea?" or "Can we win this fight?" Instead, ask contextual questions that will give you the means to make the decision yourself. So instead of asking "Can I roll to climb this cliff face?" you want to ask "Are there handholds in the rocks?" Instead of "Can we win?" ask "What are the bad guys armed with?" Try to draw out details about the game world. Make sure you know what the facts are so you can act upon them. Then declare the action once you are prepared to undertake it: "I begin to climb the cliff." If the DM decides you can't do something for some reason, they will let you know. As a game-runner, let me say that I prefer when players proactively attempt something than when they wait and play "Simon says" to get my permission. (If it is a particularly misinformed decision, the DM may provide a brief warning just to be fair.)

You also want to avoid too many tangents and divergences. Your teammates won't be thrilled if you spend a half hour asking about the menu at the local tavern, or gathering details on the whereabouts of your favorite NPC for no reason.

A good game runner will welcome questions that suggest immersion in the game. They will welcome the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with the player and extend their creativity. So remember to ask questions about the game without prying the game master for meta-knowledge or suggestions for what to do next. Turn your game into a creatively fueled conversation and enjoy the benefits of the cooperative environment.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Passing the Time: In-Game Chronology

In most tabletop RPGs, combat encounters take very little in-game time. They represent swift bursts of action, separated into rounds of a few seconds apiece. With this system, and a natural tendency to focus on the action alone, it is easy to forget about the time in between, the chronology that determines how many days pass over the course of your adventure. This can result in weird idiosyncrasies such as adventurers spend an hour or two exploring a dungeon between making camp, or heroes leveling up twice within a mere couple of days.  Basically, if you want to build a true epic that spans days, months, or years, you have to remember to step the clock forward.

This is something both players and GMs should keep in mind, and it needs to be performed on both the short-term sense as well as in the big picture. By short term, I mean that you should be sure describe the passage of time whenever you can. When a player takes an action, consider how much time it will take to perform, and don't be afraid to make it a substantial. Explain that it took a few minutes to pick the lock of the next room, a few hours to find the contact the party needed in town. Don't be shy about implementing these passages of time, it's how you fill up a day of a PC's adventuring so it actually seems like a march of progress rather than a sprint to each thirty second encounter.

On a macro level you want to include opportunities for long term story progression... maybe instead of hours, it takes days to find that contact that the party needed. Maybe they have some downtime between missions, and it lasts a week or two. A journey to the capitol might take a day or two to complete. It's probably not a good idea to spend a lot of time having the players act out this passage of time, but the point is to let the time pass in-game. Allow the characters to grow over time, to live and exist in the imagination even if it is "off screen." Events can also occur during this period that don't immediately involve the player characters. It allows for more opportunities for new adventures and plot developments as the world grows and changes.

If you follow these simple principles, you will have adventures that describe the events of years rather than a few days, and the days of adventuring will seem more packed and productive. Just remember that sometimes even slower actions can be compelling. A long-term investigation of a crime can be as cool and suspenseful as disabling a ticking bomb. This doesn't mean you should slow down your game, forcing players to sit through tedious descriptions of every day in a week. Nor should you make players meticulously describe their entire process of searching every single mundane nook and cranny of a dungeon.

Include the description of time passing in broad strokes. Keep things moving ahead. You'll have so many more story opportunities. NPCs will be able to change and grow, players will be able to plan and execute long term strategies, and their will be a greater sense of scope and progress. When you spend so much time building an imaginary world and playing in it, why not give its inhabitants a chance to experience and live in it? These things take time, so be sure you have given it to them!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Reward Triggers

When a player takes an action and gets something they want, it triggers a very basic and universal response in their brain. It's a universal stimulation, similar to the kind of enjoyment we get from interacting on social networking sites, playing video games, painting a picture, or cleaning the house. Those activities stimulate an influx of dopamine through our systems, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good when we are productive or creative.

But it isn't just triggered from getting a reward, it has to be earned. There needs to be a clear cause and effect connection between the character's action and the positive results. This is why players often enjoy a result more if they rolled a dice or moved a token before it happened... it makes them feel like they did something more active that resulted in their victory.

These moments of triumph are a vital part of the tabletop experience, and will come up at some point in your games whether you recognize them or not. You can take advantage of this natural instinct in order to keep your group entertained and satisfied during gaming sessions.

Remember to reward them often enough that they feel a sense of progress and achievement when they perform an action. Describe the positive results of their action in an evocative manner. Don't just gloss over something when they get it right... let them know for sure that they have succeeded and show them the results.

And, as mentioned before, there needs to be some way of making the player feel like an active participant in order to get the full effect. This could involve rolling dice or moving a token or miniature, but it can often be as simple as having the player clearly state and describe their action. If the player feels like they are the catalyst for their own achievement, it becomes a reward trigger in their mind... a good feeling and sense of satisfaction that comes from getting the job done.

There are lots of things that players can do that provide this satisfaction, but it is up to the GM to identify the ones that appeal to a particular player and providing opportunities for it to happen. It could be:
  • Learning a secret nobody else knows (Getting a secret note passed to them)
  • Gaining a new piece of cool loot (Getting to write it on their character sheet)
  • Dealing damage to enemies (Rolling a critical hit)
  • Winning a social encounter (Having an enemy NPC bow in reverence and respect to them)
Of course you don't want to overdo this technique either. Space out these moments of true achievement with lots of challenges and twists in between. Make them fight for it. The key to satisfaction comes through the setbacks that must be overcome in order to reach it. Throw adversity and tribulations at the players so that their moments of success feel earned. Then sit back and watch your players cheer themselves on as they march onward to victory!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Getting the Most Out of Adventure Modules

If you are used to building your own adventures from scratch, chances are you haven't delved into a published module in a long time. You might have convinced yourself that there's just no value in using someone else's material for your games. But I aim to prove otherwise! There are a number of ways a resourceful DM might make use of a good module, beyond simply relying on them as the sole source of your campaign material (Which is still just fine if it works well for your group!)

They can introduce you to a new setting or system.

Introductory adventures are often included in core books as well as expanded materials from game book publishers. Adventures like these are a great way to kick off a campaign in an RPG that you've never played before. You can learn a lot about the tone, structure, and pacing of a game system by reading through these examples of design and execution. Some of them are structured like tutorials, so you can gradually introduce rules and game mechanics to your play group.

In fact, you might even choose to run your own adventure using the details and techniques you absorbed from this module. Even simply studying a module can provide you with tools and tactics that could prove invaluable for building your own adventures. The best writers are those who have read a lot of books themselves, and that goes for game mastering as well. The best adventures will be designed by those who have read a lot of modules in their time.

They are quicker to prepare.

This is the no-brainer, but it is still worth pointing out. If you are pressed for time, an adventure module usually takes less than an hour of prep time and has most of the work already done for you. There are some very high quality and critically acclaimed adventure paths that are well worth running and playing, and can be a real blast to experience. Quick, easy, fun... what more could you ask for?

They can be cannibalized for parts.

You don't have to implement an entire module, or follow it word for word. If nothing else, you can mine these published materials for ideas and inspiration.  You can dismantle existing adventures and rearranged their components to create something completely new. Borrow a map, an encounter idea, a unique trap, a memorable NPC... use the material however you see fit. It's your toolbox, and your own sandbox to build upon. Think of each adventure as the sum of its parts, and consider that those parts individually could be transformed into something new and exciting.

They are not difficult to find.

A lot of adventures for a variety of RPG systems are available for free online. Publishers often release them as ways to promote their games and get play groups kickstarted. Since most of them aren't more than a few pages long, it is easy to download and read off a computer or printout. With this kind of convenience and utility, it shouldn't be hard to access a ready-to-play quest in short order... wherever or whenever that might be!

They connect gaming communities.

A shared experience makes for something interesting to talk about, whether it's a movie you watched or a book you read. When you complete a published adventure, you have a point of reference that you can share with anyone else who has run or played in the same scenario. It's a fun thing to be able to compare notes on how you braved the Tomb of Horrors or faced off with Stone from the Deadlands setting. Having these stories that are based off the same materials allows players to enjoy the community that comes from beloved settings and characters that the players can discuss and relate to in different ways.

There is no reason to feel obliged to work off published materials, but there is a lot to be gained from doing so. (Just remember not to design your custom campaigns based on the format of published modules, as I explained here.) 

I would recommend that every DM read some sample adventures at some point and find out what can be learned from them. Knowledge is power, and a powerful mind is a gaming group's greatest asset.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Don't Make It Weird (Part Two): Romantic Interactions

Role playing games are often used as a way to explore fun stories about human experiences. Part of the enjoyment of the activity comes from playing out the highs and lows of fate and emotion to tell a compelling story. And obviously love and romance is a universal aspect of our lives that we have all been affected by in some way or another. It's only natural that it will become a part of our tales of the tabletop as much as it is in books, television, and film.

However, its application in the world of the tabletop opens up an infamous can of worms that can cause any number of problems. It's already risky enough when the idea of love and sexuality is brought up as a public affair among a group of individuals who each have their own views and feelings on the subject... especially when it is being brought up in a hobby that is mostly action and escapism. 

If you are going to broach this complicated topic at all, it had better be with a group of friends who are well acquainted and comfortable with one another. And even then, it should be treated with caution. You might not know your friends as well as you think you do, and this is one of the easiest ways to stumble through personal boundaries that you shouldn't cross. Always show respect for your fellow players. Don't direct these narrative elements at them if they are unwelcome, regardless of your own opinions about it.

Additionally, there should never be any romantic entanglement that might affect or be affected by a real-world relationship. This means you don't want anyone to use the facade of the game to flirt with or harass another player. Any violation of this rule should be addressed swiftly out of game, and discussed individually with the parties involved. 

Professional actors may be able to play out romantic entanglements with one another without actual emotions involved, but most players are not Hollywood performers. Real world relationships or drama have no place in what is supposed to be a playful diversion in a world of fantasy. The couple who acts out their intimacy at game night is destined to quickly become an unpopular part of game night. Same with the person making creepy passes at another player "in character." Cut this behavior out before it wrecks your group. (As always, it is best to screen your group beforehand for problem players who might violate these principles.)

If there is an element of sexuality in your game, subtlety is preferable to build a sense of comfort and camaraderie around the game table. I always found it odd the number of stories I have heard about players wanting to thoroughly role play a liaison with a dryad or such when said fairy folk is being acted out by their own buddy, Steve. If there is a number one reason that such rendezvous always turn out to be a deadly trap, it must be this one. It's problematic and unnecessary.

The main thing to keep in mind when this comes up is to know your group's feelings and boundaries on such subjects, and pay attention to when they might change. If a player expresses discomfort, or seems to be bothered by something, be ready to pivot as necessary.  If your group is completely comfortable with the way things are being handled, all is well. But once again, you can't always be one hundred percent sure that they will be, and it is tricky to make amends once somebody has gotten disturbed. Handle with extreme caution and responsibility. When it comes to players, if you are unsure about if they will be uncomfortable about something, it is usually best to ask in advance. If the idea of asking makes you feel uncomfortable yourself, it's probably a sign to just nix the idea altogether.

And absolutely none of this business.
That being said, the best and most easily executed romantic subplots in RPGs are those between NPCs. Getting the players involved in a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, or threatened by a villain's vengeance-seeking lover is a good way to include these story elements without an issue. 

The next best type of in-game romance is between PC and NPC. A main character with a significant other is one with a ready made plot hook and potential emotional investment in the campaign. Their character will have a lot of opportunities to express themselves through their interactions with such an NPC, and the game master has the ability to introduce new plot twists through this relationship. Such a relationship should always be primarily directed by the PC, not foisted upon them by the game master. This is another way you can show respect to your players and let them tell the kind of story they want for their character. 

Finally, player character to player character romances are the most complicated and difficult to justify. While they can add a level of intrigue to PC bonds and interactions, there are better connections to be drawn between characters. And it is also difficult to keep such an association interesting over the course of long term RP. Some really drama-oriented players can handle this, but it's no small feat.

There are a number of story-based systems that integrate romance and all kinds of interpersonal melodrama into the gameplay, so if that's the kind of thing your group wants to do, more power to ya!

In summary: respect your players, their feelings, and their personal boundaries related to this subject. Handle everything in a way that can be agreed upon and keep your players comfortable. Above all, keep your games light, fun, and enjoyable for the group.

Happy ventures!

(Part one of this series, on race and prejudice, can be found here.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Recurring NPCs

Some recurring characters blasting off yet again
If you have a really neat and well-developed non-player character as part of your ongoing tabletop campaign, chances are you will want to keep them around for future encounters. As a DM, this can become quite a feat to pull off, especially when the players hold so much influence on an NPCs ultimate fate. Here are a few things to keep in mind when running a game with characters who will be recurring as part of a regular cast in your games.

First, let your players decide which NPCs should hang around in future sessions. Watch their reactions, and see which characters they respond to the most. Your best NPCs should fall into two categories: those your players love, and those your players love to hate. If your players find a character boring or just distasteful, don't cling to that NPC just because they are your favorite. Move them away from the spotlight and bring in the characters that your players prefer. Bring in allies that they cheer for and villains who they truly desire to bring down.

Speaking of villains, there is a time-tested problem that you will need to address at some point with any good major villain... how to keep them around for more than one encounter. If you stat it, your players will kill it, so how do you keep a bad guy from being taken out in their first engagement with the heroes? One way is to not have them directly encounter the heroes at all until their first and final confrontation. A villain who pulls strings and taunts the hero from a hidden lair can be a fun antagonist, even if they aren't personally engaging the party. Have them establish themselves through machinations and schemes rather than combat, leading to the ultimate showdown with the players.

You can also build safeguards into each encounter, multiple means by which the villain can escape and elude the heroes in the eleventh hour. But don't make it entirely impossible for the players to catch their foe. Always leave a bit of leeway, and plan for a scenario where the players might succeed overwhelmingly. If you rig the game, it takes away the organic progression that is a touchstone of tabletop RPGs. You are free to stack the odds in favor of your baddie's escape, but be prepared for the small chance of his failure. If anything is a foregone conclusion, it's naturally not as fun to experience and discover through gameplay.
Jetpacks, trapdoors, teleporters.. main villains need an exit strategy.
This rule can be applied to allied NPCs too... never put an NPC in harm's way without a plan for what happens if they fall to that harm.  If you want to keep any character safe, keep them out of combat or give them gimmicks to escape and run away. Don't make them invincible or impervious to danger. It's cheating and makes the players feel inferior by comparison. If they are in a combat that has no bearing on the adventure, you might handwave it away, but if they fight directly alongside the PCs they shouldn't have special advantages over the players.

Bring back popular characters and don't force your own preferences on the group and you will have a cast that your players truly connect with. Find ways to weave the characters in and out of the narrative, and let your players offer their own suggestions on how to do this as well. If your players want to return to a particular blacksmith they met previously, all the better! You are surely doing something right. At the same time, be prepared to make changes to your cast of NPCs based on player input and the natural progression of the game. The same old faces can get stale after a while, so always be ready to change things up and add some fresh new characters to your gaming world!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Measuring Gameplay by Dramatic Beats

Recently I have been reading the Leverage RPG core book by Margaret Weis Productions, which uses the very narrative-focused Cortex Plus system. It's the ideal system for running capers and heists that play out like an episode of a television show. One of the more useful nuggets of insight that I gleaned from my reading was the idea of dividing gameplay up into dramatic 'beats.' 

This doesn't mean you need to structure your game with mechanical precision. Rather, it's a way of thinking about the action playing out before you that allows you to organically develop scenes in a way that avoids complication or confusion. It's a way to build a mental flowchart on the fly, and ask yourself "what needs to happen next?" 

A dramatic beat represents a single in-game occurrence and its consequences. It could be a single action undertaken by a character, or a number of related actions. The point is that it has a cause and effect that can be described and played out in a few moments... like a thief setting off a secruity system while trying to crack a safe. The next beat might be either an escape attempt, or a fight with the local guards. It's all about marking out each event and set the stakes for the next one.

Thinking like this can be useful in any game system, really. Sometimes it can be difficult to run a game when you don't know what your players are going to do next. You find yourself trying to think several minutes ahead, like a chess grandmaster, in an attempt to develop the adventure toward some exciting conclusion. By thinking in beats, you are separating the action into a series of moves, just like on the chessboard. This allows you to focus on the next move coming up, rather than having to plan six moves ahead. You are simply saying to yourself, "Once they complete action X, then Y will happen." 

When you break it down like this, even fight scenes can be charted out with this method. In a fight with an ogre, a series of beats might be...

Rondar the Warrior attacks the ogre several times, driving it back to a precipice.

The ogre grapples with Rondar, but he pulls away just in time. 

Rondar bull rushes the ogre, knocking him off the cliff!

This is a way that you can delineate the action and establish the cause and effect for segments of this conflict. The three beats could each include more than one attack and action, but they each represented a change in the nature of the fight... moving to the cliff, the ogre trying to toss the warrior over the edge, the warrior victorious. So when the DM is running this fight, rather than looking at the big picture, they are taking it beat by beat... the ogre wants to throw the warrior, the ogre is endangered by the cliff. And when something is getting boring, they simply decide on the next dramatic beat (Such as "The ogre calls for his orc reinforcements") and move from there.

If there are more than one characters with different goals, those can be represented by multiple dramatic beats, and you can 'edit' the scene to cut back and forth between their actions dramatically, spotlighting each character in turn. The more simply you can define a beat, the easier it is for you to know how to manage it by calling for dice rolls and making judgement calls as the DM.

Each dramatic beat leads into the next, so the process is as simple as step one, step two, step three. At its core this simplifies the game into building blocks, providing a clear direction for each moment of your campaign. I'm going to keep this method in mind the next time I run a game. I hope this, or a similar technique, will prove useful to you in your own campaigns.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Building an Improvisational Toolbox

It's always good for a DM to have detailed notes and cheat sheets handy to reference when running a game. For instance, a list of names for NPCs that you have to create on the fly. But I like to take this concept a step further, especially when I am running a game based around a very loose framework which will require a lot of improvisation.

When it comes to these situations I keep more than just a quick reference of game rules on hand. I also have an improvisational toolkit that I call a Lore Sheet. This record is just a simple table printed from a word processor with a list of concepts and names that I could work into a narrative, tailored to the specific setting of the game. It has a list of names apropriate to the setting, occupations, types of enemies that might be encountered, and even titles for places and historical events. 

Most of these concepts are ones that I have not developed any further than their names that I put on the sheet, but they are a starting point for a creative process. The basics that I recommend are Enemies, Challenges, Locations, Items, Names, and Historical events... but each sheet may be different based on the needs of your campaign and the style of your setting. I even include common props and window dressing, so that I can describe vivid scenes in detail without having to read off a script word-for-word. 

More detail is really neat and fun for your players, and provides fodder for more storytelling. Let's say your players ask about the history of a certain place that you hadn't fully fleshed out yet. You look at your Lore Sheet and read off a couple of events: "The Winter Accords," and "The Hyborian Wars," so now you have a couple of ideas for historical background. Similarly, when they step out on the streets of Neo-Tokyo, you can pull from a list of props like "Data kiosok," and "video billboard," for "Alphanumeric Limited"  which is blaring music from a list of genres like "technocore." It's all about building a toolbox of resources... whatever you might conceivably need when the campaign gets rolling. 
My cyberpunk Lore Sheet currently includes a list of street foods, names for computer programs, megacorporations, and brand names. In one section I listed a bunch of ideas for encounters to challenge the players, like a fight in an elevator shaft or a laser grid security system. It's all about making everything run as smoothly and creatively as possible. 

A lot of my Lore Sheets contain material that I cribbed from various existing works of fiction, like the name of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation from the Aliens franchise. Don't be afraid to borrow ideas from other media for your own games. There is no worry about copyright infringement at the privacy of your game table, and there's no shame in copying from the greats. You may trawl the internet for ideas to fill out the sheet, it really helps add some fun details and allusions to a game session. Then add a few original ideas of your own, when you have time to relax and get creative. This way you don't have to make up every detail on the spot, during the time crunch of the game itself. 

Remember, anything that frees you from additional effort gives you more brain power to focus on other matters of game running. It keeps things more relaxed, efficient, and fun, and I highly recommend keeping notes like these very close when your next tabletop adventure kicks off. 

Happy ventures!

(To learn about another tool that can be useful when improvising behind the DM screen, check out my previous entry about Story Cubes)