Thursday, July 28, 2016

Fear and Suspense

Whether it's a traditional fantasy dungeon crawl or an eerie delve into the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, it can be really fun to add elements of horror and suspense to your pen and paper adventure. Of course there are certain types of spookiness that are more appropriate to the atmosphere of the game table. Knowing how to implement the right tone of fear is key to getting your players invested in the environment of a truly creepy horror themed game.

Firstly, remember that jump scares don't work here. Having a monster run around a corridor unexpectedly is an effective technique in movies, where the creature can appear before your mind has time to recognize it. But in a tabletop RPG, by the time you finish describing the monster the player knows just what to expect. Yelling "Boo!" at your players is not going to work, and is going to annoy them more than anything.

The kind of fear you want to cultivate among your players is a creeping sense of dread. And the way to build that dread is through evocative description. Slow down your rate of speech, have a lot of prepared notes, and describe the eeriness of the environment in lurid detail. Set the scene like you would imagine in a creepy novel or scary movie. Let the players immerse themselves in shrouded fog, shadowy corridors, or a cursed temple.

Creative and unique scares are also more effective than cliches. The fear of the unknown is the most effective means of creating fear in your players. Vampires and werewolves can be scary, but their ubiquity in mass media means that most players will be savvy to their usual tricks and traits. Using monsters and hazards that the players have never heard of before will be more likely to bring out the unease and tension you are shooting for. 

This fear of the unknown means that a threat is most effective when it is at its most mysterious. A glimpse of something slithering in the shadow, a rock face covered in bloody etchings, these are hints towards the true nature of a hidden danger that don't immediately reveal what it is. The build up toward a reveal is even more important than the reveal itself, and vital to making a scene truly scary.

Use every one of the five senses in your story when describing something suspenseful. Think about what a room smells like, what a monster sounds like, what the edge of a jagged blade feels like . And don't forget the sixth sense, the sense of the player characters' minds. Scary stuff can have a straining effect on a character's subconcious, so let that play itself out in your narrative. Describe a sickening sensation in a character's stomach, an instinctive feeling of being watched, or a sharp migraine headache when stepping on an altar. Get inside the character's head for a moment and let the player know how a scene is effecting them, through either supernatural influence or just their basic impulses.

Ambient sound and music can really heighten the mood of a scene, so look for some cool effects or sound generators to match the setting's atmosphere. Eerie sound effects can be especially effective, like scraping chains, dripping water, or insidious whispers. Soundtracks from classic horror and suspense movies make for effective musical cues at the right moment. Spooky art and imagery is also good for enhancing the mood. If you can find a photograph or piece of artwork that has a great ambiance, you should definitely bring it to the table!

Finally, remember not to overdo it. If you keep the fear factor cranked up to its highest level at all times it will lose its impact. The players will become numb to the effect, and will cease responding to it. Allow for lulls in the action, for peace and quiet to set in so that it will be more disturbing when the spooky bits arrive. Following a scary scene with a tranquil scene will often underscore the horror in any case, so don't be afraid to include these rest breaks in order to achieve better effects from your scares. 

In fact, another way to keep the players scared is by including enough tranquility that the players don't know when to expect danger. When they are lured into a false sense of security after a series of peaceful interactions with townsfolk, they won't be prepared when a wild beast lunges upon them. If you can keep the players uncertain as to when a threat might appear, you can keep that sense of gnawing concern going for the entire session.

Scares and horror are a great addition to any campaign's tonal palette, so feel free to work them into your next adventure, and enjoy the tension and intensity it brings to your own play group.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Encouraging Risky Business

Nobody ever became an action hero by playing it safe. If you wanted to tell stories about people staying home, filing taxes, or doing their homework, you don't need any game engine or simulation. Tabletop RPGs are about excitement, adventure, and dynamic storytelling. So the last thing you want is a group of players who are timid and overly cautious about their character actions. You want them to feel compelled by the drama of the game, but not paralyzed with fear.

If your players are too nervous about a trap in the next room, they may linger outside it for far too long trying to find a way around it. If they feel like taking action against a planetary governor will get them into too much hot water, they may not even follow that plot hook. You need to encourage them to feel comfortable taking chances in order to get the most entertainment out of the chosen adventure path.

The method for accomplishing this is two-fold: The old carrot-and-stick approach.

The Carrot is the promise of reward that will drive the players to take more chances. Whether it is loot, character advancement, or the promise of plot-specific rewards like promotions or new allies. It's important for the players to feel that taking chances will pay off in the end, so they will continue to follow the adventurous opportunities that you place before them.

The Stick is the threat of danger posed to the players, but not in a vindictive manner. Instead of threatening to hurt the PCs if they fail to act, I prefer to establish a different kind of conceit... bad things will happen no matter what. Enemies will strike against them, treasures will be lost, NPCs will be endangered... these are all events that may happen in the story no matter what. The key is to show how fighting against these threats and taking decisive action can mitigate their effects. So when your players fail to investigate the ninja monastery, they will surely be ambushed by ninjas when they least expect it. Next time they know better, and will take action before the problem gets out of hand. Better to take on the challenge on their own terms than let themselves be blindsided like that again!

By establishing that bad things happen no matter what, you should remove the overwhelming fear of consequences from the players' thought process. They should be focused less on what is dangerous, and more on what is a compelling course of action.

Of course players should make their decisions based on logical reasoning. Reckless and chaotic gameplay provides diminishing returns in terms of entertainment. But as the game runner, you want them to be willing to face threats and embrace high-risk high-reward actions in order to keep things exciting. So you show them that danger is inevitable and bold action reaps great benefits! By combining these two concepts you will create a much faster-paced and enthralling environment for your players. Put them to use and enjoy the adventures unfolding before you!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Growth, Contradiction, and Organic Gaming

Today I'd like to encourage you to think outside the box. Tabletop RPG are set up with all kinds of rules and parameters that make it easier to create unique adventures that challenge us as players as well as game masters. But the limitations imposed by the rules should be there to enhance the game, not restrict it. 

I often ask players to consider any action they take as a character to be a choice. It's not written in stone. No character should be so simple that their actions can be predicted one hundred percent of the time. It's all about how the player chooses to justify their character's actions, which is up to their own discretion. A 'good' character might do something unethical in a moment of weakness, a 'smart' character might do something foolish based on an emotional impulse. 

I implore anyone who enjoys tabletop adventuring to think of the narrative elements of gaming as something organic and subject to change. Characters grow, fail, or challenge their own values. They contradict their original intentions from time to time. It's natural, it's human, and it makes for more interesting and three dimensional storytelling. If a character reaches a crossroads, faced with two choices, I challenge you to do this... imagine a way to justify either option that they might take. Imagine a way to explain their reason for taking Option A, and then do the same for Option B. It might be hard at first, but it will help you develop as both a player and story teller.

Imagine Luke Skywalker falling to the dark side during the climactic battle with Darth Vader. Think about the possibility of Tony Stark keeping his identity a secret. Someone could make a pitch for a fascinating alternate sequence of events spanning from these choices. The same goes for your own stories, there is always the potential of the path not taken. Understand that it is your choice between these paths, not something carved into stone.

When it comes to the practical points of characters and worlds, apply the same philosophy. Don't pigeonhole yourself into restrictive ways of thinking. Don't decide that a character needs a high charisma to try their hand at singing, or that an elf can't be a buffoonish comic relief. Use the statistics and established details of your character as a way of informing and defining their characteristics, but don't let the numbers be the sole arbiter of their identity. Get creative and keep on exploring narrative adventures that you and your friends will remember for years to come!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Start With the Simple

When designing RPG characters and scenarios it can be easy to get carried away with complexity and intrigue. Details will snowball, grow more elaborate, and eventually become a wide web of relationships and events. A character might be part of a triple cross, a monster encounter may include an extensive chase scene, or a villain might be motivated by principles the heroes themselves would agree with. 

Complexity is all well and good, but keep in mind that it comes with risk. The more complicated a story, the more difficult it will be to convey to your players. It will also take a lot longer to sort out a convoluted scenario than a straightforward one, so it can create pacing issues. Nobody wants to run a game that would be considered 'dumbed-down,' but that doesn't mean that every storyline needs to be multi-layered. 

What I recommend is at least starting with a straightforward concept, and make sure it is a strong one. What emotion do you want to convey? Go all out in your pursuit of this feeling. An archduke is seeking revenge. A terrifying monster devours all travelers. A battle will rage in a thunderstorm. Use this as a starting point. Individual players enjoy getting involved with characters and adventures in-depth, but a play group will benefit greatly from artful simplicity. 

Don't let things get boring, or lacking in variety. Go ahead and include shifting terrain, a secret spy, or whatever else strikes your fancy. Just don't overdo it. Don't throw so many things at the players that they feel bewildered. Let them add complexity to the story themselves. They might decide that a bad guy is sympathetic based on their own interpretation of his actions, and that is just fine. But creating a situation in which the heroes don't realize the true foe can easily become more frustrating than exhilarating. (The heroes working for the bad guy is an obnoxious cliche among inexperienced DMs, and hurts DM-player trust)

Sure, there is a time and place for the type of character backstory or encounter design that needs a flowchart to understand. But for most games, it is best to start with the simple. It helps to draw out the foundation of ideas and emotions that will make for a compelling game. After all, the scene that your players will most likely remember from an intrigue-heavy game will more likely be a personal exchange with a character than the interlocking politics of the a royal court. 

There's an elegance in simplicity, so have a key concept that you can explain clearly and concisely for every character and situation you invent. Then you, and your fellow players, will be sure to have a clear understanding, being able to fully delve into the game world and all of its trappings.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Open Communication

I would like to take a brief moment to emphasize the importance of player and DM communication, once again. Even with as much time that is spent around the game table during a typical game session, it is easy to forget to take time and interact with the players rather than just the characters. Even if you are rushed for time at a comic book shop or convention, it helps to take some time to be congenial and personable with your game group. Don't make the game more important to you than the people playing it.

And don't jump the gun on getting things started, either. Give the group adequate time to greet one another and make sure introductions have been made. If you are running a more casual game with friends, schedule some time before playing to enjoy the company. Tabletop RPGs need not become a chore to be completed as soon as possible. 

At the end of sessions, allow your group a wind-down, if possible. Take some time to reflect on the game and share some favorite moments between friends. If there were any issues that need to be addressed, or changes to be made to the game, wait a bit before discussing it. After a while has passed, you may ask your players what they enjoyed or didn't enjoy about the session. Listen carefully to their answers, and be considerate of their feelings. Don't take criticism personally, use any input they provide constructively, to create the most enjoyable game experience possible. Remember, clear communication is the key to the best games and adventures! 

Welcome self-expression in your game group, and invite an open dialogue with your players about the game and your contributions to it. Better to keep things above board, and invite an open forum of opinions and ideas than to ignore them for the sake of keeping a campaign running. Players make the game, so take the time to listen and share with your fellow adventurers. Your tabletop endeavors will be all the more fruitful for your efforts.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Actions and Opportunities

"Well," The stealthy spy on my team shrugged, "Looks like I'll be sitting this one out." Facing down a pack of ravenous monsters on the bed of a moving truck, it certainly didn't seem like circumstances in which a sneaky-type character would come in handy. But moments later that same player discovered a pheromone attractant that could lure and incite the monsters upon activation. Soon they were throwing canisters of monster bait at any other enemy types who tried to strike at them.

The lesson I would like to be taken away from this is that there are two different kinds of action that a player character has available to take in any scene. These actions are character specific and context specific.

A character specific action would be any move that is suggested by the character being played. It could be a basic move, that is available to any player character, like attacking or opening a door. Or it could be something from their character sheet, something their class is specialized for. Like the spy picking a lock, or a wizard casting a spell.

But not every scene has an obvious opportunity for every character class. Sometimes the party diplomat can't talk their way out of a fight, or the barbarian can't fight his way out of a royal dance. In these cases, players might get frustrated because they feel disengaged or uninvolved with the action.

That's when it becomes important to offer them alternatives that will make them a part of the encounter. The first kind of opportunity you can offer is one that exploits their secondary role. What else is the character adequately skilled at? It might not be their primary specialization, but if they have at least moderate ability in a particular area, they can bring that skill to bear in the encounter.

The other thing you can do is offer context specific actions. These are opportunities that are created by the circumstances of the encounter. They come from the environment, the enemies, and the particular situation  the players find themselves in. Some of these actions might not even require a die roll, but they give players an active way to contribute rather than sitting and twiddling their thumbs.

The canisters of monster attractant are an example of how to create a context specific action. By throwing or breaking these canisters, a character can influence the actions of the monsters in this particular encounter. This tool may not help them outside of this encounter, but for the purposes of this scene it introduces a new way for a player to get involved. Other examples include:
  • A control panel that moves a giant crane across the map.
  • Frightened bystanders that could be easily convinced to join a fight.
  • A key that stops a trap once it is placed into a lock.
  • A puzzle that any player may solve to break a spell.
  • A spotlight that illuminates targets for airstrikes.
Any number of options are available! The point is, these are actions that could be fulfilled by just about anybody. They require easy die rolls, or no rolls at all. They are simple actions that can have significant overall effect on the circumstances of the encounter. These catch-all opportunities ensure you don't leave any players with nothing to do in a scene. If you ever notice a player contributing very little, you might be able to devise such an opportunity on the fly. Encourage your players to keep an eye out themselves, they might suggest an idea you hadn't even considered initially. If they can't solve a problem head on, they might need to think creatively, considering a new and inventive approach.

Keeping everybody involved in the game is important, and while it may not be possible one hundred percent of the time, a combination of character specific and context specific opportunities are a sure way to maximize your players participation in an adventure.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Recaps of Game Sessions

When you reconvene for a new game session in a tabletop campaign, your players typically need a refresher of previous events. This serves as a reminder of previous events, as well as a way to segue into the new chapter of an ongoing adventure. It's especially important if you have new players or someone who missed a session. What follows are my favorite techniques for delivering useful recaps of the game that are informative and easy to share with your players.

Keep it short and sweet.

Writing a multi-page novelization of your previous session is more likely to cause confusion or tedium than anything. If you include every detail, the players will be unable to distinguish the important bits from those that aren't as relevant. It's important to keep your recap brief, focusing on events that will affect and influence the session to come.

I like to use bullet points of the most important events and details to convey as much useful information as possible without all the extraneous material that might be distracting or boring. Leave out individual encounters unless they resulted in a significant plot point. It's more important to mention that the group finally met Lord Rigel, or found a mysterious gemstone, than the fact that they had a run in with a gelatinous cube. Stick to the highlights.

Present it like a TV Show

There are a lot of television programs that run a synopsis of previous events at the beginning of each episode. Take inspiration from these and try replicating this format in your tabletop campaign. For instance, you might play music while you recap! Choose a song with an ambiance that won't be too distracting and make it your campaign's official theme song. You might have your recap scripted out, so you can read it aloud dramatically.

For my Star Wars campaign, for instance, I replicate the style of the opening crawl text from the classic films. If the beginning of your game becomes iconic to your group, it will be a great way to put everyone in the mood at the start, and get your session launched properly. So give the opening of your game some panache and have fun with it!

Let the players do it

There's no better way to engage your players than by giving them an active role things. By having your players recap their own adventure, you challenge the group to think back on their past and consider their current situation. You'll learn what was memorable and important to them, which will be useful information to have as DM. You can either choose one player to lead the recap for each session, or go around the table and let each party member share part of the story.

You will probably have to coach and prompt the players a bit in order to cover all the important parts, because it is all too easy to gloss over certain details, especially when they happened a week or more ago. No worries! Try kicking it off yourself, then pass it off to the players to finish the recap with whatever details they remember, as you clue them in if they forget something.

Use handouts

For more ease of reference, consider posting recaps of the game to an online group, or having a printed handout. If you run an intrigue-heavy game, an appendix of NPCs might be very useful for your group. Remember that it isn't always easy for players to remember every single element of your campaign, and they probably don't have notes as detailed as the DM. Provide them with the tools to keep up, and remember that having a reference on hand increases their likelihood of putting that information to use. Making it easier for your players makes it easier for yourself!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Art of Listening

Running a great tabletop campaign isn't just about talking out loud, describing scenery, and voicing NPCs. There is a large portion of the game that a game master will spend in silence, biding their time and taking in all the activity and table chatter as the game group confers. 

Listening is key to good game mastery! The players are the focus of any good adventure, so the spotlight needs to spend a lot of time on them and their characters. There are a few helpful techniques that can be used to know when to listen carefully and how to use the information you receive.

First, remember that the game master does not need to be involved in every scene, or every moment, in a game. When players have a group conference, or even a one on one interaction, there is not much for the game runner to do besides observe. Let the group have their moment to sort out their thoughts and act out their characters. Provide a lot of these moments to let the group interact with each other rather than directing everything to the DM. 

When they stop to talk strategy, remain attentive and learn from their conversation. What are they planning? Will it be direct or subtle? Are there any risks involved? The benefit of this process is that you can know what to prepare for the next encounter based on what they are talking about. 

Sometimes you might even hear the players bring up a detail you hadn't originally considered, allowing you to work it into your plans. If they plan on talking to the chief of security, you'd best make sure you have something planned for that scene. If they suddenly worry that they may have tipped off their enemies with their last radio transmission, you might need to ask yourself if you want to make that true or not. Your players can provide you with plenty of creative fodder if you take the time to listen.

Another thing to listen for is important information from character dialogue. What is important to the PCs? What is it they fear? The subjects a character chooses to talk about, and how they choose to phrase things can tell you a lot about them. Sometimes they might also give you insight into the players' actual feelings as well. You can tell if a player is bored or excited, allowing you to adjust the direction of the game in response to their mood. Learn when to become quiet and gauge your audience before moving to the next scene. And it's okay to reverse the roles and let yourself become the audience as you enjoy watching your players create their own fun for a while.

It also pays to listen in while you are still occupied by something else. Even when you are just preparing your notes, it can be helpful to keep an ear out for your players' remarks. Don't let it become a distraction, but remember that an overheard remark from a player could be very important to your planning and preparation even as you continue to work on it. 

I often emphasize the importance of asking questions at the game table, and that advice applies DMs as much as players. Don't feel shy about asking players to repeat themselves so you can understand, or asking them about their thoughts or plans if you are unsure. Make eye contact with the player so they feel engaged and reminded that their input is just as important as yours to keep the game on track.

In general, a good game master will want to be as attentive as they expect their players to be. Listen carefully when a player declares an action, speaks a line of dialogue, or asks an out of character question. If you show this respect and consideration to the player, they will be more likely to do the same for you. This is DMpathy in action, the mutual symbiosis shared between player and DM. If you apply this give and take to your game, your players will be all the happier for it.

Happy ventures!