Another Practical Guideline

December 9, 2007

To these guidelines for GMing, I would like to add one more:

Instead of planning what the characters will do to the plot, plan what you and the plot are going to do to the characters.

So what does that mean? It’s an expression of the old wisdom “Once players get involved, nothing will go as you planned,” phrased in a way that focuses on what to do about it. And the what is: rather than planning out “the characters will go here and talk to this guy and then go fight whatever,” plan out “this guy will come to talk to the characters and try to convince them to fight whatever he needs them to fight.” And then maybe a fight will happen, or maybe it won’t. Or maybe the whatever will attack them by surprise mid-conversation.

See the difference? Good!


Group Rewards

December 5, 2007

How about rewarding the group for collaborative efforts? I don’t just mean in-the-fiction or dictated by the system here either. This could also apply to things like cutting down extraneous chatter, making sure everyone gets spotlight time, or collaborative setting creation.  It’s something that can be explored in almost any system, and could be overlaid on almost any game.

Out-of-character knowledge and exploration

December 5, 2007

I have a long-standing disagreement with one of the players in our group, and I’m just starting to make sense of it.  We have very different opinions on how to deal with information that either some or none of the characters have a reason to know.  One incident that highlights our differing opinions involved a two hour conversation in a separate room in order to keep details of someone’s character background secret form the rest of the group.  We had to postpone certain scenes until it was over, and predictably, everyone else was quite bored while this was going on.  To this person, the less than desirable effects on the rest of the group were regrettable, but acceptable in order to preserve alignment between in and out of character knowledge.  I have never found knowing things out of character to be a serious hindrance to my enjoyment of the game, and I’ve never found “surprising” twists and turns to be critical for me.

It occurred to me recently that one reason for our differing opinions is our differing goals.  He prefers to explore the parts of the game outside of his characters, while I prefer to explore the inner life of my characters.  So for me, knowing what’s coming up can help me set up situations that explore my character’s motivations and psychological state in interesting ways.  For him, knowing what’s coming up ruins his exploration.

On an even more general level, the core of this realization relates to the One True Way.  Just as there is no One True Way, there is no One True Goal or One True Technique.  Instead, there are lots of equally valid goals, and for each goal, lots of techniques for getting there.

Collaboration and Participation Gone Wrong

November 29, 2007

During my session last night, we ran into the age old problem of characters spewing out endless streams of new plans without any of them being acted on.  In light of last night (and perhaps some of your roleplaying experiences too), this passage from a post by Levi Kornelsen on Story Games seemed worthy of reflection:

“Where collaboration can go south is when it becomes “shallow” and starts to override participation. When I stop really listening to your cool stuff, and start just waiting for my turn to speak, and add my own ideas, then I (and likely others) aren’t actually exploring the ideas already on the table. We’re just making up shit and piling it up. If nobody actually uses those ideas and takes them further, enjoys them, and participates in their exploration, then they are devalued.”

This problem seems to occur both in the planning phase of an adventure, and with the cool stuff contained in character backgrounds that never gets used.  This leads me to ask myself questions like:

  • How can I explore the ideas already on the table more fully than I currently do?
  • How can I encourage others to do the same?
  • What sort of concepts from a character background are most likely to be explored by the rest of the group?
  • Does it make more sense for me to rely on the GM to link the concepts important to my character into the story, or for me to do it myself?  Which one will result in group exploration more often?  Which has a higher chance of producing enjoyable, fulfilling, or rewarding play experiences?

Practical Guidelines for GMing

November 24, 2007

Remember the Dungeoncraft series of long ago? I was thinking about that recently, and I think there are some more secrets of GMing that deserve to be tacked onto the list. This is my compilation of GMing wisdom, with the middle two straight from Dungeoncraft:

Everything you create needs a hook.
Everything you create needs a secret.
Every secret you create needs clues.
Every NPC you create needs a motivation.

What are these guidelines supposed to accomplish? Let’s take a look.

Everything you create needs a hook. At it’s most basic, a hook is typically construed to mean “a way to get the party involved in an adventure.” Let’s expand it a little bit: a hook is a reason to interact with something. Since every adventure will presumably require the party to interact with a number of NPCs, monsters, traps, locations, and objects, it would be nice for them to have a reason to do so. So, each of these GM constructions should include its own hook, or have the hook provided by something else. A troll that attacks the party is its own hook; the hook for finding a long lost artifact can be provided by the scholar who tells the party about it. (But then, the scholar is going to need a hook too — unless he approaches the party, in which case he is his own hook.)

What problems does this approach overcome? Games that stall because the players don’t know what to do next, and reams of GM created material that went unused, to name a couple.

Everything you create needs a secret. The aim of this one is to ensure that there are always more things for the players to find out. It will make them feel that the game world has depth and prevent “nameless NPC #12” syndrome. The secrets don’t even necessarily need to be related to the adventure at hand. This one helps to make sure that GM created material gets reused. And it’s fun to run into NPCs you met long ago who become story relevant again.

Every secret needs clues. This one is pretty obvious: all those secrets you created will need to be discovered to add to the play experience. Also, they can be used to foreshadow later events. As I read recently, the “Aha!” experience is much more fulfilling when it’s preceded by the “Huh?” experience.

Every NPC needs a motivation. This is what makes the NPCs seem like real people, rather than cardboard cutouts — it’s another way to combat “nameless NPC #12” syndrome. These don’t necessarily need to be related to the adventure at hand either. They can just as easily come up again later, perhaps it conjunction with those secrets you created.

So, those are my four guidelines for GMing. They’re all focused on game prep, but they also make running a game much easier by improving the quality of the material you have to draw on. GMing tends to suffer from the snowball effect: small mistakes early on quickly turn into big problems down the road. By putting a little bit of extra work into your preparation at the beginning, you can avoid a lot of problems down the road — and thus save yourself a lot of work later on.

Modes of Character Advancement

November 18, 2007

D&D has levels.  A whole packet of relevant stats increase all at once.  This encourages playing to gather experience to get to the next level, so you can get higher stats and new toys (i.e. feats, prestige classes, and so forth.)  That causes all sorts of interesting play effects.  Depending on how you want to play, this may be a good or bad thing.  It’s not how I want to play.

L5R has a point buy system, combined with insight ranks (i.e. levels.)  Since the cost of raising stats increases as they go up, this encourages balancing stats out to find the cheapest point cost to get to the next level.  But balance isn’t nearly interesting as imbalance, so this isn’t how I want to play either.

I haven’t played 4e Shadowrun, but as I remember from the older editions, it simply has experience that you spend for more goodies.  Point costs go up as the stats go up, but there’s no “next level” to shoot for, so there’s really no reason not to spend them all on raising whatever you like.  This seems decent.

But if the degree of difficulty simply goes up as the characters become more capable, isn’t this sort of like an endless staircase?  So…why have character advancement?  Why not simply have character change?  I may have to track down some systems that do this.

Playing with your clones

November 13, 2007

I recently posed this question, after a discussion of play styles in our group.  It’s an interesting way to identify if your individual play style is frustrating your goals, or if elements of your style may be counteracting each other.

Suppose that you had a set of new groups.  Each new group is composed of five clones of one member of your current gaming group – I highly encourage you to start with yourself.  For which of these groups could you run the perfect game, one which satisfied all five of the clones?  What would that game look like?

This seems complex in most cases, so let’s lower the bar in order to explore a bit and come back to it.  Consider that satisfaction may not be a yes/no quality, and more like a percentage rating.  How much would you be able to satisfy the members of each clone group?

In some groups, could you completely satisfy some members at the expense of the others?

Is the average satisfaction in each group invariant, or would ways to boost the average exist?

Which groups are zero-sum games (if someone is more satisfied, someone else must be equally less satisfied) and which are non-zero-sum?

If non-zero sum groups exist, in which groups does increasing one player’s satisfaction increase other player’s satisfaction too?

With a little bit better picture of how these groups might work in mind now, consider this:  Which of these groups would require the most total work to satisfy at their maximum possible level?  Which ones would require the most work per percentage point increase in the average satisfaction?