A Idea Concerning Interruptions

January 7, 2008

My group has been playing with an ever expanding roster lately, and we’re up to 7 players.  I’ve heard of much larger, but this is the biggest we’ve been.  We’re finding that interruptions and out-of-game chatter are strangling the fun.  So, an idea for raising awareness.  The idea here isn’t to punish or shame anyone, but simply to make people aware of how our game time evaporates.

So, here’s my idea: whenever someone interrupts a scene in progress or makes an out of character comment, they take a poker chip from a pile in the middle of the table.

That’s all.  At the end of the session, everyone will be able to see where the time goes and make a conscious choice how to act.  Maybe some people will change, maybe they won’t — but at least they’ll be aware of how much game time is devoted to things other than the game and of what it gets spent on.


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.

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?

Technology for Self-Evaluation

November 27, 2007

Some time ago, while our group was discussing how best to elicit feedback for the GM, someone suggested that player feedback might be worth doing too. Most of us immediately said “No way!” It sounded like an excuse to air long standing grievances rather than honest effort to improve the situation. But there’s something at the core of his idea that might be worth examining: None of us are perfect players, and that means we have room to improve. I think this is something that many people, including me, don’t think about often.

So here’s an idea for prompting this kind of thought: After each session, ask each player a few questions. No one is allowed to answer or respond to the answers except the player in question.

“What did you do well this session?”

“What do you feel you can improve on?”

I think answering these questions has some value. Part of that is being prompted to think about it. Another part of it is that publicly committing to an answer encourages that thought to reach a conclusion. Of course, we’re all trapped inside of ourselves, so our own perspectives of ourselves won’t always line up with others’ perspectives. In this case, I think that’s OK. Growing and developing as a roleplayer is probably most rewarding when you’re growing in a direction of your own choosing.

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.

A New Hope

November 2, 2007

(This is a post by Fang Langford, from the Forge in 2003. I’m reposting it here to preserve and share it.)

There seems to be a great conflict. One side is screaming: Let the damned player do what he damn well feels like! This is Star Wars, not Star trek! What kind of GM tries to control their players anyway? The other side is screaming: Eric! You need to set priorities and stick to them! STICK TO THEM!

It really is interesting. I think that I wanted the latter. I think I’ll try a bit of the former next session.

I see no conflict at all. Put letting the player do what suits them and Star Wars at the top of your priorities. After that comes things like ‘spread the spotlight’ and ‘pacing, pacing, pacing.’

At least I saw no conflict until…

Absolutely, the fact you would even consider forcing a player to do anything is a serious problem with the way you’re approaching GMing.

This confuses me. A GM who has no control over the player’s actions has no control over the game. Even if you don’t believe in illusionism, it is hard for me to understand the concept of “zero GM control”.

The mistake you are making is onto everything we’ve said here, you’ve projected your obsession with the gamemaster who controls the game. Forget it. Leave it behind. A gamemaster who controls the game is an attention-starved author who should be writing, not gaming.

The very first thing you need to do to improve as a gamemaster is strike from you mind the idea that the gamemaster should control the game. That alone is probably responsible for every one of your conflicts with the players and the source of your own lack of pleasure in gamemastering.

You know what happens when you don’t control the game? Back in Scattershot, we call that sharing. That’s right, a bunch a guys get together with some rules and share creating a cool game. The two best pieces of advice I can offer is don’t plan and don’t plan.

Don’t plan out what game will do (they go here, they go there, they do this, the end). Any time you do that you are assuming two things; your ideas are inherently better and that the players ‘not knowing’ will keep them from screwing up a wonderful plan. Sooner or later we call that ‘railroading’ because the players eventually catch on that they’re only being taken for a ride.

You want to gamemaster something that comes out like A New Hope? All you need is the character write-ups (one lives on a farm, another is a hermit, the third lives by his wits from payload to payload, and the last – a non-player character – has the plans), some vague idea where things will climax (the death star), and that’s it.

You set the stage by giving the plans to the robots and the robots to PC#1 to give to PC#2. What do the players do? PC#1 wants to go ‘back to the farm,’ not cool – think of something on the fly – blow up the farm! Okay now they’re off on the quest. Cut to the chase, don’t bother actually giving them a choice who to hire simply run the scene until their sitting at the table with PC#3 (maybe a little cool lightsabre action for just color). Scene starts getting to slow with ‘negotiations;’ time for stormtroopers to show up. Why? Um, um; oh yeah, the lightsabre antics. Toss in a scene with a bounty hunter to make PC#3 feel cool (for no more reasons than pacing, remembering the character write-up, and to ‘push things’ not just forward, but in any direction). Off they go….

Next you need to put some punch into the ‘what are the plans for;’ Alderaan is gone when they get there. Was this a part of some plan? Is the gamemaster controlling the game. Heck no, it was late and you realized that a bunch of sneaky stuff planetside would be boring. You can blow up planets on the fly, you’re the gamemaster. Next, capture them by the ‘big bad evil thingie.’ Don’t even run it, just tell the ‘now your captured and in the hold, think of something cool to keep yourselves out of the brig.’

And they do, soon their hacking the deathstar and sneaking around in stolen stormtrooper costumes. The plan? That they’d come up with something cool and they did. (‘Where did you get those hidey holes?’ Um, um; I’m a smuggler right?) They’ll need to do something while they’re there; and things are picking up a lot of pace; what’s left? Save the princess and destroy the fortress. Okay, that puts the princess on the deathstar; did you plan her there? No, you thought she’d be somewhere planet side or something, it hardly matters now. So off hoots R2D2, “she’s here, she’s here; I found her” and away they go.

Confronting the guards in the brig is stupid with a capital ‘S.’ But damn cool, go for it. Just let ’em get her, why not? You can always have the reinforcement beating down the doors as they leave if you need the tension. And that garbage disposal thing? Who saw that coming? The players make up something on the spot, you didn’t even consider space station sewage, but having them in the trash compactor is a great place to let them squirm and then just let them go. A few more chase scenes and since they haven’t invented a destruction for the fortress, you just let them escape. (But hey, Bob isn’t gonna be there next week, let’s kill off PC#2 just to ‘up the ante.’)

And so on. None of it is a matter of planning but simply responding to player choices (which are actually inventions with things like the compactor) and continually turning up the tension level and the pacing.

That’s really all there is to it. Don’t plan; don’t get hung up on cool places or cool villains so much that only a railroad will take the player to them. Remember let the players decide where to go and just put the maguffin in their way along the way. (In the above, you had some nasty fortress; you didn’t ‘control’ them to there, you kept moving it ‘on the board’ so it was in front of them. Think about it; at any time, did the movie goers know where the deathstar was relative to the motion of the characters? Only when they used the word Alderaan, you could just as easily establish that after the fact when play is done.)

So what I am saying is that you make your own conflict by deciding that ‘you know better’ and should be ‘in control’ of the game. I’m not surprised you didn’t have fun, they weren’t being obedient little characters like when you write a story.

So pick one: gamemaster or sole-author, ya can’t have both.

Fang Langford