This thread over on Story Games is one of the best in recent memory. It’s about the assumptions we hold about roleplaying. There are also a number of threads titled “Kill a Cow: (whatever)” devoted to showing ways that the assumptions can be violated.
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.
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.
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.
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?