Thursday, September 16, 2010, 6:46 AM
In my posts I try to keep a positive attitude, showing how the game can be played and how to turn it into an enriching experience for thrill-seekers.
But we could also spend hours (days?) complaining about how most people (sadly) play RPGs. I have a tendency to get angry when I talk about it, and that's why I try to avoid it and focus on the bright side of (gaming) life.
Some people are more skillful than me at pointing out the weak spots of standard D&D games, and I just found a great post on the issue: 7 Reasons I Hate Living Forgotten Realms. The author, Bauxtehude, provides amazing insight on how the game should not be played. The article is an invaluable read for narrative-conscious RPG players. 100% recommended.
Just a sneak peek:
"None of the treasure is real anyways. Just write it down on your sheet if you want the item so bad. No one will ever notice or care, and even if you do meet someone who takes note, so few people actually have the wherewithal to call you on your fraudulent book keeping. Just write down that you have a billion gold, it’s free. No one will ever know or care."
But I can't resist to add a second one:
"I’m just not interested in rolling dice, generating and comparing numbers until a number that represents the life of an ill-defined assailant is reduced to zero. I need to know that each and every fight is meaningful or for some greater goal in order to fight it. I’m not interested in gaining xp so that my character’s level goes up so that he can get a new power that generates larger numbers to be used against another stat block that has higher numbers than the stat blocks I used to compare numbers against."
Tuesday, September 7, 2010, 12:05 PM
If you want to be the World's Best GM, you will have to answer this question: should I force my players into sticking to my perfectly designed adventure, or should I allow them to go wherever they wish at any given time?
Which one is the right way to go? I'll tell you: None!
Let's see why.
Sandbox = Aimless Roaming
We are asuming here that you are running a story-driven game, which is strictly essential to cause the kind of deep emotional impression in your players that you are looking for as the next World's best GM.
A story-driven sandbox game equals improvisation. Loads of it. Improvisation is a technique we borrow from theatre, but in an RPG you must take it with a grain of salt. Theatre has rehearsals. We don't have that in RPGs. If you are a theatre director, or an actor, you know that 90% of the time, improvisation sucks. You need to spend a lot of time improvising to find an inspired idea. And that's why actors have rehearsals. Since you cannot rehearse your gaming sessions (though I've made a few interesting experiments in that direction), you need to keep improvisation to a minimum. Otherwise, you are digging into a world of trouble: mental blocks, incoherence and inverosimilitude, to name a few. Of course, practice makes perfect, but a whole adventure based on improvisation will have some clear consequences.
I know what I'm talking about because for almost 8 years my games were exclusively improvised. It was role-playing at its core. Here's a fact: I was running a Heavy Gear campaign that started with 17 year-old PCs being recruited by the army. When I asked for the first dice roll, we suddenly realized we had been playing four months (3-4 nights a week) without rolling a single die. That campaign was one of my best experiences as a GM, but it also taught me a lot of things about story-driven sandbox gaming:
Lack of Direction
You are improvising all the time, adapting to your players by the minute. Your players are under the spotlight the whole time. Everyone feels great, at least for the first two or three months. But then you start to realize that the story is not going anywhere. Since your players have gotten used to endless role-playing sessions, they stop taking meaningful decissions. One day you realize you just spent a 8-hour session of role-playing where nothing has actually happened at all.
Lack of Purpose
Your PCs start to disolve when you don't push them to move forward. Eventually, players in a story-driven sandbox game turn into passive actors that prefer to discuss the world around them instead of trying to shape it. The frontier between PCs and NPCs start to disappear.
Lack of Action
Improvisation eventually leads to endless repetition. The classic three act structure is shattered, and PCs get stuck in a limbo.
After those four months without rolling a die, I came to a conclusion. I needed to take the initiative again. Players enjoyed my games, but it was hard to find a difference between one session and the next. I prepared my next adventure with a set of targets in mind:
* Structure in three acts.
* A clear goal, a clear motive and a clear enemy.
* A set time frame to start and end the adventure: 3 days.
I hadn't forgotten how to improvise or create lively NPCs, of course, and the adventure was a tremendous success. That was the first time my players clapped when the adventure was over.
I have been following those principles ever since.
Railroading For the Win
So the quick conclusion is that you need a structure, a good and strong one. Something that in cinema they call iron script. A clear plot with a short and shocking setup, a conflict full of turning points and a short and mind-boggling resolution. And you want your players to stick to it. Sure you do. The interesting part is that they also want to stick to it, even if they will never admit it. They want you to provide a solid ground to base their decissions on. Good players want to unveil the plot of the adventure, because they realize that will be more fun than wandering around without purpose.
But this is an RPG, right? So your players must believe, at every moment, they have free will and live in an open-ended story.
To make ends meet, I use a system of flowcharts. The fact you have devised a given amount of scenes doesn't mean they all need to follow a specific sequence. In order to guarantee a real sense of player freedom, I organize my adventures in pairs (or trios) in parallel. Which means that they can be resolved in any order.
For example, I'm currently running a saga of three sequential campaigns called The Unchained God. As you can imagine, it involves Tharizdun, but it is set in the Forgotten Realms. My players assign quests to themselves, and right now they have three in mind: one involves going to Westgate, another to Myth Drannor and the last to the Thunderpeaks, and they are currently discussing what to do next.
But of course, these three quests were planned by me ahead of time. They are in my flowchart as parallel adventures, that can be resolved in any order. And they can have any outcome, either positive or negative to the PCs. The combination of possible consequences will have a clear impact in the saga's future events. The end of the first campaign will determine the beginning of the second, and so forth. Eventually, the decissions of the respective PC parties of the three campaigns will determine if Tharizdun escapes and destroys Creation or not.
Here's the rule of thumb: Railroad the Present, Sandbox the Future. Create an iron script for your adventures, but a loose guideline for your campaigns. That way your game will be supported by a strong structure, but the campaign will remain flexible enough to adapt to every adventure's outcome.
Monday, September 6, 2010, 7:33 PM
In the previous post I provided 10 steps to become the World's Best GM. I also promised I would detail each one separately. I'm not going to follow any particular order (that's why the steps were not numbered), so next I'm going to explain how to handle those moments when you don't know what the heck to say.
This post is actually about how to improvise. A good GM adapts to his players and the situation, so good improvisation skills are mandatory if you want to be the World's best GM. The risk is that you don't have time to plan anything, and it's easy to loose the thread, or find you just got into a dead end when it's too late.
To be good at improvisation you need one thing: to be able to Speak Fluently About X and Think Fast About Y at the Same Time. It is as hard as it seems, but don't worry, it comes with practice. And it doesn't matter how good you get at it, you will suffer mental blocks from time to time. Here are a few tricks to handle the situation.
First, apply the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy's most important rule: Don't Panic. If your description technique is good enough, you will survive the slip.
Describe everything in a calm voice. Mental blocks happen more often when you describe things in a hurry. Calm down. Speak slowly, with a low deep voice. If you smoke, take a puff from time to time (children, don't smoke) and stare at your players in the eye for a few seconds. All that means that it will be hard (or impossible) to notice when you are doing all those things because you don't really know what to add next.
Let's give an example. The PCs are in the City of Thieves, sleeping in an inn. You want to describe a short scene where they get a feel of the place, but it won't have any mayor impact in the adventure. You want to add drama to the scene, so you decide to turn it into a teaser (thanks DMG2 for putting such a good name to it) in which an NPC thief enters the PC's room during the night and steals their money (you run a campaign where money is largely irrelevant, so no one will cry too much). You low the lights and put eerie music. Players stare at you, expecting an obviously dramatic scene.
The NPC is opening every door carefully, looking for something valuable. While describing how he opens another door (the one you planned it would open the PC's room), you remember in shock that there's an Eladrin in the party! She is going to be meditating and you are certain that she is going to see the thief thanks to her good Perception score. You know your players, and there's a good chance that they start laughing at the harmless City of Thiefs for minutes ("they shouldn't allow Eladrin in the City of Thieves, or they will have to change its name to the City of Inmates! LOL"), while your eerie music plays in the background and the room is lit in low lights! Damn!
Since you are using the description technique I detailed above, you stop when the NPC starts to open the door and stare at the players.
Now you must think fast. But give yourself some time. Describe tiny sensory details, one by one, while you recover. Describe the door cracking and stop again. Stare at the players. One by one if necessary. Now with the smell of the air: it's a humid night, dense and suffocating. The NPC moves slowly, his leather shoes don't make a sound. Etc. Even though you still don't know what to do, you suddenly realize your description is leading the players to think the NPC is about to enter their room. And that gives you a hint of what to do: the NPC opens the door to a different room. A moment of relief.
But you have put yourself into trouble. You have just made the NPC an scary guy, someone deadly, to be afraid of. Now the original plan of stealing money could seem dull. So you have to build tension again, but how? Another dead end. You cannot describe how he opens doors the whole night, so you must think on something else, a shocking twist. While you find it, you describe how the NPC enters the room and detail the furniture. Describe each piece of furniture slowly, while you think fast on what to do next.
What can a room contain, that has dramatic potential? Something dear, weak, that the players would hate to see harmed... A cat! No please... A child... Yes, a child, sleeping in her pijamas, holding a teddy bear. You describe the NPC getting closer, with a grin in his face. And a new idea comes to your mind. What if the teddy bear hides something important? What if the NPC is actually looking for that?
Your mental block started because you didn't know how to resolve the situation in the PCs room, so you just found the solution. Players thought the NPC was coming for them, but it was coming for the teddy bear! Now that you are collected, you describe everything more swiftly. The NPC grabs the teddy bear, the child wakes up and the NPC kills her mercilessly! Your players shout in anger, and the NPC escapes with the teddy bear, opening a whole new thread of possibilities. Does the teddy bear contain a powerful talisman, a password to a deadly cript full of traps? It shouldn't be hard to link it to your current campaign.
And the best thing is that:
* your players never realized you suffered a mental block for several minutes.
* they think your pauses and slow descriptions were completely intentional, designed to trick them into thinking that the NPC was coming for them.
* an irrelevant NPC just became another hateful enemy the players are dying to give a good lesson to. And players love to hate their enemies.
There you have it: how to turn a mental block into another kill mark in your GM's gun.
Monday, September 6, 2010, 4:20 PM
There's no possible way to know who's the best GM in the world, but that doesn't mean you cannot become one of them. I made an equation to find how many World's best GMs are in the world and this is my result:
P1 = number of players in the world.
P2 = number of gaming groups in the world that say that their GM is the World's best GM.
D1 = number of GMs in the world that say that they are the World's best GM.
As you can see, my conclusions are irrefutable. There are 847 World's best GMs in the world. That's exactly the number of GMs in the world whose players think they are the best on Earth. Chris Perkins is probably the world's most famous World's best GM, because Chris Youngs gave him the title in a Dungeon magazine issue. You won't be that lucky, but it doesn't matter. If your gaming group thinks you are surely better than Chris Perkins, you'll have your sweet revenge.
When do you know that you are the World's best GM? I created the following test to let you know if you are one:
1. the last time you were allowed to play a PC, the USSR was still the Axis of Evil.
2. the last time you paid a pizza during a gaming night, mobile phones were barely mobile and people would look around like crazy when they heard a ringtone in the middle of the street.
3. the last time you were awarded an XP, you were running an NPC.
4. and you were the guy awarding the XP.
5. the last time you killed a dragon, it was rolling a fumble.
6. and the next day you removed the Critical Fumble Table from the houserules.
7. the people you play with introduce you to other RPG players saying: "Dude, this is our DM, and he/she is the World's best GM!"
If your answer to questions 1-2 was "yes", you are probably as old as I am. If your answer to questions 3-4 was "yes", you are begging to play a PC at least one day every decade. If your answer to questions 5-6 was "yes", you are making too many houserules. If your answer to question 7 was "yes", you are the World's best GM.
But let's assume that your answer to question 7 was "no". How can you become one of the World's best GMs? I have another test for that. You are one of the World's best GMs when you are able to:
* Make everyone forget what time it is, or what they had to do after the session.
* Convince everyone that everything bad that happens to the PCs is their fault.
* Convince everyone that everything good that happens to the PCs is thanks to them.
* Convince everyone that there's no railroading at all in your games (without having your nose grow three feet).
* Convince everyone that when you stay silent is because you are creating atmosphere (when it's because you don't know what to say).
* Make everyone hate you.
* Make everyone laugh while hating you.
* Make someone shake out of fear, or any other emotion.
* Make someone cry (without punches in the face involved).
In the following posts I will cover each bullet separately.
Monday, September 6, 2010, 2:02 PM
I find utterly ridiculous to reward players with any kind of material treasure. But maybe that's because my campaigns are story-driven. Anyway, here are just a few reasons why I consider treasure to be a bad idea:
It Turns PCs into Unscrupulous Scavengers
The encounter is over. The room is filled with dead bodies: some are burned to death, their faces twisted in pain; others are mutilated beyond recognition... you get the point. But their bodies may hide treasures, so the PCs search the bodies like there's no tomorrow. And you call them heroes? Maybe they are, but the treasure reward system forces them to behave like heartless psychopaths so they don't lose their edge in the next combat. Don't know what you think about that, but I was taught that End Justify the Means is the definition of Evil.
It Overcomplicates PC Management
Treasure adds a layer of customization to PCs. It also adds a lot of book-keeping. You must remember item daily power usage, and players spend extra time flipping through their item power cards in combat. PCs get a new level after @ 10 encounters, and that gives players time to get used to their powers and memorize their mechanics. But in a standard D&D game, PCs get 8 treasure parcels per 10 encounters, which means that every 1.5 encounters you are adding at least one new mechanic element in your game. Stats need to be recalculated, most likely attack, damage and defenses. Now your player doesn't automatically answer "20" when you ask his AC value. He needs to recheck his character sheet. Thank you, but no, thank you.
It Doesn't Pay Off
Treasure is no longer essential for PC survival (God bless you, 4e). They barely add spice and the aforementioned sense of customization. If you have played 4e, you know what I mean, and I won't insist on this point.
Treasure = Object = Story Device
In Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale, objects are story devices. They are "Helpers", just like the old sage that tells the hero where to go to find the damsel in distress, and they should work like that. PCs shouldn't find Treasure all over the place, forgotten like garbage. Treasure should be an essential part of the story: they should be the Ring of Power, Excalibur, Mjolnir, etc. Finding these treasures requires an adventure by itself, when not a whole campaign. These treasures have meaning, they have a story, they have a purpose. Treasure parcels are meaningless, dull and lack any purpose.
If your story requires an Object as a plot device, introduce it. Otherwise, forget treasure. Your game will gain:
Verosimilitude: Heroes stay heroes, they kill monsters and kick their bodies away so they can go to kill more.
Speed: no body search, no waste of time.
Fantasy: less random magic items means magic remains unpredictable, scarce and powerful. One magic item can change the course of the story.
Enhanced Tactical Options: Players stop flipping through their character sheets and start scanning the environment to find a way to get advantage from it. While facing an opponent of their level, the advantage consists on who positions better in the battlefield, not who has the biggest magic polearm.
Flexibility: a hero that doesn't depend on magic items can fight with any weapon. You can break their items and no one will cry for it.
Flexibility II: Did I say that heroes can fight with any weapons? They can also fight without them. Your story requires you to imprison the PCs, but verosimilitude demands that they are put into jail without their weapons and armor, of course! You better find a reasonable way for them to find their beloved items in the way out, no matter how hard that can be, or the party will hate you forever. Remove treasure from your game and your story won't ever be constrained by absurd situations like that again.
All these points are summarized in one: your game becomes more Epic. Just sit down and try to remember how many good fantasy books and movies had treasure parcels in them. The Wheel of Time? No. Song of Ice and Fire? Nope. Lord of the Rings? No Way. I'll give you the quick answer: None.
If you are trying to emulate those great stories, shouldn't you start by abiding to the same rules they follow...?
But My Players Like Treasure!
Sure, everyone likes power. And DMs use this human quirk as a carrot to guide players like cattle. Only that players are not cattle. They are your gaming friends, and they play to have fun. Show them that removing magic items makes the game more fun, not less. Show them that removing items will give them more power through control: their build selection becomes more important, while treasure removes control from their hands and puts it in the DM's.
Give it a try. If your players still don't like it, put parcels back in the game. Adapting to players is the DM's first rule, after all.
Friday, September 3, 2010, 7:44 AM
Good DMs know that subplots are important to get players involved in your campaign. Introducing a subplot per PC is a good way to improve the general quality of your game. But what about plots? You can also adapt the main story plot to the party, following these easy steps:
PC Background = Campaign Background
* Ask the players to create a detailed background for their characters, describing what they have in common and why the follow the same goals. If your players are inexperienced, it's perfectly fine to tailor PC backgrounds yourself. This works best if you know each player very well. Just remember to create compelling stories tailored to everyone's tastes.
* Substitute the Campaign Main Villain, Campaign Main Leautenants and Adventure Main Bosses with NPCs present in the party's background.
If you are planning to play the Orcus, Prince of Undeath PoL campaign, make all the PCs Chosen or Avatars of the Raven Queen, sent to the world to keep the balance of life and death. Players will discover their true divine origin during the campaign, through enlightening role-playing moments.
* Substitute the campaign main locations with those present in the party's background. Travelling to far away places is fine, but the locations under threat should be related intimately to the PCs.
If you are starting the campaign with Keep on the Shadowfell, make the PCs come from Winterhaven, or change the Keep's location to their home region.
*Make the villain focus its evil activities on the party's most beloved ones (hometown, family and friends), either unintentionally (heroic tier) or intentionally (paragon and epic). Ensure the villain kills/kidnaps/harms in some manner at least one of these NPCs when the campaign starts.
If players agreed that their PCs are friends from childhood, during the campaign Intro Scene, describe how the villain in person burns to the ground the PCs hometown, killing most of their families with unsurmountable cruelty.
Subplots = Adventures
* Turn every subplot into an essential part of the main plot, a step towards the final showdown with the campaign villain.
Maybe the fighter PC that tries to find his lost father discovers that his father is the leader of an army of freedom fighters. Getting his help will be fundamental to defeat the villain. The problem is that the PC's father feels guilty for what he did to his son, and doesn't want to know anything about him to avoid reopening old wounds...
As the campaign progresses, every victory on the PCs side should be accompanied by a boost in their reputation, and this should have a clear effect on how people react to them. Defeat should have the opposite consequence.