Roleplaying Techniques : Adapting the Crucible to Other Games

In Covenant, there’s a big round region on the centre of the the character sheet. All other elements of the character sheet feed into it. Because it’s the melting pot where story is created, I named it the crucible. This is about how to adapt it to other games.

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Proactive gaming

Thoughts on taking ownership of games, and talking to your group.

For a hobby that prides itself on interactivity, RPGs can sometimes throw up some odd habits. One I’ve noticed is that all too often the players don’t really take ownership of the game.

It’s a weird kind of mindset amongst players that the GM has to control everthing, that their word must be final and that the players job is to sit there and take it. No matter how poor the plot, no matter how uninterested the players are in the events that are thrown arbitarily at them, the GM is god. This attitude kills games.

It seems to stem from many RPG books, where the advice given to players is to shut up and listen to the GM. I really hate those pieces of advice. They seem to be written by people who’ve never actually played an RPG. See – to me at least – part of the fun of playing an RPG is knowing that your choices and contributions matter (otherwise, why not just read a book?). If the GM is overruling everything then play gets dull very quickly.

Often GMs just have to be this way though, because the players haven’t given them anything to work with. They haven’t contributed anything to the game beyond their presence. They expect to be fed everything and just take it. Both sides are as guilty as each other.

So the cycle continues.

There is a very simple solution. Both sides of the GM/Player split need to be more proactive. The key is for both sides to actively take ownership of the game. Not the rulebooks that you’re using, not the characters your playing, but the game as a whole. The event of the real people getting together and playing.

Both sides need a solid stake in what’s going on, otherwise they’re going to start wondering why they’re present. Talk about the game and where it is going. It’s a simple thing, but it amazes me how often people don’t do it. What do you want out of it? Where do you want your character to head? What’s actually fun for you, as a player or GM?

Being proactive starts before the game. It starts right at the moment when a GM says “Hey guys, I want to run game X”. What often seems to happen is that the GM comes up with some background and a plot and just forces the players into it. This is the first mistake. Roleplaying is a group exercise, so bring your players in at the earliest opportunity. What would be cool for them? What works with their characters? How could that work with your ideas? If the players have this input, then they are more likely to enjoy themselves, they have a stake in the game.

Now at this point it’s often the case that the GM will go “But it’s my game, I want to run it this way!” We’re back at that Group Activity thing again, by coming to the table with a group of people you’re saying “I want you guys involved too”. You have to admit that, or you’ll end up with unhappy players. Or no game at all. That said, each player should equally not expect everything to focus solely on their ideas. Everybody’s contributions are useful. It’s a group thing.

During a game a bit of self analysis, and changing based on it, can help boost the amount of fun you have. What worked for you? Did your character get too little (or too much) &quo;screentime”. Did you feel like you were being led by the nose? Did you feel like every idea you contributed got shot down by other players or the GM? Knowing that these things are going on is the first step to improving your situation. The second step is to raise the issue with the other people at the table. Talking about how you can improve the game, and whether what you think will work will work for everybody else. You might even find that the reason you’re not having fun is that what you want out of the game is completely different to the other players, but at least you know.

In the end, roleplaying is a social activity. If you don’t talk about game dynamic outside of play, the actual play will be less fun.

Finding your niche

Roleplaying groups are often like the A-Team, there’s a smart one, a charismatic one, a strong one and a mad one. Just don’t be the anonymous one.

Roleplaying groups are often like the A-Team, or maybe in some cases like a manufactured pop band. There’s the clever character, the charismatic character, the mad one, and the tough one. Sometimes there’s the sporty one or the sensitive one.

It’s a matter of niche protection really. Everybody who plays wants a certain amount of “screentime”, and the easiest way to get it is to fill a particular niche. The key to fun in games is often balancing the amount of time a particular character (and by extension their player) is influencing events. If a character gets too little screentime, the player feels hard done by. If one player character gets too much, then you have the opposite problem, everybody feels like they’re in that player’s shadow. Both states are frustrating.

Lots of games come with a way of making sure that everybody gets a chance to shine. Games with classes work well for balancing screentime. If you can easily tell a character’s specialisation, then giving them screentime becomes easier. In D&D you can build lots of traps and locked rooms into dungeons so that a player with a thief gets lots to do. Of course classes also lead to problems when two players go for the same choice, they inevitably end up having to redefine their character to find a new niche. In general though, when your roleplaying environment is the Dungeon, and everybody has a clearly defined role, everybody can shine.

With more modern games, where players get free reign in character creation, it’s actually more difficult to balance things. That free reign can give you a handful of character whose defining stats are practically identical, how’s the GM supposed to guess when you want the spotlight? Ironically, the distaste of many modern games for min-maxing actually stops grabbing of niches. Such games will claim that min-maxing breaks “game balance”, but what other balance is there than equal screentime? If you condemn your character to mediocrity, you’ll never get that screentime. If everybody is anonymous the GM has to work harder to discover the thing that will force each character into the limelight. As if they didn’t have enough to do anyway.

Fortunately many games come to the rescue with splats, broad archetypes like the Vampire clans, which can help define niches. Such constructs are no different to classes on a basic level, they give you an obvious place to start when thinking about the character, making it easier for the GM to work out when to give you the spotlight. Particular genres – modern action being a good example – thrive on such archetypes. That’s why the A-Team is a good model for such circumstances, each character has a well defined role within the story. Thus every player gets an opportunity to be the one who’s doing something cool.

However, if you conform too much to an archetype you end up having a cardboard cutout character, and if the game is trying to produce original and thought provoking stories, such characters can jar. The problem in this case is that the tools you are using to define your character’s uniqueness don’t work with the aim of the game. Using skills as unique points will only take you so far. I remember a game where one character was often referred to as “The investigation device”, because that’s all they were in game terms. They were only ever wheeled out when something needed investigating. The player had defined his niche, but not in a way that suited the game, and the character’s screentime, and his enjoyment, suffered for it. What the character needed was personality.

When the story is the thing, the best way to define your niche is no longer through abilities, but through motivation and beliefs. The key is finding the drive behind the character, and making it shine through to the GM. Sure, anybody can have the same stats and skills as your character, but only your character is seeking the murderer of his dead brother. Motivators like this tell the GM when it is you want to have the limelight and what story you want to tell. Games like The Riddle of Steel, Sorcerer and my own Lost Gods actually give you tools to state, on the character sheet, what it is that will drag your character into centrestage. Even if no such system features are present then a well worded character concept can aid you here. Know what defines the characters attitude and desires. That way you can get that great scene where you confront your brother’s murderer, and get that protagonising choice of how to deal with them.

So, depending on the game, how you define your niche will vary. The important thing is to think about it before the game, and make sure you communicate it to other players (especially the GM), so that players don’t end up treading on each other’s toes. Choose if you’re going to be the strong one, the diplomatic one or the proud aloof guy driven by rage and advertise it. Just be careful that your character isn’t the anonymous one, or your fun will suffer.

Rama’s Rules of Running an RPG

Article by Jason Rama
This is primarily advice for first time Gamesmaster’s, those noblest and most fragile of creatures (rather like papier-mâché Dodo’s). In no particular order:

  1. If you don’t want to be the sort of fixed-minded GM that makes roleplaying a lackluster experience for the players, then before you even start writing scenarios and settings, talk to the players about what they think a ‘fantasy’ game, a ‘sci-fi’ game or whatever type of game you intend to run is. You can then all agree what expectations or limitations the game should have, that way, theoretically at least; everyone stands a good chance of getting what they want out of the game.
  2. Always prepare your game well. Have contingency plans and spare scenarios ‘lying around’. These will save your bacon on more than one occasion. Never underestimate the speed at which players can resolve a scenario that took you months to think of. This particularly happens if you write a linear ‘plot’ for the players to ‘follow’,rather than a ‘scenario’ allowing for many projected courses of action. If you don’t tie yourself down to ‘making’ the players follow a story, you give yourself flexibility which allows everyone will have a lot more fun.
  3. Always write detailed background information on your setting. Plot can come from the players interacting with the environment. It is important to note however, that the background information and setting should be tailored to the players and player character’s motivations and desires, this will make it more enjoyable for the players to explore and adventure in your world. Always remember though, that you don’t have to use all the background information and detail for your players, take what you want, depending on what you need in the session.
  4. Always have control over the environment. Wherever you role-play make sure you have everything you need to set the mood; Music, lighting, snacks and beverages. These can become vital in long sessions as they set the mood and sometimes the pace of what you are trying to achieve.
  5. Always leave the players alone in the room before you start the game, for no more than 5 minutes, leave your selected music running and before you leave the room suggest to the players that they need to think about what they want to do tonight. This will get the players in the mood for the nights festivities. Be careful not to give them too much time to set definite plans, those should really be done ‘in game’. After all, players are supposed to role-play making plans. You don’t want the players turning up and handing you a dossier and saying ‘This is what we want to do, see you next week!’ and then leaving.
  6. Always recap what happened last time you played – this gives the players a chance to remind you of what you might have forgotten, and vice versa, but also to indicate to you, the GM, what the players are focused on doing in the session.
  7. If you want the players to visit a particular place, don’t give the place you have in mind a name. Give the player’s a selection of names to choose from and then just use the place you have designed, this is particularly useful for first time GM’s. For more experienced GM’s, open your scenario up a little, have LOTS of places your players can visit, with different cultures, customs and intrigues. Who knows what your players may uncover? Well, you hopefully
  8. Try and keep the group together as much as possible, letting them have their own storylines is good, but try and keep these instances as short as possible if you’re a first timer. Otherwise you may have players sitting around doing nothing for long periods of time and getting bored. If it is absolutely necessary to do this (The more experienced at GM’ing you become, the more likely this is to happen as player confidence grows in you), give the other players NPC’s that are with the ‘lone’ player to play, and brief them on their temporary character motivations. And if ‘solo’ scenarios aren’t working out or are not very interesting, then talk to the player involved and say ‘I don’t think this is working’ or ‘How can we make this more interesting?’ If two of you can’t resolve the problems, then it’s time to ditch that ‘strand’ and move on to the next one or back to the group.
  9. If you think of an idea of making your job as GM easier for you, then do it, particularly if it involves the players with the story more. There are various ways of doing this; Have players create NPC characters for the game and get them to play them (This can be tricky as players can end up talking to themselves!), get players to write journals of their gaming activities ‘in character’ and read them (This can be soooooo funny!), have players writing scenario ideas and background info for you, encourage players to provide you with research that they have done on your setting (This can save you A LOT of time), the list goes on and on.
  10. If you have created a setting that is unfamiliar to the players, give them a pre-generated character each and role-play a few sessions in this new environment, this will help the players develop ideas and understand the world before they generate their characters.
  11. Never underestimate the power of player paranoia, ideas, and gullibility. Exploit this whenever it is practical to do so. If a player is role-playing their character in a particularly ‘nervy’ way because the setting and atmosphere are creeping the player out, play up to it a little, one player really getting into the scenario like this often ‘raises the game’ of the other players and makes for a better experience.
  12. Warn players that their characters can die! Character death, I believe, is important to RPG’s. I always give the players a chance to do something fatally stupid once and survive, barely. However, you must always stress to the player that ‘they were lucky’ this time and that may be a more considered set of actions would have been appropriate. Then have all the players start thinking of concepts for a second character that they might play if their first character dies. This makes scenarios much more interesting, dangerous places. It won’t stop stupid ideas, but at least they won’t moan too much about the consequences.
  13. Make sure that your NPC’s are interesting characters. Don’t just have them there to provide players with information. Give them their own goals and agendas. A good NPC will be approached again and again by players for interaction value alone (if the character is interesting enough) rather than just for information. As a player, I have many NPC ‘friends’ for precisely that reason. If players ‘cultivate’ these relationships, maybe the NPC’s involved will look on the player’s characters as ‘friends’ too. How would the players react if an NPC friend were killed by an NPC villain? There might be devastating emotional consequences for the player’s characters. NPC villains themselves can make interesting characters to keep around. It’s not always necessary for the villain’s death to be the ending of the story – maybe the villain gets away, the next scenario could be the PC’s reforming as a group and trying to bring him/her to justice, or the villain might not turn out to be the villain after all, just someone who has been badly misinformed, how will the players handle this anti-climax and the supposed villains guilt at all the crimes that they’ve committed?
  14. Make sure that player’s characters have friends and family that they have written about or at least planned. No one exists in the world alone. These can be useful for the GM in terms of hanging scenarios from (“Mr. Mysterio? This is your daughter’s housekeeper. She’s been kidnapped by The Cult of Flatulence!”). They can also be used to motivate the player’s characters in interesting ways and create interesting storylines (“I’m sorry Miss. Edwards, I’m no longer Mr. Mysterio, I’m retired. I’m getting married. If you want help, ask The Wedge. What’s that? The Cult of Flatulence, the people who killed my daughter!!?? Postpone the wedding, I’ve got some ass to kick!”).
  15. Use props, drawings, maps, graphics, sound effects, music, etc. to accentuate game play, but NOT to dominate it.
  16. If you run out of scenario or ideas for one night, or you think the players have done enough for that sessions play, then cut the session short. Better to have a short, good session, than a long, patchy one.
  17. Always spend some time after the session asking the players what they thought was good and bad about the session, it’s the only way you’ll improve. Also, every couple of sessions, ask the players how they see their characters developing. This is a good way of developing plot.
  18. Never be afraid to ditch whatever plot or scenario ideas you have planned in favour of things the players are interested in. You may have spent months designing the plot and NPC’s for the story of the Martian Smurg Beast, but if the players are more interested in chatting up the barmaid, use that!
  19. Let players commit to stupid acts, try and subtly warn them they are about to do something silly, but if they don’t take the hint let them run with it. However, there is one proviso to this, stop the idea dead in it’s tracks if it means the whole group of characters are going to get wiped out (Player: “Mr. Mysterio decides to save the group by using his pocket flame thrower.” GM: “You’re on a petrol station forecourt!”).
  20. Most systems have some method of handing out ‘Experience Points’. These are generally handed out for role-playing well, staying in character, completing missions successfully. However, another good way of awarding experience (Particularly if you’re a first time GM) is to have players set short-term, mid-term and long-term goals for their characters. Short-term goals change from session to session, mid-term goals every scenario, and long-term almost never. It’s useful in terms of judging character success, and it also has the benefit of involving the players in what THEY say they have to do to EARN experience. Goals like this also have the benefit of not being bound to ‘solving’ the mystery or killing the ‘villain’, you can give your own experience ‘bonuses’ for that, they can be aimed at developing skills or obsessions that the characters may have (GM: “Mr. Mysterio gains 20 experience points for finally getting married with a bonus of 10 for apprehending the evil Cult of Flatulence.”).
  21. Finally, and this is one that I think most GM’s forget, have fun! It isn’t only the players that are supposed to have fun, the GM is too! If you get stressed by GM-ing a game, then don’t GM. I know lots of players who have tried GM-ing and have decided they prefer to play rather than GM. There’s nothing wrong with this, but make sure that in your group that there are at least a couple of GM’s. That way, you won’t spend the rest of your gaming life designing scenarios instead of playing them. Also, if you’re a player, support your GM. Help them out, they are a commodity to be valued. Playing one character can be hard enough, but playing a world?

Social Contract Gaming

Thoughts and musings on the nature of rules and the social agreement they represent.

It’s amazing how often I hear roleplayers say something like “We had a great game of D&D last week, we went the whole session and never used the rules once!” This kind of statement puzzles me. How, if you’re not using the rules, could it possibly be considered a game of D&D? Sure the trapping are there, the setting, the rulebooks, the character sheets, the dice, and so on. But if they weren’t used, then the actual game certainly wasn’t D&D, it was something else entirely.

What they were actually playing, to my mind at least, was their groups social agreement. That often unspoken part of the game, where players agree where the limits are, who can contribute when, and what the limits of the setting and story are.

Now at this point you may be saying, “but we always go by the rules!” And if so, then good for you, that probably means your group’s social agreement fits quite nicely with the rules you are using. But think back, when was the last time your GM fudged a dice roll instead of killing a character? Did you let it slide, accepting that this is how things are done, or complain that he cheated? This is a prime example of the social agreement that players should be heroic characters who don’t die arbitrarily, overruling the system’s rules of character death.

Does your GM allow other players to interject with cool story ideas? I do, it’s not part of the rules, but it’s an accepted part of the games I play in. If I did it in some peoples groups they’d probably look at me funny, why is he suggesting how his Call of Cthulhu character dies?

Many roleplayers seem to ignore the fact that large amounts of the game rules are un-spoken. That the rules are built into the social dynamic of the group, rather than the rulebook of game they are playing. Long term gaming groups tend to adopt a style that they are happy with, and stick to it. It doesn’t matter if they’re using Fudge, D&D, Vampire, or GURPS, because they have this unspoken agreement on how they play. In fact it really doesn’t matter which game they are using.

For a long time this led me to believe that any new RPG was only useful for acquiring new setting ideas, since most groups would just ignore the system and only play the bits that they liked (i.e. the bits that worked best with their social agreement).

Then I had an idea. What are rules if not a social agreement on who gets to say what happens and when?

So perhaps all those games with rules you don’t like, or can’t find the sense in, are just the game designer trying to give you their model of the social agreement to play with. To try differing levels of control among players and GM, to try games that focus more on the game, or more in the story than you normally would. As long as the players agree that they want to accept the system’s priorities, they can try out a new approach. Of course what normally happens is that players take one look at a system, decide before playing it that they don’t like it, and ignore it, returning to their default social agreement.

So what is my conclusion here? Not a great deal other than this: Play a game as written before you fudge or tweak anything. Just because it doesn’t seem to work on paper, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, just that it’s trying to encourage a style of play that is different from your current prefered style. Try it, who knows, you might be pleasantly surprised.