Breaking conventions

In my experience, RPG players tend to be similar to most other people in that they are generally very hesitant to try anything new. Thus, there’s a tendency to get “stuck in a rut,” playing the same kinds of games or style, over and over again. What is worse is that at times, they’ll even continue playing games despite the fact that they’re not having fun.   I’ve been guilty of this myself: I stuck with D20 despite the fact that I hated much about the system and spent great efforts hacking, altering, and simply discarding parts of the rule system to try and make it fit my play style and goals. It never worked. Thus I present the following list of “tips” for both GMs and players alike. None of this is revolutionary, nor can I claim to have invented any of it: If you took my advice and read the books on my Suggested Reading List” post, so of this might already be familiar. If not, what are you waiting for? So, I challenge you, the reader, to break convention and try something new at your next game session: Pick one and go for it. Who knows, you might just have fun once again.

  • System does matter: If your game system doesn’t work for your game, maybe you’re playing the wrong game. Try a different system. There are a lot of great RPGs out there: Large-press/small-press, indie, traditional or story-oriented. Take the plunge and try something new.
  • Giving the players what they want in terms of story ultimately makes everyone happier. Yes, even the GM will find the game much more enjoyable, especially once he or she abandon their hubris and allow everyone to collaborate in making the story.
  • Learning to say “Yes, but…” or “Yes, and…” is much more effective than saying “No.” Don’t stifle player decisions and desires: Instead learn to embrace and use them, allowing the ideas and desires to move the game and story forward in new, unexpected directions.
  • My players can often come up with much more interesting solutions to my puzzles, mysteries, and problems than I can ever come up. Let them. Abandon your preconceived plots and explanations and instead let the players help shape the story and the ultimate solution. In the long run it’s a ton of fun because the GM now is as unsure as the players how the story will ultimately end. Isn’t that better than skipping to the end of the book and finding out who the killer is before you’ve even read chapter 2?
  • A player’s character sheet can tell you an enormous amount about what the player wants out of your game. As someone (I think Judd Karlman) wrote “A player’s character sheet is a love letter to the GM.” Learn to read that letter and design your game around it. What skills have they chosen? What kind of background have they written? What about equipment? Read all that info and use it. If you’re really bold and confident, ask them for flags during character creation. Trust me, your players will bow before your genius as a GM and you don’t ever have to let them know that your secret is that you simply gave them what they asked for when they made their character sheet.
  • Often simpler, rules light systems, are much more conducive to telling a story than having a character defined in microscopic detail. Highly detailed combat systems that plot a character’s exact position are not necessarily more realistic (melee is a wild, chaotic affair, not movement on a grid), nor are they more immersive. In fact, they’re often just the opposite since they force the players into playing a “game” in which position, weapon choice, and mechanical advantages are important. Go for cinematic instead. You also do not need to define every detail of a character in microscopic detail: Broader, more generalized traits and skills give you a lot more to work with in generating a story and avoid pigeonholing characters.
  • Giving players the chance to narrate outcomes doesn’t ruin my game and in fact makes it a lot easier and more enjoyable as a GM because now I’m part of the story and just as surprised at outcomes as the players. It also cuts down on the sheer amount of talking I need to do.
  • Having an overly complex, epic style plot almost always ends up falling flat due to player attrition, apathy, misunderstanding, or simply boredom. Abandon long, complex, predetermined plots. Similarly, campaigns do not need to span “birth to death from old age” or “levels 1 to 20” in order to be fun, satisfying, or successful. I hate level based advancement because it creates a system in which the only way you can really feel successful is to carry a character from level 1 to level 30 and that locks you into a long term commitment. Blech. Short, very focused campaigns are much more likely to succeed and satisfy those involved. What I find funny is that many new GMs use the “Lord of the Rings” model of campaign design but if you try to break down those books into modules, they’re basically just a few adventures over which the “characters” gain perhaps a handful of levels rather than some decade spanning series of adventures.
  • My best ideas come from riffing off players’ ideas and comments in game, not sitting at a desk plotting out the game step by step. As Graham Walmsley says “Play unsafe.” Don’t be afraid to improv or fly by the seat of your pants. That does not mean you can’t or shouldn’t prepare, but rather that you should avoid spending hours creating an overly complex and preplanned series of events. In many cases, less is more.
  • Don’t roll the dice unless it really matters and where the outcome, win or lose, is going to result in an interesting story. Failure = “the suck” if it derails the game’s progress. Thus, “make it a gimme” in those cases. Try this: Let players succeed at any skill check in which a failure is not going to offer an interesting story development: Spot/search check to find that secret door? Forget the dice, they find it. Knowledge check to read that book? Forget the dice, they read it. I’ve always been baffled by published modules in which the author has gone to great lengths to write some sort of poetry or script that offers important clues but then suggests that some sort of skill check is required to find or read it. Why in the world did they waste the time if half the time players are never going to be able to read it?
  • Put the miniatures away. Try playing a game in which players describe their actions (and if you’re really brave narrate the outcome) and you simply go with the flow, aiming for great cinematic action rather than mechanical game play.

Gods, who needs them?

One of the things I’ve often struggled with in my fantasy games is the role the gods play in the world.  In particular, what I don’t like is the idea of a world with a large pantheon (or even pantheons if each race gets their own) – the notion that there are potentially hundreds of deities, each with their own domain,  roaming various planes is just goofy.  In addition, there are literally dozens of reasons why I find the idea of large pantheons untenable.  Among the most prominent are:

  • Player overload – most players find it really hard to learn all the names of the gods, let alone their domains. As a result the gods turn into nothing more than window dressing – a name tossed out when you visit a temple or invoked when they face the “evil” cleric.  Ask yourself how often you’ve had any of your players besides someone playing a religious character type (e.g., priest, paladin, cleric, etc) actually invoke the name of a god or even mention one in the course of play. In fact, my experience is that even most clerics don’t use their deity or faith in more than a superficial manner.  This is related to the issue of player buy-in, on which Critical Hits has a recent article that discusses other related issues.
  • In most cases it makes little sense for a world’s inhabitant to worship a single god whose domain is so tightly limited:  Why in the world would a farmer only worship the goddess of agriculture when his prosperity depends on a lot more than just whether his plants grow (e.g., weather, fertility of his animals, prices for his goods, etc).  It’s not really feasible to have a dozen or more temples or shrines in a single village.  The solution, of course, is to have similar gods gathered into some sort of unified church but in many ways that’s supporting what I’m about to suggest….
  • Too many evil sects and religions dilute the impact of a religious archenemy – it’s hard to be too impressed with defeating the head priest of Bhaal when you know that he’s just one of a dozen evil gods.

However, for me personally, the most important reason why I don’t like large pantheons is that they don’t lend themselves to the “shades of gray” kind of religious questions that I like – to me it’s much more interesting when a particular religion can be perceived as both good or evil, depending on one’s perspective.  In other words, rather than building the identifies of gods upon the idea of  “good” or “evil,” they are based on philosophies or core beliefs.  As a result, the world’s inhabitants interpret a religion’s motives and intentions based on the power and actions of the clerics, as well as their own beliefs and experiences. This works especially well when dealing with a few monotheistic religions, representing omnipotent deities, competing against one another.  One only has to look as far as our own history (e.g., the Crusades, the Inquisition, modern day Saudi Arabia, etc.) to see how a particular religion can be seen as savior or destroyer, depending on one’s perspective, or even which end of the sword one stands. Thus, a cleric in this type of setting might be revered in one village and feared or even despised in the next town down the road.  Similarly, a cathedral might be run by a completely incompetent bureaucrat or even a priest up to absolutely no good.

Having monotheistic religions (I say religions because competition is good, especially when it comes to creating conflict), particularly one which relies in faith in the divine rather than the god taking an active, hands-on role,  creates a naturally antagonistic relationship ripe with story hooks.  For example, throwing out the idea that a religion has to be pigeon-holed into a particular alignment, you suddenly open up the possibility of intrigue, deception, or outright treachery occurring even in the most sacred and hallowed institutions. A good example of this sort of dichotomy is illustrated in Ken Follett’s novelThe Pillars of the Earth which follows all of the physical, economic, and political maneuvering involved in building a cathedral in 12th century England. One could easily adapt this sort of story for use in any fantasy campaign.  Similarly, it’s possible that a cleric might find that his or her superior is a conniving, narcissistic sociopath who is manipulating his underlings towards his own selfish ends.  That to me is much more interesting since it opens up tons of possibilities in terms of character development, story lines, and plot hooks.

I have used this approach when running The Witchfire Trilogy to good effect, turning one of the chief allies of the PCs in to the mastermind behind the entire plot that drives the adventure: The idea of being double-crossed by a person they respected and looked up to was a far more powerful experience for the players than simply discovering some “bad wizard” was behind the whole thing.

So, the next time you’re developing a setting for a campaign (or even using a published one like Eberron), consider dumping all those gods and instead consolidating the divine powers into a few, well-organized, global faiths. The result can lead to some very interesting and inspiring possibilities.

Another contribution to this month’s Blog Carnival.

Hands off the wheel: Giving up Narrative Control in a RPG

Hands off the wheel: Giving up Narrative Control in a RPG

A post on one of the forums I frequent prompted me to write a rather long response in attempt to answer a question about the meaning of “collaborative gaming” and how a GM handles giving up control of the narrative of a RPG story. My answer prompted the lot of fruitful and interesting discussion, and so I thought I would reformat and tweak it a bit and post it here.

As a preface, there are a lot of great explanations of these out there already and I am no where close to an expert on these issues. Instead, I’m just trying to summarize my experiences and thoughts. So what follows is a mix of fact, opinion, and personal interpretation.

To begin, it’s important to realize that there is a continuum of “collaborative” games with different levels of player control involved.

At one end of the continuum you have games like Burning Wheel which uses “Beliefs” which help define what the game should involve or issues the player wants to explore. Essentially these are what are known as flags in the “theoretical” community) and “Instincts” which are automatic actions/reactions which the player predefines and which control the narrative in certain ways.

For example, an instinct might be “When threatened, I draw my sword.” This is an automatic, instantaneous reaction in mechanical terms which means when the PC is surprised by an enemy, he draws his sword and is essentially never caught flat-footed or unarmed in normal situations. Wow, that’s powerful! But wait…. what happens when the town mayor threatens to throw him in jail? Guess what, he draws his sword. In other words, the instinct predefines certain narrative bits and acts as an advantage in some situations and in others can act as a complication. In my opinion and experience, this is a very cool thing for me to have access to as a GM and I try to incorporate the concept in to a lot of my games, including games using Savage Worlds – I tend to sneak these in slowly on players new to the concept so that they don’t get too overwhelmed by a “non-rulebook rule”.

We can then move along on the continuum to games that involve shared narrative in which the lines between players & GM are blurred in that all share in narrating the outcomes of events. Cold City andDogs in the Vineyard would be an example of this type of game. The GM determines the plot and directs the action but when it comes to conflicts (which include physical, verbal, mental, etc.), the players have the opportunity to narrate the outcome of the conflict, including its consequences. The GM here gives up more control over the outcome of the individual situations, but does not give up control of the story. A good system (CC & DiTV are both good systems), has rule mechanics to control this exchange and guard against a rogue player from completely destroying the story.

For example, in CC the narrator must incorporate the actions and level of success/failure of each participant in to the narrative. Thus, if a player obtained a “mediocre” result when he attempted to shoot the monster, he can’t describe his character “blowing the creature’s head off, spraying its brains across the room.”. Ultimately the GM moderates this process but usually, once players understand and are comfortable with the system, you don’t really have major issues and at most you might have someone stretch things a bit too much in which case the group or the GM might step in. At other times, the narrative just fits despite the dice and so you go with it even if it’s not 100% true to the results of the conflict mechanics. If you have a jerk at the table who can’t or won’t follow the rules, there’s no system that can help you and I would argue that even with something as rigid as D20 he’ll be a problem (i.e., He’s probably the min/maxing, power gamer who works hard to derail the story any chance he gets).

Finally, there are the collaborative games in which the whole group works to create the plot, determine the antagonist, and then generate the story together. Primetime Adventures, InSpectres, and My Life with Master are examples of games where player involvement in the narrative and creation of the story is much heavier. On the far extreme of this type of game you have story games like Polaris and The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries where you do not even need a GM and where all the participants are on equal footing. Again, good mechanics are critical to the success of this endeavor.

So now that I’ve explained that there are different levels of narrative control, I’ll focus on a specific example of how one game (Cold City) handles it.

In CC, when you resolve any conflict the participant who “wins” gets to narrate the results of the outcome. In other words, they describe what happens during the conflict and what the results are. The winner is determined by the dice and are not simply arbitrarily determined: The opponents roll the dice and the person (typically player vs GM but not always) that wins the conflict gets to perform the narration: They have the right to narrate what happened in the scene, with certain limits, as determined by the degree of success determined by the mechanics of the game.

Narration is guided by several rules: They must incorporate all the traits and issues that have been used to add to the dice pools. They must also take into account the the level of success they achieved on the dice. The CC rules give some rough guidelines for these but there’s nothing elaborate because ultimately it’s up to the GM, and I would argue the group as a whole in most cases. It might be obvious but just in case it isn’t: If the GM wins a conflict, he narrates the outcome. Thus, the GM is still part of the narrative process too during conflicts.

Ok, so to get to the heart of the question: How do you keep players from derailing your story (or plot)?

  1. In systems like CC they can’t: The mechanics apply to conflicts only, not the overall story. They could shape the story, but they can’t really alter it in any significant way. Instead you just give players some control over the narrative of what happens in individual scenes and let them shape the nature of the outcomes. IMO, as a GM this is awesome because it lets the players take a little more ownership in the game, takes some work off your shoulders, and continuously gives you feedback/hints on what the players want. One of the laws of good GMing (it’s probably in Robin Laws book) is “Give the players the game they want.”
  2. Maybe you shouldn’t worry about it: If the ultimate story is good and everyone has fun, who cares if they derailed your master plot? In fact, I would argue that if it bothers a GM, he is not ultimately interested in what the players do but instead just seeing his home brewed version of the “Lord of the Rings” play out like he planned. This leads to all kinds of malpractice including fudging rolls, railroading, dead ending player choices, and use of deus ex machina maneuvers.

The notion/model where the GM generates the story/plot and the players just play bit parts is flawed in my opinion and often leads to railroading, whether it is overt or covert. Many GMs think they’re giving players a choice but ultimately they are just playing their own little egocentric story and pretending the players are actually shaping the story. I realize this is going against the established canon of the typical model of how a GM functions, but if you give the “throw the predetermined storyline out the window” approach a real try you’ll find it very liberating.

This does not mean your games are plot or story-less: That would be a disaster. What I’m saying is that you come up with an overall theme or idea and then let the game’s developments, the player’s wants, the character’s flags, and the thrill of the moment to shape the story so that it develops organically rather than having a rigid, predetermined story that must be adhered to.Ok, so I’ve pontificated long enough. If anyone wants me to write more on this subject, let me know and I’ll try to explain some of the concepts and ideas in more detail.