A friend of mine was recently looking for advice on how to run a Dungeons and Dragons game, as he had never done it before. He had put together a pretty straightforward and workable adventure to get everybody started – everybody winds up in this town to join some mercenary company, has to figure out how to get over the walls of said town, then they meet in an inn, and then there’s a bar fight.
Now, while this is perfectly serviceable, I feel that it sort of misses a really important aspect of storytelling that is directly relevant and essential to a really great tabletop gaming experience, as well, which is motivation.
Basically, all storytelling involves two basic building blocks: Motive and Obstacle. The character wants or is seeking something (Motive) and there is something that prevents them from immediately achieving that aim (Obstacle). Without the motive, there is nothing driving the character to overcome any obstacles (whether they are internal or external). Without obstacles, the character just immediately fulfills their motive and no real story occurs. What makes a story interesting is how motive and obstacle feed into one another and basically drive the story forward.
I would argue, also, that these elements transcend genre or even historical and cultural concerns. Even in so-called “conflictless” stories (such as the Japanese Kishotenketsu structure), this still exists. There is always something lacking/missing from the character, even if extremely subtle (a man is making dinner, preparing for his relatives – this is a motive for making dinner). There is always something that is going to stand in the way of the immediate realization of that goal (the man has to go to the store to buy more fish). All that changes is the nature of these two elements and their relationships to one another. In the stereotypical Campbellian Hero’s Journey (gestures vaguely at the whole MCU), the main character has an irresistible call to adventure of some kind and then must overcome a series of escalating obstacles culminating in a grand ordeal and, once victorious, returns to the world they once knew with gained wisdom and power. Even outside of that structure, though, Motive and Obstacle have to be present.
In a gaming setting, assuming your game is narrative focused, these two elements still need to be there for it to all work. What is most commonly forgotten is motive – a player makes an Elven Wizard, her identity is…Elven Wizard…and her character’s goals are to cast spells and be an elf. Naturally, this isn’t enough and this is also why the whole “we all meet in a tavern” thing is so cliche – the characters meet in a tavern because they have literally no other reason to meet or interact. The obstacles, meanwhile, are assumed – the players are going to band together, go to that dungeon, kill what they find, and collect the loot. This is fine, I guess, if all you’re involved in is a basic resource-management exercise. But assuming you’re not, it is clearly lacking…well, story.
It doesn’t take much, though, to give the game a story. All you need to do as a GM (or as a player) is to ask the players a few questions. Suggestions might include:
- What happened to you the last time you were in that dungeon?
- What have the goblins of that dungeon stolen from you and why it is important?
- What do you need the money from this quest for? Why is it important?
By establishing some basic motivations, the players suddenly have a vested interest in overcoming the obstacle before them. The story is no longer contrived. Furthermore, if your players buy into the motivations they’ve established for themselves (and hopefully they have!), the obstacles suddenly become more engaging. Saying “you can’t jump across this pit” is fine, but saying “you can’t jump across this pit, but you hear your baby girl crying your name from the other side” is a million times better!
All of this goes for writing, too, of course. If a character doesn’t have a clear motivation for doing what they’re doing, the audience isn’t going to buy in on their struggle. This is a common problem with in medias res beginnings – we don’t know why the character is in this car chase, so it’s hard to care. But if it’s managed well, we are instantly engaged and love every second of it. Then, as the motivations solidify or change into larger and more complex ones and the obstacles likewise follow suit, you’ve got the audience/players on a wild ride they don’t want to end.
I’m usually running at least one RPG campaign at any given time. The precise game varies widely, I write up my own settings and rules sometimes, and I even mock up my own game systems. The last few years, however, have been devoted to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, which I think is the best version of the game to date. I originally had plans to run three campaigns, all set in the world of Greyhawk immediately following the end of the Greyhawk Wars. The first two are over and now I’m on the third. This campaign follows not new heroes, not young up-and-comers, not ambitious rookies – this game is about old, war-scarred veterans getting together to save the world one last time.
In other words, it’s a high level campaign. Players begin play at 12th level and I expect them to go as high as 18th, maybe even 19th level.
I wanted to do this simply because this so rarely happens. Most of us start play at 1st (maaybe 2nd or 3rd level) scrabble our way to 10th, maybe 12th, and by that time (after years of gameplay has gone by), everybody gets tired and all the PCs get retired and you either start over or play a whole new game in some other system/setting. This time, though, I wanted to focus exclusively on the craziness that can be a high-level campaign. To get it to work, however, required some planning.
These People Are Not New
The first thing I decided was important was to make sure the characters’ in-game history was in place. These are not people coming from nowhere and encountering a totally new world – these are mighty heroes who once walked these very lands, probably shaping them into what they are now. That needed to be represented. Accordingly, character creation was a 4 session process (yes – 4 sessions) wherein I had the players go around and describe to one another their early adventures, how they met up, what kinds of successes and failures they had, and how they ultimately broke up as a group before the game began.
The purpose of this was to build-in history for the players to riff off of. There is rarely a village they’re going to go to that they haven’t been before, there is no king who doesn’t know their names – all of that needs to be ingrained in the players’ minds. It takes a lot of work to get players in a place where they feel comfortable in the world they’re inhabiting, and all that backstory helped us build it.
This leads to how I handled Character Traits/Flaws/Ideals and so on: titles. For each stage of life, the PC’s actions earned them a title which has followed them for the rest of their lives. So, we have Severus Manhunter, whom the elves call “the Mortal Fool” for his decades-long romance with a forbidden elf maid and also Miles Maywater the Ungrateful, the Hound of Veluna – the world’s most famous “noble” assassin/monk. This kind of texture, I think, has gone a long way to making this game cool.
The PCs Can Take It
There really isn’t that much I can’t sic on my players that they can’t handle, and that’s fun. The amount of damage they can dish out (and take) is really impressive. Their first encounter? 50 orcs, 10 orogs, an ork shaman, a merrow, and a succubus all catching them in an ambush on a river boat. There were four players – a ranger, an assassin, a warlock, and a bard. They should be screwed, right?
Wrong! They slaughtered just about every single one of those jokers and only one of their own was hurt enough to require significant healing magic.
Hell, I had them take on an adult Black Dragon in her lair and they won (if barely)! This campaign has been worth the time if only for that one encounter!
Indeed, suddenly the entire Monster Manual is open to me (well…not the Tarrasque) – this party can drop dice with the best of them, freeing up what happens on a grand scale. In fact, part of the premise of the whole campaign is that they need to kill a demigod.
The Conflict Is Not From the Monsters
The fact that these PCs are all such powerhouses, however, means that the conflict isn’t just “can we survive the Fire Giant’s Castle,” because it’s very clear that they can. Conflicts suddenly involve not killing things as often as killing things. As major regional players, they have influence and reputations to safeguard, they have decades of history (and old feuds) to make them squabble, and they have old enemies that know them as well as they know themselves. While this campaign is certainly not going to become Game of Thrones, it is really fun that survival isn’t the primary driving force – it is success, and the argument over what constitutes success is the central conflict. One of their old friends – their dearest confidant – has gone missing and they have been left a note by her to not seek to save her, but instead complete her last mission. Will they do it? Can they? Predictably, two of the party want to complete the mission, the other two want to find their friend. When will the conflict come to a head?
A Seat At the Table
As mighty heroes, the PCs are also now peers with most of the people in campaigns that spend their time bossing lesser PCs around. That king wants you to do something? Tell him no. Is he seriously going to come for a dragonslayer? Nope. No he isn’t.
And that, in and of itself, is freeing for the PCs! They don’t need to be second banana. They don’t need to go find Gandalf to save their asses – they are Gandalf! They’re the big fish and they get to chart their own destiny, whatever that is. So, when it comes time to save the world, they don’t need to have the cavalry swoop in and defeat the grand evil at the last minute (as so many campaigns have done in the past) – they strike the deathblow, they create the ritual to close the hellmouth, they are the ones holding all the cards and distributing all the secrets.
Pretty cool, right?
Of course, doing this requires me to be very flexible and willing to allow the players to break things. It means putting them in a position of power and really letting them exercise that power. Not all DMs are comfortable with that, but I think it can be a really exciting experience for both players and DMs to try out.
I was recently interviewed for the podcast Yes and Dragons, which discusses how improv/improvisational theater and RPGs intersect. In the interview, I discuss how improv, gaming, and writing intersect quite a bit, and it was a really fun interview. Go and check it out and, if you liked it, check out the other episodes of the podcast, which will be releasing once a week going forward.
Oh, and there was something amiss with my microphone during the interview, so it sounds as though I’m talking inside an airplane hangar. Sorry.
Anyway, give it a listen! If you’re interested in any one of those three topics, I hope you will find it enlightening or otherwise useful.
This is going to be partly a writing post, partly a gaming post, and partly a literary post. I don’t outline these things, so who the hell knows what’s going to happen next. Let’ start with… (throws dart) literature. Okay, so the past few years I’ve themed my Lit Survey class around the Hero’s Journey (mostly Campbell’s Monomyth, etc.). Inevitably, we start talking about superhero movies in the class, as superhero tales are the ones most recognizably Campbellian in form. While I do like these movies (overall), after reading hundreds and hundreds of pages of student work on Calls to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, the Normal World Vs the Special World and so on and so forth, I tend to get bored with the whole thing.
Now, as it happens, it’s rather difficult to escape the basic rhythms of this story form, particularly if you intend to tell a story involving a protagonist intended to be even vaguely heroic – this stuff is deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious and our ideas of story. Inevitably we wind up following some variation of this path – both in our reading, our own writing, and even at the RPG table.
The challenge, though, is to resist the urge to paint by the numbers – follow the journey, step by step, like a kind of roadmap. While you can tell some very competent tales that way, you also fall into being predictable. Spend enough time with this structure, and things cease to amaze you, which is, frankly, a terrible loss.
Of course, totally diverging from this format has its own problems – the story becomes unsatisfying or strange to the point where you no longer connect with it. Kafka, for all his brilliance, isn’t telling stories that delight and engage so much as confuse and confound. This has its place and its own appeal, naturally, and I’m not suggesting the avant garde, post-modern, or abstract tale is a worthless endeavor. It’s that if you want to tell a heroic story but you also want to make it new, you need to find variations of the monomyth that are poorly traveled. There are many ways to do this, of course – shake up who your hero is, shake up the setting, shake up the stakes, and resist hitting the steps of the story “cleanly.” If you want a master class in how this is done, watch any given Cohen Brothers film – they are regularly, consistently unusual and amazing, even though, in broad terms, they are (usually) telling the story of a central character who is yanked from their normal world, sent through an ordeal, who then returns to the normal world somehow changed and enlightened. They just do it in the messiest, most bizarre way possible.
In tabletop RPGs, there are dangers in rhythm, as well. The standard form is this: Players receive a call to adventure, they delve into the dungeon and slay monsters, and they are rewarded with treasure. In D&D in particular, this is what we sign up for, right? But there is only so long this can happen before the game gets old. Too many gaming sessions can be described as “role-play, role-play, kill little thing, argue, big battle, treasure.” I fall into this routine myself. There are plenty of games out there that don’t lend themselves to this, sure, but plenty more that do, I’d argue. Even in those games that don’t do this, the danger of routine still looms large, it’s just that the routine changes.
I say routine and rhythm is “dangerous” because it risks, to my mind, what is ultimately fatal to a book or game alike: becoming boring and predictable. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants things to go smoothly and perfectly all the time (even when they say they do) because it kills the excitement of the unknown. For gaming, as with storytelling, this requires you to consciously seek variations on a theme. Break the mold. Have the dungeon be empty, but have it lead players on some different, deeper quest. Have the monster be absent – it’s back at the village, killing and eating all those people your players are sworn to protect. Never forget the narrative fun that can be had with a cursed item (note: not for making players look stupid, but for giving them benefits that have extreme costs. Yes, that’s a +5 sword. No, you can’t ever sheathe it or wipe off the blood. Enjoy visiting the orphanage.). Have the players be wildly overmatched to the point where they need to flee the dungeon (and make it back through all the deathtraps backwards). Have the adventure involve no dungeon AT ALL. Have the players save the town from a flash flood. Drop them in a desert with no food or water and watch them scrabble to survive. Make one of them king for a day.
The point here is that, as important as the forms and rituals of our storytelling world are to making our stories satisfy, we also need to remember that variety is the spice of life. Break the mold. Change the dance. Improvise.
Last night I finished up my involvement in a D&D campaign run by my friend, Fish. It ended poorly for my wizard, the elderly Baltigast – he took a pair of bad draws from a Deck of Many Things as a last ditch effort to recover his lost power and prestige, and instead wound up a toothless old madman without a penny to his name. Ah well.
Tomorrow, I start running my own D&D campaign (which was the reason I left Fish’s game – I like running better than playing, and I can’t wait anymore). So, today, in memory of those PCs who came to bad ends and in anticipation of those PCs who are going to, let me tell you some stories about the miserable ends some of my players have fallen victim to over my 23 year history of running RPGs.
In no particular order:
Barooza, 3rd Level Half-Orc Berzerker, Amedio Jungle, Oerth
Barooza foolishly drank an Elixir of Madness, making him…unreasonable. An unreasonable berserker in a dungeon crawl is a dangerous prospect, and so the other players tied him up. Now, however, they had a thrashing, 250lbs half-orc to carry around, and nobody felt up to it. “Hey,” said the pirate, “I’ve got this Bag of Holding! We can just stuff him inside and carry him around!”
Yeah, that Bag of Holding? Actually a Bag of Devouring. They stuffed poor Barooza in head-first, and he only had time to scream once before he was consumed by an extra-dimensional predator. Bummer of a way to go.
Wheeler, 5th Level Mage, Crystalmist Mountains, Oerth
The party was in a large, hollow tower. They could scale the walls up to the top, but the walls were crawling with nasty critters that would try to eat them. The alternative? Well, Wheeler wanted to levitate straight up the middle of the tower and, once he reached the walkway at the top, he could let down several coils of rope for the rest of the PCs to scale. The trouble, of course, was they hadn’t really done the math on how far Wheeler could levitate for the duration of the spell and whether that would be sufficient time to reach the walkway. It was not – he came in ten feet shy. He then fell a couple hundred feet to his death. At least the prophet at the top was good enough to resurrect him.
Mac, Sergeant, Xplore Corporation, Abandoned Eridani War Cruiser, Fornax Galaxy
The party was being shot at from the floor below by war bots that were pumping plasma up through the deck plating, leaving molten holes in the steel floor. Mac attempted to drop a grenade through one such hole, but instead of dropping it through, he decided this was the time to play a game of hoops. He shot from half-court, the grenade took a very bad bounce, and landed at his feet. Boom. His internal organs were pulped, and so ended Mac.
Nameless XF Inc Mercenary, US Naval Base, Lone Wolf Planetoid, Wolf-359
So, after attacking an armored US Marine with a kitchen knife (and barely surviving), he and his compatriot were cut off in the detention wing of the facility, with their only possible escape route being a cargo elevator. Into the cramped elevator they crammed and slowly began to ascend to the laundry room, however, the marines had reached the elevator and were guiding it back down. The elevator was a cage, and there was just enough room to stick a pistol out to maybe shoot out the counter weights to release the elevator. The other guy took the shot. After much random ricocheting, the bullet hit the mercenary between the eyes.
Major Russ Carmady, Olympus, Groomsbridge 1619
Major Russ was a big fan of planning out his defenses, so when they landed to secure a drop zone on a strange alien planet, he ordered the whole area littered with antipersonnel mines – just in case, you know? Cut to a few days later, when they are being bombarded from orbit by a Chinese battlecruiser and actual extraterrestrials are about to storm their base, and what does Russ elect to do? Well, he obviously can’t be captured, so he makes a run for it. This was my question:
So, do you remember where you placed your own mines?
No. No he did not. Kablooey.
Got any other ridiculous tales of PCs’ untimely demises? Share them here!
Say, did you miss my last book signing? Feel guilty? Well, have I got some good news for you! I will be doing another book signing at the Prudential Center Barnes and Nobel in Boston this coming Saturday, 5/30, from 2pm to 4pm. I will be signing copies of the Writers of the Future Anthology, Volume 31, so come on down!
No, seriously, come on down. I don’t want to be lonely. I want the nice people at Barnes and Nobel to appreciate my business. I’ll have cookies and stuff. Just show up and let me scribble on your book!
Been a while since I’ve put on my gamer hat hereabouts, so here we go…
Role-playing games campaigns are social enterprises that rely on a good group dynamic to be successful. In this sense, they are similar to team sports (observe how the jocks and the nerds doth rage at such an analogy! Indeed, it is beauteous to me!). A good RPG campaign, in order to work, goes beyond what actually happens at the table and into the social and (even) political sphere. Good GMs know this, and they set their games up to enhance it. Poor GMs don’t pay any attention to it, and they wonder why everybody quits their campaign halfway through.
A Word About Ideals…
Okay, so it’s worth pausing for a second to define what I consider an “ideal campaign” to be. An Ideal Campaign has the following characteristics:
- Everybody Has Fun: This is a minimum requirement. Everybody should be laughing, everybody should be hanging on every die roll, everybody should be invested in what is going on.
- Everybody Is Engaged in the Action: The storyline of the campaign should matter to the players. They should care about what happens and should want to know what happened last time. Ideally, they should even discuss what might or is happening with each other and with you outside of the game itself. In other words, they are so deeply invested in the game that it stays with them at least some of the time.
- Everybody Gets Along: The people playing are compatible personalities who, even if not great friends, generally get along well and are able to be comfortable with one another.
- Everybody is Organized: The game starts on time, it ends on time, the GM keeps things moving, the players show up consistently, and the meeting schedule is regular and consistent.
These four things, when combined, mean the “campaign morale” is high and everything is going well. If one or more of these things aren’t working, the campaign is not going well (at least according to the Ideal).
How Is This Done?
Assuming we all want to get to Goal#1 up there, we actually need to address these goals in reverse order.
Organization: The first order of business is Goal #4: getting organized. This is really essential, because it’s the basic requirement of having a game: everybody needs to show up regularly and on time. Understandably, people will miss the occasional session due to illness or unforeseen circumstances or what-have-you, but on average everybody should be there. Furthermore, the game should meet often enough to create a kind of momentum. If you meet once and then not again for two months, people forget what is happening, the GM is less invested in continuing (since people have forgotten about it), and the whole thing can just fade away. Meet regularly, show up on time, and you can go from there. The party that plays together, stays together.
Group Dynamic: As the GM, it is your job to make sure the party in your campaign is compatible and able to get along. If you have a friend that nobody else likes, inviting him to play may be a mistake for everybody. Now, generally I’ve found most gamers can get along with most other gamers for a few hours a week (or month), but there are exceptions (and you know who they are, too, I’d bet). Not inviting a buddy of yours because you think his incessant need to creepily leer at women might offend the two women playing might hurt his feelings, but hey – he’s the one being the creep, not you. That, of course, is an extreme case and, again, I’ve found personality conflicts like this to be rare.
More common (and arguably just as important), though, is simply thinking about everybody’s playstyle. A band of by-the-numbers point munchkins probably won’t understand or appreciate a real Role Player in their midst and vice versa. I personally recommend getting a variety of play-styles involved, assuming everybody understands how you are going to run the game. If everybody is on board and aware of the expectations, everything will go much more smoothly.
Engagement: This is a tough one. Even if you nail the first two, this one is probably the hardest one to master. It also might be the most optional of them all – players don’t have to love the plot of the game if they just love the action of playing – but I firmly believe having this in your corner makes everything better (everything!). As GM, this one lands mostly in your court. All players, when they make a character, are telling you the kind of things they want their character to be and do. If I make a greedy Halfling rogue with a complex about how short he is, I am pretty much telling you that I want to pick a half-orc’s pocket at bar and then have a bar-fight when he calls me “short-stuff”. You need to figure out what your players want and then you need to build the storyline around those desires. Alternately, you can tell everybody before the game starts what the game is going to be about and then ask everybody to make a character that fits inside that arena. Of the two, the latter is easier but the former is far more effective (if you can pull it off). In either case, if players love the concept, they will love the game, and they will be more likely to show up, more likely to have fun, and more likely (even) to get along.
Fun: The game is fun if people are smiling (or shuddering like they just saw a horror movie) after a session is over. How this achieved is complex, but generally I’d say the above three concerns are a good place to start. The other thing to remember is that this is a game. Try to avoid getting anyone’s ego involved. Laugh. Act like you’re having fun (which you should be, dammit, or else why do this?). Generally speaking, the more fun you have, the more fun everybody else will likely have.
In the end, these things all feed off one another. If you can get all four of them to work, then your campaign is guaranteed to be a success (I promise). If they all fail, people are going to be checking Facebook in the midst of the game and blowing off a session anytime a second cousin is in town. Believe me, I’ve been in both situations, and they are the best and the worst role-playing experiences I’ve ever had. Good luck out there, and have fun!
Putting on the gamer hat today – hold on.
So I ran a one-shot adventure of 7th Sea for my friends the other day. It was lots of fun, but it also drew attention to certain problems and challenges inherent in the one-shot format of role-playing games. See, unlike a session within a longer campaign, the one-shot has certain restrictions, chief among which is the fact that the entirety of the story needs to be completed within a single sitting. This, among other things, makes the art of the one-shot an aspect of game-mastering I have yet to…well…master.
Problem the First: Pacing
Telling a complete story with five of your friends fleshing it out and landing it all within a 5-hour window is a lot harder than it sounds. Try as I might, my one-shots always, always run long, and this is as much my fault as it is the players. See, I want to tell a complete and interesting story. I put in sub-plots and multiple, complex villains. In my head, it’s all paced like a screenplay – three acts, a couple action sequences, and one big finale. Should work fine, but it doesn’t. The players are always tugging off on various subplots, things always take longer than they should (I should learn to stop asking players to dictate what supplies they purchase – utter waste of time), and combat always takes too long. Despite my claims and assertions that the game will run long, somebody inevitably has to leave early, which is lame for them, lame for us, and can throw off the final scene.
Problem the Second: Rule Systems
Most games are not designed for one-shot play. They have complex rule systems that take time to teach/master, run combats at a slow pace, and basically delay the resolution of action for the sake of die-rolling. 7th Sea, as it happens, is chief among these: no duel takes less than an hour to resolve. Throw in players unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the system and you keep hitting delays – people look up rules, people hemming and hawing over their decisions, etc., etc.
Problem the Third: The Inevitable Bail-out
With these things, somebody who say they will come inevitably doesn’t show up. It happens all the time, and though I should plan for it, it usually screws things up for me. This happens because the person who always bails is the person upon whom I’ve pinned much of the plot and whose absence is the hardest to cover for. Also, this isn’t even accounting for the folks who show up late (which I’ve taken to be a given at this point), which only exacerbates the pacing issues discussed above.
Well, seeing how it’s rare that I manage to run a ‘perfect’ one-shot, I’m not certain I’m the guy to give you the answers here. I do, however, have a couple things I try to keep in mind when running such games. When I follow my own advice, things often go well.
Solution the First: Be Less Ambitious
Your players don’t really need Goodfellas or The Godfather when The Untouchables will do. Drop the sub-plots. Flatten out your villains. Cut the action to quick moments with only one major battle. Your players, like as not, will fill out the empty space with their own ideas. If you are good thinking on your feet, you’ll be able to give the plot the attention it needs while still exploring sub-plots and good ideas.
Solution the First, Sub A: Be Willing to Change!
One thing you can also do is, if the game is running long, drop certain conflicts you had originally counted on. Take out things, consolidate other things, and your players might never know the difference.
Solution the Second: Pick the Game Wisely!
Certain games are custom-made for fun one-shot adventures. Classic D&D fits this mold, as does Call of Cthulhu, Feng Shui, and some others make characters or play a game with very simple character generation systems (Danger Patrol comes to mind). Don’t sit down with every Shadowrun sourcebook known to man and expect to make characters in an afternoon *and* play a game. Forget it.
Solution the Second, Sub A: Rules, Shmules!
In a one-shot, nobody should look anything up in a book ever. Who gives a crap if you get a rule wrong? Make up a serviceable house rule on the spot and move on. If you’re wrong, it hardly matters – you’re only playing this game this once, so there are no real repercussions of screwing something up. Likewise with some other things players get obsessed with: give the players whatever equipment they want with a minimum of fuss. Tell them they have enough money to do whatever sensible thing they’d like to do. Don’t ever ask them the question ‘is there anything else you’d like to do?’ when you want a scene to end. Just finish it. Tell them their brilliant plan works and move on with your life – you can’t spend fifty minutes role-playing out a shop scene. Waste of time.
Solution the Third: Pick Your Players
If you’re like me, you know a lot of people who like to play RPGs and are asking you about playing in them. Of this grand company, there are perhaps only 3-5 who you can rely upon to appear when they say they will. These are the people you game with. Those other folks are great, and by all means invite them, but don’t make them central to the game. That may sound harsh, but hey, if they have a habit of never answering their phone and being perpetually forty-five minutes late, it’s on them, not you. I’m an adult and so are they. If they want to play games with me, they have to demonstrate that they want to play games with me. This is typically demonstrated by showing up on time and being good at communicating with others. This, by the by, is the rule I am absolutely the worst at obeying myself. Ah well.
So, there you have it – a rough and ready guide to a single night’s geekery. Hopefully it’s helpful! Thanks for reading!
Occasionally, I purchase or acquire new role-playing games from the bargain shelves of gaming stores or from friends who are cleaning out their book collection. I take a look at them, read them through, and make a determination of whether I will do one of two things:
1) Shelve it and never look at it again.
2) Waste hours considering the campaign I’d like to run based off the game, even though I do not, in any way shape or form, have the time to run an RPG campaign.
Option #1 is usually the more prudent choice. I am in the midst of running 2 campaigns right now, both of which are temporarily stalled thanks to me being too busy to think about them, so the idea that I might spend any amount of time thinking about an additional game to play is silly and wasteful.
…and yet here I am.
I just acquired the hard copy of Torchbearer the other day, which is a new RPG by the same guy who did The Burning Wheel, which is at once one of the more fascinating and frustrating rule systems I’ve encountered. Torchbearer is essentially a stripped down version of Burning Wheel, using the same basic rule mechanic but tossing out the fourteen tons of character-intensive soul-searching off of which that game operates. It’s a throwback to the old dungeon-centric games of my youth – players portray a basic archetypical character all of whom collectively need to make their living by invading the dark and forbidding places of the earth for treasure. The best thing about it is that it has de-romanticized dungeon crawling – people who spend their time hunting treasure in deadly places are not heroes, they are not the finest examples of humanity, they are not whimsical storybook characters. They are desperate, poor, and probably starving and the only reason they are doing this is because they haven’t the connections, the will, or the wits to live a more respectable life.
I sort of dig that idea. And I do like dungeons.
The problem (and the debate) that occupies my time, though, when considering whether a game is worth running and planning or not is two-fold:
1) How will this game be different from other games I have run?
2) How can I make it into something new and interesting in its own right.
Torchbearer’s basic world/setting is, frankly, not very interesting. Granted, it is expressly intended to be a throwback game, but just because that’s what the authors intended doesn’t mean that’s what I would do with it. I have run so many medieval fantasy world campaigns that the thought of another, even a gritty survival based one (which, it should be noted, I have already done) sounds fairly dull. So, in the interest of completeness, let me list off the similar campaigns I have run in the past couple years or so:
- The Amazing Race: Talislanta: a campaign where I created two separate adventuring parties who had to go on a cross-continental race to steal a mighty treasure from an unknown land for a fabulous reward. Set in Talislanta, using that game’s system. It was fun.
- Alandar: A game set in my own world with my own modification of the Roll-and-Keep system which ran for a few years and was quite epic in scope and depth. I’m never doing that again (most likely), so there’s no point in pretending to try.
- Burning Imperium: A personal mod of the Burning Wheel system to fit the Warhammer 40K universe. Team-oriented play, dark world, etc.
- Riddle of Steel: Japan: A mod (getting a trend here?) of the Riddle of Steel system adapted to a quasi-historical medieval Japanese setting. Very gritty rules, very character oriented, but mostly political intrigue based.
I will leave out the 3-4 Dungeons and Dragons campaigns I ran as a kid, as well as the umpteen-billion D&D-ish one-shots I’ve played in. I’m probably missing a few things in there, too. Anyway…
Stuff I haven’t done includes Post-apocalyptic settings, anything set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe (which might be fun), as well as anything in a player-generated, collaboratively created world. All three of these seem like decent possibilities. The first would require the most adaptation on my part (though it would a very awesome take on the old dungeon-crawl trope: trawling ancient ruins for stuff to survive the wasteland of far-future Earth), the second is just a setting I love and would be fun to play with (though my enthusiasm may be unique in that regard – not a lot of WHFB fans around here), and the third would require the least work on my part, but would rely on actively engaged players contributing to the creation of the game. At my age, I don’t know a whole lot of people with the kind of free time and attention necessary to do that, as fun as it would be.
Ultimately, at some point, all gamers at my age need to understand something that is, regrettably, true: You’re never going to be 15-24 again. You will never have the kind of free-time you used to have before you had a family and a career and so on. All the crazy campaign Ideas you come up with can only come to fruition if, by some work of sorcery, you can pry the rest of your friends away from their real lives long enough to eat up 6 hours of their lives every week or two in order to imagine yourself somewhere else. So, would I like to run a Post-apocalyptic Torchbearer game? Yeah, I would. Will I?
Christ, man – I haven’t even gotten that Ravenloft campaign back up and running yet. I’ve got novels to finish, stories to sell, papers to grade. I’ve got that Warhammer habit to feed. I’ve got two kids, a dog, and a wife. Get out of dreamworld, Habershaw! Get back to business!
I’ve been running role playing games for my friends for about 22 years or so at this point. I have created and run over a dozen campaigns and innumerable one-shot adventures. I’ve played RPGs with rank newbies and grizzled veterans and everybody in-between. I’ve lost count of the number of game-systems knocking around in my head (and, indeed, as any of my long-time players can attest, I sometimes get them all tangled up together.). What I lay out here are the strictures by which I try to run what I consider to be a good game. They may work for you or not; all I’m expressing is my experience. I might also add that I don’t always live up to these commandments myself, as much as I try. When they all work, though, something golden is bound to happen.
#1: Thou Shalt Not Take Thy Game Too Seriously
Yes, I realize you spent hours and hours prepping this adventure. Yes, I know your players are being paranoid weirdoes and metagaming this thing to hell and back. You are absolutely right that your players aren’t taking the Black Dragon of Immortal Dread seriously. I get it. Your players are being dicks. Now, pay attention: Get Over Yourself. Repeat back to me: This is a game. It is not all that important. I will not pout or complain or storm off or exact my vengeance on my friends in the form of falling rocks. The idea in an RPG, hell, the idea in every single game, is for people to have fun. Are your friends having fun? Yes? Then shut up. Roll with it. Improvise.
#2: Thou Shalt Clearly Explain The Game’s Goals
The easiest way for players to ‘ruin’ your game (and please keep in mind that RPGs can’t actually be ruined if your go with it) is for them to have no idea what you want out of the game. Your fun is every bit as important as their fun and, if they are your friends, they should care about that. So explain to them in clear terms what you want the game to be. “This is a dark, gritty crime thriller game set in a dystopian future” or “This is a horror game where you guys are monster slayers” or “This game is supposed to be high adventure space opera with laser beams and talking robots and everything.”
This gives your players the choice: do you want to play this game that I have described, or do you not? If they don’t, no harm/no foul. If they do, they should be willing to buy into the whole thing. If you and the players work together, things will get awesome fast. If you and the players aren’t on the same page, it isn’t going to work.
#3: Thou Shalt Hold Story Above All Else
RPGs are not strategy games. They aren’t card games. They are Role Playing Games, which means people play roles (characters) and you, as Gamemaster, put them in situations where they can play those roles. They are, in essence, highly collaborative storytelling games. As such, the story needs to get top billing. It isn’t just that the players are doing a certain thing, there needs to be some understanding of why they are doing this thing and what the stakes are and what happens next if they succeed and so on and so forth. Now, this doesn’t mean a fair amount of strategy can’t be involved (particularly if the game’s concept calls for it), but any RPG that degenerates to mere dice rolling and accounting is going to be dull. Victory is far more sweet when it means something, and it won’t mean anything without a story attached to it.
#4: Thou Shalt Find Every Player Character Cool
Yes, all of them. Even the ones that are very much not cool, like the pacifist half-orc accountant or that one guy who wants to play a wandering poet named Dweeber who keeps a dead fairy in a pouch in hopes it will produce pixie dust someday. It doesn’t matter if the player has come up with a character you think is the dumbest, least interesting, least appropriate or useful character ever devised by man, it is your requirement, as GM, to love him and try and make him look cool.
Why is this your job? Because the GM is supposed to make the adventure fun, and a player who finds his character useless and ignored (no matter how rightly) isn’t going to have much fun. Now, making them work may take some doing here, but try and figure out what circumstances will make that character shine and make a point to give them that opportunity as often as is feasible within the bounds of the story. Again, if you’re obeying Commandment #2, ideally this shouldn’t be much of a problem very often, but stranger stuff can happen. Anyway, if somebody shows up to the table with a stupid character, you need to forget all about that character’s stupidity and work your ass off to make them awesome. The game will be much better off for it, trust me.
#5: Thou Shalt Improvise
You cannot plan for everything the players are going to want to do. There are two solutions to this problem: First, you can just not let them do things that don’t fit inside your plans (this is called ‘railroading’) or, second, you can just say “Yes, and…”
“Yes, and” is an improv term, and it is an important one. It means you agree to what the players want, and you use this new input on their part to make more interesting and fun things happen. This requires you, as a GM, to think on your feet a lot, but that’s okay – you should prep with the possibility of improvisation in mind. When I design adventures, I typically devise a series of NPCs the players will or may interact with and then devise the plots these NPCs have going on their own. As the PCs bump into each of these NPCs, this creates a story that spreads throughout the little universe I’ve created. If I need to create new elements, I do so, and they continue to influence the setting of the game, creating more conflict, more story, and more fun stuff. It really works, and it beats the hell out of the whole ‘you can’t do that’ angle.
#6: Thou Shalt Keep It Moving
Sometimes, players will start planning something (a raid on a castle, a dungeon exploration, an elaborate jail break), and then they will never stop. Not ever. They will spend hours and hours and hours sitting around and arguing with each other and then, when they finally get down to doing something, it’s already midnight and everybody needs to go home.
You job, as GM, is to cut that shit out. This is a really hard one, believe me, since a lot of players have an intrinsic distrust of you (which ought to be wildly misplaced, I might add) and will look suspiciously on any attempt by you to hasten along their planning process. You need to stop them, though, or they will miss the actual fun of the game, which is the execution of their plans. Let them plan, by all means, but let’s keep it down to 2 hours or so, tops. Be willing to fudge details in their favor, if you must, but keep it moving. As interesting as their plans are in the first fifteen minutes, by hour three they are usually just repeating themselves and getting nowhere. Moderate their discussions. Give them suggestions that would naturally occur to their characters. Ask questions that will direct them towards a concrete plan.
#7: Thou Shalt Not Obsess Over Minutiae
A lot of games lend themselves to the endless discussion of minor details. Games like Shadowrun, for instance, which has elaborate rules for every piece of gear in the game plus lifestyle costs, exchange rates, and so on and so forth. Old Dungeons and Dragons had it’s famed Encumbrance tables, Riddle of Steel has its half dozen interlocking wound tables, and so on and so forth. Maps like the one to the right here are as common as goblins.
Now, these things certainly have their place in the game, but there comes a point when you need to let it go. Screw up a rule? Whatever – move on. Forget that object X actually costs 30% more than you quoted? Nobody cares – move on. Are the PCs stuck in the middle of a labyrinth with no map and no conceivable way of escaping without said map? Too bad – let them find another way. Keep it moving.
This commandment has a lot to do with commandments 5 and 6, granted, and is also related to the all important commandment 2, but it is unique in the sense that it pervades every single part of the game, from character creation through the doling out of XP rewards. The rules – the book – is always the least important part of any game I run. I follow the rules, sure, but I never let those rules dictate what happens in the game. Why? Well, because just following the rules means the PCs can lose. They can all die. The game can end in misery and disappointment simply because your players were (perhaps accurately) too stupid to save their own hides. That’s not okay; that’s no fun. Don’t let the fine print ruin the bold sweeps of a campaign.
#8: Thou Shalt Make Things Dangerous and Create Tension
90% of players in the universe are danger averse. They want their dungeon crawl to go perfectly according to plan, they want all of their stuff to work exactly when it’s supposed to, and they don’t want their character to be injured.
Fuck that noise.
Stories where everything goes according to plan and nothing goes wrong are BORING. They aren’t half as much fun as when things go pear-shaped halfway through and everybody has to scramble to pull off a suddenly-improbable victory. Those are the games that players talk about for years afterwards. Those are the campaigns that set the standard for every campaign you ever run again. You want there to be danger, since danger creates tension, and tension is fun. Blow stuff up. Have something go wrong. Make the PCs work for their victory, since then (and only then) will the victory be sweet.
There are, of course, limits to this (consider commandment 4), but as a GM you should always seek to make things just difficult enough that plan A is by no means assured of success and plan B is likely to be shot to hell, too. This may sound mean, but if you give your PCs the opportunities to succeed, then everything will be fine.
#9: Thou Shalt Be Generous
If something is not central to the story of an adventure and the players want it, let them have it. If a player creates a long-lost relative who lives in town and there isn’t some reason to forbid it, let it go. If a player wants his PC to be crown prince to a kingdom, tell him it’s okay. If a PC has her back against the wall and doom settling over her from all sides and begs for one chance to make it out alive, give it to her. You are not the PCs enemy. Let me repeat that:
YOU ARE NOT THE PCs’ ENEMY!
You are the facilitator of their grand adventure and attempt at glory, not their direct adversary. You want to make this fun, not arduous or frustrating. If you ‘win’ and all the PCs are dead and the game is over, you have failed as a GM (unless, via Commandment #2, you set this up for them as a possibility). Don’t be a jerk. This isn’t a power trip, or at least it shouldn’t be.
#10: Have Fun
Basic rule of existence: if you are having fun, people around you are more likely to have fun. Smile. Enjoy yourself. Laugh. Do what you think is cool. Your enjoyment of this game is just as important as anyone else’s, and if your players have beaten you into a place where you no longer enjoy running for them, you are missing the whole point of playing a game. Fun is the whole idea and, as GM, nobody has more power to make things fun than you. Go after it! Enjoy!