Ahhhh…. back in the saddle. GMing again. I took a break to let others have a turn in the big chair, but the reigns have finally come back around to me. I guess now would be the time for me to put my money where my mouth is concerning all the GMing advice I’ve been babbling about here. Right?It’s not easy though, especially after so much internal anticipation, to keep the ideas that have been floating around my skull in reserve where they belong. My Players are still building their PCs (most of the numbers are done, the back stories outlined, the personalities are currently simmering) and if I start trying to direct them at this point they may decide to go along with what I’ve come up with instead of planning for themselves. But where’s the fun in that? Man, so difficult to keep my stupid over active imagination in check. So what am I doing now? Right now I have a basic understanding of my PCs and what portions of my universe they have made motions toward claiming for their own. I’ve listened to them and tried to add some dust to their atmosphere in the hopes that clouds will form. So far I’m very happy with what I’ve gotten from them. (Yes, I know that at least two of them read this blog so nothing secret is going to get spilled here even if there were secrets at this point, which there really aren’t.) The system is TSR’s failed attempt at a science fiction game, Alternity. I never run in the basic world provided by the books for any system so I’ve modified the world somewhat. Mostly I feel that I’ve opened things way up. First my universe is so chock full of aliens that my Players are allowed to play one of the five base races in the book or use the “Mutants” rules in the back of the book to build their own aliens. So lots of aliens and I’m going mostly the Star Trek/Star Wars road with them. Sentient (playable) races are all generally humanoid, generally able to communicate with each other, generally about the same size for the sake of all being on the same ship together. Sci-fi is a broad term so I’ve narrowed the technology level of my universe thusly. Alternity uses Progress Levels 1-10 where PL:5 is Modern Day; cell phones, computers, cars, planes, internet, assault rifles, body armor, etc. Non-FTL sleeper ships are PL:6. Short hop “star drive” hyperspace-style FTL ships are PL:7 and that’s about where I’m setting things. FTL ships are commonplace, but large and typically owned by corporations, governments, and organizations like trains and large planes are today. Only very wealthy or very determined individuals own their own FTL ships and they are rare. Moving between systems is accomplished by booking passage for yourself or for your non-FTL ship within a large FTL capable vessel that makes long FTL circuits along a route of systems like a bus. The only exception to this type of travel are the rings (blatantly stolen from Stargate). These are big rings (50km diameter) left orbiting certain stars by some long gone very advanced civilization. They can be used to move instantly from one ring to any other ring you have the numeric code for and the ring systems all coordinate a schedule of connections to keep trade flowing. To operate a ring you have to have the specific code for an individual ring you want to get to and random dialing doesn’t work or at least hasn’t worked so far. There are only 20 rings currently known about. Wars are fought over control of the rings and they represent an immense source of trade revenue for the system they are in. As such every system with a ring has become a hub of population with just about every planet, moon, and asteroid having some kind of settlement on it. No ring system has yet been willing to risk breaking theirs just to try and take it apart to see how it works and no already broken or dismantled rings have been found. Everyone thinks it would be a good idea to see if by cutting open the golden goose they could find the magic of the golden eggs, but no one wants it to be their goose that gets the knife. Anyway, these are (at the moment) far from the PCs who will be starting in systems that range between backwater (PL:6) to modern (PL:7) and are not ring systems. I think that it is important to have your PCs be allowed to rise to “mover’n’shaker” status should they so desire. Starting one’s game at the hub of your particular universe then requires that you either boost your PCs’ power levels way beyond starting character or doom them to always being at the whim of some more powerful NPC. Extra lame with a side of lame. I don’t like either of these options so we’re starting out a bit from this universe’s “hot spots” as it were. That being the case, all this talk of rings just flavor text for now that I’m tossing in because it struck me as interesting. Across the universe there exist thousands of alien races and just about every form of government you can imagine. This choice was intentional to keep things open and pliable for the PCs. Just about any sci-fi scenario is available in some form for them to latch on to. At the moment I have three PCs and they are a medical doctor, a professional psychic, and a pilot/ship tech. Each of them has chosen to build their own races with unique histories, customs, and everything. Now it is my job to start trying to figure out who their PCs are, how they could possibly meet up and what kind of story they are going to be most interested in following after. Next week! First actual role-playing session of the game! I’m excited. Can you tell?
It isn’t always an option, but as a GM I try not to avoid saying “no” to my Players as much as possible. If they (or more accurately, they and their PC) want to do something, I feel that, as a GM, it is my job to help them explore their goals and figure out what the best possible paths toward them are. In my mind it is the capability to accomplish this well that seperates good GMs from great GMs. I mean, we have all played games where freewill was restricted down to a single path where we, the PCs, were completely free to choose our one “option” at each stage of the game or walk off the edge of the world instead. You have to agree that it sux. Right?
So when a PC decides that they want to be able to flap their arms and fly over that mountain range in the distance, what do I do? I keep in mind and discuss with the Player the two most important parts of any plan: the cost and the benefit.
First we discuss why they want to do this (the benefit) because it is important to know the “why” of things. Perhaps the Player has settled upon this plan, not because it is objectively the best way to do things, but because it is the only way they can see to get at the benefit. If this is the case I suggest several courses of action that would lead to the same benefit. It could be that they reason for the flight across the mountain range is to get a burger from the other side and the Player/PC hasn’t realized that there are burgers on this side of the range as well. The Player/PC may still want to go with their original plan, but at least they are now aware that what they want can be gotten using another method. They know that they have options.
Next we go over what steps required (the cost) for their plan to work. So first you need wings, well you did pass that tinkerer in the last town a few weeks ago. Maybe he could help you build something? Could be expensive though. Then you’ll probably want some oxygen to survive at high altitudes, maybe some warm clothing, and don’t forget to bring some money. Hamburgers don’t just grow on trees, you know. Help them figure out how long the plan would probably take to enact and how much of their wealth (money, items, favors, etc) it would take to bring it about.
You aren’t telling them “no” exactly but you are explaining to them that they are going to have to trade something to get what they want. Time, money, deals with unsavory types, moral choices, etc. Just remember to be honest with your Players. Really try to think of a realistic (within the metaphor of the game) way of accomplishing their goal and share it with them.
Also, it is a good idea at this point to attempt to work in some portion of the plan that can’t be accomplished without the aid of other PCs and to try and think of reasons why it could benefit the other PCs to help out. Please don’t misunderstand me though. I’m not saying align everyone in the group’s goals to coincide with those of one member. What I’m saying is that for each PC’s goals, give the other PCs reasons why it could be beneficial for them to move in that direction.
If you can swing it, each PC should know what they’d be getting out of helping each of the other PCs even if that benefit will be eventually betraying the people they’re helping. That way all directions are beneficial in some way for everyone. That way the PCs (not you) are responsible for making the decision and regardless of what decision is made, everyone gets something out of it. PC1 would kill for a burger. So remind PCs2-4 that they’ve each at some point mentioned a desire for onion rings or fries or maybe a milkshake. Sure those things aren’t at the tops of their lists, but it wouldn’t be all bad to let PC1 have their way. Now do that for each PC, not just PC1, and use your imagination! Maybe even some PCs could have secret goals and would be willing to help out another PC as long as no questions are asked about why they’re being so generous? Who knows? Juggling costs and benefits can be fun!
Is it possible that, once the numbers are in, they’ll decide the cost to benefit ratio is too high for their goal and give it up? Of course it is and that’s fine. Is it equally as possible that they’ll develop a driving goal for this shining ivory fortress wherein reside the burgers of legend? Sure it is! And what’s wrong with that? Nothing at all. Maybe it isn’t the typical goal of a group playing in this particular setting, but who cares? If your PCs are motivated and your Players are having a good time, that’s all that really matters. Just remember, shutting down ideas because they aren’t in your original conception of the game is easy. However, that kind of RPG can be gotten from a videogame. A paper’n’dice game really should be more than that.
Well, a very helpful person found my blog (thank you Michael Hanscom) and posted a bunch of links to other blogs written by people who were at the panel I missed (Putting the “R” in RPG) and to all five parts of a recording made of the panel that were posted to YouTube. I’ve now read not just the articles relating to the topic I was concerned with, but I also read a bunch of their other posts from those people and watched all of the panel recording.First impression: I was wrong about what that panel was about. The description may have mentioned sex specifically, but the panel itself was more about violence. Sex as well, but most of the sex discussion was in reference to rape. Second impression: I am a lot more vanilla a gamer than I originally thought. One of the panelists (a former White Wolf employee who helped bring us game aids like Mage’s The Book of Mirrors) spoke about a game he was in where the GM allowed one PC to rape another PC. Another panelist apparently was running a game with someone they knew had had trouble with bulimia in their past and he had NPCs take random jabs at that personal demon. WTF?? It is my belief that during C-gen the reason no one makes a homeless junkie with no powers or goals in life except finding a half eaten-doughnut in the trash can and getting their next fix is because role-playing is what people do to experience favorable situations. It’s a vacation from the real world and no one goes on vacation to a leper colony. Duh. If at any time you, the GM, witness your game moving in a direction that will put one of your PCs into a position that their Player wouldn’t desire to play through, you should intervene. The point of role-playing is to play through roles you’d like to have but can not for various reasons. It is not to play through situations of degradation, violation, or embarrassment regardless of the logic of the situation. I mean I understand that yes there are some people who do want to play through situations like that but bringing that to game with you sort of forces the rest of your group to participate in it with you and that’s not very cool. But that could just be my opinion. Anyway, the big message of the panel was that you should discuss where your groups boundaries are before starting the game and respect them. There was talk of eating babies and crushing puppies and lots of references to rape. The one thing I really got out of it was to challenge PCs with permanency. ie, a PC getting shot is common place, however if you package that wound with a permanent scar that they become remembered for and recognized by it makes the incident more meaningful. I thought that was a good idea. My big question about the panel was this: Why so much rape? I’ve thought carefully about it and here’s what I’ve come up with. PCs get stabbed and shot and have magic worked upon them and whatnot, but most of that just leads to injury which, beyond the context of the game, is completely unreal. Rape doesn’t include a tenth of the violence and pain entailed in getting set a flame and yet Players are far more able to accept their PC getting lit up than if they were to be raped. Why is that? My opinion is that the separation of Player from PC inherent in gaming is insulation mostly against the physical hurts your PC may encounter. If another PC or the GM starts berating you verbally in game, even if you understand intellectually that it is just one character talking to another, it is hard not to take those words personally. The separation of Player from PC does is not nearly as effective an insulation against emotional/intellectual hurts and since the violation of rape is mostly an emotional/intellectual one, that gets through our armor. Can this be useful? Yes it can be. I’m a horror junkie and the difference between horror and adventure is the fear. A good horror tale gets past that armor of “it’s not real” and pulls your emotional side into the story a little farther than normal. To use it well, though you have to have a sharp sense of timing, a vivid imagination to use imagery that will reveal where the chinks in their armor are, and a good eye for reading your Players to tell first when you’ve hit the target and second when you get close to their limit so you know when to stop twisting the blade. To be honest I can’t imagine a scenario where allowing a PC to be raped would be a good idea, but if you’re a really skilled tale-spinner and you know your Players really well, I suppose it could be done. I wouldn’t advise trying it though. That way lies bruised egos and hurt feelings.
So I went to Norwescon (Seattle’s science fiction and fantasy convention) last April and in the list of discussion panels was one called “Putting the ‘R’ in RPG.” Me, being the naive guy that I am, assumed that they were going to be discussing how to increase the role-playing in your role-playing games. Before I went though, I found a longer description and apparently they meant “R” as in something getting an “R” rating. Specifically they were focusing sexuality and sensuality.Seriously the first thing that came to mind was that Dead Ailwives “Dungeons and Dragons” sketch. Specifically I thought bout the part where one player is in the kitchen looking for Cheetos and calling back to the GM about how if there are any girls at the bar his character is in he wants to “dooooo them.” I had to laugh and I think I opted to go see Jim Butcher talk about “Kickassitude” in the Urban Fantasy genre instead. Lately though, I’ve been thinking about that topic. Do people out there really want to role-play through getting their characters all sexed up? Now I wish I would have gone to that panel because I’m seriously curious. I mean in my games when the logical conclusion of a situation is the PC having sex, I usually skip to at least the far end of that act if not the next day entirely. If the character has some kind of power that is sex related (some kind of seduction power or something like that) I let them roll it, but usually I don’t dwell on the carnal details. To my understanding most gamers are male and only about 5% of the population is homosexual so in my imagination the sexual role-playing equates to two hetero dudes spending their RPG time inventing a fully sexual scene together while two or three other Players (probably hetero dudes as well) listen and/or participate. Now I’m as confident in my sexuality as the next guy, but that just strikes me as a weird way to spend your time. Anyway, long story short, it is something I just don’t usually include in my games beyond the basic acknowledgement that on occasion PCs get laid. So I’d like to know, how far do you other GMs out there take in-game sexual encounters? Do you include rolls for sexual performance? Do you roll for pregnancy? I don’t unless offspring is a conscious goal of the PC’s. I mean, in every on-going television show I’ve ever watched and in most books I’ve read, introducing a pregnancy is about the worst way to thicken a plot as there is. Most of the time all it does is introduce an easy way to make normally rational characters do stupid things because of parental instincts. It strikes me as sloppy storycraft so typically I don’t use pregnancy in my plots unless it is a motivation that has been with the PC in question from their inception. I’m curious what you all think, though. My opinion on this front should be obvious by now. However, since there was a panel discussion on the topic that I believe was well attended, I’m guessing there are other opinions out there. Oh and if you could, please post any responses directly to this blog. I know I have this auto-posting to the Facebooks and I definitely appreciate everyone there’s interest in what I have to say, but I do have some ulterior motives for publishing this blog. One of them being developing some street cred on the subject of RPGs. Next year it is my hope to get on some of the panel discussions at Norwescon. The role-playing over rule-playing point of view was wildly under represented this year and I’d like to change that on the next go around. I believe that having a relatively well read blog on the subject may get me in the door. So if any of you can help generate some activity on my blog’s actual site it would be much appreciated. Also, I think there’s a way to subscribe to my blog? It probably won’t do you much good if you rely on FB to inform you about new posts because this will just give you e-mail notifications as well, but if you’re willing to take the hit for the team it will help my cred along greatly to have more subscribers. Thanks in advance to anyone who helps me out in this way and extra thanks to those of you who already have!
I feel that it is a good thing to reassess ones motivations for doing things every once in a while. Many times we change or our circumstances change, but we don’t pause to reexamine why we do the things we do. We keep going to the restaurant that has changed management and no longer makes the dish we like or we keep taking the long way to work never realizing that they finished that new bypass six months ago and using it could save 10 minutes one way, 20 minutes per day, or 80-odd hours per year. So why do I game?In the beginning there was boredom. I grew up in a tiny town in rural northeast Iowa. When you have no wheels that don’t run on pedal power, it is easy to dry up the entertainment possibilities in a small town given a decade or so of kicking around and waiting for adulthood to happen. With oceans of time at my disposal and several friends who already had the books and dice I latched on to the cheapest hobby that didn’t involve going out in the heat or cold too often, and soaked up the most time. Then I went to college. Less boredom, but there was more time to kill. No parental supervision telling me the responsible things I ought to be doing with my time. There were also more people to game with, access to more gaming materials, and more games. So more gaming. Lots more gaming. At this point in my life gaming was my social outlet. When the other college students went to the bar to meet people and have fun, I whipped out the books and dice. This isn’t to say I didn’t do my share of drinking in college. I’d say I probably did a tad more than my share. For a while there I partied so much that gaming took a back seat, although it never went away entirely and I was always a gamer in my heart. Now I have a job and a mortgage and I find myself wondering whatever happened to that ocean of spare time I used to have. It’s barely a puddle anymore. There was a time when I considered a gaming session that didn’t last at least 4 hours to not be worth the time. Now I’m lucky if I can spare 4 consecutive hours for a game. What was once an ideal hobby because of its ability to take up nearly endless amounts of spare time is now something I have to schedule my week around and make time for. I can see the appeal of videogames from this perspective. With a real game there’s the initial conversation as everyone is showing up and settling in not to mention the travel time just to get to the game. Food to be gotten, and then at the end there are goodbyes and the trip home. With a videogame there is none of that. Sure you still need to eat, but the game won’t judge you for making a meal out of the crumbs at the bottom of the Dorito bag. Beyond food though, a 4 hour session equates to 4 hours in game instead of 4 hours equating to 3 hours of actual game time if you all stay on task. I don’t game for the killing of those 4 hours anymore, though. When I was young 4 hours spent in a good game was awesome and 4 hours spent in a boring one was still acceptable because I had the time to burn. Now the quality of enjoyment I get from the time I spend doing something is important. Using that time grind through meaningless xp farming or pit my numbers vs the numbers of the dungeon and listen to middle schoolers just freed from their muzzles calling each other (and me) dirty names (as if those sentiments were truly brand new) just doesn’t speak to me like it might have done once upon a time. So why do I still game if the original point was to waste time and I don’t have the time to waste anymore nor am I happy if the time actually gets “wasted”? Easy. Ever drive on the highway and look at another carload of people and wonder what their lives are like? Gaming is not just looking over at what the people in the car driving beside yours are doing, but being able to jump over into that car and participate for a while. You can say that gaming is like playing a board game or reading a book or some combination of the two, but it isn’t. It is a complete vacation not just from day to day life, but from the world itself; escapism at its most refined. A good game is a movie that you get to write even as you watch it which only ends when you decide it should end. I suppose the short answer is that I still game because over the last couple of decades gaming moved from the thing I did to waste time because it was easy to the thing I save time for and work hard to arrange because it is so uniquely enjoyable. Your turn. Why do you game? Anyone?
I’ve played a lot of different games in my time. Some of them were good. Some sucked. Some were unremarkable except for a single new mechanic. A few were awesome.Probably the best Superhero game system I’ve ever encountered has to be White Wolf’s Aberrant. It’s a great dice system and the powers are list driven (as opposed to free-form or lego styles). Those of you who are familiar with White Wolf should have some idea of what their dice systems are like. All rolls are non-percentage based d10 rolls. Skills, stats and powers are on a 1-5 scale and most rolls combine a stat and a skill (and sometimes a power) to make a pool of dice you roll against a given difficulty and then count up successes. Finally you have the White Wolf patented power stat (every game has one) that is rated 1-10 and which rates your power level in the grand scheme of things and which you will never really get higher than 4 in any given game (not sure why, but this is the way White Wolf makes their games). This system is at the same time simple and very flexible and once you understand the basics, you can crank out a character in 10-15 minutes. Two things the Aberrant setting has going for it are the realism factor and the lack of comic book representation. Running a game in the DC or Marvel worlds can be interesting because of the shared understanding and love of those worlds, but it is also problematic. People who obsess about those worlds tend to be the ones who want to play in them and because of their obsession, they are also the ones who can’t take it when you modify the world. That’s a flaw in any system set in those worlds because most problems can be solved by one NPC or another in those other worlds far better and than they can be solved by the PCs. As a GM you now need to come up with some reason why these other beings are indisposed without (god forbid) killing them off. Makes for a very lame experience all around. I say the Aberrant setting has a good realism factor and what I mean by that is it really represents how I think our society would change with the introduction of super heroes. Super charismatic rock stars, super strong sports players with enormous product endorsement deals, scientists cutting up super heroes to find out what makes them super, secret government super hero groups, the old X-men stand by of “live with the humans or dominate them”, etc. There is still the problem of the world containing NPCs who are far more powerful than the PCs and so would probably be the ones to deal with the really serious problems. However, most Players won’t get nearly as bent out of shape if you decided to kill off Divis Mal as if you killed off Magnito for the sake of reducing the power level of the world in general. The lists of powers are even pretty comprehensive. I can only really think of one style of comic book hero that is difficult to make in Aberrant: Spiderman. Walking on walls, super strength, the webbing, even the “spider sense” are all doable. The problem is in the fact that Spiderman survives most things by not getting hit rather than being tough. I don’t know what to tell you, all of the White Wolf systems universally have that problem. It is always easier to build the character who can’t miss than it is to build the character who can’t be hit. Just a quirk of how the rules come together.
If you’ve never played in a one-shot game, then you are in the minority. A one-shot is where you have a willing group of players, but only a limited amount of time in which to hold a game and so need something that will only last one session. I’ve seen one-shots that were actually two or three shots, but the idea behind this kind of event is for it to start and end in short order. Perhaps you have a group of old gaming friends that can only get together once in a while. Perhaps you’ve bought a book for a new game system and you just want to give it a run around the block. Perhaps your group happens to be free all on the same night and you want to game, but don’t want to play any of the games you currently have going. For whatever reason, a one-shot is what you do when you want to role-play, but don’t have the luxury of being able to schedule a regularly occurring game.Now it seems to me that building a good one-shot involves considerations that are not normally an issue for your standard weekly game. The time constraint makes keeping things moving along far more important than usual. In your standard, one four hour session per week game, allowing a player to waste one hour being bored sucks, but is really no big deal in the grand scheme of things. Let’s say that your game lasts a year with a couple missed sessions for 50 four hour sessions total. That’s 200 hours. One wasted hour is only 0.5% of your time. If you’re running a 6 hour one shot though and one of your players spends an hour being bored, that’s 16.7% of their total time down the drain. That’s a large difference and it will be one of the memories they take away from the game; “I was bored for a good portion of it.” So we have to keep things moving and keep them interesting. How do we do that? First of all, a one-shot is a good reason for the GM to have a game plan well in advance of the event in question. Know the story you’re going to tell and restrict your players’ C-Gen so that everyone makes a PC that will have no trouble being integrated into the plot. Normally I’m completely against having a plot when going into a game, but in a one-shot this is essential. In my standard games the entire first session is usually dedicated to letting the PCs meet each other and letting me figure out who my main characters are and where they will be wanting this story to go. In a one-shot, if you spend the whole time just getting to know people, your game will end right when things become interesting. Not good. Now when picking a setting for a one-shot don’t be too extravagant. Keep the environment something that all of your players are equally comfortable in and make sure that this average level of comfort is high. If you’re running in a published setting keep it as close to the book as possible because that will allow your players to make assumptions based on what they already know/have read. Being constantly told this and that assumption was wrong because your GM had a picture in their head that differed from the one you had access to can be very frustrating especially if time is limited. If you feel the need to make changes to a given setting, be as open as possible, as early as possible, about those changes. Know how long your game is going to last (about) and have out-of-game mile stones. Game start at 4pm. At 5pm the host NPC is murdered. At 6pm the power goes out. That sort of thing. This way you can have an external control on how quickly your PCs move through the story. In a standard game I’d say this is a bad idea because you should really let your PCs have more influence on how the story progresses. In a one-shot though there should be a solid schedule or you’ll never get through your story in the time allotted. Tangents come up, distractions happen, the pizza guy will be late and he will bring you the wrong order and yet the clock ticks on. Your game has to tick on as well. Finally, your one-shot should have a definite ending and resolution. Personally, I think that all games should have a definite ending and resolution, but such a thing is far easier to engineer in a standard game than in a one-shot. In a standard game, you can take weeks to climax and to sort out every loose end. In a one-shot, you only have one shot (lol) at it. The story has to make sense and the ending has to not only fit, but it also has to seem fair. No one likes working through a complicated puzzle only to find that their solution was neither right nor wrong but was instead irrelevant. Misdirection is good in a game, but when time is a factor, the misdirection should be dispensed with early enough that your PCs can cut through to the real culprit before the end. There is a difference in realizing you’ve been fooled just in time to attempt a change in direction and finding out that you’ve been fooled and there’s nothing you can do about it now. I know you know that already, but think about which one you’d chose to experience if you had the choice. Now give your PCs that one.
Don’t misunderstand me. In a lot of my posts I advocate listening to your PCs for your ques on where to take the game and that is what I believe a good GM does. However, that doesn’t mean you should do nothing but sit and listen. As the GM, it is your job to provide the options and the PCs’ job to choose the direction.Putting together a good game is a collaborative effort and putting too much of it on your PCs is just as bad as taking too much of it away from them. Also, if you contribute nothing, most PCs won’t move in any direction because they don’t know what their options are. So it is up to you to keep things moving along and be an active tour guide through the world you’re running. Here are the things I keep in mind when trying to do this: Rapid fire plot hooks. My style is to take five minutes or so with each of my Players and Q&A them on what their character’s feelings, thoughts, interests, aversions, and goals are at this moment and I don’t do it just once or every once in a while, but I try and do that at every single session. During this time I do word association with plot ideas. Whenever they tell me something about their character, I shoot out a plot hook or three, trying to get a lot in during that 5 minute conversation. Hopefully I’ll notice when one or more of the things I suggest spark some interest and note those down. Then I look at what I have from all of my PCs and try to figure out how the things they are each individually interested in could possibly be tied together Kevin Bacon Game style. You know, this event ties to that person and this interest which ties to another event and other people etc. In this way I boil down my PCs’ natural inclinations into a direction for the game to go in. Play ball. Once I’ve gotten lists of plot hooks that generated interest from my PCs I don’t stop there. Interests change from month to month and sometimes from session to session. What interested them last week may be boring this week and the very last thing I want is for my game to get boring. Try and think of the game’s focus as a ball that only one person can hold at any one time. Under optimum circumstances the ball will go from you to PC1, back to you, then to PC2, back to you, then to PC3, then back to you and so on. However, if someone becomes bored with what is going on you may find them becoming uninvolved in the ball game or you may find that a single PC has taken over all of the ball game. Maybe you’ve become fixated on a plot involving the underworld, but only one of your PCs has a solid connection to it or vested interest in that. The others showed interest early on, but since then their interest has waned. Time for more rapid fire plot hooks to ensnare them again. That may mean you have to toss out or tone down the underworld stuff, but it is your job to keep everyone involved in every session. No exceptions. Keep things moving. After session each PC should leave with two things: a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of curiosity about what’s going to happen next week. Keep a watch on them as individuals for where they see themselves as being right now and where they want to get to. It is your job to find out if they have a good idea of how to move from point A to point B or not. You may think you’ve left clues for them, but they may have missed those clues. Sure in the real world that means they flounder, but this isn’t the real world. Watch for floundering and give them a shove in the right direction to get what they want if they need it. This can be something as gentle as reminding them of the clue they got and promptly dismissed/forgot about or as blunt as blatantly telling them that they might want to call this contact or check that lead out. If your PCs have hunches and follow them, great, if they don’t, there is nothing written anywhere that says you can’t manufacture a hunch for them. Reassess reassess reassess. As I’ve said before people’s interests and their interest levels can and do change. You should constantly be talking to your PCs and gauging their interest in what is going on and modifying things as necessary. Think of each PC as an individually burning campfire over which you are cooking one part of a larger meal. Some times all the fires will be burning along nicely on their own and you should be checking the dishes that are cooking. At other times, the fires themselves will need more fuel or some adjustment or something to keep the heat where it is needed. Either way, you should always be looking for ways of interconnecting the dishes to form a more cohesive whole. However, you should also be willing at any time to toss out part of the meal if it isn’t going well and replace it with something else so whatever you do, don’t get too attached to any one component. The PCs are your primary source of momentum, but you are their source of fuel. You should never find yourself just observing the game as they play it. Even if they’re having an in-character group discussion, feel free to participate by clarifying certain misunderstandings or adding new knowledge that you think one of them should know or suggesting possible interpretations of the clues at hand. Real life has ebbs and flows, but your game should never ebb for any of your players. Be active and make sure nothing is stalling out without your knowledge.
I’m a fan of the horror genre. Aside from the annoying trend of classifying horror as “dark fantasy” do you know what the most noticeable change in the genre has been? Cellphones. Pay attention. In movies and books the writer always has to confront the problem of cellphones at some point or their tale loses its believability. The phone must be forgotten at home or the protagonist/victim must at some point check their phone and find that they have no signal. Maybe the protagonist doesn’t like cellphones or for some reason can’t use them? Whatever the reason, a story set in our world must first address the cellphone issue before placing any character in danger or they can immediately and easily call for help.Imagine how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would have progressed if any of the people in that van had had a cellphone. Car breaks down, call for a tow truck, back on their way, roll credits. The internet is another good example of something in the modern world that can get in the way of a good story. So much information right at our fingertips. No need for even an ’80s style research montage. Just hit Wikipedia. The same problems present themselves to GMs of modern or post-modern RPGs. One of the big concerns in the last Shadowrun game I played in was the fact that absolutely every square inch of the Cyberpunk city scape is assumed to be covered by security cameras. I mean, such is almost the case in our larger cities today. We all just assume that in the future our privacy (such as it is) will all but completely evaporate. Most of the plots of good modern setting games though involve some degree of law breaking (from obstructing justice to breaking and entering). So in modern and post-modern games, just from what I’ve listed so far, our PCs are constantly connected to our global communications network, have easy access to the most comprehensive storehouse of human knowledge ever gathered in a single place, and are virtually guaranteed to be seen, recorded, and pursued should they put a toe out of line. How does one run a game under these circumstances? As I see it there are several options. First, you can do nothing. You can let your plots be easy to figure out with a little time spent on the internet, your PCs will completely avoid danger and never get lost through proper use of their cellphones, and they will be left with the choice of playing it safe or going to jail just like the real world. Your games will be boring, but on the bright side it will be easy to run because nothing will be happening. Your PCs will probably appreciate the realism even as they pull their hair out wondering what they’re doing wrong for their awesome character to have such a hum-drum life (be it picturesque or penal). I mean, all of these things in our society in the real world are there to increase the ease of living according to the rules. If you make your game too realistic, that’s what you’re going to get. There’s a reason most of us go to work every day and earn an honest living instead of living in the shadows. Second, you can ignore the problem. In the Dresden Files book series by Jim Butcher, magic fries electronics. It just does. No cellphones or internet usage or problems with CCTV for our hero. It’s kind of the blunt force approach to the problem, but Butcher does it in a very stylistic way and in his later books it becomes a plot point several times. He takes the simple way out, but I’d have to say he does it with style. This is not my preference because I kind of like the idea of magic mixing with technology. It works though and with only one catch: you have to decide to use it from the beginning. It would have seemed odd if this kind of magic/technology mutual exclusion hadn’t been mentioned by Butcher in the first page or two of the first book in this series. To use this in your game you’ll have to do much the same, otherwise introducing it later on will seem cheesy and too convenient and will break your believability for your PCs. Third, you can plan carefully to avoid the problem. We already have our three examples so I’ll keep using them. You can design your plots so that what the PCs are dealing with is so rare that it wouldn’t show up on the internet. Be careful though because if one of your players starts out as an internet specialist (a hacker of some kind) and their profession is completely useless that’s just as little fun for them as it would be for everyone else if internet mastery becomes the omni-skill making them the only character of use. Either way, computer pros will require a delicate touch because if how useful computers are now is any indication of the future, such expertise will in fact be an omni-skill to some degree or other. You can make what’s going on so personal to the PCs that they wouldn’t want to call for help. This is a very difficult option to take because it involves a great deal of thought on your part. You’ll have to understand the motivations of your PCs if you’re going to have them not use their cellphones of their own free wills. However, the books that use this tactic are always more interesting than when not calling out for help is simply the default. Think about it, are you more likely to call the cops when investigating a possibly framed or possibly guilty murder if that person is a stranger or if they’re your brother? Wouldn’t you want to get your brother’s point of view before tossing them to the justice system? Lastly, you can set up the places where law breaking will be happening to be places that aren’t under surveillance or where all of the surveillance is routed to a single, easy to find, and well labeled room so that once the PCs break in, they can eliminate the evidence of their transgressions. This too will will be difficult though because PCs are notoriously hard to predict and so you may have to think fast if they come up with something you haven’t planned for. However, if you give your PCs the benefit of your advice regularly when they come up with weird ideas (“you think that place might be under surveillance but this one camera’s red ‘record’ light is out so you think if you come at it from this angle maybe…”) you will probably be able to work things out with them. Of the three options I’ve listed here I think the last one will be the most rewarding for your game, but (if you’ve read any of my blog so far) you’ll have guessed that as my answer. I believe that designing your game around your PCs is always the better option to designing your game and then considering the PCs after the fact. The second option is a good one as well though. Just remember to be very upfront about everything. Make sure your Players understand that modern conveniences are not going to play a big role in your game and then live with that decision. Whatever you do don’t tell them that CCTV isn’t going to be a problem and then surprise them by having the cops catch them in that very manner. That’s just mean. As for the first option, I value realism as much as the next guy, but I don’t need an RPG to experience the real world. Keep that in mind. Perfectly replicating the real world is not what role-playing is about.
Expository Narration is when the GM quickly describes several events in solid terms of fact without any interaction between them and the PCs. By tradition the PCs are usually expected to keep quiet and to not interrupt this GM information dump. That’s because when gaming was young (and all games were D&D mods) Boxed Text was used by the writers of those mods to setup each scene. Often they maneuvered the PCs, who could be anywhere and doing anything when a given scene began, into the position where the mod author assumed they would be for the sake of continuity. This way the reactions of the NPCs and environment would make sense.
For example, suppose your PCs opened a door in a dungeon. The boxed text may read something like “You open the door and a great gust of air sweeps you through it depositing the group in the center of a large chamber. Behind you the door slams closed and the sound reverberates off of the cold stone of this room you find yourself in.”
See what that Boxed Text did? The PCs chose to open the door. They did not however choose to rush into the room and blindly confront whatever happened to be on the other side. The author, however probably had in mind something happening in that room that the PCs would flee from if they had the chance. So instead of thinking of a way to convince the PCs to enter, they simply forced the decision. This is an excellent example of when not to use Expository Narration.
Put simply, you should never use Expository Narration in place of a PC decision.
The whole point of playing an RPG is the freedom of decision making. Your Players could just read a book to get a good story without having to make the important decisions. The reason they are interested in RPGing is so that they can be the ones making those decisions. If, as a GM, you take away that ability (even just once) you are making your own game pointless because there is no point to playing an RPG where the decision making is taken out of the PCs hands. First of all, what the PCs choose to do is the important thing here (regardless of what story the GM desires to tell). Besides if you aren’t imaginative or attentive enough to think of a way to sweeten the pot such that the PCs will choose to enter the room of their own free will in spite of the danger you probably shouldn’t be GMing.
How about this one? The PC, following a running thief, comes to a dark alley, debates turning back, and decides to press on (see the decision made?). Enter Boxed Text: “You proceed down the alley. About half way through it you hear a scuttling, scurrying sound. You try to turn and see where the sound is coming from when suddenly there is a sharp pain at the back of your neck and everything goes dark.”
What’s wrong with that one? PC decided to go down the alley, didn’t they? Well I’ll tell you what was wrong: something bad happened to your PC without them having any say in the matter. They should have gotten a roll. Really, what’s the point of putting all these numbers down on paper and buying all these dice if when it really counts, you don’t get to use them?
If they failed the roll to notice the person sneaking up on them and then the roll to avoid unconsciousness when that person did whatever it was they did, fine. They should have at least gotten the chance to try though. A good rule of thumb is that nothing bad should ever happen to a PC in Expository Narration. Those are the very situations in which they should get to participate. Taking that participation away, once again, removes the point of going through this story in RPG form rather than just reading a book.
Hard to overcome difficulties on the rolls or big penalties are one thing. You can make it unlikely that the PC will succeed at a given task (that’s not hard, you are the GM after all), but you have to give them the possibility of winning through and be willing to pay out if they do. People stop going back to the casino where all the tables are obviously rigged. There needs to be a certain amount of obvious winning going on to keep people interested. The same is true of a good game. Things can be stacked against the PCs, but they should, number 1, win more often than not and, number 2, should never lose without actually getting to spin the wheel. Not ever.
Oh and I know there will be some GMs who will decide that if, in the context of the story, the PC getting knocked out was “for their own good” it’s okay for the GM to give themselves a pass in this area. That is incorrect. Even if that PC in the example above wakes up at a friend’s house (the assumption being that getting knocked out wasn’t really a “bad” thing) the ultimate outcome does not matter at all. In this instance of Boxed Text, the PC still lost without even getting to roll some dice and let fate decide. Therefore this rule still applies.
When should Expository Narration be used, you ask?
For trivial things. It should be used to hurry your story forward through unimportant events. If the PCs become fixated on something that you honestly can’t think of a damn thing to do with, resolve it with some Boxed Text so the PCs know they should drop it and focus elsewhere. Use Boxed Text to jump forward a few weeks to the next big point of interest in the story. There is no reason to plod through the boring day-to-day lives of your PCs. Even if what their doing is interesting, if it has no real culmination or relation to the larger story, explain how it progresses week to week (or month to month depending on the game) rather than day by day so your game doesn’t get stale. That is what Expository Narration is for: blurring the passage of time in-game so all you ever spend your out-of-game time on is the creamy nougat of RPGing.