To Bait a Plot Hook

IMG_6222.JPGOne oft-neglected part of roleplaying games is to set an exciting hook.  Most published scenarios are so focused on the meat of the adventure that they neglect to put much thought into the set up.  Usually this is because the scenario needs to be usable by widely divergent gaming groups and so it can be difficult to find something suitable for a wide range of players.  In many cases the introduction is overlooked as it makes up a very small percentage of the campaign and is easily forgettable.  Plenty of Game Masters consider their introductions in the same light and fall back on newspaper clippings and fantasy taverns to hook in their characters.

And this is a shame because there are so many different hooks out there that can really make a difference to your campaign by evoking the right mood and setting up the right expectations.

The main three hooks include:

The Slow Reveal: The campaign weaves hints of some terrible future throughout relatively mundane quests, goals and complications in a way that builds anticipation.  The character typically doesn’t realise what is happening until they are already committed or caught up in the situation.  This hook requires some degree of active character participation so that they don’t leave the moment things get spooky but the characters themselves don’t have to do anything special to continue the campaign.

Start With a Bang: The campaign begins right where at the point of some great change in their lives that prevents them from ever going back to what came before (at least not until they have finished the story).  Often the campaign will begin a few minutes to half an hour before this great event to give the players some sense of continuity but there are few – if any – hints as to what’s about to happen.  This hook can make do with largely reactive characters as there’s no way for them to ignore this event.

The Bizarre Mystery: The campaign begins with a tantalising question so important that the players can’t just walk away without solving it.  This could involve a murder they need to investigate, a news article about some strange occurrence or a weird situation that happens around them.  This hook requires characters who will take a very active role as the characters can theoretically ignore the mystery with relative ease.

I’ll go into more detail about different types of over the next three Fridays so stay tuned for more in-depth suggestions on how to make these hooks work for you.

Can you think up any other types of hook?

Why Players Need to Read the Books

pzo1110-peThere are plenty of experienced players who find it hard to remember all of the rules and setting details peculiar to their game.  That’s pretty normal.  Some players aren’t keen readers, either, and would much prefer to learn through listening rather than going over the books.  Some systems have dozens and dozens of different rule books and setting guides which is a lot to go through.  Due to all of these reasons, there are plenty of players who don’t know the rules in the games they are playing and there are even a few players who boast about never having read the rule book.

The problem is that it’s important to try to learn the rules, even if you can’t remember them all.

It’s important because when a player doesn’t know the rules, they need to ask someone else to do it for them.

They are, in effect, adding extra work for other players or the game master to guide them through character generation / levelling up their character or get someone else to do it for them.  They are requiring other players or the game master to remind them about the things they can do which means that player or game master are also partially controlling two character sheets.  Sure, you decide whether you do the thing or not, but you’re not really getting to choose from all of your options — only those options that appeal to others or are so quintessentially your character.

And typically only when their own characters can’t already do the thing — not out of selfishness, but because they’re too immersed in their own character to spend time thinking about what you can do at the time.

After all, if you don’t know if the game allows you to charge another character for massive damage, you won’t think to do it.  If you keep forgetting you can hack, others might not think to point out all of the terminals you can use until they get stuck halfway through a mission.  You might need to ask people to retro events (if it’s allowed at your table), when it turns out your character has an ability that they would have logically used and which would have changed everything if you’d thought to use it.

If you don’t know the basics of the settings, you’ll also damage immersion when you try to get items that don’t exist, keep needing others to explain basic terminology your character should know and make decisions that are clearly bad ideas in the game world to anyone who has read about it.  If reading is illegal, it’s not a good idea to mention your favourite books to the Grand Inquisitor.

And this is a problem.

Now if you are a new player who is learning the ropes or have a disability which prevents you from remembering the setting and/or rules, than you don’t need to worry about all of this because you are doing as best you can.  No one can fault you for not being able to do a thing, either due to a lack of prior experience or a disability.  Read or listen to what you can and learn what you can.  Everyone has different limitations and it’s important to respect this.  No one expects mastery in a day.

The problem arises when players consistently turn to game masters and players to remember things that they could remember.  When they believe it’s too hard or annoying so refuse to pick up the books at all.  No one expects any player (or game master, for that matter) to know everything about the game but it is important, crucially important, to have a decent idea about what your character can do even if you don’t know the mechanics that underlie that rule.  If you are playing a hacker, know that you can hack and which devices are hackable.  If the mechanics are simple, but hard to remember, then jot them down on your character sheet where you can easily see them.

If you can’t build a character on your own, then fine, but pay attention as your guide builds it for you so you can make legitimate choices about what your character can do and so that you know what your choices will be during the game itself.  If you need someone to level your character, again pay attention and learn what you’ve been given.  Many players and game masters are happy to help with this section of the game most of all because it doesn’t take up mental resources during the game itself.

If you’re hanging around in Cheliax (Pathfinder setting), read enough to know that they don’t worship devils but feel they have bested them in a series of deals.  Read enough to know that they abhor demons and the gods of chaos.  Read enough to know about the complex legal system and their connections to Nidal.  Hell, know enough to know what the words Nidal, Taldor and Varisia mean and their relationship to Cheliax.  You don’t need to know a plethora of details but you should know the basics — even if you prefer Pathfinder wiki, podcasts, or audiobooks to the actual books.

And if you can’t remember some obscure rule, or some complex mechanic that rarely comes up, don’t worry about it.  A lot of games reach a level of complexity that very few people can truly comprehend.  It’s a collaborative game and everyone should help each other along where they can so that we can all stay involved.  All that’s requested is that each player learns the basics so that they can remember the fundamental choices their character has before them.

What do you think?  Have any advice on helping people remember the game rules and setting?  Have any counterpoints?

Creating Compelling Player Characters

evil-gmCompelling characters make for a compelling story. Just think of the difference between the games run by a Storyteller whose characters can make you laugh, make you cry, make you fear for them … and the ones who would make a piece of cardboard look deep and interesting in comparison. The same can be said for the protagonists themselves — your player characters! After all, the PCs are what the game is about and they, by definition, have more screen time than anyone else. So if they’re boring then it’s not going to do the game any favours.

I’m not saying that every player character should be a work of art nor does a character need to be realistic to be interesting. Some of the most compelling characters ever made were larger-than-life characters.  And, obviously, different game genres and player / game master preferences are going to have an impact on the game’s needs for PC complexity so you don’t need to have layers of detail to make that character compelling.

So what makes a character compelling?

Motivation is a big one.  Your character needs to *want* something, ideally something related to the main arc of the story.  This motivation needs to runs deeper than a simple list of goals. This is what your character is searching for and it colours everything about them as the game gains in tension.  It can change over the course of the game, and you may need to change it pretty early on in reaction to early plot points.  A strong motivation often pulls from a powerful internal core such as an ideology or a base need for safety, companionship, trust, recognition or power.  While this central motivation won’t be the only thing that motivates your character, it should inform the other goals.

A good quirk can make a character compelling when it adds depth and contrast to your character. A character who snarks all the time or always makes goofball comments just because it’s funny isn’t going to add a compelling vibe.  A healer whose snark covers their compassion when they’re truly driven to help people or whose goofball commentary comes from a place of pain where they feel guilt over the death of their son adds significance to these quirks.

Not every quirk needs to be powerful to be worthwhile, but the more it defines your character’s interactions the more important it is to figure out why.  Smaller quirks can also be very worthwhile if they provide contrast to the character (the torturer pats the dogs head when thoughtful), defines the character (lips a coin in the mean streets of a Noir Fantasy), or adds a touch of historical or cultural realism (feels naked without hit hat outdoors).

Dare to be different. Take a clichéd expectation and twist it to help give the character new depths.  A rogue who learned their skills as an archaeologist from an arcane university or due to their work in a city police force can lead to a more interesting backstory.  Taking an exceptional skill or useful niche can also help your character stand out from the crowd — especially in games where character sheet building are a very important part of the story.

Embrace your character’s flaws.  The moments when your paladin struggles to face their fears are every bit as interesting as the times they are automatically brave. Give your character a trait they wish they didn’t have and perhaps something they don’t realise they have.  Perhaps they really wish they could be a classy diner but they get too eager to eat to pay attention (or just don’t know the rules) or maybe they think they’re funny but the jokes always fall flat whenever they try it.

Finally, let your character change.  Let them be influenced by the other characters and the storyline itself.  A character is most compelling when you get to watch as the highs and lows of war affect your personality, revealing and concealing different traits and potentials as time wears on.

So what do you think makes for a compelling player character?  What other handy hints could we bear in mind when creating and playing our characters?

15 Ways to Burn Out Your Game Master

img_6057When most people talk about Game Master burnout, though, they often talk about the gaming equivalent of Writers’ Block. We’re going to look at the nastier form of burnout defined in psychology where a person experience long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in a particular sphere of our life.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory uses a three dimensional description of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, which opposes the psychological construct of Engagement which is defined by having energy, involvement, and efficacy. Basically, if you burn out your Storyteller, they’ll grow frustrated, cynical, feel down about their skills, and basically get sick and tired of running games.

It’s a pretty serious issue and one that can be self-inflicted as often as it can be caused by other people, with some Game Masters working too hard for too long to achieve something too difficult to accomplish.  Of course, since it’s more amusing to tackle a serious subject by writing a joke guide, I’m going to do just that.  So read below to find the best advice on how to actively burn out your Game Master.

  1. Keep the work load heavy. A game that requires a lot of effort compared to the Game Masters’ inner reserves of energy is going to burn them out faster. This may be partly the Game Master’s fault as they throw themselves headlong into props, histories, NPC charts, and a whole bunch of other wonderful details. So make sure that you demand the Game Master meets the same high standard with every session and show your displeasure when they don’t.
  2. Make the work load boringly light. Discourage them from trying anything more taxing than a random map and a monster generator when they’re really itching to do something more. Also, you should ignore NPCs and plot in favour of sitting around talking In-Character about golf for hours at a time.  Never involve any NPCs in these conversations about golf so that the Game Master has to just sit there.  If the Game Master has to start leafing through a book just to find something to do, you’re doing it right.
  3. Be unappreciative and unimpressed. Many retail outlets have known this for years. If you want a high staff turnover, ensure that you disregard any effort they put in as simply being the new average.
  4. High demands. Sickness, tiredness, and a hard luck week should be no excuse for your Game Master giving a sub-par performance. Make sure to point out all of their mistakes in order to keep them de-motivated from trying harder.
  5. Lack of control. Some people like to refer to games as collaborative storytelling and that’s true. However, it should be a collaboration between the players only. The Game Master is just the world map and their preferences and interests should have no bearing on the game. If they want a Cyberpunk Thriller, you should be sure to turn it into a Cozy Mystery at any cost. Or better yet, turn it into a comedic Cozy Mystery. Compromise doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
  6. Punishment through loss of control. If a Game Master doesn’t do what the player hoped they’d do, the player should punish them by acting out both in-character and out of it. Players can either sit there and tell them off for making that ruling or decision OR they can make their character really go off the deep end and start doing increasingly ridiculous acts in retaliation.  Other players should support this misbehaviour in public, and then complain to the Game Master to fix it in private to ensure urgency is maintained.
  7. Unfairness. Players are allowed to gossip, chit-chat, forget rules, egg on other players, and try to break the genre conventions. Game Masters, on the other hand, must be completely on the ball, maintain focus, control the actions of other players’, and reduce rules confusion to an absolute minimum. Players need not assist in any way.  Always declare that a good Game Master can produce sterling results in spite of the Players actions and desires.
  8. Anti-Community. Game Masters like to juggle so ensure that the party splits as often as possible, clashes willy-nilly and does everything short of self-destruct so that the Game Master must constantly use the world as a Diplomat for the in-game issues. Party cohesion is their responsibility, after all. Bonus points if the players end up clashing with each other out of character so that the Game Master must be responsible for tactfully maintaining real world relationships at the same time.
  9. Role Confusion. Don’t let the Game Master know what you want, ever. In fact, don’t ever ask yourself what you want in a game in case you give something away. Make them guess at it, and then complain when they get it wrong.
  10. Values Clash. The Game Master wants comedy, so you want seriousness. They want drama but you hate improvised theatre and just want to smack face. Sure, values clash all the time and this is just one aspect of gameplay … but you can completely ignore that there’s a problem so that there’s no chance of a compromise.  Offering to pay more attention to clues so long as there are no consequences to beating down the bad guys is a big No-No.
  11. Inadequate Resources. The Game Master must find some way to purchase all of the books, print all of the sheets, fund the snacks, supply dice for everyone, and otherwise ensure the game goes ahead. This isn’t simply a nice thing they may do but a necessity. Never offer to bring food, extra dice, character sheets, books, or anything else. Be offended if they ask you to fetch them a drink when you’re getting one from the fridge.
  12. Boring, repetitive tasks. Even if your Game Master hates it, they should be the one to keep tallies of your arrows, mark down your damage, and do all of the statistical grunt-work. If you can find some way to make them do a job you don’t want to do, then go nuts! Heck, if you need to keep notes, why not ask your Game Master to do that for you? (This doesn’t count if it’s an occasional thing or a necessity due to illness, tiredness or disability — you should be demanding it as your birthright.)
  13. Don’t Consider the GM’s needs. Tell them repeatedly that the sole purpose of the game is to entertain the players and that any desire beyond seeing players enjoying themselves is a sign of a selfish and entitled attitude.
  14. If you don’t know, don’t ask. If you’re confused and frustration is mounting, don’t ask to make some kind of roll to figure out where to go next. Just sit there and bang your head against the wall in the expectation that the Game Master will notice … while they run NPCs, locations, and other miscellaneous details.  Get increasingly angry that they haven’t figured it out based off various passive aggressive cues.
  15. An impossible environment. Remember all those Work Health and Safety research on how the environment can cause issues for workers? Well, the same holds true for Game Masters. Put them in a noisy, uncomfortable room full of distractions and you’ll burn them out faster. Why not make them keep the television on so they have increased competition? Especially if there’s a show you wanted to half-watch. Or invite around people who hate roleplaying games to sit and scowl at the game. Kill the immersion and keep the players preoccupied with everything but game. While it’s true that sometimes there’s just no other option, the trick is to ensure this happens even when it doesn’t have to!

Disclaimer: I haven’t actually personally encountered each one of these methods but I have heard, read, or thought about them. This is basically a list of the worst options and is meant to be tongue in cheek. One day I’ll do an equivalent list for players burning out other players or game masters burning out their players.