RULE NO. 1: Don’t Diminish The PCs! 

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Let player characters intervene in unexpected ways to situations.

This rule is the most important but the hardest to follow through considering the limited resources available to a Game Master.  It’s also tricky because the players are often moving through a complex world and there’s always going to be entities, groups and even individuals who are far more powerful than them.

Encourage interactivity.  Always.  If you can find a way to make something dependent on player actions, go for it.

Share the spotlight.  This is where skill variety, character ties or factional connections can really shine.  Find a way to keep everyone involved and connected in the story.

Even when NPCs are talking to each other, player involvement should matter.  If two NPCs are going to have at each other, keep it short and snappy and let PC interactions dominate the discussion.  If they throw out a few comments here and there, make those comments matter.

Also bear in mind that a small group of 6 watching two NPCs argue with each other is far more impactful than a crowd of 30 — because that small group of 6 know that their choices (whether silence or involvement) will be more meaningful to the discussion and not devolve it into an unintentional chaos of 30 people randomly shouting at two NPCs.

PCs should also have a vested interest in the outcomes of the conversation and should have some capacity to interact with it.  Two force shielded bad guys waxing lyrical at each other is boring — though if the PCs are trying to distract them or set them at war with each other it can get a whole lot more interesting.

Let them make decisions and let those decisions matter.  If they take hostages, don’t just immediately free them.  That undoes their decision.  If their decisions go off-script in a way that damages the game itself (i.e. they have taken all six cast members hostage) then find a compromise.  Perhaps you remove the hostage’s phys-reps (i.e. cast members) and say they are locked behind a closed door.  Maybe you upfront tell the player base that this isn’t a game of arrests and hostage taking and get them in on the ground floor with how the game will play out.

Don’t criticise them for stupidity for doing what their characters would do — but do provide them with alternative options if their characters would know them.  A lot of players aren’t highly trained professionals in crisis negotiation and SWAT tactics.  Providing them with a set of dot points or the occasional nudge that suits their skill selection can be appreciated.  Never tell them the path they should take.  In other words, provide them with the tools to make their choices — don’t tell them which choices they should make.

Make the character’s suffering *about* the characters and not about the villains.  This is kind of a hard thing to describe but basically what it boils down to is that if the villain is torturing a PC, it’s the actions and reactions of the PCs that matter.  Keep the spotlight on them and their feelings toward the villain — not on the villain’s moustache twirling.  You can do this through a variety of mechanisms depending on the style of game and players involved:

  • Avoid gagging the player character. That way their threats, pleas or silence are all valid options.
  • Redirect their attention to the suffering player character rather than away from it.

If the players think of a way to destroy your schemes and machinations, let them, and build on it.  Give them the win.  Let them have a cool thing.  If they take out your big boss early, maybe throw out a few waves of minions and create something new for later.  Players absolutely love scheming their way through your plans for a reason.  It means their choices really have made a difference.

The more often powerful items and factions and NPCs show up in the game, the more they must be reliant, in some way, on player actions.  No one likes an unstoppable spirit showing up in-game … except when that spirit can be summoned, negotiated with, empowered and sent at their enemies!  Keep the players centre stage so that the glories of more powerful elements are reflected on them.  Any exceptions to this rule are best treated as a force of nature that guides the PC’s actions and gives them something to bounce off of.  Players will react better to an invulnerable NPC they must hide from or lure away than one they have to obey unless the complexities of obedience is the story — in which case the NPC is a force of nature anyway.

These are just a handful of ways to keep the players feeling like they’re relevant and that their characters are the protagonists.  Do you have any additional ideas?

10 Ways Props Add To Your Game

10 Ways Props Add To Your Game

  1. Lends significance. In every tabletop game and many LARPs, there are a lot of description only items floating about the place. These are items that the players are told about but which they never actually see and certainly can’t carry around with them.  As they say, out of sight is out of mind so the item is more likely to be forgotten as soon after it is mentioned.
  2. Adds gravity to resource management. It’s one thing to know you only have twelve bullets left to share between you, another thing entirely to have to ration out your twelve bullets and actually watch them dwindle before your very eyes.
  3. Influences relationships. People tend to react differently to folks in tactical vests and bristling armament than a fellow in a T-Shirt and jeans. They certainly react differently if someone is covered in blood and carrying a severed hand.  This is incredibly important in a LARP as no matter how much you call out a description, odds are several people won’t hear it and will then need to retroactively justify why their character didn’t say anything about the spider-tumour on your forehead.
  4. Affects roleplay. One of my favourite moments in a LARP included hiding a very expensive poison up my sleeve (represented by a pen) and then having to decide just whom to give it to before I got searched. Then the person I had to give it to was about to enter a room with a very suspicious woman and so rushed back to interrupt a conversation I was having to pretend “tidy up my clothes” and therefore stash the poison back with me.  Thus putting an object in game makes the question of “Who do I reveal it to?” and “How do I keep it hidden?” so much more valuable.

    Nurse Cassandra Skull

    There’s just something about finding a bloodied skull that sticks with you.

  5. Gives players something to do. Whether in a tabletop or a LARP, there’s always those quiet moments where the other characters are busy and you are not. Having something physical to read, fiddle with or consider can really keep your interest high, especially if there’s some kind of puzzle element to it.
  6. Can prove that someone fell for a trap. It always seems a bit dodgy to tell a player after they have described inserting batteries into their flashlight that it made an awful squeak and now the monster is after them. Much better to give them a rusty flashlight and let them open it and cause the squeak to happen.  That way you all know precisely how loud that way.
  7. Add Interest. What is new is special. All roleplaying games involve a lot of spoken words, so having something that engages the other senses will refresh the player’s interest in what is going around them.
  8. Prevents multiple people from thinking they have The Thing. While most tabletop games have sheets of paper and pencils to help ensure that everyone knows which backpack holds the McGuffin, a large LARP of 30 players could easily lead to misunderstandings where several people all think they have the McGuffin just because they held it once or used a pickpocket skill. Must better to have an actual item they need to present to prove they have it.
  9. Immersion. Props can help the players forget that they are playing a game and really feel that they are actually there.  The more a player can embody their character, the more likely they will have that feeling.  Even a few key props can make a difference to any game.
  10. Takes the onus off the Game Master. This is all the more important in a LARP where de-centralising gameplay is vital so that players can all do multiple things at once. If you have puzzles that can themselves indicate their own success, you don’t need a Game Master to let the players know if it worked.

Next up I’ll talk about some of my favourite props I’ve made or played around with in various tabletop games and LARPs.  What are some of yours?

10 Ways To Belittle Your Players

10 Ways To Belittle Your Players

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AKA How to make your players feel trapped in an alleyway of trash rather than at a fun event!

A few weeks ago we discussed the many ways that players can help the Game Masters burn out so they won’t want to run a game ever again!  Now let’s discuss another hot topic — ten ways to belittle your players and make them wonder just why they’re playing this game again.  The joys of belittling your players are many and varied, and you can do it in a slow and insidious way where a multitude of little comments build up in a way that undermines their self-esteem without ever revealing what you’re doing and why!

1.  Give your group of players a nickname they’ll really hate.  Call them your “adorable little munchkins who could power game their way out of a paper bag,” or your “band of dumb crazies,” while shaking your head whenever you discuss their antics.  Sure, some players might like those nicknames if they are actually trying to be crazy or the game is about power gaming, but this pointer is directed to those many players who have to suffer such nicknames despite their actual intentions, desires and play style.

2.  Laugh at your players when they don’t understand your plot.  Blame them for ignoring all of the obvious clues you’ve seeded throughout your complex story line and conveniently forget that they have several days to a few weeks between each game to dull their memories.  Without the big picture framework, it can be easy to lose facts among the sea of words typical of any campaign.  You can always make your laughter sound playful with a paternalistic shake of the head to show that you’re not being mean (or bitter!), you’re just astounded at how little their pretty little heads can retain.

3.  Call your players fools, and laugh at them some more, when you manage to trick them.  It doesn’t matter that part of the reason why the game can run at all is because players conveniently overlook certain details (such as not doing background checks on every quest giver that comes along) or that you have control of the entire world and how you describe it.  It doesn’t matter how easy it is to overlook, blank out or get confused about a few lines of verbal description amid four hours of what is essentially a conversation.  Now while every GM should be able to take pride in a job well down with a cleverly crafted conspiracy, you can take it several steps forward by making it all about how much the players are failures because they didn’t figure it out.  Remember, you don’t win unless they fail.

4.  Grumble when your players move cautiously and do those constant background checks that you taught them to do.  Encourage them to just do the damn quests, then go back to No. 3 when they comply and punish them some more for not taking their time with every situation.

5.  Rather than having a conversation with them out-of-game about any behaviours that are causing problems in the game, passive aggressively punish their characters for their choices instead.  That way the player won’t quite know why it happened or how to fix it and your players get to enjoy having every other player annoyed and frustrated with them for consequences that affect them all.  That way you get bonus belittling from the other players!  Since many games involve consequences for in-game actions, you can easily cover it up as a normal outgrowth of a situation rather than an attempt to teach them through punishment.

6.  Give the characters belittling nicknames that will stick and influence how other people (and the player themselves) sees that character.  Call them “that annoying little girl,” or “the dumb lug,” or “the stuffed shirt.”  After awhile it’ll become difficult for the other players to see them as anything else.  When describing encounters they are in you should also reinterpret their character’s actions in line with the nickname, perhaps by OOCly expressing astonishment at “the dumb lug’s moment of wisdom.”  Remember that even if your player started that nickname, you can make it belittling by continuing the joke even after it’s long stopped being funny.

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Toxic behaviour can poison any game.

7.  Why only give such nicknames to your characters?  Give them to your players as well!  Have oodles of fun by consistently referring to your friends as the min-maxer, the manic pixie girl and the drama queen to make sure they know how little you think about their roleplaying ability.  Use these nicknames frequently without ever asking your friends if they’re actually okay with it and never protect their reputation by adding such silly caveats as, “but they only min-max as far as would be fun for the campaign.”  Instead make it seem like they can’t play or do anything else!

8.  Just be upfront with your belittling with phrases such as “I can’t believe you idiots did….” or “You guys have really screwed up this time.”  This punishes the “play to lose,” “accept what happens,” or “play for story,” dynamics and ensures the players know that there was a right way and a wrong way to game and they did it wrong.  This way the players themselves feel like failures and may even try to find someone to blame among the group.

9.  Reward only one type of behaviour and then punish them for doing it like there was an alternative.  In other words, make combat the only option which works in your campaign and then taunt the players for not bothering to talk to their enemies.  Point to the one or two options where diplomacy could work and ignore all of the times that the players tried to use diplomacy and it just blew up in their face.  Or make diplomacy the only workable option because the bad guys are so enormously powerful and then complain that the players never want to fight.

10.  Talk about how running games is such a burden and how your players always ruin the game for you in vague and powerful statements within ear shot or while discussing the game with them and other people.  Fail to have a real conversation with them about what you need to be happy and how they can help out with that.  Expect mind reading.  Ignore the possibility of compromise.  Be a martyr and refuse to respect your own time and effort as well as the players by continuing to run a game you hate rather than finding a game that can suit all of your interests.  (Real Advice: If your players are really that toxic and the game is truly horrible, stop until you can find a better group.  Seriously, don’t hurt yourself and other people by wasting hours on what you hate.)

NOTE: This is a satirical article so please don’t take these ideas as actual advice.  Also bear in mind that many of these toxic habits can be picked up by a Game Master through previous experiences with players and GMs and probably aren’t intended to actually hurt you.  This doesn’t stop it from being a problem as unintentional belittling is still, well, hurtful but it is important to be mindful of if you need to approach your GM about a toxic behaviour.  Assume the best intentions until proven otherwise, but do have that conversation with them about anything they are saying or doing which is causing you harm.

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

 

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One of the trickiest parts of starting up a game is ensuring that all of the players and the Game Master are on the same page as to how the game is meant to be played. Unfortunately, there are certain meta-game considerations that should be kept in mind when creating a character in order to get the most out of a particular game. Some of these considerations are in the feats and attributes chosen, but a lot of is about the character’s mentality and design.

If I were creating a character for a classic dungeon crawl where the whole point is to fight monsters for fun and profit, then I shouldn’t make a Barbarian whose fear of her own rage convinced her to be a pacifist. Now this isn’t to say that you couldn’t make a pacifist Barbarian, as that could be a fantastic character concept in a different kind of campaign (even certain kinds of dungeon delves) only that it won’t work in this particular campaign unless we toss the essential premise (kick in doors and hit stuff) out the window in favour of something else.

So what can a Game Master do to ensure that everyone knows what the campaign is about so that they can take that into consideration when creating their character?

Firstly consider whether what you intend to make is something they would be interested in playing. You should look to create something different for a party of combat heavy munchkins than you would if everyone was a budding investigative sleuth. This isn’t to say that you can’t include investigation among the combat or combat among the investigation (variety is the spice of life), but that a game that punishes combat or blocks off investigative routes just won’t be as satisfying for them. They’ll keep trying to creep off the edges of the social contract by instinct alone or will sit around bored and neither option is very fun for anyone.

Once you know that the game in question is something they might be interested in, begin with a chat about what the campaign is going to be about. While you can talk a bit about style and setting, the most important and so often forgotten element is how the game is best played.

Is this a conspiracy game fraught with hidden peril where even the other player characters might be out to get you? This sets out a very different kind of social contract than a game of silly goof balls where people jokes around and use their super powers in weird and wacky ways.

Then talk about the sort of tactics which could be particularly useful in this kind of game. While rule books give people a vague idea, they’ll only take you part of the way. Will the conspiracy be primarily solved through clue hunting, resource gathering, social maneuvering or violence?

The point of this talk about tactics isn’t to create a comprehensive list of what the players can do (hello rail roading!) but to give them an idea of what could work. And definitely get them to ask questions and pitch ideas. Is creeping around through air vents a viable option? How about nonlethal tactics? Would they work? Would not killing the bad guys only feed into the villain’s plans or will it help the PC’s bypass obstacles while keeping their integrity intact? Is the police department well-funded or corrupt? Be willing to compromise.

Maybe your game world has a well-funded police department and skilled ballistics team when a murder happens but they just don’t pay all that much attention to high speed chases. Now be aware the point of this exercise isn’t a series of Thou Shalt Nots. The point is to ensure that everyone knows what consequences this game is running with and the easiest points of contact. If the players know that an assassination will be seriously investigated, they will know to plan out their murders with greater care and perform them more rarely.

It doesn’t remove creativity to set up a campaign in a particular style and setting for players who could enjoy that. It enhances it. Get them onboard, talk about your various game expectations and then have people build their characters. That way, at least, there’ll be no useless skills.

Hook: The Bizarre Mystery

Hook: The Bizarre Mystery

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Fahrenheit is a videogame example of this hook.

Something happens … but the players can’t be sure just what it means.  Perhaps they receive a mysterious letter addressed to a previous owner and have to find out who they are and what it’s about.  Perhaps they find themselves with blood on their hands and have to figure out how that body got there (akin to the Sudden Event but far more slow-paced).

The mystery hook requires active participation on behalf of the characters because their enemies aren’t (yet) looking into them and so if they persistently ignore the hook the campaign will fall apart.  Therefore it is important to have the players on board first and foremost.  If they are the type who hate doing something that wouldn’t make sense for their character, make doubly sure they have characters built who would take the bait.

The trick with a Bizarre Mystery is to take the initial situation and make it odd enough to inspire attention.  It can help to have a second hook in case the first doesn’t provide sufficient incentive.  Perhaps after the mysterious letter, they find a mysterious break in as someone steals the letter.  This is still not a Sudden Event hook because it happens while they are away and if they simply file a police report and ignore it than there will be no further pokes from plot.

So make it interesting and tie it into the characters as best you can — both through nudges in character generation and through adjusting the hook to suit them.  The Pathfinder campaigns often encourage players to select campaign traits that provide in-built motivation.  You could borrow a page from their book to nudge die hard character immersionists into having the incentive to follow the plot line.  Sample traits could involve an interest in local history or a desire to be an amateur sleuth.  It doesn’t really matter so long as it helps ensure the characters get involved.

Once involved, the characters need to behave proactively for the first section of the game until they draw enough attention to themselves for the villains to put them on the defensive.  If you’re curious about seeing this sort of hook in action, take a look at the grand majority of Call of Cthulhu games where the character hunts down a particular clue thread until they surprise the evil villains in the middle of their ritual.  Naturally if it’s a campaign the situation might not remain so proactive throughout but it is important to bear it in mind that to begin with the PCs will control the pacing unless you put in an obvious ticking clock.

Do you have any advice for baiting a mystery hook?  Seen it done particularly well?  Feel free to put down more ideas in the Comments section.  Alternatively if you’d like to check out the base article you can learn more about other forms of campaign hooks.

Hook: The Slow Reveal

Hook: The Slow Reveal

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A great example of the Slow Reveal.

The Slow Reveal is a style of hook where the players are slowly but surely drawn into the tale through a series of off-kilter hints that all is not what it seems.  While it’s a bit of an older video game, Alan Wake provides a really good example of the Slow Reveal and you can readily imagine how it would feel to be the players behind the main characters in this game.

The game begins with an introduction to the characters as they’re traveling to a new town. We’re introduced to Alan’s wife, his agent, and his problems with the blank page. He has a massive dose of writer’s block and so they’ve rented out a nice little holiday home on a lake in order to find some way to break through that block. The characters themselves are the primary hook. They’re interesting enough that we’d like to know more.

These interesting characters are followed by some little hints that all is not what it seems. You hear about the woman who desperately tries to keep all the lights working in town. You try to speak to someone who’s locked themselves in a toilet in a dark corridor only to run into a rather creepy woman who stands in the darkest shadows of that corridor.  The small town setting flows into the resort home itself to add a very creepy vibe – a long and rickety-looking bridge promises future problems and the building’s isolation suggests future terrors.

A Slow Reveal hook works because of anticipation. When hordes of the dead are running at you, you don’t have time to anticipate. You don’t have time to let your imagination work or to really get immersed into the situation.  You certainly won’t have time to connect to the other characters and grow attached to those locations that are about to be blown up.

This hook works best when the whole point of the campaign is a plot that has infested the world around the characters without overhauling it completely.  A vampire who moves next door and starts corrupting the local populace suits a Slow Reveal hook far more than a vampiric bikie gang who smashes up the town, turns the player characters and dumps them in Mexico.

It’s important to give the players something to do during a Slow Reveal that is interesting and filled with minor complications and hints of something worse.  Brainstorm the issues that currently face their characters and the signs and omens of what is coming.  Interweave these ideas so that the players always have something to do, some issue to resolve, and that they can additional hints as to important NPCs, locations and situations as they do so.

Remember you can make NPCs more memorable by tying complications to their introduction — such as having to track down the realtor to get the key and finding they broke down en route, or having to convince an argumentative couple to calm down long enough to pay them when you fuel up at the local petrol station.  By giving the players an interesting reason to spend time with these NPCs (while repairing the car or calming them down), you’ll make them more likely to remember those same NPCs when their personalities change (now the couple never argues) or a situation repeats (all visitors break down en route to that address).

LARP HINT: A slow reveal works best in a longer session or campaign game where the first couple hours can be involved in a relatively mundane situation.  Perhaps everyone starts off in a speed dating convention in an in-game pub and they don’t realise they’ve been put in quarantine because a few of them have fallen ill from some terrible plague or the wild west campaign of dealing with vermin and dangerous bandits also has a supernatural side that will slowly reveal itself to the player characters.

It’s important to inform your players that the game will switch conventions partway through and to let them know the kind of game it will become though you don’t have to give them any plot details.  This prevents them from becoming confused and frustrated when the game they signed up for suddenly ends.  Don’t worry, knowing things will turn dark and not knowing how or when will only build up the anticipation all the more.

What are some of the best slow reveals you’ve seen in action?  What’s some advice you would give others for using one?  Check out the base article for more hook ideas over here.

Hook: With a Bang!

Hook: With a Bang!

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Bam!  Soon you’re in the thick of it in this videogame.

The Sudden Event hook gives players a short amount of time to introduce their characters to the setting (typically between a few minutes to half an hour) before throwing them into the middle of the action.

Boom!  This happens!  What do you do?  The pace is frantic and the characters are forced to react.  There’s no time to think, no time to plan and nothing will ever be the same for them again.

Perhaps they’ve been turned into a supernatural and spirited away for training by their vampiric mentors.  Maybe a bomb goes off in the bowels of the ship and they must now try to find their way out.  Perhaps they all just happened to be in the same newsagency when a heart attack drops one of the first zombies into their lap.  Or maybe the mouth to hell merely opens up and the tavern is awash in demons.

Whatever it is, it sets up expectations for a high energy campaign filled with action and reaction.  The characters must react quickly with limited information to perform their objective or die.

This hook needs to occur in a mini-sandbox.  The players need to feel that there’s room to wiggle in this tight structure so long as it makes sense for them to do.  Perhaps they don’t immediately flee the newsagency but attempt to barricade themselves in and distract the zombies.  Sure that won’t work forever (discouraging defensive play is often important) but maybe the zombies are drawn away from the exit and that will help them escape when an accidental fire forces them to flee the premises.

React to them and make them react to you.  You distract the zombies, sure, but now there’s fire!  What do you do?

Keep the action moving.  Don’t let the players debate unless the characters get that chance.  Do build in rest breaks here and there so it doesn’t get too exhausting.  Maybe they can have a ten minute chat in a basement between the newsagency and the police station.  Once they start getting cozy, motivate them to move.

Keep the motivations simple.  The players haven’t had much time to immerse themselves in the setting so situations need to be clear and the objectives straightforward.  Escape the newsagency.  Fight off the demons.  Reach the emergency boats before the ship sinks.  Sub-quests should be equally clear and based around obstacles to overcome or additional goals to achieve (i.e. save the child, grab the wedding photos).

Be mindful, though, that a Sudden Event will give players certain expectations so it’s not a good one to pick unless you know the Finale, at the very least, will surpass it in terms of danger and excitement.

LARP TIP: Sudden Events are often best used only when there is a definitive leader (typically an NPC) and pre-set goals.  Remember that large groups tend toward inertia or pointless panic even when there is a clear real life threat.  “Smoke?  Yeah, I smell smoke, but no one else is doing anything so it must be fine.”  You can often deal with this by either having the players fully expecting the scenario, giving a quick in-character briefing from a superior that outlines the expectations, or having several in-game NPCs reacting realistically to the set up.

Get more ideas on how to write a good hook over at the base article.