Encouraging Players to try a New Game

Some folks just feel “meh” about certain games but that doesn’t mean they won’t try it.

While some players are eager to try new games, others are pretty happy with what they’ve got and don’t really want to try anything new.  There are new rules to learn, new techniques required to succeed, and they just not be jazzed about the genre.  So what can you do when you’re really excited about trying a new game and one, or more, of your players aren’t?

Firstly, sit down and have a chat with all of your players both individually and as a group about why you want to run the game.  Tell them what excites you about it and how long you’ve been thinking about it.  Most players will be sympathetic if there’s a game you’ve been yearning to run for years even if they have no personal interest in it.

Once they understand your enthusiasm, find out what they think about the game you’re offering and what kind of game they prefer.  See if they’re willing to at least try the game and offer to let them play without having to learn any of the rules.  Let them know some of the most useful techniques in that style of game so that they can feel confidant playing it.  You want to set the entry barrier as low as you can.

Perhaps they would be happy to play the game but have a very specific concern.  They might really enjoy character consistency and fear losing several characters a session or perhaps they really enjoy a violent solution but are happy to find it after a lengthy political or investigative adventure.  Are there adventures you could run which could satisfy those requirements within your desired genre or game world?

There’s a chance they’re just not interested in a campaign that doesn’t excite them. That’s pretty normal.  What if you ran a single adventure before returning to the usual fare?  Naturally if you do this you must keep to your promise and not press for additional adventures unless your players are champing at the bit to continue.  Put your fave game aside for awhile, at least six months, and then suggest another once off.

Presuming they’ve agreed to try the game, you shouldn’t penalise them too harshly for using old techniques or forgetting new ones.  Yes, your players should be reasonable and not immediately try to gun down the vampire prince for being rude to them (presuming they know that’s not what the game is about) but is it really so bad if they breach the Masquerade here and there while trying out their cool new powers?

Compromise and be explicit in your compromises.  Tell them that you’re willing to make the Masquerade more flexible but that you’re excited about them using underhanded techniques against the vampire prince.  That way the players know which part of the game is important to you.  After all, at this stage they’re only playing it as a favour to you.

Accept that the first game you run in that genre might not be what you’ve dreamed about.  Those players who are used to narrativist Indie games might not think to declare that they’re looking for traps every time they enter a room in your dungeon crawl.  Give them some reminders so that they know it’s something they are supposed to do.  Introduce unfamiliar consequences with a light touch.  Perhaps they see some charred adventurers who were careless a day ago and maybe the first trap they encounter only deals 1d3 damage.

Reward them for trying the new techniques they haven’t used in previous games.  If they try to shadow the cultist, let them find something interesting even if they don’t end up at the villain’s HQ.  If they flirt shamelessly to distract the security guard while another person tries to swipe the key card, let them get away with it.  Sometimes videogame genre assumptions will trickle in and provide an easy point of reference for the characters in an unfamiliar RPG.  If they want to crawl through a vent to infiltrate the enemy base, why not allow it this once in your techno-thriller?  You can cleave closer to reality next time.

Hopefully if you do all of these things they will have enjoyed what you were itching to run and are willing to try another game with those rules or in that setting, if not now, than sometime in the future.

So what do you think?  Let me know in the comments section if you have any other ideas on how to get players to try new games.  Or on how to encourage the GM to try a new game (often a trickier prospect).

Hook: The Bizarre Mystery

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

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!

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.

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?

9 Ways to Deal with Splitting the Party

2015-06-13-02-38-00Occasionally players will send their characters off in different directions to try to save time by accomplishing tasks simultaneously (at least in game-time).  Sometimes they’ll do this in response to a Game Master deadline.  Sometimes it’s hardwired into the game such as when a Game Master purposefully splits them up to make them more vulnerable.  Sometimes the player characters just feel like it’s a solid option regardless of Game Master nudging.  While this often sounds good in theory (get more stuff done at the same time, make people feel vulnerable), a split party has a lot of logistical issues that get in the way.

A split party often means that tense scene will need to be snappy or you’ll either bore the uninvolved players or potentially throw off the pacing by swapping back and forth.  If the players don’t pay full attention to what they wanted to do, the entire scene might take longer as they have to be brought up to speed time and again.

Uninvolved players are likely to get bored if too much time passes or frustrated if you flick back and forth too quickly. They might turn to mobile phones or flicking through rulebooks or gossiping among themselves if their attention span isn’t ironclad — even if your game is otherwise riveting.  So what can you do to off-set this?

In some games you can keep all of the players involved in any particular scene even when their characters are split off.  You could do some of the following:

  1. Some players are happy being the audience. This is more often true of small parties than large ones.
  2. Keep it snappy. Perhaps it only needs to take ten minutes before the whole thing is over.
  3. Prepare NPC roles and have one set of players roleplay them for the other.
  4. Allow one set of players to play ghosts, whispered fears, that affect the involved characters.
  5. Allow one set of players to team up with the other, providing those characters a tactical boost as a nod to those character’s skill-sets and intelligence stats as two heads are better than one.
  6. Provide comm-units so that both sides can stay involved. Bonus points if you use baby monitors and separate rooms so that one side has to struggle to hear what the other side is saying.  (Impossible if both groups are performing tense actions synchronously unless you have a co-GM).
  7. Put them in another room with a co-GM you have briefed earlier who can run them through the action.
  8. Sometimes a player can function as a co-GM if you have a series of rooms, traps and combat encounters written down. Be sure that all players are okay with this and take a break before leaping into the action so the sudden co-GM has time to go over the notes.
  9. Simply set the players up in two different rooms so they can chat out-of-character until you get back. This way they don’t interrupt anyone else and can often be safely left to their own devices for up to half an hour without too much trouble.  Note that lone individuals will feel more bored and isolated if left in a room Out-of-character on their own so don’t do so for more than 10 – 15 minutes.

Sometimes, if one player decides to do a lone wolf and run off from the pack, you might be tempted to let the lone wolf play through their inevitable demise and let the other players bear silent witness.  Don’t do it.  If the player had the best intentions behind their actions, then it’s not fair on them.  If the player was doing it to hog the spotlight, than all you’ve done is reward them.  Who cares if their character dies if they got to have an audience?  Worse yet, what if they miraculously survive?  Now they looked awesome doing it.

If a player problematically sends their character out on their own you should make their journey incredibly dull. Have all of the encounters, drama, and excitement occur where the others are and have that individual have a remarkable easy and boring route to the end that still takes about as much time.  Naturally if the single player running off adds to the game and fits with the style of play, just use the above techniques as normal.

So how do how do you deal with split parties?  Do you have any plans or idea?

Helping players out with Hard Mode Investigation

s-l640Investigation-based games are hard. You can’t just run up to the enemy and roll dice at them until they go away. No, you have to find the clues, understand the clues, locate more clues, understand them, then put together a picture and figure out what to do about it. Add a horror element and it becomes all the more brutal as mistakes can be lethal if the players don’t adequately search for clues before busting down that locked door to the room containing that shoggoth.

When these clue trails confuse and overwhelm new players it’s often frustrating for all concerned.

Introducing the Clue Token.

This handy little device can be rewarded for playing within the genre and can then be used to get players out of an intellectual bind.  You could reward them for looking before leaping, exhaustively searching the crime scene, making a point to interview witnesses in a productive manner, using ingenuity to solve problems, using teamwork to surmount obstacles, avoiding pain the way real people do, exercising caution rather than just trying to roll dice at a monster until it goes away, showing the strain of the horror situation in character, retaining excellent in-game focus, or anything else that really helps the game.

They can collect up to three of these little babies and then use them to get a free hint to do with the situation at hand. The hint could range from reminding them of their ability to search scenes, pointing out a connection between clues that went unnoticed or telling them that certain clues can be used as leverage against certain NPCs. It could even be used to negate a bad roll that meant they overlooked an important clue.  Maybe there’s something the character should know but the player doesn’t and it gives you an excuse to point out some skills on thiir character sheet.  Sometimes if the clue trail break down has reached a brick wall it might mean that you create a new clue entirely that helps the game move forward such as having the password to that computer written down on a post-it note tacked to the side.

I trialled this system years ago with a group of players who had little to no experience in the investigative genre of game and it turned out to be really effective.  I used the clue tokens from the Arkham Horror Board Game to represent them so that the players had a physical reminder at hand.  I gave them a single free clue token at the start of the session and told them that this freebie will disappear at the end of the night in order to encourage them to use them rather than hoard them. Otherwise they might have hoarded it and never learned the value of using them.  Later tokens could be carried over between sessions.

Do you have any hints or tricks to help out players with a difficult investigation?