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?

Encouraging Players to try a New Game

Encouraging Players to try a New Game

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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).