GM Toolbox: Action Feedback

One of the major differences between interactive and non-interactive media is the concept of feedback. Games, as interactive media, show you the results of choices you make. If you’re running a game, that’s a tremendous boon for you, as understanding them is the key to keeping your players engaged. (And if you’re playing a game, receiving those feedbacks is part of why you’re playing.)

Computer games are very effective at communicating feedback. They pair immediate graphical output with nuanced sound and, in appropriate cases, fanfare that all demonstrate positive, desired outcomes. And in cases where a sub-optimal result has been achieved, or even failure, they can communicate that as well, imparting teachings that can increase player skill (even in their absence).

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There’s little ambiguity about what the player has accomplished here.

Around the RPG table, though, feedbacks are a different beast, and are almost solely the responsibility of the GM. And the GM has a variety of different means to communicate those feedbacks, to keep the players engaged. After all, players play games to make choices, and feedbacks frame the outcomes of those choices.

Granular Feedback

Granular feedback is immediate, showing the sequential, often instantaneous outcome to an action. A dice roll yields instant feedback — you see the number you rolled and you (usually) know whether you succeeded or not, and by how much. A GM description of events can also be granular competence feedback: a description of a combat maneuver’s result, an acknowledgement of having picked a lock, a spell that completely suborns the rancor of a hostile creature. Granular competence feedback is the easiest to convey as a GM.

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Quintessential RPG feedback.

Sustained Feedback

Sustained feedback may be a collection of successive granular feedbacks, but can be more than that in the employ of a skilled GM. Sustained feedback shows the player(s) that they’re on a roll, in the zone, or otherwise achieving an ongoing series of successes. Simple comments like, “The hall is strewn with the unconscious forms of your enemies” can go a long way toward reinforcing a sense of player achievement — they show the player, “Hey, good job, you’ve had a string of successes here.” Pursuit and other forms of extended challenges are great for sustaining feedback. Once the player has achieved the 10 successes required to hack into a database, for example, call out the accomplishment. The individual dice rolls yielding the successes show the granular accomplishment, but finally accumulating the required number is a payoff. Finally eluding a hunter or finally catching up to one’s prey are other strong examples. A bard gradually winning over a crowd, an artist creating their magnum opus, and a codebreaker finally cracking a cipher are other examples. Sustained competence feedback is generally the hardest for a GM to convey, as its circumstances are less frequent than granular feedbacks. But if the GM sets their mind to highlighting these sorts of indicators of progress, they can bridge the granular and cumulative competence feedbacks, and help transition the players from the “little bits” to the “big picture” overall.

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The intrepid adventurers were able to translate the demented sorcerer’s flesh-bound journal.

Cumulative Feedback

Cumulative feedback is that “big picture,” that overall expression of the little outcomes that shape the whole. RPGs are great for cumulative feedbacks. The campaign itself is a form of cumulative feedback, while individual sessions also represent smaller but still “chunky” cumulative milestones. Multiple-session books, chapters, seasons — whatever your terminology for them, they’re longer-form expressions of feedback. When an antagonist escapes the players or is ultimately brought to their just desserts, that’s a cumulative form of feedback, as it demonstrates the ultimate objective that so many of the granular and sustained actions were working toward.

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And everything concludes neatly with no loose ends….

Overall, feedbacks help communicate accomplishment, and accomplishment satisfies player needs. Note that accomplishment doesn’t necessarily equal success! Players may feel a sense of accomplishment through having foiled an antagonist’s plans only temporarily (as with many Call of Cthulhu scenarios). They may feel accomplishment through the relatedness of knowing they have earned the ire of a common enemy.

As well, feedbacks can transcend the game as a framework. While in-game rewards are immediate and satisfying, the game’s rewards aren’t bounded to the duration of play itself. Much like a satisfying book or film, playing a game can leave a strong sense of satisfaction after the experience itself has concluded. And that satisfaction is engendered by — and even described by — feedbacks. Indeed, player satisfaction can be the feedback a GM receives for a game session greatly appreciated by the participants.

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Writing Characters for WoD One-Shots

I often run one-shots for the World of Darkness. Whether I’m doing demo sessions or running games for the local RPG club, I find the setting of the World of Darkness and its essential experience are very well suited to single-session stories for a variety of reasons.

  • The session can address a specific topic without having to sustain a full chronicle
  • Players can satisfy and gain feedback on short-term goals
  • Players can indulge intra-player treachery and intrigue without jeopardizing their relationships to one another over the long term

This last one is probably the most important. Treachery and intrigue are built into the DNA of the World of Darkness. A unifying theme across all of the WoD titles is the presence of a secret history and wheels that turn within wheels to satisfy the inscrutable goals of often unseen engineers. This is great stuff and it makes for marvelous conflict in stories around the game table — and conflicts are the stuff of which stories are made, of course.

With that in mind, when I set out to write a one-shot for the World of Darkness, I try to satisfy the following objectives.

Create Pregenerated Characters

Pregens are almost a must-have for a one-shot. At the table proper, they save session time that would otherwise be spent in character creation. Most importantly, they can be written to guarantee the presence of the themes and elements you construct your story to demonstrate. A wise Storyteller will create pregenerated characters with dependencies on each other and with complementary traits, which you almost certainly won’t get with an open-table approach to characters. Indeed, pregenerated characters let you manage some of the players’ expectations, which can be a huge deal if you’re not personally curating who’s at the table. (Seriously. I ran a demo game at the Essen Spiel once for a group of players that included a guy who wanted to fight everything with his claymore and a woman who wanted a session of pure gothic romance. And never again did I run demo sessions without pregenerated characters. Not because these concepts or expectations were bad, but because attempting to appease them both just left each of them disappointed.)

Have Players Suggest a Character Type or Concept

Here, you should expressly communicate that your pregenerated characters are just that — pregenerated, so there’s not a lot of ability to make a whole lot of tweaks on the spot without compromising the story’s plans. Players can certainly change details like their name, Nature and Demeanor, and maybe a trait or three, but you likely will have made certain considerations with the characters that are required by story elements (see below). Maybe you’re bold enough to let people adjust their clan or Disciplines, and if you are, bravo.

Myself, I ask players to write down a list of three adjectives that describe the type of character they’d like to play. With that sort of coaching from the players, I can usually get a pretty good match for at least two of those adjectives per player. And the players also feel like their desires have been considered, as opposed to just taking what was left over.

Build Relationships Between Characters

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Remember the old coterie charts from the classic Vampire supplements? They depict visually a snapshot of who feels what about whom. You don’t have to go so far as to draw a coterie chart yourself, and you don’t have to connect every player’s character to one another, but you should definitely build opportunities for interaction between the characters. In itself, this serves two purposes:

  • It proactively prompts players to action
  • If you build antagonisms and contrasting goals into the relationships, it lets you shine a light on the themes of treachery and intrigue

Provide Goals for Each Pregenerated Character

If you’re writing the pregenerated characters, you probably have at least a hunch of how the characters you conceive would act. Players, however, haven’t incubated those thoughts yet, so you should provide them with a list of things the character wants to accomplish. The player doesn’t have to use these, but they’re a good way to jump-start the players into activity.

Make these goals obvious. (May you eventually enjoy the discovery of self-starting players and  their capacity to surprise you with the tools you provide them!) Don’t bury the provided goals in paragraphs of background. Bullet point these mofos in a separate section of the pregen materials and call them out with their own header. If the player reads literally nothing else on their character sheet, working toward these is enough to get them participating.

In scripting the events of the one-shot — whether you do this in-depth or as little more than notes or an outline — relate at least one the character’s goals to the primary conflict of the story. All of the characters should have something investing them in the central plot component so as to bring them all together. This is also a great opportunity to foster those greater WoD themes of treachery and intrigue because here’s your chance to set some of those character goals in opposition to one another. Maybe one character wants the diabolist brought before the Prince to answer for their crimes while another player wants to enact retribution upon the diabolist and yet another character wants to take advantage of the Lex Talionis and diablerize the diabolist.

Providing contrasting and even exclusive goals does more than emphasize the themes of the game. It provides the impetus to disagree with other players, act against them (whether overtly or in secret), and takes some of the burden of being the focal point of player interactions off the Storyteller and onto the players themselves. They’re the leading characters of the story, after all, so let them celebrate interacting with one another. Beyond the role-based dependencies facilitated by more tactical situations, these personality-driven interactions make the characters themselves feel more vital, and they make the story more than a series of external obstacles to be overcome.

Provide Secrets for Each Pregenerated Character

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Sharing secrets — whether accurately or falsely — is the currency of a World of Darkness story.

Add value to individual players’ characters by taking advantage of information disparity. Everybody should know at least one thing that others don’t. Privileged information makes the player feel powerful. Unique information also makes them valuable to the big picture (whether they share the info or act on it as part of a personal goal.

If you craft them wisely, a player’s secrets can:

  • Provoke conflict or cooperation with another player
  • Provide insight into how to resolve one of the plot conflicts
  • Function as leverage over another character in order to stimulate the social dynamic
  • Tip the balance of power in the story’s climax

Example Materials

Here are some links to planning materials for games I’ve written in the past.

The Apostate’s Wish

Chicago, 1896 — three years after the World’s Columbian Exposition. Three short years ago, the world marveled at the wonders of science, industry, and architecture on display at the expo. The now-abandoned fairgrounds of the grand exhibition harbor a darker side: The remains of the expo have become a stalking ground for a more insidious and decidedly less human horror — albeit one that poses no less a threat to the world of mortals. Into these long shadows steps a team of investigators, their fate as yet unknown….

Character Background Materials

Character Sheets

Storyteller Notes

Undying Ambition

A mysterious missive arrives in the night promising the auction of an incomparable prize: A staked and torpid Methuselah. Those accepting the invitation to the auction each have their own reasons for seeking the torpid ancient, but their true opponents may not be their rival bidders. Are the players masters of their own destinies? Or are they pawns in the War of Ages?

Character Background Materials

It’s Worth It

It sounds like a lot of work, and, honestly, it is, but when you plan your story and assemble the characters with attention to their polish, the players truly appreciate it. Overall, it makes for a stronger story, and it ensures that players have ample ways to impact the story (even if it’s not the core plot over which they have the most influence). And you don’t have to restrict it to the tabletop: You can develop LARP characters or characters for boutique events the same way. Ultimately, it’s about creating opportunities for action, because players want to see the results of the choices they make.

Maps as Flowcharts

In fantasy RPGs, and in some other theme-forward RPGs, maps are often assumed to be one of the high-impact setting artifacts. They’re great for demonstrating production value, they provide valuable in-game information, and they’re good goal-setting tools that inspire their players to seek out far off and challenging destinations. Heck, “map fantasy” is an entire sub-genre of literature.

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This map makes me want to play this game.

A conversation in one of my online communities recently got me thinking about what maps suggest, however. While I don’t have an issue with maps, in general, I often find myself working with with much less precise geography when I run games. I responded that GMs could also use flowcharts instead of maps, and I wanted to explore that more substantially here.

Some of things that come up when discussing maps:

  • When your fantasy campaign/ scenario/ session relies on a map, that document makes many decisions for you, rather than letting them emerge from the gameplay. A savvy GM can deviate from this, but it becomes a little more difficult to account for than changing an antagonist or substituting a faction. There’s a cascade effect of consequences that changing “map truths” has, not the least of which is invalidating some of the visual verity of game materials designed for that very purpose. Certainly, fantasy and games are about imagining “what if?” but if the tools for doing that reinforce a different what if, they’re fighting the player’s sense of authenticity.
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    Hexcrawl nerd nirvana, from Tomb of Annihilation.

    If the mapped area is known, that diminishes some of the discovery incentive for exploring the area. Put in practical terms, there’s a reason that Tomb of Annihilation has a huge number of unknown hexes on its player map. It’s an encouragement to seek the answer to a question the game asks. If the players’ map was filled in, it’s simply an exercise in choosing the perceived optimal route. But when the players are able to fill it in because they found the answer, that’s intrinsically rewarding! They’ve pushed back the unknown themselves, which is extremely satisfying. In a perfect world, your players may be the ones to make the map and introduce it to the world (or keep it secret). But those decisions and outcomes are the stuff of which games are made, yes?

  • Assuming a semi-medieval information state and economy, maps are extremely valuable, and the information they contain isn’t necessarily common knowledge. This is less important in worlds with magic and million-year written traditions and infinite non-exploitative production means, but overall, if your world assumes some historical affections and not others, that makes it more difficult for the players to understand which of the unspoken truths are in fact different. Not a huge issue, but a seeming incongruity with certain assumptions of authenticity.

Again, my intent is not to eliminate map use, but to provide an immediately useful and perhaps more relevant alternative. Especially as a GM, you may need more or different information more readily at hand than a traditional map provides.

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A dungeon arrayed as a flowchart rather than a traditional gridded map. The dotted line indicates a secret passage. The numbers correspond to encounter details on a legend (not depicted). Note the one-way path from the Treacherous Bridge to the Black Idols — reaching the idols this way probably means falling from the bridge!

I’m reminded of an early Robert E. Howard sketch of his fantasy world as he envisioned it*, which didn’t have a map paired with it. rather, it was a description of the various lands and the themes they evoked, but with a very impressionistic description of their locations, largely in relation to the other locations. This seemed to me a clever narrative way of handling things — I know that Area X is off to the badlands of the west and Region Y is mired in the swampy southeast and that’s pretty much all I need because I’m reading about story events rather than planning a road trip to either location.

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This dude is pretty sure he’s within a day or two’s travel from Greyhawk.

In my experience, that’s the most important determinant: Is the destination more important than the journey, in terms of how the game is set up? For example, if the game is planned as a series of narrative events planned at key set piece locations, the actual map geography becomes less important. If the game is planned as a hex crawl or a journey into the unknown, a map is more important — and the players may even be creating a map of their own, perhaps even the only such map that exists in the world! OSR gameplay, for example, often emphasizes travel to the destination, while many more narrative games focus on the planned encounter locations instead of the interstices.

Replacing the Map With a Flowchart

When the fine details of a map aren’t critical to the gameplay decisions, I can set to work building the flowchart. Even “flowchart” implies more structure than is necessary, as it suggests dependent, sequential movement. A simple chart, showing relative position, is really all you need. You can build these with heavy tools like Power Point (not optimal) or Visio (better, as it preserves the spatial relationships and connections). I’ve found, though, that lighter mindmapping programs work best. I use Scapple most often and sometimes MindNode (which I also use to collect campaign details, plot events, and player responses). Different programs should also let you use different shapes and connector types that give you visual cues of different information types.

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Here’s a map chart of a local-scale campaign environment. The green location is the starting locale, and probably the one best known to the PCs. The blue entries are the areas that PCs can gain rumors about while asking around the village. The uncolored entries are feature areas — dungeons, buildings, interesting places. The red entry is a planned encounter tied to a specific area proximate to other nearby features. The numbers on the dotted lines are travel distances expressed as times, which can be used for random encounter checks or for time-dependent events.

Things to Include in a Map Chart

  • Spatial relationships of geographical entries
    • Include sequential travel relationships. For example, if you have to go under the mountain to get to the castle on the other side, the chart should depict that dependency
    • This also lets you array the alternate routes. In the example above, it may be safer but longer to travel through the forest to get to the castle, but faster and more dangerous to go under the mountain
  • Distance between geographical entries
    • Stated as a value; will usually fit on connector lines
  • Some differentiation between geographical entries of different types
    • E.g. Region vs community vs geographical feature vs adventure site vs encounter
    • Use different colors to denote different entities (cities in one country all have a blue background, all dungeons with artifacts have a yellow-highlighted header, etc.)
  • References to relevant encounters
  • If you want to get sophisticated and interactive, you can link from the map chart to wiki entries, Trello cards, Obsidian Portal campaigns, etc.

* “Notes on Various Peoples of the Hyborean Age,” “The Hyborean Age,” and “Hyborian Names and Countries,” pp. 375, 379, and 417, from The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

More GM Quickies

Gamemastering is a combination of art and science, and like any skill, is improved by doing more of it. As you run RPG sessions, you’ll pick up your own style, voice, and tricks of the trade. Here a few that I use on occasion when I run games — I hope they serve you well.

The Prophecy is False

The Thing Portended doesn’t come to happen. The magic sword falls into the hands of a rival power, who destroyed the stone rather than yanking the sword from it. The grimoire in the occult library has been defaced rather than imparting its secrets to the foretold sorcerer. There are two — or more — “chosen ones” and a heroic effort becomes factionalized. The benefits of using this technique are that it makes the world feel more governed by actions and consequences rather than faits accompli — which subtly reinforces that the actions of the characters are significant, because free will matters. If the prophecy was magical in nature, a false prophecy indicates either capricious, unreliable magic, or perhaps darker forces at work subverting it. If the Prophecy is technological, it creates doubt in the default assumptions of technology’s omniscience, and can likewise indicate behind-the-scenes efforts to sabotage what is “known.”

Destroy Money

If monetary treasure is part of a campaign’s rewards, players need to have things to spend that money on. If money can’t be used for anything significant, it’s little more than an extrinsic score. If solutions to game problems are available for easy purchase and the players have too much money, the players can effectively handwave away many of the game’s consequences. Adventure campaigns in particular require careful use of the party’s resources, including spells, special abilities, hit points, and the currency used to equip the party. You don’t have to keep track of every nickel and dime, but a scarcity of game resources forces the players to make considered decisions to guarantee their success. Taxes, room and board, homestead expenses and the like all help the players have a sense of ownership in the world. Having the pack mule with their bushel of gemstones fall off the side of a mountain is a less reasonable way to take money away… unless it kicks off a quest to retrieve the lost lucre.

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A simple gameplay loop, well suited to monetary rewards, that allows players to demonstrate mastery as well as destroying resources

Use Critical Failures to Speed Resolution

In many cases, critical failures end up prolonging systems interaction, rather than creating interesting outcomes. Critically fail an attack, you drop your sword; critically fail a research roll and you confound your study and have to start over. Consider instead using the critical failure to help speed the resolution, rather than extending it. For example, I use a house rule that gives adacent foes an attack of opportunity if a player (or monsters!) rolls a 1 on the attack roll. Botched research yields incorrect information rather than resetting research task progress to 0.

Rob Peter to Pay Paul

Speaking of critical failures, “bank” them when possible for when you have a chance to make them more significant than a tactical setback. A critical failure on a Repair roll holds the ship together for now — but it’ll give out at some critical moment in the future (necessitating more decision-making and problem-solving). A critical failure to cast a spell invokes a demon somewhere else. Use critical failures to create interesting outcomes and to generate new choices and new opportunities for action. And players will have a delicious dread of a critical failure that seems like a success. Be consistent, though! The “banked” outcome has to relate to the original botch. No fair punishing a player on a Perception roll when they crit-failed an attack roll five encounters ago.

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An opportunity for something more exciting than “You drop your pistol.”

Share the Narrative Duties

Rather than using an expository speech, reveal world history in broad strokes. Players like playing. Fewer players like being subjected to a GM lore dump. Give just enough detail to stoke player interest, and then share the worldbuilding with them as it emerges from their reactions to your broad strokes. It can be anything from naming an unnamed village to inventing a local custom in a place the party visits — and it should be happening a lot in your games, whether you try to do it or not. And when you do try to do it, you create that much more engagement and investment.

Belluna Serenissima: A Postmortem

Last week, we concluded a campaign of 3+ years. I was the GM, and in the interests of improving my craft, I wrote up the following postmortem on our experiences. Hopefully it’s valuable to you. It’s definitely helped me organize my thoughts on this particular game and group.

An auburn sun glitters off the canals. Lamplighters fill the lanterns over the strada with oil. A boisterous laugh, an overturned jug in a pool of wine. A man bolts across a bridge wearing a devil’s mask. A woman reclines at the fore of a gondola, fanning herself in the humid night air. A scent of gunsmoke and basil. The sound of a harmonium. Lewd graffiti on a fresco above the heads of ruddy-faced, mustachioed paisan, idling away the night with cards and catcalls. A cloaked figure, moving in the shadows of the stuccoed walls. The glint of dying sunlight off a knife’s blade.

Belluna Serenissima! Its tastes and smells inflame the imagination, from the salt tang of the waterway-streets to the rich scent of the grilled polpo to the delicate bouquet of its finest wines. Skilled craftsmen of all trades display their handmade wares in stalls passed down family lines for centuries. Great artists, scientists, and philosophers flock to its wealthy patrons. The al fresco public houses seem forever open. The ports teem with goods and visitors from all across the world.

But Belluna is also a city of contrasts. Its churches give succor to the devout while the palatial estate of its Doge erupts into the all-night revelry of the carnevale. Its Palazzo Ducale stands testament to the might of the city, even as its underprivileged wonder when their next meal will be.It has inherited a tradition of law from its classical forerunners, yet its ill-lit alleyways harbor a motley array of gangsters and racketeers who are invisible to — or above — that selfsame law.

A subalpine port city, Belluna lies at the foot of the mountain passes that travel beneath Monte Bianco to the northwest and the Piave Sea to the east. It is a city of canals, fed by the River Amaro, most of which bustle during the day with commerce and private travel. Many of the city’s roads are earthen, but much travel happens by canali and ponti, particularly near the trade district, where a great deal of the city’s inbound commerce occurs. Many other waterways, though, meander through the city proper, creating a poetic spirit and giving Belluna its unique personality.

This, then, is a chronicle of those who would taste the fruits Belluna has to offer. From the sparkling blue-green waterways to the solemn granite of its cathedrals, from the heights of Monte Bianco’s crags to the depths of the Piave Bay, from the secret tryst offered by a masked temptress to the proclamation of war shouted by the capitan di ventura, from the neutral grounds observed by the warring assassins’ guilds to the lairs of the monstrosities lurking in the city’s long shadows, Belluna is a city of unrelenting adventure!

We played Pathfinder, starting from 2nd level PCs advancing to 8th, using the slow progression scheme.

You can read some of the details here, if that’s your cup of tea.

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Pros: What Went Right

We used roll20.net, which offered a number of positives. The virtual tabletop allowed us to overcome the geographical space between all of us (a few Raleigh-Durham locals, a Pennsylvanian, and a Californian). I purchased a number of maps that lent a far greater degree of high-quality art than I would have been able to build or scrawl in black marker on a battlemat, so the environments were very satisfying to look at for hours on end. Macros, hidden rolls, shareable handouts, and the rest of the suite of roll20 features were all golden, and I can’t recommend it enough.

I was fairly stingy with treasure, but this resulted in most characters gaining “signature” magic items that affected how they played. This was a positive result, and not one that would have improved had I simply added more money to the rewards. Characters developed in unique ways built around the magical items they accumulated, making for a high degree of personality.

Player dependency and interrelationship was good, even though most players chose classes outside the trinity. Some weird stuff developed, which was cool. For example, the tank had a pair of boots of striding and springing, and one of the other heavy hitters was a monk, so the group’s front line was very mobile. Lacking a traditional healer in the latter third of the campaign, the party alchemist ended up developing healing bombs, and the paladin, the only other healer, was decidedly less mobile than everyone else (heavy armor!), which made the party cultivate some non-traditional stay-alive tactics.

A few key NPCs emerged as story drivers. A much-hated antagonist caused much consternation as he became an ally. An information-handler found himself in danger, and the PCs rallied to protect him. A wealthy patron had to prove herself due to association with an antagonist. Once I saw players responding to these, I used them more frequently, and always to provide them with decisions (rather than make the decisions for them).

Character mortality was low, in accordance with the rules, and the deaths that did occur carried an emotional weight that reinforced the players’ engagement. I would have liked perhaps one more PC death, but they are tough buggers, and adaptable.

Room for Improvement

As it so often does, real life often intruded, and some sessions had to be rescheduled, canceled, or subbed out for one-shots. This is fine, of course, but playing via virtual tabletop made it very hard to pick up where we had left off. Sessions ran approximately monthly, and while everyone was excited to play, we definitely lost some brain cycles to “Okay, remind me what happened last time again?” or even “Who is this guy we supposedly met six sessions ago?” It’s unfair for a GM to expect players to spend as many mental cycles on the campaign as they do (since they’re doing much more of the organizational work), but this occasionally undermined some of the engagement/ investment in key scenes or even raised the question “Why are we doing this?” when the immediate answer should have been one of volition.

Infrequent game sessions made it particularly hard to enforce delayed effects and disease attacks (filth fever, lycanthropy, etc.). A general assumption that everyone “returned to town” between sessions generally had game time elapse between one session and the next, meaning that even if the effects took place, they would have abated by the time the next session convened. Players enjoyed the benefit of facing foes that had these attacks (increased XP rewards, etc.) while having to endure little of the drawbacks. Next time I want to plan better to incorporate the session downtimes and/ or construct plot events so that these become more of a factor, as opposed to handwaving them away. Construction of sessions to more serial than episodic would bring these lingering effect more into the spotlight.

Infrequent sessions saw us handwaving away much of the travel as PC levels increased. This very much disappoints me, as the interstitial journeys that take place in an RPG are where so many of the world details emerge and where the players test out tactics (or decide that avoiding a challenge is better than facing it). We lost out on a lot of roleplay by skipping the getting-there.

“Main events” consumed more and more time in tandem with the players’ and antagonists’ special ability portfolios. The “connective tissue” of the campaign scaled back and back because the focal conflicts of the evening session became more and more demanding, in terms of construction and game mastering.

I would have preferred more substantial journaling and quest logging, but the players mostly weren’t into it. Every now and then, the logging effort surged, but most players non-participation in it — and my frequent lack of input — I think resulted in the players who were keeping up with it losing interest. I’m not normally one to offer extrinsic rewards or bribes for keeping up with this stuff, since that often turns the results into something perfunctory, but I do have some sense of loss over a more consistent chronicle of the campaign. This is something I should make time for in the future, and encourage more in the players. I don’t want to do it myself because a) that offers too much of a “peek behind the curtain” that’s supposed to emerge at the table, and b) it’s a way for players to remain engaged and “play when they’re not playing” if they’re so inclined. But they weren’t, so I’m other looking for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, or I need to demonstrate more of a value to it.

GM Quickies: GMing Horror

When you take it upon yourself to GM a horror game, it’s your job to build a moody experience. If you’ve run a game as a GM before, you know that building mood is a significant task! You share the storytelling stage with the players, and by and large, they react to the game elements you’ve told them are present. With that in mind, knowing how and what you want to present the players with goes a long way toward maintaining the mood appropriate to a horror session or campaign. The following suggestions aim to help you do that.

Create Fear, Don’t Squick

Fear is an emotion that comes as a result of the uncertainty of one’s own well being. Characters in a horror game are right to feel fear — some dark force has turned its baleful eye directly upon them!

Every good GM knows to add sensory detail to their descriptions, the better to immerse the players in the setting. Gory detail should be used sparingly, however. Gory detail more often creates revulsion, not fear, and risks replacing the thrill of fear with discomfort. Resist the urge to devote too much attention to the glisten of viscera or what’s dripping from a ghoul’s mouth. While certain parties may appreciate this sort of thing (and, of course, you know your gaming group better than anyone who’s never met them could), be wary of risking their enjoyment of the game by placing too much emphasis on splatter in place of building a mounting mood of horror.

Detail is like a spice. Too much overwhelms the dish. A little goes a long way.

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Let Imagination Loom

Fear thrives in environments where the mind is left to imagine its ultimate doom. The monster unseen is more fearsome than the monster described. The creaking door, the guttering candle, the faraway howl on the moor: All of these create more fear than revealing what caused them. Ultimately, many questions will be answered and many mysteries will be revealed over the course of a session or campaign, but leaving some time between describing some element of the story and revealing its true nature is the crucible in which horror forms.

This technique works well for everything from small details on up to greater campaign mysteries. Revealing partial information to the players sets their minds to imagining all sorts of worst-case scenarios that help reinforce the mood at the table. Pacing the rate at which you reveal information can trade much on that principle. Introducing strange and incomplete details and allowing the players to ascribe dreadful significance to them lets the players brood upon the unknown. It’s a technique used in mystery stories as well, but it takes on a fearsome gravity when matched with other elements of horror.

Example Details

Minor details: The creaking door, the guttering candle, the faraway howl on the moor, as mentioned above. Footsteps on the ground floor of the inn (who could be visiting at this time of night?)

Story details: A bloody knife discovered in the refectory. Flashes of light witnessed at the castle on the crag from the village below. The missing servants at the tycoon’s mansion.

Campaign details: The construction of the new crypt on the family estate (because the old crypt filled so quickly…). Learning that the librarian is the seventh son of a seventh son. The brewery is owned by the son of the secret police, and every delivery has an extra barrel unaccounted for on the shipping manifest.

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Discovery Through Repetition

Delivering game descriptions with emphatic repetition indicates to players that the repeated detail is important. The repetition reinforces the presence and normalcy of the detail. It creates a pattern that stands out when it’s broken (which allows you to amplify the dread by the players not knowing what has caused the break in the pattern). It creates a subtle signal that makes players feel empowered when they discover.

The chilly castle has a fire stoked in every room that feebly keeps the cold at bay. The perfect array of bricks in the Boston cellar walls indicates attentive craftsmanship. Every envoy sent by the ambassador has blond hair. When the players explore one of the castle rooms with only smoking embers in the fireplace (who or what put it out?), observes a cellar wall with a single missing brick (what’s behind it?), or receives an envoy from the ambassador who is strikingly bald (why is this fellow different?), their minds work to analyze the the change in the pattern. And this lets their imagination loom, as above.

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Steal Their Ideas

A clever GM knows when to rely on the purchased or pre-annotated source material, and when to run with the players’ cues. Packaged stories are commercial products, and are generally written to entertain the broadest audiences. Notes written by the GM before the session starts are, at best, projections of concepts that will challenge and entertain the players. But when your session is underway, you’re getting live, real-time feedback for the game events that you can use immediately so that you can tailor further developments to that player response. If your notes say the Duke is secretly the werewolf, but your players have a more significant connection to the midwife, maybe it’s best to change the werewolf’s identity. If the vital clue is in the publisher’s office but the players are having more fun at the mayor’s inaugural ball, consider relocating the vital clue to city hall.

Be careful with this! Ultimately horror revolves around the perception of helplessness. But if players feel that every time they develop an attachment to a character or show an interest in a setting element, the GM turns it against them, they will feel punished for their engagement. Horror relies on hope to contrast the darkness with light, and a sense of accomplishment is critical to maintain even in a horror environment.

Using Decision Hubs

One way to allow greater player agency is to construct a “hub” from which core campaign elements radiate, making for a number of possible action points that are accessible from it. For example, if we assume that the PCs’ starting town is the hub, a storied dungeon, a cavern complex, and an abandoned mountain keep might all be proximate to that starting town. If the starting hub is a space station, a smugglers’ lair may be nearby, along with an asteroid belt where aggressive aliens hide and a dangerous anomaly from a precursor culture.

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The opportunities for action radiating from the hub need not be physical locations, they can just as viably be non-location-based encounters or entities. For example, a vampire coterie’s domain may be immediately affected by rumors of Anarch turbulence, the appearance of fragments of the Book of Nod, and a sudden shift in nightlife that relocates the Rack.

Having a number of actionable choices radiating from the central hub serves both the players and the GM. For the GM, a number of options allows them to control the scope of their preparation. Without having to detail a full sandbox, a smaller number of encounter contingencies is more easily managed. For the players, a number of options allows them the volition to choose the course of action that most interests them, but doesn’t subject them to a decision-halting paradox of choice.

Importantly, decision hubs can scale to whatever challenge level at which the campaign takes place. This is especially valuable for starting or low-level campaigns, which can easily lead the players into feeling railroaded if they don’t feel that they’re making significant decisions.

Opportunities for Action

Description, detail, and lore are widely considered cornerstones of the roleplaying games medium. They tell only part of the tale, however. Certainly, description  detail and lore all have their place in the verbal-literary tradition on which roleplaying games draw. What ultimately defines a game, however, is the opportunity for players to make choices and affect the outcomes of the game environment. Without interaction, these details are simply words, diorama designs that assume no life of their own. The players’ interaction with these descriptors is what defines a roleplaying game as a game.

To this end, players inherently seek opportunities for action, inputs by which their choices determine, define, or react to the game’s events at any given time.

As a GM, it’s part of your job to draw attention to the opportunities available. You don’t have to — in fact, you probably shouldn’t — exhaustively list what the players can do, but suggesting a course of action has a variety of values. It lets the players know that the game state is waiting on them to interact with it, that it’s time to declare an action and “play.” It engenders in players a state of creative thought. And it provides a frame of reference, or an anchor with which to compare their own actions.

Describing the Call to Action

Given the verbal-literary tradition of roleplaying games, word choice when drawing attention to these opportunities is significant. Consider the differences in the calls to action in the following examples:

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Each are viable prompts to act, but each frames the potential opportunities for action differently. Some leave the full breadth of action available to the players, informing them only that the gamemaster seeks their input. Others suggest possible courses of action, and might even be interpreted as subtle clues.

As the GM, your presentation of the game world by definition limits how the players can react to it. After all, they can’t know what you don’t tell them. Each of your words and phrases discloses the presence of a “moving part” that players may attempt to exert control over or otherwise interact with. Choose your words carefully, as they tell the players not only what they experience, but potentially what actions might  be relevant to those events in response.

Importantly, as a GM, you don’t want to mislead your players. Avoid prompting them with opportunities for action that would have negative outcomes (or at least suggest that their outcomes might be negative, as with a quandary in which the players much choose between lesser evils). A GM who bait-and-switches her players with misleading negative suggestions soon loses the trust of those players.

Read Player Cues

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Illustration by Steve Prescott

The gameplay experience shouldn’t be a one-way flow from gamemaster to players. A good GM reads his players’ responses and adjusts the game to be a better balance of challenges and player desires. That’s not to say a good GM hands the players everything they desire on their terms. Rather, customizing a pre-written adventure or scratch-building one to offer the sorts of opportunities for action the players want to undertake results in more engaged players.

Much of this involves reading your players. For example, when a player asks, “Can we sail around the cliffs?” he may simply be trying to solve a given encounter with the available information. But it’s possible that he’s also saying, “I would like more sailing-oriented opportunities for action in the game.” Reviewing character sheets and skill specializations can provide more insight here. A character who has five dots in boat piloting and who’s asking “Can we sail around it?” is telling you, in the language of the game structures, that he wants to do some goddamned sailing. Satisfying this desire may be as simple as reskinning a travel interlude or as substantial as retooling entire encounters to involve sailing instead of, say, overland wilderness survival.

This is one of the toughest parts of GMing, because it involves not only reading these verbal and nonverbal cues, but also challenge design and balancing the results of that challenge design to a degree that the player ensemble finds engaging. If your players’ eyes are glazing over, you’ve got some work to do, but as the example above illustrates, you may have some work to do even if they haven’t checked out. In the latter case, you’re focused on increasing engagement. (If they’re zoning out entirely, you’re not engaging them at all.)

Spotlighting Relatedness

In campaign or chronicle play, the players’ actions in previous session often open new avenues to them. A hostage rescued in session three becomes a valuable contact in session seven. A sensitive document recovered from the antagonists later turns those antagonists into surprise allies. A trivial favor granted to a powerful vampire later becomes the boon that ensures the coterie’s invitation to Elysium. The barkeep buys the PCs a round and tells them, “Thanks for keeping us safe, dragonslayers.”

All of these examples are chances for players to relive their success moments from earlier in the campaign. Not only are they rewarding in this sense, but they’re empowering going forward — success paves the way toward more success.

Indeed, relatedness need not only spotlight success. Narrative progression may turn a past failure into a new opportunity for justice — or vengeance. One of the keen properties of narrative is that a “failure” in the terms of the story might actually be beneficial in terms of game systems, by opening new plot threads to explore or motivations to entertain. Destroying the wizard’s tower in session one only to be dealt a drubbing by the wizard in session three sets the stage for a showdown in session five.

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Illustration by Moebius

Call these accomplishments out. Give the players time to exult in them. Let their characters cheer each other (or commiserate with each other), and in so doing, grant the players a moment to reflect on the social activity they shared at the time. These moments provide valuable narrative context, and they renew players’ engagement in their current courses of action.

Destination: Pagan Lands

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I’ve been “working on” the Pagan Lands for years. By “working on,” I mean that I’ve been wrestling with my ideas for what to actually do with it. It was originally my home campaign, but then I got a wild hair to retool it as a retroclone, and then I set that aside to do it as a setting-agnostic pick-up supplement, then it returned to stasis as my Belluna and Tarsemine games became active, but it has always remained vital as a work-in-progress labor of love, and it’ll probably be the next extended campaign I run.

While I was straightening the home office this weekend, I went through my notes folders and found myself doodling in the rough regional map that’s grown over the course of the project. The map is intentionally ugly (the better to make quick changes without invalidating a bunch of art) and I’m not a gifted cartographer anyway, but it serves its purpose as a sort of geographical flowchart by which the players can move from one cluster of encounters to another.

Each of these regions represents a different opportunity for action, the “what is happening here?” in which players can involve themselves  — or to leave unmolested if it doesn’t suit their tastes. Think of these regions somewhat like the Ravenloft domains or the territories of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, a themed experience that the players’ choices can directly affect. Most importantly, knowing a region’s theme doesn’t rule out events can occur there, it only suggests the sorts of events the players are most likely to encounter. As with one of the core Magic precepts, if the theme isn’t accessible and discernible from the most common interactions with it, it won’t emerge as a theme.

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Naturally, a separate collection of random encounters also helps to populate the Pagan Lands. Not every event that transpires in a given region needs to touch upon that region’s theme or central event. Most do, however: Each wandering encounter table consists of events or creatures that could easily have connections to the theme. Demihumans encountered in the dead city are probably there plundering the linnorm’s hoard. Pilgrims encountered near Vulcan’s Cliffs are likely deranged cultists of the Sea God. Encounters near the Starfall have probably been exposed to the celestial body’s residual energies.

So it looks like I’ll be headed back into the Pagan Lands soon, and I’m looking forward to it. Although it’s a weird place, it’s like coming home.

Home Base: PC Property

Early D&D assumes that the players were eventually trying to clear an area in which to construct a stronghold. Classic Traveller assumes that the players owned some percentage of shares in a ship that could be used to travel the stars. Vampire often concerns itself with the ever-upscaling struggle to claim domain and then protect domain once claimed. Regardless of genre, the concept of an earned “home” is common to many RPGs.

Property makes for a strong reward in roleplaying games because doing so opens a host of additional endogenous rewards to the players who own it. That is, property is its own reward, and it can create more opportunities for encounters involving that property. Used wisely, property can bring an adventure to the players instead of requiring that players go to the adventure.

Illustration by DudQuitter

An Investment in a Place

Many settings assume that the characters have some personal stake in the wellbeing of a community, whether it’s Chicago or Sandpoint, and one good way to impart this to the players is to have the characters own property and be responsible for it in that community. In game terms, having the property confer a benefit is a good way to do this, as it invests the players in being able to call upon that benefit. In game terms, the property can be expressed in a variety of forms, and in fact multiple forms, and in so doing, the property acquires meaning to the players.

Property provides context for other rewards, as well. Land ownership can carry with it titles, incomes, or other benefits, as described below. Many fantasy games’ default medieval feudal arrangements are the obvious setting assumptions here, but
different campaigns can impart land with different titles and benefits. For example, the property is question may be a bridge allowing access to an isolated area, and the title may grant the players the right to charge a toll at the bridge. The property may be privateer vessel, and the charter for operating it may allow the players to claim territory in the name of their patron in exchange for a share of whatever incomes or resources the territory generates. A claim of Domain in Vampire, say, might allow the claimants to exact a “tithe” on all vitae claimed in the domain.

Note that the property need not be a static location. A pirate frigate, starship, or floating island are all examples of property that aren’t tied to a specific place, but that expand on the characteristics of places.

Currency Benefits

The property may generate money or other valuables that the players can use to acquire gear, consumables, or other goods. Currency can obviously be exchanged for character needs, whether in terms of satisfying basic upkeep (like D&D 5e’s Lifestyle Expenses or the nightly Blood Point cost for Vampire) or allowing improvements to starting gear.

A steady flow of currency doesn’t have to be large, especially at low levels of play, but it does provide a convenient way to incrementally improve character competency. As well, having an early currency stream can help strengthen the players’ connection to the home community that likewise increases over time. Players won’t necessarily care if their default starting location is threatened, but they will care if some amount of their livelihood is at stake. Across multiple game
sessions, this steady stream of income can build the sense of “home” that property intends to communicate. Even if the income value never increases, and that value becomes ever more negligible in terms of the power scope of the campaign, it will have contributed in the past, and that can create a powerful foundation with which the players can identify through the sense of campaign history it creates.

Examples: A copper mine, a store or business, a recognized region or domain, a title, stock in a for-hire vehicle, a Werewolf caern or a Mage node.

Systemic Benefits

The property grants a special ability or other benefit. This is some sort of mechanical boon or rules-based perk that allows the characters to exercise greater prowess when taking advantage of it. According to your game and group’s style, this can be a soft or a hard benefit — that is, something that relies on GM fiat to provide the details of the benefit, or something that has a specific, codified effect that the players can depend on every time. Tastes vary, but the latter, because they are by design reliable, generally cultivate more valuation in players’ regard.

A systemic benefit shouldn’t break the game or allow players to negate challenges, but it should create enough initial advantage that the players cultivate their own sense of valued relationship to “home.”

Again, over time, this historical value creates a sense of emotional attachment, and “home” can be imperiled, seasonal events or festivals at “home” become more meaningful, etc. Players may eventually acquire enough significance to steer the policy of “home,” and if so, more’s the better — there are the mastery, relatedness, and autonomy needs that all players have, being addressed directly.

Examples: A fashionable estate that offers a bonus to social challenges while entertaining there, a healing spring, a magical nexus conferring oracular powers, a site offering more efficient travel than is normal for the setting

Narrative Progression
Illustration by Nicolas Ferrand

The property has significance to the characters’ story. This is the stronghold that the warlord character builds as a testament to his own greatness, the hideout that the characters renovate to store their loot, or even the humble hearth where the character settles down with her significant other or kids. Narrative rewards work best with personal, character-driven ambitions behind them.

You can’t simply tell a player, “You care about VillageTown” and have that statement carry any weight, but many published settings or adventures assume that they will. Players will either care about VillageTown or they won’t, and it’ll be on their terms. Players’ emotional attachment to property grows, however, over time and at their pace. Pairing narrative rewards with one of the other reward types or having the emotional resonance grow out of those benefits will cultivate a natural attachment. If the players have (and, even better, can improve) those other benefits of property, they’ll be demonstrably satisfying the universal set of player needs in relatedness, autonomy, and mastery, and their emotional attachment to that property will grow in tandem.

Examples: A humble homestead, a craggy castle overlooking the village below, a renovated wing of the space station, a penthouse haven just outside the Rack

Reactive Encounters

Illustration by Dylan ColeCharacters’ investment in property makes for opportunities to bring the adventure to them, as opposed to seeking it out. This may work well with certain groups’ playstyles, but it can also provide a change of pace from more proactive groups’ standard methodologies. Some players prefer setting their own agendas while others wait for a challenge to come their way.

A good action vocabulary can frame these sorts of conflicts with appropriate drama: Defend the ship’s gangway. Retake the keep. Turn back the boarders. Liberate the village. These are all scenarios that bring the action directly to the players.

Loss Aversion

Players, being human, are prone to loss aversion, and one expression of this is that people more greatly feel the exigencies of loss than they do the benefits of gain. It’s great to acquire the deed to the old mine outside of town, but once it starts producing, it’s downright terrible when the mine is threatened by bandits, collapsed by sappers, or overrun by bat-faced devil-horned fire-spiders. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use the players’ property as a dramatic focal point, only that you should do it wisely and sparingly. The “lone wolf” stereotype, the character who’s an orphan and has no social connections and practices sunrise to sundown with his katana is an expression of loss aversion: Without any emotional connections for a GM to hold against him, he retains much more control of his own fate. The same is true of property. If “home” is threatened in every game session, it won’t belong before the players pack up and move away from home, if only to have more control over their own destinies.