Rewards are Beginnings, Not Ends

Here’s a simple encounter model: You have an objective. You undertake a challenge to accomplish that objective. You receive a reward.

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Congratulations! You overcame the obstacle and got the goody!

…Now what?

In a games context, a reward should most often serve as a beginning, not an end. That simple encounter model above is one cycle of a loop, a repeating sequence. Which is to say, that reward can very effectively be used to engage players in what happens next, to encourage them to participate in the next cycle of the objective-challenge-reward loop.

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Let’s look at it in the terms of my favorite toolbox, self-determination theory.

Mastery

This is the big one. In tabletop RPGs, rewards often heighten the sense of heroic competence. The player obtains a better sword, new spells, improvement to a skill, a new Discipline, or better resources. Rewards often take the form of new or improved tools — which players then bring to bear against future challenges. They’re endogenous rewards: They serve to reinforce and improve the function of game systems the players have already demonstrated an interest in using. You like fighting orcs, so you fight orcs, and as your reward for fighting orcs you get a sword that makes you better at fighting orcs. Fighting orcs is intrinsically rewarding, and you just got better at it.

In additional to the improvements to character, players also gain an increasing understanding of their ability to act upon the world. Level-based systems used to take a lot of stick, but their increasing palette of options in fact works very well for keeping players from feeling paralyzed by a breadth of options. As player mastery increases, so does the significance and competence of their interaction with the world, because they learn to manage more options and they develop an understanding of combinations of options. Few players thrive when having everything available to them at once.

Autonomy

Wisely used, rewards open additional options to the player, or otherwise reinforce their volitional decisions. In a timeworn example, the players rescue the princess (objective) by slaying the dragon (challenge) and then gain access to the realm (reward)… where they find a host of new objectives to pursue. This is sometimes referred to as “gating content” (especially in video games), but it serves a greater function as a reward mechanism, and is also often used in onboarding players to new options, which is especially frequent in level-based systems. As the player grows increasingly familiar with their character’s abilities, their understanding of how they can use those abilities expands, increasing autonomy. Now that the realm is open to you, bold adventurers, what next? Now that you’ve deposed the tyrannical Prince, ambitious Kindred, what will you do in the domain? Now that you have the plans to the orbital battle station, you unintentionally noble space pirates, what will you do with them?

Relatedness

I often like to describe relatedness in terms of “the rewards of rewards.” Going back to our example of saving the princess, the players were granted access to the realm — but that’s not all. As they traverse the realm, NPCs they interact with greet them as “the dragonslayers!” and they see firsthand how their efforts have aided the realm: A scorched field showing signs of growth, burned villages being rebuilt, the sanctuary once again opens its doors. One of the intangible benefits of their actions is seeing the meaning of those actions, and understanding the improvement or aspiration that they’ve made possible.

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You find a jar with parts of Stevie Nicks inside it.

Rewards that suggest more to the world satisfy relateness very well. Finding a key suggests there’s a lock somewhere begging to be opened. Finding a map suggests a destination, or perhaps a journey.

Relatedness can also take the form of reputation systems, for example, which lead to future opportunities. This can scale up to a sense of kingdom-building or the expansion of domain, development of “tech trees,” or access to portions of the coterie chart that were closed. Relatedness is part of what makes communities function, so a sense of ongoing betterment of the home base is a very satisfying reward, even if it confers no mechanical benefits. And as that community betters, new objective opportunities open up for it, which feed the players back into the loop.

Inverting the Expectation

One of the default assumptions with rewards is that they’re all rainbows and sunshine for the recipient. That doesn’t have to be true. As a GM, consider over-rewarding the players every now and then… but with certain strings attached, especially if those strings aren’t immediately evident. Sure, you’ve found Excalibur, but now Modred and Morgan La Fay are after you.

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A reward can be a burden more than a boon, or invite new responsibility.

This is a reward technique to be used sparingly, but it’s compelling. In doing this, you must design the reward to be worth the extra trouble, but you don’t want to train your players to dread rewards. In this case, the players are gaining outsized mastery rewards as well as some additional relatedness rewards. Interestingly, there’s some amount of curtailing of their free will (autonomy) at this point, but it may actually increase their sense of volition, as they opt into being the caretakers of this particular artifact. Consequences are interesting after all. And what if the players decide that having Excalibur isn’t worth the added responsibility? How do they get rid of the damned thing?

As a Player

Constructing rewards typically falls under the purview of the GM in tabletop RPGs, but players can use their rewards to stimulate the process, as well. The simplest way to do this is in outlook: The very act of understanding rewards as a staging point rather than a conclusion is important for players to not only take satisfaction in their progress, but to project future goals. (See the previous post for more on goal-setting.)

Rewards can also send clear messages to the GM. If the party chooses to sell the Armor of Fire Resistance, that’s a pretty definitive statement that they won’t be interested in the journey to the City of Brass where they’d have to dance at the whim of the ifrit lord. Readily yielding the identity of the rogue ghoul to the Tremere Primogen is a fairly declarative that the coterie is more interested in the political story then they mystery subplot.

GM’s Craft: Cultivate Player Goals

Without an objective, a game’s choices lack meaning. It’s the function of the gamemaster to communicate the goals (in a more directed or plot-dependent game) or to clearly define the space in which the players can make their goal choices (in a more open game, such as a sandbox-style campaign). Naturally, players will have a lot of input on what a game’s goals may be. A pack of good-aligned monster hunters will have a very different goal than a crew of booty-hunting pirates, whose goals will be different from a band of rebels or escaped slaves.

It’s also the function of most games to provide enough “signposts” that players can gain a sense of progression through understanding the rules. For example, “gain a level” is a perfectly valid goal in a level-based game, while “gain a new dot in a Discipline” is a valid goal for a more open character progression game like Vampire.

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In multiplayer games like most tabletop RPGs, it’s also very likely that a group of PCs may be simultaneously working toward a common goal while they individually pursue orthogonal or even opposed goals. It’s possible that the paladin and warlock both want to slay the dragon, while serving rival gods or patrons. And the Ventrue and Brujah may both have a common enemy in the Tremere Prince but very, very different objectives in mind for how to pursue relations with the Anarchs.

But full circle, the game needs to indicate to the player or allow them to choose what’s next. If a player is wondering “what do I do now?” that may be a lack of information communicated by the GM, an underdeveloped progression system, or a lack of opportunity for the player to compare their choices and decide what’s next.

Manage the information at critical junctures — goals are what inform the player’s actions.

Technique: Prompt your characters to detail a goal their characters wants to pursue. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, they don’t have to provide it on the spot, and it can certainly change over time. They don’t even have to have just one; they may have several, of varying degrees of importance to them. Asking them about their goals gets them thinking about those objectives, however (if they haven’t been already), which puts them on the road toward better understanding their characters, and that in turn lets you better tailor the game to the shared story you’re telling.

Campaign Hacking: Tomb of Annihilation

Some posho’s flunky comes up to you and offers to strand you in a malarial jungle swamp, in which you must busk for enough money to outfit yourself for an expedition into a death-god’s lair and smash an artifact so the posho can have her hit points back. When you’re done, abase yourself before the merchant prince’s manor where she’s staying to let her know she’s good to go home.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an unfair summary of the framing device used to kickoff Tomb of Annihilation — but it’s not too far off course. For the record, I really like a lot of what ToA has to offer in terms of gameplay, but some of its setting assumptions rub me the wrong way. I’m planning to run it, but not stock out-of-the-book.

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It’s no secret that I love exploration campaigns.

When preparing a new campaign, perhaps the most important ingredient is the call to action. Your “elevator pitch” to the players should suggest to them exactly the sorts of adventures they’ll be having, and they’ll imagine characters they can project into that expectation of action. Everything in your preparations should point back to that question: How will the campaign use this detail?

Luckily, I recently ran across this tweet, which prodded me in the right direction, I think, for a game more in keeping with my tastes, and also that empowers the players more than making them thralls to a fantasy one-percenter.

Yes. Excellent. Flip the assumption.

With that principle in mind, I bashed together the campaign notes below. So how, then, can I frame the events of Tomb of Annihilation so that they can be used in the context of a reverse-grave-robber premise?

Anti-Imperialists

The PCs are members of a sociopolitical faction known as the Reclamationists. They can be native Chultans with an interest in protecting their own destiny, or they can come from abroad, acting against exploitative interests seeking colonial dominance of the jungle. The PCs are rebels, a resistance faction, heeding a moral mandate.

(GM Notes: I actually probably won’t set this in Chult, as I’m more attracted to other campaign worlds, but I leave it untouched here for the sake of clarity.)

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Playable characters. Okay, maybe this is a still from Black Panther. You get the point.

Beliefs

  • An ecological interrelationship exists between humans and nature, acknowledging the inherent connections between people and their surroundings.
    • “True freedom lies where folk receive nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth.”
  • Economic value derived from land (including natural resources and natural opportunities) belongs equally to all members of society.
  • Cultures and communities make sovereign decisions for themselves, and outside influence intrudes upon that sovereignty.

(GM Notes: This is swiped almost whole cloth from the Wikipedia entry for the Diggers, which seemed like a good conceptual fit.)

History

The most commonly accepted origin of the Reclamationists is the unification of a druidic circle and a locality of tenant farmers. With the spiritual guidance of the druids, the land-workers rallied to a common cause, giving rise to the faction’s motto, “All who believe are together and have all things in common.” Reclamationism spread among numerous land-working classes, and various offshoots of it exist, from deity-aligned dominionists to secular humanists and everything in between. It is a form of agrarian populism and often finds antagonism from traditional feudalists, across numerous nations.

(GM Notes: This section is pretty weak. It needs more supportive, actionable detail. It does, however, indicate some potential conflict, whether internal to the Reclamationists or from external entities trying to hinder opposition.)

Objectives

  • Occupy! Reclaim public lands that have been privatized.
    • Dig them over, pull down hedges, fill in ditches, etc. to plant crops.
  • Return any items of cultural significance to the cultures that claim them, if such cultures are still extant
  • Ensure that any items taken for academic purposes are taken by reputable academics — none of this “sell it to a museum or private collector” nonsense
  • Harry the efforts of factions seeking to exploit the resources of Chult
    • Ex.: The Merchant Princes are speculators intending to profit from colonial interests plundering the resources of Chult
    • Ex.: The Flaming Fist at Fort Beluarian is a rent-seeking organization extracting revenues from those who would themselves explore and exploit the lost regions of the jungle
    • Ex.: The Order of the Gauntlet may have some admirable aims in opposing the undead, but it may have more imperialistic aims, and cannot be completely trusted until any other objectives have been discerned.
  • Act in opposition to those entities that extend their influence at the expense of others
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Expect a great many undead foes. Undead are an inarguable call to action.

Opportunities for Action

  • Smash colonials, especially where they conflict with indigenous communities
  • Expand knowledge of indigenous entities
  • Recover items of cultural significance from those who would exploit that cultural significance for private gain
  • Explore the unknown

(GM Notes: Note the strong verbs in these last two sections, the calls to action. Most of them stand on their own, but some could use some touch-up. “Ensure,” “act,” and “return” can probably be replaced with more robust actions that are more engaging on their own.)

A Golden Age

We’re living in a golden age for tabletop games.

When I was younger, I lucked into the pastime that became my hobby that became my career. My cousin had a D&D boxed set and ran a game. It was the quintessential old-school gaming experience, elves creeping into an imaginary underground that we envisioned with our minds there among the potato chips, Pepsi, Iron Maiden posters, and “Tom Sawyer” on the stereo. I had had no idea that this world existed, but in that moment, who I would become for the next 30-plus years had its genesis.

And it was pure serendipity. I didn’t even know these games existed. I didn’t seek them out. I didn’t stumble across them in a search for something for which I had a vague longing. It just happened. I got lucky.

[conclude flashback]

Compare that to now:

“Over half of the new people who started playing Fifth Edition [the game’s most recent update, launched in 2014] got into D&D through watching people play online,” says Nathan Stewart, senior director of Dungeons & Dragons.

The Verge

That’s amazing. People are able to find the hobby now. Less and less do they have to wake up surrounded by it like a Dunsanian protagonist.

I write a lot here about satisfying players’ psychological needs, and that’s what much of this points back to. Players have these needs — whether they know it or not — and the tools and channels available to us now not only help them meet those needs, they help them understand and identify those needs sooner. They discover opportunities for mastery, in seeing game systems bloom before them. They understand relatedness by witnessing players cooperating to tackle in-game challenges and growing relationships around the table. They see the autonomy of players choosing their fate and then reaping the rewards (or consequences…). It’s no longer sequestered in the basements of stoner cousins, it’s out there, and it’s beckoning. And more than ever, it’s inclusive. It’s representational. Players are seeing that games are for them, that games are for everyone.

(And in many cases, that relatedness expands beyond the table. People feel connections to other players they’re not even playing with, through the commonality of the games medium and through the ability to interact with those players via social media. Look how many people feel like they belong to various games forums where sharing and discussing ideas is the core activity, or who share a common love for the entertainment format of Critical Role and consider themselves a part of it, even if they’re not on the stream proper.)

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It’s not like it used to be, when you used to have to time travel to ancient Rome in order to find fellow games enthusiasts.

It’s absolutely a golden area for the games table, enhanced greatly by the virtuality and accessibility of it all.

So what does this mean for you? This is your chance to be an evangelist. This is your chance to welcome new people to the hobby, to share new stories. This is your opportunity to be someone’s gateway into a lifetime of satisfying hobby games, or the chance to introduce or even be the next great designer, artist, writer, etc. The barrier to entry has never been so low, and the rewards have never been so great.

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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GM Quickie: No Null Turns

When you’re running* a game, avoid making a player lose a turn. Game design doesn’t have many universal truisms, but this is one.

Players play games to fulfill needs. And when you prevent a player from taking an action, you’re literally preventing that player from having any ability to satisfy those needs. Paralysis, fear effects, stunning, etc. are all conditions that sound cool or thematic, but actually undermine the reason people play games to begin with: to see the outcomes of their actions, to improve at the actions in play, to relate to one another, and to exercise choice.

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Lio by Mark Tatulli

Instead, consider the following when you intend to create tension or anxiety by restricting a player’s ability to act:

  • Consume a resource to perform an action (which at least allows the player to decide whether acting is worth spending that resource)
  • Take actions at increased resource costs
  • Act at reduced efficiency or effectiveness (e.g. move or attack but not both, attack at a damage penalty, heal using a die one step down from the standard die, draw one fewer action card, etc.)
  • Act as normal with the input of another player (e.g. The cleric demands the player “Snap out of it!” which allows players to decide upon their own criteria for allowing each other to exchange a less effective action for a greater one)

If you’re not letting a player play, why are they at the table?

Note that, in most cases, it’s perfectly acceptable for a player to deprive a GM character of an action. The GM is often in the position of taking actions for multiple entities, and the nature of the GM’s participation is different from the way the player interacts with the game. Indeed, games that rely on creating strong tactical advantage (D&D 4e, Pathfinder, etc.) can actually benefit from depriving GM entities of their actions, as it streamlines play and hastens decision-making back into the players’ hands.

* or designing!

Designing for Resource Requirements

Blog necromancy! This entry is a few years old (cross-posted here from an older blog), but remains valid in terms of design philosophy.


In game design, “too powerful” is a misleading phrase. The actual design should reflect “It needs to cost more.” A power or effect should remain pretty true to its original design. Mind control needs to feel like mind control — you can’t take a little bit away from it and hope to elicit the same in-game effect or the same player enthusiasm. A lightning blast needs to be a levinbolt that electrocutes its target, not a wee spark that sizzles foes for a li’l bit of damage. Hyper-speed needs to be fast… no, faster than that. David Bowie’s cone of frost breath weapon needs to crystallize targets caught in the blast radius.

This isn’t to say that there’s no place for low-powered effects. Those certainly have their place, particularly in level-based systems* that gradually step up the potency of what players can do. In these cases, the price is still important, and they still need to be relative to the effect, so it stands to reason that the costs should be commensurately lower.

One of the design philosophies that resonates with me is that all special effects should feel overpowered. As the player, I’m the coolest thing in the game, so everything taking place in the game should reward me for being there. When I do something — particularly something that my character has as an edge, such as a superpower, special skill, or supernatural ability — I should say “WOW!” when I use it. This engages me and empowers me. This is one of my rewards for spending time with the game. This can be a visual effect in a video game, a chance to spend a unique resource in a board game, an effect only my character type can create in a tabletop RPG, or the ability to use a special type of card in a card game.

My choice in choosing a play style contributes a lot to this. If I’m a psychic spy, my WOW! moment might be using my psychic powers to command or confuse my enemies. If I’m a wizard, it could be an icy blast that freezes my enemies, causing them damage and immobilizing them. A fighter type can stun an opponent with a rabbit punch or disembowel him with a dagger.

The fact that it feels overpowered doesn’t mean it should be overpowered, though, and that’s where the cost to create effects comes in. A particle effect and some audio feedback in a video game can provide that overpowered-feeling WOW! for even an average effect. Rockets and missiles in EVE, for example, land with a resounding explosion that feels very satisfying. They don’t do inordinate amounts of damage, but they feel exciting when they hit. Every character class in D&D 4e has nifty “at-will” powers that feel unique and exciting, even though they really amount to little more than a basic attack with a minor bell or whistle attached. The Disciplines in Vampire make the Kindred a cut above mortals, and since there are way more mortals in the world than there are vampires, Disciplines are both rare and empowering. The prices to invoke all of these effects, whether it’s ISK-per-missile, blood points, or frequency, keeps everyone important — players — on the same playing field.

That’s the challenge — creating the feeling of awesome while still preserving the integrity of play through managing the cost of effects in resources.

* (Now, one of the perils of level-based systems is that the mathematical challenge increases in sync with the ability of the character, so that things often don’t really become more difficult, the numbers behind them simply become greater. In many of these cases, the character’s frequency of success remains about the same — he’s trying to reach a higher threshold, but his bonus modifiers to get there are higher.)

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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WordChoice2

WordChoice3

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.