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.

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.

GM Quickies

VasilisaGamemastering 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.

Open with a Conflict

When kicking off a campaign or chronicle, open the proceedings with some sort of conflict. Deliver a few lines of scene-setting and then let all hell break loose. A fight, naturally, works great for a combat-focused game, giving the players a chance at the beginning to see which of their abilities complement one another and any team tactics or combos that can arise. But opening conflicts can also help set the stage in more cerebral or social games, in which players can learn things about the world through experiencing them firsthand — especially if dubious loyalties are part of the game’s theme. Opening with a conflict allows the game to begin with everyone participating, as opposed to a lore dump that begins with the players’ eyes glazed and hands tied.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This

Sometimes, an NPC wants the PCs to thrive, no strings attached. No bargaining for favors or information. No desperate pleas to save the village or stop the dread doom. No “I’ll give you this if you do that.” Just a minor boon or item from a person who genuinely wants to see the PCs succeed.

One Down, the Rest to Go

Before entering a combat sequence, describe the heroes’ effortless dispatching of one of the enemies. Minion types work great for this, but feel free to take out a pernicious named underling. Very often, we see “the big bad gets away” or other acts of GM fiat that seem to work against the characters’ interest. This technique reminds them that occasionally, GM fiat works in their favor as well. And it hypes them up for the combat to come.

Loot Drop

lootWithin the first session, the players find a trove of cash, contraband, or beyond-their-level items that pose a dilemma. Do they return the discovered loot to its (perceived) rightful owner? Or do they keep it for its initial advantage and risk being found out and earning the ire of the (rightful?) owner? This initial choice has a meaningful effect on the session/ campaign/ chronicle, kicking it off in high gear with an immediate emphasis on player communication and decision-making.

Blow up the Death Star

Construct an early session so that the players can enjoy a seemingly outsized victory that would normally be out of their league. The players will appreciate the sense of accomplishment, and you can design follow-up stories to take advantage of the initial event. For example, the player could destroy a very powerful vampire in the first session… which paves the way for her lieutenant to become a more powerful, recurring antagonist in the campaign. The entire campaign need not revolve around the initial outsized event, either: a future encounter or three can “call back” or refer to the initial victory can generate a strong sense of relatedness for the players.