Monday, 1 November 2010

The way I play

This post on Gnome Stew made me think about how I prepare for my games. What I came up with can be summed up in eight questions. It also got me thinking about how I can up my game. In this post I'll try to reflect over the method I use, and if I'm really lucky, someone might have some constructive, or critical, feedback.

Now, misunderstand me correctly here, but GM-ing is a bit of a lonely craft. Getting constructive feedback on the way you do things is a rare thing. Sure, you can tell when you're delivering a shit game, and players are good at telling you when they enjoy themselves. But actually getting advice on how to get better happens rarely. Since I'm one of those people who think better when I'm writing or speaking, I decided to devote a post to look into my game.

Here we go.

I improvise most of what happens at the table, and I'm one of those Storytelling-people. I started with AD&D 2Ed, but moved on to Vampire within a few years. Even when running d20-games, I like free flowing stories, not adherence to planned adventures. I'll get back to this further down.

For now, a word on sandbox vs. rail-road. I think both techniques have value, but as tools, not as ruling principles. I know I've laid my share of rails, but I more often let my players run freely. The latter more than the former, I believe.

Here are the questions, not neccesarily in this order, that I try to answer before the session:

1: Where are we?
Here I'm looking at both the geography and chronology of the setting, and how they affect the scenario. The current location has a great impact on what can and will happen, and figuring this out in advance is important in being prepared. Likewise, the world's history, be it our own or an imaginary one, needs to be thought through. Examples are: border-towns may have smugglers and armed forces present, and a war might be about to break out or end.

2: Who are the NPCs?
This refers to who are involved/affected by the plot, covering both allies and antagonists. Their motivations, and how far they are willing to go to acchieve them are things to consider. The crime-lord may be under scrutiny from local law, but may be willing to go to great lengths to secure the Ming vase for his collection. But how far? Likewise, the characters's patron may be busy on other fronts, and thus he may be unavailable at present.

3: What has happened before?
Related to q. 1, but more focused on the direct actions of the PCs. Is there anything here that needs to be factored in? Have they made enemies that may seek to hurt or hinder them, or are they on a roll with people viewing them as heroes? Have they previously neglected to deal with the problem at hand? Are there other things in the past that should be considered?

4: What is the power-level involved in the plot?
Again related to a previous question (q. 2) but now with an emphasis on the factions with an interest in the plot, as well as the outcome of success or failure. Global conspiracies can bring more to bear than a marauding goblin tribe, but may well chose, or need, to aproach things in a more covert fashion.

5: What is at stake?
Here I'm looking at what will happen to the setting/cosmic plot if the heroes fail or succeed. If the objective is to stop the mad scientist from getting the ounce of Evilium he needs to get his Doomsday Machine operational, this likely has more direct ramifications than not finding the artifact in the dungeon.

6: Which other plot-lines are currently active?
I enjoy multiple, complex plot-lines, and so I try to review these before the game. If the heroes prevented the assassination of the king at some point in the past, the people behind that plot may well attempt another scheme to reach their goal. How far have they come?

7: How many red-herrings have I thrown on the table recently?
One of my pet peeves are tossing out plot-hooks and false leads during my games. Here I look at which of these that still has relevance. I love herrings! Often they provide an unexpected route to the completion of a plot, or they may blossom into an interesting story of their own.

8: How can I sell the plot to the players?
If I want them to bite a particular hook, it needs to be baited properly. Do they owe someone a favour, or do they have a superior they're taking orders from? Are they motivated by treasure, or will they react to the suffering of innocents?

Between the sessions, I marinate on these questions. I also try to plan one key encounter, preferably early in play. Apart from this, I make a few (often mental) notes just to remind me of important details. Once the dice are let out of the bag, I improvise. That, and my plot-work and world-building, are my greatest assets, I believe.

A word on rules. The rules support the game, not the other way around. I'm also not one of those GMs who knows the system better than everybody else. I want to tell a story, not argue law. Sometimes I'll consult the books, but if it'll slow play, I'd rather make a ruling on the spot.

This blog has greatly influenced the way I run my games. I use it to expand on the setting, to plant, or expand on plot-lines, and to distribute my precious red herrings.

On NPCs, the only time I actually sit down and forge an NPC is if I'm running a d20-game, and only if that character is intended to be used as an opponent. Here I take great pleasure in building a lethal foe for the characters. The rest of my NPCs are names and some, again often mental, notes on their agendas and abilities. Sometimes I note down the important stats, but that's it.

Another thing I do is that I enjoy letting PCs get themselves in trouble. I'll gleefully provide the rope they need to hang themselves. Hell, I'll even provide lessons in tying the best knot. This might actually be classified as one of my weaknesses, as more than one plot-line has been derailed in this fashion.

Further on my weaknesses, I think the greatest is that I have a tendency to stack the deck in favour of the antagonists. Dead-end has been used to describe more than a couple of my scenarios. I think it's wrong to say I expect too much of my players, but I believe I often make things too complicated.

Descriptions are also something I think I could get a lot better at. I sometimes find myself using cliches, or even stumbling, when I'm describing scenarios or NPCs. I also tend to take things for granted, i.e. forgetting that the players can't see the images inside my mind.

Now that I've gone and put this in text, I'd like to see how I can refine my technique. I'm not there yet, but it's a step.


  1. I like the way you analyze your craft and endeavor to improve.

    You mentioned that you often confront the players with very challenging foes. How do the players deals with this? Do the flee or dash themselves against the rocks?

  2. Often they'll go head on, and they I feel bad for smacking them silly. Other times, I think they may feel like there's no way to win... Hence the dead-ending.

    I think this can be traced to an article in Dragon back in the day. It talked about how to play opponents with god-like intelligence.

    The gist of it was that a super-smart, and perhaps even ancient, NPC - say a dragon - would have contingencies for a lot of things. As a GM, you only have so much time, and the players are usually at least as smart as you, so what do you do?

    The article suggested that unless the players comes up with something that strikes you as inspired, just assume the dragon has thought of that, and put counter-measures in place.

    Sound advice, but everything with moderation.

  3. "How Can I Sell the Plot to the Players"-- I like that in that it implies a shared power and a responsibility on the part of the GM to make the plot interesting and worth buying into.

  4. How lovely and welcoming. After California, I want to come far East and North to play with you!

    I like how much you care about what you're doing.

    TheDude also enjoys letting his players hang themselves. I really should write up one of his sessions to give a better sense of his silliness- but players are very good at getting into trouble on their own!

  5. You sure flatter, Loq. Not that I mind, mind you :)

    As for the caring, some people play football (proper football, not handegg), some paint, I play RPGs.

    @Lowell: The same way it takes two to tango, roleplaying takes... well, at least two. That said, it's been a while since I've actually 'sold' a plot, I believe. For a while now, the PCs have been their own bosses, and they've been busy navigating the maze of plots and twists allready in play.