How to Run a Game (Part 11) - What do other people suggest?

It might be the fact that my blog is currently on a similar topic, but Google has started sending me links about things that people can do to improve their TTRPG experience... like this one.

Let's consider the points it raises in the context I've described so far.

10. Run a session zero: the right way

I've already indicated that communication between the players and the narrator is a key to success in any RPG session or campaign. For a single session game, this usually comes in the form of letting players know what they're in for as a part of the one-shot, but for campaigns (the typical mode of play for D&D) then a session zero is something that's a relatively recent phenomenon. This can really make or break a game.  

If we consider the three way tension between narrator, players and rules, a session zero gets everyone on board with how the rules will pull on the story, this happens through the narrator explaining the system or any house rules they might have made to the system. Once everyone is onboard with the way the rules might influence the story, they have less unexpected surprises when certain effects come into play during the course of the story. This also ties into the next one. 

9. Work cooperatively on character backstories

This is probably something I don't do enough in my games, especially the ones I've been running at school. I often run rapid-fire games where repercussions for actions can be deadly. I want players to get into the action rather than spending hours on the backstory for a character that probably won't get revealed. Instead I've always found it more valuable to get the character defined in broad brushstrokes (and the setting as well), it's through play that we find out more about the characters and the world they inhabit. If it doesn't come up as a part of play, then it probably wasn't that important to the character to begin with. 

Even if the narrator is planning to spring some surprises on the players and their characters, it can generally be assumed that the characters will have a solid understanding of certain parts of the setting. They'll know where they live, they'll know a few key people, and have some overall understanding of the setting's surface...even if nastiness lies below and awaits the character's movements before it stir into action. If the players know that the general laws of physics apply as they do in our world, they'll have a basic set of expectations about what they can and can't do. If the narrator has an idea of where the characters are coming from, they'll have an idea of what ways they can pull the story to get positive or negative reactions out of the characters and their players.

8. Bring back compelling NPCs

I typically try to ensure there are at least half a dozen NPCs in a story. The base level of 6 is often divided into two factions with three members each, or three factions with 2 members each. 

If we're going with two factions (let's call them black and white), then there will be a leader on each side, and a pair of henchmen each with special abilities but closer in level of the player characters. The player characters interact with the henchmen, and gradually decide for themselves which of the two sides they might want to ally with. Neither side is specifically marked as good or bad, the leaders just have different agendas, and the henchmen have different techniques for achieving those agendas. I don;t necessarily share that the henchmen on each side are connected, and there will be a good chance that henchmen from either side will be friendly with one another, even if their leaders are at odds. I like life to be messy, and for situations to have no clear-cut answers, it makes for more interesting stories. 

If we're going with 3 factions (lets call them Red, Green, and Blue), I might have a leader on each side, but tend instead to focus on a three way tension between the groups. Red will have a pair of characters who tend to work together, but they'll have some aspects that they disagree on. One red member will an ally whom they tolerate on the blue side, and absolutely hate the greens. The other red members will have someone they tolerate on the green side and absolutely hate the blues. This pattern works for the rest of the factions. Everyone has their own agendas, and their own methods for achieving them. Players may share the agendas with certain NPCs, and may have tasks that would be best served by using the methods utilized by certain NPCs... rarely will there be NPCs where the agendas and the methods perfectly align with a character. Everyone has something to like about them, and something to dislike about them. I don't run straight villains or straight allies. 

Once I've got the factional structure in place, I let the PCs run rampant. If they get in the way of one faction, that might make them allies in another. If they make an ally out of an NPC, someone else will take an instant dislike to them. If they kill an NPC, then people who were owed favours by the NPC will come looking for someone else who might be able to pay off the outstanding debts. NPCs are thoroughly integrated into the world, whether the player characters are or not, but as the player characters interact with the NPCs, they will be drawn into the politics of the situation regardless... and if they don't they'll just make enemies out of everyone, and the various people they've met along the way will join forces to take them down. 

7. Provide inspiration

I don't railroad. I may allow players to make decisions then react according to those decisions. Or I may give players a chance to attempt tasks, then let the system determine the outcome. This leaves a lot in the hands of the players, and that can be overwhelming for certain players who are expecting a more linear style of play (but kind of leads into number 2 on this list). 

One of the examples that I really like is that I've just started running a Vampire the Masquerade chronicle with my high school gaming group. Most of them have played a range of games, but are most grounded in the patterns of D&D. I'm running a hybrid of V20 and 5th edition Vampire, because there's certain things I like about the new game, and certain things I really don't like. One of the things I do like ties into numbers 9 and 10 from this list, and that's the idea of Lore Sheets. These are basically predefined storylines that players can choose from, and depending on how many points they spend, players can choose how much their characters are linked into these stories. When the Narrator sets up the campaign, they may recommend a couple of lore sheets to indicate the types of stories they'd like to tell, and the rule systems provide the rest of the lore sheets that might be available. The choices of the players and narrator in this regard help to fine tune the types of stories that might be told, and help set the tone for the narrative. If no-one chooses to be linked to a lore sheet relating to a specific vampire elder, then it probably doesn't make sense to revolve the story around that elder. I provided lore sheets about a revenant family, ghouls, occult textbooks, a reborn inquisition, werewolves, and a supernatural nightclub. Each of these give hints about the stories that might revolve around these topics, each gives a range of bonus abilities, backgrounds, merits and flaws that might impact on characters who pursue these stories. None limit the types of characters involved, but they help to prompt stories in certain directions. I like to think of it as a method by which the system helps to motivate the story in a certain direction, rather than forcing it down a premeditated path.  

Now the issue here is that the article is referring to a specific sinystem within D&D which is called "Inspiration", rather than referring to simple inspiration of the players. In Vampire, this is basically akin to having Willpower to spend on a task, which grants you an automatic success on the result (in D&D it's getting a bonus die to improve your result). You get Willpower or Inspiration by doing things that are in character, or that improve the narrative for the table. The general idea rather than providing ideas to guide the players, is facilitating system bonuses that allow player to make more meaningful and satisfying choices in the game. 

6. Issue a challenge

The key thing in this part of the article is to make players face difficult choices, not just fights, but choices that will impact them in meaningful ways. This links back to the way I answered the earlier point about NPCs. I think the most interesting parts of a roleplaying session are where we learn about the characters and their values through the decisions they make. This is the bit where we really get the story happening, and the world begins to take life. It's not just playing on the characters' weaknesses, it's adding value to the choices being made and making sure those choices have a significant impact on the world. 

5. Roll in the open

One of my earlier posts complained about some of the antagonistic GMs/Narrators I've had in the past. One of the things I found common about them was a tendency to roll dice behind GM screens, sometimes using those die rolls to influence the course of play, and sometimes just rolling for the sake of rolling. Occasionally it felt like one of the GMs would roll their dice and ignore it if it would have been beneficial to the players, or might reveal it if the dice landed in his favour. Whether this was actually the case, we'll never know, but that's how it felt, and that didn't make for a very positive playing environment. Rolling in the open helps everyone understand that the same rules apply across the board, and even though the narrator may be playing with unbalanced encounters, or situations that the players aren't ready for, the open die rolling bring the "play" and "game" elements back into the session.

As the article suggests, it also shows that the narrator is serious about the choices in the game, and the system has a real pull on the events unfolding (rather than the narrator simply making stuff up all the way along).  

4. Customise magic items

I think the point of the article here is that magic items should always feel magical. They shouldn't be formulaic and a part of the everyday mundane existence of a game. For D&D I kind of agree with this, but it really depends on the setting, and in many other games this might not fit thematically. I'd change this to suggest that any kinds of rewards found in game should be appropriate to the story and the setting. It's a bit ridiculous to find a "flaming magical sword of the archangels" that causes instant death if you just happen to kill a couple of giant rats. It;s similarly anticlimactic to eliminate the big bad evil at the end of the campaign and only get a few bits of copper for all your time and effort.

If you're in an aquatic environment, confronting merfolk and sharks, you might have the standard magical items as rewards, but maybe make a random magical staff now be carved out of coral, a magical sword made from sharks' teeth, or a mystically infused gemstone be a pearl. The story potential is just as important as the magical effects.

3. Bring miniatures and maps

This came up pretty heavily in the discussions about aphantasia. It's also one of those ways that definitely helps keep everyone on the same page about the shared imaginary space that the narrative is unfolding in. I love bringing miniatures to a game, because it gives the feel of an RPG to me. Miniatures are a part pf the ritual, and the setting up of liminal space. In some cases, the presence of miniatures sets the stage for the game and lets plaers know that the formal part ofthe session has begun. In other cases, you know that if the miniatures have come out then the game has shifted gear and the danger is imminent.

Maps are also great, whether they're wide scale maps of regions or cities, or whether they're more intimate maps of specific building or even rooms. Giving players something to look at to help stimulate their senses adds immersive quality to games and helps break players out of their mundane world to focus on the gameplay. In that regard I think of other props such as and crudely drawn notes, hastily scrawled pages from a madman's notebook, fragments of clip art that depict monsters or people met along the way add a whole lot of depth to the play experience... and now it looks like this sort of thing would really help players with aphantasia as well.

2. Allow their wild ideas to work (sometimes)

Back in point 7 I mentioned that inspiration (or my reading of the title rather than the article details) was key. Here is where that idea probably fits better. Unless a player's suggestion explicitly doesn't work with the laws of physics, or the previously established boundaries of a setting, I rarely if ever say that characters can't attempt something. Instead I say "you can try", then let the dice (or other randomising factor) determine the outcome. This has a few impacts on the session, adds tension, it allows the characters decisions to have more impact on their journey, and it ensures that the system impacts the narrative in ways beyond the combat sequences.

There's also a really useful addendum at the end of this point. When running a game it can be really important to say "No" at some times. I've mentioned that some of my students have been running games at home, and they're basically doing that early, immature style of gonzo play where anything goes. I don't know if it's a maturity factor, but this style of gameplay just doesn't do it for me anymore. Imagine a game where all of the characters are homebrews from various websites, where their equipment is a mix of stuff made up on the fly by an inexperienced DM and whatever they've managed to find online, where the characters are permitted to attempt anything they want, and the DM has added a bunch of ad hoc rulings into the system. There's nothing wrong with playing the game and pushing things to the extreme, but it does risk unbalancing the experience, and making it disfunctional. It's like making a cheescake and adding Vegemite and pumpkin to the mix, then making the crust of the cheesecake from brisket. Sure, you CAN do it, but should you do it?Is it really chessecake anymore? Are they playing D&D? Simple answer for me...No. One of the players told me that Charisma was an important stat in that style of campaign, I laughed it off... but then he explained how a Sorceror uses Charisma as a casting stat. They don''t get into character, they just use characters to manipulate the world and each other. They're possibly still roleplaying, probably in pawn stance, most likely a gamist environment because they're only real agenda is trying to beat each other characters into submission. It's a valid form of play, just not one that I find appealing. I've even been asked for advice about how to make a character tougher and harder to hit in this type of context, I just had to answer truthfully...  this game is now in the hands of the student DM, it's not anything I recognise as D&D anymore, so my advice is useless... there's no real point trying to tie things back into the rules when so many adjustments and moving pieces have been added to the system. You might as well be playing a game where everything is resolved by a single coin flip, or World of Synnibarr. This could have all been resolved with a little focus, and occasionally saying "No".


1. Keep a tight schedule

Here's one where I'm lucky. I have a dedicated timeslot of an hour and a half every week where the majority of players are fairly certain to show up. This is the sport D&D session I run. We must generally be doing something right with this, because I know of students who irregularly come to school, but very specifically only come on that day of the week because they love their regular gaming sessions. 

For our lunchtime games, the same kind of thing applies, where we dedicate Mondays to giving a recap of the events that have unfolded, then split the players up into smaller groups that can focus on their individual stories on later days of the week. We've currently got a dozen students regularly taking part in the group, with one day having 5 students, one 4, and the remaining 3 on the last day. Of course students are upset when I'm unable to get to work due to illness or training, so we may have catch-up sessions to make up form those occasions, but we are generally pretty strict about those times.

I've been a part of a few home groups that have fallen apart when one or two regular members haven't been able to make a session, then the other players do something different because they're away, then there's less motivation to keep things going in later weeks. So, I'll add a bit of an addendum of my own to this one. Even if you've got a tight schedule, make sure that player's don't have to attend every week, but instead make them want to come back. Don't force cliffhangers that suddenly don't make sense if life gets in the way of certain players getting back to the next session. Create story opportunities, but try to resolve the majority of the session with a satisfying conclusion. 

On the whole, that article is pretty solid advice. Even if it is focused on 5th edition D&D rather than RPGs in general. I'll probably look at a couple of similar articles over the next couple of weeks while I spend most of the posts expanding on specific techniques that I've found to be successful in the past. 


Popular posts from this blog

A Guide to Geomorphs (Part 7)