My earliest RPG experiences were with D&D 3.5e, 4e, and Pathfinder. These games are known for being “crunchy” (having many complex game mechanics), and 3.5e in particular was known for having a glut of supplemental materials of dubious quality. With these games, because of the breadth and depth of mechanics and the focus on tactical combat, supplemental materials often negatively impacted game balance, and that had a chilling effect on my perception towards homebrew or 3rd-party published content (materials not produced by Wizards of the Coast). Over the years I’ve moved away from those kinds of games, and towards more rules-light games like FATE, Cypher, and OSR (D&D 2e or earlier, or modern games built with a similar design philosophy or shared mechanics). One thing that I’ve found so refreshing and rewarding about these systems is how easy it is to modify the games to suit your needs, without having to worry too much about negatively impacting game balance. With some consideration, these modifications could even work for a medium-crunch game like D&D 5e. Here are 3 ways to modify games. Treat these as ways to think more about why the mechanics of a game exist, and how changing them affects game balance and the play experience, so that you can come up with your own modifications!
1) Power Points
Here I’m using power points to refer to any kind of system where players gain points for their actions, which can later be spent to affect future actions. These are often employed in “narrative” games, as with the fate points in FATE, to encourage players to roleplay and to interact with the world in a way that drives the plot forward. However, I think this system can be used for several other purposes, such as to fill “holes” in character builds, to bring a little cinematic flare to medium crunch tactical combat games, or even evoke unique themes.
I ran a campaign in my Phantasmos campaign setting using Numenera as the game system. The Phantasmos setting has various species and classes of its own, not all of which mapped cleanly to the options available in Numenera RAW (rules as written). Let’s use Arpaia the dogu apoptomancer as an example. Dogu are a species with several unique abilities such as shifting between a humanoid and monstrous form, and a sense of hyper-touch, and apoptomancers are a character class focused on the manipulation of controlled cell-death and the neuro-immune system to induce metamorphoses. Rather than constricting the player to a limited set of descriptors (like species) and foci (like feats) that reflect all of these varying and specific abilities, we had him train in the skills “dogu senses” and “apoptomancy,” which he could use to do things that his character should be able to do, but aren’t strictly built into his RAW character sheet. Importantly, if he were to use these skills in any way on a scale of power or utility comparable to his actual RAW special abilities, he would have to spend power points. Not only does this give him greater flexibility in character building and ensures that he can always do the things he should realistically be able to do, this encourages creative thinking and interactivity with the story to get power points and leverage his abilities.
A final note on power points: The game Tenra Bansho Zero has a really cool karma system, which is used both for character building and as power points. However, in that game, as you acquire more karma, you become increasingly likely to turn into an ashura, a demon. The point of the game is in-line with the Buddhist philosophy of separating oneself from material attachment (as expressed by resolving karma). The strengths and weaknesses of material attachment, the Buddhist themes of the setting, are actually instantiated within the game mechanics using power points!
2) Change The Dice
So this gets into probability theory, which really should be a whole post in its own right, but I’ll go over some basics here. While many games use a d20 for action resolution as a matter of convention, I think most good games are mindful of their dice. A d20 is a very different beast than a 3d6 or FATE dice system, and understanding these differences can radically change how a game “feels.” Note that I will not be discussing games which use dice pools here, as the probabilities get a bit more complex, and I think that would be better suited for its own post.
A d20 is a uniform distribution, meaning there is an equal probability of rolling any value, which from a range of 1 to 20 means 5%. The wide range and uniform distribution are why people often describe d20 as being “swingy,” meaning it is common to roll excessively high or low.
A 3d6 is a normal distribution, or bell curve, meaning that you are most likely to roll the mean, and the further from the mean a given value is, the less likely you are to roll that value. With a range from 3 (rolling [1,1,1]) to 18 (rolling [6,6,6]), 25% of the time you will roll a 10 or 11 (27 ways each to roll a 10 or 11) , whereas you will only roll a 3 or 18 <0.5% of the time each (because, as already stated, there is only one way to roll a 3 or an 18). This is why 3d6 is less swingy; most of the time you will roll somewhere near the middle of the distribution.
So despite the fact that these dice mechanics have very similar ranges, they have very different probabilities. I’ve already explained how this affects swinginess, but it also affects the impact of modifiers. Unlike a swingy d20, with 3d6, assuming a difficulty of 10 or 11, you’re more likely to narrowly miss or succeed, so the impact of a small modifier is greater. For example, normally you would have a 62.5% probability of rolling a 10 or greater. However, with a modifier of +1, the range is now 4 to 19, but the dice remain the same, so essentially you’re sliding the distribution up by 1. In other words, because a roll of 9 now gives you a value of 10 (roll+1), and there’s an 11.6% probability of rolling a 9, you can add that to the 62.5% for a 74.1% probability of rolling 10 or greater. With a d20, that +1 only nets you an increase of 5%! That being said, for d20, no matter how many modifiers you have, each nets you +5% towards a higher value, whereas with 3d6, because the probability of a given roll gets lower the further you go from the mean, higher modifiers give you diminishing returns.
It may help to think about weapons. In Dungeons & Dragons, a greataxe has a damage roll of 1d12, a uniform distribution comparable to a d20. Greatswords have 2d6 damage dice, a normal distribution. They average about the same; minor quibbles aside they are roughly equal in power, but they behave differently, and in a way that reflects a specific intention. Compared to the greataxe, the greatsword will be more reliable, it will generally deal about 6 damage, only occasionally doing exceptionally more or less. The greataxe will average about the same, but will swing wildly from very little damage, to very high damage.
Keep in mind that these dice distributions also affect character progression and relative power. In a game where dice modifiers improve over time (such as by leveling up), there will be a much larger difference between lower level characters in a 3d6 system than a d20 system, but a much larger difference between higher level characters in a d20 system than a 3d6 system. All of this is to say that dice matter!
There is so much more I could say about probabilities, but as a last aside, keep in mind that the range of values on a die also matter. For instance, for FATE dice, you roll 4 dice, each with two negatives, two neutrals, and two positives, meaning you have a normal distribution centered at 0. Because the range extends into the negatives, is a relatively narrow range of -4 to 4, and is centered at 0, the impact of a modifier will in general be much larger than a 3d6 system, where the range is much larger and entirely positive.
All of this is to say, if you understand how these distributions affect your game, you can substitute them safely. If you want to play D&D 5e where the game is less swingy, and where characters become significantly more powerful from level-to-level at lower levels, but there is less of a power curve at higher levels, just substitute your d20 for 3d6!
3) Combat Modifiers
Obviously not every game is about combat, or treats combat to varying degrees of abstraction, but even so, many games deal with combat, and often not well. Personally, I’ve always felt like coming up with tactical character builds in crunchier games is fun, and the idea of combat is fun, but in practice it often gets bogged down. Either the game is so crunchy that it’s slow and cumbersome, or the game is so light that it becomes rote and stale. However, there are some simple ways to make combat faster or more fun, without fundamentally altering the game!
The easiest thing is to abstract. As the GM, try to apply narrative flourishes to the enemies’ actions. Describe how they attack, how they defend, how they behave in response to the players (even if it’s just a matter of taunts or sneers or wide-eyed looks of apprehension). Encourage the players to do likewise. Regardless of what spell/ability/move they do, let them have fun with how they describe the flavor of that action. A “missed” attack is much more satisfying when it’s described as a sure strike that was deftly parried, or glinted off the enemy’s armor. This can be difficult to do at first, but the more you practice, the more natural it will become.
In terms of mechanics, one option is an escalation die. One way to implement the escalation die would be to have a d6 appear at the beginning of the second round facing 1, and increase the number each round, up to 6. All combatants gain the value of the escalation die to their attack bonus, so that as combat progresses, all combatants are more likely to hit, making the game deadlier. This creates tension, it makes weaker enemies potentially more dangerous if in large enough numbers, and it moves combat along quickly and in a satisfying way. This kind of modifier could be applied as a random roll instead, reflecting the randomness and deadliness of real combat, or could be set to a specific value as a way to signify the stakes of a given encounter. An alternative way to do an encounter die would be to have the die lower AC, increase the damage roll rather than the attack roll, or give the defender a counter-attack chance (x or lower on a d6 allows counter-attack / attack of opportunity, where x is the value of the escalation die), or activate special abilities from the enemy or evoke some other “event”, such as more enemies arriving or a change in the environment. In addition to affecting the flow of combat, these alternative options can also have fun narrative implications.
Manipulating quantities of enemies and action economy is another useful combat modification, especially for mass combat or “boss fights.” Hordes of weaker enemies may seem cool at first, but either they’re too weak, in which case they’re ineffectual and their turns are a boring waste of time, or they’re just powerful enough that through sheer number of actions they can overwhelm the players in a way that is also unsatisfying. Instead, by clumping these weaker enemies into a smaller number of more powerful swarms, the encounter can be faster and more engaging. Even quicker, one could make the entire swarm a single entity with multiple actions. Likewise, rather than defaulting to giving a “boss” enemy a swarm of underlings to balance the action economy, an especially big-bad could get multiple actions per turn, or for a literally big-bad like a kaiju, its body parts could be treated as separate entities.
These are all intentionally loose and system-neutral, to show how you can go about thinking of any game. Crunchier games will be harder to modify without accidentally creating imbalances or “breaking” the game in other ways, but even those games can be modified if you carefully consider what affects the modifications will have. Modifications can affect how a player perceives an encounter, how they build their characters, the balance of the game, and the flow of combat, and any number of other things. If you understand the game and understand what you and your players want, then you don’t have to be afraid of modifications!
Max Cantor is a former cognitive neuroscientist and soon to be data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MadScientist
I know that if you are reading this article that you already have an affinity for tabletop roleplaying games. I don’t need to convince you that they are great to play. But somehow there are large numbers of non-active roleplayers I have met. I could make up a statistic now and say 50% of regular roleplayers don’t game anymore. Isn’t that horrible?
There are many good reasons why people take a hiatus from roleplaying. Tales have been told of groups that have fallen apart, moving away from your group, family commitments getting in the way, life being unbearably busy, or in my case I had a small bundle of energy burst into my world. My hiatus (luckily) only lasted a couple years, but making time to roleplay again was one of my best decisions.
I know one will sound a little “wonky” (thank you for the influx of odd vocabulary, daughter), but bear with me. I know a common reason that you stop roleplaying is due to the commitments in your everyday life. But I have found that when you schedule in a regular game on a weekly or biweekly occurance, your schedule makes it seem like you have more time. Having a schedule in your job works the same way. Less time is spent thinking about what you do next and you just do it.
Scheduling a game makes sure I have put in my time for fun and for me first. When in a regular roleplaying group, I see people more often. I know meeting with friends outside the group often means checking multiple schedules (yours, mine, spouses, children), checking on a child’s sickness, neglecting other things I had hoped to do (I’m looking at you laundry), and a myriad of things, which means I rarely see them. But my roleplaying friends become closer and the rest of my life is far easier to manage with good scheduling.
I probably don’t need to write much about this (considering my audience), but I will note a few things. As I get older and delve more into my professional life, I am bombarded with things I do for the sake of my career that are fulfilling or help me get ahead. Many of these things are not fun. In fact, fun things often get set aside for the ‘adulting’ choices. Making time for fun is important and I think all of you know that. Embrace it.
3) Stress Relief
Stress is not a dirty word in my household. It is an ever present reality. It is not all bad since it spurs us on to work hard and accomplish a great number of things that we would not do otherwise. But you do need to offset stress.
Roleplaying is the greatest offset I have found. It is creative and based on conquering goals and solving problems together. It causes me to look for solutions instead of focusing on problems. It has me analyse my character’s strengths and weaknesses not as personality flaws, but as simply realities I need to work with. With my stats laid out I am able to ask the barbarian Mayron for help in an area without fear of looking weak (unless that’s what I am going for story-wise of course). If all stressors in my life worked this way, my stress would be lessened greatly.
Roleplaying is more than just a stress-reliever. A story envelops you as you roleplay. My daydreaming in elementary school was recorded on every report card. I needed the time to escape and ponder fantastical stories in my mind. These stories were often the same ones with minor adjustments thrown in for a different flavour. The group narrative in roleplaying is an enhancement to my daydreams beyond what I could ever comprehend. We collectively put away our regular lives to create a vivid new world with new people experiencing new things. This is precious.
5) Mental Health
Time to throw down my personal flaws for all to see. I am human being who struggles with depression and has to greater or lesser extents my entire life. My default when hitting depression is to hide away, see no one, make no plans, and slowly fall deeper and deeper as the lying depression brain convinces me that no one wants to hang out anyway.
Having a regular game not only gives you a foothold in with people and interaction, but also forms a community of individuals who look out for you when you try to skip out on too many games. The act of people pursuing you for fun is in direct opposition to the lying depression brain. Even when playing and my depression is at its worst, when the other players or GM commend me on something small within the game, it chips away at the wall I was busy building. I firmly believe that roleplaying is a positive place for those who struggle with mental health concerns.
Ideas are not finite. However, sometimes when I am working on something solitary I am unable to grasp more ideas. When working with a group of people, ideas are built on, grown, fly out of nowhere, and abundant; this changes all the possibilities. Very rarely have I ever hit a brick wall when roleplaying (both figuratively and literally). When creating backstories or building new connections we are shown that roleplaying is an intensely creative hobby. You are honestly creating new ideas constantly.
7) Sexy-times Abilities
Okay this one was from a friend (collaboration). She claims that roleplaying enhances sexy-times ability. I didn’t ask details. I think she may have been thinking about a different kind of roleplay.
8) Problem Solving
We touched on this one briefly already. Being focused on finding a solution rather than just seeing a problem and quitting is a huge reason why you should play regularly. Using this skill over and over again in a game (where the risks to you are lower) is a good muscle to stretch and build. There are hundreds and hundreds of articles, research essays, and professional development courses that tell us how important problem solving skills are for the work force, academics, relationship building, and any other facet in your life.
In roleplaying you have a natural way to help this skill develop. There are general steps you need to do to problem solve. They say you should examine/identify/define/name the problem in detail. Grogar says that the farms outside of town have been plundered over and over again by some scoundrels. Your group knows the problem and probably discusses it. They will then move on to managing the problem. Your adventure group will automatically look for more information, investigate, and talk to those involved so they know more. Once the party knows more, they will looks at their options to solve the problem, they will brainstorm, weigh pros and cons, and look at the possible impacts of each solution. They will decide on the course of action and implement their plan. Whether that plan works or not will be a discussion in character involving high-fives or other discussion as you reflect on the results. These are the steps we try to teach others to take. Here they are done for practice, done collaboratively, and done for lower stakes. People pay good money to learn these skills and you do it in a game!
Whether you’re an introvert, extrovert, ambivert, or extrovert with introvert tendencies (and so on), community is important. Finding a place to belong and contribute is an important part of life. Sometimes we can find communities elsewhere, but not everyone works in a place or is connected to a place outside their home.
Communities in roleplaying can be a place of non judgement, safety, and security. Roleplaying can be a place where you can *be* anyone. You can explore different facets of your personality or try out terrible dwarven voices. Putting yourself out there can make you feel vulnerable. I have yet to be judged for trying something out with a character even if I later realized that it quickly needed to be dropped. This “permission to fail” is an important part of my life, when I struggle to make all the “right” decisions outside of the game. Roleplaying communities have this built in.
So as you roleplayers on hiatus read through, I hope you can find a group to join, resurrect your old group, start your own group, or some combination of those three. The internet has made our world a bit smaller and it is easier to find each other. Take time to spend time on you. You are worth it.
This article was written by Vanessa who is a sarcastic, 30-something wife and mother. She likes things and stuff, but not simultaneously. When she isn’t involved in things and stuff, she teaches and coaches debate. She gets a little emotional sometimes when she writes. She is also trying out this new twitter handle at @sarasma_nessa ...on second/third thought… I am terrible at twitter. Please send help! She also thinks you should support the writers here that are more clever and can figure out twitter.
PIcture Reference: https://www.amazon.com/PacMan-Video-Game-Wall-Clock/dp/B01M290P3Z?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=B01M290P3Z&pd_rd_r=F0G4HSBDG7P4FPQ179JP&pd_rd_w=cdoVH&pd_rd_wg=Iypp8&psc=1
Character deaths are (typically) a constant threat in any gaming platform. From table-top to video games death happens. For some of us, this happens more often than others and in the infinite expanse of table-top role-playing games, this can be VERY odd and brutal. However, some people’s tables get more, frisky, than others. Mine happens to be very odd. Most of my characters are at ends with my friend’s characters. Some of it's me, some of it's him. But when a simple magic jest leads to imprisonment and several failed suicide attempts, things could be considered “out of hand.” Well, here are some of the most insane deaths that have happened at my table.
1) Riding a Barbarian into Battle
If you know much about me, I have a tendency to play dexterity based characters. Stealth is pretty much a prerequisite. Once upon a time, with one of my first characters, we were dealing with something WAY above our pay grade. Taking down a lich. We were level 7-ish. There were three of us. You can see this was essentially a setup for a TPK, however, careful planning followed by some solid rolls made my character Garrett Snowfeather our only casualty. I was our rogue/archer. We had a barbarian (known as Ethan the Cad(long story) and last, but not least, our gnomish wizard Lindon.
You see, our assault on his fortress was fueled not only by our barbarian’s rage but by a Growth and Haste spell. Both placed on our friend, Cad. When my old boy Garrett came along, riding a superfast twelve foot, muscle bound badass with a greataxe seemed like a decent idea, at the time. However, one explosive arrow that didn’t go off and a sudden stop that sent me flying towards my previous target caused a wall to collapse both on me, and the lich. So, I got all the experience from killing the lich, which was squandered by my corpse.
(Note to reader: While riding a companion is always a solid attack plan, make sure communication between the mount and the rider is perfect.)
2) Suicide… Kinda?
Ah yes, the Deck of Many Things. A dangerous weapon in the hands of an angry murderhobo.
An even more dangerous weapon in the hands of a character who is both Chaotic Neutral and has an honor complex at the same time. In short, I was a bard, my friend, a dex based fighter, and we had a monk as well. I playfully antagonized (hold person spell) our fighter while he was killing unconscious pirates. The player swore revenge. The character was just pissy. Later we divvied up the pirate booty and our fighter got pricked with a poison needle that started to kill him.
In his last moments before unconsciousness, he drew a card. And got an item. (To this day I still don't know what it was he got.) I saved his life (which would make one assume I was off the hook.) We get to town and we all do our own thing.
We make a stop at the magic shop and all do a little bit of this and that. We go to the bar to do a little money making before setting off again. As I perform during the evening, I feel more groggy than usual. It gets worse and worse before I collapse and find myself unable to move. He approaches me to see if I’m ok before he draws a dagger in order to kill me and regain his honor. Fortunately for me I nabbed a cloak of stars (or starlight I can’t remember the item) and slip into the astral plane.
The player (now very angry) draws as many cards as he could. Resulting in an alignment shift, another magic item and some experience, a loss of experience, and a keep. However, the sheriff and his men dragged him away. As he left, he drank the rest of the poison he slipped into my drink. Which only paralyzed him ,as it did me. After I could move again, I pressed charges and had him sentenced to death. Not before he killed himself in jail (he failed to do so 7 times before finally succeeding.) The DM was not impressed with our fighters “cooperative skills.”
Another adventure with Ethan the Cad. Our friendly barbarian was on watch one evening when he heard rustling in the bushes. Of course, being the headstrong manly man he was, he rushed forward without awakening me or Lindon. Being a rather speedy fellow he quickly caught up to one of the culprits. A goblin. He continued to chase and kill them for quite a while. Before finally, the inevitable happened. He walked into a trap.
Ten feet in the air. Enough so he can't move or gain any footing. But still low enough for goblins with spears to poke at him. He managed to kill one of them, which was impressive in his state, but in a matter of rounds, he was kind of screwed. An hour later, we follow the goblin corpses to his corpse. Luckily enough at the time, we had a cleric with us who was a high enough level to bring him back. But this was quite the learning experience for Ethan the Cad.
4) I Touch it Again
This one didn’t happen to me personally, but it’s far too juicy to omit. This was actually a campaign my father played in. While searching through a lich’s tower (they were more qualified than poor Garrett,) they came across a glowing sword on one of the walls. One of the players (who we will call S because he gets angry about this to this day) touches the sword. Which sends him flying back after an electrical boom hit him for a tenth of his health. One would assume that S would have learned his lesson. But, this was far from over.
“I touch it again,” He exclaimed robustly. S seemed to think that the sword had expended all its energy blasting him across the room for it had stopped glowing. So he touched the sword again and received a similar treatment. This time however, he was certain it was all out and in another act of sheer stupidity, touched the sword a third time. This time, his hit points were reduced permanently and the tip of his finger had turned black. As time went on, this blackness spread and not even a greater restoration spell would do much. One morning the party found him missing. As it turned out, the sword turned him into a beast, hairy, strong and out of it's mind. They didn't have much of a choice.
5) The Arrow
Now, I’m not saying experimenting with magic items is a good idea. But it kind of isn't a bad one if mass destruction is your goal. This was a bit on “home rules.” We had expanded the explosion radius on bags of holding and when portable holes popped, the created a vortex. Well, one day Peren Ravenclaw, the great arcane archer, decided to craft a weapon so wholly powerful it broke medieval martial law. Inside of a large arrow head, he set things up to shove the portable hole inside the bag of holding and then pierce them both through each other. Shooting this out of a bow seemed like the best way to stay at a safe distance. One day, it was used on a battalion of orcs. Who were swiftly demolished. Not only was it tearing them apart and sending some of them to the astral plane, it was sucking the rest in.
Now, you’re probably thinking this is how he dies. But no, I actually escaped the vortex alive. However the aftermath is what killed poor Peren. Eventually the crater that was created filled with water. The area was so “radioactive” with magical energy, I knew the water had to have magical potential. But alas, a small crack in a flask and a small hole in a glove ended up turning his skin hard as stone, making him strong as an ox and tough as nails. But, A: Magic no longer worked on or around him and B:He was ugly as all hell. As such he went to a mage’s guild to see what they could do, and came to the conclusion that nothing short of a wish spell would put him back to how he was. “Turning back to how I used to be permanently,” probably wasn’t the best word choice on my part. Because Peren now technically never existed nor ever will exist in that world again.
We’ve all had some pretty crazy moments stemming from stupidity, spite, luck inexperience and the likes. But, really, who can say they kamikazed a litch? I’m itching to hear some of the stuff that’s happened to others though, please put it everywhere.
Jarod Lalonde is a young role-player and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Call of Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
GMing styles are as diverse as RPG settings. Strict, lenient, a combination of the two, or a combination of a dozen other variants and gaming-upbringings, you're bound to run into a few of these during your role-playing tenure.
And as good and encouraged as diversity is around these parts, and as it should be around the world on a daily basis, there are those that run their sessions with a bit of an iron grip; those who turn players away by either adhering too strictly to the rules or not knowing how to cater to a particular group's needs.
Role-players are possibly even more diverse than the GMs themselves – if even for the fact that they tend to outnumber the impartial role-playing referees on a bunch-to-1 basis – but this doesn't mean that they don't have a certain common denominator that makes them tick, and helps them get the most out of a given RPG session.
What follows are 3 short, general guidelines that I find a GM should follow to get as much response out of their players, and to immerse them in the world/adventure/campaign from the get-go.
I call these... *drum roll*
*more drums rolling*
*drums rolling down the stairs out of control*
The three Fs of role-playing... playing... aying... ing...
Freedom is a beautiful thing to have, in life, as well as gaming. Being able to feel like your choices in-character take you in one direction or another and help you evolve over time, without the contrivances of railroading or others pushing and prodding you into making "the right choice," can do wonders for someone's self growth.
It's all well and good that you've let your players know taking on that dragon using nothing but balsa wood and chewing gum might end up with them having to roll up new characters, but who are you to rain on their wannabe-MacGyver moment? Work WITH the players when building your adventure. Have them make their mark on anything and everything you throw at them. You'd be surprised at the amount of good content a party can come up with, provided they feel their input is valued.
A GM's duty is first and foremost that of setting the scene, then giving the players the tools they need to achieve whatever they set out to do, and then carefully, and without much interference, seeing to it that they are supplied with any and all set pieces that they feel they need.
Within reason, of course.
If anyone wants to jump off the edge of the Disc, it's their funeral; there's no need to drag the rest of the party down with them.
The aforementioned F brings with it a second one: the ability to bend and adapt to any actions the players may attempt while still making sure a certain logical plot arc exists amidst all the shenanigans, one-liners, witness-me-events, and other incredible feats of polyhedral-assisted madness.
There should always be a reason for that madness.
Unless you're running a Monty Python campaign. That always seems to descend into hamster/elderberry-related parenting jokes, political commentary regarding lake-residing females, and generally Antiochian amounts of taunting, French or otherwise.
One or more players' freedom should never come at the expense of the party's main goal, else you risk ending with a fragmented group. This often ends with players aiming for something entirely different and trying to reach it in a completely different way. This may also stem from a party not having perfect chemistry with one another, but that's where the GM steps in, distilling every person's individual strengths, showcasing them, and allowing them to shine within the confines of any given situation... and, of course, make sure their weaknesses are thrown in as a monkey wrench whenever the situation calls for it. Insert evil laughter here.
Stick some yoga in there, in the literal sense of the word and you're bound to score some extra points for creativity!
Role-playing is all about the je-ne-sais-quoi...
The piece de resistance...
The boogie that rocks the woogie!
You know, that one little aspect that takes a regular session, uses what the players have added to it, spins it around and turns it into a time of greatness, an epiphany, a jaw-dropping crescendo reveal into an exploding epilogue that nobody saw coming but the seeds of which you've been planting from the get-go.
It's your duty as a GM to tweak and finely tune any and all aspects of a story in order to make it more about the players and their characters than the story itself.
There's no way you'll be able to impress a group if you've got a sterile plot onto which you just slap their characters' names and hope they'll enjoy it. Even with a pre-published adventure, you need to dig around its set course, veer slightly off it when the situation calls for it, peppering each scene with character background hooks, corner-of-your-eye details, or otherwise obscure references that may or may not add up to anything in the long run... but they should!
It's all of these tiny details that you sprinkle liberally across the entirety of an adventure, the smallest mannerisms of a random passerby performing a mundane task or the way some wizard or another is holding their wand, harkening to a long-past conflict the players may have had... these are the elements of Finesse that bring out not only your idea of a grand story arc, but also blend the players into it and make them feel like the world they're traveling through is lived in by them as well as your NPCs and beasties.
So get tinkering, keep your eyes and mind open at anything the players throw at you – beware of Core Books, those always make a dent – and organically insert their quirks into that apocalyptic post-dwarven dieselpunk-unicorn saga you're brewing.
We could talk about these ad nauseam and go into a bunch of details for each point, so I hope I've covered the basics of the three Fs of role-playing,,, playing... aying... ing... and you can take these and explore what each of them means to your particular situation.
Either that, or I've just wasted your time on some random words beginning with F that have little to no bearing on your enjoyment of the role-playing experience as a whole.
Thanks for stopping by anyway!
Writer, gamer, and - provided he's got the time for it - loving husband, Costin does not rule out sacrifices to the Great Old Ones in order to get into the gaming industry. He's been role-playing for the better part of 6 years, but has been a joker, gamer and storyteller for as long as he can remember.
His greatest pride is once improvising a 4-way argument between a grave digger, a dyslexic man, an adopted child, and a sheep, all by himself. That moment is also the closest he's ever come to giving himself a role-playing aneurysm... Thus far.
He's been dabbling in plenty of writing ventures lately, and you can find him hanging his words around the Oh Be Wandering hangout page on Facebook - https://goo.gl/4be3Bj
There comes a moment in a role-player's life when we think we've seen and played through enough that we can come up with our own take on things. This comes in a couple different categories: settings, and dice-chucking systems.
This is the first of a two-part mini-series, dealing with system creation, to begin with.
Beware. Here be personal DOs & DON'Ts, your mileage may vary greatly.
Especially since I drive a Diesel.
1. Do Your Homework.
Nobody walks into this hobby knowing everything.
Time, precious commodity as it is, is even more important for understanding what makes you tick as a role-player and what makes a system run smoothly. Spending copious amounts of time playing through or running various systems is a necessity when you’re developing your own.
This isn't to say that some people aren’t just born with it, and may manage to come up with a solid system with no prior experience. Some join pen and paper role-playing from video or board gaming, some may just have that math-inclined mind I'm desperately wanting to rent, or even a knack for putting two and two together.
That being said, often, practice makes perfect.
So make sure you perfect your practice before you practice perfecting your pen and papering product. I... think that makes sense.
2. Do... IT!
No amount of reading, gaming, more reading, or thinking about putting something together will ever replace actually doing it. Once you think your homework's done, and you know what you want to get out of your system, grab your pen, pencil, tablet, keyboard, blood of your enemies or Ouija board of choice and start creating!
Start small, don't think about too many special rules/skills – main character attributes, dice, mechanisms that players use to influence the story, etc. – JUST START!
Try not to overdo the research part, find your niche and stick with it – you're realistically never going to be able to know everything that has come out over the years, experience every take on the genre that's out there, or even know about most systems on the market.
Which is why you should pop by the Role-Playing Gems article series, and give those a look sometime... #shamelessplug
3. Do not be afraid to retcon.
Alright, so now you know what you're aiming for, and have actually started work on it, you come across something that helps you see things in such a light that you want to either fix, erase, or simply exchange some aspects of your system.
You've been working on this for what... A few weeks, give or take?
Pretty sure Rome wasn't built in a few weeks either.
If you end up flailing and failing you can always roll everything back. You don't have a budget you're supposed to justify to anyone. You'll gradually see your system heading into new territory as you get more acquainted with what you can do as a world-builder, and what your finished build can actually achieve. Early stages are always filled with variant rules, different dice sizes, character points, plot twists, explosions, and most likely your brain imploding.
If your system's first version is what you end up calling final, you're either a genius or doing it wrong. Always be prepared to put new things in or take stuff out when it seems like it's not working. Hitpoints to combat, fantasy to sci-fi to horror, and back into fantasy - these can all be changes you make over time.
Experimenting is the mother of all ulterior cock-up preventions. That being said...
4. Do Not Be Afrad To Fail.
We fall, we curse the jackass who tripped us up, we get up, we start over.
Failing will definitely be a part of the process. Big, small, it all hinges on your own abilities, workrate, and set goals. You'll either realise your dice sizes don't convey the experience, limiting your skill spread. Maybe that character sheet layout you've been working on doesn't fit with anything anymore, or maybe the main rolling formulae you've based your work on doesn’t scale well to higher levels.
This falls into the previous point a bit, but hammers home the point that you will end up making the wrong choices. It's your duty to yourself, and the experience as a whole, to not let those moments bring you down. Learn from them, and – as much as possible – try not to make the same mistakes again.
How do you avoid those mistakes I hear you ask? Why, I'm happy to tell you...
5. Do A Lot Of Testing. Fast.
We've got information, we've started work, we're not afraid to move things around, and we're definitely not afraid of failing. It's time to crunch some numbers, make sure we fail as little as possible, and deal with it as early as we're able to. It doesn't matter which numbers get crunchy, doesn't matter how well it goes, it's always a good idea from the get-go to see if everything will really work when and how it’s intended.
Grab a bunch of dice, splatter some attributes around, see if that David vs. Goliath thing works.
Testing early and often saves you time through identifying bugs, and other aspects that only actual playtest can uncover. Just look at what Wizards of the Coast did with D&D 5e – going through each playtest pack and seeing the game evolving was a real treat to early playtesters, let me tell you!
All you need for this are a few pregens, a simple adventure taking you through some main aspects of the game, a couple of willing friends, and some Sprite (or other beverage of your choice).
6. Do Not Keep It To Yourself.
This one's a no-brainer for any and all creative projects you develop: get people involved!
Nobody's telling you to go to Kickstarter within the month. Start small, with the aforementioned friends, spouse, whatever. Maybe you're lucky enough to have geeky parents that can give you some pointers? Just make sure you don't keep this close to your chest and only come out with it when you think it's perfect.
Newsflash – it ain't!
As someone who's done work on three different iterations of a ground-up system, I'm pretty sure the design I'm using right now is not the one I'm going to end up calling finished.
Feedback is the key here.
You shouldn't bend your knee to any and all voices out there, but having a chorus of opinions to sift through will greatly improve your chances of ironing out the kinks in the system.
7. Do Not Go Tt Alone (?)
This one's always largely a matter of personal taste, but most of us in these hobbies are not lone wolves. You've certainly got at least one or two other likeminded individuals who you regularly play games with, thus people who (hopefully) have the same tastes in games as you.
One of the biggest hurdles you'll come across when going into creative mode is the motivation to keep going until the end, especially once you realise any creative endeavour is... well... a pretty big endeavour. Having a Samwise to share the load with may end up being the difference between getting something done or finding your notes in a dusty drawer twenty years from now.
Just make sure you don't end up fighting, going your separate ways, and then taking your systems to crowdfunding at the same time.
I'm guessing that doesn't make for fun conventions.
I think I've covered most of the issues I've faced. One more thing to add: have fun!
It doesn’t matter if you're doing this to have a system you know inside and out or you actually want to make a living of it, the end product is going to suffer if you're going through everything with stormclouds above your head, and a frown.
So clear those skies, pop some music of your choice on, and give things a go. Worst case scenario, you'll get depressed at not getting anything done, try to sell off a half-finished system to various companies, end up trying to self-publish, pawn off your assets, left kidney, your dog, mortgage your house thrice over and live the rest of your days in an asylum with your imaginary friend, Binky von Grim.
But don't let my fears put a damper on your hopes and dreams...
Writer, gamer, and - provided he's got the time for it - loving husband, Costin does not rule out sacrifices to the Great Old Ones in order to get into the gaming industry. He's been role-playing for the better part of 6 years, but has been a joker, gamer and storyteller for as long as he can remember.
His greatest pride is once improvising a 4-way argument between a grave digger, a dyslexic man, an adopted child and a sheep, all by himself. That moment is also the closest he's ever come to giving himself a role-playing aneurysm... thus far.
He's been dabbling in plenty of writing ventures lately, and you can find him hanging his words around the Oh Be Wandering hangout page on Facebook - https://goo.gl/4be3Bj
Like many amongst us, for some reason, I usually find myself behind the GM screen.
While I do play and enjoy playing, there is something about taking on that role that just always appealed to me and I have always found that there is something that draws me to that role again and again. That being said, I recently started thinking about the dearth of GMs in our hobby. I mean, by the very nature of most games players will outnumber GMs. And we have to face the reality that for the majority of the people in our hobby, that role is unappealing.
The reasons are as varied as the people who play, but they often boil down to workload, intimidations, lack of confidence in ideas, and what I think is the biggest problem: we don’t have a great way of teaching the next generation of gamers how to GM/Judge/Storytell/DM/Keeper.
Recently, I had a conversation with a few members of an online game that I was running and I challenged my players to GM our next game. I promised to help teach them how to run a game and to share the burden as much as I can, and do whatever I could do to help them in their first time GMing. This got me to thinking of all of the methods that I had seen to plan and run campaigns. Here are some of them:
1. Reactive Method
This method is deceptively complex. At least, it is complex if you want to do it well. This method essentially assumes an active world that the game takes place in. Into that world comes your players and their characters with all of their flaws and worldviews and goals. The work of the GM then is to create a rich enough world that ensures that the players begin interacting with it and just react in the way that - in the GM’s estimation - the people and forces in that world would react. This allows the campaign to essentially write itself with the players and their characters as the prime movers.
There are some complications with this method, especially in that it is actually far more complex than it at first seems. First, it requires a group that is full of active personalities with players who are going to take the initiative and act. Further, it requires a world that contains enough hooks for players to want to act on them, and it requires some complexity in that world for any longer-termed campaign or the players are going to start to thrash about looking for something to do. Thus, the level of world building can either be high or the requirements of the level of play can be high. If either of those pieces do not exist at least by themselves but hopefully together, then the whole thing comes crashing down. Of course, the flipside is simply that if the players are consistently good self-starters and the world is built in depth enough with enough hooks, this campaign can be fabulous and incredibly rewarding.
2. Implications Method
The implication method requires some thought, but not a tonne of pre-planning, which is its strength. Essentially, what you are doing with this method is having characters created, starting with a place of any kind, and working out from there. This is very much the “start small” approach to building a campaign. So, how does it work?
Start with a place. In our example we will start with an inn. That’s all. Right off of the bat we have implications. We know that there needs to be customers. There needs to be suppliers for the things that they are selling. It suggests a culture that congregates at an inn. With this, you have some decisions. Is the local population predominantly human? Let’s say yes. Is the innkeeper human? Let’s say no. That implies something. If the human population has say, a dwarven innkeeper, then that could imply that there is a community of dwarves nearby. It may even imply that either the innkeeper is estranged from that community or not. If so, then why? If not, then why? And so on. With this method one could start with a town, a village, a castle, a spaceport, or whatever. It just required the GM to be nimble and think through things pragmatically.
3. Guidepost Method
This method operates under a principle of storyline guideposts. Basically, a few of these can be decided in advance and the storyline then loosely moves to these guideposts. An example might be that the first three guideposts are that an item is stolen while the group is at a local festival, a political enemy causes them trouble that they can’t murderhobo their way out of, and an important NPC is killed mysteriously. A way that could be fleshed out could be that the PCs come together for the Festival of the Sun, a midsummer festival that is held in the town of Edmundstown every year wherein the Shard of the Steward of the Sun is revealed to be adored by the public after a few days of feasting. During this festival that the PCs are attending, the item is stolen and the PCs are enjoined to help find it before the festival is ruined. Following that portion, the second bit could be that the local High Priest of the Sun Temple comes to believe that the players were somehow the cause of the festival almost coming to ruination, and while he doesn’t have proof, he starts to spread rumours amongst the upper hierarchy of the church and the aristocracy that they are not to be trusted. Finally, a local nobleman who has been publicly defending the PCs is mysteriously murdered. Obviously, there is a lot going on that can be built on and played through.
The guideposts thus planned can start to build a larger ongoing campaign and it helps plant cinematic seeds and foreshadowing when the moment feels right rather than having to railroad the group into what you have planned.
For example, with the above guideposts, we know that in the third guidepost an NPC needs to be murdered. So we know that the GM needs to introduce that NPC and, if they want to maximize the emotional impact, do everything in their power to make them care about that NPC. Further, it would also help if, knowing that they are going to meet and have an interaction with someone they won’t like in the second guidepost, maybe have that person introduced as well off of the top. Perhaps that person is a beloved leader and the matriarch of the festival, who then later blames the group for the missing item, for example. Maybe it is someone who starts out as a possible ally only to turn on them. In the end, as many guideposts as you want can be written and then strung together as time goes on, or discarded as necessary.
4. Emotion Method
This is possibly the most esoteric method. With this method, you imagine certain emotional or evocative scenes and then identify the emotional core of that scene. Once that is done, you just try to reimagine that scene into the story and do everything in your power to evoke that feeling. Movies are a great piece of inspiration for this kind of storytelling. An example might be to look at a movie scene like the D-Day portion of Saving Private Ryan. The core emotion is fear or possibly a certain kind of desperation. Doing this in a modern or futuristic setting might be easier, and in a fantasy setting, one could play out a scene in which the players were part of a larger force storming a hostile beach.
Using the fantasy example, the players could be recruited as storm troops or advanced skirmishers tasked with being part of the first wave ashore with a few objectives, like fight your way up the beach, capture a small and well defended fort on the first hill, and finally do it all quick enough to secure and defend a bridge before it can be destroyed. Pepper this non-stop combat with friendly NPCs dying all around and danger around every corner. You could place random fireball or lightning bolt related artillery strikes all the way through. In this scenario you want to do everything you can to create a sense of dread, a sense of mortality, a mimicry of what those soldiers must have gone through. With this method, this one scene could be the source of many sessions by itself. The recruiting, possibly even smaller quests as “training” or espionage, role-playing through the evening before, preparing for the possibility of death, even getting the invasion called off for weather to build tension. Then the combat itself and perhaps even the follow-up from that part. This whole “chapter” of the campaign therefore becomes crafted around this apex, rising in drama to its climax and then cresting off to the aftermath and epilogue. Then onto the next scene.
5. Background Method
It’s best to apply this method with a lot of prep work between GM and players. It implies that the players have created characters with some kind of flesh on them at a “session zero.” It helps a lot of the players create characters with some hooks and goals that they want to explore. And if they have established relationships with each other, more the better. These backgrounds that are created for the characters should be done without any input in regards to setting or world, and it is in these backgrounds that the entire campaign is created.
Of course, that means that the building of these characters and their stories is best done with the input and guidance of the GM throughout. I often use text messages and phone conversations as the players pitch ideas, and I then take pieces that jump out and help them expand it. Then, at session zero everyone explains their backgrounds in turn and the GM then asks leading questions that are designed to give shape and force to their stories. Examples might be, “when you were young a childhood friend drowned, why didn’t you help her?” Or, gesturing to another player, “you owe your fellow PC Link Starchild something of great value, and that creates a lot of guilt in you, what was it and why do you owe it?” This process then creates the world and maps the campaign.
6. Procedural Method
I am a massive Lovecraft fan, and recently I grabbed the Quickstart Rules for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition. My group then played the little adventure that came with and in short, had a blast. It led me to start to snoop around the interwebz and found a wealth of short adventures going back to the first edition. As I read the summaries of these short gems I thought of some of my favourite shows, like Supernatural or X-Files. In those shows there were short plots that lasted a single episode, like a “monster of the week” kind of thing, or a few episodes, with a long term goal that lasted over the course of each season or longer. With this method of campaign, one simply comes up with a metanarrative that links the characters to a long term goal, say, a global conspiracy of some type (Trust No One) and then having the smaller, seemingly unrelated (except by theme) plots woven in. That way, the players go from fairly clearly defined adventure to adventure while uncovering pieces over a long period of time.
7. Bonus Frankensteinian Method!
In my own life and amongst some of the better GMs that I know these methods exists in a hodge-podge or mish-mashed form. That is, we use a combination of methods to achieve something for our campaigns as we move through. Let’s say you start with the Procedural Method, but build out the metaplot and the theme of it using the Background Method, all the while mixing in the Implication Method as you do some worldbuilding. Frankly, my group often runs campaigns wherein we play 2-3 sessions a month for years at a time, so I often switch back and forth depending on what I am hoping to achieve in the next portion of the campaign.
I know that these methods aren’t the only ones, they are just the dribs and drabs that I have pieced together over my decades of gaming. I know that you likely have more interesting ones; let me know in the comments below.
-VP Quinn was birthed of darkness and pain and fire. The prophecy has foretold his coming wherein all shall behold and despair. It is coming, it has come. Also, he hosts the High Level Games Podcast, Co-Hosts the Leveling Up Podcast, and is consistently shamed on The Inept Gamer. And he tells people what to do around here.
Well, that season is upon us again, and now you’re debating between a scarf or sweater for those special ones you love. Ask yourself: why settle for mediocrity? Again and again we find ourselves in Bath & Body Works or Ms. Naughty’s Nighties looking for that special gift (under $20.00) to bring to the office gift exchange. If this holiday is going to mean what it really means, then invest some cash to bring some true joy to the season. Let’s stick our love under the tree or at very least drop some hints for others as to what we want. And what do we want? Well, it’s what we always want: game.
1) THE DICE TO END ALL DICE
The fine folks over at Artisan Dice have pretty much come up with every kind of quality dice you could ever want. From carbon fiber to brass to elk bone, Artisan Dice lets you design your own set and then have a trained craftsman manufacture them to your specs. I’m pretty dead inside but even I was impressed that they manufacture “specialty” from both amber and aged Jack Daniels Oak whisky barrels. Prices ranged from around $30 to over $500. Find them geared up for your Christmas needs at www.artisandice.com and check out the history they have compiled on the worlds oldest D20 under Ptolemaic D20. AMAZING.
2) MORE ABOUT DICE
So now that you have those ever so sweet brilliantly gleaming dice, what are you going to do with them when you’re not playing? Pencil case? Felt bag? Don’t be absurd, those dice deserve better than that, these dice are fancy dice, these dice are family. So treat them like your ever beloved great aunt and stick em’ in Peruvian Walnut dice vault. Wyrmwood Quality Gaming Supplies makes an amazing assortment of boxes and vaults from a variety of common and rare woods to meet any budget, and if you have something unique in mind probably could bang it out for you in their custom workshop. See their online catalog at wyrmwoodgaming.com. Kick Ass Gaming gear is also a purveyor of fine wood product to serve your dice holding needs. Ranging from Dragon sheathes that hold your dice, a figurine and a pencil to their beautifully hand crafted and intricate Dice towers, where you drop the dice down through the tower and your roll appears on the felt lined draw bridge.
3) ENOUGH ABOUT THE DICE
In a world of 3D printers the gamer is king. Hero Forge caters to the king in the form of customizable miniatures for any character you are currently playing. Hero Forge offers convenience and quality to gamers out there who want to hold a part of their imagination in their hands. Figurines are manufactured to match the commonly used 30mm scale and once designed by you (all the way down to the expression on the figurines face), they send it to your front door. Haters don’t hate, just go to their website at www.heroforge.com and do a character design trial before you order. Their eye for detail is apparent.
4) IT WON’T FIT IN YOUR STOCKING LIKE DICE BUT IT’S PRETTY AWESOME
What I’m about to say doesn’t really fit with the giving theme of the holiday season but it’s what has to happen. So go out and buy D&D’s The Storm King’s Thunder to give to someone and then just keep it and play it with your friends. It’s awesome, it came out in September, it’s 256 pages of adventuring, investigating and giant killing, and it’s 5e so it’ll be better than you can even believe. If you already own it then actually go buy it for someone you know in another group as a Christmasy thing. If you want to give it to your cousin Eddie then I would say you should at least buy him the D&D starter set first… and then the Player's Handbook… maybe the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Anyway, buy some 5e for someone you love this Christmas, namely yourself.
All of this stuff is available online so get in line with the holiday spirit and start spending. Well that’s my season wish list. Whoa, I mean gift list. I hope my wife reads this. Happy holidays.
I admit a certain hesitancy to share my love of role-playing games with the general public. Even my best friend knew nothing about my time spent doing such games until well over a decade into them. There seems to be a set of unwritten cues to scout out other possible role-players. Once those cues are good and established, then and only then can you drop your own clues to your own love of such things. There isn’t always an easy way to decipher who would and would not be involved in such activities. But, I believe that more people should be role-playing.
So this is my bid to convince the average person, the on-the-fencer, and you, the reader, to reach out and experience this form of gaming.
First, I’ll give you my rudimentary description of role-playing. Role-playing is creating an unique character, with its own personality, story, and abilities. This character lives in a world with its own history, mythology, and problems. Your character comes alongside other characters to have adventures both great and small. It involves some imagination, some acting, some rules, and much merriment and laughter. These games can last for a short time or these stories (campaigns) can last for years. So these are the reasons that you should role-play:
Reason 1: You get better at it. This isn’t the flappy bird of gaming. Nor is the mashing of buttons on Mortal Combat. You aren’t always terrible and hate your life for eternity. Your character improves their skills. They can do things better and cooler than before. You, also, improve your skills at role-playing. Why not try an accent? You use your backstory to convince others to go along with your plan. Maybe eventually, you even learn most of the rules really well (Sorry, Jake.)
Reason 2: You spend time with friends and other such awesome people (or you meet new friends). Ideally, you want a group that you would already hang out with on a regular basis. You have a regular excuse to hang out with those people you like. Sorry honey, I guess I can’t have dinner with your mother… I have a game. Often your game involves your interests already, so those people have those same interests. Instant bonding! And, if the people you choose, the game you choose, or the timing isn’t quite right, then you can still find many more options for groups online at roll20.
Reason 3: There is a game for you. Maybe you love the fantasy type worlds with dwarves and dragons and other mythical ideas. You don’t have to look far to find DnD, Pathfinder, Rolemaster, or 13th Age. Maybe you like the futuristic armageddon-type scenario and you could play Rifts, Apocalypse World, or Numenera. Maybe you prefer comics, then you could go with Marvel, Mutants and Masterminds, or Icons the Assembled Edition. If you like space, there are space games (Spacemaster specific franchise space games if you want). If you like zombies, they have zombies since All Flesh must be Eaten. If you want horror, you can find it in Dread. There is a game for any type of adventure scenario you can think of, and if they don’t have it yet, it may be having a kickstarter right now. This is by no means an exhaustive list of games in these genres either. If you like anything; you can play it.
Reason 4: Even though it is similar to many things, it is unique. It is a collaborative game, like playing pretend, similar to writing a story, like hearing a radio play, it is acting, you have control over your own choices, but you cannot control everything. You never can predict what will happen, how it will happen, or where it will all take you. It is the roll of the dice and a role in your life. It’s worth trying out and experiencing, because there is nothing like it.
Reason 5: This imaginary game creates real memories. Undoubtabley when you sit down with other seasoned role-players, your playing will be delayed at some point to tell the story of that last character, that beer-swilling bard that somehow threw aside her bawdy limericks to save her friends, or that ranger on a quest to meet her soulmate spending her treasure loot on fine clothing and perfume. Before you know it, you will have your own stories to tell.
If you role-play already, then congratulations! What other reasons would you tell someone to try out the hobby? If you haven’t yet tried it, then seek people out!
Vanessa is a sarcastic, 30-something wife and mother. She likes things and stuff, but not simultaneously. You can read about how her love of acting led her to become a better role-player here.
I didn’t spend my formative years role-playing. Honestly, I didn’t have much interest in it. I liked science fiction and fantasy, but these things didn’t drive me to create character sheets, roll dice, and hang out with nerdy friends. I got thrown into it. Mainly, I was dating a GM. I was in a new town. I was lonely. Hence, my foray into “rolling the bones.”
The reason I stayed was not because of the boyfriend-turned-husband GM. It was simply an outlet for my creative side, the side that loves theatre and acting.
So these are my thoughts on how acting made me a better role-player:
1. What’s my Motivation? (best said in a hoity toity voice)
In acting you are taught to seek out what is driving your character; why they do what they do. Why are they in the play? Are they the conscience of another character? Are they the foil of the protagonist? Are they too legit to quit? These questions affect how your character interacts with the story and others within the play. This makes the backstory for your role-playing character key. For example, your role-playing character, Bob, is motivated by riches and power. He is the one who loots the body (maybe even before you have confirmed death.) However, someone else’s character, Chuck, just wants to find love. He may be introducing himself to the ladies that the group have just saved while Bob is arms-deep in looting the body. The difference here is in their motivation.
2. Have Goals
Each line of a script can be broken down into goals. Your character has a goal in mind for whatever they happen to say or do. My goal is to woo that lady, get to school on time, or make a fine-looking sandwich. This is no different in role-playing; my characters all have numerous goals throughout a campaign. So often role-players will devolve into cheap jokes and ridiculous antics (not that there isn’t a time and place for that revelry, but it doesn’t need to be continuous.). Having a legitimate goal, gives you character purpose. They have small goals (try to get along with the obnoxious paladin, Geoffrey… oh sorry, Geee-awww-fray ) and larger goals (kill Geee-awww-fray; have it look accidental.) These goals are as realistic as our own goals. We adjust them, we add to them, we achieve them, or we abandon them. But they are always there…. like a fungus.
3. Improv: the life blood of thinking on your feet
Doing improv is a great way to improve upon role-playing. You have to be hyper-aware of the group, you have to jump in when needed, and you have to take ownership of your words and your actions. A great game that role-playing always reminds me of is Yes, and. In this particular game, you are creating a narrative with a group (sound familiar?) and it helps you negotiate the differences in other people’s thoughts and ideas. It is a simple game where whatever the person says or does, your response is always, “Yes, and…” as you fill in the blank and keep going. You accept the narrative and then add to the narrative. You are creating together and supporting each other. In role-playing, this idea creates overarching story arcs and doesn’t put up walls in your campaign.
4. The Idea of Team
When cast in a show, the entire ensemble is a cornucopia of personalities. Some people are terrifying, to be completely honest. But working in those environments taught me how to work with others. Which is SO helpful in a long term role-playing campaign. No one is an island in role-playing, even when they are playing an island. They need to contribute to build for the good of the group. Even when tensions arise, there has to be a resolution or some kind of glue to hold it all together. I am going to assert that that glue is bacon, after all there is no ‘I’ in team, but there is ‘MEAT’. So after we feast, then of course we will work on teamwork skills like tolerance and the ability to move past problems and be solution-focused. I was taught those early on in theatre.
5. Supporting Role: It’s Not All about You
One of the biggest things that I was taught in acting, was that I am an excellent supporting actor. I am not the best; I was never the lead in anything. This used to discourage me, but I soon realized that there were no small roles, just small pity parties to have after casting. In role-playing, my characters aren’t always the biggest and best and we are not always focused on my goals. My characters can take a back seat. My quest to find my long-lost brother can wait, so we can clear these goblins out of Blatherville. Did you hear how they burned down Elrick’s bakery? I can easily find a reason to stay and be a part of the group. My turn will come. I’m coming for you, Brother Jolya!
Vanessa is a sarcastic, 30-something wife and mother. She likes things and stuff, but not simultaneously.
If I could give you one fact about myself, it is that I love games. Video games, sports (i.e. games with running), role-playing games, but most of all, board games. I have been playing board games since I was old enough to not swallow the pieces. I just couldn’t play enough; my poor parents could only handle so much Monopoly with a five year old, so I often ended up playing games against myself, typically playing all 4 players (and so great was my adolescent skill, I always won.) As I got older, the games got more complicated and my competitors diverse. Like many modern board gamers, I’ve played ungodly amounts of Catan, Carcassonne, and Dominion. I now find myself most drawn to deeper strategy games, (e.g. Agricola, Through the Ages), with a general rule being that the length of the rulebook is directly proportional to the enjoyment I’ll get out of a game (provided I can find people willing/gullible enough with which to play).
I only began role-playing a few years ago, drawn to the tabletop by its preponderance of rule-books. A single role playing game offers hundreds (often thousands) of pages of game mechanics and interactions to learn and explore, all of which made me metaphorically salivate. However, I soon realized that there is greater disparity between understanding the mechanics and playing the game in role-playing games than there is in board games (i.e. a perfect understanding of the D&D mechanics will do nothing to bring a character to life). While I had much to learn, I realized that a lifetime of board games had prepared me for joining a role-playing group in several ways.
1. The capacity for make-believe. To fully enjoy any board game, a certain amount of imagination is needed. I’m not just pushing a tiny plastic tank and a bunch of gray chips across a board, I’m blitzkrieging into Russia in a war encompassing the entire world. I’m not just rolling some dice, I’m producing resources in support of my bid to control the continent. These aren’t just cards, they’re equipment, contacts, and programs used to hack a nefarious corporation. Without imagination, a board game becomes merely a banal collection of mechanics and rules, devoid of life and the spark that makes games inherently fun.
This need of imagination is even more necessary when role-playing. Players are given a whole slew of mechanics and are expected to use them to bring to life a rich, vivid world without even board or piece for reference. Of course, there are visual aids used in RPGs, such as miniatures, maps, or pictures, but the vast majority of role-playing is seen through the mind’s eye of each player. I was already used to playing make-believe with my many games, whether I was becoming a rich mogul, daring general, or a dastardly spy. While I was initially thrown by my lack of physical representation within the game, I was able to quickly bring the world to life in my mind thanks to an imagination well-seasoned by the board.
2. The development of good game etiquette. People often take being nice for granted, especially around a game table. Everyone knows someone with whom they refuse to play games, whether they be role-playing, video, sports, or board, due to that person’s poor behavior. Some throw a fi(s)t when they lose. Others become insufferable upon winning. Some will not stop cheating, even when caught red-handed (I’m looking at you, Steve). Regardless of which sort of negative behavior is exhibited, it saps the enjoyment of the other players.
In my years playing board games, I have played against each type of person and have even been that person myself. The best lessons are reciprocal. I learned not to be an arrogant, pompous bastard after winning when I was beaten by a pompous, arrogant bastard. I learned not to be a sore loser myself by defeating others who were. All of these experiences facilitated my development of good game etiquette. The idea is simple: don’t be a barbarian at the game table (even if you are one in the game). If you’re pissed at what happened in game, be pissed at yourself for the stupid decisions that led you there or the dice for their uncooperative behavior (and then melt them), not pissed at other players or the DM. Don’t cheat by rolling 20s when no one was watching or purposefully altering rules. These things make games less fun for everyone involved. These bad behaviors come out much faster in board than role-playing games due to their shorter nature and clear distinction between winner and loser(s), so play a few board games with your group if you want to discern players with good game etiquette from those with poor game etiquette.
3. The familiarity with rules and game mechanics. While not everyone may agree with this, the rules in a role-playing game are central to the experience; without rules, D&D would be a medieval Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book (not that I’m hating on Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, mind you. Anyone who did that would be certifiable). The rules and mechanics put the ‘game’ in role-playing game. The better each player understands the rules as they relate to their character, the more time can be spent playing the game and becoming a part of a legendary story (to see the opposite of this, watch a session of Shadowrun played by a group that’s never played before.)
With a love of board games comes an inevitable familiarity with rules. Whether, like me, you love rules and game mechanics to the point where you will read the instruction manuals for games you don’t even have or if you hate rule-books and just want to dig right into a game without having to spend time among dry pages, board game players all are experienced in playing by the rules. This does not mean merely know how many dice to roll or how much Boardwalk costs to purchase, but also being able to work with multiple game mechanics to achieve victory. Even the most complex of board games, with an incredible variety of mechanics and features, pales in comparison to the complexity of game mechanics in an average RPG. Many years spent figuring out how to best manipulate board game mechanics allowed me to move quickly past the early role-playing stages of figuring out how to play my character according the rules (e.g. how many dice do I roll to shoot my pistol) and onto more complex concepts, such as learning how to develop and portray a personality for my character (e.g. thinking like a mob hitman and learning a Russian accent).
4. The honing of tactical instincts. Every role-playing group is different. Some are lax on adherence to the rules with a greater focus on building a great story. Others place more emphasis on simulation and playing strictly by-the-book. Combat is an inherent part of both of these role-playing styles. Regardless of whether combat is played out in a tense simulation with miniatures on a grid or is told as a tale of grand strokes and spells (or, more than likely, a combination of simulation and narrative epic), good tactics will often be the difference between life and death, between heroic and sad, bloody mess .
Board games offer players the chance to hone their tactical skills across a wide variety of challenges. Admittedly, not every board game offers deep tactical challenge, i.e. you can’t lay an ambush for your opponents in Monopoly (though that might make me play the game again). However, even simple board games require decisions which affect the outcome of the game, e.g. whether or not to buy a particular property in Monopoly when your funds are low. These decisions can be boiled down to a benefit versus risk analysis by the player (often made without thinking in such terms). RPG combat requires the same type of decision-making as can be found in any board game, a risk-benefit analysis of what attacks/spells are most useful in each situation, which enemies to concentrate fire upon, when the tide of battle has turned, etc. I’m not saying that every board gamer is a born tactician or that veteran tacticians can’t be defeated by the simplest of enemies. However, a board game is a concise exercise in tactical decision making; many years spent playing board games is many years spent honing tactical instincts through practice in diverse scenarios.
While I’m sure not everyone who board gamed before they leveled up to role-playing has had the same experience as me, I hope many of you can relate. Happy gaming!
Jake is an avid board gamer, outdoorsman, and low level role-player who lives in College Station, Texas.
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games