Monthly Archives: October 2011

What We Want

What we want in a game is a lot like what we want in life. I’m gonna riff a bit here on David McClelland via Peter Bregman with the list of desires that drive us:

  1. Achievement (To compete against increasingly challenging goals)
  2. Affiliation (To be liked/loved)
  3. Personalized power (influence and respect for yourself)
  4. Socialized Power (to offer others Personalized power, which is to say, influence and respect)

This list speaks a lot to how much our jobs and lives are going to satisfy us, and it’s no coincidence that the list also reads like a checklist of things that players want in play in an RPG (both in game and out of game).

Now, there’s no one point I want to make from this, mostly because I think there are dozens of points to be made from it, so it’s important to me to lay this out as a foundation, because it makes subsequent points easier to discuss, so with that in mind, let’s run through these.


Achievement is probably the most obvious, since it lies at the heart of the game part of most games, and it’s intimately tied to things like advancement, encounter design and so on. It’s important to call out that there’s a reason this is achievement, not challenge, because challenge is only a part of it – it’s the increase that is truly critical. Our brains thrive on mastery – we get a buzz from learning things and overcoming difficulty, but only the first time. If we’re faced with the same problem again, it quickly bores us. If we’re faced with an utterly different problem, that might be fun, but the sense of progress is not there. It’s counter-intuitive, but the best reward for success is a greater challenge.

This is one reason we’re so attached to character advancement in games, because it’s the easiest way for a GM to ramp up challenge. Without advancement, the GM needs to either push harder every time (as you would in a non-RPG as you progress in competitive ranks) or get very creative.

Now, I should note that there’s a lot of leeway in terms of what the challenge is, and that interacts pretty strongly with what Achievement needs. Fight scenes are challenges, and they’re the sort of challenges that advancement speaks to, but if the challenge the player seeks is creative, that requires a very different sort of ratcheting effect to keep increasing challenge.


Hopefully, this is largely obvious – it’s a big reason we play these games rather than write fiction to similar effect. The social element of play is huge, and not to be underestimated.

However, in my experience this is also a big part of satisfaction in play. One of the rules of design behind a lot of Evil hat decisions is that everything should have a face. Settings are made most interesting by the imaginary people in them, because the fact that they’re imaginary doesn’t really keep us from forming strong attachments to them (as can be evinced by the message boards of any fandom). Play that provides opportunities to scratch the affiliation itch is going to be satisfying play.

Personalized Power

Well, duh.

Ok, maybe it’s a little more complicated than that – step back a minute and consider what power means. It means the capability to accomplish things, to make things happen. It’s the ability for your action to have a measurable, noticeable outcome. It’s the ability to shape the world through your actions. When we have this power, it is a great feeling, and when we are denied it, it can be frustrating beyond measure.

Now, the first instinct is to look at RPG characters and drawl a line to their obvious power. Throwing lightning bolts, lifting cars and cutting through hordes of monsters are such clear expressions of power that they’re the first thing the mind goes to, but in doing so, it misses the mark. Certainly, that sort of blatant power is fun, but it is not in and of itself satisfying.

The real power of an RPG character is the ability to act. Part of this is implicit in the structure of rules (you roll the dice and something is going to happen) and some of it is implicit in adventure design (it’s a poor adventure where there’s not much to do) but taken as a whole, it’s an ability to simply do things which we often lack in our day to day lives. In real life, there are complication. Doing things is slow and boring, or our situation may not allow us to impact things that matter to us. In games, we can act. We may not always succeed, but just being able to try is empowering.

Lightning bolts and flaming swords just make that ability to act more colorful. It’s the action that is power.

Socialized Power

This one is probably the most interesting because while it’s probably the most poorly served by games in general, it’s possibly the most powerful when a game makes it go, because in play it’s most often reflected by as making other people awesome, which is (to my mind) one of the best things that can happen at a table.

The real meaning of this is something that could take up multiple posts of its own, but one interesting thing about socialized power is that it is hard to do without affiliation and personalized power, since it’s the fruitful combination of the two (it’s possible, but doing so tends to be more like martyrdom than a healthy dynamic). As a result, it can take more work to achieve, and it’s benefits are probably the least obvious until you have tasted them.

There’s more to say, but at this point it starts turning to how these points interact with games at the table, and that’s fodder for future posts.

Playability in Settings

Setting is, to my mind, utterly essential to RPGs, and has also been the poor cousin to rules design in a lot of the deeper discussions of RPGs. I’m not entirely sure how to address that, but I think a good start involves looking at setting design with the same eye we’ve applied to rules, and see what we find.

On my mind at the moment is the question of what makes a setting particularly playable. This is not the same thing as what makes a setting good or compelling, and in fact, a good, compelling setting can end up making a very good game even if it has no elements that make it more explicitly gameable.

While this is far from a comprehensive list, these are the elements that float to top of mind for me.


Unless the setting implicitly keeps the entire group of characters within shouting distance (something dungeons do) then they need some means of staying in touch. In the absence of this, you can end up with difficult pacing problems if the game starts going one particular direction without one or more players participating. Communication (and its companion, ease of travel) is the solution for this. Modern games have an easy solution to this with cell phones, but things like Amber’s trumps can fill this purpose as well.

As a paradoxical bonus, the presence of a communication element is necessary to make the absence of communication into a plot element. Running from zombies and trying to find cell signal is something you can’t do in 1974.


If your game is going to have any amount of violence, then you need some way to keep long hospital trips from bogging down the game, you need some logic to address this. It might be a genre thing (as in cinematic or supers games), or it might be an element intrinsic to characters (like Vampires and Amberites) or some easy means of healing (like spells or some magical substance); whatever the form it takes, the real purpose is to keep play moving.

The exact means of recovery may also be a plot element in its own right, so its worth considering that this doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Social Context

This can take a lot of different forms, but it is best described as characters having a role in the setting, something that has a context beyond themselves, but still of an understandable scale. A family or secret society might fill this roll, but a nationality won’t because it’s simply too big.

The litmus test for this is whether or not it helps answer questions about what the character does and has done “off camera” and how well armed they are to answer questions and make decisions without a full GM briefing. That may not seem intuitive, but consider that the social context provides resources with faces – people who you can talk to and turn to in complicated situations. Not only is that play generating, it creates a virtuous cycle where that play reinforces social ties, which in turn allow fodder for more play.

However, one needs to be careful to keep contexts playable. It is structurally better to have everyone within the same context, or at least within one context, otherwise the context draw away from play. Consider the problem when every player is an agent of a different group – you can construct something artificial to tie them together, but it’s tricky to maintain. Easier to either use different groups or subgroups. Consider these examples:

  • In Vampire, characters were members of their clan, but they were also part of the political structure of their city. The latter could help bring a group together without the former completely pulling them apart.
  • In Eberron, the Great Houses were really interesting and colorful, but they were potent enough ideas that they wanted to pull the game in their own direction. Unfortunately, because it was paired to the power system, it was easy to end up with things pulling apart.
  • Amber has the family has an overarching group, but it has numerous shifting factions and alliances within that group.

Mobility or Position

This is not literal mobility (though that has a place, as noted under communication) but rather social (or social-ish) mobility. Characters need to have the opportunity to change their situation through their own efforts. Partly this is something that helps buy into the context of the setting, but it’s also a big avenue for player-generated plots – if they have something they want that they can get, then sooner or later they’re going to get motivated to go after it. It’s also worth noting that while this may interact with character advancement, there’s no guarantee that it will.

The alternative for this is to give the players position (and with it, responsibility). It’s a similar play motivator, just from the other end. People like being important, and important people have things to do.

There’s no reason a setting can’t have both of these, but one or the other will suffice.

I am by no means asserting that a game can’t be fun without these, or that a setting can’t work without them, but I know that when I sit down to scratch out a setting (or even a sub-part of a setting) for a game, these are the things I try to make sure are present.

Play is an Argument

There’s a lot of discussion about what a game is, in the context of RPGs, and even when I propose an answer, I never imagine it to be the only answer. Still, it’s interesting to think about.
I was chewing on that today and considered a slightly different approach – a game (or rather, the act of play at any given moment) is an *argument* about how things should turn out. I suppose it might be nice to call it a negotiation, but I think argument is a better word since positions tend to be put forward forcefully and while there may be movement towards compromise, that is far from a necessity.
The important and potentially powerful point to this perspective is that it suggests that individual perspectives on what a game is become arguments within that context. To illustrate this idea consider that “Because it makes the best story” is a powerful argument, but it’s not the only argument.
More familiar arguments include the sort of things that might be described as crunchy minutiae, like how many inches of plywood a desert eagle can shoot through. You get similar issues with strongly held opinions about setting or character elements – “My Guy” syndrome falls under this, but all manner of setting and genre expertise matters fall under it as well. Turning to an external arbiter (like dice) is another kind of argument.
These arguments are almost certainly familiar to every gamer out there, and while some might characterize them as problematic arguments, but I am pretty confident that the real confusion stems from another source. It’s not the arguments themselves that create a problem, it’s the certainty associated with them. As in civil discussion, certainty creates all manner of problems in coming to resolution.
Now, every group has their own biases regarding what makes a good argument, and so long as the group is in agreement regarding what arguments are and aren’t fair game, then things will probably go well, provided those expectations are looked at, thought about, and communicated well.
I admit my own bias is to bring as many arguments as possible to the table, though I obviously fall victim to my own tastes, often without realizing it. I admit it can make things more complicated, but I find a lot of benefit in apparent contradictions. And more, it can become habit – looking at every argument, every time can seem like a lot of work, but the more time you spend looking at different arguments, the more arrows you have in your quiver when it comes time to resolve things (either as a player or a GM).
Everway had a great method for this, explicitly calling out three arguments out as Karma (stats), Drama (needs of the plot/story) and Fortune (draw of the cards). It was a fantastic muscle-builder for me as a GM, and I absolutely encourage a GM to try something similar, if only to see how it helps thing think about things differently.

I Woke Up With This In My Head

OK, what this means to me:
The assumption is a 4 stat set in the spirit of Amber. The 4 stats are Endurance, Discipline, Power and Expression, with 4 derived stats, Willpower (Discipline & Endurance), Precision (Discipline & Power), Force (Power & Expression) and Presence (Expression & Endurance).
The core model is a double-paired idea of internal/external and Active/Passive.
Power is external/active – it covers action. Action tempered by discipline is precision (a lot of stuff traditionally thought of as Dexterity) while Force is the expression of action (think Strength).
Endurance is External/Passive, though that’s hopefully obvious. Presence is patient, long term interaction with others, while willpower is the combination of Endurance and Discipline. I am attached to willpower being derived because it tends to be a giant pain in the ass in play, though that’s a whole other topic.
Discipline is Internal/Passive, and it’s a whole topic in and of itself.
Expression is Internal/Active, which is a little weird on the surface of it, but works if you view Internal as including personality, then it becomes a nice middle-place for Charisma.
Anyway, that’s the bones of it. Still chewing on it.

I Want To Borrow 4e’s Foundation

Ok, here’s an important thing about 4e that I would suggest that even die hard fans of other editions consider: it’s foundation is excellent. In my opinion, it’s a better foundation than any previous edition of D&D, though I leave that comparison up to the reader. But what does that mean?
I mean that if you took some characters and stripped them of classes, powers and almost everything else, you have a very solid little set of skirmish rules that strike a very strong balance between speed and depth. Boiled down to that level, it’s easy to see that there are just a handful of refinements from 3e, and the line from the original dungeon skirmishing is very easy to see.
I’ve steadily come to realize that the thing that keeps drawing me back to 4e is the simple power of that foundation. You could build entirely different games on top of it which could be entirely awesome. Different stats? Different classes? No classes? No Powers? Totally different power models? it would be easy to build such a thing on top of that chassis to capture almost any flavor or style of play that you want.
See, that’s the thing about the classes and powers as they exist: they represent a decision about how the game should look and feel. This is not a bad thing – the designer’s vision is a large part of the reason you buy a published game – but because this look and feel is so striking, it creates a sense that it’s the foundation. That is, it’s easy to look at 4e and think that if you want to change it, you should change powers and classes. 4e makes it feel like those are low-level changes while they’re actually quite high-level.
I don’t think this is good or bad in and of itself, but it mingles interestingly with the other realities surrounding 4e, specifically it’s semi-openness (which encourages high level tinkering) and it’s model of game-as-web-service (which discourages many types of tinkering). Altogether, it reveals my frustration – I want to take that foundation out and play with it. Doing so is how you can get awesome things like the (very much not open content) awesome of Gamma World.
But that’s not an option, at least not for anything public. I suppose it might be possible to build it forward from pathfinder or to create something similar from scratch, but both of those feel like inelegant solutions. But I want to find a solution, and I can tell you why:
I want the game I can _make_ with 4e.
Stop for a moment and consider what happens when you start looking at all those powers in 4e as building blocks for a simpler game. If you’re starting from scratch, unbound by what’s at-will, encounter or daily, then you can build almost anything using these parts and a little duck tape. Like spell points and spell lists? Make a list out of a set of thematically similar powers, and give them mana costs. Don’t like encounter and dailies for non-magical characters? Adopt a system where lower level encounter powers become higher level at-wills. Want to make power sources more important? Maybe come up with new ways to recharge dailies? It all opens up.
Obviously, I can already do this at home, but I’m a social guy. I like sharing. And that – the game I can make with the 4e parts – is the game I wish I could be sharing.

Uniquely Qualified

Nothing breaks my heart more than when I hear a GM complain that he wishes there were more roleplaying in his game. It’s tragic because it’s always so heartfelt and sincere and is almost always followed by said GM then introducing his new combat showpiece, hardcore dungeon crawl, or puppet show on rails. It hurts because the problem is so self-evident yet apparently completely unseen.
The solutions can also be painful, as the GM attempts to introduce “roleplaying encounters” into a game which neither wants nor needs them, but that attempt at a solution is emblematic of the problem. The idea that these other elements of gaming are somehow contradictory to roleplaying is pretty much entirely false. It’s a case where there’s plenty of correlation, but the cause is something else entirely.
Now, certainly there are some challenges – system mastery takes time and effort, and during the learning period, it’s hard to focus on anything but the game. Sometimes a GM extends this period by following the path of the hard core – by constantly upping the challenge through increased mechanical complexity, he can extend the learning period indefinitely. That’s a problem, yes, but not a problem with the games. Even the most complicated of games can reach mastery equilibrium in a reasonable timeframe with the right group or GM (or both).
But the real problem is the idea that the crunchy, fighty dungeon crawl is at odds with RP. It’s nonsense, but it’s deeply rooted nonsense that owes a lot to the history of the hobby and especially the history of published adventures. After all, books and movies can be full of high adventure and still support banter, character development, drama and so on – why is it a problem for games?
To understand the issue, let’s take a moment to look at the heroes of fiction, especially adventure fiction. Generally speaking, they’re presented with a challenge or challenges which they must overcome – not unlike adventurers. But the important part, often overlooked in gaming, is that part of the reason that the fiction is about these characters is because they are uniquely qualified to handle the challenge.
This idea of unique qualifications is a broad one because there are a lot of different things that make for UQ, and in fact in most fictions, the UQ is usually a result of a specific combination of non-unique qualifications. To illustrate that, consider that qualifications tend to fall into one of four loose categories – capability, knowledge, care, opportunity, and capability.
Capability is the first thing most gamers will think of. It means the hero is capable of tackling the problem either in the specific (he has the key to a specific lock) or in general (the problem is dangerous and he’s badass). In gaming terms, we tend to jump right to thinking about this in terms of powers, skills and levels, but it can be much more nuanced.
Knowledge means that the hero sees the problem, often where others don’t. Notably, it doesn’t mean the hero knows _how_ to solve the problem – that’s a form of capability – only that there’s a problem to be solved.
Care means that the hero has a personal investment in the problem, a stake in the outcome which they’re invested in. It might be because the problem affects them or those in their circle directly, or they might have a strong position on this particular type of problem. Care ends up being a kind of capability in certain types of fiction, especially noir detective stories – specifically, the protagonist has some moral backbone that allows them to pursue the problem rather than be consumed by the moral failings that surround him, like corruption.
Opportunity is, predictably, the opportunity to address the problem. It might be as simple as an issue of being in the right time and right place, but it might be part of a tangle of available time and conflicting responsibilities. Opportunity can muddle with capability very easily, especially when you start taking about authority or social position. A king can do a lot of things (capability and opportunity) but he may be bound by law (limit of capability) or unable to act due to other duties (lack of opportunity).
Look at any adventure fiction you like, and you’ll find some combination of these in the protagonists. Sometimes you’ll even find different combinations in different protagonists, and that can be pretty cool, but these unique qualifications provide implicit motivation and engagement for heroes in their own adventures.
Now, contrast this with the bog-standard dungeon crawl. At first blush, it looks like it demands several qualities – monsters must be fought (Capability), there’s treasure to be gained (a kind of care) and the dungeon is conveniently nearby (opportunity) but they fall apart when you start looking for uniqueness.
See, by design, a published adventure needs to be able to be run through by any group of adventurers of a certain size and level, which means that, by design , it will demand no unique qualifications of adventurers (except perhaps those which it creates within its own bubble of fiction). Any other group of adventurers could do this (so much for capability), the reward is probably quite fungible (not much care left) and that leaves only opportunity. But thanks to the nature of geography and gaming, odds are good the dungeon of your level is going to “just happen” to be where you can get to it, so that feels like a fairly hollow oportunity.
But the problem is not dungeons! Not even super hard core crunchy ones. The problem is bad habits of framing. If you’re a GM who wants to see more RP, then you need to start making the dungeons more engaging, and to do that, you need to figure out how to make the dungeon something that your specific group is uniquely qualified to address. Start from that foundation of generic threats and generic loot and start making it personal. Give your players a reason why _they_ are the ones going into this particular monster filled hole.
You’ll find that RP emerges very naturally from that engagement, whatever system or style of play you use.

Roleplay and Exploration Rewards

I was struck by a tweet this morning regarding the difficulty with handing out XP awards for exploration and roleplaying, specifically, that such rewards are arbitrary and hard to rightsize. This immediately struck me as a very valid complaint, but also one that’s very easily addressable – it’s just a matter of identifying the behaviors and experiences to reward, then plugging them into the reward system. For illustration, I’ll be using 4e to show how to do this (primarily because it’s standard reward model is very robust) but the basic idea can be used for almost any XP-driven game, especially ones with the idea of an encounter.

For purposes of awards, I’m going to provide a loose definition of both roleplaying (as a specific subset of play) and exploration. RP is, practically, engaging some element of the setting. This may seem like a strange definition if your first thought is that it’s talking in a funny voice or getting very emotional at the table, but those are just ways to go about engaging the setting – that is, ways to meaningfully interact with the setting as if it matters. This can range from involved conversations with NPCs to hard choices about the fate of nations.

Exploration is a little bit easier to quantify – it’s the process of adding something to the mental (and sometimes physical) map of the campaign. When the players explore The Dungeon of Doom then they get certain rewards just for being there (assuming that there are fights and challenges in a place called The Dungeon of Doom) but they have also added TDoD to the landscape. In the future, new enemies might take it as a lair, or maybe people will try to reclaim it. It’s now a thing, and that makes it part of the campaign. Exploration is the process by which these things (which might properly be people, places or things) get added to the game.

These two elements may seem difficult to standardize for rewards, but they share a common idea which can tie this all together. Both rotate around the idea of campaign elements – either engaging them or adding them – and it’s not difficult to systemize that. All it takes is a list.

I’m going to call this list the Game Log for simplicity sake, but the name isn’t important. What matters is that it’s a list of the elements that come up over the course of a campaign. It will grow over time, and it provides a valuable resource for GMs, both to handle XP awards and to provide a little inspiration when designing adventures. The log looks like this:


(You can download a PDF of the form here)

Using the Form

The Name column is for the name of the element. Elements might be anything that can recur in a game, limited only by the taste of the GM. This includes locations, NPCs and organizations, but it can also include character elements. Themes (as presented in the Neverwinter campaign setting) are another great example of a possible element.

Just keeping a list like this is useful to an GM, and most of us already keep it in one form or another, if only to answer the “Ok, who was that guy with that thing that one time?” kind of questions that pop up during play.

The level is a little bit less obvious. While it’s tied to the idea of character level, it does not have exactly the same meaning. Practically, level is a measure of how important an element is, with the most important elements having a level equal to the current level of the characters. Mechanically, this is tied to XP rewards (we’ll get to that in a second) but it also is a useful way to keep track of what is an isn’t used in a campaign.

Generally speaking, when an element is introduced, it will probably be at the character’s current level. It may “level up” any time it is engaged (see below) but it shouldn’t go beyond the character’s current level unless it’s something the GM really wants to emphasize. That’s the default assumption, but there are a few tricks that can be played – GMs looking to experiment in allowing players to introduce elements in play may allow them to do so, but start those elements out at level 1, and force them to grow in importance through play.

The checkboxes are for use in play, to indicate what’s happened. “Explored” is the most straightforward – you check that box the same time you add something to the list (or, if you already had it on the list, when the players first encounter it). An element should only be explored once in its lifetime, so once this box is checked, it stays checked.

The other boxes – Touched, Engaged and Critical, see a bit more action. When an element comes up in play, you check the box that corresponds to how it came up.

If it was a memorable but unimportant part of play, then check “Touched”. This is appropriate if an NPC was visited, a scene happened at a particular location, or the players talked about a thing.

If it was a noteworthy part of play, then check “Engaged”. The line between touched and engaged is a bit subjective, but that’s an intentional nod to GM taste. In general, something should be considered engaged when it provided a strong motivation for play or created a cost or a choice. If the players had to have an extended negotiation with an NPC or their favorite bar burned down, that would be engaged.

One trick that comes in handy is looking where else rewards are coming from. if the negotiation with the NPC is also a skill challenge, then the negotiation itself may not merit an Engaged tickmark (though it probably merits a “Touched”) but if the skill challenge _also_ engages the players and characters, then yes, it totally merits a check.

“Critical” is like engaged, but moreso. If the interaction is particularly central to play, or is a turning point in the campaign, then Critical gets checked. The GM will probably know when a Critical interaction is coming, since it’s usually a result of the GM doing something awful to or with the element, but it’s possible to be surprised, and this is what to check if your players really blow you away.

The notes field is, as you might expect, where you keep notes. Hopefully self explanatory.

The Form and Rewards

At the end of a session, you should have a few checkmarks that indicate the things that your players found and engaged. Turning that into a reward is based on the idea of a standard award, and this is why I use 4e to illustrate.

The standard award is an amount of XP equal to that given for a monster of a given level, in this case, the level of the element (I told you that would come in handy). The basic idea is that an “Explore” or “Engaged” checkmark gets the standard award, while a “Touched” checkmark awards a fractional reward, and a “Critical” result provides a bonus. In 4e terms, these line up roughly with a minion and an elite (so 1/4x and 2x respectively).

Thus, for example, let’s say that the players interact with a level 4 elements.
For discovering the element, they gain 175 XP.
If they touch on it, then the award is 44 XP.
If they engage is, then the award if 175 XP.
If engagement with it is critical to the game, then the award is 350 XP

Note – Only give the highest award, though you may give an exploration and engagement award if both seem warranted.

Run down the list, tally the awards, pool them, then divvy them among the players. Simple as that.

Notes and Thoughts

Exploration Games: You can change the proportions a bit if you want to emphasize or de-emphasize exploration. If exploration is critical to the game, then the reward for an explore tick might be as much as 5x a standard award.

Long List: So, what keeps the list from getting crazily long? While GM editorial oversight (especially the decision whether or not something goes on the list or not) plays a role, then I suggest the following trick: After an element gives its exploration award, drop its level to 1, and let it level back up in play. This means that players will get better rewards for working within a smaller list than they will by constantly having things get added, which nicely simulates the conservation of characters and locations you see in most fiction. It also provides the GM a handy tool that reveals which elements the players actually care about based on which ones get leveled up.

Personal Awards: Note that this model explicitly rewards the entire group equally for roleplaying, and I admit that’s something I very strongly endorse, but on the off chance that you want to reward star players, then it’s a fairly simple matter of noting the star performer in the notes column, then not adding the reward for that element to the pool, and give it directly to the player.

Slightly more complicated is the issue of personal character elements – that is, should everyone get rewarded when a given character’s theme becomes important to play. My answer is a profound “yes”, but if that is not to your taste, then you may consider some elements to be “owned” by a specific character, and have the reward go directly to that character rather than into the pool.

But I really suggest against it. Not only does it introduce the bookkeeping hassle of mismatched XP and the social hassle of rewarding the loudest players, it removes the incentive for players to celebrate each others awesome. If only you get rewarded for your character theme, then only you will look for ways to hook it in. If everyone is rewarded for it, then everyone’s looking to bring it into play. That’s a vastly preferable arrangement in my mind.

Other Systems: As noted, while it’s easiest to do this with 4e, if you can figure out the standard award for your game, the model translates easily enough. Heck, you can even do thematic versions. For example: for a white wolf game, I’d forgo levels in favor of rating things from 1-5 dots and just be a little more stingy about how they level up.

The Instinct for Scenes

One of the hallmarks of getting very good at something is that certain elements become habit. A musician doesn’t really think about tuning his instrument or running through a few familiar tunes. An athlete just falls naturally into proper form. This is one of those things that’s hard to measure because it’s not what they do that distinguishes them – anyone can do that with a little effort – but how they go about doing so.
For storytellers of various stripes, one of the ways this manifests is as an instinct for scenes. They see something – a person, an idea, whatever – and they are struck by ways in which you might do something neat with it. Like other instincts of expertise, this is something that anyone can do with a little thought, but with experience, the possibilities tend to jump up and smack the storyteller in the face.
This, far more than any ideas about grand narratives, is the skill from storytelling that translates most strongly to GMing. The most consistent challenge that the GM faces is “How can I make this work?” and a lot of the worst habits of GMing emerge when no answer presents itself. Fiat rears its ugly head when the GM doesn’t have a way to work with the current situation, and thus she forcefully changes it. Not only does that kind of stink on its own, it also usually means the GM is ignoring or dismissing an element that a player brings to bear, leaving the player that much more alienated.
Now, here’s an important note: this is not just a hippy-dippy narrative problem. When you deal with hard core game-playing, one of the big appeals of RPGs is that it supports opportunities to think outside the box. When presented with a challenge, you can engage the environment in unexpected ways to achieve clever solutions. These solutions are every bit as much a player-initiated game element as the more story-oriented player who uses a bit of narrative authority to talk about an old girlfriend they left in this town. We invest a lot if energy in differentiating these different types of player ideas, but in the end, they’re all ideas, and how the GM handles them says much more about the game than any other division.
The good news is that this instinct doesn’t require that you be a writer or the like to practice. You get a little bit better at it every time you see things take a turn in a game and think, “Ok, how would this look if this were what this session were about?” Brainstorm ideas, kick them around, think what you would do with them. Steal plot twists and macguffins from TV, Movies and books and think about ways you could have handled them. In time, it becomes habit, and that does good things for your games, provided you commit to it. And that reveals the tricky part.
While the obvious part of the equation is being creative, the less obvious (and perhaps even more critical) part is being attentive. Most of us know what to do when an opportunity is presented to us, but the danger is that we can easily overlook when opportunities arise. If we don’t make an effort of listening to our players and paying attention to when things shift, we’ll miss our chance.
Practicing attentiveness is a little harder than practicing creativity, but it can be done. Every situation where you pay attention to people and what they want can help, not just games. It’s not very different from being a good conversationalist (rather than merely dominating a conversation). And thankfully, it’s one of the easiest things to talk to your players about after a game, because it’s easy to couch the question in non-confrontational terms – “Are there any threads or events that came up in the game that you wish had been pursued?” is a pretty innocuous question, but it can reveal a lot.
So, creativity and attention: make a habit of them.
Editor’s Note: I’ve changed my posting time from 10am eastern to 1pm eastern, just to be kinder to the west coast.