Category Archives: Techniques

Communication as Technique

A very dramatically explosive piece of mail.

I mentioned yesterday that there was another technique I wanted to write about which required some preamble. Now that the preamble is done, this is the original post.

This is one of my go-to techniques for making a world feel lived in, but I just realized that I’ve never actually written it down or even explained it before, so I figured I’d rectify that.

Very simply, when I introduce an NPC, I always put a little bit of extra thought into how the PCs will get back in touch with them.

Like I said, very simple, but the devil is in the details. The root of this comes from one of those awkward bits of simulation it’s thinking – in the absence of ubiquitous cell phones or the like, it is not very easy to actually coordinate communication with someone, especially someone who might not be inclined to give you their home address (and who in their right mind would trust the average group of adventurers with their address?)

The solution to this, both in game and in fiction, is to tie people to places. For some, this might be an actual address where messages can be sent, but the idea still applies to those looking to be more mysterious. They should still have some sort of anchoring location where they check in, so that if they need to be reached, there is a place to go or leave a message or the like.

This should be true even if they don’t want to be found. Even if they don’t want to communicate with the PCs, they presumably want to communicate with SOMEONE, and they will have at least one place for doing so, and that’s useful to know.

Now, there is plenty of space to elaborate on this idea. If we’re dealing with spies and intrigue, then characters will have entire collections of places they use in this way, plus various rules and precautions for dead drops, secrets, codes and so on. If you’re doing a game with intrigue elements, the topic of how things get communicated is a rich source of game material. But even if you set that aside, the most basic form of this technique will still help your game.

This is because anything that ties a character to the setting in a palpable way stands to enrich your game. If the NPC is tied to a place, they have indirect ties to anyone else tied to that place, and that’s incredibly powerful. Connections between elements are what make a setting feel alive, and this is an easy way to add more connections without doing any extra work. After all, this is a question you’d need to answer anyway, so why not do so usefully?

In terms of yesterday’s post, I’d call out that the question of how you communicate with someone is an opportunity to ask an asset question, one which connects a person to a place. You might link to an activated or potential asset as the situation dictates, but by the simple act of tying things in, you’re enriching your game.

Conservation and the City

I was writing up another technique I use to make cities feel lived in, and I realized that it rested on another technique that I should probably explain first, so that’s what this is. While this advice is technically for a city game, it’s applicable to any game where you might want to give the setting a rich, lived in feel.

Ok, so the first step in this technique is to keep a list of assets that you can easily reference. “Assets”, in this case, are elements of the setting that the characters have interacted with, most often in the form of NPCs, Places and Factions. The lines between these things can be blurry – a person might be tied to a place (like the bartender at a tavern) or a person might represent a faction – and that’s fantastic. Err on the side of making your list long. If The Church is a faction the group has dealt with, and Sister Annalise is a member of the church but also an NPC they’ve dealt with, list them separately.

I will note that in practice, I often find that a list like this ends up naturally dividing into “potential” and “activated” assets. Potential assets are ones which exist in the setting, but have not yet actually come up in play in any meaningful way. The table may know ABOUT them, but they have not really come up. Activated assets, on the other hand, are those which have actually been a part of play.

It’s reasonable to keep a list which includes both, since the list of potential assets can often be a useful source of inspiration. However, make sure to leave yourself space – as much as it’s easy to think that there will be a tidy movement of elements from potential to activated, I have yet to have a game where I do not end up with some surprises on the activated list.

Blades in the Dark offers very easy tools for creating this list. Every character starts with at least three potential assets (Positive & Negative contact plus vice dealer) and the Crew itself introduces one more. Past that, the faction sheet is one giant pile of potential assets.

That said, Blades also introduces one piece of caution – be conservative about considering assets to be active until they’re really been part of play. It is easy to look at character’s connections and consider them active from the start, but they’re really not until the whole table has gotten to see them in action. If you treat an asset as active before there has been actual play, you risk misunderstanding what players are actually interested in. This becomes an even more pronounced risk when you start thinking about an asset as active because you’re excited about it, but it hasn’t actually hit the table.

Ok, so you have your list: now what?

Well, this is the easy part – as a GM, you will frequently find yourself faced with questions that are best answered with an asset. That is, questions like “Who is interested in this?”, “Where is this happening?”, “Who else is there” and so on. You’ll recognize these as they come up because they are the questions you ask when it feels like things are happening in too much of a vacuum, and the world needs to be part of the discussion.

When your game starts and you come to one of those questions, you should activate an asset (or just invent a new one and add it). Having the list on hand will hopefully make this process pretty simple, and with practice it gets simpler. And, honestly, this is probably what you’d do anyway, just with a little more formality.

The real trick kicks in when you hit a tipping point in the number of activated assets. There’s no hard number for this, but it’s probably around three per player (including the GM). It’s easy to spot this tipping point because at some point you will have an asset question, and the best answer will be an active asset rather than a potential one. This is a good moment – at that moment, things in the game start tying together in a way that feels satisfying and organic. It rocks.

That is, however, not the real point of magic.

Real magic happens once you’ve passed the tipping point and you get another asset question, and it doesn’t seem like any of the active assets are a good answer. At that point, you must do the following:

Pick an active asset anyway, and run with it.

This may seem weird or unintuitive, but that is the point. This is a forcing function for you as a GM, because doing this will force you to create new connections that had not previously existed in your vision of the setting. This will shake up your expectations and make things feel more organic and dynamic, but it will also make things more fun for you as a GM as you try to figure out how to Apollo 13 this stuff.

Once you’ve done this, it may be a while before you need to do it again. Keep using active assets when you can. Activate passive assets if you need to keep things fresh. But remember this technique and bust it out from time to time in order to keep you and your table on their toes. The results will be rewarding and memorable.

SWOT in the Dark

Ok, nerdbusiness time.

There is a technique used in business called SWOT analysis, which is used for things like brainstorming or figuring out next steps. It’s a tool for stepping back and analyzing the reality of your business, group or the like, and hopefully gleaning insight into what to do next.

Conveniently, it is also a really handy template for adventure creation and for fleshing out your game. A PDF with the form and some directions can be downloaded here.

For purposes of illustration, I’m going to use Blades in the Dark, because the specifics of that game align particularly well with this approach, but the underlying idea applies equally well to any game where the players are a coherent group in a consistent context.

So, this technique, like so many expensive consultation driven models, is a glorified way to label four boxes. In this case, the boxes are summarized in the acronym SWOT:

4 boxes: Upper left labeled "Strengths", Upper right labeled "Weaknesses", Lower left labeled "Opportunities" and Lower right labeled "threats"

S – Strengths
W – Weaknesses
O – Opportunities
T – Threats

The practice of filling in the boxes is largely self-explanatory, but there are a few tricks that can make it a little easier and more fruitful.

Strengths

What is it that the crew does well enough that someone else might want them to do it? That is to say, while crews can do a LOT of things, this is where we focus on things that might distinguish them from other groups, both generally and specifically.

Generally, the crew type is probably a pointer towards this, but it’s also somewhat incomplete. A gang of cutters might excel at doing violence, but that is something that many groups can do. What sort of violence does this crew excel at? Do you call them when you want maximum intimidation? Do they specialize in ambushes? Are they a top notch security force?

Individual character strengths also contribute to this, but only if it can be tied clearly to the team. If one of the team members is a master of disguise, that is only a strength if the group integrates that skill into its activities, rather than is just being an adjacent activity.

It’s worth noting that the real value of this list is often found in the combinations rather than the individual elements. That is to say, if strengths include “doing violence” and “knowledge of Six Towers”, neither of those are terribly distinguishing, but in combination they suggest an obvious opportunity the next time violence is needed that depends on the details of Six Towers.

Weaknesses

On the flipside, what is the group bad at? Where are they vulnerable? What kind of jobs do they really not want to end up needing to do.

As with strengths, the crew type probably provides some pointers towards this, but it will also probably be a bit less clear cut because there’s a good chance that the players have made choices to intentionally mitigate group weaknesses. For example, even in a group of slides and lurks, there is probably one cutter who acts as the team’s muscle.

The thing is, that does not cancel the weakness, it merely mitigates it. In our prior example, this crew would still be in trouble in a rumble, even if the cutter is able to put up some resistance, so their relative inability in a fight is probably still a weakness. But if a few more members toughen up, or if the gang recruits some muscle, then they might be able to offset the weakness.

In situations like this, look for the “single point of failure” – situations where the only thing which keeps a problem at bay is one individual or resource. If something happening to that individual would expose the crew to trouble, then that’s a weakness.

Weaknesses also may cover domains of operation or information. What happens if you drop this group into high society? The Docks? A roomful of ghosts?

Sidebar – In The Middle

The ghost thing raises a key point: there are lots of things which would be bad, but are not necessarily weaknesses. Just as crews can do many things which are not necessarily their strengths, there are many things which would be bad but are not necessarily weaknesses. The key thing to identify a weakness is that this group would be worse off in this situation than a comparable group. Similarly, a strength distinguishes the group in some way.

In short, most of the things a crew can do are neither strengths nor weaknesses, but are simply facts of life.

Context absolutely plays a role in this. To use one example, crew tier is not intrinsically a weakness or a strength – it’s just a fact of life. It becomes a weakness or strength in certain situations. If a small crew has big enemies, their Tier is weakness. if a large crew is throwing their weight around on a neighborhood level, their tier is probably a strength. But for a crew operating largely around its own weight class, it’s just the way things are.

Opportunities

Opportunities are things the crew could do but haven’t yet, for one reason or another. The reason might be as dull as “haven’t gotten around to it yet” or as challenging as “if only we could get past that dragon”.

Just as the crew type provides the first pointers for strengths, the crew sheet is the first place to look for opportunities. Right off the bat, claims are something of a laundry list of opportunities for the crew. Any adjacent claim is potentially an opportunity, with the main limiter being how well or poorly it’s been fleshed out.

Faction relationships also

Note that while opportunities can be very discrete (as in the case of claims) they can also be a little bit general (as may be the case with factions) in a “there is an opportunity there but we don’t know what it is yet.” An opportunity for an opportunity is still an opportunity.

One other useful thing to look at is the intersection between opportunities and strengths, and specifically ask whether the group has the opportunity to develop new strengths.

Threats

Where weaknesses helped us understand where the crew might be vulnerable, threats help us understand who might exploit those weaknesses or otherwise do harm to the crew.

It’s important to note that while enemies may be threats, not every threat is an enemy. While an enemy might consciously choose to exploit a weakness (if they know about it), there are other forces that will exert pressure on a weakness in an utterly indifferent manner. That is, if the crew is dependent on a single source for their goods, that’s a weakness. Even if none of their enemies know about this source, then that source is still vulnerable to other forces – his enemies, sure, but also the vagaries of day to day life. If your source is Iruvian and the Ministry starts rounding up Iruvians, that is a threat to the crew even though it’s not directed at the crew at all.

None of which is to say enemies shouldn’t be tracked here. Any faction with a negative relationship with the crew probably deserves a mention in this box. Even if they’re not actively engaging the crew at the moment, they certainly won’t pass up an opportunity if the situation arises.

Using the tool

Obviously, the act of using SWOT analysis is as simple as filling out the form, but there are better and worse ways to go about it. Critically, this benefits most strongly from being a shared exercise between players and GM, because getting EVERYONE’s answers to these question is incredibly informative, especially on the subject of opportunities and threats.

Opportunities in particular are an area where the GM really wants to know how the players see things, because if they players don’t see opportunities, then the game is likely to stall. Having an exercise like this where the group contribute their answer to these questions and express opinions on this is a much healthier way to flesh this out than to have the GM just present a buffet of things that she finds interesting.

Some GMs might feel a little bit of resistance to being equally transparent about threats for fear of spoiling surprises or telegraphing their next move to the players. This can be a fair concern, depending on the specifics of the table, but in that case the concern is easily mitigated by fact that there is no need to get to specific about how the threats might manifest. The table can have an open discussion about the fact that the crew’s hq is vulnerable without the GM needing to say “and this faction is going to exploit that”. If anything, getting buy in to the existence of the threat means players will be more strongly invested if it is brought to bear.

A Few More Tricks

  • As the GM, if you are looking for ideas for your game, take a look at any group or faction connected to the crew (for good or ill) and do a SWOT analysis on them. I promise that after one or two of them
  • Almost anything in the threat box can be a clock. Hell, feel free to put clocks IN the threat box.
Same diagram as above (4 boxes: Upper left labeled "Strengths", Upper right labeled "Weaknesses", Lower left labeled "Opportunities" and Lower right labeled "threats") but with Strengths and weaknesses labeled as internal, and opportunities and threats labeled as external.
  • If it is not obvious what category something should fall into, use the following rule of thumb: Strengths and weaknesses are internal to the crew. They are things which are part of their nature, and (to at least some extent) under their control. Opportunities and threats are external to the crew, and are parts of the environment that the crew operates in, and are things to be responded to, but are not under the crews control.

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:

sample.png

(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.

Your Better Instincts

I admit that I’m usually all about taking advantage of your instincts to hose your players to make things more fun for them, but I want to take a second to turn that around.

See, while I’ve gotten better, one of my real weaknesses as a GM is a tendency to be too nice. If things fall apart or go horribly wrong, my instinct is to step in with my GM authority and help save the day. This is a terrible habit – I just can’t stress it enough. Even if I’m not setting forth to show the players the story of my cool NPCs (which I’m not), having them step in to dramatically save the day has the same net result. My game’s no longer about the players, it’s now about whatever the stakes of this particular adventure are.

This is a sinister problem, in part because it comes from a well-intentioned place. Your players are maybe upset and disappointed with the way things have gone, and you want to mitigate that. It’s totally human and understandable, but it will suck the fun out of your game.

However, like all bad habits, advice to “Just stop doing it” is basically useless. There are reasons people have the patterns they do, no matter how “obvious” things may seem to people outside those patterns. So if you have this instinct and you want to change it, then the trick is not to stop, but rather to redirect it.

So, the net time you find yourself in this situation, stop for a second as you pull it all together. Things have gone badly, so you’ve got the cavalry ready to ride. This is the point when you should stop and think – _how_ is the cavalry going to save the day? You need to have a better answer for this than “With their sheer awesomeness” and you probably will have one, because hey, you’re a good, thoughtful, conscientious GM and even if you’re helping you’re not just going to pull an Elminster.

Once you’ve thought about that, think of it as a plot seed. Specifically, think of it as something that’s ready to go but is missing one key element. Then make that element the player’s responsibility.

This may sound tricky, but it’s surprisingly easy, and it’s something you see in fiction all the time. Consider the scenario where the cavalry literally shows up to help – they’ve got the men, they can win the battle, but they’re pinned down by the artillery up on that mesa. Clearly, someone needs to sneak up there and take out that artillery team! Really, look at almost any fiction where the backdrop involves huge, powerful forces (like a war) and you’ll find eamples of how the story narrows down to some lynchpin action on the part of the protagonists.

And now here’s the real dirty trick – once you’ve gotten the hang of doing this, it becomes a trick you can incorporate into all your adventures. This is especially true if you want games against a big backdrop, or ones with powerful NPCs calling the shots, like The Forgotten Realms or any of the older World of Darkness products. If it’s important to you that things and people be bigger than your PCs, then you can still keep things robust by getting the movers and shakers up to 90% but have them need help to get that last 10%.

This works in most play models, even classic mission-based play, but it has the advantage of giving the missions a reason that is somewhat more significant than “The Prince can’t be bothered. You go do it”. And more, by given the players even a small part in big events, you’ll find that it ties them into events more tightly over time. These events, after all, are the things that NPCs respond to, and if players have a tie to the event, that’s a one-step-removed tie to most of the interesting NPCs.

Plus as a bonus, it makes something that’s historically a drag into a real play booster. Normally, the more invested you are in what Khelben Blackstaff or the Malkavian Antediluvian are up to, the less invested you end up being in your players, but by looking for that 10%, that lynchpin, you turne that investment back onto the players, hopefully to a good end.

Anyway, I try not to be a nice GM these days, but the habits are still there. For me, it’s useful to have a practical way to channel them.

Stuffing the Underpants

Great comments on yesterday’s post, at least some of which speak to the subject of today’s post – what to do once you’ve got your underpants gnome plan in place. It’s all well and good for me to say “Come up with a plan, then fill in the gaps that present themselves” but it might be a little unfair to not provide at least a little guidance on how to do so, and what you can do once you’ve got the trick working.

First, one of the easiest and most powerful tricks you can do is run through the list of your characters and ask yourself “Where does this plan intersect with this character?”. Does it threaten someone or something they value? Does it use something they want? Is it taking place in their favorite restaurant? Would it just REALLY annoy them? Or perhaps does it have an element, such as an end, they might be inclined to support? If you don’t have a good answer for one character, that’s ok. If you don’t have a good answer for any of your characters, then perhaps you need to consider the plan.

Second: The underpants gnomes need not be villains. Underpants planning can apply equally well to heroic or even indifferent outcomes. The characters may even find themselves as the agents responsible for delivering someone else’s UG plan, which can get very interesting if they don’t have the whole picture. One of the most classic twists is to have the player’s handle step 2, not realizing that step 3 is something horrible.

As an aside, because it’s a classic, it’s kind of overdone and ham-fisted. If you must do a twist, have step 3 be something reasonably value neutral (like getting the bad guy a resource or removing an obstacle) but which will then be used in the unstated step 4. Also, if you do this, plan for your players figuring it out, and see if you can give them the tools to screw the guy who’s trying to screw them. Few payoffs are as satisfying.

Third, though related to the second: The steps need not be uniformly bad or good. As Joe pointed out in the comments, having a REALLY ADMIRABLE step 3 paired with an UTTERLY ABHORRENT step 2 can make for a powerful mix. Similarly, a benign step 2 with a bad step 3 can be a great play driver. Not just for the twist scenario, as above, but even when played straight by an NPC willing to say “Yes, this bad thing will come of it, but compare that to all the good you’ll do!”. Fun stuff!

Fourth, and this one definitely got tipped in the comments, the true secret of the Underpants Gnomes is that you really only need to be concrete about step 1 and 3. When someone has a premise and a goal, things can go wrong in the middle, but they can regroup and keep trying to pursue the goal. As a GM, this means that so long as you keep your eye on step 3, you can be flexible about the shape that step 2 takes, possibly even requiring multiple attempts at step 2. Goals make much better planning aids than processes in this regard.

Fifth and last – once you have the trick of it, start juggling. Underpants Gnome Plans are surprisingly easy to maintain once you have them in play, so start introducing a few more. Where one such plan can blossom into a decently fleshed out arc, several of them can turn into the kind of tapestry that keeps a world feeling alive and in motion while giving the GM a bottomless bucket of resources to draw on to keep things moving.

Underpants Adventures

Very interesting post about what went wrong with the Star Wars prequels that’s worth a read for writers and GMs. It boils down to a pretty simple point – if you start with a simple plot, it allows for the characters and story to grow more complex in the telling, but if you start with an overly complex plot, then you’ve pretty much put a block on those things.

I’ve always subscribed to the idea that your players should be the most interesting characters in your game, and this advice applies to them as well. Starting from a simple plot creates an opportunity for your game to grow in directions that reflect you and your players.

If you want a practical way to go about this, consider the Underpants Gnome school of adventure design.

Satire aside, the 3 step plan is useful for almost any plot. Start with a villain, whoever it is, and give them a plan that really is as simple as:

  1. Do something simple
  2. Do something complicated
  3. Achieve goal

This is usually easiest if you start from the goal, since that tends to suggest the previous steps. With that in mind, I strongly suggest a concrete goal – “power” (or even “profit”) tend to be so amorphous as goals that they don’t really suggest a course of action. If a goal of that sort is what you’re looking for, then try to pick some manner of specific implementation of it, like leveling up or stealing a particular treasure.

This process is made much simpler if you embrace the cheese. There is a natural inclination to try to make the plots smart, coherent or clever, but realize that a lot of great plots have almost embarrassingly simple underpants structure. Y’know – Take Ring, Throw it in a Volcano, Free Middle Earth. Look at that example and consider how far short of the true complexity of the story that falls – the good parts lie in that difference.

Thus, start with something like:

  1. Kidnap Orphans
  2. Sacrifice them to Orcus
  3. Gain Undead Army

On paper, this looks like the basis of something pretty cheesy, but it need not be. Challenge yourself and consider how this framework might make for a good story. The villain might be interesting, the orphans in question might have compelling stories, the sacrifice might require all sorts of logistics to pull off, maybe the use the army will be put to is interesting. Whatever. The point is it can be done.

The trick is that you don’t need to solve all of the problems up front. The underpants plan should seem unworkable on the face of it because it leaves unanswered questions. Answering those questions is a driver of play.

Rating the Unratable

I think I’ve mentioned before that if you haven’t read it, Atul Gawande’s Better is a great book about how things can get systematically improved. It focuses on medicine, but it’s one of those all-purpose insightful books.

Anyway, one section that really stuck with me was the Apgar score (article version here, for the curious) . For the unfamiliar, this is a rating given to babies when they’re born and a minute afterwards. It rates five things (Complexion, Pulse, Movement, Breathing and Irritability) to quickly generate a score from 0-10. In and of itself it’s not a very detailed piece of information, but it’s simple, easy to asess, easy to communicate, and generally makes an excellent shorthand for the child’s health.

Now, the specifics of the Apgar score are pretty interesting in their own right, but what’s much more interesting is positive impact it had on successful births. In an illustration of the trusim that you must measure something in order to improve it, Apgar scores gave hospitals a yardstick to measure their performance by, so they had something concrete to improve and to judge results by.

What gets me, and what brings this across to gaming for me, is that part of the success lay in the somewhat arbitrary nature of the scoring system. There are a bazillion variables at play when a baby is born, and picking those 5 and saying their the ones to score is, from a certain perspective, almost capricious. But, as with a lot of things, it seems to be one of those cases where making a good decision is a much better path than indefinite delay in trying to find the perfect solution.

So, with that in mind, I’m busting out a list of things GMs do. It’s probably a bad list, but I want to start somewhere. Honestly, I doubt we can come to something nearly as useful as the Apgar score, and even if we come up with a list, there’s a whole question of how to use it, but dammit, you have to start somewhere.

When I started on thel ist I realized that the biggest muddle I encountered was between the GM’s “Solo fun” (that is, design work) and actual play at the table. Both are important, but since I’m trying to take a practical tack on this, I chose to think in terms of how play went at the table. That is, I’m looking to rate things that the GM does in play, perhaps as a list to run through at the end of a session and see how each of these things went.

Removing those non-table elements shortened the list dramatically, but I still don’t feel it’s as solid as it could be, but here it is:

  • Playing interesting NPCs (Strong character voice)
  • Setting Presentation (how well does the world hang together?)
  • Scene setting
  • Engaging challenges (Puzzles, fights)
  • Rules mastery
  • Humor
  • Creating Emotional engagement
  • EDIT BASED ON MANY COMMENTS – Maintaining Focus/Pacing.

So what on that sucks, and what is it missing? Or is the entire methodology flawed, and the list should be entirely different?

The Meek Shall Inherit The Tabletop

One of the most important lessons I learned from MUSHing (for the unfamiliar, think of it as LARPing online) is the power of weakness. People play games looking for chances to be awesome, but in a game where you’re interacting with other players, that creates few opportunities, because everyone else would like to be awesome too. In this environment, the weakest characters were the strongest.

Howso? In this case, I mean ‘weakest’ in terms of most likely to fail. Some tiny element of this was related to stats, but the vast majority of it was a function of player attitude. In a basically cooperative environment, there was not much you could do to FORCE someone to lose, so the person who was WILLING to lose was a treasure. Immature players who didn’t realize this abused it, and mysteriously found themselves unable to find play. For everyone else, the guy who was willing to lose became an incredibly valuable asset, especially if they could lose well. Someone who played a powerful character who was willing to lose? Solid gold.

Now, a cynic might deride this as metagaming. The player who is willing to lose is getting numerous rewards (social esteem and more play, most notably) in return for the willingness to lose in fiction. Personally, I think it’s a more than fair trade, but it’s worth noting that this does involve thinking about the game (and the satisfaction of play) on more than one level.

Now, that’s great for large-scale, multiplayer play, but what’s interesting are its implications for tabletop. While this lesson does not translate directly, the multi-level thinking behind it does translate very well, and provides a specific sort of incentive for weak characters.

Now, weakness translates a little differently on the tabletop. Some of it is character power, but there are also elements of making your own life harder. Whatever route it takes, the purpose is a character who easily gets in trouble and can’t get themselves out of it, thus providing play for the rest of the group. Again, the player is making a tradeoff – they’re sacrificing optimization for the ability to direct play, to be at the center of things and in some cases, for attention.

Now, this is not always a good thing. It can be obvious attention-getting behavior, and when that’s what’s going on, it can be very frustrating to the rest of the group for obvious reasons. But in small doses, it’s highly desirable behavior – it’s something you want from everyone in the group ideally. In many ways it’s the opposite of the stereotypical orphan-loner.

But here’s the rub. Once players understand that their weaknesses pay out like this, the very idea of game balance gets dragged out back and shot. Trying to balance a game on a single axis (like combat capability) becomes amazingly short sighted once players are thinking about play opportunity, spotlight time and game direction. This is not bad in its own right, but it becomes bad when you have mixed understandings at the table. If only one player understands this is what’s going on, then he’s going to play Tyrion Lannister and all those big strapping knights are going to have no idea how they keep getting overshadowed. If you’re lucky, your Tyrion is really trying to help the rest of the group, but if he’s not, then god help you. Every argument you’ve ever had about game balance will get turned on its ear and used against you if you protest.

All of which is to say, be careful, keep your eyes open, and try to make sure everyone at the table has the same idea of balance, at least in broad strokes. It’ll make for a better game all around.