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How To Run A Successful RPG: Some Tips - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
February 1st, 2012
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How To Run A Successful RPG: Some Tips

Thinking about gaming, I’m just sort of putting down some random rules I have as a GM that make for better play:

Make Sure Each Player Will Have Something To Do.  
Some of the most frustrating games I’ve been in were where I told the GM, “I want to play a sniper,” and all of the combat turned out to be in hallways, leaving all my skills to atrophy.

As a GM, I’d be loathe to let someone play a sniper – it’s the kind of role that invariably involves splitting the party, and it’s hard (not impossible, just hard) to come up with consistently interesting combat challenges for someone who works best from half a mile off.  But if you’re going to tell someone, “Okay, put all of your points into ranged attacks and a weapon with a slow reload skill,” then you owe it to them to put them in a situation where they’re often going to be useful.

It’s way better to veto a player’s choice than to get them all jazzed up for playing a ninja, only to discover this isn’t really a stealth game.  If you give someone a skill, make sure they have regular opportunities to use it.

Give Each Player A Clear and Unique Role.
There’s a reason the classic D&D party is a Fighter, a Mage, a Cleric, and a Thief.  It sounds good, having two sword-swingers around, but the danger of imbalance becomes clear very quickly.

See, if one of the swordsmen gets notably better at something (due to levelling up faster, or better weaponry, or better stat-whoring or whatever), then suddenly as a GM you have this situation where you’re stuck with one of two challenges:

* Make it challenging for the big tough guy, at which point the weaker character is helpless.
* Make it something the weaker guy can handle, at which point the big tough guy eats his lunch.

Plus, when you run into the inevitable “Ah ha!  This monster is invulnerable to swords!” then suddenly half your party’s sitting around with their thumb up their ass, completely helpless, which is frustrating.

This is not to say you can’t have multiple fighters – but have them serve different roles.  Maybe it’s Mace-Man and Sword-Woman.  Maybe it’s Crazy Barbarian and Nimble Fencer.  But find some way so that their roles in combat are different, and that they fight the enemy in very different ways.

Avoid The Roll-Fest.  
The most boring combats I’ve ever been in involved the times where I realized I had no other tactical choices but to keep attacking with my main weapon and hope I didn’t die before he ran out of hit points.  At which point the excitement of combat boiled down to this:

“I roll an 16.”
“You hit and do 8 damage.”
“I roll a 7.”
“You miss.”
“I roll a 14.”
“You hit and do 12 damage this round.”

That’s not roleplaying, that’s math.  What you want is to provide characters with multiple workable options in combat, where taunting the bear to draw its attention or trying to trip it into a pit or rolling a boulder onto it are all options.  Once your players realize that there’s precisely one way of doing damage, then it’s all about the dice.  And the dice are the most boring things about your game.

The best way you can avoid the roll-fest is to:

Treat The Environment As Another Enemy.  
DMs spend a lot of time statting their enemies, but with every session you should think of the terrain they’re fighting on as another potential villain.  Fighting on a flat plain with nothing in sight is not only visually dull, but it’s tactically barren.  When you’re in the arena, your only choice is to close in and fight.

So why not have them fight in a maze of steam-filled pipes, Empire Strikes Back-style?  How about fighting in the middle of an avalanche, or on a set of rocks teetering over a pit of lava?  One of the most memorable games I ever ran involved a castle that got teleported into the upper atmosphere, and the characters had to fight in free-fall as the hallway plummeted to the earth.

Always have something interesting at hand during combat – innocents to protect, things to grab in combat as impromptu weapons, places to hide, items to blow up.  The reason Raiders of the Lost Ark is so fucking awesome is because every action sequence follows this rule.  You do likewise.

Conversation Is Combat.
If you’re going to have NPCs talking to players, give them a goal to accomplish that they get in and get out on.  Hands-down, the most boring games I’ve been in were where the GM had dudes come in and ramble at us for an hour at a time while we tried to guide the conversation in the right direction, only to learn that there was really no point in running into this yahoo.

Which is not to say that conversations should be quick – you can have some really fun things going – but in combat, the villains have a clear goal: kill the intruders, drive them from their temple, escape with the foozle.  Your conversations should have a similar goal: get the PCs to help them, deliver a piece of much-needed gossip, try to seduce a player in five minutes or less.

Give them a clear goal so that you can have a sense of rhythm and ramping to each discussion.  Also see: The King’s Speech, which has some delightful fiery interplay between characters who want very different things in every scene.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

This entry has also been posted at http://theferrett.dreamwidth.org/187773.html. You can comment here, or comment there; makes no never-mind by me.

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Comments
 
[User Picture]
From:funwithrage
Date:February 1st, 2012 03:36 pm (UTC)
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Your RPG posts were what made me start reading your journal regularly, and they are still terrific.

I agree particularly about avoiding the roll-fest (that's one of the reasons I like 4E, not to start a giant honking debate: in every battle I've been in, there's always a pretty decent assortment of stuff I can or have to do) and also about conversation-as-combat.

Which isn't to say that I haven't been in some really cool offhand dialogues with other PCs or GMs. But those have been sort of accidental--either the whole-party conversation started as one thing and went down a side path, with everyone happily following along, or one PC was off talking privately with the GM about stabbing us all or whatever, and the rest of us were making conversation.

If it's an official part of the game, it should have a point.
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From:uncacreamy
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:06 pm (UTC)
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I agree, though sometimes I think establishing setting or party dynamics can be a point.

4E even takes care of the levelling thing. In old D&D we always had to deal with the fricking levelling problem, because of the different scales for each class... 4e just makes them all scale together.
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From:funwithrage
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:12 pm (UTC)
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Oh, definitely.

One of the things a game I'm in has been doing, which I've liked, is having periodic "shore leave" sessions between the major story arcs: shorter, optional sessions without much plot or system. The GMs throw in a few setting-enhancing encounters ("You can box a thri-kreen!" "Here's what Stygian opera is like!") and we play off of that.

It's a good chance to take a more detailed look at the setting and have some party interactions without derailing the plot too much.
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From:uncacreamy
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:14 pm (UTC)
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Now that IS a good idea.. and I think I might steal it.
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From:funwithrage
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:15 pm (UTC)
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Well, we stole it from Bioware games, mostly, so. ;)
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From:theferrett
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
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I like the mechanics of 4E, or at least I think I do (read the rules, never played the game). The problem is that the rulebook is so low on setting that it is, really, just a bunch of rules and not enough style. And if I just want rules, I'll go Champions every time. #snob
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From:uncacreamy
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:16 pm (UTC)
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It was made specifically so that you can drop in whatever setting you'd like, and then they have settings on the side. I kind of like that.. I hate having to untangle settings from everything.
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From:dornbeast
Date:February 1st, 2012 07:04 pm (UTC)
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Sadly, that's why I don't play 4E. For me, part of being able to create a character, as opposed to a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper, is being able to read about the setting. If I know what the world's like, I can create a character to fit - or, sometimes to not fit. I didn't have a setting to give my character context early on, so I didn't really have any attachment to the numbers on the paper. (The other thing that tends to drive my character design is, "What screwy game mechanic can I play with?" 4E is completely lacking in that option, as far as I can tell.)

I imagine they've released books with settings by now, but it's too late; I got bored.
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From:tallest_spork
Date:February 1st, 2012 10:10 pm (UTC)
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I am a "what screwy skill/ability/power/spell can I play with?" player through-and-through, which is similar, and I haven't really played a game I haven't found stuff I can improvise random shit with. (I haven't played that many systems, though.) In 4e, I picked Acid Orb and used it for EVERYTHING. Oh hey, there's an inn but the innkeeper wants us to dig a latrine in exchange for a free night's stay? I acid orb the ground. We're breaking out of jail but we didn't get a rogue? I acid orb the lock. We need to dispose of a body? I acid orb it and then we flush it somewhere. Etc. Now I'm playing 40k (Black Crusade) and my heretek (tech-priest, the hacker/rogue of the 40k verse, at least to the best of my understanding) has just been gathering an increasingly large amount of skills that are, well, a bit ridiculous, but I use Trade- Remembrancy, which makes you able to recall "lost art", for basically EVERYTHING. Need to know something about an alien monster? Recall all the art about it. Need to make a diplomatic move? Steal from Shakespeare and/or Sun Tzu. Downtime between games where other characters are doing shit? Paint the home base so that it looks terrifying and inspires fear in all the orks inhabiting the planet the base is on. Etc.

This only works if you have a DM/GM that's, you know, good at that kind of shit. And lets you do it. I think of it as playing every character I have as a rogue and an improvisor, without usually playing anyone with, like, lockpicking skills. (I always choose combat skills for their usefulness outside of combat and then use the environment in combat, though.)
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From:ryan_howse
Date:February 1st, 2012 11:14 pm (UTC)
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Y'know, if you're a Space Marine Techpriest, they have acidic saliva for some bizarre reason. You can still use your acid orb!
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From:tallest_spork
Date:February 1st, 2012 11:16 pm (UTC)
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Hahaha. No, I'm human. At least I started human. My character doesn't have a face anymore.
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From:funwithrage
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:21 pm (UTC)
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Hee! Well, Champions is a bit crunchy for me. (#litmajorwhoforgotlongdivision).

As far as settings go, I actually kinda like the sketchy 4E deal, with the quasi-Greek primordials v. gods mythos and the Far Realm and the WTF stars. It's an outline, but I have fun filling in the blanks.

That said, if they wanted to 4Eify Elder Evils, or in some way publish a damn Far Realm/stars/etc splatbook before they take us all into ye-gods-5E, I'd be behind that all the way.
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From:ccr1138
Date:February 1st, 2012 08:14 pm (UTC)
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We play 4E almost exclusively in Living Forgotten Realms, which is an amazingly rich setting that's well fleshed out on the campaign guide. I hope you try LFR 4E someday. I love it.
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From:ariaflame
Date:February 1st, 2012 03:44 pm (UTC)
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One thing I like about the Feng Shui system is that it actually rewards you with increased chances of success if you describe your combat actions cinematically.
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From:theferrett
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
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It's one of the things I do love about Feng Shui.
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From:uncacreamy
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:17 pm (UTC)
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HeX and Fate have mechanisms like this too.
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From:uncacreamy
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:03 pm (UTC)
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D&D 4E takes all of this into account. Even the conversation thing.

They even have some of this advice in the DMG2.

But the sniper thing: I've found that players sometimes make their own sauce. A motivated player will often try to find a way to make it fit, which can be even MORE satisfying than a GM giving it to them.

Though often, I just make a cool battlefield and let them sort this stuff out on their own.
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From:theferrett
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
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The problem is that the DMs who don't think about shit like this are often the DMs who will dismiss any creative solutions.
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From:uncacreamy
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
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Truuue, in general. 4e is good at building it all in for the boring GM, but a boring GM will make it all about math regardless of system (and won't run a game in a non math system).
I find the stuff in 4e to be inspiring, because of the math built in. Otherwise, I just make it up off the top of my head, and it gets weird. Terrain rules, hazards, traps, it's all in there, and easy to make your own. In fact, I've had combats where more than half of it is trying to survive the environment, forget the monsters.
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From:dornbeast
Date:February 1st, 2012 07:10 pm (UTC)
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"But the sniper thing: I've found that players sometimes make their own sauce."

Still, it's good to watch out for this. One of the character templates in the West End Games version of Star Wars was "Tongue-tied engineer." I took that template, and found out that the GM was running a "shoot everything" kind of campaign. After a year of this, I got tired of being a second-string character with no use for my specialities, and created a mercenary...just as he added in a mechanical problem to the next adventure.
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From:uncacreamy
Date:February 1st, 2012 07:17 pm (UTC)
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That's the thing both sides need to watch out for, certainly. finding out what the GM has planned and communicating to players what the game will be is definitely the way to go. This is also good for stuff like the problem with 4e you had.. the gm should be giving a setting to place your guy in and hang a story on.
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From:chessdev
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
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There is also something about using Smart monsters who actually want to survive to make it interesting.

I ran a Ravenloft survival campaign once where the villian was outgunned by the party, but was making effective use of traps, contact poisons, and a nasty combination of Invisibility and Levitate to move around or reach ambush points and just wear them down with ranged-attacks (essentially the Predator).

They eventually got the villian but they had to be smart about it since if they seperated the party to look for him
he usually had an aerial view and would single out the lone player either from above or using Invisibility to get close.

They enjoyed the game but were scared to go outside or down that LONG DARK hallway by themselves
and with the contact poison traps that wouldnt pick up a rock off the ground without looking at it twice.

You dont need uber-monsters to make a fun campaign, just smart monsters who would do what the players themselves would do
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From:tylik
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:24 pm (UTC)
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I'm not sure I agree with you regarding conversations.

I think I tend to default to sandbox-y games. So while I will often try to nudge players along, they also get to make choices that disengage them from my intended plot. But those don't have to be boring encounters, even the ones that arose in part from my irritation with the gamers.

For instance, at one point my party was trying to track down a particular group of people. They told me how they were arranging their search (which I thought was really dumb for the situation - yeah, walk along the main trade road and look for prints) and I told them what they found as they went along. They insisted on following the tracks of one group of humans and mules that entirely did not conform to their search parameters, and basically spent a whole night casing a particular farm near a particular village. (And for all that I had a lot of fun describing that night time excursions of the various villagers, I was mostly all "Serves them right.")

Which turned into approaching the farm the next morning, and getting into a confusing conversation because one of the owners mistook one of our heroes for a trader interesting in her pickled turnips. Which turned into a long and protracted set of interactions around pickled turnips (in part because this group of players have weird senses of humor) which in turn turned into this theme throughout the rest of the game. Oh dear gods, the number of trips where they had to detour by Auntie Huang's to get more turnips...

And this was a story line that more or less existed because I was so exasperated with them.

It's not a style of gaming that revolves around a single plot. My characters could always drop every lead I gave them and go do wild ass things (this might have had something to do with the particular gamers I had). But it was a rich enough world, and one I was comfortable enough in, that interesting things could be happening wherever they went.
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From:dornbeast
Date:February 1st, 2012 07:15 pm (UTC)
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I try to be the kind of player you have. I'm not very good at it, but the stories I've heard make it clear that if the GM can handle curveballs, it makes for a better campaign.
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From:joecrow
Date:February 1st, 2012 09:21 pm (UTC)
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Oh god, turnips are DEATH. When I ran my crew through "Death In Freeport", they latched onto this note they found in the missing guy's room listing his day schedule. At the bottom was the word "turnips". These fools spent the next WEEK harassing every turnip seller in town, convinced that they were all part of some vegetable-based conspiracy. I hadda come up with like 10 different npcs on the fly, just to cover their delusions of turnip relevance.

Even after I began shouting "The turnips are a red herring, move the fuck on!", they kept working it. Buncha smartasses.
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From:mariadkins
Date:February 1st, 2012 04:46 pm (UTC)
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“I roll an 16.”
“You hit and do 8 damage.”
“I roll a 7.”
“You miss.”
“I roll a 14.”
“You hit and do 12 damage this round.”


crap like this is why i stopped gaming. i miss gaming so! :(
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From:finding_helena
Date:February 1st, 2012 06:07 pm (UTC)
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My husband (usually the GM) doesn't like D&D4e because it's too tactical for his taste. He doesn't like having to run the battle like a chess board with miniatures; he likes the character-based stuff more. I (barely a gamer at all) like 4e because I can just beat things up and the mechanic is easy to grasp. I don't mind the interpersonal stuff, but it's also kind of difficult for me because I do not have as much gaming background as my friends do and it's hard to get into the mindset of the ways in which the world is different from ours. I did a little better in a campaign set in the present day, for that reason.
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From:kioku_jonny
Date:February 1st, 2012 07:22 pm (UTC)
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I have a Wed. night play group (which started as a D&D Encounters group, but after a year of play we decided we wanted to get higher than 3rd level for a change), and tonight we're starting a paragon tier (level 11-20 for those that aren't 4E-aware) group, where I'll be running the updated Against the Giants. I think that the module and the system together already build in a lot of what you have mentioned, but something that could break this is that we have 7 guys bringing in whatever seemed cool at the time, and the balance of the party will be chucked out the window. I threw in a pretty fair amount of restriction, (partly to flavor the adventure towards 1E, and partly to reduce the breakable moving parts) but even having only heard the plans for what was coming to the table, I know we have 1 ranged sneak-theif, 1 healer, and 3 melee strikers.. we may have a wizard and the "undependable player" is supposed to be running the tank, but who knows how that will go. I'm about 90% sure my sneak-thief will never really get his chance to shine (well.. the polar opposite of shine really, as he wants to hang out in the shadows), since the rest of the party is likely going to tromp in and shout "we're gonna cut yer tonkers off!" at the giants, but at least he should be able to have his sniping fun.
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From:ammie_warrior
Date:February 1st, 2012 08:10 pm (UTC)
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Solid advice there. One of the best fights I ever played in had the party fighting acid-covered beasties in a box where the gravity was perpendicular to whichever surface (wall, floor, ceiling...) you happened to be standing on.
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From:kilbia
Date:February 1st, 2012 08:41 pm (UTC)
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...I find it interesting that you posted this right at the time when I am making the final tentative steps to running my first-ever campaign. (I'm just trying to find players now, ones that I don't mind spending time with. =)
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From:jcfiala
Date:February 1st, 2012 11:56 pm (UTC)
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Hmm... these are all partially reasons why I'm studying up on Tunnels & Trolls...

Well, and also because I want to get into the Solo modules.
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From:phule77
Date:February 2nd, 2012 04:29 am (UTC)
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We play White Wolf's NWOD system (mixed genres, started mortal) and I'm the party sniper.

Snipers are interesting because their job is not just to kill people, but also to be a lookout for the party. So we always have coded radio communication, we always work together, we always coordinate. I am not useful/successful in my role unless the rest of the party knows what they're looking for going in.

As my character becomes more rounded, I've become a sort of overall scout character...I can kill from a distance, but I can also scout up close. But my character will never be the one doing close combat, per se, unless it's a last resort. But I'm also usually the one coming up for tactics for the group as well.

I think the key is, if somebody wants to be a sniper, they have to be aware of their role in the group and their goals, and those goals can't just be having a bigger dice pool, or there's no story.
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From:philrancid
Date:February 2nd, 2012 12:44 pm (UTC)
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Look, man--give me the foozle. It's better for everyone, and I won't have to melt your bones. No one wants that.
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From:jfargo
Date:February 4th, 2012 02:38 am (UTC)
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From the back of the group the small, red-haired loudmouth speaks up "I do! That'd be fun to watch."
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From:grenacia
Date:February 2nd, 2012 09:54 pm (UTC)
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Interesting, though what I need is an article on how to play a good character, since I'm about to play my first RPG in about a decade. I doubt I'm ever going to GM.
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From:slimgatsby
Date:February 3rd, 2012 07:12 pm (UTC)
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I just started (well, after - no joke - three months of rules and character creation) a Dresden Files campaign, using the fate system. I think diverse is the name I would give to the players - we have six, and they range all across the board.

We have one vanilla human taxi driver, one mafioso changeling who is the scion of an ogre and the local don's neice, a burned out ex-ATF Sensitive who quit after Waco and opened a Bean-based restauraunt, as well as a witch who works as a late-night radio DJ and uses the funds to run a youth hostel for the spookily inclined. She's assisted by a magic-weilding gunslinger who's on a protective streak after losing his sister, and one of her wards, a blind witch who high-tailed it from her parent's coven when her parent's rival sent an Outsider after them.

The hostel is a great gateway for plot points, but the characters are so different it really takes a lot to find a reason to get them to come together. I had to veto the cabbie's ability to drive his cab through the freaking NeverNever due to the fact that the rest of the campaign is planned to be in and around Boston circa 2000 and he would be stuck with a useless skill. Everyone really expects something completely different out of the campaign, and as a result constantly go in aboslutely different directions.

Last week, I had to deal with the players going in a completely random direction - at a nightclub where they were supposd to be gathering information about a missing girl, all they succeeded in doing was harassing the Senator's son who had already denied any involvement. Meanwhile, outside, the ogre on lookout caught something out of the corner of his eye with a high alertness roll and, suspecting someone hiding under a veil decided the best course of action would be to THROW A BENCH AT IT. In the middle of downtown Boston outside of a busy ngihtclub.

They then proceeded to abduct the veiled woman and two goons out of a car that had come after the cabbie. This all happened after our bean cook pulled a gun on some ThreeEye dealers just outside of said club and they knocked down the fleeing girl by shooting her in the chest with a slowed-down bullet via a shield charm.

So, this week I had to deal with two cultists in the cabbie's trunk and a captive in the basement of the boardinghouse. Once I prepared her character for what she would do as a prisoner and how/if she would try to escape, they realized that kidnapping and imprisoning someone at gunpoint wasn't really the best idea and, after hearing her story INVITED HER TO STAY WITH THEM, not one of them even attempting to detect any deceit.

Not a single contingency planned for has actually come up and everything has been absolutely random and chaotic so far.

That's GMing, I guess.
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From:HD Atkinson
Date:February 4th, 2012 06:21 am (UTC)

I agree with 3/4

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"There’s a reason the classic D&D party is a Fighter, a Mage, a Cleric, and a Thief."

Try playing Original D&D with only one fighter. I dare you. See what happens.

This kind of thing is a direct result of the edition power creep that we've had over the last 25 years. In 3.x D&D we have 2000+ feats to choose from for "infinite customization," but every fighter just chooses Power Attack because it's the best. If you have two fighters in your D&D party, of course one will be better than another, because they'll both prioritize Strength, then CON or DEX, etc. And they won't roll exactly the same stats. One will likely have a higher strength and since so much emphasis is placed on stat bonuses to create a "viable" character, the guy who rolled low is left in the dust. This is the "my precious character" sort of thinking which characterizes the current state of the hobby.

This is, by the way, in direct opposition to your other stipulations: to not say "this monster's invulnerable to swords!," "avoid the roll-fest" and "treat the environment as another enemy." In these contexts, whether your fighter has a +1 to damage rolls or a +6 won't affect the solution you, as a creative player, come up with.
From:noumignon
Date:February 5th, 2012 04:43 pm (UTC)
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Did you know that someone in the Old School Revolution blog circle actually took offense to this? I didn't know anyone could disagree. Here's his post.
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From:voiceofanangel
Date:February 6th, 2012 12:31 am (UTC)
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You sound like a fun DM. I used to play my god-father's custom game for years, but haven't hooked up with a group since he moved out of state. Do you run any systems currently?
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From:shortgoth
Date:April 13th, 2012 08:14 pm (UTC)
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Hi, been a long time, I'm slowly catching up on your posts, and have been tempted to comment on a *lot* of them, but held off since they're old.

This one, thought, does poses a question I'd wanted to ask before but never got around to it: What do you think of Call of Cthulhu (the Chaosium BRP version, not the bastardised d20 version)?

Personally it's my favourite RPG mostly because it's 99% investigation, conversation, and problem solving, and only 1% combat - hell, a lot of the stuff you come up against can't even be fought outright. Granted the lack of XP, levels, and +3 maiming swords of Uber puts some people off, but with the right group it's the most entertaining RPG experience I've ever had.
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