Thursday, January 7, 2016

Old Dog, New RPG Tricks

I keep changing as a gamemaster and that's great. I watch new GMs, run for new players, read online advice, and grow. I'm a long, long way from my early style. This week the Play on Target podcast looks at that with our "Old Dogs, New Tricks" episode. Every year I have another "jeez, why haven't I been doing that forever?" moment. You can hear some of those from all of us in the show. We're especially lucky in that we're joined by Rich Rogers for this one. He graciously came in at the last minute. You can check out his work with the Indie+ network as well as on The Gauntlet podcast. He also works for Dr. Tom the Frog

Here are thoughts, changes, and new tricks I didn’t get to in the episode:
  1. One Question: I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. I’ve always been a responsive gamer: asking questions of players. But I considered that interaction conditional; if I could work it in, I did. Once I saw the power of the phrase, “And what does that look like?” I changed my approach. That question has opened up new, interesting, and different avenues at the table. Sessions are stronger for it.
  2. Lumpy: More and more I collapse conflicts and challenges. Several RPGs do this explicitly: Belly of the Beast, MHR, 13th Age, and Wushu I think. I’ve used to break up tasks into discrete sections (with rolls for each). You worked through your section of the task linearly. Now challenge contains rolls from each member woven into the tale of their journey or caper. For big single player tasks, we do a single roll and offer options for levels of success (costs, hard bargains, consequences, etc). For example, last Sky Racers Unlimited, Kenny and Scott fought a Death Bot disguised as a Ring Girl at a major boxing match. I realized the stakes weren’t beating the Bot. That wasn't a question given their skills. And having two characters fights while others did non-com actions would have bogged things down. Instead I identified the stakes involved: protecting the crowd, keeping from injury, guarding the champ, and looking awesome for the audience. So we went with checks containing hard bargains and choices.
  3. Clarity: I've rethought how I handle one-shots. I often do investigations or “drop in” caper-planning sessions. But both Monster of the Week and the “Games on Demand How-To Run” guidelines made me reexamine my approach. MotW encourages “get to the fight." There’s a mystery, but that’s thin cover for the players moving to engage the bad guy. The challenge shifts from “who is the bad guy?” to “have we found out enough to be able to take them on?” OOH the GoD notes has great advice (besides the X-Card). At the start be super clear about player objectives/ purposes. Explicitly state remaining time and alerting players that you'll condense at the end. You set expectations.
  4. Wrapped in an Enigma: Related, I’ve discovered some players dislike mysteries. So I’ve thought about how to shift from clue-capture investigation to establishing “culprit” early and then figuring out how to deal with that person, place or thing. Leverage capers work like that. That’s influenced a little by MotW as well.
  5. Detective Work: When I do have investigations, I take a Gumshoe approach. Players have competency and obtain basic info from a scene or research. They can then roll. This determines a) potential costs in time, complications, and resources and b) number of additional questions they get to ask. I use PbtA style questions for this process. Sometimes players don’t want to risk it and they move on.
  6. Picture This: As I say in the podcast, I have a few old tricks I’ve set aside. In particular wikis and table pictures. The former ended up being too much work compared to the output. Some players used it, but only sparingly. If I only ran a single campaign, it might be more worth it. But having to check and update several wikis didn’t work, even with Sherri doing the heavy lifting. I also used printed pictures, which we then placed in albums. That was pricey and it created an artifact that had to be passed around. There has to be a better way. Recently I’ve begun using Pinterest. I’m not sure it solves the problem, but having a shared board and a tablet to display images works OK. 
  7. In the Cards: Players have loved my move to card-based summaries at the beginning of sessions. I write down names and one sentence descriptions for key characters and dangling plots. In one game I use different color index cards for each character’s personal plots. I bundle some together when they make connections between them. If they clear a mystery or problem, I make a show of tearing that card up so they know they’ve finished it off. It gets everyone on the same page right away, allows them to point out missing bits, and offers a tactile and visual reminder during play.
  8. Payoff: If players take the time to do “set up” or “prep” actions, I make sure there’s a payoff. Perhaps it doesn’t help with the situation they intended, but offers additional information or opportunities. Or if they fail, it adds an interesting complication. At the very least, successful set ups should generate some mechanical benefit later.
  9. What Next?: If you’re playing around with a group you trust, you can play with emergent rules. You establish a basic framework and then start playing. As you roll along you add mechanisms, rules, and character options. It's more work, but it’s also a pleasure to play. You can get to playing an interesting and complicated new setting without having to hack the hell out of another game. 

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

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