May 29, 2014

My GM Credo

Some months ago, The Angry DM suggested that GMs should write down their GM credo.  This was an attempt to urge GMs to become more self-aware.  As I am a big fan of self-reflection and self-improvement, I strongly support his idea.

See Angry's original GM Credo post.

Here is my personal GM credo.  Like my article on prep, this is about me, not advice for how you should run your game.  This is how I run a game.  You might have a different credo.

My credo is based on my personal vision of the GM as a facilitator.  First, the GM has to sell the game concept to the players.  After the players have bought into the campaign and adventure premise, the GM becomes their facilitator.

Notice that rule #1 is very important.  It's rule #1 for a reason.  If I want to run a particular game, I have to sell it first.  I have to be transparent, descriptive, and clear in the pitch.  Railroading only happens when the GM forces the players toward an objective they do not share, so if I get everyone to buy into my pitch, then unless I lose sight of my own vision, I'm not likely to railroad the players.

Here are the rules, in short form.  They are written as instructions in the imperative tense for my own use as a GM.  They tell me to do things.

1. Attain group buy-in to the premise
2. Strengthen the group’s consensus of the game’s shared objectives
3. Listen and respond to the players
4. Create the challenges of the story from the highlighted player-suggested ideas
5. Facilitate inclusion
6. Decide when to use the game rules
7. End scenes that suck

I know what these shorthand instructions mean, but you're not me.  Here's some more explanation of each one.  

1. Attain group buy-in to the premise
I must attain group buy-in to the premise and objectives (story hooks and artistic objectives like genre, theme and mood) of the campaign and each major chapter (or adventure, scenario, or module) of the campaign.  This will be referred to as shared objectives.

2. Strengthen the group’s consensus of the game’s shared objectives
I must promote, maintain, and strengthen the group’s consensus of the game’s shared objectives over the course of the game.  I will help the group come to consensus and resolve out-of-character disagreement over how to apply their shared objectives to the problems they encounter in the game.  I will promote in-character discussion of how to resolve the problems the PCs encounter in the game, so that the players can explore different ways to resolve them in terms of their characters’ abilities, hooks and personalities.  If the group’s shared objectives evolve and change over time, I will have a frank, out-of-character discussion with the players and achieve consensus on the new shared objectives.

3. Listen and respond to the players
I will listen and respond to the players, repeating, asking for elaboration on, and emphasizing the ideas and plans they come up with that best underscore the group’s shared objectives.  I will remind the players to propose actions that would take the story in directions that they would enjoy playing, not just what their character would do.  

4. Create the challenges of the story from the highlighted player-suggested ideas
I will create the challenges of the story from the highlighted player-suggested ideas.  The challenges include the obstacles to achieving the PCs’ plans and the actions of the antagonists.  In a way, the players decide who, what, when, where and how, and the shared objectives establish guidelines for me to offer them a reason why.  Example:  The players decide to go seeking a lost golden dragon egg.  I decide that the egg is in a hidden temple in some remote, ancient ruins guarded by evil cultists who are trying to corrupt it.  Later, they decide to sneak into the temple.  I decide to present stealth challenges and temptations to risk being noticed along the way.  Later they decide to banter with the evil high priest with swords drawn, so I should banter back instead of end the banter prematurely by having him try to get the drop on them.

5. Facilitate inclusion
I have a responsibility to, and therefore must facilitate inclusion.  I must design situations in the game that allow all the players to participate at the level they want to, to the best of the GM’s ability.  Where a conflict arises, such as a lot of players who want a lot of spotlight time, the GM will design situations in the game that equitably balance the players’ desires.  I will ask players to step up or step back to include more introverted/shy/anxious players.  Another definition of inclusion is awareness of privilege and sensitivities.  I will keep the game from wandering into areas that could be awkward or uncomfortable for players.  

6. Decide when to use the game rules
I will decide when to use the game rules. If the rules of the game produce fair and transparent outcomes, I will use them to add drama to the situation.  If the rules bog the situation down (and the situation is not supposed to feel bogged down), I should chuck the rules and allow the players to resolve the situation.  Fudging die rolls is OK, as long as it’s not done in secret.  I should feel free to announce a die roll result, then explain why I want to fudge it.  If the players don’t care, then I can do so.  I should also be OK with players objecting to die rolls and asking for the result to be fudged.  

7. End scenes that suck
I will end scenes that suck.  If a combat or skill scene is dragging; if the players are locked in “analysis paralysis”; if some of the players – myself included – are not having fun, I will end the scene as soon as I realize this and skip as much action as necessary to get to a scene that might be more fun.  If some players object, see rule 2, but also see rule 5.  If all the players object, see rule 3 and 4.  If the system doesn’t allow it, see rule 6.  As for which scene to move on to, see rule 4.

Disclaimer:  These are living ideas.  This is a document that will always be a rough draft.  If your credo differs from mine, it doesn't necessarily mean we disagree.

May 16, 2014

Storium

I've started playing Storium.  It's similar to play-by-post roleplay, except that there's a system.  I'll have a "how to" Run a Game post for Storium soon.  I've learned a lot already by starting two games, and playing one.  For now, go check it out at storium.com


May 9, 2014

5 Things to do your First Session as a GM

Let's say you decided to start GMing a roleplaying game.  You know what an RPG is and you've played a little, so you know the absolute basics.  Now you want to run a game.  Obviously.  Because you went to a blog called... Run a Game.  So here are five things you should do during your first session.

(This post is subject to review!  Please submit feedback!)

1. Play Off the Other Players
Don't hammer your story forward.  When the players start coming up with ideas, it's tempting to ignore them if they're not related to the story you want to unfold.  After all, you're new to this.  But don't.

But I said "five things you should do during the first session" -- not shouldn't do!  During the first session, prepare to use the ideas the other player have as the building blocks of your plot, instead of the ones you had.  Use the "yes, and" improv technique to accept their idea and incorporate it.  Try to use "yes, and" at least once during the first session.  Seriously, click that link and watch the 3 minute video on how and why to use "yes, and."

2. Take Notes
A great thing about RPGs is that they're free and open.  If you're using the "yes, and" technique mentioned in #2, you will get a lot of ideas, lingering story hooks, and loose ends.  It's awesome!  If you don't write these things down, you're leaving great ideas behind.

You don't have to write every plot hook or loose end down.  Just pick the ones you like the most.  Trust the players to write down any that they really like, too.  What do you do with these ideas later?  Use them!

3. Make them have feelings for an NPC
When planning your second session of an RPG, it really helps to have a character that the protagonists love to threaten.  ...a character the protagonists rely on to take away.  ...a character the protagonists take for granted to betray them.  ...a character the protagonists trust to bring them information.

The only way to get a character that the protagonists have feelings for is to have them create an identity or strategy that requires the NPC.  You can do voices, act everything out, maintain consistent motivations, bring pictures, and all that sort of stuff (and you should do it), but those are fleeting thrills.  In the weeks between games, the players may forget the gravelly voice, but they will remember why they identify with or rely on the NPC.  Get them to start calling themselves Rico's Roughnecks or planning to use the Ranger they met to distract the monsters while they sneak into the crypt.  If they trust Rico, or rely on the Ranger, you can create challenges or hooks involving those NPCs and trust that the players will really care about them.  And what you can do to NPCs is a far longer list than what you can do to PCs!

4. Describe Everything You Care About
Roleplaying games create a shared imagined space.  In every single RPG that has a GM, the GM has an awesome power:  They get to describe the shared imagined space first.  The players will immediately start making assumptions of their own (often way different from yours and each other's) as soon as you finish describing.  Sometimes they will start stating their assumptions or asking questions, and sometimes they'll quietly assume things.

If you went to the trouble to describe something, though, it's there.  You created reality.  Don't forget to describe everything that you care about, because if you don't, it doesn't exist.

5. Lose and Love It
Your job as the GM is to create challenges for the players to use their characters to overcome.  I don't care if you suck at that or not.  It's your first session.  You'll probably suck a little.  But it won't matter, because inevitably the player characters will overcome your challenges.  Even if they misunderstand what's going on, don't care about your NPCs, etc., they came to your game to engage with the challenges you created and overcome them in a fun way that reflects their characters' motivations.

So your most important job is to lose and have fun doing it.  Act like you're rooting for the antagonists, but be a good sport and cheer when the protagonists do something unexpected and amazing.  Then, when the protagonists triumph, own it and love it.  Give them a high five and smile.

After all, they picked up a toy you made and they played with it and loved it.  Maybe they didn't play with it the way you thought.  Maybe they solved your puzzle too fast or mopped the floor with your bad guy or pulled some rules cheese you had forgotten about to solve your mystery.  Who cares?  They won.  They were supposed to win.  How you react when they do sets the tone for your next scene.  Think about this how a player would:

  • If the GM hates it when you win, then you lose, do you feel like the GM screwed you, or like that's just how the cookies crumbled?
  • If the GM loves it when you win, then you lose, do you feel like the GM screwed you, or like that's just how the cookies crumbled?
If you're on the players' side after the dice are down, even if you're a serious gamist DM then you'll have built trust.  And that's important.

May 2, 2014

Puzzles

Today we're going to talk about puzzles in RPGs.  The definition of puzzles in RPGs has very fuzzy boundaries.  I've described some monsters as puzzles.  After all, to kill a black pudding, your party needs to solve the puzzle presented by its immunity to (and splitting as a result of) attacks by slashing and piercing weapons.

Working Definition:  A puzzle is a mental challenge presented to the players of an RPG, with consequences for their characters.

This definition gives us two elements we need to create for every puzzle scene.  First, what is the mental challenge?  Second, what are the consequences?  It also creates hard boundaries. These are the corollary rules that emerge from the definition of an RPG puzzle:

  1. The challenge is overcome by actions the players take, not the characters.  Game system should have little or no chance of overcoming the challenge.
  2. Solving the puzzle cannot be the only way to move the story forward. 

Here's an illustrative example:

If you're running Trail of Cthulhu, and your investigators find an encoded message written to a 16th century Ottoman king, they can decipher it using the Cryptography skill.  If you intend to use the game system to resolve the clue, there is no puzzle.  However, let's say you want to add a puzzle.  You might encipher the clue using a simple substitution cipher, and allow any characters with Cryptography to attempt to decipher it.  If they use a Cryptography spend (see the GUMSHOE system), you can give them the key, so they can simply decode it.  In this case, the players have a choice whether to bypass the puzzle with the game system.  

This is not a very good puzzle scene because 1) the challenge can be overcome with character abilities, using the game system, and 2) the consequence of failing to decipher the puzzle is that the characters don't get the core clue needed to advance the story.  Let's rework the puzzle to fit into our rules about puzzle scenes...

Your investigators find an encoded message written to a 16th century Ottoman king.  They can decipher it and get he core clue using the Cryptography skill.  If they have Cryptography (and they will, because of how the game works), they automatically get the clue needed to move the game forward.  Then they notice that the last paragraph does not decipher correctly.  It's in some ancient tongue...  The GM hands them another enciphered page.  There is no core clue here.  They have to decipher the code themselves (as players) to get the information it contains.  This represents the characters puzzling out a language not of this earth.  If they solve the code, the plaintext is a disturbing invocation to an alien being.  Later, when the PCs encounter an alien that matches its description, they can say the invocation and it will hesitate, allowing them to take a round of actions to run away - or foolishly shoot at it.

Now our example cipher is a challenge that the players have to solve, with consequences on the characters, that does not violate our corollary rules.

Elements

When building a puzzle, you combine two elements:

  • The challenge the players have to solve; and
  • The consequences for their characters

Challenge elements include...

  • Ciphers.  The challenge of ciphers is that it's hard to make a cipher both challenging to solve and possible to solve.  Players can usually decipher substitution ciphers eventually, and most codes that can be solved by hand are variants on substitution ciphers. When done well, the challenge of a cipher is realizing there's a cipher in the first place.  Say there are images of different devils on the walls of an ancient fane, and the first letters of the names of the devils pictured spell out the keyphrase that the PCs can say to an animated iron door to make it open.  The players might realize that there's a cipher if they realize there are a lot of similar images of Erinyes...
  • Riddles.  In the age of the internet, it takes about an hour to find a handful of amazing, brilliant riddles of varying difficulty levels.  Riddles are fun, but the players may be tempted to cheat using the game system, such as casting Charm Person spells, intimidating the riddle-giver, and just taking what they want.  One way to prevent this is to make the consequence of success have to do with the riddle giver itself (an animated portcullis is a personal favorite - break it or disenchant it and it's stuck!).  Alternately, you can think through the different things your players might try to use to cheat if they get frustrated.  Remember, puzzles never prevent the story from going forward, so failure is possible!
  • Math and logic.  There are hundreds of classic math and logic puzzles you can look up, from number sequences to logic riddles, to chess puzzles, and more.  Math teachers love these things, so try browsing educator websites for free resources.  You just have to re-skin the puzzle to your setting.  Choose puzzles appropriate to your game's themes.  In Trail of Cthulhu, an astronomy logic puzzle might be great.  In D&D, a number sequence could be woven into a sphinx's shroud, encoded in geometric shapes.
  • Darmok and Jalad puzzles involve a clue delivered in such a way that the players have to learn the lore of a culture or facts that the clue-writer knew to decipher it.  They work great for ancient ruins, where a clue like "the supplicant brings King Jorod's Blessing before the Holiest Tree and anoints it as Kalyx'zshar to her wyrmlings."  They have to learn that King Jorod bestowed the Ancient Prophet with a gift of wine, the Holiest Tree is a fir, and Kalyx was a red dragon who warmed her wyrmlings in a roaring fire.  So the puzzle is solved when the PCs pour wine in the chalice printed with a fir tree, then heat it with flame.
  • Minigames.  Games like mastermind, minesweeper, battleship, chess, and connect four can be re-purposed into puzzles for your game.  Choose a game that evokes the feel of the puzzle that the characters are working to solve.  For instance, a steampunk setting computer could be hacked with a Mastermind-style guessing game.  A dragon might be willing to give up some treasure if the PCs can beat her at 20 questions.  A vampire might challenge the PCs to a chess match for the fate of a kidnapped paladin.
  • Pattern recognition.  Sometimes the best puzzles are the simplest.  Throughout the dungeon, icons of revered, trusted, helpful things are painted blue; and reviled, hated, dangerous things are painted green.  At the end of the dungeon -- or better, at the beginning -- are two chests.  One has a blue-painted top and the other a green-painted top.  Though they're not locked, if the players open the green one, both chests will be consumed in fire, destroying their contents and burning the fool who didn't pay attention.
  • Mazes.  A common puzzle in D&D is a maze -- an area that the players get lost in.  The GM describes the corridors, expecting the players to map the area to keep track.  The GM is cunning and uses multiple levels to stymie the "right hand rule."  Almost always the consequence for navigating a dungeon maze poorly is traps and monsters.  Traps that reset and monsters that "restock" are even better -- punishing players for doubling back or wandering aimlessly.  Mazes are basically a kind of Sim scene (see below).
  • Social scenes can be used as puzzles (the players have to decide who's lying, who's right, choose sides, etc.).
  • Sim scenes can be used as puzzles (the players have to think of a strategy to overcome an obstacle; mazes are a common Sim puzzle obstacle).


Consequence elements include...

  • Rewards such as money, magic, treasure, blessings, wishes, allies, etc.
  • Tactical information, such as secret passages, directions, ways to ambush enemies, ways around dangerous encounters, tactics to use against monsters, etc.  In 13th Age, you might want to use puzzles as opportunities to influence the outcome of Icon rolls.
  • Plot information, other than clues required to move the story forward.  Examples include backstory on NPCs, deeper understanding of villains' motives, etc.  Ideally, the information could impart some sort of tactical advantage (see above).  
  • Removal of negative reinforcement, such as a poison gas, or water or sand filling the room.  
  • Time.  A great way to add an element of excitement to a puzzle-filled area is to create a time limit.  The players now have four outcomes with puzzles:  Fail to solve them and give up, failt to solve them (but take a long time), solve them quickly, or solve them (but take a long time).  But now you have a built in reward/punishment mechanism.  Maybe solving a puzzle adds time to the clock, or failing to recognize a pattern correctly causes a time penalty.  What the timer is, in the game, is up to you.  Is the volcano getting ready to erupt (D&D)?  Is a nuclear missile going to launch in 120 minutes (Gamma World)?  Is the infernalists' ritual coming to completion (Vampire)?
  • Punishment, such as damage, curses, poison, combat encounters (which cause all of the former things), destruction of treasure elsewhere, or plot consequences (e.g. hostages killed, in a modern serial killer/terrorist scenario).  

Remember that you can pair rewards for success with consequences for failure if you want.  And only one of the two needs to be impressive for the puzzle to be exciting.

Troubleshooting

There are players who hate puzzles in RPGs.  I know at least two such players.  They really enjoy the escapist fantasy of an RPG, and don't like to cross the wall to where their own ability is tested.  Perhaps they don't really enjoy puzzles in real life.  Like any practiced skill, players who solve puzzles infrequently will probably be bad at it, and it may make them feel insecure; or else make them feel bad about their character, since their character will not be as strong a contributor.

Before designing a puzzle-heavy adventure, ask your players how much they like puzzle scenes.  If they're at least neutral about puzzles, you're OK.  If one of your players dislikes puzzles, you might be able to include one every now and then for the players who do like puzzles, but you shouldn't make a whole dungeon or adventure full of them.