September 25, 2018

Do Split the Party

Most RPGs can handle "splitting the party" decently well.  The problem with splitting the party is that players get bored when they're not actually playing the game.

It's one thing to wait your turn in combat, where you are part of the action -- especially if the GM is highlighting the stakes and context of the situation when it's not your turn (see the twitter thread below).  It's another thing to wait a long time while the other PCs are off scouting or investigating or negotiating.


You can tell GMs to cut frequently.  You can tell GMs what to avoid, how to try to match cut speed to pace, etc.  But what I've discovered in the last three years is that as a GM, you need to learn how to recognize triggers that cue you to cut.

If you're not reminded to cut back to the other players, you might not realize you've gone on too long.  You might not realize you're boring them.

So here are some triggers to remind you to cut.  If you internalize these eight scene cut-away triggers, you'll get better at running split-party scenes without boring your players to death.

Failing a Skill Check:  When a PC fails a skill check, cut!  Cut to the other PCs immediately.  This has a lot of great benefits!  First of all, depending on your system, failed checks will happen decently often -- especially when the party is split.  In D&D, it might happen every three or four rolls.  That's about the same for PbtA games.  Second, it gives you time to think about the move you want to make. With extra time, you can think of a really good complication that really adds to the tension. Third, the player who failed the check will be waiting with bated breath to hear how bad things went with that roll.

A Player Needs OOC Time: This one is obvious - if you're running for a split party, and a player needs time, it's time to cut.  Players might need time for lots of reasons:  OOC things like getting another piece of pizza, using the restroom, taking a call, fixing a tech issue (playing online), or having a sneezing fit.  Players usually won't take a break in a tense moment, so if they signal a need to break, it's at a lull, and a good time to cut.

A Player Needs Time to Think:  Players might also need time to think of a plan, think of what to say, think of how their character would react, make a tough choice, or figure out a character ability.  If you're going to force them to make a decision under pressure, don't cut away.  Apply that pressure.  Talk them through it.

Aside: When you force a player to make a decision in a split second, you're testing the player, not the character.  For some styles of play, this is great.  Actor stance play, such as LARPs, horror games, or high character immersion play can be enhanced by forcing players to make split second decisions in character.  You're encouraging bleed (see here, here, and here).  For other styles of play, this is bad.  Author and director stance play should test the character, not the player.  You might spend ten minutes thinking about how your character would handle a split-second high-stakes decision. In those styles of play, it's often fun to decide that your character made a bad decision. 

There's a Rules Question:  If the table runs into a rules question, cut.  The players can look up the rule while you run the other scene.  This one should be obvious. Just make sure to associate it with a cut-away trigger in your mind.

Cliffhanger Moment: When something surprising happens, cut away after you see the players' reaction.  Don't drop the surprise and cut immediately.  Why?  Because when you get the players' reaction then cut, you get five or ten extra minutes to think about how to play to it!  If you surprise them and cut away immediately, you don't get their reaction until after you cut back.  And that means you have only seconds to plan how to play to their reaction.  Put another way:  The surprise is big.  The players' reaction to the surprise is even bigger.  Your response to their reaction is the third most important thing that happens at a plot twist, and giving yourself extra time to plan that is gold.

Example:
GM: "Jasen, you've put down the third vampire spawn.  You're wounded, exhausted, but victorious.  You walk out of the alley, back into the crowd.  Nobody noticed the battle.  Standing there, staring at you is the vampire who commanded the spawn to attack.  She pulls her hood back, and it's none other than Lucia, your former mentor." 
Jasen's Player:  "Holy crap!  I thought she died in the crusade!  I don't care about the crowd. I don't care that I'm wounded.  I charge.  Do I roll initiative or what?" 
GM: "Hold that thought.  Let's cut away."

A Conversation Milestone: Conversations take longer than you think.  When you're GMing a conversation, you take on the NPC's persona, and start thinking about what the NPC wants, what they're afraid of, what they know, what they're watching for, etc.  Often, that means you stop focusing on a lot of the logistics of gamerunning.  You lose track of time, lose track of players who aren't in the conversation, etc.  So teach yourself to cut away when the conversation reaches a milestone.  That is, cut away when something new comes up; a decision is announced; the mood changes; or parties enter or leave the conversation.  Just teach yourself to watch for conversation milestones, as shorthand for that.

Plan B Doesn't Work:  The PC tries one approach.  They don't get the result they wanted.  The PC tries another approach.  They still don't get what they wanted.  It's OK to run a scene where a PC fumbles around a little.  The dice sometimes force that on us.  Players also sometimes don't know exactly what they're after - they go into a scene and just push buttons (literally or metaphorically) until something happens.  That's fine, sometimes.  But while it can be frustrating to the PC who's flailing, it's extremely frustrating to watch.  So teach yourself to cut away when the player's second approach doesn't go anywhere.  This has two benefits:  The other players don't have to sit through more than two false starts in a row, and the active player gets a few minutes to think up a better strategy.

A Clue is Revealed:  When you reveal a clue that's a "piece of the puzzle," cut away.  Unlike a cliffhanger, you don't need to see the player's reaction to a clue.  Most clues are just useful information, not major changes to the conflict.  (If the clue is a cliffhanger, see above.)  Cutting away right after dropping a clue will save you a ton of table time.  First of all, the players who just got the clue need a few minutes to process it.  They have to think about how it fits into their investigation, what it means, and what follow-up questions they need to ask.  When you reveal a clue, the players often ask a lot of confirmation questions -- stuff they already know, but just want to be sure about.  If you give them a few minutes, when you cut back, they'll have cut that down to only the most important follow-up questions.

Handy Infographic Version

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Other Run a Game articles on splitting the party



I've written before about the benefits of splitting the party, which is still pretty good, though the game I used for the example is now an edition out of date!

I also did an article on cutting between scenes before, but I think my skills have evolved since, and I've also figured out how to communicate what I've learned in the last three years, since the last time I wrote on this topic.  For instance, in the older article, I recommend 15 minutes between cuts.  Now I'd say 10 minutes is pushing it, and you should aim to cut every 5 minutes, if you can.

Update:  Use these skills even when you're NOT splitting the party!

See this twitter thread about it. (Click through to see the full thread from here.)

September 11, 2018

Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe

Let's say you're running a fantasy RPG, and you want a more serious fantasy tone.  The first thing you want to eliminate is "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe."  It's a silly thing that seems to come from video games, not fantasy literature or historical epics.  But how?

The obvious answer is to tell the players "there aren't magic item shops in this setting."  The problem with that approach is that the players will eventually be dripping with magic items they don't care about, and yearning for magic items that they still haven't found.

They'll look for low-key magic item shops.  "Hey, can we 'donate' these +1 maces and axes to the high temple of the sun god and ask the priests to forge me a magic glaive?"

So the second most obvious answer is to make magic item shops that don't resemble a JRPG or MMO.  You create a red dragon that collects magic items, and will buy them from adventurers for gold (which she extorts from kings and merchants).  You create a shadowy wizard that will sell knowledge (spells and scrolls) for gold to fund his secret experiments.  You create a good-aligned temple that will forge blessed weapons and armor for those who demonstrate their faith (with deeds, yes, but also coin).

But you still haven't eliminated "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe."  You've dressed it up to look a little bit like fantasy fiction, but it's still a transaction of magic items for coin and vice versa.  Because the player activity is functionally the same (tallying coins, asking for prices, deciding how much to spend and what to sell), the fictional activity will largely feel the same.

The best solution

The only way to eliminate "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe" is to give the PCs the magic items they want, and only the magic items they want.

The only reason a PC would want to sell a magic item is if that magic item isn't useful to them.  That happens when you give out magic items because you wanted to equip your villains with them (but didn't think of the items' utility for the PCs) and when you give out magic items based on the random tables in the DMG.  The only reason they would want to buy magic items is if they've got a lot of gold (happens a lot in 5e) and feel like the items they want should be available.  Combined, the two factors really make players seek out magic item sellers:

"We have two +1 maces, a +2 sickle of evil, and a +1 heavy crossbow that none of us are using, and I still don't have a magic greatsword yet.  Let's sell these useless things and get the +1 greatsword I need. +1 weapons seem common enough that someone must be selling one, or maybe I can get someone to forge me one."

Giving the PCs exactly what they want doesn't mean you have to be generous with magic items.  You can be more stingy than usual with this technique and the players will probably be happier.  Here's how you do it...

First, call for a wish list

Ask the players to submit a "wish list" of five magic items they want.  Let them flip through the books like kids making their Christmas wish list from the toy store catalog.  They can even make up their own magic items.  If your campaign is going to be shorter or longer, ask for shorter or longer wish lists.  A three-year level 1-20 campaign might call for six or seven per PC.  A 10-session short campaign might only call for two per PC.  If you're running an intentionally low-powered, low-level, short campaign, you might also want to limit the players to Uncommon and Rare items.

When you call for the wish list, show your players this article, so it's clear what you're doing.  If you're transparent with the process, they can be more strategic with their choices.  For instance, they might see value in asking for a Rare Flametongue greatsword and a Legendary Vorpal greatsword, so they get a middling-powered magic weapon early, and get an upgrade to a super-powered one much later in the game.  They can always give the Flametongue to a henchman or beloved NPC.

From that, make a magic item treasure table

Combine the lists into one "treasure table" and arrange them from weakest to strongest.  Always consider defense items to be stronger than offense items, because offense items are more fun (they speed up play and provide wow moments).  This makes a list of 15-30 items.

Using the table, decide on some plot items

Some of your magic items shouldn't be random.  Make plots and villains to contain the best items from the combined treasure table. Cross them off as you place them in the world. This probably cuts your list down to 10-20. The Lich King should wield the Staff of the Magi your wizard PC wished for.  The Glabrezu should have the Holy Avenger sealed away in a trapped vault.  The real nice Ioun Stone should be rumored to be at the top of the ruined tower of the mad mage, deep in a troll-haunted swamp. Don't write these adventures ahead of time. Just make sure to tell the PCs the legends of where they can find these items.  It'll motivate them.

Then just use your table

When you give out treasure and a magic item should be in the hoard, choose or roll from the list.  If you roll from the list, only roll 1d6 and count up from the bottom, skipping crossed off items, of course.  When you give an item out, cross it off.  The reason to use a smaller die than the list is that you want to give out more modest items first.  It's only fair:  PCs with more modest wishes get to use less powerful items longer (since they get them earlier).  Plus, you don't want to drop a Staff of the Magi at level 1.  I like to give out fewer, more powerful items, but that's going too far!


Tip:  Since you're giving out fewer permanent magic items, consider giving out more consumable items -- especially consumable restorative magic items, like potions of healing, Keoghtom's ointment, potions of neutralize poison, scrolls of remove curse, and so forth.  When you're giving out gold and mundane items, here's an inspirational, curated list of select interesting mundane items by value for you that will help give you a little inspiration.

Is "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe" really a problem?

Not always.

I've claimed that D&D is its own subgenre of fantasy.  It's a goofy power fantasy, and it can be a lot of fun to play up the... D&D-ness of it, even if you're playing Dungeon World or 13th Age or Pathfinder.  So much of the D&D system intrudes into the fiction of the game world that D&D almost has to be its own genre.  Daily refresh abilities, magic item tables, trap mechanics, Vancian casting, and encumbrance (and therefore henchmen) are system artifacts that create in-fiction shadows that have, over time, made their own culture -- their own fictional genre.  And that's fun because it creates a culture and genre that's unique to our hobby.

This concept ties to the idea of "tone" or "mood" in your game.  Setting the game's tone is a very important "session zero" task, and it's important for the whole group to work together to maintain the tone.  The GM's role in setting and maintaining the tone is even more important.  If you create a "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe" situation, you're saying something about the tone, and what you're saying is tied to images of moogles and Azeroth, and that can be awesome or jarring, depending on the tone you're going for.

Image Credit: CC0 license from pixabay.com via pexels.com


So when you're running a very... "D&D" game (like I am right now), play it up!  Make fun magic item shops run by crafty dragons and mad priests and shady wizards and extra-planar entrepreneurs.

But you might want to run a D&D game that's more like fantasy novels, movies, and TV shows.  And that's fine too.  That's when you need to use the techniques above to eliminate magic item shops.