Category Archives: GM Advice

Rules Rules Rules

Games have rules or at the very least a rule. RPGs tend toward having a lot of rules. Even rules lite games usually have as many pages of rules as a board game of standard complexity. Why is that? Is there any way around it? If you do get around it, what are the consequences?

First, a quick and dirty history of RPGs. Early RPGs were fairly light compared to what came in the 90’s. Then there was a move toward heavy books full of rules. In the next decade narrative driven games emerged that tend to have a smaller page count. Next came the Old School Revolution that focused its efforts on early RPGs that ran lite.

There’s a constant struggle to both expand what an RPG can govern and a wish to cut the discreet number of rules in the game. If the market of RPG customers have more free time, better visual acuity and the focus to support a large set of rules in their head, (usually late teen players) the size of RPGs get bigger. This has the effect of making it more difficult for young players (pre or early teens) to grasp the game and slows the rate that new players take up the hobby. It also is harder for working parents and older players who may have a hard time reading small type to adopt these large tomes.

Many games reduce their rule sets by having a central mechanic that is intended to govern (nearly) all interactions. This has gone a long way to make games easier to comprehend but the discrete rules that can spin off the core rules are also effectively endless so a game designer can still easily fill hundreds of pages with special case rules.

A game can reduce its rule set by applying what’s called “rule 0” or “the GM’s word is final”. Old School Revolution games rely in this heavily. The GM decides how rolls apply and often spot rule when a question arises. They make up a rule on the spot of how to resolve the situation. This can change from instance to instance but many gaming groups develop their own set of house rules, that if ever written down would bloat their lite game into something more comparable to a new school game from the 90’s.

A third way to reduce the set of rules is to not model a world but to give rules to govern the story being told. These “Narrative” games have a double edged sword to deal with in that they give lots of power to the players. This power if not carefully managed can lead to the game breaking down into something that is no longer a game because the rules do not sufficiently control play.

Large Rule Sets, Good For Players?

Early on in my gaming, I was a rules lawyer and I caused plenty of trouble as one. I wasn’t malicious, but I did cause arguments and I did use the rules to break the game when it served me. Back then, I probably couldn’t tell you why I rules lawyered. Now I understand things a bit better.

Rules that don’t change give power to the players. They allow the players to know how the game is played and helps them to tell the kind of story they want with their characters. Because of this, I’ve always viewed the written rules as my friend and any unwritten and malleable rule handed down from the GM as something I couldn’t rely on.

Think about a game of football where a player scores but the Referee can change the score based on how he felt about the effort? Would you know how to produce a strategy that would win the game? Possibly if that Ref was consistent you could. But what if he wasn’t consistent? What if he was mostly consistent but occasionally he would change his mind at the last moment? These are things I have seen GMs do.

Rules Help The GM

Another reason comprehensive rule sets can be good is that the GM has a heavy load to lift running a game. When there isn’t a rule to cover something, I’ve seen GMs default to “you can’t do that” even though most games tell the GM to make something up. When trying to handle all the other responsibilities of  a game though, it can be hard for a GM to suddenly come up with how a novel solution should work. What’s worse is when the players want to replicate the effect of a novel solution and it threatens to unbalance the game.

Rules can also help build trust in a GM if they apply the rules evenly and the players see them doing so.

Pros vs Cons

On the one hand, a comprehensive rule set can help a game but on the other, it’s a barrier to new players, especially the young and the time strapped. There was a lot of wisdom in the “Basic” and “Advanced” rule sets of yesteryear. Get started with the basic and move onto the Advanced when you’re ready. Sometimes Quickstarts are a good approximation of the old Basic rule sets but they rarely are as flexible, usually only providing the GM an understanding of how to play a single adventure.

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Not Obvious Tech Challenges

When explaining Tech Challenges to people, I often get the response that they don’t represent the kind of challenge the GM is looking for. While yes, they are designed to replicate technology challenges, “Tech” is actually referring to Technical Challenges. Let me explain how we’ve used them in our games to illustrate how flexible they are.

In our current campaign, I used a Tech Challenge when the players wanted to pick a lock. Obviously the first skill that was attempted was the Pick Locks skill but that roll failed. The next player didn’t have the pick locks skill, and this really shows the power of Tech Challenges, he wanted to use his sensor systems to see the internal workings of the lock to help. He rolled amazingly well and solved the challenge. How I interpreted this was to say that, with the internal workings of the lock understood, it was a trivial matter to now open the lock.

When was the last time you used sensors to pick a lock? It was a first for me.

With a typical skill system, I would be hard pressed as a GM know if I should allow that kind of cross discipline skill use. But that’s part of the beauty of the Tech Challenge system.

In another game, the PCs needed to figure out why a general was holding out on supporting them. We used a Tech Challenge using sociology and culture skills to find clues. It worked wonderfully well. Each Challenge Point reduced, yielded more information on the general’s situation.

The power here is that the players decide what skills they want to use to tackle a problem. They justify the use and the character’s skill helps to decide if the skill will help. The idea here is that someone who is very competent may be able to use even unusual skills in unexpected ways.

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Worldbuilding, Beauty and Alienation

My wife is fond of asking me when I’m going to stop trying to learn more things. I don’t have an answer to that because I suppose I will never know enough about the universe to have the complete picture of it that I want.

Lately my interest has been neuroscience and behavioral science. I think this is mainly because in the last few years I’ve been exploring the fact that I have a mild spectrum of autism and I learned that most people do not experience the world as I do.

To me autism means I do not have some of the automated processes that are normally encoded in a human being’s brain. The fewer automated processes an autistic has, or if certain important processes are disrupted the more severe the dysfunction. This is my take on my autism, it’s how I define it.

When these processes are not automatic a person has to develop their own process for dealing with input from the world. This is often on a more conscious level. It takes conscious thought to work through a situation that would normally be dealt with automatically. This usually means a greater mental stress load for common every day things but the trade off is that you sometimes know why you process things the way you do and can occasionally manipulate the process.

So it become profoundly interesting to me to learn how these automated processes actually should work in people. It’s fascinating because most people make use of these automatic programs without knowing that they’re doing it.

Today I listened to a program about beauty. I listen through the lens of the above. What are people doing that they aren’t aware of?

For one the program talked about a landscape that was nearly universally considered beautiful by humans. It was one that a human would be able to thrive in easily. A diversity of plants, the presence of water, evidence of bird life, an optimal view of the surroundings. This is a process that most people have, built in to tell them when life will be good for them. A subconscious signal that this is a good place to live.

To tie this in with world building, what does that mean for your world? Does your world deliver beauty?

Without specific knowledge of these universal human tendencies for perceiving beauty, long ago I set out to create a very alien world for The Artifact that rejected human ideas of beauty and strictly dealt with functionality. This was important to the story that I wanted to tell.

It does have it’s trade offs though. It is extremely difficult to draw and paint things that are not beautiful or at the very least intriguing. Even something that is ugly is easier to depict. It’s also difficult to describe things that are not beautiful and not ugly with words.

But why do I want to try and make a world that is not beautiful and not grotesquely ugly? To me, this is an expression that is sublimely alien to the human mind. It is not something opposed to our thinking and not something that we would want to think about. It is alien.

The difficult thing about it is to now fill it with enough humanism to make it inviting  enough to want to stay for a while. The reader can be disoriented by the alien, but invited by the human. This has been a struggle to get right, I’ve made some progress but is something I will have to keep working on.

Most worlds that are constructed swing from beautiful to grotesque. We know how to deal with those things. They are in built, automated responses. What happens when you put normal people in an environment where they have no in built response? Each response must be handled consciously. This can be taxing on the mind so it has to be done slowly and carefully. It throws off a person’s ability to easily parse their world.

Without knowing it, was The Artifact crafted as a metaphor for my own autism? They always say to write what you know. Was I recreating a feeling that I have in response to the world?

When worldbuilding, it seems that people often build off a feeling that they have. I often find it difficult to articulate the aesthetic of the world, the why or what of that root feeling. I may have found a few tools to describe it here.

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Kayfabe RPG Sessions

Robot ThingyYesterday I talked about what RPGs could learn from Pro Wrestling and how wrestling went from a sport that took too long to win so was only sometimes entertaining enough to an entertainment that looked like sport focused on pleasing fans. It did this by kayfabe or ‘keeping it fake’, fixing fights and enhancing the action with moves that make no sense as far as real wrestling is concerned but are exciting to watch.

So how do we use that to make RPGs an easier hobby to take up and make them more fun in the process? At first the idea of kayfabe making the game more fake sounds awful but so does turning a sport into a pseudosport. The fact is though that Pro Wrestling is a bigger money maker now than it was. The concept when executed properly is successful.

What we have to remember is that the players are not the audience. They are the contestants and the contestants are in on the fakery. In fact, they act out the fakery which is core to making this work.

Lets back up though for a moment and look at the goal of our faking. One is to make the game shorter. Two it’s to amplify the excitement of the game. To get to the good part right away. What is “the good part?” That could change from game to game but I’m going to start with the example of a the final conflict with the Big Bad that comes at the end of the game.

Just skipping to the Big Bad would be unsatisfying. There is no discovery, no ramp up, less challenge to the PCs. We don’t want to just skip to the end. This is where the players being in on the kayfabe comes into play. They generate how they got to this point. The GM presents them with the big exciting finale and then asks them “How did you get here?” and the players describe why they took on a job offered to them by a old man in the village. It doesn’t matter what they come up with as long as it fits the description of them getting to the finale.

You might be thinking “But they don’t have to fight their way through the Big Bad’s hordes to get to this point, they’re fresh as daisies. This won’t be as interesting.” Lets fix that then.

The point of all that build up is partly for the story of a struggle to get to this point and partly to wear down the PCs resources. Let’s have the players generate both. The GM can offer a set of deals. Take 2 hit points of damage and get the “Brave and Heroic” experience bonus. Take off half your ammo and get extra cash. Take 30 points of stress of any kind and you get to pick from this list of equipment. Nothing says they have to take any deals so they have to be tempting enough that the players will bite and make a more interesting story.

Now as well as “How did you get here?” the players also have to integrate the deals they chose into their story.

This whole process should take 15-20 minutes. The finale could then take 40 minutes and you have a game in one hour that included everything you normally put in your games.

There are story advantages to this process also. Because the players can describe their own story, they will likely tell one that is more interesting to them. The GM may learn more about the specific interests of the players and be able to really tune into what they like and want out of a game.

The players can throw in crazy things that they would never accept from a GM. Things like “The guy that gave us the job turned out to be my long-lost father!” because it’s safe from consequence. They have control of it and more or less know what the GM has in store in the finale. Yes there’s some room for surprises but the players have a reasonable expectation of what’s to come.

Mixing it up

What if the real draw to your game isn’t the Big Bad? What if it’s the puzzle, or the mystery that you worked so hard on? Then we reverse the process. The deals happen after the puzzle is solved. So that take off two hit points happens only after the puzzle is done. What if the PC has lost most of their hit points while solving the puzzle and then goes into the finale with only two? Well they die in the battle. Kayfabe it and make up the heroic battle and how they die saving their friends.

Try it, see if you like it. No doubt it will be a bit different from what you’re used to but remember the point is to enhance the entertainment and make the game quicker and easier to take up. This will be an odd sell to a lot of players but would be a lot of fun if embraced. The main question is can players fake it so well that it feels authentic to them, like they really went through all those things.

Let us know what you think. Will you try a kayfabe session?


Filed under Experimental Mechanics, GM Advice

What RPGs Could Learn From Pro Wrestling

In the 19th century wrestling was a big deal. People loved watching a good match. Towns would have their local champions and these champions would battle for the best in the region.

But wrestling had a big problem. Sometimes a match would take hours to finish, maybe even days. This meant that people would eventually lose interest in a match and stop paying to see the next match.

The guys that organized these matches didn’t like that. Even if you have a wrestling fan, you don’t know if they’ll show to see the next match. You don’t know if they’ll keep paying you.

RPGs have a similar problem. They usually take a long time to play. Even if someone likes RPGs, they may not have time to invest in reading a new game. They may not have the time to sit down and play through a session. They may find parts of the game fun but would like to get to the good stuff.

So what did wrestling do? They made the matches shorter. They encouraged wrestlers to use the moves that really got spectators attention.

How did they make the matches shorter? Well, that’s where this gets weird. They lied, they fixed the matches, they even have a word for it. Kayfabe, meaning keep it fake. It’s why the WWF changed to the WWE. It isn’t about a match to see who’s the best wrestler and hope that it entertains spectators. It’s about a match that pretends to see who’s the best, to make sure that spectators are entertained.

In some ways that’s a much more technical endeavor. You have to know what people want and give them more of it. You have to pretend you’re doing one thing (combat) and while you’re doing another (acting out a story).

So how can RPGs do that? I’ll write about that tomorrow.


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Playing With Motivations

I’ve been studying up on character development because in the campaign we’re currently in there is a rich opportunity for interesting NPCs since the PCs don’t know who’s on their side and who’s their enemy. One of the things I want to play with is the classic dramatic motivations just to see what happens with how the players respond to the NPCs. If you’re not familiar with them they are,

  1. Someone to pursue a goal (the Protagonist)
  2. Someone to avoid the goal (the Antagonist)
  1. Someone that helps
  2. Someone that hinders
  1. Someone encouraging to consider a plan
  2. Someone encouraging to reconsider a plan
  1. Someone encouraging logic or reason
  2. Someone encouraging feeling or emotional fulfillment
  1. Someone encouraging excersizing control
  2. Someone encouraging being uncontrolled
  1. Someone to appeal to conscience
  2. Someone to appeal to temptation
  1. Someone who supports (speaks for) efforts
  2. Someone who opposes (speaks against) efforts
  1. Someone to express faith
  2. Someone to disbelieve

Each motivation has it’s opposing motivation. In a story, usually only one character fufills these roles at a time but I’m not going to worry about that at the moment.

The first motivation is for the protagonist, so no NPC would get that one since it normally would go to the PCs. Actually you could give it to an NPC and have the PC take up another one of these motivations but it would take buy in from the players, either tacitly or explicitly for that to work.

So what I’m doing is rolling a die to see which one of these each NPC will start off being. Low roll and the first motivation is chosen for that character, high roll means the second motivation is chosen. For example, try to imagine an NPC who is . . .

  • Someone that helps
  • Someone encouraging to reconsider a plan
  • Someone encouraging logic or reason
  • Someone encouraging being uncontrolled
  • Someone to appeal to temptation
  • Someone who supports (speaks for) efforts
  • Someone to express faith

So this is a character trying to help the players but disagrees on their methods. They’re reasoning and logical about how they do things but maybe that way of life has let them down, so they encourage the PCs to be unpredictable and try to let in to a temptation. What’s interesting about this is, the temptation is traditionally a distraction from the protagonist’s goals. The NPC publicly supports the PCs and expresses faith in them. However since they are trying to get the PCs to reconsider, we know that they have reservations.

Next this rough outline can be applied to the setting and used to really flesh out the NPC’s backstory.

Obviously there could be some combinations that are difficult to reconcile but those are my favorite kind. It could also work to have three conditions when you roll the die. Low means the first choice, a middle value equals the second and high values mean that the character has no part in that motivation.

You could just choose what traits you want the NPCs to take but that seems boring to me. I like to discover the NPC’s by randomly generating them. YMMV.

I haven’t got to use this yet. If the results are particularly significant I’ll post about it. If you use it, leave a comment about how it worked for you.

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How To Handle Language Barriers

Over at RPG Geek they’re talking about language barriers in games. I was surprised at how many people had bad experiences with them but when they explained why, it was because the GM was using them wrong. Another problem people had was that they thought a language barrier only allows for a single kind of role play experience. That’s not true at all.

Barriers in the right places

You wouldn’t put an invisible wall around the players preventing them from continuing on in the story would you? Not without good reason I hope. This is what a language barrier is, an invisible wall. You would put up walls that the players have to get around, over or though right? In many ways a GM frequently puts up barriers that focus the efforts of the players. This is the role of a language barrier. They should never be used haphazardly or randomly.

A language barrier can be used occasionally to slow the players down. This is the most often considered use but it’s like using a screwdriver’s handle for a hammer. It’s not a lot of fun. The players have to figure out how to pantomime or draw pictures in the dirt to convey the right idea. This is the worst use of a language barrier.

A language barrier can be used for comedic effect. This is often used in the wrong way, where the GM tries to make the player characters look silly. You may get some half hearted laughs this way but players don’t usually like their characters being the butt of the jokes. A better way to use a language barrier for comedic effect is to have someone that is trying to help the players but has only a basic understanding of their language and keeps mixing up words like “kitchen” and “chicken” or misunderstanding words. This way the players get to laugh at the NPC and fun is had all around.

It can be used to create the feeling of a stranger in a strange land. In this situation the language barrier rarely actually comes up in the game overtly. The GM provides the players with a few contacts they can speak to and get the things they need. The rest of the population are in effect off limits. They have little need to deal with these foreigners that cannot speak intelligently. This constrains the players available options and creates a harsher atmosphere. This can be used in the wrong places if the GM is only looking to make things hard on the PCs and it isn’t a real thematic use of the barrier.

Language can also be used to limit the amount of information gathering the players try to do. I did this recently with a game where the players were tracking down a missing person, they found his notebook but couldn’t read it but there was a hand drawn map in it that they could follow. The notebook clue was useful, but didn’t give the game away by being able to read the whole thing. A GM should always make the information the players need available to them but can use the language to restrict their access to more that would spoil the plot. For example, if the players capture an enemy and try to interrogate them. If they don’t speak their language, they won’t get very far.

Another use is to provide the players with a translator that they start to not trust. Maybe he’s making some things up because of incompetence or maybe he’s lying to the PCs. This has to start off by establishing the translator’s credibility at first and only very slowly and subtlety introduced. Players tend to jump on inconsistencies quickly. This can also be reversed and have the players questioning perceived inconsistencies in the translator when there really are none to induce a feeling of paranoia (if that’s right for the tone of the game).

So plan out where your language barriers will be. Get them to add to the game’s feel instead of detract from it. This is a social wall, you can make an invisible maze out of it and fill that maze with monsters but never make all the passages lead to dead ends.


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Ambient Music For RPGs

Some years ago I tried to add atmosphere to my games by playing music. I ran into a few problems. Since an RPG usually takes 1-4+ hours to play, you need to either loop a tract, or have a massive mood music playlist. Both approaches have problems. Looping a tract that many times can get on your nerves and a playlist takes time to put together and the problem of a rogue song hitting at a time that you don’t want it to.

When you get a rogue song, the volume is too low to really hear in some parts and then comes crashing in with a loud crescendo and you have to go adjust the volume. This breaks immersion and can get really annoying after a bit.

So you have to have exactly the right music. No huge swings of volume, tracks that are hard to tell they’re being looped and you have to have a lot of it.

So I gave up.

Then one day a gentleman strolled in and said “I have the solution to your problem!” and stood like a superman with his hands on his hips.* He had took the time to not only identify the problems that I had run into, he actually had the musical talent to do something about it. Who was this masked marvel?# It was Joachim Heise!

Joachim (aka Rubbermancer) had put together ambient soundscapes specifically for RPGs and he graciously offered to make some for The Artifact. After getting some ideas about general moods that are dominant in the game he went to work and produced two scores. One for the quiet and cold underground of the planet, good for travel or survival situations and one for when the plasma starts flying and things heat up.

The Artifact Low Energy

The Artifact Conflict

These are long tracks so the file sizes are a bit larger than you might expect. The low energy track is 50 Megs and conflict is 16 Megs so they may take a moment to download. If you have a problem with the files opening in your browser instead of downloading (happens on Macs) right click the link and choose Download Linked File.

So thanks to Joachim for giving The Artifact a soundtrack!

If you want more soundscapes for your RPGs, Joachim is no slouch, he’s got you covered at his site on soundcloud/rpgambience (Now Absolution Ceramic). And he has a blog Rubbermancer.

*Not literally.

#Joachim may or may not show up at your door with a mask on. Marvel if he does.


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Game Preparation

The next portion of the Game Master’s section of the 3rd edition is Game Preparation. In the second edition I had a brief page with some information on putting together a session. I’m putting more of an emphasis on helping out the GM to set up and play so that’s expanding to three pages and a Session Sheet. The Session Sheet is something like a Character Sheet for the GM to write down ideas.

I’m packing into the game preparation some ideas on building meaningful choices into the challenges the characters face in hope of limiting a new GM railroading players and in general helping them think of different possibilities the players may choose to follow instead of trying to force them down a single path. I think I may need to provide a filled out Session Sheet which will be really interesting for me since I usually just improv a game. I’ll try out the sheet for a few games and hopefully I’ll be able to refine it before the rest of the book is done.

The nice thing is that other than the examples, and a line or two, this preparation advice should be pretty universal. If you aren’t planning on running an Artifact game any time soon, try it with your game of choice and let me know how it goes.

Game Preparation

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Getting GMing Right The First Time

In writing a new version of The Artifact I’m really trying to throw out some of my old ideas and start from scratch and a stream of consciousness. If what I end up with is similar to what I had before, then I know my ideas on a subject haven’t changed. If they are significantly different I have to figure out which one is right. The old version or the new. One place there’s a good bit of divergence is the GM Section of the book.

So what’s really different in my views on GMing? I used to think of being GM as an intuitive act. That if you just took a few simple elements, the GM could develop them into a detailed setting. I always knew that wasn’t the case for everyone but I assumed it was partly the case for almost everyone.

Now I wonder what kind of GM I would have become if someone gave me tools to do it right. Would I simply have advanced more quickly? Would I be a different GM? That was the motivation for last week’s post, as simple as those ideas are, I didn’t have a way of thinking about them when I was starting out. All I could do is use my intuition to feel my way through what I was supposed to be doing. When you consider that being GM is the hardest part of playing RPGs, a game book really should do it’s best to guide a new GM.

There are an increasing number of RPG writers that question if the old introductory boilerplate is needed anymore. They reason that since most people who will pick up a game will have played an RPG before, there is no need for explaining the basics. On that I’d have to disagree. I have introduced a few people to RPGs, some of which I could not be physically present to introduce them.

So that introduces my thinking on the matter. Now what do I have to show for it? I’m working on what I hope to be a universal set of ideas that a starting GM can read and not only get a description of what they should do in this role but also a tool that will help them think concretely about if they are doing a good job. That’s a really tricky goal because there are only a few ways GM’s normally fail. There are any number of ways a GM can deliver a good game. As I said last week though, I don’t want to approach this by saying “Don’t do this and you won’t be an awful GM.” I want to be able to say “This is how to be a good GM.” and I think I’m getting close. I have one major problem, I am so close to my own thoughts on this, I sometimes can’t see things I’m obviously missing.

This is where you, dear reader come in. I have distilled my basic advice to less than three pages. Does it stand up? You tell me. Here is the beginning of the GM Section. Is there something important that I’m missing here? Does it teach what needs to be taught? Please let me know your thoughts on the subject.

This isn’t all of it though I am starting a few pages on game preparation. I’m inspired by a few games that make generating a game as simple as filling out a character sheet. I may attempt something like it if I can figure out how.


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