I was disappointed with the design of the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons spellbook cards from Gale Force Nine, so I took a stab at redesigning them. My write up discusses the choices I made as I went.
This post was previously available on a private G+ circle.
I figured it might interest people to know the method I use to cast small LARPs with prewritten characters. The community I play in generally calls these Theater LARPs and / or Parlor LARPs*. This is something I’ve developed over several years with the help of. She came up with the casting worksheet, which I can no longer imagine casting this kind of small game without.
The example questionnaire and casting worksheet come from our game Better Living Through Robotics, which was written at Peaky Midwest 2014 and inspired by the theme for Intercon O (Orbit). We’re currently preparing this game for distribution (by which I mean, I’ve been putting off the prep work I need to do for the last six months and Kathleen has been very patient with me). Hopefully it will be available soon. 🙂
I prefer to pre-cast games to give the players time to read their sheets and plan costumes. I try to get character materials to the players at least one to two weeks before the game is scheduled to run.
In order to figure out which characters to give to which players, I send out a casting questionnaire via email a month or so before the game. The questionnaire gives you an idea of what your players do and, more importantly, don’t want to play.
When I write questionnaires I usually focus on identifying what character traits players might find undesirable. Especially in games where some storylines deal with power dynamics or sexual taboos, I’m wary of giving players roles the aren’t able to embrace. Some stretching of the player’s mind can be good, but having a player shut down entirely because they can’t cope with their character is bad news. I put a lot of my effort into avoiding that kind of catastrophic failure.
For each part of the questionnaire, there are characters it’s most relevant for. For example some characters are written to come face to face with the stuff brought up in the Character Traits section. All characters could potentially be exposed to these themes, but they are more central for a few.
Player responses can also help you identify if a player just should not be in the game at all. Not all games are good for all players at all points in their lives. If I run into someone who has explicitly told me they can’t cope with the content I know will come up for everyone, I generally talk to them (phone or email) and make sure they will be ok in the game. I would rather people didn’t play if the game is likely to hurt them. If they still want to play with things that will push their limits I know to keep a close watch during the game to make sure they aren’t overwhelmed.
The gender and romance questions help with figuring out how you can match up romantic plots. I have been thinking about rewording these questions to be more inclusive, but haven’t gotten around to it. The goal is to let players explore the genders and romances that interest them and ideally make sure that everyone can embrace the roles they’re given enthusiastically. It’s no fun to play a romance plot with someone who shuts you out because they aren’t into it OOC.
I should also note, the example game has characters of non-fixed gender. Any character in the game can be cast as either male or female in any run of the game. I have a script that handles gendering the sheets once the game is cast. The script can also handle ze and they pronoun sets, but this particular game is only written for male and female characters.
Anyhow, once I have all the player responses to the questionnaire, I fill out a casting worksheet to figure out how to best give them things they will enjoy.
I review each player’s questionnaire responses twice. In the first review I flag characters corresponding to anything the player marked as undesirable (for example 1 or 2 in the character traits) as a bad match for that player. In the second review I flag any of the remaining characters who correspond to things the player has marked as desirable (for example 4’s and 5’s in the character traits) as good matches for that player. After these two reviews I flag any remaining unmarked characters as ok for that player.
Once I’ve reviewed all the players questionnaires that way, it’s a lot easier to look at the rows and columns of the casting grid and see if some characters or players have limited matching possibilities. I won’t give players “bad” matches unless I know the player well and have some reason to believe that they would really like the character and simply misinterpreted the questionnaire (this is exceedingly rare!). I’ve only once ended up in a position where I couldn’t find a way to cast a game.
* The term Parlor LARP was coined by Shifting Forest Storyworks games. It got awfully popular in some circles to label small games with 5 to 12 prewritten characters in a limited physical space like one or two rooms.to describe the
“If you can’t die then how can winning a combat mean anything?”
Failure and death. Missing blows, losing, running away…. all things that we’re told you must have in tabletop games so that combat is “meaningful.” I used to assume that when people said “meaningful” they meant “engaging and fun” or “like you were a significant part of something difficult and cool” and by that measure most of the games I’ve played have failed miserably at failure.
I have vivid memories of sitting on a couch in a friend’s basement, waiting thirty to fifty minutes between each round of combat. Often my character would attack and miss. We were playing D&D 3.5 and the GM wasn’t great at combat narration, so missing meant nothing happened. Not slightly boring things or confusing things or even bad things… just nothing. I left those games with the overwhelming feeling that I might as well have stayed home.
I would write that experience off as just being just 3.5 or just that GM, but I’ve had similar issues with other systems that present tactical combat for tabetop. Often a miss mechanically means “nothing.” A good GM will give you some narrative fluff, but functionally, you’ve still got “nothing happens.”
I suspect the designers of many of these tactical games see nothing as a neutral result. As a player who suffered from social isolation as a kid, I see “nothing” as the worst punishment I can receive. I want to be a part of what’s happening, and “nothing” cuts me off, erasing me from the scene while others fill the narrative space.
I’ve slowly come to understand that when most people say “meaningful” they don’t mean “engaging and fun.” Most people mean “mechanically challenging.” I think this assumption that games must focus on “mechanical challenge” to be fun or at the expense of fun is damaging to our overall tabletop experience.
Robin Laws (at least as of February, 2012) would have you believe that we need to be miserable to be challenged because our choices are very limited: pure success, pure failure, or partial success of the action we attempted. How we succeed and fail is measured in resource depletion (hit points, healing, etc.) and we can only have fun when we’re succeeding at the appropriate dramatic time after playing a banal resource management game.
The problem with this is that 1) not everyone likes resource management games and 2) most modern tabletop games include a lot of randomness, so players sometimes contribute highly unequally to a resource management task because of random chance that’s beyond their control. For a player the loss of agency in the face of the “power of the dice” can be very frustrating.
A game built to give people spotlight only when they succeed and to let them succeed only when randomness allows encourages powergaming and penalizes players who don’t powergame as much or as well. Powergaming is not my favorite part of gaming.* I like smashing things as much as the next gamer, but I prefer cooperating with other player characters, not getting the spotlight at the expense of others after extensive rules-mongering.
Accepting that success and failure are a pure dichotomy and resource management is the only available challenge implies that the traditional way tactical games were made challenging is the only way games can be designed. Accepting those restrictions seems like a trap. It limits how you can potentially build systems in tabletop games immensely.
The world in a tabletop RPG is very open ended. I’m not saying we need to ditch counting resources for pure narration. But managing resources doesn’t need to be the sole focus of our tactical challenge. Interesting tactics are made up of all sorts of things like planning, environmental factors, and teamwork that aren’t related to counting hit points. That’s without getting into creative use of non-realistic forces like magic.
I’m not saying we should hand out success on a golden platter with extra fluff to dress it up. The real world is messy and often the best way to learn is to work through failures. We build up solutions to climb over lots of little hurdles until we finally solve the bigger problems. That’s far more compelling than instant success!
I read an article about emergency treatment that totally changed how I look at failure from a narrative point of view. Serious complications are unavoidable in a hospital situation, but some hospitals keep more patients alive despite this. The key to their success is in how they quickly rescue patents when things go wrong. As the author put it the only failure is a failure to rescue.
This concept is great for gaming because it allows for bad things that aren’t direct “action failure” (ie. nullifying what you were trying to do), and brings a “raising the stakes” mentality to the table. Things are going to go wrong. If they don’t, the story we’re telling will sound like a boring Mary Sue fan fiction about how our awesome characters are all awesome and waltz in and win while everything is perfect.
When things go wrong, they’re not always predictable, preventable, or even directly related to what you were attempting. You may have stabbed the dire lion exactly how you wanted to, but in the process you also stumbled on her den so now she’s enraged because you’re between her and her cubs!
Acknowledging that tactical complications can be tangential means a “bad” result doesn’t need to block your original actions. This gives you more interesting ways to interact and engage with the in-game world, while leaving the system free to make more nuanced decisions about how success and failure work.
Another thing that’s huge for me at the gaming table is player agency. I want some level of control over my own destiny, even when that destiny is sliding downhill very quickly in a handcart with no brakes. I’m perfectly willing to be the person who stumbles into the lion’s den, if I either came up with the idea myself or have some choice in the matter (like I agree that trading off the stabbing for the stumbling is worth it). Then it feels like a hilarious and deadly comedy of errors, rather than the GM punishing me for something outside my control like a dice roll.
I started writing this post over a year ago and at that point I hadn’t worked out how to solve these problems. I had thoughts, but thoughts do not a full fledged game system make. Between then and now, Dungeon World (built on the Apocaylpse World engine) beat me to the punch.
Which is pretty awesome; I’d rather play and build on what they made than start from scratch! 🙂
Dungeon World has very quickly become my favorite game system and I think it deserves a bit of a love letter to talk about how it solves some of the problems I’ve talked about and makes gaming fun and engaging. It also addressses some of the shared-narrative-reality issues I’ve mentioned before.
A Love Letter to Dungeon World
Dungeon World explicitly defines the purpose of it’s mechanics, individually called “moves”, as being to bring everyone to the edge of their seat. One of the first things the rules book says about moves is, “Tension and excitement are always the result, no matter how the dice land.” Wow, does the design deliver on that promise.
The mechanical system of success and failure has been built with that “tension and excitement” in mind and it’s a stark contrast from systems that are designed with the goal of “simulating reality” or “introducing randomness.” It’s like they took a short circuit past all the things we thought we wanted to the things we needed to have fun, action packed game sessions.
In Dungeon World there are three basic outcomes of almost all rolls. Rolls are generally 2d6 with some modifiers, usually in the -2 to +3 range, and the general outcomes as described by the book are:
The Basic Outcomes
- 10+: You do it with little trouble
- 7–9: You do it, but with complications or trouble
- 6-: The GM says what happens and you mark XP
This system is surprisingly nuanced, because each individual move, be it hacking and slashing through your enemies or trying to talk NPCs into doing things for you, has specific trade offs for those levels. Some of the complications and trouble explicitly include the player making choices and trade offs, giving them agency in how things go wrong or what dangers they expose themselves to in order to get additional advantages.
Some of the moves that relate to understanding and perceiving the world around you have absolutely fascinating trade offs in that they allow you to ask the GM a certain number of questions from a pre-existing list and the GM must give you an honest and helpful answer. Making a call about whether it’s more important to learn “What happened here recently?” or “Who’s really in control here?” can be tough in a very fun way!
I also want to note that the 6- result tends to be amusing and the fact that you “learn” when you fail is more of a consolation than you might think. We often laugh about “learning about failure” when we roll 6- and the GMing rules behind the moves mean that something happens to change and complicate the situation each time one of these failures is rolled. It’s up to the GM to decide exactly what happens, but it’s not a “nothing.” Often the world shifts under our feet in interesting and unexpected ways in these cases.
Dungeon World also makes a point of the fact that the game isn’t about one person at the table dictating to the others. One of my favorite paragraphs in the introduction describes the game as a conversation.
There are no turns or rounds in Dungeon World, no rules to say whose turn it is to talk. Instead players take turns in the natural flow of the conversation, which always has some back-and-forth. The GM says something, the players respond. The players ask questions or make statements, the GM tells them what happens next. Dungeon World is never a monologue; it’s always a conversation.
While moves are triggered on specific player character actions like “attacking someone with a melee weapon” in character, it’s the job of the table as a whole to agree if people aren’t sure when a move is taking place. It’s not the job of the GM to decide and dictate. Dungeon World recommends that the whole table discusses in-game reality until everyone understands and agrees on what’s happening and if a move should be used. I can’t tell you how giddy I was when I read that because it so perfectly matched my mental model of how shared realities are constructed in tabletop games.
As a Dungeon World player, you take a big part in the conversation that determines the in-game reality of the world. The GM is encouraged to ask players questions which define the background facts and history of the world and everyone works together to stay within the existing established facts about the world. The GM is also encouraged to ask players questions about their characters and there are some moves that specifically require you to justify how your character knows what they know. This may sound tedious, but it somehow turns into an awesome organic backstory generator for PCs that accretes over time. Along with the fact that making a starting PC takes like 5 minutes, Dungeon World characters are some of the most dynamic and fun characters I’ve ever seen. They’re simple to make, become deep, multi-dimensional people with surprising speed, and are easy to get attached to.
I especially love the alignment system in Dungeon World. Every character gets a choice of alignments based on their class (different classes have access to different sets) and each alignment comes with an alignment move that reflects something your character is rewarded for doing. An example of my favorite chaotic move from the Thief class is “leap into danger without a plan”. Most of the alignment moves are similarly active and they make the act of being your alignment less being and more doing. There are XP rewards for performing your alignment move, which encourages players to portray alignments in interesting ways.
Dungeon World has an explicit set of three reasons why you play the game: to see the characters do amazing things, to see them struggle together, and because the world still has so many places to explore. It codifies these goals by giving PCs overt bonds with each other that provide mechanical advantages when they work together and grant XP as the bonds evolve over time. PCs also get experience when they learn new and important things about the world, overcome notable monsters and enemies, and loot memorable treasure. At the end of each session you do an “End of Session” move where you get experience for these things and for performing your alignment move during the session. This is a very powerful motivator to keep plots moving, to continue exploring, and to actively portraying alignments.
None of this has even touched on the innovation behind the GM mechanics in Dungeon World and how they encourage putting the player characters and their actions center stage. That’s probably a love letter for another time!
Dungeon World definitely has it’s issues (let’s not talk about the Bard class… *sigh*) but on the whole it deserves the acclaim it’s currently getting. It’s a very different take on fantasy tabletop gaming, focused much more directly on having an exciting, fun adventure that includes and engages all the players. I can honestly say the Dungeon World games I played are among the most meaningful I’ve taken part in… and that’s no mean feat given the number of systems I’ve played.
* If it is yours that’s fine: go powergame with friends who also like powergaming and have fun. It’s not my thing. I don’t think I’m alone in preferring other styles of play.
I’ve been learning more about Nordic LARP over the last year and over all it’s been very informative. One thing that’s irritated me is the insistence that a big swath of Nordic games are not LARP and that people on this side of the pond shouldn’t call them LARP.
I should preface this by saying I’m not trying to prescribe what the Nordic community should call their own games. That’s none of my business. What’s bothering me is when people take part in the Nordic LARPing scene, come to another community, and get upset that community doesn’t use words and concepts the same way. Words are not absolute. They only have meaning as far as that meaning is agreed upon by the community using them. While it’s good to know how the Nordic community is using them, that doesn’t define how everyone else uses them, nor should it.
In the community I take part in (the greater Chicago LARP community, which crosses over a lot with the Boston community) LARP means pretty much anything where you’re roleplaying a character and physically acting out your character’s actions. That’s not the same definition the Nordic community uses and it classifies some of their games differently than they do. While we should know and be sensitive to their definition while talking about their games, I don’t think we have an obligation to change our definition. In our community those games are LARP; how we see them is unlikely to change because we have a different view of what LARP means. It’s not productive or respectful to tell us that we need to change our definition to match that of another community.
The corollary to that is authors don’t get full control over how people classify and interpret their games. That’s just as true for things I write as it is for things written by the Nordic community. There are real cultural differences here that cause us to see games through different eyes. We should try to understand our differences so we can communicate effectively, but assimilation isn’t the “solution” to their existence.
So the player characters are tromping through a giant mushroom forest this week… what do I say to them? I need to tell them about the forest, but what words should come out of my mouth? Stopping with, “You walk into a giant mushroom forest,” won’t convey the world I’ve built in my head at all.
Narration advice I’ve heard includes: “read more”, “play lots of games and emulate your favorite GMs”, and simply “practice.” These are great suggestions but they don’t work for everyone. The anxiety jitters I feel when I sit down to GM haven’t gone away despite doing all those things.
After a lot of struggling, I found more specific narration suggestions in the writing community. Much of this post is based on the content and structure of a post by N. Strauss. Similar ideas and variations of them are discussed, in different terms, in this article by Stephen King from 1980 (link may be unreliable). I also found useful tips on scene goals in this post by Chris Eboch. I condensed and reframed their ideas to more directly apply to tabletop RPG narration.
Many of these techniques are for describing physical places or people and most generalize to describing anything else that’s physically perceptible: creatures, spell effects, plants, prophetic visions, etc. Don’t feel limited by the exact examples I picked.
Before a game I sit down and write short bullet lists of three to eight items for places and NPCs the players are likely to run into. When I narrate I incorporate the points from the lists. I sometimes create more than I need, but no single place or person takes long. The things that I prepare ahead of time are much more vivid than things I come up with at the table.
Use specific details in your descriptions.
Imagine I’m GMing and I say, “Your party reaches a small village”, what are you picturing? Form an image of the scene in your mind.
Suppose I said, “Your party reaches a small gnomish village. All the homes and shops are diminutive but sturdy and well built.” Is the picture in your mind’s eye a bit different now?
How about, “Your party reaches a small gnomish village just as the sun begins sinking beneath the horizon. The diminutive homes and shops are sturdy and well built but strangely quiet. Doors are closed, windows are shuttered, and you don’t see anyone in the streets.” Is this place giving you a slightly different impression? Would your plan for what to do next change based on these details?
Specific details help the players take in the world the way they would if they were really there. Details also help players figure out how to begin reacting to the world and investigating new places and people.
Choose the details carefully.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking more details is more better, but a flood of irrelevant details will blot out the bigger picture and bore the monkeys out of your players. At some point they’ll tune out your “boxed text” or, worse yet, become actively disruptive in an attempt to make you stop talking.
Pick details that make the picture clear without overwhelming the players. If you’re worried about camouflaging something in the scene, like a trap trigger or hidden loot, make the environment more complex and interesting instead of padding the description with irrelevant details.
A competent trap builder would know better than to put an obvious pit trap in an otherwise featureless 10 by 10 room. Likewise, players don’t need to hear about the size and shape of every barrel in a storeroom if none of them are relevant to their quest or contain anything interesting.
Choose details that differentiate.
Just about every fantasy character has a race, so if you tell me a woman is an elf that doesn’t help me to picture her or know how to react to her. If you tell me she’s a thin elf in traveling clothing carrying a bow, I have more of an idea of who she is. There are still a lot of elves that could describe. If you also tell me she has a scar across her left eye, a medallion of the local neutral elven god around her neck, and an air of disdain about her when she looks at the non-elven party members, I have a much clearer impression. These details distinguish her from other elves the PCs will meet in their travels.
When you have to describe something, ask yourself how is this _____ different from all the other _____s that my party will run into?
Use details that suggest a bigger picture.
If you describe a tavern table as unpleasantly sticky, with a visible layer of grime that hasn’t been cleaned in years, I’m likely to assume the rest of the building is in a similarly disgusting and flea infested state. If you tell me that a cavern is scattered with fresh bones I’m likely to assume that a dangerous predator lives here… and could be coming back soon!
Keep the situation beyond the immediate scene in mind when you describe the surroundings. Include details that foreshadow or offer clues about things you want the players to know or guess.
This holds for characters and monsters as well. Scars, clothing, colors, patterns, and adornments can suggest their history and allegiances or foreshadow their future plans and loyalties.
Describe things the way the characters would perceive them.
Different player characters are likely to notice different things in the same situation. You can add a lot of flavor by giving a player additional description specific to their character’s history, unique skills, or physical position in the environment.
For example, a rogue may have a sharper eye on the details of security, like locks and guard patterns, or they may notice how easily NPCs could be bamboozled or pickpocketed. Someone who grew up locally might be quicker to pick out strange changes to local traditions. A shorter race like a halfling (or someone who’s been knocked to the floor with a well timed punch) will probably have an easier time seeing a paper pinned to the underside of a table.
Don’t force the PC to mechanically test for this information. This isn’t hard for them to notice; you’re telling them about things they can see easily that others would have a more difficult time perceiving.
You can pass PC-specific description to a player in a note or verbally. If you start passing notes it’s up to the player if they want to share the information truthfully with the others. If you tell them verbally the other players will know, whether or not their characters find out. Each strategy has it’s strengths and some groups handle one or the other with more grace.
Incorporate all the senses in the description.
Picture a scene in your mind and imagine the visuals of what the characters would see there. If you also think about how it smells, what temperature it is, and what it sounds like it’ll feel more like a real place. Sounds, smells, and other tactile cues don’t need to be ominous or strange. A bakery might smell of cinnamon, or closing a door might dampen the noise from a party the characters are sneaking out of. The existence of the other senses will better connect your players to the moment and can give them hints to what’s happening around them.
This particular piece of advice is a bit trite, but used with the other techniques, it creates more immersive and vivid descriptions.
Tell players what they perceive, not how they feel about it.
When you GM it feels easy to describe things in terms of reactions or judgments. I can’t count the number of times GMs have told me non-player characters were “sweet” or “trustworthy” when my first reaction was they’ll more likely than not push me into a volcano if I turn my back on them. As a GM you don’t get to dictate how PCs feel about the world. Nine times out of ten if you try to tell them how to feel they’ll ignore you anyway.
Pushing value judgments also isn’t an effective way to describe things. “You see at a scary castle,” isn’t going to make your players feel fear. Instead choose specific details that are intended to make the castle sound ominous and uninviting.
“After hours of trudging up and down you round the curve of a last hill and get your first glimpse of the castle. It’s still about a half mile away, up the twisting, winding path on the mountainside. The castle’s foundation juts out from the rocks of the cliffside so that half of it sits over empty air. In the shadow of the mountain it’s hard to make out the exact shape of the castle walls, but you can pick out the dark roofs of the jagged tower tops silhouetted against the sky. The wind picks up and you can hear a faint whistling or howling from somewhere within the castle’s crumbling stones.”
If you describe a scary castle, the players will feel the fear on their own.
Phrase descriptions in terms of what the PCs perceive. Avoid describing things with value judgments (“nice”, “ugly”, “beautiful”, “kindly”) or feelings that imply a character’s reaction (“scary”, “infuriating”, “lovable”, “confusing”). To get a specific reaction or value judgment from the PCs, focus on describing details that would cause you to react that way or make that value judgement.
Note: There are some times when mechanics like magic dictate how a character feels. Those are an obvious exception here. It’s still important to give the players some agency. Yes, the mechanics may say their character must flee from the dragon in terror, but while terrorized and fleeing different characters are going to react differently. Tell the player the restrictions of the mechanic and let them narrate their own (re)actions under those restrictions.
Describe things with a purpose.
Narration is a powerful tool. It can help you to move the plot forward, create moods, give players big pieces of information, or subtle hints and nudges in new direction when they get confused. You can pack a lot into each scene.
In a tabletop game you don’t always know where the protagonists are headed. Sometimes the players expect a scene to be important, and it doesn’t match where you thought the plot was going, so you don’t have anything planned. You can still strive to make the most of whatever situation the party wanders off into.
You can use a scene to:
- advance the current plot
- advance the over-arching plot
- give the characters important information
- give the characters hints or rumors about the over-arching plot
- reveal something about the PCs or NPCs
- reveal something about the world
- develop a theme or foreshadow a future event
- set the mood
When you imagine a scene for the first time, pick one to four of these goals you want to accomplish in the scene. You’ll need to decide the specifics of the goals, like what future event you’d be foreshadowing. When you come up with your descriptions be sure to include at least one or two details that support each of the goals you chose and, if possible, a few details related to what the players are likely to want from the area.
Revealing things about the protagonists in tabletop games is slightly different than in books. It can be prompted by something the GM pulled from a character’s backstory and worked into the current plot. It can also be spontaneous and player driven. When I run long term games I compile lists of themes and elements players have built into their characters. Using these same themes and elements in the plot or incidentally in the world can give the players opportunities to build on their characters, without pulling the development out of their hands.
Setting the mood in a scene is crucial in some genres and it’s different with a table full of players than a single reader. I try to slowly build up to mood changes over several scenes in the way that a good horror story builds up normality. For horror and unease specific mood, I’ve found that weather, light, and heat related descriptions can have a profound impact on how players feel about about a place. Often how uneasy my players are is directly proportional to how normal vs unnatural the weather and temperature is. For example, if the party enters a shop, it can also be dark, strangely cold and damp, or smelling of mouldy books.
Put your descriptions in terms of what the PCs perceive. Include specific details and pick enough of them to illustrate important things in the scene without going into all the irrelevant minutiae. Decide which details to use by asking how the specific thing you’re describing differs from similar ones the PCs have seen or will run into. Use descriptions including multiple types of sensory information (sight, sound, smell, touch, etc.). When possible offer individual PCs different details geared toward their personal view of the world. If you want the players to feel something or make a value judgment, focus on describing details that would cause you to feel those feelings or make that value judgement.
Decide if there are situations or future events beyond the immediate scene you want to foreshadow. Pick one to four specific goals you’d like to accomplish in each scene.
Don’t worry if you only use some of these tips at any given time. A scene in a tabletop game doesn’t need to be a perfectly nuanced and polished masterpiece. The purpose of descriptions in RPGs is to convey the important details to the players, not write a book.
What about all that other narration that’s not description?
There’s a lot to narration that’s not description of the static physical state of things. Action narration, combat narration, and effectively role-playing NPCs are each their own cans of worms that I’m not going to open right now. Depending on my motivation I may write about more of these in the future. 🙂
The in-game world in a tabletop RPG is subjective. Everything exists in the thoughts of the people sitting around the table. This theoretical world only becomes a shared reality when one person tells the others what they think exists.
More concretely, if words don’t come out of your mouth, the part of the world you’re imagining doesn’t exist for the table as a whole.
It took me a while to realize why this is so dangerous. As a GM if I imagine important things that I don’t describe, players often misunderstand what I imagined in the physical space around their PCs. This can lead to unfortunate situations where they make decisions that are reasonable based on how they imagine the world and utterly stupid based on how I imagine the world. The problem isn’t that the players are stupid, crazy, or reckless; I gave them a bad view of what’s in my mind.
This kind of miscommunication can lead to some very frustrating games of Twenty Questions as players grope around the metaphorical landscape trying to get the GM to illuminate details that their characters should be able to easily perceive. It’s frustrating for both the players and the GM.
Players aren’t immune to failing at this kind of detail communication either; since they aren’t traditionally the final arbiters for the table’s shared reality, when players fail to communicate it affects the game in a different way. Players sometimes don’t mention things they imagine about their character or their character’s actions and only realize later that the GM didn’t default to imagining the same things. This is the classic situation of “but I totally bought rations at the last town,” when buying rations would be a reasonable thing to do, but the player hadn’t explicitly mentioned it.
As the GM this puts me in a bad position: either I have to tell the player that since it wasn’t in the shared reality (they didn’t tell the table before) it isn’t true, or I can tell them that it’s fine, they can have done something after-the-fact. Neither of these is ideal. Players who get shut down for not conveying their mental model of the world clearly tend to become paranoid and over communicate every little detail, no matter how irrelevant or boring.
Players who are always allowed to do things “after the fact” face the temptation of saying they would have done things they wouldn’t have because it’s convenient for their characters to have done them. Most groups want to build their narrative chronologically, with a planned release of secret information over time for dramatic effect. So a lot of gamers I know look down on a player changing their actions after-the-fact as something that verges on cheating. Even if I don’t think it’s a big deal in a specific case, it tends to make people grumpy if some after-the-fact action changes are allowed and others are not. And if I wanted to run a game where players could retroactively change the continuity of the narrative at any time I’d be better served by a less traditional RPG.
The other dangerous thing about the table’s shared reality is that it makes secret-keeping feel far more clever than it is. In real life secrets can be hard to cover up… there’s often physical evidence or multiple people who might spill the beans. If I want to keep a secret from my players in a game, it’s pretty darn easy. Literally everything in a tabletop game is secret until you tell the table about it.
Because it’s hard to keep secrets perfectly in real life, keeping secrets in a game feels seductively valuable. It’s not… and when I started seeing everything as secret by default I realized that if I keep a secret perfectly, it adds nothing to the game. It’s never revealed and none of the players know or care about it’s existence.
Instead of hoarding secrets like dragon gold, it’s more fun to slowly reveal them over time. Building up clues and hints gives clever players something to puzzle over. For unobservant players who don’t care about figuring out secrets it may just be background color that makes the world seem a bit more chaotic and real. When a secret is revealed later that color may take on interesting retroactive significance.
Hoarding secrets is a common pitfall for players too. If you’re playing a character with cool appearance, dark secret, or interesting back-story and you never bring it up in game you’ve lost the opportunity to share this cool aspect of your character with the other people at the table. Don’t hold character secrets close to your chest. Get them out there and let them define you in-character. If they cause messy complications, that’s one more thing the GM can work into the fabric of the story, and GMs almost always appreciate PCs with opportunities for more story!* If you ask some GMs will even be willing to conspire and help you yank some skeletons out of your closets.
This post has mostly talked abstractly about when to communicate the things you imagine and share secrets you’re hiding. I’ve read posts on similar topics and they always make me think, “but how exactly do I describe something so the other people here see what I’m imagining?” It’s a question that I struggled with for a long time. In my next post I’ll be offering a few concrete tips.
* Note: This isn’t a license to be an asshole. If you do things that seriously hurt or kill the other PCs without asking the players if that’s okay, you’re going to deserve whatever censure you get. If you knowingly hurt players by pushing their out-of-character buttons without making sure that’s something they’re okay with, you should probably rethink why you’re taking part in this hobby.
I want to start by saying, I have a strong fondness for wargames. I cut my teeth on board games and tactical wargames long before I got excited about tabletop RPGs. Wargames have rules, generally well defined rules, and that’s a lot easier for a kid who’s a bit awkward around other people.
The origins of RPGs in wargaming are far before my time (I’m not that old!) but I’ve seen the echos of how wargaming has shaped the industry right through to modern times. There’s a series of unspoken assumptions that people make about rules and how the rules you have reflect on a game that’s slowly shifted over the years. New, truly innovative games have chipped away at old ideas and prejudices as people began to accept that a game can have a short book with few rules and produce a consistent and enjoyable experience.
In the 80’s and 90’s the RPG writer’s favorite example of why we have rules seemed to be a kid’s game of cops and robbers. “It’s like that,” they’ll say, “but we have rules so that when one person says ‘I hit you!’ the other person can’t just say ‘No, you missed!’” The problem is, even kids don’t quite behave that way. Sure they fight and disagree, but kids have a great sense of narrative arcs and they absorb archetypal stories and characters like sponges. When I ran games for kids it was awesome how hard they worked to get things like “the anti-hero’s redemption through heroic sacrifice” to happen. They knew that was how the stories were supposed to go.
Beyond that, most of us aren’t children. The unspoken point behind the cops and robbers example is that children can be petulant and angry when they don’t get their own way. Assuming that you need iron clad rules to adjudicate every conflict without wiggle room means the players and GM you’re modeling are so immature they never got past that development stage. Do we really think gamers are incapable of looking beyond their immediate wants to the desires of other people or the needs of the group? Or that they’re totally incapable of separating their in-character persona from their out-of-character self?
None of this was important in war games because players weren’t actors in the unfolding drama. You might want that cavalry unit to win a skirmish, but you weren’t personally invested in the survival of one of those little riders. You were focused on the larger battle and the tactical puzzle of how to beat your opponent. The rules were used to abstract away physical and psychological things on the battlefield, since recreating a battle at 1:1 scale with actual military gear and people killing each other isn’t practical.
The focus of many wargames has traditionally been on understanding and recreating historical events, so rules supporting realism were valued over a game being fast or abstractly fun. It’d be especially bad if a wargame was prone to unrealistic numerical imbalances of power, since the overt goal is generally to give players a fair chance to display their tactical prowess as if they were commanding real units. These values have persisted for a long time in the tabletop community and you can still find gamers who put a very high premium on rules being “realistic”, “technically correct”, or “accurate”… even to the exclusion of being fun at times.
But in a tabletop game the role each person takes is very different than in a wargame and what it means to “win” is coincidentally different. What people think of as winning in RPGs varies about as much as what they think it means to win in real life. Designers have always tried to deal with this to some degree. We’ve seen cooperative tabletop games, adversarial tabletop games, and games that can be either depending on the player’s choices. This all sounds very flexible, but up until the last ten years or so many designers lost sight of why rules existed in their games.
Highly tactical games, like Shadowrun or editions of D&D like 3.0 and 3.5, focus on creating an air-tight set of “realistic” tactical rules… giving the players something they hopefully can’t subvert or unbalance too badly. This is often a reaction to the power-gaming that occurred in earlier versions of the rules. Other than power gaming issues, designers didn’t generally talk about what kinds of gameplay those rules were encouraging or what kind of gameplay they wanted to encourage. If you wanted a good experience at the table, you had to find a good GM or be a good GM.
To me it felt a lot like wearing a sweater 5 sizes too big to a formal dance. Sure, I’m not nude, but I’m really not dressed for the occasion. If I go to the dance with my best friends we’ll probably enjoy it, but the sweater isn’t helping me to have fun, just keeping me from being arrested for public indecency.
For a while there was push-back against highly tactical, complex games. Some games, like Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM), began trying to present simpler, more compact rules that let groups ignore the “realistic” complexities and get on with their gaming. Many of these games were still very generic and a lot of people looked down on them because they didn’t have highly structured systems. I got some side-eyes when I chose to run a BESM game and I’m pretty sure that a few of my friends filed it away mentally as, “well she’s just doing it because she can’t handle the rules in a real game like D&D.”
Some of these games also hearkened back to the subset of the very early old school RPGs that had much simpler rules. A few of these early games, like Tunnels & Trolls, are still around and started getting considerably more attention during this period.
Slowly game designers began to question, what game are these rules creating? How can I create the experience I want with different rules? And what experiences do gamers want anyway? This led to games like My Life with Master and Steal Away Jordan that pushed players into more narrative responsibilities and situations that were possibly less familiar or comfortable.
Over time these indie games got more and more traction and larger companies started producing rules that were tuned to helping players create the experience the designers wanted, rather than modeling reality. Not all of these were “rules light” or moved in the direction you might think. D&D 4.0 was built on rules geared to create a tactical combat game that valued a balanced and fun player experience rather than pure simulation or realism; it was a big deviation from it’s predecessors and upset a lot of people because of it. Around this time we also got a flood of narrative storytelling games like Shock and Fiasco that shifted the responsibility of narration entirely over to players, removing the GM from the game.
There are still people who prefer Shadowrun to Fiasco or the Leverage RPG, but the general attitudes have shifted. Games aren’t looked down on just because they have fewer or less traditional rules and people are starting to understand that a game can create other kinds of experiences if it uses rules designed for purposes other than simulation.
There may still be lessons in wargaming that can help us to grow, but we’re beginning to build games based on the unique needs of tabletop play, instead of living in wargaming’s shadow.