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Of all the GMing techniques in all the Kingdoms of all the Lands, my very favourite is the humble question. It is versatile, editorial, creative, and narrative. It allows the GM to shape the story while giving ultimate say to the players. And it’s a relief to share the narrative burden GMs typically bear with everyone else at the table (sharing narrative authority is awesome).
But while asking questions is just one GMing technique, it has far more than one purpose. Questions can be used to perform a number of important GMing functions – even several at the same time. In this article, I will be discussing the key uses of questions for GMs, and giving examples of some of my favourites. Buckle in, and prepare for some wild interrogatives.
Paint the scene
What does the throne room look like?
What does the appearance of the army camp tell you about the state of the war?
As your sister turns away, what expression crosses your face?
The first, and most obvious use of the question is to “paint the scene.” Painting the scene means describing sensory details – what does something look like, smell like, sound like? What is he wearing, how does she knock him unconscious, what does the throne room look like, how does the mage cast the spell?
Descriptive questions are great as they bring the world to life, and allow players to contribute to the look and feel of what is happening. But the best scene painting questions don’t just add pleasant sensory details, they also reveal realities.
In most settings, a brown robe and a grey robe are fundamentally the same. But a tattered robe, and an ornately embroidered robe say something very different about the wearer. When asked descriptive questions, players will often choose to reveal important details like these. However, scene painting questions can also prompt players to reveal these realities. They can do so in two ways.
Firstly, the question can ask the players to reveal realities about a certain thing. For example, the question “what does the appearance of the army camp tell you about the state of the war?” seems to be about the army camp, but actually asks players to reveal realities about the state of the war. If there is a specific reality you wish to reveal, you can also narrow your questions even further, for example by asking “what does the appearance of the army camp tell you about the disastrousness of the war effort?”
Secondly, you can ask players to paint the scene about something that is always telling. For example, the question “as your sister turns away, what expression crosses your face?” will always reveal a juicy detail about a character’s inner state.
Drive the story
What do you do?
You’re running short on supplies, what do you do?
Do you let him get away with that?
Perhaps the most useful function of a GM question is to drive the story forward by prompting a character or group of characters to act. The classic question used in this case is the simple, but effective, “what do you do?”
“What do you do?” is a great story driving question, but it’s not the only story driving question. It can fall short if it is too general to prompt player response. For example “The path leads to the town, what do you do?” In this case, you can improve the question in one of two ways.
Firstly, you can give players a choice of two options to help them decide, for example “This town is known for its drinking and its fighting, and you know where to find both. What do you do?”
Or, the second way to improve this question is to give the characters a reason to act in a particular way.
Giving a reason to act
Using a question to give characters a reason to act is my all-time most favourite question technique. It is simple, but very effective, and drives the story forward in a meaningful way. Think of something that the character needs, values, or has planned. Then, connect that to the situation via a question.
For example, continuing on the above you might say “The path leads to the town. Elrin is here, didn’t you swear revenge on him? What are you going to do?” Or, “the path leads to the town. You’re running perilously short on supplies, what do you do?”
You can also use this kind of question to ratchet up the tension, and create a difficult moment, or hard decision. For example: “Farrin you saw that – you saw how he insulted your brother, are you going to let him get away with that?”
Should we end that scene there?
What if she already has the sword?
You easily grab it and return to the inn. But now you have it, what are you going to do?
One of the most important functions of the GM is to edit the flow of play. Editing the flow of play helps skip the boring bits, zoom in on juicy narrative moments and share the spotlight evenly among players. Primarily, editing questions move the spotlight, across both characters and events.
As a GM, you’ll probably find you use questions to edit play instinctively all the time. Common editing questions are used to:
Move the spotlight: “What is Elizabeth up to?”
Move from one scene to the next: “Should we end the scene there? And pick up with the scene at breakfast the next morning?”
Move from one event to the next: “You easily grab it and return to the inn. But now you have it, what are you going to do?”
Notice something about that last question? Yep, it also drives the story forward. The best editing questions often drive the story while also accomplishing an editing function. Take for example the question I used in the previous section. Say the spotlight had been on Richor, and his argument with Elrin, who insulted Richor publically in front of the council. This argument goes on for a while, and you as the GM realise you need to move the spotlight to another player. You think of the perfect question: “Farrin you saw that – you saw how he insulted your brother, are you going to let him get away with that?”
Are you the older sister?
When did you leave Boom Town?
Was that before the grenade went off or after?
In an ideal world we could all read each other’s minds (I’m going to keep going before you have a chance to think about that) but the fact is, we can’t. And even when we say things out loud, we aren’t all perfect listeners either, especially when we’re concentrating on our player characters. It’s an important part of the GMs role to ask clarifying questions and make sure everyone is on the same page. It’s worth stepping in with a clarifying question when:
Things become very vague, and that vagueness is making it hard to tell a story
Things are starting to contradict each other, or be difficult to marry up
Players clearly aren’t aware of important aspects of the story or each other’s characters
Highlight themes and bring home realities
Charlotte, you’ve just been snubbed by someone far below you in rank and wealth—are you really going to let that stand?
Henry, you’ll control Lydia’s entire fortune once you inherit—are you going to let her talk to you that way?
Emma, Lady Thorn is far above you in the social pecking order, and is very influential—and here she is asking you for a favour. How are you going to respond?
Geoff, Charlotte has been a good friend of yours, but her reputation lately has become enveloped in scandal! Are you just going to allow her into your drawing room in such a public way?
The four questions above are all from the Facilitator section of the Good Society rule book (the Facilitator is similar to a GM). Good Society is a Jane Austen RPG, and these questions are from the section entitled “highlighting setting elements through questions.” They are example of how you can not only remind players of realities and themes that are important, but also prompt action on those realities and themes, bringing them into the story in a direct way. The exact questions you can use to bring the themes of your game into the narrative will depend, but it is important that they prompt action. And if they prompt action that creates a hard decision or creates more complexity in a player relationship, even better.
Above, I’ve outlined five ways you can use questions to up your GMing game. What’s your go to GM question, and why?
I like to think that when I play a roleplaying game with other people, we are working together to tell a story. We surprise each other—developing new twists and turns in the narrative as we go. Or we delight each other—playing into hints and clues left earlier to create a bitter conflict or a smoochful romance. Regardless of how the story goes, we act together to create it. And we do this by sharing narrative authority.
In this article, I will discuss why you should be mindful of sharing narrative authority in your games, and how you might do so.
What is narrative authority?
Narrative authority is the ability of a person in a game to say what happens and describe things in the story. When characters enter a new location, who gets to decide what is happening there? When the giant centipede is struck down with a fatal blow, who gets to describe what that looks like?
Narrative authority is not the same as the spotlight
It’s important not to confuse narrative authority with the spotlight. Narrative authority refers to a person’s ability to make decisions about what is happening in the game. Spotlight refers to the time they spend actually speaking. If Gurr and Snark live in the same castle, the players of both might be able to determine its description and contents. They both have narrative authority. If Gurr’s player steps is the one who actually gives the description, Gurr’s player has the spotlight.
It’s also possible to hold the spotlight without holding very much narrative authority. For example, the GM might ask Gurr’s player— “tell me how Gurr falls over ,hits their head on a rock and is knocked out.” While doing so, Gurr’s player will have the spotlight, but not much control over the narrative at all.
Sharing the spotlight is important, but it’s not a substitute for the ability to make decisions about the story.
The traditional approach to narrative authority
Traditionally narrative authority is broken up like this:
The players have the say over their character, and decide what their character attempts to do.
The system determines the success or failure of the characters.
The GM has the say over everything else.
It is often said that players control individual characters, while the GM controls the world. This hands nearly all of the narrative authority to the GM. The GM can then give bits and pieces of it away by asking questions like “what does…?” and “how does…?” But it still remains a commodity they control. Most GMs will delegate out narrative authority subconsciously to some degree—generally by asking questions.
As an example, imagine an adventuring party is in combat. Consider who gets to answer the following questions:
What does the cave look like?
What is happening in the cave?
What does the enemy do?
What does Gurr do?
What happens when Gurr does it?
What does Gurr’s cousin (a helpful NPC) do?
The traditional division of narrative authority is attractive because it’s easy. It’s clear who gets to say what. But it can also be very restrictive for players, and very burdensome on the GM. As I have wanted to be a better player and contribute more to games, I’ve found myself butting heads with this approach. And, after trying the alternative of sharing narrative authority, I’ve found it to be much more enjoyable.
Why is it important to share narrative authority?
There are three main reasons why it’s important to share narrative authority.
The first reason is that sharing narrative authority is how you tell a story together. People are wonderful, imaginative, and emotional. When everyone gets to contribute, you get to capture all of that in your play. The traditional approach expects one person to be responsible for nearly all the good stuff in the game. An analogy I’ve heard many times is that the GM creates the playground for the players to play in. The heavy burden this creates is the reason why there is such strong pressure for GMs to be “entertaining”, “descriptive”, and “evocative”, standards that are often not expected of players. However, there is actually no reason why all this responsibility has to sit with the GM. When you work with others to tell the story together, you access the combined wonders of your imaginations, which is better than what any one person could produce.
The second reason is because sharing narrative authority creates more control over the game for each player. Players vote for the future content of the game with their description and input. They can work collaboratively to create an experience that interests all of them. Not only is this usually more fun for players, it also ties in closely with my final reason.
When narrative authority is shared, players are more invested in the game. They feel like they have helped to build the story, and as all authors do, they become very attached to their creations. When you give players control over the story, their care factor increases substantially.
If you’re still not sold on the benefits of sharing narrative authority, I’d recommend giving it a go and checking in with whether everyone enjoyed it. It can take a couple of sessions to get used to, but it’s worth the investment.
How much narrative authority should I share?
Share as much narrative authority as you feel comfortable with. Then share a bit more. There is no limit to the amount of narrative authority that you can share as long as everyone is ready. But as this kind of sharing can be unusual for a lot of groups, it’s fine to make the shift slowly as well.
A lot of GMs have reservations about sharing narrative authority that go along the following lines:
The story won’t be consistent if it’s shared
The players won’t enjoy the story if there’s no mystery
If the players can just chip in whenever they like, who will drive the story forward?
But I had an awesome idea of what should happen next
Try sharing and see is my answer to most of these. But it’s also important to remember two things. Firstly, players will surprise and delight each other—there is mystery in how other players will react. Secondly, roleplaying is a conversation, and a lot of these difficulties will be overcome by people simply listening to each other and building on what has already been said.
How can I start sharing narrative authority?
Today’s the session you’ve decided to give sharing narrative authority a go. Great! Remember everything won’t fall into place at once, especially if this is alien to the way you usually play. But you’ll get a much richer game for the effort.
Step 1: Tell the players that they have narrative authority and can decide things
You might say something along the following lines:
Hey, so you know how I’m normally the one who describes things and plays all the other people in the world? I reckon it would be pretty fun if you guys get to do those things too. That way we can all tell the story together.
This means you get to describe stuff and make stuff happen whenever you have a good idea. And it doesn’t have to be just about your character either. You can describe stuff about anything. If you want to, you can make up people, places, and complications—be as self-indulgent as you like! As always, we’ll share the spotlight and make sure everyone has an equal chance to indulge.
You may also want to throw in a few examples for clarity that reference events in your game.
Step 2: Encourage players to take narrative control during the story, and give positive feedback when they do
Ask players questions to help them take on narrative control. But push them a bit further than you ordinarily would. Ask them to describe the cave, but also ask them for the secret that’s hidden inside it. Ask them to describe the bartender, but also ask how that bartender knows one of the other characters. Then make them play the bartender!
Give lots of positive feedback. A great way to do this is via the o-card (link).
Step 3: Move the narrative authority as appropriate, and help players avoid playing against themselves
As players are getting used to working together, you’ll have to conspicuously move the narrative authority to help people take turns. At a key moment, use a question to shift the focus. So, if one player describes a hidden box, ask a second player what’s inside it—and why it’s is so important to the first player!
One key reason you’ll need to move the narrative authority is to avoid players taking on the role of their own antagonists, or challenges in the world. A player should never describe a dangerous situation if their character will also be the first one to enter it. And they should never take on the role of their own arch-enemy.
One way to avoid this situation occurring is to allow players to hand off elements of narrative authority during the game. So a player might say “aaah, this box is really important to my character I don’t want to decide what is in it. Ravi, can you do that?” or “Samantha, can you play Gurr’s cousin in this scene, I want to have a chat to him.”
Step 4: Chat about it during debrief
Chat about how it went! Do people have feels? I bet they do. How can you improve and learn to work together better? Try it next time.
Sharing narrative authority and creating a story together is for me one of the greatest joys of roleplaying. I hope you get to enjoy it too!
I have been doing a lot of designing lately, and thinking about design, but very little writing about design – but I’m secretly hopeful that this blog post represents my return to writing more regularly.
This blog post is about writing and playing historical, historically inspired, or alt-historical roleplaying games. The topic of my blog post today is a controversial one and I welcome opinions that contrast with my own. It is a subject to which I have given a large amount of thought over the last few years.
How do we handle the past in historical roleplaying games?
This is the question this blog post will explore.
For me, this question can be broken down into three sub-questions.
People in the past were racist/sexist/homophobic/otherwise dicks, how do I deal with that in my game?
Does it matter whether I include the struggles of marginalised groups in my game?
My game is about or involves a historical culture that I am not from, how do I deal with that?
I’m actually not going to give my opinion on the last of these right now (except to say TREAD CAREFULLY MY FRIEND and sometimes just don’t do it) – as that is another blog post. But I will talk about my viewpoint on the first two.
Before I do I’d like to talk about why these questions are important to think about.
Why should we care about how we handle the past in historical roleplaying games?
I mentioned in my blog post on designing in another morality that roleplaying is a moral experience. Roleplaying games are conversations, and conversations hold discursive power. How we construct and behave in the universes we create has a direct effect on how we view things, and what we value. And what we value has a direct effect on how we create and behave.
As a result of this, it’s quite clear that historical roleplaying games are about the present, not the past. They are about telling stories in the present, that have significance in the present, using material that is based on real events which occurred in the past.
Failure to understand this means that by creating a roleplaying game we risk creating a vehicle for repeating the mistakes of the past over and over again. Our stories have consequences in the present – even more so because we are asking people not just to read our narratives but to repeat them, to own them, to co-author them with us.
This responsibility is just the general responsibility we have as roleplaying game designers or game masters put through an enlarging magnifying lens of “this stuff happened to real people and its effects are still being felt today” and “people literally died for this shit.”
I hope that covers why thinking about these issues is important, and I do not think it’s controversial that we should think about them. Onwards.
People in the past were racist/sexist/homophobic/generally dicks, how do I deal with that in my game?
Ok, let me answer this question with another question.
What is your game about?
Is it about sexism?
Is it about cool spear throwing techniques?
The answer to this question is going to be very different depending on which of these options applies.
If your game is about sexism, racism, or another form of prejudice or persecution
Then your entire game design or GM prep is about this, so I trust you.
However, if this struggle belongs to a marginalised group that you don’t belong to, you’ll need to think very hard about the third sub-question I mentioned earlier.
If your game is about some other thing
Then you have a few options at your disposal. There is not one right option for every game, but here are the general approaches.
Option 1: Pretend people were not racist/sexist/homophobic/generally dicks
This is genuinely a very good option although it does not work in every context. To do justice to those persecuted the historical reality needs to be explained, along with the reasoning behind your decision not to include it in your game.
This is the option we decided on in relation to race for Good Society. The context of Good Society is upper-class regency England. Historically most members of this group were both white and racist. However ethnicity and racism aren’t part of the story the game is trying to tell – in fact, race is almost never mentioned in Austen’s novels. If ethnicity isn’t important to the game, then why be racist? For that reason, we explicitly state in the game that there will be no racism, and that characters can and should be from any ethnicity.
Why does this option often work for me?
I like it for a few reasons.
Firstly, I feel confident I am not repeating the mistakes of the past at the table, or calling on anyone else to repeat those mistakes.
Secondly, it’s awesome to have people of all ethnicities represented in game right now.
Thirdly it serves as a way of demonstrating that the story being told at the table is not the story of history, but merely based on historical material, which can allow for play that is both more free, but also more conscious and suspicious of the narrative it is telling.
When might this option not work?
This option does not work when you need to erase minority experiences to make it happen.
If Good Society was played historically as per Austen, there would be no minorities represented in the game, just a lot of racist white people. By removing the racism we are allowing diversity without erasing any minority struggles. One could say “there were people of diverse ethnicities struggling at that time, you’ve just removed the potential for that to be explored in your game.” Yes I have, because that is not what my game is about – this actually goes to the second sub question, not the first one so I’ll come back to it later.
However, let’s consider a different context, a game about Australian bushrangers. I’ve always wanted to write a game about bushrangers, but if you want to talk about racist contexts, this was perhaps one of the most racist. Bushrangers were kind of local heroes but they also did many awful things to Indigenous people on the regular.
Can I write my bushranger game and just tell players to pretend that bushrangers weren’t super racist to indigenous Australians?
I’d say no. That would be making a game which heroes a group that should really be held accountable for their actions. It also would erase all the stories of indigenous people who were horribly tortured by bushrangers, that can’t be extricated from the rest of their bushrangering. You can’t really say “oh this game is not about the way they horribly treated indigenous people” because it was such a big part of their stories.
When the prejudice is too intertwined to the subject matter of the game to be extricated from it then you have to pick another option.
Option 2: Let the players decide
This option is very good when the marginalised group that faced prejudice is the one forming the majority or an equal number of the players of your game. It is perhaps the best and my most favourite option in this case.
I’ve played many many historical games with lovely queer people and when we start the game we’ve all gone “do we want homophobia in our game?” And 4 out of 5 times we don’t, we want it to just be as gay as can be. But on the 5th time we all decide actually we’d like to tell the story of homophobia and for that to be a part of our game which is otherwise about cool spear techniques.
I love the level of autonomy and control this provides, what could be better than the marginalised group deciding for themselves? But again it only works when most of the players are from the marginalised group. For this reason it’s often hard to embed in a game’s design. I felt pretty comfortable mechanising the choice around gender in Good Society because I’ve never played a game of it that didn’t involve at least half of the players being female identifying (usually it’s more like nearly all the players). But I’d never do it with racism because I’m aware that my game is highly likely to be played by a group that entirely consists of people of anglo-saxon heritage.
If you’re a GM with a regular group, you’re well placed to use this option, as you know your players.
Option 3: Include the prejudice with significant disclaimers and guidelines and suggestions that it should not actually be voiced at the table.
I’ve never tried this myself in a game that wasn’t actually about prejudice, I’m not convinced it works in most situations, but it might be useful in some contexts.
Specifically where the game as a whole isn’t about prejudice but there are dedicated tools within the game to deal with certain narratives that are.
Option 4: Don’t do it.
As I’ve mentioned mere historical accuracy is super not an excuse to repeat the mistakes of the past. So if you cannot find a way to address the prejudice inherent in the historical setting of your game, perhaps pick a different subject matter.
Side note: Lots of prejudices
There are lots of prejudices and you don’t have to include all of them individually in your game unless you want them treated separately. You can just instruct players to discuss which prejudices they want to include in the game, with the default rule that all prejudices are not in the game unless added back in again.
Side note: Historical Fantasy
I hear this sometimes – “prejudice against a group real or imagined is a vital part of my historical fantasy worldbuilding can’t I just leave it in there?”
Firstly, all historical rpgs are historical fantasy. We cannot recreate history anyway, so calling it historical fantasy does not get you off the hook.
Secondly if that prejudice is so important to you then your game is about prejudice. Treat it as such and give it the proper respect. Otherwise remove it or make it optional as appropriate.
Does it matter whether I include the struggles of marginalised groups in my game?
This is a more difficult question to answer.
The first question here is would I have to remove anything if I don’t include these groups or perspectives?
If the answer is yes then the answer is yes, you do need to include those struggles in your game. For example, in my bushranger example from earlier, the indigenous experience is a huge part of the story you have already decided to tell. In my opinion it shouldn’t be left out.
What about when the answer is no?
This is a matter of personal perspective.
Not all stories are about everything nor can they be nor should they be.
Picking which stories to tell in the first place is an important exercise, as one could tell a story about a bicycle or a moon flea or a human in the future or a human in the past or many other subjects of interest.
My point is, you have made a choice to tell a particular story for a particular reason. And there’s a wide range of acceptable and excellent reasons as to why you might have picked the story. Maybe because it’s interesting, maybe because it’s novel, maybe because it’s emotionally satisfying, maybe because it’s an important part of the fandom.
Telling stories about the struggles of marginalized groups is awesome and should really happen more, especially by creators from those groups. But there are other stories to tell as well.
Sometimes I decide to tell stories about prejudice other times I do not. I do not think that historical co-location of the source material for my game with a time of prejudice, compels me to have to tell the story of that prejudice in my game – as long as I’m not erasing the narratives of marginalised groups from the stories I do choose to tell. I’m sure there are people who disagree with me about this and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
The past was full of awful people who did awful things to each other. There’s not much we can do about that now. But we can control the present, and think carefully about the what and the how of the stories we choose to tell, and enable others to tell, through the rpg format.
This has been my viewpoint on some of the issues surrounding this. There’s many more issues and many more viewpoints.
Like of course sub-question three, which is so meaty and complex I feel I need to address it in a blog post all of its own. Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions.
This post was written by Vee! About time I convinced her to blog her heart out – Hayley
This year marks our first ever entry into the Game Chef annual competition. I use the word ‘competition’ here very loosely, as Game Chef is known first and foremost as a celebration of analogue game creation and only secondarily as a competition.
Anyway, it has been a week or so since we’ve submitted our entry, and since then I have spent some time reflecting on the experience. Spoiler alert: I found it a strangely emotional experience and incredibly rewarding. I also wanted to write a brief blog post about how we approached writing to a theme and our design process. So, without further ado, see our Recipe for the Great Long Dark below!
STEP 1 – Defining your Dish
Before anything else, you need to know what it is you’re looking to make. Is it a main dish for a banquet of 12? Or is it a sexy appetiser for an intimate Valentines’ Day dinner? Understanding the context, purpose and vision of your game project helps define what exactly it is you’re trying to achieve.
As such, the first thing we did when we decided to go ahead with designing the game was to discuss the theme: Borders. What does this theme mean to each of us individually? At this stage, a mind map or brainstorm about wide concepts is incredibly useful. Don’t get too specific. Engage with it on a conceptual level before tying it down into more concrete forms.
For us, our discussion on borders naturally led us to the concept of displacement and to migration. We talked at length about recent news stories of refugees, referenced academic research into first and second generation migrants, and thought about our personal experiences.
This is also the stage to define the context and purpose of your game. What is it you’re trying to do? Why are you writing this game? Is it to win the competition? Is it for fun? Is it an opportunity to try a specific mechanic you’ve though of recently? Your reasons for writing could be a blend of these things, but we usually try to have an understanding of why we are spending time and energy writing and designing games before we get to work on them.
For this project, we were carried by the sheer joy and passion of designing a game about a theme we cared deeply about. However, we were also very aware of time constraints. We knew that because we were both working full-time jobs and working on Alas for the Awful Sea, at most, we could only spare two or three days max to work on this game. Understanding our goals and limits, we set out to make the best short-form RPG that we could in the time afforded to us.
STEP 2 – Inspecting your INGREDIENTS
So you’re making a pie? Well, what pie is it going to be? No point deciding to make a meat pie when all you have on hand are apples. The next step is to look carefully through the ingredients available to see exactly what kind of dish you will make.
We had direction – a shorter RPG about displacement or migration – but we needed to incorporate the ingredients: yarn, echo, smoke, and cut. In our case, we actually brainstormed each of these ingredients and pulled in connections we saw between them, e.g. a piece of string can be cut, yarn and echo were both very Grecian and made us think of the Labyrinth.
In my opinion, this is the stage to be developing various ideas before committing to one course. Free association of the ingredients leads down 100 different rabbit holes, and we discarded more than ten ideas before we landed with a strong three.
STEP 3 – Purposeful PREPARATION
Any chef will tell you that preparation is key. Do you have a plan for your ingredients? You’ll need one in order to prepare those ingredients properly for their intended use. Don’t grate your eggplant if you’re going to roast them. Have a plan, and work towards that plan.
From the three ideas we had, we developed each a bit more in turn before making a decision about which of the three we would commit to. I think in a time-limited context like this competition, giving this step enough time (and not rushing it) is vital.
We spent a good 10 hours or so on this step. Of the three ideas we had, we ended up choosing what was working-titled, The Journey, and then spent a little longer really nailing down our specific concept for the game.
We were going to write a game that would bring to the forefront narrative storytelling (yarn) about the tale of first generation migrants crossing a border and leaving behind their lands (cutting ties) and also about the second generation crossing back (echoing the journey of their parents) to ‘save’ what was left (smoke over the horizon above the Old Country). We also wanted to tie the traumas associated with displacement with the concept of black smoke, but wasn’t yet sure how.
As you can see, the game didn’t really change too much from this initial concept. We had a really clear roadmap for what we wanted to do, even though we weren’t 100% sure yet how we would achieve this.
This step is often overlooked because people want to start writing the game down in full too quickly. And maybe that works for you, all good. However, I’d like to suggest that spending that little bit longer refining your vision and plan for the game helps you later down the track. For example, knowing that the first generation and second generation journeys are supposed to ‘echo’ one another, helped us later to decide on how to structure the ‘Acts’ of the game to best bring out this aspect.
I believe it was also around this time I started working on the look and atmosphere of the game visually. This is an optional step, because Game Chef doesn’t take presentation into account, but it’s also my favourite part so…
Pretty happy with how it turned out visually, but I’ve definitely still got a long way to go.
STEP 4 – It’s finally TIME TO COOK
Ok, so finally, here it is. This is where you actually get to put the dang thing together. Where the random blobs of shape finally turn into a beautiful drawing.
Funny thing is, though it is certainly hard in its own way, writing the game down and formalising the rule-set is much easier once you’ve set a good direction and filled in a solid concept. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll be doing a lot of tweaking in this step, but making these changes is a lot easier when there is a bigger concept tying everything together neatly.
In our case, we talked out the main rule-set of the game together whilst taking notes. This was when we worked out details like how exactly Taint was going to be used in the game and how characters were going to be created. We debated about how specific or not specific the Labyrinth card prompts were going to be, how the ending should be crafted to achieve a particular emotional release. At each point, we’d be thinking not, ‘how does taint work?’ but rather, ‘how should taint work in order to better emulate the trauma and smog of the Labyrinth?”
At this stage, we like to get a rough first draft written up, from which we can run several playtests. We probably spent all of the second day completing this stage of the design process. Play-testing definitely helps to iron out any kinks in the game. However, we really didn’t have as long as we normally would like to get this done due to the time limit, but that’s ok as the Game Chef competition itself provides feedback and opportunities to get your game played and tested! This constructive natures is one of the really nice things about the event.
STEP 5 – PLATING-UP
Finally, the last stage is to present your game as best you can. Get your whipped cream and glazed cherries out and get creative! All the hard work is done, and you can craft carefully all the finishing touches that will make your game design pop even more.
In terms of the game writing, this was when we began spending time ‘prettifying’ the words of the game. Making things more thematic and editing long-winded sections into more a readable structure. Getting down exactly what was going to be on each card, focussing down on what the read aloud text would say.
Of course, optionally, this is when you’d layout your text and do the graphic design and art. In our case, this step took up all of the last day. We did a final edit for grammar and spelling errors and then it was ready to submit.
So… is this a Recipe for Success?
No, this is just how we approach this game and many of our smaller projects. Not that any of this is entirely new or ground-breaking, but I hope that seeing the practicalities of the basics demonstrated here is helpful, or at least interesting.
Basically, thanks for reading and getting this far!
How do you organise your approach to game design? Any similarities or do you use a completely different approach? Let me know below! Also if you intend to play our game or have played our game, please comment to let us know! It’s what we live for. Constructive criticism is always treasured here at Storybrewers:
Ok, so I realise this is just about the most clickbaity title that a clickbait generator could have generated. But it is my genuine and firm belief that to be a great GM there are only two things you need to do. Sure, there’s a thousand other things you could do that might make your GMing even better. But, in my view, there’s only two essentials. I’m going to get straight to the point and tell you what they are.
1. Ask Lots of Questions (And Listen to the Answers)
It is almost magical the effect this will have on your game, and how much easier and more fun this will make your role as GM.
Here’s 3 great reasons why you should do this:
Encourage and facilitate roleplaying and characterization
We want our players to embody complex and well-rounded characters, in a well-rounded and complex world. We want them to have complex and conflicting relationships with other characters, both player and non-player.
To do this we need to generate opportunities for character development, and force them to think about their character’s internal world and external actions. There is a small chance a player may already know the answer to the question you’re about to ask. But most probably they haven’t thought about it yet. Ask a question: go forth and stimulate their creative juices.
Give players space to create (and create a better conversation)
In my view, roleplaying is a collaborative storytelling exercise. As such, a roleplaying game has to function successfully as a social occasion as well as a narrative one. In other words, it has to be a great narrative experience and a great conversation. I take this one step further and believe roleplaying has to be a great conversation before it can be a great narrative experience.
Asking questions is a way of getting people to open up, talk, and share the experience. It means that everyone has the opportunity to contribute and to gain value from each other’s contributions.
Share the narrative burden (and pleasure) with the players
A new trend is shaping the roleplaying community. The GM is no longer viewed as the God of the story. Now the GM inspires and facilitates the story. I like this because I believe in the value of the contribution of everyone sitting at the table. The more people creating, the richer the narrative tapestry. It’s our jobs as GMs to make sure it weaves together as well as possible. But I also like this because it’s not my story goddammit, it is the player’s story. They are the main characters. Asking questions is a fantastic way to hand over narrative power in a controlled way. You can keep the shape of the game intact without having to dominate.
Here’s some questions that are always great:
What do you do?
What does that look like?
What’s your aim here?
What do you say?
What are you thinking?
What are you feeling?
Are there any questions running through your mind right now?
Who is there with you?
Have you seen this before? What happened?
*Other player* what’s your reaction to that?
*Other player* what are you feeling/ thinking about that?
How does *NPC* react to that? What do they do?
Try and keep a good balance of action based questions (like “what do you do?”) and introspective questions (“what are you feeling?”).
Here’s an Example
We’re currently playtesting our Jane Austen RPG. In it, each character has different secret objectives, and they spend the game aiming to accomplish these. This strong motivation is a blessing for the narrative. When I GM the game, pretty much all I do is ask a series of questions, from the first moment of the game to the last.
The first scene of the game is always a ball.
“Which of you is hosting the ball? How do you decorate? Who arrives first? How do you make your entrance? You see your old paramour there, the wealthy Mr Heeding. What do you do?”
2. Make Relevant Stuff Happen
You’ve asked a lot of questions. You’ve listened carefully to the answers. Now you’ve reached a point where your players need more narrative stimulus. It was by no means inevitable, but now you’ve reached a point where you are going to have to make stuff happen.
Here’s the difference between a good GM and a great GM. Good GMs make stuff happen. Whatever stuff they have prepared. Great GMs make relevant stuff happen. They have listened really carefully to their players. They use the material they have gathered to make stuff happen that is relevant and connected to what has occurred so far – stuff that moves the story forward in a way that enriches the complexities and conflicts of the player characters.
Why do this?
You remember how this is the players’ story? Here’s how you make that real. By the time you’re called upon to make stuff happen, your players will have let you know through their character’s actions and interests what kind of tale they want to tell. You know how to pull their character’s heart strings, how to make them care, and how to place their world in a well-constructed blender. Make it happen and the drama will be spectacular.
3 Great Ways to Make Relevant Stuff Happen
Put Stuff in Their Way
You know what the player characters want. The simplest and easiest way to make relevant stuff happen is to put an obstacle in their way. Their obstacle could be physical, logistical, social or emotional. The important thing is, it is a problem that has to be solved before the character’s desires can be achieved. If you can, draw the obstacle from forces already at work in the world. Jo wants her gang to take over the docks? Great, but there’s a pack of vampires who own it. And their leader is Jo’s old flame.
Give them a tough choice or a devil’s bargain
Tough choices and devil’s bargains are so great at adding drama that games like Blades in the Dark even include them as part of the rule set. I talk a bit more about how to create hard decisions in this blog post. There’s three basic things you need to do to construct a tough choice. First, make sure the player cares. If you’re drawing the decision from events happening in the game, this should come pretty easily. Second, make sure there’s very compelling reasons to pick both sides. And last, make sure that the PC’s decision will come back to bite them, no matter what happens.
Have an NPC they care about get themselves into trouble – and pull a PC in with them
When asking questions earlier in the game, it was revealed that Jo’s brother runs with a gang that buy and sell magical energy. This is a great opportunity to make stuff happen to an NPC that a player character cares a lot about. Time to make some trouble for him. Jo’s brother was in charge of a huge shipment which went mysteriously missing and now he is in deep trouble. He’s managed to avoid a broken knee cap by promising he had Jo – and her gang – onside to help find it. Naturally, he didn’t ask Jo first.
This situation could easily be turned into a tough choice, if it turns out it was Jo’s gang that stole the shipment – and they’ve already promised it to a buyer.
One other thing. Don’t be afraid to stop and think about what question to ask, or what to throw at the player characters next. They’ll appreciate the result. If you get stuck, you can even ask the players if they’d like to make their own trouble. From my experience, they do it rather well.
Well, there’s a giant world of GM advice out there, and most of it is right. However, these are the two things I think make a great GM. Do you agree, and if not, what is your top two?
Stats continue to be a popular choice in game design. They are a simple and intuitive way of creating mechanically unique player characters, and mediating conflicts between these characters and the world. But should stats really be the go-to game design choice? In this article I discuss what stats are, what they fail at, and whether or not your game needs them. As usual I wildly fling my opinion around, and welcome contrasting viewpoints.
What do stats do and why?
Stats represent a skill, attribute or characteristic possessed by a character that is in some way significant in determining the success or failure of an action.
Strength is an attribute that affects a character’s success or failure at doing things requiring strength
Hacking is a skill that affects a character’s success or failure at doing things requiring hacking
Flashy is an attribute that affects a character’s success or failure at doing things in a flashy way
From this concept, many game design challenges arise. Let’s take a look at some common problems.
A Character’s Success or Failure
The driving impulse behind stats is a simulationist approach to determining success/failure. What do I mean by this? A simulationist approach to conflict resolution means that a character must use things which exist in the fiction to determine their success. By things, I mean stuff like weapons, but I also mean the personal attributes of the character.
Broadly, simulationist approaches work like this:
My character, Jack, wants to do a thing in the fiction.
My character, Jack, wants to intimidate your character Jill.
What assets do I, playing Jack, have to help him succeed at this intimidation?
The simulationist approach says: the only assets you may use are assets that would help Jack to intimidate Jill in the fiction.
In other words, Jack can use his terrifyingness stat. Depending on the system, maybe Jack can also use his fictionally derived advantage of holding a fictional gun to Jill’s fictional head.
Jack cannot use fictional things that don’t help him in the fiction, for example, he cannot use his fondness for bees. That just isn’t relevant.
Jack also cannot use things outside the fiction to help him, for example, pool dice or point bidding or the fact that everyone at the table agrees it would be really cool if Jack intimidated Jill right now.
So, Jack will take his terrifyingness stat and some kind of randomizer and work out if he succeeds.
Ok, so what’s wrong with this?
Maybe nothing. Maybe lots. It depends on your game’s design intention.
My game is a simulationist game.
Many times games want to take a wholly simulationist approach. And to be honest this is the default approach we’re used to. This is the classic D&D approach that says:
“I want lift rock.” “Ability to lift rock determined by strength.” “Higher strength, more likely can lift rock.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s just a way of saying to players “hey, this game focuses on how good your character is at doing things, as being good at doing things is basically how your character can affect the story. Make a character who is good at doing the kinds of things you want them to do in the story.”
Sometimes as GMs we play against that drive for more roleplaying, but that is essentially how the system works and what it supports.
There’s nothing wrong with creating this kind of game, if that’s the experience you’re aiming for. As you can probably tell, this isn’t generally my personal cup of tea. But I’ve still enjoyed playing games like this with a good GM.
My game is not aiming for simulation.
If you have an inherently simulationist mechanic at the core of your non-simulationist game, then it’s time to think about why. Is this really the right decision for your game? More on that in the next section below.
Skill, Attribute, or Characteristic Possessed by a Character
Inherent in a stat system is a judgement of what parts of a character are worth measuring, and what are not. The Hulk is strong. The Hulk is also green, out of control, morally erratic, and houses the trapped consciousness of Dr Banner. In my opinion, all of these aspects are equally important parts of the Hulk. However, a stat based system must pick what to measure based not on a character as an individual, but averages across all possible characters. Resultantly, some generalization is required.
A system that contains stats such as greenness, self-control, moral consistency, and degree of dual personality will probably not apply well to Superman. (Actually self-control is an awesome stat, imma use that.) A system that measures only strength, and relegates these other characteristics to “fluff” does not encourage the creation of interesting and complex characters.
But there is a second effect of the stat system. Since, as discussed above, stats affect success and failure, they are a judgment of what parts of a character have the ability to affect their actions. This is inherently limiting. Mechanically, stats determine the difference between characters’ abilities to alter outcomes. This means characters with the same stats are, subject to other mechanics, exactly and equally able to affect the fiction in an identical way. Two different characters are, in the eyes of the system, the same.
But there is a wider problem; games inherently reward players who focus on the parts of their characters which affect their success or failure. After all, who doesn’t strive towards their character’s success? When you select stats you may be just trying to replicate the abilities of a character in a fiction, but you’re actually informing players about what is important in your world. This will build a roleplaying bias into your game. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this as long as you consider it very carefully, and craft your stats with a roleplaying first perspective. For example, in John Harper’s Lasers and Feelings, the two stats are, well, lasers and feelings actually. As players try to pursue these stats they make extremely thematic choices in the fiction.
It’s rare I see stats like this however. Most of the time stats are “strength”, “hacking”, “drive”, “hot”, they are just generic ways of describing ability or personality not specific to the world’s theme.
So, should my game have stats?
The first thing to realize is that your game does not need stats to function.
As always, I advocate for making conscious design choices fueled by an understanding of the effect of those choices on the game. You have the power to make the best decision for your RPG.
So I could call on you to reflect at this point on why you are using, or considering using stats. But I’m not going to, because that would be to put the horse before the cart.
Instead, I’m going to ask you to take a step back and look at the game on a player level, rather than on a player character level. Ask yourself some of these questions:
What do I want players to bring to the story?
What player behaviors do I want to incentivize? And disincentivize?
How do I want the story to be told?
When a conflict is resolved, how detailed or broad do I want that resolution to be? For example, D&D requires a blow by blow approach to combat, whereas Apocalypse World allows a whole combat to be resolved in a single roll.
How much freedom do I want to give players to decide what happens to their characters?
Do I want players to contribute to the world and the narrative beyond their own characters?
These are really the questions I ask myself when I design. I’m sure you can think of some more which are important to you.
Once you have these answers, you are better placed to consider whether stats are right for your game. In general I’ve found these trends work best for me:
Less likely to need stats
More likely to need stats
Focus is on relationships and feelings
Focus is on combat and physical challenges
Lots of conflict and interaction between players
Conflict and interaction is largely with the world
Here’s an Example
We’re currently doing a lot of playtesting of a game provisionally called Pride, Prejudice, and Roleplaying (yes it is a Jane Austin RPG). In PP&R, each character has different secret objectives, and they spend the game aiming to accomplish these. The two drivers behind the game are:
Players initiate action and screw over each other to accomplish their goals
Players are constrained by and must operate in a setting where social interaction and standing is everything
Looking at the core essence of this game, and what I’ve written above, it’s probably no surprise this game does not have stats. In fact, funny story, the very, very, first playtest version of this game did have stats, and dice. Guess how many times they were used. None times. That’s how many.
When you put stats into a game and they are never used, this is a clear sign they should not be there in the first place. I reevaluated the core of the game, and the experience I wanted the players to have, and removed them completely.
So, if I don’t use stats, what else should I use?
I’m not going to go into every option here (I’ll be writing a blog post about this soon!), but here are some useful things to think about:
1. Think thematically
Thematic ways of resolving conflicts add so much to a game. However they can be pretty damn difficult to come up with.
The most common thematic mechanic I’ve seen, which I think is cool, is to park a value in a thematic concept which is not a stat. For example, Debt in Urban Shadows, or Bonds in Sagas of the Icelanders. These are great because while they aren’t attributes that are inherent to your character, they reflect the actions your character has taken in the past, and the unique relationships which they hold.
In Pride, Prejudice and Roleplaying we have a thematic concept called Resolve. When bad things happen to a character, they build up resolve which they can later spend to make sure things go their way in a particular action.
2. Prompt characters to take action
What do Keys from Lady Blackbird have over vanilla stats? They reward characters for taking action on what is most important to them, or most core to their being. Characters taking action makes for great roleplaying. Characters taking in-character action is even better.
3. Work out if you want a character first or story first resolution
What matters more in your game? The individual success and failure of one character in the moment? Or the overall narrative flow of the game? If the first, orient your design towards the ability of players to affect the success of their character’s actions. If the later, orient it towards the consequences of success or failure. In Questlandia for example, players match their dice against the opposition’s dice to determine the outcomes of their scene, and each result holds a different narrative meaning.
But… I want my player characters to be mechanically differentiated
I actually find a lot of people desire this and I’m always at a loss as to 1. Why and 2. Why does this automatically mean stats?
Why? There are a lot of things about characters that are important in the fiction like whether they are a famed outlaw or whether their appearance terrifies small children. However, these things are not usually reflected mechanically. Why should a character’s strength take precedent over these things?
Why stats? You can differentiate your characters however you want. In Pride, Prejudice and Roleplaying, characters are differentiated mechanically by fictional abilities that have fictional effects. For example “Divine Gravitas: Once per game, you may spread a moral message of your choosing around the community. Your family’s reputation as important clergy ensures that it will be taken seriously.”
In conclusion. Stats are the right choice for some games, and the wrong choice for others. The important thing is to understand the desired player experience in your RPG and make a conscious design choice based on that experience. Hopefully the concerns I’ve outlined about stats can help a bit in making that decision. In an upcoming article I’ll be writing more in detail on some alternatives to stats that I like.
If you’ve got a favorite alternative to stats comment here or tweet or G+ at me and let me know!
As designers we all construct and manipulate the moral universe of our game. When we ask a person to play our game, we often require them to pivot their worldview and ethical framework. In this post I discuss the moral power of designers, and then move on to my approach to re-framing player expectations to create a better play experience.
Roleplaying is a Moral Experience
When I design games I primarily think about the experience players will have at the table. I don’t always think about the impact of that experience. In reality however, roleplaying games are conversations, and conversations hold discursive power. How we construct and behave in the universes we create has a direct effect on how we view things, and what we value. And what we value has a direct effect on how we create and behave. Because of this, playing an RPG is a morally significant experience.
While all games are morally significant, they don’t usually intend to explore moral concepts. Most games are imaginatively oriented or thematically oriented, or both. For example, our game Alas for the Awful Sea, is both. It explores the themes of poverty, power, and loss. But it also invites players to be another person and discover another world, for the sheer narrative pleasure of doing so.
So, if a game is not directly aimed at exploring a moral concept, does the designer still need to be morally deliberate? The answer is yes, for two reasons.
Firstly, because we should think about the moral effect a game has on its players. That is why as designers we should be respectful of gender orientation, resist cultural appropriation, and avoid toxic stereotyping. Depending on the game you are creating, this can be easy or it can be hard.
I like to create games set in the past. In the past, people believed a lot of things we view today as morally abhorrent. Resultantly, I often struggle to balance my thematic drive (which is for players to experience real issues faced by real people) with a need not to repeat the past’s mistakes. In Alas, I struggled to marry a desire to explore historical oppression and limitations facing women with a desire to have significant and powerful female characters. Ultimately I leant towards the latter, as I was more interested in including satisfying female characters than accurately capturing gender oppression.
This was a conscious design choice that I made. I could have made the opposite decision. But I would need to be careful of the function it played in the game so that it operated as an exploration of gender oppression rather than a form of gender oppression.
But you probably already knew all of this. The moral effect games have on players is important, and we all tend to think about it when designing games in one way or another.
However, there is a second reason designers must contend with morality. It is integral to good game design. As designers, we need to think about how morality and ethics function within the world of our game, and marry that up with player’s moral expectations. The rest of this blog post will delve further into this concept, and what we can do to avoid distancing or alienating players.
Players Have These Pesky Moral Expectations
When a person sits down to play a roleplaying game they bring with them two value frameworks:
The moral and ethical framework by which they live their lives; and
Their moral and ethical expectations for the game ahead.
Self-evidently these two are not the same thing. After all, most players approach a game of D&D ready to hack, slash, steal and generally behave atrociously. Hopefully they don’t apply these same appetites to their daily lives.
However, for a player’s “in-game” moral expectations to be separated from their daily ethical framework, a process of moral and value re-education needs to take place. In the case of D&D this re-education has been done for us by popular media. Before I delve into how designers can harness moral reeducation, let’s think a bit about what happens if players dive into an alien moral/value framework with no reeducation.
When players aren’t morally prepared for a game, one of two things happen:
The gap between player knowledge and character knowledge becomes untenable: I recently played my first game of Legend of the Five Rings (which I found to be a confusing mix of embarrassing cultural appropriation and great game design), with a number of other first timers. It was almost every five minutes the GM had to tell a player “no, your character wouldn’t do that, because of xyz.” Another course of action was taken, the same response was given. It was frustrating for the players who didn’t understand what was expected of them.
The gap between player beliefs and character beliefs becomes untenable: I absolutely love the game Dogs in the Vineyard, and it ticks a lot of my boxes for a well handled excursion into an unfamiliar morality. However, it requires a great deal of player buy-in before you start playing. I happened to witness a session where such buy-in was absent and it lead to a lot of jokes about the stupidity of the church at the complete cost of player immersion. Players found the actions of their own characters silly and unconvincing.
So, what should game designers do?
As game designers, we need to assess our player’s expected moral/value framework, and if necessary, build ethical reeducation into our game. We need to equip GMs (if present) to achieve player buy-in and avoid a disconnect between players, their characters, and the world.
I thought I’d share my processes for tackling this issue.
Designing in a Moral Framework
Understand how morality and moral values function in your game
Be self-aware. Take some time to consider how morality functions in the world of your game. How does this differ from the expected player mindset?
When we do this we need to consider two things.
Moral Framework: The framework by which characters in this world determine what is right and wrong. For example, in Dogs in the Vineyard, the moral framework is provided by the Good Book and the King of Life. In L5R it is largely provided by tradition. In these two games there is a moral compass which overrides individual values. In Alas for the Awful Sea however, as in many other games, the moral framework is simply one of individual choice, based on a character’s values.
Ask the Question: Does my game have an imposed moral framework that differs from individual value based decision making?
Moral Values: Moral values are things which people prize, which they can use to help them determine what is right and what is wrong. For example: Honor, Family, and Truth. Many moral values won’t be related to your game, and will just be for individual players to decide. I had a person once play a character who was really intent on helping children. This was a moral value for them: it was right to help children. It was wrong to leave children in need. That’s a personal characterization choice.
However, sometimes a moral value will be indispensable within the context of your game. L5R couldn’t function without Honor driving moral decisions. Truth is not as important. Alas for the Awful Sea could struggle to function if people didn’t invest moral value in Family. Honor isn’t nearly as important and Truth can pretty happily be thrown out the window.
Ask the Question: Are there values that are indispensable to my setting, which hold much greater significance than in the expected player mindset?
If you answered yes to either of these questions, you need to ask yourself another question. It’s one of my favorite questions.
Why is this the case within the fiction of my world?
Why have I, as a game designer, chosen to make this the case? What am I trying to achieve?
(You might find you need to answer these in the reverse order.)
In the case of Alas, these questions actually have very similar answers. In a poverty stricken world, strong family ties and cooperation are the only way to survive. In the 19th century, there were even populations that made a conscious effort to marry within the family to avoid the dispersing wealth. Capturing this historical element was a central component of Alas, and that required a value system change.
Once you’ve answered these two questions, you’ll have a much clearer picture of the role these values and moral frameworks play within your game. If these are robust, players will have a much easier time adjusting to them. If they are arbitrary, players are likely to ignore them.
So now we know the what of the moral reeducation we need to undertake. Let’s delve into the how.
Immerse Players in Your Game’s Morality
That sounds great to say doesn’t it? But how, as game designers are we going to do that? Here are two ideas that have helped me.
So your world has a different morality to that which players are expecting. Well, since they’re not expecting it, you’re going to need to tell them about it. It sounds obvious – and it is obvious if you’re self-aware about the morality of your world. There’s no need to be subtle. As long as your ideas are robust, players are likely to understand this is an important part of the game.I’m pretty straight up about this. Here’s an example from Alas:
Make Players Complicit
Make players part of the morality of the world: There’s lots of ways to do this. A lot of these require GM assistance, but let’s help them out as much as we can. Here are some ideas:
Make it part of world building: Is your game one where players take part in building the world? Cool! Throw values and morality into the mix. A GM technique I like to suggest when appropriate is to give players the what and have them figure out the how. E.g. “Out here, on the ice crusted fringes of civilization, honor is the most important thing a person has. Why?” Since players have now helped build the world, they are more likely to naturally understand and pivot to encompass its moral framework.
Make it part of character creation: One cool thing that happens in character creation for L5R is that the game says “hey new character, here is the code of values you subscribe to. Which of these do you most identify with? Which of these do you least identify with?” This forces the players to think about the values, and internalize them straight into the character they create. This creates player buy-in, and gets them on board. The next step, of course, is to ask “why?” Why are these values important, or unimportant? We actually did a D&D 5E hack where we replaced alignment with a value selection system that asked “what?” and “why?” It worked pretty well.
Use important NPCs: Players will care about NPCs that are important to their character. And, just as in real life, the beliefs of these NPCs will have weight. This is especially the case if the NPCs need the player characters. E.g. “My oldest friend, help me restore my honor before I must live my days as a loathed outcast” / “Sister, help me be accepted back into the clan, for the future of my children.” Etc. This may be something the GM needs to do. If you want these value based imperatives in your game, help the GM out and include resources for creating these kinds of dilemmas.
So as you can see, morality and more values are an important consideration for RPG designers no matter what your game is about. Got thoughts on this? I’d love to hear them.
As a GM, I love giving characters nail biting, soul crushing, world shattering decisions to make. It gives the players true agency over the story, and leads to gloriously intense moments of roleplaying. But these decisions only have their intended effect when they’re actually hard for characters to make. So, how do we craft tough choices? Every great decision (read: awful for the players) has three things going for it.
1. Significance – Making Characters Care
It’s the annual town meeting. The village leader stands up. “The Sun King has declared a tax on our lands. We must decide how we will pay. We can pay from our harvest, but we will overwork our land. Or, we can send our ten best fighters to serve in the Sun King army.”
Now, say the players are wandering adventurers passing through. They’ve never heard of the Sun King. Do they care about this decision? Probably not.
But what if their love interest is the best fighter in the town? Or if they’ve been raised from birth to protect the spirits of the land? Suddenly, town’s choice becomes important.
Significance is all about creating decisions that make the characters care. If the characters don’t care about the decision then they’re not going to waste time and effort making a difficult choice. They won’t be invested, and they probably won’t care about what happens next. So how do we create decisions that will make players sweat, and exclaim “oh shit”?
Here are my tips.
Find out how to push their buttons: Find out what the characters care about by probing them at key moments during play. Dig deep! People, places, causes, beliefs. What connections do they have? What actions do they regret? Write it all down! This is your malt, your hops, your yeast, that you’re going to brew into a difficult decision.
Go for the throat: When you create decisions, go for the throat. Put what the characters most care about at risk: or even better, create decisions that force them to put what they care about at risk.
Involve the characters directly: Where possible, involve the characters directly. THEY will be the ones sent to serve in the Sun King’s army. If they don’t want to go, they’ll have to think of some other way to pay the tax.
Think about the flow on effect: Who will be affected by the decision? Even if the decision doesn’t directly involve the characters, could it have clear flow on effects that will?
Make it life or death: When all else fails, make it a life or death matter. A year in the Sun King’s army is as good as a death sentence. But overtaxing the village resources could lead the whole town into slow decay. What about resistance? Well that’s the deadliest option of all.
2. Dilemma – Making Choices Real
Let me give you another example. The characters live in a planet torn by a war between two galactic empires, and have been asked to declare their alliance. Is this significant? Yes. The war is tearing their home planet apart! Now, of these two Empires, one is a tyrant species with no emotions that thrives on slavery and eats human brains. The other is an egalitarian democracy that thrives on beauty and art and prides itself on eliminating poverty within its borders. Who are the characters going to side with?
Is this a tough decision? Other than a few very strange characters, most would say no. In fact, you might even say this decision is so one sided, that it’s not a real choice. There’s no dilemma for the characters. They don’t need to fret over which path to take.
Now if we dig in further and have a think, why is this? Well, remember all that stuff you unearthed that the characters care about? Which side does it point the characters to? What’s better for their family? For their future? For their country? Unless they have a strong pro-slavery belief, it all stacks up on one side.
How do we fix this? How do we create true dilemma for the characters? The answer is simple. Distribute the things the characters care about evenly on both sides of a decision.
For example. On one side is an egalitarian democracy that thrives on beauty and art. On the other side is a tyrannical empire – ruled by your family.
Now that’s a tough choice.
3. Consequences – Making Choices Count
So the character has chosen to side against their family and fight for the egalitarian empire. They proudly pronounce their new allegiance. Just after their decision, a force marches in from the tyrannical empire. They abduct the player and compulsorily conscript them.
So, what happened to the decision? It turned out not to matter at all.
The problem here is that the character made a choice, which the player thought would have really important consequences. But then it was revealed that really their choice didn’t affect the story. Not only might that suck for the player, who really wanted to fight for the democracy. But also, this is a form of player education from the GM. It’s telling the players – hey, your choices don’t matter. Don’t take them too seriously. As a result, you’ll have a hard time creating tough decisions in the future.
What you need to do is make sure that a character’s choices count. And you make them count by doing two things:
First, fulfilling the promise contained in your decision. In this case, that’s easy – let them fight for the side they choose. When you give a player options, and make them decide, you need to follow through with the consequences. Don’t hold back, and don’t override in the name of “narrative” or sacrifice the decision on the altar of some prepared story.
Second, bring the consequences home to the players. You can really be creative in how you do this. Think broadly, and don’t miss opportunities to remind the characters of the significance of the decision. So in the case of the town paying taxes to the Sun King, the players must pick the ten villagers who are sent to the army. Or in the case of paying with harvest, maybe they are in charge of collecting the food from the farmers?
So let’s recap! How do you create those tough decisions and hard choices that will really make your players squirm?
Significance: Why does the character care?
Dilemma: Is it difficult to decide which option to pick?
Consequences: Does the decision have ongoing and meaningful consequences?