Wednesday, April 4, 2012
This post is exactly what it says on the tin. Indie/story games are the new hotness, but most gamers still play the old standards - D&D, White Wolf, etc. If you like what indie games do but still love traditional tabletop RPGs, what can you do?
As it turns out, lots.
I'll be mostly using D&D as an example, but these principles should apply to any game.
First and foremost, make sure everyone wants the same type of game! The Same Page Tool is a good place to start. Please note that it is not a survey - everyone must agree on all the answers before you start your game!
For the players: avoid lengthy back-stories. This can actually hurt because it sets the character in stone. It's also common for players to decide what their characters' destiny is ahead of time. But if the past and future are decided, what's left to play? No, better to just have a quick sketch and let the characters evolve during play. Be open to the idea that your character might not be exactly who you initially thought s/he was.
One thing you can do is come up with a short list of beliefs, goals, traits, and/or instincts that your character has. These won't have any bearing on the mechanics of play, but they'll give you an idea of who your character is and provide a starting trajectory. Periodically review your beliefs and goals to see if your character has changed - then rewrite them accordingly.
For the GM: ask questions! Before the game, try to get the players to give you their flags - what issues the players want to address and what experiences they want to have. If they're into political intrigue, plan that. If they're into romance, plan that. If they're interested in the struggle between good and evil, start thinking of some moral dilemmas to throw at them. Traditionally, the GM is God and sets the entire stage for the world, but that doesn't mean you can't throw in some details and plot hooks that cater to the players' interests.
Develop PC-PC relationships by asking the characters questions. Leading questions! "Jorek, you've met Suzinda before, haven't you?" "Suzinda, did he make a good impression?" "Tanris, someone here took something from you. Who, and what was it?" (Follow that up by asking the other player "Why, and what did you do with it?") This follows the general principle of always addressing the characters and not the players, which will help with role-playing and keep the players' heads in the game. (Acquainting the party this way is also much better than having everyone meet at a bar, in jail.)
For the players: come up with keys. These are things you want to see your character do during the session. A key might be "I want my character to seduce someone" or "I want to show off a powerful new move in a cinematic way" or "I want to put myself in harm's way to save an ally". (Or even, "I want to do something that makes the other players gasp!") Even if those are things you would do anyway, it helps you to focus on them and make a big deal out of them when they do happen, so that you and the other players can enjoy that moment.
If you have any short-term goals or keys that require set-up, tell the GM! A good GM can set up opportunities for players to hit their keys in the normal course of play - or at least fail spectacularly and entertainingly.
For the GM: come up with bangs. Bangs are situations in which the players will have to make a decision. A bang isn't "Suddenly an orc appears - you must fight him!" but rather, "A messenger arrives from the Duke: his son has been kidnapped!" What are they going to do about it? Add complications - don't make solving every problem straightforward. Maybe the Duke suspects who's behind it, but if he's wrong or it gets out before he has proof, it will cause him political trouble.
Name every NPC that gets significant screen time. Introduce them to the players by name and describe them. For most NPCs, come up with one simple trait or motivation, to make each feel distinct. If the PCs will interact with the NPC a lot, you might consider setting up PC-NPC-PC triangles - situations where the NPC shows a different side of his/her personality to different players. This may seem like inconsistent characterization but it will make the NPC deeper and more human.
Fight the status quo. Make the PCs' lives not boring. Don't be afraid to obliterate anything you own - NPCs, towns, organizations - to shake things up. Revel in it! The more you can make the players care about the NPCs and the world, the more impact your wanton destruction will have.
For players: actively interact with NPCs. The natural tendency is to treat NPCs as obstacles because they are GM-controlled. Every once and a while, decide that your character likes a particular NPC, even if it's not really in your character's long-term interest. Especially if it's not in your character's long-term interest! This will add some suspense and drama and create connections between your character and the world. It's also a great way to signal to the GM that you (as a player) like the NPC and want to see more of them.
Occasionally choose another player character to highlight. This means you want to see something interesting out of that character - some new interaction with your PC, perhaps, or a glimpse into the deeper part of their psyche. Initiate interesting interactions with the other PC. Do things that will encourage the character's player to expose a little more of who that character really is.
For the GM: Ask questions! Ask the characters how they feel about what is happening, what they think about the NPC they just met, etc. Get the players used to exposing their characters' inner monologue. Remember to address the characters, not the players. Ask leading questions. If you're willing to give up a little bit of narrative control, you could ask the players to tell what they know about a particular person, place, or thing (possibly after an appropriate roll) and add that to the fiction.
Provide downtime! Encourage the PCs to interact with each other and with NPCs. This is a good time to set up any non-combat keys that the players have expressed. If you rush from battle to battle, there will be little room for the characters to develop. Also, find ways to help highlight characters - especially those that don't get a lot of screen time or character development during normal play.
For the players: make your moves cinematic! Depending on the genre, that might mean announcing a powerful attack or describing the results as your fighter beheads seven goblins with a single sweep of his mighty axe. While you're at it, taunt your enemies. Rally your allies. Don't be afraid to show emotion when an ally goes down, or disappointment (in character, not as a player) when the monster you thought was defeated gets its second wind.
Ignore the mechanics. This is very hard for a lot of traditional players, because they are used to thinking about the system and how to optimize it. But sometimes, you have to ask, "what would my character really do here?" - or better yet, "what would be most dramatic to do here?" Maybe you don't always lead with your most powerful move, saving it for when an enemy has proven himself worthy. When you do finally pull it out, it will be a big deal. These quirks help define your character. Why does she only use that spell on undead? Why does he always rush to heal an unconscious ally? Sometimes these things will just emerge organically during play. But if you're not thinking about it, you'll definitely miss opportunities.
For the GM: Remember your players' keys. Give them opportunities to shine. Reward players for mechanically sub-optimal choices if they drive the story/drama. Remember that failure - even in combat - is best used as an opportunity for complication and not a dead end.
Have your bad guys taunt the players. Toy with them. Kick puppies. Kill innocent bystanders. Make the players loathe them. Or, instead, show honor. Have the antagonist perform a selfless act. Compliment the players on their prowess. Either way, have the bad guys express frustration when the players thwart them (this makes the players feel awesome). Always have Plan B be not as good as the Plan A the PCs blew up, so the players don't feel cheated if they win.
Consider letting the characters talk off-turn if it doesn't disrupt the flow of play. In a game like D&D where you spend a lot of time in combat and rounds can take tens of minutes, restricting every interaction to six-second chunks kills a lot of the opportunities for role-playing.
For the GM: give the players opportunities to shine. If one character has a particular skill, find opportunities to highlight it. If nobody has a particular skill (stealth and diplomacy are the two that cause the most trouble), provide plausible ways for the players to still succeed. Maybe the back entrance to the manor is hidden from view by overgrown foliage. Maybe the guard captain is a total pushover if he decides he likes you. Maybe the players could create a distraction or find a way to gain bargaining leverage. Let the players discover their opportunities naturally and organically.
And for God's sake, make failure interesting. A failed stealth or diplomacy roll doesn't always have to be followed by initiative. The skill challenge system in 4E is a step in the right direction, but you still have to come up with in-story complications for failed rolls and not just treat it as a numbers game. When possible set stakes and describe possible outcomes before a roll, not after. Allow some negotiation of scope, effect, and difficulty. Finally, don't de-protagonize; the player should be able to accept the consequences of failure without losing control of the character.
For the players: just as in battle, the proper way to choose an action is not "this is mechanically optimal" or even "this is what my character would do" but rather "this is a plausible thing my character might do that creates the most opportunity for interesting story." Don't play defensively. Remember that drama and adversity make good stories, not safety and stagnation.
Don't be afraid to step back completely into third person when role-playing an interaction you are less comfortable with. Many players have difficulty with romantic interactions, but we all like to watch romance on TV and in movies. If you can think of yourself as a director rather than an actor, you might find those challenging scenes easier and more enjoyable.
That's all I can think of right now. I'm sure there's a lot more. None of the techniques I've outlined should take away from your traditional gameplay as long as everyone is at least nominally on-board. However, some players really do just want a kick-in-the-door, black and white game - that can be fun, too. The most important thing is to figure out what everyone wants before you start.
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