Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Zen and the Art of Controlling your Players

"More beer!" Thurak bellowed as he slammed his bucket-sized mug onto the table.

The mysterious NPC could see the crescent scar it left in the heavy oak. He swallowed, but edged closer. "Excuse me."

"What the hell do you want?" Syrris the Friendly Elf sneered. He was a vicious drunk.

"Are you adventurers?"

"Perha...per...p...," Rallian tried to pry his head from the table, but his own drool seemed to glue it down. "Maybe."

"Right now we're thirsty" Thurak brought his mug down again. "More BEER!"

"I..." the mysterious NPC hesitated, but he had no choice. "I need your help."

"Yeah," Thurak said, "well, wait in line."

"It's my daughter. Gyrfyndon the Black has kidnapped her...."

"Let me guess," Thurak turned a brotworst-size finger towards the mysterious NPC. "You want us to rescue her."


"You expect us to just take off, tromp through the Haunted Woods of Terror, climb the Mountain of Despair, break into the Impregnable Fortress of Really Nasty Traps and kill GyrFyndon the Black, Lord of Sticky Brown Wiggly Things?"

"I can pay..." The mysterious NPC held up a small bag of gold.

Thurak dropped a duffle-bag on the table; the coins inside clanged. "We've got gold. What we don't have IS BEER!"

Meanwhile, at a nearby table in the Real World, a GM's head explodes.

Frustrated GMs often wish they had more control over their players. It's understandable. The GM creates an adventure or a cool encounter, then watch in horror as the players step around it. The GM soon gets frustrated because things "aren't going the way they should."

It seems to me, however, that this is a sign that something is wrong with the game.

Much of the problem stems from the nature of role-playing. We all come together to play a game, but if the characters don't go on the adventure, then nothing happens. That's just not fun. As a natural result, PCs tend to eagerly join a group of complete strangers and set off into dangerous situations with little or no motivation. As players, we have been trained to accept this, no matter how ridiculous it seems at the time, because we have no real choice.

First, let me say that avoiding the call of adventure is not a sin--no matter how annoying it seems to the GM. We shouldn't have to settle for paper-thin setups. The PCs deserve strong motivations. The more they are motivated, the more meaningful the story becomes. By resisting the adventure, players are simply expressing their desire for better motivations. Besides, there are many examples in literature where the protagonist struggles against the adventure, only to get sucked deeper and deeper into the problems.

So, next time your players refuse to tramp up the Mountain of Despair, look at it as an opportunity. The real problem isn't controlling the players, it's over planning, lack of motivation and slow pacing.

Avoid Over-planning:

Avoid the natural tendency to over-engineer a story.

Take the typical dungeon crawl, the module describes every detail before the adventure begins. As a GM, you just look up the room number, and you had all those wonderful tidbits at your fingertips. Unfortunately, to me, this comes across as static and cold. Each room is frozen in time, all the NPCs just sit around, waiting for the characters to kick in the door and kill them.

From a game point of view, there's nothing wrong with this, but it makes a lousy story. A story is more than just a series of interesting events. It needs to grow and evolve naturally. It needs to dynamically respond to the players actions--and the players need to dynamically respond to the story. This means less planning and more reacting.

Every GMs knows that sometime, probably sooner rather than later, the players will do something unexpected. It's an unfair setup. You cannot plan for the unexpected--but the unexpected can thoroughly destroy your plans. Still, the simple fact remains, no matter what the players do, the GM must react.

Part of this is just good improv. Accept what the players offer, and then work with it. Maybe you need a moment or two to digest the situation. No problem, call a break. Go get another coke or walk around for a few minutes. But, find a way to build upon the player's actions.

When preparing for the game, avoid planning, but actively build possibilities. Create an encounter--but don't fill in all the details. Focus on the conflicts and the key antagonists, but leave a lot of room for change. Then, during the game session, look for opportunities to bring this encounter to the table. Don't force it in. It must fit naturally in the flow of the story. Be patient. If you can't use it this session, keep it on the back burner for next. But, sooner or later you'll find the right moment.

A more difficult technique involves providing open ended clues. Here, you add a hint of mystery to the game, you give the characters a clue--a mystery that even you don't fully understand. Oh, you may have a few ideas about what the clue might mean. But you leave yourself open to unexpected opportunities.

Remember, if you bring a clue into the game, you have a responsibility to keep it in the game. You have to address the mystery later that session--yes, that very session. You don't have to resolve it--in fact, you probably shouldn't. But you need to bring it back into the game. You need to build upon the existing mystery, adding new hints, clues or twists. And then you must continue to build every session until the mystery is resolved.

Eventually, the mystery will become clear in your mind--but by deliberately leaving things fuzzy at the beginning, you are letting the mystery grow and develop in response to the players actions. In other words, you keep your game tightly bound to the characters. That's a good thing.

Here's a little challenge. Try to run the game without looking at your notes or at the rules. Just wing it for a little while. It's a great exercise for strengthening your improv muscles. It also helps you focus on story, not mechanics. Finally, it ensures that you are reacting to your players, not railroading them down some predefined path.

Give it a try, you might like it.

Maintain a Good Pace

Don't let the story lag.

React to the players, yes. But don't just sit around waiting for them to act.

If the player's won't go to the action, bring the action to them. What are the bad guys doing while they sit on their hands? Sooner or later, the black hats will try something that impacts the character's lives. Cut to that point. Make the PCs' lives "interesting."

The GM can always drive the story forward by throwing things at the players. If they've spent too much time plotting and planning, have a maniac with a shotgun kick in their door. Or, less violently, have the police show up and start asking questions.

To paraphrase Syd Field, chase your characters up a tree, then throw rocks at them.

But, it has to be the right rocks. Remember this point. I'll get back to it soon.

Here's another problem with gaming in general. Most games have a lot of slow scenes. The characters go into a shop and chat with a wacky dwarf with a bad Scottish accent. Sure, it can be quite funny, but it's not moving the story. I feel a lot of slow scenes are falsely justified as "exploring the character" or "character development".

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that you should never break out your wacky, bad Scottish accent. Go ahead. Go whole hog. But--again--if you bring something into a scene, you have a responsibility to bring it back into the story later. Sometime soon (preferably before the end of the session, or in the next session at least) that wacky dwarf needs to make another appearance--probably as a corpse.

OK, so having crazed cultists kill the dwarf is an obvious rout. But you can go for mysterious and have him vanish one evening. Or maybe he shows up at the bar raving drunk and angry (although now, you must bring the reason for his anger back into the story later). Whatever. The dwarf must come back into the story, and his return must drive the story forward.

And always remember, don't let the story drag.

How fast should the game go? Well, I've never played a game that felt too quick. I've often played in games that lagged. Take from that what you will.

It's a fact, gaming is an inherently slow medium--especially when die rolls and rules get involved. As players, we often have to take turns. That can mean a lot of waiting for our moment in the spotlight. As a result, I feel that GMs should mercilessly trim any non-relevant material from the game.

A lot of GMs know the basics. They won't actually role-play through a three-month sea journey in real time. Rather, they cut to the destination. But, all too often, the GM waits way too long before closing the curtain on a scene. Too often the GM will wait to see if anyone has anything else to do...and will then role-play through any meaningless errands the characters bring up.

Don't wait for things to lag. Be more aggressive about your editing. If there's something a player really wants to do, she'll stop you. You can always give her more time.

And, think hard before playing out any scene. Does it have conflict? Can you use it to make conflict? If not, you probably should handle it off-scene. Just let the players get what they want and move on.

Here's another exercise. Never say "What do you do?" Ok, maybe not never. If you present the characters with a really tough decision, and their writhing in the throes of conflict, yes. Then you should prod them (it just twists the knife in deeper). But, if nothing's happening, don't ask. Just end the scene. Just move on.

And for goodness's sake, don't let the players waste thirty minutes deciding the watch rotation for a night. I'm begging you. Unless you're playing a tactical game, you don't need to worry about watches and marching order. If it's important to a scene, you can ask--but only ask when it becomes important.

Build Character Motivation

I hate to say it, but most GMs have no clue how to motivate the players. I think, most GMs get so wrapped up in designing a cool encounter, they forget to consider the "Why's". Why would a character go into the Haunted Woods of Terror? Why would they stay and fight the dragon? While these may lead to cool adventures, they're not the actions of sane individuals.

One of the primary jobs for the GM is building player motivation. But it is not the GM's job alone.

Player motivation starts with character creation. All characters should come with built-in desires and goals. The GM should use (and abuse) these in his stories.

Stories start when a character is forced from the comforts of their regular life. They are faced with a new problem, one that they cannot deal with. This is the beginning of conflict. Things should then go from bad to worse. The conflict should rise, until you reach the climax.

Ideally, the players should choose an initial problem for themselves--though, these need to be handled carefully so they will fit into an overall story. Since each player is supposed to be a main character, their self-chosen conflicts are often subordinate to the overall plot. They are the kernel for individualized subplots that help bring the character to life. Meanwhile, the GM imposes a larger, more significant problem that represents the overall story arc.

The key thing here, pick problems that the players cannot ignore.

Next, the GM needs to build the players interest. Don't just ask them to go into the dark and spooky forest, never ask them to go. Make them want to go. Make them need to go. But, this needs to be handled subtly, or the players may feel like they're being manipulated.

OK, remember the rocks I mentioned earlier. You probably thought I forgot about them, right. Wrong. You can build character motivation by picking the right rocks.

Every scene should do at lest two things. It's not enough to have a crazed, shotgun-wielding thug break down the PCs' door. That's only one thing. Same with wolves attacking the campsite. Same with our friendly Scottish dwarf.

When you present a scene, think about both the immediate action and about linking the scene to something larger. Often this is a clue or mystery. Perhaps the shotgun wielding freak has an arcane rune tattooed onto his forehead. Perhaps he severely injures a PC's younger sister, putting her in a coma. Some part of the scene must reach well beyond the boundaries of the scene--even if the players can't see it immediately.

We already talked about the dwarf. That's a perfect example of larger connections. Here, the shopkeeper acts as a setup for future scenes. Similarly, one scene might foreshadow something yet to come.

As the story unfolds, make the characters hate the antagonist. Don't let the black hats degrade into passive straw-men that the PCs just knock down. Make them go after the PCs. Have them trick the PCs. Let them humiliate the PCs. Give the PCs something to care about, then have the antagonist take it away. Have them mess with the PCs' heads.

This is particularly effective when the antagonist is someone the PCs often interact with, but cannot (for whatever reason) move against yet. Usually, this means the antagonist has considerable political or economic power. But, in general, it is a good rule for any bad guy. The more the PCs hate the antagonists, the more meaningful the climax and eventual resolution will become. Pull out all the stops: threats, backstabbing, incrimination, betrayal, taunting, humiliation, frustration. Let them drive the PCs crazy.

Also, don't always use the same sort of conflict. Most of my examples have been heavy on the violent side. In my defense, RPGs are typically action oriented. But you don't always have to use the big stick. Let the opposition use their political, economic and social clout as well. Nothing's worse than an evil switch-hitter.

Finally, don't be afraid to use a little reverse psychology. You want the players to go into the Haunted Woods of Terror, have the NPCs discourage them from going there. Have them beg. Have them order the PCs to stop investigating the woods. Threaten them with arrest if they go anywhere near the woods. But always have some clue, some bit of temptation pulling them towards those dark shadows.

So, that's it. Keep your stories flexible and responsive to the players actions. Keep the pace snappy (and I mean really snappy). And build player motivations. Soon, Thurak will be frothing at the mouth and charging through the Haunted Woods of Terror.

If he's not, you've probably done something wrong.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Darn Spam Comments

Well, I asked for more comments...

Seems like I've been hit with a mild wave of spam comments. I'm unmercifully deleting them as soon as I discover them. So far, this purely manual approach has worked, but I might need to look for more-permanent solutions. If anyone has any suggestions (other than just turning off comments, which I'd rather not do), please let me know.

I've been mulling over an idea for a post. I'm intrigued with the commonly-felt desire by a GM to force his players along a given path. but I'm way too tired to try and piece it together tonight. Under a big project for school right now--so I'm not sure when it will get posted. But I'll give you a teaser. If you feel the need to force your players along, then something's wrong with the game. The players should be chomping at the bit like a pack of rabid wolf puppies...except you don't use bits on wolves...can horses get rabies?...Too tired...brain broken...sleep now.