This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Like most creative endeavors, the GMing craft comes with its share of eternal conundrums. One classic example is the question of whether you carefully prepare adventures, or improvise them in response to player choices.

Carefully prepared adventures risk the accusation of railroading. In this particular application of a term I find annoyingly broad, the GM must be careful not to create the impression that anything that happens is predetermined, or that the players have anything less than absolute freedom of choice at all times. By its very nature, a prepared scenario can’t anticipate every possible branching action leading from a single plot premise. Otherwise even the simplest adventure would hit the table at the approximate weight of a telephone directory, and would consist almost entirely of carefully written responses to choices the players never wind up making. The more creative and surprising the choices made by the players, the more a prepared scenario becomes an improvised one during play.

On the other hand, if you’re completely making it up as you go along, some players (not, one hopes, the same ones who complain about railroading) find it more difficult to engage in the willing suspension of disbelief necessary to the enjoyment of any fictional presentation. If they can see you making it up on the spot, the game becomes less “real” to them. For players of this school, the game world is only genuine to them if they can believe that you’ve made certain immutable decisions and that certain of their choices will always produce the same results. Their desire for a sense of a bedrock reality behind the scenario persists regardless of your immediate need to adjust such factors as pacing, dramatic contrast, or degree of challenge.

In an investigative scenario, like one for any of the GUMSHOE games, you’ll generally need to designate certain facts as immutable from the outset. You’ll want to start the game already knowing a good deal of backstory, specifically who committed the act under investigation, how they did it, and why. (This is assuming that you’re not playing in a more avant garde mode, in which the players, acting as collective co-storytellers, help to collaboratively determine all these facts as they go along.) You can’t work out which clues might be available, even in improv fashion, if you don’t already know what facts the clues will eventually point toward.

For groups especially sensitive to the thought that you’re making it up before their eyes, a number of techniques allow you to convincingly fake it.

(Yep, I’m once again advocating a series of GM techniques which to a small extent deceive the players. If you find the entire idea of this scandalous, you may also be shocked to learn that there is gambling going on in the casino. Any author or screenwriter at all interested in the basic pleasures of narrative is to some degree a magician, relying on misdirection to eventually surprise and delight the audience. Just because players in an RPG take on pivotal duties that in other story forms are the sole province of the author doesn’t mean that the GM shouldn’t occasionally trick them into greater enjoyment.)

Several “tells” reveal to any halfway savvy group of players that you’re relying on a heavily prepared adventure. Disguise your improvisations by displaying these same tells.

Most notably, a prepared adventure takes an obvious physical form, as a sheaf of notes. To appease improv-averse players, create a fakebook. Use old notes from another adventure, perhaps with a new title page to keep it looking fresh and free of dog ears. Write a new title for the scenario, set to a high point size, so your players can read it from across the room if they “just happen” to glance at it. (For additional misdirection points, use your title for foreshadowing purposes. Choose an adventure title that creates a set of expectations, and then fulfill those expectations in a surprising way. A scenario called Darkness At the Bottom Of the Well might encourage your players to investigate an actual (and dangerous) well, when your real reference point for the title might refer to a book title, the name of an Internet forum, or your tale’s (entirely metaphorical) theme.

Refer to your fakebook throughout the adventure, especially when new scenes arise. This gives you something to do when forced to improvise your way through a situation that has you momentarily stumped. Don’t take as much time as the proverbial bad GM who’s constantly referring to his notes for interminable stretches—just enough to maintain your illusion of preparation. Even if you’re on a roll and don’t need the creative breathing room, make sure to take the occasional glance at it, to maintain the illusion of limited immutability.

Other fakebook techniques require some advance work—though not nearly so much as fully writing up a scenario in quasi-publishable format. Make sure, for example, to have not only the names of the characters you’ll need to use, but also a list of other unassigned names ready to go. A list of street names and business establishments may also prove invaluable Realistic sounding names are tough to generate on the fly, and are the deadest giveaway of an improvising GM.

Conversely, the most notable tell of the GM running a prepared adventure is the periodic break to read aloud sections of text. Personally, especially when running a published scenario, I find this technique way more disruptive to the fictional illusion than the notion that the GM is improvising. However, the same folks who get restless when they sense the GM is making it up may derive comfort from these canned textual signposts, which indicate that everything is still safely on track.

Ready yourself for this additional level of trickery by writing free-floating passages of text which can be dropped into any scenario. Descriptions of people are the most versatile, because you can assign them to characters who might pop up in any adventure. If you don’t wind up using a bored security guard, old coot watchman, or foxy librarian in the present improvised adventure, you can hold them in abeyance for a future installment. Because, like any improv whiz, you’re trying to minimize your prep time, you can keep these suitably short and sweet, avoiding the trap of the overlong text block.

Misdirection requires you to know your own habits regarding prepared text, and to duplicate them when improvising. Though I always try to paraphrase any prepared text, I often find myself at least half-reading passages from scenarios I’ve prepared. If you read lengthy passages as is, do the same when faking it with a free-floating text block. If you’d paraphrase all text snippets in fully prepped adventure, replicate that habit.

Ambitious fake improvisers can find further ways to mimic the behavior of a well-prepped GM. If your pre-written scenarios include hand-outs, create some free-floating maps, notes, and diagrams to fold into your plotline as you develop it. If you borrow images to represent people and places, keep a pile on hand for the same purpose, and so on.

Keep at it, and eventually you might convince even yourself that you’ve prepared!

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

For the past couple of installments we’ve been examining investigative scenario construction from a macro perspective, mostly looking at the way scenes interact with one another. This time let’s zoom in a bit and talk about a couple of other narrative devices you can use to add spice to the basic mystery format.

Red Herrings

From the investigator’s point of view, any mystery can be seen as a set of possibilities, which through probing, legwork and the occasional confrontation with interesting danger, is eventually narrowed to the truth. It is a process of elimination. In any investigative scene, the characters separate what might have happened from what did. Especially in the opening scenes of a scenario, they’ll be busily ruling out suspects, motives and methods.

From the players’ point of view, it is the various competing possibilities that make the mystery into an interesting puzzle.

To create a mystery, first decide what it is that the characters are investigating: a murder, theft, kidnapping, mysterious apparition, whatever.

GMs enjoy an advantage over mystery writers. They often don’t need to create red herrings, because the players create them for them. Players love to speculate, frequently generating wildly off-base explanations to connect what little information they have available to them. Sometimes this slows the action down, and you’ll have to remember to rein them in and suggest that they collect more facts before attempting to reconstruct events.

However, sometimes you’ll find yourself wanting to add complexity to the storyline, rather than subtracting it. There are two ways to build red herrings into your adventures.

The first is preplanned, as you create the scenario. After you work out what really happened, look at the facts that will be available to the investigators in the first scene or two. Take these and construct plausible (but wrong) alternate theories that connect these clues. Then prepare scenes in which the investigators pursue these avenues. In these scenes, the clues they gather rule out the false possibility, allowing them to move back onto the right track.

The second method of red herring generation is improvised, as a response to player speculation. Players will often seize on an alternate theory of the case that you would never have considered in a million years. Rather than see these theories as annoyances to be dispelled, capitalize on them. Invent evidence which seems on its face to support their theory, leading them into scenes in which they eventually find the counter-evidence forcing them to go back to the drawing board, and move toward the actual solution to the mystery. (Especially flexible GMs may decide that the players’ bizarre theory is more entertaining than that given in the scenario and adjust to make that retroactively true. Because it’s hard to assemble an airtight clue trail on the fly, this is recommended only for talented improvisers who breathe story logic like oxygen.)

Whether preplanned or made up as you go along, a red herring should either be extremely interesting in its own right, or so boring that it can be dispensed with quickly. In the first case, the scene makes no contribution to the actual story, and therefore justify its time in the spotlight by being entertaining and memorable in its own right. Invent a crazy character. Vividly describe a unique setting. Inject some social commentary or fun topical references. Parody absent friends or obnoxious public figures.

In a supernatural or fantastic setting, you can use a red herring scene to enhance the apparent reality of your world. Do this by taking a familiar situation or type of behavior and place it within your outlandish boundaries of your chosen reality. In a police procedural set in a superhero world, you might, for example, include an encounter with an enraged citizen wondering how to track down insurance information for the masked crusader who totaled his car while using it as a weapon against a rampaging mutant.

Red herrings can also justify themselves by shedding contrasting light on your story’s themes and images. First, you’ll need to identify your scenario’s themes and images, if you haven’t already done so. These are often inherent in the crime itself. The underlying crime behind The Esoterrorist example scenario, “Operation Slaughterhouse”, is abuse of power. The scenario in the upcoming GUMSHOE horror supplement, Fear Itself, is about madness, and the random nature of its onset.

Suitable red herring scenes should throw a different light on these themes. If abuse of power is the theme, the players might meet a witness (who turns out not to know anything) who has been the victim of shenanigans by high officials. Or he might be an apologist for government corruption.

You can also find imagistic inspiration for red herring scenes. If much of your scenario is set in a forest, a red herring encounter might be shaded with images of wilderness of vegetation. Maybe it takes the players to a hunting lodge, its walls festooned with mounted taxidermy specimens. Or inside a greenhouse, where a frail non-witness pours all of her life energy into her precious forest of rare plants.

Ticking Clocks

Although GUMSHOE ensures that the players have all of the tools at their disposal to solve the mystery-provided they look in the right places, it by no means ensures success. As mentioned last time, they can fall prey to all kinds of disruptive events, which, if they fail, keep them from crossing the finish line.

Sometimes the finish line itself can be a disruptive event. Make use of a classic trick of suspense narrative by putting a time limit on the characters. If they fail to solve the mystery in X amount of time, something horrible happens. A bomb goes off. A buried captive runs out of oxygen. An innocent man is executed.

The use of a ticking clock requires you to keep closer track of elapsed time in the game world than is typical for an investigative scenario. When the players are discussing what to do, you’ll need a clock to keep track of how much real time they’re eating up. During action sequences and cuts between scene, you’ll tabulate game world time, adding it to the total.

Ticking clock plotlines only work when the players know that they’re on a deadline. They can also create some tricky timing issues: for example, they lose steam if broken up over a number of sessions. Casual groups who prefer a relaxed pace and plenty of room to chitchat may flounder or rebel if you tighten the pressure on them in this way.

However, for a dedicated group of problem solvers, nothing gets the adrenaline flowing better than the old ever-present countdown.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

I’m still not sure where I come down on the whole laptop at the gaming table issue. Maybe my mind would be definitively made up if I were to see a GM make brilliant use of one. My main fear, I guess, is one of focus. I’ve always felt that one trait distinguishing really great GMs is their personal attention to the emotional dynamic of the room. Are the players rapt? Bored? Is a jolt of energy required, or maybe a snack break? I worry that a laptop serves as an even more formidable barrier between moderator and player than an oversized or overused GM screen.

Then again, it could be my Luddite side showing. I haven’t observed such a thing in the field, but I’m willing to admit to the possibility that there’s a new generation of instinctive multi-taskers coming up through the ranks who can keep one eye on their combat trackers, another on the minis table, and a third on their players’ attention spans. Or is that one eye too many? Sorry, I was busy checking my email in mid-paragraph and lost track of my number of eyes.

Maybe, with universal wireless connectivity lurking just around the corner, the GMing future lies in handheld devices. I already consider my PDA as my backup brain, and that’s without a wireless connection for instant net browsing. Whether it’s a mobile phone, a hyped-up pager or micro computer, we’re all used to seeing our friends fiddle with their devices of choice, to such an extent that they hardly steal focus in the course of a game session. You can consult a smaller device unobtrusively, without hiding your eyes, the key to your connection with others, from your players.

I’m already using a handheld program to track initiative order, that notorious bugaboo of smooth pacing, in my current D&D campaign. I don’t need to tell you about the wide variety of utilities for the wired GM, or the handy availability of searchable d20 rules.

Although it’s exciting to see solutions to game mechanical complexity appearing in mobile devices, other less obvious cheats and shortcuts await the wired GM. Rules rule in combat situations, but it’s when I’m inventing new plot material on the fly that I often find myself lusting for seamless, invisible browser access.

Real-sounding contemporary names are an example so obvious I only include it so you know I gave this list some thought. It’s tough to dream up authentic and memorable names without a cheat sheet. When caught without one, I often find my eye drifting to the bookcase. The authors of my film book collection, which is right at my elbow as I game, have lent their names to minor characters for ages. With a browser ready, mix and match names are waiting at any newspaper’s dot.com location. Avoid international and entertainment news stories, whose surnames are all too familiar, and instead head for the local news. Experts responding to science stories often have fabulous names. Naturally if you’re planning on published these names you need to swap out first and last names, so you’re not labeling that nice environmental science prof commenting on global warming as a cultist of Dagon.

A name is only the beginning when you’re suddenly called upon to flesh out a walk-on character. Without external prompting I find myself defaulting to a couple of standard characterizations: the dumb guy, the disinterested cynical guy, and the insinuatingly mocking villain. To find other personalities for minor characters, I hit the Internet Movie Database. I start by clicking on the first name I see on the site’s front page; then into their filmography, then down the cast list of a title somewhere in the middle of that list. (Top-most items for active performers are usually for films that don’t exist yet, and lack suitably long cast lists.) If I then need another actor to serve as inspiration, I alter one of the numbers in the film’s URL at random. That takes me to another film, which hopefully will be in English or include foreign actors I recognize. So instead of another dumb guy, that vendor at the market turns out to be played by booming-voiced comedy player Eugene Pallette. For a non-standard villain, I might cast against type when I stumble across the name of shambling genius thespian John C. Reilly. This trick works best for those pre-equipped with a deep knowledge of obscure character actors, but even the casual cinephile should be able to match up major stars with enough personality traits to distinguish a minor character.

Ebay is a great source of detailed descriptions for treasures. Need a McGuffin? Try its antiquities section. The jewelry and art categories allow you to pull up images and info on all manner of exotic loot.

Images provide not only a concrete sense of reality to stimulate your player’s imaginations, but can answer questions so that you don’t have to.

Real estate listings, including sites geared to apartment hunters, provide copious photos of contemporary building interiors. An afternoon of bookmarking will put the appropriate rental sites at your fingertips.

To get an image of what you really want, Google’s image source provides more reliable results. The photosharing site Flickr is good for shots of random, mostly young, contemporary people.

For imagistic inspiration, though, Flickr provides a free-associative paradise. Its large user base and often wonky self-defined tag system brings up a wealth of unexpected visuals at the input of a single word. It works best as a prompt for improv, helping out on nights when you’re completely flying by the seat of your pants. After a raw search result comes in, click on “most interesting” to get the most evocative images. Nearly any term, no matter how abstract, yields something that might spark an idea. As of this writing, Cthulhu had 399 photos in his gallery. “Mortality” got 155 hits; “treasure”, upwards of 1300.

I’ll depart with an exercise. Create an adventure hook for your favorite contemporary setting, drawing your inspiration from three images that come up on Flickr, one for each of the following tags: burden, hellfire, forget. Those interested in proving their free-associative superiority to all comers are urged to post their results to the Pelgrane Forum. [Ed. — this forum is no longer live.]

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Whenever I serve as a guest at a gaming convention, I make it a policy to ask the seminar organizer to set up a panel on Game Mastering Troubleshooting. On a minute by minute basis, I’ve learned more about roleplaying as it actually occurs from fielding questions at these seminars than in any other forum. By keeping the focus on Q&A, as opposed to abstract panelist pontification, one gets a real sense of the practical problems that plague groups wherever polyhedrals are rolled.

The most common and most addressable class of problems consist of variances in taste between players. I’ve tackled these in-depth elsewhere, most specifically in Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering and the opening chapter of the Dungeons and Dragons® Dungeon Master’s Guide II.

Dealing with gamemastering problems in print poses a thorny challenge. Experienced GMs know all too well that roleplaying sessions can occasionally devolve into exercises in severe frustration. Though this is hardly a secret, neither is it a fact you want to dwell on in a book that should be selling the reader on the fun of roleplaying. We emphasize the positive as a matter of survival. The hobby needs a continual stream of folks willing to take on the time-consuming and sometimes thankless task of running games. The fear is always that an overly candid discussion of the various pitfalls of the RPG experience could send would-be GMs running to the comparative shelter of their Xboxes.

In the less formal atmosphere of a web column, though, maybe it’s safe to admit what everybody knows. Many long-running games are just fun enough to bug the hell out of us. With its emphasis on planning, execution, and group effort, a session where a group of adventurers plots its assault on the goblin redoubt of Xanthrukor can easily resemble a brain-shredding meeting at any typically dysfunctional workplace. Each contains many of the same dispiriting interpersonal syndromes: the guy who won’t listen. The guy who won’t shut up. The co-worker who can’t stay on topic. The professionally obtuse one, who returns to hash over the same agonizing point just when the rest of you think you’ve got it put to bed. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Granted, roleplaying sessions hold a couple of advantages over workplace conferences. First, you get superpowers. Second, you get to kill things. Third, once you kill the things, you get their stuff.

Fourth, and most important, there’s you. The GM. You’re the ultimate arbiter of the world reality, adjudicator of all actions, and driver of the storyline. However, your real power to keep the evening off the rocks of pointless wrangling, is, for all of its potential power, a subtler one.

Many GMs, following an ancient unwritten protocol that got its start in the early days of the hobby, take a hands-off approach to interaction between players. In principle, this makes sense. The GM has so much authority over so many areas of the game that she shouldn’t go horning in one of the few domains of pure player control. And indeed, the GM should never try to push player planning sessions so that they reach a particular outcome. An outcome, any reasonable outcome, should be the goal.

Most players stuck in a rut of circular discussion are desperate for a way out. A few words from you can carefully guide the discussion back out of the ditch. The key here is not to make decisions or suggestions for the group, but to underline and organize the good suggestions they’ve already made. Be content neutral, but help to shape the discussion productively.

Discouragement is quick to settle over a group when planning has turned to wrangling, and too few acceptable options seem to present themselves. Paralysis often results after a group rules out perfectly suitable choices. When this happens you need to do more than provide a concise, upbeat recap of the discussion’s present status. Instead, gently rebut the assumptions that lead the group to reject viable options.

A few players are pessimistic by nature. Others have had pessimism trained into them by absurdly punitive past GMs. Perhaps most common is the adroit debater, who skillfully shoots down all plans other than his own.

Players live in the real world, and apply its system of logic to your game setting. This entails a collision of expectations. Almost every game world out there is based on the logic of adventure stories, where obstacles are meant to be overcome. No matter how much time players spend consuming genre stories, whether in print or on the screen, it’s hard for most of us to truly take this logic to heart.

How many times, for example, have you heard players assume that the villain’s lair will have impregnable security in place? Remind them that a skilled group can find a way into the best-guarded of fortresses. “Impregnable” in adventure genre terms means, “very tough, but I’ve got a crazy plan and it just might work.” It means the Death Star or Goldfinger’s headquarters, not the equivalent real-world installations.

If you fail to uphold the conventions that make adventure stories work, you should be unsurprised when planning sessions bog down due to a lack of credible options.

Your players should be able to count on the bad guys to fight them in waves, to create a series of entertaining fights. When they assume otherwise – and they will – remind them to apply the correct logic set to their problem-solving.

Selfish motives and power trips do drive a certain amount of wrangling. Players who engage in annoying behavior for its own sake are hard to deal with. At best, you can learn to spot their behaviors and try to divert them as symptoms first appear. Expect a hit and miss success rate with deliberate churls. Their disruptive behaviors often stem from an unconscious attempt to assume a sense of personal power and control otherwise lacking from their lives. Catch one of these types on a good day when he feels in control, and your tricks will work smoothly. Hit him when he’s tired, cranky and beleaguered, and you’ll see your smoothest interpersonal strategies go up the spout.

Fundamentally and permanently altering a player’s personality quirks are beyond the skills of even the most puissant gamemaster. These folks have to be either tolerated or dis-invited from your game. As always, this decision is a difficult one, in which you have to balance your desire to accommodate a friend against the ideal roleplaying experience. The calculation is hardly unique to roleplaying: every recreational group, whether it be a bowling club or an aquarium fancier’s alliance, faces the same issue.

Personally, I’m an advocate of tolerance. We all have bad days. None of us is free of irritating habits. Often those least capable of getting along with others are most in need of their company. On one level, I have to admit that I admire folks who are sufficiently hardcore about their hobby to freely issue pink slips to participants whose personal issues prove consistently irritating. When it comes right down to it, though, I guess I’d sooner regard myself as an accepting person than the GM of a brilliant game.

Or maybe it’s just that I’ve never yet been unlucky enough to have a truly annoying gamer in my group.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Almost all popular RPGs are adventure games – escapist, wish-fulfilling power fantasies. We play heroes evincing varying degrees of ass-kickitude, overcoming villains and other obstacles, saving the day and otherwise demonstrating their reverberant mastery. The fantasy genre is adventure in pseudo-medieval armor. SF? Adventure with blasters. Superheroes? Adventure in spandex.

Unlike their cousins on the movie screens or the paperback bookshelves, adventure game scenarios hold out at least the possibility of failure. A wandering monster’s surprise instant-kill power can wipe out your entire 12th-level party. A missed roll can prevent you from firing your photon torpedo into the Xurnabi space station as it obliterates the planet.

By and large, though, the rules and conventions of the adventure are skewed to massage the desire for the control and triumph our workaday lives deny us. We encounter only the monsters our party is buff enough to slay – or are copiously warned when we mistakenly venture into tougher areas of the dungeon. Clue trails are kept cleaner than real-life mysteries allow. The death and dying rules allow our PCs to recover in hours from hundred meter falls, stabbings in the heart, and the occasional touch of leprosy.

Games truly set in the horror genre turn these assumptions on their head. The secret of successfully scaring your players is to remember and ceaselessly exploit this dynamic. Horror stories are fantasies of powerlessness. Rip away all of the cozy assumptions instilled in players by other roleplaying experiences, and you’ll scare the bejeepers out of them.

(First of all, though, you need to be sure the game you’ve picked up is really a horror game, or an adventure game in genre drag. The great success of the Vampire line and its many spawn can be traced to the way it grafts horror iconography onto a traditional escapist power-fantasy.)

Another quibble must be dispatched before we move on. Surely there’s a difference between scaring the players, and scaring the PCs? Not in a horror game there isn’t. In a traditional adventure game, you might want to subject the heroes to fear-effects which their players need not suffer. In that instance, you can tell a player that his character is terrified, or gibbering insanely and wielding a garlic press, and expect him to play out that behavior, without wanting him to method-act it.

A horror game should be just as scary to the participants as a horror movie is to its audience. If only the imaginary people are unnerved, you’ve failed – just as you’ve failed if your adventure game doesn’t create a sense of excitement, tension, and, at the end of it all, reward.

Icky images that make the flesh crawl are all well and good. But mere imagery can be co-opted. It’s tough now to run a Lovecraft-based game because his creatures and tropes have entered into fannish lore and become the font of a zillion jokes. Plush Cthulhus are old hat, and now you can add stuffed shoggoths and byahkees to your collection, too.

Horror images are powerful when they tie into a loss of control for the player. For example, we fear disease and death because they remove our control over our very selves. No matter how familiar they become, we’ll always recoil at depictions of injury, bodily malfunction, and decay.

When creating a horror scenario, think up as many ways as you can to strip the PCs, and thus the players who experience the scenario through them, of their usual sense of control. Then create a ladder of control loss, beginning with minor incidents and building up to major ones, so that the vise is steadily tightened throughout the course of the evening.

The scariest game I ever ran was a playtest for a Cthulhu scenario written for Chaosium. (Given their vast stock of commissioned but unpublished material, this may surface just before the big guy himself rises from R’lyeh.) The PCs are children, a choice that immediately makes them vulnerable and powerless. An entire horror game, Little Fears, derives its potency from this idea.

On the other hand, you can allow your PCs to equip themselves with all the accoutrements of power, then take them away or make them useless. The big tough guy with the machine gun and the sinewy muscles suffers an even greater fall from grace when his bullets are stolen, and a freaky parasite starts eating his biceps from the inside.

Isolation also breeds vulnerability. Most roleplayers are lucky enough to live in relative safety from predators, human or otherwise. When trouble does loom, we know we can rely on the authorities for help. Situate your scenarios as far away from help as possible. Then, as the action gets hairy, find a creative way to cut the few lifelines that remain.

Foster direct identification between player and PC. Games set in the 1920s are safe and quaint. Scenarios taking place on exotic planets couldn’t possibly happen to us. Place the action in your own neighborhood. Reinforce the bizarre with the mundane: have that phallic, toothy eel slither out from the business end of a Coke machine.

Adjust your GMing style to squelch the jollier mood typical of standard adventure play. Announce off the top that you’ll step more harshly than usual on digressions and other out-of-character discussion. Again, the idea is to intensify the sense of identification.

You might think, then, that you should ruthlessly stomp out all jokes and laughter. Not so – laughter is an anxiety release, and therefore a sign of tension. Grim jokes are a sign of success. If you think they’re working too well as an anxiety reliever, though, keep an eye on the group’s collective complacency level. After they think they’ve laughed their fears away, blindside them with some exceptional bit of nastiness. You want the emotional vibe to ebb and flow throughout the evening. The ideal horror moment is one where the players let their guards down, even though they know they shouldn’t, leaving themselves wide open for you to bring the hammer down.

For those who like power, the only safe seat in a horror game is that of the GM. Perhaps that’s why many of the most talented GMs are drawn to the genre – your players essentially volunteer to be messed with.

Now that’s a power fantasy.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

One of the powerful abilities of a roleplaying rules-set is to provide compromise without negotiation. The normal process of conversational give-and-take through which people normally resolve issues of mutual preference or gratification is inherently distorting.

Let’s say there are three of us – you, me, and Bernice – and we’re all trying to decide what movie to see together tonight. If we hash it out until we come to a conclusion, the chances of us arriving at the actual objective compromise between our preferences are lower than if we introduced a rules system to resolve the matter.

In a process of negotiation, a host of emotional and interpersonal factors come into play. You may be more skilled at arguing the merits of your choices than either of us. Bernice may be a pleaser, more anxious to seem accommodating than to express her true wishes. I may be a bit of an emotional blackmailer, ready to subtly sulk and moan if I don’t get my way. Our simple chat to decide what movie we want to see will likely favor you or me, leaving Bernice silently wishing she’d spoken up for herself.

If instead we all sit down separately to rank the movies we want to see in order, and then compare the lists to see which flick earns the best spot across all three lists, we’ve removed the interpersonal distortions. Assuming that we’ve created a good system that can’t be gamed by a clever player, we’ll have correctly ascertained our real collective desires.

Creating a game experience together requires a constant state of compromise, both among the players and between GM and players. The system serves as a traffic cop of our narrative desires. I want to hit the orc. You want to coax the monkey to shimmy across the beam and snag the amulet. Bernice wants to use her fireball spell. The GM wants the encounter to serve as a moderate threat that will cost us some resources without killing our characters. She hopes it will go fairly quickly, leaving time to hit the big climactic encounter in time to resolve it this evening.

We’ve all engaged the system to speak for us in this non-negotiated compromise. I’ve built a character designed for maximum smiting potential. You paid points for your useful pet monkey. Bernice has not only loaded up as many fireballs as a PC of her level can legally carry, but has committed the rules to memory and learned to thoroughly exploit their loopholes. The GM has used the rules’ challenge system to fit the threat, as best she can, to her time constraints and desired degree of lethality.

Highly defined, determined, and detailed systems tip the balance of power in favor of the players’ collective will. Here the GM is just one participant making requests of the system and hoping to get a desired result. Loose, diceless, or story-oriented systems give the GM more power and flexibility in determining outcomes. They give the GM many opportunities to decide outcomes by fiat, bending them toward her goals.

As rigorously determined systems distribute power evenly within a game group, they increase the unpredictability of results. The greater the number of rules components – character stats, spell effects, creature abilities, skills, and so on – involved in an outcome determination, the harder it becomes to predict or control the ultimate result. The end product of the system’s compromise between desires may be surprising, wonky, even arbitrary in its dishing out of rewards and punishments. Just like real life.

In a determined system, the GM has little leeway once an encounter begins. She’s set up half the dominoes. You and your fellow players have set up the other half, in a not particularly coordinated fashion. Once the dice start bouncing, the dominoes fall. Most likely, I’ll get to hack orcs, you’ll have a fair shot at the monkey trick, and Bernice will get off some fireballs. Possibly, though, the fireball will react unpredictably with a funky creature power, instantly killing everybody but the monkey.

Systems which leave precise determination in the GM’s hands allow her to impose her will on the group, if she is a selfish and inattentive GM. If she’s a sensitive, quick-thinking GM, though, she’ll be working to take the place of the compromise mechanism inherent in a highly determined system. She’ll be looking not only to make the encounter moderately challenging and fairly quick, but also to let me hack orcs, you attempt the monkey maneuver, and Bernice to singe some ass with her mighty fireballs.

Loosely determined systems permit the GM to weave a sense of order into the proceedings. Outcomes become reassuringly apt, as in a satisfying narrative, and less like the apparently random, undirected nature of real experience.

This leads to two questions, one philosophical, the other practical.

To tackle the practical one first, the outcomes of a loose system are only as good as the GM. The outcomes of a tight system are only as good as the collective work of its
designers. All else being equal, one might argue that the active, judicious intervention of a GM on the spot will always be better tailored to the group’s desires than the uncontrolled interaction of various separate rules bits.

This point sets aside the unfortunate reality that most GMs, whether using loose or determined systems, are not especially good. (Though I hasten to add that if you’re bothering to read this column, you yourself are surely a GM of surpassing taste, ability, and physical handsomeness.) From a player’s point of view, the non-negotiated compromise of a tight rules set protects you more from a weak GM than does a loose system in which your fun is dependent on the quality of her decision-making.

Even when playing with a GM you like and trust, her rulings by fiat will sometimes seem wrong to you. In that case, you’re left with no one to blame but the GM. More complex games allow you to vent your displeasure at the system – and afford the GM the privilege of riding to the rescue and overruling the obviously faulty bit of game text.

The philosophical question concerns your desire for narrative satisfaction. Do you want your characters to operate in the universe of storytelling cause and effect, or in one driven by the morally neutral interactions of various physical forces? For some players, it’s a question of taste: storytellers and butt-kickers may seek the guided cause-and-effect of a fictional world, where tacticians and immersive roleplayers will gravitate toward the interaction of neutral forces. In other cases, the source of preference may go deeper, speaking to your personal worldview.

That’s a preference that may be amenable neither to negotiation, or to compromise.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A few columns back, I mentioned the iron rule of theatrical improv: never negate. The idea is this: when you’re working together to create a scene on the fly, you have to accept, and build

on, any contribution made by another actor. You can’t deny it or rule it out; that takes the scene backwards and wastes time. The results are, in other words, boring. The rule requires the performers to relinquish a degree of personal control over the storyline, embracing spontaneity and forward movement.

In almost any typical roleplaying setting, however, there’s a force at work that regularly negates the storyline’s forward movement, and does so way more often than any GM or player: the dice and the rules set. Those polyhedral control freaks in your dice bag, in conjunction with your resolution system of choice, are constantly saying no to the PCs as they attempt to take action in the world.

Failure is usually boring. It is the credible but unrealized threat of failure that is interesting.

In other forms of adventure storytelling, failures by the protagonist and rare and remarkable events. They are dealt out sparingly, if at all. When they do occur, they are pivotal events marking an important and dramatic turn in the storyline. They mean something profound, about the hero and his role in the world.

(Reversals, in which the hero is put in a bad position by successful action on the part of an antagonist, work differently. Here we’re talking about flat-out failures, in which the protagonist has only himself to blame for his poor fortune. Another separate phenomenon is the instance where the heroes find out that a given course of action is for some reason impossible— the fortress is impregnable, or atmospheric conditions on the planet prevent a proper sensor scan. These narrow character choices to make the situation more challenging; they are not failures per se.)

Routine failures are just about unknown in non-rpg adventure fiction. They make the protagonists seem incompetent, and unworthy of our sense of escapist identification. More importantly, they bog down the story. When was the last time you saw:

  • A featured lab tech character on CSI accidentally contaminate a sample, ruining its value
    as evidence — in an episode that does not specifically revolve around that failure?
  • A Star Trek character failing to accurately read a tricorder?
  • A superhero’s danger-detection sense reading a false positive or negative — in a story where this was not itself a clue that something strange was going on?

A hero’s failure to accomplish routine actions contributes nothing of interest to a story. They’re just a drag. First the character must cope with any untoward consequences of the failure. That’s X amount of time expended merely to get back to square one. Then the GM has to find a workaround to deliver needed information, resources, or other plot-forwarding material via some alternate means. This requires the insertion of further scenes, dialogue, plot points, and setting descriptions that add nothing and advance nothing. Given the unpredictable nature of RPG narrative, it’s possible that any of these new scenes could spark an interesting and unexpected new direction for the story. But then that’s equally true of the sequences that would otherwise be moving the story forward, had the gratuitous failure not occurred.

The believable potential for failure must exist, on the other hand, when the stakes are high. Then it generates suspense, one of the key emotions that keeps us coming back to the gaming table.

Most rules systems ask how hard an action is to accomplish in the fictional world of the game, compare that difficulty in some way to the character’s abilities, then call for a die roll. I’d argue that, if you’re trying to create anything resembling a storyline, your GM needs to stop and insert a couple of other questions before the dice crawl out of their bag:

1) Will this die roll generate suspense? Do the players really care all that much?

a) If yes: proceed to die roll

b) If no: proceed to next question

2) Will failure be at least as interesting, introducing as much forward plot movement, as success?

a) If yes: proceed to die roll

b) If no: success is a “gimme.” The character automatically succeeds

Calling for die rolls is a hard habit to break. The tool is there, so we’re tempted to use it. However, just because you have a bag of uncooked macaroni and some gold spray paint, there’s no reason to go and make it into a Christmas ornament.

Many players want to make lots of die rolls. It’s fun to interact with the rules. The players spent all that time selecting and pumping up their abilities, and want to use them. Sometimes die rolls make successes at difficult tasks easier to believe.

It is still possible to tie character abilities to gimmes and allow those all-important die rolls to proceed. When a character wants to attempt an action the GM decides to treat as a gimme, the player may still roll — to garnish his guaranteed success with a minor, additional benefit. Generally this secondary success will be that the task is accomplished in a particularly cool and impressive manner, validating the player’s sense of escapist power fantasy.

  • The DNA expert not only identifies the sample as belonging to the chief suspect, but beats
    the speed record established by the lab’s resident arrogant jerk.
  • The character scales the wall, landing on top of it with a graceful flourish. Behind him, his
    cape flaps in the wind, forming a dramatic silhouette against the full moon.
  • The bard’s performance not only distracts the guards, but attracts the attentions of a
    ravishingly beautiful courtesan.

A sample GM-player negotiation might go like this:

Jack, a player: I want to sneak into the guard post, overpower the sentinels, and take their uniforms, so we can sneak into the palace.

[The GM thinks: Finally! A credible, genre-appropriate way to get into the palace after half an hour of dithering! Will this generate suspense? Maybe for Jack, but if this is a solo mission, the other players will be only mildly interested — especially since they have to wait for him to succeed before they get to do anything. Overall, not enough suspense to be worth it. Will failure be as interesting as success? Definitely not: Jack’s PC will get captured and hauled off to the guardhouse, forcing them to rescue him — they’ll be even further from the real goal of getting into the palace, and we had a capture/rescue scenario just last week.]

GM: Okay, this is a gimme.

Jack: Can I still roll?

GM: Um. [Thinking of a possible secondary benefit.] Sure.

[The player rolls and, sure enough, scores a win.]

GM: You get in and out in a flash. You’re back to the others with the uniforms before they
even realize you’re gone.

Voila! With a simple meta-rule you can impose on any rules system, you’ve got a way to make the successes feel chancy and rewarding. You’ve eliminated pointless failures, preventing them from gumming up the storyline or turning it into a non-stop comedy of errors.

Preserve momentum. Keep the characters cool and competent. It’s a gimme.

The following article originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in April 2008. It discusses several technical details about podcasting, which the reader should bear in mind are now over 12 years old.

By Paul MacLean

[Editor] Paul, also known as Paul of Cthulhu is the head honcho over at Yog-Sothoth, and is reponsible for Yog Radio, the long-running Lovecraftian podcast. Here, we harness his expertise as a podcaster to offer you suggestions on why and how you might record your own sessions.

What?

A little over five years ago an incidental thing happened that has since gone on to spur an increasingly popular genre, that of recording and broadcasting roleplaying game sessions over the internet.

Back at the start of 2003 during a session of Dungeons & Dragons being held at the Bradford University Roleplaying Society (BURPS), I was given a small boundary microphone by a friend to use with my MiniDisc recorder. To test out the little mic I set it to record, did a few “Speaking 1,2,3” tests, and then pretty much forgot about it (and left it running). Going home that evening, before wiping the disc I found a rather clear recording of a 30+ minute segment of our gaming activities. Since I had a web site with a downloads

section I expected it might make a nice little curio tucked away in the archives.

What I didn’t expect was the reaction to it.

Within a few days the low quality MP3 audio file had been downloaded over a thousand times (still a point in time when most people possessed dial-up connections). The response was quite striking. For the first time, people could hear other roleplayers in their native habitat, playing, regardless of geographical or temporal boundaries. It would seem that people often wonder what other groups are like and this was a new way to find out, directly. The consensus of course was that they were like virtually any other group. Even this small recording exposed some universal similarities in gamerdom (language, behaviour, food).

Indeed, so popular was this novel form of audio that it was followed by more, and not just D&DCall of Cthulhu got a look in too. It reached a point where there was sufficient interest that an entire site was dedicated to this n

ew form, which is still going strong today (RPGMP3 – OK, I couldn’t think of a better name). So why the popularity?

Why?

It is difficult to say for certain why audio recordings of roleplaying games should be popular, but over the proceeding years and a with range of feedback from those who listen, it would seem the following are key points:

1) The games remind lapsed or infrequent players of what they miss. In a way, recordings can act as a surrogate game and help maintain an interest and enthusiasm n RPGs. Anywhere from highly active listening to its use as audio wallpaper.

2) Recordings can be a good way to assess how new games can play. There is often a difference between reading a roleplaying book and actually playing the roleplaying game. Audio provides an example of the latter.

3) People who are curious about roleplaying, but never quite sure what it is can actually listen to games being played. This is a far more powerful introduction than the typical “What is roleplaying?” section at the start of many RPG rule books, especially if you’ve got no-one else to introduce you.

4) Sometimes they are listened to purely for entertainment as part documentary (of the players’ lives) and part radio-play, by people who may never anticipate playing RPGs, but who find the stories and banter engaging.

Often the reasons can be a mix of the above, as such, recordings of roleplaying sessions have grown tremendously over the past half-decade, especially with the introduction of widely available broadband access, which leads me onto some of the technical issues of production.

How?

As mentioned, at the start the majority of net users were still on dial-up connections with typical speeds of 3-4 Kilobytes per second (35-45 Kilobits per second [kbps]) which meant that for audio to stream in realtime over the internet very low quality MP3s (with bit rates of 32 Kbps) were needed. Given the excellent compression of the MP3 format and the recording equipment we had to hand, it was enough.

After using the MiniDisc to record games, our group progressed onto larger capacity devices such as the iRiver IFP 700 series MP3 Player/Recorders which meant we could record entire games sessions with ease, limited only by the quality of the internal mic and the file size we could deliver over the net. It is with such straightforward devices (often simply hanging from light fittings) that 40 sessions of the World’s Largest Dungeon were recorded. Even with poor quality audio, content is king.

In more recent times our own game recordings have moved on to much higher MP3 bit-rates (64, 96, 128 Kbps) and better quality equipment as people’s connections speeds have improved and our budgets have grown. Today in our Call of Cthulhu games for example, we use the Binaural (dummy head/kunstkopf) recording technique to help give the sensation that listeners are actually at the table; due to recording in 3D Surround Sound. Details of how we go about recording and processing our particular games can be found via the link at the bottom of this article (Game Audio Recording (Methodology)). Originally, the files were simply available as straight downloads from the web site, but since October 2004 we’ve also made use of Podcasting, a very convenient way to deliver episodic content, automatically.

It’s not necessary to do all this of course, people record on all varieties of equipment at rates suitable to them, but what people are doing is helping to capture and promote the tremendous fun to be had with tabletop roleplaying games in a way unthought of a few years ago.

The Future

There now exist a plethora of ‘actual play’ recordings featuring many different games and playing styles offered by a wide range of groups across the world, and of course there’s not much to stop you doing the same with an inexpensive recorder, some free web hosting and podcasting software.

There have also been examples of video recordings of games on the net, and while novel in and of themselves, RPGs seem best suited to audio, due to their inherent nature of being a descriptive and imagination-based medium.

No one says you have to record and put your audio on the net either. Sometimes it’s just nice to have an archive, for reference or future nostalgia, perhaps one day as a document of a quite particular social pastime.

This relatively new form of entertainment seems set to carry on; even now the original recording from 2003 seems of another age, a snapshot of a game, frozen in time. If you’ve never listened to such recordings before, give it a go, you (or your friends) may just like it. ;)