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No Good

Your Game May Suck

by Juhana Pettersson
Jul 10,2003

 

Your Game May Suck

- Juhana Pettersson

We'll take a short detour from the fascinating world of politics and religion into the realm of the nuts and bolts of roleplaying. In earlier columns I've talked about fancy tricks, but this is about the real basics. In all propability, your game sucks because you don't think about what you're doing.

GM skills

The role of the GM is a subject that's been discussed quite a lot, but I've found that the very basic skills that have to do with the GM's craft are often if not dismissed, then at least overlooked. If you read the how to GM -sections of modern RPG books, like Vampire, you find that they are full of advanced gimmickry like flashforwards and have very little on the real basics. I've started to be more and more interested recently in the simple things that make a game a game, like NPCs, GM vision and pacing. These are just the three examples I'm going to focus on here, but there are other fundamental issues as well, like basic campaign design, the use of rule systems and describing the environment.

Railroading is one of the biggest GM sins. It's also very common. Often when playing in a campaign, I get the feeling that I'm just a spectator in a pre-scripted game. This leads me to the no. 1 question every GM has to ask himself: Why roleplay?

These are some of the characteristics of a RPG:
- No predetermined plot.
- Player participation.
- Unpredictability.

If you want to tell a story, I advise you to write a novel or just tell it. GMs who want to communicate a story railroad in the worst case, and are just not very interested in anything that doesn't have to do with their story in the best case. I often feel that in these games, player initiative is actually resented. In this respect, I find the good old playr vs GM dungeon games actually more RPG-like than the worst of the modern Storytelling spawn (the campaigns, not the publications). At least the dungeon is interactive.

Some people seem seem to think that you're supposed to create an illusion of interactivity and unpredictability, using the black art of Secret Railroading. This means railroading without your players realizing you're doing it. Often this means reacting to player actions so that things always lead back to the original tracks. Sometimes the good GM introduces elements to the game that are designed to lead to other elements, in effect creating someting of a plot. Basically, this is the same thing as Secret Railroading, but the good GM doesn't have the story assumption. He is entering new factors to the game matrix, not building plot events to further the story along.

While a number of good games have been made by GMs who would actually wanted to play in the sort of game they made, it's important to realize that you can't do both things at once. Not if you want to keep your cool. There are hundreds, probably thousands of games, especially larps, which seem to be made essentially as vehicles for the fulfillment of GM characters. Embarassingly enough, these GM wet dream characters have a tendency to be central, powerful and even desirable in the game. If you absolutely have to play in your own larp, play a trivial supporting character like a stableboy at a fantasy game or a doorman in a Vampire game. You get better access to the game and don't appear dorky in the eyes of the players. If your thinking about playing a PC in your own tabletop game, just don't.

If you're a starting GM, you're going to suck. You're going to suck for years before being any good. There are a couple of ways to have a running start, though.

- Play. Analyze the GMs you play in. See what sucks and what's good.

- Plan. Think what you're doing, make a guess about what's going to happen, try out a theory. You're going to fail, but you learn more this way than by not planning. It's important to be able to discard every idea you have the moment it proves to be bad.

- Humility and ambition. You're never perfect. Right now, you're mediocre at best. Try new things, listen to your players, but don't get mired in the futureless swamp of "RPGs are meant to be fun." That attitude rarely leads to real innovation.

- Play a published game by the book.

This last one may come as a bit of a surprise, and I'm going to qualify it a bit. As a rule, I think people should make their own games and not let themselves be limited by the very narrow subjects treated in the published game material. This doesn't mean doing Cthulhu/Cyberpunk crossover games, this means making your own game about whatever you like. For me, this has meant the Russian prison system and reality TV superheroes.

When I started to GM as a kid, I instantly rejected every bit of advice in the rulebooks. My games also sucked quite a lot. I made my own adventures and dungeons which compared very badly with commercial ones. I tweaked rules, usually for the worst. I didn't follow any of the advice about roleplaying, making the game culture in our childhood games quite bizarre. On the other hand, I started with D&D.

The best beginners game I'm familiar with is Vampire. Starting a Vampire game is very simple, and you can have a reasonable game with very little effort or knowledge. The basic character creation process gives you an essentially roleplayable charcter with some indication of personality and past, unlike that of D&D, for example. Vampire is a real world game, so the subject matter and environment is familiar. At the same time, however, it limits the number of essential NPCs and environments to a very manageable degee by dividing NPCs into essential (vampire) and non-essential (human) NPCs. Conflict is easy to come by, you can do a simple game by dropping your Camarilla characters into a town with a couple of Independent and Sabbat vampires and see what happens.

So my advice is this: Play a published game by the book. After you learn the game, experiment. After some time, ditch the training wheels and start doing your own stuff.

NPCs

NPCs are arguably the most important part of the GM-created environment. With this in mind, I have seen surprisingly few games where the GM seems to actually like doing the NPCs and has the ability to match. In one game I played in, the GM had the NPCs (or actually, an NPC) he liked, and all attempts to engage with other NPCs were failures. The problem was that this one NPC was not interesting in any way, but rather one of those ideal- girlfriend -characters which have gained wide popularity in modern alternative male genre writing, the ultimate example being Tank Girl.

I've been in games that have not had a single real NPC. They've had supporting NPCs, cops, waitresses and so on, but no NPCs with whom an emotionally resonant interaction was possible. Often, it seems, the GMs have no real interest in NPC interaction. I find this deplorable, especially since these are often the story-oriented GMs.

Even with good GMs, NPCs are often quite alike. In Lohkeileva kynsilakka, Stenros has NPCs who are self-possessed, articulate and deadpan. They reach out. There are a couple of notable exceptions, but this is his general trend. The most difficult of all are policemen. In some games, the GM has to improvise a couple of cops every game, making the question "How to make cops interesting?" an important one, especially without gimmickry and creating special circumstances.

Things like backstory and even personality are useless compared to a few visible quirks in bringing an NPC to life in a game. In my games, the names of important, overdesigned but bland NPCs are not remembered even after a number of games despite high visibility for that NPC, but NPCs brought to life from notes like "Phil. Older man. Always stand while potraying him." are far more memorable. It's almost bizarre how far a small bit of acting out tics goes.

You should like your NPCs, but consider all of them expendable. GMs who are in love with their creations are just embarassing.

I used to think that the most important interaction in a tabletop game is between the PCs, and it would always be better if the action in the game would be PC initiated. An example of a game that would be very good according to these guidelines would be Jaakko Stenros's Lohkeileva kynsilakka (Cracking Nail Varnish) where most of the important interaction is between the PCs and the game dynamic works so that the external events and NPCs mainly act to feed these relationships. Most importantly, the game's main emotional resonance is strictly between the PCs, with very little directed outwards.

For a long time, I thought that my campaign Kulak, about the Russian ex- cons was defective because it was very NPC driven. A lot of the actual substance of the game consists of scenes where PCs interact with NPCs, and the events of the game generally originate with them. At some point, however, I noticed that the players seemed to be quite happy with the situation as it was, and that the game worked very well on all other indicators.

Armed with this insight, I'll divide games into PC-driven games and NPC- driven games, also known as active and reactive games. One important practical difference is the need for believable interaction between NPCs. In a PC-driven game you don't necessarily notice if there's not much going on in the world besides the actions of the PC group. In a reactive game, plausible NPC interaction that doesn't involve the PCs is paramount. There has to be the illusion (at least) that there are things going on that affect the PCs only peripherally, things the PCs don't really understand because they don't see the big picture and things that are motivated by reasonable interest.

One last piece of advice: If you have a Voice of GM NPC, the players will hate him. These are NPCs that often have a mentor-like status, are likeable and have the function of forcing the plot along. If the players are smart, they'll find ways to explain why their characters also detest these NPCs. One of my personal GM clichs has been setting up authority figure NPCs that look like Voice of GMs, but turn out to be major villains. I advice GMs to think twice before using the Voice of GM, but this instant hate reaction is something that can be exploited and used to create interesting play.

Pacing

I'm not sure if I understand pacing very well either, so I'll just illustrate the subject with a couple of techniques I've experimented with. The first simple structure is the end-heavy game. In this game, the GM slowly builds atmosphere during the game, and keeps emotionally heavy events in reserve until about two-thirds of the session have gone. At that point, the players are immersed and primed, so when the heavy stuff starts rolling, you get maximum results. You can measure the success of this tactic directly by seeing how long the player who has to leave earliest is willing to overstay because he just can't tear himself away. For a long time, this was my standard game model.

Recently in Kulak, I've started to work with a different model, the start- heavy game. In this game, the emotionally heavy content is right at the start of the game, and often the rest of the game is very light in terms of external events, plot-twists and the like. In this model, the players are so psyched by the pressure at the beginning that the rest of the game seems packed even if it's not. Often the game resembles a traumatic event followed by extensive debriefing and coping.

As an adjunct to these two are the filler games, structurally rather bland games I have to run now and then because sometimes you just can't have emotional peaks in every single session. These games pace the campaign. They are often less intensive, but important nonetheless.

Don't do cliffhangers. They never work. The players are disappointed because the game stops leaving them emotionally unsatisfied, but all this energy dissipates before the next game, so all the buildup you've done is wasted. I have never seen a successful cliffhanger, although I suppose it's theoretically possible.

Vision

You have to have a GM vision. Having a GM vision means you know what you're doing. You have to communicate this vision to the players at the start of the game and during it, so they know what they're doing and are supposed to be doing. This is the part where you tell the players thing like "I expect heavily immersive playing," "Although I will use mechanics in this game, combat and XP do not play an important part," "Every time you're thinking whether you should do something or not, do it," "Sex is an important theme in this game," "The concept of rape does not exist in this game," "In this game, the characters speak Shakespeare," "Roleplaying is meant to be fun."

Your GM vision does not have to be elaborate or complicated, but you should have some principles, and if you do, you should always explain them to your players instead of hoping that they'll somehow understand by themselves.

An important adjunct to GM vision is the GM cool. The GM cool means that you've got to have a poker face regarding everything in the game. It's embarassing when it seems the GM is particularly enamored with a concept, an NPC or a plotline. You have to let everything stand on it's own. In the same vein, the larger themes in your game and your GM vision should not seem like something you're forcing on your players. Don't be overly enthusiastic. Everything goes along better if you let the players find out for themselves how brilliant your ideas are, and if they turn out to be less than brilliant, it's easier to discard them if they're not full of hot air.

Player Skills

The role of the player is often left in the shadow of the GM. Nordic larp theory neglects it almost completely. Playing a game is not something you're perfect after a couple of tries either, so here's some things I think a player should be good at. The first is understanding yourself and the game you're playing. Know what you like. Don't go to games you don't like. It's simple advice, but for some reason, people rarely follow it. I've seen hack and slash players signing up to deep immersion campaigns and theatrical players going to teenage-style D&D, and complaints usually follow. An integral part of this is understanding the game you're going to. Not every D&D is the same, so if the GM doesn't explain his vision and what's required, you'll have to ask. Sometimes, the GM is obscure or inexperienced, in which case you'll have to make your own informed guess about the situation.

Understanding the GMs game is naturally followed by being able to work with the GM's vision in the game. Some people call this the responsibility of fulfilling the GM's vision, but practical experience has led me towards a more interactive view. I've been in very good games where the dynamic between the players and the GM has been almost combative, but because of the GM's skills, has always remained consistent despite extensive player- initiated content.

Bad games are a problem area of their own in terms of player responsibility. Sometimes the GM vision is contradictory or lacking, and the player has to make his own judgements about the game. Sometimes the GM vision is just bad, and while I generally advocate players to trust their GMs, sometimes the incompetence is so obvious, you'll just have to do something to save the game.

One of the player tactics I've used a time and again is kidnapping the game. This means forcibly introducing elements foreign to the GM's vision to the game, consciously causing problems for GM-initiated plots and moving and keeping the substance of the game where I want it. Generally, a good GM can cope and use what I'm doing. In bad games, I generally do these things as a reaction to the lack of quality and vision. I generally try to avoid doing this in games where the GM has a clear vision I don't like, but then again, I also try to avoid these games altogether.

The games I'm talking about are the confused games, especially the ones where the rest of the players are with me. For example, in a Vampire game which has degenerated into a win/lose thing where things like combat and achieving are more important than roleplaying, I might start to fuck up on purpose in ways that promote roleplaying. In a story-oriented railroad game, my character might suddenly fall in love and dramatically rearrange his priorities. In games where the GM fails to use NPCs. I try to force the situation so that he has to.

Of course, there is a moral dimension to this kind of thing. You have to be aware of what you're doing, and who benefits. If you do these things, try to be subtle. That's the best way to avoid being an asshole.

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