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Ways to Play

The Fundamentals

by Chris Chinn
Jun 09,2003


The Fundamentals

Welcome to another installment of Ways to Play. This time we tackle something fundamental, if not simple. Just basic ideas of play, for both players and GMs.

Make things interesting

The point of play is to have interesting things happen. Make things interesting.

Read it again. Remember it. Write it down. Write it on your notes. Write it on the top of your character sheet. Tattoo it on your hand, even. The reason that you're playing is to have a game about interesting people doing interesting things.

The reason I'm stressing it so much is that far too many gamers forget this in play. People get caught up counting hexes or squares on maps, checking encumbrance weights, tracking inventories, or trying to pump an NPC for information about a clue to a clue to a clue. Stop and ask yourself, "Is this interesting?"

No. Revise that. "Is this interesting right now?"

Now I can't say for certain what's going to be interesting for you or your group, but I can say that if you don't find what you are doing interesting, then most likely no one else will either.

Got that? If it doesn't get you excited, it won't excite anyone else either.

How do I apply this?

It requires being mindful and aware. If you can keep this idea in mind during play, and make an active attempt to make things interesting, things will become interesting.

Everyone's responsible for this:

-The GM's job is to put the player characters into interesting situations where interesting stuff can happen.

-The players' job is to make interesting things happen using their characters.

It sounds simple, but you really need to keep this in mind. You will find your play experience will improve dramatically, no matter the game, no matter the genre.

Pacing, Pacing, Pacing

Interesting stuff alone is powerful, but if you pace it, you get miracles. The key to pacing is to keep the action going, keep the tension building.

Something interesting should start every scene, and something interesting should end it.

This rule is the key to pacing. Start with something interesting, end with something interesting.

How should you do this? Most of the time, the GM gives the players something interesting, keeps laying it on them until they do something interesting back, then end the scene. Sometimes the players will initiate the "interesting" bit of the scene and the GM will put a twist on it and react. It's this give and take that makes the game go.

Fair portions of interesting stuff.

This second rule is more an ideal than a rule, but definitely a good target to aim for to keep things rolling. Nothing sucks and loses player interest as quick as not sharing interesting stuff. Make sure that each player gets something going on and something to do. There's certain to be times when one player gets more than another, but make sure everyone gets something each session.

The Merri-go-round effect

Consider your game like a merri-go-round, and each bit of interesting stuff is a push. If you wait too long, the merri-go-round will slow down too much. You need to give it regular pushes, at smaller and smaller intervals to get it going as fast as possible. And the climax is the point where people either fall off, get sick, or hang on and get dizzy.

Too many games suffer from the illusion that players need to "build up" to story, or "earn it" believing that to be "epic". That's not epic. it's boring. That's the same thing as slowly spinning on the merri-go-round for 2 hours and going fast for 5 minutes. No fun.

Cut, Cut, Cut

Well, if you look at the first two rules there, it naturally leads to:

Cut out anything that is boring. Skip it.

You do not have to make the players go from point A to point B. You do not have to make them go down to the docks, get tickets, get on the boat, and play out the 3 month sea voyage. Skip it. If nothing interesting is going to happen, skip it.

In video games, you don't have any control over this, so you would have to go through all of the steps in order to get to the next scene or part. This isn't a video game. Anytime you want to skip something, go ahead and do it. You're in control, make things interesting.

It's all in your head

In gaming, none of the events are real. None of the characters are real. All of this stuff exists only in the collective imagination of the group. What's this mean?

If it doesn't show up in play it doesn't exist.

That's right, if it is never communicated, it doesn't exist. An undiscovered clue is not a clue. An unspoken motive is no motive. An unknown history is no history. If it isn't known to the group, it simply doesn't exist.

The audience never misses out on important things.

In movies and stories, there's no chance left for the audience to "miss" the important parts. Likewise, the group is an audience, don't let them miss anything important.

Notice that I said the group, not the characters. The characters can miss out on stuff all the time, not the players. The players are the audience, and just like movies or stories, the audience is privy to a lot of things the characters do not know.

Consider this scene played out in two different ways:

-PC goes to see his girlfriend...her apartment is ransacked and there is a phone call, "Bring the diamond, if you ever want to see her alive..."

-PC goes to see his girlfriend...she takes a moment to get ready, then they head out on a date. She smiles as she looks back over her shoulder at her apartment...cut to his real girlfriend tied up in the bedroom...

In the first example, the problem is pretty clear to both the player and the character. In the second, the player knows something is wrong, but his character doesn't. Even though his character doesn't know that there is an impostor, the player does, and the tension is increased.

The player may choose to react to this out of character knowledge, by making things even more interesting, by choosing to have his character propose to the impostor... The only restraining factor is plausibility.

Stir the audience

Traditional stories are all about evoking emotional response from the audience. People love to be thrilled, to laugh, to cry. The characters don't exist, so really the characters serve only as tools to stir the audience.

Stir your players, not their characters.

The players control the characters, not the other way around. Unlike traditional stories where people empathize with characters to evoke emotion, the characters serve as a means for the player to express emotion. Because of this, the GM and the group as a whole needs to aim any kind of emotional action towards the players, not their characters.


Unlike movies or tv shows, or even most plays, roleplaying games offer the unique opportunity for the audience, the players to give feedback as its being created.

Don't be afraid to step out of character and say, "This scene rocks!" or "That was cool!" about a line of dialogue. Also don't be afraid to say, "I'd like for things to pick up...it's starting to slow down", or "I'm not really into the intrigue stuff". Applause and criticism are fine, and in fact, a good way to get more of what you like. Likewise, GMs shouldn't be afraid to say, "I don't know, gimme a minute" or "Hmm, I'm stumped, got any ideas?"

For some reason, the approval disapproval of the group seems to get nixed during play. It's almost as if it was a dysfunctional relationship where no one can talk about what's going on or how they feel. Blow that out of the water and talk, express what you find interesting, and why, and you'll get more of it.

Play is the only thing that counts

Roleplaying isn't in the books, the dice, the character sheets, or even in the preparation. Roleplaying only happens in play. The only way you can judge how well or poorly things went is based on how much fun the group had in play.

Roleplaying is like a musical performance or a play. All of the preparation that happens before play doesn't matter to the audience, all that matters is how the actual performance goes, in this case, play itself.

Some folks can write up 20 pages of backstory for their world or their character, and none of it matters, since it never comes up in play. Other folks start with an idea and no preparation at all, and they make it fly without a second thought. Play is all that matters.

Next Time

Hopefully you'll find some of the fundamentals useful, even if they are familiar territory. Next time we cover the idea of modifying modifiers in your game along with reward systems. A how to on modifying your game mechanics to better serve your goals.

Go Play!


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