Archive for the ‘theoryforplay’ Category


Drawing the Players Deeper

June 22, 2020

A link to an article with a ton of good points about both GM dynamics and systems supporting specific play with D&D and “Adversarial GMing”. (I sadly recall having a lot of those arguments back in 2005-2006…)

Anyway, I wanted to talk about specifically the sorts of advice around “adversarial GMing” and… I guess just give better options?

If we put aside the worst stuff of GM fiat and player deprotagonization and railroading and think simply about the goals of “create tension and suspense”, the tools one has are a lot better than cheap emotional tricks and mind games of either “rolling dice threateningly” or “haha! Ambush!” or (ugh) “The sketchy NPC turns out to be evil! You’ve been working for the bad guys!”.

Player input foremost

Be clear from the start what kind of input the players have and always protect it. You know how a videogame with bad controls is infuriating? A roleplaying game where your input is hampered or removed by GM fiat is infuriating.

When the players know what their options are, even if the option is very traditional “I control my character” – they can play the game and be invested in making things happen. That investment is where the emotional connection happens because the players know that their hands are involved in creating the events in play.

As the GM, the choices the players make are often unpredictable as a whole, which then makes the outcomes and events surprising and interesting to everyone playing – and you didn’t have to over engineer any of it. (Note that “unpredictable” here is not the same as “not fitting for the game/genre expectations” – which is an important thing to lay out at the beginning of play.)

Have stakes that matter

You can’t MAKE the players care about one thing or another, but you can hone in on what they care about as you play, and establish stakes around that. Ideally you have some mechanics to make it very clear what they care about, but even then, you usually spend a few sessions testing those waters and calibrating to be more spot on.

The usual things I find make best stakes:

  • A big goal for the character – usually something to acheive or protect
  • A personal line of loyalty, friendship, honor or morals
  • What happens to an NPC or how an NPC feels about a character

Note for the last one – just kidnapping or threatening characters is a narrow range, and often feels weak unless you’ve built up something around the character. Aim for lower stakes and over the course of play, the relationship gains weight and import over time. Think more along the lines of a Telltale videogame (“So and so will remember that.”).

Good stakes gets players invested in “Can I do this?” “HOW can I do this?” “Ah, I did it, mostly, but damn, there’s more complications.” etc.

Reveal motivations and causes

Humans like to make sense of things – cause and effect, motivation.

I like to give players insight into most NPCs early and, anytime an NPC does something dramatic, there needs to be an explanation either before or not long after. When players realize the NPCs are reacting to their actions, now players become more proactive but also more deliberate and creative in how they interact with NPCs. (Also, my NPCs are rarely set in stone about their goals and plans – the right circumstances can change their goals or methods, which makes them surprising over time.)

Sometimes I do “cutaway scenes” where I reveal a small event or mini-scene happening away from the characters. Of course the characters don’t know this is happening, but the players, as an audience, have a better idea of the stakes and that the world is cohesive.

Demonstrating repeatedly that the characters and the fictional setting makes sense and has consequences lets players see the effects of their actions and get more invested. Deeper than that, it helps them understand you, as a GM, and trust that when things happen, it’s not weird happenstance.


In short, weird mind games of rolling dice, insinuating things, threatening characters, pulling out the rug from under the players and so on just doesn’t actually have the fun that most advice around it tends to suggest.

Create compelling drama and conflicts and challenges appropriate to the game you’re running. Make cool setting and NPCs. Spotlight things the players care about.

That’s where the fun is at.

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Mystery Flags

June 10, 2020

I’ve spoken in the past of Flag mechanics – games that include some way of telling the GM and the group the things you want to focus on for the story and conflict for your character.

Flags are designed to help create scenes and situations where conflict leads to an arc of resolution and character development – your moral lines are tested or redrawn, goals are met or abandoned, ideals strengthened or grow and change.

Characters and Mysteries

In most of the games I’ve played in last year, I realized one of my favorite things to do with a character is to have a thing in their background that is extremely relevant, but also not necessarily apparent to the group at the beginning of play.

Now, this only works and is interesting if you have time to get your fellow players invested in your character and you can foreshadow and pace out bits of info until you get to the big reveal. And, depending on the game and the group, it may turn out that events and focus go far away and getting this to work would be a problem.

A special kind of Flag

Then it hit me that it would be as simple as simply having a Mystery Flag for the group, so they know the general area to poke around, but also it tells them to not necessarily expect a resolution or full answer right away.

If your character has a brother who is working for the opposing side, it might be more fun for that to be a surprise than to state it up front. You could have some kind of flag like “Seems uneasy in battle for a mysterious reason”, “Seems to be compensating in zealousness” etc. The players know to come around and ask questions or set up situations, but not to press super hard because part of the fun is the reveals as you go.


One, when I GM games, I like cool surprises, and a player telling me they have something planned lets me know to set up scenes for them to do stuff with it. Two, flags help players differentiate between “That’s just how your character is” vs. “There’s something going on there, something interesting.”

Finally, when you’re playing a character whose motivations and situation isn’t fully clear up front, you can consistently portray their choices, but only when the reveal happens does it click for the rest of the group what has been going on and it puts past games in a new light.


The two pitfalls to avoid are the same for any other character background; don’t get TOO complex, and don’t make your character the secretly most important character in the campaign.

Keeping the mystery a bit simple means you can adapt a bit or come up with details over the course of the campaign to better tie into other things. It also means you don’t have to do so many revealing bits that the rest of the group can’t keep track of it.

An Example

I played in a game of Lacuna last year and played one of these characters with a reveal arc. Lacuna doesn’t naturally have a Flag system, but playing this character really played towards this idea.

I was playing a character whose past was an EMT. That part was straight forward. The first foreshadowing I dropped is that he has a terrible burn scar on one hand. He reacts really strongly when he thinks a group has killed a child, and very strongly to being imprisoned. The group finds out while he doesn’t carry weapons, he’s got a lot of creative ways to handle a fight using improvised objects, and has a good eye for criminal activity.

By the end of the arc, they find out he spent time as a relief medic in a DMZ city, forced to work under the approval of a warlord – trying to save those he could, but never with enough supplies, always with too much danger and senseless death.

Now, because my group was all writers and such, we all know that when we do stuff like this, the characterizations and reveals are deliberate and that something is there.

But for new groups, or people who don’t have that background, a Flag mechanic might be the way to help everyone coordinate and make sure the character backstories get a chance to be relevant and immediate.

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“When do we roll the dice?”

May 13, 2020

I try to make an effort to play with folks new to roleplaying since they often bring new ideas, and ask good questions for things you’ve internalized and forget to examine.   We did a big talk/geek out session recently and one of the players asked “How do you know when to roll the dice/not roll the dice?”

I think this is a great question, because that “not roll the dice” is also when you decide “it just happens, no question” as well.

Is this a challenge given the genre expectations?

The example I used is “Can Spiderman climb that wall? Yes of course Spiderman can climb the wall unless some real wild stuff is happening to actually make that a challenge.”

I point to genre expectations because it usually highlights what IS and what ISN’T considered a reasonable focus for conflict.  Some games will set these things in their mechanics, but many do not, and you’re forced to find a guideline yourself – genre expectations are usually a good place.

Tied into it is also the sort of character specific questions as to their background and expertise, which, in turn, also defines something as a challenge or a freebie.  The sailor knows what a good sailing wind is, no need to roll dice.  The baker knows good fire wood, etc.

Incidentally, when I run investigation-ish situations, I try to consider what certain PCs would notice/figure out just on the basis of their training and give them that info for free – it shows their character at their expertise.

Is there an interesting failure or success result?

If there’s no interesting failure, then you have to think about what you’re asking the player to do – roll the dice for a boring outcome.  The running joke had become “Roll to tie your shoes – oops you’ve fumbled and strangled yourself.”

If there’s no good interesting outcomes, don’t roll the dice.  (Also, if it seems like something that should have interesting outcomes, maybe the problem has to to do with the situation and loading the stakes higher?)

You’ll also notice this is why, for most games, stuff like “bargain with the shopkeep” and “Cook a pot of stew at camp” aren’t actually that interesting to play out.  Ryuutama is one of the few that actually does track all this, though the fact is that it’s basically loading up all these camping things into how well rested/fed you are when it comes to more obvious danger/hazards.

Are we spinning the wheels here?

This is a big one.  Sometimes players get stuck in a loop – explaining what they’re doing, arguing back and forth.  “Ok, there’s a conflict, let’s roll the dice.”   The thing is, this doesn’t block the player from doing things, but it does mean we’re not going to spend a ton of time on this action.

The other benefit of making this call is that it requires players to do a few things.  First, it helps me figure out what the goal is if it isn’t clear – “Are you really trying to convince them to do XYZ, or is there a different angle here?”

Second, they have to commit for the action.  Rarely does it turn out to not be a thing that is a real conflict, but when it is, I get more clarity on what’s happening “Oh we’re just roleplaying our characters bickering” “Ok, well, it’s been 10 minutes of it. If no one has anything serious, I’ve got an idea for the next scene.”


The best thing is when the mechanics make it an easy question by tying clear fiction situations to clear procedures (“If swinging a sword, roll X”), but if you can’t have that, making guidelines for yourself improves the consistency of when this happens.

And consistency is necessary for the group to understand how to play together.   If the basic idea of how the game works (in a play sense, in a “system as we actually play it for real” sense) keeps changing, players can’t really predict how to do things in game and make meaningful choices in any sense.

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Talking About It

April 26, 2020

A general thing I realize isn’t as common of a practice as maybe it should be; you should be talking as a group, during and after games, keeping everyone’s safety in mind.

RPGs are a group effort – collaborative creation whether it’s a GM-led or GM-less game, and it only makes sense to check in and coordinate with your fellow creator/participants.  (Not to mention… your friends, I would hope).

I’m running an Apocalypse World game right now, and by default, it’s a violent and disturbing setting with violent and disturbing characters.  I let my group know going in to think “Post Apocalyptic via Robert Rodriguez” and we set some initial content boundaries.  My general goal is “weird and fucked up” but not “Silent Hill” levels of fucked up, and it’s important to make sure the line between “creepy fun” and “not fun” doesn’t get crossed.

But last night I wanted one of the NPCs to push boundaries on a PC, and I asked the players, “Is it ok to include a scene with animal harm? It won’t be graphic, but let me know and I’ll figure something else out.” – they were good with it and we got one of the riveting scenes in our campaign, but at the same time, I’m wasn’t “stuck” or set on having it happen.

There’s been a few nights where I check in afterwards, if only because since we’re playing by audio without cameras, I need to see if the silence is the “wow that was cool and messed up” like a good TV show cliff hanger or if that was “wow that not what I needed now” (so far, that’s never been the case, but checking in and re-aligning consistently allows you to make sure it NEVER happens).

As I’ve said in the past, if you can’t talk about how the game is working and how you feel about it, something is wrong.   And by doing so, you can make sure that your safety tools, like first-aid kits, rarely need to be used.  (Not to mention, you practice communication tools for being able to figure out how to navigate and better deal with situations if you DO end up having to use them).

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GM Prep: Prompts vs. Accounting

April 11, 2020

I realize that all the notes I end up using when I GM a game tend to serve one of two purposes – either they are creative prompts, or they are accounting of things to be tracked.

Obviously, many games can use both, but it’s worth considering if a game is asking you to prep notes and stuff that isn’t helpful so you can cut past that to more useful prep.


Prompts are things that make it easy to improvise “what happens next” – where should I place the next scene, who should we focus on, and what do the NPCs want or attempt to do?  Flag mechanics in games like Prime Time Adventures or Tenra Bansho Zero work, as much as things like Threats in Apocalypse World.

The trick to a prompt is that it doesn’t need to be 2 pages of detailed back story, it’s like 2-3 sentences or a short list of bullet points I can reference and work from in the moment.

Character portraits can also be prompts – I will sketch characters and then I “know” their attitude and just looking at the sketch lets me figure out how I want to play them.  If a visual prompt works for you, use it.


Accounting notes are anything I need to reference because it tracks things that will have mechanical effects – that could be character stats, or how much food the party has in their packs, or whatever.  It might also be notes on how specific rules work, in case there’s complicated or easy-to-forget exceptions.

The two basic rules for Accounting style notes are:

Most Used Info

Most used info goes in one place you can scan easily with your eyes and jump to what you need quickly.  For physical notes, using a reference sheet, or a home made quicksheet, or sticky tabs in a book can help.  For PDFs or files, having a quick jump tab or bookmark system to hop back and forth can help, or even having two copies open set to different parts of the file.

Consistent Navigation

You want to know WHERE to look quickly for a TYPE of note.  So if you put all the NPCs in a spiral note book but all the spell list is on a file at least you know where to look.  If things are in the same kind of place/medium, then you spend time having to jump around looking within that, to find the thing you want.  Standardize the type of information for your campaign – “X goes here, Y goes there, this is the format for this information”.

Also consider that while many computer files allow you to have several things available, they might not all be visible at the same time, which can cause problems.  For example, let’s say you make a spreadsheet and put each NPC on a different page.  Maybe something comes up where you have to use 3 NPCs stats at the same time – now you have to click back and forth to find them and reference it.    This sounds so small easy, but if you have to do it once or twice a combat round for a game where you have 5 combat rounds… it becomes tiring and annoying.

Overcoming Counterproductive Note Advice

Unfortunately, many games will give you counter productive ways to track notes.  It might be overly detailed character sheets for NPCs or having you prep things that never show up in play.   This means you have to work around the default or the instructions given to you – and RPGs can be hard enough as it is.

Now, I have a background in graphic design, so I have some experience with forms layout, which helps me identify quickly into a game how well the layout of sheets or information is, or isn’t working.  But there’s some general rules and tricks that can help you simplify quicker.

  • Quick reference info goes to corners on physical documents.  Top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right.  This applies both for prompts and accounting notes.
  • Quick reference info for computer documents depends on what you can reasonably have visible on a window or hot key over to easily.
  • Different sections can be made easier to navigate with color or shapes/symbols – think like bullet points or “Information boxes” but used to differentiate one section from the other.
  • If you can’t remember ever needing something in a session, it probably isn’t that important and can be either left out or placed somewhere that’s a little harder to access (another page, etc.)
  • If you find that some character sheets/info trackers work better for you than others, try to see what adds to the readability and organization – you can steal that layout idea for different games if the info needs turn out similar.

Hardcore Note Optimizing

And… if you’re playing a very accounting-notes heavy game and plan on playing a lot of it and want to go all out in optimizing your physical notes, you can take 3 highlighters or color pencils to track what info you use…

  1. With Marker 1, put a dot next to a general area of info every time you look it up in play.  Marker 2 is used the same way for the second session.
  2. Whenever you’re looking for something and have a hard time finding it, when you DO find it, use Marker 3 instead.

After two sessions you’ll see what you look up the most, vs. barely/not at all, and you’ll also see what info is poorly placed, since it’ll be dotted with Marker 3.

I would only do this if you plan on doing big campaign play with a complex game to make the effort worthwhile, otherwise, it’s just plain overboard.

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