Saturday, September 5, 2009

Failure Is Not an Option

I made a discovery a few years back. I don’t remember what exactly triggered it, or indeed if there was a single event or moment in a game that led me to this realization. I think it’s more likely that I knew it subconsciously long before I ever spoke the words, but the discovery was this:

The players like to win.

I say it a lot now, both to myself and to other Storytellers who pride themselves on chuckling evilly and muttering about how they like to make their players’ lives difficult. Most of the time, when I repeat that mantra they look at me funny, and then say, “But you can’t win a role-playing game!”

Well, the truth is, you can win a role-playing game. You just have to keep in mind what the goal of such games is: To have fun. That said, what I mean when I say “the players like to win” is, “the players like it when their characters succeed at the tasks they choose to undertake.”

And yet, there are an awful lot of games and systems within games that seem to indicate that playing failure is fun, too. In this essay, we’re going to talk about characters with crippling deficiencies, how to interpret failed die rolls, how Storytellers can spin planned failure and avoid having dice bounced off their heads, and the many faces of Pyrrhic victories.

My Character is Lame: Flaws, Drawbacks, and Disadvantages

Most games include a system wherein you can take traits that act to the detriment of your character. They’re variously called Flaws (World of Darkness, et al.), Drawbacks (Chill, et al.), or Disadvantages (GURPS, et al.), but it all boils down to the same thing: Your character is less capable than the “base,” therefore you get a few more points to build her up in another area.

If you presume that player characters represent the base capability of any given person in the game world, the logic behind these traits is horribly flawed. I am not the equal of everyone else in the world, or even everyone else in my age and cultural group. The bum staggering down the street toward me might, if statted as a character, have such crippling flaws as Alcoholic, Mentally Ill, Homeless and Smelly, but that probably doesn’t mean he’s stronger, smarter or faster to make up for it. Indeed, most flaws, in real life, wind up being detrimental to development in all other areas of a person’s life.

The presumption is most games, however, isn’t that the characters are just normal folks. It’s that they’re the protagonists of this story (so right away, it should be obvious that we’re operating on a different level from real life), and thus they are more capable than most folks. Going back to the bum, he doesn’t need to built on the same point base as the characters, because he’s a supporting character at best, and more probably an “extra.” Even when the NPC in question is closer to the player characters’ capabilities (say, in a game of Vampire: The Requiem, the character in question is another vampire), the NPC doesn’t need to have the same “point base” as the characters.

On this premise, the “flaws balanced by extra points” model works a little better. Most games explain taking flaws by saying something about players being able to make their characters a bit more well-rounded, “realistic,” dramatic, and so on. Some games are even honest enough to say something like, “you probably won’t have enough points to build the character you want, but you can get more by taking flaws.” The truth of the matter is, though, that players who take flaws for their characters do so for one of two reasons: Because they like playing characters with flaws, or because they want the extra points.

Now, wanting the extra points doesn’t mean that the player isn’t going to play the flaw, or that the flaw isn’t an important and interesting part of the character, or indeed that the player is some sort of twink. It means that the player is using a game mechanic as presented, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that (I almost always take flaws for characters I play, and I play ‘em to the bone, but I also spend those extra points). Certainly I’ve run into players who sneak in flaws that they assume will never actually deter their characters, just to get some extra points. As a Storyteller, I recommend letting them take these flaws if at all feasible and then using them to best advantage the very first session (pure silliness, like taking a phobia of the ocean in a game set in Utah, should be disallowed, unless you’re playing a game that rewards silliness, like Toon).

But what about the players who like playing characters with flaws? Characters in role-playing games are most often defined by their power, be that by the supernatural or mundane skills and abilities that they possess or simply by the fact that they are powerful in comparison to the rest of the world. Even in games where the characters are the underdogs (like Hunter: The Reckoning and All Flesh Must Be Eaten), the characters are still superior to most of their peers — once again, because they are the characters. Playing a character defined by a flaw, be it physical, psychological, or supernatural is indicative of a player who wants something different out of the game than simply besting opponents and racking up experience points (it could also be indicative of a player who sees himself as flawed in some way, I guess, but that’s rather out of my depth).

So, what does all this have to do with success or failure? Consider this: Flaws and disadvantages in role-playing games should be impediments and character facets. They should be obstacles to be overcome during the course of the story, meaning that as Storyteller, you should present opportunities for characters to recognize, fall victim to, and ultimately overcome their flaws. Players, when you choose these traits, you should expect your character to suffer from them occasionally.

As an example: A friend of mine played a character in a game of Dark Ages: Werewolf with the Lame Flaw. In game terms, this means that the character suffered from a limp and couldn’t run as fast as her packmates, and that’s really about it. But the player took this a step further; the character didn’t tend to get into combat because her packmates usually reached the enemy and killed it before she had a chance. As such, the character was “apart” from her pack during dire circumstances, and even during the few times I ran the game, it was evident that this was having an effect on the group dynamic (I’d have been very interested to see how that dynamic evolved over a long period of time).

Note, too, that flaws don’t have to give you points to be important and necessitate attention during the game. A personality trait that you decide (or discover) in your character can be detrimental to the character or to the group, as long as it isn’t detrimental to the story. Some games, for instance, give point bonuses for traits like “Impatience” or “Curiosity,” and that’s fine; it tends to get the group moving when things bog down. “Honorable” is another trait often listed as a flaw, the logic there being that a character who can’t lie well is going to suffer penalties on attempts to deceive people. From a strictly game mechanics point of view, that makes sense, and if the result of that flaw is such a game penalty, well and good. If the only "effect," though, is "you should roleplay your character as being curious/honorable/etc.," I wonder about that trait's efficacy in the game. Does everything need a number attached to it? No, but my experience has been that folks who don't like rules ignore them anyway, and those who prefer that the rules work get annoyed when they get handwaved. Silver Age Sentinels from the now-defunct Guardians of Order stipulates that Defects are traits over which the character has no direct control — things like nemeses, physical defects, and so on. Personality traits can be fun to play, but they don’t give you extra points.

Another way to run flaws, incidentally (and the World of Darkness system does this), would be for the players to receive experience points or some other benefit when the flaw actually comes into play during the game. This would prevent people from taking ridiculous flaws, and would only reward players who play to their characters in their entirety. Games using the FATE System, including Spirit of the Century and Houses of the Blooded, use something like this; when one of a character's Aspects causes his trouble, the player can accept a Style point for it (or spend Style to avoid it). Ubiquity, which powers Desolation and Hollow Earth Expedition, does something similar.

Another category of flaws that bears special mention are those that have a bearing on a character’s ultimate destiny (you’ll sometimes see positive traits, like “Merits” or “Advantages” labeled Destiny, too, but taking such a thing as a flaw puts a different spin on the idea). If a character has a flaw like “Dark Fate,” this puts a couple of big obligations on the Storyteller. Not only do you have to screw that character over in some hugely dramatic way, but you have to make sure that nothing happens to the character before the boom falls (or if it does, you’d better be prepared to spin it in such a way that it fulfills the flaw’s parameters). I’m of two minds about flaws like this. On the one hand, it can be a cheap dodge of players who don’t want their characters to die and know that very few games ever actually end, meaning the moment of destiny will probably never arrive. On the other hand, it’s cool when players try to work out what their characters’ story arcs are going to be; I had a Storyteller ask me once what my character’s “tragedy threshold” was and then arrange a chronicle event accordingly. Some games ask during character creation what a character's path or story arc might look like, building in the notion that every character has a destiny (though it's typically kept loose; hard to account for everything that might happen during a game).

The Dice Hate Me: Incidental Failure

I talk about dice and when to use them in another essay, but I want to address a couple of points here on the subject of failed die rolls, more for players than Storytellers.

I’ve seen it happen a million times; the player throws the dice, the rolls fails, and the players says, “Can I try again?” with no hesitation. Yes, failure is a bummer, but next time, try considering what a failed roll really means. It might mean that your character doesn’t know anything about what’s being discussed, and, that in mind, might decide to stop thinking about it (especially if you took those extra points for flaws like “Impulsive” or “Impatient”). A failed physical roll might involve a muscle cramp or a sudden loss of steam. A failed social roll might involve a sudden burst of laughter or gas (if you have to ask why such a thing would constitute a failed roll, you need to get out more). Yes, the Storyteller can adjudicate some of this stuff, but she’s probably already overworked. Besides, if you take a little of that responsibility on yourself, you’re contributing to the chronicle and exerting greater control over your character, both of which are usually good things.

Failure can lead to character beliefs and hang-ups, too. I played in a game with a guy who, every time his character tried to use a specific power on were-creatures, failed his roll. After a while, he decided that his character figured that the power simply didn’t work on lycanthropes, and so stopped trying it. Yes, the player knew full well that the power had no such limitation, but the dice seemed to indicate otherwise.

The point here is that even the dice — which don’t hate you, remember, all they do is choose numbers — can provide interesting character bits, provided that you as the player are willing to let go of the mentality that says, “Aw, crap. I failed,” and instead adopt a mentality that says, “I am learning about my character as s/he experiences this story.”

God Hates Me: Setting the Players Up to Fail

I occasionally see pre-written scenarios that include scenes that the characters are supposed to fail. Mostly, these are combats that the characters lose so that they can be taken before the Grand High Muckety-Muck and charged with a quest/given a threat/sacrificed on an altar/what have you. As with most things in gaming, there’s a right way and wrong way to do this sort of thing. Also as with most things in gaming, the right way depends entirely on your players and what their preferences and thresholds are.

Some players, and I have to admit that I’m often one of them, don’t like to lose combats. But, for me at least, it has less to do with the notion of losing and more to do with the fact that if a combat (or indeed, any situation) has a predetermined outcome, I’d prefer not to have the illusion of choice. I played in a Mage: The Ascension game many years ago wherein our characters were ambushed by a bunch of Men in Black (now that Mage: The Ascension is over, that reference isn’t going to make as much sense, I guess) and the Storyteller told us we could each have one cool moment before being overpowered and render unconscious. That, to me, was fine — it made the combat quick because we didn’t each have to get beaten to a pulp (which in that system took forever anyway), and we weren’t under any illusions about whether or not the Storyteller was fudging dice rolls or otherwise “cheating.”

What if your players aren’t of this mindset, and refuse to roll over and let their characters fail without a fight? Well, ignoring the obvious trust issues plaguing such a group, you have a couple of options. One is, of course, to cheat. You let the players have whatever moments or successes they can manage out of the scenario…but your rolls are behind a screen, and you can very easily add in more enemies, a sudden rainstorm or any other wrinkles you need to bring about the result you want. The trick is doing it without being obvious, and the problem is that when you go from a defeat into an obviously well thought out scene, your players are probably going to pick up on what happened (hopefully, they’ll see why it was necessary and not be too put out).

The other option is to make the scenario difficult, but let the chips fall where they may. If you’ve got a sense of what the characters can do and how the players usually react and strategize, you can probably set up a situation that’s too tough for them, let them try and fail, and then continue on with the story. The caveat there, of course, is be prepared. In my essay "Living with Lady 10-Sider", I advise never to call for a die roll unless I’m prepared for failure. The reverse is also true: If you aren’t prepared for a successful roll, better just to stipulate that the action isn’t possible. This doesn’t work at all in combat, of course, but it’s fine in investigation scenes.

If you’re going to set the players up to fail, however, you need to be damned sure that they’ll have a chance to get their own back before the night is over, or at least to see where the action is heading. I love cliffhangers, but a Storyteller-imposed cliffhanger is very different than a player-imposed one. By that I mean, if the characters go marching into the dragon’s mouth and are immediately confronted with potentially deadly repercussions, they shouldn’t be surprised and can’t really blame you. In that case, ending the session with the henchman pointing weapons at the characters (or whatever other danger is fitting) is fine, and will probably have your players thinking about your game all week. But if you lured them in, or forced them in, they don’t have the same emotional attachment to the situation because they didn’t choose it. As such, you need to let them a little farther into the plotline before winding up, otherwise the conversation next session will consist of people saying, “What happened last time? Oh, right, we got our asses kicked and then some other stuff happened.”

A final word on setting the players up to fail: Don’t make it cheap. When I play Dungeons and Dragons, I tend to play magic-user characters. Mages and other spell-casters grow quite powerful with experience, and the sheer amount of power they can throw around is somewhat daunting to some GMs. So, I’ve noticed that as the final confrontation looms (or during any confrontation they don’t want the players to win “too easily”), suddenly magic just stops working. I hate that.

Ignoring the fact that mages in D&D (3rd Edition, anyway) are completely useless if they can’t use magic, disallowing a character’s special powers because you feel it would make things “too easy” is cheap, lazy and shortsighted. If you feel that the abilities or powers that become available to characters in your chosen game system are too potent, change the system ahead of time and explain why to your players (and be prepared for a player to say, quite legitimately, that you should consider running a different game). Don’t allow the players to purchase traits for their characters that you don’t like and then toss in cheap methods for your NPCs to bypass them (now, when players become over-reliant on their characters’ special powers to the point that they stop thinking, which I’ve found happens often in Mage: The Ascension, then it might be time to arrange a story in which they can’t simply magic their way out of everything, but that’s a separate issue). This applies not just to magic, but any special power that characters might acquire. A fighter in D&D is optimized toward fighting, so you should allow that character to get into fights that are challenging, but not sure losses or stonewalls.

If a character must fail at something that should be his/her forte, try to find some way to work it into the story rather than just saying “Yeah, I know you rolled five successes, but nothing happens.” At least make it experiential: “You cast the spell correctly. You know you did, you felt the power leaving your body toward the target. But about midway there, everything in the room went cold, and your target still stands, unfazed.”

Pyrrhic Victories: We Won, But it Hurt

I like costly victories, myself. I like consequences to actions, and I like the notion that to gain something, you must sacrifice. I also recognize that this attitude might be a by-product of my employment with White Wolf, however.

A Pyrrhic victory, as you probably know, is a victory in the academic sense — you won, but another such “victory” would kill you. In a role-playing game, such victories are rare because normally you’ve got a group of people working toward whatever the goal of the current story is and therefore several minds all working out a strategy. Also, players tend to come with ideas so cool they should work. I tend to side with the players when they come up with great ideas. At the very least, I don’t go adding extra obstacles because I feel the players are having too easy a time of it.

But there’s a difference between upping the difficulty level of a story while it’s still in progress and allowing the NPCs to think on their feet. If I’m running a game of Vampire and I start adding dots of Disciplines to an enemy character while my players’ characters are chasing him down, that’s cheap. If I decide that he recognizes that he’s not going to win this fight and he starts fighting appropriately — that is, takes no prisoners, sets fire to the building, bargains for his unlife, or takes other actions that aren’t normally in character for him — that just means the supporting characters are responding to the situation that the players’ characters have created.

In short, every victory should cost something, but not just because you don’t want to make it easy on your players. Every victory should cost something because they need to know that they earn what they get.

But what about a true Pyrrhic victory, the kind that after the dust settles the characters are thinking, “If this is winning, must’ve been some way we could have lost.”? Here are some ways that victories in RPGs can become Pyrrhic:

• Character death: The characters accomplish their goals, but one or more of their number dies. This is a bigger problem in some settings than others (because in some settings, you can have your dead comrades resurrected), but killing off characters is often a touchy issue. It’s a great way to make the players realize that their situation is serious, but it’s also a good way to piss them off. Make sure everyone’s OK with the possibility of character death during the course of the story.

• Character injury: The characters might not be dead, but they’ve certainly got one foot in the grave. They’ve fought off their enemies or escape from their prison or whatever the case may be, but one even relatively minor fight and someone’s going to die. Now, obviously this has more of an impact in games like Chill or even most forms of Exalted, where healing takes some time and effort, but even in a game like Werewolf enough of the right kind of damage can make the characters (and the players) recognize how perilous their situation really is.

• Depleted resources: Most RPGs have some kind of “fuel stat.” In Vampire, it’s Vitae. In Werewolf: The Forsaken it’s Essence. In Chill, Stamina and Willpower can both rise and fall. In any case, the characters don’t necessarily have to be physically injured, but if they’ve burned all of their “magic points” during the course of the battle, they have most assuredly earned whatever victory they’ve achieved.

• Dead friends: I’ll admit: One of my greatest problems as a GM is that I hate playing NPCs. I’ll do it, but I’d rather they sit in the background and let the players do the important work. But once in a while, I’ve seen relations between an NPC and a player’s character become really strong. What happens, then, when said NPC dies — especially as a result of the PC’s action? While playing Nehemiah (a Vampire: The Masquerade characer, though the game was a weird homebrew quasi-World of Darkness setting), I found myself having to choose between going after my dire enemy or save a character to whom Nehemiah had become very attached. He chose to kill his enemy, for a number of very legitimate reasons. The lady to whom he was attached, however, wound up losing much of her sanity. (And kudos to the Storyteller in question, by the way, for making that decision hard and allowing me to kill Nicholas — that’s what made it a Pyrrhic victory). This only works, however, the players actually have some attachment to the NPCs, and that requires that you play them well.

Ending on a Downer

When players fail at a task, they tend to want to try it again. Some things, though, you only get one shot at. I already recommended never asking for a die roll unless you’re prepared for the results, failure or otherwise. Let’s take that one step further — if you give the players a piece of information, be prepared for them to follow it. Players don’t tend to do well with cryptic warnings of dire danger (because PCs are normally the only ones with enough gumption to go on in defiance of said warnings, so a lot of time when GMs say “Danger! Here be monsters!” players hear “Come on! Here be plot points!”).

If the players follow your cues into the plot points (or ignore your warnings and wind up in the soup) and fail miserably, what then? Ending on a down note isn’t a great idea, usually, but you don’t have to end on resounding victory. Ask yourself the following questions:

• What am I ending? A session can certainly end on a tragic or fearful note. The players will get the chance to right the wrongs next session, and sometimes a week away from the game can be a good way for them to gain some perspective and come back ready to solve their characters’ problems. If you’re ending a major story arc, the characters should be able to point to something in the story as an accomplishment, even if the overall story ended badly for them.

• Can they try again? If the mission was “stop the assassination” and the characters didn’t, then they probably don’t get another chance. If the mission was “retrieve the Golden Whatsis” and it slipped through their fingers, they can probably still track it down. They just might have very little time left, or it might be in their worst enemy’s hands, or something equally dire. If they can’t try the same mission again, perhaps now they must deal with the repercussions of their failure.

• Do they want to try again? My character in a Dark Ages: Fae game ran afoul of a demon in one story arc. During the five years of downtime between stories, he stayed the Hell away from anything that looked like it could be demonic, because he wanted nothing to do with them. “Know thy enemy” didn’t occur to him, because he was scared. If the players decide their characters are letting discretion be the better part of valor, fine. Don’t feel you have to chase them with their mistakes.

In closing, remember that we play these games for fun, but also to tell a story. Don’t worry about “realism,” worry about “drama.” Don’t sweat “balance.” Instead, think about “conflict.” Learn your players’ thresholds for failure, and scale the challenges accordingly. Even if the characters fail, the players will talk about the story afterwards, and consider it a success.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Information Wants to Be Free

One of the greatest challenges to a GM is giving the players enough information that they can resolve the conflict of a story, but not so much that they have detailed instructions on how to go about it. This problem leads to some of the most frustrating tropes I’ve seen in roleplaying games, and can result in the players feeling helpless within the context of the story and in the GM looking rather like a jerk. In this essay, we’re going to examine some ways of disseminating information to the players (and thus their characters), both good and bad, and the consequences of those methods.

Let’s begin with the bad ideas.

Three Common Informative Mistakes

• Infodump: This method involves long, long explanations, usually delivered straight from a book and not in-character. Typically, this covers information the characters “would already know,” and that’s fine. The problem is that listening to people read from books is boring, and that the players aren’t likely to retain the information (especially if you ask them to engage different parts of their brains — i.e., playing their characters — after the infodump is over). Infodumps can happen in character, as well, and this presents problems of its own (see next point).

• The Jive-Talking Wizard: I saw this term on Beth Kinderman’s website, and I think it’s pretty appropriate. It refers to the all-powerful being who appears in order to get the characters together and set them on the right track, but won’t, for reasons only known to himself, impart enough information to do the job well. When asked for details or more helpful information, he typically simpers, changes the subject, vanishes, thunders “That’s not for you to know!” or otherwise says “Screw you” to the players. I’ve seen him as a god of humor, an actual wizard (Gandalf is almost a literary example of this tactic, but Gandalf also takes personal risks and gets down and dirty in battle, too, so he doesn’t really count), a computer, a Sidereal Exalt, and mentors and rulers of all kinds.

As is probably obvious, the Wizard is a bad way to dispense information for several reasons. First, it puts the characters in an obviously subservient role. That’s sometimes appropriate, depending on the game in question, but it chafes a lot of players, especially when it’s so apparent. Second, it flies in the face of logic: Why does this guy need the characters as pawns? Why can’t he just handle things himself? Why is he being so stingy with information if he wants the characters to succeed? (The answer to these questions, of course, is that having too much information would make things too easy on the characters (this is a fallacy, but I’ll cover that later), and the GM wants things to be challenging. The Wizard makes things less challenging and more annoying, though.) Finally, the Wizard does nothing to engender any kind of interest in the storyline. In fact, he does the opposite: The players feel like they’re being ordered around, not told what they need to know, not given control over their lives, and generally treated like machines. Most of us get that kind of treatment at our jobs, and we don’t want it during an escapist hobby.

• File and Forget: Most GMs, myself included, make up most of the happenings in their stories on the spot. That’s fine. Some of the best storylines I’ve come up with involved me taking a flippant comment from a player and running with it. The problem comes not when GMs make up information on the spot, but when that information doesn’t remain consistent. If you give the players a juicy clue that wasn’t part of your original plan, write it down. Information that turns out to be false because the players interpreted it incorrectly or didn’t cross-check their facts (I’m amazed at how often players assume that anything out of the mouth of a sympathetic NPC is unassailable truth, but that’s a separate issue), that’s fine. If the information turns out to be false or irrelevant because you forgot what you told the players, that’s a failing on your part.

Informing Players and Making them Happy

With all of the above in mind, how do you, as GM, give your players the information they require without teasing them, annoying them, misleading them or inundating them? Here are some suggestions:

• Use the Supporting Cast: Having NPCs tell the players what’s going on is fine. Just remember a few simple principles.

First, the NPCs are not omniscient. A character’s mentor might be truly wise and powerful, but said mentor has a limited scope of knowledge. Asking for information outside of that scope results in no information, or, worse yet, misleading information. I recommend always mixing in something useful with misleading or useless information. After all, a game session only lasts so long and every hour spent chasing false leads is another hour that players will remember as pointless.

One way to keep in mind what a given NPCs knows is to stat that character. I’m not as stringent about statting everybody in the world as I was 10 years ago, but important supporting characters still get write-ups in my notebook. If I know, for instance, that Dr. Jones has a high rating in Archeology but nothing at all in Occult, his information about the Dread Book of Niffugcam is going to be skewed appropriately. Having NPCs with limited bases of knowledge serves a number of purposes. In addition to avoiding the Jive-Talking Wizard problem (since the NPC doesn’t withhold information, he just doesn’t know everything the players need to find out), it also helps the players see the NPCs as individuals. Once they know that Dr. Jones can help them translate Sanskrit, but that he doesn’t know a thing about art, they won’t bother going to him to help them identify which artist drew the prints found in the Dread Book.

Second, the NPCs have their own agendas, but you need to know what those agendas are. Sometimes, a character’s agenda lets him work closely with the players’ characters, and sometimes it involves keeping information hidden. By way of example, consider Orpheus. In case you don’t know, Orpheus is a game in which the characters work for a company that solves ghost-related problems, and the company has a somewhat…checkered past. In the chronicle I ran some years back (that I unfortunately did not log, or I'd link to it), the characters’ boss was obviously uncomfortable with some of the goings-on at the Orpheus Group, but wasn’t ready to share everything with the characters for fear of endangering them. As such, he told them what he could when he could. They suspected him of being a villain a couple of times, but when the chips came down, he was unequivocally on their side. The bottom line here: Know what your NPCs want as well as what they know, and have their behavior reflect both.

Third, pay attention to what the players ask. If they ask the wrong questions, give them the wrong answers. I’m not talking about letting them discuss how to translate the Dread Book with Dr. Jones in the room and then later having them find out that Jones could have helped translate it, but didn’t speak up because the players didn’t ask. That kind of nonsense (always followed by a simper and a “tee-hee”) is comparable to the Jive-Talking Wizard in its irritation level. What I mean is, don’t allow the NPCs to be psychic. An example: The characters come across a body mauled by an animal and find wolf-prints nearby. They immediately start asking poor overworked Dr. Jones about werewolves. Now, in fact, the creature responsible was a were-coyote, which has very different implications for the story, but the players have jumped to a conclusion (admittedly, it’s a pretty easy one to jump to) and so Dr. Jones can’t really correct them.

• Let them learn gradually: A way to avoid the infodump problem is to let the players find out crucial information over a period of time. It’s been my experience that groups often split up during investigation or information-gathering phases (“OK, I’ll hit the library, you go talk to Dr. Jones, and you get on the Internet”), and this is a golden opportunity for you as GM. By letting each of the players find a nugget of information, you aren’t asking all of the players to remember pages worth of data. The players can put everything they’ve learned together and analyze it as a group. This also plays directly into my next point…

• Let them earn the info: …which is, nothing’s free. The characters should have to work to find out what they need to know, even if the only work involved is deciding whom to ask. Note, though, that it’s incumbent upon you as GM to present more than one avenue of approach for investigation, or, at the very least, to avoid shutting the players down if they come up with something that you didn’t think of. I’ve played in games where the GM had very specific ideas about how problems should be solved, how the players should go about getting from point A to point B, and what the players should know at various stages of the game. I accept that sort of thing in computer “role-playing” games, because the computer program has to proceed in a specific way. As a human being, however, you are above this sort of linear progression, and can allow players to learn from whatever sources they can think of. (And this really all goes back to a point I’ve made before: Players like it when their ideas pan out. They don’t like it when they try something clever and the response from the GM is “That’s clever, but I didn’t think of it first, so it won’t work.”)

• Give ‘em what they want: I played in a World of Darkness game once many years ago in which our characters found it necessary to infiltrate a Technocracy base. For those who didn’t play Mage: The Ascension, that’s a bit like infiltrating the Death Star, only the Stormtroopers can shoot straight, don’t all carry master keys, and generally aren’t complete idiots. It’s walking into the meat grinder, we knew, so we wanted to be prepared. So, calling in our contacts and a lot of favors, we got a complete readout of the base, a schedule for the guards, technical data on how everything worked, and lists of staff and their capabilities (from a scientific/magical standpoint). Far from making it too easy on us, we discovered exactly how screwed we were. Having the information gave us the possibility of victory; without, we’d have been dead. To take a cinematic example, consider The Usual Suspects. The characters know that the job they are being forced to do is a suicide mission, but they know everything they need to know to pull it off.

My point, here, is that if the characters go into a situation blind, they can justifiably blame you if things go wrong, especially if you’ve been coy or downright misleading up to that point. If they know everything they could have known (or if they skimped on their research), they’ve got no one to blame but themselves.

This isn’t to say, of course, that things can’t go wrong or that the enemy can’t have tricks up its collective sleeve that the characters couldn’t foresee. Such surprises are very much in-genre for most of the settings of role-playing games. The point is that there’s a difference between information the characters could not possibly have known and information they should have known, but you wouldn’t tell them.

An example: Against my better judgment, I played in a Dungeons and Dragons game run by a first-time GM. She had her story all planned out, she said (which should have been a big warning sign). I played a druid, one of the other players made a duelist character, which is some jumped-up form of fighter that uses two weapons or something (I don’t like the d20 system and I don’t keep abreast of the 1.4 billion prestige classes currently available). Anyway, his character and mine walked into a bar and got jumped by a lot of toughs. The duelist hit one of them with a blow that should have killed him, and the player, quickly doing the math, figured that the “bar brawler” had to be a high-level fighter to survive. Turns out all of those brawlers were high-level fighters.

Ignoring the cliché of a bar fight breaking out in a D&D game (I'm not opposed to the classics), the GM really should have given the duelist’s player some kind of check to notice that these guys were all armed, that they carried themselves like professional fighters, that they look battle-hardened, etc. Instead, she chose to lure the player into a sucker bet. That’s not a good way to get people excited about playing in your game.

• Don’t tell them everything: The more you reveal to your players, the less they’ll fill in the blanks. I love it when players come up with explanations for what’s going on. Sometimes I even replace my actual plots with player-inspired lunacy. It’s a question (like most of Storytelling) of balance — give them as much information as they need, but not so much that they don’t need to find out how the story ends.

Four Simple Tricks to Avoid Under-Informed Players

• Know what there is to know: When I write scenarios and settings for game companies, I tend to spend a lot of work count on an area’s history and what has come before the players arrive. That’s because if the GM knows what’s happened, he’ll know what the players can potentially discover. I can’t predict, as a writer (or as a GM, for that matter) what the players are going to do, so the best I can do is know what information the players can find and let them find it. In my opinion, writing down the history of your setting or events is more important than statting out your antagonists. You can make up stats on the fly or use characters out of a book. Making up history and keeping it consistent is much trickier.

• Some Information is Crucial: One of my guiding principles as a GM is that I don't ask for rolls if I'm not prepared for the result. This principle is especially true in the information-gathering phase of a story, and I tend to run highly investigation and mystery-focused games, so I have to be conscious of what the players know and how they can find out the truth. In any given investigation-focused scene, thinking about what information the characters must walk away with. I'd even advise giving players the same information in a couple of different ways; it allows for confirmation and nuance. For example, a group of characters are looking into the disappearance of a local high schooler. Her parents think that she was a model teenager, but investigating her online presence (avenue of investigation #1) reveals chat logs and a browsing history of a decidedly more prurient nature. Discussion with her friends at school (avenue of investigation #2) reveals that she had an "older boyfriend," but that she had been "caught behind the bleachers" early in the school year. Same information - the girl was secretly sexually active and engaging in risky behaviors - but two points of reference and several opportunities for follow-up investigation.

For further consideration, have a look at the GUMSHOE system. I haven't played it yet, sadly, but I've read Trail of Cthulu, which uses GUMSHOE. The basic idea is that rather than rolling dice to have your characters obtain clues, you spend points. As such, you'll never miss a clue or a plot point due to a failed roll. You can spend points based on different investigative skills, though, so you'll get different information depending on how your character goes about it.

• Consider the characters’ avenue of approach: If you’ve got a group full of combat-ready characters who can barely read, they aren’t likely to spend days in the library looking through hoary old tomes. They’re more likely to go beating people up for information. Look over the character sheets, pay attention to how the players like to do things, and structure the information and the vectors of the information accordingly (players, this also means you need to play your characters appropriately — your hulking barbarian with no idea which way to hold a book probably shouldn’t suggest going to the local scribe and asking to poke through scrolls, though he might well suggest poking the scribe with sticks until he finds the information for the party).

• Everything is fluid: I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Be ready to scrap a plan, a fact, a character or a plot point the second your players come up with something better, especially if they have all the information and come to a completely logical conclusion that just happens to be miles away from what you came up with. You’ll usually find that tweaking a few details makes all the difference, and that you don’t need to change everything, just enough.

In closing, remember that you aren’t telling the story to the players, you’re telling the story with the players. They should be informing you just as you inform them.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Single Serving Adventures

As I get older, I find myself relying on printed material more when running games. I suspect that’s because I’ve only got so many hours in a day, and I can’t devote as many of them to creating chronicles whole cloth the way I used to. That’s fine, because most games have more than enough information to play them for years without ever resorting to making up a thing. In particular, most games have pre-written stories (also called adventures, scenarios or modules) that GMs can run for their groups.

You can’t usually just pick one of those stories up and plug it right into your game, though. There’s definitely a certain amount of skill that goes with running such stories, and in this essay, we’re going to discuss the tips and tricks of doing so.

First Step: Know the Material

If you’re considering running a scenario for your group, the first thing you need to do is read it in its entirety. Read all of the characters and their statistics (if provided), look over the maps, read through the descriptions of the rooms or the events and make sure you understand what the story is about. If the scenario references books or rules you haven’t read in a while, go back and re-familiarize yourself with them.

The reasons for this scrutiny should be pretty clear. For one thing, if there are mistakes in the scenario, either in the rules portions (it’s not uncommon for writers of scenarios to be a little fuzzy on the system parts of the game, so make sure that the numbers make sense) or in the events of the story (plot holes happen, after all), you’ll want to know about them ahead of time so you can correct them.

More importantly, though, you need to figure out if this scenario would work for your group and your chronicle. Some scenarios are meant for beginning characters or, in some cases (such as the demos for Vampire: The Requiem, Werewolf: The Forsaken and Mage: The Awakening) for a specific group of characters. In games that work on a level system, scenarios are usually labeled as being appropriate for characters “of 4th to 6th level” or the like, but in games without such yardsticks, you often just have to read the scenario and go from there.

Sometimes the tone or content of the scenario is completely wrong for your purposes, too. The very first book I wrote for White Wolf was Giovanni Chronicles IV: Nuovo Malattia for Vampire: The Masquerade. It included some adult subject matter, asking the characters to procure prostitutes, commit murder and undertake all manner of unseemly actions (and that was before they became vampires). Even a group accustomed to the blood, violence and torment that Vampire can include might balk at some of the material in that book. Likewise, if your players like to throw down, as it were, and the scenario doesn’t include any winnable combat, you need to be aware of it.

Second Step: Customize, Customize, Customize

I’ve run a great number of pre-written scenarios in various RPGs over the years, but I don’t think I’ve run a single one of them without making a few changes. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tweaking a character or two so that they fit better into what I’ve already established, other times I’ve excised whole portions of the scenario because I had my own ideas about where the story should go. After you’ve read and digested the scenario, be willing to pull it apart and put it back together in a form that works for you and your group.

One important point of customization is making the story your own (and by “your own” I mean the entire gaming group, not just the GM’s). That means that if the scenario includes a slimy informant that the characters need to shake down for information and one of the characters in your existing chronicle already has such a contact — wonderful! Use the existing contact in place of the character in the scenario. Some pre-written games actually abstain from detailing non-essential characters, simply mentioning a “leader” or “lawmaker” so that the Storyteller can customize freely.

Customization also has the advantage of preventing a player who has read the scenario from automatically knowing everything that is going on. I personally can’t imagine what benefit there is to reading a scenario before participating in it as a player, but some players become stuck on “winning” the game (which is, as you probably know, not possible in any conventional sense in an RPG).

That said, however, I don’t advocate changing details in a pre-written game solely to “make it different from the book.” If there’s no real reason to alter the material…don’t. Don’t be resistant to the players’ changes to the scenario (because, of course, no game survives contact with the players), but don’t feel the need to change things around pointlessly. I’ve met game-masters who feel lazy or cheap using pre-written scenarios as written. I even endured jibes from a player when I used printed material at all, rather than writing my own games (although she quieted when I pointed out that I’d developed much of the material originally anyway). But using printed material in an attempt to save time and effort is a perfectly acceptable reason for doing so, especially if that material is well-written and appropriate for you game. As the saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

As an expansion on that last point, be careful about pulling the rug out from the under the players, if they have expectations going in. What I mean by that is, if the players have created their own characters, they have a sense of what those characters can do and probably have plans. They might look forward to casting a particular spell or using a particular maneuver or power, or they might just be interested in some aspect of the game. If you turn around and alter things in the game so as to make that power useless or that aspect absent, you might wind up cheating your players.

By way of example, I ran a one-shot game of Necessary Evil, a setting for the Savage Worlds system (you can learn more about Necessary Evil here, and about the game I ran here). The book includes a whole chronicle, not just one adventure, and so I picked the one I liked the best to use as the one-shot. It involved breaking into a dead supervillain's lab, and the way the game was written, it would have involved the characters shrinking down to ant-size to get in to the miniaturized lab. Nothing wrong with that, very in-genre, and if I'd been running the whole chronicle, I'd have used it as written. But for a one-shot, I felt that dumping the players into that situation wouldn't fit their expectations of the game, and that it would detract from the overall feel I was going for. I might be wrong about that, but I figured it was better to be safe than sorry (and anyway, it wasn't a hard fix; the mutated fire-ants just became giant mutated fire ants!).

Third Step: Rehearse

Many scenarios include blocks of text with instructions to read them aloud to the players. Even those that don’t have these helpful sections still include descriptions of rooms, characters and situations that the GM can simply read out of the text. It’s beneficial to read such sections ahead of time, making sure you understand the material being presented and how to pronounce and define all of the terms used, and, of course, checking to see if you want to change any of the details. Reading directly from the page with no rehearsal (what’s called “cold reading” in theatrical terms) is difficult even with training in public speaking. It’s easy to stumble over words, slip into monotone and generally lose your players. The best course of action is to absorb the information that you need to convey and present it in your own words, using natural speech and pausing to see if your players want to ask or do anything during the description.

Expanding further on that last point, another part of the rehearsal (and even the customization) phase is making sure that “cutscenes” (sections during which you’re reading and the players are listening) make sense. If the characters are expected to sit through a long section of dialogue, what’s to stop them from interrupting, or leaving, for that matter? If the characters are slaves on a ship and the scenario assumes that they have been for some weeks, what stopped the sorcerer from magically lifting the keys? This all goes back to knowing the material, but taking the time read aloud pertinent sections of the text will bring to your attention details that you otherwise might have missed, and allow you to make sure that your players’ characters actually fit into the scenario as presented. It would be intuitive to think that all pre-written scenarios are playtested with a group of real gamers, and such kinks worked out (or at least addressed) before the game is sent to press…but that’s not what really happens. Some scenarios are playtested, but other times deadlines intrude, and some game writers don’t actually play RPGs (which still wierds me out). As such, don’t take for granted that the scenario you’re reading will naturally work itself out. Take the time to read it and look for plot holes.

Likewise, take time to consider how your players might approach the problems in the scenario and decide whether you need to change anything based upon that assessment. For instance, if your players have a habit of jumping at plot hooks without bothering to do any investigation, a game rife with red herrings is probably going to be laborious because they’ll pursue any apparent lead. A group that shoots first and asks questions later probably won’t do well in a scenario in which the opponents are all high-powered and bloodthirsty. This doesn’t mean you can’t use the scenario, it just means you have to do some tweaking. In the first instance, trim the red herrings down and make sure that any lead the players can follow serves a purpose in the greater scheme of the plot, or at least has some interest to the characters and might merit revisiting later. In the second, you might consider having the characters hear rumors of how other people have been slaughtered to a man by the fearsome Death-Bears (or whatever), or better yet, have them witness themselves being thusly slaughtered in a portent or vision of the future.

Running the Game

When you actually sit down to begin the scenario, consider how you’ll bring the characters into it. Some scenarios, like the aforementioned “slave ship” situation, have a prearranged beginning point…which might not work for your chronicle. If you’re beginning a chronicle with a pre-written scenario, such an opening can actually be helpful (because pulling a group together is difficult, as discussed in this essay). But if you’re working the scenario in your ongoing chronicle, you’ll have to do some spackling to make sure it fits. A good method for building up to the scenario is to work NPCs from the scenario into your chronicle before the main action start. For instance, if the scenario requires the characters to converse with a morally shady sorcerer, seed some rumors about this person in an unrelated story or have the characters meet him on neutral turf. That way they have some history together, even if it’s just a brief exchange, and you’ve got some practice portraying him.

This is true of the end of the scenario, too. Some scenarios include an “Aftermath” section that discusses what future ramifications the game might have on the world at large, but not all do, and none of them are written with your chronicle specifically in mind. It’s easy for scenarios to feel like sitcoms — at the end, everything is back to normal. That probably isn’t the feel that you want, though, unless your chronicle is meant to have a TV-episode vibe to it. Consider how the events of the scenario are going to change your chronicle, and whether or not you want those changes.

Something to consider is how linear the scenario is. That is, how many different methods can the characters use to get from one plot point to the next? If they need to get through a magic portal to continue with the game, does that portal have more than one key? Can a magic-using character cast a spell to open it? If the pathway through the scenario is too rigidly defined, you’ll have to exert a great deal of control over the characters and their actions in order to keep the game on track, and that feels constrictive and frustrating to the players. The option, though, is to allow things to veer wildly off course, moving away from the plot of the scenario and letting the story evolve on its own.

If you’ve read my other essays, you can probably guess how I feel about that latter course of action. If the players are having fun, if their actions are guiding the plot and they are interested in what their characters are doing, go with it. If you can steer the action back to the scenario’s plot later, fine, but if not, remember the goal (to have fun and tell a compelling story).

Player Issues

I mentioned before that some players don’t like pre-written scenarios or feel that the GM is being lazy by using them. I disagree; scenarios are tools for the GM, and so we’re perfectly justified in using them. The key is to make them work within the chronicle, rather than letting the chronicles themes, tones and history take a backseat to what a book says. What specifically can the GM do to make the players feel as though the story is still about their characters, even when it was written by a total stranger?

• Know the characters. Good advice for GMs in general, but especially appropriate here. If a character is arachnophobic, maybe that encounter with giant spiders isn’t such a great idea (then again, maybe it’s ideal — depends what game effect the phobia has in your chosen system). If a character is married or has a strong love interest, supernatural seduction takes on a quite different tone than for a swinging single.

• Don’t bury your nose in the book. Know the material, know the twists and turns of the plot, know where the stats are and know what comes next. If the players see you reading right out of the book, their eyes will glaze over and they’ll lose interest. I said before that using pre-scenarios is not laziness, but using them in lieu of preparation is. That said, if you're running a system for the first time, of course you're going to be checking rules a little more, and everyone should know that up front.

• Decide on alternate endings. If the scenario is written with the assumption that the good guys (or at least the players’ characters) will prevail, is it even feasible that they might not? If the players make some really bad decisions or suffer a run of bad dice-luck, can you help them salvage victory without relying on NPCs or GM fiat? (This is one reason I’m leery of running stories with world-shattering consequences; if the players screw up in a story in which only their lives or the lives of those close to them are at stake, the world doesn’t change drastically and the outcome matters more to them, to boot.) Figure out ahead of time how things might turn out, and be ready to veer off the beaten path if an outcome not in the book would be more true to your players’ characters.

• Work with the bookworms. Suppose a player has already read the scenario. You could exclude that player (bad idea), you could rewrite the game so that he doesn’t know the details anymore (OK, but unnecessary and a lot of work for you), or you could enlist his help. He might know what’s going on behind the scenes, and he might know which wire to cut (so to speak), but he doesn’t know how the other players will react and he doesn’t know what the dice will do, so there are always some unknown elements. Plus, this puts a player with a good sense of being Conscious in the position to nudge the plot along if it gets bogged down or starts to wander.

• Take notes. You know what might happen, because it’s there in the book. Jot down what does happen. Note how the characters react to NPCs. Heck, note differences in how they’re portrayed in the book and how you played them. Write down what your players did and how it changed the world (on whatever scale). This is good policy for Storytelling in general, but especially with pre-written scenarios, since reading the book as a reminder can be misleading.

In closing, pre-written scenarios can be an overworked GM’s best friend. Even if you can’t just crack the book and run a game, having a plot and supporting cast lightens the load considerably. Just know that it doesn’t take all the work off your shoulders, and you (and the players) are ultimately still responsible for making your own fun.

Monday, July 20, 2009

What Makes a Beautiful Player? (Part 4)

We all have goals, and so should well thought-out characters. A character’s goal may range from revenge to domination to leading a normal life, but players don’t always define those goals well enough to pursue them.

A player with Initiative, however, does. These are the players that start trouble among NPCs, that organize raiding parties on the villains: in short, players that are pro-active. Quite a lot of players react; they wait for a situation to present itself or an adversary to act against them. Players with Initiative (the adjectival form would be Initial, I suppose, but that’s a bit much!) don’t wait. They create the situations, in so doing, do much of the Storyteller’s work for them.

As such, it’s a matter of opinion as whether or not Initiative constitutes one of the traits of the Beautiful Player. Some Storytellers like to keep a firm grasp over the plotline of the story and it annoys them when the player come up with their own machinations that matter more than the presented story. I’d like to remind such Storytellers that the point is to have a good time, and if the players are having fun and agreeing on a course of action, you are doing your job by encouraging it. So what if your ingenious and sinister plotline gets thrown by the wayside? Save it, spruce it up and serve it later. Reward the players’ Initiative.

Pro-active players are often the ones that have been gaming a while. They create characters who have agendas and follow those agendas, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. For some Storytellers, who run character-driven games and keep their plotlines loose, this can be a godsend. For others who run a tighter ship and have intricate stories that require the characters to stay focused on what’s presented them, it can be a nightmare.

A player with an agenda will analyze everything the group comes across in terms of that agenda (not unlike real people with agendas). Keep this in mind - you are fully justified, as the Storyteller, in exploiting a character’s drive to achieve his/her agenda. A driven character (and said character’s player) may let little inconsistencies slip by her if she’s focused too much on the proverbial brass ring. That kind of oversight can be the source of some great role-playing later when said oversight causes the Big Plan to fail - or causes all kinds of other problems but aids the Big Plan. At what cost success?

Initiative can apply to situations as well as entire stories, of course. A player who acts as leader in a group (pack alpha in Werewolf: The Apocalypse, for example) is probably someone who inspires the others. She must be perceptive enough to recognize each other characters for their talents and capabilities and decisive enough to utilize those talents. A player with Initiative is often one of those rare individuals who can give out orders and make them sound like suggestions (because while characters may understand the need for a chain of command, players rarely enjoy being ordered around). A Clever player may decide on the strategy before the assault, but it’s the player with Initiative who assumes command when the dust starts flying.

The differences between Cleverness and Initiative are subtle but distinct. A Clever player enjoys problem solving, but a pro-active player cares more for the results than the process. The Machiavellian world of Vampire: The Requiem and the survival-horror milieu of All Flesh Must Be Eaten reward Initiative - those with the courage to act are noticed and rewarded. Those who flinch fade away (or are devoured, in the latter case).

One of the big advantages to having Initiative-laden players around is that they will pick up on your hints and act on them. With such a player in your group, you won’t have to do much prodding to get someone to suggest investigations; the player’s Initiative will provide the motivation. Likewise, this is usually the player to whom you’ll have an NPC make a suggestion or confess a secret to - the player who will take the bait and look deeper. Oftentimes, the player does this out of a desire to find out the plot of the game, and is therefore helping said plot along by investigation (which overlaps a bit with Consciousness, of course).

A pro-active player doesn’t always concern herself with foresight, however. Throw a clue to such a player and she’ll pursue it, sometimes putting her character at risk. Such players’ characters are great stalking horses because they’re easy to lure, but don’t rely on that. If the character picks up on a clue in a way you hadn’t anticipated (an NPC is seen as dangerous rather than intriguing, for example), she may act in ways that derail your plot. Again, about the only thing you can do is be ready.

When a player makes it obvious that she will investigate any clue the Storyteller provides, the temptation arises to exploit that tendency mercilessly and lead the character into all kinds of bad situations. Resist the temptation…to do it too much. Using Initiative as a plot hook works once or twice, but after the fifth time that peeking around a corner after a shadow has resulted in sudden ambush, the character will stop peeking (and her character will stop picking up your cues). Then, you’ve lost a pro-active player, and that definitely is a loss.

Do you take the Initiative?

Are you the official or unofficial leader of your group?

Does your character description include words like “curious” and “inquisitive”?

Do you take notes?

Does your character often try to stir up trouble for the ruling classes?

Have you ever uttered a phrase like “Viva la Revalución!” in character?

Has the Storyteller ever given you OOC information because she knew you’d do the right thing with it?

If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, you’re probably quite pro-active.

As you can probably guess, any given gamer is capable of being a Beautiful Player, given time, guidance, and the right circumstances. The “example” players above fit any number of players I’ve had the privilege of knowing over the years, and of course a player’s comparative “stats” can vary greatly from game to game. Also, some stats are more important in some games that in others (you can be as Clever as you like in Paranoia, but you aren’t getting any breaks!).

The overriding theme here, as you may have noticed, is for players to be aware of the game and the group around them. The best moments in gaming, as any “vet” will tell you, are when the group functions well together, and the players leave feeling they all accomplished something. It’s at moments like that when you have not a group of Beautiful Players, but a Beautiful Group of Players.

What Makes a Beautiful Player? (Part 3)

Appearance, or What? I’m Only Three Hours Early!

I’ve long been plagued by non-punctual gamers. I had given it up as a regrettable, if necessary corollary to gaming: people just can get to the game on time. It always starts an hour later than the “official” start time.

Then, I moved to Cleveland, and started a new gaming group. The first few times we met, I tried to make it clear that because we were playing on a Tuesday (school night for some of the players) and because a couple of players had to leave at certain times (work, curfew, etc.) I wanted people there by six. That didn’t seem to help much; I had a couple of problem players who showed up a half hour late consistently. By the third week, I was annoyed, so I took them aside and explained that I was serious about running this game and that if they were serious about playing in it, they would show up on time or at least call if they couldn’t.

They showed up early from then on. I love it when people pay attention.

Appearance has nothing to do with how a gamer looks (mostly, it doesn’t, but we’ll get to that). It has to do with putting in an appearance. An Apparent player shows up on time, with all the necessary accouterments: his/her notebook, a pencil (they disappear real quick around my place), and dice in hand, ready to play. It all goes back to the gaming group being a commitment, and respecting that.

Are there acceptable reasons to be late or to miss a game? Of course, and even the most Apparent player will run afoul of these things sometimes. However, whereas a non-Apparent player won’t call, or waits until the last possible minute to do so, an Apparent player calls as soon as a crisis emerges, so that the Storyteller can compensate. An Apparent player realizes that the Storyteller should never have to play a player’s character because the player didn’t show and the character is too important to sideline. I commonly cancel games or run one-shots instead of the planned game because of one last-minute no-show, just because the missing character was that important to the plot. I have also given characters fates far worse than they deserved because their players weren’t there to save them. (Vengeful, yes, but it’s therapeutic, and even death’s reversible in some games.)

So, showing up, as Minnie Driver says in Grosse Point Blank, is a good start. But there’s more to the Apparent player than simple physical presence. The Apparent player considers the feelings and preferences of the group and tries to work within them.

For example: I hate cigarettes. Anyone who knows me also knows that I’m a total psycho about smokers. I have bad habits, too, and I do unhealthy things to my body, but the difference is that what I do won’t give anybody else health problems. You may smoke, but if even one gamer in your group doesn’t, you should respect her wishes. It is not disrespectful or inconsiderate for a non-smoker to ask a smoker to go elsewhere to indulge; it is inconsiderate for the smoker to do so.

That in mind, the Apparent player does not show up smoking and expect to be let in, if the rules of the house prohibit indoor smoking. Players who smoke should also wait until their characters are not immediately involved in the action or until a break in the game to trot outside to smoke. And, once outside, they should pick up their leavings and throw them away, not leave butts all over the place. Eww.

The Apparent player also knows how to abide by house rules. By “house rules” I don’t mean rules of the game (though that’s a consideration, too) but literal rules of the house. If the Storyteller doesn’t want the player drinking alcohol during the game, the players need to abide by that. If there are players in the group who are underage, this shouldn’t even be an issue. This principle also applies to other mind-altering substances; the Apparent player not only shows up on time for games, but shows up sober, or at least able to function. I knew a fellow who routinely showed up to our games high; I didn't notice until he mentioned it. It's great if you can do that. I can't, I'm a total lightweight, so I don't alter my brain chemistry with anything but coffee during games.

Apparent players must also be aware of their general appearance. I’m not referring to physical beauty or attractiveness, of course. By appearance I mean silly things like hygiene. One of the unpleasant stereotypes about gamers is that they are plump men who don’t bathe and wear the same clothes day in and day out. The Apparent player breaks that stereotype over his knee. Show up for games clean, and using the proper tools of personal cleanliness (toothbrush, deodorant and so forth. And before the female gamers reading this get too smug, I’ll gently mention that the only instance in which I actually had to speak to a player about this involved a female player. I won’t get into detail, but you can probably figure it out).

On the subject of physical appearance, one last note should be made. A lot of younger gamers live with their families, and that might mean that gaming night is held in mom’s basement under her good graces. I was fortunate in that I have parents who didn’t regard gaming as a demonic act and were kind enough to buy us pizza or cook for us quite a lot. However, the Apparent player understands that sometimes parents get freaked out easily and that means that weirdness sometimes needs to get curbed. That can mean not dressing like a total gothed-out freak, going easy on the makeup, turning a piercing so it isn’t visible, and choosing one’s T-shirt with care. It can also mean being careful with language, both in terms of profanity and subject matter. Rant all you want about how folks can be closed-minded and how they don’t understand about gaming but in the end, respect the people to whom the house belongs and try not to offend them. (This is especially true if they happen to be your parents!)

Sometimes, players get a little too zealous. This drives them to show up early (anything more than about 20 to 30 minutes before the established time should merit a phone call), or bring guests along to play or watch.

Some Storytellers might have issues with uninvited guests showing up. I don’t mind so much as long as they abide by my rule for “gaming voyeurs” - which is, simply put, “Stay out of the way and shut up.” If you want to bring a friend along to the game to watch, ask them to bring a book or some homework, in case they get bored. Make sure they understand that you won’t be able to explain everything to them right then, as you’ll be involved in the game. You should probably make sure that the Storyteller doesn’t have a problem with an audience, if for no other reason than it might require an extra chair.

If, however, you want to bring a friend and actually have them play in the game, you must clear it with the Storyteller first. Some games are loose enough to allow a character to float in and out in a single session without wrecking the game’s rhythm too much. Much of the time, however, it’s difficult to suddenly introduce a new character without either leaving the new character largely out of the action or forcing him into it. Neither of these options are good starts to gaming.

If you’ve got a friend who’s interested in gaming but doesn’t wish to or is unable to join an existing group, talk to the Storyteller about running a one-shot or a spin off of your current chronicle. Do not bring someone along and say “We made a character this afternoon. My friend can play, right?” I’ve been put on the spot like this and I’ve turned down such requests. Remember, gaming is communistic, and the Storyteller has to make the decision that works best for the group as a whole. If you make those decisions easier for the Storyteller by giving him/her warning about guests, you’re making a good Appearance.

By the same token, stay off the phone during games. If you’re having family or relationship troubles, don’t try to work them out over the phone during a gaming session. If it’s that serious, apologize to the Storyteller and the group and leave. But don’t put the entire game on hold while the group waits for you to sort things out with your girlfriend. That’s inconsiderate (of both you and her), and it puts the Storyteller in the uncomfortable position of having to either listen to the arguments or wait for them to end.

How’s your Appearance?

Do you show up twenty minutes early for all games and pass the time chatting with the Storyteller about the ongoing chronicle?

Have you ever broken a date because it conflicted with a game?

Have you ever voluntarily missed a concert, play, or other one-time-only event to make a game?

Do you take notes?

If other players are short on pizza money, do you cover because “it’ll all equal out sooner or later”?

Have most of your friends “guest-starred” in the game you’re playing in?

If you answered affirmatively to any or all of these questions, it’s apparent that you’re Apparent.

What Makes a Beautiful Player? (Part 2)

Consciousness, or Sleeping Through the Apocalypse

Gamers love their hobby. Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it. It takes a certain amount of trust (read: masochism) to lovingly craft a character, place their stats with care, design a background, and then hand it over to the maniacal genius that is the GM. Enthusiasm is important. Once you’re at the game, you’re there to game, not to sleep. But there’s a lot more to Consciousness than remaining awake.

A Conscious player remains so during the entire game. She doesn’t nod off on the couch or wander into other rooms to play video games when her character’s involved in a scene. (If the Storyteller is cross-cutting between two groups of characters, of course, this is probably acceptable, but you still might want to ask.) Most especially, a conscious player does not begin chatting OOC with other players during important scenes (at least, not in the same room). This kind of behavior is rude, and belittles the time and energy the Storyteller puts into the game.

Conscious players often take notes, whether or not they are currently involved in the action. I’m of two minds about this. The strict GM in me says, “Nope, if you’re not there, you won’t remember it, so don’t be writing it down.” The Storyteller in me says, “It’s a game, Matthew. Besides, if s/he doesn’t write it down, who will? You?” I usually let it slide except in extreme cases. Besides, if players get in the habit of taking notes all the time, odds are they’ll write stuff down that they think is important. Then, I can look through their notes later (backs of character sheets are good places to take notes, and I always hold onto character sheets) and find out what they thought was important, and adjust the plotline according, if necessary.

Another hallmark of the Conscious player is staying in character, especially during interaction with other characters. Some players route all interaction through the Storyteller, even when the person to whom their characters are speaking is sitting next to them. I prefer dialogue, complete with eye contact and everything, because it’s great role-playing and it’s fun to watch. Conscious players do not drop out of character every other sentence, to quote movies or make silly jokes. To a degree, that sort of thing’s okay. After all, it’s a game, it’s a social situation, you’re here to have fun with friends, right? So what’s the big deal with making a few jokes?

The big deal is when it gets distracting and annoying. A gaming session is not a party; it’s a gaming session. If you’d rather watch a movie, invite the group to your place to do that sometime. But don’t start quoting during an intense scene and don’t slip out of character to make dumb jokes when the dialog train is starting to chug (and by the way, I've seen way, way too many GMs burst in on that dialog train with a setting detail or a correction - don't. Consciousness applies to the GM, too).

An example of what a Conscious player wouldn’t do: I was running Chill a few (well, a lot) of years ago. I ran a game where the group ended up locked in a factory with a huge, spider-like beast called a chimneyrue that lives on smoke. (You can find this creature, and 66 other nasties that work incredibly well for all sorts of horror games, in GURPS Creatures of the Night by Scott Paul Maykrantz.) The thing was stalking them and they didn’t know what could hurt it (they all carried firearms, but were quite used to them not having any effect whatsoever. That’s Chill for you). The factory foreman, standing close to a vent, started babbling about “the ‘rue! The chimneyrue!” He told them to kill it, they asked how. He screamed (I didn’t really screamed, just tensed my voice. Learn to do that; screams in close quarters are bad form), “Kill it with your glack-”. He didn’t finish the sentence because the chimneyrue had crept up through the vent and put one of its claws through his stomach. He meant to say “guns”, of course.

One of the players, however, picked up the cue and finished “glack” with “enspiel!” (Get it? Glockenspiel?) Everybody cracked up. I could have killed him. Until then, everybody was tense, a little shook up, picturing the smoky, darkened factory, the foreman’s sweaty face and darting eyes as he raved…and with that one little joke, it all fell apart. I was pissed. The fact that the joke was funny as hell isn’t the point. A large part of being a Conscious player is being conscientious, and that means not mucking with the Storyteller’s moments.

Staying in character in the face of adversity, including the opportunity to make your fellow players laugh, is a hard task. I appreciate that (and it’s not like I’ve never broken character to lighten things up, either). However, try to have some sense of tact.

On that subject, a Conscious player knows what subjects to avoid. In my essay entitled "When Things Go Horribly Wrong," (which I haven't ported over yet, but it's here for now) I mentioned a number of topics that are sensitive spots for many people (specifically, rape, molestation, drugs, pregnancy, and family member death). These things can and do happen in real life and can happen in a game as well. Understand, however, that you should no more use these topics for their reactionary value that you should slap a player in the face to get a reaction. This goes for players as well - if you know that a fellow players has issues with a topic, avoid them. If you don’t know and someone brings it to your attention, respect that. If you have issues with a given topic, tell the Storyteller as soon as it becomes a problem. Communication is key: be Conscious of that fact.

Another common practice of the Conscious player is helping the Storyteller out. Some players feel that they are going the extra mile by taking actions which result in problems for their characters (or the entire group) and saying, with a pained expression, “But it’s what my character would do.” To that I usually respond, “Nah. It’s what your character might do.”

Think back to the last choice you had to make, important or not. Was there only one decision you could have made, or could have chosen to do several different things for different reasons? People are unpredictable, and you won’t catch any flak from the Storyteller for finding a way to include yourself in the proceedings, even if doesn’t seem strictly in line with your character’s concept at first blush.

Yet another example: I played in a game of Hunter: The Reckoning that probably should have been more structured. The Storyteller really hadn’t considered how he was going to get all of the characters into the action, just assuming that we’d fall into place somehow. That’s a dangerous assumption. One of the characters remained alone at her apartment for most of the game, out of the action, because her player didn’t feel it was “in character” for her to follow the messages she was getting and drive to where the action was. In this instance, while the Storyteller certainly could have planned things a bit better (especially considering he had seven players who weren’t connected in any way, which is a bit much), the player should have been more Conscious. (She did, eventually, decide that the messages and hints drove her to distraction enough that she had to get in her car and drive “wherever”, just to clear her head. That’s a great way to get characters involved, by the way).

Being a Conscious player doesn’t mean you make choices that are totally opposed to your character’s concept simply to further the plot. It means that you don’t go out of your way to make trouble simply because it’s “in character”. It’s a fine line, and a certain amount of self-limitation in the name of concept is a good thing, but at the same time, if the game is obviously straining because people are drifting apart, you might consider taking another course of action that your normally wouldn’t, if only to give the Storyteller a break. (Storytellers, again, reward this behavior.)

The last trait of a Conscious player is the most obvious. They pay attention. That means no sleeping, no chatting, no reading or drifting off to La-La Land while their character is ostensibly present during a scene. No damn laptops at the table, either, or at least keep them closed unless you're using them right at that moment. If you suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, take your medication. If you’re easily distracted by books, write on a clipboard and keep the books out of arm’s reach. Take notes - it’ll give you something to do with your hands, but keep you in the moment (beware of doodling, though). If you find yourself growing tired, sit up straight, drink a can of pop (soda, to all you non-Ohioans), ask the Storyteller for a stretch-break, whatever. If you find you really can’t remain awake or Conscious anymore, ask the Storyteller to sideline your character (or play him/her as an NPC, which is something I refuse to do) and go home. The other players will find your absence preferable to your unConscious presence.

Are you a Conscious Player?

• Do you write down everyone’s characters names and descriptions, so that you’ll remember when you speak to them in character?
• Do you take notes?
• Have you ever cried in character?
• At 4 AM, when the Storyteller is yawning and getting ready to call it quits, do you encourage “making this an all-nighter so we can get to the bottom of this”?
• Have you ever written down a thought or joke that was funny as hell, but would have completely ruined the moment?
• Have you ever suggested making a spouse, sibling, or good friend character to one of the other player’s characters?

If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, you’re probably Conscious.