August 31, 2014

Storytelling: Engaging Your Players

Anyone who has played an RPG has probably run across this. You're in a party with a bunch of people you have no idea why you're together, looking for something for some reason because some guy you don't know wants it. There comes a point where you're facing an incredibly dangerous threat and you think "Why am I even here?" and you continue anyways. In that game, everyone is probably off in their own little world. No one is engaged with the story. Turns start to drag slower, decisions take forever to make, "I don't care" is a phrase batted around by a few people. No one is smiling.

This is a game that lacks player engagement. The players are only there to chuck the dice, kill some goons, and head home after. Most of the laughing and talking happens outside of the game, causing turns to slow down. No one is really too concerned to get to the next fight or trap.

Luckily, I've put together some tips that you can use to help keep your players engaged from start to finish. It will take some practice and a fair amount of work on your end. Some of these tips you'll have to finesse throughout the game, while others you will need to start with them already planned. But it will greatly improve the quality of your games and players will be eager for the next week to come.

Set The Scene
Before the first NPC talks, before the first action done, before ask "What is your character doing?", take a minute to describe the scenery. What season is it?. Is it Summer or Winter? Spring or Fall? Add abnormal weather. A sunny or partly cloudy day is boring. You can add rain or snow, but there are other meteorological phenomena like wind, fog, or hail. This little detail give the players something they can all interact with immediately. Don't hang too long on describing the scenery though.

"It's a chilly late fall day. Strong winds blow leaves off the trees and they collect in piles around the buildings. Many people spend most their day cleaning up the mess caused by the wind."

In Medias Res
One of the best tricks to immediately immerse the players into a game is to start in medias res. In medias res is Latin for "in the midst of things". It's used to immediately propel characters of a story into a conflict or event. This could be nearly anything from a car chase, to a talent show, to a heated debate between store owners. If starting a game in medias res, be sure to have a justification to why the players are all together at this point and time.

"As you and your friends wait in line at the local coffee shop you hear a car come screeching to a halt. Out pops three men in suits and wearing gas masks. One of the men chucks a smoking canister through the front window of the shop and it immediately starts to fill with eye watering smoke."

Make Them Connected
This will probably take the most work on the side of the GM. Your goal is to make the players care about the story now. Hopefully your characters created a little blurb about them or a back story. If not, make one up for them without them knowing. Speckle bits of each players story into yours, making them choose directions and actions based off their backgrounds. If every player has a bit of his story in the larger one, everyone is now invested and care about what to do. Now when their facing that giant dragon and they're thinking "Why am I even here?", they'll remember that there's more on the line than just character experience. Whether its gold for the thief, the girl for the guy, or revenge for the beaten, make your players invested.

Don't Get Creative
Have you ever heard of the acronym KISS? It stands for Keep It Simple Stupid. Keep your plot as simple and straight forward to follow. Keep it to a single twist at the end. A simple plot allows for a couple of things. It allows for flexibility on the part of the GM to include immersive details at points on the way. It allows your players to clearly focus on the task at hand. Keep the goals of the bad guy simple, but still meaningful. Keep the names of NPCs down to a minimum and keep them easy to remember. The simplicity shouldn't hinder the overall story, and will allow your players to stay immersed because they're not constantly thinking "well, what could that have really meant." If you have concern about the simplicity of your plot, take a look at a typical quest and see if yours can fall under one of those categories.

Let the Players Do the Work
There are two points behind this one. The first is point is very simple: let your players create the story. Don't know what to name girl behind the counter? Ask the players to throw you a name. Got a couple of ships that need naming? Ask the players. One of the players joked about something that could happen? Let it happen. Not only does this allow the players to create aspects of the world and story around them, it allows you to hone your story to exactly what they want. For better or for worse, take a players out of game comment and throw it into the story. If you kept your plot simple, you should be able to easily slip these into your game.

The second point is a little more complicated. Your players have brains, so let them use them. Don't give them every last detail on the story. You want them to have an idea of whats going to come next, without actually telling them. This can be more elegantly summed up by Pixar's Andrew Stanton's TED Talk on storytelling. If your players aren't spoon fed plot points, they will be thinking of the story, plot points already found, and be immersed in the world.

Be Excited
Emotions are contagious. Be excited when telling the story. Wave your arms about, ham it up, talk loudly. If you're doing that, you'll have eyes on you. They won't be talking to each other or working on their computer, they will be listening to you. Slowly, it will influence the others around the table. Get them to talk loudly, and laugh. Get them to shake their hands at you, swing an invisible sword, and make sound effects. Describe your actions to be cinematic, instead of just "I attack." Instead describe how "he recklessly swings his ax over his head at you." The more theater you and your players can do, the more listening everyone will do to each other. If you're not excited to tell the story, why should they be excited to listen?


August 28, 2014

Game Master to Story Teller

Since I've known her, my soon to be wife has participated in this annual event cryptically titled NaNoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writes Month. This event is a self competition for amateur authors to write a complete 50,000 word story in 30 days, beginning November 1st and ending on the 30th. Those 50K words translate into a trade paperback of more than 200 pages. While she has completed a variety of stories for this competition, I have yet to compete. Until this year.

I have always enjoyed storytelling. It's one of the main reasons I like to run RPGs. Being a Game Master for an RPG gives me an excellent avenue to practice storytelling without actually putting words down on paper. You have a direct audience and get near immediate feedback. But telling a story this way leaves out some of the detail that could easily be conveyed on paper. Because of this, I've finally decided to partake in the NaNoWriMo challenge.

During the month of November I will be posting progress and snippets of the story here on my blog. But leading up to that, I have decided to post some awesome tips that I will be learning to help improve your story telling as a GM. There are a ton of resources out in the world now that can help you improve your games through encounters and system mechanics. Where these articles will come in will be to help flesh out the bits between the dice rolling. A game without an engaging story is just test who's results mean nothing. With a little luck, hopefully these will help make your games more appealing and engaging to your players.

August 25, 2014

Gateway into Table Top RPGs

Last winter, after playing board games all day, my fiance (girlfriend at the time) found my bag of Star Wars Edge of the Empire dice laying nearby. After asking what all the funny symbols meant, she joked "I want to stab somebody!" And threw the dice. I don't remember what the result was, but there was a triumph and she did stab someone.

An hour later, with the pregenerated characters from the Age of Rebellion beta book, a narrative was being constructed in this dingy little bar where this fight broke out. After that night, a Saturday Night RPG group was established at my home. The four members of the group included two "veteran" RPGers and two "rookies" who's first experience with table top RPGs was that winter night. Soon we started playing "mission of the week" style sessions of Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars system, and we had a blast. But there was a larger meta plot behind this SNRPG group than just some fun times.

My friend and I, who gamed together in the past and are currently gaming in a separate group, talked about setting up an RPG group to run through as many different systems as possible. We each had systems that we had wanted to get to the table, but our other game group is the kind that likes long stories. So if you wanted to get a system to that table, it would take months before it would even be considered. Luckily, with the Saturday Night group, we didn't really have these problems.

Our first system was FFG's Star Wars, were we were able to get more than a dozen sessions in. After Star Wars was the Fate system. We were able to get both Fate Core and Fate Accelerated to the table (and in the other group, we were able to get FAE to the table as well). After running both specs of Fate, we moved onto the new Dungeons & Dragons system (hence forth referred to as 5E), specifically the Starter Set.

With the start of 5E, I was a little worried. I wasn't worried for myself, but for our "rookies" at the table. You see, since the start of the group, I've taken more towards seeing how a new player acts in a new system than how it plays. Most people who have gotten into table top RPGs have come in via a d20 system (specifically for myself, it was D&D 3.X). For our rookies though, their first system was FFG's narrative dice. They had never rolled a d20 until just this weekend, nearly 9 months after playing their first RPG. They were making a move from the system of high narration to the one of "Con Mod" and "AC".  Instead of culture shock, I was worried about system shock.


So how did they fair with 5E? In my opinion, very well. I attribute a lot of this the fantastic job Wizards of the Coast did with their Starter Set and Pregens, which helped immerse and invest the players into the setting. It took a little bit of work to get them familiar with the system. The veterans would throw terms like "Con Mod" and "AC" around, which would need a little bit of explaining for the new players. They seemed a little off that they had so many bonuses to look for every time they rolled a die. A comment about the ability score/modifier system was brought up as well, which just added some confusion. Another comment was that combat was less flamboyant and free flowing than they were used to. After the session, my fiance made a comment that the combat was slightly boring. But, above all else, I would say the entire group made awesome use of the Inspiration mechanic in 5E.

All of these comments and observations were what prompted me to write this. I believe a majority of the comments made by the rookies were because of they systems they started on. If 5E hit the table with the other group (referred to as Tuesday Night), I wouldn't be surprised if they had a slightly opposite reaction to this group. Tuesday Night has a strong attachment to the older D&D system and as a result play in another Pathfinder group. I can see them playing 5E with the full grid rules, enjoying the Advantage mechanic, and completely forgetting about Inspiration; they would see it as a trimmed down Pathfinder.

Between my two game groups, I can see a clear divide. One one side, you have players who are upset if combat isn't the focus game, and the story is a way to piece together combats. On the other side, you have players who are upset if the game is combat focused, and they as much story telling as possible. The rookies in my Saturday Night group are pretty firmly in the latter camp, while a majority of the Tuesday Night group is in the first. Each group has their own definition of what makes a game fun. 

Because each group sees the session as a different way to have fun, they exploit different parts of the game more. Saturday Night might make more reckless use of inspiration, constantly gaining and spending it. While Tuesday might not remember they have it, but coordinate each fight to the point where they don't need to spend any.

I believe a majority of the reason behind this divide is the gateway RPG that brought them into the hobby. Starting with a tactical, numbery system like Pathfinder or D&D 3.5 you'll tend to lean towards games with a lot of structure. If you come in playing Fate, you will probably want as much free form and narration as possible. Switching systems for these players can be jarring. Switching from Pathfinder to Fate, the player will probably miss out on free forming the setting to match your needs. A player switching from Fate to Pathfinder will find it restrictive and rules heavy.

So what system should you use to introduce people into the hobby? I believe the FFG Star Wars Edge of the Empire system is the best system to introduce a new person into the table top RPG hobby. I believe it has a good balance of structure and free form narration that it can keep a player from tipping to either end of the scale. There is enough slack in the rules to allow for awesome moments during the session and allow the players maximum fun, because that should be the overall goal with an RPG. You don't win at D&D, or get the high score in Pathfinder, or get a Newbery Medal in Fate. You have fun. And currently, I think that EotE offers the most fun per die roll for new players.