RPGaDay 2018, Week Two: HOW…

RPGaDay 2018 infographic

RPGaDay is an annual celebration of tabletop roleplaying.

Week Two: HOW…

  1. … can players make a world seem real?
  2. … can a GM make the stakes important?
  3. … can we get more people playing?
  4. … has a game surprised you?
  5. … has gaming changed you?

6th: How can players make a world seem real?

While GMs are a sort of player, I choose to interpret this question as referring to players who are not the GM. That is, if you’re playing in someone else’s game, what can you do to add verisimilitude to the setting?

There are probably lots of ways you can do this, but in my experience the one I’ve seen used most often and to good effect is simply: make stuff up. Introduce facts about the world. Continue to use your creativity. Refer to events in your character’s past that didn’t happen in the game, or to characters that the others haven’t met, or to stories you’ve heard. As long as they are in-keeping with game and the setting, and they build on what has already been established (by the GM and other players), these little tidbits do wonders to make the world (and your character too!) seem larger than it is portrayed on-camera (so to speak).

To an extent, players that develop their character’s backstory before play has an easier time with this, but there’s two caveats: first, if you only introduce stuff that revolves around your character, there’s a limit to how much depth it can add to the world in general; second, even if you have a backlog of anecdotes you can drop into play, they don’t mean anything unless you actually drop them into play. I’ve certainly made the latter mistake a lot, coming up with interesting things and then never actually using them. Don’t do that if you can help it.

7th: How can a GM make the stakes important?

Find out what the players care about, and build stakes around that. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the player characters, but in general those two things will overlap. Quite often the players will be invested in certain things from the game world (e.g. specific NPCs, places, communities). There’s a temptation (not just in RPGs, but all sorts of narrative media, like films) to put the entire world in jeopardy since it contains things you care about, but that can lose focus and seem less important. If the players care about specific things, then have the narrative (via the villain or whatever) attack those specific things, or at least show how a larger threat affects those things specifically.

Make the stakes appropriate to the themes and genre of the game. The stakes in a superhero game can be about the safety of a city, planet, or galaxy or whatever, but the stakes in a game of interpersonal drama (for example) should primarily be about the PCs’ relationships. I still remember the first ever game of Smallville RPG that I played, when the big bad of the campaign was my character’s little sister, who was acting out from grief, and we saved the day by hugging her and letting her know she was loved.

Show (don’t tell) what the results of failure could be. In our current Dungeons & Dragons game, for instance, the party are the surviving members of a resistance group that struggles against the tyrannical rule of an evil dragon, and session by session we witness the encroaching loss of the freedoms we hold dear as the dragon’s regime consolidates its power and clamps down on things it doesn’t like.

8th: How can we get more people playing?

I have no idea. The entire roleplaying industry hasn’t been able to answer that question in a satisfactory and sustainable way, so I don’t know what I can contribute. I haven’t even been able to convince my own university friends to take it up on anything like a regular basis.

The Angry GM has views on this. I found them interesting, you might too.

9th: How has a game surprised you?

When I GM, I love it when players do things or introduce facts about the setting or just do something interesting with their characters that I never expected. I’m reasonably happy to respond to what they come up with (depending on the game sometimes).

For example, in my Worthington Academy (X-Men/Smallville RPG) campaign, I set up the finale so that Emma Frost would become possessed by Selene, and there would be a climactic showdown against the combined forces of these two antagonists (one of them moderately sympathetic, the other irredeemable). As this was happening, one of my players handed over a Plot Point and said, no, we were actually going to deal with this on the astral plane, in Emma/Selene’s mind, and the goal would be to separate them. Which was absolutely perfect (see above my comment about making sure stakes are appropriate for the genre), and absolutely unexpected.

10th: How has gaming changed you?

Um… I spend my free time in different ways and with different people. And I have less of it. And I’m less flexible with the free time I have left. Other than that, I don’t really know. It’s probably changed me in ways I don’t see.

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