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Signposts: “This is important”

Posted By Martin Ralya On May 27, 2008 @ 3:18 am In GMing Advice | 8 Comments

When I started up my current Mage: The Awakening chronicle, I made a conscious decision to not use battle maps. When combat or exploration comes up, I doodle sloppy maps on the huge white board in our game room, and adjust them on the fly.

Signposts

Could I have used battle maps instead? Sure — but I wanted to put up a signpost for my players that says, “This aspect of the game is less important than the others.” I wanted all of us to focus on the roleplaying side of things (this is the game that inspired my post series on roleplaying-intensive campaigns), not on the minute details of positioning, marching order and all the other stuff that comes with using a battle map.

On the flipside, I could have whipped out my set of Tact-Tiles for the first fight of the chronicle, and signposted that aspect of the game instead: “Tactical combat and the nitty-gritty stuff is important.” Battle maps don’t inherently detract from a focus on roleplaying, but they do change the tone of the game — and for me, change it in a way that wouldn’t work for this chronicle.

You Only Get a Few

The key with signposts is that you only get so many per campaign. If you try to signpost everything as being important, the end result is that nothing is important. Every aspect of your campaign can’t be equally special, so instead focus on signposting the stuff that really matters, and let the rest take a backseat.

Examples

Here’s a sampling of other signposts, and what they could signify to your players:

  • NPCs talk in-character, instead of in the third person: In-character roleplaying is important.
  • You make all your rolls in the open: I’m not going to save your bacon, so plan accordingly.
  • Monsters just happen to be carrying the magic items the party is most interested in: Suspension of disbelief is less important than having fun.
  • Props are handmade to look and feel like actual in-game items: Atmosphere and immersion are important — I want you to feel like you’re there.
  • You crack a beer at the start of the first session: Let’s just relax and have fun.

The Tricky Bit

The sticky wicket with signposts is that you need to be sure that they convey what you want them to convey. It helps if the signposts you use reinforce each other, and if each one has just a single obvious significance.

My second example — rolling in the open — isn’t a great one from that standpoint. Open rolls could also just mean you love seeing how randomness takes your campaign in unexpected directions, among other things.

As long as you’ve put some thought into which elements of the game are most important to you and to your players (the latter ideally coming from a frank, open pre-game discussion), though, you’ll be in better shape than if you don’t think about signposts at all — even if your signposts aren’t perfect. It’s gaming: It should be fun, not perfect.

What signposts have you erected in your current campaign? Have they worked?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Signposts: “This is important”"

#1 Comment By Sektor On May 27, 2008 @ 4:00 am

I never thought of it as such, but I guess you can call it a signpost: whenever I want the game to be played with some level of seriousness (that is, not every moment in the game is fit for jokes), I interpret all comments made by the players to be in-game talk, and have my NPCs react accordingly.

Unfortunately, this sometimes gives a negative reaction from my players: so I usually let them get away with it for once, but I warn them that the next time the ‘signpost’ will stand.

Of course, if all the players want to do is joke around, while as a GM you hope on playing a serious session, there might be a problem. Either talk it out with your players, or switch to something else entirely (like poker or boardgames or something).

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 27, 2008 @ 8:07 am

Great example of how actions are far more important than words in getting your point across.

And you make a very good point that you only get a few signposts per game; I gotta remember that.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 27, 2008 @ 8:19 am

I’ve never thought of them as “signposts,” per se, but I’ve always thought it important to make one clear signal before each session as to the tone/style/mood of the session’s main encounter. A lot of your examples are exactly match many of the signals I also send. Signposts are indeed very useful GM tools.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On May 27, 2008 @ 8:46 am

Group inertia contributes too. If the last three campaigns have featured wise dragons as advisers who assign the group tasks, the group will probably expect the same when you introduce a friendly dragon in this game. If you don’t want them to fall into the same role, it’ll take particular effort to get them out of the habit.

Signposts seem to be most important very early on. The first session sets a lot of expectations– which makes it particularly hard for me. I’m often trying hard to get everyone pointed in the right direction on the first night… but whatever we do that night seems to setup the flavor of the whole campaign. It can be difficult to remember not to fall back into habit when you’re furiously juggling…

Do you have good tricks for remembering what to signpost? Or from recovering from bad assumptions earlier– say, if you’d used tactiles the first time, but wanted to get everyone away from tactical combats thereafter?

#5 Comment By Snargash Moonclaw On May 27, 2008 @ 11:52 pm

Where time and space permits I like to use 3D card stock models as visual props – but throughout session and beyond simply localized tactical displays – to transmit that “grasping the big picture” matters.
These can provide accurate tactical information should it be needed at some point, but that’s simply a secondary, added bonus function – if the whole town (or most of it) is laid out, a fight in an alley can easily be grasped within a larger context before it begins. The inherent understanding of where the guard house is relative to that alley (which the characters can often be assumed have but players usually need to develop) for instance can have a big impact on how the players choose to deal with the encounter – possibly giving them reason to avoid combat. (Yeah the guy and his friends are a bunch of arrogant bullies who need to have their asses handed to them on a skewer, but we don’t want to be caught successfully defending ourselves against the son of Lord so-and-so after his pet butt-monkey scurries two blocks to fetch the squad commander he bribes to keep in his hip-pocket. . .)

Background music, if carefully selected, is a great signpost for setting tone/mood of a session. Many years ago I pulled my group into Ravenloft briefly. From the moment they arrived until they finally left, the only music was the soundtrack from Hell Raiser, a very moody orchestral work, played softly on repeat. By the end of the second session (it took three or four) Ravenloft was creeping them out as much as it should have been creeping out the characters, and the players felt as motivated and determined to escape as their characters were.

In accordance with Prophecy,

Have Fun, Play Well,
Amergin O’Kai

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 29, 2008 @ 10:01 am

@Scott: Re: remembering what to signpost, I don’t have any suggestions there. I wing it, which isn’t terribly helpful. ;) I guess I wing it based on past experience as a player and a GM, so if I took something as a signpost in someone else’s game, or observed my players doing the same, I file that away.

@Snargash: Good point about background music — that’s a great reinforcing tool.

#7 Comment By John G. On March 12, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

I tend to have very few magic items in my campaigns, so when I introduce them, I like to draw each of them on file cards (with the item’s information on the back).

It lends real flavor to the campaigns, plus whenever the players see me handling a new file card, they get excited…

#8 Comment By John G. On March 14, 2009 @ 9:23 am

…and now I see that Martin covered that idea several years ago. D’oh!

So I’ll clarify: Magic items on file cards are signposts because…

1. It tells the players, “magic / custom items are rare,”
2. It tells the players, “magic / custom items are really important,”
3. It conditions the players to start drooling like Pavlov’s dogs whenever they see item cards. :)


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