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So You Want to GM a Roleplaying-Intensive Game, Part 1

Posted By Martin Ralya On May 12, 2008 @ 3:41 am In GMing Advice | 13 Comments

There are probably as many ways to define “roleplaying-intensive” as there are gamers, but for talking purposes here’s the definition I use: A game in which mechanics take a backseat to character interaction, where all (or nearly all) in-game decisions are purely character-driven and where most (or all) in-game conversation happens in-character.

I’ve been running a Mage: The Awakening chronicle since October of 2007, and from the outset I planned it as a roleplaying-driven game. Credit goes to my group for really getting into the roleplaying side of the game, and I certainly couldn’t have forced a roleplaying-heavy game on them if that wasn’t what they were in the mood to play — but I could, and did, take steps to help create the right atmosphere for that kind of game, and so can you.

Step 1: Know Your Group

I’ve been lucky enough to play with most of these guys for several years now, on both sides of the screen (though mainly as a player), and I have a pretty good idea of what they like and dislike in a campaign — and how much and what style of roleplaying each of them enjoys.

You might not have that luxury, of course. If you just moved and are starting up a fresh group, you won’t know who likes what, who never talks in character and who wears a cloak to every session. If that’s the case, run a one-shot that includes a good mix of roleplaying and more mechanics-driven elements, and see how they respond. If that’s not practical, just ask them what they like most about gaming, and see where that leads.

Once you have an idea how each of your players will respond to a roleplaying-driven game, adjust your expectations accordingly. For example, if you know that one player prefers to refer to her character in the third person (“Red Sonja says…”), don’t try to force her to speak in the first person.

As a rule of thumb, if a player is having fun and their style of roleplaying isn’t detracting from anyone else’s fun, everything is fine. Your perceptions of how your players “should” roleplay are a lot less important than making sure they have fun. Just roll with it.

Step 2: Talk to Yourself

This step is a quickie: When you first start thinking about your campaign, tell yourself, “I’m going to run a roleplaying-intensive campaign.” That’s it.

That declaration will be one of your two touchstones from here on out. (The other will be “Make the game fun for everyone.”) Any time you need to make a game-related decision, think back to your intention to run a roleplaying-oriented campaign.

At least for me, making this kind of mental declaration is a big help, and it’s a simple step to take.

Step 3: Declare Your Intentions

Part of any good social contract for a game is making sure that you and your players are all on roughly the same page about what kind of game you’re going to be playing. The simplest way to make that happen is to pitch your game as a roleplaying-intensive campaign. (If you know your group well, you might be able to just skip this step — but even then, it’s still a good idea.)

This step doesn’t have to be complicated. Just let your group know that you want to run a game where roleplaying takes center stage, and give them an idea of what that will entail. In the case of my Mage chronicle, I had a great frame of reference in the form of our just-completed Stargate campaign.

Our GM for that game, Don, had crafted and run a game that was driven by our character backgrounds and character choices, and coupled those elements to an engaging story that felt — and played — a lot like the Stargate: SG-1 TV show. All I needed to do was say that I wanted to run a Mage game that was along the same lines (sans TV show elements, of course), and we were off. Without a convenient reference point like that, you’ll need to briefly outline what you have in mind.

Next up, in Part 2 (and perhaps spilling into Part 3): character backgrounds, spotlight moments, limiting metagame discussion and making sure that your players’ decisions impact the campaign and the game world.

What do you think of steps one through three? Would you put knowing your group first, or do you have a different first step when you set out to run a roleplaying-intensive campaign?

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.




13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "So You Want to GM a Roleplaying-Intensive Game, Part 1"

#1 Comment By PaPeRoTTo On May 12, 2008 @ 5:33 am

First :D

I’ve always tried to have a Roleplaying-intensive campaign, but until this one i’m playing now, all the attempts were just a failure.

Now it seems that the wind is changing a bit and with a switch between some players who went away and some that went in, we’re trying with some success to roleplay in a more serious way.

i believe the “Know your Group” step is the most important, not only for what they like of the game, but know him/her as a person.. know how he/she will react to something and his/her approach to the game itself.. :) if you know this, you know how to press the right button to switch on the roleplayin’ machine! :D

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On May 12, 2008 @ 7:44 am

Knowing your group is key to almost every decision that the GM makes prior to his or her next gaming session, and if you can’t know your group beforehand then you have to advertise exactly what you are hoping to achieve with the session (such as with a convention game). It is definitely a good starting point for making many GMing decisions.

I think you left out an important step: Choose the right system. If you want intense role playing you should play a system that was designed for such an effect. You need to have the right tools for the job.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On May 12, 2008 @ 9:59 am

I agree steps two and three are critical. You laid out some of the issues with not knowing your group in point one– you can try to make it happen, but it’s going to put a lot more stress on your efforts in step three, when you’re pitching it to them. You’ll have to explain what you mean and dredge up good examples, or draw them out of your group.

#4 Comment By Tommi On May 12, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

I’d say that the original definition of rp-intensive game has several distinct elements which are not strongly tied together. It could be worth the trouble to treat them all as separate subjects.

At least the following are clearly distinct: In-character dialogue and acting, decisionmaking as the character, marginalising the effect of mechanics.

(I also don’t see how the last one is related, but that is semantic quibbling and hence uninteresting.)

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 12, 2008 @ 6:24 pm

Thanks for the comments!

@Patrick: You’re right, choosing the right system should probably be step 3, though it could be step 4 — I think I’ll slot it in there in the second part of this series. Thanks!

@Tommi: I agree that they’re distinct elements, but for me they combine into what I think of as an RP-intensive game. It’s definitely a personal definition.

#6 Comment By John Arcadian On May 12, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

I think step 3 (Declare Your Intentions) is right behind step 1 (Know Your Players) in importance, but I also think it gets ignored the most by the players. I know of a few games where I’ve outlined what I’d like to run, and told players if they aren’t up for it then no problem. Still it often lapses into player preferences. The chaotic one starts sewing chaos, the method actor keeps trying to bring his character out, the power house keeps vying for fights, etc. This isn’t always the case of course, and my group has defined its playing style over the years, so it all works pretty well together.

I don’t think it is that players ignore the theme and mood set out in the social contract or with the GM, but that they lapse into their own play styles after a while.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 12, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

I suspect “Follow Through” will be somewhere in the near future. That momentum has to be maintained through all the friction it will inevitably run into. ;-)

I’d say system comes after “declare your intentions”, because there will definitely be feedback from the players, and the choice of system should reflect both the GM and the players’ desires.

Good choice; I was starting to think about more RP-heavy gaming…

#8 Comment By Irda Ranger On May 13, 2008 @ 5:35 am

I hope future posts describe how rule systems which encourage immersive role play can be adapted to lots of game systems. For instance, I like how Burning Wheel rewards in-character actions and discussion, but that doesn’t mean I have to play Burning Wheel to get that. How you grant XP awards are usually the most flexible part of any system, and can easily be swapped around.

So, if Step 3 is “State Your Intentions”, Step 3 1/2 should be “State How you’re putting your money where your mouth is.” Back it up with concrete rewards to the players.

And hey, first comment at Gnome Stew!

#9 Comment By darkliquid On May 13, 2008 @ 10:05 am

I know that in the various games I’ve played and the games I GM, I’ve been leaning towards dropping system mechanics almost completely and heading in a more ‘guided freeform’ direction, with perhaps some very light stats, or single die rolls just to add an element of chance into the game.

I find that its easier to pay attention to a character and their actions and really craft immersive responses from NPC’s, the world in general and describe events with more dramatic flair and fun when I’m not shackled by a rules system or have to stick my nose in a rulebook for ten minutes looking for some esoteric rule for the unlikely/complicated action/event that inevitably takes place.

Of course, being very flexible with rules as a GM can achieve the same effect, a sort of hybrid freeform/system game, the trouble with hybridising is that the players tend to look to the rules too much for guidance/advantages then to get around the freeform decisions and that ends up being a hassle.

#10 Comment By LordVreeg On May 13, 2008 @ 11:06 am

I don’t find it as necessary to go to a mechanics-lite game in order to GM a more reolplaying-intensive game. I do, however, agree that a very small amount of systems have the right balance for this type of game.
The CBG had a long-running thread called ‘Combat vs. Everything’, and one of the major concusions reached revolved around the idea that you need to choose a system that mirrors the type of game you want to play. And few games place anywhere near the same emphasis on the social interaction skills as the do on combat or magic. In that same continuum, most magic systems in games focus on combat or adventuring. Finding a game whose magic system focuses on the social interactions, actual town/population-center useful, and long term personal growth of the characters is rare.

Of course, rules do add time.

But I just wanted to throw it out there that ‘Roleplaying-intensive’ games can actually benfit from a ‘mechanics-intensive’ system, if the mechanics in question are not combat heavy, but emphasize social skills and character-growth.

(Of course, this often drives one to abandon all other rule systems and mke one’s own, but that is a different thread.)

#11 Comment By darkliquid On May 13, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

I have to agree, though I’ve yet to come across a system that was quick and simple to use but provided decent, usable mechanics for social interactions and character growth.

The trouble with most systems, especially ones that use levels or ‘points’ as a means of tracking character progression is that they need something concrete to base that progression on. How well someone roleplays is entirely subjective, while how many monsters they kill of rating X compared to the players current rating is cold hard numbers that can be easily turned into appropriate resources for character progression.

That’s why I tend to stick to freeform for most things, because it’s hard to keep subjective actions from being swallowed by other mechanical rules. It’s an all or none situation for me with rules, so I tend to lean towards none.

#12 Comment By LordVreeg On May 14, 2008 @ 7:55 am

Ah. Yes, quick and simple will never mesh with ‘mechanics-intensive’. I have to agree there.

I use a skill-based system with dozens of social skills, and experience is kept within each skill. So when a clever player uses ‘Contact’ and ‘Local customs, Igbar’ to find a high-quality Alchemist in that small city, they gain experience in those skills. We also have the house rules that allow players to ask for roleplaying awards in those skills (which is often the funniest part of every session).

But I would be lying if I called it quick or simple.

#13 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 14, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

@LordVreeg re: social mechanics: Amen to that! I immediately thought of Burning Wheel, which has stellar social mechanics — including one of the highlights of every session I’ve played, the Duel of Wits. DoW handles PC vs. PC and PC vs. NPC in-character debates incredibly well, and makes them a blast to play. Every game should include stuff like that.


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