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So You Want to GM a Roleplaying-Intensive Game, Part 3

Posted By Martin Ralya On June 19, 2008 @ 2:07 am In GMing Advice | 4 Comments

(The first three steps, and my definition of “roleplaying-intensive,” are in Part 1; tips 4-6 are in Part 2.)

7. Make Good on Your Promises

By this point, you’ve made two promises to your players, one explicit and one implicit:

  • Here’s the kind of game I’m going to run. This is the explicit promise you made in in step three, when you pitched a roleplaying-intensive campaign to your players. The follow-through here is simple: Run that kind of game. Don’t suddenly change your mind and run a hack-and-slash game where roleplaying is limited to saying “My guy looks very buff while he intimidates the ogre.”
  • I’m going to use those awesome backgrounds you wrote up. You asked for — and hopefully got — specific, useful and fun hooks as part of the character creation process. Your players put time and effort into coming up with those hooks — now use them. This is an implicit promise, but it’s no less important. If you don’t follow through on this one, your players will feel like you wasted their time, and they’ll be right.

I’ve been guilty of failing to live up to both of these promises in the past — in the same campaign, no less. I asked for lengthy backgrounds and then didn’t use them, and didn’t run the type of game I’d advertised. Instead, I made minimal changes to published adventures and didn’t emphasize roleplaying at all.

So while this step might sound self-evident, don’t overlook it. I didn’t make those mistakes 20 years ago, when I first started GMing — I made them about four years ago. I still feel bad about how poorly I handled that short-lived campaign, and my players rightly still give me shit about it.

My current game — the one that inspired this series of articles — represents a deliberate effort to do the opposite of everything I did four years ago, and to learn from those mistakes. It’s going much, much better because of it, and we’re all having a good time at the table.

8. Spotlight Moments

I wrote a GMing 142 post defining and exploring spotlight moments, and I won’t retread that ground here. Instead I’ll just mention that one of the most powerful tools you have for continuing the follow-through from step seven is the spotlight moment.

Spotlight moments — scenes where one PC (and by extension, her player) takes center stage — are a great way to showcase the background hooks your players gave you, engage them in intense roleplaying scenes, bring the things that interest them into the game and otherwise make the game as fun as possible for each player.

They’re also one of the most straightforward ways to ensure that you’re running the kind of game you advertised, since sitting down and thinking “How can I create a spotlight moment for this PC?” during prep will force you to consider your campaign’s overarching story, the plot at hand and the strengths, weaknesses and background hooks of the character in question.

9. Reward Roleplaying

You pitched a roleplaying-intensive game. Your players bought into that kind of campaign. You’ve all worked to create a gaming environment where roleplaying is front and center. Your players are into their characters and into the story, roleplaying their asses off.

Want that to keep happening? Reward their roleplaying — and not just “good” roleplaying.

What you define as good roleplaying is probably slightly different than how each of your players would define that concept (although there’s likely to be quite a bit of overlap as well). And that’s just fine. Everyone approaches getting into character differently, and their output tends to come in different forms as well. You’ll know if someone isn’t putting any effort into it, and that’s something you should address with that player (and a topic for a different article).

All of the roleplaying your players do should be rewarded in several ways:

  • By roleplaying right back at them. Get into your NPCs, use evocative descriptions to ground them in the game world and otherwise pull out all the stops yourself.
  • Explicitly: “That was awesome!” You need to be your players’ biggest fan. Cheerlead. Encourage them to stretch their boundaries. Make sure to tell them how much you’re enjoying their roleplaying at the end of your sessions. Yes, it sounds corny — but it works.
  • By changing the game to fit the roleplaying. Your players will always surprise you, but this is doubly true when they’re really into the roleplaying aspect of the game. Stay flexible, and allow their inspired moments, crazy ideas and awesome roleplaying scenes to dramatically alter the flow of the story. (This is kind of an extension of step seven, but I thought it fit better here.)

Exceptional roleplaying — which is like pornography: You know it when you see it (or more accurately, when the whole table reacts to it) — should be rewarded in all of these ways as well as in one more way:

  • With mechanical benefits. Whether it’s XP, your system’s action/fate/etc. points, a bonus to a social skill check or some other game element entirely, standout moments should earn your players a mechanical boon. As a rule of thumb, when everyone at the table laughs or otherwise gets deeply into one player’s roleplaying, you should consider awarding a benefit.

What do you do to reward great roleplaying? Have you ever had the kinds of follow-through problems I’ve had? What tricks do you use to get your players riled up and into their characters?

The fourth and final installment in this series will cover three final topics: driftable mechanics (a reader suggestion from Irda Ranger), metagame discussion and evaluating your success. (If I get more reader suggestions, I’ll roll them into that post or do an epilogue.)

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.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "So You Want to GM a Roleplaying-Intensive Game, Part 3"

#1 Comment By robustyoungsoul On June 19, 2008 @ 6:44 am

Since we finished our Burning Empires game we have picked up Burning Wheel, and it basically handles all of the things you are talking about through the clever Belief/Instinct/Trait mechanics.

This is a good article though because those playing an RP heavy game with a system not designed with RP in mind means the GM definitely needs to make sure he hits these points without mechanics to help him. Smartly done.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On June 19, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

Delivering on your promises is key. I know that I’m frustrated as a player when I go to the effort of creating a background for the GM’s use.

One thing I like in every game is cheerleading– it’s particularly fun in PTA where there’s a mechanic (fan mail) that is a clear mechanical benefit. One less thing for me to invent. Similarly, Spirit of the Century’s Aspects do a good job of harnessing background/character creation stuff and turning it into mechanically supported prompts for incorporation by both players and GMs.

#3 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 19, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

@RYS: Yep, Burning Wheel is high on my list for discussion in Part 4, when I tackle your suggestion about driftable mechanics. It’s chock full of awesome stuff to drift — well worth the price of admission for that alone.

@Scott: I’ve never played PTA, but I want to. My group isn’t interested in it, as far as I know. Ditto with SotC — they’re just not big pulp guys. I love the SotC system, though.

#4 Comment By robustyoungsoul On June 25, 2008 @ 7:16 am

The PTA fan mail mechanic is a great example, good call Scott.

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