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So You Want to GM a Roleplaying-Intensive Game, Part 4

Posted By Martin Ralya On October 3, 2008 @ 5:14 am In GMing Advice | 10 Comments

This is the fourth and final article in this series — the home stretch. My definition of “roleplaying-intensive” is in Part 1, along with tips 1-3; tips 4-6 are in Part 2 and tips 7-9 are in Part 3.)

10. Driftable Mechanics

(This topic was suggested by Gnome Stew reader Irda Ranger — excellent suggestion, IR.)

Drift” just means taking an element — usually a mechanic — from one RPG and using it in another RPG. Sometimes that involves conversion from one system to the other, and sometimes it’s just a straight-up graft from system A to system B, with no changes to the element itself. If you like to tinker, chances are you’ve drifted something before — but you might not have done it specifically with roleplaying in mind.

When drifting a mechanic to amp up a roleplaying-intensive game, you should look for a game element that:

  • Is specifically related to roleplaying.
  • Ideally, ties roleplaying to a mechanical reward or benefit.
  • Is fairly simple.
  • Worked well in the source game, and seems like it would fit well in the destination game.

Burning Wheel, Luke Crane’s excellent indie fantasy RPG, provides two great examples of potential driftable mechanics.

The first, used by a friend of mine back in Michigan, is its system of Beliefs and Instincts. Beliefs are character traits that, when used in conjunction with appropriate roleplaying, earn you a bonus to a roll (in BW, and extra die); Instincts are things so ingrained in a PC that she does them automatically, like “Always sit with my back to a wall,” or “When danger is near, my sword is always drawn.” Instincts are a combination protective measure against “gotcha” GMs (as in, “You didn’t say your sword was drawn…” — delivered in a whiny, nasal tone, of course) and outward declaration of the roleplaying elements of a character, rolled up with a minor mechanical benefit.

The second is BW’s Duel of Wits — which is hands-down one of my favorite aspects of the game. It’s a set of detailed rules for engaging in PC vs. PC or PC vs. NPC debates, and while that might initially sound slightly less exciting than watching paint dry, the DoW has been the highlight of nearly every BW game I’ve ever played.

The key with the DoW mechanics is that they codify the outcome in game terms (both parties agree on what’s at stake, and the loser must abide by those terms — or escalate to violence), as well as providing rules for the inidividual debate maneuvers — and most importantly for our purposes, simple rules for getting bonuses to your rolls based on roleplaying. They also encourage everyone at the table to take one side or the other (the players debating the GM wouldn’t be nearly as fun), and the only way to participate mechanically is to participate in the roleplaying, as well.

Both Beliefs/Instincts and the Duel of Wits are self-contained systems that can be drifted into other games without breaking anything. Beliefs/Instincts need only a minor tweak to fit the resolution mechanics of the destination game, while the DoW would require some elbow-grease to adapt successfully.

11. Metagame Discussion

Broadly speaking, there are three schools of thought when it comes to metagame discussion:

  • Oh god, metagaming! It burns! I know of at least one group that has a metagame comment cup where players have to deposit a quarter if they speak out of character, and another game where everyone puts a hand on their heads when they want to speak OOC. I shit you not.
  • The wide middle ground — the Midwest of metagame discussion. This covers most groups I’ve gamed with: For the most part, everyone tries to talk in character as much as possible, but there’s no hard and fast rule and no penalties for drifting into metagame chatter. This usually works OK.
  • Mmmm, delicious metagaming. At the other extreme are groups where almost nothing is ever said in character. If everyone says, “My guy does X,” you’re in one of these groups. As a general rule, I’d rather be playing a boardgame than playing RPGs this way.

Wherever you fall on that spectrum, if you’re aiming to run a roleplaying-intensive campaign, metagame discussion at the table can be a real problem. Nothing takes your players (or you) out of character faster than a long, tangential discussion about rules minutiae or a lengthy out-of-character chat about topics that could easily be covered in character.

At the same time, when roleplaying decisions have mechanical consequences — and in this kind of game, they should have those consequences in spades — it’s important to make sure your players fully understand what they’re getting into. If you ban metagame discussion outright, you remove a great tool — your ability to put on your referee hat and explain the game mechanics of a critical situation — from your GMing toolbox.

Personally, I favor letting my players know at the outset that I’m planning on running a roleplaying-intensive game (a tip from part 1) — and that that kind of game works a lot better if we all try to speak in character as much as possible, and make decisions as characters rather than from a metagame perspective (even when doing so is less advantageous). If the game occasionally drifts into serious metagame talk, I gently remind my players to get back on track — and as much as possible, I try to avoid being the one responsible for it drifting there in the first place.

12. Evaluating Your Success

As with any trip outside your comfort zone as a GM, you can’t just try a bunch of stuff and not follow up on how it goes. How you follow up will depend on your group: Some players respond well to being asked for direct feedback, while others clam up and just say “It was fine” — and you should consider doing other things apart from asking for feedback.

Here’s a short list of ways you can see how your efforts at intensifying roleplaying are going:

  • Poll your players directly. Here’s some advice on getting player feedback.
  • Take notes. As we play, I write little notes about how things are going constantly, from “The guys didn’t really get into this” to “This was awesome!”
  • Noodle about it in your spare time. I use my mental back burners constantly, thinking about this aspect of my campaign (and others) in the car, in the shower, on the can, etc. And my tiny notebook is never far away.
  • Have an open door policy. Yes, this is a lame corporate term — but it can be pretty effective in this context. If your players know that a) you’re running a roleplaying-intensive game and b) you want to know what they think, sometimes they’ll tell you.
  • Watch your players. A couple sessions ago, two of my players got into an in-character shouting match that had one player’s spouse, who was downstairs, a little bit worried about what the hell we were doing in the gaming room. It wasn’t hard to tell that they were both really into it.

So there it is: 12 straightforward tips for running a roleplaying-intensive campaign, suitable for use with nearly any RPG. I hope they’re useful to you, and help you run the kind of game you want to run.

My personal test bed for this series — my ongoing Mage: The Awakening chronicle — is just two or three sessions away from its conclusion, and so far I’ve used every one of these tips except #10 (I didn’t drift any mechanics). I could definitely have done a better job on #8 (spotlight moments), and I still have a lot to learn on this whole topic myself, but apart from that I’m pretty happy with the results so far. From what I know, so are my players, but past that I won’t speak for them. (A couple of them read the Stew, so they may pop in to speak for themselves.)

Thanks for reading — and happy roleplaying!

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.




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

#1 Comment By ben robbins On October 3, 2008 @ 5:54 am

Is that the common definition for drift? I’ve normally heard it used to mean changing the rules in any way (including unwittingly), “drifting” away from the rules as written.

Terms aside, grafting/swiping/transplanting/kitbashing rules is good stuff.

#2 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 3, 2008 @ 6:33 am

@ben robbins – It’s the only roleplaying-specific definition of drift I’ve ever heard. The one you mentioned makes sense (and fits term), but I’ve never actually heard it before.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 3, 2008 @ 9:07 am

The last tip may be your best. Watch your players. It encompasses a great deal, actually, and I think worthy of a post of its own. But the key thing is to be making constant evaluations of the discussions/activity of the table so that the GM knows when to hold back and let things play out, when to offer a gentle suggestions or guiding hand, or to act more assertively in some situations.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On October 3, 2008 @ 11:03 am

What made you decide to hunt down driftable mechanics and adopt them instead of looking for a system that has the mechanics built in? (In other words, why borrow BITs instead of running Burning Wheel which builds them in?)

Did you find similar mechanics in nMage? I haven’t read through my copy thoroughly– did Hubris or other mechanics fill the gap?

#5 Comment By Rafe On October 3, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

Good stuff! I went back and read all the previous blog posts on running a roleplaying-intensive game.

My question is this (and I’d love for it to be addressed as a separate post): How do you start a roleplaying-intensive game with players who are not only new to roleplaying but to table-top RPGs?

I’m looking to start a game with four relatively new players. Two are in my 4e game and have played about 6 sessions. Both have taken well to roleplaying encouragement and are getting into it. This is has shown bigtime in their co-mingled backgrounds for their Arcanist and Executioner (I’m starting up an Iron Heroes campaign). The other two, however, have never played a TT game. . . they’ve only played WoW.

The one thing I’m going to do is de-emphasize the rules/mechanics. Ie, “Tell me what you want to do and I’ll tell you what you need to do to make it happen” (if it involves rolls/rules).

Thoughts?

#6 Comment By ben robbins On October 3, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

@Martin — I’ve seen “drift” used a lot over at the Forge and Story Games. Here’s a (albeit complex) definition in the Forge glossary:

http://indie-rpgs.com/_articles/glossary.html

The second part is how I usually see it used: “deciding to ignore or alter the use of a given rule”

#7 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 3, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

@Scott Martin – I haven’t used either of my driftable mechanics examples — and it’s actually the only one of the 12 steps I haven’t used myself at all in this chronicle.

Looking back on the chronicle so far, the DoW system would actually have come in handy, but I have a great group — they’ve done really well at roleplaying their intra-party conflicts without a system.

There’s nothing really comparable in nMage, no; I didn’t want to tie the whole post series directly to my own game, just use it as the baseline for my observations. (The Hubris — now Wisdom — system does fit nicely with the idea of encouraging roleplaying through mechanics.)

@Rafe – I’d start by making sure that’s something that the two non-gamers are interested in, and that will work for them. I’d also recommend running a one shot, so they can experiment with no lasting consequences, and I’d strongly consider running that one shot with a system other than D&D.

As a system, D&D isn’t great at encouraging roleplaying — that doesn’t mean you can’t roleplay the heck out of a D&D game, just that the system itself doesn’t help you much. White Wolf offers a host of free one shots for their nWoD line that include quickstart rules; you might also consider something like Spirit of the Century.

#8 Comment By Swordgleam On October 3, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

@Rafe – I love Iron Heroes, but I don’t think it’s the game to pick if you plan to de-emphasize mechanics. It’s a pretty crunchy game, and with token pools and especially all the stuff the arcanists have going on, it’ll be hard to keep track of the players’ characters for them.

That said, I don’t think it’s a bad first choice at all. I’m in a roleplaying-intensive game of Iron Heroes right now, with two guys who’ve never gamed before. One of them still mostly sticks to “I hit it with my axe,” but the other one spends more time by far dreaming up moving speeches than he does rolling dice.

#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 3, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

@ben robbins – Interesting — that’s definitely not a definition I’ve heard before. Since it’s specifically tied to Forge Theory, that’s probably why — there’re huge chunks of that I’, not familiar with.

#10 Comment By Rafe On October 6, 2008 @ 7:38 am

@Swordgleam & Martin: Good advice re: Iron Heroes. I had definitely considered something else, but I don’t really feel up to a Star Wars game and player interest there was only so-so. They wanted fantasy since they’re all fans of that genre (and the two brand-new players know it via pop culture and WoW). Selfishly, I didn’t want a generic D&D game as I’m not very fond of high fantasy.

The options, as far as I was concerned, were Iron Heroes or Black Company. I moved away from Black Company as the magic rules are more complex than Iron Heroes but given the rest of the crunch in IH… I may reconsider my decision. I may simply “drift” the tokens mechanic from IH to BC in the form of generic action points (try something dynamic/cool, receive an action point token), group skills in the same manner and up feat acquisition to every other level as per 4e and IH.


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