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So You Want to GM a Roleplaying-Intensive Game, Part 2

(The first three steps — and my definition of “roleplaying-intensive” — are in the first post in this series [1].)

4. Choose Your System Wisely

Suggested by the Stew’s own Patrick Benson in the comments [2] on the first roleplaying-intensive game post, picking a system that reinforces the kind of game you want to run is critical.

Some games are just better suited to a focus on roleplaying than others — despite all sharing the common term “roleplaying games,” not all RPGs are created equal in this department. The wrinkle is that what works for one group won’t necessarily work for another. For example, I find it harder to really get into the roleplaying side of D&D 3.5e than I do White Wolf’s Storyteller system, because for me transparent mechanics are key. Your experience might be the opposite.

It’s possible to have complete control over this step, but “I’m running X, and that’s that” is, in my experience, both a rare situation in a home game and a generally poor approach for encouraging buy-in. Running a convention game is a notable exception: You have complete control over everything up until the moment your players sit down, including system choice.

The bottom line is to give the system you’ll be using some thought. No matter what system you use, the steps in these posts will help you foster a roleplaying-intensive atmosphere.

5. Get Awesome PC Backgrounds

Experience has taught me that there are three keys to a good character background:

Note what’s missing from that list: level of detail. Some players love writing 10-page backgrounds; others prefer to sketch in a few details and develop the rest during play. Both approaches are fine, and you should let your players do what works best for them — except for one thing: hooks.

From a GM’s perspective, an awesome PC background is one that gives you tons of stuff you can use to tie the character — and thereby the player — to the game world, to generate adventure ideas and to enrich the roleplaying aspects of the game. There’s just no substitute for great hooks.

I’ve had good luck asking for a couple of specific things, like two or three living NPCs (friends, relatives, enemies, etc.), what your character did during a major pre-campaign event (like a war), etc. That lets my players spend as much or as little time on their backgrounds as they like, but guarantees that I’ll have material to work with. (For more details on this approach, check out PC Backgrounds: Pressure Doesn’t Make Diamonds [3].)

6. Group Character Creation

When it comes to running a roleplaying-intensive game, the single most powerful weapon in your arsenal is the group character creation session.

By sitting down as a group to talk about character concepts, share ideas and brainstorm together, you accomplish several things:

You don’t have to actually create complete, fully-developed characters at a group character creation session, odd as that might sound. As long as you end the night with everyone reasonably sure what they’re going to play — and what everyone else is going to play, too — you’ll be in good shape.

I wrote a free PDF for Treasure Tables [4] all about this step: More is Better: Group Character Creation [5]. It pulls together everything I know about making this approach work for your game, and just like all of the steps in this post series, it’s worked well for me.

That’s it for Part 2! Parts 3 and 4 will cover spotlight moments, metagame discussion, rewarding roleplaying and making good on your promises, as well as a reader suggestion [6] from Irda Ranger: driftable mechanics.

How important is choosing the right game to you? Do you have any tricks for making sure you have great character backgrounds to work with? Do you have players who absolutely hate writing PC backgrounds at all?

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "So You Want to GM a Roleplaying-Intensive Game, Part 2"

#1 Comment By LordVreeg On May 21, 2008 @ 7:12 am

Nice set of articles so far. I commented on the first, and so I see no reason not to add in here.
As to the PC backgrounds, something that helps build hooks is not just the level of detail that the PCs want, but the level of detail that the GM has put into the world. I agree that the players should be able to choose how much detail they want to go into; but I don’t believe a GM has that choice in a roleplaying-heavy game. If we want our PCs to create backgrounds that mesh into a roleplaying-style game, we need to go above and beyond ourselves and create a deep enough current storyline for them to sink into.

In other words, character backgrounds are small stories in a larger tale. We have to write the prologue before the PC’s can add their chapters in. The more details and hooks we already have placed in the current world they are stepping into, the easier it is for them to visualize it and the place they want to have it that world.

We run a classless system where all skills are learned from Guilds/schools/factions. So the PC’s have to choose which factions they have belonged to to get the skills they have chosen. By knowing the NPC’s of the factions, the histories of them, what has happenned recently and the faction’s interaction with other groups, the PC’s have a ready made web in which to create their background. They will know who they might be friends with, who taught them, what other factions they are freinds with, who their enemies in the city or town might be.

Bigger picture, creating an ‘awesome character background’ requires an awesome setting background. Give the players the tools to be part of a great story.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On May 21, 2008 @ 9:27 am

Related to point 5: collaborative world building, either via a formal systems like Dawn of Worlds or Universalis, or getting input from the players about cool character concepts, quirks, and background as typical for a culture is a great way to encourage world buy-in from players. In my current D&D game, we created the world via Dawn of Worlds first. The players then eagerly created characters as exemplars of the cultures they’d created, which deepened both the characters and the cultures.

#3 Comment By sage On May 21, 2008 @ 10:06 am

The point on picking the right system can really be tied to everything else. I’ve found Burning Wheel to be a great roleplaying system, mostly because it encourages the other points you’ve mentioned.

One point I’ll throw in for good roleplaying is a simple identifying feature. I’ve found PCs tend to work better then they have some feature that is easy to notice that makes them stand out. The hard part is balancing it. Pulling a gun on each person you meet is definitely identifiable, but will also run the game into the ground pretty quick.

I find it best to steal an idea from Burning Wheel and let each player list a few ‘Always’ or ‘Never’ statements about their character. This allows each player to have a few minor quirks that make them stand out, and allows the DM to take an educated guess at how a character will respond. I had a character who would ‘Always bring up his beliefs in a long conversation.’ He also became the group’s spokesperson at some times, allowing his quirk to intrude just enough to make him stand out as character, but not so much as to derail the game.

#4 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On May 21, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

A group’s choice of system -can- limit the depth of roleplaying, but that’s really up to the group. The D&D v.3.5 game I’m running now has the deepest RP I’ve ever been involved with, but in fairness, I only turn to the social skill rules when it’s totally necessary.

#5 Comment By Snargash Moonclaw On May 21, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

Hm. System choice: The primary consideration I gave to this was essentially system popularity. I used to run 2nd ed AD&D (had a lot of ref material to do so) and Shadowrun – was playing w/ideas for a GURPS Steampunk game as well. All references were left behind in Denver w/my ex so I was starting completely from scratch in Portland w/out a gaming group or even much in the way of known potential players, so I knew I’d have to advertise for players I’d never even met before. Going w/D&D 3.5 simply maximized the size of the pool to draw from compared to other systems here (in PDX). Even so, advertising as a role-playing intensive game drew little response (I expected it to pre-filter a lot of players more interested in hack-n-slash and mechanics intensive style play). So trying to get a suitably large enough group to get characters ready and commit to play never panned out – usually due to work or school related scheduling conflicts. Eventually I gave up on doing so here and chose to focus on further setting development with an eye toward returning to Denver next spring where I already have a large pool of contacts who would be interested in it. (I intend to kind of pre-advertise in advance of the move to get the ball rolling by identifying players, providing sufficient setting exposure and having character concepts/backstory development well underway by the time I get there.)

Juicy background is certainly critical, and ties in well with the collaborative world-building buy-in. A top-down approach to setting development permits plenty of room to take virtually any character background concept and fit it seamlessly into the setting. The overall framework is in place to ensure internal continuity and consistency as well as giving the creators a clear idea of how the character concept will integrate – providing a sort of mirror in which they can see how the world and its NPCs will perceive and respond to their character. At the same time it provides me with a lot of bottom level (viewed top-down) material with which to develop the setting – not only character/campaign plot hooks but overarching story hooks for the dynamic flow of the setting’s story which provides the backdrop. This is particularly helpful for me since I do my best creative work in collaboration – the synergy of my creative process in collaboration is exponential.

Lord Vreeg’s comments about the additional depth of setting are very apropo in this regard. (We have very similar perspectives regarding necessary elements of setting and how they work together as well as a lot of the general flavor of setting and story that ensures that the setting itself remains dynamic and evolving throughout the long-term course of play.) The principal difference between Celtricia and Panisadore in this sense is the amount of time, hence stage in developmental process, we’ve been working on our settings. Celtricia’s been around a long time and has reached a great degree of maturity and completeness in its development down to local detail while Panisadore is only in the early stages of its creation and their is very little local detail in place – essentially enough to begin play in a specific region while other regions are further developed (filling in the framework) as required by the evolving campaign.

Character proposals have inspired one of my setting’s deities, (Thelema,) which has grown significantly since its original conception as a demigoddess of fate (karma) and divination with a few human followers to an intermediate deity of great significance to the cultures of a number of races as I’ve developed those races more fully. The first backstory proposal I received (which was incredibly well developed) provided a wealth of material not only for local level but mid-level cultural development, setting dynamics and various concepts integrated into the top-level framework of a couple of races. (If I could hide it behind a spoiler I’d include it here for illustrative example.)

One of the biggest problems with getting D&D 3.5 game mechanics to support a role-playing focus well is that the social mechanics of character development take such a huge backseat to the combat abilities. Classes and PrC’s specifically described in fluff as having significant socially oriented roles aren’t given any significant social abilities – instead they still receive special combat abilities as they advance. Going back to core level rules tho’ there aren’t really any of significance outside of a few bardic abilities there to provide them and build upon. There are tons of combat feats to provide a dizzying variety of combat skill capabilities as characters grow, but no social feats beyond a few which provide bonuses to skill checks. The system simply doesn’t bother to address ways for socially oriented characters to stand out from the crowd in the manner combat or magic oriented characters have – which makes a clear statement regarding how (un)important the designers view this facet of the game – and the role-playing focus in general; i.e., a character doesn’t need any personality whatsoever to make effective use of the feats and abilities offered – a complete automaton can cleave or create a potion just as readily as a well developed character. I would like to see feats such as “Shady Connections,” or “Socialite” providing characters with access to information, materials and influence unavailable to most or “Group Persuasion” permitting a character to capitalize on social successes e.g., each person already persuaded provides further attempts to persuade others without penalty on re-tries and/or bonuses to other attempts first attempts. (“Cleaving Tongue” might highlight the parallel better, but is likely to be grossly misunderstood at first. . .) Of course, it remains up to the DM to ensure that such abilities will actually matter in play as much as (if not more than) the abilities already built into the system.

#6 Comment By LordVreeg On May 21, 2008 @ 7:25 pm

My wife might like the cleaving tongue skill…

[spoiler=S&M backstory]
The first backstory proposal I received (which was incredibly well developed) provided a wealth of material not only for local level but mid-level cultural development, setting dynamics and various concepts integrated into the top-level framework of a couple of races. (If I could hide it behind a spoiler I’d include it here for illustrative example.)

Just pretend it works, ‘Kay?

This I want to see. Knowing that S&M types more deeply and quickly than ANYONE I have ever gamed with makes me want to read this first character proposal.

BTW, I visit Denver yearly, and ran a Celtricia game there over 2 visits, about a decade ago.

But, again, not to be too ‘mutual admiration society’, but I chime with the agreement that the best GM in the world will struggle, whether they admit it or not, if they choose to run a system where the social skills/system is left as an afterthought of the 50 hack and slash talents . Guildshool has dozens of social skills. “Contact” and “Courtly Manners” cover the 2 Snargash asks for. I am also proud of the base skill, “Basic Carnal”, and all it’s wonderful subskills…

#7 Comment By Snargash Moonclaw On May 21, 2008 @ 8:58 pm

Well, here goes then – I can’t recall Alix’ last name else I’d include it for the credit due him – few players will work up this complete of a backstory before starting play (tho’ many will have done so by the time the character has gained a few levels). Sadly his course load the following semester prevented him from playing Tiak. Text is the initial raw proposal – I made a few detail changes to tighten up and fit better but nothing significantly altering the story. Since Bold & Italic highlights don’t show up here I’ve had to break out pertinent passages in odd pseudo paragraphs – these are specific seed ideas that I then developed further.

The story of Tiak Ten-Fingers properly begins before he was born. The Akei Tai Var (translated to The People of the Wind and Earth) grew large in numbers and thus divided, as was their way. One half journeyed to the north, and contact with them was lost. The other half went to the rocky badlands of the south, and found a place living amongst a band of friendly

>desert nomads known as the Dizran-da.a nearby human city, less than a day’s journey from the badlands.The Harak Shyz’n Society for Martially Minded Individuals had been founded by a band of Red Orc mercenaries known as the Harak Shyz’n.The primary causes of the famine seemed to involve giants raiding the trade routes and stealing grain, as well as massive swarms of locusts destroying local crops. But since the city was only one of the Dizran-da’s many trade partners, the famine shouldn’t have affected them as greatly as it had, certainly not to the level that his family had reported the final time that they visited him.<

He pointed this apparent discrepancy out to Shatuka. Her gaze met his. And she shrugged. That was it. But Tiak had been working closely with Shatuka for a long time, and he noticed something in that look that intrigued him. He couldn’t put his finger on anything specific, but he sensed that something had taken place beyond his locus of awareness, something with a deeper meaning.

Though Tiak was greatly intrigued, it would turn out that he would have very little time to ponder the incident. The very next day he received a letter saying that he had been accepted into the four-year intelligence program, for which training would begin the following week. Tiak was more than a little shocked at the news, since he had never even applied for the intelligence program.

Tiak was taught how to blend in with various people to avoid drawing suspicion, and obtain information held by people who did not want it to become known. Though he learned much from his teachers, he learned the most from active duty as Shatuka’s aide, which he was still expected to continue. During the famine and after it had subsided, she began requesting that he go into the city and retrieve information and objects. It began as simple bits of gossip and common items that could easily be purchased, but gradually grew more difficult until he had to use all of his wiles to complete her obscure requests. When he failed, she taught him traits valuable to a wizard, and which were also valuable to a spy: Dedication, mastery, calm, and focus. Though her career was wildly different from his, Tiak would always regard Shatuka as the greatest influence in his training.

Tiak graduated at the top of his class, the first halfling to successfully complete the societies training program. When he began pooling his meager resources and making plans to track down his troupe, something stopped him. He remembered all those days in his childhood, when the Ten-Fingers would lounge around the Dezran-da tents, drinking jik and relaxing sometimes for weeks. He had accepted it without question when he was a child. But looking back through new eyes, he now regarded it as laziness. The more he recollected, the more he realized that he was preparing to return to a lifestyle that was worlds apart from the strict training he had received in the society. And to his shock, he found that he was reluctant to do so. Furthermore, he felt a strong sense of shame at his youthful stupidity that had ended him up on the wrong side of the judicial system. He realized that he did not want to be the person that had been driven to mug a human noble out of a desire to prove his worth. He wanted to be the man he was now: Strong, disciplined, and methodical.

The desire to return to his community was still strong, but it was tempered heavily by a fear that if he did so, he would find that he could never again be at home among his own people. In the end he rationalized, deciding that he was too poor to go on a fruitless quest to track down the Akei Tai Var, and instead he would be wise to accept the promotion that was offered to him upon his graduation and join the Harak Shyz’n as an intelligence officer and a career soldier.


The Dizran-Da became the northern-most of a number of tribes to the south of one of the Twin Kingdoms – trading with the capitol of it’s southern province. From this I rather quickly developed a sizable region of the setting, both topography and politics.

The Harak Shyz’n became the seed for an integral part of Khurorkh society – the Shyz’n being sort of like professional associations developing from more ancient tribal medicine lodges – the term can be translated as Lodge, Guild, School (in generic sense usually, e.g. Impressionist School) – the actually take many different forms, a sailing vessel may constitute a Shyz’n, as may the masters (and students) of a particular monastic or fighting style found in a number of different monasteries. The Harak Shyz’n specifically became a medium infantry mercenary regiment (capable of fielding a full brigade when mustered from it’s two remote BTN TAC-OP HQ’s) operating in the Twin Kingdoms – one of its 3 battalions running the school referred to a recruiting and training facility. (Full TOE was constructed along with current operational structures and contract SOP.) Further integral operational concepts derived from this initial backstory as well – standardizing Khurorkh military structures as integrating Logistics (S4) under Intelligence (S2) – at this stage in military development logistical information constituting a significant portion of an overall intelligence picture. Hence Tiak would begin play with a strong understanding of (and experience in) logistical operations as well as how they relate to intel – essentially as a supply Sergeant.

The first adventure included discovery of a supply cache which would tie in to larger developments, from which Tiak would have readily been able to infer a great deal of information – pointing to an explanation of the earlier puzzle in the backstory (re: famine) and foreshadowing events in the coming year. A later character – a gnome from a mercantile family in the freeport between the Twin Kingdoms prompted further related info re: business trends over the last couple of years which would provide other pieces of the puzzle – and sound basis for a very reliable prediction of coming events if coupled with the previous intel.

After a couple of messages back and forth w/Alix he had an excellent, clearly motivated and well developed character which, while mechanically simply a halfling rogue, was extremely well set to “peak behind the curtain” in ways no one else could envision and clearly shine without overshadowing others and I had a good initial portion of detailed setting ready to play with a dynamic story backdrop in motion.

#8 Comment By age On May 22, 2008 @ 11:13 pm

Time constraints (once a month, 4-5 hrs) and 5-6 players in each session means we tend to sacrifice role-playing for roll-playing.
Joe is a Barbarian Fighter. Likes to eat, sleep, hunt and fight.
Can I roll some dice now?

#9 Comment By Fnor On May 23, 2008 @ 8:59 am

One thing to keep in mind, even with group creation, is to make sure players are able to make the character they want, and not get shunted into roles, which tends to happen when the players plan out a party while creating it. The worst example I can think of is that my old group played an L5R campaign where we all sat around and decided that we were going to be from one clan. We voted, and we ended up being Dragons (mystics). One of my friends played a monk, because that was the most appealing to him. He hated it. Our pressure to all be of the same clan really hurt his ability to roleplay his character.

So, while I love group character creation to create a balanced party, it can go too far. Since then, I’ve viewed it as my responsibility as DM to craft a story that brings and keeps together the characters my players come up with. That way they are free to explore their characters (and add to all-important intra-party strife), safe in the knowledge that I’ll be able to keep things from getting to the point of meltdown.

#10 Comment By Snargash Moonclaw On May 23, 2008 @ 5:01 pm

I tend to agree here – the downside is getting characters to choose to come together without stepping out of character to do so – and many in a game that’s kind of heavy on social intrigue tend to be (appropriately) suspicious. Players need to realize up front that they will have to make a little extra initial effort in play to get the ball rolling as a whole. After that, as characters come to know each other a little, things usually go rather well. Since they don’t create a PC party they have to turn the PCs they create separately into a party through play – sometimes you can get them to develop hooks in backstory. A couple of characters may know each other at least slightly or at the very least you may be able to create associations between separate backstories which the characters aren’t initially aware of, e.g. – employed by the same organization at some point through different “fronts” or local “chapters,” someone on the lam for something they stole and someone else trying to locate the same stolen thing (they may even think they’re talking about different things – the “map” someone wants to recover may be in the form of a statue/carving/other artwork or jewelry the thief possesses. . .), various goals of different characters may in fact be related, they just haven’t seen the bigger picture yet – if they begin to compare their separate puzzle pieces they may start guessing at the links. . .

It’s an initial hurdle, but I think usually preferable. A character creation session with everyone present can be useful – I like to do this at the end, when characters are getting “wrapped up” and ready to play – you can propose links between characters which they would be aware of and let them decide if it works with their concept or not. Even then I tend to spend part of the time covering individual things one-on-one in another room. My setting is very subject to character’s personal perspective (racial/cultural/religious, etc.) so each may have some very different ideas regarding particular facets of the setting.

#11 Comment By mxyzplk On May 23, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

I strongly disagree with the “avoid intra-party strife” part. Though you don’t want everyone to be killing everyone else like a game of Paranoia, part of what makes a game really role-playing is putting aside the metagame “these are other PCs, I can implicitly trust them” conceit. If a “role-playing heavy” game doesn’t have as much strife as an episode of “The Real World,” you’re leaving a level unplumbed.

#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 29, 2008 @ 10:16 am

Thanks for commenting! This has been a fun series to write so far, and I’m looking forward to finishing it up.

@Sage: Right on. Burning Wheel is the ultimate source of driftable mechanics for traditional RPGs. It’s on my list to cover when I hit the section in the next post or the one after it, and the always/never rules are indeed excellent.

@Mxyzplk: How much intra-party strife you allow/encourage/want is definitely a matter of personal taste. Personally, I’ve had too many games fall flat or deteriorate due to incompatible party members to encourage it when I GM. I prefer a baseline level of cooperation that lets us get on with roleplaying.

That said, SOME conflict is definitely desirable. I just don’t think it should overshadow the other elements of the game.

#13 Comment By GiacomoArt On July 21, 2009 @ 11:22 am

@mxyzplk: And I strongly disagree with your premise that a game that is “really role-playing” must not “leave a level unplumbed”. When one has a full-time job and a family to take care of, one rarely wants for drama and conflict in one’s life. During those precious hours when I can sit down at the gaming table, the last thing I want is to invent reasons to act out grievances with my friends. They’re the people I trust in real life, they’ll be the people I trust in “Make-Believe-Land”, and artistic integrity can go right into the stewpot with the other vegetables, as far as I’m concerned.