Before we get to this really awesome article, I would like to introduce Cindy. Cindy has recently joined our team and will be writing a new monthly column entitled Beyond the Dice. Cindy and I go way back and have been friends for the better part of 20 years, maybe even longer. She’s a veteran tabletop RPG gamer, game master, and the super creative person. She brings a new perspective to Rolling Boxcars and we’re excited to have her creative talent with us. So, without further ado, I give you Cindy and Beyond the Dice.
When I was first approached to write an article for this site, I dismissed the notion entirely. I mean, sure I’ve been gaming for decades, but what would I have to offer? Surely nothing that any other gamer who’s been around a few years could tell you! At least, that’s what I thought. But then I began to think about it, why had I been approached? As I began to think about it, I realized that I’d been approached before. If people were asking me to write articles on gaming, did that mean that I actually do have something to offer? So, I thought I would write about a subject that I consider to be the most important aspect of gaming. This isn’t a rule that you can find in a book or a piece of advice that I’ve ever seen in print. Yet it’s the guiding principle behind every game that I’ve ever run. Ladies, Gentlemen, and others, allow me to teach you how I make legends.
#1 – Let them win
As GM, you are greater than God to your game group. You hold the power of life and death over the game. You breathe life into something that is nothing more than paper, pencils, and plastic dice. You have the ability to change the laws of physics if you so choose, you can make worlds, destroy worlds, and every deity bows before your will. And it means absolutely nothing without your players! You can sit and plan for days and weeks on end but if your players don’t want to be there you have nothing. So, put your ego on the shelf and make it all about them! Did you stay up late for the past week designing a dungeon with a super powerful bad guy at the center who is going to be nearly impossible to kill but still a realistic challenge to the players and they figured out a way to take him out like a chump in the second round of combat? GOOD!
Players know what you can do. They know that you hold all the cards and can completely change the game at a whim. Getting one over on you is going to tickle them to their core and make them feel like they stole a win right out from under your nose! That’s a good thing! Let it happen! Let them have the moment, let them gloat over winning when they thought they were finished! You can always bring your powerful bad guy back another day. And when they ask how it’s possible? Magic! Technology! Divine Intervention! Twins! Clones! Occult powers beyond the grave!
When you hold the power of a GM, you can do anything you want. When you let the players ruin your day, it makes for a much more interesting story!
#2 – Make it seem impossible
This can be a tricky one for a lot of GMs because it takes a little finesse and subtlety to pull off. This tactic can backfire a little as well when you’re dealing with newer players, so take care. But what you are trying to accomplish here is a sense of overwhelming odds. If the players are ALWAYS winning, they start getting cocky. Especially if they are seasoned veteran players! After years of playing these kinds of games, things can become a bit monotonous, everyone knows what the creature is by the description. And even though they may try to keep it out of the game, inevitably they use their experience to benefit their current character even if it’s a new campaign and they’re supposed to be a sheltered recluse! So spice things up a bit!
Do you think they can handle twenty goblins? Make it fifty! Think they aren’t powerful enough to face a dragon yet? Do it anyway! When you present players with something completely outside their skill set, they won’t simply go charging into battle. They don’t want their characters to die! Instead, they will consider letting the Thief sneak around a bit, or maybe trying to hack that computer database to close a few doors to lock the soldiers inside. Suddenly gameplay that was very hack and slash oriented will begin to turn to other avenues of winning the day. Are you still going to have people who rush in with half a wit and all the bravado? Yep! Let them get stomped and then fix it later! You can always bring in some other kind of situation to bring those characters back if they are foolish enough to charge in like that. But DO NOT let their characters die permanently! Remember, this is supposed to be fun! So arrange for that Resurrection scroll to be found or the nano-technology that will bring them back to life! You’re teaching them a valuable lesson, keeping them from getting too upset, and perhaps furthering the plot as you add another twist to the story.
And if someone expresses concern that it’s too much? They are usually an inexperienced player or someone who’s accustomed to hack and slash styles of gaming that don’t know of any other way. Be sure to let them know that you don’t believe in character death unless it’s actually warranted and appropriate. Players who run headlong into the fight and die will be brought back with the hope that they learn something. Players who keep doing that will soon find themselves at a serious disadvantage because of the detriments of being brought back to life. That should be punishment enough for most players and you’ll find them charging in less and less often. The more you can get them to think about the situation, the more interesting things become for everyone!
And if you make a mistake and can’t figure a way out of it? It’s inevitable that everyone is going to die and you don’t know what you can do to stop it? Pause the game for a bathroom break and change things up. Those goblins? Food poisoning just kicked in. The deadly robot army? Virus. Legions of undead? Someone trips and discovers a bag of guns shoved under a nearby car.
Remember, you can do anything! But try to make it plausible, don’t break the feel of the scene for your players.
#3 – Fire them up
If your players aren’t excited about playing then you are doing something wrong. One of the things that make me walk away from a game as a player is when it’s the same old thing being rehashed over and over again. If I’ve been there a million times before, I’m not going to be very interested in what’s going on. Think about it, it’s like reading a book. I know this story. Even if it’s told in a different way this time, I still know the basics of how it’s going to play out. So, switch it up for your players! Make something new! Make it interesting! How about a high magic world where everyone begins play with a magical item? What about a low/no magic world where magic users are hunted? How about a high technology game where the players are being hunted/hounded by a government/corporation/group only to one day find out that they are all prototype androids? What would a horror genre look like if certain aspects of horror were widely known and accepted parts of society? Can zombies get a driver’s license?
The point here isn’t to make something from scratch, you’re only supposed to put a twist on the existing genre. Experienced players want something new, something different, something they haven’t done before. Shaking things up will get them interested!
But another way to gain excitement for your campaign is to throw in a twist in other ways. Try taking an existing character race/type and flipping it around. Got an idea for a new kind of dwarf? One that shuns the mountains and prefers the city life? Take a look at the write up for a dwarf, now change it to fit the city! Don’t make them more powerful, just change them. It’s this kind of creativity that makes everything shiny and new to the veteran player! Not to mention, it’s where a lot of modern incarnations of games have gone such as D&D adding the Sorcerer, Monk, Warlock, and Dragon Born just to name a few! You don’t need to create from scratch when you do this, simply manipulate the system by tweaking a couple things and then twist the motivations of the new creation to fit your idea. For example, what would it look like if a Monk had a dragon patron? What if there were a race of elves that lived in the desert instead of the forests?
Let your imagination go and see what you can tweak to change things up, but don’t let your creations get away from you! Never let something you make more powerful than what is already there.
#4 – Making Legends
In all of this, remember one thing. As a GM, your goal is to make the game as fun as possible for your players. You do this by challenging them, but by letting them overcome the odds. I can’t count how many times my players were getting smacked around and I had to intervene with a “botched roll” behind my GM screen. If your players are having a bad day and the dice aren’t favoring them, it’s okay for the bad guys to have a worse day. Sometimes taking the randomness away in the pursuit of fun is the better path to follow. Roll your dice and let that natural 20 become a 3 instead. Your players will never know, and you don’t have to tell them.
At the same time, if your players are having too easy of a time, crank up the juice a bit! Just make sure that you aren’t turning it into a bloodbath and ruining everyone’s fun. If your dice aren’t being nice to you, they will never know if you add a few points to the rolls here and there.
My players from past gaming groups still tell stories of the campaigns I’ve run for them twenty years later. To me, hearing them tell the legends of their favorite characters is the greatest reward!