Someone requested that I write an entry on GM improvisation.
I wasn’t prepared for this, so here it goes.
Someone requested that I write an entry on GM improvisation.
I wasn’t prepared for this, so here it goes.
Oh God, no I mean like in role playing games. If you’re reading this you probably don’t have to worry about being a Player. Ooo burnnn, nerds. Anyways, being a RPG player is a sacred duty. Your job is to enjoy yourself and boost the self-esteem of your game master by pretending their plot twist is both original and not something stolen from The Avengers.
Contrary to popular belief, it can be hard to be a player. Not really the playing part, that’s easy. But being a GOOD player? That’s hard. Here’s some tips to help you stay in your GM’s good graces.
“So, you’re guiding your party into the depths of the ice caverns when – damnit Tom! Get off your cell phone!”
Role playing games are notoriously easy to derail. Here’s some common game killers to watch out for when you’re running your new, atmospheric game.
Okay, so now you’ve gotten a game off the ground. While your storytelling abilities are still going to be evolving, there is one thing you can handle right off the bat that will drastically change the experience for your players.
Atmosphere is essential for role playing games. Since RPGs exist only in the mind’s eye of the players and the game master, anything that can add to that experience helps the immersion and ability to stay in character. Here’s five things that can help add a little something to your gaming session.
Basic things to help atmosphere
Music and Sound Effects
The right music can be something that is easily incorporated into the game without being distracting. With YouTube having 10 hr video’s of instrumental music, you should be able to find any type of backing track from Celtic themes, 1920’s jazz, or futuristic space-beats.
Any GM with access to a laptop, PC, or IPod should be able to work out some kind of music to play. For when I run Dragon Age for instance, I use a mixture of the Dragon Age soundtrack, and Skyrim’s soundtrack. Listen to some of the songs and find those that are mellow and perfect to play when the characters are in their downtime, or chaotic ones for hectic battles.
Ambient noise that can be tailored to your session is also a nice touch. One website I’d recommend checking out is tabletopaudio.com. They offer free ambient and music tracks for all sorts of genre’s, from dungeon crawlers to monster attacks to daily life on a space station. Just having the humming of starship engines in the background over a quiet music track can help more than any description of the engines rumbling underneath the player’s feet.
Finally, sound effects. If you want to get very theatrical, start using sound effects to punctuate things like a scream or bolt of lightning. If going for a horror game, realistic sound effects can help bridge the gap between cheesiness and horror.
Your light situation can also influence the feel of a game. For instance, in college I would run Call of Cthulhu
strictly by the light of tea candles. Just get a dozen or more and keep them on a non-flammable surface (careful of wax too!) and make sure the table can read their character sheets. This is going to sound horrible of me, but I made my future wife cry after blowing out the lights at the end of the game.
If you have access to a fireplace, the crackling fire can be the perfect atmosphere adjuster for a dungeoneering adventurer’s inn or campsite. Or, a barely screwed-in, flickering bulb among other harsh lighting can suggest a spacecraft with failing systems.
So you finally decided that you want to try role playing games for yourself. Good! We are a very welcoming bunch and are hardly known to turn down players! I love RPGs because they encourage thinking on the fly, storytelling, and having fun.
I’d recommend joining an established RPG group to learn the ropes. They can be found among friends, local game shops, etc. However, if you want to be the pioneer among your friends you can be the one to pick it up. Here’s some tips.
Some things to watch out for: we officially launched the YouTube channel here the other week, and now we’re currently finishing up our second story.
One of the things we also plan on doing are some public domain stories, specifically H.P. Lovecraft coming up.
So the experiment went well! My players didn’t get as far as expected, but that was due to 2 main factors: me shaking off that game mastering dust since I haven’t run a game in probably a year now, and the fact that I got tired before any of them.
See, even though I have been spending my time mainly writing, I.e., working on my own schedule, I still wake up at 5am every morning on the dot. It doesn’t matter if I fall asleep at 9:30pm or midnight or 2am, it just happens. Weird eh? Last night I kicked them out at 9:15pm and was asleep at 9:30pm. Very early for me but for some reason I was just hit by a wall. Probably a combination of the mental strain of keeping all the pieces juggling in the game, and the Guinness I claimed as my right as game master.
Anyways, it actually really did help me work out a few kinks in my world and as a storyteller. I found something interesting in the meantime, I get much more self conscious trying to explain my story to others in person instead of just as a written story. My story is basically a fish-out-of-water fantasy with a few spins on the genre. It’s been fun to write, but just trying to explain it to someone, I get lost stumbling over myself. How much do I give away? How much do I hold back?
Writing for the game itself became interesting since I had to lay the general story out on the line and more. No longer were the characters just speaking through me, but also interacting and responding to the player characters.
I, and I assume many others, have come to what can be looked at as the adventurer assumption. For instance, the world is threatened, you have the means to stop it through a mysterious item or quest, do you embark on it as soon as possible, or do you research? Can caution be thrown to the wind, or should it be trusted and steps measured. At what point do you say to hell with it and jump through the doorway or read the forbidden book or speak to the creepy old man?
As a game master, I see this a lot. The sections where I assume the players will selflessly throw themselves into a dangerous situation, they debate and research. When I assume they’ll act with caution, they will ride in like heroes, guns ablaze. This is more of an indictment of my abilities as a storyteller, and I’m extremely happy that I tried it. It helped point out the jumps in logic I make because I know what comes next. Not what the characters will do necessarily, but major events that are in the works and when they happen. I’m still working on making the world proactive. I need to remember that even though my POV characters may not be involved in a certain plot point, it still develops and is both proactive in it’s progression, and reactive to protagonist actions.
One of the best things I’ve learned from writing actually came from an RPG book for game masters. Remember that while the players have their goals and are seeking them out, the villain isn’t just sitting on his throne, bored, occasionally ordering minions to go bug the player characters. They have wants and needs of their own, and while the players are doing things so are the villains progressing in their goals. Maybe their goal is to be lazy, but if they’re developing a super weapon or rigging an economic system or whatever the case, they should still be making progress in the vacuum of the player characters. I need to remember that for my stories.
All in all, experiment a success, and it sounds like we might get back together next Sunday so I’m glad everyone enjoyed getting together enough to be up for having another go where we left off.
Also, shout out to Carla Doria M. of “Diaries of the happy loner” for recommending Microsoft OneNote. All my writing I still do in Scrivener, but OneNote was perfect for maps and documents on the fly for my group. Who doesn’t like a MS Paint hand-drawn map of a fantasy world? I made the castle orange so they knew it was special.
I’m just going to say it. I am a huge tabletop role-playing game nerd. That’s probably what stoked a lot of my interest in writing. The GM’s would offer extra experience points for detailed character journals or backgrounds, so I would deliver 6 pages of tragedy, comedy, and a chance for redemption. Needless to say I was the most obsessive about it. So, while I recommend getting in to RPG’s of any stripes (New World of Darkness by White Wolf is a great place to start but I’ll save that for another post,) there’s another game I’ve played that I feel may be even better.
Billed as the game version of a Coen brother’s movie, I liken it almost to Reservoir Dogs crossed with Elmore Leonard’s novels. In Fiasco, you play as criminals, ne’er do wells, and poor innocent people caught up in a failed criminal plot.
Now why I recommend it for writers. The game itself is for 3-5 players, but I’ve found it works best with 4 or 5. In the beginning of the game you choose a scenario to play. I’ve played some set in 1930’s Los Angeles, a contemporary suburban neighborhood, and Antarctica. Each setting has a different set of features that shape the story and characters. Not all of them can be chosen in one play through, meaning that each time you play you get a different story. The goal? Basically, survive.
This is not a competitive game, but a cooperative fiction game. You set up relationships between characters and the setting with random die rolls, and refine them as you wish. Then, each player gets several scenes where they can either choose the set-up, or resolution, of the scene. Say if I choose that I want my character to end up in a really shitty place, the other players decide the set-up, and vice versa. The reason you would choose this, is based on how your scene goes with another player, you can be awarded good or bad dice. The bad dice can leave your character standing if you have enough of them, just like the good dice, so the interest becomes telling a good story rather than just focusing on good things happening to your character.
In the middle of the session, the ‘Tilt’ happens. Basically, something random is introduced to the plot that completely turns everything upside down. The rest of the game is trying to pick up the pieces in the middle of the chaos.
I would definitely recommend watching Wil Wheaton’s TableTop session of the game here.
So, the reason I like this is that it makes me think on my feet. Not only do I have to worry about my narrative arc, but also that of my friends. We collaboratively need to create a story that is both fun and realistic, without throwing someone to the wayside. Having a character die though, can be just as entertaining as having one live. In fact, I’d say that ending up worse than you started is the most entertaining scenario. I’ve had characters shot during a confused drug exchange, trapped in a Nazi submarine underneath a collapsed glacier, and have had the dimmest character in the session end up the last one standing: a criminal king pin.
Why should you play? It’s entertaining as hell, and I think it strengthens character building in ways that normal writing exercises do not. It is less acting, more free flow improvisation and character development. If you have a few friends that even have interest in something like this, give it a shot. I haven’t tried the companion book, but if you do please let me know. Bully Pulpit Games, the publisher, also has scenarios you can download for free from their site. Honestly, I love this game, and recommend you all try it if it sounds appealing. It’s worth the money and only takes a few hours to play. Each session is self-contained so if a character dies it’s not a big deal. I promise that I have not been paid off by Bully Pulpit in any way. If they want to send me the Companion though that’s cool. No rush.