ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Eliciting Reactions: Cart Meet Horse

So we’re having dinner and she says “When I GM, how do I inspire awe in the players? I want them to look at something and just go ‘wow!’”

GMs ask many subspecies of this question. How do I make them love some character I made? How do I scare them? How do I make them care about X?*

Sure, there are ways to do all of these things. But here’s my heartfelt advice: don’t try.

Instead of scheming to elicit some reaction your script demands, just play and let the players decide how to react. Describe things as they are. Play NPCs honestly. Don’t try to manipulate the players to like some character or hate another. But when you do see them react, embrace it! Don’t gnash your teeth when they loathe the NPC you thought would be their cherished mentor. Rejoice, for now your mill is full of grist.

Deciding how the characters feel is the players’ job, not yours. Your job is to give them things to react to and to respect their reaction.

* Ignore the whole metaphysical question of whether you are trying to evoke these emotions in the player or the character. That’s a different discussion.

Instant Names: Mythic Flavor

Another instant name trick, this one for making up mythic titles on the fly while maintaining a strong cultural flavor. We just played a pre-Conquistador Aztec game (and by “pre” I mean, “hey, what’s that white sail on the horizon?”) so we got to whip it out. And now I share it with you.

First, think about the setting you’re going to be playing. Just imagine it. Now write down ten or a dozen words that come to mind. You’re looking for evocative words that really capture the flavor of the environment. Limp words should be cast out. If you’re GMing you may be doing this by yourself (particularly if you’re going to be the only one using it), but in a GMless game you can brainstorm your list together.

For our Aztec game, we had something like:

serpent, feather, obsidian, mirror, gold, blood, sun, smoke, jaguar, knife

Now any time during the game, when you need a cool title for a temple, a sacred place, or a god, just pick two random words from the list and combine them: obsidian serpent, feathered mirror, blood sun, smoke serpent, feather knife, and so on. Would you cross a warrior known as the Knife of the Sun? Dare you enter the Valley of the Golden Smoke?

These are names or titles, not necessarily the literal object (not everything in the world are mirrors, knives or jaguars). Pretty much any combination should come up with something fairly cool that also feels right for the setting. There’s a natural urge to divide your list into adjectives and nouns, but that isn’t necessary. If you’re feeling bold, number your list and get some dice ready.

Let’s try a different setting, something a little more Teutonic. Here’s a list off the top of my head:

iron, wolf, bone, grave, hammer, eye, storm, frost, axe, blood, rune

Just looking at that list, you probably have a good idea of the vibe I have in mind. It’s a recipe for the flavor of the setting all by itself.

Need a cool name for a warlord? Easy. Stormwolf, Bloodhammer, Wolf-axe, Bone-eye: they’re all good. Combine this with the one-letter name trick and you’ve got Lord Jharles Stormwolf, bearer of the dreaded sword Gravehammer.

Bears Are Not (That) Scary

It’s the Halloween season, so we return to that old chestnut: fear. I’ve talked a little about scaring players before, or more accurately, getting players to be willing to let themselves be scared, but let’s talk about fear itself. Rumor has it there is nothing else to fear.

There’s pretty much two breeds of fear: fear of the known, and fear of the unknown.

Fear 101 is that fear of the unknown is always the winner, because your imagination is your worst enemy.

Say there’s a bear coming at you. Rarr. Are you afraid? Yeah, probably. You’re afraid of a known threat (the bear), and you’re envisioning a fairly obvious outcome (the bear gets a snack). Now let’s try a different scenario. You’re sitting there, reading this post, and whoosh, the lights go out — your computer too. It’s pitch black (if it’s daytime, play along and pretend it’s night). Lightning flashes outside! In the flare you see a face reflected in your monitor… but it’s not your own! Boo!

Scary, right? But why? There’s no clear threat at all. You’re afraid of the big unknown, of all the possible things that might come get you, and your imagination is doing all the work. Fear of the known just can’t compete. Sorry Mr. Bear.

“Hell no, I’m not going back to the Standing Stones…”

So it stands to reason that if you want to elicit fear in a game, you’ll get more bang for your buck if you stay in the unknown fear end of the spectrum rather the known fear. With the known, you have to do all the work. With the unknown, everyone else does the work for you.

For example, take this thread: “How can I make a Mi-Go city seem dangerous?” The upshot (if you haven’t already clicked the link) is that the PCs are sneaking into what should be the alien domain of an otherworldly Cthuloid race, but it’s falling flat. There’s no fear.

The discussion mostly revolves around ways to make sneaking more challenging, to ratchet up the tension and make the players afraid they’re going to get caught. Which would make sense, in most scenarios. But these aren’t kobolds or Imperial stormtroopers. These are inhuman fungi from the voids of space, otherworldly terrors who defy rational thought. Unspeakable horror is the objective.

In other words, we want to instill fear of the unknown, not a mundane known fear like getting caught and subjected to claw/claw/bite, because at that point getting eaten by a Mi-Go isn’t any scarier than being eaten by a bear.

So let’s take the sneak-into-the-city challenge and turn it on it’s head:

First let the PCs sneak and sneak and sneak. They may see strange figures moving in the distance, but they avoid detection. Hey, they’ll think, this is working! We can totally get away with this!

After much meandering (it’s a big city), the investigators enter a large hall covered in strange carvings. One wall has a freshly-chiseled mural — in fact the tools are still sitting there and chips of stone litter the floor, as though the work was abandoned a moment ago. But the thing that catches their attention is that the mural shows them, the PCs, sneaking into this very city. Their faces and clothes are unmistakable: they’re dressed just as they were an hour (or so) ago when they first entered the city. Even the buildings are recognizable, but in the mural the sky above the city seethes with watchful eyes…*


As the investigators hug the shadows in yet another canyon-like avenue, something catches their eye. Far above them, alien figures line the edges of the balconies and parapets. Hundreds of them. Staring down at our heroes. Chittering among themselves quietly, but doing nothing. They’ve been watching you all along…

* For bonus points, the characters’ carvings are perfectly realistic facsimiles, out of place among the otherwise alien etchings… except for one of the investigators. That person’s face is strangely distorted, Picasso-like: the features twisted and out of place, seeming to slip to the side of the head rather than the front. One eye is larger than the other, a scribbled oval looking off into madness…

That’s called pulling the rug out from under them. All this time, the players thought they were engaged in a particular challenge (avoiding detection), and hey, they thought they were winning! but lo and behold, that’s not what was going on at all.

They always knew you were there. They were always watching. They’re watching right now. Why aren’t they attacking? What are they waiting for? What’s the real threat? You have no idea, so you have no idea how to save yourself. Insert fear here.

The Climax Is Anticlimactic

Freaking out waiting for the other shoe to drop is suspense. When the shoe drops… well the fun is over. Things shift from suspense to action, from unknown fear to known fear. You may jump when the chainsaw maniac jumps out, but after that it’s just running and running and blah blah blah. The tension has left the building.

That’s the trick really: continually giving the impression that the hammer is about to drop — that there even is a hammer, though you can’t see it — but then never actually doing it.

The pitfall is the looming threat that overstays it’s welcome long enough that everyone stops being worried about it. “We’ve been wandering in this alien city for hours, but they’re not doing anything! I’m going to walk up and poke one.”

If you try to bring tension back in by dropping the hammer… well no one’s afraid of that particular hammer anymore, so that’s not going to work. You’ll get a little action, but no buy-in. If you’ve waited too long, your best option is to twist again: just as in the alien city, the players find out that they’re worried about the wrong thing, you can reveal that the danger the players are worried about isn’t the problem at all. It’s not the Mi-Go: the very stones you’re walking on are watching you! They’re slaves to their alien city! But if you already elicited fun fear once, don’t draw out this new threat. That’s probably asking too much. Push for a climax in the action, relieve the renewed tension with action, and be done. Until next time…

Character Monologue: Tell Us What It’s Like To Be You

Our heroes have just come back to town after exploring the wastelands, and the GM asks Fred what his character, Skark the scavenger, is doing.

“He’s looking around to see if he can buy some more shotgun shells, then he’ll check in at the weather tower to see if they picked up any new radio signals. Oh, and he’ll get some salve for that 6 hits of burn damage he took.”

Great. Now we know what his character is doing. Informative, yes, but it doesn’t exactly draw you into the magical world of the imagination. Are you intrigued? I’m not intrigued.

The GM tries again and says, that’s great. Now tell us what it’s like to be your character, right now. What’s your character thinking, or feeling, or just what is it like to walk around behind his eyes? Fred thinks for a moment then starts talking, and everyone else sits back and listens.

“Skark is tired and dusty from his long days in the wastelands. He’s limping a little from the burns on his leg, and he’s still mad at Pog for crashing the rover. Coming back to town always feels like coming home, but Skark is too tough to ever let anyone see that. As he trudges between the shanties and he sees people planting seeds and kids playing, he doesn’t smile, but inside it makes him feel like he’s doing something that makes a real difference. Even his burns hurt a little less.”

That’s a good character monologue. Yep, now I’m digging Skark, because I get him. Now I want to see what happens to this guy. I’m interested.

Share Your Point of View, Literally

A character monologue is not a monologue by the character, it’s a monologue about the character. It’s not a narrative of action, or a description of events. It’s just a window into what it’s like to be that person, in this moment, right here, right now.

It doesn’t have to be poetry or high art, just an honest and subjective experience of that character. It’s a little slice of spotlight time for a player to show us their character’s inner workings and help us understand them better.

Because there is no pressure to react to a specific situation or respond to things someone else said, the player is free to shine light on whatever corner of the character’s brain they want. Maybe there were facets of the character that the player wanted to bring up but the situation never presented itself. Now they can. You might be surprised when a player starts monologuing about how their savage barbarian hero is starting to feel his years and is sorry he never settled down and had kids.

It’s a tool for all seasons:

> Not getting a player’s character? Calling for a character monologue will help you be interested.

> Players not in the zone, not playing in the moment? Calling for character monologues forces the player to get in their own character’s head and think about what it’s like to just be that guy, right now. It brings them down from the birds-eye view and puts them back in their own boots, in the moment.

> Player characters not gelling? No love at the table? Calling for character monologues can get the players interested in each others’ characters, and give them the insider information they need to play off each others’ character. Because if you want a good game it’s just as important that the players like each others’ characters as it is that they like their own characters.

And players, don’t be shy: if you want a character monologue, just say so.

edit: Changed first example from first to third person to avoid confusion. Both examples could just as easily be in first person.

Instant Names: the One-Letter Trick

This trick is really too simple to even mention, but when I bring it up at games I’m always surprised that people don’t know it, so I’ll record it for posterity.

Say you’re stumped coming up with a name for a character in your average fantasy / sci-fi / not-modern-day-Earth setting. Here’s what you do:

1) Take a normal name

2) Change or drop one letter


Robert becomes Rolert, Rubert, Obert, or Roberi
Frank becomes Brank, Urank or Frunk (half-orcs in the house, yo)
William becomes Illiam, Willia, Welliam, or Wixliam
And so on.

Try it. If you pick random letters you may get unattractive results (like Zrank… hmm, maybe that one isn’t so bad after all) but with a minimum of effort you can weed out losers and score good names. You can use this trick as a GM trying to brand random NPCs on the fly, or as a player struggling to find a good character name. If you’re the GM, don’t tell anyone this is what you’re doing — it’ll just distract everyone.

You’ll be surprised how quickly names look nothing like their original version. If a name does look too much like the original you probably want to ditch it so it doesn’t break the mood (Jonathan => Jomathan might be too close). If you wind up with a homophone ditch it and try again (Bill and Byll look different but sound the same, so no go).

Changing the first letter or a major vowel will usually have the most impact. Linguists can step in at this point, but I suspect you’ll get the biggest results by altering letters in the emphasized syllable of the name — just a theory. You don’t need to worry about that, just experiment and trust what sounds good.

If one letter is not enough, you can go completely crazy and change two letters. You are now in the completely unexplored frontier of rapid name generation. You have been warned.

Making the Party: Wedge Issues

“You’re playing a grizzled veteran detective? But I’m playing a grizzled veteran detective!?!”

Simple stereotypes are great starting points for character creation, but it also means it’s super-easy for two players to wind up with character concepts that look identical. Increase those odds by an order of magnitude in class-based rule systems (“but I’m playing a paladin!”).

Standard reaction: quiet gnashing of teeth, followed by someone feeling slighted and deciding to play something different. Or worse, both players muddle forward but feel like they’re playing clones. Bad vibes at the table.

Here’s a better solution: let both players keep their concept, but find a wedge issue that differentiates them.

Brainstorm for a moment and think of two alternatives that fit the stereotype but are basically opposites. Ask the players if that is the difference between their characters. What you’re looking for is a case where the players pick opposing sides or traits — that becomes the thing that clearly tells them apart.

Two veteran detectives? Is one burned out and the other grimly determined? Does one think the legal system is broken and the other think most people are just scum (system at fault vs humanity at fault).

Two wizards? Does one want to unearth ancient secrets while the other wants to invent new arcane techniques (archaeology vs invention). Is one a member of a magical guild, brotherhood or tradition while the other is an isolated loner or self-taught magi? Is one young and the other old?

Two hotshot pilots? Is one looking for fame and the other thrills? Is one well-trained and the other a natural? Is one precise and the other flying by instinct? (yes, Iceman vs Maverick)

If you throw out an idea for a wedge issue and neither player cares or both come down on the same side, that’s not your wedge. Forget it and suggest another. Make sure the players know you are fishing for differences and they’ll start coming up with ideas of their own. It’s a negotiation, so let it play itself out. If you’re a player and find yourself caught at a table with a clone, feel free to do the same thing: engage the other player and work out a wedge issue.

You’ll know you’ve hit the spot when both players light up and embrace the idea. A good wedge may shed light on the character they envisioned in the first place or at least move in a direction they really like.

Unity and Conflict

Any time you’re starting from a stereotype (and at some level you always do) it’s a given that your character is going to turn out to be more than that stereotype. The character is going to gain depth and individuality and eventually be a unique snowflake, but that takes time. Finding a wedge issue is just a way of speeding up the process.

A good wedge often becomes the relationship between the once-similar characters. It gives them a sharp difference out of the gate, something to bicker about or call each other on. It gives them something to talk about, which is the best thing you can have between two characters when a game starts (seriously, go read Instant Rivalry and Instant Consensus). Those players understand each other’s characters from square one.

Taking it a step farther, a party works best when the characters are in agreement about one large thing (why they are together or what they are doing) and disagree about lots of secondary things (differences in personality). Too much agreement on the little things leads to a boring vanilla party: no personality, no tension. Too much disagreement on the big thing prevents it from being a party.

Note: I said party. Some games don’t have or need the concept of a party because the characters are in conflict instead of cooperating. Those characters can and should disagree about all sorts of things, particularly what they want to have happen, the big goals. That’s the opposite case: in that situation agreement about the main goal kills the game because there is no conflict.

Embrace the Sameness

Want a challenge next time you are making characters? Play very, very similar stereotypes.

Big character differences are child’s play. Anyone can play the elf differently from the dwarf. It takes fine detail to make two similar character concepts but play them with sharp contrast. It makes you pay attention to who they are as people, instead of their race, class or adjectives.