ars ludi

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

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.

Keeping the Peace: Applying Social Sanctions

There are a lot of things a GM does to run a great game: straight man, creative enabler, spinner of fantastic yarns, tactical challenger, person who makes all the funny voices…

But there’s one job that I see GMs forget to do more than any other, and that’s keeping players in line.

Oooh, shades of railroading! GM tyranny! No, I don’t mean the characters in the game, I mean the players at the table. When someone crosses the line, gets too loud, too uppity, or just hogs too much play time and won’t let other people contribute, it’s the GM’s job to put a stop to it, to re-establish group balance and harmony. By force if necessary.

GMs can become so focused on their “art” that they forget they are also there to keep the peace. It’s not glamorous or even fun, but when it’s necessary it’s really necessary.

One of the worst games you can be in is not the one where the GM doesn’t come up with an interesting situation or provide a good challenge (if you as a player can’t make up for that, you’re just not trying), it’s the one where some players get out of hand and the GM doesn’t do anything about it.

Why not just peer pressure?

All social groups apply sanctions when someone does something the group doesn’t like. If you act like a jerk at a party, your friends give you dirty looks or tell you to shut up or just don’t call you next time. That’s a social sanction.

So why don’t players just keep each other in line, just like a normal social group? They could, but since playing is a creative activity you want to give players leeway to play the way they want. Players can and should err on the side of caution in stepping on each others’ toes. Have you seen the player who criticizes or second guesses every little thing other players do? You know you hate that guy. Even when you are that guy you hate that guy.

Likewise games can include interactions that can blur the line about what’s okay and what isn’t. In real life, killing your friends is a no go. In some games it might be considered cricket to have players backstab each other, have strong emotional confrontations, or just push other limits. But if everyone is not on the same page one person’s creative play may be another person’s bullying.

It can also be an issue as simple as mechanical rules balance. One player makes a character that is overpowered compared to the rest of the group, or uses cheesy exploits. The other players are annoyed but say nothing.

Players are all peers, theoretically equals at the table. They don’t have authority over each other, so if someone calls someone on their behavior it may escalate into a confrontation to establish who is right and who is wrong — you say I’m talking too much, but who put you in charge?

Happily the GM is in a different position. Everyone at the table has already accepted that the GM is running the game and has a certain degree of authority. Sure there are always players willing to argue with the GM, but even when they do it they know they are arguing against the established authority. It’s less personal, because they know the GM is allowed to run the game the way the GM wants.

Punishment 101

Keeping the peace is a social skill, and there are about a million different ways things can go wrong and seven different solutions for each, but here’s a refresher of the basics:

Be overt and clear, and of course calm if you can manage it. Tell the player what you think the problem is. Don’t be subtle or hint. If the player just misperceived the appropriateness of their actions (overly enthusiastic rather than hostile) this might be enough to settle things.

If you have to use sanctions, always punish players in the real world, not the game world. Never inflict damage, or have monsters choose to attack that character, or have NPCs react irrationally to them (“all the hobbits hate you!”).

The most effective punishment is to take away attention and play time. Tell the player they are sitting out a scene because they were being a jerk or simply turn the game spotlight away from them. Attention is always a reward of sorts, even if it’s “bad” attention. Flip it around and pay attention to the players who are not being jerks.

Sounds like advice out of a parenting guide for toddlers doesn’t it? Yes, yes it does…

Perfect World

And now you’re thinking “but I only game with cool, well-behaved adults! This is a certifiable non-issue!”

Hey, lucky you! Where I live everyone gets cranky sometimes, or steps on toes, or unintentionally dominates the group. Sometimes they have no idea they are rubbing everyone else the wrong way, and because players usually give each other a lot of creative leeway (see above) the offending player may not have any idea they need to back off. Players can tolerate and absorb a lot in silence, but it doesn’t make them happy or foster a good game.

Trouble can be directly proportional to interest level. If your players are totally caught up in the moment they may be more emotional and more prone to these kinds of collisions. Good for you, bad for you.

Footnote: if you’ve never read it I highly recommend Five Geek Social Fallacies. It’s pure rocket science.

Be Interested

When you look out from behind your GM screen at all those beaming faces, there is a natural human tendency to focus on what is interesting. Chuck is doing cool stuff, so you pay attention to Chuck. You react to what he’s doing, which means the game world does too. The other players aren’t doing anything interesting (or as interesting) so for the moment they are just along for the ride.

But here’s the thing: part of your job is to run the game for all the players, not just some of them.

Group social dynamics is a complex ball of wax, and games are just social situations. Who’s bored, who’s interested, who’s disenfranchised or secretly pissed — these can be tricky things to stay on top of in the middle of a game, particularly when you’re also trying to figure out what spell the witch should cast next round.

It would be great if every GM was a natural social wunderkind and could stay in tune with every player without any effort, but the truth is there is nothing I can say that will magically give you better social skills — that’s just where you spent your points me bucko. Instead let’s forget about complexity and focus on one simple thing anyone can do:

Be interested in each of the player characters.

Don’t worry about what that means, or how that will change your behavior as a GM. If you are genuinely interested in each character and what happens to them, curious even, you will naturally pay attention to them in the game. When a player is sitting quietly you’ll stop and ask “Hey Mikey, what’s going on with your navigator guy? What’s he think about all this?” because you’ll want to know.

I’m not talking about pretending to be interested in order to engage the player (though it will do that), I’m talking about having genuine interest in that character.

I Endanger Because I Love

Here’s what happens: when you are interested in each character, you pay attention to them, which means the game world pays attention to them. That doesn’t mean that each character has to be equally important within the game world, they just have to be equally important to you, the GM and therefore to the game.

In a particular West Marches game (session #53 if you must know) one character was having a toe-to-toe magical duel with the sorcerer-outlaw Armuth the Crooked while another less powerful character scrambled under a wagon to hide from the other bandit thugs.

The normal reaction would be “ah, the first character is doing something cool, let’s pay attention to that — the other character is just ducking out of the scene so we’ll ignore her.” Oh no my friend. I’m into the clash of magical powers, but I’m also totally into the character hiding under the wagon. What’s that character thinking? Is it scary? Is she scrambling behind a wagon wheel? And when some grimy bandit trudges right past the hiding character, it’s dramatic and interesting to me — I want to know how it turns out, so I run it as being interesting, not unimportant.

Note the obvious contradiction: the hiding character is having no impact on the situation. The magician is blasting people and really deciding the day. But because I care about the characters more than just who wins, I want to know how each character reacts to the situation. I want to know all about each character’s subjective experience, because that is the heart of the game. Careful observers will also note that this holds the secret to running games with characters of mixed power levels.

Is there a player character in your game that just doesn’t interest you or feel kind of ‘blah’ about? That’s a problem. Even a mundane interest in seeing whether this character lives or dies is a start. Ask questions until you start getting interesting answers. Push, don’t ignore.

Learn to Explain Failure

If you want to be a good GM, one of the most important things you can do is learn to explain failure.

Player characters fail all the time. They try to leap onto moving horses (whoops, trampled), talk obstinate shopkeeps into extending small loans (taciturn glare, veiled threats to call the city watch), or bulls-eye small targets from improbable distances (miss miss miss reload miss miss).

Sometimes (rarely) players try things that just seem crazy, but usually they try to do things that they think their character can do. They are just trying to play out their character concept. Of course my pirate can grab a rope and swing over to the other ship — that’s what pirates do.

Then the dice get involved. Most games include a chance of failure because otherwise success isn’t very interesting. Where’s the challenge if there is no risk?

When a player tries to do something they think their character should be able to do but fails, it breaks their belief in their character concept just a little bit. Players love their characters (not your game) so if that fragile love between player and character is broken, that player will pretty much check out. Danger Will Robinson!

This happens in just about every game session in greater or lesser degrees. So how do you handle this perpetual problem? You guessed it, learn to explain failure.

Wait, what about explaining success? Don’t worry about it, it’s easy. If the players couldn’t imagine how they could succeed at something, they probably wouldn’t have tried it in the first place.

Emphasize Failure: play it up, don’t play it down

Failure should be big. As a GM the urge is to overlook failure, just nod at the bad roll and move along to spare the player the shame. Big mistake. The worst insult to a character in the game world is to have no impact. It’s better to screw up in a way that sinks the Titanic than to have no effect on anything (note we’re talking about the character screwing up, not the player).

When a character fails, emphasize it. Magnify it in the game world. Demonstrate that the character is having an impact, even if it’s not the impact they wanted. A missed energy blast doesn’t just vanish, it stitches a line across the building down the street, shattering windows and sending clouds of pulverized masonry into the air. The pirate doesn’t just jump and miss the rope, the entire boom snaps, sending rigging and sails cascading down on the deck of the ship and sending people running.

Big failure can leave a character more disadvantaged than a “let’s just pretend that didn’t happen” failure, but it puts the focus of the game on that character, which is what most players really want. Yes it’s a setback, yes the character is in a really bad jam, but the character gets the spotlight. Forget about hit points or mana or equipment: the only resource that matters in a game is play time.

The same applies to bad events the players have no control over like taking damage. When a character takes a critical hit don’t say “ooh, crit, 26 more damage, sorry dude” say “the wolf savagely rips into your arm, tearing at you with big sharp pointy teeth — take 26 damage” Part of that is just interesting description vs no-description, but part of it is emphasizing the bad instead of trying to gloss over it. Don’t apologize. The bad is the challenge. The heroes have to step up and deal with the bad. That wolf is going to freaking eat you man! You better do something!

It could have happened to anybody…

When a character fails at something that (by their concept) they should have succeeded at, blame the situation, not the character.

Bad luck is your friend. Even the most capable characters can reasonably fall prey to the slings and arrows of fortune, so emphasize the circumstances, not the failure of skill. Make stuff up. When the pirate jumps for the rope, the pirate doesn’t just slip and miss, the rope or the entire boom arm snaps unexpectedly. When a macho hero is having trouble climbing a low wall, it must mean the bricks are crumbling in his hands, pebbles raining down in his face, whatever. It’s not that the character is incompetent, it’s just bad luck or unforeseen circumstances.

Or does the character have other traits that can explain the failure after the fact? If another important trait caused the failure, the concept isn’t damaged. The ace pilot rolls badly and wrecks his plane on a supposedly easy landing, but you remind everyone that the character is already known to be a reckless daredevil and probably tried something zany. He didn’t fail an easy task, he turned an easy task into a hard task (none of which is played out in the rules, this is just an explanation for the bad roll). Usually once you introduce a possibility like that the player will come on board and help flesh it out since you’re now re-describing what their character was doing.

Footnote: Failure Insurance

Wait, you say, I’ve got a better idea! I’ll just always let the players succeed at things that are important to their concept. Genius! (No, I know you really didn’t say that, but as long as I’m writing this post I can set up all the straw man arguments I want.)

Some systems have this kind of “failure insurance” built into the rules. Spend a hero point to re-roll. Buy a feat that permit automatic re-rolls for things that are central to the character concept (Diplomats automatically get to re-roll low Diplomacy checks, just because they are good at it). Take 10. In other words, choose to neutralize bad rolls if they go against your character concept. I would say the trend has increased as some RPGs become more about character concept instead of tactical victory.

Succeeding when you expect to fail (or vice-versa) is part of the fun of gaming. It’s not planned creativity, it’s mob creativity reacting to random stimuli (the dice). Eliminate too much randomness, and you lose some of that magic ingredient.

Give Them Details (part 2), Gratuitous Details

Details are good, and can make the game feel more real to the players. But there's a flip side, which is that gratuitous details can alienate your players.

It's about suspension of disbelief: if the players perceive the details as a natural part of the game world, the details will improve their game experience. If they suspect that the details are only there to make the world feel more real, it will backlash. The players will spot the GM's hand and recognize that they are being manipulated by the game world rather than just living in it.

Real world details are less likely to backlash than made-up details. You can talk about a character's involvement in the WWII Africa campaign all day long, and even if it's boring the players will not see it as artifice. But if you go on dropping lists of fictional historical battles, the lieutenants involved, the colors of the banners, and so on, players are more likely to stop buying into it, because they _know_ you made it all up just for them. Of course it's not like you get to choose: if you are running a game about WWII you have real details, but there's no such thing as real details of the Ursa-Elf Conflagration of the Late 7th Millennium. The point is to recognize that the “safe” amount of detail is not the same in all cases.

The greater resistance to made-up details might also be part of people's natural resistance to buying into and submitting to another person's creativity, but that's an entirely separate discussion.

From this discussion you might think I'm saying that all details are just there to impress the players, but of course this isn't the case. Most details are there because the GM sees them in the game world whether he intends to or not. They are things the GM believes are “real” facts within the game world, not a facade constructed to entertain the players. Even if no one was listening, the GM would still wonder what kind of cloaks they wear in Scolfane.

Give Them Details

A good action scene paints with a broad brush, but then zooms in and focuses on select specifics. Details make the scene feel real to the players. Landmarks, place names, and even military unit designations lend reality to the situation, not to mention keeping one fight from being just the same as the next.

Saying “good job, you eliminated 20 Atomic Supermen from group B, but another section of group B is nearby” is not as good as:

“A police officer looks up from his radio and shouts 'They need help over by the Opera House! The 32nd out of Fort Myers is getting hammered, their tanks are out of commission and we've got people trapped in the subway under the fighting. Get a move on heroes!'”

– excerpt from Day of Dr Null