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.

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…

Try Something New: the Indie Exploration Kit

Tomorrow the new edition of D&D is coming out. At first it’s going to seem very different from what you’ve played before, and in some ways it will be, but in more ways it will be the same. Compared to Third Edition D&D it may be a brave new world, a revolution even, but both together only make up a small slice of what’s possible in gaming.

There are, it turns out, a lot of different games out there and a lot of different ways to play — some radically different. If you want to be a better gamer, you owe it to yourself to try something new.

I’m not saying you should abandon your favorite game or change what you usually play, but trying different systems can open up the way you think about the games you already play. Playing a completely different game can make you _better_ at that game you played for years. Your gamecraft is a muscle: stretch it.

Rockin’, you say, let’s do it! But there’s a catch: gamers play to have fun. You might be fearless and pick up a radical indie game only to discover that it’s so different from what your group is used to that the session is a total disaster, which will just make them (and you) less likely to ever want to experiment again. The world is full of stories of gaming groups who tried a different thing just once, confidently declared it crap, and then retreated to the safe and the known.

Nobody wants that. So in the interest of successful gaming, here are some games I think a group that had only played “traditional” games like D&D could pick up and enjoy right off the bat. You’ll be able to try something new with maximum fun and minimal risk. Consider this your Indie Exploration Kit — it worked for me, it can work for you too.


Glory-seeking heroes in mythic Greece. Slay monsters, complete quests and win contests to earn fame and the favor of the gods. The system is easy to pick up but has a solid feel. Combat uses a clever positioning system that’s simplified and abstract but rewards smart tactics and teamwork. You get dice for things you use (spear, shield, etc) and then literally place them in your left or right hand to show whether you are using them for attack or defense — very intuitive, very fun.

What’s different about it? The heroes are all on the same side, cooperating to complete the quest, but they’re also competing because each of them wants to be the best: the most famous, the most glorious, the most renowned hero. You can start off playing completely straight but sooner or later heroes will start vying for glory, bargaining for Oaths to win important contests, and generally wishing _they_ were the one who slew the harpy and earned the king’s gratitude. Eventually the interaction between the heroes becomes almost more interesting than the challenges they’re facing. Sure the heroes are going to slay the boar, but who’s going to get the credit? And what will you give another hero to be that guy?

Agon also lets players ease into narrative control. You start off just rolling the die for the appropriate ability (my Hunt die if I’m stalking a wild boar) but if you need to bump it up you can describe how you bring in another ability to help — a player wants to bring in his Athletics to help with the hunt, so he says how the boar is outpacing the hunters but because of his fleet-footedness he can keep up. Another player could bring in Cunning by describing how he cleverly finds a shortcut to head off the beast.

What should you watch out for? Fate is the lifespan of the hero, but it can also be spent for short-term advantage. Because there’s no immediate downside, new players may think it’s too easy to burn Fate to solve problems before they understand the balance.

In A Wicked Age

Conan-esque game of heroes, schemers, dark gods and forbidden rituals. In A Wicked Age is a bit more of a stretch than Agon: mechanically it’s very easy to pick up, but it puts the players characters in direct opposition rather than cooperating. A single game session is usually a whole story arc, with lots of characters meeting their fates — In A Wicked Age is not about becoming attached to your character, it’s about playing that character to the fullest and fulfilling their destiny for better or worse. Want to be the villainous sorcerer ruining the other players’ lives and then get destroyed by your own demon servants when your power spirals out of control? You can play that whole rise and fall in three hours.

What’s different about it? One of the golden innovations of In A Wicked Age is the oracle, a random adventure seed you draw to create the game. The oracle gives a vague description of who’s in the story, then it’s up to the players to decide which of those people they want to play and how all those characters are at cross-purposes (take a look at a sample oracle online — a particular game would only use the set under one of the headings e.g. God-kings of War).

The beauty is that a game of In A Wicked Age takes literally zero prep: you sit down, draw the cards, and start making characters. Five minutes ago your whole group was tired after work and not sure they wanted to game: then the oracle is drawn and everyone is talking at once, throwing out ideas how the characters could connect. It’s a creativity booster rocket. It can also be a refreshing challenge: would you normally choose to play a virgin sacrifice? Maybe not, but it’s in the oracle and since it’s basically a one-shot, give it a try. You’ll find yourself coming up with plots you never would have thought of before as you try to integrate all the elements the oracle gives you.

What should you watch out for? As the book says, you want strong conflicts of interest between player characters. Everyone should start the game with a clear idea of why some or preferably most of the other characters at the table are in their way. If you make characters with no conflicts or flinch at pushing the other players you won’t have as good of a game.

Being a better player: all that GMing pays off

When I said “traditional” games before, what exactly did I mean?

Lots of roleplaying games are based on the same core concept: the players control their characters, and the GM controls everything else. That’s a “traditional” game, because that’s where D&D started and the tradition most games still follow. Many indie games mess with this assumption, giving players narrative control, the ability to set scenes and decide the pacing of the game, or even eliminating the GM entirely.

It shouldn’t be surprising than that one of the best indicators of the ability to hit the ground running in non-traditional games is GM’ing experience. To run good games GMs have to be able to constantly improvise, play random characters at the drop of a hat, make up and describe common and outlandish locations, and all the while keep their eye on what is dramatic and what is interesting as the plot unfolds — the same skills you need to _play_ many indie games.

The games I recommended above don’t require those mad skills (which is why they’re a good starting point), but the next indie games — the ones you play after you’re hooked on trying brave new things — those ones will.

Special thanks to the folks at the Story Games forums for providing input for this post. In the end I decided to stick with the games I had had personal success with in my own group, but Spirit of the Century earns an honorable mention as a recommendation from lots of the people who responded.

Yin & Yang of GMing

There are two conflicting urges in every GM, forces that boil like seething dragons twisting in the blood (and so on):

1) the urge to tell the players a story, impress them with your craft, be in control of the game

2) the urge to have the players do stuff, take control, be independent and make decisions that shape and drive the game

These are the yin and yang of GMing. They are competing forces and in some ways total opposites.

The tricky bit is to be a good GM you have to allow both to exist in harmony. Suppress one or the other and you’ve got trouble.

Storytelling is always bad -or- “That’s right, I lied!”

I’ve said it a million times (well maybe not here, but talk to me sometime and you’ll get an earful): going into a game thinking you are telling a story or wanting to impress your players is bad. It leads to bad things, like a lecture circuit instead of a game.

But I’m lying, or at least oversimplifying. If you didn’t have that urge to impress the players, to hit them with a story that knocks their socks off, you probably wouldn’t have scheduled a game in the first place. You might not be GMing at all. When it’s two hours before game time and you’re kind of wishing you could just cancel the game because you aren’t sure it’s not going to suck (double-negative police, stay alert) believing you have a game planned that will impress the players is what will get you over the hump, because you don’t know what the players are going to do. You don’t know what spontaneous spark of genius they’re going to bring to the game — and neither do they because they haven’t seen the game yet. It’s the future, it’s a mystery. So the only thing you, the GM, can solidly wrap your hopes around is the game you have on paper. Is it any wonder lots of GMs have the storytelling urge? It’s the thing that gets you to the table, the thing that drives scheduling the game. It makes you prepare a game, which is a good first step, so long as you have the fortitude to abandon that preparation during the game if necessary.

So while I dump on storytelling as a dead end or a terrible, terrible addiction, the storytelling urge is valuable so long as it does not overwhelm. It has to be balanced by the desire to draw the players out, make them forge their own destinies and make their own action (in a cave, on Brontitall). This isn’t the dark side of the Force vs the light side, one good one bad — this is yin & yang, opposites that should be kept in balance.

Even if it’s just that burst of enthusiasm you put into making the captured goblin have a funny voice and an interesting personality, that’s your storytelling / impress them urge being put to good use.

Won’t somebody think about the players?

From the GM’s point of view, storytelling is the active yang force and wanting the players to make independent decisions is the passive yin force. But you know what? The players have the same conflicting urges: their active yang is to take control and do stuff or impress others, their passive yin is to sit back and let you tell them a story. They need balance too, towards the GM and even towards other players. Sometimes they need to talk, and sometimes they need to listen. Being a passive audience can be a terrible temptation, particularly if your GM (or other players) is a good storyteller.

It was the urge to get my players to “do stuff” that led to experiments like West Marches, Promised Land, and obliquely Run Club. I was (I think) too good at preparing games that were fun and exciting even if the players did nothing special. I unwittingly trained them to be passive by bringing too much fun, providing too much entertainment. Extreme measures were called for. Instead of just poking the players periodically and saying “hey, what do you do?” I needed to change the dynamic by changing the rules of the game.

Rolling for Roleplaying: the Virtual Roll

Player: “… and after enumerating the logistical problems, I finish up by explaining that if the King invades now, he’s just repeating the same mistakes that doomed Badon IV when he marched into these very lands two hundred years ago, a fatal error that brought his glorious reign to an ignominous end.”

GM: “Ooooh nicely done! Now roll your Diplomacy!”

Player: “… I roll a 3.”

You’ve seen it happen. A player says something really interesting, really moving in character when trying to use a social skill, but cannot back it up with dice to save their life.

The first urge as GM is just to say “well forget the numbers, that sounded good to me, it works.” Good call, but the downside is that then you are just ignoring character stats entirely, which penalizes players who maybe aren’t so eloquent or pithy but still built characters who are supposed to be charming masters of discourse.

A better solution would be to combine roleplaying and character stats, taking the best of both worlds. How would you do that? How about assigning a virtual roll based on how good the roleplaying was, then apply character abilities to that virtual roll just like normal? Let roleplaying replace the dice instead of having the dice replace roleplaying.

I’ll use d20 as a specific example, but the concept should work for any system that uses dice to resolve social interactions.

The Virtual Roll

When a character roleplays a social action that would normally require a roll, instead of the player rolling a die the GM assigns the result of the die roll based on the roleplaying (“your speech was good enough that we’ll say you rolled a 15″). If you want some consensus democracy you can let the whole group decide what the virtual roll should be, or even just let the player assign their own score — it all depends on what kind of group you have (insert social contract here).

The default is a 10 (aka taking 10) even if you don’t roleplay at all or have nothing interesting to say. This is important because the goal is _not_ to penalize people who aren’t up for roleplaying. You should only assign a number below 10 when the player uses an argument that is particularly bad for some reason (like threatening the king, or unintentionally citing a bunch of mistakes he made recently and is still sore about).

Assign a number that seems right to you. A 15 is nicely done, and a 20 is reserved for really impressive roleplaying (naturally). You shouldn’t have a hard time coming up with the virtual roll, because you’re already used to thinking in terms of these scores — years of gaming have given you a keen sense of how good it would be to roll an 18, for example.

Now that you’ve determined the virtual roll, just proceed to add skill ranks, ability modifiers, etc to the roll and resolve the results as you normally would.

Let’s take a classic diplomatic example:

A PC knight tries to convince a weary king to join the war and save the besieged city. The character has a moderate Diplomacy score, but the player is making really good arguments, bringing in the King’s past, the plight of the people, rah rah rah.

After some consideration everyone agrees the knight did a very good job, and the group decides on a virtual roll of 16. He has a Diplomacy +6, so he gets a total of 22. Not bad.

To make things interesting let’s say another player is against the idea, and her character is trying to point out all the flaws in the plan, how it will mire the country in an unwinnable war, etc. Her priest has very sharp social skills, but the player is just saying “err, I tell him it’s a bad idea. It will go badly. Really badly.”

The priest doesn’t throw in any roleplaying, so she just takes 10, but her Diplomacy is +11 so she gets a 21. Or since she isn’t roleplaying, you could just have her roll as normal.

An interesting side effect is that you even though you aren’t penalizing people who don’t roleplay, you may encourage people who normally don’t roleplay much to do it a little bit more because of the small incentives. A player can say nothing and get a 10, but maybe if he says just a little bit, tries to get in character just a smidge, he could get an 11 or 12 pretty easily.

Is this enough to encourage some players to roleplay a bit more? Maybe, maybe not.

Why not just use bonuses?

But wait, you ask, why not just give a bonus for good roleplaying? Isn’t assigning a 16 about the same as giving a +6 bonus? No! A bonus changes the possible range of success (i.e. in this case you can a get a maximum 26 instead of a maximum 20 before factoring in your stats), whereas assigning a roll doesn’t change the range at all since you still can’t “roll” higher than a 20. And let’s face it, no matter what kind of bonus you assign the dice are still pretty random.

But what if you like the random? Well in lots of cases there is still randomness on the NPC side of the roll. If the PC rogue is just trying to deceive the NPC king, you are still rolling for the king’s ability to sense deception. There are also whacky things you can by making part of the die random and part assigned (using a d10 instead of a d20 and calling the other half the assigned score part) but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the student.

Cinematic d20

And then there’s the big question: why just social skills? What about applying a virtual roll to other things the players do? Sure, if the player works out a cunning plan to build his fortress where the marshes run up to the fork in the river to make it hard to storm, assign him a high virtual roll for his War Architect skill. Attentive readers may even now be considering how to use this idea to make decision-driven Spot checks without giving up on having some characters more perceptive than others.

How far can you take it? Try running a bar room brawl where you assign virtual attack rolls based on how interestingly players describe kicking a stool to trip someone up or swinging from a chandelier to tackle a ruffian. Or assign virtual saving throw rolls based on clever descriptions of exactly how the players avoid the fiery dragon breath, or magic rolls based on florid descriptions of mystical mumbo jumbo. You can even mix it up and let some people roll, some people roleplay, as you prefer.

Can you really transform D&D into a cinematic story game just by changing this one rule? Try it and see.

Burning Spotlight

Players want play time. Forget about treasure, XP, or hero points: the only reward that really counts is getting to play. Would you sit out a game to get more XP? Would you play for half as long if you could get twice as much treasure? Maybe if some trade of less game now = better game later. Otherwise, not likely.

In your game there are X players, and since everyone really shouldn’t talk at once, each player is getting about 1/Xth of the playtime. Some players get more, some get less, but basically the more players there are the less time each player is going to get to actually do things in-game.

A ha, you say, that means that giving a particular player more play time is a reward! Basically yes. A player who gets more time in the spotlight is getting to play more. It’s warm and cozy in the spotlight. But it can also get hot.

Let’s say you create a game that really focuses on a particular character. Fred’s playing a priest and you plan a whole session with the party visiting the church fathers, dealing with internal church politics, and so on. All priest politics, all day long. Even if the other players are into the plot and love the idea, it means a lot of play time for Fred. He will be involved in a lot of the scenes, because he’s the party’s link to the action. He should be happy, right?

The problem is that the game hinges on Fred. If he doesn’t play his priest well and provide a good window into the situation, the game falls apart. The other players are sitting around waiting for Fred to talk to people and move the plot. That’s a lot of pressure on one player.

Every game session players get to choose how involved they want to be. If they are in the mood, they can leap in and roleplay. If they are feeling mellow, they can usually sit back and let the party carry them along. People have good days, and people have bad days, and sometimes folks are just too tired or in the wrong mood to make a big effort.

The spotlight character doesn’t get that choice. The game stops with everyone’s attention square on that lucky player (“your wife confesses she’s having an affair with Dracula! What do you say?”). If he doesn’t step up, the game grinds to a halt, or at least limps along.

Sometimes the spotlight turns on even when you didn’t expect it. The game might not be specifically about one character (“Look, it’s Fred’s long-lost brother!”) but it might still be a situation that clearly calls on one character to step up and roleplay. When you bump into a bunch of xenophobic elves, the elf in the party is probably the one who has to do the talking. If one character is the self-styled Egyptian scholar, they’re naturally the party’s “what’s up with that mummy?” resource.

Yes these are situations the player should be welcoming, since they are situations that (probably) give the character a chance to showcase the traits the player choose, the traits the player wants to play. But maybe not today.

So what do you do? Be aware of when you are setting up spotlight situations and putting the burden of the game on one player. Always be ready to give a player an out if you have to. You can challenge your players to roleplay, but in the end you have to let them choose the level of their involvement in any game session.


Yes, it follows that giving a player less play time is a punishment. Invite someone to the game and then have them sit for four hours waiting to join in. Do you think your game is so interesting that the player is happy just to sit and listen? Think again.