ars ludi

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

A Beginner’s Guide to Making Scenes

(This is an excerpt from Kingdom, but it’s a good recipe for making scenes in just about any story game.)

The secret to making a good scene isn’t coming up with an amazing or surprising idea. The secret is painting a clear picture so players know exactly what is going on. Being able to visualize the situation clearly–where you are, why you are there–enables you to play your character like a real person.

That’s the cardinal rule. It doesn’t have to be exciting; it has to be clear. Exciting things may emerge as the scene plays out, but it is much harder for that to happen if the players aren’t sure what’s going on. Playing your character in the moment, even when nothing dramatic is happening, is the foundation for good role-playing.

With that in mind, if you don’t have a good idea for a scene, you just need to answer three questions clearly: who, where, what.

First, pick a character you think it would be interesting to have your character talk with about the Crossroad. It does not have to be someone your character wants to talk to–this is an interaction you want to see, not necessarily a situation your character wants to be in. Talking to or even arguing with someone you disagree with is a great way to see what the characters really think. When in doubt, pick someone who has a relationship with your character that you understand well, whether that’s friendship or enmity. You’ll find it easiest to talk to them.

Second, look at the locations on your character sheet and theirs. Pick one that you can picture and describe well. It should also be some place you can explain being.

Finally, ask yourself: what are you both doing here? Are you meeting each other intentionally? Why? Who invited who? Or is there something else that brought you to the same place at the same time, something related to the location?

This last ingredient–what are you doing here–is critical and often overlooked. If you don’t know why your character thinks they are there, you don’t know where to start. The answer can be trivial (“we’re picking up the weekly shipment of grain”), but it should be crystal clear.

Congratulations! You’ve just framed a scene!

Antagonism 101

or, being the right kind of mean

“So, you’re trying to expose government corruption. Well, a car drives up, and a bunch of guys jump out. With guns! And… they shoot you! Uh, dead! Conflict!”

We play a lot of story games where there’s no GM, and each character has an arc or agenda they’re pursuing,* rather than reacting to a plot being pushed on them like they would in a traditional game. In these games, the job of providing adversity — making getting what you want difficult and interesting — falls to different players at different times. It becomes a skill everyone needs to be good at, not just one person designated as the GM.

Being a good antagonist is a tricky business, because the players aren’t really enemies. You’re not trying to ruin the character’s life: you’re trying to threaten to ruin their life in a way the other player finds interesting. It’s really collaboration, through an adversarial lens. Good antagonism is a win for the victim.

The Protagonist Always Goes First

Here’s a simple recipe for providing trouble in a way that improves the game. Antagonism 101, if you will:

Find out what the protagonist wants, then attach a price tag to it.

Look closely at that first part. Before you can antagonize, the protagonist has to desire. That’s the natural order, and the literal definition of the words: the protagonist takes action and the antagonist opposes. If the protagonist doesn’t want anything, it’s really, really hard to antagonize. Making a “protagonist” with no motive or wants is a complete party foul: a Zen protagonist is not holding up their end of the game, because they’re not giving us anything to work worth. Why are we watching this person’s story? What’s interesting about this person? Who knows!

So step one of antagonism is really: watch and wait. Feel out the protagonist. See where they’re going. What do they want? What do they care about? Send out feelers, but don’t try to impose your own plot (not yet anyway). It’s the protagonist’s story, not yours.

Once you suss out what the protagonist wants, don’t just try to prevent it. That’s a rookie mistake. If you succeed, what happens? Nothing! We’re right back where we started. Same with attacking the protagonist. A guy comes at you with a knife! Who cares? A good protagonist has to be about more than self-preservation. There can be lots of danger to the protagonist, but it’s a means to an end not an end in itself. If you’re killed you can’t lead the revolution, or you won’t see your daughter again, or you won’t get to write your novel: that’s the real threat.

Instead, let the protagonist get what they want, but only if they’re willing to pay your price. Sure, you can lead the revolution that overthrows the government, but are you still willing to do it if your brother is killed in the fighting? Hmm? Okay, well are you willing to personally send him on a suicide mission to defeat the tyrant? Go ahead, take your time and think about it, and hey, let’s roleplay that discussion while we’re at it…

Choice is essential. The protagonist (or at least the protagonist’s player) must be able to see the alternatives and know what the risks are before deciding. Different games have different mechanics for resolving conflicts, but you absolutely want to put that dilemma squarely on the protagonist’s shoulders, preferably giving them a while to stew and angst about it. When it all goes down, they should have no one to blame but themselves.

Corrupt or Add Consequences, Never Cancel

What’s a good price? That’s the tricky part. You want to keep it tempting. Go too far, charge too much, and the protagonist player isn’t interested anymore. Charge too little, or attach a price tag that’s about something the protagonist doesn’t care about (even though you thought they did) and there’s no friction. You’re trying to create a difficult choice. If one answer is clearly the best, it’s too easy.

If you were paying attention during the “watch & wait” part, you should have a good idea of what the protagonist considers important. You’ve got two main avenues of attack:

Corruption: the protagonist gets what they want, but it doesn’t turn out the way they hoped

Consequences: the protagonist gets what they want, but something else bad happens too

Wanna free the slaves? Awesome! But instead of an enlightened new age, the freed slaves turn around and enslave or slaughter their former masters (Corruption). Wanna cure the plague? Sweet, populace saved! But slaving away for zillions of hours in the lab left your wife lonely. She’s leaving you and your damned test tubes! (Consequences)

Sometimes it’s a combination of the two: Wanna marry the princess? Of course she’ll do it, because she loves you too! But it throws her kingdom into war, because a hoped-for political marriage that would have stabilized relations with an ancient enemy is no longer possible (Consequences). And even though it was her decision, she’ll probably live to regret subjecting her people to misery just to make you happy (Corruption).

Be careful that you don’t corrupt something so much that it isn’t what the protagonist wants any more. In your minds-eye, strip down their goal to its core concept, and then mangle things surrounding that concept without stepping on the idea itself. You want to add a price, not change their goal.

My Face When

How will you know you’re doing it right? There’s a face a player makes when they’re pushed into territory they don’t want, but they can’t deny is pretty awesome. There’s a moment of shock, followed by a fleeting urge to refute, immediately followed by the realization that wishing is just not going to make it go away. They’re going to love the situation later, after it sinks in, but right now they’re still pretty floored by it. You’ll know it when you see it.

if you didn’t pick a good price you’ll either get pleasant agreement or no reaction (price too low) or a look of discomfort, annoyance, or even a hint of revulsion (price too high buddy). If it’s too late to adjust, just file that info away for later and make your next move better.


This is the age-old protagonist question “How far are you willing to go to get what you want?” flipped around to the point of view of the antagonist. The practical application of theory.

* Shock, Polaris, Fiasco — games like that

Partners In Crime: Teaming Up at the Table

The game table can be a lonely place. Everyone else is running around, having fun exploring their pet plots or doing cool things, but no one seems to be interested in the thing you want to do. So you sit quietly and wait, and you get more detached and disinterested in the game. You drop out.

The bigger the group the more this happens. It’s an inescapable mathematical rule that more players means less play time per person.

So how can you salvage things? You need to find a partner in crime, someone else at the table who’s willing to do the thing you want to do or talk about the thing you want to talk about. Two players working together have more influence over the game than two players flying solo, and even if you don’t get to do everything you want you’ve got some company and moral support. A co-conspirator makes any game more fun.

Look around the table. See another player checking out? That’s could be your partner in crime. They may even need a buddy more than you do, so do them a favor and team up.

I scratch your back…

A good partnership requires compromise and reciprocity: if they do what you’re interested in, you should also push for what they’re interested in. Sometimes it isn’t even an issue — lots of players are flexible about what they do so long as they get to do something. It’s more about having a voice and participating than pushing any particular agenda.

If you’re playing something story gamey, even agreeing to be adversaries can be teaming up — you’re cooperating in bringing your conflict front and center.

GMs, same advice: look for orphaned players and try to hook them up with someone else. If you have a large group (by which I mean even 5 players in a roleplay-heavy game) start people off in pairs or sets. Never leave a man behind.

Stepping Stones: Telling More Interesting Lies

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive…”
–Sir Walter Scott

Lying to someone in roleplaying games often goes something like this:

“I want to convince the guy these are not the droids he’s looking for.”
“Okay, roll.”
>roll roll roll< "I win!"

It's simple: you have a goal and you roll to achieve the goal.

It's also boring. Worse yet, it doesn't give the player anything interesting to do. Even if you roleplay telling the lie (and use something like a Virtual Roll) you’re still just saying what you want the person to believe (“these aren’t the droids you’re looking for…”) and then rolling for it. How interesting is that?

Resolving a direct lie with a die roll also reduces the would-be victim to a (literally) two-dimensional caricature: they either believe the lie or they don’t. Forget about a nuanced or interesting reaction based on their personality. It’s a litmus test, not roleplaying.

Laying a Foundation of Deceit

So what if we take that option off the table? Let’s arbitrarily say you can’t roll to make someone believe your main lie. Instead come up with a different lie — a stepping stone — that will (hopefully) pave the way to convince them of your real lie, then roleplay from there.

I can’t roll to convince the chamberlain to give me an audience with the Duke, but I can roll to convince him I’m a visiting dignitary from Carpathia and then try to persuade him to give me an audience because of that.

I can’t roll to make you think your partner betrayed you, but I can roll to convince you I saw him talking to Fez Mumbo last night at the casbah, and we all know who Fez Mumbo associates with…

I can’t roll to convince you the harmless butler is trying to murder you, but I can roll to convince you that he was a practicing physician in Berlin until he performed a series of ghastly experiments and was confined to an insane asylum. After a clerical error led to his release he changed his name and fled all past associations, eventually adopting the guise of a humble man-servant. If you watch closely you may notice the nervous tic he takes pains to conceal, doubtless a sign of his lingering psychosis…

What makes a good starting lie?

- It can’t refer to or directly imply the main lie you’re going for — that’s too easy.

- It should make the situation more interesting and give everyone more to talk about. A stepping stone lie generally creates more details than a direct lie, because you are trying to say some things just to insinuate something else. There may be lots of unplanned side effects of those details as the game continues, but that’s part of the fun (“You’re a Carpathian noble? Death to the tyrant monarchy! Free Carpathia!”).

- Making up stuff is good, but incorporating known facts is better. If you know there’s an army marching into town tomorrow, use it in the lie. If you know the governor has a gambling problem, use it rather than making up a totally fictional character in your lie. Adding lots of detail also tempts the fates by making it more likely the whole house of cards will come crashing down — the sign of a truly daring liar. Kudos to you sir!

What About My Original Lie?

Hopefully you’ll never roll for the main lie at all. Once the stepping stone lie is accepted, the situation should take on a life of its own and reactions will fall into place from roleplaying.

By coming up with a stepping stone lie, you are really making up details that you think would make the person believe what you wanted them to believe in the first place. What would it take to make a person think the butler was out to kill them? They’d have to think the butler was a very different person than they thought, and so on. You’re making the logic of your lie explicit, making it easier for anyone else to figure out how their character (or NPC) would react to it.

You don’t have to use this technique for every lie — save it for the ones that you want to play out as part of the plot. The juicy bits. On the other hand if you use it for small lies you may find all those fictitious details chasing you around as the game goes on (“But you told me you were with the bishop last night!”). Which is awesome trouble to be in.

Play Constructively: Pass the Ball

You’re a good player. You’ve got all the basics down pat: you understand your character, when it’s your turn you make decisions (even bad ones) rather than hold up the game, and when you sit down at the table you are ready and eager to play.

You’re definitely holding up your end, but as you’ve already heard a thousand times, gaming is a social activity, and to really bring a game session to the next level everyone else has to play well too. You might still have fun even if you’re the only one playing well, but if the game gets cancelled because no one else is having fun it won’t do you much good.

Luckily you can help your fellow players. No, not tactical help — this is not about making sure everyone is healed up or has a marching order buddy before you head into the kobold caves. This is about voluntarily passing the focus, giving up some of your own glory to help others shine.

1) Embrace their character concept — A player wants his necromancer to be dark and mysterious, so try and play like he is, no matter how badly that player sells it. Give him the benefit of the doubt and buy into the character concept he is trying for, don’t disregard it because “you’re not convinced.” If you embrace the concept you will make it easier for that person to play better.

2) Play up their talents — Much like embracing their character concept, mentioning things that another character is good at reinforces their character idea and makes it easier for them to play up their own strengths. Having clear strengths (or weaknesses) makes it easier to get a grip on the character. “Hmm, some kind of markings here in the mud. Redhawk you’re supposed to be the hotshot tracker, what can you make out of them?” The temptation is always to be the one to do things, particularly when the GM has already handed you the situation, but if something involves a trait that is more important to another character, roleplay passing it to them instead — not because they are more likely to succeed than you, but because it’s cool for them to do it.

3) Create soil for their issues — Help generate roleplaying situations that suit the other characters. If one character is supposed to be a bereaved paramour, start innocent discussions about how nice it is to be a family man. Be the straight man and lay ground work for the other character to step up and play into the spotlight.

4) Metagame your tactics to let them win — You just finished off your own opponent, and this round you could snipe the badly-wounded evil prince with an arrow and take him out, but your buddy has been dueling the creep for rounds. Dramatically he deserves the kill, or at least a chance at the kill. Don’t just check out of the fight or leave him hanging if he needs help, but maybe delay and let him go first, or attack another secondary opponent instead of stealing the kill. [The opposite case is the one where your fellow player would enjoy roleplaying having his kill stolen, but that's less likely.]

5) Call in other characters — When you are in a scene where the characters are split up, roleplay calling in other player characters for help. “Alien DNA? Look, I just work here sister. You better call Doc Huxley.” This can be a sub-case of referring to other character’s talents, but you also might just bring them in for rationalized reasons (“Liz got us into this, she better think of a way to get us out!”). The alternative is to remain passive and let the GM control when characters join the scene, but prompting the GM to pass the focus to another character who isn’t getting any at the moment is a good constructive move.

Help others play better and you’ll find you’re in a better game overall — more fun for them and more fun for you. Next time it might be them helping you.

Three Sins of Players

Gaming is a social contract. Everyone has agreed to show up and spend their time participating to the best of their abilities.

Just as the GM has agreed to not (intentionally) create a situation which automatically wipes out the party, or precipitously violate the framework of the imaginary world by having German tanks roll out of the Elven woods, _you_ the player agree to try to play the game, and to play it in a way that not only satisfies your own creative urges but also works for everyone else who has committed to spending their time this way.

There are three ways a player can violate this agreement. They are the three sins of players:

being a passive audience
being a saboteur
being a critic

Passive audiences listen more than they take action. They sit quietly while the GM describes the scene, but then just keep sitting quietly when they are supposed to participate.

Saboteurs take actions or raises issues that block the game. They may adhere to a strict character concept that doesn't permit them to actually go on the adventure (slavish roleplaying) or they may do things like go on spontaneous solo missions and leave the other players sitting waiting.

Critics points out flaws in the game. They might be rules lawyers or plot perfectionists, or just the people who needless point out how much the game seems derivative of some movie or book they read (double points for any comparison to Star Trek).

These sins are often rooted in the best of intentions. Very few players intend to harm the game, but misguided help can result in harm.

By being interested in the story of the game and listening attentively to what the GM tells you, you risk being a passive audience. After all, no GM likes a group that can't sit still for a minute and listen to a description.

By including conflicts and dilemmas or adhering to your character concept, you risk being a saboteur. A good roleplayer wants an interesting character, and an interesting character enhances the game. A completely bland character can fit anywhere, but what's the point?

By wanting the game to be better and pointing out possible improvements, you risk being a critic. The flaws in the game may be quite serious and need fixing. Most GMs will claim they would prefer to get this kind of feedback rather than have the players suffer in silence (and potentially get sick of the game).

These positive behaviors are valuable and even essential for games, so it isn't so easy to just say “oh well I'll never do that.” You may start helping the game and slip into committing a gaming sin before you know it. I'm never guilty of being passive, rarely a saboteur, but probably a critic more than I should be — a sin that stems from my constant urge to improve the game.

What about you?