Friday, March 20, 2015

Mightier Than the Sword

I've lamented in the past (and mentioned here in this blog) my total lack of aptitude for the arts & crafts that would make my RPGs better. Stuff like being able to draw good maps, paint minis, or just hand-make various visual and play aids. That's just not what I do, and any attempts to do so usually end up in either a crappy product or an unfinished one.

So now I'm trying a different approach. Instead of frustrating myself by whining over the skills I don't have, I'm going to try to take a more pro-active approach and use the skill I do have. That skill is writing. I'm not saying I'm the best writer ever or anything, but I've got two degrees in it, a wealth of experience, and even a little publishing under my belt. That's gotta count for something, right?

Here are some of the tricks I have employed in the past and intend to employ in the future of my games to exploit my writing skills and make the best overall RPG adventure session I can. If any of my fellows in the "society of letters" (that's "writers" for you non-hipsters out there) have any suggestions on other techniques, please share!

1. Read-aloud text: GMing 101 usually says the last thing a GM should ever do is read a bunch of sentences out loud to the players. Even most adventures that do have read aloud text are almost apologetic about it, emphatically emphasizing that "you don't have to do this" or "you can paraphrase it however you like." Whenever I write my own adventures, however, I absolutely load the sumbitches with read aloud text: any time a player enters an important scene or meets an important NPC, I usually have about three to five sentences ready to recite to the players. Now, read aloud text certainly can be a bad thing, if a) The text isn't a reflection of your GMing style or speech patterns, and b) You read it blandly, like you just got called in on Social Studies class to read the next section in the textbook. If you craft your sentences carefully, using words you actually use in regular conversation, and you read them in an energetic, enthusiastic delivery, read aloud text can actually be a very potent GMing technique.

2. Scene-based, narrative combat: This is a move I've seen floating around on the Internet, as well as explicitly utilized in games like Fate Core. Instead of a combat grid with one-inch squares, grab a stack of index cards. Each card is a zone in the scene. On each card, write the name of a location within the scene (e.g. "Throne room") and beneath that title, some descriptors of stuff in that zone (e.g. "Giant golden throne on a raised dias.") Finally, position the index cards in a relative position to each other...if the Audience Hall is south of the Throne Room, then put the Audience Hall card beneath the Throne Room card. Instead of tracking literally every step the PCs make, you simply say they can move one zone on their turn, with certain special abilities allowing you to maybe move two or more zones. If a PC (or NPC) wants to utilize a feature in that zone ("I smash the guard's head into a Stone Column in the Audience Hall!") you house rule it appropriately.

I haven't actually used this technique yet, but it sounds really useful, and I personally would much rather deal with the vagaries of this system than maps and minis. That is, of course, my preference based on my style of game; your mileage may vary, and even at my table, if we are intentionally playing a more tactical game, I'd probably just do it the normal way. How this caters to my strengths in writing is that this approach keeps everything firmly within the theater of the mind, communicated with words and not physical things. Again: not necessarily a better technique flat-out, but definitely a better technique for me and what I try to commonly do at the table.

3. Aspects: One of the single best mechanics that has ever come out in the history of tabletop gaming is the Aspect, as currently used in Fate Core. An aspect, for those of you who don't know, is a short phrase or sentence that describes an important detail about the game you're running. It can be part of a character (Loose-cannon cop), a place (Burned-out crack den), or even an idea (Survive, by any means necessary). Basically, a player can use a Fate Point to "invoke" an Aspect, allowing him or her to reroll the dice, take a small bonus to the roll they already made, or create/edit a detail in the story based on that Aspect. Likewise, the GM can "compel" an Aspect, creating problematic siutations or complications with those Aspects and giving the affected players a Fate Point for their trouble.

What's so awesome about this mechanic is that it gives words real power. If you're chasing a thief down a muddy alley, that muddy alley could suddenly cause a big problem for you (or the thief!) Yes, other games can do this, but the Aspect mechanics specifically calls out to the details of the narrative. Thanks to Aspects, you're not just getting a +2 circumstance bonus to your Athletics check; you're calling out the fact that you have dwarf-crafted climbing gear! 

So, writer-GMs, convert this Aspect mechanic to every game you play. Surprisingly, D20 handles it quite well: my current infatuation game Mutants & Masterminds uses a "complication" system that's essentially the same thing. A reroll is a small but potent reward or penalty, and that can be worked into damn-near any RPG without completely breaking it. And you can control the amount of times an Aspect can be tapped through the use of Fate Points or Plot Points or whatever, starting the PCs off with one at the beginning of the session and giving them more as rewards for roleplaying, creative problem solving, and, of course, compelling those Aspects against them!

4. Scripts: This is another technique I haven't tried yet but am eager to pull out at the next session. To convey cutscenes and "away from the camera" interactions between NPCs that are of plot significance to the group, I'm going to whip up a quick, two-or-three page script in Celtx. I'm going to assign the parts to different players at the table and read the narrator bits myself. This, I think, is a fun way to emulate plot points that aren't happening directly in the player's perception. The specific instance I'm going to use this technique in is in the next Mutants & Masterminds adventure I run. In it, mutant rats have taken hostages in a shopping mall. After I describe the situation to the PCs, we're going to table-read a short scene where a few of the rats talk about how "everything is in place" and "they're ready for any meddling superheroes." No real spoilers or plot info in it; just a little scene-setting to let the players know what they're in for! I have high hopes, I think it's going to be fun.

5. Letters and emails: If you're a writer, and you want to utilize your writing skills at the table, then the most direct and simple way to do that is to let the players read your writing! I do this a lot in Cthulhu games. Emails between NPCs and letters sent back and forth to each other is a common clue in an Ed Gibbs Lovecraftian game. When the investigators find them, I crack open my folder and hand paper copies to the players and let them read. This technique has to be used sparingly, as you don't want your players to have to read a friggin' novel at the table, but when used correctly, it provides that tangibility of having a real clue in your hands, and it puts your writing skills right in the spotlight.

So that's all I have for now, but as I said before: please share with me your tips on how to emphasize writing skill at the table!

1 comment:

  1. In my blog I too am searching for a balance between writing and RPG. It is treacherous waters I confess.