30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Fifteen to Nineteen

Never fear, I haven’t abandoned the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge. But last week became busier than anticipated, so once again you get a blog post covering the last several days. I promise, tomorrow we go back to one topic a day. Until then, pour yourself a coffee and enjoy.

Memorable villains: how do you introduce and weave the antagonist/s into the ongoing narrative?

Whether I’m running a pre-written adventure or something I’ve put together, I spend a lot of time figuring out the villain. If the player characters are the heroes of the story, they deserve a villain that challenges and, if possible, scares the bejesus out of them. I have three main tips for making the villain memorable.

1. The villain wants the opposite of what the characters want – Seems pretty straightforward, right? But many people forget this very simple definition of antagonist, and give their villain some esoteric goal the players (and therefore characters) don’t care about. Tie your villain’s goals into the things important to you characters. If a character has loved ones, the villain must threaten them in some way. If a character is after a particular item, the villain wants it as well. If a character wants a specific person dead to avenge her family’s murder, that person is of particular importance to the villain and under his protection. The more specifically you can tie the villain’s desires into the characters’ stories, the more memorable he becomes. After all, any villain could want to destroy the world, but only yours needs to sacrifice villagers from the characters home town (including the character’s family) to do it.

2. A villain is known by the company she keeps – Every memorable villain has had memorable lieutenants, someone to lead the minions into battle. Sauron had the Witch King and the Riders; Goldfinger had Oddjob; Emporer Palpatine had Darth Vader. Yes, each also had scads of less memorable minions, but the trusted servants all stick in the mind. Why is that important? Well, if the lieutenant is powerful and scary it offers you two things as a GM. First, if the characters haven’t encountered the main villain yet, they might mistake the mook for the boss. Which makes for a fine bit of surprise when they discover the truth. And second, when the truth is revealed the villain seems that much more frightening because she is controlling (even if just barely) the already frightening lieutenant. This reveal is particularly fun if the characters are still a ways off from being a match for the main villain, because it drives home how serious their situation is and what they might need to achieve to finally win out. Yes, it takes a bit more work, but trust me, exciting mooks make for memorable bad guys.

3. Pass the salt, it’s time to chew some scenery – You can be excused for not coming up with distinctive personalities for every goblin or thug the party encounters. But when it comes to the main villain, now is the time to pull out all the stops! The first time they encounter him, the box text should lay thick with description. The villain should have a distinctive voice and style, a way of talking and acting that is clearly theirs and no one else’s. Give them a catch phrase, a specific vocal quality (a lisp, a rasp, or a higher/lower pitch), or have them speak only in the characters’ minds. Maybe the room gets noticeably hotter/colder when they enter. Maybe there’s a distinctive smell that accompanies their arrival and lingers after they’ve gone; I had a villain who kept bees, and so a sweet smell would linger after he’d left a room. Maybe their eyes glow with a sickly green flame whenever they cast spells or become enraged (which they should become around the characters often). The point is, now is not the time to be subtle. Once the villain has chosen to reveal himself he should be larger than life and scarier than death. So pull out all your acting chops, and make sure the characters never forget him.

Investigation and mysteries: how do you use foreshadowing, red herrings, and keep the tension rising?

Investigation and mysteries can be some of the hardest things to pull off in a role-playing game. Too often GMs tie clues into the result of Knowledge checks, which can work if your party has the needed skills. But what if no one has Knowledge (engineering)? Do they just not get the architectural clue left by a previous builder?

One of the best games I’ve found for investigative scenarios is the Gumshoe System, by Robin D. Laws. In Gumshoe, the basic clue will always be found by a character with an appropriate skill. So if you took Art History and the clue is hidden in an old painting, you will discover that clue and keep the story going. However, you can choose to spend points from your skill to get more information and reveal even more important clues. Therefore the story never gets bogged down because there is always a way to find a clue, and your skills are still useful because they can get you additional information.

I’ve carried that same idea back to my Pathfinder games. I now modify Knowledge and Perception checks in such a way that beating a relatively low DC (5 or 10) will get you the minimum  information necessary to keep the investigation going. But achieving better results (beating a higher DC) gains the player more information and an edge on solving the mystery. After all, while some of the fun lies in discovering the clues, most of the fun in an investigation comes from putting those clues together. In order to do that, you have to make it a little easier for players to find them.

Putting clues together leads us into red herrings. I use them sparingly, because I’ve found through experience that sending players to constantly chase their tails is more frustrating than fun. So at most I’ll include a couple of false leads in the investigation. But I think they can be useful. Red herrings add a bit of realism to your investigation; every investigation suffers from the occasional bad witness or clue that goes no where. They also help point up the fact that other things are happening in your world that don’t directly involve the characters. But if you do use them, I suggest making them relatively easy to sort out. It’s okay to use a red herring to send the characters on a fruitless chase through the village, for instance. But don’t send them on a fruitless chase across a continent. Doing so will only frustrate your players and make them feel like their characters can’t impact the world around them.

To raise tension in my games, I find it useful to construct events that happen when the characters aren’t present. Like all good ghost stories, the most frightening things are the ones that happen when you aren’t looking, or just catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye. In the same way, having the players encounter the results but not the thing causing the results allows you to build tension. If they enter a room and see that the stone wall has been pitted and scored, they may know they are dealing with acid. But from what? An NPC throwing vials of acid? Some sort of acid spitting creature? OMG A BLACK DRAGON!? Showing them effects without apparent cause allows you to use the players’ imaginations against them, and that can be a powerful tool.

Structure and time: how do you use flashbacks, cut scenes, and parallel narratives in your games?

Flashbacks – Flashbacks can be a great tool for spicing up the presentation of box text. While it doesn’t always fit, presenting key moments as a flashback helps tie the characters further into your world. For example, the party approaches the ancient tower they’ll spend a great deal of time exploring. At this point I could launch into standard descriptive text and ask for various Knowledge checks. Instead, I wait to hear the results of the various checks and using the results as a guide, I do a flashback for each character that provides information about the tower. So a Knowledge (history) check results in a character recalling a portion of a lesson from an old tutor. A Knowledge (local) check might flashback to the inn the night before, and an old codger recounting tales and rumours about the tower. Not only do you get the information across to the players, but you make their checks part of the world you’ve crafted, instead of just dice rolls. You’ve also set up possible NPCs for later; if the old codger’s rumours turn out to be true, maybe the party checks in with him before their next dungeon sortie.

Cut Scenes – I use cut scenes to deliver information or setting/plot flavour to the players, which their characters might not yet know. Often your players will wonder aloud about certain aspects of the campaign; what the villain is actually up to, who the next victim might be, and so on. While you can just keep your mouth shut and let them speculate, done properly a cut scene can give them a bit of answer to those questions, while tantalizing them by producing more questions. For instance, if the game so far has featured a series of brutal murders, you might give the players a cut scene featuring a young man leaving his workplace and walking home. As he makes his way down the darkened streets, a shadow detaches from a nearby alleyway and begins following the boy. As the young man turns at a noise behind him, there’s the flash of a dagger and the boy screams…! End scene. The next day, in game, a boys body is found and the players are presented with more clues to follow. As you are presenting “meta-knowledge” to your players, though, you have to gauge whether your players can handle having that information without warping their characters’ behaviour. I use cut scenes primarily as a treat for the players, so I don’t want their characters suddenly acting on knowledge they don’t have. In my example above, if the characters just start acting like the weapon used was a dagger when that hasn’t been established in play, then that is meta-gaming and not allowed. But, if the players use the cut scene as a spur to more closely investigate the wounds and the weapon used, which leads them to a dagger, then they are using “meta-knowledge” correctly.

Parallel Narrative – Parallel narrative is a device similar to cut scenes.  As a tool it will be the one most familiar to the players, as it is used extensively throughout television. If nothing else, the inclusion of commercials turns every television broadcast into a series of cut scenes, albeit mostly bad ones. But where I will present a cut scene as a show the players can watch but not affect, parallel narrative involves one or more of the players directly. It is most often used when the party has split for some reason, as a way to keep the action moving forward while splitting the time evenly between the players. The key to running good parallel narrative, I’ve found, is always make the jump from one player to the next on a high point in the action. That can mean a cliff hanger (“The door squeals in protest as you open it, dust swirling at your feet. You see something move in the darkness beyond…and over to you, Bob.”) or waiting for the player to discover some important bit of plot (“As you finish reading the town ledger you realize it is the town reeve and not the mayor who was funnelling tax money to the cult. Think of what you’re going to do next, and we’ll go to Steve who just opened an unfortunate door.”). Make sure to mix things up. Too many cliff hangers dulls the effect; likewise, you don’t always want to give your players a lot of time to make plans without the rest of the party.

How do you handle rewards, be they XP, magic items, or gold?

I tend to modify rewards, whether tangible (gold, magic items, property) or intangible (exp. points or story awards), to more closely suit my players as well as my campaign. Most treasure in a pre-written adventure, for instance, is placed with the standard blend of fighter/mage/rogue/cleric in mind. But what if the party’s main combatant is a monk? After the second or third longsword or shield +1 the party finds, that player is likely to get frustrated. So I look very closely at my party blend, then go in and modify treasure accordingly. That doesn’t mean every treasure pile is going to have things perfectly suited to each character, because that would be ridiculous. But it does mean that occasionally the party will fight a monk NPC who wields a staff +1.

As far as suiting the treasure to the campaign world, I’ll take a page from the real-world and try to modify the cosmetics of the treasure to match my setting. After all, not every item is equally valuable everywhere. Before the Chinese made it so valuable to the West, jade was just another greenish rock. The Spanish looted much of South America for Aztec gold, but to the Aztec other more useful materials, like obsidian for weapon making, were more highly prized. Paper money is a perfect example of this; finding a bag containing millions of dollars is great, unless those dollars are Confederate currency. So while I still include the ubiquitous gold and silver coins in my treasure, I might also include a cannister of rare teas, bolts of silk, and jade figurines, if my setting was more oriental in flavour.

Intangible rewards, like experience points and story awards, can also be modified to rely at least partially on the characters and setting. One of the easiest ways to do this is to tie XP gain to resolving a situation or encounter, instead of connecting XP to successful combat. I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the players in my Kingmaker campaign is playing a paladin dedicated to finding peaceful solutions first. Which means tying XP just to successful combat will undermine his character concept. So instead, I’ve tied XP to encounter resolution instead of encounter elimination. I still expect many encounters will end with combat, and XP will be awarded as usual. But I’ll also award XP for resolving situations diplomatically, without combat. That will make the player happy, because his character is actually impacting the game world in the manner he prefers. And it also allows me to show the other players that they will still be rewarded even if they don’t go all “murder hobo” on every NPC they encounter.

As a side note, treasure is one of the few times I adhere closely to whatever encumbrance rules the game uses. While it can be tempting to just hand-wave the party walking around with thousands of gold pieces weighing hundreds of pounds, I actually think it adds possible encounter and story ideas to a campaign. Do the characters leave and come back with a cart in order to strip everything to the walls, hoping someone doesn’t stumble upon their now unguarded treasure trove? Do they leave someone behind to watch things, and what happens to that person while the rest of the party is gone? Or do they pick and choose, trusting to Appraise checks to help them snatch the best loot? And what do they do with the valuable statue, easily worth tens of thousands of gold pieces, but standing eight feet tall and weighing a tonne? Like most things I try not to go overboard, and make most of the treasure found relatively easy to transport. But it can be fun, as well as an easy way to keep players from creating over-powered characters, if you make treasure a bit harder to manage.

What was your worst session and why?

I racked my brain for a bit, trying to come up with a specific worst session to talk about. And I have to say, so far I seem to be lucky since I have no real stand-out bad sessions. Which isn’t to say I haven’t had bad sessions, every GM has (and will). Just nothing I can single out as the worst. But I can single out one particular type of player guaranteed to give me a bad GMing experience.

The Diva.

All players like to be the centre of attention every once in a while. The Diva starts that sentence with “I” and ends it sentence after “attention”. The Diva is the player that must be involved in everything; every role-playing moment, every turn of combat, every decision whether the player’s character is present for it or not. They have to have their say, sometimes interrupting the GM and other players, and they get offended and pouty when they don’t get their say or the party chooses to ignore it. I used to call this player type The Asshole, but many times the player in question can be a really nice person, acting the Diva out of a real or imagined sense the party needs their guidance. But even if they mean well, the Diva still bulldozes over everyone else’s play experience, making things less than fun at the table. Nowadays I largely encounter The Diva  at conventions. I’ve successfully weeded them out of my home campaigns; either I fix the problem (preferred), or that player doesn’t get invited back for another campaign.

How do you deal with a Diva? Make sure the Diva is very clear about what they are doing at any particular moment, then hold them to that. This is especially helpful if your Diva always seems to be at the back of the marching order when the potentially trapped door is opened, but is miraculously right at the front when combat starts. Or across the room when the potentialy trapped chest is opened, but within snatching distance once the loot is discovered. I’ve found that using miniatures along with clear house rules about each player being responsible for moving their mini and enforcing the “playing where it lies” rule clears up most of this problem. For non-combat encounters, have the Diva’s behaviour reflected in their character. If the Diva is constantly chiming in with their opinion during another players attempt at negotiation, for instance, then that is what the character is doing. And if it’s annoying to the player and GM, it should be annoying to the character and NPC involved, affecting the DC of the Diplomacy check. And if the Diva is just so far out of control those tactics don’t work, it’s time to take that player aside and explain what’s going on. Sometimes the Diva isn’t aware they’re being a Diva, so talking to them about their behaviour can often bring it under control. In certain situations, like a convention game where you don’t have time to be subtle, go with this last step first. It may result in the Diva being sulky or even leaving, but it will keep the entire table from having a bad table experience.

Okay, I promise, starting tomorrow we go back to one topic a day. Both for my sanity and yours. In the meantime, if you have anything to add or any questions about the topics above, please drop me a note in the comments.