How to make role-playing a fun experience!
This section is supposed to give you some advice on how to get the most out of a RPG. It’s only advice; there are many ways how to run a game and how to enjoy it. Sometimes your own preferences change, along with the situation or the people involved.
So the following text is not a sacred guideline. If you feel that some elements don’t agree with you, then by all means leave them out. Find your own path.
The very first rule of playing a RPG is this: Have fun!
Enter a new world, take your own place in it and live out a great adventure. Combat evil and stare victoriously at the fallen bad guy! Rescue the princess, marry her and live happily ever after!
As I said, have a lot of fun!
I can just see eyebrows rising on the faces of the readers, after this joyous introduction about RPG sessions being fun. Now here I go, telling you it’s work. And lots of it, to boot.
The game master has to prepare each session (and more sessions ahead), which requires her to draw maps, create NPCs, create the settings and major plot points. She has to think about ways for the party to reach the goals she’s set – and she also has to consider how the party could lead itself astray. After all, she probably has to deal with players who differ greatly not only from the GM’s perception but also from each other. So, rather than go to the temple the GM has earmarked for the adventure, they might prefer to check out the mountain range beyond. Here the game master has to insert something to keep them occupied (whilst trying to make them finally head over to the temple).
The GM also has to prepare to generate the right atmosphere during the session. That means she has to think up portions of the flavor text she wants to use, create idiosyncrasies and certain speech patterns for the NPCs, everything to make the game come alive for the players.
On the other hand, the players also ought to prepare for each session. They have their characters, and they need to play them the right way. Although some characteristics they have already decided when creating the characters, they might want to think over what has happened during the last session and what the GM might have in store for them. A player should also contribute in making the game come alive; his character should be a full-bodied person, not just an abstract bearing the player’s own name.
Now that’s what I call work.
So when is the fun part starting?
That’s during the session, when all the prepared parts fall together. The more everyone has prepared for the session, the more material each contributes, the richer the session becomes. When the players are fully in character, fully immersed in the game world, they begin to live the story – and that’s a whole bunch of fun. Promised!
During and after the session, each player will feel as if he has been the character in the story. All the achievements, all the setbacks, they are a part of himself – something he’ll gladly retell time and again.
The GM will feel relieved that the terror is over and scramble to restore some semblance of her gameplan, while preparing for the next session which will only drive the party further and further from her ideas, and… Uhhhhhh, ooooo-kayyy, that doesn’t sound quite ideal, now does it? The truth is, it doesn’t really matter how close the characters stay to the gameplan. As long as they are fully in character, the turn of events will seem perfectly natural and required. The GM will enjoy their moves, their discussions as much as the players themselves, and she’ll relish the chance to pay them back. Ehhh, I mean, be treated to another session…
(You probably guessed it: The writers have had more than one occasion to be the GM of a campaign with uppity players. And the fact that they went back to the gaming table is ample proof that it was a lot of fun. – Either that, or the writers enjoy being tortured.)
We’ve been using the word “session” a couple of times. What exactly do we mean by that?
Well, RPGs are most commonly played in the evening. The reason for that is quite simply that you have to arrange the schedules of several people, the GM and the players, so that they can meet. Most of the time, that turns out to be an evening, preferably Friday or Saturday night when you can stay up late and don’t have to worry about school or work the next day.
Most adventures run for more than one session. There’s also a tendency for adventures to blend into each other, the characters have barely had time celebrate their latest success when a new challenge presents itself – and off they go again. (As mentioned before, usually characters are run through a campaign which consists of several adventures strung after – or throughout – each other. Some people have been running the same characters in a single campaign for ten or twenty years. You can bet these folks really do know what their characters are about. Not to mention that the GM is a really good one, to keep the players going after such a long time.)
So the gaming group should meet regularly to keep the adventure/campaign going, keeping the memories of the last session fresh, and the excitement bubbling over. Perhaps the most ideal frequency is to meet once a week. Think of it as a tv show; it’s always on the same day, and you look forward to it all week.
There are quite a lot of ways to do this. You might go for the moody, atmospheric session, which means that you turn off the electric light and play by the illumination of candles. Remember summer camp when the group gathers around the camp fire in the dark, and someone tells scary stories? Remember how you were thrilled and imagined that monsters must be lurking in the shadows around you – even though you remember how peacefully quiet the woods were in daylight? Try to recreate that feeling in your living room; candles are perfect, as their flickering lights paints everchanging shadows on the walls that seem alive.
Play some music in the background which is suitable for a fantasy environment. (Personally, I like the Irish group Clannad. Theirs is a very earthy, classical sound, that easily puts you in the right mood for the game. If you can’t find any of their CDs – or don’t quite agree with their style -, you might want to check out movie scores. Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator soundtrack offers a very eclectic style that fits the game very well; for the dramatic moments you might pop Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall into the stereo, or one of the grandmaster’s Star Trek soundtracks. Of the latter, First Contact is the best in my opinion.)
One more idea in this category is to prepare some snacks that are more medieval. (This is very dependant on either being able to cook or having someone who is not only able but willing to take care of this chore.) Eschew the traditional chips and pretzels, try something a bit more hardy. Take a trip to the local library and see whether you can find something that isn’t too hard to take care of (and isn’t too disgusting). The food of the time was very different from today’s ideas.
Of course you can also ignore all the previous ideas and just keep the electric light turned on, listen to radio and scarf down on chips. After all, if a good movie can suck you into the story while you’re on your familiar couch, why shouldn’t a good GM manage the same?
intended both for the GM and the players.
What makes you tune into a tv show every week? Is it the pyrotechnics or the way the heroes solve their impossible missions?
I think that ultimately it is characters that pull you back each week and keep you glued to your seat the whole time. Think about your favorite tv series. What’s the first thing you remember? A spectacular action shot, or a one-liner of the hero? I’ll bet it’s one of those character moments. They still work after years, when the novelty of the action shot has worn off.
For instance when I recall the Italian westerns of the Sixties, the first thing I remember is one scene that had Clint Eastwood lighting his cigar, head bowed forward so you only see the hat and the cigar. Somebody challenges Eastwood’s character, and he slowly raises his head, puffs on the cigar and calmly looks at the challenger. In memory alone, that scene gives me a chill!
The scene above is called a character moment. If you can create something like that for your own character – it needs not be dramatic -, then you’ve reached an apex in your role-playing experience. That character moment you will treasure for a long time, believe me, and you’ll get the biggest thrill when others remember it as well!
The characters are also the most vital ingredient of a RPG. It’s not called role-playing game for nothing. The more rounded your characters are, the more you care about them and their well-fare. (Or in the case of bad guys, the more you want to see them meet their just desserts.)
How can you make your characters memorable?
Just running the cliché persona won’t cut it. If this is your first adventure, there isn’t much wrong with using the standard barbarian warrior for instance, but you’ll quickly see that this character is only one in a long line of identical clones.
As soon as you realize this, that’s the point when you should start thinking of fleshing out the character. He probably didn’t just appear as an adult in the game world, he has a history, and most likely a family. Think up that history. How did the character wind up in this party of adventurers? Is there something he is running away from? Or does he pursue something? Is the party a stepping stone to achieving his goal, or just a way to pass the time?
If you set up such a goal, there are a few more questions: Does the character keep it secret? (If so, why?) What will happen when the others find out about it? The relationships with the other characters in the party might be influenced. Does the character truly value the others as his friends, or is he ready to discard them the first moment he can reach for his goal? And if he values them, might they turn out to be obstacles?
You can already see how this will continue. Each question answered offers a new set of questions until you have lined up a decently rounded, new vision of your character. And you’ll also have to play the character differently, taking into account that history.
Of course your character isn’t likely to spend every second thinking about his background. (How often do you think about what happened two years ago?) But there’s a general tendency, influencing his view of things, shifting him a little aside from the standard. A few words here and there, strategically placed, should raise the interest of your fellow players and make them realize there is more to that tall barbarian than meets the eye.
Then there are character quirks. These are habits of a character that may or may not influence the game; but they certainly are part of the character – if you play them as such. You really should, it makes the character more rounded.
Think up a certain catch phrase the character likes to use. For instance, whenever he is about to go into battle, the wizard grins and says, “Let’s put a little fire into these fellas.” Repeat it a few times, at the proper times, and you might wind up with a beloved catch phrase that your fellow players will just be waiting for.
Or your character could be a lazy one. Play him as such, use every opportunity to portray him as the guy who’d just rather stay in the tavern than go out to do anything.
The laziness could very well impede the adventure – and thus anger your fellow players. Not to mention that you might anger yourself, since you want to see the adventure, too. Rather than forgetting about the laziness of the character, you should figure out some reasons how your character can be forced into action. Maybe he’s in love with the party’s priestess; whenever she suggests something, he’s ready to go into action. (Of course the others will quickly find out what is going on, and they are likely to rib your character about it. Think how he’ll react – and enjoy how the player of the priestess character will react.) Maybe the character’s backstory offers a clue what could motivate him – a common goal, perhaps?
(Check out the Advantages and Disadvantages section in the Player’s Handbook for more examples.)