In roughly two sessions I’m going to wrap up my first stint as GM for our role playing group. And, while I did own the original set of Dungeons and Dragons, I didn’t really play until a few years ago. And, it was time to try my hand at running a game, so that only took 30 years or so to accomplish. With my time as GM (for now) coming to a close, I’ve been thinking a bit about what I’ve learned.
I mentioned previously that my latest attempt to explain role playing games to non-players is that it’s cooperative storytelling between the GM, who acts as the ruleskeeper and owns the general flow of the story and the players who give the story its energy.
Unfortunately, it’s still true that people who haven’t played any roleplaying games (RPGs) may have some unfortunate cliches in their heads about what a game is like or what the players are like. Yes, it’s probably more guys than girls. Yes, there may be snacks involved. But what it does not include is a bunch of anti-social folks. It’s been my pleasure to discover that role-playing gamers are, in fact, highly social and get to use this opportunity to act and act out in ways they would no in day-to-day life. They stretch their imaginations and engage with the storytelling to flesh out a character with motivations and backstory for the nearly sole purpose of entertaining each other and ourselves.
A game without good players would be torture for a GM and having a GM who can’t tell a good story would be unpleasant for the players. When those two meet, it’s amazing fun.
Crunchy versus Fluffy -or- Roll Playing versus Role Playing
One of the ways players describe game systems is based on whether there is a great deal of number crunching, stats and calculation (crunch) versus a focus on story and playing the roles of the characters (fluffy). Different systems come down on various places on that spectrum.
I won’t claim to be an expert on systems. I’ve only played a few: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (4th Edition), Savage Worlds, Warhammer 40k RPG and now Dragon Age. The common element in each is the use of some combination of dice to help determine the odds of success of a variety of actions and characters (somewhat) defined by a set of skills or powers which help define what they can do well.
Dragon Age, the system I am GMing right now, is a light system in terms of rules. Dungeons and Dragons (4th Edition) has many, many books and the body of knowledge that make up the system is probably measured in the multiple hundreds of pages. And, by the way, that’s a lighter system than some prior versions. Dragon Age, on the other hand, has two small books, one for the Player and one for the GM, each of which is only 64 pages of good-sized type and 25 pages of the GM book is the starter adventure. So, Dragon Age definitely is “rules light”. This is a good thing for me because it means I don’t have to worry about knowing the minutae of a system that has accreted over a decade or more. Plus, it means I start on even footing with the players since this system is new to all of us. This is a good thing!
At the same time, it does mean that some of the things that are covered by very specific rules in some systems (how to handle flanking, aiding someone in a test are two examples) are left unmentioned in this system. That means it’s up to the me, the GM, to determine whether those concerns are in play for us. I’ve tried to come down on the side of common sense approaches, but also tried to keep things light and keep the game moving and, ultimately, keep it fun!
Rails versus Sandbox
Another characteristic of these kinds of games is whether stories take place “on rails” or not. The issue here is whether there is room for the players to go off those rails and do something completely unexpected by the GM or whether the GM has to struggle with the players to keep them on the story the GM wants to tell.
In our current over-arching campaign, which will come to a close (at least for now) after about six months, the players have only once threatened to take things off the rail but, in the end, they came down on the side of letting me know that they were willing to defer their desire to seek revenge against someone they perceived had wronged them until a later date – but they wanted that revenge eventually!
The reality is, there’s a bit of a dance between the GM and the players with respect to them walking the path the GM has laid out for them, at least in my limited experience.
Imagine the case where the Party has found a Temple which the GM intends they explore for riches and fame. On one hand, the Party could look at that and decide that they have suddenly become risk averse and that they’d rather go back home to the Inn and drink. Hopefully the GM has given them some motivation for why they find themselves at this Temple. Perhaps it’s to search out some magical artifact which will save the world. Perhaps it’s to rescue the mayor’s daughter and save her from a terrible end. But, at the end of the day, the Party has to be willing to walk that path. By that same token, the GM has to be flexible when the Party does things which were unexpected. That’s definitely an area I need to grow in, but I think I’ve done alright. Again, if you come down on the side of keeping the game moving and keeping it fun, odds are you’ll be okay.
The Connective Tissue
In my campaign, I’ve leveraged a number of existing modules or adventures to form much of the meat of the campaign. This is valuable, at least for me, because I’m new to being a GM and my tendency is to write alot of stuff down where a more experienced GM might have been just fine with some notes and general sense of the arc of the story they wanted to tell. So, there’s no way I could have produced all the content that we consumed, so leveraging existing content and adapting as necessary became critical for me.
But, while I did use that existing content, I also created a fair bit of connecting tissue to customize for my players.
For example, in the very first adventure, they decided, as a team, to ransom some kids who, in their defense, had already been kidnapped – and their dad was kind of a ass anyway, so he sort of had it coming. They ransomed these kids back to their parents, made some cash and went on their way. Now, if this was a simple stand-alone adventure, there would really not have been any consequences from their actions. But, given that I knew this was going to be a six-month or so run, I decided that there would, indeed, be consequences. So, as an interlude between that adventure in the next, they discovered there was a price on their heads and that bounty hunters were on their trail. So, that recurring theme of consequences and this very powerful guy who wanted their heads for ransoming his kids continued to play throughout the campaign.
In another example, the bad guy in one of their other adventures was a shape-shifting magic user who was behind some political upheaval that the Party helped settle. Unfortunately, they came down on the side opposite this magic user so in terms of the game, at that point, they became mortal enemies and that bad guy continues to plague them as well. In fact, at the end of the last adventure, he showed again to assassinate one of the characters as way to turn up the drama and the revenge element. To add immediacy, he also left a note which appeared to implicate the very powerful figure from the first adventure.
I also enjoyed creating an adventure that involved one of the characters being put on trial by his people for acting contrary to their cultural/military philosophies. I also took the time to effectively split the Party so while one was on Trial, he was aided in court by one of the other Party members. Meanwhile, the daughter of the innkeeper was kidnapped for dark purposes and the rest of the Party had to get to the bottom of that. In the end, their success in rescuing the girl helped work in favor of the trial results, so it all connected by the time it was done. I really enjoyed the world building in that one because it all came from my own head.
All of this leads in to this final adventure that the Party has just started. The goal with this has been to put their own interest in revenge and profit at odds with a larger threat against not only them but their entire land. Dragon Age wants to be not about the black and white choice, but about the grey areas in between, so I thought it would be fun to put them in a position where they have to choose to either act in the greater good or in favor of their more base interests and instincts. Either way, I have to be prepared to allow them to play out either scenario. This means I may have spent hours preparing parts of this adventure which may not happen if they choose to behave in a way contrary to how I might like them to choose, but that’s the compromise if I don’t want to story to be simply on rails.
I also had a very good time creating both the content and some real-world artifacts.
When the Party got involved in the kidnapping and ransom, I had them hunted by Bounty Hunters. That led to them finding their wanted poster.
I was ridiculously proud when one of the guys wanted to take it home to show his wife.
When one of their Party was put on Trial, he was served with a letter which was sealed with a wax seal with the sigil of his house which I made from scratch and carved just for that purpose.
The letter used language and words that were a combination of made-up by me but also largely leveraging an online table of known words from the Dragon Age games to give it the feel being of that world.
I realize these are the kinds of things I might not do for every time I’m a GM, but I loved making things to try and enhance the world that we played in by connecting it to the real world of things.
The Big Bad
As I look back over the last six months, I do notice that there are parallels between how I structured their adventures and similar structures in popular media. Kind of like a season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer or X-Files, there have been a series of largely one-off adventures but providing the connective tissues between have been adventures and interludes which attempt to tie it all together in to one, larger, over-arching story. I even borrowed the idea of a “Big Bad”, a large, powerful and possibly nefarious character who seems to be hellbent on their destruction. The reality might not be so black and white, but I wanted them to feel as though their actions have consequences and their actions don’t take place in a few short sessions and have no connection from one adventure to the next. I don’t know how successful I’ve been, but it’s been a lot of fun trying to weave these stories together so there is some connection and larger arc and trying to bring all that has come before together and culminate with a face-off with their nemesis and leave up to them whether they try to kill him or choose to work with him for a potentially larger good. In any case, it plays out really well in my head!
All Good Things
‘there is an end to everything, to good things as well’
Odds are, when we wrap up this latest adventure, it will bring to a close the story of these characters and this Party. I realize that for many in my group, they go through characters and they’re fine more or less suspending their stories and knowing that they may never get to continue with this particular character.
I’ve enjoyed watching them discover their characters, watching them inhabit them and give them life and idiosychrasies.
Gorgar is a Qunari (imagine a beefy seven foot tall guy with giant ram horns on his head – his society is martial and pretty socialist) and is an agent of a foreign power, only working with the rest of the Party to seek our intel for his government to help plan an eventual invasion. He observes and takes notes in a small notebook when something interesting or surprising happens that challenges his cultural assumptions.
Tarrant is a swaggering Lothario and sometimes reluctant leader of the Party. He is more interested in seeking out creature comforts than killing things. He is particularly proud of his codpiece.
Lanaya is an elf (elves in this world are second-class citizens) who has had a tough life, often mistreated. But she is also a terrific bowman and sniper and the sharpest senses of the Party. It is often she who detects surprises before they happen. She looks out for her brother, Tarrant.
Matty is a little, old lady and a hedge mage. She has to keep her powers quiet because unlicensed magic is a Bad Thing in this world. But, as she is elderly, she never sees things first and often sleeps through the early rounds of combat because she has a tendancy to sleep on her horse and is very difficult to wake. She is hard of hearing and has it out for dogs. She seems to have taken a liking to Gorgar, often climbing atop him during a fight.
Duska was our Dwarf. She was crazy and always first to enter a fight and not afraid of taking things head-on despite unfavorable odds. In fact, she was probably congenitally incapable of calculating odds, so she always came down on the side of hitting things. She was killed just as she was reunited with a long lost member of her family.
Gerrold is Duska’s son and rides in her place for revenge against those who done her wrong. Gerrold is sweet and prefers to hug things rather than hitting them. But, he’s a brawler and when wearing his bladed bracers (a gift from his mother), he’s sort of deadly. On the other hand, he suffers from a bit of irritable bowel syndrome and can “go off” in a way that’s equally debilitating to the bad guys as well as his Party. Additionally, he thinks he’s an excellent musician, but he’s not. The Party is actively trying to steal his instrument and/or destroy it on a regular basis.
As you can imagine, I had next to nothing to do with forming these characters, they’re entirely out of the imaginations and psyches of the Players and they are a ton of fun to spend time with.
When we wrap this up, we’ll have spent roughly 16 nights of at least four hours together, so 60-70 hours spent in this world with these characters (and they are characters!). I suspect I will miss them and will certainly miss helping to tell their stories.