Table Reflection: Learning to Roll With It

Get it, because tabletop games usually involve dice?

Sorry, I figured I’d break the ice with a pun.

Moving on into more serious matters, tabletop gaming is one of my major hobbies-it’s cheap, entertaining, and social. Even though a lot of people who do it are often falsely labeled as anti-social (after all, who gets together to celebrate oft-violent narratives?) and some are rather accurately labeled as anti-social, I know a lot of great guys through the hobby, some of whom I’ve met online and some of whom I’ve met in person.

My Table Reflection series will focus on a number of things; general GM and player advice in particular, though I’ll also touch on storytelling and the industry in general (though usually you’ll see stuff about the industry itself outside this). First, I feel that I should give some background for myself. If you don’t want to read this, skip to the bullet point below.

I’ve been seriously involved in roleplaying games for about three or four years now (though I’ve had an interest in collaborative storytelling for about forever, and my first exposure was significantly before that. I really started playing about the same time I started reviewing tabletop games, and I’m a featured reviewer on DriveThruRPG (and will continue to be until I write something big enough to become a conflict of interest). I write games as well, and you can find some games I’ve written on 1km1kt or GameChef 2012 (I didn’t get an entry done this year). I’ve primarily run Shadowrun, both Third and Fourth Edition (I’m tentatively excited for Fifth Edition), though I have familiarity with D&D, Pathfinder, and a variety of d20 games, as well as the many games I’ve reviewed over the years. In short, I don’t have a huge amount of time under my belt (about eight years from my first game to the time of writing), especially compared to a veteran gamer, but I’ve done a lot of GM’ing (I’m the guy who my friends come to and say “So, have you ever heard of [game]?” and then ask me to run it when I acknowledge that I indeed have) and a fair bit of playing.

  • This is where you want to skip to if you just want to read the article.

One of the biggest things that my players ask me about is how things happen in my mind when I’m running a game, particularly those who are planning to become a Game Master themselves some day. The truth of the matter is that I don’t really prepare a whole lot of stuff ahead of time. I think about it, and I have an idea of where I’ll go, but I tend to be pretty loose with it, and there’s a number of reasons for this.

  1. The more I write down in concrete, the less my players get to.
  2. As a GM, my job is to tell a story. Not the story, a story.
  3. I give my players lots of options-I can’t foresee everything they do, so it’s better to work differently than just writing “And then…”.

One of my players started his own game of Shadowrun because he’d loved mine so much, and I came back to play in it as well as another player that had become a GM (actually, everyone in his game was from that first group). The thing we immediately noticed, as GM’s ourselves, was that he had written the plot out ahead of time, and nothing we could do would change it. The NPC’s were nigh-immortal* and capable of killing us in one shot if need be. Needless to say, at least the two of us didn’t enjoy the campaign all that much (especially when it played fast-and-loose with mechanics and setting), though there were some good moments before our ignominious and sudden deaths.

I’m guilty of pretty much the same thing. Fortunately, I did this to a much smaller scale, in part because of a little product by John Wick called “Play Dirty“.  Let me preface this by saying that it’s not a GM master guide that’ll turn you perfect-that depends on you and your group, and I’ve still had players quit in a fury because of things I’ve done. However, even if you don’t want to pay for a book, read a ton of stuff before you get started-most games include a “GM Basics” section or something along those lines that walk you through stuff.

The key part of GM’ing, though, is learning to roll with it. Your role as the GM is not to kill the players, nor force them through the story. You’re not a video game or a movie where you can subtly or not-so-subtly force the plot in certain ways, you’re a person describing situations. This is why my preparation consists of what I call “timelining”. Simply, instead of deciding what happens in a session before the players roll, I simply figure out what is going on in the background. For instance, when clearing out the cave full of bandits, there could be an enemy raid on the main city. I write the broad narrative hooks, not the little things-if you have a scripted adventure planned, that’s fine, but you need to give the players supporting characters and good motivators that will lead them along that path-having players slay the dragon to save the village is a lot more reliable than trying to get them to slay the dragon without anything at stake.

Another policy I recommend is to be a hundred percent flexible. I don’t have any plot-armored characters other than the PC’s, and I get good feedback for this. Don’t like your boss? Leave him. I don’t always telegraph to my players that these options are available, because obviously the more they move from the characters I’m working with, the more work I have to do.

Currently, I’m running a Shadowrun campaign, and the players are in the employ of a powerful mage, named Smith (creativity!). He’s a really deep character (I tend to add a paragraph or two to a character’s bio every time they feature in a session), who is fighting against a cult and keeps them on as muscle and investigators. However, he also does things that look really morally ambiguous to the players-the cult is conjuring Shedim, who possess corpses and turn them into classic undead zombies. Their motives are still unknown to the players (none of them have the arcane knowledge or background to identify Shedim, but they are aware of the Shedim), and Smith is known for sudden and unexpected violence-not to mention having a cage full of undead. He is, of course, a protagonist, who is studying the Shedim to better ward against them, and he is disgusted and terrified by the cult, which justifies his frequent and overt hostilities against any members he encounters, but the players really don’t like him all that much.

Smith almost died when he was introduced and the troll opened up with a machine-gun. 8 dice of Heavy Weapons against 8 dice of magically boosted Reaction, and he got the luckier roll. Had he not, he would be decomposing right now. Of course, the cult would still be working, and when everything happened, the players would be in the dark.

Their next mission? An affiliate of the cult will ask them to kill Smith. That’s all I’ve got so far, and all I really need.

*50+ damage reduction dice, in Shadowrun 4th.

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