Content of the article: "How to: run games (and actually run’em good)"
- 1 Be a fan of the PCs
- 2 Think dangerous
- 3 Never try to solve out-of-game problems with in-game methods
- 4 Address the characters, but don't forget about the players
- 5 Always push the action forward (or cut to the action)
- 6 Hold on lightly
- 7 Ask questions; use answers
- 8 Don't forget about the genre
D&D historically always sucked at explaining how to do stuff good, just like any mid-school game. You're on your own, the rules will not help you in any shape or form — you can follow them as closely as you like, they can't prevent your game from being as boring as watching the paint dry.
So, naturally, you go and look in the Internet. Congratulations: you found the right place.
I'll start with two most important things. If 15 seconds later you get smacked with an e-tool, collapse in a puddle of your own vomit and then forget everything else that I said, remember these two: be a fan of the PCs and think dangerous.
Be a fan of the PCs
Think Russo brothers. They are definitely fans of Captain America. Be like them. Be a fan of the PCs.
Don't be their enemy. The world is already out to get them, if you are out to get them too — they are fucked, plain and simple.
This doesn't mean that you should shield them from all possible dangers or that they should always win — Cap didn't. It means, the players should all have a chance for their character to shine, to show who they are and how the events of the game changed them and it means, you don't deny them their hard-earned successes.
If the PCs had fought hard to defend a village from gnolls only for it to be burned down by a dragon in the next moment — you're doing it wrong.
If you have an anti-magic field on every inch of the world, so the wizard can't cast jackshit — you're doing it wrong.
If you don't give a damn fuck about the PCs and your cool Marty Stus half-elf, half-dragon NPC does all the work — you're doing it wrong.
If you have a fighter in the party, and there's nothing to fight — you're doing it wrong.
Everything that you create is a target. NPCs, towns, entire kingdoms and their gods, whenever your gaze lies on any of it — first consider killing it, burning it down, overthrowing it, burying it and salting the earth. Nothing is safe. The world is always changing, and without the PCs intervention, it always changes for the worse.
If you like your NPC too much to let it die — you're doing it wrong.
If you are in so much love with your storyline notes to throw them away — you're doing it wrong.
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Got it? Cool. Let's get to the a bit less important stuff. Just a bit, it's still very important.
Never try to solve out-of-game problems with in-game methods
It's so tempting to use your authority over the table to punish players for the behaviour that you don't like. Someone jokes around or starts to tell a story how they got drunk the last weekend — BAM! 30 damage! Don't do that. That doesn't solve the problem.
Fucking talk to them. They aren't idiots, they are capable of understanding that something ruins the fun for you or someone else. If they can't understand that, then get rid of them.
If instead of talking you just abuse your power — it creates antagonistic relationships between you — even if they behave, they do so solely because of punishment and you can't trust them.
You can't exactly build a story together with someone you don't trust.
Address the characters, but don't forget about the players
It's a good idea to say “Roric, who are you gonna save first?” instead of “Sara, who does Roric defend?”. This puts Roric front and center—his preferences, desires, and style. Roric comes to life as a character. That's cool. Do that, when you need to.
But here's the thing: don't forget about the player behind the character. They are people, and sometimes you'd need to bring them front and center, not their character. "Sara, how do you want to handle this? Should we do a whole scene or just make a roll real quick?”. The player has their own expectations. Sometimes they don't want to play a trip to the shop word-by-word, they just want to buy some throwing knives — just make sure you're on the same page.
Always push the action forward (or cut to the action)
If nothing interesting happens on screen, if the PCs are just sitting in the tavern and drink, then either set the tavern on fire, or make a wounded man enter and collapse in the doorway, warning others of a gnoll raiders attack. Or just cut. "So, next morning…" and then, make something interesting happen.
Also, never say "well, you fail, nothing happens" on a failed skillcheck, that's a boring answer. Think of things that may go wrong — make a move. Think of it not exactly as fail, but as trouble — you're still in the middle of picking the lock when you hear approaching footsteps, three pairs, probably Watch patrol; the merchant is infuriated by your offer and kicks you out; you recognize the tracks on the ground, and you don't like what you see — it's not just a troll, it's a Scorched Troll, with a trace of daemon blood in his veins, immune to fire.
Every roll should change the situation on screen. First, it helps you to keep the PCs competent — it's not like a seasoned burglar can't pick a lock, but situation shifted and now the lock probably has a lower priority. Second, it prevents the players to try over and over again — the situation already changed, they can't try exactly same thing again. And, the most important, it creates a snowballing effect — new threats emerge, things go south and we organically end up with an action-packed game.
Hold on lightly
There's nothing wrong with rewinding and revising game. It's okay to reconsider events. Humans screw up all the time, and I suspect that you're a human.
When you screw up, don't hesitate to correct your mistake. There's nothing wrong with saying "Wait, you know what? It's supposed to be a slum, forget what I said about the Watch patrol, these guys never show up here". No one will think any less of you for that, just don't rewind too far away — several minutes tops. If some fact has lived for more than several minutes, then just roll with it.
Also, let your players do the same. It may be tempting to put your foot down like "No! You said you punch the bartender, then you punch him!", but resist that impulse. First, people sometimes do something and then instantly think "oh that was stupid", but the PCs aren't ordinary people, they're action heroes. They don't make stupid mistakes. Second, there may be some miscommunications — characters are present in the scene, they can asses the situation, but the only eyes your players have are you — and sometimes you can forget to mention the fact that the bartender is a big 7ft tall guy with bulging muscles or maybe the player misheard it, or forgot about it. Let them take such things back.
Ask questions; use answers
The game is a conversation, and questions are an important part of any conversation. The game basically revolves around The Most Important Question: "What ya gonna do?", but you are probably already asking it a lot. If you don't — better start.
There are several types of question, all worth asking:
- Ask establishing questions to help you understand the action: What's your intention? Who's leading the group? Do you want to focus on the duke and win him over, or are you addressing the whole room to make a point? Is everyone rushing into the fight, or is someone hanging back or doing something else?
- Ask provocative questions to make the players think and express their characters: What kind of person does he think you are now? Are you going to just let her get away with that? Can you bring yourself to hurt him?
- Ask leading questions to show the players what you’re thinking: Do you think she’s the type of person who will respond well to threats? Does anyone want to survey the room or study Lyssa? When you do that, the whole thing is gonna catch fire, though, right?
- Ask the players for help when you're uncertain or stuck or you want to engage them: So, Lorenzo, you're supposed to be a criminal, so tell me: who's the meanest gang in the city? Hm, Roric, you've fought in the Ironclad Rebellion, are there any other surviving rebels in the city and are they planning to make a move?
- Ask loaded questions when the players are being boring. Our stupid monkey brains evolved since day one to keep the things simple, so we naturally go with the most obvious and safe solution. That's why we've survived, but that's not what you want in a game — so lend them a hand by asking a question that contains a statement. Why do you hate your father so much? What were the last words of a kid who've died in your arms? If the player isn't rolling with it, then drop it.
Don't forget about the genre
This one actually consists of two things, mostly because TTRPGs exists in a weird place, where both video-game and literature genres can be applied.
First, every game system exists for a reason. Wizards of the Coast will try to trick you that D&D is suited for everything, but it's a lie of a big corporate Hasbro machine — don't fall for it. You can, theoretically, run a murder mystery or a tavern tycoon, but then you'll need to homebrew the fuck out of the game and constantly fight with the existing rules.
So, you either choose a system that suits your needs, or you roll with what the system has to offer, or, the worst-case scenario, you fight an uphill battle.
If in your system of choice there are extensive rules on combat, and every character can kick ass in their own way — then there must be asses to kick. If you want a game, where characters investigate mysteries — you need rules for investigation (and preferably less or zero rules for combat — when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, y'know).
Then, there are another type of genres, that applies to the story, not to the gameplay. What happens "on screen" should follow the genre conventions, and so consistently. It's okay when in Miraculous Ladybug nobody ever gets really hurt, it's okay when in Tarantino's movies we see heads exploding and brains scattered all over the place. It's not okay when we have one, and then suddenly change to another and then back, like it's nobody's business — you'd need to be a pretty damn good to pull that off without backfiring.
Since we're in a D&D sub: embrace the fantastic. If there's nothing magical in sight, ever, no dragons, no wizards, no ancient sentient swords — you're doing something wrong. Think about “the fantastic” on various scales. Think about floating cities or islands crafted from the corpse of a god. Think about village wise-men and their spirit familiars or the statue that the local bandits touch to give them luck. The characters are interesting people, empowered by their gods, their skill at arms, or by mystical training. The world should be just as engaging.
If the players want to do something that lies beyond the constrains of the genre — open and run a tavern in a heroic fantasy game or sell their ship in a game about pirates — stop them. Not by the in-game means, no, just fucking talk to them — they're not idiots. Ask them, did Conan the Cimmerian run a shop instead of going adventuring — that'll probably be the end of the conversation.
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My other stuff:
- How to start a campaign
- How to run a one-shot
- How to use partial successes, position and effect for skill checks
- Dealing with “Rules Lawyers”
- Hero points and Proficiency dice, do they make the game funner.
- Seeking Help with Quiet Players
© Post "How to: run games (and actually run’em good)" for game Dungeons & Dragons Online.
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