Okay, folks, we’re going to do one last Ask Angry blitz this week to clear out a few more questions. And then we’re done blitzing random topics people have seen fit to e-mail. Instead, I’ve got some interesting features coming about probability, villains, NPCs, and structuring mystery adventures along with a host of others. And I’ll be periodically answering more Ask Angry questions on off days in the coming weeks.
Charlie F asks:
Is GMing like riding a bike? I suspect not. The thing is I want to run a game for friends, all new to RPGs, but I haven’t done so in 10 years. I had previously about a year of table Gming experience and five of forum GMing in which I ran a full campaign but it isn’t the same thing since you have a lot more time to react to players. So… all in all, should I follow your advice on first time GMing like a fresh out of the oven and use published adventures or could I throw some creativity on the mix without screwing everything up?
No. GMing is not like riding a bike. Unless you listen to Albert Einstein. Then it is exactly like riding a bike. How’s THAT for a f$&%ing answer.
Here’s the thing: this is one of those questions where the actual question is much easier to answer than the idea behind the question. And, usually, I force you all to read paragraphs and paragraphs of bulls$&% before I cut to the real, simple answer. But I’m going to do things a little backwards today because, hell, I like trying new things as much as anyone. So, let me answer the practical question first and then I’ll explain why the idea behind the answer is more complicated than you think.
If you haven’t run a game in many years AND if you are running for a group of all new people then YES, you absolutely SHOULD approach this like a new experience and take all my advice about being a complete newbie. In fact, even if you weren’t running for a group of new players, it’d probably be a good idea. It’s simply a matter of hedging your bets. The whole point of my advice about using published adventures and pregenerated characters and doing a limited one shot with no consequences is that it allows you to focus on the core skills of GMing while also minimizing the chances and consequences of completely f$&%ing up. If, after 10 years, you’re not so rusty and things go easily, that first crappy session will fly by and you can do whatever the hell you want and no one will suffer for it. But, if after 10 years, you’re struggling to get back into the groove, that first session is a very low-consequence way to get back into the groove. For the cost of ONE simple session that involves minimal work, you can find out how rusty you are without discouraging yourself or failing. And that’s especially helpful with completely new players. After all, introducing new players to the game can be kind of trying even if you are completely on your game. And you DON’T want to f$&% up with new players because you might never see those players again. So, yes, treat it like your first day at the race.
Now, let’s talk about that phrase “like riding a bike” and why GMing isn’t like riding a bike. The reason riding a bike is like riding a bike is because of a thing called “muscle memory.” See, your nervous system is basically broken into a couple of different parts. One of those divisions is between things you do by reflex and things you have to consciously think about doing. For example, when you touch a hot thing, you recoil to avoid burning your hand. And you pretty much can’t stop yourself from doing that. That’s because the nerve signals that make that happen never really reach your brain. Instead, they get processed automatically down in your spinal cord. All of the little delicate movements and adjustments your body has to make to walk from place to place? Most of that also happens automatically. You just decide to walk and your nervous system automates a lot of the process. As you engage in repetitive, physical tasks, you wire up your nervous system to handle stuff autonomously. It gets to know the movements involved and it doesn’t have to involve the brain in them. And those nerve pathways that get connected up last a long, LONG time. THAT’S why riding a bike is like riding a bike. Because most of riding a bike is a repetitive, physical task your nervous system can just learn to handle without your brain.
Is this basic neuroscience remotely useful to understand as a GM? Actually, yeah. Because there is something central to the idea of GMing in this. GMing isn’t a repetitive physical task. It’s a very active task. And it’s always different. Every group of players, every game system, every campaign is a little different. You face different problems and have to adapt on the fly. Every group of players has different expectations, every game system does different things, and every session has its own pace and flow you need to actively maintain. In addition, unlike riding a bike, which is just a basic skill you figure out and then use to get from point A to point B, GMing is something you’re constantly trying to do more with. GMing is like being a stuntman or daredevil. Once you master riding the bike around, you’re going to want to start riding down ramps and jumping alligators. And once you figure out how to jump alligators, you’re going to want to ride loop-the-loops through flaming rings. And so on. GMing isn’t something that ever gets familiar because you’re always trying to one-up yourself. At least, you should be. GMs are constantly pushing themselves to run better games and do more interesting things.
On top of that, role-playing games are constantly evolving and so is the fan base. Today’s players have very different expectations from those of ten years ago and today’s game systems have evolved from those of fifteen years ago. The changes are subtle, but they are there. If they weren’t there, you wouldn’t have people sticking with the old-school editions, or with 3.5 or Pathfinder, and you wouldn’t have people playing 4E or 5E or moving to independent games. Sure, RPGs don’t change as quickly as, say, video games, and they certainly don’t change as quickly as medical science, but if you took someone who was running games in the last days of AD&D 2E or even the early days of D&D 3E and handed them 5E, it’d feel different for vague, weird, and subtle reasons.
Albert Einstein once said “life is like riding a bicycle; to maintain your balance, you have to keep moving forward.” And in THAT way, GMing IS like riding a bicycle. You need to keep running games, you need to keep adapting, you need to keep moving forward. And if you stop for a while, you need to start off slow and pick up speed or else you’ll fall over.
Now how’s THAT for a tortured metaphor?
I’ve noticed a trend in many storytelling-focused video games such as Wolf Among Us where players can do two scenes in either order, but the latter scene changes based on which was chosen first (e.g. character clinging to life vs finding the character dead). I feel like this adds interesting tension and makes it feel like your actions have consequences. However, video games are designed to be replayable, whereas tabletop campaigns, at least on the player side, are typically not.
Is the opportunity to create meaningful player choices worth denying the players some juicy story and action from the other path? I could always tell them later what they missed out on, but that risks them being disappointed they didn’t choose that one.
First of all, you’ve got a flaw in your premise. Now, that won’t prevent me from schooling you in the fine art of meaningful choices in RPGs, but I DO need to poke some holes in your first paragraph and the concept of replayability. People tend to overstate the value of replayability in video games, when, in truth, it is a very minor factor in driving game sales. In a speech at the Game Developer’s Conference in 2014, game designers Tom Abernathy and Richard Rouse III presented some very compelling data gathered by a number of game publishers showing that only about one third of gamers actually finish a single playthrough of most games they buy, let alone go back and replay them again. Now, obviously, this varies depending on the game. Some games, games that lack a story campaign as a primary component or ones where the story campaign is not the primary draw, are irrelevant in this. But what is compelling is that most of the data came from very story driven, single player campaign experiences that included games like the Telltale Games Walking Dead series, the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Mass Effect, and others. On top of that, several academics published an academic paper back in 2011 analyzing the various factors that contributed to replayability in video games. They noted that branching paths (such as the one you describe) were only one small fact that contributed to replayability and, moreover, that replayability was not a large factor that actually drove most gamers’ purchase decisions. You can read the full paper by Timothy Frattesi, Douglas Griesbach, Jonathan Leith, and Timothy Shaffer here if you want, but be warned it’s a dense 300 pages of analysis. It IS remarkably interesting though.
Why is this worth discussing? I mean, am I really just trying to show off how well informed I am about everything? In a word: ABSOLUTELY. I’m really smart and don’t you ever f$&%ing forget it! But also, yes. There is an important point here. The point is that the fact that the game experience changes based on your choices has very little to do with replayability. And, in point of fact, replayability actually decreases tension. Think about it. Imagine how much more tense you would be going through Wolf of Wall Street or the Walking Dead or Mass Affection if you know the game would delete itself once you finished your first playthrough and you could NEVER play it again. F$&%, X-COM isn’t even story driven, but the minute you turn on that whole permadeath and no save-scumming option, it becomes a LOT more tense.
The reason video games do that is to convince you that your choices actually shape the outcome. The fact that the character is either alive or dead depending on the choice you made is not to create an interesting second playthrough, it’s to say “see? You did a thing and now Buddy McExpendable is dead forever and that’s your fault because you did that.” It gives you a sense of agency. And most games are designed so that, even if you DON’T play through the game a second time, the game still lets you know your choices shape things. Look at Mass Erect for a perfect example. If you play through that game a second time, you’ll actually discover how LITTLE your choices matter in most scenes. Most of the story happens the same way whether you’re Friendly Shephard or Douchey Shephard. But the game IMPLIES your actions are changing things merely by asking you the question and giving token responses specific to your choices that then lead to the same major story points.
And THAT is exactly the same thing we want to strive for in RPGs. Not tricking players into thinking they have control with smoke and mirrors, but by making the players feel like their choices matter any way you can.
But here’s where you trip over your own premise. Wolf Among the Sheep HAS TO resort to designing two different scenes based on a binary choice of whether the NPC lives or dies because it’s a video game and it can’t change things on the fly. It has to distill things down to branching paths and either/or choices because the medium is limited. But a table-top RPG isn’t so limited. I mean, think about it. Think about all of the different outcomes you can imagine for the players racing to rescue an NPC and choosing to dawdle. Maybe the NPC is dead by the time they get there. Maybe he is alive. But maybe they get there just in the nick of time where he is dying but savable. Or they get there just in time to watch him die. Or they arrive in time to save him but fail to. You can have an infinite spectrum between “Bob lives” and “Bob dies.” And that’s because you’re a human brain and you can adjust the story on the fly.
If you design your game like a video game where Bob is either alive or dead, you’re no better than a video game. If, instead, you’re ready to adapt on the fly to Bob being alive or dead or anything in between and respond to whatever the players do about it, you’re providing real consequences for their choices. And that’s what you should be striving for. Yes, you should have some idea in your head for how the story will proceed with alive Bob or dead Bob, but you also need to be prepared to be very adaptable about how you get there. THEN, your players actually have real agency. They aren’t just picking a branch you predesigned. Now, that’s easier in terms of up front work because you aren’t trying to design every possible scene. But it’s also harder because you need to rely more on improvising changes to your game.
And THAT is why it’s more important to understand Bob’s role in the story and his character and motives and the consequences of his life or death than it is to just design the scene where Bob lives or dies.
You should always strive for something I call “the only story that could have happened.” That is to say that the actual events of the game could ONLY have happened to that specific group of characters making that specific set of choices. Which means a lot of adjusting on the fly.
But how will your players KNOW they have agency? If they never see all the content they missed, how will they know the story could have gone any other way? Well, that’s sort of a Catch-22. Because, if you’re running the game right, the story couldn’t have gone any other way. It could only work out the way it did because any other story would have required different choices.
The point is to ALWAYS emphasize how the players’ decisions lead to the consequences you add to the game. If the players reach Bob in his dying moments and their actions save him or fail to save him, it’s pretty obvious that their actions control the outcome. But what if they get there too late and Bob is dead? Well, it doesn’t take much to make the players feel like it’s their fault. And there’s a thousand ways to do it. In game, another NPC might blame them for not making it in time. Even though that COULD be scripted, the minute the game starts pointing blame at the characters, it stops FEELING scripted. It’s actually a pretty funny psychological trick. If the game starts berating the characters for their choices, the PLAYERS start feeling guilty for THEIR choices. They assume the game world wouldn’t be mad at them unless it could have gone another way.
But even subtle tricks of narration let the players know that they are in control. If they reach Bob and find he’s dead, there’s a world of difference between saying “you discover he’s dead” and “he’s still warm to the touch, and his blood is still fresh, but you discover he has no pulse. He must have died just moments ago.” For that matter, there’s a world of difference between “you discover he’s dead” and “you discover you’re too late; he’s dead.” Narration counts for a lot.
If anything in the narration or the game world holds the players responsible for their choices, that sends the signal that their choices really did affect the outcome. For that matter, you can even use your own interactions with the players to let them know they are in control. When my players f$&% something up bad, I let them know outside the game. At the end of the session, I say something like “nice work, dumba$&es, letting Bob die. Now I have to figure out how the world works without him. You’re pains in my a$&!” But if you aren’t me and don’t want to break your players’ spirits, you can go with something nicer. At the end of the session, something like “great job, guys. You saved Bob! I wasn’t sure if you would do it,” from you – the GM – to the players also sends the signal that things could have gone differently. Or even something like “it sucks that Bob died. You guys almost made it in time. Good try.”
That might SEEM weird and out of character, but it does tell the players how much control they have by showing them there were possibilities other than the ones they saw. And the more the players see the signs of other possibilities – just signs, you don’t have to spell things out – the more players see those signs, the more convinced they are of their own agency. And, over time, you don’t have to prove it anymore.
The key to making the players feel like their choices is to always find a way to show them at least some of the signs of the paths they didn’t take or the options they didn’t choose or the things they didn’t accomplish.
Mejo, of the Croatian Mejo Strip Blog asks:
Were you a lesser DM, a milquetoast one that allowed gnome PCs at his table, what would you do with the race? I found them always lacking in a certain feel that elves or dwarves or half-orcs had. What would You do to differentiate them substantially from halflings and dwarves? How would You solve the conundrum that the designers of 4th edition couldn’t?
And THIS is why I hate gnomes. Well, there’s a couple of reasons I hate gnomes. It has to do with the gnome in the history of D&D. Gnomes originally appeared in D&D back in 1974 as a sort of alternative to the other races. According to an interview Gary Gygax gave, he introduced them as a sort of a magical alternative to the martial dwarves and the tricksy halflings. And initially, gnomes were a magical race. And they got along well with the other races. Elves liked them for their ties to the natural world and their friendship with animals. Dwarves appreciate their craftwork, as they were excellent jewelers. And halflings liked them because they were friendly and good natured and rarely prideful. But they were curious and intellectual. Scholarly. And that lent them to the study of magic.
The problem was that made the gnomes a weird sort of hybrid race. So as the elves became more and more strongly associated with magic – which was the gnome’s unique selling point – gnomes became a sort of hybrid of all the races. In 2nd Edition D&D, with a strong emphasis on specialty magic schools, the gnomes were salvaged by giving them a focus on illusion. Elves made good wizards, but gnomes were better at illusion. And that lead to playing up their personalities as deceptive forest tricksters.
Meanwhile, along came Dragonlance. The books, I mean. And one of the things Weis and Hickman tried to do in the Dragonlance novels was to give the races unique identities. That’s why they invented their own halfling – the kender – which would later supplant a lot of the original halfling identity as the everyman hero. And that is where the first hints of the tinker gnome started to show up. The problem with the tinker gnome is that it took on a comical bent. The gnomes were mechanically inclined, but they were bumbling and silly about it and their clockwork devices always seemed to fail in spectacular and silly ways.
And this is where I really started to hate the gnomes. See, it was bad enough when they were just the sort of everyrace – a little elf, a little dwarf, a little halfling. But the new identity for gnomes was either obnoxious pranksters OR wacky tinkers. And, either way, the problem I have is with the word “wacky.” I don’t like wacky. And I certainly don’t like an entire race that exists to be wacky. The “annoy the party with silly pranks” thing was bad enough, but I also hate clockwork and steampunk crap in my fantasy. So the wacky bumbling inventor with his clockwork pals also drove me f$&%ing bonkers.
The problem is the gnome is now carrying ALL of that baggage. They are magical forest folk, friends with animals, craftsmen, inveterately curious, wacky pranksters, and steampunk mad scientists. No one is going to play up the forest folk, craftsman, or curiosity aspects because those aspects are in elves, dwarves, and halflings. So, the only players attracted to gnomes are the ones attracted to the wacky. And THAT is why I ban gnomes in my game.
World of Warcraft has NOT helped any of this at all. F$&%ing rocket cars and gnomish jumper cables.
Here’s where I have a major problem with your question. You ask me what I would do with gnomes if I wanted them in my game. But you’re working backwards. I don’t put something into my game just to have it. Instead, I realize there’s something I want in my game and then I invent ways to make it happen. Everything about the gnome is either extraneous or its filling a niche I don’t want filled. So why would I force that into my game.
Do you want gnomes in your game? The first step is to figure out what role isn’t being filled on the race list and decide if that’s something gnomes can do. For example, there isn’t a good tinker and trader race. There’s isn’t a good race of tradesfolk and businessmen. Dwarves are craftsmen, sure, but they are also martial and traditional and socially strict. Gnomes as a sort of race of traveling gypsy folk could work. Not gypsy gypsys. But wandering tinkers and traders and salesmen. Think, like, good natured Ferengi. They aren’t the best at ironwork or stonework, but as village tinkerers and tradesmen, jewelers and cobblers, tradesmen, they are renowned. They are well liked and they set up shop everywhere. Maybe they even have a gift for the intricate. They don’t have to be wacky inventors and your world doesn’t need gear-powered robots. They could just be good at inventing useful things like spyglasses and astrolables and clocks and other useful faire that is just slightly too advanced for a fantasy world without being goofy.
Or gnomes could be the speakers for the forest. They could be Loraxes and the David the Gnomes of the world. They could have a gift for druidry. They reject the gods and have direct ties to the spirit world. They live in burrows in the forest, tend small gardens, and live as gatherers. They are healers of animals and protectors of the natural world. Whereas wood elves are stealthy hunters and tribal woodsfolk, gnomes are spiritual creatures, intrinsically tied to the magic of the natural world in a way elves are not. There really isn’t a race that is strongly tied to druids and the natural world without also being tied to the arcane or to hunting and living off the land.
Or gnomes could be artificers and alchemists. Again, that doesn’t require wackiness. Honestly, if you take the forest dwelling aspects, gnomes could just be the best alchemists and herbalists and mediciners and chemists in the world. They could know every plant and animal substance and ingredient and be renowned for their expertise in those areas. In fact, you could combine that with the idea of gnomes as skilled craftspeople and traders. Their love of fine craftwork combined with their direct connection with the natural world could help them excel as druids or herbalists or gardeners or animal handlers as well as as cobblers and jewelers and tinkers and knife sharpeners.
The only reason I’ve never done more with gnomes is because I never felt any of the archetypes that lend themselves to gnomes are really MISSING from D&D as such. But if you feel differently, go to town. Personally, I’m happier to just say gnomes can f$&% right off.