Start At Your Best, And Then Slowly Raise It up.

It's not a comeback if I don't write about improvisation or lessons from improvisation, right? Well, I'm here to fix that…
A few years ago I went to a great improve seminar. We talked, and practiced stuff and the like. And then, during one of the Games, this instructor says: "Be blunt, whatever cool and interesting stuff you have, bring it on upfront." Needless to say, it created some very different stories.
But you see, there's a lot of logic to it when one really thinks about it. I mean, from a story's standpoint, if I'll keep the good stuff for too long, the audience will get bored. If I'll start with it, though, I'll probably find a way to build upon it with "yes, and-ing" and I've got a better story.
If I'll translate it to RPGs, it is pretty much the same. If I want to ensure that the players 9including the GM) have a good time, I want to present the cool stuff upfront and as soon as possible, and then we'll all build upon it, whether players and/or GM.
In Israel, there's a nice saying that goes something like this: "Start at your best, then slowly raise it up." And apart from being great all by itself, it is far easier to accomplish it when you start at your best.

How about you? Do you use something like that in your games? Why, or why not?


Conflict Is Not Mandatory

You don't need conflicts. You read that correctly, I really did say that you don't need conflicts. Conflicts are not mandatory, are not a must-have ingredient for a successful game or even for a successful story. Conflict is a nice and a very useful tool in order to create enjoyment, interest and to be one with the character, but it is not the only one, or the most important one, or a success guarantee.
Think for example about a nice in-character conversation between a PC and an NPC. Does it have to hold a conflict in order to be interesting? No, I'm serious, does it? I don't think so. I once GMed a game in which for three hours the characters were just gossiping about people not present. No conflict was there, just a conversation about what did this person and what did that one. When I wrote this game for my friends, I thought to myself: "If we have to have conflicts in order to create interest, why do our conversations seem so enjoyable, so interesting, so "worth-our-time?" It went a blast. I was asked to GM this game again.
But this is an extreme kind of game, not much similar, or even close, to what we refer to when we normally talk about RPGs. Things like Dungeons and Dragons, Vampire, PTA. But then I started to read the GENder theory, which is kinda interesting yet kinda flawed. Anyway, the E stands for exploration. It means that one plays in order to explore, in order to be, someone else. And that got me thinking: "In order to feel like [insert a name here], do I need to be in a conflict?" I don't think so, otherwise I wouldn't enjoy play SIMS.
And it all circulates back to what I've said in the beginning: Conflict is not mandatory. It is useful, but not mandatory.



The Players just roll the Dice…

One of the most common problems that I've seen in games is a lack of understanding about the distinction between what the players do and what their characters do. Let's explain this strange sentence with an example:
It is a D&D session, and a fight erupts. Fighter raises his axe and attacks Orc Number 1, while Wizard shoots Orc Number 2 with a magic missile.
Now, let's analyze this scene. What do the characters do? Wizard casts a spell, Fighter attacks with his spell. What do the players do? They roll the dice, and… that's about it. And that is the problem that I mentioned in the first sentence of this post. The fact that the characters are fighting, and have a certain chance to die, isn't relevant that much, because at the end all they do is to roll some dice.
Actually, if you look at it this way, looking for clues in Call of Cthulhu is not that much different: You enter a room, and you try to notice things. The character does that, I mean. You just roll the dice. Or in other words, if we want to differentiate between types of scenes, we should think in terms of what the players do and not in terms of what the characters do. Because if in both cases we just roll the dice, there is no difference. Or at the very least, not a real difference between the scenes.
And that's a distinction that I think one really has to make and hold to her heart. When one writes an adventure, or improvises one, you should always try to think in terms of what the players will do. Will the players just roll some dice? If so, maybe I should find another thing that they'll be able to do, like inventing the adversaries, or giving them as much roleplaying scenes as possible?
After all, we sit with the players, in the real world, and not with the characters in an imaginary one…


Success with a Cost

Another week, another session. We finished the first story arc. None of us really know if the problem was solved or not, but as it seems, we won't tackle laughing books anymore. They came back in time and defeated the villains before the problems really begun, winning the "fight" against them before most of the books left the library. So it is a win.
But you know, winning wasn't the goal in the first place. I mean, maybe some of them wanted to succeed, but I'm not even sure of that. Looking at their favorite scenes' list from the arc, most of them are major plot points, or catalysts for major plot points. No challenge that they've overcame found its way to the list.
So what did we look for? My money is on story possibilities. And because of that, it is no surprise that the "success with a twist" idea is so powerful. The idea is quite simple- when the players roll a failure, they can sometimes still succeed, but it will not be a complete success, because something bad is gonna happen alongside the success.
It's not a new invention by me, but I must say that again and again I'm surprised by the possibilities it presents for me. And most of the times, they are the ones who describe/create the bad happening. They are the ones who bring their doom to join hands with their successes. And I think that this is the reason that this idea is so powerful: because they bring to themselves the bad events that hurt they're the most. And this crates the drama that we're all looking for.
When a group isn't looking to win, but to enjoy creating together a nice little (or not so little) story, it is only fitting that they will look to increase the drama level in the game. And if they can do it through successes also, it is only better. Especially if it lets them escape complete failures when it doesn't fit dramatically, I suppose.

So yeah, this is one of the tools that I use to increase the drama. How about you? What do you use?


Background Is Not Mandatory

I don't ask my players to write a backstory anymore. It's not that they don't know how to write good ones because not only some of them write quite a lot of stories in their free and not so free time (and a pretty damn good fiction also), they do know how to write good backstories. It's also not because I don't love reading backstories, because I really do. I stopped asking them to write backstories because I think that there are better ways to create a connection and to get a feel for the character. I still welcome backstories, but it is not mandatory anymore.
I now use a different tool, a series of 10 questions that I devised over the last year and a half, which I find quite satisfying. It gives me and them roleplaying tools, creates a feel for the character, enriches the world and takes far less time than it would take to get all of that from a backstory.
The questions are presented in this order, in these groupings:
1) What is your character obsessed about?
2) What triggers your character's rage and anger?
3) What scares your character the most?
4) What makes your character be her best self?

5) Who is your character's best friend?
6) How would he/her describe your character?
7) Where would he/she be wrong?

8) What is your character's goal?
9) What tools does your character have in order to achieve them?

10) How is your character connected to the other characters in the group?

After presenting those questions, I wanna take a moment or two and go through each question, explaining why I used this questions and what do I get from them.

What is your character obsessed about?
This question gives me a simple tool- something that I can get to draw the character to the story with, if I'll ever need one. But it does more than that. A player can use the answer to signal to the GM what she wants to see in the game ("my character is obsessed about killing orcs"), or he can use the answer to breath more life into the character ("my character is obsessed about flowers").

What triggers your character's rage and anger?
This is again a question that gives a simple identification tool. But it also gives us more than that. It is usually used to describe what one's character will fight about ("whenever I see injustice"). I, though, prefer using this answer to shed some light about my character's uglier self ("losing in something that I'm good at", for example).

What scares your character the most?
Every one of us is afraid of something, it part of what makes us real persons. It is also true for our characters. For that we have this question coming to the rescue. While its immediate usage seems like only for horror games (and in those games, it is preferable to answer with something that the player is afraid of also), I think that it has much more uses than that. In most heroic stories, the heroes and heroines face their fears and overcome them in order to win. But for that to happen, we have to have those fears in the first place, right?

What makes your character be her best self?
But our characters also have a good side, and this question is used to showcase it. These are the times when the character will do everything that she can in order to help the persons around her. She will defeat the adversaries, help the wounded or whatever else that she can in order to achieve this goal or to solve this problem.
But one of my players used this question to show another ugly side of the character. She answered this question with this answer: "Only when my character feels better than someone else".

Who is your character's best friend?
Remember all those tip articles about mining the backgrounds of the characters for NPCs to add? Here is my answer (well, the first part of it anyway…). This answer gives all of us a major secondary character to add to the story. It can be used to hook the characters for something, to illustrate the PC or anything else. It populates the world with a character that the player already feels for.

How would he/her describe your character?
This gives us the primary characteristics of the character. How she presents herself and how she is seen by everyone in the world. Answers such as "dependable", "smart" or "honest" gives us easy gates into the character's psyche, while others such us "pretty", "strong" or "has a keen eye" showcase more physical characteristics that can't be ignored.

Where would he/she be wrong?
This question I like to nickname as the twist one, or the "thank-god-my-friend-doesn't-know-about-it question". This is a usually dark or ironic twist about the descriptors from before. "My character is not brave, but just too scared for being afraid"; "my character isn't smart, but just recites old sayings". One of my players decided that his character isn't playful because she's afraid to lose her playful friend.
Take into account, though, that it can be used to illustrate the friend also. If we'll look at my player's example, we get a friend who has a territory- "I'm the funny and playful one"- and will probably fight for it.

What is your character's goal?
This is the ultimate goal of the character. This is something that should be unachievable till the end of the campaign (or at the very least very hard to achieve). This is the character's dream, where she sees herself in 20 years' time or whatever.
In my MLP campaign I tweaked it a little bit, changing it to "what is your character's childish goal", because they are children and as such their dreams are prone to change all the time.

What tools does your character have in order to achieve them?
The answer here can give me a lot of tools. If the player answers with NPCs, then we have more characters the players care for in the world. But other answers can be given as well- one of my players gave answered this question "because I really want to", thus making the character a childish one. It can also be used to showcase the character's most famous moves or whatever, showcasing the way she behaves and/or acts in the world.

How is your character connected to the other characters in the group?
Now is the time to answer this question. After we have the personalities of the characters, and we know who they know, we can finally answer this question organically. I always ask the players to come with an answer together. This way, they both feel that they're part of it and they all care for it more because of that.

And an end
And that's it, my 10 questions with the logic behind them. I hope that you'll find them as useful as I've found.

How about you? Do you use a similar questionnaire? If so, in what way? And if not, why not?


Whose Game Is It?

I think that it was just yesterday when I wrote about my MLP campaign. When the session ended, one of the players sent us a drawing of the characters. Apart from the cool factor and the feeling of epicness for such an instant, what struck me more was the conversation that ensued.
Player 1: You should post it on Facebook.
Player 2 (the artist): What should I write?
Player 1: Tag all of us-
Player 3 (interrupting): And write that it's Yosi's campaign.
I immediately said that this campaign is owned by all of us, it is our campaign, and that they created the story as much as I did. A quick conversation ensued, and it got published as "our campaign (but mostly Yosi's)".
I have 4 players in this group. Each one with different amounts of experience with RPGs, with only one of them (quite ironically, player 3) having prior experience in one of my games. The fact that he's a regular player in my groups for about 2 years now is only this more ironic.
The consensus was clear- this is my campaign far more than it is their campaign. And I find it quite interesting. You see, I always use "my campaign/game" in my writing, because I took part in it, making it mine. It is my campaign not because I'm the GM, but because I help to drive it toward a certain dramatic beat. I don't mean here railroading, because I don't railroad (and my players can attest for that), but rather I mean here creating as much drama as I can, while ensuring that as much of the story and drama is created by them and/or for their playing instruments (the PCs) and them.
My players also play this way, and have almost as much control about the plot, setting and the like individually as I do. They create parts of the setting, their findings, they even invented the plot, creating and fleshing it between the sessions to our own amazement. Yet they all agreed that it was my campaign and not theirs.
And I'm confused. If it weren't for them, it would remain just a concept, an idea about a MLP game in which the players play Blank Flanks looking for their Cutie Marks. If it weren't for them, we wouldn't have a prophecy, or Sherlock Hooves, or Zombie-like ponies. If it weren't for them, the books wouldn't do anything more than fly and laugh till the end of days. If it weren't for them, the narrative wouldn't move from Canterlot to the Crystal Empire. If it weren't for them, they wouldn't meet Cheese Sandwich. Yet it is my campaign, according to their words.
Looking in forums, theory articles, RPG.SE and other places that I regularly visit, it seemed almost too prevalent, too widespread. I found only a handful of players who didn't gave the credit for the campaign's success, or the credit for ownership, to their GM. And it didn't matter if the game involved a pre-written narrative, a sandbox or a completely improvised game. It didn't matter if the players were active, passive, inventive or questioning for permission before each step on their way towards the end.
And I find it confusing and problematic. We always say that RPG is a type of shared experience. We always say that we create everything together. We always say that the story moved one way or the other because we, each and every one of us, chose so. So why do we still give the keys of ownership to the GM?

I don't have an answer. I have some theories, but not even a single one of them is fleshed out, not to mention able to stand a test or scrutiny. But I know that I don't like this mindset. Am I alone?

Hit Them in the Stats

My MLP campaign got to its second session mark, which means that a, it is a campaign, and b, that it starts to get into shape. We also were joined by a new player, so more fun for everyone.
Anyway, during the session, one of the players (who was also in yesterday's session) told me that this session was even scarier than last one. And that got me thinking. How could a game session where the players play pastel-colored ponies be scarier than a full-blown one-shot horror game?
The Eureka moment has arrived when I brought back the memory of the instance in which he told me this. It was just after I took away one of his character's abilities. "That's interesting", I thought to myself, "it reminds me of something from the past…"
When I played in a 4-year long AD&D campaign, there was a single monster that was terrifying far more than anything else we could think of. It was the vampire. And why were we so terrified? Because it took away levels, hard-earned levels. Think about losing a year and a few tens of thousands of gold pieces work disappearing in a single attack, that's how terrifying it was.
When I was GMing one of my longest D&D campaigns, there was again a single monster that the players fear- the Quasit. This creature, a CR 2 type of monster, took away dexterity points from the characters.
What was common to both of these monsters was a single thing that it took me some time to figure out- it hurt the characters mechanically, in a stat that wasn't supposed to get hurt so easily.
And that's what I did here. I haven't thought about it when I did it today, but it explains so much of the fear factor. What I did do intentionally, though, was to ensure that this condition stands 2 "tests": 1) It doesn't happen as a side effect, but rather as a major plot-point of the session, and 2) The character still has other means by which to help the party and/or to contribute to the story and narrative of the game. Passing these two tests ensured that it wouldn't feel arbitrarily and out of nowhere, while also ensuring that it doesn't make the character fully useless.

So, how about you? Have you ever taken away abilities from the players? For what purpose? How did it go?


Two Dirty Tricks for the Horror GM

So… I've GMed a nice little one-shot today. It was a minimalistic game, with the players playing themselves, as prisoners in a prison. The "door" of their cell was open through most of the game, which meant that they went out of their cell about 5 times in the entire session, only to come back moments afterwards.
The game ran quite smoothly, although the players did most of the work for me. You see, the players came with things that were much more frightening for them than anything I could come with, so I just sparked their imaginations and I let them do the rest. What followed was a game that was mostly made of their theories, spiraling more and more to the extremely scary things.
But I utilized another trick also. I used the infamous theme from Requiem for a Dream. Now, one of the dirtiest ways to create suspense is to slowly turn up the volume. If one does it slowly but steadily, it creates a feeling of a build-up towards something. So I turned the volume up and up, up to the maximum, and then silence and a bad event. The players did the rest for me.

And that's it for today- two dirty tricks for the horror game. Happy gaming to you all…


My Players Created the Plot for Me

I opened a new campaign last Thursday. It's an MLP campaign, with the players playing Blank Flanks looking for their Cutie Marks, utilizing Erin Palette's wonderful UA hack. It started with books flying out of all of the houses in the city, laughing like villains should laugh.
The players then decided to search for info about this thing in the books. Long story short, they've found the book, and the page with the solution to this problem. Then I asked one of the players: "What's written in there?" and decided to roll with the outcome.
I think that it is no secret by now, fateful (and new) readers, that I love giving my players the power to decide about the way the campaign will unfold. The idea in this incident was that if the players like the story, they will invent something that will keep this "flying and laughing maniacally books" thing going. If they don't like it, they will finish it off.
What happened next kinda amazed me. You see, the player asked for help from his fellow friends (and players) and together they came with a prophecy. A prophecy about rebellious books, a prophecy that explains all that happened up to that moment, a prophecy that puts them as the ponies that will stop the rebellion before it's too late.
Or to put it in other words: they created together, in harmony, the plot of the campaign. Isn't it just pony magic? I don't have any lesson or thought for today except for this: give your players the opportunity, even just once, to decide about a thing like this.
You might end up like me, doing it all the time, addicted to the stories that they create together, with you and/or with the toys that you give them.

So, how about you? Have you ever tried to do something like this? How did it go?


Not Describing the NPCs

Some of my NPCs don't get a description. It's not that they get less love from me, as I do love them very much. I portray them to the best of my ability, some of them are even really important- the main villain, the main ally. They just never really received a description, not from me and not from my players.
It is an experiment that I've conducted (ok, I conducted retroactively at first), and I really like its results. It is no secret that people care more for the things that they create, and I wanted to take that to the extreme.
You see, a great lesson that I've learned from horror GMing was that one should describe as less as s/he can the monster, so the players will feel the balks with the things that frighten them most. So I thought to myself- "why should I keep this trick only for the frightening stuff?"
My rational was quite simple- if each player will create for himself/herself the image of the NPC, each and every one of them will care for the NPC more. After all, it is (at least to a certain degree) their creation. And I must say that it worked.
So I still give all of my NPCs distinct voices, and I adopt certain postures for each NPC, and some of them I still describe. But some of them I just don't describe. Sometimes it is just because I forgot or because there was no real opportunity for it, but most times I do it with a purpose. I just really enjoy this bond.
Besides, it gives me more time for other things, like portraying them and stuff…

How about you? Have you once tried not to describe your NPCs? How did it go?



I've talked quite a lot about scenes in this blog. I talked about types of scenes and how to construct them; I talked about what scenes are going to be remembered and how to invoke emotions using them. What I haven't talked about up until today was how to frame them, i.e. when to start and finish them.
Scene-Framing is one of the greatest tools in the GM's arsenal in order to control the pacing of the game and story, and it can also cut a lot of frustration if scenes are cut before they bore the players. So, how can we achieve that?
As we probably know by now, each scene has a purpose, a role that it should fill in the greater whole. So, even before we put it in, so to speak, we must ask ourselves if this scene will help the game in some way or the other. It can help by enriching the story or by advancing it, it can help by breaking a much too tense tension or it can help an-up-until-now-quiet player to shine. If it fills at least one of this roles, consider putting it in. and of course remember its purpose.
When we start a scene, the number one rule is that the scene should start a little bit before the action starts. This helps you to both set the ground for the action (thus building anticipation) while also cutting down the boring stuff. Don't roleplay Lisa waiting for hours for her contact to arrive, start the scene a few moments before the contact arrives, like with her looking at the clock nervously as the contact is almost late, and then a black car is seen at a distance. This way, you build anticipation, you give the sense of the time passing and you also skip the boring part of waiting and waiting and… waiting.
Finishing the scene well is also very important. We don't want the scene to drag, right? Remember that I mentioned the role of the scene? This is where it comes in handy: Once the role, the purpose of the scene is fulfilled, the scene is over. It is usually advised to ask the players if they fill that the scene should end, but if the purpose has been filled they will probably feel like it too.
Another way to know when to close the scene and move to the next one is to try to discern the amounts of energy around the table. If the levels seem to dwindle, it is probably the time to close the scene. Otherwise, the lasting taste will be bitter.
How about you? Do you have another method around which you frame the scenes? Is there anything that I've missed? Feel free to write those in the comments.