The Big Bad…

No matter the game, eventually you want your players to face the Villain!  This is the Big Bad…the reason for the conflict, the why your characters are here.  Obviously there are many games and story lines that are not about defeating a final enemy, but many of them are.  This post is going to discuss how to deal with these powerful beings, from who/what they are to the final encounter (at least briefly…this could just about be a whole blog on its own…not just a post!)

One of the biggest challenges I have, is making the mastermind at the end of a story arc live up to his reputation.  The whole build up is based on the Big Bad at the end.  How he is incredibly intelligent, amazingly strong, diabolically manipulative or even devilishly handsome, but when the heroes arrive on the scene, he is just a stack of statistics to be defeated.  How can you keep this from happening?  Well…there are two ways to approach this.  One is purely mechanical and the other is much more narrative.  Since the mechanical approach is somewhat more objective, let me discuss that first.

The first thing to do is look at the Big Bad from their statistical definitions.  In some game systems, they will have specific game bonuses/resistances/abilities given to them by the system mechanics.  This can seem like the “Just stats to defeat” argument above.  However, I use it to remind you of what they have available to them.  If your BB is an Evil Priest, they will have fanatical followers.  These followers will (often) give their lives to allow “their” holy leader escape.  After all, this will lead to their reward in the afterlife…or whatever said priest promised them.  And of course, given even normal human intelligence, would likely not waste the opportunity to continue preaching, and so escape from the dangerous situation, relocate and build up another troupe of devoted followers as she takes up with her old plans once safely ensconced.  What if your Big Bad is a DRAGON, who is incredibly skilled in combat, right hard AND can breath fire on the interlopers.  Not only is it almost unbeatable in combat, he’s also super genius level intelligence.  Now, if your like me and of midlin’ level of Genius (or is that Midlin’ level of SUPER genius) you might find it hard to relate to said dragon, not alone make use of it’s super-genius stats.  If your game system does not have appropriate benefits for this, see what mechanics make him more dangerous.  You know he is a formidable opponent, and he would know it as well…he would also be able to take advantage of every possible combat maneuver or rule exception there is.  Mechanically, a very smart BB would not only be able to (at least) guess the strength of the opposition, but know how best to face them, or if it is to turn tail and run, later ambushing them as they try to drag off its hoards of magic treasure.  Greed might not allow this, but that is where you will need to make a call…

As I talked about in this post, don’t be afraid to use powers, or edges (or whatever they are in your game) against players.  That means don’t be afraid to use the BB advantages against the players either.  This may be particularly important if the confrontation is NOT combat.  Many game systems unfortunately are pretty rules light for this sort of a finale.  So lets look at some of the more narrative, less mechanical ways to accomplish this.

Using a more narrative, or GM moderated outcome, might be considered by players as cheating.  And in a way, it is, and because of this, you will need to keep a weather eye on becoming GM against Players and not let the BB become TOO powerful.  Keeping this in mind…let me elaborate.  (Of course always keep in mind the mechanical advantages (and disadvantages) that the BB has).  Assign them a couple of descriptors.  Maybe the Priest is Arrogant and dedicated.  The dragon: Greedy and cautious.  With the simple tags, you can give players hints on how to deal with the final encounter.  But it also tells you how the BB will deal with it!  If the dragon is Greedy but cautious and is Super Genius…well, how are your blood-thirsty murderous adventurers going to get close?  Anything they think of, the dragon will think of…Oh, but what if you, the ref, did NOT think of it?  Ignore what you thought of, the dragon would have thought of it!  Feel free to steal ideas from your players.  If their opponent is very smart, but not Super Genius level, well, then you have to apply a kind of filter…if their idea is way out there…then BB probably didn’t think of it.  So if you are stealing their ideas, how do they EVER approach this BB dragon?  Oh, yeah!  He is greedy!  If they can offer him some treasure…his greed might well win over his caution.  On the other hand, even if he did think of it, maybe it is not something he considers a great enough threat.  OF Course they will never send a small invisible thief into his cave!  Yes it is within the realm of possibility, but the chances of it actually happening…

You can use this “Players against themselves” strategy on other things as well.  In the case of the non-combat outcome, then you and your players are always playing on familiar ground, even if you are not certain about how to un-bind a particular permanent spell, but the people who created it may have considered everything presented…or may have missed something that the players can test for, but not easily!

The thing this whole post points to is consideration of your enemy.  Out of all of the story, whether top down, bottom up or something in between, you need to give your Big Bad a significant amount of thought.  Consider what it is, and what sort of challenge it should be.  Use these techniques or find your own.  But keep your BB from being just another wall of statistics and remember that they are as much a part of your story as the PCs are!  If you have a favorite BB, tell me about it, or tell me how you (or your ref) created it.


Feedback is very welcome.  Good, bad or indifferent.  I am going to aim for at least monthly, and hopefully every 2-3 weeks for new posts!  Happy Gaming!


Listen! Do you smell that?

Ok!  Sorry!  Late, I know…been busy building up a new campaign!

What does a quote from Ghostbusters have to do with reffing, eh? Would you be surprised (or believe me) if I said a fair amount?  In a movie, like Ghostbusters, you have to trust the characters in the movie to tell you about anything non-visual or auditory.  And in an RPG, the ref must provide even those sensory inputs.  So, whatever the characters sense: smell, taste, see, hear, feel, or whatever other senses they have, the character trusts in the ref to fulfill those experiences.  I will tell you now, that I think this is one of my weakest ref skills.  I get too caught up in the storytelling and the experience to remember what you have always been taught makes a believable setting….Sensory details.  Some refs, Like my Number One Son are very good at evoking just the right detail to enhance the setting.  When I try, I usually end up to spartan; “It’s a rough stone room” or sounding like bad prose from a jr high literature class; “This cold stone causes chills to go up your spine as the rough floor almost seems to grip your feet.  The air is heavy with dampness and stale rusty smells that remind you of cold mornings near grandfathers iron mine in long winter.  You can hear water incessantly trickling down walls, flowing onto slime slicked stone floors, and moldy stagnant water gathers in the slippery corners, jauntily reflecting your torchlight…”  and it goes on…and on….

The second is VERY evocative, but not much is added to the setting, and the players begin to bore almost as if I had picked up the unedited module and read straight from the page…wait?  is that Bad?  (no, bad maybe, but not BAD!  I’ll explain later…because presentation is part of the evocation!)  As a ref, it is important to think about what you are trying to get across, and keep the sensory along those lines.  Let me ‘splain, as this is the heart of evocative sensory explanation: You can significantly alter a players (and characters) actions in a scene by how you present the environment.  If you are looking to keep a setting fairly neutral, your description should neither highlight, nor diminish details.  Usually a strong visual impression, with a secondary sense like smell or sound.  Nothing that really detracts from what is going on, but keeps the mind’s eye (and nose or ear) in the game world.  If you want a mysterious setting, speak softly, this will cause the players to strain to hear and make them more attentive, as their character would/should be.  In this kind of setting, nothing should be detailed until someone takes the time to examine it.  It needn’t be vague, just simple or unfinished.  “The daylight is muted, and there lots of noises beyond the dim window.  The room is in shambles with things strewn and broken…”  You may also add a single strong impression, if it is not obvious: “There is a strong almost metallic scent lingering in the air…”  While it may take a bit, they will find a broken bottle of ether, its contents soaked into a book and the carpet.

Let me do a few more recommendations before going onto the last point.  If you are doing horror, once again, use a soft voice.  This is similar to the scary stories where you tell the story slowly and softly only to end with a great big “BOO!” to get people to jump, the classic “Watch this video carefully…its hilarious”.  In horror settings, it is more about the unseen and the unknown to set the mood.  Seeing things becomes less important.  Don’t spend much time on what they see…describe the distant groan, or the creak of an unknown door.  A soft drip of water off set becomes a clock counting down to doom.  A cold breeze makes the hair on the back of the head stand up…something moving in the shadows catches their eye, but now they can’t find it…Horror really is about evoking the mood to make the game work.  (Which is why my horror games are mediocre at best)  Terror on the other hand is fast and visceral.  Things happen, blood is spilled, screams are heard, people are flayed before your eyes…In horror, the characters are hunted by the off-screen darkness.  In Terror, the slow character is leaped upon, and their throat torn open to spurt blood on the other characters.  Evoking senses can really help set a scene, but it also cements a scene.  It is well know phenomenon that certain senses are strongly linked to memories, particularly smell.  Although you may not actually create the smell or the sound, letting your players imagine it will cause them to associate with possibly strong memories thereby fixing the scene in their imagination!  This tool, like no other tool I know of, can make your games not just memorable but vibrant.  Ask players about favorite games…then ask them if they remember sense associated with them…particular visuals, or perhaps the ashy taste on the wind!

As a final comment on evoking a scene, let me get back to a point I made earlier; Presentation.  The way you present things help keep a player’s head in their characters mind.  If you are over the top, very loud or very soft…using big theatrical hand gestures and lots of props, the players may be amused, but you are engaging them, and that is what they want!  Feel free to overact!  There is nothing wrong with reading a passage right out of the module, BUT…do not stop being loud and grandiloquent to stop and read haltingly.  (If you have never heard that, you need to listen!  It not only illustrates what I am talking about, but it is DAMN funny!)  (and, I will probably reference again when I talk about handling players…)  When you are reading the prose, particularly if it has important information, or fits the feel exactly, never fear using it…but do it in your best Vincent Karloff, or Boris Price!  Your players will appreciate it, you’ll have fun doing it, and it will not be easily forgotten!

True Neutral

(Well!  News!  You should be able to post without having a wordpress account now!  If you haven’t posted before, I might have to approve it first, but that should only happen once!)

Does the ref need to be absolute Neutral?

A recent game has had me reflect.  We had a conditional TPK.  TPK?  yep…Total Party Kill.  How do you get a “Conditional” one then?  Well…two players were available, the other two players were steel bucketed.  (Steel bucketing protects PC who cannot play.  They are impervious from death, but not from bad things…)  Anyway, the buckets of player stayed back with a REF PC (Yeah, another post…the difference between NPC, Ref Character and a PC played by the Ref…), and the others got involved in a situation that got them killed.  As Ref, I gave them a few fortunate breaks, which is definitely Character leaning, rather than neutral.  So, it got me to thinking: “Is it really the Ref’s job to be absolutely neutral, neither aiding the players or the black hats???”

Like so much else, it depends.  And this is one of those things that some Ref’s get really up in arms about,  so this is my take…but I will at least touch on other views, so you can make up your own mind.

For me, the answer is a definite NO!  Everyone is at the table to have fun, and that includes the ref.  Sometimes a ref feels sorry for the players, and the challenges drop in scale.  That way, the characters will survive, so no hard feelings, right?  Or what if the players have just pissed you off, whether on the table or in the game, so to get back, characters start dropping like flies.  That’ll learn ’em, right?  Both of these are the wrong reasons not to be neutral.  As a ref, you are a force of nature in the game worlds, so the life and prosperity of characters is in your hand.  It is easy to give them everything or take it all away from them.  Your job, in MOST cases, is to enforce the world laws with impunity.  The risk of a characters life, health or even livelihood is a significant part of the drama of the game.  If a character gets in over their head, they will probably come out the other side worse for wear.  My rule for this has always been “I will not kill a character on a dice roll.”

What does that mean?  A character should not die JUST because of bad dice rolls.  Or Most “Random Encounters” (anything not directly connected with the plot arc) should not kill a character.  A character should only be killed in a story arc connection.   If a character should understand that they are outmatched, it might be  the correct thing for the ref, to let the player know that, in case the player doesn’t realize even when the character should.  Sometimes, the dice are just against the players.  They can’t get a good roll at all, and so cannot catch a break.  Or, they have no way of knowing that the shi……shtuff they just stepped in is a hell of a lot deeper than they had any reason to expect.  In those cases, I have no problem stepping in, changing an outcome in the characters behalf.  It will usually be bad, but they will probably survive.  They wake up naked, in chains, over a cauldron of boiling oil…Or find themselves sold to the mines as slaves…The one thing I resist is altering world laws to make this happen.  If they are hit by a Death Star main cannon, It’s not as if they will find themselves recovering in a healing vat…they are, unfortunately, destroyed.  What if they die in the middle of a desert from giant scorpion.  Could a group of nomads show up, fight off the scorpion and save the character?  Maybe…maybe not.  But for the moment, lets look at another piece of this argument…

What if the character and the player know they are facing horrible odds, and still feel it is the right thing to get involved with?  Slightly different story.  In this case, I will often still try to keep them from being killed, but I will be much more neutral.  If the black hats are wavering between killing them and using them for experimentation later, then I will aim to keep the characters alive.  But, if the black hats have no reason to keep them around, or will even be disadvantaged, then the character buys wholesale agricultural property (Yup…they buy the farm).  Why do I save the first set and not the second set?  Well, the player has chosen to be a hero.  If they survive the challenge, they become heroic, if they do not, well, they died a hero’s death.  In my view, as a ref, that is the more fun option.  (remember what I said earlier…that is why everyone is here!)

The final issue where refs often become non-neutral is when dealing with significant NPCs.  Sometimes, as a ref, you have created a great villain, and the characters completely surprise him and destroy him on two lucky dice rolls.  Well…the rules state that they can do it, so…They win!  not fun.  Think about your villain as a Player Character.  Would you be happy for one of your players to be defeated that simply?  Well, come up with a survival strategy.  Maybe he has “Always had” a secret escape trap door, so that when he falls under that great blow, he drops through and disappears…Or maybe he had a double…But, on the other side of that, just because your players outsmarted your plot, don’t decide that, oh…he wears armor that is only vulnerable to Blue Iron…so that characters cannot harm him as he and his minions now tear them to shreds!  This villain may have been your crowning achievement…but where is the fun ending?  If several of the players are killed, but the last one has sworn a vendetta against the villain in character creation…well…at great cost…he could win!

Here is my simple rule for this:  What is the most enjoyable outcome?  When you have one player, and that character is killed, that had better be a satisfactory ending.  That single player is killed by the Big Black Hat, but they knew they were not ready, but had no option.  Would the BBH, then wish to capture the character to soliloquize over their defeat?  Think of that one player who thought their character just died…and after a few moments of mourning, you tell them that they wake up…If all of your players have charged the Light Brigade, but all get killed…is there a successful epilogue that you can regale them with?  Have fun.  Characters are robbed and killed.  That is what our games emulate.  But is that what makes a good game?  Sometimes, but not always!

A final consideration…The sniper bullet on a dark night in the back of the head.  Believable?  Very.  Particularly if your players have been causing all kinds of problems for a criminal kingpin.  Fun…no.  The other way?  Characters spend two game sessions tracking down the kingpins movements and set up an ambush.  Their long gun loads explosive, poison, glass bullets.  Shoots him from across the street as he steps into a pool of light.  Rolling natural crits, does the kingpin die?  What is the funnest outcome?  Maybe it wasn’t through the back of the head, but right through the shoulder…or maybe the character kills the kingpin…only his arch rival was waiting for such an opportunity…Follow the Fun!

It’s Not the ‘Size’ of the Party…

But the quality of the game that counts!

The Composition of the party definitely defines the kind of game you play.  The composition is both the number of players vs NPCs as well as the type of players and their characters.  This post will be about dealing with the issues of player groups of various sizes, And yes, I will cover ways to deal with the party of 5 players that all want to play bugbear assassins later!  For the purpose of this discussion, each player is only playing one character at a time.  Multiple characters is for a later discussion…

Let me start by discussing my most common game setting; one ref, one player.  This has some of the best strengths, but it also has some of the biggest weaknesses.  First, the game can be tailored very fine to give the player exactly the game they want.  It is incredibly well suited to epic styles, and because it is a single player, the easiest set up for player dilemma and intense drama.  Besides that, you don’t need to worry if a player is not going to show up or not…if your player doesn’t show, then the other characters won’t notice, because time will not have passed the next time they meet.  These can be intensely story driven and satisfying adventures, probably the closest thing to an interactive novel experience one can get.

The downsides can be crushing, however, particularly for new ref’s.  The story is a very fine balance, because if you lose a character because the character dies, or the player tires of that one…well, the game is over, literally in the only way an RPG can truly be.  The cure is to have a character make a new character and take over somewhere else in the story line.  But, this is not as fun for the player, and it requires a significant understanding of your setting to find the place to weave in a new thread.  There are ways to circumvent this, such as have the player in an organization that controls their involvement in the plot.  That way, the next character can be sent in to find out what happened to the last character.  Or maybe the new character received a letter (maybe a bit meta-gamed) from a distant relative asking for their assistance.  NPCs need to be very carefully run.  they have to be able to assist the player, without taking too much away.   On the other hand, they can spoon feed a character exactly as much or as little as you need to press forward with the story.  Character interaction can be a problem, because there are no other Player Characters to interact with., so any in character conflict must be handled by the “REF’s of the world” and leads right back to how you handle your NPCs.  One final weakness, which is somewhat being alleviated in today’s connected world, is the isolation.  The only person a player could reminisce with about their phenomenal gaming experience, is the ref, that set it all up.

Two players are similar to one, but it blunts both the highs and lows somewhat.  I find that a party of three through five is usually about the perfect mix for my ref style.  I know many refs who would rather run about five to eight for the skill spread, and this can fairly easily be argued when you look at many game designs…with that type of character base, almost all skill sets have at least some coverage.  So, lets look at a group of anywhere from three to about nine or even ten (Probably pushing that high-end) for this piece.  This is usually the best balanced game setup you can get.  The character interaction tends to be good, but the number of people can be chaotic if not controlled.  A killed character can be replaced in the party with several different techniques and without major disruption to the rest of the plot.  In parties of this size, NPCs are not mandatory, and are as much set dressing or intrusive as you want.  A group this size, especially at the higher end, really limits the possibility of EPIC role play, simply because of the vast amount of time that would be needed between players turns.  One of the benefits of this size group, is a missing player will not really screech the game to a halt, where it can with smaller groups.  On the other hand, that makes coordinating times more difficult, particularly with adult players that have mundane lives and families!  Also, if you have a munchie table (as in someone brings and everyone consumes munchies, not as in munchkin as that would be a crunchy table) you can end up with bags of refuse every night (to say the least!)…

And lastly, a huge game group…more than about seven or eight in my opinion, but some refs are happy with more…This is usually the least enjoyable type of game.  Too many people all wanting to do things, and trying to build adventures or stories that challenge everybody without boring everybody…well…individualization is pretty much out.  You can, however, come up with some interesting things you can do with this size group.  Co-Ref’s can run simultaneous games, and separate teams can be playing in a similar setting…I have never done this, but I know folks who have and it is apparently quite enjoyable.  Or, partial games…where half your players meet in one game session, and the other half in another…you can again run parallel games, or, of course, different games…but some ref’s find it difficult for more that one game running at a time.  If you can find a place big enough to support all of these players, and you have players with excellent manners and are very patient, there is no reason it can’t be played like any other game…but just writing the types of adventures when you have an entire platoon of characters can limit the style and type.

Does this give you some insight in how to choose your player group?  I love single player games, but they are an entirely different flavor of game from a social group playing (where sometimes the social wins out over game.  yes, another topic for later!).  If anybody wants, I can work out any of these in more detail, but like some of the other very broad topics, this is more an awareness of the benefits and challenges that could be encountered when setting up your game session.

A Book of Blue

Is the Secret in the Sauce?

In my last post, I discussed the importance of separating player knowledge from character knowledge; that is, how to avoid metagaming.  OK.  So, you have that well in hand, but how do you get your players secret information?  Can you get secret information out without letting anyone else even know that you did? And, is any of this even needed?  I’m glad you asked!

In this post I will talk about blue-booking, as well as about tools to help you use PK (Player Knowledge) against CK (Character Knowledge)!  “But, Mentor!”  I hear, ” what is this Blue-Book You speak of?  Does it hold the Secret of Understanding?”  Well, it holds the secret…

Blue Booking is a means of passing secret information to players.  Somewhere in the dim history of our hobby, somebody had a blue notebook, that they passed to the ref with a pertinent query (such as how much gold did I get when I pick pocketed our fighter?) that they didn’t want the other players to know, and thus the term was born.  It is one of the two simplest ways to pass secret info to players, and no, the book does not have to be blue, or even be a book.  It can be a torn piece of notebook paper, scribbled with your question, folded and passed to the ref, who then either scribbles an answer or nods and eats it!  The other way is the dreaded “You, come with me…”  This is when the ref points at a character and takes them out of the room.  (Of course, it might be a player pleading to go out of the room with the ref!)

Benefits of each…the player in question can carry on with secret shenanigans and the other characters are none the wiser…the players may be, but the characters aren’t…But, if the players know something is going on, aren’t they all going to try to make notice rolls and check their pouches, you ask?!  As we went over before, that would be using Player knowledge where the Character has no way of knowing anything is amiss.  Then why pass secrets this way, if you have an expert set of players who will NEVER EVER use player knowledge?  Simple.  Drama! Using these techniques may allow the players some clue that something is going on, but it also allows them the enjoyment of finding out what is going on through their character!.

However, to throw a bit of a monkey wrench into players perceptions (remember when I told you that you can change what a character perceives?  This can also be done , to an extent to the players) by randomly handing a paper to another player with such a cryptic statement as, “enjoying the game?” or “you hear the wind!”  That can be accomplished in a call out as well.  “How bout them Bronco’s?” (they play football…)  This will get the players either overly cautious, missing some of the more important things (You never saw the man run past with the bag of gold, as you were busy checking your pouches) or begin to ignore the exchange because it is none of their characters business!!!

If you can do this with a blue book, when would you take the time to actually do a call out and waste game time? Or, if it not a drama concern, and your players are good what is the benefit? What if you wanted a character to suffer amnesia.  You could just blue-book her with “you have amnesia until I tell you otherwise.”  OK, works, but…It also leaves a lot of questions.  So if you take her out you can tell her what happened, if needed.  You can have a back and forth about how much she still knows, if there is anything she needs to remember…You can pass all of the things you need to accomplish to meet your story goal!  And, the players are in the main room, sweating into their nacho’s about how long you’ve been gone!

Here is a cool trick that works for particular settings.  Say you have a group of players, that are pretty good at NOT metagaming, and you want one player to have a portentous dream that includes the other characters.  Well, you could tell everyone that you want to do a dream sequence.  Boring, but works.  You could play it out, responding to the players constant questions of “how are we on a boat?  We are not even by the sea?” by saying “you just are, OK?!”  and then at the end…”HAHA!  It was just a dream along!  Back to regular game!”  OK, that works.  But what if you needed each of the players except the dreamer to relate some sort of clue?  Answer: Blue-book!  Give everyone a short list of instructions.  All of them can get the…OK, this is a dream, go with it…but what if everyone but one player got that instruction.  What if everyone, but that character was told to use a given phrase at least twice during the session?  What if that persons instruction just said, there will be some weird things that happen, but your character should not notice them…See what we have done there?

How would you handle another odd situation:  One player has been kidnapped and replaced by a Doppelganger.  (what if the character is killed?  You could run the whole combat as a call out or kidnap them, and then game in off time to see about them surviving the ordeal…)  The Doppelganger knows some/most of what the character knows…Before you run something like this, you must trust that you Player can face a role-playing challenge.  You will find that many people find it difficult to play their character slightly different…not in the bad day way, but a “now you are a hidden enemy that wants to eat the other players” way…

What other tools maybe available to you to pass the all important secrets.  In a live game, most players have cell phones.  You can text message each other!  In an online game, usually you can whisper or isolate a single player to pass info to.  What about email between game sessions?  Great tool because you can detail significant info without taking game time!  Also, you can do a lot of scheming in an out-of-game session!  (Let me be clear…this is still game and takes in-game time, it just happens with a character or two rather than the whole party.  It needs to have the time to happen between sessions, or it can get pretty awkward.  Yes, I am planning a post about dealing with game time/real-time!) It doesn’t take a genius to work out these tools, but if you never think about it…it will never get thought of!

Behold the Metatron!

Well, Maybe not the voice of God, but the voice of game!

What is the voice of a game, you ask.  It is how the game is presented; somewhat along the lines of 1st or 3rd person presentation.  To make this clear, let me pull out the “Big Bag of Examples” and show you the same scene presented from the opposite ends of the spectrum…

First, a Character, or 1st person, style: I walk over to the table, picking up the dagger, grimacing at the sticky blood.  I will point it at him…”That’s because you already knew he was dead, didn’t you Counselor.”

“Wha… I knew no such thing!  How dare you!” At which point he leaps erect, hand on his sidearm…

And, same scene, presented narratively or in third person: Centuria Diana approaches the table, gingerly picking up the dagger, barely suppressing a grimace at the still sticky blood.  She grips it, and points it over the table at the seated Counselor. She will accuse him, with just the required amount of tact, of plotting the murder.

At that point, he leaps out of the chair, grabbing the elaborate pale blue Jadic grip of his sidearm, vehemently protesting his innocence, but coming short of accusing the Centuria of manufacturing evidence.

As you can see, the same short scene, conveying the same information.  One would be easier to read, while the other tends to be more immersive.  And that is what separates the camps of RP’ers.  For these I will do a summary of the benefits of each and the problems of each.  If I feel there is more to be said, then maybe later I will treat them each in more detail.  First, my more preferred system, In character:

In character game voice has each player don their character like a costume in the stage of the adventure.  Of course they will describe their actions, but any conversation is done in character.  The ref will, to the best of their ability, take on the mantle of presenting all the rest of the world in character.  This can be very immersive, and usually,  much more spontaneous.  When the player speaks with the characters voice, it becomes more personal, after all you are speaking in I’s and my’s.  In Character makes the adoption of verbal affectations, such as stutters, whisper speech, accents or even catchphrases easy and visible.  On the other hand, this does present one of the primary difficulties found in RPGs…character vs player skills.  If your character is the Senator from the planet  New Athene IV, but you, the player, have a stutter and get tongue-tied with more than 3 or four sentences at a time, this becomes not only a challenge,but a character breaker.  Unless of course you can, as a player, use your natural difficulties in a very successful manner! What about during intimate scenes?  Do you, or your character handle it better, particularly if you have 6 other players sitting around waiting for their turn as opposed to your character who is alone with your object of affection in a dimly lit room while the snow howls outside?

Narrative, or third person presentation is, at least for me, a bit more of a creative challenge.  Naturally, a good portion of an RPG is narrative, even if you’re LARPing…Doubtful you are going to actually pull out your double-barreled scatter-gun and shoot it at the ref, who is currently portraying your lifelong nemesis, so you narrate that action.  This does allow for characters to inject a bit more flair into their character that they may be unable or unwilling to actually verbally portray.  Such as the above mentioned intimate scene.  Or what if your technician character is discussion the details of transit sleep with the designer of transit sleep tubes…can you as a player do this?  What about you as a ref?  Does that mean you should avoid such a possibility?  Another drawback is that verbal affectations are more difficult to work in.  Of course, when you introduce your character, you may say that he has a deep rumbling voice unless you say otherwise, but unless you occasionally remind the others: “In his deep booming voice,he reminds the people to be calm and reassures them that he has their best intentions at heart.”  Also, a purely narrative style really suits a presentation that is impartial.  It is conceptually much easier to send Plebian Zephus into the arena unarmed than it is to walk in yourself…”I walk into the arena, knowing that I go to face my slow and painful death.”

Like many things, you must play with what works for you, but again, it is often best to blend the two.  In character, or first person voice is usually more difficult to achieve for the narrative player, than narrative is for the active voice character.  This is because you always have SOME narrative no matter the rest of the voice.   But the totally narrative character may fear to speak as their character because it may shatter the illusion of the characters voice or vocal patterns.

Here is something I would offer as a short challenge…in your next game session, challenge yourself, and your players, to use the opposite voice.  If you are used to (as I am) speaking in accents and witty comment for several different character, try describing them rather than coming up with the exact speech.  If you normally describe what you talk about and how you address certain things or people, try to actually adopt that voice and those addresses.  Let me know how that works out!

And don’t worry…as far as voice goes, I will talk about several topics that deal with the language in games…so just hold on for a bit!

Until Next time, That’s my Story.  Take it or Leave it.  My trucker buddies, they believe it!