The play is the thing

Over the last two weeks, we have talked about getting set up for a game.  This will cover the final prep and give a brief overview of things to expect during that game.  Once you have an adventure idea, and characters to experience and or carry it out, you need to get to the real meat of Role Playing games: The Playing!

to get started, we need to consider game set-up.  This may be something you have already came up with based on the game system and or the setting you use.  Or, it could be something that you haven’t given much thought.  What do you NEED to play your game, and what do you WANT to play your game?  Need is usually pretty similar from game to game: something to write with, dice, maybe tokens or counters.  Some games have fairly specific needs, like Savage Worlds need some sort of bennie tokens as well as a card deck.  However, the environment you are playing may have other needs…playing online, you will likely not need dice or writing implements as your on-line environment may provide those for you.  A far as what you want, well…consider maps, or 3-D terrain pieces and miniatures, effect templates, candles or mood lights, music or sound effects, incense or scented candles!  Anything that may add to the enjoyment of your game, or make it easier to play.  Again, in some game systems, you may find that a want in one game is a requirement in another and vice-versa.  (Do table snax count as a need or want?  Might depend on your table contract!)

When considering this, think about what might add to the immersion, or connection with the games.  Do you want theme dice?  What about token that reflect the setting or the mood?  If your game is set in the bootlegging 20’s, could you get a soundtrack from the times and keep it as background mood setting?  Some games lend themselves to “theme-ing” better than others, but you can probably find little things to do for any game.  BUT:

  • DON’T forget your NEEDS when setting up your wants!  If you get all of the terrain and miniatures you want to use, but forget dice…this might be a fail!

All of this could be several posts long, just talking about how and where to find the right music or sound effects, or what makes the best maps and so on, but really this section is here just to remind you of the basics of setting up the game.  Once you are comfortable with the game set , You are ready to “Roll some Dice, and Move some Mice!” (I know many of you are too young for that reference, but just accept that it means get started!)

When running a game, you can encounter a great number of issues and challenges.  Most of this blog is about how to deal with various iteration of those.  But this post will address some specific issues and resolutions.  If I can relate it close enough to another post, I’ll link it as well.  Rest assured that no matter what you have seen before, and what I’m about to show you, the real answer to any game issue is:


As we start lets recap just a bit:  You have taken time to somewhat (or more) connect your characters to your adventure.  You have spent either a small amount to a great amount of time setting up your “script”  So, the first idea I want to convey to you is Murphy’s Law of Game Mastering: Expect nothing to go as planned!.  The best battle plans do not survive contact with the enemy, and your plot is not much different.  In an RP adventure, you control the world, the antagonist and his resources, but the protagonists, (the players). really tell where your story goes and how it gets there.  You can influence that.  Subtly, you can lay out clues like breadcrumbs, hints from NPCs, omens or the stray bit of overheard conversation.  Or you can go to the other end, and have the PCs employer tell them what they need to do, or even the outside game GM discussion.  Remember that this is not always bad.  Sometimes the players are on a completely different wavelength than you and you need to go outside of the game to bring everybody back to the plot.  This, oddly enough is why you did the prep you did.  When things go sideways, you can look at the story, and see if your plot can be salvaged by changing some things.  The benefit of the minimalist set-up, is you then just have to have the Antagonist respond, using its motivations and resources to still reach its’ goal.  If you and your players are alright in a campaign where the enemy has gone (mostly) completely unnoticed, even though your tried to lead them to his machinations, and she succeeds to the detriment of what the players wanted, then bully for you!   If this was just a short adventure, the players come as close to failure as you can in an RPG.  If you and your players are not happy with that, then either bludgeon them over the head with the clue haddock, and show them the path (yes this may be simply a side comment that they missed something)  Either way, if this is just a part of a longer story, or even a campaign, well, now the Baddie has a brand new asset, or assets at his disposal! (Whats that, he just took over the world?  Then your players are in for a hard fight!)

Adventure? Check! Characters? Check! Set-up? Check!  How do you start the game?  This is as much personal choice as the theme of your game. For many games, a great way to start is in medias res (“in the middle of things”). This is the technique of starting, literally, in the middle of things; without introduction or lead in to the story.  Usually, just a quick introduction, and pick up the game in the middle of some ongoing scene. This does several things: captures players attention, introduces game mechanics, and hooks the characters into what is going on.  In medias res does not have to be in the middle of combat, though.  If you are playing a game with a strong combat focus, it is very appropriate to do so, however.  If you are running a bounty hunter themed game, maybe in the middle of a chase, might be appropriate.  Something to keep in mind, is that this type of beginning need to have a bit of background, unless the goal is to start with the characters in a completely unexpected situation.  Lets look at a few examples:

  • Set-up: You are a group of WWII saboteurs, sent to find out about this new weapon and stop its production if you can
    • …And automatic gunfire rattles off to the left…describe the warehouse they are in and what they see, or provide a map
    • Once the battle is over, tell the brief story of how they discovered the research, and where it was being produced, in a heavily guarded warehouse
  • Set-up:You and your crew are hard riding to get a message to a garrison commander before the enemy forces arrive
    • While galloping through a mountain pass, there is a loud rumble, and snow begins cascading across your trail…set the scene in the remote mountain pass, or provide them a map
    • Once they overcome the obstacle, fast forward to the real beginning of your adventure, the arrival at the garrison, with the enemy cresting the rise.
  • Set-Up: You need to know the location of the villains lair. 
    • With the villains attractive paramour across from you at the baccarat table, You have  a strong hand and a stronger drink…

As you can see, the in medias res can be a compelling opening to your game.  However, some players would rather get to know a little about their characters before being engaged, so you might wish to accommodate them, or you may just want the theme to be a little less intense.  (Note that the in medias res can be used for some fairly complex GM tricks.  I will probably do a post about them soon).  Another popular way of starting the game is the hire/impress/briefing style.  In this method, the players are hired by a stranger in a bar / impressed by the local military / gathered in a briefing to be told what they need to do.  If you have connected your players to the story, then this method still works well, because they are now being sent to do something they want to do anyway!  They may not like how they are being tasked (such as trumped-up charges and facing the hangman’s noose unless they do this task), but they should have at least a little bit of self motivation to accomplish it.

However you begin it, you will then carry on through the adventure beats, or the action/reaction until the situation is resolved.  During all of the game, there are several things to keep in mind, and you may well have addressed them in you table contract.  But if not, or as a refresher:

  • Don’t debate rules during game time.  As ref, make a quick decision,  and a note to discuss it after the session.
  • Everybody is at the table to have fun, the ref included.  when someone is getting bored (or worse, upset) try to fix the issue, even if it means interrupting the game momentarily…
  • Remember that the Ref is not against the players, but the NPCs he plays probably are!

One more thing to keep in mind, and this has taken me a long time to figure out.  Your story ends. No matter if it is a short one-shot type of adventure, or a full campaign, the end needs to be well-defined.  lets say they beat the big bad (BB).  You can end the game with an epilogue style wrap up after the combat/confrontation.  If they lose to the BB, summarize what happens with them out of the way of the BB.  Do they come home to ticker tape parades? Is the world safe for democracy again? Are the space ghosts never heard from again?  If they lose, try not to make it TOO dark!  Don’t use: “Because you died at the hands of Sodok the Slaughterer, nearly 1/3 of the population is sacrificed for her view of “the greater good” and for two generations everyone lives in constant fear for their lives!”  You can soften this a bit by summing up that Sodok the Slaughterer continues as fearsome tyrant , whose name is spoken of in hushed whispers for generations.”  This ends the game, and rewards the players or culminates the story.  Another option,if it fits the tone, is prepare a newspaper article / News feed /Heraldic announcement for failure and success…hand the appropriate one to the players after the game wraps.  Anything you can think of that is not, “OK!  you beat the BB, now how do you get back to town to resupply?”  Keep in mind that the characters may continue in further adventures, but this is a great opportunity for them to retire from the adventuring life.

 My biggest problem, as an epic style ref, is that once the players dealt with one story line, I basically rewarded them, and then let the world go on…if the players sought out other story arcs, then great, otherwise…the story just kind of ran down like a clock unwinding.  Not very exciting, no matter how fun the actual game.  This took me years to realize,  partly because I don’t get the opportunity to play often, but also because I thought a living  world was more engaging and exciting.  I no longer believe this.  Stories need the beginning, a middle AND they require an end.  The end needs to be as complete as the rest of the story.  Sometimes it is played out, but usually this is a narrative conclusion after the final confrontation, just like the narrative to start the game.  This does not need to be you, the ref, just telling the closing story.  Talk to the players about what their characters will do now that this issue is taken care of, or talk about what the characters hoped for even in a poor outcome.

I will do one more of these weekly posts, next week talking about post game wrap up.  Feel free to post questions or comments.  Remember that I started this blog at the request of one of my players.  I have done a lot of contemplation on a lot of these posts.  I know that my rules and techniques may not work for everyone, but I hope that anyone can at least glean a few things from them.  If you have had good luck with any of these techniques, or any of them turned out disastrous, please share!

Keep Rolling! And may your dice often critical/explode (in a good way…an explosive dice may be quite painful if not downright dangerous!)

Who is the who?

What is a story (or an adventure) without characters?  In last weeks post we talked about writing up an adventure, and how the conflict is Man VS., But remember that MAN can be any protagonist, whether male, female, protoplasmic asexual, or super-intelligent shade of the color blue.  Depending on the game system and the setting, you may have all or none of these in your character group.  Characters, both PCs and NPCs, are a distinct and important part of making your adventure, and I will talk about each of them in this weeks post.

We will start with NPCs, or anyone not played by a player character (hence: Non-Player Character)  These range from major players, both heroes and villains, to walk ons.  They are a shorter discussion in general,but that does not mean they should be relegated to forgettable status..  The more important they are to your story-line, the more thought out they have to be.  While a chandler who sells the players waxed cotton line may need little more than a name (if even that), the big bad of the game needs quite a bit more!

Lets start small and go big.  A simple walk-on NPC needs little thought.In many cases, a name, a quirk and a voice are over thought.  Most NPCs of this type are stage dressing, shop keepers and villain fodder.  They represent Joe average.  They are OK in anything they need to do.  The more important an NPC, or the bigger role they play, they need more consideration. Hirelings of PCs should all have names, and at least one characteristic like  quick, Brave, giggles at inopportune times, cunning, untrustworthy, yawns all the time, etc…  For names, there are lots of resources, from a phone book (if you remember those) for a modern game, to various random name generators such as those found at Seventh Sanctum or Behind the Name.  At least keep a note card or page with a list of names, where you can write a couple of words about who they are, so if your players want to go back to them.  If they are important enough, make a note about how they talk.  If you are a 1st person player, imitate that when being the character.  If your more 3rd person, remind the players that this mousey little bartender talks like John Wayne!

  • Simply put: The more important the NPC, the more details you will need on them! Most major NPCS (based primarily on amount of “Screen time” they get) will need near complete character sheets with appropriate GM notes.

Before I even start on Player Characters, let me say this:  PCs should not be created in a vacuum!  PCs are informed as much by a setting as they are by other characters and/or story-line.


As the heart of your story, there are several things to consider when thinking about PCs.

  • What type of character(s) fits the story?
  • What character class, archetype or skill set is needed to meet the various challenges?
    • In general, the 5-man band trope will cover most requirements.  The RPG version is usually: Fighter (Heavy/Tank);Mage (Scientist); Rogue(mechanic,scrounge); Healer (medic);  Shooter (sniper, Archer)
  • What is the minimum and maximum number of players you need/are willing to run?
  • How can you hook your characters into the plot, or with each other?
    • The “you meet in a bar, and a mysterious stranger approaches” gives the player little connection to the plot or the other characters, but is a direct intro to the plot.
    • If each character has a personal stake in the outcome, then they want to get a good outcome.
    • If the players have at least some connection to the other players, then they will typical want to work together better.  This can range from family, to same school or hometown.  you can also connect each player with two other characters, and that way they web together.
  •  How tightly do the characters need to be tied to the story?  Drinking in a tavern and being hired by the mysterious patron is so easy to get them involved, but it does not really give them any reason beyond, something to do other than drink.  It is a great way to get a disparate group of unknown together.  On the other hand, the easiest way to get them all directly involved is having them all be part of an extended group that must resolve the issue.

You could provide pre-generated characters to your players.  This saves time during your first game, and allows you to control all the aspects of the characters.  This makes building hooks easy!  When building pre-gens, a couple of things to keep in mind:


  • Most of the time it doesn’t matter if the character is male or female.  So if you name the character either give them a name that is gender neutral, or a male OR female name.  Often you can just leave the name to the player.
  • Make them at least somewhat interesting.  The background they have would not normally be “you work in a garage,”but should be they “worked in Uncle Vito’s garage since they could follow instructions, but when Uncle Vito was gunned down, you escaped by hiding behind a barrel of oil…”
  • Build hooks so they can relate to the story!  And conversely, make sure they have the skills to shine at least once during the game
    • This can be hard if you don’t know how many players to create for.  If you have two players and you had planned for 6, what do you do with the missing skills?
    • You may need to build yourself a table that shows you how to modify each of your characters if you don’t have enough, or make not of which skills are shy and consider how to get around them in the game

The middle ground of PC is character outlines.  Depending on your system, you may outline that you need at least a warrior, and a mage of a particular discipline; or you might say everybody needs at least one weapon skill at moderate proficiency, but you also need someone to be a divine worshiper of the god of black water.  With these basic outlines, you can get with your players and put all of the requirements on a white board or on note cards or whatever, and then draw straws to see who gets to choose what untill all of your requirements are taken care of, then let them build what ever else they want.

If you know your players, or are confident in your ability to guide players you don’t know, then you can go straight to character creation.  This gives your players the most freedom, but can put the greatest strain on your game, so lets look at some details:

Character Creation at the table

If you give your players complete freedom to create what they want (which is what I usually do), you have opened yourself up to the biggest headache.  You now need to make sure that the adventure fits the characters, and that you have appropriate hooks for them.

  • I recommend that you guide the character creation.  Kind of like the middle ground, you know what you need to have.  You know the setting and the scope.  (Creating characters for a single adventure may allow some rule breaking to fit what you need.  For a campaign…not really allowed!)
    • Keep in mind your story.  All of the next points assume you have a fairly solid grasp of the story you want to tell.  If you are telling a story about Victorian monster hunters, who incorporate part of the monster into themselves to make better hunters, you may not want a holier than thou brimstone preacher, but a preacher who fight the stain against God might work, but do you have the requirements of skills and abilities to meet the challenges of your story?
    • Talk with the characters about your setting.  Depending on the genre, you may even give them basics of the plot.  This might not work in a murder mystery, but in a” get the macguffin” (macguffin? you ask…the thing thqt MUST be gotten) dungeon crawl, you can probably tell them that.
    • In that discussion, they will need to know what type of characters you expect, and perhaps more importantly, what won’t fit.  In a witch hunting game, it is probably inappropriate for one of the characters to be a demon worshipper!
    • However, if they want to play that character, find out why.  Perhaps you can fit their desires into a character idea.  They want to play a demonologist to cast black magic?  What about White magic?  More limited perhaps,but the holy priest may fit in much better!
    • Feel free to have the players provide you hooks, but if your scope is a single game, help them change that hook to one that fits your setting.Let other players make suggestion about the character…get the ideas flowing.  If you need the characters to know each other, work out how.  do they each know all of the others, or is everyone connected to only one or two of the others?
    • Once concepts are made, work through character creation.  Try to make the build fit the idea, but make sure you get the skills covered that need to be.

Lets go to the example:

Continuing our example from before, lets touch on each of the ways you could create characters. We have come up with a story, so now consider the types of characters that you might need or want.  NPCs we need, are the spider alien,and its brood, the proconsul and a couple of servants.  That might do for a minimum.  The way the story is written, we may only need to completely stat out the big bad. The rest can get by with a few notes.but we may create some of the stats to deal with things we don’t expect.  Of course all of the bit players will need names, so I’ll have a random name generator (or a book on roman history) to create roman sounding names, with maybe space-opera monikers (Space runner, Star child, Voidmann).

If you are setting this game up for a convention, or just to try out a system or something, you may consider pre-gens.For the game you decide that all of your characters will have basic military training, so that defines part of their background.  Perhaps in your game, they have been together since they were out of the crèche as they were destined to form this cadre.  So now the players are connected.  Using that, the mission becomes important because one of their creche mothers has gone to this frontier planet, and they haven’t heard from her since she left.Like that, you have given them a reason to be together, to work together and a want to undertake the mission. (Maybe mother is in one of the villas that has been attacked…she is OK, but wants the master avenged).  You have soldiers; you also need perhaps a doctor, maybe with a xeno-disease specialty.  One of the characters is a research specialist.  You need a long-range fighter and a couple of close in fighters.  How about a diplomatic face type.  And then, as a final character, an insectoid non-citizen trying to earn its citizenship by serving the emperor.  Its motivation is different, but it adds a bit of party conflict, so you only make it available if all of the other characters are taken.  If you want, you can add character specific connections, but most single shot adventures don’t see a whole lot of use of them.  You can make it a point of play, exploiting it during one of your beats!  Otherwise, you are ready to play!

In the next situation, you may not know your players, but you are not limited by time, you may have a couple of session to cover the story, so you decide to have them create characters, but you will control the process.

You know you need all of your players to have Some fighting skills.  So, depending on your game system, you may require everyone to take a weapon proficiency, or x number of points in combat skills.  If your system is a pure class base, then this part of the decision is basically what sort of classes are needed.  As you can see, this is where a class based system could have significant advantages. Assuming you are playing a skill based or class/skill hybrid system you will need to be a bit more defined. You have access to notecards, so you use them. If you don’t know how many players, you may need to mark the characters.  something like all 1 star characters have to be taken before a two star character can be taken, and so on.  This ensures that the minimum classes/skills are covered.. If you are using a class hybrid system you may put out cards for just the classes , so everyone can pick that first.  Then, put out the skill cards with skill/talents/powers (whatever ) on them.These cards can include skill groups (skills for a thief, for instance) or maybe individual, allowing people to specialize as they see fit.  Once skills and classes are distributed, you might talk about hooks, or you can lay them out for selection as well.  If you lay them out, it might be best to be a little vague so character secrets are not common knowledge.  If you are going to leave the players to work out the character hooks, you might consider the next iteration instead!

Lets now assume you are going to be playing with your usual group of players.  You know the kind of things they play, but maybe this setting will get them to shake it up a bit.  So, you get snax and start talking about characters for the new game.  Everybody agreed to the setting, so you just need to tell them a bit about your story plan.  Everybody is happy with what you need.  So they can dive into character making right?  Yes, but…THey can make their character and then work with you about fitting them into the group, but if everybody talks through the types of character ideas they have, you can guide them in their choices, and other players may have some influence to make better characters!  Cool, eh?  OK…your group is talking about characters, and one of the players really wants to play a dwarven priestess to the God of the Axe.  You explain that this is not really a fantasy game, but they would really like to do this…now what?

Like so many other things at the game table – talk it out!  Maybe after finding out why she wants to play that, you agree that it could be a fun concept, but it doesn’t fit.  But (Later we will talk about the Yes, But.. .and No, and… concepts) how about she is a non-citizen from a high Gee Ice world called Graham Holt.  So, she is short, and hairy, like a dwarf, and she actually has psionic powers that her people have attributed to divine intervention.  You hadn’t planned on any kind of magic, but this minor power might fit well.  So, she gets to play her Dwarven priestess, that is on this operation to work toward her citizenship in the Empire.  Character motivation! She may not be connected to the other players directly…or, maybe she has been assigned to their cohort for a while!  Maybe even the slave of one of the other characters!

Once created, then you need to wrap it up with tie ins.  Once each of your characters is a closely connect with each other and the story that you are comfortable with, you are off to the races! (Not breeds of people, but competitions of speed…but actually mean you are ready to play!)  Well…almost.  Next week, I will discuss setting up for your game.

Let me know if this is of help!