The Secret of Secrets

Imagine if you will that Star Wars was a role-playing game – the movies, not the actual roleplaying game. There you are sitting around the table, having split the party (never a good idea). While you are running through Cloud City trying to escape, your buddy, let’s call him Chris, is battling Darth Vader in the bowels of the city.

Natural 1.  Chris fumbles his defense roll and Fweem!! There goes Chris’ character’s hand. He makes his save and is holding onto the railing about to fall down a giant shaft. You are completely engaged with the dialogue flying back and forth between Chris and the GM, then this happens:

GM: If only you knew the power of the Dark Side. Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.

Chris: He told me enough! He told me you killed him!

GM: No… [whispers something into Chris’ ear].

Chris: [shocked] No. No! That’s not true! That’s impossible!

You sit and wait for the reveal, but it never comes. Weeks go by. After the campaign ends, the second Death Star destroyed, complete with many inside jokes between the GM and Chris, you finally ask, what was said back there?  Oh, that? The GM told me that Vader was my father.

How anticlimactic would that be?

Secrets (campaign or character) Are Only Awesome When Revealed!

Personally, I think that secrets are only cool when they are revealed. I have had players who come to the table with a cool character secret and expect to ride across the campaign with their secret intact. What is the point in that? RPGs are a social, co-operative game. Secrets, either the GM’s or the PC’s that are never revealed run counter to that. If your character is a dragon, hiding in a world where dragons are feared and hunted down, that is some great story material!! But don’t expect to not be put in situations where that will be revealed. I am not saying that secrets should be revealed in session one, but eventually they should come out.  Because when they do, they tend to be explosive.

A recent, nearly deadly, example:

In one of my 13th Age games, the party had been hired by a being of power, who had been bound to a graveyard and stripped of her name for an unknown crime against the gods. The players had been able to discover that although this entity had done the crime, the punishment was, after many eons, exceeding the crime. This entity was slowly being pushed beyond repentance into madness. The twist was that someone had assassinated all of the gods of knowledge to prevent anyone else from discovering this creature’s name, for true names hold power. The group was searching for the last of these slain gods, Azometh. They had discovered that he was not truly dead, but being held and tortured somewhere in the Land of the Dead.

In a recent session, two new players joined the group right before everyone descended into the underworld to free Azometh. The old group decided they did not entirely trust the new characters and kept the scope of their mission hidden from the new players. When they finally found Azometh, being tortured and repeatedly questioned by a Big Bad Evil Guy from my world for ‘THE NAME’, the truth came out. What happened next was an epic night of gaming. The new characters felt betrayed and could not understand why anyone would risk saving such a bound entity. One of the new players decided that no one should have the name (which would control the entity) and slew Azometh. One of the original players managed to contain some of the god’s essence within himself, while another (a forgeborn who sought to raise Azometh to worship him) went berserk and attacked her god’s slayer.

Suddenly, I had PVP in my game. The Fighter going after the cleric, the cleric trying not to die. The Sorcerer trying in vain to maintain his own identity while absorbing the power of a god. The players had a great time working through their character’s choices and the fallout of the revealed secrets.

Conclusion

I am not saying don’t have secrets in your game. I am not saying don’t come to the table with character secrets. But if you horde them and only reveal them after play is over, you are the only one who cares. If you take the risk of letting your secret come to light, not only do you get that enjoyment of a pertinent reveal, but the rest of the group gets to share in that. And your secret has the potential to change the scope of the game for weeks to come.  Which is more satisfying?

As a GM, present opportunities for secrets to come out, but if they are not yours, let the character decide whether or not to reveal them. They should have the final say, but giving them the opportunity or creating consequences for keeping the secret is fair game!

PS

Jadepunk review is still in the works.  Between work and sickness, it has been a rough couple of days.

Good GMing & Finding Fate

Happy December. I hope your holidays were great! It has been a crazy couple of weeks for me, between work projects and grad school. But, this week promises to be the last busy one for a while! Which is great, as I have new reviews to write, podcasts to record, and game design to do! Ok, maybe not less crazy, but definitely more fun!

I have been digging into a lot of great books on GMing over the last couple of weeks. I have reread Play Dirty and Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering. I tore through Never Unprepared, and Unframed by Engine Publishing (reviews forth coming), and have Kobold’s Guide to Combat sitting on my desk next to me. It has been enlightening to review and absorb other people’s view on gamemastering and the hobby. I firmly believe that GMing is a skill. Like any skill, practice and study are key to improvement. I plan to be sharing what I am taking away from these books, as well as reviewing them, in the coming months.

Another set of books that are on my radar to read and review are a number of Fate products. For a variety of reasons, I have started looking into Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. I picked up Mindjammer, Atomic Robo, Jadepunk, and the Fate Core books. I have played Fate before, in its Dresden and Spirit of the Century incarnations. I am looking forward to digging into the nuts and bolts of this game, and seeing how I can apply it to Ta’nar.

Come back Thursday, when I will be looking at Jadepunk, a game powered by Fate.

Rub Some Dirt on It

If you are not familiar with that idiom, it means get over it and get on with it. I, for a while, have felt off my game. My GM game. I had a couple of really promising campaigns fizzle, a string of rough sessions, and over all, felt out of sync with my normal rhythm of gaming.

It has been a slow going process trying to figure out what has been going on, and that is really a story for another time. But, the long and the short of it is, I love to run great games. Not good games, but great games.  Games that still get talked about years later.  Games players love to hate, with twists and consequences. Games players become emotionally invested in, that they burn secret notes in, that they cry, and rage, and love in. So you can imagine, with that as my end goal, how frustrating must be to feel like you are falling short.

But all that changed this weekend. And I owe it to the man who turned me from a good GM into a great GM. John Wick.

The Legend of the Five Rings, 7th Sea, Houses of the Blooded guy, not the new Keanu Reeves’ movie character. (But weird, right?)

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This book right here. Everything I learned about running great games, I learned from Play Dirty, by John Wick. Consequences, dirty tactics, messing with perceptions, character death, all from this small little book. Most of the basis of the articles for this blog find their roots here.

This is not a review. I could not do that to my editor. This is a rough whisper from the dark alley behind your FLGS. ‘Hey kid, want to run a better game?’

If you are a GM, you need to read this book. It changed my game for the better years ago. And, last night, it whispered to me from the shelf. It promised to show me the way again. It was smooth, seductive, and it delivered.

The Planescape game is about to get the Short End of the Wick Stick.

You can get Play Dirty on drivethrurpg.com. You may love it, you may hate it. But, your game won’t be the same after reading it. Go rub some dirt on your game!

UPDATE!!!!!!!: HOLY CRAP…sorry.  Holy CRAP!  I just posted this blog post, maybe 30 minutes ago, and what do I see when I go to post this on G+?  Play Dirty 2 went live on Kickstarter 3 days ago. Mind blow.  Money Spent.

Dealing With Death – Part 4 – When It Happens

Over the course of this series, I have talked about preparing for death in a campaign. But today I want to wrap up by taking a look at how to handle the moment at the table when death emerges.

The Painful Sting

For GMs, it is important to remember that there is loss in death. Obviously, the longer the character has been involved in the story, the greater the loss GMs and players will feel. It is only natural. You have worked with that player to involve the character within the emergent story. New players tend to take the loss of characters harder than experienced players, but this is not always the case.  You know your players better than I do, but one thing aids in dealing with a character death. Taking the time to recognize the characters passing.

It does not have to be elaborate, although I have heard about games where wakes and funerals are held for characters who have passed.  I have a simple tradition at my table. When a character dies, once it is irrevocable, I stand and give the player a sharp salute. It started off because I wanted provide some sort of recognition when a character passed from the game. I gave the salute because it was quick and obvious, but as it worked its way into my games, something strange developed. The salute became a ceremony, a rallying signal for the group to take a moment for the dead character. It is usually accompanied by curses, laughter, a round of quick comments, ect. After the session, I try to chat about the death, if we have time, or if it is exceptionally painful.

I have come to believe that this is an important piece of dealing with character’s dying in the game. Creating a group tradition around death can establish how players react when their character dies. Whether it plays out reverently or irreverently depends greatly on your group and the situation.  It can remove the sting by providing a framework for dealing with it.

Conclusion

Death is a pretty heady subject to tackle, even if it is only character death. I feel like I have just scratched the surface with this article, I am sure greater minds could spend four times the time on this subject. But I hope that this gave you some things to think about and some new ways to use and deal with character death in your game.

In October, I will start a series on 13th Age GMing. The game is unique and has some unique narrative components that I think are very insightful, but they require some thought to get the most out of them. See you next week.

Dealing With Death – Part 3 – Balance

GMs view death in a game in a multitude of ways. You may be a GM that shies away from death in campaigns at all costs, due to the shattering impact it would have on the group’s story.  You may also be a GM that slashes through characters with a Plot Sword of Character Slaying +5 on a weekly basis. But, I suspect that for the majority of us, the reality is somewhere between those two extremes.

Finding Your Death Balance

Trying to strike the right balance of death in you game can be tricky. If you include too much, your players are rolling up new characters every session.  This can lead to a grind-fest where players cannot connect to a character or to the story. The players are not invested enough to worry about the consequences of their actions.  If you have too little, your players could become convinced that their characters are immortal. This can lead to a game where the players are shocked and hurt when their characters do die or games where the absurd becomes commonplace.

The first step in finding this balance is to recognize that inclusion of death in your games doesn’t mean you are hunting for it. Just because you want to make it a possibility in your games, you don’t have to suddenly plan elaborate death traps and triple strength encounters. Or that you have to cut them out for that matter. Remember, you are looking for a balance.

The second step is to take some time for a self-assessment.  You want to take a good look at your game and your style of GMing.  Look for places you have been avoiding or searching for (consciously or sub-consciously) character death. Here are some things to look for.  Do you fudge die rolls in a fight? Do you consistently plan encounters that are at extreme ends of the Challenge Rating? Do you routinely make choices in combats to give your players or the monsters the edge?

If so, take a step back and consider the opposite side of the spectrum. Harder encounters do have the potential for more death.  But they can also be more engaging. Surviving them can be more satisfying.  I also find that I learn more about the system, both as a player and a GM, from the tough fights. On the flip side, easier encounters provide an immediate sense of accomplishment. They are a great way to give players, and GMs, a way to learn new abilities or system content.

What I am searching for is a balance that instills my players with the recognition that death is a real and viable possibility, but without it looming over their heads. Like most things in life, striking a balance is difficult but ultimately rewarding. Where do you fall on the Insta-death to Immortal scale?

Next week we wrap up the death articles and I will announce my October focus.

Dealing With Death – Part 2 – What is it Good For?

You may be asking, ”Why would I even consider looking at death as an option in my games?” I know that for a while it was something that I actively avoided. It can cause lacunas in the story, hurt feelings, and angry players. I used things like plot immunity, enemies that played a bit dumb, and even captured the PCs when it didn’t make sense to instead of letting them die.

I am not saying that any of these techniques are wrong or even worthless.  I still actively employ most of them in the games I run. But to be clear, I am not talking about avoiding death in the final session when everything is on the line. As I have delved into the OSR community and begun looking at a variety of rule sets for this blog, I have begun to see the benefit of including death in my games.  Just like with the other techniques I use, I believe that there is a time and place for system’s death rules to be run rules as written.

Highlights

Deaths in the course of a campaign, as in the course of our own lives, serve as milestones.  They cause moments to be defined in relationship to their occurrence. Campaigns’ memories cling to these markers for players, and campaigns can become defined by what happened before and after the death.  The stories that are retold in my gaming group usually center around the character deaths. In my Exalted game, which took place in 2006, the single moment that is brought up most often is when Loki died to ensure that the Mask of Winters would be destroyed for eternity.  In my D&D games, people still talk about Chris’ heroic deaths, which are usually sacrificial in nature.  In my last 13th Age game, the fight with Marrowbreath, which claimed the lives of two characters, was often referenced during downtime. While your campaign may still be highlighted by other moments, and I assume they are, don’t discount death as potent mile marker.

Motivations

A character death can serve as a powerful expression of party motivation.  It can cause a dramatic shift in a game’s direction. A character who sacrifices himself to ensure a party’s escape is immortalized in canon by the survivors, causing the group to anneal or dedicate itself to the dead character’s ideals.  A minor encounter with a villain that slays a character or two suddenly causes the group to focus the story on a hunt for that villain in the name of vengeance.  In my opinion, there are few mechanical components of a game that have as strong of a narrative impact as the death rules.

Recycling

As in nature, death can lead to renewal.  Players get to experience a wider variety of characters, classes, and role-playing if they embrace character death. Deaths can also introduce story changes that, while unexpected, breathe new life into a campaign.  While I do understand the draw of seeing your PCs cross the finish line intact from the inception of the game, I am beginning to believe that it should be an unexpected bonus and not a forgone conclusion.

Learning

Sometimes character death is a learning experience for players. It reinforces an aspect of the playstyle or game play of a system that they may be unaware of. Perhaps you should not go charging into the room in front of the fighter.  Maybe sleeping in the camp of the recently slain bandits is a bad idea. Maybe you should not lick the walls of strange cave systems…ever. While OSR games tend to treat character lives as cheaply as the paper they are printed on, they do lend themselves to mastery. If an action leads to a character death, you might be back in the game in 10 minutes with a new character, but I bet you won’t take that action again.

Conclusion

These are just a couple of reasons why character deaths, for all the pain they can cause, can have a positive impact on your game. I am looking forward to seeing how these ideas continue to play out in my 13th Age games.

Dealing with Death – Part One – Acceptance

Chances are, if you have sat on either side of the screen for any length of time, a character has died. It may not have been your character, or it might have been your fault! In every game I have played in, death was a scenario that had a real possibility of occurrence. Yet how often does character death shock or surprise the players at your table?

I am writing these articles for GMs and players who want to understand the impact that character death has when it occurs in games. Some GMs avoid character death like the plague, while others seek it out at every turn. Some players don’t care if their character dies, yet some cry at the merest hint that their beloved character might not make it. Death is a risk and a consequence in gaming, but I don’t believe that it should lurk around every corner. As a GM, you should contemplate character death in your games because how a GM handles death at the table has an immense impact on how it plays out in your games.

Why include it at all? What is a good balance? What should you do if it occurs? These are some of the questions that I will attempt to answer over the next month – starting with acceptance.

Coming to Terms

Characters die, and it is ok. If a character dies, it is not necessarily your fault as the GM. Nor does it make you a bad GM. GASP!! I know a dozen gamers who would take offense to that statement. They want think that character death is solely the fault of the GM – that it is the result of a bad GM at that. This is just not true. In some ways, characters are designed to die. I mean, most of the game systems have rules for death and dying in them. The single stat that most players are invested in are their Hit Points, which is just an abstraction of how close to death they are.

You as a GM have to find the right balance of death for your games. And it is different for every table and every player. You have to accept what character death means to you, and to do this requires you to look at three different pieces of the game play experience: system, consequences, and choices.

What Does the System Say?

The first step in understanding where death fits into your game is to look at your system. Understanding how your system of choice handles character death mechanically will give you an insight into how death will be perceived by your players.

In some systems, like RuneQuest or ACKS, death is a sword-slash away. Your characters are never so far removed from death that you could consider yourself free of that worry. In other games, like DnD 4th ed, death is farther away. It requires a level of investment on the side of the GM to even make the players sweat.

Your players will come to extrapolate from their interaction with the rules, as well as your presentation of said rules, how pervasive the possibility of death is. There are ways around this (see my article on Plot Immunity), but the first step in understanding how death works in your game is to….well…. understand how death works in your game.

Consequences

The second part of acceptance is understanding that sometimes players will engage in actions that consequentially lead to their character’s death. Risk is what makes games interesting, and for there to be risk, there has to be consequences. One outcome of fighting a dragon is you might die. I have already talked about consequences in gaming, but it bears repeating here. I have found that having consequences to actions in my games is what keeps people interested in them. It adds verisimilitude to the experience, and a realistic consequence in a game is death. Why? Well think about the lives most characters live: brutal lives of fighting in outnumbered battles, exploring deathtraps left by an age’s most powerful wizards, being embroiled in the game of thrones. Any of these activities have an obscenely high attrition rate. I have seen games play out with no consequences to deadly actions, and they end poorly.

Choices

Remember, heroes are not always rewarded, but heroes always pay the price. Sometimes, in the course of gaming, you will have a player [let’s call him Chris, after the Chris in my gaming group] who will put the needs of the group ahead of his own. Sometimes, when the chips are down and the oni are pouring over the hill, this player will look at you and ask if he can plug the gap, or jump on the grenade, or stall the balor so that the party can flee.  Let’s be honest, Chris knows that his character is not going to make it out alive, but he also knows that the game ends unless someone steps up. So he steps up. The party lives at the expense of one of its members.

The third step in acceptance is understanding that sometimes your players will choose for their character to die, and that denying them of that moment robs that player of their glory.

Interlude

I will let you in on a little secret.  I am not always good at accepting death in my games. Sometimes I negate a sacrifice, either by bringing the character back or torturing the group with its corpse.  Sometimes I avoid a killing blow because I don’t want a player to cry, or because I don’t want to hear the whining. And sometimes I don’t treat a death with the reverence it deserves.  But part of why I am writing this series, despite how hard it actually is for me right now, is that I am trying to figure out where I truly land on the topic of character death, and to figure out how I would like to ideally handle it at my table.

[End Part 1]