Chronicles of Darkness: What is the God-Machine?
2021 In Retrospect
When I wrote the blog post about my goals for 2021, I had a bunch of expectations and made a bunch of promises. I was going to post one review a month on my Youtube channel. That didn’t happen. I was going to launch a podcast. That didn’t happen. I was going to release Machineborn. That didn’t happen. So, none of my promises were delivered upon. What happened?
First, I graduated and started my career. 2021 was the first year in a very long time where I became financially stable. I got that dream job as a therapist that I had hoped for, and I got it immediately after graduation. I had some good recommendations from a previous internship that paid off. Now I’m working full time, with a bit of a commute, and while I love it, it did affect how much time I could invest in content creation. Fewer hours to work lead to longer periods between updates. On the other hand, stable finances led to a beast of a computer, and I’ve made some recent investments too that I hope will increase the quality of the Youtube content I put out there. Since I work from home one day a week, I’ve also been incentivized to build an office – which could double as a studio for whatever creative endeavors that’ll come my way. I hope to get it done in 2022, but we’ll have to see if the finances allow it.
The podcast was one of the things that had to go, though. I still would like to make it one day, and I’ve been offered help and voices by some great RPG podcasters, but I can’t invest the time in it right now. I don’t think I’ll start it in 2022 either, but you never know. If I will get more opportunities to work from home or work in clinics closer to home, the time I would save from the commutes could do wonders for being able to manage a project like this.
Then there was Machineborn. Sure, I didn’t release Machineborn D20 – I’m not happy with how it plays and how it scales – but I did start Machineborn Fate and have written 360 pages for it so far in just a few months. It’s already in a playable state, it’s constantly revised, and it’s turned out to be much easier to manage and balance while maintaining the crunch and customization options. I went into Fate thinking it would be too simplistic for what I wanted to achieve, and it turns out that it allows for even more (and easier) customization than D20 did. You’re able to feel a thousand times more powerful as a machineborn in the new system.
I’m confident that Machineborn is in a better state than it’s even been in at the moment, and most of my free time goes into it. Will it see a 2022 release? Probably. Some content needs to be added still, but the game is done and playable. I don’t need to do many rules tweaks anymore – the playtesting is now mostly with regard to the customization options, like augmentations and gear. I still write on the game for many hours a week, so I haven’t lost productivity on this front.
I’m not going to make a bunch of promises about 2022. What I will say is that I have reviewed the way I structure my free time and come up with a schedule that I think will let me be as productive as I can be for both Youtube and Machineborn, while also prioritizing my health. I have set aside some time every day to write, and I now plan beforehand which project to work on during that time. I’m sure you’ll see more of me in 2022 than you did in 2021, and I’m confident that I’ll be able to put out some good content.
If you want to support me, you can do so over at patreon.com/ekorren
Exalted 3E: Executing and Designing Gambits
Session Zero & Safety Tools: Are They Important?
How to Improve as a Roleplayer
Everyone has a different idea of what it means to be a good roleplayer. For some, a good roleplayer is someone who can immerse themselves in a story and embrace their character; for others, a good roleplayer is someone who can solve all the puzzles and defeat all the encounters. For me, a good roleplayer isn’t someone who is defined by their skills in acting or problem solving – that is just a bonus. Instead, a good roleplayer is someone who remembers that roleplaying is a social experience. In this section, I will discuss five things that I think are important for all roleplayers to remember. A good roleplayer is defined by the rest of the group more than by their own accomplishments as a player. It is someone who is fun to play with and that makes the other players feel valuable and appreciated. Everyone can become a good roleplayer.
A good roleplayer should be attentive and interested; they should want to be there. You can easily tell when someone is bored because that is when they lose focus of the game and start fiddling with their phone. There can be situations when the player is genuinely bored, and much of that could be the GM’s fault because they may be the one not attentive to others’ interests and needs. However, being attentive means more than simply showing interest in the scenes. It is also about being aware of the other participants in the room. An attentive player knows that the game is about more than themselves. By showing interest in what other players are doing and what is happening outside of your own self goes a long way to make the other players enjoy your presence at the table. I want to address three aspects of attentiveness that is good to keep in mind when wanting to improve your roleplaying. These can also be general social tips for situations other than roleplaying.
First, you can become more attentive of the GM and their narrative by taking notes throughout the game. By reminding yourself of the fact that there could come up information important to the narrative, you can train yourself to be more perceptive of that information – and to take notes of things as they come up. Tell yourself before the game that “I will take notes this session,” and check in on yourself with regular intervals to see if you live up to the statement. If you know that you are easily bored or distracted, you can train yourself to be more attentive of the story by taking notes of things that other players are doing as well – even if it is unrelated to your own character’s experience. Remember that it is important that you have fun as well, though, so do not force yourself to take a bunch of notes if you feel that it is ruining your own roleplaying experience. It is a good way to practice awareness, though, if you feel that your thoughts often drift off and you forget things from the game.
Second, you can become more attentive of the social cues around the table. By reminding yourself that you are one individual in a group of several, take note of the other players’ affects – their body languages, the things they say, and the things they do. Have eye contact. If you are attentive of your fellow players’ experience at the table, you will be more aware of when they are having fun or when they are being bored. You do not have to be a social guru to train yourself to be more socially aware. You only need to remind yourself in the moment to look outwards more instead of getting lost in your own thoughts. If you are aware of how other players are feeling, you can tailor your roleplay in a way that gives them a good experience. For example, if you notice another player being distracted or bored, you can approach them in game to share a scene with them. If you notice a player being uncomfortable by something that is happening in the game, you can give them support both in game and out of game to better their experience. If you know that you are bad at reading social cues in general, and you know that you often miss or misinterpret other people’s affects, it can be helpful to be honest about that and ask outright how someone is feeling about a scene and what you can do to support them.
Third, you can become more attentive of your own actions, thoughts, and feelings. If you know that you are easily impulsive, that you are too shy to take risks, that you tend to interrupt other people’s roleplay to blurt out unrelated anecdotes, or that you get easily distracted, angry, upset, or anything else that you know can be problematic, then remind yourself to be on the lookout for these quirks. By telling yourself before the game to not be as impulsive as you often are, you can become more attentive to the signs that your impulsiveness will surface. Have these kinds of traits and quirks are what makes you into you, though, so do not feel shy or guilty for having them. Only if you believe that they can be disruptive in a way that prevents others from having a good experience, then attempting to rationalize them in the moment can help you to channel those traits in ways that are healthier for the social setting; or to suppress them if they would be problematic outright. If you know and accept that you have a quirk that could be disruptive, but you do not trust your own ability to rationalize or suppress it, then invite your fellow players to help you out. “Hey, I know that I can be a bit loud at times. Just tell me if I am, okay.” And do not be upset when they tell you to quiet down.
A good roleplayer is also someone who takes the initiative to interact with the scene and the other characters. Initiative, in this context, does not mean that you must be socially outgoing and constantly asserting yourself. It is perfectly fine to be withdrawn or socially anxious and still be able to take initiatives that help shape the narrative. In this context, taking initiatives means that you are aware of your character’s presence in the scene and what the circumstances are for the scene – this keys off your attentiveness. If you have been attentive to the narrative, taken note of certain details, and are aware of your own character’s abilities, “taking initiatives” means that you are able to come up with approaches that can further the narrative of the scene without having to be prompted or guided towards those conclusions. This initiative could be something more direct, such as piecing the clues together and suggesting a solution that could overcome a challenge. It could be something more dramatic, such as approaching another character for an interaction. It could be something more reflective, such as recognizing that you do not have all the knowledge you need to proceed and taking initiatives to change things in your favor – such as investigating something. It could also be something productive, such as aiding the worldbuilding by responding to the GM’s cues as well as providing your own additions to the scene and the situation.
A GM wants the players to interact with the setting because doing so means that they acknowledge it and are willing to place themselves within this world of the GM’s making. To see players roleplay and problem-solve freely and without prompting is one of the most rewarding things of being a GM. If you are the kind of player who often wait for others to take the initiative and drive the narrative forward, challenging yourself to test your own ideas without prompting signals your engagement to the GM. That can be easier said than done, though. It is possible that you are an introverted player who do not feel comfortable or safe taking initiatives without prompting. In that case, there are different ways of taking initiatives that may help you improve as a roleplayer without triggering your social anxiety too much. If the GM is unsure if you are engaged because you do not show it as openly as other players in the group, try telling them that you enjoy the game but find it hard to compete with the other players, and that more prompting from the GM as well as from the other players could be helpful. If you have ideas on things you want to do in the game but are not comfortable to just decide to do them, because you think that other players may dislike your initiative – then step out from the game for a moment and tell the other players out of character what your idea is. In this case, you took the initiative to present a solution without having to feel like you put the scene or the characters at risk through your decision. Even if roleplaying can be very immersive, it is not real life, and you have the right to pause the game to reflect. There could be moments when the GM wants to pressure you for time to either keep the game going or to add suspense and intensity to a scene – and that is okay too – but that does not take precedence over your own ability to feel comfortable and safe at the table.
We have so far mentioned attentiveness and taking initiatives as two factors that could make you improve as a roleplayer. Something that keys off both of those factors is your ability to encourage other players by ceding the spotlight to them. While it is important to be able to take your own initiatives to drive the narrative forward, it’s also important to help improve your fellow players’ experiences at the table. If you are the only one taking initiatives, or if you are too assertive taking your initiatives, then other players can feel ignored or put down. Another way of taking an initiative is to actively encourage other players in the game by helping them take advantage of their strengths and letting them become the center of attention.
A self-centered player always wants to be the one with the coolest character that does all the coolest things. But while this self-centered player may think that they are a great roleplayer because of all of the cool things they get to do, they often forget that roleplaying is a social experience. A good roleplayer recognizes other people and their strengths, as well as recognizes how other people and their strengths can elevate a scene. If you are the kind of player who do not want to cede the spotlight at all, then you are better off playing the game solo – the other players will not enjoy playing with you anyway. There are roleplayers who want a personal experience instead of a social experience, and they are free to approach the game that way. They are not wrong for wanting that because all roleplayers strive for immersive personal experiences as well. However, if their need for a good personal experience is greater than their recognition of other people’s right to a good personal experience, then perhaps they should not be playing with a group. Being able to encourage others should also mean that you are ready and willing to set aside your own favored thing for the benefit of another player, and instead having to settle with a less favored thing as a result. This does not mean that you have to deliberately make the game worse for yourself. You should want to encourage the other players because them having a good time means that you are having a good time.
Part of ceding the spotlight is also about being a good person, and by promoting your friends in addition to promoting yourself. You should not cede the spotlight every time, because you have the right to it as well, and if your friends are good roleplayers too, then they will be ceding it for you at times as well. So when should you cede the spotlight, and how do you know when it is appropriate to not cede the spotlight? If you are attentive of the other players and their roleplay, you will be aware of their strengths and weaknesses. If you are playing a fighter who specializes in Strength and Constitution and another player is a bard who specializes in Charisma, then it would often be appropriate for you to let the bard handle delicate social situations because that is their specialty. That does not mean that you can never have social situations of your own as a fighter. All it means is that you recognize in the moment that “this is a good moment for our bard to shine,” and encourage them to do so. In return, you have the right to expect that when it is time for fisticuffs, your bard will sing your praises and tell your foes that “watch out for our Gregory here, because he will take you out – and not for dinner.”
When you interact with another individual, such as encouraging another player to take certain actions in game, you also need to respect that there could be moments when a person does not want to have the spotlight shone on them, or they may feel like your so-called encouragement is railroading them towards certain actions that they have not chosen themselves. Consent is important in all interactions, and roleplaying games are no different. The bard’s player could be having a bad day and not want to step up to handle the delicate social situation – because their player does not feel comfortable doing that in the moment. That is their right, and you need to respect that.
All participants in a roleplaying game have the agency over their own characters. That means that just like how someone else cannot force you or your character to do something you are not comfortable doing, you cannot force someone else or their character to do something they are not comfortable doing. The key word here is “comfortable.” Roleplaying games can and often include things like social influence, mind control, magic, and other things that could compel characters to act in certain ways. But when your character is influenced into certain actions, and you are happy to abide to those actions, you consent to that as a player. You do not have to consent to that. You could take a step back and say that the scene is making you uncomfortable. A game is supposed to be fun. Playing around with magic and mind control in a game can be fun for as long as you accept it as fun – you’re still having agency in that moment. It is when those scenarios trickle through the membrane that separates fictional you from real you, and real you starts to experience unwelcomed thoughts and feelings, when it is no longer a game. That is when it becomes real. And you, just like your fellow players, have the right to protest that.
Playing a roleplaying game is a remarkably interesting activity because something happens in your brain when you do so. Your character and your real self are like ocean and land, but there is a shore in between where ocean and land meet. When immersing yourself in the game, you are walking along that shore, and there are moments when the ocean becomes as real as the land is. Depending on what is happening in the game, the ocean could come rushing over you like a wave. You can suddenly start feeling real emotions associated with the fictional events. When good things happen to your character, you can become genuinely happy. When bad things happen to them, you can become genuinely sad, or angry, or even traumatized. Every player has their own personal boundaries, and they have the right to control what is allowed near those boundaries. A good roleplayer recognizes that this phenomenon is real and respects their fellow players accordingly. If you are the kind of person who claims that “consent is not important” because “it is just a game,” then I question if you have actually played roleplaying games. Because you seem to be missing the point. The fact of the matter is that those people are either fact-resistant or lack empathy, but they would probably be quick to anger if their own consent or agency is questioned. They are better off playing solo, or not at all, because not getting past that silly idea that it is just a game completely defeats the purpose of roleplaying games – and the real experiences you create while playing them.
The final topic for this section is metagaming. This is part of the absolute basics of roleplaying, but people often underestimate how difficult it can be to avoid metagaming, and even the best roleplayers metagame to some degree. Metagaming refers to when the player lets out of character knowledge affect in character decisions. This could manifest in several different ways, and to different degrees. I also find that players who mostly GM and only rarely get to play often metagame the most because they often have deep setting knowledge. Someone who is awfully familiar with a game’s setting will have a hard time not letting themselves be influenced by their knowledge of that setting. Even if your character is completely unaware that a particular creature is deadly, your knowledge of that creature as a player will most likely affect your character’s decisions in some way. You want to avoid harm, so you are being cautious, even though you have no real reason to be based on the information your character should have.
This kind of metagaming can be minimized through conscious effort, but it is minimal enough to be mostly inconsequential – and you could probably justify your character’s caution without blaming it on your player knowledge if you really want to. Metagaming is only a problem when it is disruptive in a negative way. For example, if you have knowledge of an in-game conversation two other player characters had in private – and that your character should not know anything about – it can be disruptive if you start making in game decisions based on that knowledge even though you should not have it. The other players will not enjoy that. The GM will likely not enjoy that. And you acting on that information could take away roleplaying opportunities from the other players. Some level of metagaming can add levity to a scene as well depending on how you use it. If you apply your knowledge in a way that you are certain will elevate the enjoyment of the scene, even at the expense of yourself, then it is likely that it will be well-received. Metagaming is problematic when you use it to reward yourself and to make you out on top, even if it is undeserved or irrational. However, if you know that another player wants to play a prank on your character, and you both consent to it and agree that it would make for a funny scene, you could apply your metagaming in a way that encourages the other player to succeed at your own expense.
So, the answer to the question about metagaming is that you could metagame but should do so wisely. You should not metagame in ways that disrupt the game for the players or the GM, or that solely rewards yourself. When you decide to metagame, it should be to elevate the game, to encourage another player, and it should be a level of metagaming that the others are okay with. Others will respond very differently to your metagaming if you are doing it at your own expense and not to reward yourself or somehow make you out to be excellent. The fundamental rule is still to avoid metagaming, but a good roleplayer can metagame in a positive way.
Art by © Jaroslaw Brzychcy / Adobe Stock
Storytelling for Powerful Characters
Some roleplaying games, such as Exalted, let players take the roles of immensely powerful characters. I think that most people who have frequented Exalted forums or hang around with people who talk a lot about the game, have probably read or heard that a Game Master cannot plan a game of Exalted because the PCs are too powerful. The idea is that Exalted characters have powers at their disposal that allow the players to steamroll challenges, ruin their GM’s planned storyline, and force them to improvise as a reaction to their shenanigans. This, of course, is incorrect. Storytelling for powerful PCs such as Exalted is perfectly doable, but it’s also fun and rewarding.
While this post focuses heavily on the game Exalted, the ideas can be applied to any game with PCs of godlike power. The goal is to be able to have an easy and rewarding time as a Game Master without having to rein in the players’ powers, while motivating the players’ creativity, and motivate them to use the powers at their disposal.
Knowing the Players’ Desires
Knowing your PCs is the first step to knowing how to plan for them. In games like Exalted, characters have a list of Intimacies that represent their feelings and desires about the world. Even if the player does not act out their Intimacies rigorously in every scene, they are shaping the character’s characteristics and drives, and knowing them as a Game Master will help you better understand how that PC may react to certain situations. In other games without a system to determine wants and characteristics, you may want to communicate with your player more directly about what they want to experience and achieve in game, as well as remember how they have reacted to certain situations previously in the game.
When planning for a scene, making notes regarding your players’ personalities will help you better improvise in response to their actions. For example, let us say you want to have a scene where the player group is going to meet up with an informant and question them in order to get information that will lead them towards their goal. By knowing your PCs beforehand, you may know some details such as “PC1 is more introverted than the others and will probably let the others take the lead here. PC2 usually resorts to threats and violence and will probably intimidate the person into giving information. PC3 is usually the face in social situations and will probably take the lead and try to make a deal with the person.” Make some notes about what the consequences here could be if PC2 threatens the person or PC3 tries to bargain with them. Is there anything in their personalities or drives that may change how they approach this situation? If you cannot think of any, is there anything you want them to do or do not want them to do and can guide them towards? If you are worried that PC2 will kill the NPCs or scare them off so the group does not get any information at all, it is wise to plan for at least two things: First, see if you can indirectly discourage PC2 by appealing to another aspect of their personality. Are they a big gambler? Maybe the person is offering to play some dice over the information. Are they a big drinker? Maybe the person has a companion there that offers to pay PC2 for some drinks to get them away from the table when PC3 strikes the bargain. And of course, make a note of what the consequences would be if the players kill the NPC without getting any information. This should not kill the storyline outright. Instead make sure that some following event can lead the players to where you want the story to take them. Even when PCs “fail,” the players should progress. Alternatively, and perhaps even preferably, you want to encourage the players to do whatever it is they feel makes sense for their character. Even if PC2 kills the NPC without getting any information, you want the consequence of this action – even if detrimental in game – to feel fun and rewarding out of game. You do not want to restrict PC2 from doing what they think is fun, unless it ruins the experience for the other players. If you feel like you should punish PC2 somehow, maybe for publicly committing a crime or drawing too much attention, the punishment should be strictly in game while the out of game experience should be exciting and thrilling. This can be difficult to pull off, but it is something to keep in mind when planning out your scenes and storylines. In my experience, some of the most exciting moments of roleplay are the moments of failure and the consequences of those failures. Because of that, whenever possible, try to plan for failure.
There will be times when you simply cannot foresee what your players will do, but knowing at least some of their personality traits and aspirations will be very helpful in planning scenes aimed at getting certain outcomes. But this is Game Mastery 101 that can be applied to any group of players in pretty much any game, and not just powerful PCs. The definition of a powerful PC is someone where the norm is that they will overcome the challenge, no matter how grand the challenge may seem on paper. Planning for failure may seem to be a waste of time when you know that the PCs will succeed, but failure is more than simply failed actions; failure is also represented by detrimental consequences, and PCs who use godlike powers without regard for consequences should encounter these failures more often than someone who uses their powers with more thought. By knowing the PCs desires and personalities, you will often be a step ahead when it comes to foreseeing the possibility of certain actions, whether detrimental or rewarding.
Knowing the Players’ Limitations
Being powerful does not mean that you are powerful at everything. Even the most powerful characters tend to be specialized in some ways while being less capable in others. Player groups often build characters with this in mind, actively avoiding overlap by covering more ground. As a Game Master, I want to give my players as much freedom as possible when they are building and developing their characters, but I find that the experience is more fun when there is little overlap and more focus on character specializations. If everyone is playing a rogue, more players are more likely to want to resolve challenges in a similar way. If, on the other hand, everyone is focusing on different roles, you can better tune the story in ways that sometimes let some characters shine more than others. Knowing that the rogue can pick locks and sneak around unseen is important, but it is also important to know that the same rogue cannot as easily take on an army as a powerful warrior, and they are less likely to strike a bargain with an experienced merchant than the player who is actually playing a merchant.
When preparing a situation that will challenge the players, make note of the players strengths, weaknesses, and specializations and try to think of multiple ways the situation can be approached. Even if some players are better suited for that challenge, try to think of some ways that the less suited characters can approach it successfully, even if you do not directly give their players hints in game. There will be times when puzzles and challenges that seem obvious to you are not so obvious to your players. Since they do not have insight into your mind, a puzzle with an easy solution may only be easy to the one who constructed the puzzle to begin with. The warrior and the merchant may not see a solution to the army or bargaining challenge that you have set up. It may be the rogue with the clear limitations that figure out that they have the strength to overcome these challenges. They may not be able to take on an army directly, but the rogue’s player may be creative enough to come up with ways to use their strengths in order to weaken or defeat that army in other ways. In addition, even if the rogue is not good at bargaining, pickpocketing the merchant may remove any need for a bargain to begin with. When a character has clear limitations, a good player thinks in terms of their strengths and not in terms of those limitations. When there are some things they cannot do, it becomes much more apparent what they can do. When you try to plan for these situations in game, try to make some notes about how every player in the scene could possibly approach the situation, if you can think of any. Let us say that you have the rogue, the warrior, and the merchant, and the challenge you have in mind is to acquire a special golden necklace from a rich noble surrounded by bodyguards. Think about what each of these three players can and cannot do and make notes accordingly. For example, the rogue may try to sneak up close to the noble and steal the necklace. The warrior may fight the bodyguards, kill the noble, and take the necklace off their corpse. The merchant may approach them and bargain for the necklace. Based on what you know of your players personalities and desires so far, you may suspect that certain actions are more likely than others, but the more approaches you can think of when planning the situation, the more prepared you will be to respond to any surprises the players can come up with. Ultimately, it is more helpful to think of the players’ weaknesses as directions for how they can better utilize their strengths.
Knowing the Players’ Capabilities
You know your players’ characteristics and desires. You also know their strengths, weaknesses, and specializations. For most of the time, and for most games, this is more than enough to be prepared for just about anything. But when it comes to games like Exalted, where the characters’ special powers can let them accomplish just about anything imaginable, it is good to keep those powers in mind. Depending on how the players use their godlike powers, what you thought would be an interesting adventure may be completely turned on its head. Have you presented the local tyrant as a great threat? Maybe one player shapeshifts into that tyrant’s bodyguard, gets close to them, kills the tyrant themselves, and shapeshifts into them, then takes the country for themselves. That was not what you intended as a Game Master, so how do you respond to it?
First, you want to encourage the players to use their powers exactly like that. It is particularly important to remember that the powers at the players’ disposal are not obstacles for you to overcome, but weapons at the players’ arsenal. You should not plan the game in a way that diminishes or restricts the players’ capabilities. You should plan the game in a way that benefits from those capabilities. Knowing how your players’ tackle certain problems come with experience, but before you get that experience in game, make some personal notes about what their powers allow them to do. If a player can change shape or create illusions to infiltrate any palace, you need to know that this power is on their character sheet, and you will give that player a better experience if you prepare your game with that power in mind. When you present the local tyrant, knowing your player’s power, it is important that you welcome the possibility that the player does exactly what the power allows them to do. The key to a good story for powerful PCs is not the challenges and obstacles that they may face on their way to overturn the tyrant, but the catharsis of success, the potential their success has for future accomplishments and stories, alongside the challenges and obstacles that may come with that success. Your player is now the tyrant, and they have the country at their disposal. But as they revel in their success, they are unaware that their action had unforeseen consequences upon the fabric of fate, and now the viziers of Heaven are turning their eyes upon them. Overcoming the tyrant was just a moment, but now stars will descend upon them. Your players are godlike in their power, and the actual story is godlike in scope. They think they have seen a tyrant. You crack you knuckles. They have seen nothing yet.
Games should be tuned for their players, and games with powerful PCs should present powerful adventures. If you let your Level 20 Dungeons & Dragons adventure group head into a dungeon balanced for Levels 1 to 3, those PCs will not only walk right through the dungeon, but they will be bored along the way. The same applies to games like Exalted, where you cannot present mortal challenges to godlike characters. You need to make a story that matches their power, so that the players can feel that their powers mean something, and they experience the catharsis of success rather than the boredom of a steamroll.
Ultimately, you do not want to have to prepare for anything because you will know your group and what they can do by heart, but that comes with experience. Instead, use the guidelines I have mentioned so far. Know what your PCs are like and what their goals are, know their overall strengths and weaknesses to understand what role they fill and in what moments they can shine. Then with that knowledge in mind, build a story that encourages the players to shine by specifically taking note of their current powers and magics when designing your challenges. Encourage the shapeshifter to shapeshift, or the combat monkey to fight things head on. Encourage the socialite to whisper poison in the ears of diplomats and the thief to steal relics from palace vaults. If the players get stuck and do not know what to do, you can give them some discreet nudges in the right direction, but do not get upset or frustrated if they do not pick up on your clues or do not tackle things in ways you thought were obvious. There will be times when the players do something that make your notes completely worthless, and a new situation is at hand that you had not foreseen and do not know how to tackle.
A contingency is a panicked reaction for when your players threw your planned adventure out the window. The better you are at improvising, the better you can handle it, but you can also plan for contingencies where you feel that you need them the most. Remember the informant with the information and the player who you thought were at risk of killing them before the group could find out what you wanted them to find out? Adding a contingency note would be something like: “if the group doesn’t get the information, this could happen …” followed by some other way to find out the information. The planned contingency in this situation is a guideline for yourself to avoid getting stuck in your own story when things did not turn out the way you wanted.
But some contingencies just cannot be foreseen. Maybe you were sure that the group would get the information in one, two, or three ways, but you never expected the scene to end up with not only the group getting the information out of the informant, but befriending them through social wit and magic, and acquiring a loyal new servant with much more and much more useful information than you expected them to get. Your contingency in this situation should not be to simply reject the players’ success, get rid of the NPC, and return to your decided status quo. Your contingency here should be to go with the flow and give the players a bigger win in the moment than originally planned.
If you feel unable to improvise new content on the spot and you are stuck in your own story, there is only really one thing you can do. Do not force it. If you tell your group that “You know what, I did not expect this. I like where this went, but it stumped me a bit, and I need to gather my thoughts to know where to go next with this,” your group will accept that. Your players will likely enjoy the result more if you take a break for you to gather your thoughts than if you stumble through an improvised session that you feel bad about. The players will know when you do not know what to do, and while they may be helpful and supportive to get the game going, there is nothing wrong with taking a break or ending a session early. This happens to every GM quite a few times in their careers, and it is nothing to feel bad about.
Knowing your PCs’ desires, knowing their limitations, and knowing their capabilities is a good guideline to keep yourself as prepared as you can possibly be in order to avoid contingencies. But those contingencies will happen, and sometimes it is more important to know how to face them than it is to prepare enough to avoid them. I mentioned earlier that the most memorable roleplaying experiences often come from the failures, but they also come from the contingencies. From the unplanned and unforeseen events that no one saw coming. When you play a game with powerful PCs capable of godlike feats, these moments come more often than I feel they do in more earthbound games. If you don’t fear those moments when they come, I think you will find them fun and rewarding in their own way. It is those moments that make storytelling for powerful PCs more fun than storytelling for more ordinary characters.
Art by © Grandfailure / Adobe Stock
Introducing a tabletop roleplaying game to your friends
Do you want your friends to try playing a tabletop roleplaying game? Are you upset that your group only plays D&D and does not seem to want to play anything else? Do you want to slam your fist in the table and tell your group that tabletop roleplaying games are an extremely diverse hobby that covers all kinds of genres and settings and systems and that there may be other games out there that they would enjoy more than D&D? Have your friends played other things before but now settled down in a comfort zone that is difficult to break? Do they think you are annoying, whiny, or a hater for suggesting to play other things? In this blog post, I am going to try to help you introduce a tabletop roleplaying game to your group. It may not work, because every group is different, but I am going to try to cover as many approaches as possible and hopefully you will get something useful out of it by the end. However, before we discuss ways to introduce a new game to your group, we should talk about what kind of reasons a group may have for not wanting to play the game you are pitching.
- Not a good fit: It could be that the game you are pitching is assumed to not be a good fit for the players in your group. They may not like the genre or the system or the overall playstyle that a game offers, and you may not be pitching the game in a way that appeals to them.
- Too geeky: It could be that you are trying to pitch a tabletop roleplaying game to a group of players who have not played such games before, and they could picture the hobby as being awkward or geeky; that is a common impression people have. While many get over those feelings in their first session, there are those who will simply never enjoy this hobby and then trying to pitch it to them could be pointless.
- Too much work: It could be that your group assumes that getting into a new game will take too much work, or it could be that you are trying to pitch a new game without taking responsibility to GM it yourself. If you are unloading a bunch of work on another player for a system they are not passionate about, you can expect resistance.
- Comfort zone: It could be that your group has developed a comfort zone where they have met all of their expectations already in the game they are currently playing, and adding something new to that would disrupt that comfort. I find that this is often seen among those who exclusively play D&D and have never tried another game. When D&D has met your expectations so far and you do not have experience with other games, it can be difficult to imagine what another game could do else or different or better?
Regardless of if your group is reluctant to or hyped for a new game, it can be an investment for a group to try something new – especially for the GM. Since I think that communication is the key to everything, I think the default thing to do should always be to discuss together with the group what game they are interested in playing before investing time and money in a new product. But if you have a game you are really hyped about and you want to convince your group to at least give it a try, then the first thing you need to do is to sell the idea of the game to them. Some games can be hard sells, and then it is extra important that you think about your pitch and focus on the details you want them to latch on to. My most played game is Exalted, and I have always been hyped to a fault about that game. It is a complex game with a core book that is not particularly efficiently designed, and it has so much player content that new players often get choice paralysis. The game’s setting is huge as well, and because it is so diverse there is so much in it that you can have lengthy discussions about. I have done the wrong way to pitch Exalted many times, and that is to overwhelm new players with information about the game and its setting. My mouth has just gone off and started talking about Solars and Lunars and Primordials and suddenly I get into Sidereals because they are cool and then I talk about the Yozis and the Deathlords and the Charms and the Evocations and how cool it is to have control spells, and I can literally see the players shut down in front of my eyes. Sometimes they are nice enough to humor me because they see my excitement for the game, but end up mostly confused and intimidated by it in the end.
The Elevator Pitch
If you want to pitch a game that you are passionate about, you need to do so in as few words as possible. This is called an elevator pitch, because it should be done before you reach the right floor and the doors open up. Focus on the one aspect of the game you think will appeal to your players and let the other details sink into the background. Instead of talking about every aspect of Exalted at the same time, focus on the one thing that the players need to know: “this is a game where you get to play someone who is extremely powerful already from the start – you are Hercules, you are Achilles, you are chosen of the gods. This is a game where you can challenge the gods themselves in your first session, and no matter where you go in the world, it will change in your wake.” That is all you need to say as an elevator pitch. From here on out, players can go “oh, that sounds interesting,” or they can go “I think I’m looking for something more grounded and relatable.” Not every pitch works, of course, because people have different tastes – but the elevator pitch is the best way to introduce a new idea to someone. Once they are hooked by the idea, you can start adding the extra details.
The elevator pitch’s primary goal is to plant a seed of interest about the game within your group. There are more things you need to consider before a game can actually start, though. For one thing, who will GM the game? If you are only a player and never a GM, you cannot expect the GM to suddenly pick up and GM a new game for you just because you want to. Being a GM is a big responsibility. While you can be a GM without having full grasp of a game’s rules and setting, you need to at least have a working overview. To become GM requires reading. So, if you want to introduce a new game to your group, you should expect to be the GM for that game. It could be that you have a nice enough GM to be willing to take on that role and responsibility, but you cannot assume it or expect it. You are the one pitching the game. Be willing to go the extra kilometer and do the preparations needed to run it. Once you have ran it for your group, it is possible that someone else will want to GM it for you later if they like it.
Once you have pitched the game and taken on the GM role, the next step should be to make your group more comfortable around the game and its system. This does not apply to everyone, but it is my personal experience that people tend to like the setting more than the system. I am not sure how this applies to D&D players, since it is very system-driven and many (not all) of the D&D settings are bland and uninspiring; at least to me. But I find that pitching a game is usually related to that game’s setting and not to its mechanics. For example, if I want to invite someone to a game of Vampire, I sell them on the idea of vampire intrigue – not on the way hunger dice work. However, should we have three or four different vampire games to choose from, then maybe the mechanics can play a role in the decision. There are exceptions to this, of course. For example, setting-agnostic games such as Fate Core can be an appealing choice because of its lack of setting as well – but I still think that it is whatever story the GM wants to tell that is the main selling point. “Let’s play Fate so that I can tell this story.”
The way to help your group become comfortable with the game you have decided on is to expand the pitch with the information needed to understand the absolute basics of what the game is about. You could sit down and describe some vital parts of the setting that is directly related to the story you are about to tell. Do not tell them the entire history of the world or the intricate details of the land’s political structure. Tell them just enough so that they can get a picture of what kind of environment they will play in and what their characters’ roles would be in that game. Do the same for the rules. Give them just enough of the mechanics to comfortably generate characters and be able to perform general action resolution. Make a cheat sheet or let the players sit with the GM screen instead of you. Don’t even bother explaining rules that won’t be immediately used. For example, while explaining the hunger dice is important for your Vampire game, do not even bother mentioning how Memoriam works.
Another good way to get the group more comfortable is to explain the new game in ways that relate to other games they are familiar with. For example, a D&D group that decides to try playing Exalted may feel more comfortable referring to Solar Castes based on their archetypes. “The Dawns are the fighters, the Zeniths are the clerics, the Twilights are the wizards, the Nights are the rogues, and the Eclipses are the bards.” Now, those of you who know Exalted know that this is an extreme over-simplification of their roles, but over-simplification is what we are looking for. The D&D groups know what to expect from a fighter or a rogue. This at least gives them the concepts they need to start building a framework for what the new game will then gradually reveal through their experiences with it.
The key to introducing a new tabletop roleplaying game to your group is to get started as quickly as possible. A group of pre-generated characters can work for a one-shot, but players often tend to want a personal touch on their characters. This is more important if the character is going to stick around for a while. If I know that I will be GM for a briefer story, I have found that an effective way to both get started quickly and let the players feel like their characters are their own is to combine pre-generated characters with customization. For example, present a few roles with finished stats but without attached personalities. Then let the players modify the character to feel more like something they have created themselves.
If the plan is to play a longer campaign, it can be valuable to let the players create the characters from scratch. Do not ask for too much backstory or extra work, though. You can easily start a game with only some basic motivations and then build backstory as you play. Since players should experience the game through the game and not from reading about it before the game, it is perfectly reasonable to have simple concepts become more complex throughout the narrative of the game. By starting out simple, you also give your players more freedom to make changes without it having a negative impact on narrative. When you are not comfortable with a system and you make a character for that system, you are highly likely to make decisions that you otherwise would not do. Give your players the freedom to make changes to their character once they recognize that certain aspects of the game did not quite work out the way they thought it would.
Starting the Game
The best way to start a new game is to quickly show the players what is exciting about that game. Do not let things drag for too long. Start in the middle of the action. Let them immediately do some action resolution without making things too complicated. You can only learn so much from reading or talking about game mechanics. You need to actually use them, but do not overdo them. If you take Exalted as an extreme example, since the game mechanics are uninviting to new players, I need to make sure to gradually teach the system to the players over the course of multiple sessions, especially when it comes to combat and Initiative interaction.
The best type of game to introduce to a new group is a rules-lite system, but that may not be the type of game you want to play. You may want to play a rules-heavy system like Exalted, because you like aspects of the game or its setting that you think are more important than the game’s challenges or flaws. Exalted is that for me because there has never been a game I am more passionate about, but there are so many problems with its system presentation that it is impossible to argue with people’s criticisms of it. I think Exalted Third Edition is a great game, but I also think it is a poorly designed game, and this can be a contradiction without being cognitive dissonance. I love the game because I have overcome the main obstacles that keep newcomers out. I can now help new players to traverse those obstacles in a more streamlined fashion. And the way to do this is to GM the game in a way that introduces mechanic after mechanic in a way that is simple to grasp and narratively important.
However, while I think it is important to keep things simple, I also think it is important to show a little bit of everything the game has to offer. If you focus on only a single basic thing, the players can easily associate the game with that thing. A better way to retain the players’ interest in the new game is to focus on that single basic thing to get them started, but to show them what more the game can offer. The adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen for D&D 5th Edition is known as a fairly poor adventure module, but it did one thing right. It let the players go up against an adult blue dragon already at Level 1. The purpose was not to have them win against this dragon. The purpose was to show the players that you are here now, rescuing farmers and fighting kobolds. This dragon is where you will go. That is the enemy you will fight soon. The same could be done with other games as well. Present the challenges where the players are in control but reveal something larger to them in order to build anticipation of what the game can offer. Hopefully, they’ll want to come back for more.