This is an interesting question. Usually, when we are talking about creating realism, or more accurately verisimilitude, we focus on the game master or the game material. However, the GM isn’t the only guy or gal at the table. So how do players aid in creating a realistic game world experience?

Top of the list, I’d say is Buy In. The players have to be interested in the game universe, and want to immerse themselves in it. That doesn’t mean going the full Jared Leto, but they have to want to believe in the rules, the physics, the history, the flavor of that world. In the immoral words of Ron Swanson, “Never half ass two things, whole ass one thing.” Whole ass that world.

That came out creepier than I though it would.

To that end, the players should take an interest in their role and what their characters might. For instance, if you are playing a 1930s globe-trotting adventuress with a love of aviation, maybe study up a bit on planes of the interwar period. What catches your eye? Are you a seaplane person? ’cause if you were, the flying boat is the only plane! Do you like functionality over beauty? You might be a Boeing 247 or Beechcraft Staggerwing person, and not so much the Lockheed Electra. Are you a hard-boiled detective? Research the basic laws of the setting (if possible) and structure of your police department. Are you a mercenary or a big game hunter? maybe know something about guns and/or game. Are you a wizard?

Players should have their characters interact with the other characters. The worst is when you get the min/maxed character that spends their time in their room “inventing” or whatever, and only shows up to chew bubblegum and kick ass. Are they friends? Are they frenemies? Lovers? We had two players’ characters hook up and get married. (And the players aren’t, to my knowledge, interested in each other. Which is kinda rare when you see this sort of thing in games, in my experience.)

Make suggestions to the game master. What about this kind of adventure? Can we do X? Is there a person who can get us Y? Help flesh out the world. Fortunately, this is a trend we’re seeing in some of the newer games, where your Session 0 is often putting these relationships together, or even helping to build the city or world together. All which creates buy in.


Our Dungeons & Dragons game has steadfastly steered clear of the classic fantasy game tropes and expectations, but has instead focused on an alternate-Late Antiquity setting with classical mythology and Biblical themes, but also is increasingly focused on the question of what “good and evil” is.

The characters are Roman citizens — a former legionnaire who is plucked from obscurity by the young and new emperor that he babysat while on campaign with his father (Marcellus); the cleric from Africa who is traveling the empire trying to find enlightenment (Augustinian); the bard from a good family that exiled him for his “trashy” occupation and refusal to marry an influential Christian girl in the court of Emperor Valens (Calvinus); an anchorite monk who is “barukhim” (a blessed one or aasmiar) and a trained “demon killer” who has been hiding from the world since his mentor was murdered by a nephalim (tiefling), and who has been called into the world by the archangel Michael to fight the armies of the Lie — Satan (Icio); and lastly, an Allemani dwarf (or “zwergi”) from the Alps who has a penchant for killing goblins (Carrus.) They are all “good” in alignment — some chaotic, some lawful.

But what exactly is good? One of the things we encountered early on in the campaign was that Roman law allowed for criminals that were caught — in this case a small village of Vandals (goblins) that had been terrorizing the surrounding countryside and which had taken some people as slaves — to be made slaves. By today’s standards, this is evil with a capital E. However, this was the law at the time, and not considered that much of a moral outrage. Hell, two-thirds of the Roman economy was worked by slaves.

In that case, the good/evil dichotomy wasn’t really that tough. The Vandals had taken Romans as slaves illegally. Rescuing these Roman citizens and enslaving the baddies might be problematic for a 21st Century player, but at the time, there was no question that this was the right thing.

In another instance, they had captured a few assassins that had been sent after them. They had attacked the party, which was by this time under imperial writ. Marcellus was a legate — an ambassador/general. Attacking him was a crime against the state. Executing the miscreants was under his purview. Again, for people raised on Enlightenment notions of due process, opposition to abuse of authority and cruelty, this was…evil. Again, lawful, but evil.

In our last night of play, the party was headed south to Mediolanum to meet the empress regent (Emperor Valentinian II is only four.) following a spectacular victory over a Quadi (hobgoblins as stand-ins for Goths) army, then head to Greece to try and find something called “the Shadow” — some kind of wall between the world and other planes of existence that Satan is looking to tear down. They had stopped in Cambodunum, a ruin of the old capital of the province Raetia and which is sparsely populated. They had found lodging in the distillery of one of the residents, only to be attacked that night by a troll that they had previously encountered, and who had tracked them because it was upset they were profiting from the story that Carrus had killed him.

In the process of fighting the troll, they accidentally blew up the distillery, and the explosion brought an avalanche down on the town. After rescuing their fellows, Carrus, Icio, and Marcellus, were aiding the townspeople in finding a few missing people and some of the livestock. Hearing a scream, they returned to the house of the distiller, which had been badly damaged in the avalanche.

Inside, Augustinian — who had been badly injured — had just wakened. Calvinus and Carona — a satyress they have been traveling with and whom Carrus has taken up with — were taking care of him when they were attacked — the front door kicked in by the troll they’d thought dead in the avalanche an hour prior. Carona panicked and played a frightening strain on her panpies, but before the troll could escape into the night, Augustinian threw a hold creature spell and trapped it. Encouraged by Augustinian to kill the creature, Carona went to cut its throat…but when confronted with a terrified, helpless creature, she couldn’t do it. It was unfair. Wrong.


Augustinian shortly after lost his concentration and the troll escaped out to be met by the other characters, who had been returning. Surprised by the blubbering monster that was protesting, “she tried to murder me!” Icio was overcome with a moment of compassion and tried to talk the creature down. It wasn’t an option I’d even considered in the planning for the adventure, but with the monk’s moral compass, and his mission to try to turn evil to good, the player and I were in agreement it was definitely the way to go. He was able to get a good persuasion test and calm the troll a bit. The idea of even talking to it never occurred to the other players — but their characters, it turned out, was another matter.

After establishing that the main beef was the fraud they’d perpetrated by calling Carrus a “troll killer” (something the dwarf desperately wanted to “fix”) and that they couldn’t go around lying about him. The second was that they attacked him for defending his bridge (not quite how it happened, but he is obviously a bit dim.) Marcellus pointed out it was the Roman’s bridge, not his, and that is could be argued the troll stole it. Augustinian piled on about the complexities of property and ownership, and when it was right to attack someone. Perplexed, and well out of his intellectual depth, the troll eventually promised not to haunt bridges looking for victims if they wouldn’t lie about him, then stumped off into the night.

A game about killing monsters and stealing their treasure turned into one about avoiding conflict and attempting (at least on Icio’s part) to teach a troll the Ten Commandments. But more to the point, it was about playing their alignment — an element of the Dungeons & Dragons rules that always annoyed me. There’s always the question of moral relativism when trying to define good or evil, but in a game where those distinctions tie to rules that can affect how or if a spell works on a creature, how your character interacts with others, or how they behave in general, it’s important to figure out (in game terms) what they mean.

The encounter left Icio and Augustinian questioning the nature of morality, and if it could even truly exist in a poly- or pantheistic framework, where every god had an area of authority and subjective morality. Carrus was frustrated — he knew, in some way, they did the right thing, but it still felt wrong to let the creature go! Marcellus and Calvinus didn’t quite know what to think…

These quandaries bring up some interesting questions. If you serve an “evil” god, but your intent is to follow the precepts of that deity, are you doing evil or good? A real world example might by the thugee of India, who worship Kali, and who would waylay and murder travelers as a form of worship. Is that evil? The British overlords of India certainly thought so (as, I suspect, did the victims), but what did they think? Sati, where a wife was burned with her dead husband, was considered right and proper. Good. British authorities disagreed. Egyptian emperors were buried with their slaves and servants. Evil? Or was it, if these people went willingly because they were serving their emperor and gods?

A week later, the party finally arrived on the Via Claudia Augusta at Mediolanum, the capital of the Western Empire, where they were met by a legion of men dispatched to bring Marcellus to the empress regent. In the city, they were presented an ovation — a parade through the city to the palace, where the characters were presented accolades for the defense of Castra Stativa against the Quadi. Marcellus received the appellation “Quadius” for his victory and with Carrus were presented coronae and philerae (medals) for their actions (as well as finally paid for their three months of service…) The rest were given Crowns of the Preserver, a high award for those civilians who have saved a soldier’s life. Augustinian and Icio were also given the title pius felix.

Afterward, they retired to a villa that was set aside for them. There were already some issues with men wanting to buy Carona as a slave, but more worrying was Bishop Ambrose’s reaction to her — a demonic creature, and one that is supposedly fornicating with one of their number! That is bestiality, as best! Icio knows she is good, but the Church has decided that she is an unclean thing. Is he good for trying to defend her, or evil for being influenced by her?

Ambrose, nevertheless, impressed Augustinian with his rhetoric and intellect, and vice-versa (as was the case in the real world), leading our cleric to start dallying with Christianity.

That evening, a gala for the heroes (minus Carona who — it was suggested — should stay at home) led to Marcellus making one hell of an impression thanks to boosts from the cleric (eagle splendor) and band (bardic inspiration). Marcellus not only awe Empress Justina with his martial prowess and his story of the Shadow and Satan (she’s seeing it as an End of Days scenario), but he was able to charm the pants off her…literally. The empress is worried about the Nicene influence in Mediolanum; she and her family are Arian Christians and she is worried that Ambrose’s push to eliminate their sect may lead to instability. Since he is also friendly with Gratian, the junior emperor, she is hoping he can be a bridge between her and her stepson, for the good of the empire. Meanwhile, she has authorized a legion for him to take to Greece to meet this extraordinary threat (Satan.)

While Marcellus and Calvinus were getting familiar with their respective ladies in the palace, Icio and Augustinian escorted a very drunk Carrus home to walk in on a couple of masked men trying to kill Carona. That seemed like a good place to end for the night.

It was a good character night. Their beliefs and basic purposes were challenged — something that I think pushed character exploration and growth in ways that beating the crap out of monsters does not. Carrus was distinctly torn between his desire to kill the troll, or go along with the diplomatic solution that Icio and Augustinian pursued. Icio has been reeling from meeting Satan, and having that foe ask some very good questions about the nature of gods, angels, and his own people, the barukhim; he then followed it up by showing mercy (and having it work), and later finding himself in between his bishop and his friendship and experience with the satyr, Carona. Marcellus knows getting involved with the empress and her causes is dangerous…but he is also a creature of duty and order, and being part of an attempt to save the empire cuts straight through his better judgment. Calvinus is having trouble with the voice in his head — a telepathic link to the succubus that seduced him a few sessions back — that is trying to turn him slowly against his fellows.

The ethical and moral conundrums are making for a truly enjoyable game where the players are having to really figure out what their characters want, believe, and know. I’m pretty pleased to see that my instinct to move away from hack-and-slash and dungeon crawls was a good one.

That’s something we hear a lot when people give player advice. Don’t be a dick. Don’t be a jerk.

But what does that mean?

Here’s a few tips for players (and GMs) on how not to be a dick with your group.

Firstly, don’t engage in ad hominen attacks or bullying. We all have different standards for what that means, but here’s the best rule of thumb: until you know a person, steer clear of jokes about their…well, anything…until you know they’re cool with it.

This is especially hard for me, and others who grew up with “Celtic Love”, where busting someone’s balls means you like them; you’re polite to those you don’t know or like. Don’t insult them. Don’t comment on something they might find touchy — like if they’re homosexual or a ginger. (See..?)

Extend that to, don’t insult their character and/or play style. Not everyone gaming is an aspiring actor, and they don’t have to be. Not everyone is annoyed by the attention-seeker who has to dress their part and play like they’re getting paid for it. A lot of people see their characters as an idealized version of themselves, so attacking that character leads to the above issues…

Second, recognize that some of these people have lives outside of the game. Conversely, recognize that the game might be the only social or creative outlet for some of the players and is important to them. Some people are going to miss game because or work or family pressures. that really can’t be avoided. Some folks figure they can traipse in and out whenever they please ’cause “it’s just a game” and don’t note that this makes it hard for the GM to plot for you (I’ve had whole sessions have to be scrubbed, last minute. It’s fucking rude.) and makes it hard for the other players to care about your character and involvement. There also might be other issues — I have a kid. Her bedtime is usually during game. Having to switch nights on a regular basis isn’t just a hassle for me and other gamers, it screws with the kid and wife’s schedules.

This is specifically for players: Just note that some GMs actually put a tremendous amount of effort into have a good, enjoyable game really. You kind of screw them when you decide not to show up for a few weeks or a month. If you can’t be consistent, tell them and either drop out, or agree to play a bit character. You’re not getting married to the group, so no one expects total commitment, but they don’t also expect to wait an hour for you not to show up, then they get under way.

So third: CALL OUT. Don’t not show up without warning. Don’t be two hours late without letting them know. Half the people on this planet can’t have lunch without a tweet, text, or Instagram — keep people apprised. Conversely, if you never show up, but think you will for a few weeks, let them know (if you can.)

Lastly, don’t leave the place a mess when you leave. Pick up your glasses, your plates, your mess. Offer to help out with the clean up or pitch in a few bucks for meals. If you get a ride from one of the other players, pitch in for gas.

These are just the few ways you can not be a jerk when you are part of an RPG game.

[This post is aimed at role playing games, but could just as easily apply to any kind of storytelling effort — books, TV, movies, whatever… SCR]

There’s a kind of GM that I tend to be wary of, and that’s the guy that — when you decide to join up with his/her game — that, during character creation, slaps down the campaign bible for you to read. It’s rarely concise, I’ve found. The worst case was the 80 page tome that we were assaulted with in a D&D game in the early ’80s. (This same game saw the GM give the sole female character a female cleric who was also mute…you can make a lot of assumptions about his personality from this, and you would be correct.) There are plenty of other examples of this that readers could comment on (especially if they’re amusing anecdotes — please do!)

In some ways, the background chapters of a game’s rulebook serve this purpose. Some of them are a few pages; some of them are 80 pages of material…hopefully split between some appropriate rules to give you a break from the faux history lesson. And there in lies the rub — how much about your game world do you need to know from the get-go? Say you are playing D&D and your characters are 1st level whatevers meeting to slay a [monster] that is harassing the town of [town.] Do you need to know that much about the politics and history of the place? Or can this be revealed as needed? Or if you are running a cyberpunk/dystopian future set in some nameless (or not) American city, do you need to know about the politics and companies of deepest Russia..? Probably not.

As with everything, especially when starting out, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Don’t overdo the exposition, or even the setting depth until you have an idea of what will interest them. (An exception to this rule might be the city-building rules in the Dresden Files RPG, in which the players and GM collaborate to make their setting.)

Here’s a good example of creating an interesting setting without too much exposition — better known as “show, don’t tell” — Blade Runner. Why does it rain all the time? The assumption of viewers is some kind of climactic event. Reality: Ridley Scott thought rain and steamy street grates was romantic and noir, and allowed them to hide subtle redresses of the street set. Why are so many animals artificial? Again — seems to suggest some kind of issue of climate or ecological collapse. Develop the setting through description, not “in the year XXXX, something happened which created…”

Now, with the setting established, it’s time for characters. Again, do only what you need. If you’ve ever seen a series bible for a TV show, it’s usually somewhere between six to 12 pages and identifies the important elements and characters of a show for that first few episodes or first season. Basic stuff like Steve Brannon [Lead] is a 30s something adventurer from New York City who has been all around the world. World weary, he is quick with his sharp wit and his fists, but he tries to eschew the gun. He is a war veteran who doesn’t talk much about his experiences, but it is obvious that they wear on him…

That’s a quick, simple thumbnail that gives the actor his initial “in” to the character. War vet, smart and witty, but maybe with a bitter edge. His propensity for punching out bad guys and assholes means he’s tough guy, but his reticence to use a gun means he’s suffering from guilt over his action in the war(?) You have enough to know how to play him (in an RPG, this is the player), and the writers have enough to flesh out (in an RPG, this is a collaboration between the GM and player as the game goes on.)

In our games, we usually like enough of an established backstory to give the players hooks and ideas of how they got where they are. This act like a series bible entry and can be as simple as the above, or this example of a character background from one of our pulp games:

Born 23 May, 1904 in Hoboken, New Jersey to the curator of the New York Museum of Natural History, Thomas Drake, and schoolteacher Margaret (nee Singer) Drake, Hannibal is the oldest of two boys.  He was raised in suburban New Jersey, with a view of Manhattan from their family home.  He would frequently travel into the city with his father to the museum, or to see shows.  He was an athletic child, with a fantastic ear for accents and languages — he quickly picked up some of the local languages from the immigrant families in the neighbor, and was fluent in Italian by his teen years.

The museum trips and his fascination with dime novels and comics books as a lad, honed a sense of adventure in the young Hannibal, and he was eager to get out into the world and make his mark as an explorer.  As a teen, he took an interest in motorcycles — cheap transportation that didn’t require him to ride the train or bus.  He helped Mr. Pritchard, the local mechanic with his motorcycle shop, eventually buying himself a 1921 Indian Scout that he only recently replaced with a 1930 Indian 101 Scout.

He attended Columbia University — his father’s alma mater as a legacy admission and studied foreign languages, where earned a doctorate in languages, and while pursuing that degree, took a course in archeology that led him to take a second degree in that field, as well (the two have many of the same course requirements, allowing him to finish faster.)  He is a specialist in ancient Central Asia — ancient Chinese, Aryan, and Turkic civilizations.  His graduate advisor was Dr. Sydney Lowell — himself an expert in Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures and histories.

His father lost quite a bit of money in the stock market in 1929, leaving the family fortunes — slim as they were — destroyed.  Hannibal had to finish his doctoral work by getting positions as a graduate assistant on digs in Egypt and in China until his graduation, and along the way picked up a few friends in the antiquities market.  He made extra money selling valuable trinkets to these people, enough to finish school and gain a reputation with some of the archeological community as a grave robber and scoundrel.  Dr. Lowell — himself old school when it came to having some of his finds make their way to museum and personal collections by shady avenues — stood by the young man. In 1934, Dr. Drake started traveling extensively on a grant from his new home as an adjunct professor of archeology at Columbia, a position he wouldn’t have gotten without the aid of Dr. Lowell.

His father is now dead of emphysema, and his mother is working away as a school teacher in Hoboken.

Just shy of 500 words — about a page of background in the right 10 point font. (And almost a third of this article…) In this case, the backstory is probably a bit too much, but this was the “lead” in a pulp campaign, and the player wanted him fairly fleshed out. How much of it came to light in play..? Only that he’s a bit disreputable, is an adjunct professor at Columbia, and that he mom is still around. In play, we saw his love of motorcycles, and his dodgy connections in the antiquities markets.

A good rule of thumb is, if some bit of background hasn’t been revealed, change it as needed to fit the way the character and story is developing. Maybe his parents never came up and the GM forgot the father was dead…if the player is amenable, he’s not. Run with it. (I’m also a fan of letting the players adjust their charaters’ stats after the first adventure or two, to reflect how they are played, kind of like how characters or TV shows change from pilot to first season.)

As with everything, keeping it as simple as needed to run quick and clean is an excellent rule of thumb.

If there’s one trope that always works well in fiction, whether it’s on the screen or on the page, it’s having your heroes double crossed by one of their erstwhile allies. Particularly in espionage settings, but also in the realm of pulp — be it private eyes duped by their comely clients or archeologists who choose the wrong friends — or even in superhero comics, finding out that guy or gal you’ve been depending on has been selling you out to the enemy always works for great drama, and great drama makes enjoyable stories.

Working in that double cross with background NPCs is easy enough, but what if the traitor is a player character? There’s a few ways to make this work, but they all need player buy-in, if you’re to make it work without honking off the character’s player.

The player knows from the jump, the group does not: Here the GM can work with the player early on to set up the parameters of what the turncoat is doing, how much they want to reveal to the players, etc. You could have a general idea — my character is a SHIELD agent working for HYDRA undercover; my character is a Cylon in the fleet, working to erode the stability of the Colonial fleet; my MI6 operative is secretly a member of SPECTRE/the Russians/enter bad guy group…

With this option, the people who need to know, know, and they can try to work together to make life difficult for the others in the group. The player is the accomplice of the GM in making things move. They can conspire out of game, or by notes/texts in game — did he just report the team to the bad guys, ensuring their capture?, and the point of this approach is to keep the others in the dark. You might give them the occasional hint — Agent Smith sure seems to disappear a lot at night. That hot blonde chick in the berth next to me was seen talking with someone in the corridor right before that bomb went off and disabled the FTL!  the key here is to make it innocuous — something that should be easily explainable. You might give them the occasional perception check to see something out of place. Or you could just wait until the cinematically appropriate time, and drop the world on them, complete with the traitor helping out. “Suddenly, HYDRA soldiers swarm the room, before anyone can act, Typhoon strikes!”

For players — this can be a real blast to do. You get to influence the story in a way that is not obvious to all. You are, in essence, acting as a deputy GM — your actions and ideas can turn the storyline in a way that might advantage you over the other players…try not to take a competitive stance as the player, even if your character feels that way. You are working with the GM to make this a better experience for all.

The GM wants to make a character a turncoat at some point appropriate in the campaign: I had this happen in my ongoing Battlestar Galactica game, and it went well. The key was that I chose the character that made sense for this — he was the equivalent of an FBI agent, a conspiracy nut that believed aliens, or something, was infiltrating Colonial society. The more he and the others dug up Cylon conspiracies, the faster they seemed to cover it up. In the end, I used a background bit that had been established early on — the character had been in a car accident and was “modified” by the Cylons to broadcast his experiences, and occasionally fugued out for his handlers to make him do things without his knowledge. The player loved it and it was a great reveal and made for great drama.

Another time, I tried this without player knowledge, and they were less than enthusiastic about the idea. I let it drop. Similarly, a PC whose player moved away I turned into a traitor at an appropriate moment. It worked so well because the character had seemed to earnest and steadfast. They never saw it coming. The player, while agreeing it was a great plot twist, was not overly happy with it being his former character.

Players form attachments to characters, and these are an expression of the player’s agency in the game world (and sometimes, it’s the only damned control they have over things in their real life, too…) — get the player’s buy-in before you turn their alter ego into something despicable. Trust me on this one.

Players — if your GM comes to you with this idea, here’s a few things to consider before turning them down or buying in: 1) Does it seem like a logical twist? In other words, have your character’s actions or beliefs hinted that they might be susceptible to the influence of the bad guys? And can you see how they might have gotten your cooperation? 2) Do you think this could give the game more or less dramatic appeal? Will this be something you could play up for a while, or do you think the others will just magic missile your ass to your game world’s version of Hell? 3) Might it be appropriate for the character’s story to end that way? 4) Do you want to keep playing the character, or were you getting bored? Maybe this might give the character a new lease on life. Maybe it’s a good way to end the character and move to something more interesting. Maybe you are moving away and your character is a bit too integral to just conveniently disappear…

The whole group knows: This only works when you have players adult or good enough to not use their meta-knowledge to try an improve their character’s actions in the game. Here, you might allow the player to openly show how he’s screwing the others over, or still use the secret note route…but people know he’s built to be a double agent. You might use codas and little cut scenes to let the players know that Agent Smith is dropping a dime on them to the enemy. The point is — they know and don’t do anything beyond what their character might know because they enjoy watching the story unfold, even if it disadvantages them, because they know that adversity is part of the fun of having an adventure.

I say this works best with players who are “adult”, and that can be a loaded word but it is truth — some folks (see above) put a lot of emotional investment into their characters, are competitive, or want to feel in control…these sorts of personalities do not work and play well with this sort of approach to conspiracies. You’d be better off with the first choice, here. However, as gaming has moved away from the antagonistic relationship between GM and players, and the more narrative/storytelling idea of role playing has become more popular, I’ve found people are usually willing to separate their knowledge from the character’s.

Players — the advice here is simple: help the story and the fun along. Yes, it’s great to win all the time, but it’s often more interesting when things go pear shaped. You get to do heroic stuff.

Example: I had one player in my Hollow Earth Expedition China campaign that was not the brightest fellow. He was trusting, a sucker for women, and a jump first, try to fly next, think once he hit the ground type. The player knew that something he was about to do was going to get the character munched, possibly killed…but it made sense that he would leap before he looked, so he did it anyway. He frequently had to take a moment to “do what Jack would do”, rather than what he knew was the smart thing.

Be that player — make the character and the game sing, even if it means things don’t go so smooth. GMs — in game systems with plot/hero/fate points, this kind of play can be aided by — well — bribing the player (or “compelling” them in Fate). Give ’em points for going along with the script. You all win.

(Aside: Way back in the ’90s, I used to keep a couple of 3×5″ cards that had a few words written on them just to have a nice shorthand for players that were about to let their natural desire to shred everything, including the plot. One had HINT on one side, CLUE on the other for when they missed the obvious. The other said IT’S IN THE SCRIPT, which I used for one particular player…)


Here’s a site with a nice random name generator for RPGs. Pick the gender and the general nationality and hit generate.

The series of tubes is afire with responses to John Wick’s Chess is Not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance in which the game designer gives us a rambling examination of issues with role playing games, gamers, game masters, and why we should get off his lawn… In between his grumpy old man professing, Wick gives us a bunch of good ideas, a few mediocre ones, and a fistful of attitude that was most likely designed to “get the conversation going.”

The main point, however, is “Do these rules help you tell stories?” It’s a good question, and Wick is known for his being part of the artsy indie game community where “role play should win out over roll play.” One of Wick’s tricks is to tailor a game for the setting and the types of stories it is supposed to engender. Strip the junk out and play. It’s a good philosophy for a game master, and one I subscribe to, despite my tendency to create wee rules mechanics for stuff that might not need it.

Because if the most important part of your game is balancing the damage, rate-of-fire, range modifiers, damage dice, ablative armor, dodge modifiers and speed factors, you aren’t playing a roleplaying game. You’re playing a board game.

And you need to stop it. Because all that crap is getting in the way of telling a good story.

He’s right, it can, but it needn’t, but knowing that the effective range of an M4 is pretty accurate inside 250 yards,  has an effective range of 550 yards, but is still capable of doing some damage at twice that…you’re just really unlikely to hit someone out there. It is useful to telling the story in a way that aids verisimilitude — if the setting calls for it — but reducing the game to that, that’s bad.

As a GM, your job is to help the players tell the stories of their characters. “Game balance” has nothing at all to do with telling good stories. It’s an archaic hold over from a time when RPGs were little more than just really sophisticated board games. Or, as someone once told me, “An RPG is a strategy game in which you play one hero rather than a unit of heroes.”

Wick doesn’t hold to this idea. Neither do I, which was why I wandered away from the Dungeons & Dragons crowd very early into gaming. It’s why i don’t mix miniature games and RPGs, like i used to back when we played Space: 1889 regularly. I realized that swapping from role playing to busting out the boards and pieces broke the narrative flow. It was cool it it’s own right, yes…but it didn’t move the story along. For our Battlestar Galactica game, where military maneuvers are occasionally very important, I like to set out some of the Titanium series BSG toys and use the little plastic raiders and vipers from the Battlestar Galactica board game to aid in visualizing what is happening, even though the show itself often didn’t really show you the tactics of a battle…it wasn’t important to the story.

What matters is spotlight. Making sure each player feels their character had a significant role in the story. They had their moment in the spotlight. Or, they helped someone else have their significant moment in the spotlight.

Absolutely…and let’s use the Galactica campaign as an example: if you have a bunch of guys playing fighter pilots, the tactics and the one on one combat is important and should be played out. Or if you are in a spy game where a character has to make a tough, 2710 yard shot at a Taliban commander with your Accuracy International .338 Lapua (thus also gaining the longest shot record)  then that weapons table Wick hates so much actually is useful. For the “mundane” 800 yard shot, though, the specs of the rifle are relatively unneeded.

Having blasted game masters for being too rule-bound and board gamey, Wick then turns his attention to both GM and player with this tidbit:

The reason roleplaying games are a unique art form is because they are the only literary genre where wewalk in the hero’s shoes. We are not following the hero, we are not watching her from afar, we are not being told the story. As Robin Laws now famously said, “A roleplaying game is the only genre where the audience and the author are the same person.”

I highlighted that particular tidbit — a unique art form — for a reason. It’s this attitude that takes the fun out of the indie games for a lot of players and GMs. Is role playing an art? Sure — everything can be an art. Changing the oil of your car can be made into art. My last encounter with this “you just aren’t trying hard enough to play correctly,” was playing in a game with Mark Diaz Truman — who intimated that people don’t like certain games (or more specifically his game system) because you haven’t played it enough, or aren’t role playing enough… wick again:

I don’t want you to think I just get rid of combat mechanics. On the contrary, for Vampire, I usually get rid of that whole Social trait thing entirely. Why? Because this is a roleplaying game, and that means you roleplay. You don’t get to say, “I have a high charisma because I’m not very good at roleplaying.”

My response to that is, “Then, you should get better at it. And you won’t get any better by just rolling dice. You’ll only get better by roleplaying.”

If you want to get good at playing chess, you play chess.

If you want to get good at first-person-shooters, you play first-person-shooters.

If you want to get good at roleplaying, guess what?, you roleplay.

He’s right — if you just role the dice and let the GM describe what you do, you aren’t getting better at role playing. But thats’ not enough for Wick, or Truman, or the collection of post-deconstruction RPG designers:

…[y]ou are not playing a board game. You’re playing a roleplaying game.

Start acting like it.

This attitude is arrogant, elitist bullshit, pure and simple. Here’s why: for those of us who have to, say, work a 10 hour day, or run all over the f’ing world with our kids, games are a chance to relax and have fun — and sometimes you just ain’t feeling it. Rolling how you do in an encounter is perfectly acceptable because maybe you just aren’t super charismatic, even if your character is; just like you might not be an expert in hacking, though your character is. My response to this artsy crap is, “Well, Mr. Fancy Pants GM — why didn’t you set up a computer system for me to actually hack? Let’s go take our computer science classes together so we can really dig down and make this art.”

The argument that you have to play a certain way is that dumb. Are you having fun? Then you’re doing it right.

Well, crap. Zundar the Barbarian just got wasted by that revenant…guess it’s time to write up a new character…

But what if Zundar and his companions are victorious. What if they’ve bested the Great Evil, or freed the realm from the clutches of whomever, or killed the dragon and saved the day? What if, after three years and however many levels, Zundar and crew aren’t that interesting anymore? They’re a bit too powerful to be fully challenged, or their story arc has been described — what now? Do you play them some more, but the heart is gone. Like watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull there’s just no point to the next go ’round.

We all love our characters. They’re often not just our creations, or an avatar to run through a computer generated RPG, but a real character that you or your mates can believe in. We enjoy watching their antics. Some people love an archetype so much they play the same damned character in every game, regardless of genre. But sometimes, they’ve played their part. The story is over, or the magic is gone. You got bored. Maybe you just want to try something new.

Old soldiers never die, they just fade away… General Douglas MacArthur famously uttered this phrase, and it’s often true. Your character has survived multiple encounters and is getting older. Slower. All the wounds sustained start to ache all the time. If they’re lucky, they got wealthy or powerful. Time to put the sword down.

Retirement is a good way to happily ever after your character. They won. Better yet, they can occasionally be revisited as a bit player in the game — maybe they have a bit of information, or there’s a reunion, or you need a small favor (like a place to hide out)…you can have the ol’ boy show up for a cameo for a night. Or perhaps there’s only one person for the job…just this one last time. (Look at all of Stallone’s old characters…)

Success has its own problems… You finally got a kingdom of your own, defeats the evil empire, got all the money and success your stomach can handle…but keeping it, that’s another thing. All of a sudden, instead of slaying monsters or fighting bad guys, you are locked into the day-to-day minutiae of running a city or nation or planet. Remember when you had all that free time when you were walking six months to a volcano to get rid of an evil ring? Wouldn’t you love to give it all up…but you have a family, and responsibilities — you’re a grown up now! — you can just traipse off on an adventure. But here’s a list of a few of my old contacts…

They took my hand!!! Instead of getting everything you wanted, maybe the character was so tashed up that it made sense they would loose a limb, or some bodily functionality. Who needs a cripple when you’re fighting to save the world as we know it? The sad fellow that you still visit from time to time to remind you of the good ol’ days and to give the players a reminder of their characters’ mortality (or that there is a fate worse than death…)

Join me! Another good way is to have your character switch sides. Maybe the Dark Side has captured their imagination, maybe they were tempted by power, or maybe there was some ideological shift that put you at odds with the others. In this case, it’s usually better to pass the character off to the GM, but it can be made to work where the player continues to play the character in concert with the GM as opposition to the others.


We’ve all been there: The game party encounters an obstacle, even simple one, and proceeds to spend the rest of the night trying to figure out what they are going to do. It’s never something simple. Everyone wants a piece of the action. Everyone’s got an idea how to overcome the thing…like opening a door.

The most egregious example I can think of from my gaming was a fantasy campaign in which the players ran across an enemy patrol camped out for the night. Stealth up and rush them? No, that would be to KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Nooooo…there was a series of convoluted plans to keep the guards from raising an alarm, using just about every off the wall trick but the most obvious — use cover of darkness, sneak up stealthy-like, and liberally apply blade to exposed throats. After an hour of nonsensical planning, one of the characters threw a rock to distract the baddies, alerting them to their presence, raising the alarm, and blowing all of their meticulous, but contradictory tactics to hell.

How do you manage this, as a GM (or even a player?) As a game master you’ve got several good options:

1) Put a time limit on it. You’ve got so much time to plan before the guard comes back, the roof closing on you crushes you, the bomb goes off, the bad guy can complete the last component of their diabolical plan. Time it so the players only have that much time.

2) When the action is happening and players start to get analysis paralysis, give them a countdown. “You’ve got ninjas closing on you and they’ll be on you in moments. You can fight, jump over the cliff into the water below, surrender, or [enter other idea they’ve thrown out] — three! two! one..!” This works great in the midst of combat or some kind of action set piece where people wouldn’t have the leisure of sipping their beverage while considering all their myriad options. Make it happen or get sliced up.

3) Give them parameters. In a game where the players are part of an agency or military, or whatever, there is the possibility (probability) they’ve got some kind of rules of engagement. Maybe they have to have zero contact with the opposition, maybe they are not to use lethal force, maybe they have to protect the [McGuffin] at all costs. Having parameters tightens the decision tree and allows the players — while still maintaining autonomy — to make faster and more appropriate choices.

This last one can be difficult for players coming from hack-and-slash campaigns, where everything is on the table, to a universe where there are laws and fairly serious consequences for breaking them (like a modern setting campaign, for instance.) I’ve found players not used to a different purpose than “kill the monster, get the treasure”, often have trouble with the notion that “you just can’t blast civilians while chasing a bad guy through the streets of Miami…” but setting up those expectations ahead of time can hone their decision-making.

4) Give hints. “That’s railroading!” No, it’s not. Now go read some indie games with clever rules for how the players can come together to write a story about combing your hair. Sometimes, there’s only going to be a few options. You’re trapped in a room with two exits. Bad guys are coming through one. Stand and fight? Climb out the other exit? Some variation on those themes..? “You’ve managed to piss off the contact you need to get information from; what do you do?” [Player hems and haws…] “You want to rough him up? Apologize and try being less a douche? Bribe him? Let the player that does this well take over?”

As a player, you can aid the group without being to pushy. Don’t start acting like a commanding general. “Hey, Seth, you’ve got a high charisma, right? Why don’t you talk to the contact instead of Bob. If that doesn’t work, Bob can do the rampaging dick thing and try to beat it out of him.” Or sometimes it’s a bit more direct. During a recent play session of Firefly, I played Zoe, but one of the others wanted Mal…and was really not equipped to do so. I would occasionally point out things on his sheet. After all — Zoe is the captain’s right arm. I tied some of my suggestions into the characters’ patter, building off of the show. (For other game settings, you might point out something from a past adventure that seems more appropriate to the character’s past actions. “You’re not going to do X again, are you, sir?”

The main thing to look for as player or GM is when the game bogs down because of disagreement. Take a few minutes break, clear out the cobwebs or put aside personal style issues, and get back to it.

This post came about from my thoughts on the graph in Runeslinger’s Spectrum of Play  article, as well as his Right Way to Game posts. The first has been reblogged here on The Black Campbell, but you can pop over to his Casting Shadows page to read more. His YouTube channel is probably even more useful.

There’s a lot of thought and opinion spilled into the series of tubes on how to play role playing games. The main point of contention is between those who like a game with a defined plot versus the “sandbox”, or a style of play in which the environment and the players’ actions (hopefully) give rise to some kind of adventure.

…we each will have our favorite ways to go about [gaming], and among the voices talking about them there may be some strident calls for one way over an other…The next step was to address the nature of the play environment itself with a look at the concepts of the sandbox and the defined narrative

The quote is from Anthony Boyd (or Runeslinger), over at Casting Shadows. He has cobbled together a rather elegant continuum of play styles that address this argument. He separates the issue into matters of player agency — how much effect the player has on the narrative and outcome of a game; and defined story spectrum. I found the chart instructive in that if well describes how the the power  relationships of a role playing game between players and a game master/storyteller/etc.. or between players, is dependent on how well defined the story is. 


I found this chart particularly pertinent after my recent post on a comparison test of the Firefly (Cortex) and Serenity (Cortex Plus) rules from Margaret Weis Production. In that test, we found that aspects of the system designed to spread narrative control, while fun, seemed to hamper the coherency of the story. 

He points out that …we like what we like, and given choice, we tend to pick our favorite options over the rest… Some new game may draw us in with its setting, but push us in a new or formerly avoided direction with its mechanics…” This was certainly part of the issue the gaming group had with Firefly — we’ve run Cortex for quite some time and have found it (mostly) to be an excellent set of rules for creating nuanced characters and handling most scenarios for an adventure. When it falls down, though, it tends to do it hard. One of those genres it did not handle well was superheroes. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying may have been a busy system with a lot of moving parts, but it emulated the flavor of comic books near perfectly. Firefly we all wanted to like…but we like what we like, and in this case, for not over the top science fiction, we like Cortex (the Battlestar Galactica or Cortex 1.1 version.)

But why was that the case? Partly it was a preference in most of the group for stories that have some kind of defined plotline to an episode and the campaign overall, while still allowing for character action to sharply change the outcome of the same. Firefly — like Fate and many of the new wannabe-artsy “indie” games — does that, but the ability of the players to set complications and assets added new visions of the plot that aren’t necessarily well-meshed with what has been ongoing.

To use a cinema or television analogy, you have too many writers in the writers’ room and not a strong enough head writer or executive producer to contain their disparate visions of the story or universe. All those shows that “jumped the shark” by wandering off course badly; nearly ever movie you’ve seen where you leave saying “it was so close to good!” is the result of multiple writing teams working to please a different audience in the production or direction staff of the show or movie. (Case in point: Spaight’s excellent draft for what would be Prometheus versus the disaster of Lindelof’s final script, coupled with Scott’s last minute changes.) Too many cooks, as the expression goes, spoils the soup.

In the chart above are two bands of specific points along a spectrum of implementation options ranging from ‘none’ to ‘total.’ I believe if you let your eyes roam across these bands, it should be pretty easy to spot roughly where your basic preferences lie. With a little effort, it should also be possible to spot where specific games require you to be to run them as intended. This might be useful in assessing if a game will be suitable for your group, or if an idea you have for a game will flow like you want within its confines, but I feel it has better uses yet. From my  perspective, it might offer a hint as to why a given campaign or group is or isn’t working for you, but will really shine when used to help add a new kind of scene, scenario, or mood to your toolbox of techniques.

This point is particularly well thought out. A quick look at the chart puts my gaming style at 3-4 on the player agency and the narrative of the chart. This suggests that the indie, GM-less systems aren’t going to be my cup of tea. The main reason: I really cut my teeth as a GM on espionage games where the villains had a specific plan, the players would investigate to uncover and stop it, and to emulate the spy movies we were aping, I had to design (and still do from time to time) my adventure around specific action set pieces, exposition scenes, and a denouement that was usually quasi-planned out. Player actions might cut some of these scenes, force me to add others, or change the ending, but there was an outline of “things that should happen…”

Think of it as similar to building rooms in a dungeon. The players can choose where to go, in what order and manner, but the very definition of the space and the hazards is essentially a plot based on action set pieces. So despite the appearance of a sandbox-like environment, dungeon crawling is in many ways the most restrctive – story-wise — an RPG can get. Players can have almost total agency in what they do, but ultimately the act of wandering the space of the adventure constructs action.

The sandbox gaming style is much more collaborative and reduces the role of the gamemaster or storyteller to an equal, or “but is more equal than others” position wherein they act as referee at most. This certainly has its place, but I have yet to see this style of play hold together a long-term campaign outside of LARP circles, where the gaming environment and the larger number of people require a more cooperative approach to character interaction.

The idea that your play style might dictate the sort of game you will like should seem self-evident, but is it when you are looking over the games in your LGS (or more likely perusing DriveThru these days…)? Firefly is a setting all of our gaming group enjoy, but the mechanics forced us further right on the player agency spectrum that most of us were comfortable with. I found it didn’t so much effect my style of gamemastering, but the complications mechanic forced me into narrative corners I had to duck and weave to get out of.

I’ve played in campaigns — a Shadowrun game leaps to mind from the ‘90s — where it was mostly sandbox. We were nearly all the way right on the narrative — there was a proposal put before the group we could take or leave (but wanting to do more than hang out at the bar and trade quips, we took the job) and we had to plan and execute the job with no GM input. The GM style was so hands off that the guy disappeared for about an hour and we found him working under his old project Porsche 911… Not the sort of engagement that brings folks together. The players were fully in control of the narrative for the session, and what happened is one or two of the people at the table naturally took on the “leader” role from the GM so that when he came back to the table and tried to referee the big action scene, he discovered we had managed to plan it out well enough to overcome the opposition with ease, and he obviously started moving the goal posts. It was frustrating for everyone — too many cooks in the kitchen. A modern GM might have allowed the success to happen and tried to set something up to go wrong later, or with a system like Fate tossed a complication in that would bite the players later.

In the end, is there a right way to game? No…but there is a right way for you and/or your group to game. It’s worth venturing out of your confort zone from time to time to see if you like something that isn’t quite what you are used to. I’ve been on a mission to try and like Fate, of late — both Atomic Robo and Mindjammer use it, and I like the settings…but the mechanics just don’t jive with how I or my group tend to play.

And that’s alright.