Last week I wrote Role-Playing Games as Conversation while I was working on ideas for a game. I’ve since went through and expanded a lot of those ideas into actual rule\advice text and I’d like to share some of my elaborated ideas with you. You’re going to notice a good deal of overlap in the phrasing and ideas, but hopefully you can stick with it for the elaboration and added material. I’ve also attempted to re-organized my thoughts in a way that flows more evenly from one point to the next.
Also, this is a work in progress and not every thought or concept is the final form. There may very well be more posts along these lines in the future.
Also also, while this text is for a specific role-playing game it can apply to a lot of similar role-playing games. It does not, however, apply to every role-playing game.
Also also also, since this text is for a specific game I’ve gutted a lot of the game specifics and tried my best to generic everything up. I hope it’s still a clear read but if not let me know where I need to fill in gaps and I’ll be happy to elaborate.
At its heart, this Role-Playing Game is a conversation between everyone participating. The conversation includes literal “in-character” talking, “out-of-character” discussion, and hundred of other points in-between and beyond. There are two major parts of the conversation you’re about to have. The Role-Playing side involves discussing what’s happening in the story, what the Characters are doing, and what the next situation to deal with involves. The Game side involves rolling dice, overcoming Target Numbers, and figuring out how a Character’s traits influence the conversation.
The Conversation should flow between these two parts, Role-Playing leading into the Game and the Game informing the next bit of Role-Playing. If everything goes smoothly you shouldn’t even notice that the conversation changes. Before we can start talking about these two parts of the conversation we need to understand responsibilities of the participants to the conversation and each other.
To help facilitate the conversation participants can have one of two primary roles; The Game Master and the Players. Understanding these roles helps understand how they communicate with each other, as each role has different responsibilities to the conversation.
While each of these roles has unique responsibilities to the conversation there is some overlap between the two. Everyone participating is responsible for ensuring that everyone around them has a good time. This means making sure everyone gets a chance to speak, the other Characters get the spotlight for a moment, and that no one leaves with a major complaint. It’s important to remember that the Role-Playing Game is not about a single protagonist and instead focuses on a group of people who shift between being the main character depending on where the story is at.
Hopefully you’re playing with people you consider your friends. People you can talk openly and honestly with about the story and what you want from it. Communication is difficult and sometimes conveying your desires is challenging. Everyone needs to remain civil, avoid name calling or insults, and be considerate of each other’s points. If you’re struggling with this you might have some work to do outside of the table, on an interpersonal level.
This Role-Playing Game requires a single participant to take on the role of Game Master. The Game Master is the person responsible for setting the overall direction of the plot, presenting the Players with interesting situations, creating challenges for the Characters to confront, deciding how Non-Player Characters interact with the Player Characters, and managing the flow of the story in the moment.
The Player role and Character role distinction comes into play because the Game Master should not make things challenging or difficult for the Players, just their Characters. Communication between the Game Master and the Players needs to stay open, honest, and transparent.
The Game Master must remember that their plot isn’t the center of this story, just a vital part of it. The Players need to have input in the story as well.
If this was a television show or a movie production the Game Master would be the Executive Producer, Director, Head Writer, and Talent Agent. As the Executive Producer the Game Master must decide what the overall direction of the story is and work to keep things moving towards that direction. As a Director they are responsible for the current session and making sure that this story fits into the overall plot. As the Head Writer they produce ideas and approve ideas from players, deciding what becomes part of the story and what is left on the floor. As a Talent Agent they create all the non-player controlled characters and either play them or turn them over for the player’s to control.
Everyone else playing use the Player role. Players are responsible for responding to situations presented to them, deciding their Character’s reactions to challenges, telling the Game Master what they would like to see from the story, and helping set the course for their Character’s participation in the events to come.
Players also needs to recognize that their Character isn’t the center of this story, just a vital part of it. The Game Master has things they would like to see and the other players all need to have input into the story.
Returning to the television show or movie production analogy the Players are the Producers, Writing Staff, and Actors. The Players they act as Producers when they tell the Game Master what they would like to see from the story. As Writing Staff they make suggestions for scenes, complications, and outcomes for the Game Master to consider. While they typically focus their writing on their specific Character it’s not unreasonable for the Player to make suggestions to other Players or even the Game Master. A good idea is a good idea, it shouldn’t matter if it was the Game Master’s or not. Finally, as the Actors they portray their characters in the moment, decide how they would react, and talk about where they would like to see the character taken.
Balance of Power
It’s expected that everyone manages these responsibilities at once, with Players often acting as a writer for their Character’s agenda one second, actor the next as they portray their Character in the scene, and wrapping up the conversation telling the Game Master where they would like to go from here. The Game Master may start as by introducing a new character before they jump to directing the scene, and then fielding ideas from the players.
If you haven’t talked about what’s expected from everyone this shifting of roles can become taxing and often times one or more of those duties gets neglected. The Player doesn’t speak up and suggest an idea so the story moves in a sup-optimal direction. The Game Master forgets to direct the scene because they were too busy introducing a new Non-Player Character, leaving each Player with a different vision of what the situation looks like.
To manage these responsibilities there is often an unspoken balance of power between the Game Master and the Players. Everyone expects the Game Master to consider what the Players want and to present interesting and engaging stories for them to interact with. The Players are then expected to take on the challenges and make interesting decisions to the situations presented while keeping the Game Master’s direction in mind.
When Game Masters over-step their bounds they risk alienating their players with forced directions, lack of choices, or by simply not giving them anything they want to engage with. When Players over-step their bounds they can side-track the group, create points of contention, and be disruptive to the other participant’s enjoyment.
When Game Masters under-step they can lose the players attention to distractions or irrelevant details. When Players under-step they can end up being nothing more than glorified dice rollers, too scared or bored to voice an opinion.
Once everyone understands their roles and responsibilities to the conversation the Role-Playing Game can begin. Sessions often start with Role-Playing, but it’s always possible to start the night off with the Game. Since these two elements of the conversation help inform each other there is no wrong way to get going, but for the simple sake of finding a place to start understanding how everything works we’re going to start with the Role-Playing.
To start the Role-Playing conversation the Game Master presents a situation that they believe the players will find interesting and challenging. They can arrive at this situation though their own creativity, from suggestions from the players, or from published information.The Players then get to decide their Character’s reactions to with consideration for the direction things are heading. They can ask questions from both the in-character and out-of-character perspective that help them decide the most likely, and interesting, response for their Characters. Once the Game Master hears how the Players wish to respond they decide on how those reactions would impact the situation and respond themselves. Sometimes this is by presenting more information, changing the situation, or engaging in the Game rules.
The most important thing is that the Role-Playing, the Game Master presenting and the Players responding, continues until there is potential for multiple interesting outcomes of a Player’s action. At the absolute minimum both a successful result and a failed one must be able to lead the session forward. If the conversation can only advance when the action has one specific outcome, success or failure, then don’t use the Game rules and continue Role-Playing. Whatever outcome drives the story forward, whatever result that will engage the Players, is what the Game Master should use. Good or bad. Success or failure. You should never start using the Game rules if the result could leave the story stranded.
One of the key elements in knowing when to transition from the Role-Playing conversation to the Game conversation is understanding the Outcomes of a Character’s action. This part is exceptionally difficult to explain because there are so many outlying possibilities and edge cases a writer can’t possibly be expected to cover every scenario. The most important tool you have to decide when to move from Role-Playing into Game is your own judgement. To help you build that judgement here are a handful of common occurrences you may encounter.
- If an action could have an interesting consequence, then it’s a good candidate for using Game rules.
- If the consequence is overcome quickly and would only serve as a distraction, do not engage with the Game rules.
- If there is no other way to progress in the story, then do not use the Game rules.
- If the outcome simply limits the way forward, but other avenues are still an option, then the Game rules are appropriate.
The goal of the Game rules are to help introduce options or factors outside of the control of anyone involved. The Game rules becomes useful when you reach a point in the Role-Playing that you could take things two or more ways that would be equally entertaining and the Game Master doesn’t want to, or can’t, decide which is best for the overall story direction.
It’s easy to think that when the Game starts the conversation stops, but that isn’t true. The Game is simply a more focused conversation than during Role-Playing, where little details like what Skills are relevant or what Talents would help become important. The situation the Game Master presents to the Players is no longer a creative or narrative one, but a mechanical one. The Player’s decide their response based on their character sheets. The conversation is still there, it’s just no longer about the overall story. It’s about that moment in time when anything could happen.
To start the Game conversation the Player needs to articulate their intent to the Game Master. This is what you want your Character to accomplish with a successful die roll. Depending on your Intent, the GM has a few options. They can simply state that your Intent is well within your ability and grant automatic success. They can decide that failure isn’t an interesting option or could stall the game and grant automatic success. They could decide that the Intent is impossible, improbable, or likely to stall the game and force an automatic failure. Or they could decide it’s time to roll dice by assigning a Target Number, or series of numbers, for the Intent.
Success & Consequences
If the GM assigned a Target Number they must also have in mind some possible Consequence of your actions. Consequences are what happens when you fail a roll. While they always have a narrative element they can often have mechanical effects on the character as well.
Sometimes a Player will have a good idea for consequences of an action. While it is often be the Game Master who brings the Game into play and decides the consequences it’s these times when Players can ask to use the Game rules and make suggestions. It’s less important that the Game Master decides the consequences and more important that everything is entertaining to the group. The Game Master still needs final say, sometimes the suggested consequence could radically alter the story’s direction, but in general everyone should feel free to contribute when they have an idea.
After the dice Are rolled and everyone has taken stock of their successes and consequences it’s time to resolve the Game conversation and move back to the Role-Playing. Making sure that the effects of the Game rules connect to the Role-Playing is a vital part of the game. Never let dice be rolled without having something happen in the story.
The idea here is that Role-Playing flows smoothly into Gaming and then Gaming flows back into the Role-Playing to close the circle. This system, properly implemented and managed, leads to role-playing actions having outcomes that lead to game interaction which present resolutions. The resolutions are them felt in the role-playing which directs the next set of actions to their outcomes for the game interaction and so on.