GM Advice

Partner Gaming

We here at CPG have mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day. Clearly, we do not care enough to remember the day is about Saint Valentine or to stick the apostrophe in our news post or social media updates. However, we love having fun with people. We want people who are dating to find activities that are both mutually enjoyable and let you hang out with other friends. It’s good to break up the stagnation of coffee, dinner, drinks, Netflix, and chill. Branch out and try playing a role-playing game with your partner and some friends. If you have trepidations about this experience, we have some advice to help get the most out of it.

First, let’s establish both of you really want to play the game. Everything from our “Introducing RPGs” column applies here: don’t force anyone to play, be helpful, and let the new person make their own decisions. This is important not only for your partner to enjoy the experience, but also everyone joining the session. RPGs typically rely on groups of four to six people to build a story and play off of each other and the game master. A couple acting as one person dulls the narrative and is either frustrating or boring for the others. If your partner is hesitant to join as a character but wants to observe and be with the group, consider having them co-GM. This tactic lets them learn the game with no pressure to succeed; doubly so if the GM is not their partner.

If your less-experienced partner is worried they will be bad at the game, assure them it is genuinely hard to play an RPG incorrectly. Now, if the inverse is the case and you are worried your partner’s incompetence will embarrass you in front of your friends, you should probably not play with them. Being positive and supportive is the only way to play an RPG in the first place. The less-experienced person should be welcomed into the group and helped along the way. We talked about bad player archetypes before, but the only applicable trait for new players is crippling indecisiveness. Making choices is the crux of the genre, but your group can ease your novice partner into the mindset. Provide context by explaining mechanics, past choices, or potential outcomes while avoiding quarterbacking (explicitly telling someone what to do). If you are leading the session, be careful about forcing your partner into a situation by themselves. They will feel more comfortable interacting with the game’s narrative if they have another player to work with and defer to. It also reduces the stress on your relationship by keeping the conflict between the GM and the players, not just between you two.

Once you are both playing a role-playing game together in earnest, make sure you are cooperating (or competing) in-character. Again, you should avoid direct antagonistic behavior, but do not bring your relationship into the game’s world. This is not for your benefit, but for your friends’ sanity. Parties usually cooperate, but many scenes rely on player choices between self-preservation and sacrifice. Do you head back into the fight to grab someone’s unconscious body? Do you distract the enemy army while the rest of the party slips by? Choices predetermined by your out-of-game relationship make for inorganic and predictable in-game decisions. Circumventing this by having your RPG characters in a romantic relationship is a dangerous move. Doubling down on the dating is like making out in a bar: it seems fine if you’re the ones doing it, but people around get uncomfortable and later you realize how amateur-hour that behavior really is. However, if you’re willing to test the in-game couple and not take a constant moral high-ground, that’s a different story. A plot about scorned lovers, betrayal, and redemption sounds like a fun time for all.

The deeper you two get into the game, the more you can benefit from the experience. I enjoy having post-mortem conversations will fellow players after a session. It lets you explore your characters and the story outside in an objective fashion. This is especially true when talking to your partner. Aside from the increased opportunity for these discussions, they will be more candid with you. Talk about how you should better portray your characters. Read the game manual together and decide how your characters should advance and level up. If one of you is the game master, you can get feedback on the campaign and better understand what players are taking away from the storytelling. The more immersed you get in the game’s world, the more enjoyable the experience is. Doing so with your partner amplifies this effect, bringing more energy and excitement to the table.

Like most of these advice columns, if you and your partner are having fun, you’re doing great. Relax. Enjoy each other’s company and the company of your friends. Tell a story. Get into character: not yourself, but a different one that’s appropriate for the game. Cheer your partner on as they win the fight for your group and join the booing of your friends when they take the loot for themselves. Do not make the game different because your romantic interest is there. Treat them like the rest of your group. Afterward, relish the shared moments together. Use the RPG as a way to bond; as a way to meet each other’s friends. Tell a fantastic story together and remember it with the fondness of a first date.


Grimdark Fatigue

Runaways” is our darkest campaign. The players start off naked, starved, and tortured in a slave market. From there, players’ trials force them to make tough moral choices involving sacrifice, self-harm, and killing children. It’s my favorite story to run at conventions. Without fail, our Catalyst groups are laughing harder than any other RPG group at the con. Of course, an oppressive atmosphere can drain players. We had one fan ask us how we avoid that setting fatigue. Both Catalyst’s design and our game mastering style contribute to the right blend of darkness and comedy.

The moments of humor or silliness make your story’s seriousness all the more prominent and important. Comic relief is a fundamental (though often misused) part of drama for this reason. The easiest way to add this to your campaign is through the players. This trend starts with character creation. Catalyst’s character backgrounds are written to make the pre-demon world seem ridiculous. Any player with “LARPer” is going to make you laugh. Combine that with “Victim” and “Conspiracy Theorist” to tell a story about an abused kid who turned to fringe communities for help coping. Paranoia about fluoride and in-character whining of hitpoints provides amusement while deepening the impact of confronting childhood trauma. Everyone will care when the “joke” character’s past comes back to haunt them.

Try to encourage moments of levity throughout play. Your non-player characters can be funny, for sure, but it is better when the players’ outrageous actions bump against the “straightman” storylines. The humor stems from the dark, stern world having to cope with unusual player choices. Do not put the pressure on your players to be serious. When they act in a way outside the world’s conventions, embrace it. As an example, in our “Civil Unrest” playtest, the players were dealing with an injured demon being treated by Amish non-combatants. One of the players ended up stealing the demon’s riding beast. Because the player insisted on taking the horse everywhere, it led to fantastic moments. The demon horse, Apples, had to ride on boats, hide in broom closets, and be covered in a tarp when wandering through DC. The world and story got to stay focused and serious, but was immensely more enjoyable because of a horse crowbarred into every scene.

Lots of contemporary role playing games focus on player absurdity.  Games like Exalted and Feng Shui (and to a lesser-extent D&D) encourage elaborate descriptions of character actions. On the surface, this seems like it provides opportunities for comedy. In practice, players’ actions quickly become over-the-top and the constant one-upmanship is tiring instead of exciting. The truth is people are less clever than they think. Forcing people to be funny does not work. We discussed this before, but wacky, dumb humor is obnoxious, especially during a four-hour session. Instead, let players act genuinely. Encourage them to do what their characters would really do as opposed to what their characters would do for a laugh. Make players act quickly. Short, concise, impromptu actions are better than wacky, drawn-out descriptions. Moments like the demon horse theft manifest as comedy without being conceptualized as such.

Humor brings light to the darkness. Unconventional tactics, strong characters, and a game master willing to roll with everything make an oppressive atmosphere bearable. Variety prevents stagnation and fatigue. In addition to letting the players add levity, be sure to actually break from your grimdark theme when necessary. Reward players when they succeed, even if it is fleeting. Refrain from describing everything in the bleakest terms; save the verbosity for critical scenes. The experience is the sum of the game master’s base and the contributions of the players. If you want a dark, dreary story, let in a few happy or silly moments. The players will cling to those during the worst.

Keeping Players on Point

OrcaCon is this weekend and we here at Cherry Picked Games are hyped to once again be presenting Catalyst to the masses. We are running both quick demos and full-length sessions. While we love conventions, they come with a time-limit caveat. Role-playing at home means your games can end naturally. Scheduled games mean we have to pack up and get to the next group of players. We have to maximize everyone’s enjoyment for that small block of time. Of course, those lessons are useful to any session, so we will share our tips on keeping players happy and moving. We are expanding off of our “Pacing” article, which was written under similar circumstances, so check that out first if you have not already.

Never be afraid to gloss over rules in the name of progress. As the game master, you should be familiar enough with the system to handle normal play. Standard GM-protocol is to make a judgement call when a weird scenario arises. When play needs to be fast, expand this mentality to the numbers and effects within the mechanics. If a player looks at their character sheet and says they cast Illuminate rank 2, looking up how big the light radius is wastes time. Players can look this type of information up while others are talking. If you ruled incorrectly (like if you said the spell is 3 meters instead of 2), correct it next time.  This way, you maintain the scene’s tension and you even provide things for inactive players to do. Above all, avoid retconning your decisions (do not change a scene’s history based on a rule lookup). Redoing a scene destroys momentum and wastes everyone’s time for no real benefit. “Fairness” will not be remembered after the game ends, only the action that took place.

Keep the same progress-first mentality to player interactions. Player discussion of the game is excellent. Games are about choices and evaluating those choices is paramount to the role-playing experience. While you can place pressure on players to decide quickly, thus increasing the tension, that is not the type of player-communication you should feel inclined to speed up. Players discussing things outside of the game is the problem. Anecdotes, Simpsons quotes, events from past games, anything outside the world of your game can be highly detrimental to play. They also make players laugh and enjoy the experience. Use a light touch here to ensure you are not cutting off people’s fun to play a game. If someone is excluded from a meta-conversation, switch your GM-focus to them. That switch not only brings new voices into the game, but realigns the focus back into the universe. If everyone is disengaged from the game, evaluate the situation. If the in-game action is low, you need to advance the plot. Jump ahead in the story to where players get to make interesting choices. If the players are easily distracted regardless of the game, remind them of time restrictions. Everyone is playing a game for a reason: they should want to progress as much as anyone and might be oblivious to how much time is passing.

Progression needs to be interesting. Advancing the story should yield deep moral conflicts, intense fights, and problems mandating ludicrous solutions. In the “Pacing” article, we discussed keeping combat scenes tight and relevant. The same applies to any scene. Rolling a skill check implies chances of failure and success; ignore the meaningless checks. Talented acrobats should be able to easily vault over a fence, so why waste time with a roll? Also avoid repeating checks. Rolling a stealth check at each hallway intersection may make sense mechanically, but greatly slows down the game. It also negates the meaning and accomplishment from earlier checks. Let players’ actions have consistent weight. If they sneak into the compound, great. Let that stand instead of forcing a player to keep sneaking. If players could potentially fail at different points in the scene, have the single roll determine where that failure happens. Low stealth checks mean the player was discovered early; near-misses imply being spotted at the last minute. One check paired with compelling narration lets the story move on and the players feel content with a single result.

All this momentum-driven gameplay is great for groups needing to finish fast. Of course, you and your players may have a more relaxed schedule. The ebbs and flows in excitement make an enjoyable evening of laughing, joking, thinking, fighting, and getting the most out of a game and your friends. When you need to relax and not be fully-invested in a game, do so. When you are on the cusp of an amazing scene and need everyone’s full focus, use these tips to heighten the action. As always, enjoy the game how you want.