View Full Version : A Question of Style: How do YOU run an RPG?

22-05-2005, 18:14
This is how I do it...

Choosing The Game
Typically one knows what game they want to play before they know that they will run it. That's the way it goes. More often than not people who run the games end up in that position because nobody else wants to do it. Running a good game takes effort. A lot of it, easily as much as writing a novel. Nobody wants to run or even play a bad game so it's not a challenge that should be taken up lightly.
Anyway, whenever possible one really ought to take a moment to pick out the game they want to play. There exists many games for every genre that one could possibly want to be a part of. Try to make a point of knowing which one you like best. Most companies have their own unique rule set and choosing a set that works well with your play style will be well worth your while. Another important consideration, especially if one is older or located in a less populated area is how difficult it will be to get players.

Choosing The Players
This is a touchy area. Nobody likes to be rejected and nobody really likes to do the rejecting, but let's face facts. Not everybody will be compatible with every group and some people won't be compatible with any groups. The latter really shouldn't be true, but this particular hobby tends to attract people with poor social skills and hygene. It's of tremendous importance to weed out incompatibles early on. They will make an arbitrator's job more challenging than it already is and far too often make the game less enjoyable for all of the players. Their disruptive influence can not only undermine an otherwise good game it can actually bring a game to a premature end.
There are any number of strategies to identify problem players before they are invited in. A few in no particular order are: Write and circulate a detailed proposal for the game beforehand, request a detailed sample character from each prospective player, meet with the prospective players for an interview.
There are fairly obvious flaws in each of these though. Far too often people will gloss over a detailed description of anything and see only the parts they want to. It's hard enough to get players to generate characters in advance, getting them to make one before they're even in the game can be an impossibility. Interviewing players in person requires that one reject them in person, along with any drama that may be associated with it. Not to mention that a lot of quality players find the idea of a pregame interview to be insulting. Then of course there is the problem of players that say one thing and do another.
Lastly there's the number of players. That's totally up to the arbitrator and largely dependent upon what type of game one wishes to run. Basic hack and slash dungeon crawls can be pulled off with more than a dozen players. I prefer to run more role-play intensive games and I try to keep the number between three and five. This allows me to keep everybody involved most of the time without cutting to an action scene. It also allows me to run each player through their own story if necessary, completely eliminating problems associated with splitting up the group. More than five players, each in their own story concurrently, would hurt my head after about half an hour.

Choosing the Place
After the all too important what and who have been answered, there's where. In general it's best to run a game in the home of the arbitrator. This puts all of the source material in one convenient place where it can't be forgotten. That's not always practical though. More important than accessibility of source material is of course comfortable seating for one's maximum number of players plus two. That will give the arbitrator and players plenty of room and allow for the occasional drop in or guest. I prefer to have everybody in a chair or on a couch, but floorspace counts. A coffee table is advisable for easy to see dice rolls. Snacks are not the arbitrators responsibility and I generally prefer to establish a BYOB policy from the first night.

Choosing the Time
Usually this will be a compromise that allows all people involved in the game on a regular basis to be there at once. I like to play once a week and I feel that stories lose their momentum if allowed to lay fallow longer. Playing more than once a week is best left to hardcore gamers and other nerds. This is recreation not one's mission in life and I think it's important to keep that in mind. Possible exceptions would be for kids on long breaks from school and professional game developers.

22-05-2005, 18:14
Run the game any way you like, what works best for you may be different than what works best for me. Let me tell you how I do it though.
NPCs are as much a part of any game's core as the setting itself. Without NPCs players are alone in a huge backdrop solving puzzles and facing nameless goons most of the time. I like to set up a cast of characters that will inhabit the setting where the characters will do most of their interaction. And when I say a cast, I mean at least two dozen with no upper limit. Each of these characters should at minimum consist of a unique personality, a detailed description including a brief history, and a short list of goals. I can't stress enough how important it is for the NPCs to have goals. Their goals will provide a deep well from which to draw story ideas. It will also supply an excellent frame of reference for how the characters will react to plot lines that impact their goals. Setting up the first two dozen NPCs, the first fifty even, isn't nearly as difficult as one might think. Start with one, then figure out who that character relys upon for for goods or services. List them off and detail them out as they seem interesting. Some will only be names, while others expand out to be more important and detailed than the characters from which they originated. The principle behind six degrees of separation is useful to keep in mind, all NPCs are connected to each other to one degree or another. To help keep all of these characters straight I like to make a simple flow chart of how they all fit together on a bare wall using Post-It notes. That may be excessive or impractical if you haven't got the extra wall space, but I highly recommend it.
Player Characters
PCs are hard because the arbitrator can never have complete control over them. Even if the group agrees to let the arbitrator make up all of the characters, how they are played and what elements recieve emphasis is up to the individual players. I do my damndest to let the players make whatever they want, but I give an editorial critique of the character before I approve it. During the critique I point out politely as I can logistical flaws, cliches, and traits that will have a negative impact on the character's ability to be involved in the game's stories. About my biggest concern with PCs is when they lack a group of supporting characters. Everybody knows somebody in real life, I like it to be the same in my games. Autonomous killing machines are not very interesting characters and they're about the only ones that I say no to.
Running Multiple Characters
I don't allow my own players to run more than one character at a time. It works for some people, and I've even done it on a couple dungeon crawls, but I think managing multiple characters distracts the player too much from role-play. I do however allow and occasionally encourage them to have more than one character present in the game world. Especially in highly episodic superhero games. This allows me to recommend which character would be most suitable for the evening's adventure.
Characters Dying
It happens. In the course of the evoloving plot lines it's not at all uncommon for a character, both PCs and NPCs, to become the target of violence. NPCs will die as the story dictates, PCs will have a chance to overcome their assassins. Some schools of thought believe that new characters should be created at the baseline experience points for the campaign, some prefer to allow the player to create a new character with an equal point value of the one that died or a percentage there of. I'm not totally decided on this yet, though my current thinking is that the new character should have ten percent less experience than the group average. I don't want to throw off the curve for the group too much, but I also think replacement characters should come in at a handicap. It's not a penalty per se, it's just the cost of changing characters and would apply to players who are changing for any reason other than death as well.
This is the sticky part. Everything up to this point can be faked, glossed over, or skipped entirely, but if the arbitrator can't put together a decent story the game is not going to be good. Many RPG books recommend stealing story ideas from books, television, and everywhere else that one can. That's pretty good advice, but an unoriginal story will almost always be recognized. Gamers are among the most anal retentive human beings alive and their interests run the gammut from high-brow literature to porn. Where does one get original stories? Observation and evolution of character goals. This is where all of the work on the NPCs really pays off. Every bit of background information and especially that short list of goals is a potential story hook. Essentially I don't worry too much about all encompassing global crisis stories, they're too much work and tend to get rushed into too often anyway. Instead I ask myself what my favorite NPC of the week is doing to advance their goals and how does that impact the other characters, especially the players. I then repeat the process until I've got a nice list of current events in the game world. When the players start reacting to some of those events you've got a story. Even better you've got a story that the players bought into on their own, one that required no artificial coercion or railroading. That's not to say that I never introduce outside elements. Occasional interlopers can be a good way to shake up the status quo.
I'm also a huge fan of player initiated stories and strongly encourage my players to come up with a list of goals for their characters during character generation. Just like the NPCs their attempts to advance these goals and how they impact the NPCs can provide great story hooks. Player backgrounds are another good place to mine for stories. Especially if they have any enemies or dark secrets. Be careful not to abuse these though. I recommend only initiating stories based on character backgrounds after four or so other plots are in progress. That will deemphasize any perceived attack on the player.

The Payoff
I'm not a big fan of throwing experience points at my players. In real life people tend to change only a little at a time over years and years. This is often punctuated by periods of intensive training, but these are usually early in life and should probably be reflected on the character sheet from the begining. Instead I like to reward players with prestige, political power, and other things that don't necessarily appear on the character sheet. On the other hand in certain types of games, usually level based stuff that tend towards powergaming, it's more satisfying for players to go up a level than much of anything else. In that situation I try to provide a great enough challenge that I can justify the players going up a level every three to five games.

Thoughts, opinions, alternative viewpoints?