Archive for the ‘Advice’ Category

[GMing] Safely Introducing Your Villain’s Backstory

Posted: April 25, 2013 by Jay Steven Anyong in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games
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Once in a while a GM falls in love with a villain they’ve created. With a little bit of care and thought, they’ve put together a character of their own, with relevant motivations and a certain cunning that marks this character as more than just an ordinary encounter.

Then the players pretty much curbstomp the said character in their first encounter.

Needless to say this is possibly one of the little tragedies of GMing. Most of the time, players won’t really care about the villain’s motivations or backstory. They exist as obstacles, and the more pragmatic the players are, the less they’ll probably listen to the villain.

So what is to be done in such situations?

Well, if the villain is already a stain on the dungeon floor, there’s little else you can do, unless you plan to pull the old “clone / twin / doppelganger” trick out of the closet, but that usually just cheapens the victory of the players.

The better option is to present a means by which they might interact with the villain in a “safe” environment. This isn’t a foolproof plan, of course, but there’s been a few ways by which this has been enacted in fiction.

  • Before the big reveal: I’ve seen this happen a lot in the Gundam anime. Hero meets villain but neither knows the other and it’s an otherwise mundane and often romantic encounter. They eventually discover that they’re fighting on opposite sides, but it opens up opportunities for them to talk rather than to just gut each other on sight.
  • Neutral Ground: Espionage and cop show tend to have moments when a hero and a villain who do know each other meet in the middle of a public space and exchange words. Sometimes it might even be a meal, but it is clear that they are not going to get along and the next time they see each other the circumstances might not be so civil.
  • Capture: Maybe the hero or the villain gets captured, and the two have a chance to chat. Often the better option is to have the hero caught since often when the villain is captured, some players tend to resort to torture first before interrogation. Still there are ways to make both approaches work.

That said, while these three scenarios are applicable, what is the purpose of this encounter? Well, it serves as a vehicle to humanize the villain. Sure they might still deserve to become a stain on the dungeon floor, but at least the heroes have something to remember them by rather than “bad guy #2.” It’s an opportunity to expose the players to the idea that the villain isn’t two dimensional, but actually has reasons that could very well mirror their own mindsets.

Not all villains deserve this kind of fleshed out treatment, but having some in a campaign can bring out all sorts of interesting situations for your players.


Pacing is something of a weakness of mine. Veteran players who are used to how I run games are well aware that I tend to snowball pretty quickly, and as soon as they start feeling comfortable something will happen sooner rather than later to keep them on their toes.

While this sort of default pacing is great for more action-y games, there’s the issue of how to keep games with a slower, more deliberate feel without it becoming boring. My current campaign, Hearts and Souls, is a primarily political game with a lot of interaction, introspection and politics, but without a lot of fights. I’m honestly still trying to come to grips as to how to properly pace the game, and while I feel that the players are still enjoying themselves, I’m hoping that the campaign doesn’t end up being too slow to enjoy.

Part of my struggle here is that I actually fall into the same trap that many GMs do: I rely a lot of combat to provide the big set pieces for a story. However, in this game, combat should be less common for everyone so I don’t have that crutch to fall back on. It’s a funny situation for me as now I’m forced to learn to work on my pacing and make sure that I don’t have any empty scenes.

Empty scenes are the enemy in social games. The moment you have plain interaction where nobody is actually after anything is one which has a high probability of dragging on for a little too long and affecting the pacing. While it is almost always nice to play things out in character, once you’re just making small talk with no objective then you’ve got an empty scene.

So how do we avoid that? I’ve been giving it some thought and here are a few things I’ve put together:

  • Set an agenda – Every scene needs to be one where the participants are after something. Whether the players are trying to achieve something, or block someone from getting their way, having an agenda per engagement is a great way to make sure that each scene has something at stake.
  • Keep notes – Having notes is always a good thing. While there may not be any such thing as a “random encounter” in social games, being able to ambush an NPC by bringing up something that was relevant from a previous engagement is a good way to push your agenda without having to wait for the GM to introduce it.
  • Mix it up – As a GM, try to avoid scenes that devolve to simple talking heads. A lot of RPGs have plenty of opportunities to introduce interesting situations where conversations and such can happen outside of the court or the office. Much like a day of golf with the boss, consider catering to interests to make the other character more receptive. A modern game might have people talking policy over a game of tennis, a round of golf, or in a firing range while Hunting and other kinds of sport make for good occasions for historical games.

It’s not a lot yet, but I’ll have to admit that this is a learn-as-you-go thing for me. This is perhaps the first game I’ve run that was completely political as opposed to mostly horror or action so I expect a lot of fumbling around.

[GMing] The Value of Imparting Context to Combat

Posted: January 8, 2013 by Jay Steven Anyong in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games
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Today we take a look at Combat in RPGs, and the importance of imparting context to physical conflict. At first glance, it seems rather obvious. After all, who just gets into fights for no good reason?

Surprisingly, a lot of RPG characters do. However, with the exception of the beer-and-pretzels approach to gaming, combat shouldn’t exist for its own sake.

If anything, every conflict should come with the context for it. This lends gravitas to the battle, and enhances the urgency and importance of actually winning. Sure living to see the next day is a powerful motivation, but there are higher goals to be had.

When framing confict, it’s important to ask the following questions:

How / Why are the players involved?

Combat doesn’t just happen. Most of the time, there is an escalation from a social confrontation to someone deciding to escalate into physical conflict. Are the players the ultimate target, or will killing them be a stepping stone to a greater goal? Players will respond better to a fight knowing why they’re being attacked even if their characters are still relatively clueless.

What is at stake for the winners / losers?

People enter conflict because they are motivated to win. They are supposed to gain something. Influence, love, riches, there are countless possible motivations for entering combat.  Likewise, losing means that they forfeit more than just their health and welfare. The destruction of their families, their society and way of life or their ideals might be at stake as well.

What effect does this actually have on a game? Well for one thing, fights start to matter more. Combat becomes more personal, more meaningful. In addition, combat becomes the highlight it deserves to be in a session. No matter what genre is involved, from Space Opera to High Fantasy and even Superheros, combat is meant to be special rather than rote and mundane.

[GMing] In Defense of the Formal Pitch

Posted: January 4, 2013 by Jay Steven Anyong in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games
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Lately some lively discussion in the local RPG group in G+ has prompted some interesting points of view of how GMs go about pitching a game to their players.

One of the interesting observations to come from this is that some GMs don’t bother with pitches at all. Instead they gather their players and they discuss what they want to play next, effectively creating a “group pitch” and then go from there.

While that is a perfectly good methodology, I seem to be coming from a slightly different perspective. Like the others, I also gather my group together and discuss which game they’d like to play. Once that’s set, I go back to my creative space and start thinking of a Campaign Pitch.

Which brings me to asking myself, “Why do I bother with a formal pitch?”

The question that pops up in my head is simple, “Because I want solid player buy-in when it comes to the specific campaign I have in mind.”

Pitching in my head isn’t “Okay, so D&D next week? Cool.” Instead, it’s a rather lengthy process of thinking (and overthinking) involving generating themes and coming up with a tone for the game that is both fun and appealing to multiple layers of fun.

A game can be enteraining and still preserve some form of (here I go) Literary worth. The players might not necessarily see or appreciate the little details that I’ve slipped in but I know it’s there. Much like a carpenter that pays attention to the parts of furniture that most people wouldn’t see in their lives, there are GMs who approach campaign creation with the same pride of craftsmanship.

By working on a formal pitch, the GM manages to put together essential elements that are then presented to the players. In essence, your pitch is your campiagn in a nutshell. It banishes vague generalities, and confirms expectations. By being upfront, your players will then understand what you’re going for and will be more willing to work with you to come up with stories and characters that fit that mold.

Of course the pitch isn’t the holy writ. The players are free to nitpick and suggest in order to improve it. In fact, I want this kind of feedback, as it improves the “ownership” of the campaign to the players. It’s no longer my pitch alone, but rather a product of collaboration.

My purpose in creating a pitch is to advertise to the players that, “Hey, this is what I’m okay to run with. This is what I think I can do with it. Do you like it?”

And that is why I go for a formal pitch.


I’m taking a bit of a break from analyzing the Crane clan to talk about the setting I use for my games. I’ve seen a thread in the L5R forums asking if people prefer to play in the Canon setting or an Alternate take of Rokugan. In the camp of Canon vs. Alternate, I’m pretty much firmly in the side of “Start with Canon, then deviate accordingly.”

The benefits for taking this approach are many:

  • A massive supporting cast – Ultimately your player characters are the ones who are meant to be the Protagonists of the game. This means that everyone else, from the Emperor to the Clan Champions are the supporting cast. I’m all for the idea that NPCs should be active even when the players aren’t, but this doesn’t mean that they matter more than the players.
  • Surprise, surprise! – Taking the alternate route is a sure fire way to keep things interesting to those who are already familiar with the history and the events in the stories as presented in Canon. When an NPC suddenly takes a different track than what they did in established Canon “history” suddenly everything changes and everyone’s left in suspense.
  • Room to explore – I enjoy asking the “What if?” questions in stories, and this is a perfect opportunity to kick in and start pushing the boundaries of where the story is. The players get to explore the setting beyond the sections that Canon focused on.
  • Establishing ownership – By letting players create lasting changes to a setting, the game takes on a life of it’s own, and lends a sense of ownership to the team that is difficult to replicate in Canon based stories. In Canon stories, there’s always the sense that players could say, “We were part of that big event.”  but Alternate players could easly say, “We caused that big event.”

The upcoming Hearts and Souls game builds on the events and established events from the earlier Never A Dull Blade campaign, which was in turn informed and influenced by the events of the Civil War story arc. In some ways, my players are co-authoring a new story that takes us away from Canon, but towards a new set of legends that are purely theirs and theirs alone.