The Inquisition: Fear

Fear! (from the National Media Museum)

Here at the Inquisition, we tend to tackle the broader questions that face us gamers, and since we’re featuring horror stories in the month of October, we’ll ask ourselves one of the most basic, salient questions: what, exactly, is the nature of fear, and how do we incorporate it into our games?

Fear presents in many different forms: horror, creepiness, terror, revulsion, dread, foreboding, fright, and so on. Don’t go mistaking me for an expert in psychology or medicine, but my lay understanding of the essential quality of fear is that it is a visceral emotion that ultimately serves to protect us. We are afraid of those things that we subconsciously (or consciously) believe will bring us harm. Some of the most common fears are related to (what I assume were) common dangers to our ancestors: being gobbled up by monsters, things that we can’t see or don’t understand (the dark), falling from great heights, and so on.

The problem is that while these fears may have protected us once, as we have become more sophisticated culturally and technologically, many have become less relevant. There is less that we don’t understand, but darkness no longer holds untold dangers (and we can produce artificial light to aid our sight), and so on. Maybe this is an extremely simplistic artificial dichotomy, but I think you could probably group all kinds of fears into two categories: fear of the unknown, and fear of the known.

Fear of the Known

It’s easy to dismiss, but the fear of the known is very powerful. We know all about our reactions to certain stimuli: some of us are intolerant of pain, others intolerant of small spaces, others of things more innocuous. We know all about how these things go, and thus, we’re fearful. I don’t like small spaces; there’s something about it being hot and stale that just gets to me very quickly and I become sweaty and motion-sick. Thus, I have a tendency to fear or at least be anxious about approaching situations where that is a distinct possibility.

This falls into the realm of “rational fear”, which, admittedly, is a nebulous and not really definable concept. However, I’m comfortable calling it that because I fear situations that I know will cause me discomfort. Now, my tolerance for those situations is obviously not what you would call desirable, but the anxiety is very real.

Departing from these minor worries I think we come to the true horror of the known, and that’s when we know how bad something can possibly get. This is your Heart of Darkness, your All Quiet on the Western Front. We are terrified because we know how horrible man can be, we know what evil and depravity lies in the deepest recesses of some people. Sometimes the known can be more horrifying than the unknown.

Fear of the Unknown

Horror masters like Lovecraft and Poe worked closely with the fear of the unknown, boiling down one of humanity’s great, existential fears. We are naturally a race of scientists and information gatherers, we seek out data to confirm our beliefs and suspicions. Nothing seems more frightening to us than phenomena that we cannot explain, articulate, or manipulate. I can’t get into why we fear the unknown with any authority – but I can say that we like to be in control of our own environment, and many of our more personal fears stem from having a lack of control or a lack of knowledge about our own situations.

We, as people, as gamers, have wonderful imaginations and those who are the most imaginative might be the most susceptible to the horrors lurking in the dark depths of the unknown. These creatures take the shape of that which subconsciously makes us the most uncomfortable or will cause us the most pain, things that no one could ever know, things that we might not even know ourselves. The unknown is an amorphous mass of evil that is everything we revile at once.

Bringing it to the table

And that’s all well and good, but how do we incorporate the fear of the unknown and the known into our roleplaying games? I think it’s tougher than you might believe.

One of the necessities of good storytelling is to ground or frame our stories in believable realities – that means that to aid our suspension of disbelief, we need to be set against a backdrop of believable worlds.  But we also must frame our stories against understood worlds, which is something that we sometimes lose when playing in homebrew worlds.

I have generally been on the GM side of the screen, and after returning to the role of player recently, it underscored how important having a known and an unknown is when it comes to worldbuilding. When you play a game like Call of Cthulhu or World of Darkness, a lot of your work is done for you, as those are set against the backdrop of a pre-existing world: our own. Yes, each is a perverted version, but ultimately those games are so effective because the perversion of that world is the point. There shouldn’t be vampires or werewolves or shoggoths or magic or any of the fantastically horrible things that exist in those worlds, because this is reality, and those things don’t exist.

But you don’t have that same luxury when it comes to fantasy worlds. Your players are going to be plenty willing to accept the existence of shoggoths because they live in a world where dragons and dryads and driders and demons and devils and dire alligators are all common. That one important part that is so easy to leave out when describing the world is just what is normal.

I’ve created two homebrew fantasy worlds now: I played in the first one for five years, and I just started a new campaign in the second one. In the first one, I made it very clear to everyone that there was a lot unknown about the world, but the one fact of which everyone and their mother was certain was that there were no undead. When something died, it was dead forever. You see, a century in the past, after the tribal squabbles had subsided and the known world was peacefully divided, the great powers resolved to eliminate the undead threat from the world. The greatest warriors, scholars, and theologians from around the known world banded together and swept across the four nations crushing any undead creature that could be found. So complete was their genocide (ungenocide?) was that the creators of undead were also proscribed, and all knowledge of how to do so was confiscated and (presumably) destroyed.

So, you see where this is going. When you are grounded in a world where something definitively does not exist, and then it shows up, that could be horrifying (or it could be wondrous, or something else entirely). I’m far from the first person to come up with this concept: Lovecraft, George R.R. Martin, and many others have wielded this tool far more deftly. But you should also realize that by defining your world explicitly, you can also foster fears of the known – this is the common conception we have of the savage orcs (mostly descended from Tolkein) as warmongering, brutal peoples. We fear them because we know how bad they can be.

As the blog carnival continues, we’ll tackle more fear- and horror-related topics as we approach Halloween, such as how to actually, you know, scare your players, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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The Inquisition: Characters vs. Players

Can these guys just stand up there and say “I’m good at swordfighting”?

Sometimes it happens right away, and sometimes it takes a while for a player to realize, but eventually every player comes face to face with one of the great hobgoblins of roleplaying games: meta-gaming. For you neophytes, meta-gaming, simply put, is behaving in a way that betrays a character’s in-game knowledge. We might also call this “breaking the fourth wall” or “acting out of character”, but this behavior most often takes the form of a character acting on knowledge he or she doesn’t have. It can be as meaningless as “he doesn’t have many hit points left, he’s only CR 3” or as suspension-of-disbelief-shattering “I teleport 438 feet to the northwest… oh, right into the room my friend is in.” I, personally, don’t mind meta-gaming that much; it’s the kind of thing that can easily be walked back or simply undone by asking “Why does your character do that?”

But I don’t want to talk about meta-gaming today. I want to talk about something related, though. By it’s definition, meta-gaming occurs when the player has knowledge that the character does not have (that he or she learned by sitting at the table while a side-plot was being played out, that he or she learned by reading the rulebook or a supplement, or that he or she learned by stealing a peek at the GM’s notes, or something). I want to get into a maybe more-frequently encountered situation: what happens when the character knows more than the player ever could?

One of the players in my longest running game was a very smart guy, but he played a character, a wizard, who was a super-genius. Literally, this character was several standard deviations outside of normal intelligence for his species. This is all well-and-good, considering the Dungeons and Dragons rules (3.5) accounted for this kind of supreme intelligence within their ability score scale and he was awarded a commensurate number of extra skill points and bonuses on intelligence checks.

However, I can distinctly recall a situation in which we were faced with a particularly troublesome puzzle whose solution had thus far eluded us. He argued that his character, and by extension he should have some additional insight into the workings of the puzzle. He argued that his character was far more intelligent than he was, and thus that level of natural talent should be expressed in game. I sympathized with his point: his character was far smarter than he would ever be, and thus should be able to accomplish things of which he couldn’t think. Imagine a similar situation: you stutter, but your character is an extremely persuasive and charismatic speaker.

We’re used to playing heroic or extraordinary characters when roleplaying; though it is a sobering and rewarding experience to play a character who is completely mundane. By their nature, these heroic characters will do something exceptional. And while this exceptional capability is usually expressed in terms that are easy to imagine (swordplay, archery, slinging spells), sometimes they come in forms we might not be able to easily imagine, such as charisma, persuasiveness, and outright intellect. We’ve seen systems that have tried to apply the same skill-treatment to social and puzzle-solving skills as applied to physical and martial skills, and we usually remember that those skills (IMO) are rarely played rules-as-written (prime example: Diplomacy in DnD 3.5 – and I know some of you will disagree about this).

One of the key issues here is that it’s easy to visualize someone being a good swordsman physically or being incredibly beautiful (when I was a kid all Charisma-dumped characters were hideous hags and all Charisma-enhanced characters were stunningly handsome), but it’s much more difficult to identify that there is an element of intelligence and instinct involved in being a champion duelist, be it with the sword, the pen, or the podium. Anyone who’s ever been in debate knows that an intelligent debater is just as dangerous and persuasive as a charming one, and anyone who’s ever played a sport knows that players with an eye for strategy and tactics can run with much more physically gifted athletes.

So the question becomes: how can you roleplay someone who is incredibly intelligent if you are not incredibly intelligent? Put better, how do you play someone with mental capabilities that far exceed your own?

First, we’ll inevitably retreat to the comfort of our rules set? Don’t the rules account for these kinds of things? Well, yes, of course they do (or any system that is worth its salt should). We get more skill points or bonuses to certain types of rolls for being intelligent, a better modifier on social interactions for being persuasive, and so on. But we still face problems such as the player who walks into every situation and asks to roll Diplomacy. Or the player above who wants extra help on puzzle solving because he’s a genius.

I think we can all agree that the first situation (the Wordless Diplomat) is not the way most of us want to be playing. We want to roleplay, not roll-play. So, my question to you: what is the acceptable amount of roleplaying necessary to be able to roll your skill in social situations? And I don’t have a good answer to that question. I typically weight creative roleplaying more than raw character sheet skill, but both are important for success in situations. A good diplomat with a poor in-character argument is probably on the same footing as a crappy diplomat with a good argument. I usually don’t let my players just declare “I’m trying to Fast Talk this guy”. If that’s what you’re doing, do it! However, to be fair to my players, they might not believe that they can Fast Talk effectively. It’s a totally reasonable position that you as a person might be terrible at thinking on your feet, but your character (by his/her stat block) might literally be among the best in the world at it.

So, I am left wondering what the players’ responsibility is in, you know, actually being a good player. Roleplaying, in itself, is a skill, and naturally some are much better at it than others. Some people are really great problem solvers, others can slip into and out of numerous characters at will, and still more have vast reserves of creativity and energy for creating worlds, races, nations, pantheons, and so forth. I feel that we should be rewarding players for quality role-playing if that’s what is most important to us. I do feel bad sometimes that the player who spent no points on social skills might end up being a more effective party face than the player who put a ton of points into it, and that’s bad for roleplaying. Because gaming for a lot of us is about getting outside our comfort zones and trying something new. Putting more weight on roleplaying tends to push the players who are more comfortable with social interaction to the social interaction roles.

Is there a solution to this problem? I don’t know. I think that roleplaying system designers have been trying to solve this particular puzzle since Gary Gygax invented DnD in his basement. What I know for sure is that we should reward good roleplaying, we should reward creativity, inspired character design, quick thinking, well-designed characters, and so on. In short, we should reward and therefore encourage the kinds of behavior we want to see in our games. I typically hate using a die to determine that which roleplaying should determine, so I put more weight on the roleplaying. But it’s obviously a fine line to walk.

PS. Coming back to the “intelligent people should have an easier time solving a puzzle” idea, I really like adding non-modifer benefits to show that a character is better at a certain task. Maybe the super-genius can have 6 minutes to solve a puzzle instead of the party’s normal 5 minutes, due to the fact that she thinks faster. Maybe the tactical genius can rearrange himself before combat starts, showing that he always seems to be in the right place. In a social situation, maybe the party face has more paths to success, much like options in Mass Effect or KoTOR, rather than just being flat better at being generically “persuasive”. There needs to be a way to show that a character has more ability than a player – we don’t, after all, make our fighters stand up and wield a greatsword. But we do make our diplomats come up with good arguments? That seems a bit unfair to me.

Photo credit: Flickr user hans s. CC BY-ND 2.0

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The Inquisition: Cross-Purposes

Great shot by Flickr user davidyuweb

I’m going to try something a bit different today: I’m just going to write, stream-of-consciousness, and see how it turns out. I’ll be writing about a question that I ask myself: What is the purpose of role-playing?

On it’s face, obviously, role-playing is a game. It’s a leisure activity in which we engage, not much different than playing a video game, watching a movie, or reading a book. It’s a shared experience as well, collaborative gaming where we sit down with our friends and work through different challenges. The most attractive aspect about role-playing to me, as a game, is it’s open-endedness. Even the most immersive novels, films, and video games are constrained by the boundaries of their medium. A book lasts a finite number of pages, a film a finite number of shots, a video game a finite number of bytes.

But a roleplaying game is, by it’s nature, infinite.

Aside: Not unrestrained, as some of the best games I’ve ever played have featured great restrictions (I’ve heard that great constraint and oppression can fuel great creativity, for as you have a narrower scope within which to work, each variation becomes far more meaningful). The paladin would be unique in a party consisting of a rogue, a druid, and a wizard, but you could make the argument that each paladin would need to be more detailed and richer to stand out against a background of similarity.

I know I’ve talked about this before, but there’s wonder inherent in reading a beloved piece of fiction for the first time; I often find myself counting the remaining pages, not out of some anguish or wondering when this sentence will end, but as a gloomy portent of how little I have left. I want to savor what I have, for I know that feeling of reading or watching something for the first time is fleeting. But along with that feeling of elation comes slight sorrow when you do reach that last scene or last page. You’re done, but you want more. And while this exists in roleplaying as well, because of course no game can continue indefinitely, I’m rarely left with the feeling that I’ve “run out” of material. There is always more gaming to be had, on command.

What’s more is that roleplaying is not a passive activity (at least it really, really should not be – one of my biggest pet peeves is the gamer who doesn’t participate enough), which makes it, at least in my opinion, better than a movie or book could ever be. It sounds trite, but you are the character and you never have to wonder what you would have done in such a situation (unless you’re a back-seat roleplayer, another big no-no in my book). Instead you direct and shape what’s happening in the fictional universe, whether that is isolated to your character or expanded to the rest of the game world.

And finally, of course, there’s the engineer in all of us that likes to tinker with mechanics and moving parts. While this aspect steps to the forefront for some more than others, many of us enjoy the leveling in a game like D&D or Pathfinder. We like working with numbers and pieces, putting them together to discover the puzzle of our characters. I think this aspect of the game that underlies all roleplaying is what turns a lot of people off, and I completely understand that. Ultimately, it sometimes seems like rather meaningless mechanical masturbation. Does the fact that your character has a +12 to hit rather than a +11 to hit really have any meaning in the world? (Besides, of course, him/her being one step better on the arbitrary scale of skill with a certain attack). Gosh, I have no idea.

And that’s where the other large part of role-playing comes into play, the storytelling. The love of stories is part of our evolutionary and cultural history stretching across all cultures and through all periods of human existence. For some, those that tend to disfavor the number-crunchy aspects of the game, story is paramount.

It could be the nature of the stories being told that appeals most to us. There’s a reason that the vast majority of role-playing skews toward fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Maybe that’s because, really, how interesting would it be to play mundane people in a mundane world (though I do enjoy powered-down games where normal humans are the baseline – such as d20 Modern or Hunter)? Or, is that the point, that we play these games in worlds of hovermobiles and hobgoblins as some form of grown-up escapism? Maybe I read too much into the nerd stereotype, the loner kid who is a little different and has trouble making friends. While these kind of games have become far more mainstream in recent years, I definitely grew up in an age when playing DnD was definitely or even video games was a “not cool” activity for the nerdy kids. And what is an ostracized geek like me supposed to do but retreat to fantastic or sci-fi worlds of swords, sorcery, and spaceships?

I don’t think it’s that simple, and maybe what I’ve said is even a little insulting (if it is, I really did not intend it to be). There are all kinds of escapism prevalent in the world today: alternate-reality games, mainstream film or literature (and honestly, even mainstream news coverage) – the Twilight phenomenon (judgement aside) is literally one big escapist fantasy (If you’re an “average” girl, maybe all you want is a guy like Edward to love you unconditionally). It’s the same with Fifty Shades of Grey and other romance novels as well. But, I don’t want to make it seem like escapism is, inherently, bad. I mean, what’s the point of fiction if not to transport your mind, body, and soul to a completely different place? Is not the purpose and the effect of some of the greatest literature ever composed to allow you, or better, to force you to take your mind off your potentially less-than-ideal or less-than-expected life and see through the eyes of someone less fortunate (Oliver Twist?) or someone way more fortunate (Jay Gatsby?) or someone you can’t understand at all (Holden Caulfield?) or someone you understand all too well (again, Holden Caulfield?).

I mean, I never think, when I’m sitting at my gaming table looking down at my character sheet. that I am Ormetius the Evoker or Rincewind MacIntyre the Big Game Hunter. The escapism never makes it that far. But I do, behind my eyes, picture the events happening as I imagine them to happen. I can picture what all my characters look like, what their compatriots looked like (really, they look like my fellow players), what their adversaries looked like (movie stars), what the bards who told their tales looked like (Bill Murray). I can remember during my college years spent in New Hampshire walking through the woods during the lightly falling snow and imagining Frodo Baggins doing the same thing, or driving down a windy country road in Autumn and wondering if this was the same road Henry Armitage followed that fateful night on his way to the Whatley farm. I realize this might sound weird, but I also think when camping of my characters who have slept under the same starless nights wondering, too, what their future held.

And to make the leap that gaming is any kind of reflection upon the station or position that you might be experiencing is not one that I’m willing to make, but it, like any kind of creativity, can be an avenue to explore essential questions that you might have. Let’s not be hyperbolic: you’re not going to unlock the meaning of life while roleplaying, but you might gain a better understanding of what it means to be an outsider in a foreign land, what it is to be a minority in a majority-ruled city, or what it’s like to be living under the boot of an oppressive dictator. It’s all just simulation, but there’s a reason that psychological counselors use roleplaying as a tool for treatment – it puts you in a mindset different than your own. And not only that, roleplaying by necessity gets you outside your comfort zone, playing a character of different gender or class or inclination.

And when that happens, it can either be done deftly or clumsily. We can easily identify when it’s clumsy, because those situations devolve into stereotypes or pantomime. But when it happens deftly we almost don’t notice; it’s so unobtrusive that we see past the player and only see the character. I think that every player begins roleplaying by being themselves, just like most young actors begin acting by playing what they know, responding how they would respond to certain situations. And that requires a lot of self-control and introspection in itself; this is why roleplaying can get emotional, because it can easily and unintentionally strike a nerve. Most players,  in my experience, rarely leave their comfort zone and when you play with them for a while see the same character over and over, just with a different outer layer.

The true masters of roleplaying are kin with the true masters of acting and the true masters of creativity; they can wield their character and their actions within the game like a fine pencil point while the rest of us are just throwing paint at a canvas. I remember a time when I had some NPCs surrender to the players who really could not afford to bring them along. For some, it was an easy decision to just execute them, but for others it was a really agonizing call. I have, myself, been in situations where it has been really difficult for me to decide what mattered more to me: how I think my character would behave, what I think the group would like, and what I think would be fun. I try to hit that sweet spot when all three of those things fall within the same point on the spectrum, but rarely is that the case. I won’t claim that I’m an expert at roleplaying, but I always have fun.

And that’s what matters, ultimately, is that everyone has a good time. That good time comes from either the gaming or the storytelling, or maybe something else entirely. Maybe it comes from the social aspect of the game, the ability for you and your friends to all find a time once a week where we can forget about work and the economy and just drink a beer and roll some dice. Maybe it’s more than just a game for some of us: like the numerous ardent writers out there who have never published, maybe this is just our passion, it’s our hobby or our niche where we feel perfectly comfortable and in command in a way that we never felt in school or on the field or giving a presentation at work. Maybe we love gaming for the exact opposite reasons, because we don’t have to see the other players because we play by post and they’re halfway around the world, but we can still connect without fear of exposing our true selves.

I can’t speak for the motives of others, I can only posit and speculate. But what I can say is that you’re not doing it wrong unless you’re not having fun. And yes, that definition of fun is flexible and should necessarily involve highs and lows. Having your character die is usually not fun but can be an incredibly rewarding experience nonetheless that opens up the avenue for more fun in the future. It doesn’t matter how you have your fun as long as you’re not doing it at the expense of others. If it involves playing yourself over and over, do so. If it involves the most off-the-wall characters you can think of, by all means, do it.


Anyway, this was great. Thanks for listening. I flagged a couple of things I mentioned in my stream of consciousness (okay, it wasn’t exactly true stream of consciousness) for exploration in future columns. If you’ve got anything you want to talk about that I mentioned, or didn’t, please drop it in the comments below or drop me a line. Thanks for listening, and see you next week!

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The Inquisition: Vacation!

I visited somewhere like this.

The Inquisitor has been on vacation for the last few weeks, and instead of leaving your hearts and minds barren, I thought I’d pop in and toss some food for thought your way. How do you deal with your players and GMs when they go on vacation?

It’s a fact of life. People go away or need a hiatus every once and a while, and we’re faced with that difficult question: do we press on without them? And if we do, what does that mean for your story?

As far as I have gathered in my years of gaming, there are a couple of ways to approach this problem, depending on what you care about most:

We Care About the Story

If you care about the verisimilitude of the story, you have a tough road ahead of you. The simplest solution is probably to not play at all, but what should we do if we do decide to press onward? Characters that are absent are almost always going to have to be NPC’d or played by another character, which isn’t necessarily a nightmare scenario, but you do lose the actual behavior and mannerisms of a the original player’s intent. I’ve seen this scenario go bad numerous times, where the vacationing player returns and surveys the scene, only to remark, “Hey! That’s not what Sir Boddrick would have done!”

Of course it isn’t. We play complex characters with complex motivations, sometimes secret to each other, sometimes simply not yet revealed. It’s just a tall order to ask a fellow player or the GM to play your dude or dudette while you’re gone.

So we often end up resorting to the other option: the plot device.

You’re familiar with this. Zebulon the Haberdasher is kidnapped (for two sessions) by the evil Count Dragomir and the team has to save him, or somesuch. We invent a potentially random and often side-focused plot to account for the character’s absence. Sometimes we can be particularly deft, and we can work it into the overall plot if the story is designed as such, but I think most of us probably design stories with the hope that all characters involved will be present for most of the sessions. This choice is tricky, but probably the neatest if you want to maintain the narrative flow of your game.

We Don’t Care About the Story so Much

In one of my games back in the day, we had a character who ran a frozen yogurt stand as his non-adventuring profession. Whenever he missed a session, or whenever another character from the party was missing, we always said they were “minding the frozen yogurt stand”. Over the years that has morphed into the shorthand “Out for Fro-Yo” or “Fro-Yo-ing”. It’s universally understood in my playgroup that the character is still “there” but also “not there.”

For all purposes during the session, the character is not present, but for all historical purposes, they are treated as though they were present. They can’t actually say anything to the Duke (because the player is absent) but they return with full knowledge of the meeting and the Duke remembers that character being present.

Is it a fudge? Ab-so-lutely. But it’s neat, and it’s a hand-wave that we use to make a rather frequent occurrence (we are all adults with relationships, jobs, and families, after all) less of a headache.


This isn’t, and wasn’t meant to be groundbreaking stuff. How do you handle players missing a session or two? How do you recap your players when they inevitably get back? Or do you end up just skipping the session and rescheduling when everyone’s in town or more available?

Photo Credit: Flickr user Kenzoka. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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The Inquisition: The End

How do you know when your game has reached this point?

One of the most profound, formative movies I have seen in my life is Apocalypse Now. It’s certainly visually, and to an extent, existentially stunning, but it remains part of the cultural zeitgeist because of the pop culture references contained therein. There is one in particular of which I am frequently reminded:

In the context of role-playing games, it’s difficult to talk about the end of a particular game. Obviously, almost every game that has ever started has come to an end at some point, whether that was a story-appropriate finish, a glacially slow increase in the frequency of sessions, the sudden departure or life-change of one or more players, whatever. I think games always start out very strong, usually fueled by a lightning-like stroke of inspiration and a great, resounding wave of enthusiasm. Those of us who have played in many games know that they rarely end this way.

I think there are two separate paths that need to diverge here. One deals with the end of a game/campaign/story/system, while the other deals with the end of a gaming group. I am going to primarily talk about the former, but the second one is probably way more common. People, especially as adults, have lives and, as we’ve mentioned before, tend to value their gaming at different points in their hierarchical organization of their lives. For some of us, gaming is our lifeblood, and for others it’s just a from-time-to-time hobby like bowling or going to the movies. Gaming groups disintegrate all the time, and it’s usually because everyone’s expectations for the game are different. Perhaps we’ll talk more about this in another post.

For now, let’s stick to ending games but sticking with the same group. This is at the forefront of my mind because my group just finished up a campaign (which I was running) earlier this week, and they opted to retire their characters instead of progressing onwards (and frankly, it was the wise choice, since we were playing Call of Cthulhu and a few of them were on death’s or insanity’s door).

I’ve always had great enthusiasm for beginning games. I love the part of the game where all the characters are introduced, they can show off their quirks and flaws and powers and weaknesses, they interact with each other and develop personalities, they investigate and interact with the world, gain faculty with the rules and laws that govern the game, make acquaintances with NPCs and run afoul of evildoers. And it’s this early period which sets the stage and lends an emotional weight to the campaign’s inevitable end.

We become attached to our characters, come to enjoy the world we’ve collaboratively created. We like that familiarity. We like coming up with new ways for our characters to grow and new goals to achieve, we love the prospect of seeing what new challenges await us in undiscovered corners of the world. I imagine that it’s the same feeling that one gets when they read the last few pages of the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or any series whose characters and story are powerful and addictive – we’re sad to see it go.

But go it must, eventually. And that’s never easy.

The most important part of the campaign, for me, is the climax of whatever story arc the characters find themselved embroiled in. It’s not my favorite, but coming down from the climax in storytelling usually involves some denouement or wrapping-up. This is the moment when a lot of stories go awry. I think it’s that desire to hold onto things that we love, but if the arc is truly over, we should probably just accept it and decide right then: are we continuing with these characters, this (broader) story, and this situation, or is the campaign effectively over?

If you decide the campaign is over, as a GM I would offer some wrap-up. The fate of the characters, the fate of the world, and so on. Maybe have another hour or so for everyone to talk about their characters’ goals for the future now that this particular story arc is over. Then, collectively decide what is going to happen next: someone else is going to try the reins as gamemaster, we’re going to switch to a new system, we’re going to play future or past versions of ourselves or NPC’s we’ve met in the world, and so on.

If you decide you want to continue,then you ask them how they get out of the white dragon’s lair, what is next for the party after slaying the evil lich before he could destroy the nation, how they really just uncovered the tip of the iceberg, and on, and on.

In general, we tend to frown upon railroading, but I would argue that limp, unsatisfying game endings (and often beginnings) come from our desire to have a true sandbox. Since there is no clearly defined beginning or endpoint, and since characters have a greater tendency to die or drift in and out of games, it becomes much harder to wrap up any particular arc. There’s no sense of closure. Now, is the “closure”, which, admittedly, is a nebulous topic to begin with, necessary to roleplaying? Well, I think to an extent that if we look at roleplaying as collaborative storytelling, then there is indeed a story, and that story should have some kind of beginning, middle, and end. Most sandbox games ultimately are not linear, but are episodic instead, which can offer, in itself, a kind of closure.

And I believe that’s the point – too many roleplaying games end without closure, and even when they do offer some closure, it’s very difficult to land upon an ending in which each player is satisfied. As a player we want to feel like we’ve earned what we have, and as a GM we want the challenges to be, well, challenging and also interesting, and it’s hard to have the denouement be challenging and interesting. Not impossible, but difficult.

I’ve had many awesome campaigns just go out on kind of a ‘meh’ note, and I hate that feeling. We are slaves to the recency effect, so we really hate when the last taste in our mouth is sour or just, well, bland. So do what you can to try and make your games end on a great note – as I said, I think this is mostly timing and just not holding on too long. Handwave your denouement if it’s not interesting, end the session after the boss is killed and move on to the next thing. Give your players something to remember right at the end before you move on to whatever entices you next.

Until next time, happy gaming!

PS: Do you have any thoughts regarding what the best way to end a story arc is? Or even how to put a game on hold when you try something differently?

Photo credit: Flickr user bennylin0724. CC BY 2.0

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The Inquisition: The Big Game

Some gamers getting ready for the big game.

I have always gotten extremely nervous before serving as the GM for games. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s before a group of newbies or a bunch of seasoned veterans, a game at a convention or one in my own apartment, some people I’ve never met or my most stalwart friends, new material or re-hashed stuff I’ve already done. I get anxious that the game I’m about to run is not going to be fun.

I know that this is the result, to some extent, of being a perfectionist. For some reason, I just have never felt that I’m adequately prepared for a session. I can always design one more encounter, or add a bit more detail to a room, or tweak the numbers a bit to make things more balanced. After all, what is all this extra time for but for more planning? It doesn’t matter that I’ve been shown time and again that sometimes what I plan for one session actually takes three to four, there’s always the creeping sense that things are going to go off-book and I’m going to have to come up with things on the fly.

But, that should be something great about roleplaying: not everything can be scripted. Not everything can go according to plan. And even if it does, there’s no guarantee that your players will even really like that plan or that script. They’re going to like what they like, and you have to adapt your story to be some middle ground between the story you want to tell and the story they want to hear. This is the curse and the blessing of the Gamemaster. You’re totally in charge of the game. I used to say to people who told me that my games were really fun that most games were 50% GM and 50% players. I’ve had games I thought would be amazing turn out to just be rather bland due to what I’ll egotistically call “boring play”. I’ve also had rather bland or derivative plots turn into riotous, uproarious, truly memorable romps.

I got the same feeling back when I was in school and had to prepare for tests. There were always a few minutes left and a few more facts that I could memorize. So, studying and preparing for a game often become an act of settling, of recognizing diminishing returns (more time spent for less product) and cutting yourself off after you reach a point somewhere past good enough. Sadly, I’ve always been the kind of person who cares more about the quality of his RPGs than the quality of his grades, so I find the exercise of locating good enough to be very challenging.

What’s my point with all of this? Well, I want to share a few things I do (or try to do) before each game session. Maybe it will inspire you to better organize your game planning. Maybe it will clue you in to the oft-incredible amount of time GMs can put in to planning RPG sessions. Maybe it will just be interesting to look at someone else’s process.

  1. At the end of each session, I make sure to write down a to-do list after everyone has gone home. This usually takes anywhere from 5 to 20 mintues, depending on the amount of material the group got through, how many questions they had, and how much of the next few sessions are written or conceptualized. It helps to keep a running list during the session, I find, that way nothing gets lost to the ether and you’re left not having a good answer when someone says “Remember when I asked…”.
  2. I try to knock off as many things on this list as possible when I have free time. Having a list is great, I find, for a spare 15-20 minutes here and there where you can just knock off an item or two.
  3. During this inter-session period, I also try to write down in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way random ideas that I come up with. Sometimes I try to incorporate them, other times I plan to do so down the line.
  4. I schedule for myself a sit-down of at least a few hours for “game preparation”, usually taking place a few days before the session. This is when I go over my notes: check the overarching plot and see where we are, note what things have changed, who’s dead, and so on. I start planning a “Next Session” document, which is just a piece of paper which has what I want to accomplish on it. It might read: ambush at night, conversation with the Duke, 24 hours downtime in town, arrival of the caravan. Now, I can never be sure that the players will actually do all this stuff, but with some experience GMing you can guess where they might go next. I make sure to prepare the few most likely places they might visit. During this session I plan any major physical projects I’ll need to spend time working on, specifically intricate hand-outs or props.
  5. I design the encounters and draw the maps in my notebook, as well as note what important NPCs and phenomenon happen as in-game time passes.
  6. Then I take a break for a few days to try and relax. Because:
  7. The night before the session I always start to get nervous, so I usually give myself a little time to go over the session, make some final notes, tweak encounters to account for player absences, new abilities gained, and whatnot.
  8. I make sure all the physical materials I need for the game are ready to be used. Clean the battlemats, organize the figurines, make sure there are pencils and markers. If I’m hosting, I try to get a snack or two and some drinks to provide.
  9. I make sure to get a good night of sleep, and eat well the day of the game. Don’t game tired or on an empty stomach, it saps your energy!
  10. I can’t help but think about the game all day during the lead up. I usually take this time to do some game flourishes. A handout here, a piece of papercraft there if I have the time. I always like to make tokens for NPCs and monsters.
  11. When I get to the session, I take about 10 minutes to set everything up. I lay out the map, draw on it (if a combat scene is happening imminently), put up my screen if I’m using one, get out my dice, get a drink and a snack and settle in.
  12. At the start of the session, we go over anything that happened in any downtime, and do a quick recap of where we are and how we got here. I then answer questions if anyone has them, the players get a little planning time, and we go!

The way I described it probably makes it seem more complicated than it actually is, but I find that if I miss too many of these steps (as happens when life gets in the way), the quality of my sessions starts to suffer. There are some games I can do, for example, without a lot of prior planning (such as Paranoia!) and others that I absolutely must have the encounter design (crunchy D&D dungeon crawls).

One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to planning for your sessions, but you should absolutely find a system that works for you and try to stick to it. You probably already do have a system, if you just grab a bottle of Mountain Dew, throw on a movie and draw dungeon maps every Thursday night, even if you don’t call it a system. Your game will be better for it.

PS: I think preparing for games is something that players should do as well. You need to correlate all your notes and information gained in previous sessions, do your inventory housekeeping, determine where you want to go next and what is your next goal, and so on. The more of this happens outside of the game, the less time your co-players spend waiting for you to flip through the rulebook to buy your 17 items from the shopkeeper.

Photo Credit: Warhammer Games (Mick Garratt) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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The Inquisition: Fleshing Out Characters

Help your players by adding some layers. Thanks to flickr user shandchem. CC BY-ND 2.0

This will be a short post, but something that I think is important to every game: making characters deeper. And I’m talking about PC’s here. (Maybe next week I’ll talk about making deeper NPCs)

No matter how hard we try, our back-stories are not going to be perfectly comprehensive. Often, as a GM, we also run into players who have little to no interest in coming up with some depth to their character as well.

One of the best ways I’ve found is to ask questions of your players.

Where did your character grow up?

Does he have any scars?

What did she do for a living before the game started?

What was family life like?

Such questions can unlock a surprising amount of depth, mostly because I think the process that we use to come up with characters is based off a single concept. For example, I recently had the idea that my next DnD character would be a disillusioned war veteran. While this gave me a lot of ideas, most of them were related to his past as a soldier. While some led to tangents that were relevant to his non-soldiering life (How did he come to join the military in the first place?), most were within the same tunnel. Having a second or third party ask questions opens up new avenues of character exploration they didn’t even think to explore. (By the way, I love asking my fellow players questions about their backstories, I think it really helps get into character, cement inter-party relationships, and generally make the world more interesting. Next time you’re a PC, really get into it with the other players.)

Anyway, I wanted to link you a small questionnaire I put together for my most recent game. Steal it if you want, modify it, and use it in your game!



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The Inquisition: Why Modules Rock

This rocks, too! Thanks to flickr user Martin LaBar. CC BY-NC 2.0

This is the second in a two-part series about running published modules. Last week we talked talk about why modules suck. This week, we’ll talk about why they’re great.

Do you have a life?

Do you actually have a life outside your roleplaying game?

Do you have friends? A hudband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend? A pet?

Do you like going to the movies? Do you like watching TV or reading books? Do you enjoy hiking, camping, traveling, sports, or one of a hundred other activities?

Do you have a job?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, I follow it with this: where do you find the time to write your own game?

Yes, I’m being facetious, but to a certain extent, I do have a point. Game-planning is very time consuming. I’ve never planned enough for a game; there are always more details to add, more ways to describe a room, more flesh to add to the bones of the NPC’s. The world continues onward and outward beyond the edges of the scenario: fantasy worlds have nations and histories that reach through thousands of miles and years, NPCs have character backstories that last decades or longer and explain their tortured or blessed existence.

Genesis takes time. Lots of it.

On the other hand, modules take far, far less time. Are they, even the best ones, usually lacking in depth? Yes, of course. There just isn’t enough space in the pages of a module to flesh out an entire world. And, truth be told, you usually don’t need the entire world – that’s what improvisation is for. That’s when you tell your players you’ll get back to them, or break the fourth wall a little bit and tell them they’re barking up the wrong tree for this scenario.

The luxury of running as module is that it saves you two huge investments: time, and creativity.

We just talked about time, so let’s jump to creativity. Creating things from scratch is hard, hard work. You need to make things interesting. You need to make things fun. You need to make sure you’re only being inspired and not just straight-up ripping off your inspirations. (We’ve probably all played in scenarios that were cribbed directly from movies). The best thing about the module is that you don’t need to have a cool idea or even the beginnings of an idea – you just pick it up, read through it, do some preparation so you know it, and then be on your way. You can obviously just use the module as your inspiration as well.

I really like reading modules, not running them. Why? Because they give me ideas. I shamelessly steal some of them, but most of the time I adapt them to my own worlds and the styles of my games. For this purpose, the huge mega-campaigns are usually too much, so I like to choose smaller, maybe 1-8 page modules that just have the seed of an idea. I think map-drawing and scenario design is incredibly time consuming as well, so I definitely use (with modification) encounters designed by others in my games. I love that someone took the time to make sure this combat is a reasonable fight for a fifth-level party so I don’t have to. (Caveat emptor: not everything you read in a module is actually balanced!)

Thus, my advice to you when it comes to modules is this:

Published adventures are a tool. If you use the tool for a task for which it was not intended, it will probably do, at best, a lousy job and at worst will not be able to do it at all. I think most designers build modules that are ready to run out-of-the-box, but I suggest an alternative “right job” for modules: inspiration and adventure skeletons. Read through an adventure, but don’t be married to anything in it. Use the elements you like. Toss out the elements you don’t. Write new elements, skip entire pages and rooms, make it a sprawling campaign or a minute encounter. Don’t try to just pick it up, read it once, and run it; you’ll be disappointed. Modules enhance your game. Don’t make the mistake of having them be your game.

Happy gaming til next week!

The Inquisition: Why Modules Suck

This sucks, too. Thanks to flickr user kirinqueen. CC BY-SA 2.0

This is the first in a two-part (at least) series about running published modules. Next week we’ll talk about why modules are awesome.

Fair warning: this week’s post was consumed by internet hobgoblins, so I’m writing a bit more off the cuff than usual. It’s been a heck of a week for our fearless leader, so cut him some slack and show your appreciation for all the great things he does. We really wouldn’t be here without him.

Anyhow, onto this week’s topic: Modules Suck.

What is a Module? In the olden days of DnD, TSR published pre-scripted and pre-planned adventures which they called modules. The idea was that your DM could pick up the module, read through it in the afternoon, and be ready to run his party through it by the evening. Nowadays they’re called adventures or scenarios, but the concept is the same: it’s a fully mapped-out series of encounters with a plot.

Now, I don’t actually believe modules achieve full, unadulterated, one-hundred percent suckitude, but they are quite often bad. They fill a particular niche, but they usually don’t do it all that well, they lure you in with the promise of a fun game but almost always end up coming up short. I’d like to examine what makes modules suck so badly, when, really, the designers have good intentions and a lot of talent.

Linearity Blows

It’s easy to knock railroading (putting your party on a straight set of train tracks and simply pushing them forward with no option for lateral movement), and indeed, the pulse of the RPG community seems nowadays to be very against this kind of linearity (just look at the growing popularity of non-traditional games like Fiasco which are extremely non-linear). I personally don’t think a little bit of railroading is bad from time to time, as long as it’s more of a car ride (plenty of area to move within the boundaries), but I do generally favor the sandbox mentality of games. What’s the point of playing in a completely made up fantasy world where you can literally do anything if you can’t actually literally do anything because your GM won’t allow it?

That being said, Modules are, by necessity, very linear. Because of the limited space for writing/publishing, every option is not available to the players running through the modules. Since there is an effort to conserve space, the module writer must reduce the number of options available to the player. Maybe an innovative module here or there will have some options embedded, but usually all of those “options” lead to the same conclusions, making the choices feel fairly useless.

We’ve talked before about how taking away player agency is usually a bad thing (railroading can be okay in small doses, though), and obviously modules do that quite a bit.

The World, it’s so.. inorganic

This is very much in the same vein as the above post, but since the overall plot of the module is pretty rigid, the world begins to feel much less organic. NPCs act in scripted ways (if X, then Y; if Z, then A…) and there’s not much recourse for GMs if players veer off the tracks.

One of the most important things for your game and your game world is the suspension of disbelief, which we’ve talked about many times. If your game is cinematic, or gritty, or very fantastical, the players will have a great time if they’re fully immersed into the game. When you stutter a bit because something is not yet written in your campaign, it breaks the narrative flow of the game.

These “stutter moments” unfortunately happen way more frequently when running a module. No matter how much you prep and read, you’re probably not going to be able to remember every detail in the module. (The same is true about your own game, but you’re much more likely to be able to reference it quickly since you created it yourself). Furthermore, sometimes that something just isn’t there – it hasn’t been written at all. While this is still a problem with your home-brewed game, it’s a lot easier to make something up on the fly since it’s your world and you generally have all the details at hand.

However, in a module, I always hesitate to go off script. How will it upset the “careful” homeostasis of the plot? I have definitely have made mistakes by having NPCs reveal what I thought was trivial information that later became a key cog, or behave in a certain way that turned the whole scenario. Every action has consequences, and without a deep understanding of the game, it’s difficult to get the point where you are totally comfortable with the source material.

Which leads me to…

You have to prepare Modules, too

The strongest selling point of the module is that you don’t have to do as much work as you would creating your own game. Maybe not with regard to coming up with the ideas or designing the encounters, but, especially with longer dungeon crawls and multi-session modules, the preparation can be even more intense. Since the games are so linear, you have to be very familiar with the entirety of the scenario.

I was preparing Horror on the Orient Express, a very long, involved module, and I had a very difficult time with it in the beginning. Since the module is well over a hundred pages, and the players meet important NPCs in the first of numerous acts, it’s hard to be confident what information they would definitely reveal, what information they know and don’t know, and at what point they learn a lot of things. I am confident that it’s impossible to get 100% with any given NPC; there is just too much information (though a lot you could puzzle out based on circumstantial information). My players are creative and it would give me fits to try to answer questions that a certain person should know but aren’t accounted for in their write-up (but DO appear later in the game).

You have to understand a lot of the encounters before they start, you have to look up stat blocks, possibly make modifications based on the relative strengths.

I would say that with the average session run out of a module, I have to prepare at least 75% as much, and I think I usually end up preparing far more, since I try to stick to the module’s vision rather than when I run a home-brewed game when I am much more likely to wing it.


I think that modules also tend to usually feature poor writing, poor layout, inconsistent and holey plots, very repetitive and uninteresting encounters (seriously, the last one I ran thought that having 5 encounters in a row featuring 4 Vrocks + some other lesser creatures was the cat’s meow).

Thus, modules suck. They’re inferior to home-designed games in almost every way, and they’re actually pretty bad in terms of their actual purpose (saving you time and coming up with interesting ideas). Play in a well-run custom campaign and play in a well-run module, you’ll see a world of difference.

Next week: Why Modules Are Awesome!


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