The Game Mechanic: Mixed Company.

Image courtesy of BarefootLiam-Stock.

I play with a fairly mixed bag of psychotic cats individuals: a few old hands clashing with the newer generation of gamers, while those with a foot in either camp watch with bemusement from the sidelines. While there are no real edition wars to speak of at our table, the difference between those who have been running in a system for a few versions and those who have just arrived to the campaign can become fairly weighty over time.

After the jump, we are going to examine how we can help bridge that gap during game, as well as helping to run a better game for people who might have conflicting concepts of what they want from the table.

Continue reading “The Game Mechanic: Mixed Company.”

The Inquisition: Trouble Characters

Some characters can be trouble, just like this guy.
Thanks to flickr user martin_heigan. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is the first of a two-part article about trouble at your gaming table. I’ve divided my thoughts into two sections: dealing with trouble characters, and dealing with trouble players. I’ll start with trouble characters, since they seem to be so much easier to deal with.

The idea here is that all the players involved (including the GM) are interested in having a good time and can work out their differences amicably. It’s hard to isolate when a character is creating a problem and when a player is creating a problem; usually, the character stems directly from the player, and thus its easy to associate lots of these kinds of issues to stubborn, annoying, or otherwise jerky players.

However, even the best players can inadvertently go wrong and make a character that ends up being too much trouble for a smooth game. I think there are definitely a few archetypes that are troubling, so I’ll talk about how to effectively deal with them. With good, conscientious players, it’s easy to just pull them aside and talk it over and fix any problems that might exist. But we know that not every situation is black and white, not every good player is open to criticism, not every GM is the best communicator in the world, and so on. So let’s dive right in.

What makes a problem character?

This is a difficult question to answer. I want to say something like “doesn’t fit in with the rest of the group” but that’s not really fair to all of the characters out there who are clearly alien and make it work. It’s not about culture, it’s about mindset.

Continue reading “The Inquisition: Trouble Characters”

GM Essentials: How to keep a handle on clues, communication and collateral damage.

Image Courtesy of Corbis Images
This plan is flawless, I tell you! Flawless! (Courtesy of Corbis Images)

Regulating the flow of information can be one of the most difficult parts of running a game. Give the party too much information, and you’ll spoil the ending for the clever players or risk entire portions of your plot being bypassed altogether. Conversely, if you are too vague, stingy or incomprehensible with your clues, you’ll wind up with a group of bored, frustrated players who are probably going to find the next available suspect and cram them into a industrial mixer full of borscht until they start coughing up some information.

Contrary to the title, this article is really for the benefit of your players. Treating them with fairness and delivering information with clarity are two very important steps to running a successful game, and after the jump we’ll look at a couple of common pitfalls in this neck of the woods and get a better idea of how to avoid them.



Continue reading “GM Essentials: How to keep a handle on clues, communication and collateral damage.”

The “Big Open Questions” Method for Tightening Up Plot

'32-p1' by zephyrance on Flickr
'32-p1' by zephyrance on Flickr

Why do RPGs have no tools for following the larger plot?

We have tons of mechanics for opening doors and climbing walls. Why do we have nothing to pull the players’ attention back towards the larger story? Why are there no rewards for furthering the plot?

No wonder DMs complain about players destroying plots; there’s nothing to keep them tied to the plot. No wonder most characters are basically kender, easily distracted by the latest NPC or plot hook; there’s nothing to remind them of the larger story.

So, I’d like to propose a fix for this:

At the beginning of your next session, pull out a piece of paper. Write Big Open Questions on the top. Ask the players: What are the big open questions remaining in the story? What are the mysteries? Write them down.

Encourage players to add new questions to the sheet during the session. Once the session ends, review it.

At the beginning of the next session–and every session thereafter–pull out the page, put it in front of the players, and ask them “Okay, what’s one question that you’d like to answer this session?”

See if it helps.

Hooks, Lines and Secrets

Over the past few months, I’ve been getting a lot more involved with my fantasy campaign setting project, working title Kingsmead. Getting into the setting meant thinking about the tools that a GM uses to set his scenes and engage his players, especially with my need to run a few playtests of various bits and pieces. With that in mind, I’d like to talk about my own take on the Rule of Three.

The Rule of Three is the well known idea in writing that if things come in threes then the reader more readily consumes it, and this is for some reason more satisfying. I then fiddle it to apply to the writer as well. I’ve found that using the Rule of Three really helps to effectively flesh out the my ideas quickly and effectively, and gives me an easy framework to write around.

Most elements that I add to the story, setting, adventure and so on carries with it three parts of information in three categories. These categories are plot hooks, secrets, or lines of description.

Lines of description can be told to players, describe physical features or characters or buildings, they can be three adjectives to describe the characters personality or specific feel of a scene as a shorthand for the GM, or they can be important facts that everyone would know, such as the teachings of a particularly popular deity.

Ulf Hunter is an older man with cropped grey hair and the build of a bear. Everyone in town refers to him as ‘Pa Hunter’ or ‘Old Man Hunter’. Boisterous, loud, sometimes grumpy.

Hooks are the plot hooks that quests can arise from. The setting itself has plot hooks, the various locations have them, even specific buildings. Most named characters have either three plot hooks or an elaborate hook that covers three smaller points. Any of these can be dropped into the players laps as rumours or passing conversations, to be recalled to later if needed.

Ulf used to be an adventurer decades ago, along with his wife and brother. Sometimes found late at night or early in the morning passed out drunk on the temple steps. He blames himself for his sons accident a few years ago.

Secrets are much the same as plot hooks, but requires some digging or chance encounter by the players to uncover. This requires the players input on many levels, as I try and make the secrets slightly less detailed (group storytelling being what I love). If the player happens to be in a certain place at a certain time, they learn the edge of the secret, and it then becomes more of a plot hook. Having the players have a secret of their own also adds to this, when coupled with a character background that I can lift a couple of ideas from that become plot hooks if and when the player notices.

Ulf used to be a very religious, pledging to a martial religious order. He is celebrated in the bard song ‘Ulfrik and Therese’, along with his wife. Told his son he threw his old sword down the well immediately before the accident.

The combination of the different levels of secrecy is what I think makes the technique effective, and I’m really looking forward to running a full game and finding out reasons my players think he gave up his religious calling and adventuring life.

The Benefits (and Pitfalls) of Rotating Players

Ever since I became the regular GM in my little slice of the gaming community there is something I’ve been trying to implement. Player and GM rotation.

What I mean by that is having regular game in a persistent setting that does not always feature the same characters, or even the same players. I envisioned a weekly game where different people would show up depending on schedule. As you might expect, this has always been met with much resistance. I’ve always thought this a bit curious, there just seems to be many benefits. Players can alter their schedules without disturbing the game for everyone else, nobody is stuck playing the same character over and over, and new people can drop in to test the waters.

I’d also tried implementing  a rotating GM on more than one occasion. The idea for this was that players would take turns as the GM which helped spread the prep around a bit. Again, there are similar drawbacks, such as the overall plot becomes more of a chain story and some people might just be better than others at GMing. I think the benefits are pretty strong as well. The regular GM gets to stretch his player muscles, everybody becomes more involved, and players get a chance to see how the GM seat fits.

As I mentioned, I’ve never actually been able to get this to work. I wouldn’t have enough players, others weren’t interested, or I just couldn’t get the commitments. No harm done. Some things just don’t work out. Nothing to be done for it but to move on and try something else. Imagine my surprise when, out of the blue, my players started doing it on their own.

Once I started messing around with the Doctor Who RPG this style of play organically emerged. Some of you might remember from my first post here at Troll in the Corner that I happen to run a local gaming organization. Thanks to this, I have around 100 gamers at my disposal and, when they aren’t busy training for my military coupe, they like to play a game or two. With my games I usually put out a call for whatever I’m interested in running and those interested sign up. It works well, and usually 3-6 players will sign up and we will run through a campaign together. With Doctor Who I got people interested in playing right away. What I didn’t expect was that the next week sign ups would double. It was more than I could seat, but no-one else was running a game. So I let the players switch up each week, and this worked well for the game.

I have finally managed to create a game with rotating players, and I had done it by accident. It is working great as well. Each week,  I am getting a different set of players and characters to adventure around with.and the lack of commitment is encouraging the busier members to come out for a game. It didn’t stop just there though. I’ve started getting requests from players who want to try running an adventure. Not a whole lot, but enough for me not have to plan the game each week. This works really well in the Doctor Who setting, but I imagine it would work well with games like Ars Magica just as well.

In summation:


  • Meet new people and new play styles.
  • Flexible scheduling.
  • You get to try out various characters and playing styles.
  • GM gets a break every now and then.
  • Curious players get to try their hand at GMing.
  • Newbies can get their feet wet without commitment.


  • Story can be disjointed.
  • Characters popping in and out needs explanation.
  • Mixed level of quality.
  • Meeting new people (You won’t like them all).
  • Requires a certain amount of organization.

So far, this has been everything I ever imagined it could be. Less prep, more people, and just generally a good time. I’d encourage others to give it a shot, but I realize not everyone has the same pool of gamers that I do. Even still, there isn’t any reason not to try out a few of these ideas, if just on a smaller scale. Try having a guest GM once every few games or open up a drop-in slot in your group. It creates a slightly different style of play, that, at least for me, refreshes my creativity and brings interesting characters to the table.

[tags]RPG, Role Playing, GMing, GM Advice, Tabletop[/tags]

Blog at

Up ↑