Encounter Tips: Characterization Encounters – Part 2
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #364
- Encounter Tips: Characterization Encounters, Part 2
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
This article series is about helping players make in- character decisions, especially in difficult game circumstances. Often called meta-gaming, where players use knowledge their characters wouldn’t have, many GMs wish their players would avoid doing this during sessions.
Here’s a reader request I received:
Could you put some advice in about roleplaying encounters? Specifically, encounters where players can make choices that are equally valid, so they have to think about what their character would do, not which way is best.
Last issue dealt with laying the foundation: interesting characters with depth and enough hooks for players to make in-character decisions. You can’t expect good results from working with cardboard PCs.
Now we get into encounters, where character options, actions, and roleplaying take place during games. You can’t force players to play one way or another, and nothing beats good communication with your group, but there are a few things you can do at the encounter level to help promote roleplaying and character representation.
Lead The Way With NPCs
Be an example and make lots of interesting and transparent in-character decisions with your NPCs during encounters:
- Give NPCs boundaries, goals, and things to lose.
- Have NPCs act and react according to their internal scripts, not according to your meta-game needs.
- Give NPCs vulnerabilities for the PCs to exploit. Let such exploitation have repercussions, though.
- Avoid making every NPC an optimized machine. Remember, you have unlimited NPCs at your disposal. If the PCs screw a few over or push their buttons, game it out. Create more NPCs to fill voids and serve up consequences both good and deserved.
- Transparent decisions: By transparent, I mean it’s revealed to players paying attention that NPCs are making in-character choices according to their make-up, not according to GM agenda or optimized decision making.
Use Automatic Successes To Reward Representation
GMs, put yourself in your players’ chairs for a moment. For a player who likes to win, hates to lose, is shy, or is afraid of failure, making an in-character choice that’s not the best choice is difficult.
Most players have no desire to subvert the game by using out-of-character knowledge. However, they don’t want to let their friends down, the spotlight might feel hot, or they might not be rules experts and are worried about goofing up. They could also be competitive, and the enjoyment of overcoming an obstacle through any means is greater than sticking to PC knowledge and personality boundaries.
You have the power to take the pressure off. You can make the game and players feel relaxed, you can make errors fun instead of embarrassing or painful, and you can set the tone for exploration, trying things out, and playing _with_ the characters, not in spite of them.
Do this with liberal use of automatic successes. When PCs are represented well, and actions would seem within their abilities, reward such good play with automatic success, along with good description.
If a tricky in-character choice is difficult, reward with good description regardless of success or fail, and consider adding a bonus. The bonus could be a chance modifier, a clue, or a suggestion.
For example, a narrow pit blocks the party’s path and a player is debating whether his character should jump it, or drag the pitons and rope out. The player feels his character wouldn’t bother with the ultra-cautious approach – Borag is brave, confident…and a jumper. So, he jumps.
Your options might be:
- Request a dice roll and ability check, following whatever rules your game supplies for such an action.
- Tell your player mid-jump that skill checks in your world are actually 10 points more difficult, then ask for the skill check (happened to me – true story).
- Describe how Borag, with his great strength, clatters across the narrow gap, his bulky equipment making the leap a close call, but he lands safely, though with a bit of noise. The dark passage beyond beckons….
If you go with option c, it will take two seconds to whip through that description. You provided a couple of clues – reduce the load next time and he might want to be stealthier too – giving the player something to think about and choose next time.
The game proceeds without getting the dice out, a character skill check, and a possible rules look-up for jumping. Two seconds and you’re done. Story drama increases too, because the player is faced with a new set of options without delay.
Most importantly, the player feels rewarded by representing his jumpy character instead of taking the optimized route.
This example was for a simple pit. You can’t make every action an auto-success, but for the little stuff (which is often still important stuff), go for it. For the big stuff, consider providing roleplaying and representation bonuses of some kind (rules bonus, clue, suggestion).
Design With Character Details In Mind
Tie character details into your encounters as often as possible. This rewards players who’ve created the details, gives you another source of design inspiration, and creates lots of character representation opportunities.
If players make character representation decisions more often, they’ll be more likely to do so in difficult situations as well. It might be habit-forming, but most likely it becomes familiar and comfortable, with lots of precedents set, reduced peer pressure, and hopefully, more enjoyment from playing an RPG.
- Relative. Make an NPC in the encounter a distant relative, or the relation of a friend or another NPC keyed to the character.
- Related interest. Give an NPC in the encounter, friend or foe, a shared hobby or skill. This creates common ground to banter with or to humanize the NPC, making brutal, player- driven actions more difficult.
- Backdrop details. Put something in the encounter’s setting that relates to the PC, such as a painting the PC recognizes, an instrument the PC knows how to play, a book that relates to a past experience. These minor details are not important to the encounter, and aren’t meant as encounter reward, but they link the PC to the world and make it easier to think in-character.
- NPC details. As with backdrop details, add something that links to the PC’s interests, experiences, or knowledge, even if in a minor way.
In a pure combat encounter, for example, give the NPC the same exotic weapon as one PC, the same race as another, and the ability to speak a rare language that a third PC knows. This might be too many links, heh, but don’t be surprised if combat is interrupted and a discussion breaks out, lol.
Add Character Stakes To Conflicts
Most encounters should have conflict, whether it’s combat, a duel of wits, a puzzle, or an attempt to earn a new ally. Armed with knowledge of what characters have to lose, such as relationships, special items, or privileges, weave these risks into your encounter conflicts.
- New encounters: The simplest approach is to craft an encounter specifically to jeopardize something a PC values. First, you pick what’s at risk, then you brainstorm encounter ideas, then you pick one idea and flesh out the encounter. For example, you might start with a wish to call a PC’s loyalty into question. You start writing down ideas as they come to you. Then you pick the best one and shape it into a planned encounter.
- Tweak encounters: Another approach is to combine an existing encounter plan with a specific character risk. For example, you might switch a new NPC from the encounter with a recurring NPC who is becoming a potential rival or enemy.
- Impromptu encounters: A third method is to keep character stakes in mind, perhaps in a list you maintain, and look for opportunities to add impromptu, character-oriented conflicts during encounters while you GM. For example, you know a character loves animals. During a battle with foes, you have the bad guys set a building on fire. Remembering the PC’s animal interest, you describe a desperate animal howling coming from the burning building. The PC is now in a dilemma – good work!
- Use Description To Help Players
Descriptions are the perfect place to help players understand situations, people, places, things, and their own PCs better. You can provide hints, advice, feedback, and suggestions in descriptions. Describing things from PC perspectives also helps keep everyone in-character.
Sometimes, players don’t realize the dilemma their character is in. It’s like a friend describing a book or movie in a way you hadn’t thought of. When this happens during games, description is a good tool to let players know their characters have options and possible considerations concerning those options.
Avoid thinking description is for the boxed text stage only. You can employ description at any time. My favorites:
1) During skill checks: Rather than simple success/fail, provide details about why the result occurred; add in characterization as you see fit.
“The lock refuses to catch and the portal remains closed. However, you notice the initials M.F. carved into the mechanism – something a casual observer would never notice. And, come to think of it, you realize you saw those initials on a previous lock. You remember that lock? The one that blew up and you almost lost your hand trying to pick? Hehe, good times.”
Hopefully this creates a sense of rivalry, even if locksmith M.F. has long since passed away.
2) During NPC actions: Have NPCs talk or communicate with the PCs at every opportunity. This creates good roleplaying moments, and gives you a lot of latitude for providing GM information in the guise of conversation.
“So, you think you can just flash a bit of steel and I’ll grovel for my life, eh? Don’t you know there’s laws around here? Haven’t you heard – guards can read minds. You might kill me now, but they’ll pry your head open and find the truth. Oh yes, they’ll catch you and we can meet in the afterlife for a rematch, eh?”
3) Mid-Combat: Even though the combat dice are rolling fast and furious, description does not have to stop. Look for opportunities to inject description and characterization. Point out the big picture. Describe things from the viewpoint of an objective observer, or from a victim’s point of view. Get the players questioning their characters’ actions and the contexts of the battle.
Keep an eye out for a third part to this series, where Mike Bourke provides us with tips on Personality Driven Encounters.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Results From Game Poll
Recently I asked you to let me know what game system you’re currently GMing.
The results are in:
9.0% Homebrew rule set
6.1% D20 Variant
4.0% World of Darkness
This is great information. Thanks to everyone who voted. It lets me know that most people who subscribe (or, at least, who answered the poll, heh) are GMing a variety of systems and I should continue to try to keep the e-zine systemless and rules-free.
Correction: Spending A Year Dead For Tax Purposes
Last issue I got the attribution wrong for a quote. Spending a year dead for tax purposes comes from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Thanks to the folks who e-mailed and let me know.
Feeds & Bookmarking Links
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Try to fit a game in this week.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Hallmark Cards For Sound Effects
From Ian Toltz
I think we all know the benefits of using sound effects and background music at the table, but not all of us can or want to lug a laptop or mp3 player with speakers to the game and fiddle with it during tense moments when you’re trying to set a mood.
Enter: Hallmark! That’s right, the greeting card company comes to the rescue with their audio cards. I was picking out one for a friend’s birthday and found two different Star Wars-themed ones – a Vader card playing the Imperial March and a Yoda one playing a different, more heroic song. It’s nice because they’re simple to sort, simple to activate (just open them up) and don’t require any additional equipment. At $4.99 a piece it might get expensive if you wanted to assemble a library, but easily affordable for just a few quality clips.
Give Players Refunds
From Esteban Brenes via GMMastery
While we might not know all the rules, GMs are capable of making decisions and rulings on the spot. If there is any doubt about the rules, you make a ruling and inform the players of that as they consider their moves. That way, they can make an informed decision based on what are now the rules (going on the assumption the GM has the final say).
If a player has a different interpretation of the rules, I let them change their action. It’s hard to feel cheated when you’re offered a refund, and I don’t want them to think I’ve made a certain ruling to get the best of them. 🙂
I believe if the NPCs are going to beat the players, they’ll do it regardless of these infrequent “undos”, so there’s no loss in letting the player get a refund. If entire scenes or campaign plots hinge on a single rule interpretation, then you actually have another problem, which is an unbalancing power/ability in play. You should be working on having it removed through an in-game mechanism, or establish a rule both you and the player feel comfortable with for future encounters.
I’ve also found if you provide players with the ability to make informed decisions they are less likely to feel cheated. I also try to clarify that certain effects are not likely if it’s easy to be confused and think otherwise.
I try to drop hints embedded in descriptions to help guide players in their gameplay. After awhile, they start paying closer attention to your descriptions, as that way they can get an edge.
Another thing we’ve done in games that don’t have as many rules (i.e., Nobilis or Everway) is have players write up various ways in which they plan on using their powers or abilities. These sheets are then considered like the characters’ constitution/bill of rights, and anything not previously agreed or included there is negotiable with the GM having the final word.
You can keep them fairly generic while still providing helpful guidelines for making decisions. Players can then focus on the things that are important to them. It also helps the GM spot troublesome powers/abilities/talents, and limit them to the scope of the campaign before a player becomes too attached to them.
Quick Map Creation Tip
From J.H. Swain
One thing I like to do is take real world maps, upload them to a graphics program of choice, and trace them. It works fairly well, and it’s not as if anyone’s going to notice that, if you flipped the map of the city of St. Omhurst just this way, it looks exactly like Bremerton, WA and the surrounding area.
I’ve just started doing this, so I’m not an expert, but it seems to be a pretty solid tactic.
Manage Campaigns With Google
From Telas via GMMastery
In addition to the mailing lists, shared calendar, etc., Google lets you create and post .DOC or .XLS (or many other kinds) files to your group, and control which users can read/write/delete them. The spreadsheets are great for XP, treasure, one-page stat blocks, NPC names/descriptions/etc.
You can edit and view them directly in the app, or as a downloadable file. Google Docs.
For online games, since every group member has a Gmail account, you can chat Gmail-to-Gmail (they embed their chat in their e-mail window).
Dressing Up Combat
From Palmer of the Turks
Combat can get dull at times. *roll roll* You hit for 8 damage. Your turn Bob. *roll roll* You miss. This gets boring, quickly.
A little investment in time before the game can keep your players interested…and make you seem like an improvisational genius.
Create a couple charts with short but descriptive phrases describing various hits or misses. Then, read one off the list every so often to get people’s attention. You can use them in general, for killing an enemy, for really good or poor rolls, or even for near-misses.
- The creature lets out a piercing shriek before dying
- The monster is crushed by your blow, and the body silently crumples to the ground
- Your powerful blow sends the enemy reeling back
- Catching it off guard, you slip in a quick strike
- Your blow misses the foe and collides with the stone wall, setting off a ringing echo
- You stumble over something unseen, spoiling your blow