Keep The Peace – Part 2
From Joel Fox
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #402
10 Tips To Bring The Party Back Together and Keep It That Way
Last week, in part 1, we discussed the different expectations and backgrounds of the players sitting down at the gaming table. Conflicts arising from these issues are easiest solved at the beginning of a campaign, though it is possible to patch them up midway through.
This week’s tips focus more on player conflicts that arise as the campaign progresses, and the ways to solve them.
Player Politics and Campaign Goals
Players not only differ on their definition of adventurer, but they’ll also conflict over character quests: what are they fighting for?
Often, these ideas coincide closely with the players’ own politics, or are an extension of their moral and ethical compasses. Since players vary, especially on this point, the party goal becomes a simplified mix of individual goals.
These basic ‘do-gooder’ goals include freeing slaves, overthrowing tyrants, finding treasure, and so forth. While this mentality is often sufficient as a common goal for a diverse group, after awhile many groups become bored with the same sorts of plots occurring over and over.
Since many groups do not recognize there is even a possibility outside the do-gooder paradigm, they simply become bored with the game or take out their frustration on each other or the NPCs in the world.
The opposite of this do-gooder mentality – the evil campaign – can be a cure for a time, but then falls prey to the same problem. Even before boredom sets in, the differing goals of the party create strife.
One solution is to allow fragmented goals of the characters and players, and to pursue their ends at different times in the campaign.
During times when one player’s goals are emphasized, you can use foreshadowing or plot threading to introduce the goals of another player. Also, careful planning can include minor elements of secondary goals within the primary goal.
For example, say you have four players: Aaron, who campaigns with the ACLU; Bert, who is a restoration artist; Cindy, a chemical engineer; and Dave, a defense attorney. For the first adventure, Cindy’s goals are emphasized: the party hears that dark dwarves have struck a vein of the philosopher’s stone. But:
- The dark dwarves have enslaved goblins to do the excavation (Aaron)
- With the stone they’ve found a cache of weapons from centuries past (Bert)
- The dwarves have used the stone to melt the walls of the treasury, and a group of local adventurers has been blamed for the theft (Dave)
Not only does this arrangement satisfy each player’s goals to some degree, it also introduces the cache of ancient weapons, which might be stolen from the party by hooded cultists as a segue to the next adventure (where Bert is emphasized).
Another option to solve the problem of the do-gooder mentality is to set aside a common, but non averaged, goal all the players strive towards.
For example, all of the characters happen to be looking for the shards of a powerful astral diamond, which, if assembled, will grant incredible power to its wielder.
Aaron wants the diamond to free all slaves in the world; Bert wants it for its pure value; Cindy wants it to cure diseases; and Dave wants to become king of the entire land. Even though they each want the shards for a different reason, they work together because as a team they are safer and more powerful.
Of course, once all the pieces are assembled, there might be trouble, but then again, maybe the jewel has no real power at all, and its abilities were just rumors created by a villain who can actually use it. Even though the drive for the jewel is gone, all of the players are probably steamed at this villain, so they work together to stop him.
The idea of this mutual but non-averaged goal is that all players have something in common, regardless of how much they disagree with one another.
Even without the common goal, this idea can be applied through manipulation of the campaign setting: all of the characters are from a certain region that is ostracized, or they are all on the run from a certain organization, and so forth.
This glue will keep party members pointed in the same direction, and cut down on the amount they quibble.
A more specific application of the problems faced by an averaged goal for the party is the repetitive nature of encounters that often follow such goals.
The characters encounter an agent of the evil wizard again and again, they run across a caravan being attacked by orc marauders, and so forth.
A different sort of problem that pops up when you have newer players partying alongside veteran players is the tricky balance between going over the head of the newbies and getting past the same-old for the vets.
Though it might not seem it at first, both problems are solvable through encounter mimesis: plan encounters with enough known material so players don’t feel lost, but enough new material so they don’t feel bored.
Example: the first group, which keeps running into the same sorts of encounters. You had planned for the party to have another run-in with Fodrak the Shade, undead minion of the master necromancer. That’s old material at work.
For new material, what’s needed is something the players have not encountered before with enough spin or novelty so as to make it new.
This new spin can be easy or difficult depending on how well you know you players, especially their gaming and media backgrounds. If you know that none of your players know a certain game/movie/book, feel free to borrow from it.
If no media seems appropriate to borrow from, try to make something up or add something randomly.
When Fodrak arrives, instead of having slightly better stats and a new, more powerful weapon, he has broken free of the bonds of the master necromancer and signed on with a demonic cult, whose purpose is not to defeat the party members but to capture and sacrifice them later on.
For the second group, where new and old players clash, the process can be a bit trickier. You have to deal with different banks of experience and somehow make something that neither boggles the novice nor bores the vet.
Encounter mimesis in this situation is best applied in an effort more focused on the novice. Take something the novice knows about for the old, and use something the vet would be surprised by for the new.
When it comes to true novices, there is a certain set of fictional works that can be used as a go-to for each genre. Here is a list you can use if your game is of the typical pseudo-medieval fare.
- Lord of the Rings – If they haven’t read the books, chances are they’ve still seen the movies. Lord of the Rings is arguably the baseline for all fantasy works, so using it is a safe bet.
- Cryptozoology staples – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and so forth. Everyone has heard of these.
- Harry Potter – These books and movies can be a double- edged sword. While they cover an impressive range of fantasy topics, the tone of the series varies considerably from one book to the next, which might flavor the novice’s knowledge.
In addition, a vet’s view of a fantasy topic will sometimes differ from a Harry Potter-savvy novice’s view, because Rowling has taken base information and often put a skew on it.
Notions Concerning Equipment
Equipment is an issue that often fades into the background. In reality, though, it has a strong effect on the setting and player enjoyment. There are a lot of issues that rise concerning equipment:
- When mixing old players and new, or just playing with new players, often there will be some confusion as to the specific nature and function that equipment serves in the campaign.
This rises from the bank of diverse works the players have encountered. In Harry Potter, wands are needed for magic; in Lord of the Rings, magic items are rare and more often than not utilitarian; in Highlander, swords are the lifeblood of the immortals. Make sure all your players are on the same page as to what equipment is for.
- The standard treasure tables can get boring. It’s sad but true. When your characters find another +2 longsword, it’s not elation, but rather total apathy that they’ll feel, especially at higher levels.
Even more unique items often find their way to the ‘sell- when-in-town’ pile, just because their utility is limited and their purpose is too specialized for regular use.
It can be difficult to come up with new and original items, but some strategies can be applied: items that are charged irregularly (light of the waxing moon), items that are powerful but with serious side effects (can fly at will but Int drops to 4 while flying due to bird’s intellect taking over), and items with non standard effects (sword makes enemies take less damage from physical attacks other than the sword itself).
If you’re worried about the market value of these items, make them unsaleable: they’re illegal in the province, reported to be cursed by dark wizards, etc.
- Treasure distribution can be a big point of strife between players, especially when one character gets a great item and everyone else gets diddly.
The problem with the standard method of treasure distribution is there is no built-in mechanic to balance it. Often, the characters slay a horde of monsters, pile up their treasure, and just grab what they want.
Alternate methods of distribution help prevent players from feeling slighted: a store scenario with limited credit (40,000 gp to split between the party, limited cache of magic items), treasures that only certain characters can physically get to, distribution based on certain skills (sea of junk, only those with arcane sight can spot the magic items), and so forth.
Sometimes players fight over the rules. In many pen-and- paper games, the rules are left vague to allow interpretations that suit the playing group.
The problem with this is that often everyone will have a different reading of the rules, so they argue as to which is more right. When the players argue with the GM as to what the rules entail, the problem compounds.
If the GM is stubborn, the players feel like they have no control over the game; if the GM concedes the point, the players often go nuts with power gaming or accuse the GM of playing favorites.
One solution is to put optional or house rules that everyone can agree on into effect. Many supplemental works contain optional rules, and a lot of websites post their group’s house rules. Not only can optional rules keep fights from breaking out, but they can also add new life to a group of tired gamers.
Optional rules can also be used to simplify convoluted processes and make the mechanics less the center of the game so that role-playing can take a larger role.
If novices are spending the entire time reading the rulebooks instead of playing their character, chances are they’re not having fun. By the same token, their fellow players are deprived of that character’s character, so to speak.
Not all optional rules presented in supplementary works are useful toward this end, but several house rules can be. The trouble is veteran players might be stuck in their ways and become upset. If this happens, remind them that newer players should be given leeway so they want to keep playing.
This is kind of a catch-all rule. Empiricism is acting only on perceived data, not speculated data.
Empirical adjustment is just keeping your eyes and ears open for dissent amongst the ranks. If you think there is a problem springing up, don’t just act on it immediately. Try to confirm whether or not there actually is a problem before you solve it; otherwise, you risk creating even more problems.
Sometimes, just asking your players if there is something wrong is enough to get them to express their concerns about the campaign, their fellow players, and your GMing style. At the least, everyone gets their opinions out in the open, and feels like they’re getting the chance to be heard.
Sometimes players just don’t mesh. Or, the GM’s style just doesn’t click with his players. If this is the case, more serious remedies are needed. Don’t just let the group fizzle; take active steps towards communication:
- Offer to let someone else GM
- Split an at-odds group into two separate gaming groups
- Get an outside opinion of your group/setting
- Play a different game for a while, such as console games or those which let players work off aggression towards each other
- Take a hiatus from the game for a while
- Switch to a different pen-and-paper game altogether
I can’t say all these ten tips will help you and your group out, but at the least, you now know that sometimes players forget to role-play and let in too much of themselves into their characters.
Some players are good at keeping themselves and their characters separate, but haven’t seen many TV shows or movies; some never argue about the rules, but care intensely about the party’s politics.
Each player in your group is operating on a different set of internal rules, but each player is also trying to enjoy themselves at the game. When it comes down to it, make sure your efforts to bring the party back together aren’t harshing their good time.
A Brief Word From Hannah
IMPORTANT NOTICE – 2nd NOTICE
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Last week’s issue went into the reasons for the switch, and you can also get the scoop here:
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Help Others to Help Yourself
It might seem a counterintuitive way to reduce prep time, but offer to make things for fellow GMs who are running adventures you aren’t involved in. Statting out critters and villains for a campaign other than your own will get your creative juices flowing.
Once you’ve made all that great stuff, it’s more than likely you’ll find a way to work it into your own campaign down the line, and presto – prep that doesn’t have to happen. This is a little trickier if your GM buddy is running a different system, but don’t let that stop you. Who knows when you’ll need stats for that system, or better yet, a favor from your friend?
Greek is a Funny Language
My fellow GMs tend to get frustrated when I’m a player, since my studies in classics mean they can’t use Latin words as names for anything without me immediately knowing what they’re alluding to.
With appearances everywhere from Buffy to Harry Potter, Latin is well recognized as a language of magic and evil, but also well recognized in general.
Why not go a little older, and try Greek? The syntax is tricky, but if you stick with single-word names, you should be fine. Some Greek words have obvious English cognates, but a lot of them don’t. Grab the Oxford Classical Greek dictionary and you’ll have hundreds of magical-sounding names that are indecipherable to all but the most scholarly of your players.
If you don’t want to learn the Greek alphabet – and I can’t blame you – you’ll have to find a dictionary that offers transliteration. But if you do learn the lettering, you’ve got a ready-made library of arcane runes that appear both familiar and foreign.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Use Post-It Notes To Store Tokens
From David Walters
I thought I would just drop a line to let you know what I do with tokens.
I take some Post-It Notes and cut the non-sticky part off. I then cut the remaining sticky strips into smaller pieces (about 1 inch by 1/2 inch).
I use these sticky pieces to stick the token onto the appropriate page of the monster book. For those tokens with no corresponding section in published books, I find other pages for them: reproductions of the information from Dragon Magazine, printed web pages, typed descriptions, etc.
This makes it very easy to find the tokens, and handles larger tokens nicely as well. Also, the sticky strips are reusable and don’t leave a mess.
Oh, and the left over note paper? Great for keeping notes, passing messages to PCs, or for use at the office for taking the odd note or phone number.
Using A4 Plastic Sleeves
From Tommy H.H.
Hello again Johnn,
This time I write with advice on how I use plastic sleeves.
One of the worst things you can encounter as a DM is piles of paper. I used to stack piles of notes inside bunches of note-holders, but after extensive use, the paper holes were torn and papers couldn’t be held anymore unless repaired by tape or rewritten.
My next method was gigantic notebooks. I would structure a notebook into a lot of schematics and writings, and the result was good until I figured out that sooner or later the notes would be useless because I would find better ways to write notes.
In the end I came up with one solution: sleeves.
My oldest games were built around landscapes and dungeons that would change constantly because the world was dice-controlled.
So, I used A4 sleeves to hold 2 pages of map, one on each side. The dungeons in the map areas would be folded twice and placed inside another type of A4 sleeve, the one that is normally used to hold 4 pictures on each side.
This means eight dungeons possible per map area. The dungeons would be in one note holder, the maps in another. “Dungeons” covers everything detailed from a map, so it could be a city or something else.
Each sleeve was numbered, so the map and dungeon sleeves would relate to each other, and would be easy to look up.
A head page would hold a miniature map of the whole world with numbers referring to the maps in the right areas.
My next problem was that now I would have a huge world filled with details and dungeons, and sometimes it would take me some time to find a specific dungeon in the maps if players had discovered its existence.
The solution was to use the picture A4 sleeve. In each pocket a note could be placed with a headline such as “dungeons of doom” or “Reinhart’s evil bloodaxe.”
It was easy to use the picture sleeve to store these notes alphabetically, and soon I had an encyclopedia that covered virtually everything in my universe, from unique items and characters to concepts or historical notes.
Having an encyclopedia custom-made for the players is also a great tool. It will show the players what adventures you have prepared and they can be selective about it too, which makes everybody happy.
I also use the picture sleeves as alphabetically organized spellbooks. Some quadrants of a sleeve can be left empty for pictures from fantasy worlds to heighten the mood of adventure when GM or a player looks through The Great Tome in search of the right spell.
I also use the picture sleeves to hold folded NPC characters, and on the backside of the character sheet (folded to face the reader) I have displayed the character’s name and a drawing of that NPC.
These NPCs also have a table number, so if the players travel through a dungeon or landscape and encounter an NPC, I can roll the dice and show the drawing.
Causes Behind Troublesome Players
From Neil Faulkner
Since problematic players seem to be a perennial topic, it might be worth considering why – as opposed to how – some players behave in a troublesome manner, and how that might be countered. And I might as well be honest and admit that my own behavior as a player hasn’t always made the grade.
Why? Well, ignoring stuff external to the game (home/work problems that I couldn’t shake off at the gaming table), I can think of several.
1) Difficulties in relating to the game system. When I play in a game, I like to have a basic grasp of the rules. I like to know what dice to roll, when, and why. I like to figure out for myself what the result means. Yet sometimes our group would be plunged headlong into playing some system that the GM had only bought the week before.
That tended to leave me feeling adrift, and it dampened my ability to participate. I found this far less of a problem if I had the chance to borrow the rule book for a few days, design a character for myself, and read up on how the system actually worked, but this was a luxury I couldn’t depend on.
2) Difficulties in relating to the game genre. I dropped out of play for several months when everyone else got into super heroes. I gave it a go for half a session and decided I simply could not get a grasp on this costumed crime-fighter thing.
My only exposure to the genre was the old Batman series with Adam West – which didn’t exactly take itself seriously, a couple of unexciting Superman films, and the Zenith strip in 2000AD (which I had actually rather enjoyed). Super heroes didn’t cut the ice with me, so I did the decent thing and bowed out.
3) Misplaced expectations. One time we got into playing cyberpunk games. That got me feeling rather excited, because I’d read the first two books of Gibson’s Neuromancer trilogy and reckoned them excellent, all that angst and alienation, technology as an autonomous force directing its own evolution etc. Terrific stuff.
But the rest of the players, and the GM, were more interested in the cool hardware catalogues and seeing how many lethal implants they could stow away in their bodies. I mumbled something about my character not wanting any implants. Confused silence from everyone else.
I gave it a go for a session before taking a bow once more. Wonderful setting, maybe, but what I wanted from the game was not what everyone else wanted from the game.
4) Half-grasped settings. Okay, so I understand the rules, I’m happy with the genre, and I’m in tune with everyone else’s general objectives. But that doesn’t mean I’m automatically geared up for full-blown role-playing.
I need a grip on the setting first, especially in a genre like fantasy or space opera where every world (or universe) is different. Middle Earth and Melnibone are not the same place, right?
One of the most successful campaigns we ever had was a Star Wars one, simply because we’d all seen the films, we all knew how the universe looked and sounded, the system was a snap to learn. So, all we had to do was roll up characters and go slam bang into the action.
But we couldn’t do that with any of our home-grown fantasy worlds. We had to know stuff. We weren’t always sure what it was we wanted to know. And even if we were, there was no guarantee the GM could tell us anything, because often as not his prime areas of interest were miles away from our prime areas of interest.
I’ve seen this from both sides of the GM screen. I’ve run ‘silly’ characters in other people’s worlds, and I’ve had players do the same in mine. And I think the underlying cause was the same – an attempt, however juvenile, to take control of one’s character in the face of a daunting torrent of the unknown, if not the unknowable.
It doesn’t help, of course, that whilst the player might be very much in the dark, his/her character supposedly isn’t, having lived in this world all of his/her life. There is thus a disconnect between player and character that hardly fosters good role-playing.
5) Challenged credibility. Some GMs are better than others at designing, and especially presenting, their worlds. If I can’t suspend my disbelief, I’m liable to start getting subversive.
I shouldn’t, I know, but my sense of irritation needs an outlet sometimes, and a silly world often leads to silly roleplaying. One GM in particular was a prime offender.
Not all of his locales were as bad as the Valley of the Flamenco-Dancing Dinosaurs, but more often than not he failed to meet the <ahem> standards of plausibility I was expecting. No egotism there on my part, of course. 🙂
I think those five cover the main reasons why I’ve been known to play irresponsibly over the last twenty odd years, and they all come down to different shades of the same thing – a failure to connect with one or more crucial aspects of the game.
Whilst I’m not claiming to have covered all the underlying causes of bad play, I think this failure to connect does not always lie solely with the player. If players misbehave, there’s a reason, and if you can identify the reason, then maybe you can do something to remedy the problem.