We Forgot to Challenge

A small thought for the day. We all play with house-rules. Nobody really plays a game to the exact details of the rule-system (or at the very least- almost no one). If there is a single thing that I saw common to all of those house-rules, it was without a doubt the side they favored.
All those house-rules that I've seen through the years? They were all in favor of the player characters. They made their lives easier, they're role-filling quicker. They diminished the challenge.
To put it differently, it's like we GMs forgot that being fans of the PCs doesn't mean letting them succeed without a sweat. It means putting them through a challenge and hoping to see them triumph, believing that they'll succeed. But they do need the challenge firstly. After all, without challenge, there's no real point in winning, or even in playing those things, battles, intrigues etc. And yet, we make their lives easier with house-ruling and with so much more.

I don't know if I managed to say something, if I managed to express what I think. But I do hope that at the very least, I'm not alone in thinking about this, in hoping to see it changed.


Making Race Important to the Game

Over at Roleplaying Tips they're hosting a nice little blog carnival, centered on the concept of races. And… I must say that I don't normally play with race too much, or at the very least- not today. But it doesn't mean that I don't have anything to bring to the table. I did run a year or two of campaigns centered on races and our prejudices surrounding them, back in the day.
John asks for tips and ideas about making race an important factor in the game. For me, the number one trick, the first tip that I offer for GMs who come to me with the same question, is to lead by example.
Think about the GM-player relationship in most traditional games- the GM sets the stage, decides what is important and what not, and the players (at least to a certain extent) internalize those themes and ideas, and then bring their own versions of it. That's how we explore themes in RPGs.
But it also means that the GM has to set the stage. If the GM will make race an important factor in her games, like having some racist NPCs or handing a prejudices index (just like we can find in every WOD race book), sooner or later it will become a major factor in the game.
If, for the sake of example, I bring to the table a Dwarf NPC who hates Elves and think that they just stink, suddenly it is important to know if Lucy plays an Elf or if she plays a Halfling. If I'll continue this stage-setting and the next NPC will think that Halflings are not real men, Mr. Halfling will have to find a way to show his manliness.
In other words- making the concept of races important to you, as GM, and playing to this concept, will make it important for the whole group. Before you'll know it you'll have Dwarfs who don't like Gnomes and Orcs who want to be Elves.
And that's the whole truth, actually. Make it important to you, stress it through your portrayal of NPCs, through your descriptions ("you see an Elf. She…"), through handouts... If it is important enough for you to stress it, it will become important enough for them as well.
Or you can just go and play Vampire. I "heard" that they've done it right.

How about you? What tips and tricks do you have for making race an important factor in your games?


NPCs are just Tools

NPCs are just tools. They're not there to steal the limelight, they're not there to give some amazing monologues. NPCs are just tools for the GM to use, to nudge the game a little bit to one direction or the other, to help make an enjoyable evening or something along those lines. As such is the case NPCs don't need complex personalities but a way to affect the PCs and through them to affect the players. When they've filled their roles, they're not needed anymore, they can be discarded, or move to the reserve pile for later scenes and/or sessions.
Drosselmeyer, in Princess Tutu understood this well. When talking to Edel in episode 12 of the first season, he says to her: "Your role is to add glow to the story in my place". Unlike the players, the GM doesn't have an avatar in the game. All the GM has is everything that is not controlled by the players. But, as we know, those things are there to serve the PCs and/or the players. The Gm should forget herself, of course, but for now please stay with me.
 Most problems of using NPCs come from not acknowledging this simple idea. If the NPCs are just tools used by the GM to serve the game and players, then one wouldn’t give them amazing and way too long monologues.  One wouldn't let them steal the limelight either.
But it grows deeper than that, unsurprisingly. It means that trying to give them life and complex personality is a futile intention. A gm should think in terms of how the NPC affects the PCs and through them affect the players. This calls for a simple motive, for example, so it will be easy to grasp. It also calls for something that will challenge the players' perceptions, like am NPC that divides the players and the characters to a few sides.
It also means that one shouldn't get to attached to the NPCs. Once they fulfill their role, they should finish they're part in the game. If the players don't connect to them, they should be left out. And if the players like them enough, make their part greater, make them more colorful.
So how one should use this kind of tool? There's no one true way, of course, but for me it always was about giving the illusion that they're far more complex and alive than they truly are. They should sometimes be busy, or they'll use some fancy words to describe some simple ideals. They will be distinctive, different from one another. And most importantly, they should be made such that I will always be able to bring them to the present scene, if I'll ever need them. Usually, this combination does the trick for me.
What do you think? Feel free to write in the comments.


We all have a role to fill

Last time I've covered a Princess Tutu episode, it was a really early one. Since then, I began to question my remark that this series is a great GMing guide, but the ending of season one showed me otherwise. In episode 11, which I'll cover today, we are presented near the end with a remarkable scene. The annoying Drosselmeyer shows us that he does understand stories, when he reminds each character of his or her role in the unveiling one.
Now, this is an interesting case, because each character in the series plays a role in the story. To a certain respect, it is just like an RPG: each player is assigned a role to fill in the story that is being created (this is, again, a topic for another post). Our 4 main characters are our players, and Drosselmeyer is our GM.
This scene asks about roles. What roles does each side fill in the game? What is the players' role? What is their GM's role? To a certain respect, after almost 11 episodes, we are presented with the Social Contract of the "game". Each player got a role to fill, assigned to him or her by the GM, and this is their job. As long as they fill it, though, Drosselmeyer doesn't intervene. But when they do leave the role behind, Drosselmeyer reminds them and guides them back to their role.
This is one type of a Social Contract that can be made. We can also "sign" a contract that gives the GM an even greater role in the shaping of the game, a kind of game in which the players are only there for the ride. Or we can go the other route, to a game without a real GM, a game in which the players guide the game themselves. It can also, unsurprisingly, be somewhere in the middle.
But the Social Contract is only a part of a greater contract, the one called the Group Contract, which also covers such things as rule-systems and the like. It answers questions such as "how do we choose a rule-system?" "How closely do we follow the rules presented in the rules-system?" and so on.

Both of these concepts are there to help us play better games. They do it by giving us the tools to describe in detail the roles, expectations and responsibilities of each participating party. 


Winning Is Not Mandatory

Winning in the end is not mandatory. I know, I know, in most fantasy stories, actually in most stories regardless of genre, the protagonists win. They win and save the world, get the princes and princesses and get so much treasure that they can just retire and even their grandchildren will be filthy rich. They always win in fantasy.
But it is not mandatory. It is not mandatory to win in the end and neither it is mandatory to win in the middle. Loses makes the story change direction, makes it fuller and richer, gives place to a huge set of emotions that we don't normally see in our games.
Losing can also change and rewind the game. If the PCs always win, there's no challenge, there's no need for playing. If they will always win, it doesn't really matter that they've chose right and not left, or that they killed the orcs and not the goblins.
When we play for the plot, for the story, losing is what gives us those dark moments in the middle of the third arc, the moments from which we find something in ourselves and rise to the challenge, amazing those around us and even us as we do so.
Losing shows us other sides of our characters, sides that we couldn't really explore otherwise, because we didn't have those moments of loss, of depression, of disappointment from the way the things turned out. We were about to win, and somehow we lost.
Losing gives meaning to a learning curve, losing gives meaning to those hard-earned victories. Because they truly are victories that were hard to earn, scattered between all those loses.
And losing in the end is part of what makes a story into a tragedy. Because in a tragedy, we either lose or lose what we fought for, we can't really win. And tragedy is not the only type of story in which the end is bleak.

Winning is not mandatory. Losing should be part of the outcome list. It deserves its spot there.


There's No One True Way

And we're back to what will hopefully be my normal schedule. I've started to watch an anime called Princess Tutu. I'm yet to say what it is about, as I'm only 2 episodes in it, as of the moment of writing these lines. What struck me so clear while watching its second episode was how good it is as a GMing guide.
In the second episode, we have a rivalry between Anteaternia and Rue-Chan (yeah, I know that Chan is not part of the name but it's easier for me). Anteaternia asked Rue-Chan how she learned to dance so wonderfully, for which she answered with practice. Then Anteaternia said that she'll practice as hard as she can so she'll does as wonderful as Rue-Chan. Rue said that it is not possible.
And that's and amazing thing, because as we watch the episode we learn that Rue-Chan didn't say that from the point of contempt. Anteaternia will never be able to dance as well as she can, because Andteaternia will have to develop her own style.
And that's true for our GMing. There's no right or wrong, there's no true and false. There's no better and worse. Each of us GMs has different strengths and weaknesses, goals and needs. And each group has a different mixture of players with different expectations, needs, goals and abilities. Because of that, this combination, there's no ultimate style of GMing. There's no better way to GM.

There are only two rules for GMing that are right all the time- "don't be a dick", and "know thy players". All the rest is just style. So don't try to copy another GM's style. Instead, try to develop your own. Try to find your inner truth about GMing and go with it, play to it, GM according to it.


Jacob's Ladder- Knowing When to Say Goodbye

I couldn't find a more fitting movie to end this project. Jacob's Ladder is a brilliant masterpiece about life and death, about the things the wars do to ordinary people, about family. It is a horror movie, it is a drama movie, it is a war movie, and it is a surrealist movie. It is hard to explain exactly what it is, just that it is one of the greatest movies of the nineties, perhaps even one of the greatest movies of all time.
The movie chronicles the life of Jacob, a divorced man, a Dr. of the arts and philosophy, a war veteran who fought in Vietnam. It chronicles the way that his mind, his world, starts to fragment after 2 years of war. From conspiracy to feelings of loss, from love to hippies, this movie has it all.
And (and from now on I'm gonna spoiler) it is also a movie about the need to accept one's end, one's death. In the end of the movie, Jacob accepts that he's gonna die, and just lets it happen, smiling, peaceful.
Campaigns and one-shots are going to end too. And we'll have to accept that, acknowledge that. Everything oughta end. Nothing good lasts forever. And as such is the case, we need to learn to let go, to know when something should end and to ensure that it will end there. Not all games need to last 200 years. Not all games need to last even a full single year. Some need to end after a single session, others after 3 or four. We need to accept that, understand that, not to stretch it more than we should.
Because it is better to let go of things, when they get to their natural ultimate ending than to stretch it any longer and let it disintegrate into no more than a thing that was once epic and now is… not.
Ending things is hard. It is not easy. But living isn't easy either, and we don't give on life because of that. We make the hard choices, we choose to live, and we choose to end our campaigns. We will end them on a high note, sure, but they will end. And we'll know, deep inside our hearts that the stories of those characters have ended. That now we do something else.
Because every ending is a new beginning. When a campaign ends, a new ones starts, filling the place of the earlier one, of the campaign that ended. I don't know if I succeeded expressing what I had to say, what I had in mind. But I do hope that you'll understand and take from it what you want.

Thanks for reading.