To Narrate, or Not to Narrate

Any Game Master worth his dice knows that an RPG is not a story that the GM tells the player, it is an interactive experience, where both parties participate in telling the story. The question I want to address today is how much should the players be telling the story?

In most instances, the player will be in control of what their character does and how they do it. The GM will give a scenario that the players need to deal with, then the players take control of their characters, and deal with the issue (Usually in the complete opposite way the GM expects.) A lot of GM’s will allow their players to narrate a little bit more than just their character, but there is always a limit to the players control of anything that isn’t their own character. What I want to discuss is how much control the player should have over the world around them.

For many GM’s, letting a player control more than just their character seems ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t do it. When a player suggests that they take a course of action that was not planned for, you are letting them change the world when they try to use a backdoor that you hadn’t created before. Sure the GM is describing it, but the player created it, when they suggested it in the first place.

“Can I do ____?” Almost every GM has heard this question, and as long as the request is reasonable, the answer should be “Yes,” or “If you roll well enough.” The players power over the world will often end here, but should it? Often, the GM will explain to the player how they would be able to pull off such a feet, but I believe, depending on the game, this should still be in the player’s jurisdiction. It should be noted that if the goal of your game is for it to be very gritty, or a horror game, where players aren’t supposed to have a traditionally fun time with laughing and excitement, limiting the player’s control is probably for the best, but if you just want to have a good time, and create a fun, crazy story with the players, they should be allowed to control the world however they please, as long as they don’t break the game.

The normal answer to the player saying “Can I build a shield from the remains of this wagon?” is to require a roll then if they succeed, the GM will start describing how the player player’s character pull a wheel off the wagon, then starts covering it with boards, or other materials. I suggest instead that the player describe what they do, and how they do it with (near) complete freedom. This does two things. First, the player now becomes more attached to the item, since the player made it instead of the GM. Second, the GM can now use his creative thinking for something other than describing player actions. The player should be allowed to describe the wagon, and what is on it that it can make a shield out of.

Player backgrounds are often ignored by GM’s in favor of what is on the character sheet. If a PC wants to distract the guards with an epic saxophone solo because they played the saxophone in high school, but they don’t have any bardic abilities on their character sheet, they should still be allowed to play the saxophone. Why? Because it is more fun. If you want you can require a roll, but it should still be allowed. If there isn’t a saxophone around, then let them find one, and for the most fun you should let them describe why a saxophone was left in the dungeon.

Earlier, I mentioned that the players should be allowed to affect the world in any way they want, as long as they don’t break the game. What I mean by that is that they shouldn’t be allowed to call in a nuclear missile to destroy their enemy. You may allow it, but it will likely make for a shorter, boring session. The secret third option is to let them break the game, and then try to one up them. When the players do something ridiculous that is potentially game breaking, make it a game of bigger fish, and find something to break their game breaking creation. When done properly, this will give the players an even more difficult situation in the future. When your players called a nuke to destroy the city, the players find out they had been training wizards to ward off incoming attacks. Now they not only have to deal with whatever was threatening them from the city before, but now they have an army of wizards to deal with too! This will make for a fun session.

I believe that players should even be able to manipulate the past, just like the GM can, as long as they can explain why. If a player wants to dress like a rabbit to avoid suspicion, (I don’t know why they would try that but let them) all they should have to do is explain why they have a rabbit suit in their pack, even if it isn’t on their character sheet. These are Role Playing Games, not combat simulators. Who cares if they change things, as long as everyone is having fun.

When the players are allowed to contribute to the world, they are more likely to have a good time, because their contributions are what they want to see. GM’s are not all knowing, and can’t perfectly cater an experience to a group of players no matter how hard they try, so why not let the players make the world into what they want it to be? And when the players are having a good time, the GM will also have a good time. Next time a player asks if they can do something, I urge you to get them to tell you how they are going to do it, and even better, why the situation is set up so they can make this attempt.

“What Do You Do?”

The Problem

Everyone knows that tabletop role playing games do not replicate realism well. And why should they? If I wanted it to be realistic, my life would be a whole lot more interesting. I wouldn’t play Deadlands, I would go become a cowboy. But there is one thing that seems a little odd to me. The combat. Combat isn’t a series of people declaring attacks, and trying to hit. There are times when people dominate combat, and some times when people only do things because of what their opponent has done. Simply put, combat needs an overhaul, something that makes the game more exciting and cinematic.

I have found a solution. It started out with a simple opposed roll instead of using parry to determine who hit. This does two things for the players: 1. It keeps the players involved when it isn’t their turn, and 2. It makes the game feel more realistic, instead of just rolling to hit, there is also a roll to not get hit. There are two people involved in a fight, and both can screw up. There is no reason only one gets the opportunity to when playing role playing games.

After I played with this method for a while, I found that it wasn’t entirely helpful in the realm of expanding the cinematic elements of combat. Players would still just declare an attack, or roll to defend when the time comes. I read a little bit on Dungeon World, and found that while it may not be the system for me, it has some very good ideas. The phrase that I took out of what I read was “What do you do?”

Reactionary Combat

When used instead of asking for parry, or telling them what to roll, this phrase now opens up the game to the players, lets them decide what to do when they are attacked. Instead of just blocking, or avoiding an attack, the players can choose to do anything. The GM has to decide what penalties they have to their roll, and the TN is the opponents attack roll. I have had many people say that they want to do something reactionary when fighting, but I would have to tell them, no, that they would have to have been on hold when the enemy does something in order to react to it. How often do you find yourself in this situation? It is not something that I want them to avoid, but people are always trying to take the first opening available, even when the reactionary things that they do are awesome things, and that is what Savage Worlds is all about. With bennies, and exploding dice, cool is what we want, and sometimes the coolest things can’t be done unless it is your opponents turn. To keep combat from taking forever, any action that is made when it isn’t your turn is made at a penalty. An automatic -2 is placed on those actions, but it isn’t limited to just that, the normal penalties that you would give should be added on top of that.

How does this work?

For example, the players are fighting a giant frog-like creature that uses it’s tongue as it’s primary method of attacking. Using traditional rules, everyone would draw a card, then in order, the players and the frog would attack, or do tricks in order of their cards. When the frog attacks, it would roll against the player’s parry to see if it hit, then the next player would go. If a player wanted to catch the frog’s tongue and cut it off, they would first have to be on hold, which would either mean drawing a card higher than the frog, or waiting an entire turn and losing one of their turns, then they could try to remove the tongue of the frog. There is not only the obstacle of successful dice rolls, but also the issue of planning, and maybe even sacrificing an action just to attempt it.

With the new rules it goes like this: It is the frog’s turn and he opens his mouth and his tongue starts flying toward you, what do you do? The player can simply parry, and make an opposed fighting roll, or they can try to dodge it, with an opposed agility, or they can try to catch the tongue and cut it off. This option, which is cool, is now something that will come up more often, and it will surely give the player a benny. Sure it will still be a challenging roll to do this. Probably two rolls, an agility to catch and a fighting at about -2 or -4 each, but that is still easier to accomplish, and it makes the game more cinematic, more fun, and more involved than the rules as written.

Not just for players

It is important to note that this goes both ways. It not only makes the player more powerful, now giving them the opportunity to react to whatever happens to them, but the enemies can do this as well. When the player charges the giant frog, it now has a decision to make. Does it want to hop out of the way, or does it want to smack the player out of the way with one of his giant webbed feet? It can even try to inflate it’s throat and bounce the player away. This makes for much more exciting combat encounters than just a series of declared attacks.

Character Creation Should Not Come First

There are many different role playing systems in existence today, the most popular being Dungeons and Dragons. In almost all of these role playing games, the players of the game, under the guidance of the Game Master are create their characters before the players ever touch their dice. It is great when the players come into a new game with a strong understanding of the setting, knowing their character, and are ready to role play them to their fullest. In my experience as a GM, this rarely happens.

More often than not, the players come in and their character’s don’t come to life until they are playing them. This is fine. Role playing games are fun, and seldom competitive. The point of this genre of gaming is to have fun, and create a cooperative story with friends. Because of this, it is fine when someone decides to change a character sheet after playing their character, but wouldn’t it be great if that could be changed?

I have been working on a way to simply create a character during role playing rather than before the game starts. This way, a character won’t develop in a way that contradicts the original character sheet. This is designed to make a character in Savage Worlds, my favorite role playing system.

The basic idea is that a player will come up with a loose concept for their character before the game so they have a starting point. Then, the players are thrown into a situation where they have to role play, and thus create their character. I have streamlined character creation so that a character can be made in less than 5 minutes as opposed to taking the 15 minutes to half an hour it usually takes to make a character in Savage Worlds. Savage Worlds already has a relatively quick character creation process, but this makes it a much quicker process. The drawback is, the character’s that come out of this can be less balanced. You just have to trust your characters make the character they are playing rather than an overpowered one.

You can find a full copy of the new character creation process here. CharacterCreationReloaded.docx (1)

When I was creating this, I was looking to make the character creation process as easy as possible, while not reducing the variety of the characters being made. Savage Worlds already receives criticism in that it does not have varied characters, and I didn’t want to worsen that.

The first change that I made was to give the players 6 skills at certain values instead of letting them use the point buy system that the original game has. This can lead to a more unbalanced character because there are no restrictions of tied attributes, but in my experience, this is about the number of skills a character ends up with, at about this level if the character is created normally. This is where trusting your players comes in. They can choose things to make them over powered more than they could have with the normal rules, but if they follow the concept that they make and role play, they should vary their skills more.

Secondly, I attempted to streamline Hindrances and Edges. The plan was to make a few vague Edges and Hindrances that could be easily modified to make a character unique. I feel the Hindrances worked well because most of them only affect role playing. It was difficult to create Edges that could easily be changed though. I came up with a few that could work, but I am not completely satisfied with this list. The Edge list in the Savage Worlds core book is so diverse, that covering them all was tricky without just adding them. If anyone has any suggestions on vague Edges that can be easily modified, please comment.

The other change to Edges and Hindrances is that there are no more major and minor hindrances. Instead there is maximum of 3 Hindrances, and an exchange of one Hindrance gives one Edge. This accounts for the free Edge that humans get.

This is just a rough draft, and general idea with little play-testing that I want to implement in One Shot games that I run, as well as long standing campaigns as I start new ones. I will be making changes to it as new ideas arise, and would love any feedback that people may have for me.