My girlfriend Paige and I haven't gotten to see her little sister Kara as much as we have wanted to this year because -you guessed it- the pandemic has kept us in our own separate homes. Like many middle schoolers, Kara has had a really hard year. For a large part of it, she was constantly pivoting between online and in-person schooling and didn't have a phone. Talking to her friends was always a challenge. I love Kara! She is a huge nerd and is easily excitable, just like me. We recommend Anime to each other and play board games anytime she comes over. Unfortunately, watching anime isn't very interactive and board games are difficult to play online. I thought a great way to bring us together would be to play RPGs.
I went to our local game store to get some inspiration and I found a book of GM-ing tips. Play Smart is the perfect book for experienced role-players looking to run their first campaign or for veteran GMs who are open to advice. Reading it filled me with ideas on how to best entertain Paige and Kara. It also gave me a deep appreciation for my Wednesday night DnD group's GM.
The book's author, Ignacy Trzewicek, created both the Neuroshima RPG and Monastery RPG. He has dozens of years of experience running a diverse portfolio of RPGs and is the founder of Portal Games. The company's tagline is "Boardgames that tell a story." That's what playing role-playing games is about, right? Each session is not about winning or losing: It's about creating tense situations, and emotional montages. Role-playing isn't about slaying a dragon but why getting rid of a dragon matters to you and to the game-world's inhabitants. Here are some tips that I picked up while reading Play Smart.
At the core of a memorable RPG experience is character creation.
Ignacy dons player characters with the title "Tamagotchi." Characters are a player's personal pet that they raise and feed with XP.
Compare the following set of Q&As:
Q: Why did you pick the yellow Tamagotchi?
A: It's my favorite color.
Q: Why did you make dexterity your highest stat?
A: I thought it would be cool.
The player is signaling to their GM that dexterity is important to them. A skilled GM would give the above player ample opportunities to sneak, cart-wheel, sling yo-yos, or anything else that would let them use their incredible dexterity. A trick that Ignacy uses to great effect in his game is to put a small black stone on a player's highest stat and a white stone on their lowest stat. If the player rolls poorly on their highest stat, Ignacy removes the stone and asks them to re-roll. If the player succeeds for their lower stat, Ignacy removes the stone and has them re-roll. Your character has things that they are really good at and really bad at. A couple of unusually high or low rolls shouldn't take those traits away from your character. Help your players play the character that they designed.
If a Tamagotchi can breathe fire, don't put a muzzle on it.
If a player puts all her stats in strength, don't break her character's arms! How awful would it be if you spent time making an illusion wizard, only to find that every time you cast an illusion, the GM tells you that the enemies see through the illusion? Every Wednesday night, I join my friends in DnD as Mr. Scrooge, an Oath of Redemption Paladin who believes that violence is a last resort. I am so thankful that our GM, Brady, lets me use my charisma to talk my way out of combat situations. In our first session, I was able to befriend and form a symbiotic relationship with a dark mantle after saving its life and giving it a blood infusion. I tried to play a peaceful game; I tried to do what my Tamagotchi was good at. It worked and I was hooked. If Brady forced me to kill the dark mantle, I may have shied away from my peaceful approach and my character would have felt underpowered. But instead, our party has had tense diplomatic arguments, we have talked down terrorists, and intimidated our way out of battles. I look forward to playing every Wednesday night.
Treating players differently is a good thing.
When Brady explains a group of goblins to Mr. Scrooge, he will say, "You see a lazy group of guards laughing and playing cards. They are undefended." When he explains the same group to Zeik, the parties trigger happy wizard, he might describe them as a "nasty group of drunks gambling away their meager earnings. Currently, their weapons aren't drawn but they are nearby." These descriptions are both accurate but may conjure different reactions from our characters. In-game, Mr. Scrooge wanted to strike up a deal maybe join in on a game of cards, but Zeik wanted to incinerate them before they have a chance to retaliate. As a GM, diversify your language when you are talking to different members of the party depending on the character's back story and motivation. Don't just let your descriptions vary depending on which character you are addressing though. Let characters skip rolls occasionally. Is the shed inaccessible because of a flimsy locked door? Let the strong player kick through it without rolling but make the frail wizard make a strength roll. Remember, you should be tailoring the session around your players' Tamagotchi. Treating players each in a unique way according to their characters encourages them to collaborate as a team, to ask for help when they need it, and to take action when it is their time to shine.
The world you create needs to feel lived in.
Players, in an abundance of caution, never give their characters' families. Why don't the great warriors of your world ever mention their mother's name or how much they crave their father's homemade apple pie? Ignacy quotes his friend Piotr Smolański "Why, dammit, why is everyone the only child, no siblings, alone in the world and all?" (97). It's obvious, isn't it? Players don't want their families to be brutalized or leveraged against them. Let players have a home base that they can dream of returning to. Let them have a beautiful boyfriend back home that they can write songs about on the road, or let them raise funds for their little sister's tuition at an expensive boarding school. But do not touch their families.
Make your player's characters have birthdays, then celebrate them. This is a time for presents, for old NPCs to make appearances. It gives them a haven away from combat. Celebrations let the party gloat about their glorious adventures. The other players can use their reserves of gold to buy gifts. It allows the b-day character to feel appreciated in and out of the game.
Tomorrow, Kara, Paige, and I will start our first of many adventures. I'm confident that Kara will love it because I will tailor the sessions around her Tamagotchi. I'm building her a world filled with family, camaraderie, home-bases, and birthdays. Every week we will have a three-hour window in which we can pretend to be someone magical living in a fantastic world.