This week I’ve been hard at it, shooting the second series of Burnistoun, a BBC TV show I do here in Scotland. Dressing up as Popes and superheroes all day and learning lines all night doesn’t leave you a great deal of time for games. Sitting around between scenes gives you plenty of time to talk about games, though, so I’ve been telling people about the games I play and encouraging them to try some out. I mentioned RPGs to someone, and got a bit of a blank look. And that got me thinking.
In the comments section last week, or maybe the week before, an interesting question popped up. “What exactly is a pen and paper RPG?” Something along those lines. And I realised that I had been referring to pen and paper RPGs in this column without ever stopping to explain exactly what one is. I had obviously assumed that everyone was just like me, and had spent their teenage years creating RPG campaigns for friends instead of sticking their tongues down the throats of young brunettes OH GOD WHAT A WASTE.
So, this week, I want to talk about the tabletop pen and paper RPG. A brief introduction and an explanation, so I don’t need to cover any of this again when I go into detail on specific games in future columns. And then some pointers on how to be a good Gamesmaster.
You good people play PC games, so you’ll be well aware of what an RPG is. It’s a Role Playing Game. An example of an RPG in the PC gaming world would be something like Return To Krondor or maybe the budget re-release of Return To Krondor. In an RPG game you “Play A Role”. (That’s where the “Role-Playing” element of RPG comes from.) And then you Play that Role in a Game. That completes the Holy Trinity of letters R, P and G, and explains why they sit together, and why they sit together in that order, and what they mean, and why they mean that.
In a PC game, the administrative element of the mechanics of your character’s statistics is taken out of your hands, allowing you to better focus on the immersive experience of moving a stiffly animated freakish-looking fucker around a half-arsed game world, having unbending pre-scripted encounters with automatons who have voices supplied by the best amateur theatre understudies in the UK.
In a tabletop pen and paper RPG, you have to create everything inside your own mind. Your imagination, which is usually only called into play when trying to squeeze some tiny drops of pleasure out of fucking your spouse*, is suddenly given the job of creating a living, breathing universe. Everything you want to do in the game, you can try to do. If the Gamesmaster tells you you’ve just wandered into the lair of a Dragon, you can choose to fight it, or fondle it, or sing to it, or cook for it, or challenge it to a game of horseshoes, or do a hundred squats in front of it, or teach it how to use the Sky+ remote control. If the Gamesmaster is happy to let you try to do any of these things, you will have the chance to do it. No PC game will allow this to happen. Ever. Unless it’s the next PC game by Peter Molyneux, and the person who is telling you that Peter Molyneux’s game will be able to do this is Peter Molyneux.
Almost all pen and paper RPGs are fundamentally the same, which is why we like to call them “pen and paper RPGs” despite many of them not needing pens or paper anymore. They have a Gamesmaster, and some players, and some created characters. They have a setting of some kind – the future, the past, a fantasy world, a sci-fi world, a zombie apocalypse. They have a ruleset that allows you to work out the success or failure of certain tasks. Usually you’ll use dice to communicate with the unruly spirits of Fate, but other methods exist (even the use of Jenga blocks).
Each player will be responsible for the upkeep of his character. They will have to keep track of abilities, knowledge, possessions, motivations, and will often be responsible for fleshing out a backstory. A bad Gamesmaster is in charge of everything else. The universe, the non-player characters, the encounters, the storyline, the goals, the friends, the enemies –
Wait, hold up… Did I just type “A bad Gamesmaster is in charge of everything else”? Yes, I did. And here’s why – a good Gamesmaster merely pretends to be in charge of everything else. In truth, he is handing the universe over to the players, to shape it as they see fit. He’s a universe wrangler, that’s all, keeping everything under control, but beautifully in flux.
The Gamesmaster is the key to the whole thing. So here’s my list of pointers for any first time GM.
HOW TO BE A GOOD GAMESMASTER
- 1. Be Prepared: Know how to play the game. Make sure you’ve read that costly core rulebook from back to front. Then make sure you’ve read the hugely expensive Gamesmaster’s Guide. Then make sure you’ve read the disgustingly extortionate Bestiary book. If you’re running an adventure from one of these books, be familiar with it. The game will die on its arse if you have to bring things to a halt to find out what should happen next if one of your players unexpectedly pushes a table leg through the throat of an important NPC.
- 2. Don’t Be Shy: Gamesmastering always works best if the GM is someone who is happy to get in character, and try out some “acting”. It might feel odd to be staring lovingly into the eyes of one of your best friends, telling them that you love them, and that you want your death to be avenged. But if Michael Jackson’s ghost can do that to Uri Geller every night, you can do it in an RPG session. It’ll make things much more entertaining. There’s nothing worse than being in a game that has a GM who is lacking in confidence, and is visibly red-faced when delivering some saucy barmaid dialogue. It’s awful. Sexy, but awful.
- 3. Put The Work In: All good RPGs have good adventures prepared for you, written by some of the best people in the business. But no adventure or campaign will ever be as good as one the GM has created by himself, tailored specifically for the wants and needs of his players. Let’s just imagine that in the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign I GM, I have a Wood Elf player who is known to make questionable moral choices. Let’s just imagine that. I’ll try to imagine that. It’s my job, in this case, to make sure there are plenty of moral choices for that player to make. If a player likes to surprise people with his character’s nature, then the GM needs to create the opportunity for those surprises. Facilitate, facilitate, facilitate, until they call you Facilitate Kendal, and you’re all living the good life.
- 4. Focus On Storytelling: There might be a bit of arguing over this one. For me, a good GM always focuses on the storytelling. Now, you could say that this advice doesn’t apply when you’re playing an RPG that is more combat-heavy. I would stare at you and say nothing. But I’d be thinking this next sentence so powerfully that you would feel it reverberating in your ovaries. Strong storytelling improves EVERYTHING. Without the storytelling, your players won’t care if their character dies. If they don’t care about their character, they won’t make meaningful choices. If the players aren’t making meaningful choices, you’re not playing an RPG. You’re just throwing some dice and seeing what numbers turn up.
- 5. Use Aids: Earlier, I spoke about how the RPG demands a lot from your imagination. That doesn’t mean you can’t jazz things up a bit with some visual aids. As long as jazzing up is all you’re doing, and you’re not steering people down a creative dead end. If you have a little combat encounter outside a town, it’s often handy to quickly sketch out a layout of the area if your players ask for it. It gets everybody on the same page when discussing tactical approaches to combat. They might, of course, be fine with visualising the area and abstracting things from there. Some games, like D&D, demand that you are more specific with the positional layout of characters and enemies. That doesn’t mean you can’t go back “in-head” for all the between battle stuff. It’s also good to use handouts. Players always enjoy being given a letter to read, or an actual physical mock-up of a wanted poster. These are fun little things that enhance the experience for everybody. Put some music on too. That can often help with the atmosphere, if you have the right kind of music at hand. For fantasy games I recommend NOW 6, which features Feargal Sharkey’s “A Good Heart” and for Sci-Fi stuff it’s always nice to crank up the soundtrack to the Clooney and Pfeiffer Romantic Comedy “One Fine Day”.
- 6. Get Over Yourself: Yeah, okay, so you’re a Gamesmaster. Big fucking deal. Anyone who has a core rulebook and some friends can be one. And in the grand scale of things, what’s so good about being a gamesmaster? Some people are rock stars. Some people are champion skateboarders. So no-one wants to see you going on a big ego trip. Yeah, okay, so you prepped an epic story for everyone. So what? Your job isn’t to tell that story, your job is just to let everyone else fuck it up or improve it. You’re there to clean up the mess. You’re a janitor. That’s all you are. A janitor. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with being a janitor.
I’m going to stop there, because I could talk about RPGing all day, and I’d rather see you guys talking about it. What RPGs are your favourites? Do you want to argue about D&D 4th Edition again? Feel free.
Do you want to know which RPG I think is the best RPG of all time? It’s Call of Cthulhu. It’s not something many people will dispute, I don’t think. It’s the best because it is ALL story, ALL the time. But I’ll be getting deeper into CoC further down the line.
Next week I’ll be back onto board games, with a cool photo story. Don’t miss it!