Telling Stories: Enhance both experiences

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.

Tabletop roleplaying isn’t the same as roleplaying with people online.  And not just for the obvious reasons where you can’t all be sharing a pizza around a table and spend a bunch of pre-game time chattering about whether or not you enjoyed the last episode of whatever television shows are airing now.  Is Game of Thrones still a thing?  I don’t have cable.

But really, even beyond the obvious gaps of personal interaction, there are a lot of differences between a gathering in the real world and just roleplaying in an MMO.  The systems are different, the environment is different, even the way that the games play is different.  It’s a lot easier to roleplay in the middle of a dungeon when the entire world stops and starts based on what the player characters are doing, after all, compared to your average online game where the game is going to keep moving whether you like it or not.

But that’s the thing – there are some good lessons to be learned from online worlds that you can apply to your tabletop sessions.  So don’t discard one out of hand!  A bit of time in an online game can make your game that much better.

You cannot understand how incredibly happy I am to be able to take screenshots of this game now, folks.  It is crazy.

Some characters don’t stop for the world, either, so it’s only fair.

Don’t let the world stop for the characters

That one’s pretty obvious, and usually every bit of advice I’ve ever seen for running a game includes chatter about making the world a living, breathing place and so on.  Which is good advice, but it only hits part of the notes that you get in an MMORPG.  It’s easy to have a world that looks like it keeps going when you turn your back, but it’s a lot harder and less intuitive to run one that actually does keep moving.

How do I mean that?  Well, for one thing, there’s the fact that the world is constructed for and around the players.  As a GM, you have plots that you want to run, and while it sometimes takes a bit of cajoling through various means you know that your players will get to those plots one way or another.  It’s a question of how or when, not just if.  If your plot requires the players to get a quest from Duke MacGuffin, the duke will be waiting obligingly and won’t be giving out the quest to anyone until the players show up.

Of course, in an online game, you can run into quests you’re trying to do but aren’t really able to complete, because someone else already did it and killed off all of the whatevers in the area.  Which can lead to more interesting plots.

Obviously, I’m not saying you should discard the plots you want to tell in favor of random happenstance.  What I’m saying is that you should use the fact that the world is full of people as a narrative tool to make things more interesting.  Sure, the players could get the quest from the duke, but they could also arrive to find out that the duke gave the quest to the group of adventurers who was actually there.  You could place a bunch of other markers from there to get players into the plot – maybe they follow the other group of adventurers, maybe they mope until they get tied up in things a different way, maybe the duke gives them a different and explicitly insulting task that leads down a different route.  The point is that you have options.

Players, you can make use of this too.  Have characters with lives outside of adventuring, people who don’t necessarily want to come along because they’ve got other things going on right at the moment.  Let your characters have priorities that don’t always synch up nicely with the needs of the party.  Sure, in the game it’s probably because you have a project to finish at work rather than saying you don’t want to go to a dungeon because you’re farming something, but the principle is the same.

Fashion decisions frequently elude them, however.

“Occult Knowledge” is a skill for the Illuminati in the same sense that “not shitting in your pants” counts as a skill.

Don’t sweat the power so much

Most tabletop games have everything balanced on an absolute power scale.  Your character with a doctorate in seven different fields isn’t going to be a capable combatant on top of that; similarly, the combat monster is good for just combat.  You wind up with characters of more modest abilities most of the time, who have just enough combat acumen to stick things with the pointy end but not enough to be really potent in battle.

In some games, this works fine.  But a lesson to be taken from MMOs here is that you don’t need to worry so much about the power levels until it comes to the things that matter.

In a game of Vampire where combat is something that happens only occasionally, then it does make perfect sense to have Medicine and Brawl to be equally important.  But there are a lot of games wherein at least one fight is assured to break out in every session.  The character whose points all went away from combat is going to be nigh-on useless in those scenarios, and the characters who are actually good at combat are going to have that scene to shine and no others.  Similarly, if you’re playing a game of Call of Cthulhu, the guy with Spot Hidden maxed is going to have a lot more to do than the guy with a skill in firearms.

The trick, then, is to let your character power posts move accordingly.  There’s a lot of talk about tailoring the game to the characters, but not so much about tailoring basic elements to the game.

There are two ways to go about this.  The first is to make it easier to acquire the skills that are only going to be irregularly used; in a game where medical knowledge is only coming up occasionally, someone with plenty of it should be able to come by it more cheaply.  On the flip side, you can also make the important skills start with more of a baseline.  I once ran a game wherein everyone had points in piloting skills in addition to their usual spread, simply because the game relied upon a group of characters who could pilot spaceships on a reliable basis.  Sure, they could sink more points in and be really good, but there was no sense in narrowing their options by design.

Feedback, like always, is welcome in the comments down below or via mail, Twitter, Tumblr, whatever strikes your fancy.  I read all of it.  Next week, I’d like to talk about letting your characters have agency.  The week after that, how sexuality and your character’s attitudes toward same can be deeply influential on them.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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