Put away the ski mask, you absolute sociopath. This is about doing bad things in gaming, and what you do on your own time is between you and your defense attorney. If you’ve been gaming for any amount of time, you’re familiar with most of the old adages about how to make a good game: “show, don’t tell,” “don’t metagame.” “Don’t roll the dice by putting them in your mouth and spitting them onto the table.”
Those are all really good pieces of advice, for the record. But rules are made to be broken. This article is all about how to turn standard gaming advice on its head, and make a better game by doing so.
Tell, Don’t Show
Some time after World War II, it became an axiom of creative writing (and by extension its younger sibling, gaming), that an author should “show, don’t tell.” There’s some speculation that this was actually part of a broader movement to discourage broad social critiques in art, because communism.
Well, Comrade, buckle up. There’s a place for purple prose in gaming. It’s a very small place, no more than a sentence or two. Beyond that, you’re relying on your players to potentially navigate the kind of word count that would make James Joyce feel self-indulgent, picking out the bits and pieces they need out of a mess of adjectives and atmosphere.
So how do you tell in ways your players can use?
- Be concrete and specific. Beyond a very short setting of the scene, keep your descriptions to only those elements of a scene that characters can interact with.
- Connect the dots. When your players make, for instance, an investigation roll, tell them the meaning of what they’ve found before you give them the details. It’s fine to say that they find broken glass on the inside of a room near a broken window, but only tell them that after you’ve let them know that means that whatever it is that broke the window came from outside the room.
- Don’t be afraid to gamify it. If the characters encounter a room with an area effect, lead with the mechanical impact. Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan once called games a “foggy medium.” What he meant was that characters have a much more complete view of the world than a player ever will. If a room is so hot that it does damage when a character enters it, the character’s whole body will warn them almost before they register “heat.” They will have a reflexive understanding of what information means based on a whole lifetime of experience, and players can only imitate that understanding through mechanics. So give them those mechanics, clearly, unambiguously, and most importantly, first.
Metagaming is definitely a two-edged sword. There’s a world of difference between “I’ve played this scenario before and I know this room is trapped,” and “I don’t trust the way the GM said ‘you don’t see anything.’” The former is just bad gaming, and any player who does that should feel bad about it. The latter is, and I’m giving away a big GM secret here, the whole reason the GM said it that way.
Some of the best games I’ve ever run or played in have unabashedly used metagaming to tell a better story. This can take the form of “I’m an experienced adventurer, so this isn’t my first rodeo,” or a fully-genre-savvy modern character who’s seen a movie or two.
Metagaming can build tension in a way that pretending to be completely ignorant of the setting, genre, and world you’re playing in just can’t. Your players will have expectations and assumptions, whether you let them admit it or not. Your choices are to either pretend this is the first time anyone’s heard the word “wizard,” or to run with it and tell your players that metagaming is, in a way, encouraged. So how do you metagame right?
- Create assumptions, not certainties. “This dragon is red, so I probably shouldn’t use fire” is actually a completely reasonable conclusion to reach in most worlds. Whether it actually works out that way is up to the GM.
- Be explicit when you’re metagaming. If you’re drawing a conclusion based on your own experience with a world, it’s okay to say “look, I think my character has been exposed to enough to think this.” When you say it that way, it invites the group to think about what their characters might think, rather than assuming no one knows anything. If you keep it to yourself, you’re asking to be disappointed. Also, you never know—maybe that assumption you’re making is something the GM didn’t think of, and it will make the game better. You can only find out if you say something.
- GMs: just let it roll sometimes. It’s very tempting, especially if you view your role as GM as adversarial, to punish players for thinking out of the box. If a player makes an assumption and acts on that assumption, you have absolute power, and you can change things on the fly to make that assumption incorrect. “Well, sure the dragon is red, but I’ve decided it’s got a skin condition, and it’s actually invulnerable to ice!” Don’t—and I can’t emphasize this enough—do that. You’re a GM. You have absolute power. If your only goal is to just kill the PCs, drop a cow from space on them and be done with it. Then stop GMing, because you’re coming from the wrong place. If an assumption is a good one, consider going in the opposite direction. “Well, this thing is made of dry straw, so it would make sense that it’s vulnerable to fire, even though the stat block doesn’t say so” is a great way to reward players for thinking creatively.
By my conservative estimate, there are eleventy gajillion pages of Dungeons and [redacted] content out there, with thousands of rules that interact with each other in weird, nitpicky ways. The same is true of any number of other systems. On the one hand, that’s part of the fun. Tweaking rules and seeing how they change the game is part of what makes choices meaningful, and gives the kind of uncertainty that keeps a game exciting.
But, uh. That’s a lot of rules, and as a GM, you’re already keeping track of a lot more than the average player is. That means, even if you don’t have that one player who knows the game inside and out, your players can, and often should be, more familiar with the rules that apply to them than you are. You can either pretend that you’re the only available source of rulings, or use that knowledge to make a better game. So let your players rules lawyer it up, with the following guidelines:
- Always reward players for rules mastery. If the player points out a rule that is to their benefit or the benefit of the group, that ruling is reward enough. If the player points out a rule that is to the detriment of the party, reward the player who pointed it out with an in-game resource like inspiration. Optionally, if they pointed out a rule that is to the detriment of the other player, reward that player, too.
- Remember that the GM is the final arbiter, but the rules still exist. This is a bit of a judgment call. Sometimes, a rule a player finds will completely derail an entire session—in those cases, a GM is completely within their rights to override that rule. But—and this is important—the players should not come away from that empty-handed. If the players find a clever rule that lets them bypass a challenging room, let them bypass the room. If they find a rule that lets them bypass an entire dungeon, put something in the dungeon they still need, but give them a powerful advantage when they go in anyway. This is a balancing act, and I’m not going to pretend it’s anything else, but as long as you keep “always reward the players” in mind, it should go fine.
There are two kinds of secrets: character secrets and player secrets.
- Character secrets are things that one or more characters might know, but the others don’t. Key to this though, is that the other players know those secrets. Character secrets should always be discussed with the group, and if everyone’s on board, they can provide some great roleplaying moments.
- Player secrets are things that one or more characters know and others don’t, and that the other players don’t know. Like character secrets, they can provide some amazing scenes, but unlike character secrets, they have the potential to ruin an entire game.
So how do you make player secrets fun for the whole group?
- Avoid double-crosses unless you know for a fact (and have cleared with the group beforehand) the possibility that one of the characters will potentially betray the others. Of course, at that point, you’re halfway to having a character secret anyway. It’s been my experience that characters working against the group makes the whole game less fun for everyone involved. Honestly, I just avoid these entirely.
- Make the player secret something that adds to the whole group’s play. If a player is secretly a demigod or runaway royalty, when you reveal it to the party, do so in a way that makes things easier or more awesome for the whole group. Maybe a momentary flash of divinity gives the whole group the benefit of a night’s rest, or a guard that would have otherwise arrested the players looks the other way when she recognizes her beloved liege-in-exile. The point is that the reveal should always be a positive for the group to avoid resentment.
Roll-Play, Don’t Role-Play
A very smart friend of mine once said “RPGs can be anything from improv theater to chess.” If your group tends more toward the former, using rules only sparingly (if at all), that’s great, but odds are you aren’t reading gaming advice if so. As always, if it’s working, don’t break it.
With that said, there are a few problems with the “tell a story and don’t worry about the system” approach.
- It rewards louder or more socially adept players. As a friend of mine recently said “social engineering is my superpower.” Quieter or less creative players, without the crutch of a system, just don’t have the ability to engage as fully.
- On the other hand, a GM who is particularly aware of someone who has the tendency to suck all the oxygen out of a scene may be too on guard against a player who always has the clever solutions, and might develop a habit of leading with “no” for that player, which can quickly sap anyone’s enthusiasm and enjoyment.
- It lends itself to foregone conclusions. Game mechanics add uncertainty and resource depletion to stories. Without these, games can quickly become simply a recitation of pre-planned plot points that everyone knows are going to end a certain way.
So how do you keep the dice without turning a game into Yahtzee, but with plot?
- Start with the roll, and let the roleplay happen afterward. The same players who usually operate with an advantage will usually be more than happy to take any excuse to be either awesome or awful, as the dice dictate.
- Call for rolls whenever there’s uncertainty. I’m not talking about making players roll to walk across a room, but don’t be afraid to ask yourself “how could this go wrong?” and then make players roll to avoid it. This doesn’t have to lead to failure (in fact, it usually shouldn’t), but keeping a list of complications on hand can make even otherwise non-combat scenes feel more like a game than a “listen to X talk for 30 minutes.” The Cypher system does a great job of this with its “intrusions” mechanic.
Don’t Put the Dice Into Your Mouth
- Actually? Just don’t do that. It’s gross.
Everyone loves to ignore advice (people are like that). What gaming advice do you like to turn on its head? Sound off in the comments or on the social media platform of your choice. Gimme that sweet, sweet engagement and help me avoid the Stew.
Big thanks to Will M. and Elena for their ideas and input on this one.