This is the fourth and final article in this series — the home stretch. My definition of “roleplaying-intensive” is in Part 1, along with tips 1-3; tips 4-6 are in Part 2 and tips 7-9 are in Part 3.)

10. Driftable Mechanics

(This topic was suggested by Gnome Stew reader Irda Ranger — excellent suggestion, IR.)

Drift” just means taking an element — usually a mechanic — from one RPG and using it in another RPG. Sometimes that involves conversion from one system to the other, and sometimes it’s just a straight-up graft from system A to system B, with no changes to the element itself. If you like to tinker, chances are you’ve drifted something before — but you might not have done it specifically with roleplaying in mind.

When drifting a mechanic to amp up a roleplaying-intensive game, you should look for a game element that:

  • Is specifically related to roleplaying.
  • Ideally, ties roleplaying to a mechanical reward or benefit.
  • Is fairly simple.
  • Worked well in the source game, and seems like it would fit well in the destination game.

Burning Wheel, Luke Crane’s excellent indie fantasy RPG, provides two great examples of potential driftable mechanics.

The first, used by a friend of mine back in Michigan, is its system of Beliefs and Instincts. Beliefs are character traits that, when used in conjunction with appropriate roleplaying, earn you a bonus to a roll (in BW, and extra die); Instincts are things so ingrained in a PC that she does them automatically, like “Always sit with my back to a wall,” or “When danger is near, my sword is always drawn.” Instincts are a combination protective measure against “gotcha” GMs (as in, “You didn’t say your sword was drawn…” — delivered in a whiny, nasal tone, of course) and outward declaration of the roleplaying elements of a character, rolled up with a minor mechanical benefit.

The second is BW’s Duel of Wits — which is hands-down one of my favorite aspects of the game. It’s a set of detailed rules for engaging in PC vs. PC or PC vs. NPC debates, and while that might initially sound slightly less exciting than watching paint dry, the DoW has been the highlight of nearly every BW game I’ve ever played.

The key with the DoW mechanics is that they codify the outcome in game terms (both parties agree on what’s at stake, and the loser must abide by those terms — or escalate to violence), as well as providing rules for the inidividual debate maneuvers — and most importantly for our purposes, simple rules for getting bonuses to your rolls based on roleplaying. They also encourage everyone at the table to take one side or the other (the players debating the GM wouldn’t be nearly as fun), and the only way to participate mechanically is to participate in the roleplaying, as well.

Both Beliefs/Instincts and the Duel of Wits are self-contained systems that can be drifted into other games without breaking anything. Beliefs/Instincts need only a minor tweak to fit the resolution mechanics of the destination game, while the DoW would require some elbow-grease to adapt successfully.

11. Metagame Discussion

Broadly speaking, there are three schools of thought when it comes to metagame discussion:

  • Oh god, metagaming! It burns! I know of at least one group that has a metagame comment cup where players have to deposit a quarter if they speak out of character, and another game where everyone puts a hand on their heads when they want to speak OOC. I shit you not.
  • The wide middle ground — the Midwest of metagame discussion. This covers most groups I’ve gamed with: For the most part, everyone tries to talk in character as much as possible, but there’s no hard and fast rule and no penalties for drifting into metagame chatter. This usually works OK.
  • Mmmm, delicious metagaming. At the other extreme are groups where almost nothing is ever said in character. If everyone says, “My guy does X,” you’re in one of these groups. As a general rule, I’d rather be playing a boardgame than playing RPGs this way.

Wherever you fall on that spectrum, if you’re aiming to run a roleplaying-intensive campaign, metagame discussion at the table can be a real problem. Nothing takes your players (or you) out of character faster than a long, tangential discussion about rules minutiae or a lengthy out-of-character chat about topics that could easily be covered in character.

At the same time, when roleplaying decisions have mechanical consequences — and in this kind of game, they should have those consequences in spades — it’s important to make sure your players fully understand what they’re getting into. If you ban metagame discussion outright, you remove a great tool — your ability to put on your referee hat and explain the game mechanics of a critical situation — from your GMing toolbox.

Personally, I favor letting my players know at the outset that I’m planning on running a roleplaying-intensive game (a tip from part 1) — and that that kind of game works a lot better if we all try to speak in character as much as possible, and make decisions as characters rather than from a metagame perspective (even when doing so is less advantageous). If the game occasionally drifts into serious metagame talk, I gently remind my players to get back on track — and as much as possible, I try to avoid being the one responsible for it drifting there in the first place.

12. Evaluating Your Success

As with any trip outside your comfort zone as a GM, you can’t just try a bunch of stuff and not follow up on how it goes. How you follow up will depend on your group: Some players respond well to being asked for direct feedback, while others clam up and just say “It was fine” — and you should consider doing other things apart from asking for feedback.

Here’s a short list of ways you can see how your efforts at intensifying roleplaying are going:

  • Poll your players directly. Here’s some advice on getting player feedback.
  • Take notes. As we play, I write little notes about how things are going constantly, from “The guys didn’t really get into this” to “This was awesome!”
  • Noodle about it in your spare time. I use my mental back burners constantly, thinking about this aspect of my campaign (and others) in the car, in the shower, on the can, etc. And my tiny notebook is never far away.
  • Have an open door policy. Yes, this is a lame corporate term — but it can be pretty effective in this context. If your players know that a) you’re running a roleplaying-intensive game and b) you want to know what they think, sometimes they’ll tell you.
  • Watch your players. A couple sessions ago, two of my players got into an in-character shouting match that had one player’s spouse, who was downstairs, a little bit worried about what the hell we were doing in the gaming room. It wasn’t hard to tell that they were both really into it.

So there it is: 12 straightforward tips for running a roleplaying-intensive campaign, suitable for use with nearly any RPG. I hope they’re useful to you, and help you run the kind of game you want to run.

My personal test bed for this series — my ongoing Mage: The Awakening chronicle — is just two or three sessions away from its conclusion, and so far I’ve used every one of these tips except #10 (I didn’t drift any mechanics). I could definitely have done a better job on #8 (spotlight moments), and I still have a lot to learn on this whole topic myself, but apart from that I’m pretty happy with the results so far. From what I know, so are my players, but past that I won’t speak for them. (A couple of them read the Stew, so they may pop in to speak for themselves.)

Thanks for reading — and happy roleplaying!