This is the second in my series of elements of Gamemastering with various examples, trying to help provide a different viewpoint for improving you skills or at least challenging them.
Today it is about three points in particular, which playing on school theme I classify as the Three R’s just for cuteness sake. They don’t really have much tying them together besides the simple fact that they all start with R. Responsibility, Reacting and Revisionism.
Responsibility was touched on my Player Consequences and Campaign Design post, talking about how to have player actions be used to shape future campaign paths. Another example of this comes from Player Responsibility in The Walking Dead, which features a quote:
“Ultimately The Walking Dead isn’t a game about player choice, it’s one about player responsibility. Where choices drive us to feel guilt, remorse and have us second-guessing ourselves. But at the same time, using these very instilled attitudes to covertly and expertly guide the player along its pre-written narrative track.”
Think about the fact that The Walking Dead games are, as the author states in the quote, a pre-written track, where everything that the game is going through is already pre-determined, and all you get is to choose certain options of how things turn out. Small drops of water in the flow of the river that is the storyline. Players form connections to the NPCs, to the situation they are in and these people become like family, curious to see how their storyline plays out. Much like the connections people get to tv shows, wanting to see what the cast gets into; why else would a show about nothing be so popular?
Detailed NPCs and a world for them is one way to do it, giving people a reason to want to be connected with the world, people they are interested in. This is something that I touched on in the first Gamemaster post in the Sympathy bit where I talked on the “Hartz-Felgur Principle” and the Badger Falls town, but it can be hard to do on the fly. Try creating people you know or fictional characters, but try to shake stereotypes up. For example, Officer O’Hara being the cop or the muscular thug or the Dudley Do Right heroic champion. Sometimes, they work, but don’t make it every time.
Reacting is probably one of the hardest actions to do, especially when you’re looking to try and build on sympathy and responsibility to make place for people to connect to. But even on a general level, the idea I focus on when talking about reacting is essentially Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Every action is attended by an equal and opposite reaction. The players do something in the campaign and the GM counters by having something be affected by this change. Sometimes it may be something small, like mentioned in The Farm story, where the players took a change of pace inspired by the events of the game, or you can start sometimes going into larger things like if they start clearing out a lair of monsters then others may move in or the city might be able to expand and cause other sorts of problems.
It can be sometimes a matter of how will your NPC react, usually this requires at least some sort of understanding of the principle characteristics that define them. Usually a few basic points, enough to come up what drives them. There is a basic model of Five Personality Traits that psychology uses, but you can use other systems to come up with some behavioural traits or even a full fleshed out peronality with some simple dice rolls. Most GM guides and similar will have some sort of system for determining this sort of thing in various brush strokes.
Sometimes, you’ll need to take a few moments to gather your thoughts and figure how someone will react or what something that could happen needs to happen. Take a few minutes and call a recess from the game for snacks and bathroom breaks and while the players plot out their next moves, you can be doing the same, figuring out exactly how you want the next twist to go. Don’t be afraid to push the limits, come up with the occasional crazy, off the wall thing, and if the players ask, comment o about how strange it is and let the players stew tying to figure it out.
Revisionism is something of a mixed bag when you talk with GMs. Usually, they’ll tell you that when you provide a challenge and your players have found an interesting way to overcome it, do not suddenly change things on them to make it harder on them for the sake of becoming harder. Instead, what you want to do is more about the development of previous points into complex storylines, weaving things i there that the PCs may not have seen, and making it an engaging set of facts.
This may make you sound like a conspiracy theorist if you look at it that way, coming up with justification as to why the events happen. Especially if you start with big movers and shakers behind the scenes calling the shots, especially ones the players did not know about. Sometimes, that will be the path you want to take and it can work, so long as you do not deny players their victory. For example, there will be times you have made an epic villain and because of a great roll or a great combat plan or something else you didn’t see coming, that the players will end up beating your big bad. Perhaps they play on the character’s greed to be the most powerful and turn them into a Genie like in Disney’s Aladdin or perhaps its something like they just roll a critical attack that would sufficiently kill your NPC, like a headshot. What you never want to do is come up with some reason why the NPC doesn’t die, like an intervention from above (unless there is a story reason for it), instead you want to grant them these wins but revise some of your details to account for this possibility. Maybe the true villain is like Cyrano De Bergerac, hiding just off to the side, telling the villain you just took out what to do, so that they could grow in power without taking the risk. Maybe your villain will escape from whatever jail or find some way to get reincarnated or strike back another way, such as in the film ‘Ghost in the Machine’ where a killer somehow gets digitized and can manipulate electronics, using them as a way to kill people.
Also, sometimes this revisionist history can allow you to have some fun and extend challenges by changing things just enough to make people wonder if it was the situation from day 1. For example, in Chrono Trigger, there is an early boss pretending to be the Chancellor of the past King and you uncover it and put an end to them, restoring order and saving the lost Queen before returning to the future and arrested by the Chancellor who wants to see you be executed. You escape and return later as the chancellor is attempting to basically get a vote of No Confidence in the King forcing them to give up the throne, and when you foil this, you find it is a decendant of the monster you killed in the past who is out for revenge, and possibly could have been the chancellor all along, explaining the reason it wanted you out of the way from the start of the game.
Just remember, while you can add plot twists and revisions on things that have not been revealed, things he players know cannot be altered. You can change the perception of the events by showing a twist that what the person believes is not quite exactly what happened. Remake of Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels teases the viewers with showing one thing that is happening and then at the end there’s a reveal of exactly what happened to make the plan come off seamlessly. M. Night Shyamalan did this with horror a lot, but it then became the expected twist ending that changed the entire movie as you found out that some throwaway element is actually the key. Spy movies can play on this trait a lot. RPGs, however, it is usually a way to make the past fit the story you need to tell from a retcon perspective, tweaking things to fit the story, but it can sometimes make a great moment when the players finally have a ‘Usual Suspects’ moment where it all clicks and everything hits home that clues were there if they bothered to give them the attention deserved. John Wick’s ‘Play Dirty’ book talks about this, especially in the story of his NPC Jefferson Carter. The ‘Hit ‘Em Where It Hurts’ article sets the stage on how things operate but the follow-up really shows how involved players will become as they piece things together like a dog trying to get any meat off a bone and will not let the thing go as they go back over old information to work it all out to get what they need.