Discourses on GMing Series 1 Post 6
There’s a saying you may have heard if you know a teacher: “I taught them but they didn’t learn it.”
Of course, no teacher can force a student to learn – they do have free will, after all. But often it isn’t enough just to tell students something and expect them to learn it – “teaching by telling and hoping” I’ve heard it called.
“Game design by telling and hoping” is the exact thing Jamison warns against in the introduction to this chapter, and it’s one of the most important things he says in the whole book.
What is the thing most GMs do when they first make an adventure and only then get their friends to make some characters? What criteria are they using to design the adventure so that it’s fun? At best they’re wildly guessing what their players will find to be fun. More commonly they just make something they think is cool and hope the players think so, too. In other words, they’re running their game by crossing their fingers and hoping the players just go along with it.
When is the last time the players “just went along with it”? The last blue moon, maybe? “Campaign that ran off the rails in the first 30 seconds” is possibly the most popular D&D story genre out there. In an online game you can advertise your game as-is and players will self-select: if they think it’s cool they’ll show up, if not they won’t. But in a more traditional game your campaign will only ever be fun by luck. That’s not acceptable. So, let’s give ’em what they want instead.
Jamison’s Rules for Good Characters
They must be likable. They should not be created randomly (e.g. rolling stats).
These are not wildly controversial opinions, and they make perfect sense given Jamison’s insistence on games about the story of a core cast of competent player-characters. I think there’s room for a randomly generated character in that kind of game, but they’re more like a challenge than a standard. They can easily be too weak, or too strong, or so on. Much easier to build them by hand.
Regarding likable characters this is much less obvious advice than it appears. I have heard a lot of stories over the years of chaotic evil loners, and even seen one or two myself. You know who doesn’t hang out in a tight-knit team? Chaotic evil loners. Again, maybe playing against type here could be a fun challenge, but it just isn’t the standard.
Finally, Jamison insists that characters begin relatively weak. Why? It allows for a wider variety of challenges across the length of a campaign, players like becoming more powerful (the SAPS – Status, Access, Power, Stuff – model describes this particular form of player motivation). Sounds reasonable to me.
The Character Interview Process
Core to Jamison’s method of adventure preparation is the idea of building it around the characters. Naturally, this rules out the idea of “discovering about your character in play” (the GM needs those details to build with!).
Before we get to the method itself, however, first I want to make a comment about the “Difficult or Impossible Roles” sidebar. I think a lot of what Jamison wrote in this box is, to be blunt, extremely inconsistent. Is it very hard to play a character of another gender or with a mental illness convincingly? Yes. But here’s the thing. We expect the GM to play dozens of characters like this throughout the course of a campaign. So then why shouldn’t a player be allowed to play just one? Be cautious? Sure. But disallow it? Seems invalid to me.
The character creation method, however, is both very consistent and very useful. It has four parts: Rights & Wrongs, Friends & Foes, Goals, and Quirks & Traits. These are all useful information, both for the player and for the GM.
Rights & Wrongs are critical information in the creation of challenges. Baby Orcs in particular may be overdone, but utilitarian dilemmas are a classic of drama: will you do the wrong thing for the right reason? How about if the characters don’t agree on what’s right and what’s wrong? The other key point here, I think, is how Sins & Virtues uses a six point scale. Six point scales force people to pick sides, sides lead to conflict, and conflict leads to a good story.
Goals are necessary because they are literally what the character (and thus the player) is interested in doing. It will reduce your plot hook rejection rate to nearly zero, which is ideal for Jamison’s method – no need to prepare extra material in case the players don’t bite.
Quirks and traits are mostly helpful for the player because they are a list of things the player should keep in mind while play-acting as their character, like accents, temperament, and common behaviors. A particular favorite of mine is to lift the concept of weaknesses for this section from the STALKER Scifi Roleplaying Game.
Finally, consider Friends & Foes. Together with character goals I think this is one of the best ideas in the whole book when it comes to minimizing wasted prep work. The reason for this is because of, as I mentioned in the last post, the IKEA effect.
How many times have you tried to introduce a villain and the players all just made fun of him? It sucks and it happens all the time. How do you get instant player buy-in? Easy. You get them to make the villain themselves! Nobody thinks their own creation is stupid, after all. With a player and the GM instantly bought in that makes buy-in from everyone else a lot easier to come by. Of course you don’t want anyone in charge of their own opposition, so the advice to hand the foe off to the GM for further work after coming up with the skeleton is sound.
The reason I like this trick so much is that it completely generalizes. Anything that really needs player buy-in should be something you try to get the players to have a hand in making. It’ll save you a load of headaches, believe me.
The preparations really heat up! Jamison’s method for fleshing out NPCs and creating the core of an adventure – the obstacles!