The most important lessons I’ve learned in 35 years of Game Mastering can be reduced to the following maxim:
“Design and present your game world and scenarios in terms of opportunities to be explored, challenges to be met, and consequential choices to be made.”
The Rule seems simple and obvious – so simple in fact, that it is easy to lose sight of it. Nonetheless, application of the Golden Rule solves many of the recurring problems that can drag down games.
To describe environments confidently, don’t try to create a perfect replica, mental or physical, of the adventure/scenario map in front of you. Instead, focus on what the PCs can possibly do because of the environment. The old “choose-your-own-adventure” books actually provide a good model here. In general, avoid getting bogged down conveying exact distances, dimensions, and positions, unless the PCs indicate that they are spending (valuable) time measuring such things. Instead, you might say say something like:
“The entire party can fit in this room without feeling crowded. You can exit it three ways – back the through the door you entered, by a door in the far wall, or by one on the right-hand wall. The stone walls appear ordinary, but in this dim light you would have to get closer to be sure. In the center of the room is a table with some potentially interesting objects on it. Do you want to investigate the table, more closely examine the room itself, leave, or do something else?”
This, incidentally, is why it can often be better to employ a somewhat abstract map. A gorgeous map seems to demand to have its details accurately conveyed, often at the expense of actual game-play. Even if you use a graphical battlemat, call attention to the specific choices the PCs can (or must) make as a result of the environment. This will help you to maintain pacing. By suggesting courses of action, you prevent the choice-paralysis that can occur when people are presented with too many possibilities. Of course, for some genres (particularly Horror), you should always describe some details of the environment before suggesting possible actions, because it will prime minds of the Players to make genre-appropriate decisions. Also, there is a difference between suggesting actions, and limiting them. The strength of a tabletop RPG is that the Players can do unexpected things.
You can prevent dull social encounters by remembering to make each one an obstacle to some goal, or a point at which the PCs must must commit to some consequential course of action. Perhaps the swordsmith is the only one who can fix your damaged weapons, but he doesn’t like your kind at all. The Duchess demands to know now, whether or not you will assassinate her rival. Always place some kind of complication on every social encounter that you actually play out, except those meant as narrative exposition. Run your social encounters this way, and you can encourage good role-playing even among combat-focused (who are really “challenge-focused”) players.
You can better structure your game sessions by remembering the Golden Rule. If your game revolves around exploring dungeons (or a monster-filled wilderness), each room (or “hex” on the map) should be an opportunity (for rest, perhaps), a challenge (from a monster or trap, for example), or a decision point (to possibly change the direction of travel). If your game is meant to be played out in narrative “scenes”, each scene revolves around facing a major challenge, or making a consequential decision. The scene begins with the setup of that challenge (or decision), and once it is faced (or made), the scene can end.
To avoid “Railroading”, remember that at every opportunity, the Player Characters must be able to make a choice that has consequences. If the plot of your game will continue along the same path no matter what the Players do, you must insert some real choices with potentially catastrophic consequences. Ask yourself: “Are NPCs causing every significant situation, and making every important decision? Will everything still happen the the same way if the PCs just stand around shooting each other with water guns?” If the answer is yes, you know what to do. Always give the PCs opportunities to change their environment. Allow for the possibility of failure.
Overcome creative blocks by conceiving a scenarios as a series of linked opportunities, challenges, and choices.
Give PCs opportunities to explore unknown places, meet important people, receive honors, find potential lovers, or obtain unusual retainers. Remember, the game is the PCs’ story, and from that point of view even the most important NPCs exist only to provide opportunities for the Player Characters.
Look at the abilities of the PCs, and create your scenarios around using them. Did someone take the (possibly assumed to be useless) “Pottery” skill? Good. Include a situation where accurately discerning different types of clay will give a vital clue to the identity of a thief or murderer. Or, perhaps knowing that a particular type of ceramic jar is intended to break easily might be vital to avoiding a trap. Design that trap!
You can make an entire night’s gaming by first writing down six to ten choices that must be made (such as “left or right”; “forward or back”; “red, “green, or “yellow”; etc.), and then deciding why those choices must be made. For example:
- The first thing the PC musts do when entering the dungeon is decide whether to go left, or right.
- If they go right, they encounter a seemingly unbeatable monster – do they advance, or go back?
- If the PCs had initially gone left, maybe they reach a wall with red, green, and yellow buttons – which do they press? Is there a clue, perhaps in the appearance of the monster in the right-hand passage?
So remember, when you feel anxious about how to design a scenario, or run a game, just apply the Golden Rule.