Category Archive: Mastering the Game

Advice on running RPG's

Feb 17 2012

Terminology of Gaming: Traditional Games

If anyone checked out my addiciton to podcasting post and how I’m trying to deal with it, or at least turn it into something positive, then they know I listen to a ton of podcast’s. In doing so I hear a lot of weird terms being thrown around the podiosphere. The guys over at The Jank Cast use “Trad gaming” and “Story Now games”. I heard the Podgecast  talking about character driven games but not in the way that I would of defined them. If your a podcast listener you’ve heard lots of people using various words like Plot and Plot points, Drama, Pathways, interaction, Roleplaying vs Rollplaying, 3.5, OGL, D20, Savaging something, Bennies, GMless games, Mechanics reinforcing your games style, Gamerati, and a host of other terms and concepts which sort of float around while the gamer’s try to figure out what they mean. Since so many people think a variety of things, and I like to take an academic view of everything, I figured I’d define some terms for myself starting with what “Trad” or Traditional games are in my opinion.

Traditional Games

The best article I could find on the web concerning traditional gaming was on the Socratic Design blog from 2006. Here are the bullet points:

  • The GM is imbued with ultimate authority.
  • The GM is charged with creating entire plot and setting for the game.
  • Players play one and only one character.
  • Players are encouraged to stay in ‘Actor Stance’.
  • There is a Task Resolution System.
  • Difficulties are set by GM fiat.
  • A GM receives minimal guidance or tools from text to cary out his duties.
  • Character Advancement is tied to increasing statistical values.
  • Characters can die.
  • Dice are used as the sole randomizer for play.
  • There is an assumption of long term play.
  • A Character’s goals are not mechanically supported in plot/setting creation.

I’m not sure all these point still stand up today but I think it’s a good place to start.

Does the GM still have ultimate authority in traditional games? I think so. I’m not saying a good GM doesn’t make it feel like the players have more control, or even invests his players with power, but in reality the rules of most traditional games state a GM has all the power when it comes to the world at large. The narrative control is his. The players can effect the world, but the GM decides if the players actions have any lasting effect. Players can call bullshit, not play anymore, or even attempt to derail the game, but they don’t have any real mechanical recourse to alter the story besides with their actions. If their actions aren’t taken into account by the GM, which according to the rules is the GM’s right, then the player effectively has no power. I understand people don’t play games this way, but old school games have these rules and ideas explicitly stated. It does raise some interesting questions about games existing today. I wonder if 3.5 D&D is a traditional game. The rules have a bunch of mechanics empowering the players if they act in specific ways: Grapple, jumping, tumbling, killing, spell casting, and a lot of other actions are specifically defined as if it was a war game. The GM doesn’t have ultimate authority over the game so does that mean the 3rd edition of D&D isn’t a traditional game? I’m not sure. I always thought it was. What do you think? Maybe I misread something in the PHB or DMG somewhere.

Is the GM in charge of creating the entire plot and setting for the game? I would say yes. I can’t think of a single traditional game exception where the players have control over the plot of the game mechanically. Call of Chuthulu, Runequest, Paranoia, 1st Edition and 2nd Edition D&D, and any World of Darkness game would be considered traditional. They all rely on a GM to create plots and settings in their rules. Can a GM be influenced by a players idea’s or a characters actions? Sure, if the GM lets their players influence them but the players have no mechanical recourse to influence the story. So a game like 3.5 D&D fits the bill, but a game like The Dresden Files by Evil Hat Productions doesn’t. The game has the players help with creating the setting at the beginning and can influence the plot by helping to decide on which themes the game will revolve around. Kicking it back to the first point The Dresden Files has something called Aspects which can be placed on scenes and NPC’s. Characters also have them. These aspects can be leveraged to create scenes the players want but not to such an extreme where they have real control. The GM is still in charge. I would conclude The Dresden Files is more of a hybrid, but only because of the setting creation segment of the game, not the scenario play. Is 3.5 D&D the opposite where the players have a lot of control over the scenario play but no control over the setting and plot creation? What do you think?

This is getting a bit long so I’ll be cutting it here for now. Feel free to chime in on the first two points and when I come back with part two I’ll question some more about what makes a traditional game.

Feb 10 2012

How to be a Dungeon Master

So, you want to be a Dungeon Master? Well, I’ve got good news. It’s an easy process. You can be a Dungeon Master in 3 easy steps:


  1. Purchase the game you wish to play. Starter Sets are usually good.
  2. Gather a group of friends together, who are interested in playing the game.
  3. Play the game.

Congratulations. You are now a Dungeon Master. It is not complicated or difficult.

Stay tuned for our next installment, where I will discuss how to be a Good Dungeon Master. There is a little more involved to it, but it still isn’t anything you can’t handle. Especially after you’ve come this far.


Game On!

Feb 09 2012

Cultivating Players

I’ve been noticing a trend with some of my friends. They say they’re A list gamer’s. I don’t believe in A list gamer’s, F list gamer’s, or anything in between. I think there are types of gamer’s and gamer’s we prefer to play with. I’ve seen this by running games for a lot of different people: power gamer’s, storyteller’s, improv folks, rules guys, dice rollers, even passive watchers. (I always push them to be more active) Heck, just pick up any of those guides to game mastering with the sections on the different gamer types and I’ve played with them all. In seeing all the different types of gamer’s out there I started wondering why those A list gamer’s out there weren’t showing other gamer’s what was so great about they played? Why not cultivate them into their type of “A plus gamer”?


I have my own idea’s about what makes a great game and how to run them. To that end I try and project those idea’s onto the people I’m playing with, but I also listen to them. Players have their own idea’s for what makes a great game. As a GM you need to take their idea’s and meld them with your own. If you start listening and absorbing what’s going on at the table you’ll do two things, grow as a game master, and make your players more receptive to your own idea’s because you’re taking theirs. It’s an enlightening and satisfying experience.


I’m a 4e D&D fan and I’m a firm believe this game can be anything you want it as long as you make the tactical combat experience a part of it. Keith Baker, creator of the Eberron campaign setting, believes much the same as I do. If you want to hear some of his thoughts on 4e D&D and gaming in general go check out the Bear Swarm podcast, episode 122. It doesn’t have much to do with cultivating players but it can shed some light on the true flexibility of 4e and any game system if you give it some thought. Here’s the link:

The point about 4e is pertinent because I have a 3 year long and still running campaign. This game has helped me change my own GMing style and cultivate a group I enjoy playing with more than all others. The group was originally a bunch of 3.5 players interested in playing a game I was running on the word of their long time 3.5 DM. He’d played in some games I’d run and liked me as a GM. Knowing they were mostly hack and slash power gamer’s I crafted a pilot game with those thoughts in mind. The campaign frame put them all in a mercenary company which I required they have a reason for being in. I didn’t want elaborate back stories, just some simple motivations and I helped give them understand their place in the world. The introduction scenario had them sneaking into a besieged city with the mission of opening the gates. So I played to the crowd, gave them a light reason to hold them together, and worked with them to understand and enjoy their place in the world. Over time I started introducing elements from other games and idea’s they and I weren’t used to using. Narrative control is one example of this. Here’s what I did:


I’d come to several points during this campaign where they had the choice to go different ways in the story. They would choose and I would write the adventure. Those have been the best games of the campaign. Why? Because they got to pick what they wanted to do and weren’t led anywhere. They were invested in their choice. This simple idea taught me this:

Run the game they want your way

Because of this seven word idea I have people playing characters who care about a world and its story, populated with people and places which feel real to them. Their characters have families and friends, experienced loss, pain, and love. They’ve schemed, changed, progressed, died, come back from the dead, and committed suicide of their own volition. The players aren’t just the hack and slashers they came to the table as. They’re storytellers and thespians. They can still hack and slash with the best of the but this isn’t a bad thing, in fact it made me raise my game, get more creative, and think outside the box. If 4e is about the encounter then I’ve made the encounter a tactical and story intensive situation. Things happen during fights. Character talk while trying to kill each other. NPC’s show up and do unexpected things in the players opinions but are just playing to their motivations. Saying the wrong or right thing is just as important as rolling a 20 or a 1. What they do has as much of a mechanical effect as what they roll. I create these rules, sometimes on the fly and sometimes with forethought, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes to reward and punish my players so I can guide them to decision points, sometimes to get across the feel of a situation, but I always listen to my players and what they think. It’s a cycle of give and take.


I can’t stress enough that you should listen to your players. If you do and implement their idea’s into your game it will be much easier to mold the game into what you want. The best part is your players will influence and improve your game as much as you improve their’s. After all, the RPG experience is one of group storytelling even if your story is just about killing monsters and taking their stuff.


Good Night and Good Gaming

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jan 09 2012

Why are Zombies so Cool?

Zombies are a staple of geek and gamer culture. In the recent past I took a class called  Critical Analysis where I learned how to look at literature through a bunch of different lenses. Being a gamer and a geek I started analyzing everything including zombie stories. When it came to the walking dead I asked myself why are they’re so cool these days and how can they be used in games? This is what I came up with:

1) Zombies are interesting backdrops to telling stories about people.

Zombie stories are really about people and how they react under duress. As the saying goes “stressful situations reveal true character”. There isn’t a much more stressful situation that having hordes of undead people trying to rip your head off so they can get a little refreshment.

2) Zombies used to be people

Every zombie used to be a human being and having humans, even if they’re dead, eating humans is creepy. Take this a step further and have some of the zombies be people the characters were close too and you have drama.

3) There are always more

No matter how many zombies might get killed there are always more coming from somewhere. They are legion and they keep adding to their ranks as the living die. It’s only a matter of time before they over run everything.

4) Infection creates tension.

Once someone is infected the time bomb is set. Your dead, you just haven’t got there yet. A sense of doom is created. This situation creates the moral question. Do we kill the infected now or wait till they turn. You can even change the situation and give the infected hope. Make it be known an anti virus is out there somewhere. What is a character willing to do and how far will they go to get that anti virus. (See point 1)

I think this is one of the places where fantasy loses out. There aren’t too many examples of infection causing people to turn into zombies in fantasy literature or games. The Warcraft universe is the biggest exception I know of. I would suggest using that trope in your games some time. Invent a disease track, have only a few ways to get rid of the disease, and see what happens. It’ll add another layer to your games. Now go and have some fun watching your players wrestle with those hard moral choices and remember zombies are a setting for character drama.

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