The Session That Changed Everything (#RPGaDay, Day 13)

August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:

Today’s question is this:

Describe a game experience that changed how you play. 

Um, they all have? I mean, not all, but I learn a lot from every campaign or one-shot I run. 

But I think the session that changed how I play the most was back in late 2012, when I was returning to the hobby. It was a session of Fiasco. I wrote up the session at the time, and you can see it here.

As for how it’s affected the way I play and run games: 

Well, for one thing, I think of game prep as less about populating hexes or rooms in a dungeon and more about thinking up interesting possibilities. Brainstorming is less of a direct process—think of something cool, stick it in a room or hex—and more of a process of generating a bunch of cool possibilities, and then asking myself how they can connect and link up in interesting ways. That’s straight out of designing a Fiasco playset. 

I also tend much more to give players the rope they need to hang their own characters. Where they tend to find a TPK unsatisfying when it feels like a case of the GM throwing a huge, unbeatable monster at them and giving them no way to run away, they tend to really get a kick out of their characters suffering horrible fates (or even dying) when it’s on them, when it’s a result of a mistake or miscalculation or decision they made.

I also have more appreciation for how humor in games can be in-game, and how good design can give room for that kind of humor. I dig out of character in-jokes, but I also really dig in-character ones, and setting things up so players can make one another laugh is fun and challenging work.

Finally, I really have changed the way I think of NPCs. My villains are rarely brilliant and evil anymore, even when they’re smart and even when they’re mixed up in bad, bad things: they’re almost always horribly broken, and almost always making horrible decisions. They can be selfish, but they’re not just Evil evil. That makes them more sympathetic and more compelling, but it also means I give the NPCs a lot of rope to hang themselves—or to hold out in front of PCs who want to hang them. Also, often the stuff of the adventure isn’t stuff they’ve orchestrated (like Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the James Bond narratives) and more like stuff that they messed with and went out of their control (like, say, Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but for a meaner, more self-pitying Mickey Mouse). 

I also have a stronger sense of how improvisation can fill in big blanks, as long as you fill in the rough outlines before play begins. One reason I said I think the art in Fiasco suits the game (the other day) was because the characters, when you start playing, are little more than a name and a small collection of traits: some relationships, maybe a need or an object, and a place to frequently go. In a sense, the characters start out as the kind of  stock figures we see in the art. And yet when I’ve played Fiasco, the characters seem to quickly take shape and spring to life. Though it doesn’t surprise me, based on past experience, I’ll note that I saw people with absolutely no RPGing experience quickly take roleplaying their characters immersively—speaking with the character’s voice, thinking about the character’s motivation, and so on.

Long backstories aren’t necessary, but asking simple questions (with simple answers) can help players to have the basic outlines in place that will later give rise to interesting roleplaying. (For example, establishing two PCs grew up in the same village gives the players a chance to slip into a kind of banter that seems to date back decades; two rogues in the same guild who both hate their guildmaster will probably rant against her and blame her for things, which can become an interesting hook to hang things upon. Lacking cues like that, you’re likelier to get the standard stock character dialog. I’m told there are games (like Beyond the Wall) that go even further in this, but even without checking them out, I think establishing a simple set of relationships, goals, and rivalries is useful as a springboard. (Hell, I even think the questionnaires from Dread could be useful for this purpose, with the right group.)

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