How to win at tabletop role-playing games.

All games have winning conditions. In soccer it is scoring the most goals by the end of the game. In chess it is capturing the opponent’s king.

The winning condition of an RPG is to tell an amazing story.

These are the elements of amazing RPG sessions:

  • Suspension of disbelief, immersion, verisimilitude.
  • Identification with the characters.
  • Making meaningful decisions.
  • Conflict, Struggle, Stakes and Rewards.
  • Suspense, Release and Catharsis.

Suspension of disbelief, immersion, verisimilitude.

These three concepts are interrelated and go together.

Suspension of disbelief is the process where, even though we know that something is not real, and that we can never believe that it is real, we stop disbelieving that it is real for long enough so that we can pretend that it is real. It is a willing illusion that we create for ourselves that something is real. We cannot enjoy any form of story without it.

Immersion is the act of becoming completely and deeply involved in the game.

Verisimilitude is the illusion of the game world being true or real.

While it is quite difficult to predict what will produce immersion, verisimilitude and the suspension of disbelief, it is much easier to say what will definitely destroy it.

Lack of coherence and consistency: This means that your world must be consistent and internally coherent, even if it is far out fantasy. If Space Magic works one way today, it has to work in exactly the same way tomorrow. If a pilot gets G-force trauma while doing a certain manoeuvre today, the same thing should happen tomorrow. Human brains are wired to detect contradictions and inconsistencies, because that is one way we discriminate between truth and lies. So if your world is inconsistent, it breaks the illusion of truth.

Breaking Narrative Authority, or If the World Seems Made Up On the Spot. Yes we know that the world IS made up on the spot (Star Lords is a game of improvisation, after all) but we don’t want to be reminded of it. Anything that reminds us of it breaks the illusion. A very common way to do it is to break the rule that players only have control over their own characters. Example: The characters find a box that none of them knew of before, they open it and ask the GM, “What’s inside?” and the GM says, “You tell me.” Since the GM asks the players to make the world up on the spot, they are reminded that the world IS made up on the spot and immersion is broken.

If the GM would say for instance, “There are three oranges in the box” those oranges will have the illusion of having been there the whole time.

Breaking Narrative Truth, or Rewinding the Story: Anything that is said at the table is true. This is why it is important to complete the mechanical stuff before narrating the effect of the roll.

For instance:

The player rolls a six.

GM: “He shoots you. The bullet slams into your chest, you are dying.”

Player: “I pay one Grit. It’s a partial success.”

GM: “OK, you are not dying. You hit the pirate on the jaw, sending him sprawling.”

Immersion is broken because the character died, and then suddenly is not dead any more.

The correct way to do it is as follows

The player rolls a six.

GM: “If you have grit, you can make that a seven. Do you want to?”

Player: “Yes”

GM: “You hit the pirate on the jaw, sending him sprawling.”

In the first example the mechanical stuff is interrupted by the GM, so she has to rewind the story. In the second, the Narrative Truth stays intact.

Intrusive game mechanisms: The mechanical part of the game should not be so involved that it breaks the flow of the storytelling. It is bad if the game has to stop so somebody can look up a rule in the book. It is even worse if there is an argument about a rule at the table. Star Lords has been designed so that all the moves may be printed on a few sheets. The moves that are used most will be easily remembered, so that after a session or two looking up the moves will only rarely be necessary.

Identification with the characters.

In stories we have to identify with the protagonists in order to be willing to share their journeys. In RPG’s the characters are the protagonists their players follow.

Players identify with their characters when they build their characters themselves, and then when they play them. It is while playing that the players find out who their characters are, what their motivations are and so on. For this reason it is good to have your players review their characters’ beliefs, goals and issues often, because if the players are invested in their characters, those things will not be static.

The GM can help the players identify with their characters by respecting the characters and being a fan of the characters. The story is not about the GM, it is about the characters. Give them the opportunity to shine!

Making meaningful decisions.

There is an apocryphal internet story of the Quantum Orc. It goes like this: The GM gives the players the choice to go either left or right. If they go left, they are attacked by an orc. If they go right, they are attacked by the same orc. So it is like observing the spin of a quantum particle: Until you observe it, the particle’s spin is both up and down. The act of observing the particle fixes as either up or down. The Quantum Orc is both to your left and to your right, until you observe it.

The Quantum Orc is the archetype of a meaningless decision.

Meaningful decisions are informed decisions. Compare: “You are at a split in the road. Do you go left or right?” with “You are at a split in the road. The sign to the left says ‘Manor House’ and to the right it says ‘Swamp’. Do you go left or right? Without some knowledge of the consequences of a decision, the decision is absolutely meaningless at the moment it is made. The first example is just a setup for a Quantum Orc.

Player’s decisions should influence and change the story on all levels. On the top level, the players should be able to choose the direction the campaign goes in. (For this reason, it is anathema for the GM to plot a campaign out in advance.) This means that whenever a specific chapter is completed, they should be presented with a choice of where to go next. Give them two or three possible next destinations. This principle goes down to the most immediate level, where players should be able to choose whether to go left or right.

This does not mean players have total control over what happens next. The GM mostly decides what happens next. The players choose how to respond to what happens and what the characters will do next. And often the dice determine the outcome.

Player’s should be given choices that will define their characters. The GM should challenge the character’s beliefs. If a character believes that “Life is sacred” give him the choice to preserve or destroy life. If her belief is that “Money rules the world”, give her the choice between money and her friends. Give the players moral dilemmas. Our moral choices are some of the most character-defining choices we can make.

Conflict, Struggle, Stakes and Rewards.

Conflict happens when something stops you from getting what you want. You cannot have a story without conflict. There just isn’t such a thing.

Usually conflict is between people who want the same thing, and both can’t have it. Or when people should want the same thing, but they don’t. We will say a lot more about conflict later.

Struggle is what happens when you engage in Conflict. Struggle is Difficult. It is Challenging. If the conflict is easily resolved, it is Boring.

Stakes are the reasons why there is conflict, and what makes the Struggle worthwhile. You are not going to run into a burning house to save your stuffed hippopotamus. You will do it to save your child.

  • Stakes have to be personal in order to be compelling. The pirates did not abduct anybody. They abducted your sister.
  • Stakes have to be personal in order to be compelling. The pirates did not abduct anybody. They abducted your sister.

Reward is what you get when you win the conflict or succeed in your struggle. The Reward must match the stakes. In the example above it is the reward of saving your child’s life. It is also the recognition you get for being a hero. It is the honeypot you get when you pull off a heist. It is the result of defeating the Big Bad Evil Guy. When you complete missions, you earn Rep with certain factions. In horror scenarios, it is simply surviving.

Reaching your Goals is a reward that earns you Grit.

Character progression is also reward; In Star Lords characters pay 5 Grit to buy more skill points, or to overcome issues.

Suspense, Release and Catharsis.

Suspense is not knowing if or when the Bad Thing you are dreading will happen. It is that feeling of dread that your character may die or that you may lose the Stakes. Suspense is like an elastic band: You pull on the elastic to create tension. The more tension in the band, the bigger the Release.

Ways to create suspense:

  • Character death must be possible. In some modern RPG’s the characters never die. Knowing that your character will win every fight creates the opposite of suspense, which is boredom. Make sure that your players know that character death is real!
  • Create suspense with description and setting: A derelict space hulk as setting creates one type of suspense, a sunny day at a garden tea another.
  • Show them what will happen if they fail. In fiction writing this is called foreshadowing. In a horror game, show a victim of the monster. If they are in a space battle, blow up some of their allies’ ships.
  • Raise the stakes: First they thought it was for the money. Now they are fighting for their lives.
  • Escalate the danger: As they get closer to the climax, throw tougher adversaries and challenges at them.
  • Let them race against the clock: The ship is decompressing – you have 4 minutes to hard vacuum. The bomb will go off in 3 minutes.

Release is the feeling of relief when the suspense ends. The reason you stretch an elastic band is to shoot it. The farther your stretch it, the better it shoots. The greater the suspense, the greater the relief. (Remember you don’t want to stretch the elastic band it till it breaks! )

Catharsis is like Release, but for other emotions. A good way to get catharsis is to make your players REALLY hate their enemies. Make your Big Bad Guys very evil. Make the conflict personal. Have them hunt the characters relentlessly. That way, when the characters finally defeat their nemesis, there is a feeling of catharsis – which is a powerful emotion.