Mastering the Game
Elements of Mechanics: System and Session
The second category addresses the issue of monitoring and directing the flow of player/game master interaction, referred to as Game Session Mechanics. Both elements have a strong effect on the quality of game play and should be equally weighed when pulling together a troupe and generating adventures.
System mechanics controls the interface between the player character and the adventure setting. A character is the product of the player's imagination and must function within the campaign setting. The campaign setting exists within the imagination of the game master, and needs a measurable system to fathom a character's impact within that setting. The treatise that unifies both imaginations in order to play the game is the game system and its governing mechanics.
Session mechanics regulate the pace of game and adventure flow by directing the player's turn and timing to generate character interaction, story drama, and playing satisfaction. Turn and timing plays just as important a role as the system mechanics because it establishes the nature of player/character interaction. Without direction, disarray and miscommunication will corrode the game session into a free for all of debates and puns. Good game flow will help maintain the quality of content and a comfortable momentum that will promote good player involvement.
Game System Mechanics
The mechanics of a game system are the rudimentary basics that define and preside over all game variables. Defining the physical and mental interaction parameters that dictate the rules of engagement, game mechanics embodies an operating relationship between imaginative constructs. System mechanics also act as a checks and balances between player and game master to clarify challenge discrepancies as they occur.
There are many game systems that employ a variety of rules. The two branches of mechanical systems are mathematical and semantic. In most cases, a synchronization of the two is used to create a well-defined formulation of mental constructs and mathematical measurements. The purpose of these rules systems is to provide a method of handling encounters. An encounter is the term used to explain what happens when a player character tries to influence the campaign setting in which it exists. Any time a player manipulates his character's skill, uses its innate abilities, or just "takes a chance" in the story adventure, a method of determining success or failure is required. That method is a dice roll based on the character's specific ability roll and the appropriate campaign variable representing the challenge.
In any game system, a character has an assemblage of numbers that constitutes its existence within the campaign setting. These numbers include physical statistics, skill and talent bases, and equipment or tool modifiers. All these factors represent a character's Functional Ability Score. Everything in a campaign setting must be written up in game system terms to determine exactly how a character effects change within the setting as a result of the player's encounter. This Game System Variable is any numerical designation that quantifies its existence. Game system variables range from weather and motion to the density of solid objects to the construction of characters and creatures. These two factors are then compared to determine a Success Realization Number. Once this number is established, the dice are rolled. The success realization number can represent a skill roll, combat roll, random encounter, or other cognitive interface between GM and player at any one point. Depending on the game system being used, different dice generate different ranges of numbers to control the probability of a situation in an attempt to measure the relative difficulty. This process governs a player character's imagined action occurring within the gamemaster's imagined environment, taking into account fateful variables such as blunders, luck, happenstance and other unexplainable phenomena.
In the instance of a partial or total semantic game base, a similar system of interaction is used to create an SRN, but is controlled by preset tables, comparisons, logic, and additional decisions on the part of the game master. Rules for probability variance are also built into dice less games, but they usually involve a comparative system dependent on a judgment call by the GM.
Understanding game system mechanics boils down to preparation and experience. A game master should study a system in depth before directing a game because it is the rules of the game. Directing a game without knowing the rules of the game is an exercise in futility. One way to quickly absorb game mechanics is to be a player before running a game. It allows a positive acclimatization of the system into the psyche contributing to a greater confidence in system operations. It also helps to understand how players approach certain challenges which can positively influence the construction of future adventures.
HERO System Mechanics
The HERO system is primarily an "effect based" system founded on a system of math supported by a network of basic semantic definitions. Each definition is used to create and justify every element in the game setting and uses a base 10 scale of logarithms to keep each item in a comparative perspective. An example encounter using this system could be a player who believes his character to be stronger than a bar room bully (NPC) in a scene. The player uses his character to challenge the bully to an arm wrestling match to settle their differences (which constitutes the encounter). All characters begin with a base STRength of 10, and add character points to that statistic as they see fit when they create their character. The player may compare his imagined strength (STR on the character sheet) with the strength table in the rule book and decide that his character's STRength is 15. The GM knows the bully's STRength is 11 and plays the scene up to spotlight the character. The match is close but the hero has an advantage. When the GM directs the encounter, the hero uses 3d6 (three six sided dice) and the bully receives 2d6, figured by dividing their Strength by five. This calculation is based on the game system's design of 1D6 per five character points.
The odds are in favor of the hero, but the unexpected results of the dice add the element of excitement to the scene. The game system's base creates the character's statistics and each skill, power, or other ability score is figured by the GM, behind the scenes, to determine the outcome by comparing the mathematical advantages and disadvantages of each character during an encounter. This is a simple example of HERO game mechanics, but represents the fundamental basics of the system.
After an understanding of the math portion of the HERO system is achieved, any adventure in any game genre may be created. There is an inherent mathematical balance within the system that affords a game master a unique imaginative versatility because all player/campaign interactions are broken down into basic building blocks. These building blocks are the various basic instructions defined by the system. This gives a game master the ability to use the HERO system as an imaginative construction set, capable of building any campaign setting with a relative ease.
During the creation and design of game material, a game master must use game mechanics to define the campaign setting and the NPC's to identify where the success realization of the story lies. To do this, a translation of fictional material into situational variables complete the interface. The first step should be towards published source books. Vehicles, creatures, equipment and other such necessary items were written up within the confines of the game system during its initial design. These game system variables have been play tested by the creators and credence should be given to this source information to maintain game balance. Use this source material as an index to design your own game system variables. Do this by comparing what you know about the indexed source material and your game system variable to put the game balance into context. Flesh it out with a little real world research and compare it with some well known variables such as a reoccurring villain or location during game preparation. Out of the comparison comes a translation of thoughts into numbers that are applied for success realization. This micro feasibility study will become habit over time, and the process of "writing up" game setting variables will become second nature. In addition, the ability to translate will give a game master the ability to breathe life into imagination and fantasy. Anything that you can imagine, you can create for your players to enjoy while keeping your inner child alive by exploring the world around you with a pristine curiosity.
There are two types of challenges within a role playing game; role playing and combat strategy. Role playing challenges revolve around staged drama and a story plot, but rely partially on game mechanics when the situation involves any of the character's functional ability scores. Combat oriented challenges can be fun and exciting and usually generate the bulk of a game system's rules. Combat may take the form of standard hand to hand and weapons combat to magic, psionics or superpowers in relation to the genre of story being told.
The challenge of the game depends on the difficulty of discovering and then attaining the story's final goal. A game master describes a series of scenes and characters for the players to grapple with and then use their characters to reach the goal within the parameters of the story using role playing and combat strategy. It is the gamemaster's job to gauge the ability of players, their characters, and create the game challenge by putting adversity between the characters and the story goal. This can be designed using antagonistic characters, mental puzzles or obfuscating the goal completely.
A game master must learn to develop a game challenge unique to the game troupe being directing in comparison with the abilities of the adventure party, individual characters, and the theme of the adventure. Some traditional factors that can affect the level of a story challenge are duration, perception, quantity, and type. Duration determines how long the characters are in conflict and challenges their ability to endure adversity over the course of a story or campaign. Perception of a game challenge by the players is a directly controlled variable that gives a GM mid game adjustment. As long as characters don't know where the conflict is, they will be unable to resolve it or even realize the true source. The quantity of a game challenge is easily manipulated by increasing or decreasing the amount of internal and external conflicts in an adventure and adjusting the mathematical success possibilities. The type of goal defines the specific nature of the internal or external conflict.
The challenge of combat strategy is created mechanically by empowering antagonists with abilities equal to or greater than the characters in the adventure party. This can also be created using lesser powered characters, but in greater quantity and may have special knowledge or abilities that compensate for the power inequity. Role playing strategies vary with plot and character types, but the game mechanics of creating challenge are similar. The character sheet data is used during adventure generation to build a system of successive mechanical challenges. Looking back at the barroom encounter, the GM would have prepared material in the case of a barroom brawl. As a minor encounter, the bully was given less functional ability than the PC representing a minor combat challenge.
One you have worked out the basics, think about the situation. In combat, players will use their characters resources and every option available to knock black hats and their henchmen into the dirt. Control combat scenes with the precision of preparation and know how, not fumbling through every punch and laser blast. Use your reference material to set up combat scenes taking into account for terrain, strategic entrances and exits, surprises, personalized NPC tactics and motivations relevant to the battle.
Any game challenge is whatever element stands between the characters and the story goal. The thing to remember is how they prevent the characters from reaching the goal in both terms of mechanics and story intrigue. Always remember that the area between the player's expectations and the unknown elements of the story increases is where the game excitement lies.
Game Session Mechanics
Game session mechanics can be outlined with three principles; control, game flow, and adventure flow. Control handles the aspects of guiding players and their characters through the story. Game flow outlines the dynamic informational interchange between game master and player to drive game momentum. Adventure flow helps organize and tag scenes, story impact and delivery.
Keeping game content on the right track without negatively impacting on a story takes control. Without it, the combination of troupe's story contributions becomes an unfocused jumble of rampant ideas. This can cause situations to arise that pit the game master against the players and the players amongst themselves. To lead rather than bully takes a little diplomacy and to control without arrogance takes Gamemastering.
By harnessing the subtle techniques of story and player control, a GM can create an atmosphere of positive participation. The story and flow will be perceived as something crafted rather than forcefully hammered into place. Out of necessity and a desire to run a good game session, here are a few tricks of the trade that most gamemasters develop sooner or later:
Breadcrumbs: Repeating minor events or objects that all hint, or blatantly lead to the story goal. Some examples are: Missing children mysteriously appearing with a cryptic message scrawled across their foreheads, actual breadcrumbs that lead to a candy house, the repeated squashing of evil green witches.
Control Character: A control character is an exceptional NPC that has a strong link to the party. This character has a much influence over the characters because it controls either the characters or something that they need. There is always a price to pay, and usually is service or deed. This technique is especially useful for a novice GM to practice guiding characters through a story. Some examples include:
A high ranking government official that funds and supplies a PC team in return for joining the organization and performing missions.
An omnipotent (and short) wise man who reveals himself to the heroes at the beginning of each adventure and prods them into the story by offering mysterious clues only to disappear before he can help them return home.
A pair of sophisticated but loveable robots that constantly, if albeit inadvertently, wander off into epic adventures with only the heroes to save them.
Control Idea: A control idea is a campaign goal with an encompassing external conflict that indelibly links the PC's. It is similar to a control character, but operates on a level that allows players more freedom to develop their characters. The beginning of a campaign that is generated using a control idea begins with an imposed character bond between all the player characters. The characters usually begin together rather than rely on the "inn scene", for instance:
The PC's escape from a prison shuttle and must prove their innocence.
A hideous beast threatens to destroy the PC's collective homeland if they do not go on a quest.
The PC's are all stranded on an island with little or no supplies (except coconuts) and must find a method of returning home.
The PC's have a common internal condition as part of their connection; ideology, religion, etc.
Control Group: Pull a party together by making them members of, or beholden to the same organization or a a Power Base. The characters could start out already together, or their initial adventures could quickly pull them together. A control group could be a military organization, mega-corporate employ or even the larger stance of a government. Any group that has some base of resources and contacts that may be accessed by the PC's.
Deadly Hint: If this hint was a snake, the characters would be dead. You've heard the phrase now figure it out. This is the hint that's wearing it's wolf's clothing right there in front of your bottle bottomed glasses there egghead.
Detail Chaining: Any clue divulged by NPC's or other interactive element that is a lead to the next leg of the adventure. This differs from goal chaining in that the information does not directly relate to the character's current or successive scene.
Chaining details may have any length of time in between scenes and is a strong method of linking adventures in a campaign. An example of detail chaining is the evil prince who desires his father's throne. The queen calls the heroes to investigate a missing court jester that leads to an evil deed done by a royal guard.
The royal guard panics during the investigation and contacts the prince. Eventually the heroes escape the trap set by the prince, foil his evil plan, and live happily ever after. Each segment has a connection to the next within itself waiting to be discovered or revealed. The connection could be an object, event, or character and not necessarily part of the superficial presentation of the adventure.
Detail Seeding: Detail seeding is a technique that differs from detail chaining in that the details left for each scene occur in no particular order or importance. The information is usually highlighted so that a player may make note of it, and pay attention in hopes of applying the information later on. Detail seeds may apply to the next scene, session, or adventure and may not directly lead to a clue, but might only illuminate an interesting adventure detail.
Play Dumb: Sometimes players have the answers but don't realize it. Sometimes an effective tool is to be as dumb as a box of rocks. Refuse to understand until the player explains his plight a few times and inadvertently answers his own question. Don't be belligerent or obviously stupid. Play the role of someone who really doesn't understand until every body understands and when they realize they have just answered their own question, don't forget to smile.
Glowing Clue: Don't be afraid to stretch out a mystery with an elusive clue, just keep the puzzle solvable. If a mystery is taking too long, use the glowing clue. It's the clue that presents itself at the right moment. Something that is in the character's immediate environment that reveals the hidden information; A newspaper article that falls out of an old book, a reconstructed computer file, or even an anonymous phone call. Anything that makes the players and their characters slap he side of their head and exclaim, "it was right here all along!"
Goal Chaining: Each supportive goal in a story directly leads to the next supportive goal until the final goal is achieved. A simple example is a treasure map that leads to a treasure chest that contains another map, and so on.
G.O.D.'s Wrath: Sometimes it becomes necessary for a GM to exercise blatant control. This should be minimized, and players usually know it's coming as a result of their behavior. G.O.D.'s wrath (Game Operations Director) manifests itself as particularly ferocious opponents, ruthless lightning, or a deafening "STOP IT!" thundering from above the clouds.
Highlighting: Highlighting is a method of communication that enhances key words, phrases, or ideas that absolutely must be understood by the players to continue the adventure. As a GM, you must remember that you are dealing with minds cape and neither you nor the players has telepathy. If you can not supply players with enough information for their characters to successfully navigate a scene, highlight the key elements. There are two methods of highlighting and their use depends on the speed and importance of the scene.
Verbal Highlighting is a technique that isolates key information by placing a slight audible increase during its description. This method becomes too obvious at times and should be used only when necessary and sparingly. Detail highlighting helps PC's focus in on story details by using their skills. Don't reveal the clues of a story, thus eliminating the challenge of the game. Control information revelation by responding to a character's actions while maintaining intrigue for the player. This is done by targeting a player's perception by using a method of incremental description resulting from the character's application of skills. For example:
Player: "Shamus saunters into the room exuding confident scrutiny. His keen eyes scan the room... what does he see?"
GM: "Well, he sees dusty bookshelves, a desk perforated with bullet holes, and a dead body."
At this point, it could take an hour for the player to discover the cigarette butt with the villain's fingerprints that rolled under the safe. A drawn out investigation will lead to a room full of bored players and a stalled story line. Focus questions using detail highlighting and respond to the above situation thusly:
Player: "...what does he see?"
GM: "How thoroughly does he look?"
This way, the player can respond in a fashion that will maintain game flow and story intrigue without removing the interactive essence. The player can respond incrementally such as; "A cursory glance...", "Fairly thorough...", or "He's not leaving until he finds a clue!"
The game master finishes the highlighted scene by applying the appropriate skill roll and governing modifiers related to the players answer to determine the success of the scene. In this manner, a GM can adjust and make skill rolls without reducing game play to sheer mechanics.
Audible Highlighting: Drastic voice fluctuations can also be a clever player-prod.
Somatic Highlighting: This isn't soccer or hacky sack; there are no official RPG rules that forbid using your hands.
Marionette: A marionette, or GNPC (GM's NPC), is an NPC that is part of the adventure party. A marionette is different from a control character in that a marionette has no control over the characters. It is simply another party that can offer resources, information, and assistance. A marionette could be genuinely helpful or a double agent planted by a villain. A marionette is also helpful if an adventure party is a little small, and needs some muscle to back it up. Note that an NPC should play an active role in the adventure party and not remain a simple tool-character. If a GM is unable to role play the marionette, then do not use it. In a small game group, a marionette can give the GM a chance to be an active participant in a player character capacity by playing a main character. It should be noted that if a GM does this, he should be very careful to keep the player character separate and autonomous from the rest of the non-player cast. This includes resources, knowledge, and anything else that might unbalance the game.
Trigger: A trigger is a control detail designed to pressure characters into moving in a certain plot direction by offering resolution to character conflict. The trigger is the actual information that the character receives that allows him to progress in the story line. For example, our hero's DNPC (Dependent NPC) mother becomes ill and cannot afford the cure. His character background prevents him from ill gotten gains and cannot help his ailing mother. Mr. Jones (who is also the true villain of the story) offers our hero the money he needs to help his mother in return for being his bodyguard at a high society party. The trigger is Mr. Jones offering a solution to the character's conflict of his ailing mother. Triggers can be used to neatly end sloppy subplots, direct a story back on to track, and to draw heroes into new plots.
These control techniques will help a game master keep the story on track while maintaining story intrigue. Blatant suggestions are a detriment to game mastering and usually indicate that a gamemaster's descriptions or organization is not quite what it should be. Tighten story lines and head off wandering characters by circumscribing an adventure with a little key instruction.
Sustaining Role Playing
Role playing valiant heroes and fantastic characters through the course of an adventure is at the core of the game's fun. It's a strange sensation for players to wholeheartedly throw themselves into their role and will do so only when comfortable. The quality and frequency of a player's role involvement is their own decision, but it is the gamemaster's job to create the forum. Controlling game information can either hinder or help the GM in this task.
The massive volume of communication during a game session can sometimes blur the edges as different stages of the game bleed into each other. Confusing character discussions and rules clarification followed by a scene description without any rhyme or reason will negatively impact on the overall presentation of the game. Controlling the game and adventure flow will help organize information, but sometimes a GM needs to give instructions to direct role playing. The best way to maintain silent control over a scene is with hand signals. The following is a short list of hand signals that may be used in any type of intensive role playing situation to sustain in-character dramas for longer periods of time. Hand signals also work well with LARP's (Live Action Role Playing) because it allows GM's and their assistants a method of game direction without interrupting players on a role.
Cut: A finger pulled across the throat is used to "cut" the scene and end it. The GM may wish to end a scene to adjust the game flow or story direction.
Live table: Pointing up and revolving your hand in a small circle can be a subtle reminder to the players to stay in-character during the scene. Encourage longer role playing and work hard to keep up with the troupe's movements.
Cue: Two crossed fingers pointed at players will indicate that they should start character role playing and maintain the scene. The crossed fingers will differentiate from the usual, single index finger used throughout the game as a GM laser pointer.
Out of Character: If a character breaks his role, use the "quacking beak" gesture as a reminder or firm direction to stay in character.
Cut: A finger pulled across the throat is used to "cut" the scene and end it. The GM may wish to end a scene to adjust the game flow or story direction.Live table: Pointing up and revolving your hand in a small circle can be a subtle reminder to the players to stay in-character during the scene. Encourage longer role playing and work hard to keep up with the troupe's movements.
Combat: Carrying a bag of dice around in a LARP to resolve encounters is funny but detracts from the game. Escape the edges of a table with a system of hand signals to resolve combat. This can be done with games like Paper, Scissors, Rock, thumb wrestling or other simple challenges
Encounter: Establish a finger snap or other obvious cue to indicate that an encounter has started. It is a player's way to know that the storytelling has ended and measurable game mechanics are now in effect. Players should always have a fair warning that this transition has taken place.
Controlling game information in a multi-player setting is a difficult task. An adventure flows from a beginning to an end and each event that occurs has supportive questions and answers that effect the outcome of a story question and a big story outcome. Without knowing the content of your own discussion, players will quickly out-negotiate you, attaining both all the treasure their characters could want and draining all the fun out of a game. Understand the direction of flowing information to learn how to influence it. There are two types of basics flows, open and closed. Open discussions mean there is no specific topic or response but is meant to solicit a free-form opinion or unknown fact. A closed approach means that there are a limited number of possibilities. Since the outcomes are limited, the responses can be accounted for. The difference is in the objective.
Questions and answers take up big chunks of game time. The more controlled a story is, the less time is wasted. The more exciting a GM asks the question, the more exciting an answer the player is likely to provide. Directional questioning is a subtle control technique, but requires practice to develop it into a reliable skill. A good method of training is to use control techniques and directional questioning in tandem for a better feel of what works in your situation. Once game discussions begin and a GM interacts with the players, she can approach players with two types of questioning; open and closed questions. An open ended question affords a player an infinite array of answers. For example:
GM: "How does your character respond?" <Any way the player chooses.>
GM: "What does your character do next?" <Any way the player chooses.>
GM: "What do you want to do?" <Any way the player chooses.>
The player sets his own level of response and requires a great deal of flexibility on the part of the game master. The GM can question as director or in character, but should consider the various ramifications. An open ended question in a character tense situation can negatively impact on game flow because the story instantly is at the whim of the player. This can be an exciting and dynamic juncture for a veteran game group, but if a player has had little exposure to gaming, an open ended question could lead to a disappointing scene.
A closed ended question requires a player to choose from a predetermined set of available possibilities. This is done to tighten the direction of the story and cut down on air time when necessary. Closed ended questions should be used at vital junctures in the story and during times when long winded answers are not feasible such as in a chase or combat. Some examples of closed ended questions include:
GM: "Does your character travel through the east door or the south door?"
<The player can only choose either east or west.>
GM: "Do you stay or leave the cavern?"
<The player can only choose either to stay or to go.>
GM: "Do you press the big button or the little blue button?"
<The player can only choose either the big one or the little one.>
GM: "Is you favorite color blue or yellow?"
Probing questions reach into the darkness of the unknown and pluck out answers that reasonably cannot be known. Directional Probing is a technique of asking questions to probe the unknowns. As with the directional mindset, there are open probes and closed probes. An open probe asks questions to see if any thing is out there in the dark. It is to be mentally aware of whether or not there are any issues or things to trip over in the dark. Follow an open probe with a closed probe. First discover that there is something there and then use a closed probe to find out what it is. Open probes are questions with open responses; if something reacts then there is something to discover. Closed probes are questions with closed responses and used to define that "something" without being direct. It is to guide a story by leading the information that has been told and helping players find their way in the dark.
RPG interplay focuses around the passing of information between the game master and the players to create a detailed story. Game flow is the structuring of information interchange during game play to insure that every player is allowed to participate in the game and involved in the story. The malleable nature of an RPG story is very flexible, making the GM responsible for a great deal of information. This is why a gamemaster's ability to quickly adapt to a plot change is very important.
One thing that will always affect the momentum of game flow is flexibility. Players will do the most unorthodox things when you least expect them to. A GM's ability to adjust to unusual character reactions by means of plot devices and control techniques will allow players looser reigns when interacting with a campaign setting. The game master may have prepared an adventure around the most likely conclusion, or path of least resistance, but the player's perception of the situation may differ. A GM may have to disregard some or all of the prepared material and shoot from the hip for the rest of the game session as a result of a strong player inspired plot direction. Good flexibility results from campaign preparation and genre details because it fortifies the GM's knowledge position allowing him a better grasp of controlling details. The less time a game master spends grasping for straws and subplots, the smoother the adventure will be.
Turn and Timing
A game master needs to insure that each player gets a comfortable amount of time to assimilate the required information and still maintain the flow of the game. In addition, the more structured the game flow, the easier it is to create a good role playing experience by segmenting the various phases of the game, thereby cutting down on game confusion. By setting the game up similar to a stage or film production, the game master can create intense role playing by insuring characters have all the information they need before the role playing begins. It also allows a game master to have a better control over the information by dismissing certain questions. By saying, "your character doesn't know yet", or "you may only ask that in-character after the scene begins", the GM has predetermined the logical flow of events. Organizing game flow starts by organizing the information. Learn to think the adventure through before it starts. Descriptions should flow from the general to the specific, point to point. This prevents a story from getting lost in the details without wresting control of characters from the players. After the scene descriptions are complete and players begin to ask questions, it helps players stay in turn and develop a methodic system of asking questions that will not impede role playing. Focusing game questions in this way can speed up game play and increase the content by identifying the appropriate timing of each turn. Adjust session mechanics as necessary, but try using a framework of the following basic turns:
Setup: A game master begins with an adventure recap of the last session or moves right into a setup. The setup is a raw interface of information from game master to the group as a whole, covering everything the characters need to know about the scene. The GM now chooses which information should be withheld to maximize the scene's intrigue and/or supply the players with red herrings, detail the setting and other appropriate plot factors. Learn to setup, or "frame" scenes by organizing the flow from information interchange to role playing. Not doing so will chop up a game session making good role playing difficult. Start framing a scene by describing the setting, sensations, objects, weather, and any background information the characters might need for the situation. The more creatively the scene is presented will contribute to the texture of the story and help maintain the momentum of the player's interest. By the end of the setup the general information should be covered, contributing to a more fluid transition to role playing by shortening the questioning.
Air Time: Keep the pace of the game by giving players air time. Give each player a chance to ask questions that they, in particular, need to define the situation. This is followed by any automatic instructions the player wishes the character to perform in the scene as "just in case" moves. This is followed by any solo role playing that is available (searching for spell components, purchasing equipment, repairing vehicles, etc.) for the players. Solo role playing segments may be eliminated in certain situations that would preclude them such as time limits, character isolation, combat situation, etc. Find a level comfortable to the group and work with it. Make it a period of time long enough to get his ideas out, but not so long as to bring the game momentum to a halt. Try to figure a maximum time level that you can maintain the players interest. The time allotment will vary with the amount of players and the story telling style and ability of the game master. For instance, two minutes per player for five players creates a single cycle of 10 minutes for everyone to get their chance. This can be shortened depending on each player's contribution and the flair of the GM. Without a certain skill in telling stories, a setup segment of more than fifteen or twenty minutes will let player attention begin to drift. Time lengths may be extended if something crucial to the plot is occurring. If possible, keep the player in character. Everybody is watching the interplay, so make it a good performance. The rest of the group won't mind waiting and the game won't lag.
One strategy to maintain game flow is "passing." The GM or the player may initiate the pass, and it will take undue pressure off the player if he is not ready. If the GM senses a mental bog down, he can instruct the player, "Think about it for a moment", or "I'll get back to you." Then complete the airtime cycle and touch base at the end before starting another segment. In time, players will learn to decide whether or not they are prepared to contribute. This will help speed up game flow and increase the content of the story contribution. By the same token, a game master may choose to slow the flow down a little to accommodate new or shy players.
Get players into a rhythm of asking questions. This will help players cover all the necessary information, thereby increasing the game challenge, and contribute to game's fluidity. Develop a system of asking questions by identifying what game element the question will cover (stage, character, player, or story). This helps identify what information a player needs to know, and what information the character needs to know. By concentrating story information through the eyes of the character and game information to the player, the role playing scene will have dramatic substance.
One phenomenon that a GM should be mindful of is "collective thinking." Make sure that when a player interacts with the campaign setting, that he does so with appropriate character knowledge. Any other information should be discussed in character! When players mull over a scene or story challenge from the point of view of the player instead of the character's, role playing opportunities are drastically diminished! Sometimes the plot requires, or is fortified by, an isolated character position. This requires the character to make individual decisions that affect the plot line, and "collective thinking" will destroy the scene.
Main Scene: When all the players have enough information, it is time to role play the scene. The bulk of the adventure flow occurs now, during the main scene. Keep players in character as much as possible, creating character interaction by sustaining dialogue and when the scene is over, describe the wrap up.
Wrap-up: The wrap up should include consequences, ramifications, and any tertiary actions the players wish to role play or instruct. The same considerations of the air time segment should be applied to the wrap up to close open scenes, conclude dramatic role playing, and cover any appropriate questions. The smoothest way top handle the wrap up is by asking the players if there are any final actions; address them in order (altered only to insure the story's integrity).
These are the basic segments of a role playing session and by isolating the various types, the quality of the game can be improved for both the player and the game master. Using these fragments, a simple game flow sequence could occur in this sequence: setup/air time/main adventure scene/wrap-up. A subtle perception of turn and timing will develop in the group, maximizing the potential of any one game fragment by efficiently consolidating types of interaction into specific blocks. The troupe will develop different rhythms by adding segments in more complex flows, but this method is a good place to start. As game flows increase in complexity, just remember to maintain the integrity of each segment. Still, as smooth as a GM may eventually develop his style, some flow difficulties will always arise. Tedious scenes are nobody's fault, and distractions are to be expected. Deal with them amiably and in a firm manner by employing a good use of those handy communication skills. Develop signals or instructions to indicate the game flow and make the process flow even smoother.
Identify the dynamics of a troupe by watching how they interact. Institute a system of turn and timing that easiest for the troupe to follow. Once you do, each successive adventure will become increasingly structured in terms of troupe interaction enabling stories to become more intricate as a result of the improved information exchange.
The Scene That Wouldn't Die
Sometimes the nature of a particular scene such as mass combat or long searches requires a GM to expedite a scene for game flow. This usually occurs when the mathematics of a scene overburdens the content. Don't skip the math; just abbreviate it by indexing the roll with a multiplier. When a GM begins to recognize (inadvertently prepares) a slow scene, speed it up by using an index multiplier to define what needs to happen en masse. The GM should consult with the players on unanimous agreement to index a scene, and inform the players as to the method. Upon agreement, the scene is enacted. For instance, a valiant knight battles one hundred rampaging bunnies. Rather than make the valiant knight and the rest of the players sit through one hundred encounter rolls and duplicate descriptions, apply an index multiplier to hasten the situation. To simplify things, assume ten encounter rolls and index it with a multiplier of ten. Ten encounter rolls times an index of ten equals one hundred vanquished bunnies and an intact game flow.
Do not hesitate to quell distractions. Inappropriate background noise, discussion tangents, and other distractions can be annoying and wipe out game flow. A certain amount of banter amongst friends is expected, but there should be a prearranged threshold of allowance. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule.
Adventure flow occurs during the main scene with character development preludes and epilogues during setup and wrap-up. The difference between game flow and adventure flow is the focus. Game flow deals with the players, and adventure flow focuses on story progression. A gamemaster's style comes into play when combining these two elements. The marriage of game and adventure flow is making the mechanics work subtly under the presentation of the story. Manage an adventure presentation by aligning elements of game flow to accommodate an administration of mechanics without reducing the dramatic content of story delivery. A typical example might start with a recap setup. The GM recaps the last adventure in such a way that allows for immediate character response. Once the players have responded, putting each character in position, the GM directs the players to role play the scene. Instead of telling half the story scene during one segment and the other half during the second segment, the story is internally edited by the GM to deliver an opening prelude followed by the entire scene. Reference mechanics can occur during the break and the GM has only directional mechanics to roll during the scene. Each segment is self contained making the memory of story events encapsulated for proper storage.
As a rule of thumb, four or five good scenes in as many hours (and maybe a combat scene) is a solid formula for a standard sized troupe for one game session. The time relationship of adventuring is such that an adventure presents character events in distillate form, condensing the quiet moments and bringing the exciting or dramatic moments to the forefront. This is not to say that tranquil moments need not occur, but the forum in which those events pass is handled in a different fashion. Solo sessions and character journals can add much depth to a character by illustrating some of the events that players are not afforded during a larger game groups sessions.
Separating the quiet moments and minor subplots serves to streamline an adventure. Too many active plot lines and subplots will bog down a campaign. Players will get discouraged and confused which will erode the gamemaster's confidence.
"The language of nature is mathematics."
When directing an adventure, the story structure is subtly supported by the rules. Defined as game mechanics, there are two distinct subdivisions that a game master must manage internally. The first category of mechanics deals with the operation of characters within the campaign setting using Game System Mechanics, both mathematical and semantic.
When the details begin to swamp a GM, there is probably too much going on in the adventure. Keep the content under control by making sure the bulk of the scenes involve most if not all of the players and works towards the story premise. Bring single players into sessions on an alternate night to run quick solo adventures to take up the rest of the slack. It will expand their character's personal story environment and allows a game master to pursue different types of plot lines that are not feasible during a larger game.
After reviewing the system and session mechanics, take some time to develop a meshing of the two game elements to create an overall game delivery that the players will more readily enjoy. Sharpen the edge of a game by narrowing the system mechanics and enhance it with good session mechanics to make everything flow together.