Category Archives: Role-playing Advice

Café Diem

First off, I admit the title is a terrible pun, but this is my website and I can call the articles whatever I want.

Secondly, I’ve done some re-arranging of the site navigation, and it’s hopefully a little easier/less cluttered now, if you have any thoughts or opinions on it, please let me know.

Anyway, onto the main point of today’s update.

Just under a year ago, I started DMing a 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign in my local board-game café (Sugar and Dice) and, over that year, I’ve noticed a few differences between running and playing games at home, versus doing so in a public environment. Today’s update will focus on a few of those differences and how I cope with them. As ever, if you have any thoughts, or criticisms, feel free to leave them below.

Right off the bat, the most immediate difference is the noise level. Being in a café, albeit one where everyone is there for a similar reason and not just to have a discussion or an argument, talking loud enough to be heard over the activity from nearby tables or the sounds of playing pieces hitting the board can sometimes detract from the game. Certainly, for someone like me, someone who is unsure of their ability to accurately portray voices or the subtler nuances of description, having to concentrate on being loud enough to be heard takes away from my confidence to try different voices and more atmospheric scene setting.

In order to get around this, I tend to focus on what I’m good at (accents and speech patterns) to convey different character types and personalities. By doing that, I’m able to give a performance I am happy with and portray the disparate characters that make up my world, whilst also immersing my players as much as possible in the game.

The second problem caused by the noise level is player engagement and focus. With so much distraction around, I’ve noticed that my players appear to struggle with focus sometimes. I know that I do when they are discussing their next steps, which naturally leads to clarifications and wasted time. Part of how I deal with this is trying to speak louder and slower. My default manner of speech is quiet and fast, which is something that is less than ideal in the café environment, so I’ve made it clear that I’m happy to repeat things as needed, but something I’ve started trying to do is maintain eye-contact (not something that comes naturally to me) as well as switching my focus periodically to other characters, or to the group as a whole.

The other problem linked to this, certainly with D&D, is visualising combat. I’m typically someone who enjoys the theatre of the mind aspects of encounters, despite my aphantasia, because I’m more interested in telling stories of awesome action and flashy combat, instead of accurate positioning and ranges. The problem with this is that because the noise level can hinder player focus, when my descriptions aren’t good enough, or a player is distracted by something nearby, the flow of combat gets interrupted by clarifications or questions about the preceding turn. I’ve taken the obvious route to get around this by using a battle-map and miniatures (one of my players made Lego minifigs of the PCs, all of which are amazing) to help provide a visual aid during combat and I usually end up using my dice to explain positioning out of combat when my description is lacking, or if the players don’t understand what I mean.

On the other side of the equation, however, is the community of the café itself. Most of the time when I’m running my game, there is at least one other session running nearby that I can half-listen to for story or character ideas, or just to help improve my morale as a DM. But more than that, I know that if I have any questions about rules, there is usually at least one other DM nearby that I can ask about their interpretation of a situation or edge case scenario or get their opinion on a custom monster. And finally, of course, there is no real shortage of players if I need a guest spot for a single session, or want to mix things up for a short time.

So, while DMing in a café certainly has its drawbacks, by focussing on your strengths and adapting your usual approach to running encounters, you’ll find the community aspect of playing in a more public environment has hugely beneficial effects.

I may return to this subject in a future post, but for now, I hope I’ve been able to give you some insight into the unique problems surrounding playing rpgs in a café setting.


Role-playing 111 – Common Mistakes

Apologies for the unannounced hiatus. Things will be irregular for a few weeks due to personal life occurrences, but should even out in the new year.

Whilst the following article is aimed primarily at new GMs/DMs, the points raised here are ones that I have to remind myself of constantly. Before starting, I want to stress that there is no wrong way to GM and that nothing in this article is intended to be judgemental, merely helpful. Another thing worth remembering is that I don’t have all the answers, all the experience I draw upon to write these articles is solely my own and your experiences may differ.

Now that that is all out of the way, my topic for this week is one I’ve wanted to write about a for a while; common mistakes made by the inexperienced (and experienced) GM. It is a topic I will definitely be returning to in the future, but for now I will be talking about drawing comparisons to other GMs and expectations of player progress.

With the (frankly welcome) rise in popularity of role-playing games, and in particular D&D, on services like Twitch and YouTube, there is a wider awareness of GMing styles and tricks. Part and parcel of this is greater visibility for the GMs running those games, usually people who prove to be extremely popular among their audience and who prompt people to begin GMing their own games. This is all well and good because a wider awareness of storytelling tricks and good practice can only improve the hobby, but with this increased visibility can come an increased pressure to perform to the standard of the GM onscreen.

This, especially for first time GMs, is nigh impossible in most cases, but can result in the GM feeling like they haven’t done a good enough job for their players. This is something that I am guilty of, and something that can adversely affect the game.

While there is nothing wrong with imitating another’s GMing style, and certainly there is nothing wrong in cherrypicking the parts of their style that you enjoy the most, it is important to remember that everyone has different strengths, weaknesses and styles. I know that, for example, voices aren’t my strong suit. While it is something I am working on, I try to focus to what I can do (create believable characters and a living world to fully immerse the players) instead of slowing the game down by doubting my abilities. That, really, is my best recommendation; try to accept that you probably won’t be good at everything your first time around, focus on what you can do to keep the game, and the story, flowing.

At the end of the day, the hobby is all about having fun, not comparing yourself to others. I cannot stress enough that every GM, and every game, is going to be different.

My second point is one that even GMs with more experience than I struggle with, namely expectations regarding player progress.

Sometimes, certain aspects of the game mechanics themselves will stymie game progress, but most often the players themselves will either breeze through your carefully crafted plot, or get hung up on the smallest of details. The easiest way to deal with both of these problems is to prepare more than you think they will be able to get through in one session, even if it is just a rough outline.

For the former situation, this means that you have a good idea of where things are headed and where they can go next and for the latter, this means that you have enough material prepared that you can flesh out at a later date without worrying about running out of detailed plot.

In both circumstances, in my experiences, the ability to improvise and react to player choices is incredibly useful. This is almost entirely because you will never be able to predict which aspects of your game your players are going to pick up on and explore, so from time to time (or most of the time with my players) you will need to be able to elaborate on things without slowing the game down. That said, don’t be afraid to ask for time from your players. Explain to them that you didn’t have anything prepared and they should be understanding about the matter. You do have a whole world to prepare, after all.

On top of improvisation, having a vague idea of the direction the plot could take is always useful, as is having a good idea of what items might be useful later on. Both of these things will allow you to seed the campaign with hints that hopefully point your players towards future possibilities. One of the dangers of doing this is forcing the players in the direction you want them to go, so called ‘railroading’, as opposed to giving them agency so please be on the lookout for that.

Player agency is, of course, a very important part of the hobby and should be respected where possible.

Ultimately, the game you run is yours, no-one else’s. Find your own GMing style and experiment with preparation to find the sweet spot of prepared material vs. improvisation (Mike Mearls, one of the D&D team, has a rule of thumb that you should spend no more than half of the expected play time preparing material).

If you have any advice to offer first time GMs, feel free to leave it in the comments below.


Role-playing 110 – Character Development

I’ve covered character improvement already, so now I’m going to talk a little about character development. The distinction, to me, is that the former is tied to the levelling mechanics of the game being played and the latter is tied to the narrative.

When entering the hobby, it is entirely okay for you to focus more on engaging with the game through a mechanical approach and learning the ropes before diving into the role-playing aspect of things. The D&D game that I’m typing up in the Actual Play section of this website remains focussed on the player characters and not their backstories for this very reason.
It is important that you feel comfortable with the game before increasing your engagement with it. As such, if you don’t feel able to deal with matters beyond what your character is currently experiencing, tell whoever is running the game. They’ll understand. There is a lot of trust needed around the game table, so to speak, and if one player isn’t comfortable with what they are doing, it will show and the game will suffer.

Assuming a certain level of comfort and familiarity with the game, then, how can you further develop character?

There are, as ever, a few ways to do this, and I shall try to explain them to the best of my ability.

The first method is the most obvious; through role-play. This is what you’ll find yourself doing through the course of play as your character reacts to the events of the game. You’ll find this method to be a constant drip of development as your character (guided by previously established facts of their personality) responds to the situations they find themselves in.
Something else to realise about this method of character development  is that other members of the party will play a large part in how your character develops. Inter-character relationships and interactions are a huge factor in how they will grow over the course of the game. Whilst you are under no compulsion to allow these things to impact your character, it’s generally better for group morale to follow them through to their end.
One of the most enjoyable things, in my experience, is to see how your character reacts when other party members put them in impossible situations.

The second method is tied to the first, but definitely separate; through play. As you play, you will discover what aspects of the game you like, and which ones your character feels like they thrive in. At the very least, you should have a good idea about which aspects of the game you would like your character to improve in.
Just by taking an interest in these aspects, you’ll be signifying to the person running the game that you want to see more of them and, all being well, they will likely plan on involving them more often. In this way, you should be having a self-directed manner of character development that evolves organically over the course of the game.

The third method is something that requires you to step out of the game and, as such, should only really be done when you are a) comfortable with doing so and b) when you are comfortable with whoever is running your game. The latter is important because this method requires you to talk to the GM about what you want for your character.
A lot of the time, this method will also involve clues and hooks you include in your character backstory.  If you are comfortable with leaving your character plans hidden in the backstory for your GM to uncover and elaborate upon, that is perfectly fine.
If you want something more, however, you need to arrange some way of talking privately to your GM. When you are able to do this, tell them what you think the future of your character could involve, what aspects of their personality you want to explore and whether or not you want anything else to happen. Really, if you get the chance to do this, you should tell them anything you want to regarding your character and the game, but I digress.
By telling them any of this, you are letting your GM know what you enjoy exploring and playing. As a result, they will hopefully try to incorporate more of it into the game.
One benefit of this method is that, in your discussion, the GM may suggest things about your character and their development that haven’t occurred to you but that you like. Another is that they may include things in the game that you’ve never thought of but which act as a good springboard for character development.
As a coda to this, you can also talk with your fellow players to discuss how their characters can help with the development of yours for roughly the same benefits.

Whatever you choose, it is important to remain comfortable with your choices.

These are only a few possible methods, of course, but hopefully they are informative. If you can think of any more, or have any other comments, let me know below.

Role-playing 109 – Character Improvement

After a few sessions of gameplay, you should be in a position to be thinking about character improvement through gaining new skills and abilities. Depending on the system/ruleset this can take many different forms, so this article will be vague (in keeping with the theme of most of these articles) but should be mostly relevant, no matter which system you’re using.

Full disclosure, I play to explore the narrative and different mental states, so that will be where most of the article focuses. I know, however, that this isn’t the only reason people role-play, so I’ll try to do my best to offer advice on a few other ways of determining character improvement.

Without further ado, let us begin.

My first step when thinking about character improvement is to consider my character’s backstory. This is especially true with the first chance to ‘level up’. Because it is the closest to your character’s history, this ‘level up’ should probably represent the culmination of why your character has become involved in the game in the first place.

For fantasy systems with spellcasting, the choice of your first few spells can really help determine your character’s relationship to the game. For other systems, perhaps their initial foray into the game allows them to improve a skill or two that they want to develop.

Beyond that though, are the basic building blocks of personality that arose during their backstory and that you might have been exploring during play. When in doubt, use these to determine how your character improves. As a rule of thumb, choices made during ‘level up’ should reflect how your character feels about themselves, their place in the player party and their place in the world.

A few examples of this would be Muse, my D&D character, who usually selects spells related to obfuscation and word-play because she thinks of herself as a spy/social infiltrator. This is why she multi-classed as a Rogue when she began to practice her training again. Another example would be Christine, a much loved (and much damaged) Call of Cthulhu character who never thought of herself as more than a researcher and never learned any way to defend herself beyond basic unarmed self-defence. The dice may have a played a part in Christine’s development, due to the way CoC levelling works, but as it suited her character, it worked out well in the end.

Beyond making choices that reflect how your character feels about themselves, it is worth considering the needs of the player party. If there is an aspect of your character that could be improved to cover an area of the party’s skills that is lacking, it may be worth considering. This option also has the benefit of driving your character development in a manner which you haven’t planned and will make things fresh again.

Sticking with Muse as an example, our party doesn’t have a dedicated healer so at the last level up, I replaced her one damaging spell with a healing one. I decided that she had realised that, even though her goals didn’t align exactly with the rest of the party, she needed them alive to be able to get what she wants. She may not like relying on others, but she recognises the value of teamwork. Originally, she was going to be so consumed with vengeance that she would have happily left most of the party by the wayside.

The third choice in this method is just pick what seems cool. Role-playing games are, at their core, fantasy. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where there hasn’t been a skill or ability in the rules that didn’t exactly fit with the character but didn’t seem cool enough to warrant going the extra mile for. In my experience, you can usually find a way to rationalise learning new things that your character wouldn’t necessarily learn in the normal course of things.

This is why Christine chose to learn how to dance, I rationalised it as a way to blend in with the high society cult leaders we encountered.

Other approaches to role-playing and character improvement include making characters as efficient as possible. There are plenty of guides and things online to help with this, but this method of character improvement highlights making your character as good as they possibly can be at the one thing (or few things) that they do.
This typically works best when everyone is on the same page about what you want to achieve with your character but usually involves choosing one a prescribed number of options depending on the role you want to fulfill.

You may also make a choice based entirely on what other people recommend, or on what the party needs at that moment in time. This requires a lot of communication, but can produce a well-rounded party and great synergy.
A party that is built to solve any problem will likely have little trouble with any one thing for long, so this approach is usually favoured by groups that know one another well and happily adapt their characters in response to the changing situation of the game and the party’s needs.

The last one that I can think of right now is character improvement to alter the story. This is a method of determining your character’s improvements that requires a lot of communication with the GM.
This could come into play where your character is working at cross-purposes to the rest of the party, has wildly differing goals, or where something your GM would like to happen relies upon a member of the party being able to do a certain thing.
This approach requires you to surrender some control of your character in order to have them more entwined with the story as a whole. As such, it should not be undertaken lightly but can have a great payoff if done well.

Has this article been useful? Which methods do you favour? Let me know in the comments section.

Role-playing 105a – How I Write the Story

This time around, I’m going to go into more detail about how to design your story. As previously mentioned, because I’m trying to be as system neutral as possible, I will use broad strokes to describe my typical process.

This article will take you through the brief step-by-step method that I usually use when designing campaigns. Feel free to use any and all of it for your own purposes. If you feel like anything is missing or could be improved, let me know in the comments. Each step will be illuminated with an example, using the D&D 5th Edition campaign that I am drawing the Actual Play posts from. Those posts are still taken from the Starter Set but will eventually reach the material discussed here.

The first thing to consider is what you want to play. You aren’t going to enjoy writing, and playing through, a campaign that you personally aren’t invested in.

When writing my campaign, I really wanted to have something grand in scope with a huge, world ending threat at the end of it. I know it’s not very original, but it’s something I’ve wanted to run for a while, and it’s not too difficult for first time role-players to deal with.

The second thing is you NEED to write something your players will enjoy. This can be done through discussing things with them, just by picking up on what they enjoy in the first few sessions of play, or through their characters.

One of my players is a Ranger with ‘undead’ selected as her favoured enemy so that was pretty obvious. All of my players also enjoyed their interaction with the Nothic so I decided to play off of that and have scope for more Nothics later in the game. Nothics being wizards from Netheril, the empire that used to rule the Sword Coast, suggested to me that Netheril could play a large part in what’s to come. I know that my players like history so I felt fine adding Netheril in.

The obvious thing to do is to have a Lich, or similar, from old Netheril be the main antagonist. So I ran with that. I came up with a name of vaguely Latin origin and decided that Netheril was a pseudo-Roman civilisation.

This gave me a history to things (an Empire brought down from within, ruins and remnants all around the area they are exploring, customs and traditions that are accepted as fact but that no one can explain) and gave me an idea for my grand scope. Graeco-Roman gods were frequently extremely human in their behaviours, to the extent that political leaders were often identified as divine themselves and nothing was seen to be wrong with that.

My thought process then ran to ‘what if?’. In this case, it was what if the emperor was actually a god? What if Netheril was ruled by an immortal, divine being? What happened to it?

These questions lead me to the third step; throw a spanner in the works.

An antagonist, to some extent, should do this already, but more than that, this means do something unpredictable.

In this case, I decided time travel was the way forwards.

Netheril, the God, was ripped from his time (leading to the collapse of the Empire) by the Lich (themselves the last scion of a noble family wishing to resurrect the glory of Netheril) and brought forwards into the timeline of the game.

The fourth thing is to decide on rough tiers of experience. Each section of the game should feel appropriate to the player character’s abilities.

In D&D, PCs get stronger and stronger, becoming powerful heroes. As such, things should scale with them. There are rough guidelines given in one of the core books and I ran with those. Levels 1-5 are covered by the Starter Set and represent the PCs coming into their own. Levels 6-10 are designed to cover the heroes realising the threat of the Lich and racing to stop him, reaching a crescendo with the Lich performing the ritual to summon Netheril. Levels 11-15 will, hopefully, see the heroes flung backwards in time and working to take down Netheril (the empire) from inside, contending with mythical heroes and divine beings. Levels 16-20 will (assuming we make it that far) have the heroes facing off against Netheril, gaining allies and bringing order back to a world in thrall of a god.

Into this framework, I inserted a variety of combat, social and exploration based encounters designed to hit the main plot points and narrative milestones of each chapter. Around these encounters, I will insert more sandbox based things that arise during play, to give the players a sense of agency. Something important to note is that whilst the non-sandbox encounters are, by their very nature, less flexible, I’ve designed them in such a way that they can occur in a variety of situations so that the players don’t feel funnelled into one particular course of action.

So that is my rough approach to campaign design. Obviously, it’ll change from game to game, but these are the points I try to hit every time and can be applied to one-shot games, as well as campaigns.

I hope you find the above helpful.