RPT#231 – Brawn And Stealth — Oil And Water?
A Brief Word From Johnn
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A summary of Readers’ Tips
Last week I posted a help request from a reader who was experiencing two difficulties with rogues and stealthy character types in his campaigns.
- First, rogue characters were in dire jeopardy due to the nature of their work. Rogues are expected to go solo into hostile, monster and enemy infested areas. One mistake and they’re dead with no fellow party members around to save their butts.
- Second, there is constant friction caused by party splits as rogue types go off on stealthy missions that other party members, such as fighters, cannot participate in. This puts several players out of the action and spotlight while the GM and rogue players resolve their actions.
What to do? Well, I received many awesome responses from Tips Readers and I’ve summarized them here for easy consumption.
I’ve also made all of the original Readers’ emails available in a new Supplemental Issue #17, if you want to peruse them in detail offline. To get the file, you can download it: http://roleplayingtips.mythosa.net/
- Use Clever Split-Party GM Tactics
A key part of the rogue mission problem is full group participation. Players without stealthy characters must remain behind and twiddle their thumbs, and bored players are unhappy players.
To help alleviate the problem, create some interesting Plan Bs for the waiting PCs to keep them busy. We’ve all dealt with split parties before and can manage that issue most of the time; however, this situation is a bit tricky in that it can happen with great frequency, and traditional split-party GMing methods get stale fast.
You do not want to penalize good player tactics either. It makes perfect sense to let the party members who are good at reconnaissance, prowling, and travelling quickly without being noticed to do what they do best. Disallowing or discouraging stealthy play would be an injustice.
The solution is to use some clever split-party GM tactics. These tactics require two things:
- Forethought. Got rogues in your group? Ok, then take some time between now and your next session to do a little planning. Coming into a session unprepared might result in reverting to the traditional split-party tactics that don’t go over well with repetition or frequency.
- Set-Up. Often, your ideas for dealing with this issue will be great, but implementing them too fast makes it transparent as to what you’re trying to achieve. This shatters players’ sense of disbelief and makes things even worse. So, once you have a plan or two, start sowing the seeds and planting things ahead of time.
Players might still recognize what you’re doing but they’ll go along with it if they find the build-up believable.
To further help you figure out some good methods, check your tactics against this requirements list to ensure they’ll be as successful as possible:
- Engages every player, or as many players as possible
- Is meaningful to the non-stealthy players and PCs. Players dislike GM pity (most of the time ;). Providing a meaningful diversion or allowing them to contribute something of value keeps them interested and doesn’t make them feel manipulated.
- Is meaningful to the stealthy players. The rogues are expecting some spotlight and exclusive GM time to help resolve their actions and find out how the story of their PCs’ unravels next. If you dilute things with some meaningless play with the other characters and players, no-one at your game table will be happy or satisfied.
- Doesn’t further fragment the party. So, your fix worked–too well. Now the characters left behind are splitting up themselves to follow-up on the cool hooks and encounters you’ve just unleashed.
- Doesn’t leave the rogues idle. The pendulum can easily swing the other way. The action with the rogues gets wrapped up, and then they must wait for a long time while you wrap up the things you started for the other PCs!
Here’s an example tactic.
Multi-Faction Engagement With An Established Party
The rogues go on ahead in space (i.e. they scout the path ahead) and/or time (i.e. the rogues go off to retrieve something important while the rest of the party waits at home base), and while they’re gone the other characters are engaged by another faction.
While this might seem like is a traditional split-party technique, you actually have to put a little extra effort into it, as per the checklists above (forethought, set-up, meaningful).
You can’t just hit the waiting PCs with a wandering monster. This will just extend and dilute the resolution of the rogues’ adventure as you spread screen time around to more players. Also, after the third time the party splits up, the waiting PCs will expect a token random encounter to keep them occupied and the game will have lost all excitement for them.
Instead, you set up a recurring third party who engages the waiting PCs. This third party doesn’t necessarily have to be an enemy or result in combat. For example, it could be a rival party, an obnoxious NPC, or a mentor.
When you have an inkling that the PCs could split–or even before then–you sow some seeds by spreading rumours or leaving signs that the third party is in the area. This will make an encounter with them seem less contrived.
If the established party is a foe, then it also makes sense for them to confront the party when it’s been reduced in number. This could provide the rationale for multiple attempts against the PCs when they split up at various times during the campaign.
If the established party consists of two or more NPCs, you could split them up as well. This lets you present them to the waiting PCs on different occasions in several different configurations, making encounters with them seem fresh and dynamic. Perhaps the establish party sends its rogues out to spy on the waiting PCs! Heh.
Assuming you give the established party a reason to tail the PCs and repeatedly confront them, then you can re-use this tactic again and again to keep everyone in your group engaged.
To further mix things up, create several established parties that engage the waiting PCs over time.
- Increase Communication
If you can arrange for the waiting PCs to communicate with the stealthy PCs, you can keep everyone at the game table participating and entertained.
- The rogues follow the directions of the PCs who are back at home base reading detailed plans or maps that would be too unwieldy for the rogues to carry.
- The rogues encounter problems and puzzles that the whole group can help try to solve.
- The rogues encounter situations in which they need more information. The PCs waiting at home can look through books or run errands to try and get the vital info as fast as possible.
- The rogues engage in roleplaying encounters and don’t know what to do or say. The other PCs can help guide and coach them through the tricky social situations.
- The rogues need to strategize and the other PCs can voice their opinions and help form the best strategy.
How you enable communication depends on a few factors:
- One way or two? It’s ideal if all the PCs can communicate with each other, but circumstances might limit communication to just one-way, so you need to figure out if this will solve your problem or whether you need to architect a change of circumstances.
- Does the communication need to be done stealthily? This comes in two parts: sending and receiving, either of which might have stealth requirements.
- What range is required? Feet, miles, inter-planar?
- Is it one-to-one, many-to-one, or many-to-many? Do you just need the party to be able to communicate with a single rogue out in the field, or do you perhaps need to allow multiple PCs in waiting to communicate with several stealthy PCs in the field?
- Duration. Does the channel of communication need to be always on? This can impact fuel/energy requirements.
- Frequency. If the communication channel doesn’t always need to be live, then how often does it need to be accessed? Maybe it’s only required for the stealthy PCs to deliver an hourly or daily report? The PCs staying behind can go over the new intel each hour/day and then follow-up in the next communique with new instructions or feedback.
- Media. What data does the communication line need to transmit? Voice, other sounds, visual, material?
As you can see, there are several factors to weigh. However, these factors can also be turned into options to keep things interesting. You can provide several different means of communication over time or at the same time. You can challenge your players by imposing certain limitations on the method of communication to further engage your group.
- Only voice can be transmitted. The players who are waiting must go into another room within shouting range of the game table and the group must shout their communication back and forth.
- Eavesdroppers. The PCs must use code to prevent an enemy from knowing what they’re communicating.
- Pictures only. No sound or voice is allowed. The PCs must draw pictures for each other to communicate.
In present day, future, and sci-fi genres, you have many easy means to allow communication. It’s tougher in fantasy though, so here are a few ideas:
- Teleport or translocation magic. You enable one or more rogues to return to the waiting PCs on a regular basis. As the rogues are coming to the PCs, stealth isn’t required (except, possibly, for the activation of the translocation method). Conversely, you might let one or more of the waiting PCs travel to the rogues’ location for a period of time.
- Message spell or magic item.
- Crystal ball.
- Animals. This is a cool option. The PCs might be able to use animals as messengers in one of several different ways. The rogues could carry a animal with them that witnesses events and then returns to speak with the waiting druid about what it saw. The rogues might take along a wizard’s familiar, allowing the wizard to communicate through his link with the creature. The animals could physically carry written notes and packages back and forth.
- Word of recall.
- Smoke signals, flags, mirrors.
Make sure that you have established a need for the PCs to communicate with each other. If it’s an unnecessary option, the rogues might elect to remain silent, defeating your plans to keep all the players engaged.
Also, if you’re supplying an esoteric means for communication, such as a strange device, make sure you introduce it in a believable way, else the players will feel like you’re giving them some kind of concession. In fact, you might make finding a reliable means of communication a quest for the PCs–you just need to supply the hook to let them know such a possibility exists.
- Enable The Other PCs To Be Stealthy
You might consider providing the means to let the other party members be stealthy and keep up with the rogues. This was a popular tip that many wrote in with, and is a legitimate way of dealing with the problem.
However, as one reader, Redwing, pointed out, stealth is often the exclusive domain of a PC class or character concept in a party. Providing other PCs with similar skills and abilities might make the rogue-type less valuable, less distinct, and less important to the story–which would certainly reduce the rogue player’s enjoyment of the game.
Before you supply special equipment, magic items, and other means to let the rest of the party mimic the rogue’s abilities, be sure you want to allow this cross-over to happen.
A possible remedy is to provide limited solutions. Perhaps the other PCs’ equipment only masks sound and not sight. Perhaps you supply potions so that the PCs don’t have ongoing rogue-like abilities. In turn, these limited solutions might sabotage the original reason for providing them in the first place–supporting the rogue PC and keeping all the players entertained.
It’s a tough call, but this solution might be effective if used occasionally.
- Encourage Good Planning
Rogues often die alone because of poor party support and a lack of planning. While many GMs and players prefer not to play in games that are military-like simulations, some planning can go a long way to improving the mortality rate of _all_ party members. Think of this approach as another type of puzzle encounter for the players to solve.
To protect rogues who must venture out into hostile territory without close support, you could beef them up with equipment, technology, and magic. This crosses the line mentioned in the “Enable The Other PCs To Be Stealthy” tip by diluting the value of warrior and spell casting PCs though.
Instead, you might decide that this situation is part of the RPG experience. The players must pool their resources and team together to ensure each party member survives the current challenge. You might rule that it’s up to the PCs to protect the rogues as best they can while in the field.
You can champion a couple of approaches to this GMing style:
- Introduce quests. Drop hints, hooks, and information in-game about possibilities for helping to reduce rogue mortality rates. Make available opportunities to get new equipment, find magical assistance, improve field communications, and other options, and turn them into adventures.These player-driven quests are wonderful and can actually help you plan better. PCs motivated by a specific goal (i.e. finding a set of telepathy rings) are less likely to veer away from your designs.
- Arbitrate. Encourage the party to plan, discuss, and strategize to help cover rogue backs as best they can with the resources they have available.The problem in many groups with planning is that discussions can become arguments or turn into long, boring, drawn-out affairs with no tangible resolution.
The solution is to step in and arbitrate the planning meeting between the players. You can do this OOC, GM-to-player, or IC, NPC-to-PC. Either way, you do the following:
- Keep the discussion on track. When chat veers onto something unrelated or unimportant, bring the main topic of protecting the rogues, back into focus.
- Maintain proper focus. It’s easy to get lost in the details, to make mountains out of molehills, and to blow minor issues out of proportion in any group discussion. When you spot this happening, bring everyone’s attention back to the big picture: how to protect the rogues as best as possible.
- There is never a no-risk plan. Players will raise objections to nearly every course of proposed action. This is fine as it helps everyone assess risk levels. But help make the group aware that there is no such thing as a risk-free plan.
When the discussion starts going in circles and players become dissatisfied that their particular objections aren’t being handled, step in and remind the group that their job is to pick what they think is the least risky path. There’s not going to be a no-risk path, so it’s all about minimizing risk and then…taking that risk.
- Offer suggestions when the PCs get stuck. Sometime players get stumped for ideas because they don’t have all the information they need. You might have a made a false assumption that they see things as you do, or they might have mis-heard or not heard information you previously supplied. Players also forget things once in awhile. For these reasons and more, jump in with some good ideas or clarifications to get stalled planning going again and resolved quickly.
For more tips, tactics, and advice, I encourage you to check out the new Supplemental Issue #17 (retrieval instructions at the beginning of this article).
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- Great Idea For Starting A New Campaign
From: Johnny Roccia
Been reading the zine for a while now, and it’s definitely helped my GMing, so I thought I’d contribute a tip of my own. I recently ran a game where, before the first full session, I ran each of the players through a separate, private solo session where we roleplayed through the character’s background instead of just telling it or writing it down.
The sessions were only a few hours each, and there were many time lapses and summarized scenes, as we were going through all the important moments of the character’s history.
Using my influence on the background that I had with this system, I had each of the characters meet and become good friends/allies with a character named Alistair Brighton. He was friendly, helpful, and likeable, if somewhat reserved about his personal life, and so was immediately liked by all.
When I started the first session, I had everyone gathered and looking forward to a great campaign. I started the session with these words: “Alistair Brighton is dead.” Before I went on to explain, I took a satisfied look at my players as they first had expressions of shock and horror (they had REALLY liked Brighton, and he wasn’t just a name in a back story since they actually roleplayed through it), but then understanding as each one realized that each of the OTHER players was also shocked by Brighton’s death.
This immediately plunged all the characters into the story as there was immediate conflict. (Who killed him? How do we find out? What can we do?). This was also a common ground and connection between all the players. It worked out great.
- Try New Tactics With Your Monsters
I once talked to a guy who told me that there just wasn’t anything new in medieval fantasy anymore, that everything had been done already. e said there was really not much more to it than “slay the dragon, rescue the princess” when you got right down to the basics.
I disagreed politely, and disagree even more after reading your newsletter. That’s not to say that things never get stale. If you’re not careful, certain themes get old and predictable quickly.
An example is a scenario with the good old dragon–the favourite prey (except maybe orcs and kobolds) of PCs everywhere. Here’s a good twist to add to your next dragon- slaying adventure that’ll give your PCs and the players a good kick in the pants and keep them on their toes.
Instead of the dungeon crawl to the dragon’s lair, slaying it and taking it’s horde of gold, why not have the dragon come to them? The players receive a tip-off (all part of the villain’s master plan, though they don’t know this) that the villain plans to ride the dragon down from it’s mountain lair, take the city by surprise, and burn it to the ground.
The players think they’ve gained the edge and prepare with the city’s grateful leaders (unless they are the leaders, of course) for the dragon’s aerial attack. Citizens are evacuated, roofs are soaked with water so they don’t catch fire, ballistae are aimed skyward, and soldiers are equipped with spear and bow. The dragon appears in the sky, right on schedule, and starts circling.
Your players are getting ready for another good old “hack and slash” when the dragon lands nearby and charges. No one was prepared for a charging dragon. They were expecting a flying dragon. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a dragon running or even walking very far in a fantasy book or campaign. What are they going to do? They can’t aim the ballistae fast enough, the soldiers are in the wrong positions…
The bad guys trample the city into the dust gleefully, leaving the PCs looking very bad in the eyes of the city leaders. A good lesson for the PCs. They’ll think twice next time before they underestimate a dragon or villain and be in awe of your devilish, creative genius as GM!
Thinking up new tricks for old scenarios can really spice up the old “hack and slash” routine and refresh things when they get a little stale. It can really get the players thinking too, taking them off the beaten path and making them think for themselves and strategise a little more carefully. Over-doing it though can lead to paranoid players though, so be careful with this one.
- Magical Library Inspiration
From: Tyler Elkink
Regarding the “PC Missions Idea” tip from Peter in Issue #230, this was an exceptional idea I plan to use in my next campaign. I’d like to suggest the Discworld series to other interested parties, as it contains a magical library ideal for high-magic campaigns in the same vein. Most of the “Rincewind” books within the series have some mention of the Library.
- GM As MC: Track Birthdays
From: Debbie Johnson
In response to the GM as MC tips in Issue #228, most of which I already use, I wanted to add something else that I do that makes new, but especially existing, players feel special.
I keep track of birthdays and anniversaries, from the player perspective. Everyone likes recognition on their birthday, so I bring their choice of cake or ice cream, and we all get a little treat. This usually allows for a little player social interaction as well, which can be conducive to game play.
Their anniversary is the first time they play in my game. On the game day closest to their one-year anniversary, again I bring something they like (I like to bake, but store-bought cookies or cake are acceptable). I shake their hand and say, “Congratulations, it’s hard to believe it’s been a year.” Then we reminisce a little on the memorable exploits of that person’s character.
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