RPT#94 – 9 Ways To Increase Player Heroism In Your Game
- Think Of Your PCs As Heroes In A Cooperatively Told Story
- Ask Your Players How They Imagine Their Character
- Give Your Heroes Closure, And Let Them Do The Closing
- Hinge A Key Element Of The Plot-Line On Each Of The Heroes
- Focus On What Your Players Think Is The Most Fun/Heroic
- Give (Or Get From) Every Hero A Secret
- Reward Players For Out-Thinking You
- Keep It Close
- Let The Heroes Lead
- Be Creative With Your Taverns
- Using Descriptions To Keep Players Wary Of Monsters
- General GMing Tips
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Johnn Four firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is a guest article written by Ted Oliverio, sometimes known as Helpful-GM in various forums. He can be reached for comments or to ‘talk game’ at HelpfulGM@PlayNaked.com
- Think Of Your PCs As Heroes In A Cooperatively Told StoryThink of your player-characters as heroes in a cooperatively told story. Of course, everyone knows this — but really THINK about it! They are the stars of this show, the main characters in this book, the headliners in this movie.
It’s good that your heroes should struggle once in a while – -overcoming adversity is key to heroism. It’s good that they should take losses while accomplishing their goals — the reason they’re heroes is because they have the strength to get up and do what needs to be done! It’s even good that the audience (who happen to be the players of these heroes — something which mildly complicates the standard formula 🙂 be concerned that the hero be dead, once in a while. But, in the end, they ARE the heroes, so look for the occasional opportunity to let them do something really spectacular.
- Ask Your Players How They Imagine Their CharacterAsk your players how they imagine their character. I recently had a little difficulty with a player who objected to me saying that I wanted their character to be from a particular region. They didn’t like me driving the character that way, and I couldn’t figure out why they thought that the rather wide swath of continent I’d selected seemed unreasonable.
It later occurred to me to just ask “ok, where do you want to be from?” and, guess what, they wanted to be from smack- dab in the center of the area I had in mind! Had I opened with “any idea where you want to be from?” and offered a gentle nudge (“if you slide over to >here<, I can tell you all sorts of local knowledge that you might find useful later. Or not, it’s your choice…”), the player would’ve felt much less “run over by the plot wagon.”
Similarly, I have another player who wants to be the world’s best archer. Without me knowing that, it’d never have occurred to me to strategically place magic bows, arrows, knowledge of archery, archery contests, etc., around my campaign world. I asked how he thought his character was special, he told me, I made an adjustment to the world that doesn’t hurt my story any, and this made him totally happy. Win, win, win!
The key thing is that what YOU think is important/cool/heroic might be different from what your PLAYERS think is important/cool/heroic, and it’s to everyone’s advantage that you reward folks with things they value.
- Give Your Heroes Closure, And Let Them Do The ClosingGive your heroes closure, and allow them to do the closing. It does your heroes little good to spend years following clues, interrogating prisoners, and killing minions only to confront the Main Bad Guy and be killed, permanantly, and the world is destroyed anyway.
Almost as unheroic is to have them battle the arch-villian for several sessions, taking losses, retreating to regroup, fighting some more, almost dying — all the heroic stuff — only to watch a random event, like an earthquake knocking a chandelier from the ceiling, kill the bad guy for them. Certainly the world is still saved, the king will still give them all medals of valor, the townsfolk will sing their praises –but, in their heart of hearts, the heroes will know that serendipity saved the world, not them. Let your heroes be heroes. If possible, let the “little guy” in the party give the final blow.
- Hinge A Key Element Of The Plot-Line On Each Of The HeroesHinge a key element of the plot-line on each of the heroes – – make sure they each get some time to shine. This can be tricky to work in, and you may have to deal with some player jealousy as The Big Wheel spins around, but try to plan things so that, for example, THIS session is where we see the rogue’s skills put to critical use, and THAT session is where the party learns to appreciate the Bard’s abilities and THE OTHER session focuses on the wizard controlling some key magical orb that makes or breaks some important encounter. It doesn’t always have to be “wow, without Gronk the half-orc fighter here, those guys would have creamed us!” — although that’s a fine way to give your fighter some hero-time, if that’s what he enjoys. Which leads to the next point…
- Focus On What Your Players Think Is The Most Fun/HeroicFocus on what your players think is the most fun/heroic. I have my players complete a character-survey and, among the usual “what colour is your hair?” and “who was your favourite pet?” questions, I have questions like “what would be the perfect magic item for this person?”, “what would be the best thing that could happen to your character?” and “what would be the worst curse imaginable?”, etc.*
From this, I can see what my players think is super-cool that might not have occurred to me. I can also learn interesting ways to “torture” them ;), or barriers to place in front of the goal (“worst curse” type stuff) before giving them access to the super-coolest of all things. In this way, the player tells you what HE thinks of as heroic (eliminating “DM: See? You’re the Big Hero, now”, “Player: That’s it?! That’s lame!” arguments.), you set up tension (worst curse), allow the player to overcome (heroic, closure), and give a reward that you know the player will appreciate (coolest item). And, of course, you can always scale these things down (1/2 worst curse, 1/2 coolest item), if that fits your situation, better. * Footnote: To see my “character survey”, check out [http://www.PlayNaked.com/olie/DandD ] and click on the “Character Survey” link.[Johnn: also see this article: The Mother Of All Character Questionnaires ]
- Give (Or Get From) Every Hero A SecretGive every character a secret. Better yet, get one from them. My good friend Joe writes: One trick I use as a DM is to make sure that each character has a secret. If every character has something in her background, some special ability, or even an item that the other characters don’t know about, it makes them feel special. And when you subtly refer to it in the game, it’s nice for that character — they know they’re the only one who can understand that reference.
If you can arrange it, it’s extra-nice if each player thinks they might be the only one with a secret .
- Reward Players For Out-Thinking YouReward players for out-thinking you. Many DMs have the idea that they place an obstacle before the players and want it solved a certain way. Players, however, can be extremely creative, so try to give credit for players coming up with truly inventive solutions to problems — even if it’s not exactly what you had in mind. It’s heroic to come up with something no one else would ever think of.
- Keep It CloseIt’s not particularly heroic for a 7th level party to slay a pair of run-of-the mill kobolds. Neither is it heroic for them all to be squashed in the surprise round by an ancient red dragon. “Keeping it close” doesn’t just pertain to one battle, either, but the overall campaign. There is no generic formula that can work for every game. This is something that the DM has to work at to keep everyone on their toes.
The idea is to allow the heroes the occasional victory, several setbacks –without breaking the players’ spirits — and a final decisive victory. The heroes make a little progress, then maybe get captured. Then they escape but are badly hurt in the process. Then they defeat several bands of minions and infiltrate the bad guy’s secret lair only to have 2 party members killed and have to run away leaving all their equipment behind in order to carry out the bodies.
Later, they spend all their money getting their friends resurrected, the bad guy shifts gears, it seems they have to practically start over, but then they fall into an important piece of intelligence that becomes key to finding the villain’s new hide-out, etc.
Success should never be “in the bag”, and the situation should never be actually hopeless –although it may look that way for a while. Each DM will have to customize this to her players and campaign, but the basic idea is the same for all. “From desperate times come Heroic Deeds.”
- Let The Heroes LeadBe careful not to fix your adventures in stone. Going into any given session, be prepared for the players to head off in any direction. If you plan everything to the North, Murphy can almost assure you that the party will decide they need to go Southwest to check something out, no matter how urgent the business to the North is.
The players should never feel that you’re driving them North — even though there may be several indications of something interesting to the North. Heroes select their own destiny and are not forced to meet the schedule of any particular plot-train. (Unless, of course, the adventure is that some super-power has teleported them all to the castle to the North — but this should be an exception, not the rule.)
This ties in with point #7, be prepared for your heroes to do something that you didn’t think of, and reward them for creative solutions. As a general rule, I try to have everything within a couple of miles of the heroes in every direction planned in great detail, with decreasingly firm ideas about things that are further away. In this way I’m ready for nearly anything the players might try, and can wing it if they go in an unexpected direction. Next session, I can fill in details for the direction that the players chose for a mile in every direction, and adjust other things, accordingly. Heroes lead, the DM follows (and sometimes shuffles things that used to be off to the North around to the Southwest 😉 — it’s a beautiful dance 🙂
There are many other things you can do to increase heroism in your game and, if demand is high enough, I may write a follow-up to this article. But if you start with these tips, and keep yourself focused on the idea of “the PCs are the stars of this heroic movie”, then a lot of it will just fall into place on its own.
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- Be Creative With Your Taverns
From: JL Ford
Tired of the old cliche of starting off in a tavern? I was too, but it is usually a quick way to begin a new campaign or adventure. The solution I came up with was to put a new spin on it.
Ever wonder what happens to a dungeon after a party of adventurers clear it out? In my campaign, a wizard decided to retire shortly after clearing out the dungeon with his friends. He moved into the dungeon and started a tavern inside. Nice thing about this, it provides a resting point in what normally is wild, untamed lands, it provides some NPCs without having a lot, and, because supply is low, prices are a little on the high side.
In my world, Tennerth’s Refuge (the wizard was named Tennerth, obviously) became a popular meeting place for the PCs and they eventually became so trusted by the middle-aged wizard that he would give them quests to find items he needed to create a magic item, often telling them if they came back with an extra one, he’d ‘make it worth their while’. Just my new spin on an old cliche.
- Using Descriptions To Keep Players Wary Of Monsters
From: Rick K.
I have a suggestion for an issue of your e-zine. How do you, as a DM, keep your players wary of creatures, especially when, after some time playing, they probably know the monster’s general stats?
One trick I’ve used successfully is to change the HD of the creature. This is especially useful for leaders, and easy to do in 3e D&D.
Another trick more unique to my game is with my Orcs. I only bumped them up to 2 hit dice, but I still have 5th and 6th level characters worried about them. I actually had someone ask me last night if they were 5th level creatures in my game!
It’s all about description. I gave them a special ability of not feeling any pain, and a unique history of being directly created by their gods as a holy army. There are no females and the occasional orc child born grows to physical maturity in the space of a year (this is where half-orcs come from). It’s very unnerving to try and torture a creature who only looks at you blankly after firing a crossbow quarrel into its knee.
To enhance this image of painlessness, I always over- describe a wound done to them. For example, when someone deals it 5 points of damage I’ll describe it as a powerful cut, nearly severing it’s arm. Then I’ll add that the orc doesn’t appear to have noticed the wound, or even chuckles at its attacker. Of course, 5 points of damage wouldn’t be enough to kill any self-respecting 2 hit dice creature anyway, but people will forget the number if you describe the effect well enough. They won’t realize that they only did a total of 11 points of damage to kill the orc, they’ll just remember that they had to cut off it’s leg, stab it in the heart, then pitch it into the gully.
So, in summary, give creatures a unique history (some, not necessarily all), and describe them in a terrifying manner. That will make your monsters seem much more dangerous than their stats would indicate. Who cares if you only did 7 points of damage to the whole party, if all the players have to wipe sweat from their foreheads after the battle? Hehe.
- General GMing Tips
From: Mike S.
- Keep ’em guessing
One of the things that seems to throw off GMs is having one or more of the players being ‘rules lawyers’ or the equivalent that live to catch you in a snafu of the rules or continuity. All GMs try their best of course, but we’re not perfect and the occasional error creeps in. You can admit the error and correct the problem, but occasionally this is either not possible due to game factors or the rules lawyer mentioned above is trying to ruin your credibility and authority (see the BA/Brian conflict of Knights of the Dinner Table comic series).
In this regard, when a player mentions something like “Hey, Rock Trolls live in mountains; why did one attack us in a swamp?” or “Hey, Holy Avenger Swords are supposed to do __(fill in the blank)___.” or “Tremier mages can’t cast that!”; just say….
“Why yes, that *IS* odd, isn’t it?”, smile, and continue the game.
In such a case the players then think this was intentional and try to begin to figure out the clues or possibilities they MUST have missed themselves.
Naturally, a GM shouldn’t use this to cover lazy or shoddy work nor do this constantly, for the players will catch on. But it can help bring some thought to the game, even if they’re trying to figure out a nonexistant quandry.
- Listen to Player Paranoia
I’ve often listened while the characters have debated what Encounter A or Item B could *really* mean. And hearing them come up with theories and possibilities often gives me ideas and plotlines I didn’t think of myself. These can be used in this scenario if the game has drifted from where you originally wanted the players to go and are fishing for a sub-plot or story to keep them occupied while trying to give them the opportunity to get back on the main adventure hook.
- Don’t steer the PC’s by force
One thing I’ve discovered in 20 years of gaming is that PCs frequently do the unexpected, and if you plan a detailed adventure for them to go to Town A to save Maiden B from Evil C they’ll immediately become fascinated with Forest D that you’ve only barely mapped and only mentioned as a minor landmark. At such a point, its very tempting to ‘force’ the PC’s onto your planned track. This is bad. PCs are like cats. The more you try to force them into a situation, the more they fight you on it, suspecting something.
The best way to handle this, I’ve found, is to use #2 above if possible. If it’s not possible, just let them choose their path but make the wood just as boring as any normal wood. Or leave some clues in the wood that will lead them back to the main scenario but whatever you do it must be the PC’s choice. Otherwise, you’re asking for trouble.
***ADDENDUM: There are a few game systems where forcing the PCs at certain strategic points works for the story and is acceptable, but in my experience these are almost always horror games where the PCs are ‘normals’ facing ghastly forces (Call of Cthulhu, etc.). But even here the GM needs to be careful to not overdue it or the PCs will just hand the GM their character sheets and say “Just tell me when its over and how my character did….” 🙂