3 Hacks for Any Roleplaying Game

Back in the 1990s Quentin Doucet–a buddy of mine and the best damn roleplayer I’ve ever known–introduced three rules to his games.  In twenty-first century jargon, he had discovered “game hacks.”  Because Quentin’s game hacks sped up play and increased flow, they spread quickly throughout our gaming circle.

Now that I’m running games with new players, it fell to me to introduce a new cadre of gamers to Quentin’s game hacks.  And they thought you should have them too.

Barroom Visits

Keeping track of game money is annoying.  Learning the ins and outs of each setting’s system of currency is doubly annoying.  Most players want adventure, not a dissertation on international finance.

Quentin understood this better than any of us.  He introduced a universal unit of currency, the Barroom Visit.

A barroom visit is the amount of money that a typical player character would spend in a typical visit to a barroom.  In other words, a tidy sum.  The Barroom Visit gave us a system of valuation any of us could use in any setting, in any era.

An inside man has the information I need but he’s holding back.  I bribe him with a Barroom Visit and he starts talking.

Diamond Jack Martin just robbed the Laredo Bank?  The bounty has been set at 10 Barroom Visits!

The team had a wildly successful run.  Your character decides to hit the town and spends–one Barroom Visit!

Reading Everyone’s Comic Book

When your character isn’t featured in a scene, it’s tempting to get into side conversations, check your email, read a comic someone else brought for you.  Letting players disengage like this slows down gameplay.  Transitions between characters take longer.  Players lose track of the plot.

Quentin knew player distraction could kill a campaign.  So he told all of us to read each other’s comic book.  Even when your character wasn’t involved, you should enjoy and appreciate other people’s play.  This gentle commandment kept everyone at every corner of the table caught up with the goings-on at every other corner.  This policy also meant we got to experience the story from a wider variety of perspectives than just our own.

 

Blah

Because everyone is reading everyone else’s comic book, each player knows what each character has seen and done.  Part of the story still includes passing information on to other characters which their players already know.

Repeating information between characters is a time killer.  Writers in television and cinema know this problem.  Watch carefully and you’ll notice that information-passing conversations seldom happen on camera.  Instead, screenwriters tend to cut to moments right after the characters have exchanged information.

Quentin had a solution waiting for this problem in RPGs.  His solution is “Blah.”

Any time your character needs to pass information to another character and both players already have this information, simply say “blah.”  This establishes for the purposes of the story that your character has filled the other character in and we can get on with the plot.  

 

Quick.  Simple.  Effective.  Game hacks.

What do you think of these roleplaying hacks?  Would they help your games as much as they helped mine?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Roleplaying Campaigns as Television Shows

Roleplaying games were my first introduction to the world of professional game design. Every RPG ever published assumes–if it doesn’t actively encourage–its players will create house rules, homebrew monsters, and custom worlds. This makes the RPG table a perfect place for aspiring writers, actors. and game designers.

I hung my dice up a few years ago. Our regular group dissolved as members moved out of state and we were unable to find dedicated players to fill their chairs. There was the occasional pickup game but board game design became my bailiwick.

The break between campaigns enabled me to find a new perspective. One year ago, I elected to climb behind the screen and form a new group for a new game. This campaign wrapped up recently so it seemed like a perfect time to share the experience.

 

RPGs as Serialized Epics

Twenty years ago, J. Michael Straczynski brought a television show that was completely new to us. Babylon 5 was scheduled tell an epic story over the course of five years. And then stop. Nobody was writing that kind of television at the time. Most shows were serialized and open-ended like a comic book.

babylon-5-01

Twenty-first century television has a number of great shows of this type. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones are all shows which tell epic stories over multiple episodes. And then stop.

These serialized epics are the new template for my campaigns.

 

Serialized Epic Advantage: Extended Stories

Any episode of a show from my childhood like Happy Days or Beverly Hills 90210 packed every story into a tidy three-act structure which fit nicely into a single episode.

That’s not how Breaking Bad works. Walter White doesn’t deal with threats to his business in a single episode. If a threat appears in one episode, his response will be revealed to us gradually. He may begin responding to this threat in the same episode but it is likely that multiple episodes will pass before he has completely dealt with the interlopers.

The stories in serialized epics stretch over multiple episodes.

When I began playing RPGs in 1980, each session was a single dungeon crawl. We grabbed our gear, girded our proverbials, and dove in. Once the dungeon was suitably stripped of treasure, the characters that climbed out were pretty much the same ones that dove in. We could enter the next dungeon pretty much the same way we entered this one.

In a serialized epic RPG, stories play out over multiple sessions. A party member may be attacked in one session, investigate the source of the attack in the second session, and act to neutralize this source in the third. Rumors discrediting party members may emerge, requiring a number of sessions of damage control all while the opposing faction keeps working to wreck the team’s rep.

 

Serialized Epic Advantage: Consequences

Not only did other shows pack their three-act structure into single episodes, they also tended to set everything back to normal by the end of that episode. No matter what else happened, we are going to see Bruce Banner hitchhiking down an anonymous strip of middle America by the end of each episode of The Incredible Hulk. Sure, we had the occasional To be continued… but these were rare exceptions.

incredible-hulk

Walter White’s actions reverberate through the series. Any time he puts on his Heisenberg hat and begins plotting, we know things are going to change for keepsies. His actions are consequential.

When our party finished a dungeon crawl, we were done with it. Apart from the stray magic item and a character level or two, that hole in the ground was any other hole in the ground. They held no further significance for us and their builders certainly weren’t going to come looking for us to punish us for destroying their creations. And what if we were to change up their order? So what? They had no effect on one another anyway. Our characters–and the world they lived in–were unchanged by their experiences.

Every major action by the player characters in a serialized RPG will revisit them later. Toppling the evil overlord leaves a power vacuum; if the PCs don’t find a way to fill this vacuum, they will have to deal with the new evil overlord who moves in to fill it.

 

Serialized Epic Advantage: Conclusions

Gilligan’s Island was the continuing story of a group of castaways on a tropical island trying to get rescued. Showrunners had only one goal; for the show to be popular enough to keep renewing it. With high enough ratings, it’s conceivable that Gilligan’s Island could still be on the air today.

Deliberate open-ended structures like this rob shows of dramatic opportunity. It puts them on a treadmill, always running but never moving forward. The castaways cannot be rescued or the show would be over. The castaways also cannot fail to survive or there would be nothing to watch.

Breaking Bad was conceived as the rise and fall of a drug lord. No matter how popular it may have been, it had to end. Walter White had to end.

Serialized Epics are created with an end in mind. Planning with a conclusion in mind is exactly why these shows can include extended stories plots with consequences

Running a serialized epic RPG frees the game master from mundane questions about how to keep the game plodding along from one session to the next. Instead, she can focus on building the game to its climax.

Running a serialized epic RPG also frees the game master from concerns of power creep. Certainly, the PCs are getting steadily more powerful. But the stakes they fight for are also rising, as is their competition. The PCs NEED a steady rise in power. Without it, they won’t be prepared to face her campaign’s conclusion.

 

A Serialized Epic Conclusion

The combined advantages of extended story, consequence, and conclusion led me to choose the serialized epic model for my RPG. It was the right decision.

My serialized epic campaign ran for just under a year. The heroes began with an investigation into a series of serial killings with implications of the supernatural. Their story went on to feature investigate hauntings in Hollywood, possessions among the New York elite, and a hunt for the Spear of Destiny. Through all these adventures, they were opposed by a supernatural horror fixated on fulfilling a dark prophecy. The campaign climaxed with a battle on the Siberian plains under the prophesized eclipse. And we had fun along the way. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

bb01

 

What do you think of the serialized epic model for campaigns? Did I miss any features? Have you played in one? Have you run one? How did it turn out? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below. And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog. If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.