Techniques

Some call them game advice, instincts, having a nice group of players, experience, part of the social contract, etc. The thing is that playing RPGs all boils down to this: Ritual phrases and even gestual language that helps players get in the same page with the fictional space and situations they create, that helps them build inmersion and negotiate arguments faster.

However almost no designer includes these in their rules and most of the time every player either learns them watching experienced players use them, by reading tons of actual plays, examples and other advice, or learns the hard way: by building their own set of techniques from another sources.

It isn’t at the end a task too hard, since most of these techniques derive from the ones we use in real life for comunicating with others. The simplicity of these techniques is such that once used once, every player considers them their second nature and designers forget that not everybody knows them, thus perpetuating the shroud of mistery that revolves around roleplaying.

So, as a previous step for making a comic to explain these techniques to future roleplayers and GMs, I’ll be making a list of the most used ones, if not all I’ve ever used or heard about. So here they are:

Basics

Scene Framing*: the GM describes a place and it’s circumstances to set a base for the fictional space and situation. Information given by the scene framer can either be useful, unfocused, color or red herrings, but not unclear nor insufficient to judge and interpretate it into a fictional space.

Embrace the Fiction. Remember to add on your description (as a GM) and acting (as a player) all the color you can, to enhance the appropiate feeling for the genre you’re playing.

“What do you do?*” is the cue that the GM uses to indicate the end of the initial description and to ask for feedback. Usually, players should refrain from interrupting the GM until this question is asked. Some GMs may use a pause and/or a hand gesture to signal this.

“Can I do X?” It’s common for a player who is learning the rules to ask whether the rules allow them to do what they want. In RPGs where player options depend on the fiction, players may similarly need to check with the GM or the group on whether the fiction (actually, those players’ judgment of it) allows them to do what they want.

Make questions about the fiction: Any player can ask for more information about the fiction, though any further information will consider only the point of view of his/her character and limited to all the ways it can perceive the world (sight, smell, any other skills the character can use, etc). Also, the GM can ask players questions to futher feed the fiction.

Experiment!: Another way to test the limits of the fiction is to try it ingame. How far can this weapon fire? How does this magic item exactly works? Let’s push some buttons and see what happens!

Establishing Rules & Fiction Facts: This usually comes in hand with the previous three techniques. After the questions have been answered either about mechanics or the fictional world, this sets a precedent for future situations. The next time this comes up, the answer should be (more or less) the same.

Keep making things happen* either as a player and more important, as a GM, you shouldn’t allow the question and discussion over the fiction go on forever. Make monsters attack if players are still planning their moves after ten minutes, interrupt them, call one apart or send notes to a player whose character isn’t involved in the discussion. Of course, make sure all players are on the same page on the fiction before doing that.

“I look for…” this one is used when the character focuses on an specific aspect of the fictional space to get an specific information/feedback from it. It counts as a pasive interaction with the fictional space. It’s also a sign that the player may have a plan for an specific input (and a cue for the GM/other players to pay attention and care about this input, and go with it if possible/plausible)

Conflict*: passive or active interactions with the setting may trigger a problem whose outcome is uncertain and may affect furter development of the fiction. GM may declare the need for executing the conflict resolution procedure to determine the outcome or go straight to describe the outcome if this seems unneccesary for a lack of impact in the further development of the fiction.

I try to do X this is the cue used for direct interaction of the PC with the setting, as a response to and/or to be followed by more information, a change of the situation and/or a conflict.

“Describe that in detail” this can either be used by the GM or any player to make the GM or any player add more detailed information and/or color to the fiction.

“If you do X, Y will/might happen”* GMs may wish to warn a player about the definite or possible results of an action they are pondering or initiating. A mix of this and the next technique is Setting Stakes, where both players and the GM make an agreement of what is at risk and what can be obtained in this challenge.

“Are you doing X? That might not be quite so easy…” Any player in posession of any knowledge that has escaped the scene framer’s attention should state it; not for the sake of ruining other’s players input but to make the scene more dramatic. (another one stolen from Archipielago)

Acting: Many players go beyond their voice in portraying their character. Snarling, staring hard, pounding a fist on the table, jumping out of a chair — these can all add color and vividness to the imagined events. This kind of player input is more inmmersive and helps a lot to give color to the fiction.

Demonstrating: If your game uses the specifics of character action as a causal factor, players may want to pantomime such specifics in addition to describing them verbally.

“My character does X intraction with Y character” this is also a valid way for players to give their input, though one that isn’t too inmersive. However it’s more meant to let the players distance from the emotions in the fiction that may make them feel uncomfortable.

I use my (skill or item) to try to do X if the player is familiar with the system and the GM usual techniques and their rythm, it will be usual for him/her to shorten the procedure and go straight to apply the game’s conflict resolution mechanic, as long as the GM/other players validate their application in view of the current fictional situation.

“I assume…” players may suggest the presence or absence of specific fictional content based in pre-established fictional cases or application of the setting’s logic. The GM/player responsible for scene framing may confirm or deny these assumptions when applicable to their creative agenda.

“So what is your character doing?” Anyone can ask this of a player who has gone a while without taking any game actions.

Accept other players Input. Build on it. Giving value to others players creative input and rolling with it greatly improves the group’s confidence and flow of the game as players feel more and more safe abouth sharing their thoughts and open themselves more to other’s players input.

Provide Input: don’t wait for other’s to fill the gaps in the fiction. If you’ve got an idea for color or are afraid something may happen in the fiction, don’t be afraid to drop it. Somebody else wil probably catch it, go with it and make the fiction more interesting. (more Archipielago)

Ask for Input: if you’re suddenly without ideas, feel free to ask other players or the GM, If you’re the GM, you can use “What do you think? (see below) or ask the players what their characters would like to do next.

Do the Obvious Can’t think of anything? Relax, do whatever sounds reasonable and you’ll remain in character, move the story along and perhaps, even surprise everybody in the table who were thinking on a totally different approach.

Reincorporate. Take people, objects or events from a previous scene and find ways to introduce them into a new scene that’s about something else. This can help tie disparate threads together and/or add richness to what’s already established.

Introduce fallout. A type of reincorporation, but focused on results of previous events rather than the events themselves. Same benefits as reincorporation, plus an option for adding/revealing consequence to player deeds.

Escalate. Raise the stakes and/or the costs of challenges to the player characters. Good for building toward dramatic climax, and for finding points of no return or of change for characters.

Take a breather. Follow an intense scene with one that you expect to be more mellow.

Show the players something unknown to the characters. Most movies and TV shows do this. It can serve the same purpose in RPGs — introducing distant elements which will impact the characters remotely or later. This can add suspense, clarity, or simply be convenient.

Tighten the web. Take any agents you’ve established but not thrown directly at the player characters… and throw them directly at the player characters. A way of building toward “wrapping up” a fictional arc.

*These are traditionally GM-only techniques, however some games also allow players license to use them when they hold complete or partial responsability for introducing setting, risks, stakes or consequences.

GM-only Techniques

Ask questions about the characters’ hopes, fears, theories and experiences. Asking the players about what their characters want, or have done, or feel threatened by, allows them to help you invent needed setting and situation details. If you ask them for theories on a mystery, they can even help you invent a plot or back-story!

Use open ended questions: these are useful not only on character creation but also through the game; the idea is to put the players on a spot and let them make their way out with their own imagination, but keeping all the consequences implicit in their answers for future use.

Address your GMing to the characters (not the players). This can help remind players to get in character, and remind everyone who’s playing whom.

When you have permission/responsibility to do something bad to the characters, here are some options that introduce risk, drama, and/or obstacles: separate them, capture someone, announce bad news, take their stuff, make them buy, activate their stuff’s downside, tempt them, and employ an established threat (the bomb goes off, the monster attacks, etc.). “Them” and “stuff”, beyond the obvious, can also include valued NPCs.

To introduce horror: use the principles above as much as you can, use a more lethal final boss but keep it out of reach until the end. Let players run and hide, but don’t give them any chance to beat it. Never show it: let players imagine what it could be, based on fragmented information and the slight traces of it’s presence along the session. Don’t be afraid to describe irrational scenes. Never explain them. The less control the PCs have of the situation, the better mood you’ll get for the game.

Lie to the characters, be honest with the players. There are all sorts of fun reasons to mislead the player characters, but don’t let this seep into your interactions as people! No one likes playing a game when they are misled about how the game works.

Script a revelation: Concoct an important secret, work toward getting the players invested in it, and pick just the right moment to confront them with a shocking surprise, an answer to their questions, or both. If you can do this without infringing upon the agency the players want/expect, the Big Reveal can be an exciting and memorable moment for author and audience alike.

Make your NPCs real. Identify their motives and what makes them tick, and play them based on that. This helps create believable and memorable NPCs, and can help inspire you for what to do with them.

Take a break. Better to pause too soon and come back refreshed than to tax people’s creative and social energy until they burn out!

Pause before the climax. This often means “pause before the die roll”. If there’s a need to cut between separate characters in separate scenes, cutting at the dramatic peak will ensure that everyone remembers where the scene left off and is invested in picking it back up. (Think timing of commercials in TV shows.)

Manage Spotlight: The attention of the GM focuses the attention of the group. When scenes drag, it’s often the GM that moves the group along. More outspoken players will probably steal the spotlight, that’s ok, but it’s the GM’s work to give the spotlight back to the less active players and have everybody do something in the story. (thanks Levi)

Manage Pacing: from slow-mo descriptions to scenes framed ten or more years after the last one, you can make the story move to better fit the game flow. Players can also help you hamdle this through their suggestions, listen to them.

Opposite techniques are also appropriate In different circumstances “Discard your prep”, “Address your GMing to the players”, “Ad-lib your NPCs to meet the needs of the moment”, “Tell characters about their experiences”, “Decide a roll isn’t needed”, “Keep playing while the playing’s good”, and “Find a good stopping point” all have their uses too.

“Yes, but…” This technique is meant to approve an specific player input and build a complication to the fictional situation with it. It can also be integrated on dice interpretation.

“No, but…” This technique is meant to negate the influence of a specific player input to the fiction, yet adding some hope for resolution. It can also be integrated on dice interpretation.

Techniques for Narrative Management

Act structure: This is when a game is divided into distinct acts, parts, chapters, episodes or otherwise called parts with a designated start and stop. In some games the whole game is one act, thus making it a one act structure. Other games have more acts, that are defined by a start and an end, with an act brake between the acts. Usually the drama of a game is focused on different themes in different acts, or just an accelerating drama with a climax and a resolution in the last act following a classic formula dramatic arc.

In Media Res This means the story begins to be played from the middle or near the conclusion, and at some point the players do a flashback scene.

Black Box (or calling players aside): Also known as meta room, a black box is a room where players may go during the game to play scenes that don’t fit into the here-and-now of the game or whose development must remain a secret to other players. Room may or may not include controlled lights and/or sound effects and might also be used for playing/dancing a symbolic version of something that is meant to be happening in-game, such as two characters fighting or having sex.

Flashback means framing an scene that shows past events on the fiction’s timeline. The main constraint is that it must present the same elements that will be there in a future scene to keep coherence with the future.

Flashforward means framing a scene that shows a possible future on the timeline of the fiction. This scene can be something to play towards, or to show possible futures of a character or relationship. It can also be used to reflect on what is happening at the moment.

Monologue can be used by a player partly or completely outside of the fiction’s space and time. This can either interrupt all other play or go on alongside. The monologue is a tool to give other players insight into the speaking characters story and create game openings between them. It has the added benefit of making the speaking player feel like a main protagonist and give them closure to their own story.

Dream Scene A dream sequences or imaginary scenes are possible as they play out in the heads of a character. This is a kind of cut scene where the director or players can explore the minds of the character, just like a monologue, without these things actually happening.

Epilogue Either narrated by th GM as a monologue or with the intervention of the rest of the players, it’s a scene meant to end the story explaining what really happened, summarizing the main events of the story, the consequences in the setting and/or what happened to the main characters of the story thereafter. This could also be the moment for adjudicating experience points for some systems. In larps this is part of a more complicated technique called Aftercare, which includes a set of procedures to help players cool down, process what happened in the fiction, and more.

Parallel Scenes: Two different scenes with different characters can take place in the story at the same time. Having this in mind, action on one can be interrupted to play what happens at the other and then back. Also, both scenes can be played simultaneously if the conditions allow it (players divide in two or more groups in different rooms or keep their voices low enough to not interrupt or distract the other groups)

Focus Scene: This technique has the GM or player interrupting all parallel scenes to unify the action again. It’s often an Scene Framing that reincorporates all or most characters back, sometimes recounting whatever happened at the different parallel scenes. The usual way to apply this is by starting suddenly to talk loud enough and look at everyone with an open arms gesture until all players pay attention, then lower your arms and continue in normal voice.

Playing to lose is a technique or concept used by a player to create better drama by not trying to win, letting their character lose. It is used in a collaborative play style rather than a competitive play style, and is a clear anti-gameism statement from Dramatists as outlined in the article The three way model from As Larp Grows Up.

And… scene can be used to end a scene and change to another, and doubles as a technique for safe interactions, to cut the fiction when some of its content becomes uncomfortable for any player.

Soundtrack: while it isn’t anything new to play RPGs with background music, it can certainly improve the whole experience to make the theme playing fit the mood of the scene, or in some games, use the theme playing randomly as an inspiration to switch the mood of the scene.

For your Eyes Only Whenever the GM wants to exchange information with one or more players but not the whole group, as a means to create suspicion between the PCs, passing notes back and forth works as a good signal that something is happening behind the players. Works amazingly to capture all player’s attention, even if the notes are meaningless. Players can also use this between themselves or give the notes to the GM when they are trying to do something behind someone’s back.

Safe in-character interaction techniques

Ars Ordo: In Ars Ordo, social status is tested through masculine staring contests, which escalate until one party gives up. The challenge starts with casual everyday eye contact: In most cases, one party yields quietly early on by lowering her gaze before the contest gathers more witnesses. If neither contestant looks down, the contest escalates. The contestants move towards each other, starting to draw an audience. The contest then escalates into growling, snarling and trying to look as big as possible. As the whole tribe is watching at this point, the social investment on the contest is much larger than in the beginning. If the contest still remains unsettled, the witnesses start to take sides, shaking the entire hierarchy of the tribe.

The beauty of Ars Ordo is in that one party invariably yields, and the losing side of the contest feels the loss very personally: After all, this kind of a masculine contest is always also a nondiegetic contest between players.

Ars Amandi is a Nordic mechanic for simulating romance or sex in the game. The full mechanic permits players to touch permitted zones (arms, shoulders, sternum, upper back, and neck below the ears) using permitted boydparts (hands, arms, neck) It’s a method for doing things in a game in a way that makes the character experience them fully, enabling play and really going for the energy without the player ending up in messy situations.

Phallus is a technique that uses a gender-free prop to initiate and represent intimate scenes.

Feather Play uses color-coded feathers (could be other objects) as a cue to initiate different kinds of interaction that have their own mechanics, so every player knows what to expect and prepare better for the next scene.

The Liquor on the Table: By this technique you put a bottle (or more) of liquor on the table to signal the players that their characters are getting more drunk, whether or not they are drinking real alcohol, and it’s time to take out the last of the conflicts and intrigues that have been building up throughout the game.
For games with a planned dramaturgical curve where the setting is a social scene that includes alcohol, this gives the players a hint that the game is nearing it’s end and it’s time to bring out the last of the juice. Other things than liquor can of course be used, the main function is for the players to know when to intensify their play.

Character creation / setting creation techniques

Ball of Yarn: this is a game prep technique to help players generate relationships between their characters.

The players sit in a circle. One of them holds the end of a thread from a ball of yarn. The player who holds the ball throws it to another person in the circle, while making a statement about the relationship between the two. Examples: “I am usually very happy when you enter the room” or “we had an argument at the fishing trip last summer, but have since been the best of friends.” The player who receives the ball grabs onto the thread, while passing along the ball and defining a relationship with a different player. On a variant, the player who receives the ball throws it back defining the relationship from their character’s side, adding to what the other player said. By watching the growing web of yarn, participants become aware of who already has plenty of relationships and who need more. The exercise ends when everyone has sufficients relationships, usually two or three per player.

Ask questions about the characters’ hopes, fears, theories and experiences.
Asking the players about what their characters want, or have done, or feel threatened by, allows them to help you invent needed setting and situation details. If you ask them for theories on a mystery, they can even help you invent a plot or back-story!

Fate: used primarily in LARPs this technique gives a different instruction to each player that they should be able to achieve easily, with the challenge being more about achieving it in an interesting an meaningful way. Different player’s fates may be connected, providing each player doesn’t know about other’s fate. On TTRPGs this could also take the form of different principles, guides, motivations, objectives, end-game or victory conditions, alignment or in-game foreshadowing.

Masks: another powerful tool from LARPs, the use of masks to represent that a player has turned into a character is actually as old as humankind itself. Doubles as a character creation technique and a technique for safe interaction in the way that it liberates the player from a lot of social constrains regarding their own identity. Masks can be given any shape, color, predominant emotion, can be taken off, broken, carved, burned, etc and all of these actions will have powerful meaning by itself.

Person Within: You can use a pre-existant character from any fiction or the personality of a real person you know as a base for creating a character, and use their mood, preferences and ideology to fill in any blanks or situations encountered in the game.

Shadows: A technique where a player has a shadow, a person that follows the player around and can interact on an in-game-, and/or meta-level with the player. This shadow can for instance portray a players conscience or voices in the players head (and as such the shadow does not exist to other players), or could be something semi-real like a posessing spirit or guardian angel (and then the shadow may or may not exist for other players).

Troubleshooting

“Wait! Before that, …” This addresses the following problem: Someone at the table may advance the flow of fictional time before someone else is ready. Examples: the GM frames a new scene before a player is done with the previous one; one player narrates two long actions before another player gets a chance to narrate one short one. To address this, a player may speak up on their own behalf, or on someone else’s behalf.

Throw a Veil: when fiction goes into a situation that makes players feel uncomfortable, they can always ask to not play it in detail, have the GM advance the time and frame the next scene. In larps the equivalent is between Kutt (cut), a safeword to completely halt the game on emergencies, and Brems (slow down) a signal from one or more players that the situation has gone too uncomfortable for them, to indicate the rest of the players to go easier on physical interactions, or change the subject of the current scene.

Check-in this is a code word used ingame to assess or gaugue another players state; essentially if the player is OK and want to continue playing. Used primarily in situations where you are unsure if the person actually want to continue a difficult scene but, for whatever reason, can’t convey this. Unless you get a yes in response to the check-in, you are supposed to Cut and talk the situation through.

Rewinding the scene: when too many inconsistences arise in the fiction (because of scene framer mistakes at describing the fiction or sharing information crucial for player’s decision), the player in charge for scene framing or the rest of the players can ask for going back to a previous point of the story and play again from there, usually not more than one scene back. If there’s consensus, it gets done. Note that this should only be used in extreme cases since it totally breakes inmersion.

“What happened with X character?” As a player, feel free to ask the GM for news of the destiny of any PC or NPC that hasn’t been mentioned in the fiction lately. Either if your character can access that information inmediatly or not, the GM will probably thank you for the reminder and include that later.

What do you think? As a GM/player in charge of scene framing, you can throw questions from other players right back at them, hear their opinion and use their feedback to fuel the fiction further. (Yep, this is Witch Mountain)

Cede a decision to a die roll. During a moment when you need to declare what happens, but are not comfortable doing so, you can instead declare some possibilities and roll (or have someone else roll) to choose between them. Reasons for discomfort include social awkwardness, creative stall-out, indecision, and more.

Sharing/investing authority When a player shies away from involving their character in the story, the GM or other player can try this technique to bring that player out of their shell. Basically, the GM or player concedes the PC of the shy player some sort of authority over a temporal aspect of the fiction. This makes the rest of the players look up/root out for this character and stand off in the fiction. Well done, this small token of social recognition helps the player loosen up and play with confidence. Poorly executed may be taken as condescending, so use carefully.

Shifting the focus: if a player gets a case of stage fright, shift the scene focus to another player, NPC or other enement in the fiction; you can always come back to that player later and give some assistance if needed, but sticking with him/her and stalling the game for this won’t make them feel better about it.

Repair the Illusion: either if the GM’s input breakes the inmersion (like when forcing players into a specific course of action, a.k.a. negative railroading, etc.) or if one or more of the players breakes the inmersion (by introducing elements that won’t fit the fiction or engaging in a rules related dispute, etc.) that person or the rest of players at the table can help repair the damage, by reinterpretating whatever was said in a more plausible way. Repairing the illusion will always have priority over who was right, though talking about the issue outside the game and make proper ammends later in the game isn’t out of question.

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