Narrative Games

In this article, I’m going to try and provide a few hints for GMs about actually running an RPG (whilst its written for D&D perspective it holds true for all RPGs).

Combat

Whether its the figures on a board or just keeping track of what is going on, combat is one of the most frustrating tasks that a GM will face when running an RPG. The best way to handle combat is to make it as fluid as possible. Certain games take an age to deal with combat.

  • Let  the player take the strain. If they want to use a special attack that’s mentioned in the rules, let them find it. They want to summon a monster? Let them find the monsters entry.
  • Don’t let the rules get in the way – you don’t have to roll initiative for every Kobold in the group.
  • Don’t dwell on mistakes. If there’s a problem with a ruling during a game, don’t get caught up in a debate about it.
  • No takebacks! If a player forgets about a special attack or defence they had, that’s unfortunate but that’s the way it goes – you shouldn’t need to rerun the combat as a result.
  • Keep it going. During combat, your players need to be decisive  – they shouldn’t spend ages trying to figure out what their character is going to do: move onto the next person and come back to them.
  • Keep the dice confined! If you’re using miniatures and a map, make sure your players are rolling on a tray or something to stop them rolling into and through your miniature melee.
  • Be descriptive – you don’t “hit for 5 damage”, instead describe it “the monster’s claw slashes through your defences, causing 5 damage”.
  • Keep it simple – don’t describe an entire room if the PCs are then attacked. The players only need to know that they are being attacked: they can admire the fancy carvings later.

Time and Motion

It can be difficult to pace a game, especially when you have a lot of players.

  • Let’s face it, you don’t want to have to describe every journey your PCs make, sometimes time just passes. They may have an eventful journey next time, but this time it went without a hitch. You do not need to play out every rest stop and bathroom break by the PCs.
  • Make sure that your plots leave enough events for you to enable a break or end. Never – ever – start a combat just before you want to finish: roll for Initiative by all means, but leave it on cliff-hanger. It is far easier doing that trying to remember who was where, what buffs the PCs had, etc. It also gives the players something to look forward to.
  • When your PCs are doing their own thing, and have split the party, don’t concentrate on one party for a long time. Switch between the groups so that each player still feels included, breaking off to engage the other groups when appropriate.
  • Don’t let the loudest player dominate – its very easy for some players to dominate a game, make sure that everyone has a turn.
  • If a player is absent for some reason, let another member of the group play their character, rather than the GM. If not, writ them out of that session: as GM, you need to be flexible enough to try and come up with some reason the PC has gone – knocked unconscious, on a quest of their own etc. – as well as their reappearance.

Anyway, thank you for reading and I hope this of use to you GMs out there.

  1. I don’t entirely agree with your section on combat – I actually *like* the level of detail in 4E combats. That includes letting players take a bit of time making decisions. (Yep, it probably comes from starting off as a wargamer).

  2. Yep, that means a combat with more than a few mobs might take an hour to get through – but I think that’s ok if that’s what game you’re doing on that day. Obviously 4E is designed with that in mind though, what I like there isn’t necessarily what I’d want in every game (this was meant to be a 2nd paragraph to the above – quickpost fail).

  3. Considering how long 4e took with miniatures, powers etc in Against the Odds, I have to say I prefer my combats to be quick and brutal. If you’re moving through a dungeon and get through only one room a session then it is taking too long. I found 4e combat to be frustrating – when we ran the L&L beta test, we pretty much stormed through that room with skeletons and that didn’t take a session. While I’m all in favour of players making tactical decisions, it is an RPG, not a wargame (although D&D does have its roots there).

  4. True enough (and I’m looking forward to trying more L&L if you start up Against the Odds again using it), but it’s not just the powers and minis that do that – those skeletons in the L&L game went down in 1 or 2 good hits, where 4E non-minion monsters will take about 30-40HP at level 1 to take down. You can’t really reduce that without making encounter level powers too powerful. I guess what I’m trying to say as a follow on from your point about combat is if you want to run a game with quick, visceral, narrative based combat, then not all systems will really support that (and that’s not entirely a bad thing, as long as you and your group know what they’ve signed up for)