I’ve been playing and running a lot more games recently and reflecting on them made an observation that might be useful for players and Game Masters alike. Maybe I’m late to the dance here or perhaps I’ll find there’s not much substance to it after all but nevertheless here we are introducing a topic. In broad strokes the idea is using the point of a game to anticipate and prepare for what comes next. When it comes to fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons or any tabletop roleplaying game it’s important for me to know what players are supposed to do during play. For more on this perspective check out What You Do and How You Do It Are Two Different Things in RPGs. When you know the point of a game your games run smoother from both sides of the table. This may stray into metagame territory so let’s get into it find out.
The point of a game as a tool for RPG players
Most of my RPG experience comes through 5E D&D. I’ve played more of this edition of the game than all the others combined and probably all the other RPGs I’ve played added into the mix too. This is a solid place to start because the point of D&D — what the players are supposed to do — is very clearly defined on the first page of the Player’s Handbook.
“The adventurers can solve puzzles, talk with other characters, battle fantastic monsters, and discover fabulous magic items and other treasure.”
Campaign settings, house rules, adventure hooks, NPCs and everything about your 5E D&D game is window dressing. The quote from the PHB sums up what takes place during play and sounds very close to the Three Pillars of Adventure in the same Introduction chapter. All these activities are like dials in any particular game, with some focusing more on social interaction than combat or exploration. I’ve heard the perspective these are too general and applicable to any RPG but I don’t believe this to be the case.
Tales from the Loop is a much different game and characters in this game encounter strange machines and creatures resulting from the Loop, escape their everyday lives to be part of something meaningful and face Troubles to solve Mysteries. Meanwhile Tales of Equestria stories involve meeting other characters and weird creatures, exploring places in Equestria and facing challenges and riddles. Outbreak: Undead deals with day to day survival…which is not very well defined in the text. Bad example but you get my drift — most games spell out the point of the game in some form in the introduction.
During play a GM and players aware of these broad strokes can use them as a sort of shorthand language. From the GM perspective how and what information you present to players provides some context and for players, interpreting these clues helps guide actions. I’ll give you some examples using 5E D&D and the Three Pillars of Adventure as a model.
- The GM takes a moment to describe your surroundings. This could be a room, city gate or wilderness location. There’s no description of any creatures, hostile or otherwise. Players take note of details mentioned by the GM and the ball is passed to the group. What do you do? Is this a potential combat scenario? Are there any NPCs or other creatures to socially interact with? Certainly this must be an opportunity for exploration. There will be no Persuasion of the tapestry hanging on the wall and doing a Sneak Attack on the potted plant amounts to a hill of beans.
- The party arrives at the grand ball they’ve been invited to by a noble ally. A lavish mansion decorated most extravagantly reflects the pomp and circumstance of the many guests in their finery, many of whom eye the ragtag group of “those folk” who are clearly out of their element. A few people look at the characters with curiosity. Is this situation an indicator the rogue ought to begin looking for traps? Does one of the partygoers draw a blade and threaten the party? In the absence of these components maybe the best course of action is interacting with the NPCs at the party.
- Intrepid adventurers carefully made their way through the Koobur’s Lair, solving riddles and puzzles, overcoming traps and other traditional adventurer stuff. But now they’ve reached the most inner sanctum where a spelleater minotaur awaits them, stamping it’s hooves and brandishing a wicked great axe. Is it a good time to peruse the arcane treatises on the bookshelf behind the monster? Or maybe share tea and light conversation with the bloodthirsty spawn of Baphomet? Of course not, it’s time to roll initiative.
You can see how we might stray into metagame territory here but I maintain this is a sound practice! I am not advocating players give up their agency to follow expectations but in all of these cases the GM telegraphs how they’ll handle the situation ideally, and sometimes picking up on this can be much more rewarding than going against the grain.
In the first example something like speak with animals can easily change things drastically. A rich environment might go unnoticed when the scene becomes a conversation between a druid and a squirrel. The upper class party becomes a lower class kegger when a perceived insult comes to blows and let’s face it, we’ve all played in games with a character who seeks friendship with all the monsters. Are any of these player actions wrong? Of course not. A GM helps the players tell the story of their characters after all and the beauty of these games we love is no one has a clue how the story unfolds.
From the player perspective it can however reward game play by remaining aware of these clues. You can maintain player agency and still lean towards what a situation suggests. In an exploration scenario it’s a safe bet there’s something to discover there, and it’s fun to be the one who finds the thing. How you approach exploring, what special skills, abilities and perspective your character brings personalizes the experience. Faced with social interaction the character with below average Charisma is just as important as the Mastermind rogue with Expertise in social skills. They’re designed for combat but putting yourself in their shoes in an uncomfortable situation provides every bit as valuable a time as any other characters. And characters averse to wanton bloodshed or personal harm can do tons of things to help their comrades without such hangups. Protip: Characters with extremely high social skills who knock it out of the park in social interactions maybe let the combat characters do their special thing in battle. Sometimes it’s fun to slay the evil monster rather than talk your way out of trouble!
On what you could call a metagame level keeping the point of the game in mind benefits everyone involved because at the end of the day, whether you play diceless or deeply tactical these are still games. Unique in their approach and broad in their application without a doubt but games all the same. The best games include clear language telling players what to do during play. GMs and players who keep aware of these components make their games smoother. Believe me there’s still an abundance of unexpected turnouts and wonderful twists and turns to the story unfolding with each session.
One very broad pitfall to avoid stems from what I call Then What Game Masters. All things being equal I’m rarely seeking a reality show style RPG that’s 100% completely driven by the players while the GM follows us around so to speak. This is just plain boring. The most amazing, rich campaign setting falls flat when the party walks around looking for the adventure for extended periods of time. Then What Game Masters suggest what players are supposed to do in any given situation but when players engage there is no payoff.
Imagine those same examples from earlier but this time the GM’s presentation has nothing to do with the intention, or maybe lacks any intention altogether.
- The GM describes a particular location or surroundings. There must be something important about this, since many other moments pass with a handwave. The characters explore at length, rolling high on most of the checks called for by the GM. But nothing is discovered and the party moves on.
- At the ball the party mingles and speaks with a half dozen NPCs, enjoying several conversations at length. But no clues, plot threads or adventure hooks arise. The party returns to the inn, having enjoyed the evening’s festivities but no closer to any goals.
- Stamping around the inner chamber in a rage the spelleater minotaur stands between the party and the object of the their search! They turn back and resume exploring the maze. The book they found in that one room from the random table of stuff in a room requires further study. But the minotaur is an illusion and the real foe speaks through it from a remote location, waiting for the party to initiate a battle of wits and puzzles while the object sits behind an impenetrable force field.
Sometimes a go nowhere scenario and sometimes simply jarring to the players, misrepresenting the point of material makes a game feel awkward. For a GM you might see player interest drifting during a session if everything seems fruitless. Players for their part can easily get their characters in hot water by unwittingly walking into danger or approaching a situation without a clear picture.
We set out to see what bearing the point of a game has on how GMs and players approach game play and I think discovered some useful perspective. I always seek to improve as a GM and player myself so I hope spending this time considering how I contribute to a game session by recognizing what and when to engage various aspects of an RPG helps me do this. What players are meant to do in games and how clearly a game presents this information fascinates me so it’s fun to think more on it and share with you. I’d love to know your thoughts and ideas about this topic, so let’s hear them.