Applying "indie" principles to "trad" games

This is another good gaming post I've salvaged and cleaned up from my old blog.  Independent games are breaking a tremendous amount of new ground in RPG design but most gamers still play the old standards: D&D, White Wolf, etc. If you like what indie games do but still love traditional tabletop RPGs, what can you do?  As it turns out, lots!

These are some principles you can use to spice up your traditional RPG experience.  I'll be mostly using D&D as an example, they should apply to any game.  And note that these are techniques I use - they're not just theoretical.

Before the Game

First and foremost, make sure everyone wants the same type of game! The Same Page Tool is a good place to start. Please note that it is not a survey - everyone must agree on (or at least be okay with) all the answers before you play!

Before the Game: Players

Avoid lengthy back-stories. Too much detail sets a character in stone and constrains her future trajectory.  If the past and future are decided, what's left to play? Better to just have a quick sketch and let your character evolve during play. Be open to the idea that your character might not turn out to be exactly who you thought she was.

Come up with a short list of beliefs, goals, traits, and/or instincts that your character has. This list won't have any bearing on the mechanics of play, but it'll give you an idea of who she is and maybe provide an initial agenda. Periodically review the list to see if your character has changed and rewrite accordingly.

Before the Game: GM

Try to get the players to give you their flags - what issues the players want to address and what experiences they want to have. If they're into political intrigue, plan that. If they're into romance, plan that. If they're interested in the struggle between good and evil, start thinking of some moral dilemmas to throw at them. Traditionally, the GM is God and sets the entire stage for the world, but that doesn't mean you can't throw in some details and plot hooks that cater to the players' interests.

Develop PC-PC relationships by asking the characters leading questions. "Jorek, you've met Suzinda before, haven't you?" "Suzinda, did he make a good impression?" "Tanris, someone here took something from you. Who, and what was it?" (Follow that up by asking the other player "Why, and what did you do with it?")  While you do this, always address the characters and not the players; this will help with role-playing and keep the players' heads in the game. Acquainting the party this way is also much better than having everyone meet at a bar, in jail.

Before the Session

We all think about our games (at least the good ones) between sessions.  Here are a few things you can do to make that time more constructive.

Before the Session: Players

Come up with keys. These are things you want to see your character do during the session. A key might be "I want my character to seduce someone" or "I want to show off a powerful new move in a cinematic way" or "I want to put myself in harm's way to save an ally". Or even, "I want to do something that makes the other players gasp!" Even if it's something you'd do anyway, it'll help you remember to pursue that goal and make a big deal out of it when it happens - hopefully to everyone's enjoyment!

If you have any short-term goals or keys that require setup, tell the GM! A good GM can set up opportunities for players to hit their keys in the normal course of play - or fail entertainingly while trying.

Before the Session: GM

Come up with bangs. Bangs are situations that force players to make decisions. A bang isn't "Suddenly an orc appears - you must fight him!" but rather, "A messenger arrives from the Duke: his son has been kidnapped!" Add complications - don't make solving every problem straightforward. Maybe the Duke suspects who's behind it, but if he's wrong or it gets out before he has proof there will be political trouble.  After each reveal, ask: "What do you do?"

Name every NPC that gets significant screen time. Introduce them to the players by name and describe them. For most NPCs, come up with one simple trait or motivation to make each feel distinct. If the PCs will interact with an NPC a lot, you can set up PC-NPC-PC triangles where the NPC shows a different side of his personality to different characters. This may seem like inconsistent characterization but it will make the NPC deeper and more human.

Fight the status quo. Make the PCs' lives interesting. Don't be afraid to obliterate anything you own - NPCs, towns, organizations - to shake things up. Revel in it! The more you can make the players care about the NPCs and the world, the more impact your wanton destruction will have.

During the Game

Once the game is underway, it's easy to get caught up in your own role, whether that's as a player or GM. Most of the advice in this section is about engaging the other people at the table and making the game an exercise in truly collaborative fiction.

During the Game: Players

Actively interact with NPCs. The natural tendency is to treat NPCs as obstacles because they are GM-controlled. Every once and a while, decide that your character likes a particular NPC, even if it's not really in your character's long-term interest. Especially if it's not in your character's long-term interest! This will add some suspense and drama and create connections between your character and the world. It's also a great way to signal to the GM that you (as a player) like the NPC and want to see more of them.

Occasionally choose another player character to highlight. This means you want to see something interesting out of that character - some new interaction with your PC, perhaps, or a glimpse into a deeper part of their psyche. Initiate interesting interactions with the other PC. Do things that will encourage the character's player to expose a little more of who that character really is.

During the Game: GM

Ask the characters how they feel about what is happening, what they think about the NPC they just met, etc. Get the players used to exposing their characters' inner monologue. Remember to address the characters, not the players. Ask leading questions. If you're willing to give up a little bit of narrative control, you could ask the players to tell what they know about a particular person, place, or thing (possibly after an appropriate roll) and add that to the fiction.

In Battle

Battle is the crunchiest part of most traditional RPGs.  It's easy for it to devolve into an orgy of die-rolling, bereft of any interesting narrative.  But because combat is such an integral part of many games - especially Fourth Edition D&D - you should look at combat as an opportunity for character exposition and development.

In Battle: Players

Make your moves cinematic! Depending on the genre, that might mean announcing the use of a powerful martial arts technique or describing how your fighter's axe severs all three goblins' necks with one mighty blow. While you're at it, taunt your enemies. Rally your allies. Don't be afraid to show emotion when an ally goes down, or disappointment (in character, not as a player) when the monster you thought was defeated gets its second wind.

Ignore the mechanics. This is very hard for a lot of traditional players, because they are used to thinking about the system and how to optimize it. But sometimes, you have to ask, "what would my character really do here?" - or better yet, "what would be most dramatic to do here?" Maybe you don't always lead with your most powerful move, saving it for when an enemy has proven himself worthy. When you do finally pull it out, it will be a big deal. These sorts of quirks help define your character. Why does she only use that spell on undead? Why does he always rush to heal an unconscious ally? Sometimes these things will just emerge organically during play. But if you're not thinking about it, you'll definitely miss opportunities.

In Battle: GM

Remember your players' keys. Give them opportunities to shine. Reward players for mechanically sub-optimal choices if they drive the story/drama. Remember that failure - even in combat - is best used as an opportunity for complication and not a dead end.

Have your bad guys taunt the players. Toy with them. Kick puppies. Kill innocent bystanders. Make the players loathe them. Or, instead, show honor. Have the antagonist perform a selfless act. Compliment the players on their prowess. Either way, have the bad guys express frustration when the players thwart them (this makes the players feel awesome). Always have Plan B be not as good as the Plan A the PCs blew up, so the players don't feel cheated if they win.

Consider letting the characters talk off-turn if it doesn't disrupt the flow of play. In a game like D&D where you spend a lot of time in combat and rounds can take tens of minutes, restricting every interaction to six-second chunks kills a lot of the opportunities for role-playing.

Out of Battle

This is a part of the game that can go by the wayside, especially in combat-heavy games, but this is when we get to see all of the other things the characters can do, and where most of the PC-NPC interaction happens.  Don't shortchange it!

Out of Battle: GM

Frame scenes aggressively.  You don't have to have the characters walk through every moment of their day.  Start some scenes in medias res.  Cut immediately after the interesting thing happens.  If the party is divided, cut back and forth between simultaneous scenes.  Ask the players if there are scenes they want to have.  Sometimes they'll want time with each other or NPCs, but they may need to be prompted to get them to tell you.

If one character has a particular skill, find opportunities to highlight it. If nobody has a particular skill (stealth and diplomacy are the two that cause the most trouble), provide plausible ways for the players to succeed. Maybe the back entrance to the manor is hidden from view by overgrown foliage. Maybe the guard captain is a total pushover if he decides he likes you. Maybe the players could create a distraction or find a way to gain bargaining leverage. Let the players discover their opportunities naturally and organically.

And for God's sake, make failure interesting. A failed stealth or diplomacy roll doesn't always have to be followed by initiative. The skill challenge system in 4E is a step in the right direction, but you still have to come up with in-story complications for failed rolls and not just treat it as a numbers game. When possible set stakes and describe possible outcomes before a roll, not after. Allow some negotiation of scope, effect, and difficulty. Finally, don't de-protagonize; the player should be able to accept the consequences of failure without losing control of the character.

Out of Battle: Players

If there's some interaction you want to have with another PC or an NPC, call for a scene.  The GM may even let you frame.  Just keep it tight (see above).

Remember that the proper way to choose an action is not "this is mechanically optimal" or even "this is what my character would do" but rather "this is a plausible thing my character might do that creates the most opportunity for interesting story." Don't play defensively. Remember that drama and adversity make good stories; safety and stagnation do not.

Don't be afraid to step back completely into third person when role-playing an interaction you are less comfortable with. Many players have difficulty with romantic interactions, but we all like to watch romance on TV and in movies. If you can think of yourself as a director rather than an actor, you might find those challenging scenes easier and more enjoyable.

In Conclusion

Any of the really good innovations in game design from the past decade or two can, with a little thought and work, be applied to any game.  I've presented a few, but there are many more.  Look for them!

None of the techniques I've outlined should take away from your traditional gameplay as long as everyone is at least nominally on-board. However, some players really do just want a kick-in-the-door, kill-the-monsters, black-and-white game - that can be fun, too. The most important thing is to figure out what everyone wants before you start.  Remember that in the end, the most important thing is that everyone has fun!

4 thoughts on “Applying "indie" principles to "trad" games”

  1. Lovely list. I recognised all of these techniques from various indy games, but I like the way you've distilled and generalised them.

  2. Seeee, I can't NOT play a little defensively ins ANYTHING I play. It's why I tend to Ranged DPS, why I miss my Feign Death aggro drop skill like crazy playing Rift, and why, in general, I will tend to approach anything and most interactions with caution in games lest I get killed or some other crazy shit happens.

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