Month: August 2018

The RPG problem of Newbie Narcissism

A role-playing game like 5e D&D is at its core a game of turns.

Invited by a co-worker, I was one of two new players introduced to his weekly game. Instead of making new characters both Hank and I picked a pre-rolled Hero.

Being a player with thirty plus years of experience, I was ready to go! In a quick reading of the sheet, even though I haven’t played this version before, I was okay. I figured any mechanical questions I had during play would get answered as they come up.

It turns out the Hank was new gaming. I have played with many new players over the years. However, it didn’t take too long to realize that Hank was different. Sure he had lots of questions about the game and his character. Immediately he had issues with what I find as unimportant notes on the character sheet. Hank said that “The sheet says his eyes are green, but I want to have blue eyes.” He had lots of these points.

“Fine, not a problem,” the GM kept responding wanting to play.

After an explaining of the story and setting, we were finally playing. Our mission, to track down the thieves of a rare scroll. We were on the case!

After our Heroes ran around town for a bit, we discovered the scrounges. There is a chase, and it is a trap! Roll initiative. The thieves attack. Dices are being rolled. It is now my turn to act. Before I can speak, Hank asks, “Hey what is more powerful a Sword or a Mace? My sheet here says I have a Sword but I am thinking I want a Mace. So which is more powerful?”

Hank’s problem is typical of some new players. These players lose their social norms and start blurting out every random thought they have. They are not really listening to the GM or other players. They are involve with themselves. I call this Newbie Narcissism.

Although it isn’t that common, I have seen it several times to different degrees. It is my hope that once we as a community recognize this issue, we can work together to find ways to help address it.

Unlike true Narcissism, Newbie Narcissism often goes away with time. But it can be unpleasant. I am hoping to find strategies on how to help them out of this tunnel vision on themselves. In this way they can quickly adapt to the game without causing too many issues.

The following tale gives my suggestion. But I am open to other’s observation on how to address this issue.

Later that evening, when Hank’s Hero was unconscious, he kept telling us what he would do in each situation if he weren’t unconscious. When it was other player’s turns, before we could speak, Hank would be telling us what his character would want to do if he wasn’t unconscious. Every moment had to be about him.

Hank had issues to say the least. But there is something about the format of D&D that brings these issue out in some newer gamers. It is a recurring theme I have seen as a GM that has introduced a lot of players to the game.

Here is my theory.

At the heart of this problem is not recognizing that an RPG is a turn-based game. While we are free to talk and tell the GM our actions, we are taking informal turns. And we need to respect other people’s turns. When it is our turn, we need to be considerate and not linger.

In combat, the turn base design of the game is apparent. Unlike when problem-solving, exploration, or doing dialogue.

If you wouldn’t interrupt your boss at work, why would you interrupt your game mates? In life, we have social norms of not talking over each other and interruptions. These do not go away in the game. We take turns in real life speaking.

These social norms of communication do not go away in the game. For some reason, a lot of new players need to be reminded of this fact. In reality, even some experienced players could use this to be pointed out to them.

Another issue Hank had was a desire to make everything about himself. While we all have some narcissistic tendencies, I think the nature of new players getting “lost” in the game brings this issue to bear.

When I say lost in the game, I believe that experience players take for granted that they can visualize the story the GM paints for them. When the GM describes a setting, an NPC, or situation, we forget that for the new players it isn’t as easy for them to understand what is happening.

Since the new player has a harder time following the story, they focus on their character instead. For them, they have a more unobstructed view of their Hero. So this brings their thoughts always to themselves.

As a GM, a player like Hank will ruin the game for everyone. Unless Hank is a Narcissus in real life, it will destroy the game for himself as well. Everyone will lose.

In my case, I never found out how good of a GM my co-worker. I was not patience with Hank. His case was so extreme it is what started me to notice these tendencies. By the second session, I dropped out. Hank was too much for me.

Since that night, I have come to the conclusion that as GM this behavior needs to be immediately addressed. Right away, point out how they are ignoring social norms of taking turns. Once I have explained it as directly and clearly as possible, I would make sure they understood the correct time to ask me these questions.

I will work on getting them to focus on the story, by recapping recent events when it is their turn. I would ask how they are reacting to what is happening now.

Now it is possible that they will clam up, get offended, or leave. It could come to Hank getting defensive or even lashing out. Regardless, I would directly confront this behavior.

I do not think this gets resolved immediately or in one session. I do believe the outburst will become less frequent. Especially once Hank starts to follow the story better, has a better idea where others are in relationship to them, and has a better idea of how the game mechanics work.

But I still expect the occasional statement from Hank. If in the middle of the fight he blurts out, “I am thinking of changing alignment, (He did this while the GM was describing the effects of a spell)” I would not let that pass. I would address it by pointing out how it is appropriate at this time.

But if this continues, I would uninvite him to the game. A guy like Hank is going to ruin the game. Other players will not be having fun. They will lose interest. Hank will lose interest. The GM will lose interest. Newbie Narcissism kills games.

Finding players can be hard. I want to encourage more playing into the RPG world. But there is a sliver of society that doesn’t get it. Work with them, try to help them, but ultimately do not let them bring down your game. Kick them out if they cannot get it.

It is better to have a good game that brings in more players into the community that let a Narcissist ruin it.

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As GM, you don’t need to dice out every encounter.

Continuing with my controversial advice for GMs to summarize more, I want to talk about battles.

Not all fights are a threat to the Adventures. Nor should they be. In these cases, end them ASAP. Even go so far as to not roll it out, but summarize it.

I am a big fan of offering at least two threats to the Heroes each night. I think I got this idea from the old TV show Kung Fu. I read that the networks insisted each episode had  two martial arts fights. They demanded a minimum amount of action each week.

Players like to roll dice and resolve combat. RPGs, for the most part, are built on the foundation of Wargames. I believe that players like the excitement of battle and the risk of losing. So when I plot out a story, I put in at least two opportunities for threatening combat each session.

So back to my point, not all battles need to be a real threat to the party. If the enemy is not a threat, be quick to end it. The fastest way is to summarize it.

A drunkard commoner gets upset with the Adventures and punches one of them, no need to roll initiative and get all into it. He is not a real threat. Sure he might do 1d4 damage to one of them, but so what. If the Hero says he punches back, then he does it. No need to roll to hit, or damage, or to turn it into an encounter. If he wants to beat the crap out of the drunk, it happens. Or at least the drunk cannot stop it.

The same is true with many enemies. The Party is 8th and encounter some wolves in the woods, they kill and skin them. No dice are needed. No time is required.

Now I can imagine hearing the crowd through the internet screaming: What about rolling it out? Perhaps the wolf will roll 20, 20, 20 and kill the Hero. Sure. But do I want  an Adventure to die in some meaningless random encounter? No.

But wait a minute, are you not the GM that says death has to be in the game to have it have story tension. Yes! But meaningless death doesn’t add much in that department.
It is one thing for a Hero to die fighting a dragon, scaling a mountainside, or saving the kingdom. It is another to have him slip and die in the bathtub, battling cancer, or battling a giant rat. Not all character death is equal in weight or value from a story point of view.

If you think meaningless death have value, then I suggest you add a chart to your game and roll each week. Roll 01 and you die of an aneurysm. The end. Fun times.

What about XP? Do you award XP for encounters you don’t roll out?

I think games like 5e have experience points wrong. When you only award killing monsters, then you end up with players that force fights with anything they encounter for XP.

I use a different XP system, so I don’t have this problem. But if I did use a 5e style XP system then yes. The rewards for fighting low-level encounters are small and mostly meaningless. If I felt the players were abusing this system by having non-threatening fights purely for XP, then I would stop awarding it.

Once again, as GM you are under no obligation to role play out the meaningless or mundane. This advice includes combat.

It doesn’t mean you ignore what happens. You do not deny it. You summarize it.

If six 8th level Adventurers enter a chamber with five basic skeletons, instead of rolling initiative and fighting it out, as GM I would say, “They are no threat to you, and you easily destroy them.” Then I would move on to something more interesting.

Next, the Adventures come across three mummies. I think this will be a fight. We start the battle, but I quickly see the mummies are no match for the Adventures. Okay, you kill them. Move on.

Now I am guilty of running these fights to the conclusion, but more and more I am ending them early. They are not attractive to the players or me.

I try hard to offer at least two opportunities for hard and engaging battles each night. Sometimes there are more. And sometimes the other fights that come up I don’t roll them out to the end. In my mind, the worst thing that can happen is spending all evening in some meaningless battles and not have time for the interesting ones to arrive. Same is true in role playing encounters.

Recently, I had joined a gaming group at one of the local comic book stores. I went to two sessions then quit the group.

The GM was decent, and I would have enjoyed playing with him. Unfortunately, it was a wargaming group, and they didn’t want any role-playing to happen. Perhaps a bit of hyperbole, it is far to say it wasn’t my style of game.

One of the encounters made a point of this post crystal clear to me. We came upon four priests of a cult in the middle of a ritual. We rolled initiative and immediately attacked. I had already learned that any asking of questions, talking to the NPCs, or any other interaction would be frown upon by the group. I think the GM did have a story with the cultist but the other players showed no interested in it. And all my attempts to learn about it had been a point of contention with some members of the group.

After the savage first round of attacks by the party, the villains turned into Gaseous Form. They were trying to escape. For three rounds, the Adventures dropped every bomb they had on these guys to kill them. The Bad Guys just moved away. It was a good ten minutes of real-life time of players attacking, casting spells, and maneuvering on the map to kill these priests. The priest never attacked. They all died.

Nothing about the encounter was interesting. We got their XP, looted them, and then went on to the next room. The GM then said, “This next room has a big fight in it, and I don’t think we have enough time. I am going to call it early this week.”

We spent all of our Clock on an uninteresting encounter.

Planning out a Campaign

A reader asked me how I organize for a campaign. Here are some thoughts on the subject.

When I start a new campaign, I ask myself if there is a story I want to tell. Often times, there is a theme or a part of my world I want to explore. I feel this is the place to start because finding something that interests me helps stop GM burnout. After all, I am the person who will be putting the most work into the campaign. The quality of what I produce will be improved if I am interested in the subject matter. That is just a fact of life.

Once I have my grand vision, I try to figure out how to do it in the broadest possible terms. Meaning in a way that is most inclusive to players and the characters they might want to play. I do not want the scope of the story to be too narrow, as this can lead to railroading.

For example, my next campaign will be about a revolutionary war. My vision is to have the adventurers be local heroes who rise to the point where they overthrow the king. While not every session needs to progress this story forward, the theme of revolution will start from session one.

Once I have the general story idea, I then make a quick outline of it. Again, I think in broad strokes.

The following are notes for this running. I plan to set it in the city of Avalon. When I designed my world, the Five Crown empire had a few cities not given a crown. This means they are rules by distant kings. I always imagined this would cause injustice. Avalon is a central city in the empire that does not have their own representation. In fact, their king’s castle is 600 miles to the north and is culturally and religiously different.

In this outline, all the NPC names are placeholders.

  1. The PC are recruited to stop local gnome bandits.
  2. While fighing the bandits, they discover the local sheriff is corrupt and causing the hardship.
  3. They eventually fight against the sheriff becoming local heroes.
  4. A lord (JFK) in Avalon take interest in them. Hires them to fight against corruption in the city.
  5. As they fight the corruption, they find it goes back to the lords of the city.
  6. JFK’s advisor (Sam Adams) teaches the Adventures about the evils the King’s second (Wormtongue).
  7. Wormtongue becomes the main villain and source of all the city’s problems.
  8. JFK is arrested. Adams gives the Adventures several adventures to help in his release and to fight Wormtongue’s minions.
  9. They defeat Wormtongue.
  10. Expecting change, the King promotes another terrible person to rule over the city. Nothing has changed.
  11. They get to do some other missions but when they return, discover Avalon is worst off than when it was controlled by Wormtongue.
  12. In this transition period is when they come to suspect that it is the King is really evil.
  13. JFK is freed. He gives the Adventures a blueprint for revolution against the king.
  14. On an adventure, they learn of a true heir to the throne. The King’s claim is illegitimate.
  15. JFK is killed.
  16. Sam Adams give the characters a mission to bring proof of the kings illegitimate claim to the throne.
  17. Sam Adams dies around the time the Party is introduced to the idea of a Republic.
  18. Lots of adventuring of getting the heir.
  19. The heir doesn’t want the crown.
  20. Perhaps some building up of allies against the king.
  21. At some point, there needs to be war in Avalon. Rebels in the hills.
  22. End Game: What happens? A revolution. Will they force the heir to be king?
  23. Party does their plans until they win. Lots of fights against the King.
  24. In the end either they die as martyrs, win with a new king, or are the founding fathers of a Republic.

The beats here can last for weeks, months, or even years of gaming. It starts with the adventures sort of forced into a role, but as they level they have more latitude on their approach. Notice all the big NPCs die midway through, another trick I’m often using.

My next step would be to place limitations on the players during startup. Again, I am thinking as broad and inclusive as possible. But to make this work, I would ask for characters that are from Avalon, have family and friends there, and are basically good.

In my world, Avalon is home to humans, gnomes, and dwarves so that would be the majority of the party. If the group is large enough, would allow for one non-core race. If I allowed too many different races, the party could lose connection with Avalon. I think I would exclude elves and orcs, as I plan on using them as villains.

Planning out the night

I have learned that it is hard to get through 5 story beats in an evening. I try to have it in what I call the Hourglass style. So I plan out some key moments and I outline some Sandbox ideas. I have places I hope to get the characters to go, but I do not rush to get them there. If I need them to discover something and they fail to do so, I don’t panic. I let them explore where they want to go, and I try to find carrots to bring them back to the story. I rarely use sticks.

In this running, my first session would start with a small town. There was a robbery and the Adventures are apart of the posse out to bring justice. They discover a nearby gnome town are the source of the bandits and fight them. While doing so, they discover that the gnomes are suffering because of a corrupt tax collector. Perhaps they end up helping the gnomes, which brings them to the JFK or Adam NPC (is Adam a gnome? sure sounds good).

I try to work in outlines. In this way, I can be flexible.

Here is my outline for the first night.

  1. Town’s hardware store was robbed.
  2. Party joins the posse and is offered a reward.
  3. Battle with Gnomes.
  4. They learn the Gnomes are hard up because of a corrupt tax collector.
  5. Does party fight the tax collector? Tries to get the local lord to help?
  1. Meets Sam Adams, (Mr. Billhook) local Gnome who tells them about the corruption.
  1. Discovers how corrupt lord. Fights him, tax collector.
  2. The lord sends men to arrest the party. Fight? Flee? Outlaws?

That seems like a good starting point. The Heroes are trying to be Heroes and do the right thing. They discover the local’s tax collector is the bad guy. A Robin Hood starting point. I like the idea of them end the night as outlaws.

I would see where the players take the adventure before outlining too much of the next session. Perhaps they only get to a few of the beats of the above outline. Before the next game night, I would work on the next half dozen beats.

Meanwhile, I write content for the campaign. I write “random” encounters. I work out missions, areas they could explore, and history. I want to explore Avalon, the kingdom, and what a revolution looks like. This gets to be apart of my fun. I get to write about a subject I am interested in developing.

Player Revolt

This used to be a problem. Players are not used to being confined to an area or topic. As a GM, I am saying do what you want as long as it is on this subject matter and in this area. To some, that seems oppressive. It isn’t.

One way to help with this is not to have everything progress the main story. Have some sub-plots happen. Best if these come from the characters and not you.

However, if the players suddenly decide they want to travel to the other side of the world to become sea pirates, well I might just say “OK, they do that.” But I might not be on board to GM that story. I have learned that ends up making DM burnout. Hey, some GMs are cool with 100% sandbox. I am not.

The End of Session

Lastly as wrapping, I ask the players where they think they are going next. In this way, I can plan out the next 5-7 beats on that direction. This brings up the overall quality of my content while still allowing them to direct the story.

So this is a quick and dirty write-up of how I prepare for my game.