This article began as something of a retrospective on our first year of playing 7th Sea. I’ve made no bones about the fact that, when we started, the game was way out of my comfort zone. It forced me to re-examine a lot of my GM techniques and stare down a few things that had become bad habits. But I feel its made me a stronger GM along the way, and the lessons I’ve learned aren’t merely applicable to 7th Sea, or even more Narrative RPGs.
So let’s talk about them, shall we?
Action sequences are obstacles to keep the heroes from reaching an Objective (in time).
I put this into the category of “Third Edition DnD Ruined Me as a GM“. For a long time, a lot of us have been conditioned to think about Encounters and Action Scenes in terms of THE FIGHT. But that’s really faulty thinking. If you look at action scenes, chases, and combat encounters in movies or books, more often than not the fights that occur are an obstacle, a complication preventing the heroes from achieving their goal.
That’s right. Action scenes are an obstacle. If you look way back, OD&D had this figured out when it talked about the ENCOUNTER. Combat was just one potential result of an Encounter. But the Encounter has long since given way to extensive and crunchy COMBAT sections in the rulebook. And so we GMs started framing out encounters in terms of Combat. Can the PCs win? Will it result in a TPK? How big a challenge does this represent. This mode of thinking permeates a lot of online discussion for RPGs when it comes to encounter design, including 7th Sea. How do I make Brutes a threat in 7th Sea? How do I balance encounters in Savage Worlds? But what if we’re missing the point? Maybe we should be asking, how does this encounter keep the players from getting what they want? How can we establish stakes in the conflict to make multiple solutions viable?
But what about the “climactic battle”? That’s a staple of the genre, right? Well, this cuts both ways. Usually, in the climactic battle, its the Heroes who are standing in the way of the Villain’s Goal. The script is flipped. But that too makes for a better more engaging scene. Sometimes the villain shouldn’t engage the heroes head on. Sometimes there is a better way of circumnavigating the obstacle they pose. What do the player do when that happens? Does the villain have Plan B?
So the next time you are planning out an encounter for your game, ask yourself these questions:
- What do the characters want in this scene? Is it the treasure? Is it to rescue the hostages? Is it to stop the evil ritual? If your answer is only to fight the goblins and earn XP, stop and start again.
- How do the adversaries keep the characters from getting what they want? Are reinforcements on their way? Do some of them branch off to kill the hostages? Do they complete the ritual? If your answer is they fight to the last man, stop and start again. Is there a time limit? A deadline? How long can the characters afford to duke it out with the villains before consequences (and not just resource drain) start setting in.
- What happens if the Heroes fail? Do hostages die? Is a demon lord unleashed? If your answer is they die or run away, stop and start again. And really, they don’t get the treasure is a pretty low bar. You might want to consider making the prize something more interesting and dynamic in the context of the encounter/scene.
- What do the adversaries want in this scene? Do they fear the wrath of the Goblin King? Are they stalling for time while another faction executes an even bolder, more dangerous plot? Is it to complete the ritual to bring their dark god into this world? If your answer is to fight the heroes or to protect the treasure, stop and start again. It’s GOT to be more complicated than that. Or maybe it isn’t? Consider questions 2 and 3 in the context of the adversaries.
Dramatic Sequences work best with a Deadline and a THREAT.
I touched on this in a previous blog post. Basically, in 7th Sea, if the only thing the players have to spend raises towards is accomplishing their goal, your scene isn’t going to be very dramatic or engaging. But introduce an adversary whose efforts (and raises) they have to counter at the expense of their own resources, and suddenly its a whole new ballgame! Introduce a deadline and suddenly the stakes become even higher. Dramatic Sequences should be about mounting tension. There are two ways to accomplish this. The first is through DM fiat, constantly moving the goal post. “Oops, sorry! The secret message is not in this room where you were sure it would be. Try again.” That may be a big kick for you, but it’s probably going to get old really quick for your players. But having for force actively working against the players? A villain or a lackey who also has a goal in the scene (preferably something better than stop the heroes from discovering my sinister plan) makes the whole thing more engaging and puts the players’ agenda at risk without making you, the GM, the bad guy. (And they say players can’t fail in 7th Sea. Pish!)
This is easy enough to do in 7th Sea, but what about other game systems? One of the more recent developments I’ve seen in the last decade is an effort to bring more parity between combat and other activities in RPGs: both social and dramatic: Extended Rolls in Ubiquity, Dramatic Tasks in Savage World, Skill Challenges in DnD 4e, etc. But one area where these fall flat (to me) is that they often pit the player against himself, or rather the dice. Generally, they work like this: you have to roll X successes before Y failures, or score X successes in Y rolls. That’s really manufactured drama. Because now the character’s success doesn’t hinge on a good plan or a smart course of action (challenging the player) but instead the dice and any bonuses the character brings into play (challenging the character). Is there a real difference between this and just asking for a single dice roll? Not really.
I’ve been wrestling with this a bit because I really like 7th Sea’s Dramatic Sequence model. I want to find a way to model it in other games I play, without necessarily trying to shoe horn in 7th Sea’s Roll and Move mechanic. Here’s what I’ve come up with. Give it a shot the next time you roll out an extended test. Before the players get started, make a roll for the villain. The result gives them a number of “Interrupts” (for lack of a better word) – usually only 1 or 2, maybe 3 depending on the game system. Put this many tokens out on the table for the players to see. Now proceed with the extended test. During the test, the villain can spend these Interrupts to make things happen in the scene. It might increase the difficulty of subsequent rolls, introduce a new threat (like being discovered, having equipment damaged, etc.), or something else to threaten the player’s goal. The player can make an additional roll (or spend a Hero Point/Style Point/Bennie) to counter it, but it counts against their time and/or rolls. This forces the player to make a decision on how to adapt to the changing scene, which puts the challenge back on the player, creating a more engaging moment.
Try it, and leave us a comment on how it worked out.
Player agency, even limited, makes the game more exciting for the GM.
This is probably going to get me in trouble with the OSR crowd, so let me start with a story.
Years ago, while I was running the Savage World of Solomon Kane, I had this great concept of the PCs exploring the Himalayas and discovering a passage to Tibet. The problem was, I wanted to be engaged in the exploration with them. I didn’t want to make it a simple hexcrawl, or even a travelogue. I wanted all of us to be surprised, to make discoveries, but I struggled on how to do that. I looked at dozens of options. (Un)fortunately, the campaign went on hold before the players really got to that point.
But the problem remains. How can I, the GM, share in the surprise and discovery in the game. Or, as Vince Baker puts it in Apocalypse World, how do I play to find out what happens?
Increased player agency has provided that for me. In several instances now, in my 7th Sea game, my players have flipped the script on me: turning a patron into a villain and back again, creating villains where there weren’t before, embellishing details and filling in the blank parts of the canvas. Not only has this forced me to improve as an improvisational GM, but in a few instances the results have honestly surprised me! And that is exciting.
And it isn’t just me. It has surprised my players, too. Some have taken to it like a fish to water. Others poke at it with a stick, suspecting a trap. But in every case I’ve inquired, my players have responded positively and enthusiastically.
Now let me stress I am not suggesting you open up your game, Fiasco-style, to a table full of co-GMs. That would be detrimental to a lot of games and genres (horror, for instance). Nor am I suggesting you go full on FATE or Dungeon World, scraping world building for a handful of preliminary questions. The fact is, player agency can be as controlled as you like. The easiest, most conservative approach is to allow a player to spend a Hero/Style/Bennie Point to “establish an unestablished fact about the scene.” So if you state up front that the room is 10×10 feet, a player can’t spend a bennie to change that to 30×30 feet. But they could spend one to establish that there is a slick puddle of filth in the room that they can use to trip up the monster they are fighting. You can make this subject to GM veto, or attach a cost (ie. you have to spend a GM Bennie to counter the player’s bennie) if you want to be generous.
In terms of control, one of the tools I’ve introduced in my game (and will probably carry on to others) is what I’m calling an Investigative Sequence. (Totally not my idea, I got it from watching John Wick on the last season of Starter Kit – I just put a nice picket fence around it is all.) This would pretty much apply to a Notice, Investigation, or Research roll. The gist is the player can use her successes to either ask me a question about the subject or state a fact about it (and don’t think for a moment that I don’t know the answers – I’m just giving the player a chance to give me better, more interesting ones). By establishing this as its own thing (like a “Dramatic Task” or “Extended Test”), I’m also putting an artificial limit to the player’s agency. During an Investigative Sequence, they have “permission” to mess with the plot, but not outside of it.
Now some of you may dismiss this as some Johnny-Come-Lately G/N/S BS. Fair enough! I probably would have said the same thing a year ago. And for the record, I’m not a big fan of Dungeon World’s collaborative world building approach. I enjoy world building. I like well constructed campaign settings. I have no interest in reconciling my vision of the World of Greyhawk with those of 6 other people (certainly not without firm editorial control). I’m not interested in recycling some big analysis of Say Yes or Roll the Dice. But I can attest that opening my GMing approach to increased player agency has added to my enjoyment of the overall experience and, as such, other GMs – especially grognards like myself who have been doing this one way for years – might find the same.
That’s a Wrap!
So there you have it: three things that I’ve discovered over the course of the year that I think has made me a better GM and my game more fun, for myself and my players. Some of these things may be old hat to you – I’m sure I haven’t stumbled across anything some GMs haven’t been doing for ages. But hey, if anything I’ve posed above sounds cool and exciting to you too, great! Test some of these approaches out on your group and see how they respond. Share your experience in the comments.