April 23rd, 2011 | 1 Comment
I’ve been told by any number of GM’s that they can only run one kind of game whether it be fantasy, or horror or some other genre of game. When they try to run something else it turns into the same old thing. The purpose of this On GM’ing article is to talk about ways to bring flavor and flair to our games and to give ideas for making games feel very different from one another.
Regardless of what kind of game I want to make I find it helpful to read books and short fiction or whatever I can lay my hands on of the type I’m trying to emulate. The idea being to immerse myself into the atmosphere I’m trying to create for my players. Music and movies are other good sources for flavor and atmosphere when creating games. More on the subject of music in a moment. One of the hosts on a recent episode of the “Fear the Boot” podcast asserted that all games in a given game system tended to be the same thing. While I see what he’s driving at, I disagree. The flavor and atmosphere of a game is the product of the combined imaginations of the gm and the players and is born out of the descriptions and characterizations that we use. It is true that (for example) spells of the same level in most game systems do the same basic amount of damage. That’s a matter of game balance. It’s what we do when we describe the effects of that spell that makes all the difference in the world for creating the flavor of our game.
Consider the difference in the following interactions between the GM and a player in a typical fantasy game.
Andy (the player of Andras the Wizard of Flame): So, the orcs are all clustered together in one place?
GM: Yes they’re all trying to get through the narrow gap in the stones at one time to get to your camp.
Andy: I’m going to throw a fireball into the middle of them.
GM: Ok roll your damage.
Andy: (Rolls a handful of dice) Uhm … 36 points of damage.
GM: Ouch (rolls saves for the orcs) Ok you took down six of the eight but two are still coming.
Andy: Yell for everyone to wake up we’ve got company.
Does this sound like your game? Here’s what the same thing sounds like if the player and I are on the ball.
GM: A half dozen or more burly creatures in rough leather armor and carrying spears charge your camp but they must all squeeze through the narrow choke point in the surrounding rock.
Andy: That’s why we picked this spot. Are these orcs?
GM: You believe so. They certainly look like the orcs you’ve seen before. (Rolling a die) In fact you would guess based on their equipment that they’re from the same tribe you fought day before yesterday.
Andy: Damnit we didn’t think they’d follow us. How far are they from camp?
GM: They’re all trying to get through the choke point at one time and it’s slowing them down a bit.
Andy: “Everybody up we’re under attack!”… I cast a fireball into the midst of them, “Die in the eternal flame of Thorgandyrr orc scum”.
GM: Ok you have them in a really good spot so roll your damage.
Andy: (Rolling a handful of dice) … 36 points of damage.
GM: Ow … (Rolling saves for the orcs) … Several of the orcs stuck in the narrow point can’t do anything to avoid the fireball but at least a couple manage to duck behind the rocks and avoid the worst of the blast. Ok, the rest of you are awakened by Andras’ shout of warning and by the fiery explosion that just went off 30 yards away from camp.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it over and over again. If the players and the GM do NOTHING else but work to be more descriptive and more first person about our role playing it will elevate our game and make us better role players. It won’t make us better strategically, tactically, nor will it give us better ideas, but it will make us better role players, and it will bring more life and depth and flavor to our games.
A critical point in bringing more flavor and character to our games comes long before we ever roll the first die. It has to do with how we characterize the game and the things in it. For that we must have an understanding of what we’re trying to do. Neither a gm nor a player can characterize what we don’t understand. Note that I use the word “understand” not “know” I can KNOW how an internal combustion engine works but until I understand what each part does I’m probably not going to be successful at taking one apart and repairing it. If what we as players understand is a fantasy game then everything we do is going to gravitate that way. To successfully run or play in any game and bring it to life we have to achieve a common and sufficient level of understanding of the flavor of game we’re trying to create. It takes all of us, and all of us must deeply understand what we’re trying to create.
Ok JiB that’s great but how do I make that happen?
- Immersion – When I’m writing a game I surround myself with the sights, sounds, smells and anything else I can put my hands on in the atmosphere I’m trying to create. I have music playing that calls to mind the atmosphere I’m after.
- Source Material – I read and watch everything I can put my hands on that projects the look and feel I’m after in a game.
- Vocabulary – When I’m writing a game, running a game, or playing a character I try to think in the vocabulary and syntax of the game or the character. (I’m quite sure I drive people around me insane with it but it’s all about getting my mind into the right place.)
- Props and Sets – I’m a big fan of props in my games. Props in particular help to capture the mood and flavor of a game. Handing a prop of the thing they just found to the players works wonders for making the game personal and immediate to them. (Remember that phrase it’s going to come back in a minute). In the Dark Side of Mardi Gras game at OrcCon I had a page from a news paper, the medical examiner’s report, and most importantly the victim’s notebook from the case he was working on. Props don’t have to be exotic, a drawing works great. Just something tactile that the players can put their hands on works just fine.
- Research – Know the facts about the look and feel that you’re trying to create. This can be the hard part particularly if it does not and has not ever actually existed. Still there are cues we can take from history and real life that help to fill out the look and feel of the game.
During game play setting the atmosphere is probably the single best thing we can do to bring the flavor and atmosphere of our games to life. We can set the atmosphere by putting on music that calls to mind the mood that we’re trying to create. Setting the lighting similarly to what the characters would be experiencing helps too. For a long time while running a fantasy game I banned mundane containers from the table. Drinks had to be in tankards and food had to be put in bowls or on plates. Seems silly but it helped set the mood and the flavor of the game.
Are you seeing a common thread in all of this? I hope so because in the words of Sebastian the Crab, “First you got to create … da mood.”
It takes time and it takes effort both at the keyboard and at the table to create feeling and atmosphere but I promise it’s effort well spent if you want to bring more flair and more flavor to the game.
I hope this gives you some ideas for how to flavor your game or maybe even try a whole different flavor of game all together.
Written by JazzIsBlues
Software developer, gamer, ice hockey player, sometime musician.
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