Thursday, December 26, 2013

Dungeon Master Alchemy: Turning Stats Into Story

Numbers are the basis of most roleplaying games. In the World of Darkness you have dots, in Pathfinder you have skill ranks and ability scores, and in Deadlands you have traits and backgrounds, but at the end of the day they're all different names to describe what player characters can and can't do in the game world. These statistics are meant to help participants get a proper image of what's happening when they start rolling dice, and in order to build an effective character it's important for players and storytellers both to understand how these mechanics work together. That said though, there's something important to keep in mind.

Statistics, by themselves, are boring as hell.
My stats have bigger dicks than your stats.
If you want to make your game sessions interesting, push the story forward, and keep everyone's collective heads in the game, here are some rules you might want to institute when it's time to rattle the bones.

Rule #1: Visualize the Violence

Every roleplaying game on the market has violence in it. In some games, like Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons, that violence takes center stage. In other games, such as Vampire: the Requiem or Grimm, it's often a little more low key. Game designers know that sooner or later (probably sooner) a character is going to try and solve the plot by kicking it in the crotch. So when that violence happens you need to ask yourself one question; what the hell does it look like?
Make us feel this. I dare you.
Combat is very easy to muddle. Between attack rolls, damage rolls, skill checks, the number of actions a player can take, and which special abilities are being used it's easy to lose track of what's going on. Combat is supposed to be fast-paced and tense though, and numbers tend to put a blockage between the player and the action. As such, it's a good idea to encourage more description and roleplaying to keep everyone involved.

Players can go big or small with their narrations, depending on their comfort levels. For instance, if players don't want to take a lot of time they might add a little flair to their combat round with something like, "Arturo springs forward, rapier darting for the zombie's face." That's easy, it's serviceable, and it's worlds better than "I attack." If a player is feeling more verbose though, there's no reason to hold back. "Fangor crashes his hilt against his shield, charging forward and bellowing 'death to the unbelievers!', laying about him with reckless abandon," is a little more descriptive. Every player gets a moment in the spotlight, and they should feel free to make the most of it to add their own narration to the scene.

Once attacks have been made though, it's the storyteller's turn to pick up the thread. Say that Arturo the dashing swordsman rolled a 2 on his attack, which is a solid miss. That doesn't necessarily mean that the fighter who's trained his entire life in the martial arts suddenly becomes a fumble-fingered fool. Perhaps his sword glanced off the zombie's skull rather than piercing through its eye. Perhaps the corpse wheeled right unexpectedly, and the sword sailed past. If the creature has a weapon or a shield, maybe it parried. Showing the enemy's competence keeps the fight tense, and all participants stay riveted on the action.

Let's flip back over to Fangor the barbarian. Maybe his player's on fire, and she rolled a natural 20 on the attack. She confirms the critical hit, and deals some significant damage. The entire table heard how much damage she dealt; it's the storyteller's job to tell the players what that damage looks like. So, does Fangor's broadsword cleave up through a bandit's skull in a spurt of blood and brains? Does the warrior instead slam the sword up under his enemy's armpit, ramming it in through the heart? Or does he simply cut deeply across the other man's guts, doing him great harm without killing him outright? That's the sort of thing the storyteller should be doing. By giving players a real sense of what effect they're having, and allowing a moment to shine, the battle goes from an exchange of die rolling and number writing to real, visceral storytelling.

Also, don't forget that this can work the other way when the monsters attack the players. If they hit, let players be dramatic. If the monsters miss, let players explain how and why. Back and forth is great for scene building.

Rule #2: Selling Your Spells

Whether you're playing a high fantasy sorceress, a modern-day magus, or you've slipped on the skin of a vampire, characters with supernatural abilities need to work a little bit harder to do their part when it comes time to step into the spotlight.
Otherwise this is what you'll look like. Seriously.
Just as fighters have to describe swinging swords and combat styles, magic-workers need to take the rules and claim them as their own. For instance, practically every game with magic has a spell that lashes out at enemies from a distance with a wave of energy. What does it look like when your character uses it? Some players might choose to use hand movements, doing some semi-arcane gesticulating before rolling a die. Others might speak a short series of Google translated words in Latin, German, or Japanese. Players who are less hands-on might describe a nimbus of blue light, or a shout that travels like a wave before smashing into the target. Spells that open pits in the ground could be accompanied by stomping a foot in the dirt, and those which grant flight might come with an avian howl or a halo of celestial light.

Magic and the supernatural is a prime example of "show, don't tell" (more on that here). For instance, if players are going up against a necromancer who summons a stream of black tendrils that sap away a fighter's strength, don't just tell the players what spell was cast unless they know what it is in-character. Describe the bells and whistles that go with the magic to keep the mood going. This happens with creatures that have some ability to shrug off damage, or who can regenerate health quickly. Whether players are fighting werewolves or dragons though, don't just say "not all of your damage went through." How? Why? Did the bullet wound close back up, pushing the slug back out? Did a thick hide prevent the knife from cutting deep enough? Does the crossbow bolt simply sit there, with no blood oozing out of the cold, dead flesh?

Rule #3: No Out of Character Numbers

It's easy for statistics on the character sheet to be used as short hand for in-character description. We talk about strength scores, hit points, dots of presence, etc., when what we need to be doing is taking a moment to discuss what other players are seeing.
You see a man with bronze skin, and an 18 strength.
In the aftermath of a battle, players should never say how many health levels they've lost. Instead, they should describe the sort of damage they've taken. Is the party leader limping because she took a stab wound in her calf? Does the cop who went toe-to-toe with the hungry dead have cuts on his arms and cheeks, or is there a seeping wound in his side just beneath his flak jacket? Is the knight simply singed, or has his skin been blackened by the dragon fire he walked through? These are things you need to know.

The same is true when it comes to first meetings or in-character description. A player shouldn't say "a bard walks up, flashing a smile that lets you know he has an 18 charisma or better." Sure, players at the table know what that means in game terms. Talking like that takes players out of their in-character head space though, and it doesn't really do much to explain what people are looking at. A better way to handle this might be to say something like, "a man strolls up to the party, his thumbs hooked behind his belt. He's brightly dressed, but chain armor glints beneath his shirt, and the short sword at his side looks very well-used. He grins, and when he tosses his hair back you can see his ears narrow to a point. His voice is pleasant, and it catches the ear of passerby." This is a pretty simple explanation of what a half-elf bard looks like, but at no point in time was he described using the words "half-elf" or "bard".

This goes for monsters and NPCs as well as PCs. Storytellers shouldn't use the names of creatures characters wouldn't know, even if the players do. Those who live in the mountains and have fought goblins their whole lives will recognize goblins when they come boiling out of caves to spring a trap. However, the exact nature of a spell-stitched ghoul might elude characters who are not experts in the arts of necromancy, or who have not made extensive studies of the undead. Storytellers can keep a lot of drama in a scene by keeping the players guessing about what is happening. Giving the players too much information calms their nerves and leaves them confident about their chances. Don't tell them. If they want to know the details, then players need to make in-character observations about the world in which they live.

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