The Color of Adventure XI: Issues of Game-Play, Before the Game Starts

We’re closing in on the end of this particular series; this is the eleventh (wow! Time flies) and probably next-to-the-last article. If you’re reading this series in preparation for running a roleplaying run, then you’re closing in on the start of the game. Thus, this article will look at a number of issues typically thought of in the context of running a game, and address them from a pre-game point of view.

These may be issues of game-play, but you can still prepare for them. You can take notes, write up certain kinds of material, and make sure that you enter your game with good attitudes.

The Spotlight

During a roleplaying game, attention typically shifts from player to player as their characters do things during the game. This is called the “spotlight.” It’s in the spotlight that the interesting things happen, so it’s best to balance the amount of time that different players spend in the spotlight. If one person gets all of the spotlight time then others feel bored and/or resentful.

To a certain extent, solutions to this problem are created as you play. It’s the GM’s job to pay attention to each player and to make sure that everyone gets his chance to do things. It also helps if you have players who are willing to speak up for their characters. Shy players, for obvious reasons, tend not to get as much spotlight time. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get one of those players who’s good at getting the other players involved.

You can do a few things ahead of time, however. As you prepare for the game (both in general and each night before play), take a few minutes to think about how you’ll involve each character; if the characters are involved, then the players are usually involved too. Try to come up with a few ideas for interesting moments each character might have. Not each player has to have a “very special moment” just for them each run, but it’s good to work something at least a little personal and interesting into each major plot, at least.

If you know that certain players tend to (deliberately or not) “hog” the spotlight, then spend a little extra time planning things out for the other players. Have interesting NPCs pick characters who haven’t gotten much air time to talk to. Take spotlight time into account when choosing which characters will have odd things happen to them. Make sure that the PCs’ abilities and interests are relevant to your plots.

The Mood

Mood is a result of a number of factors, most of which come into play during the actual game. It’s the way you describe things, the sorts of plots you play with, the players you happen to have, the venue in which you play, and so on.

There are some things you can do in advance. First, and most important: decide ahead of time what mood you want the game to have! If you don’t have the mood firmly in mind before you start play, it can be pretty difficult to engineer things to produce that mood. An intense mood can engender an intense evening of gaming that really draws your players in.

Make a few notes about how you might go about producing that mood. What light level should the room have? What sorts of NPC and location descriptions will produce that mood? I’m not suggesting that you write everything up ahead of time; this tends to make things fall apart when people ask questions you aren’t expecting. I am suggesting that you take notes. For example, you might have a half-page list of things like:

  • Turn the lights down.
  • Start playing after sunset.
  • Remember to describe shadows, the decayed state of physical items, dust and cobwebs, and unexplained noises when introducing locations.
  • When describing NPCs use dark, somber clothing and signs of aging.
  • Speak in low, serious tones when speaking for the NPCs.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of what the night’s details will be like–if every single NPC is described similarly, things will obviously be a little boring. But it can give you a place to start from, and even limited notes will help you to keep your mood firmly in mind.

Free Will

If your players don’t feel that they have control over their characters they’re likely to get frustrated. You don’t want to railroad them into doing things a certain way. You don’t want to force them into losing the plot, winning the plot, or even getting involved in the plot if they really, really don’t want to do it.

This means that you need to be willing to improvise. After all, players never do exactly what you expect them to do, no matter how well you know them, no matter how carefully you plan things. This is okay. Improvisation isn’t as difficult as it sounds.

As I’ve mentioned in a couple of other articles, there are things you can do to make improvisation easier on yourself. Prepare material ahead of time that doesn’t limit you. This means preparing background material, NPCs and loose notes, rather than explicit, heavily-detailed scenes and speeches. You can also make sure that you know what sorts of plots people do and don’t like before you start the game–by asking them, of course. If most of your players hate murder mystery plots and that’s what you have planned, you’ll end up feeling that you have to railroad them into going along with the plot. If you know ahead of time that they don’t like that sort of thing then you can plan something else.

Keep a few notes on possible plots that you’re thinking of running in the future. That way, if the players completely ignore the plot you had planned, you still have something to give them.

There are also a number of things that are more a matter of attitude and less a matter of action:

  • Don’t become so attached to your beautiful plot that you become unwilling to let the PCs change it.
  • Don’t become wedded to the idea that the party has to win the plot; if it comes down to a choice between letting them lose and railroading them into winning, then let them lose.
  • Don’t be so afraid to let PCs die that you go to ridiculous and obvious lengths to keep them alive.
  • Don’t be so wedded to playing things “realistically” that you kill everyone off in boring ways that they have no chance to fight.
  • Don’t plan out so much of your plot in advance that you have to railroad the party into following it just to be able to make use of the material you wrote.

In other words, plan your game with the idea that you and your players are cooperatively creating it as it goes along. Don’t go in with the attitude that you’re there to lead the players by the nose despite themselves through a beautiful and rigid play.

Game Balance

Try to keep game balance in mind when you prepare your material. If an NPC has a powerful item or ritual think about what would happen if the PCs got their hands on it, even if you’re sure it couldn’t happen. This will actually help you with the free will issue. If you’ve already thought about what would happen if the PCs got their hands on the uber-weapon, then you don’t have to railroad them into not getting it if they’re particularly creative.

When putting together a group of combat-antagonists, take into account the idea that your party may be more or less good at combat than you expect, and leave yourself some room to modify things. When creating antagonists, remember to give them weaknesses and blind spots. Make sure that there are ways for the party to both win and lose each plot. Don’t become so enamored of your NPCs that you make them too powerful or refuse tolet the PCs kill them under any circumstances.

Only muck with the world background if you’re pretty sure you have an idea of what it will do to game balance. Adding whole groups and races without stopping to think about their effect on the game can cause you real problems later.

When planning plots and creating NPCs and items, take into account the power level of your game. If you’re trying to run a low-epic game that concentrates on personal plots, then think carefully before throwing in a save-the-world plot; it can change the entire character of the game. If you’ve been keeping things low-powered by giving out experience points sparingly, then you might not want to throw your party against a high-powered enemy.


You and your players need to be able to trust each other. In particular, since you’re the one who can muck with the world at will, your players need to be able to trust you. This means taking a few things into account when working on your game.

Don’t change world background out from under the characters your players have created. If you want to change things that affect the PCs, you need to tell the player before the character is done and you’ve started playing. No player is going to thank you for making his character background irrelevant or useless. Worst case, if your game has already started and you feel that you absolutely must change something, then work together with the player to find a solution that works for both of you.

If you’re going to let your players write up character background (I’ve suggested in earlier articles why this can be a good idea), then remember to take it into account and use it. If this seems a daunting prospect then limit the number of pages of material they’re allowed to write up. Remember that you can use background details a bit at a time; you don’t have to work everything in at once.

If details of the backgrounds annoy you and you don’t want to use them, then have the player change his character before the game starts. Don’t just hide your head in the sand and hope that it goes away — it won’t. Be sure to tell the player why you object to what he came up with, for two reasons. One, it’ll help him to come up with something else that you’ll approve of. Two, it’ll help him to feel that you aren’t just being arbitrary and capricious.

Treat your players fairly and equally. Prepare interesting moments for all of them. Involve all of the characters in the plots. If someone isn’t very good at writing up background material then put a little extra effort into creating things that are personal to her, so she isn’t left out of all the fun.

Don’t be capricious. Don’t kill a character just because you had an argument with your boss this morning and are feeling vicious. Have a reason for the things you do, even if it’s a small or subtle one.


This is one of the most important items in this article. You need to communicate with your players. It is the foundation of all trust and fairness.

If you believe that someone is cheating, then talk to him about it. Don’t just screw over his character and expect that he’ll get the point. Make sure he knows that what he’s doing is cheating; something that’s obviously cheating to you might have been normal in the player’s last gaming group. If you decide to dock experience points or ask a player to leave for the evening, then tell him why you’re doing it. Punishment does not work if a player doesn’t know why he’s being punished. He’ll just think you’re being cruel and capricious, and he certainly won’t learn to stop what he’s doing.

If you don’t like some aspect of a player’s character background or abilities, then tell him so before the game starts. Work together with him to fix the problem, rather than nullifying everything he found interesting about the character after the game starts. Worst case, if you discover that something is a problem after the game starts, then enlist the player to help you find a solution that will work for the both of you.

Work together with your players to fix anything that’s a problem, rather than assuming that you have to beat them in a contest of wits. Remember that it takes two sides to have an antagonistic relationship. If you deal with your players openly and involve them in any efforts to fix problems, they’re much more likely to work with you than against you. Treat your players as your collaborators, not your opponents, and they’ll be more likely to do the same for you. (This won’t solve all problems, of course, but it solves more than you might think.)

Don’t just assume that a player is cheating unless the situation is very cut-and-dried. Intuition can mimic the use of out-of-character information. Players who create bizarre characters might just gravitate toward the unusual; they aren’t necessarily trying to get a mechanical advantage. Warn the player that it looks like he’s trying to cheat, or ask him enough questions to allow you to figure out why he’s doing what he’s doing.

Fun for All

Remember that everyone is playing the game to have fun — both you as GM, and your players. You have a right to enjoy yourself and so do your players. They aren’t your enemies. They aren’t your puppets. Neither are you their whipping boy. Don’t let them manipulate you (if you have the sort of players who like to try that sort of thing), and don’t insist on them doing every last thing your way either. Treat the game as a team effort and it’s more likely to fall out that way.

Most of all, remember this: if you or your players aren’t having fun then something is wrong, even if you’re following my or someone else’s advice letter-perfectly. If you’re all having fun then you’re doing something right, even if it goes completely against the things I or anyone else has told you.

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