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 Post subject: Not The Wisdom of Elders: my RPG advice essay
PostPosted: Fri Sep 25, 2009 11:41 pm 
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Here's the rambling blurb that I was trying to write when I decided to start the RPG essay thread.

WINGING IT: On the Spot Rulings
an essay on ad lib and ad hoc GMing by Altair

Players do things you didn't anticipate - either your published adventure didn't provide the necessary rules, or your missed out the details yourself, or the palyers have just come up with a way of doing things your (or the adventure author, or the rules system) couldn't have anticipated. Whatever the reason, every GM has to make up a ruling on the fly.

KNOW THE RULES
Ad hoc rulings need to be consistent with the rest of the rules in the game.
Spoiler! :
If you have time, and know something relavant is already in the rules, ask the player involved to look it up in the index of the rule book - meanwhile you can deal with the other players. How much damage does a rifle bullet have to do to a wall to go through and hit the guy hiding behind it? You might decide that the wall is made of brick, and know that the rules have a note about each type of wall material, but not know off the top of your head - get the player to look it up while you deal with the next person.

If you have to make something up, make sure it fits in the frame work of the existing rules.
You should get a feel for how the mechanic of your game works out chances of success. D&D and other die-plus-modifier games are simple: there's a straight relationship between one die roll and a target number. If something is twice as difficult, the target number is twice as high. Similarly for percentage based games like RuneQuest and WarHammer.
Other games use multiple dice, a fixed target number and then scale the success with the number of dice that meet that target number. World of Darkness uses this method, as well as Shadowrun. In this system, if something is twice as hard to do, you take away half the dice the player is using, or require more than one success.

Things get more complex as characters get better at things. Is this task going to be easy for a 10th level hero, or easy for a 1st level nobody? For example, in the d20 system, everything is determined by the roll of a d20 + various modifiers, compared to a target number (called a difficulty class, or DC). On average a d20 rolls a 10 or 11. If something can be generally achieved by anyone with no training and minimal aptitude, then a 10 is a reasonable DC for that task. If they need to be smart and trained to do whatever it is, a 15 is good for an average task, 20 is good for a difficult task, and 25 is good for a very difficult task. These DC are still within the realms of a normal person's ability - but what if you need to be "the best in the world" and have special tools and extra good luck to do something? Then the DC goes higher.
As a rule of thumb, in the d20 system, a character's best skill increases by 1 point every level. They have usually maximised it at 1st level, giving them 4 to start with, plus what ever ability score adjustment they have. So they have a roughly 50% chance of succeeding any task with a DC of 15 at 1st level, 16 at 2nd level, and so on. Except you get to add +1 to any ability score at 4th level, 8th level and so on, which adds a little more to your average rolls as you go up levels.
For D&D & d20, assume that a character can make (but may just as easily fail) a check of Level + 15 on average in anything they ought to be good at. That rule will let you make up DCs on the spot, which is half the battle in GMing without complete notes.


WRITE IT DOWN
Spoiler! :
Key to keeping your own consistency is that you note down the ruling you just made, so you can use the same thing again. (This is how AD&D grew out of D&D, you know - and look what happened there: people played that game for decades using Gygax's compiled rules.)
Writing down your ad hoc rules lets you look at them afterwards, too, so you can check through the rule books and see if you were wrong or right or just different. It also helps you to make a framework for new rules and rulings, so they can be similar to the previous times you made something up.


BE READY TO BE CHALLENGED
Your players will no doubt question a rule you have invented on the spot.
Spoiler! :
They may be right, too. If they can point to another rule or ruling that doesn't match what you just came up with, be ready to change.
A rule of thumb here: if the player's challenge seems immediately more reasonable than what you suggested (and doesn't ruin the game), then you should probably use it. Don't spend too much time debating, it slows down the game.


SERVE THE GAME
Playing the game is the most important thing about playing the game.
Spoiler! :
That's a tautological statement, but you get the idea - we shouldn't bog down in rules if the game has to stop while we do so, nor should the game be prematurely over because someone's clever idea cut through the entirity of the plot.
If digging through rule books is going to slow down the game too much, don't do it. Make up a result. Reduce a car chase to an opposed skill check, maybe with a modifier for a faster or slower car. If it doesn't matter whether the PCs open a door or not (which is why you never noted how difficult it is to open the door), just let them succeed so they can see how unimportant the inside of the next room is.

If the players are proposing something that will abruptly end the game, you may want to stop them. All that preparation wasted, and the clues they'll miss, and the fun encouters they'll avoid... The perfect solution to this sort of issue is to bring those cool things forward, or otherwise make them happen anyway, while letting the players do their clever thing (they'll prefer it that way), but sometimes you just can't think that fast.
Let's say that they plan to blow up the Big Bad Evil Guy's yacht by planting an explosive underwater inside a cast-iron drain pipe to direct the water pressure and break the hull. You've got no rules to hand about shaped charges and underwater explosives, but the player is adamant that his degree in Explosive Fluid Dynamics makes him qualified to claim success. Here's how this can be stopped:
  1. The bomb fails
  2. The bomb isn't as effective as they thought, and the ship sinks slowly, BBEG gets away or comes out to battle the PCs or something
  3. The party realises it's a bad idea, because the BBEG turns out to have hostages the PCs care about (or something similar)
Points 1 and 2 are down to you messing with the rules - making an ad hoc ruling. Point 2 is better than the first, cause it let's the player feel that he was at least a bit successful. Point 3 is maybe best, but requires the players to actually care about something... (see "Getting the Players to Care").

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