What do I want from an RPG?
Abe, my DM from home, asked me to post a discussion of what I like in my RPGs. I know that a number of my readers play RPGs of one kind or another, so hopefully this will appeal to more than just him. I can count the number of RPGs I’ve tried to run on one hand, and they were all pretty spectacular disasters, so this is my opinion as a player, and I respect pretty much anybody with the guts and ability to run a better scenario.
As a starting place, let me talk about what I like in my books. In my novels as in my scenarios, I like plots that seem realistically dark – although I love Tolkien, the forces-of-good-versus-forces-of-evil heroics are sort of predictable. But neither am I that enthusiastic about really post-apocalyptic grunge settings (though that would at least have more character) and playing really shady goth characters. I like something in-between. When it comes to my books, I like semi-epic fantasy that has a lot of political maneuvering, backstabbing, and twists. I like the characters to have really human flaws and really human ideals, so you can really feel their regrets and sorrows and triumphs – regardless of which “side” they’re on. I want to be able to believe these are real politicians moving the chess pieces, not Elrond versus the Nazgûl. The greatest powers on the continent can’t always be concerned with high-minded ideals and inspiring their people to win the next war either, they have to have their own petty priorities – stealing the young beauty away from their brother at any cost, or winning the respect of their dying and always-disapproving father, or whatever you like. Even if the NPCs don’t have that much thought put into them, it’s more fun if they have their own characteristics or quirks or reason for existing – beyond passing you information.
When it comes to playing a character, I’ve found it’s much easier to slip into the role of a modern or futuristic person. I read enough scifi and magical realism stories (as well as nonfiction) that I can picture how modern/futuristic settings and technology will act, whereas medieval fantasy stuff seems much harder for me to imagine at a moment’s notice. Having too much history weighs down the setting, so semi-real-world settings are nice because there’s less to learn. I like a setting to have a background and history, but so often histories of fantasy settings just blend together for me, and their cultures get lost, and I can’t role-play them in the middle of a game. Plus fighting with guns and cyberware is so much more badass!
On the topic of magical realism though, I’ve enjoyed games and stories where normal humans are up against creatures or people who have the additional power of magic on their side. It feels satisfying to protect the human herd from otherworldly threats á la Lovecraftian monsters or Jim Butcher’s powerful sorcerers and mythology.
Fear, frustration (“after his speech the evil villain opens a wormhole and disappears before you can get to him, leaving you with his flunkies”), and sudden twists (“holy crap, THAT was unexpected!”) add a lot of depth to a game because most mediocre RPGs seem to be lacking those aspects.
Puzzles are also great, although I tend to be more in the mode of “let’s shoot stuff and find the next plot point! yeah!” rather than in thoughtful, puzzle-solving mode. I do like the puzzle of “where do we need to be, and what questions do we need to be asking, to put the pieces of this mystery together?” And I like recurring characters when it comes to NPCs, if you’re playing with a steady group – it becomes kind of an inside joke, and you know better what to expect from them. Plus it’s cool if you always have a specific contact in the game where you get your supplies or your mission from, it makes it feel more like a story.
Maps are always cool, as are props, but I think a really rich description and periodic “cinematic” cut scenes like in computer games (where you don’t really get to do anything while the bad guy is talking, but the DM gets to go all out playing an evil villain for two or three minutes before the action starts) would beat either of those out in my opinion. On that note, pacing is really important – look at the way action movies are paced – you need to have a good chunk of heart-pounding action and adrenaline, possibly with fear from the beyond added in, but then you also need quiet time to sort out the pieces without monsters breathing down your necks.
So that’s what I like in my RPGs, if I missed anything or you want to hear more about something, leave me a note below and I’ll address it later! :)