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Archive for Role Playing Games

Tips on Running a Murder Mystery RPG Session

I recently ran a session with a murder mystery plot and I found it incredibly difficult to put together compared to one of my more standard style D&D adventures. I read up on the subject some, worked out my plotline, and ran the session all in one day. It was pretty successful, according to my players, so I thought I’d share some tips I have if you want to do something similar in the future.

The best thing to do is start with “who done it” before anything else. Figure out the legitimate facts and the “answer” and work your way backwards. Along the way, develop your cast of characters who are red herrings or other potential suspects. One downside of working this way is that you may discover a character who is a more likely candidate as murderer, but if so, just tweak them in and make adjustments. But starting with the killer means you know your end point, your goal for the players to reach.

For structure, look at existing procedurals for guidance. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. The great thing about being a game master over being a fiction writer is, nobody has any expectations of originality in a game. In fiction, you have to get past the gatekeepers to sell anything and reach the audience, and they want to see things done differently than the way they have before, but if anything, players don’t often want to see things totally new- they want the familiar and fun. For the structure of my dwarven mining family and the murdered patriarch, I borrowed liberally from Knives Out.

Establish a “real” timeline with the facts, then build individual suspect timelines so you can answer the questions the PCs will ask in character. Gaps or conflicts in timelines can be an important clue to discerning players. Really flesh out your supporting cast. Give everyone a beef with the victim so there’s a plausible reason to suspect them all. Your players are going to interrogate them, so you really want to get inside their heads. Try to make them distinct, but again, don’t be afraid to lean into tropes and stereotypes. I have maybe 4 distinct character voices I can do, but you can give them verbal tics or personalities to make them stand out as distinct.

Structure the nature of the relationships such that you can encourage the players to question them in an order that fits your narrative. Giving the right information at the wrong time can completely undermine your structure in a murder mystery. In fiction, the characters figure out the solution at the right time and place for the narrative structure, but you have to work a lot harder when the characters are controlled by real people trying to actually solve the mystery. The only solution I found to this problem is to provide compelling information about everybody and only give clues to eliminate suspects late in the game so that they can begin to narrow things down only after a good build up.

For my mystery, I had four siblings that all stood to gain from their father’s death, and the players naturally took the hint of the birth order to question them, which meant that the actual murderer, the secret fiancee of the youngest son, really only came into the picture late enough that it felt like they were really doing the work to uncover the secrets.

Don’t be afraid for the players to get things wrong. Getting it wrong could end up being just as interesting as getting it right. Getting it wrong could make them new allies or enemies for life. Let the players think they figure it out right if they went entirely off base. Even consider changing your solution to make them feel successful if that matters to you more.

It’s not important here that you tell a good murder mystery on paper. It’s important that you lead an entertaining experience of figuring out a mystery. Let the players enjoy the paranoia of suspecting your entire supporting cast. Have fun listening to them discuss theories and analyze things. That’s where the real fun is, for me — listening to them debate and struggle and theorize. If you can do that, even if the landing isn’t perfect, players will still look back on the session fondly.

For instance, I don’t think that I did the best job of revealing the murderer. Ultimately, I did a good job with the cast and setting up clues, but the murderer was introduced too late and perhaps too obviously. Some lucky insight roles really saw through her – but keeping her introduction until relatively late, and not making her a prime suspect meant that the mystery unfolded at the pace I wanted, just at a minor cost of a little bit of narrative satisfaction that bothered me more than it bothered the players.

Really landing that “surprise” moment of who did it with smart, engaged players is nigh-on impossible, I think, but maybe it can be done. If you have any tips on how to manage that part, I’d love to hear them!

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Tips for Conquering RPG Scheduling

One of the biggest challenges every game master faces in getting a recurring role-playing game going is scheduling. Adults have busy lives, and it can be tough to get people on the same page for when to play. Often time games collapse entirely due to scheduling conflicts and never get off the ground, but one of the core ingredients to successful campaign play is consistent scheduling and sustained play time. Below are some tips that have helped me run campaigns to the finish line.

  1. Pick a date, time, and frequency ahead of asking for players. I’ve run and played a lot of games where we spent countless hours trying to negotiate schedules and establish a good time to play. This is burdensome to everyone, but especially the GM. When you first want to get started, establish your frequency and schedule and basically write that down in stone, before you attempt to recruit players. For my games, I run an every-other-Friday game, an every-other-Saturday game that alternates weeks against the Friday one, and a every-other-Thursday game that happens the same week as the Saturday game. This makes sure I don’t have to run two game nights back to back and keeps my per-week load reasonable. I set these schedules up front and sought players that would commit to that schedule. This also means that you don’t try to reschedule- you just cancel when the circumstances are necessary. Juggling six schedules every time is just too much for anybody to bear, and life is too short for that.
  2. Include enough players that things don’t grind to a halt if one or two players miss a session. I play five player groups for Dungeons and Dragons, although the game is built around a party size of four. I will run a session with as few as three players assuming one of the absent members isn’t the center of a story arc at the time. If you cancel every time just one or two players can’t make it, you’re kind of punishing your regulars!
  3. Set an attendance example. You’re going to have a lot of responsibilities as the game master, but I think your biggest one is setting the example of commitment. If you’re the one calling off the game all the time, your players won’t become attached to it and they’ll take your lead on how seriously to take it. I try to only cancel if I’m simply too sick to play.

By doing the above, you make it easier for your adult players to organize their own lives to make space for the game. If you’re always changing your game night to try to avoid schedule conflicts, this creates more conflicts. By being consistent, you let people know that they should try to avoid scheduling things against the game and they can reliably schedule their life around it. By going forward even if you have a few absences, you let them know that they’re not really indispensable.

Admittedly, these suggestions aren’t as helpful if you have only a small number of people to play with, but they may still be somewhat helpful.

Also, you can do all of the above and still have schedule conflicts and cancellations. It can’t be avoided completely, as adult life is unpredictable. You can mitigate the chances of a schedule collages, and by following these tips, you may create a situation more conducive to consistent gaming.

Do you have any tips or tricks to share? Let me know in the comments!

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If You Think Dungeons & Dragons Is Fun, Try Playing It With Kids

Recently, a friend’s kids expressed interest in learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons, so this friend reached out to me to ask how they might learn how to play. I suggested that they come over for an afternoon and Sarah and I would teach them how to play as best we could after checking around and not finding an active Adventurer’s League in the area. We invited along our 12 year old nephew who lives near by, and Sarah rolled up a character to round out the party, which she shared some with Little Dude Tolbert, who yes, is on the young side to play a game like this, but you try stopping him. He knows entirely too much because my office is usually full of D&D stuff. Mostly, he sat on Sarah’s lap and goofed around, didn’t pay super close attention. He had fun rolling the dice and moving the miniatures, and he loved listening to the bigger kids have fun.

We ran the session today and it served a reminder to me to how fun Dungeons and Dragons can be the first time. Kids who have never played before have only the vaguest preconceived notions of what D&D is and how it should be played, which meant that they had some great and inspiring moments. Here are some anecdotes and loosely organized thoughts about the game.

  • This was a simple “meet in a tavern and get hired for a job” gig. They were hired by a merchant to recover some stolen property. Right away, they pressed the merchant to know exactly what was stolen. After some successful persuade checks, they learned that the property was “livestock.” Later, they learned that it wasn’t exactly legal. I was hoping for some misdirection here, but pretty much not thirty minutes in, they guessed that the “livestock” were people, which they were immediately down to put a stop to all of it. It went from a “find and retrieve job” to a rescue mission, and right away they planned to pay a visit to their employer afterward, which they did with fiery anger. I worried a bit that “slavery” might be too heavy a topic for kids, but it brought up conversations about Abraham Lincoln and there was no discussion over whether or not they would end it immediately. All of them had already learned about our country’s history of slavery and they were not okay with it. The kids are alright.
  • If you want to have a lot of fun with a character with low intelligence, have a three and a half year old role play it’s dialogue. At once point, after they rescued the stolen children from evil cultists, the fighter was put in charge of baby-sitting them while the rest of the party went off to deal with their “boss.”  Little Dude Tolbert’s first words to the kids, said in an adorable, gruff voice: “Hey, you kids! Don’t do anything with my legs. And just stay in this room.” There were several other great lines.
  • The nephew rolled up a bard with the ridiculous name of Jerry Jeff Parkanson, or “JJP” to his fans. The other players rapidly became his fan club, and any time it was JJP’s turn to act, they chanted “JJP! JJP!” Yes, even Little Dude Tolbert got in on the action. This made the nephew feel like a star, and helped bring him right into the game. Everywhere they go in the future, the legends of JJP will travel with them.
  • The oldest player did a great job of playing a rather foppish sorcerer with a poorly carved staff and an enormous hat that was just a delight. The voice she adopted for him sounded a tad like Taco. Embarrassingly, I kept misgendering the character (I missed early on that it was a male elf, so I was catching up). The player politely corrected me every time and I finally had it mostly right after an hour. (Again. The kids are alright.)
  • The younger brother of the teen created a delightful halfling rogue with a big mouth who got them into trouble more than once. He also helped the bard come up with some spectacularly hilarious insults to use for his main attack spell which involves insulting the bad guys to death.
  • Nearly every encounter began with an attempt by them to either use diplomacy or bluff their way out of. They tried intimidating wolves, talking their way out of fights with kobolds, and they even managed briefly to disguise themselves as evil cultists to try and stop a very bad ritual meant to serve the stolen children up for dinner to evil monsters.  Again: the kids are alright. They fought only when the bad guys gave them no choice. Which, this being D&D, was more often than not.
  • Kids’ emotions are double that of adults. A bad die roll, and they’re kinda devastated and you have to boost their spirits a bit. A natural twenty, and they’re doing a little victory dance around the table and cheering as they finish off a bad guy in one blow.  Their highs and lows are wild to witness, and it made the game even more fun for me than usual.
  • All of this made me even more certain that one of the main directions for Level Up Guild needs to be our “DM in a Box” service, and we need to market to parents of teens and pre-teens. I won’t even care that much that I’m making a lot less doing this than I do building websites. I kinda want doing this to be my job in the future.
  • I should probably work to develop more kid-friendly plot lines and bad guys. I’m not sure I have *any* idea what’s properly age appropriate because I was playing D&D at 6 and there weren’t really “age appropriate” things when I was growing up. I probably helped kill half the princes of Hell in D&D by the time I was 10. Skeletons and zombies are an easy thing to have them fight, though, so we did a lot of that. They’re basically the D&D equivalent of robots.
  • I never had to explain some basic mechanics, like what “hit points” are or “armor” or the types of weapons, the different fantasy races, etc.  Some of the stuff we didn’t know about when we were kids playing for the first time, these kids have absorbed through video games and other media.
  • D&D is by nature kind of violent when played the usual way, and parents need to be cool with that. Little Dude Tolbert and his mom and I had a long talk about makebelieve and pretend and how everything is just a game. He rolled with it really well, and had a good time rolling dice and doing math.  I would say that D&D is no more violent than modern video games (probably much less vividly so), but my combat descriptions could probably stand to be toned down as well, at least when playing with younger folks. We can fade the violence into the background of hit points and maybe I don’t need to be visceral at all in my descriptions with them. I’ve actually been struggling alot with the themes of violence and adolescence as I work on the Dungeonspace stories.  I also want to try my hand at writing more adventures that have less combat, and have bad guys run away or surrender more often.

In general, I learned an enormous amount from running this game, and I am looking forward to playing with these kids again. They were excitedly talking about what they would get at future levels and how they would deal with the three children they rescued, so I feel obligated to play with them again some time soon. I am really looking forward to learning yet more lessons of how best to DM for a group of mixed age kids.

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