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Styles of Play

Emerikol

Adventurer
So I recently read a book by Alexander Macris called Arbiter of Worlds. I thought reading it that based on my own idea of fun it was almost a perfect book. It enunciated my own preferences pretty well....

1. Let the dice fall where they fall and character death is a real threat.
2. Avoid letting bad things happen to characters lessens the ultimate fun in the long run by reducing suspense.
3. Player agency is really important. So sandboxes and choices. No railroads.
4. Preparation. The new wave seems to be improvisation and player's building the world as they go. I guess Macris' approach is more "old school" but it's the one I've always used and at least for me it's made my players happy. So concentric circles starting with the a well detailed starting area and then less detail as the circles go out from there but not no detail. At the world/continent level you know the nations. Kind of similar to a gazatteer though of course personal notes don't require super great writing.
5. A DM who is neutral and plays the bad guys as sentient enemies with goals and fears of their own. I often do this by writing down in advance what the bad guy will do in various circumstances so that I'm not tempted to change a plan to meet something unexpected.
6. Use randomization to spur ideas and creativity.


Are there other books out there on other playstyles you all like? Has anyone else read Macris book? I know there is one called The Lazy Dungeon Master but I haven't read it.

What do you like as a player and as a game master? Meaning do you like prep but due to the challenges of life you live with less of it in some groups.

This is just to stir conversation and not to argue that there is a single way to play. Obviously with a GAME if you are having fun play then the goal is accomplished.
 

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Arilyn

Hero
My favourite is Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering. Suits my style and I have gained useful tips from it. I tend to plan out my NPCs pretty thoroughly, because I like designing characters. I leave the "plot" pretty skeletal, and do a lot of improvising. I will change things on the fly, if it'll make things better at the table.

I'm willing to fudge dice rolls, because little pieces of plastic can roll really stupidly at times. Having said this, I don't do it often, and in most games these days, it's unnecessary. I actually can't remember the last time I've done it.

I'm about to start running Vaesen. And I will be playing soon in the new Cortex. We have been playing 5e, because it's been fun and light. Easy to run and play.

Have also been experimenting with Story Now, which I enjoy too, but takes more mental energy from both GMs and players.
 

kenada

Hero
Supporter
As a player, I’m fine with whatever more or less. I suppose encounter-driven stories are boring, but sometimes that’s all you have.

As a GM, I am comfortable with improvising, so my prep reflects that. I tried the CWB approach, but it didn’t resonate with my group, and I didn’t like it (resulted tended too gonzo for my taste). I lean pretty heavily on structures like adversary rosters and revelation lists to let me run dynamic scenarios without having to put a lot of effort into them.

The kind of game I run is usually exploration-drive and sandboxy. I like to set things up and see what happens when they meet the PCs. Sometimes things go in unexpected directions, and that’s cool. I try to avoid prepping plots (see also: revelation lists, node-based design, etc).

I don’t typically fudge rolls. If I’m doing that regularly, it means I am doing something wrong because the system is giving me unintended results. In that case, I’ll tweak things or find a new system. For example, I like the card method for generating stats because it’s perceived as fair and doesn’t require a lot of special cases or rerolls to achieve that outcome.

I use a copy of the MC’s principles from Apocalypse World in whatever game I run. I find it to be a very helpful reminder of things I should be doing to keep my game interesting. Statements like “Barf forth fantasia” (as adapted for fantasy RPGs) help ensure that my descriptions are not boring. Things are weird, and it’s wonderful.
 

I'm almost the same as Emirikol, with the exception of #3 on his list. I'm a big-time prepper, so with my group I generally write the adventure for the given session and that's the one we're going to play through that time. (This allows me to not only write the adventure but also figure out all the enemy stats, build the maps, assemble the initiative cards for each monster/NPC, and create any player handouts - all of which means I need to know ahead of time that that's the adventure we'll be going through that session.) So I've never run a "sandbox" in the sense of the players deciding during play where their PCs will be going and what all they'll be doing. Instead, they trust that I'll set up an adventure each session that they'll enjoy. Now, that said, my campaigns aren't complete railroads, as the players give me inputs on what overall course they'd like for their PCs and I try to steer the adventures in those directions, but if I come to the session with, say, a dungeon exploration adventure then they'll be going through that adventure that session, not decide to spend the game time shopping or making future plans or randomly heading east to see what's over in that direction. Since we have limited time for gaming and we all want to maximize the time we do have, that's the method we've come up with - and it works for us.

And I fully agree, no one way is the "right way" for everyone - each group has to figure out what works best for them.

Johnathan
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
5. A DM who is neutral and plays the bad guys as sentient enemies with goals and fears of their own. I often do this by writing down in advance what the bad guy will do in various circumstances so that I'm not tempted to change a plan to meet something unexpected.
As a side note, I used to think this made sense. Now I realize that this is a lie DMs tell themselves because they've read it elsewhere and it sounds wise. It's complete bunk for most DMs, and absolutely every non-abysmal DM.

The DM isn't neutral. The DM cares that the players have a good time. The DM is on the player's side - which is not the same as he's on the character's side.

I am my player's biggest cheerleader. I want them to have a great time. I put effort into crafting character arcs, memorable NPCs, plots both deep and comedic, make handouts and find images, and all of the other parts that make up a successful game. Yes, I find it rewarding - but "I can't wait until they see this" is a huge boost to my enjoyment.

A referee in a sporting match needs to be neutral - that's how they add to the team who are competing. But D&D only has oen side that has real world cares and feeling, that are the protagonists that we craft the framework around and tell the story with. The players are our co-collaborators in making wonderful moments, sessions, and campaigns. While we may play merry havoc with their characters, we do it because we aren't neutral, because we want the players to have a grand time. And that includes tension and drama in game. It includes real risk and real challenges in-game so that there is a real feeling of reward because there was a chance to lose.

In-game there are sides. Outside the game there aren't - everyone wants the game to be enjoyable. There's no chance to be neutral because there are no sides. Everyone is working together in different roles but with the same goal. Fun.
 

I had one of my newer players strategizing with her husband on how to take out the enemy they were facing and she was whispering her plans so I wouldn't hear. When I straight out asked her what her plan was, she said she didn't want to tell me because I was running "the enemy." That's when I pointed out to her that my role, as the DM, was hopefully to lose every battle I entered against the PCs, not by throwing the match but by doing my best to beat them while (hopefully) just not being able to kill them. That's when I made it clear that if I killed the PCs my "bad guy team" might have won but overall we all lost because we'd have to start the campaign over with new PCs. That was kind of an eye-opener for her.

Johnathan
 

payn

Adventurer
So I recently read a book by Alexander Macris called Arbiter of Worlds. I thought reading it that based on my own idea of fun it was almost a perfect book. It enunciated my own preferences pretty well....

1. Let the dice fall where they fall and character death is a real threat.
I prefer this, but its not always black and white. My preferences for fantasy RPGs are D&D 3E and Pathfinder classic. I love how criticals can really shake up the game play. Combats are exciting and dangerous. I've also encountered sessions where the PCs get clobbered at no fault of their own. Its not really all that fun. To make up for it, I have started using Hero Points, inspiration, whatever save your bacon mechanic you choose. As GM, I love to leave the gloves off and keep combat exciting. My players love it because the characters they have put so much time into have a way hang on if they get shellacked. Now, the PCs can use the points for other things, so its a resource and up to them. It makes Hero Points a great feature of my games.

2. Avoid letting bad things happen to characters lessens the ultimate fun in the long run by reducing suspense.
Depends. In a game like Call of Cthulhu I full heartedly agree with this sentiment. Some other games are meant to be more kick in the door and save the day. Crippling a character, especially when other characters escape penalty free, can put a damper on that. So it depends on the system, genre, and group in my experience.

3. Player agency is really important. So sandboxes and choices. No railroads.
I agree, depending on definitions. I do enjoy adventure paths. I like to think of them as sandboxes, but with a smaller box. As a player I love having an idea of the world my character lives in and the type of adventure they are going on. Adventure paths can deliver this. Sandboxes can too, but I have also been in meandering no focus sandboxes and they can be boring for me as a player. Some folks might argue adventure paths are railroads any way you slice it. Either way, I need a strong narrative in the background as both GM and player to enjoy the campaign.

4. Preparation. The new wave seems to be improvisation and player's building the world as they go. I guess Macris' approach is more "old school" but it's the one I've always used and at least for me it's made my players happy. So concentric circles starting with the a well detailed starting area and then less detail as the circles go out from there but not no detail. At the world/continent level you know the nations. Kind of similar to a gazatteer though of course personal notes don't require super great writing.
Yeah I can agree to this. As GM, I like to have at least a skeleton of the world my campaign will reside in. Though, I start with a well defined place, a center if you will, for the players to explore out of. The game expands organically as each session unfolds.

5. A DM who is neutral and plays the bad guys as sentient enemies with goals and fears of their own. I often do this by writing down in advance what the bad guy will do in various circumstances so that I'm not tempted to change a plan to meet something unexpected.
That is a good exercise in general. Sometimes GMs play NPCs as wooden info dumps, allies, or rivals. It can seem lifeless and be an immersion killer. My players have a tendency to try and convert rivals to allies, it doesn't always work, but I like to be ready for NPCs to listen to some compelling propositions from the PCs

6. Use randomization to spur ideas and creativity.
Sounds good. This is rather general though, I would be more likely to comment on specifics.

-Cheers
 

werecorpse

Adventurer
sorry not skilled with forum techniques so Ive just listed the OP’s 6 points.

1. Let the dice fall where they fall and character death is a real threat.

I agree but if you expect to play a longish campaign give players plenty of resources to avoid death. Narrowly avoiding death (through character resources not DM fiat) when it is a real chance is the rush

2. Avoid letting bad things happen to characters lessens the ultimate fun in the long run by reducing suspense.

This is often correct but depends on the players. I play with a player who seems to have high stress in the other parts of his life (work/relationships etc). He plays to escape the stress and for pure wish fulfilment, if too much bad stuff happens to his character he‘d rather not play. He wants to kick down doors, dominate the enemy, get cool loot and level up. Not my style but when I DM him I've finally learned to let the bad things and suspense happen to other characters- he doesn’t want that spotlight & they do.

3. Player agency is really important. So sandboxes and choices. No railroads.

Agency & choices is what makes an RPG imo, though I’m happy enough with a bunch of predetermined encounters as long as I have choices within those encounters.

4. Preparation. The new wave seems to be improvisation and player's building the world as they go. I guess Macris' approach is more "old school" but it's the one I've always used and at least for me it's made my players happy. So concentric circles starting with the a well detailed starting area and then less detail as the circles go out from there but not no detail. At the world/continent level you know the nations. Kind of similar to a gazatteer though of course personal notes don't require super great writing.
5. A DM who is neutral and plays the bad guys as sentient enemies with goals and fears of their own. I often do this by writing down in advance what the bad guy will do in various circumstances so that I'm not tempted to change a plan to meet something unexpected.
6. Use randomization to spur ideas and creativity.

agree with all this, use anything to spur ideas and creativity.
 

MGibster

Legend
1. Let the dice fall where they fall and character death is a real threat.
That's me. In recent years, I've started having the players roll fewer times during sessions trying to limit it to appropriately dramatic moments.
2. Avoid letting bad things happen to characters lessens the ultimate fun in the long run by reducing suspense.
I agree. I've got plenty of fun stories about my characters dying horrible deaths.
3. Player agency is really important. So sandboxes and choices. No railroads.
When I run games, I know what the bad guys are going to do if the good guys do nothing. It's up to the players to decide how they're going to mess up the villain's plan.
4. Preparation. The new wave seems to be improvisation and player's building the world as they go. I guess Macris' approach is more "old school" but it's the one I've always used and at least for me it's made my players happy. So concentric circles starting with the a well detailed starting area and then less detail as the circles go out from there but not no detail. At the world/continent level you know the nations. Kind of similar to a gazatteer though of course personal notes don't require super great writing.
I only fill in what's necessary to run the adventure. Do I really need a good understanding of how the church interacts with the state? No. Because my players aren't going to care and it has nothing to do with the adventure. I ran a Deadlands: Hell on Earth (post apocalyptic) game set in Little Rock a few years back. During our second session one of the players just kept asking all this information about the city's demographics, how many children, how many mutants, how many families and I kept answer them until she finally looked at me and asked, "You're just making all this up aren't you?" Yeah. I just made it up in response to her questions.
5. A DM who is neutral and plays the bad guys as sentient enemies with goals and fears of their own. I often do this by writing down in advance what the bad guy will do in various circumstances so that I'm not tempted to change a plan to meet something unexpected.
I do this. In my Trail of Cthulhu game, the PC (NYPD detective) threatened a mid-level mafioso with arrest if he didn't spill the beans on the whereabouts of a low level thug. I decided the capo wasn't going to budge but I told the PC that his detective was experienced enough to know that threats of arrest would not work on this guy. But the PC ran into other criminal NPCs who were more than willing to give up their mothers if it meant not being arrested.
6. Use randomization to spur ideas and creativity.
I don't do this very often but maybe I should. Some of my favorite games have adventure generators. Maybe I should just randomly come up with some adventures and see how they go.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
1. Let the dice fall where they fall and character death is a real threat.
Agreed. That said, I don't mind there being a vaguely-accessible revival mechanic. I like how 1e does it - revival is available but hella expensive until mid-level, it's not 100% guaranteed to work, and even if it does there's a long-term hit involved (the lost Con point).
2. Avoid letting bad things happen to characters lessens the ultimate fun in the long run by reducing suspense.
Yes.
3. Player agency is really important. So sandboxes and choices. No railroads.
I'd rather mix it up - sometimes within the campaign the players are completely free to choose what comes next, sometimes they've no choice at all, and most of the time it's in the middle somewhere: they're free to choose but there's only a certain number of options from which they're likely to pick unless they go right out the barn door and do something unforeseen.
4. Preparation. The new wave seems to be improvisation and player's building the world as they go. I guess Macris' approach is more "old school" but it's the one I've always used and at least for me it's made my players happy. So concentric circles starting with the a well detailed starting area and then less detail as the circles go out from there but not no detail. At the world/continent level you know the nations. Kind of similar to a gazatteer though of course personal notes don't require super great writing.
Agreed if one is world-building on the fly or has very limited run-up time. If one has the time beforehand I recommend doing as much worldbuilding as possible then, as it's work that then doesn't have to do during play: at the very least make that "well-detailed starting area" include everywhere they're likely to go for thew first few years of the campaign.
5. A DM who is neutral and plays the bad guys as sentient enemies with goals and fears of their own. I often do this by writing down in advance what the bad guy will do in various circumstances so that I'm not tempted to change a plan to meet something unexpected.
While I don't usually write out what the bad guys will do, I completely agree with the sentiment. That said, the bad guys have to have enough flexibility to be able to react to events as-when they happen in the chaos of war.
6. Use randomization to spur ideas and creativity.
Yup. :)
What do you like as a player and as a game master? Meaning do you like prep but due to the challenges of life you live with less of it in some groups.
As a player: if the setting is consistent within itself and has (or can be given) enough detail to allow the players to interact with it (e.g. the DM has made a map of the area which we-as-players can look at in order to decide where we're going) then things are probably good to rock.

As a DM: I'm lazy, so I'll gladly do loads of worldbuilding provided I only have to do it once (or once in a very long time), as it's a crap-ton of work. After that, I can keep augmenting that setting as the mood strikes and the years go by, as once built I expect the setting to last me for at least a decade.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
For me personally, I garner absolutely no enjoyment of world-building for the sake of world-building. To me... spending hours upon hours trying to come up with entire regions of "stuff" that end up never getting used is such a waste of time that I wouldn't DM D&D at all if I was forced to do so.

I'm much more a story-focused DM. I care about the player's experiences engaging with the area they are in and their personal place and stakes within it. Everything I put in front of them is for their benefit as characters. To me, "sandboxes" are pointless. That's creating a whole crapton of areas that are completely worthless to the game if the players gain nothing from engaging with it (either because the areas are too low-level to be uninspiring cakewalks or so high-level that they are guaranteed to be TPKs).

If there are areas on a map the PCs have... I guarantee that those areas will level up with the PCs so if/when they decide to go there at some point down the line, the area will still be of use to them. Now I'm not saying these areas and the encounters within will all be balanced equally to each other and the party-- some encounters will be easier for the party as constructed and leveled, others could be very hard-- but they will be "doable" at their level. Because for it to be otherwise is a waste of time and resources. That dragon's lair up in the mountain could very well have any one of the four ages of dragon from the MM in there. And what the dragon inevitably ends up being will be based upon the story reasons for the party engaging with the dragon and thus what makes the most sense based upon the level of the party when they arrive.

To me, D&D is a story about these player characters. And everything I put in front of them will be done expressly for the purpose of building their stories and who they are as people. And if something in the game doesn't do that... then I'm not going to waste my time with it nor put it in front of them.
 
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el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Some recent threads on here have gotten me wondering how I'd describe my DM playstyle/approach, but I find it difficult to encapsulate. This thread is giving me more to think on. Honestly, I think my players would be in a better position to describe my style, esp. those I've played with since 2E days.

I will say while I occasionally fudge (never against the players, tho) I also have a rep as a merciless DM
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
While I don't usually write out what the bad guys will do, I completely agree with the sentiment. That said, the bad guys have to have enough flexibility to be able to react to events as-when they happen in the chaos of war.
I have had some success with writing out a priorities list for the opposition (or at least for part of the opposition) and sticking to that.
 

Larnievc

Explorer
What do you like as a player and as a game master? Meaning do you like prep but due to the challenges of life you live with less of it in some groups.
As a DM I play the scenes out in my head when my mind idles. I do a few passes of what is going to happen until I have it all straight in my head.

Then I cut and paste stat blocks and I wing it from there.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
For me personally, I garner absolutely no enjoyment of world-building for the sake of world-building. To me... spending hours upon hours trying to come up with entire regions of "stuff" that end up never getting used is such a waste of time that I wouldn't DM D&D at all if I was forced to do so.
Thing is, if you make the campaign long enough such that those areas all do have a reasonable chance of getting used, it's not wasted effort.
I'm much more a story-focused DM. I care about the player's experiences engaging with the area they are in and their personal place and stakes within it. Everything I put in front of them is for their benefit as characters. To me, "sandboxes" are pointless. That's creating a whole crapton of areas that are completely worthless to the game if the players gain nothing from engaging with it (either because the areas are too low-level to be uninspiring cakewalks or so high-level that they are guaranteed to be TPKs).
Worthless right now. Not worthless in five years when the party's much higher level or a different group are looking at taking it on.
If there are areas on a map the PCs have... I guarantee that those areas will level up with the PCs so if/when they decide to go there at some point down the line, the area will still be of use to them.
So, setting-level illusionism. Got it.
Now I'm not saying these areas and the encounters within will all be balanced equally to each other and the party-- some encounters will be easier for the party as constructed and leveled, others could be very hard-- but they will be "doable" at their level. Because for it to be otherwise is a waste of time and resources. That dragon's lair up in the mountain could very well have any one of the four ages of dragon from the MM in there. And what the dragon inevitably ends up being will be based upon the story reasons for the party engaging with the dragon and thus what makes the most sense based upon the level of the party when they arrive.

To me, D&D is a story about these player characters. And everything I put in front of them will be done expressly for the purpose of building their stories and who they are as people. And if something in the game doesn't do that... then I'm not going to waste my time with it nor put it in front of them.
To me the players characters are fish in a big sea, no different from lots of other fish. They start out as very small fish and, if things go well, they eventually become bigger fish. The only reason these particular characters are special is that their progress is followed and directed by the players; but the players could jump to playing those at-the-moment-NPC adventurers over there instead and the setting wouldn't miss a beat.

And there are always bigger fish out there, and the sea is a vast place.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Thing is, if you make the campaign long enough such that those areas all do have a reasonable chance of getting used, it's not wasted effort.

Worthless right now. Not worthless in five years when the party's much higher level or a different group are looking at taking it on.

So, setting-level illusionism. Got it.

To me the players characters are fish in a big sea, no different from lots of other fish. They start out as very small fish and, if things go well, they eventually become bigger fish. The only reason these particular characters are special is that their progress is followed and directed by the players; but the players could jump to playing those at-the-moment-NPC adventurers over there instead and the setting wouldn't miss a beat.

And there are always bigger fish out there, and the sea is a vast place.
5 years? Ick. My campaigns only last long enough for the party's stories to come to fruition, and the longest I ever got was 3 years for my 4E campaign. All my 5Es have ended before 2. So I just use pre-made settings that have a lot of the information already written, and I only flesh out those areas as the party moves towards them through their desires and stories. Throwing down the tracks in front of the train makes for much less wasted material on my part. And because I don't use the same setting areas twice between my games... I always vary my campaigns up... stuff the party doesn't engage with won't ever get used (unless I'm able to re-purpose bits for new adventures down the line.)

I am admittedly using D&D in new school ways, rather than old school "kill or be killed" crawling. But it works for us so I've been good with it.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
5 years? Ick. My campaigns only last long enough for the party's stories to come to fruition, and the longest I ever got was 3 years for my 4E campaign. All my 5Es have ended before 2. So I just use pre-made settings that have a lot of the information already written, and I only flesh out those areas as the party moves towards them through their desires and stories.
If your campaigns are that short on average and you don't re-use the settings then sure, it doesn't make sense to put too much effort into world-building. But to me, two years in a campaign is just nicely getting going - maybe a few of the longer-lasting PCs are up to 4th level by then, maybe not. :)
I am admittedly using D&D in new school ways, rather than old school "kill or be killed" crawling. But it works for us so I've been good with it.
Cool. :)
 

turnip_farmer

Adventurer
I'm almost the same as Emirikol, with the exception of #3 on his list. I'm a big-time prepper, so with my group I generally write the adventure for the given session and that's the one we're going to play through that time. (This allows me to not only write the adventure but also figure out all the enemy stats, build the maps, assemble the initiative cards for each monster/NPC, and create any player handouts - all of which means I need to know ahead of time that that's the adventure we'll be going through that session.) So I've never run a "sandbox" in the sense of the players deciding during play where their PCs will be going and what all they'll be doing. Instead, they trust that I'll set up an adventure each session that they'll enjoy. Now, that said, my campaigns aren't complete railroads, as the players give me inputs on what overall course they'd like for their PCs and I try to steer the adventures in those directions, but if I come to the session with, say, a dungeon exploration adventure then they'll be going through that adventure that session, not decide to spend the game time shopping or making future plans or randomly heading east to see what's over in that direction.
I also like to do a lot of prep, but I don't come prepared with a specific adventure I expect the players to do this week.

I try to consider all the reasonable options they could go for, and prep for all of them. This is sometimes very time-consuming up front, but it's not as bad as it sounds in the long run. Maybe they don't go to the Temple of Wangdoodle next week, but if they have caused to head there later in the campaign I've got a bunch of maps and stuff prepared.

Recently, it occurred to me that my players may just decide to trek straight across the mountain range to stop the villain at his source. I hours thinking through how this would work, planning interesting environmental challenges, setting up some fights with encounter maps, preparing handouts for the Shangri-la style hidden city up on the mountain plateau etc etc.

In the end, they didn't go there, and all that prep was wasted. Except it's not. I know that, at some future point, in this campaign or another, someone will need to cross a mountain range. And then it will only take a very short time to reskin all this content to be campaign and level appropriate, and I'll finally get to use my mountain chasm encounter map.
 


Reynard

Legend
I had one of my newer players strategizing with her husband on how to take out the enemy they were facing and she was whispering her plans so I wouldn't hear. When I straight out asked her what her plan was, she said she didn't want to tell me because I was running "the enemy." That's when I pointed out to her that my role, as the DM, was hopefully to lose every battle I entered against the PCs, not by throwing the match but by doing my best to beat them while (hopefully) just not being able to kill them. That's when I made it clear that if I killed the PCs my "bad guy team" might have won but overall we all lost because we'd have to start the campaign over with new PCs. That was kind of an eye-opener for her.

Johnathan
I absolutely love it when the players conspire against my bad guys without my knowledge. It means that I have sufficiently scared them and/or angered them that they want to not only win but to show up the bad guy. I don't need to be part of the planning session and I get to be surprised when the plan comes to fruition.
 

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