Behind the Screen – Chapter 17: Keeping the game FUN

Some people, in the pursuit of realism, logic or other things, sometimes forget a tabletop RPG is just that, a game. And what is a game? In this sense, an activity that one engages in for amusement. Sometimes that amusement is lost behind a plethora of unimportant details or bogged down in pointless arguments.

In this, Chapter 17 of Behind the Screen, I will explore several techniques or activities that Players and GMs can employ to help keep their games fun, and keep everyone wanting to play.

This is the sort of thing one might need suspension of disbelief for.

Point the First (And, I believe, the most important)
There have been plenty of times where friends have read a book or watched a movie and then complained about certain elements of it, claiming unrealistic situations. I’ve done it too, but not nearly as much as others. This is because I can more easily do one important thing, suspend my disbelief.

To those who are unaware, the ‘Willing Suspension of Disbelief’ is the ability to sacrifice the ideas of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment. Sometimes, for the sake of the game and the others involved, one must concede to ‘Because Magic’ and leave it at that. No one likes having half-hour arguments about a monster’s motivations, or where that farmer managed to acquire 200 gold.
One can argue that the suspension of disbelief can lead a person to believe anything that happens within the fictional world as true, which can cause a problem when the fictional world, to wit: the RPG itself, has established rules in place. To solve this problem, we can look to J.R.R. Tolkien. In his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, he brings up the idea of a secondary belief. If the fictional world is internally consistent, then secondary belief in that world is possible. Suspension of disbelief is not needed unless elements of that world fall short. However, since this isn’t a static narrative we are dealing with, but an ever-changing story affected by multiple people, a certain degree of suspension of disbelief is needed because no matter how good an RPG system is, it can never account for every situation that arises.

Point the Second
Unless one is playing a throw-away session or the campaign is designed for it, the death of a character can be a devastating blow, both for the party and the Player themselves. Some people put a great deal of effort into creating characters, and that character being instantly killed off by some invisible monster could anger that player immensely. Killing PCs has it’s place within the game, but not killing them has to have a place too.

As a GM, one should avoid PC deaths if it will adversely affect the narrative. This goes not only for actively killing them, but also for letting them die, either through their own stupidity or through combat. Sometimes that creature doesn’t hit, or doesn’t hit quite so hard, or that trap is suddenly not there. As a GM, sometimes you have to monitor the PCs more than they do, just to keep them alive and keep the narrative flowing.

Point the Third
If you are a GM that doesn’t go in for fudging dice rolls or any of that sort of thing, then another option is to set ‘Checkpoints’, much like those in video games. Decide where they should occur throughout the adventure and once the party reaches that point, if anything overtly drastic happens to the party, they can restore back to that point. It is a pretty simple premise, but can help greatly in keeping a group happy.

In that same vein, allowing what one might call ‘Backsies’ can also be beneficial. In the heat of the moment, Players can say some things that sound awesome or funny at the time, but turn out to have dire consequences they didn’t foresee. As a GM, I tend to take what my Players say literally, unless they specifically say otherwise, but I also allow them to take back those things said, or give them a warning that it might not be the wisest course of action. Of course, there has to be a time limit to this, as a Player wanting to take back a spell cast several rounds ago is not possible. My limit, usually, is once the Player has stated they have finished their turn or action.

Point the Fourth
Meta-gaming is a word synonymous with Munchkin-ism. For those that don’t know the term, a Munchkin is a Player who must win, must have the best stats, the best gear and always come out on top, generally to the detriment of the other Players. Meta-gaming is using one’s own knowledge of the game within the game, even if the character would not know that information. For example; a Player knows that a certain creature is susceptible to silver and equips their Character with a silvered sword, even though the Character knows nothing of the creature and would have no reason to equip a silvered weapon.

This can also come in the form of the Players knowing how an adventure will unfold and preparing the Characters in advance for the upcoming encounters in ways the Characters shouldn’t have knowledge of.

A lot of people view meta-gaming as a bad thing, but it doesn’t always have to be. I will give an example of a group I am in now. We are playing though the Rise of the Runelords adventure by Paizo for Pathfinder. This, I believe, is attempt number four. The previous attempts failed due to a number of reasons, but one was underestimating the difficulty of the adventure as a whole. This time, knowing some of what is to come, we have built our team to be more effective. This is not in the form of min-maxing the characters, but just assuring that our party composition is correct. Instead of everyone just choosing their preferred race and class, we talked with each other to fill certain roles and built the Characters to complement each other and to have little overlap in skills and abilities so we could maximise the greater utility of every Character.

Point the Fifth
This, my last point, is about letting the Players have a degree of freedom with a game and letting them lead the narrative. I have been over this point before in one of my earlier BtS articles (I forget which one, so I suggest you read them all), but I will reiterate here in some small degree.

What I mean by letting the Players lead the narrative is to let them decide where they want to go and what they want to do. I do this by setting a framework and an ultimate goal, providing a world for them to explore and then letting them do what they want. This is not possible in all circumstances, of course, as pre-made adventures usually don’t provide much scope for anything outside of their limited narrative (as to not have whole books of information for every little adventure). Often, Players will wander from the scripted narrative and do all sorts of crazy and unexpected things, so I don’t force a narrative on them, I just insert key events and encounters into the story they are telling themselves.


This is an example of the spells I find fun.

Beyond any of those points I listed above, the main thing to remember is that it is just a game and should never be taken too seriously. Sure, we all want that immersive experience when we game, but spending hours arguing over minor details or having a game destroyed by a party wipe after an extended period of time is so much worse. Sometimes little sacrifices must be made to protect the greater good.

For all my previous Behind the Screen articles, here is a convenient list.

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