controlling the mail, or Tommy Tutone’s Rule of Game Mastery

In two consecutive weeks, in two separate campaigns, players were frustrated with the flow of information—NPCs who, in response to PC queries, didn’t give enough or the right kind of information or give it quickly enough. In the first, I was the GM. In the second, I was the player.

So I wonder: What can I as a GM learn? What can I as a player learn?

GM lessons

In the first session in question, I was GM. It was the second session of gameplay in a new campaign. The heroes, still relative strangers to each other, were lost and exposed. A job that was supposed to be ceremonial and not difficult went sideways. A wizard much more powerful than them put them to sleep, stole the item they were chosen to retrieve, and teleported the whole party to an unknown place. There, while they were still asleep, all the heroes’ weapons, armor, gold, and other supplies were stolen. Then, after waking and fighting off a small harpy, they made their way to a lone hut in the distance. Rice-farming lizardpeople lived there.

“I hate these lizardpeople!” one player muttered with a laugh, after a few minutes of roleplaying. This was the first sign the players were frustrated, and it surprised me.

It told me they weren’t picking up what I was laying down. In response to specific PC questions, NPCs hesitated and gave each other tense and meaningful looks.

In hindsight, I could’ve added other details. What I was going for was: this is a night of fear:

They were on edge because tonight was the night the harpies would come to take the villager’s monthly offering of food.

It was also a night of bitter argument:

This family—as indeed the whole village—was being torn apart by this question: do we leave this place for a new home because it’s too dangerous here, or do we stay and fight?

I wanted to avoid saying, “You get the feeling you walked in on an argument” or “They seem on edge or tense.” I hoped to describe it so they came to the conclusion themselves.

I think I needed more and various kinds of details to paint a picture of an interrupted argument. The italics are ones I in hindsight wish I’d added:

  • hesitation in answering

  • sharp-eyed glances

  • bitter remarks from one NPC to another

  • put downs, spoken as if the other wasn’t there

  • brooding silence

  • folded arms

  • derisive huffs and snorts

Or of fear:

  • “Go home! You know what night it is!”

  • Panicked: “You took the incense stick! Go put it back between the grain baskets!”

  • “You killed a harpy?! You’ve doomed us all!”

  • nervous fidgeting and glancing out the window

  • huddled in a corner

  • muffled crying

  • too insistent that “everything’s fine!”

You get the idea.

Possibly, I set too great a challenge for myself. Just one of those—argument or fear—might’ve been enough, but both at once? Definitely I overestimated how clear a picture I was painting. Perhaps I underestimated how anxious the players would be to re-equip and figure out where they were—they just weren’t in a chatty, attend to the emotional state of NPCs mood. There was also the crosswind of the anti-hero PC speculating about killing these NPCs and asserting he didn’t care about them.

There was a lot going on. And I didn’t provide the context my players needed to understand the NPC’s actions. Live and learn.

Player lessons

The very next week, the shoe was on the other foot. I was a player wanting more/faster information out of an NPC.

Obnoxiously, I said in character, “Well, you’re not a very good spy, are you?” (In my defense, it was true to my character, who is an impeached former mayor. Impeached for a reason, including imperiousness.)

But in short, I as a player failed to practice the very thing I as a GM hoped the players would’ve done a week earlier:

stop and wonder, “What’s going on with this NPC? Am I putting them out? What would happen if I got curious about them instead of simply pumped them for the information I need?”

Emotional intelligence. Empathy. Humanity.

Yeah, when I was a player, my character was just a big “give me what I want!” jerk too. In fact, I might’ve been a bit of a jerk toward the GM.

Here was the scene:

Colville: information

it's my party, I'll anti-hero if I want to

[In which, while this week I play in my buddy’s 13th Age campaign, I reflect on GMing with anti-heroic Revan in a party of heroes.]

backchannels

Maybe you read about the last session of my “Cursed Myth” campaign: the roleplaying got intense.

Revan considered killing NPCs who gave the lost, unarmed, and unarmored party food, shelter, and key clues about where they were. One threw Revan out of their house. While Revan was outside, he killed their dog with necromancy.

Revan’s player and I have an open line of communication, since before dice hit the table. He ran his idea past me. Then, at my invitation, he discussed his plan with the group at Creation Night. His bottom line: I want everyone to have fun. As we play, let me know if how I’m playing Revan becomes a problem. After the last session, he reaffirmed this. He also asked me for feedback.

creating Revan

Before the campaign started, Revan’s player asked how I felt about him playing an evil character. I wasn’t against it. I mostly asked questions to clarify how he saw his character.

I also shared this: Matt Colville's "On Being an Evil Character."

He found it helpful. Revan, he said, would be an anti-hero. As Colville described it:

An anti-hero, by contrast, is someone who literally does not want to be a hero. They do not embody the traditional virtues of heroism. They reject them and often openly ridicule them.: But they can be trusted to the right thing because it furthers some necessary goal. You can’t rely on them to be on your side in the grand scheme of things, but for this one mission, you will know they will help, because they have to.

Like Max in Mad Max.

So last session,, Revan was an anti-hero. His player did what he said he would do. In the moment, I was not thinking about this. But afterward, I saw it. Revan killed their dog and helped protect the lizardpeople from the harpies and ogre. The latter, not because Revan wanted to save them, but because he wanted to save himself and his mission.

In the bigger picture of this campaign, I share some of the burden of making Revan fit in this campaign. For one, I didn’t say no but encouraged him. I’d be an ass of a GM to leave him hanging. But also, as GM, that’s the job. Make room for the characters. Make it fun for the players. It’s what I’ll do for each character. It’s just more obvious with Revan.

For the duration of the campaign, I must pull all the strings of the world to make sure Revan’s goals align with the rest of the party’s goals. I have to arrange the pieces so Revan will do the right thing and help them because he has to.

Revan the Bonehook

Cave Elf Necromancer

OUT

I lived after a beheading at the hands of the Emperox’s Halos. I have no head, only a haze-filled cowl with a pair of glowing gray eyes.

Icons

+2 Wraith Lord
-1 Divine Emperox Xìnyǎng

Backgrounds

Former emissary for Necropolis, during the War of Night’s End against the King and Emperox.

I ran the corpse smuggling ring known simply as the Defilement to fuel the Lich King’s army.

Raised by my grandmother who was head of the Drakkenhall interrogation station of the Ministry of Order, Queen Moro-Līanae's spy organization.

the Cursed Skull (Revan’s Faction)

Agenda

Revive necromancy, bring an end to the ‘Unholy Dawn’ [bring down the Emperox] and initiate the cleansing of Necropolis, and create communities where necromancers can safely live and practice their faith

Icon Relationships

Positive Wraith Lord
Negative Divine Emperox Xìnyǎng
Negative King Battlehammer

creating a campaign that includes Revan

When Revan’s player first asked what I thought about evil characters, I knew almost nothing about the rest of the party. But I did know I’d leave it up to the players which icons were heroes, villains, or ambigiously both.

This is a must for 13th Age, and it’s the first—but not only—step toward a campaign where the characters fit together.


The Rest

+2 Divine Emperox Xìnyǎng

-1 Wraith Lord

Revan

-1 Divine Emperox Xìnyǎng

+2 Wraith Lord


I’m glad Revan and his player are part of the campaign. Revan’s OUT and backgrounds add a great deal to the world—things I never would have considered. But for a minute, consider a campaign without him:

  • The main heroic icon would’ve been the Divine Emperox.

  • The Wraith Lord would’ve been a secondary villainous icon.

But as it is, I gotta let Revan shift the icon dynamics of the campaign. What I expected or what his or any other players expected must give way to this truth:

The Divine Emperox and the Wraith Lord are equally ambiguous—about two-thirds heroic and one-third villainous.

Isn’t that a more interesting campaign, anyway?

So…


spoilers follow


I get to have some fun more than one player.

  • The Revan I’ve seen so far doesn’t seem to know about the Wraith Lord’s strong heroic streak.

  • The Oramir and Aso I’ve seen so far doesn’t seem to know about the Divine Emperox’s significant villainous streak.

Add to this, three of five players have negative relationships with Daevos the Cursed Merchant. There’s the main villainous icon. Now I gotta give Revan and Aso reasons to hate a servant of the Cursed Merchant!

Which, I have to say, creating factions alongside characters was a big help. Revan’s character, for example, fully identifies with the Cursed Skull’s agenda. So when Daevos messes with that….well, he better find a bodyguard for his dog.

Now a lot of this is still fairly abstract. What about specific NPCs and encounters? Obviously, there’s more to work out. Or improvise. But getting clear on the bones of the campaign makes the rest easier.

For me, Revan’s player, and the whole group.