Thursday, March 30, 2017

Gamemaster's Guidepost - Framing Your Preferences, Part I

One of the many things I learned running my Aeon supers campaign was how to improve my skills when it came to framing a campaign toward the player's expectations. I say the players and not the characters because when it gets down to it each player has things they truly enjoy doing within the structure of a roleplaying game. +Daniel Dover came up with an interesting concept for the Aeon D-Team that I sort of used and decided to refine for my next campaign. I'd asked Daniel if he minded if I did just that and he obliged.

So here it is. Before the first game (or within the first three) ask your players to take a quick survey that will let you assess what they are looking for overall. Each question has an answer of 0 (I don't want this at all) to 5 (I want this every game session) and a theme describing the particular plot elements the players would want in their game. By taking this simplistic, if somewhat arbitrary approach the players can tell the GM exactly what they want from the game and then the GM can act on it.

Framing Scale
The scale used to answer these questions is as follows:

0 - I don't want any of this element in the campaign or I want it sporadically (at most every 6 or more game sessions).
1 - I want this element in the campaign very rarely (at most every 5 game sessions).
2 - I want this element in the campaign rarely (at most every 4 game sessions).
3 - I want this element in the campaign uncommonly (at most every 3 game sessions).
4 - I want this element to appear in the campaign regularly (at most every 2 game sessions).
5 - I want this element in the campaign often (every game session).

Next, determine we determine the elements themselves and any sub elements. For example, you might have Combat of two types: tactical (using the tactical combat), mass (huge armed battles between armies) and abstract (using "theater of the mind").

Framing Elements
A few elements common to all campaigns;

Combat: Pertains to how often the players participate in battles or armed conflicts to achieve their goals. Subtypes: Abstract ("theater of the mind"), Mass (huge battles between a large number of forces), and Tactical (using the tactical combat rules).

Intrigue: Pertains to how often the players participate in conspiracies or collusion with others to achieve their goals. Subtypes: Factional (as it pertains to races or groups within the campaign), Personal (as it pertains to things from the character's past), and Political (as it pertains to governing bodies)

Interpersonal Relationships: Pertains to how often the players participate in events related to patrons, lovers, family, friends, allies, etc. to achieve their goals. Subtypes: Familial (as it pertains to the character's family), Friendship (as it pertains to the character's friends), and Loyalty (as it pertains to a character's duty), Romance (as it pertains to the character's love life).

Investigation: Pertains to how often the players participate in exploring the world around them to achieve their goals. Subtypes: Detective Work (figuring things out by animate information sources) and Research (figuring things out by inanimate information sources).

Morality: Pertains to how often the players participate in events or situations that test their moral or ethical fortitude to achieve their goals. Subtypes: Black/White (things are clear, cut, and dry) and Shades of Grey (things are more complicated and actions have consequences).

Subterfuge: Pertains to how often the players participate in events or situations that require them to be take indirect approaches to achieve their goals. Subtypes: Cloak and Dagger (character vs. character interaction), Sneaking (doing things without getting caught or seen), Skullduggery (intimidating others or hurting them), and Wetwork (getting bloody and murder).

Putting it All Together
Once you have the level of participation all players want add the total score together and then average them. For example if you had four players and each of them put 2, 4, 3, and 5 for Combat then as a rough guideline every 3.5 sessions you should have a combat.

I've created a Google Form you can modify for your use. Get it here.

Picking Over the Bones
The GM should absolutely add other elements for a given campaign to the list and clearly define what he means. For example, in a wainscot campaign with a "hidden world" the GM could list "Supernatural" as an element and go on to describe what sort of subtypes that may contain.

The next installment will feature a similiar framework, but will focus instead on how the campaign world itself works. Ergo, this post was about the microcosm of the player characters, the next will talk about the macrocosm and how the player characters fit within it.


  1. This is good stuff. I'm hoping to run a superhero game for the group at some point, and I wanted badly for it to go well, so I made up a list of "Pregame asks", although they were more focussed on secondary character concepts (How far from the middle of town do you live? Is it a house?) etc. I'm going to try this out and see what I get.

    1. Sounds good! Let me know how it goes. And if you need help setting up the game, let me know. I have a LOT of experience with supers. (Over 500 hours GMing it).

  2. When I read this, I thought "This reminds me of a talk I think we had," but then thought I might have remembered it wrong, and then you tagged me, so it seems that I didn't.

    I had a similar experience with Cherry Blossom Rain, where about half-way through the campaign I realized the experience would have been much better for having loads of worked out templates worked out martial arts, rather than the ad-hoc approach I had taken. Doing it in the midst of the game would have been the wrong approach, so I just took those lessons and applied it to my next game (Arguably, Psi-Wars derives from those lessons, though it's far more detailed than it needs to be because it's serving more games than just mine)

    I think you drew the right lessons from your experience with Aeon. I don't believe in masterpieces, but that every campaign is both the final evolution of all your experience, and the prelude to your next campaign.

    1. I think that by running Aeon I became a better GM. Juggling plots from different games sharpened my skills in a way I'd not had happen before. We'll see. Thanks again for the seed of this idea nad participation in my campaign. :-)

  3. Do you consider roleplaying and planning to be separate framing elements?

    e.g. I just want to turn up and roll dice (like a board game) versus I don't break character until the DVD commentary!


    I want a fast moving game where the GM doesn't punish the players for just moving forward. Versus I want to spend time planning each move (perhaps an hour of game and real time).

    Also I suppose there's a case for PVP as a framing element too.

    Also the elements you give a very procedural I wonder about something out of drama system and the relationships between PCs being something to include.

    1. I don't typically run beer and pretzel games because my players don't really enjoy them and they don't appeal to me either. I like DF, but after about 10 games I want something else. I've several very "thespian" gamers now in my online groups and its too early to tell how that is going to shape my preferences or future games.

      THe elements I give are very generic and more or less applicable to all games. You'd really need to customize it a bit for other games. I know I had to for the new campaign I plan on running in early May, late April.

  4. I don't think it's beer and pretzels versus 'thespian'.

    Procedural versus roleplaying/drama would be one way of describing it.

    (Not that procedurals don't involve roleplaying)

    I think working out if the players would be happy sitting around and NOT rolling dice for a session to act/roleplay versus wanting skill resolution is an element.

    1. that's actually a fair point! Roll vs. Role playing.

  5. I suspect humour is an element here.

    E.g. I want to laugh, make jokes, have a GM who makes jokes and so on. If I'm not laughing then the game isn't fun versus idk something more austere than any game I've ever been in.

    I'm pretty sure humour might just be an essential of RPGs maybe it goes to that there just is some inherent​ silliness in the concept or the connections between humour and fear.

    I can't remember a game that just wasn't better with (appropriate) jokes

    1. I gotta say, I couldn't agree more. Even in the most serious of games I expect SOME humor. At this point, I might do another post on what sort of additional elements might be appropriate.