Monday, April 23, 2012

Who's in the Spotlight?

Hamster's character, Kristopher, is a prankster who shuns his upper-class heritage. Over time, we came to see him as the main character and a lot of the plot began to revolve around him. This is not something Hamster wanted or intended, but it wasn't until after some time that we realized how bad this was for the roleplay. Hamster felt crushed by the responsibility. She didn't want to make all of the important plot decisions. At the same time, other characters (especially Tiger's) were not getting the "screen-time" that they deserved.

The solution I came up with for this problem was this: for one session, Kristopher would not exist. In-game, he would be sick, but none of the other characters would be allowed to interact with him or even talk about him. This was effective only because by this point all of the players had multiple characters, so Hamster could just play as another one of her characters. If your game comes into a similar situation, but your players each have one character, consider severely injuring the character. Partially incapacitating them by breaking her leg, striking her blind, giving her memory loss, etc. will make her less effective and force the other characters to step into the spotlight.

Don't force any of your characters into a Mary Sue situation ( No character should be more essential than any other. If you can all admit that the character could die and the story would still be good, then you are still okay.

To Plot or not to plot?

Originally, our game started out very freeform. I never gave them set goals, so I never knew what was going to happen next. We were basically just playing through the daily lives of our characters as they went to school and got to know each other. Admittedly, things tended to get a little like a soap opera, but it was fun.

In-game, their first semester ended with a fight against a fellow student who was possessed by Fear Liath (the spirit which haunts the Ben Macdui mountain in the UK). The second semester ended with a fight against the headmaster, who had opened up a secret room under the school. Everyone liked the thought of having each semester end with a big fight. The only problem was that I didn't know what to do next.

Puppy's character, Prince, is the son of a dark wizard, who we all figured would become the main bad guy. So I started letting Pup decide the story arc for the semester. But one day he couldn't show up, and I realized that to keep my players satisfied, I needed to come up with a larger story arc. This sort of got out of hand (see picture).

The story has become complex. The characters have traveled all over the world to stop a very old demon from returning to Earth. They have watched friends die and have been maimed themselves (not to mention the psychological damage). There are themes of insanity, friendship, identity, and individual desires versus duty. At the same time, though, we've lost a little of the fun that came from simplicity. Right now, it's mostly my story and not an act of communal story telling like it used to be. And because we only have so much time before I leave (I'm at least year ahead in school of all of my players), I feel like I end up railroading things a lot so that we can finish the story. (

My advice? Keep it simple. This system is made to foster creativity. The Window calls my role the "Storyteller," but maybe it's better to think of yourself as one of the players. The story is something you should all be telling.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Leveling Up

There is no set system for leveling up characters in the Window, but there are basically two ways that you can do it. You can simply discuss the topic with your players. Ask them if they think it would be appropriate for their characters to level up in this or that skill at certain points in the plot and make sure that they feel free to bring up the subject with you as well. For games where the characters are not likely to do a lot of leveling up, this is perfectly fine. However, all of the player characters in our game are children who would be growing and maturing as we played. So for me, it was necessary to set up a system of experience points. I made this chart, where XP stands for experience points:

XP from Last Level
Total XP necessary

In case the chart doesn't make sense, I'll explain. Let's say that Kristopher has a d30 in Research Capacity (the ability to find information in books). To level up this skill to a d20, he will need 5 experience points. This chart can also work backwards for skills where you are more likely to lose experience points, like Sanity (a trait we did not use in our game). For instance, Megara has a d10 in Sanity, so she effectively has 21 experience points in that ability. If she loses 9 experience points in Sanity, that ability will drop to a d12. You can tweek this chart as necessary to make it harder or easier to move up and down the levels.


Traits are abilities that are inherent to every player character in the game and most non-player characters. Here are some notes of what I've found useful.

  • Strength and agility are going to be used in almost any world system that you make up. Depending on how much physical combat you are expecting, you may want to be more specific with these ("agility" for the speed of your body, "dexterity" for the speed of your hands, etc.), but I tend to like to keep things simple.
  • Some measurement of pain tolerance (which I call "endurance") is useful. If I went back in time, I would probably also add a measurement of tolerance to emotional and mental pain (since a lot of my monsters end up preying on the psyches of the characters). As it is, I've ended up using "intelligence" for this instead, which my players have never complained about.
  • You could place "social skills" as one broad category. However, I knew that our game would be based around a lot of talking and teen drama (it is in a school, after all). Instead I have the traits "charisma," the ability to convince other people of what you are saying, and "perception," the ability to see through deception and tell how other people are feeling.
  • Pretty early on, I discovered that I needed a trait which would alert characters to what was going on in their surroundings, which I called "awareness." We had actually played through about two or three sessions before I realized how necessary this sort of thing was and after discussing the problem with my players, we decided to add this ability to everyone's character sheet.
  • The Window says "that everyone has almost every 'skill' imaginable at [the d30] level of competency," which means that many abilities can be attempted without prior experience ( However, I have found it useful to make some abilities off limits to certain characters so that they cannot even attempt a role. For instance, characters who are not wizards have a 0% chance of performing a spell, so they are not allowed to roll even a d30 if they attempt to perform magic. 

The Character Cake Part 2

After you've mixed up all of your ingredients, it's time to put your character in the oven and let them bake. Use the questions you asked to make a character sheet. In the Window, character abilities are divided into traits, which everyone has, and skills, which are individualized. (I'll talk about how to make a good list of traits in my nest post.) For every one of my players, there were certain skills that they gave to their characters which they wouldn't have had if we had not talked about their backstory. For instance, Panda came up with a card game that his character, Albert, was an expert in. This is why it's so important to make a good list of questions to ask your players.

This is a sample character sheet for one of my NPCs, Daniel Ruthvan. (I'll give you three guesses where my screen name comes from. ^u^ ) Dan was originally created as a side-quest. He acts rather strangely because he is a half-vampire and doesn't understand a lot about how humans think. The players were supposed to eventually figure this out. However, my players took a great interest in him from the moment he was introduced and they decided that he, of course, must be evil. He became a central character and now joins the player characters in their journey.

Full Name: Daniel Smith-Ruthven
Age: 13
Gender: male
Race, Blood Status: white; half-vampire
Ethnicity, Nationality: American

This Character Has … (Traits)
Terrible Strength (D20)
Good Agility (D10)
Terrible Endurance (D30)
Poor Knowledge (Muggle) (D20)
Great Knowledge (Wizarding) (D8)
Excellent Intelligence (D8)
Good Research Capacity (D10)
Poor General Magical Aptitude (D12)
Poor Charisma (D12)
Good Perception (D10)
Great Awareness (D8)

This Character Is … (Skills)
Obsessed with numbers and categories (D6)
Excellent at restraining himself from blood (D6)
Consumed by a thirst for humanity (D8)
Skilled at reading other people’s emotions (D8)
Good at controlling other people’s emotions (D10)
Fairly allergic to plant matter (D10)
Really good at chess (D10)
A decent Cellist (D12)
Great at baking (D10)

This Character Can … (Skills)
hypnotize people easily (D6)
automatically heal his own minor wounds (D6)
reattach his own severed limbs (D8)

This Character Carries …

As a final note on character sheets, and this is VERY IMPORTANT:
Keep saved and updated copies of all player character sheets! Whenever a character levels up an ability (if you choose to allow leveling-up), change it on your copy of the character sheet as well as the player's copy. If your players are like my players, THEY WILL LOSE THEIR CHARACTER SHEETS OR FORGET TO BRING THEM. Even if this never happens, it's still nice to have copies for yourself to facilitate planning.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Character Cake: One stick of backstory, Two cups of description

After I gave my players the general setting for our roleplay (an American wizarding school set in the Harry Potter universe), I gave them a few weeks to think about what their characters would be like. I then sat down with each player and asked them a long series of questions so that their characters would be totally fleshed out. 

Remember, character creation is like baking a cake -- you've got to have the right mix of ingredients. You need to know more than just what the character looks like. You need to know her past and her personality as well (though of course, these things will likely be added to as you play). This is a list of most of the questions I asked my players about their characters. You can use it as a jumping off point to make your own recipe.

Flour (Appearance):

  • Age:
  • Gender:
  • Race:
  • Ethnicity, Nationality:
  • Figure/Build:
  • Hairstyle and color:
  • Eye color:
  • Strange or unique physical attributes:
  • Preferred style of clothing:
  • Defining gestures/movements:
  • What this person likes and dislikes about appearance:

Sugar and Vanilla (Character History):
  • Does she have notable ancestors?
  • What were her parents like? What was their relationship with each other like? Did the character know both of her parents?
  • What were/are their jobs? Did/do they enjoy their jobs?
  • What important lessons did her parents teach her?
  • Did/does the character like one parent more than the other?
  • Any brothers or sisters? If so, what were they like?
  • Any other family members that were important to her?
  • Where did she grow up? Was it a large city? A town? A farm? An experimental commune?
  • What was she like as a baby?
  • Who were her rolemodels?
  • What skills did she learn as a child?
  • How did she treat other children? How did they treat her?
  • What were her favorite subjects in school? What did the teachers think of her?
  • Who were her best friends growing up? How did they become friends? Are they still friends?
  • What is her fondest memory?
  • What is the worst thing that ever happened to this character?
  • How do other people see this character?

Chocolate (Personality):
  • Hobbies and Interests?
  • What does this person really care about? What are her passions? What drives her? Does she even have something to be passionate about?
  • What are her religious beliefs? What are her personal philosophies?
  • What embarrasses her?
  • What maker her angry?
  • What is she afraid of?
  • What are her insecurities?
  • What qualities make this person likable? Why would someone want to be friends with this person? What are her strengths?
  • What qualities make this person dislikable? Why would someone not want to be friends with her? What are her weaknesses?
  • What are her quirks?
  • Does she keep any secrets? From whom? What are they?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Pros and Cons of The Window

I have never used a system or watched someone else use a system that is better than the Window. It is simple, flexible, and, most importantly, completely free. The rules to the Window can be found at There is talk amongst roleplayers that the Window should not be used by beginners, but such a beautiful system should be what roleplayers interested in storytelling use first.

Strengths of the Window:

  • It is an incredibly simple system. Each ability that a character possesses has a corresponding die. When you need to use that ability, you simply roll the die and see if you get a 6 or lower. That’s it.
  • You do not have to limit your characters to archetypes. There are no pre-determined character classes. As long as the Storyteller (Game Master, i.e. the person running the game) agrees, an Actor (Player) can make a character with whatever combination of abilities that she wants and she can be just as good or as bad at those abilities as she desires. It is difficult, though not impossible, to play a suave and cunning orc rogue in Dungeons and Dragons. It is incredibly easy in the Window. 
  • The Window does not pit the Game Master against the Players. Everyone is working towards the same goal — making a good story.
  • It is totally free. All of the rules for and theory behind the Window are online. There are no books to buy.
  • All you need are dice and an imagination. Also some paper. Paper helps.

Difficulties of the Window:

  • You have to make everything yourself. Before our first session, both the players and I had to go through a lot of preparation. 
  • The Window is not as good for people interested solely in “winning.” If all you want is time to zone out and fight some monsters with your friends, then a d20 system might be better.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Play Styles: Winning and Storytelling

In my experience, there are two paradigms of play, two reasons for playing. Both of them will always be true to some extent, but one is usually more important to an individual than the other.

These players want their characters to come up against and beat increasingly difficult challenges. Mostly, this means fighting monsters, but it can include solving puzzles, persuading NPCs, and whatever else you as a GM can think up. For people with a focus on winning, the plot is mostly a way to get them to the next challenge. Their characters are often (though by no means always) fairly static — their personalities don’t change that much over time.  During character creation, their focus is on how to make the most powerful character they can.

These players are interested in collectively telling a good story along with the other players and the GM. Plot and character development are much more important for them. The characters they make will often come with built-in flaws, which the player will want to exploit at the character’s expense. Players interested in storytelling will kind of want their characters to fail from time to time, since this is more compelling narratively. During character creation, their focus is on how to make the most interesting character they can. 

Love your dice
Both of these play styles are totally legit, and it's more of a continuum than an either/or situation. But in my experience, each player is going to lean more towards one style or the other, and each campaign is also going to lean one way or the other. Ideally, the GM and all of the players will be more interested in either winning or storytelling. During the beginnings of my current campaign, I had a player, Panda, who who never seemed that into what we were doing. He was always reluctant to jump into scenes, though he continued to come every week and listen intently. I did several things to try to bring him more into the roleplay. I often asked him what his character would do; I gave him a special ability; I even let him make another character. Yet he remained on the sidelines. It was not until later, after he had left the roleplay that I realized what the problem was. The rest of us were interested in storytelling. He preferred the winning style.

It is almost inevitable, however, that play styles are going to clash. Even if every one of your players is interested in only one of these two broad categories (and it's almost certain that they won't be), people will have different play styles in some other sense. One of my players, Hamster, loves the more adventurous elements of our roleplay. When we haven't done anything exciting for a while, she'll say, "Come on, let's get to the plot." But Puppy, another player, loves character interactions. I think he would be okay if the whole roleplay was a high school soap opera. So, as a GM I have to find a good mix between those things.

Basically, to sum it all up: make sure that every time you play, there's something for every player to enjoy.