My default mode is critical pessimism; I’m working on that. In reviewing my blog posts, I am critical of game sessions.
So I decided to flip it and reflect on what makes a good role-playing game session (for me)?
A good RPG session requires a good group of players.
Good players are:
This is the foundation. With a good group of players, most game sessions are good game sessions, even Fate.
It is one of the reasons I enjoy Games on Demand at GenCon and Origins; the GMs are invested, excited, and ready to facilitate their games.
In the case of a one-shot session, this is adequate. But for extended play, I need more. I need meaningful situations.
At its very basic, do the character’s actions impact the fictional state of the world? Flipping this around, does the fictional changes of the world impact the characters?
Is the GM presenting situations that challenge the other players? And are the players attempting to advance their character’s agenda through overcoming challenges presented by the GM?
A key ingredient for meaningful situations is that risky ventures may pay huge dividends or bring about disastrous failure. Which asks what is at risk? What is there to gained?
- Fictional advancement
- Laughter and enjoyment
- Mechanical advancement
- System mastery
Fictional advancement, laughter, and enjoyment are not dependent on the rules. Though random tables and results can add a lot to the enjoyment as they give unexpected responses.
The other two bullet points - mechanical advancement and system mastery – are game system rewards.
Game System Rewards
In older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, characters gain most of their XP (and mechanical advancement - through gaining treasure. Conflict was dangerous and yielded little XP compared to treasure.
Domain rules become a natural extension of ever-growing wealth.
In more recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons, the characters gain most of their XP through combat.
Even though the most efficient method to gain XP is via treasure, the older editions have procedures that push the characters towards conflict. In this tension I see an elegant reward system.
Players that master this concept see combat avoidance as the best path. Anything that can end a combat is superior than engaging in a war of attrition:
- Swingy spells (save or die)
- Negotiation and forming alliances
- Hirelings and Henchman to absorb failed efforts
- Stealth and subterfuge
Yet through this all, the system increases character combat efficacy. And challenges the player’s humility regarding their characters; Why not fight, we’re strong enough?
One quick method is to apply Jared Sorenson’s 3 Questions to the rules:
- What is your game about?
- How does it go about that?
- What behaviors does it reward and/or encourage?
In the case of older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, the answers revolve around exploration. In newer editions, it seems to revolve around combat.
I’m particular about my games; I want to enjoy my game sessions. They are a major time commitment. Both the group and system should cleave close to my ideal. A game of pure combat loses its luster.
My ideal answers to Jared Sorenson’s questions are:
What is your game about?
Exploration of a rich world, where characters can pursue personal agendas as well as play to find out.
How does it go about that?
Shared development of a rich world that challenges the characters.
What behaviors does it reward and/or encourage?
That which makes a good player: