Forming the Experience?

You may come to this post thinking that I am going to discuss my methods of handing out experience to the players in my game.  Of course I would not blame you for that as it can be a tricky proposition at times and I do mean to write a post about it in the near future.  However, by now you have realised that I intend on talking about a different type of experience.  I want to talk about how to provide your game experience that the players will be talking about for years to come.

I had a player a couple of days ago ask me if I remembered an encounter that I ran in a James Bond RPG session when I was 15 (26 years ago now).  He talked about his character, the plot and his actions as if it were yesterday.  My memory was cloudy of the whole thing apart from the mastermind I created for the game but I nodded and made positive noises in the right place.  It was this, and the fact that I have been researching how to craft games (I am a teacher who teaches computer game design) that made me decide to write a post on this.  It is actually very hard to come up with these moments for players and many things have to be going in your favour but they do happen.

The captain’s cabin.  Who will inhabit it?

The first things that you must realise is that gaming (all types, computers, table-top, role-playing, hop-scotch) is about the experience.  We, as human beings, crave new experiences or experiences that we have tried and enjoyed.  When a game designer designs his game she first thinks about what kind of experience she wants to give to those players who will play the game.  Be this from a professional game developer at Paizo who is looking to design the next six books in an adventure path, to the game designers of Angry Birds developing their new cash collector or even if it is me, considering the next game that I am having in my home grown campaign.  The first thing I (and all those listed) should ask is what experience do I want to give the players.

Considering this we will slip back into my example of the player who was talking about our James Bond game from almost a quarter of a century ago.  His character had been trailing a courier (not from Fed-Ex, more the surreptitious spy kind) and was spotted by the said courier.  A chase ensued where the player was in a high powered jet boat and the courier was on a motorbike moving through the dock areas of Shanghai.  The chase was brutal and called for some tight manoeuvring (if you ever want to play a great chase out it is very worthwhile using the James Bond RPG rules as they have a fantastic abstract chase set of rules) and although the player just wanted to tail them and make the courier think he had gotten away it was very touch and go with shots fired and the boat almost capsizing at one point.  The climax of the chase occurred as the player attempted to land the boat on top of a boat shed while the courier was negotiating a tight corner.  The chances were slim, in fact they were 6% likely I am reliably told and the dice hit the table…. 0 and then a 6!  The boat plopped neatly on top of the boat shed in a perfectly timed jump and the courier looking over his shoulder gave a wry smile knowing he had shaken the tail.  The player then followed the bike on foot using the jetties and punts to find where the drop was to be made and make the connection of who was receiving it.  The dreaded henchman Otto ‘Croc’ Von Danton!

I was chatting online to the player and they were spilling all this out as if it were yesterday.  Having done some research into the idea of experiential game making I spent my time analysing what I had done right that lead this player to recount this particular game to me so many years later.  Of course at the time I was a 15 year old games master with only a few years experience under my belt.  I still sniggered when the hot foil would enter and attempt to distract the agents with her cleavage, so it is unlikely that I sat down and wondered what experience would I be dealing today.  In fact, the game was played in a tent in the front yard of my mates place on a four day role playing splurge, so largely the game would have been spun right off the top of my then young imagination.  But to me now it was clear that I had done some things very right.

The chase seemed to be one of the highlights.  There was a fight on the Orient Express that culminated the game as he tried to take out the evil mastermind but it was a similar thing to what I have detailed above.  There are many experiences in a James Bond setting and game but the one that was paramount for my player was the feeling of control he had when at the wheel of the boat and attempting to ensure the courier took the paths that suited him the best.  He loved the build up of the chase and loved that he had been spotted so that he could make this a chase.  He had actually done a very good job at trailing the courier but apparently (so I told him at the time) he got a miraculous roll to spot him.  This gave the player the idea that the courier had some skills and that he was a worthy opponent.

I am sure this baby will produce a few memories

In the play there was a strong build up.  The courier and the player testing each others mettle like combatants circling one another on the field.  Each would then push the boundary that had been set for daring attempting to get the result that they needed (James Bond has an excellent bidding concept allowing people who win the bidding war for difficulty to choose manoeuvres and who goes first).  I realised that it was this build up, a chase of over ten rounds complexity from the sound of it described in cinematic style that caught the player hook line and sinker.  It built each round into a tense battle and allowed at the culmination for the player to succeed at an insanely hard difficulty level that allowed for him to outsmart the courier and further the information gathering he was undertaking at the time.  The setting helped as well (Shanghai, boat versus motorbike) was very James Bond.

I then started thinking about how I would go about recreating something similar today.  Not in James Bond though (as much as I want to play the system again we have too many things going on), probably insert it into the Pathfinder game to spice up a part of the adventure path that we are playing at the moment.  I could set up a scene in which the Cavalier of the group was challenged to catch a creature of some form through ruins in an effort to get a faction to ally with the players.  The cavalier would be mounted which allows for the player to utilise her mount which she does not often get to do in the current adventure path.  She would be chasing some kind of creature, obviously swift but also nimble or perhaps with some kind of magical movement ability that makes it a challenge.  The final goal of capture is something different to the norm of cutting her opponent in half that she is used to.

With the above description we can see the experience is beginning to form, and although they are completely different settings and systems, the basis of the experience is there.  To fully capture that feel I need to consider how I would form a similar environment with what I had previously.  Have many spectators of the hunt seems to trite, so make the creature run into an area of the ruins that is heavily infested by bestial residents.  This causes the Cavalier to attempt to time her capture, or fight a running battle with residents of the ruins attempting to dismount her at the same time.  Also, I would use the environment to great effect, having the creature duck into tight confined alleys or tunnels that make it difficult or impossible for the Cavalier to follow.

Now, as the Pathfinder game has a whole party involved (rather than two of us in a tent) I would need to make this exciting for everyone.  Perhaps I could allow the others into the ruins at the same time in an attempt to herd the creature toward the Cavalier, or perhaps have one of them ride with her.  Still, the environment would need to change so the sorcerer rogue had a chance to affect the creature magically or by altering the direction utilising his knowledge of trapping.  The alchemist could find areas that would narrow the beast into a choke point and block exit routes with well placed bombs and the monk with his super fast speed could simply aid her by blocking certain routes.

So, there is the experience set in game.  I feel that with a bit of map design and consideration I could flesh the three paragraphs above into an exciting chase scene.  But then would it come off?  I need to then consider the playing environment.  That is where we meet to game.  I need to make a map that is easily transferrable to the tabletop map.  It needs to be detailed so the players can appreciate the environment and use it to their advantage, but it also needs to be quickly drawn.  In a chase that requires a map two of my players (the cavalier and the monk) are exceptionally quick so they will travel a large amount of distance quickly.  In consideration of this I decide not to run the chase with miniatures but build a small scale map on some sketchbook pages that could be laid in a line and the players location at any time marked on the map for the chase.  This incorporates the tactile as well as the auditory components.  I could layer in some background music as well, low level flight of the bumblebee leaps immediately to my mind.  It needs to be something with some tension and pace to build this to where it needs to be.
Me considering the experience…

You can see that I am working on only one encounter but in about twenty minutes of thinking and planning I have built the idea up from simply a chase (a few die rolls a bit of decryption) to the experience of a chase.  It is true that all of this could fall apart in a second if one of the players turns up and are tired or just can’t be bothered and spends more time looking at their watch than interacting with the game.  Or they may show up keen to get to the heart of the plot and be more interested in encounters that enhance what they know of the evil serpents they are soon to be at war with.  As a GM you need to realise that these issues are “out of your control”.  Some problems that arise you need to roll with.  I will have a few different encounters ready on how the players will build their alliances so as to hopefully cover the feel for the night.  But if you are enthusiastic and have obviously spent some time building the experience for the player it will become infectious.

When working with pre-written modules always try to find ways to enhance the experience.  I have spent years on years running games and playing them.  The games that I have run and played in where I just read the prepared text and run encounters as written with a lot of dice rolling tend not to be the ones the players remember.  But it is a lot of work also.  You do not need to value add to everything.  Pick the encounters that highlight the plot or will be a challenge.  Spend a bit of time to enhance the experience and your players too will chat to you in a quarter of a century to talk about the games that were!

Good luck focussing on the experience of your games!

1 Comment

  1. Spot on article! I have many wonderful memories playing RPG’s!

    For those interested, check out to perhaps learn alittle more about the James Bond RPG!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *