Getting Your Story Straight
(See The Art of GMing for background on this series.)
One of the most important aspects of running an RPG well is being able to give the players an answer to any question - "Would there usually be bats in these tunnels?", to "What colour is the second gem on the scabbard of the Hegemon's dagger?". There are a number of time-honoured techniques for this - the best way probably lies in a combination of all of them as needed. I'll lay them out first, and then discuss when you should use each one.
Ask for a check: Ask the player to roll some dice - a knowledge check, or Intelligence + Computers, or some way of checking if the character knows a given fact. This give you two results - a bad roll, in which case you can fairly answer "You don't know", or a good one, in which case you've had a few seconds to think.
Make something up: Invent something off the cuff. Usually, you should make a note of this, although occasionally you'll know it doesn't matter. If the player is enquiring about the eye colour of a minor NPC you know is going to be assassinated, then you can probably say "blue" without worrying much about it. When you're inventing stuff, though, it's important to keep it ordinary. If you say the minor NPC has silver eyes, then they suddenly become a lot more interesting.
Know the answer already: There are times when you'll just know the answer, because it's important, it's in the adventure or the source material, or because you have a very clear image of the situation. This necessitates knowing your material well, which is never a bad idea. In this case, you're already sorted.
And one thingto be careful of:
Contradicting yourself: There are two forms of self-contradiction. The first is when you've already said the NPC had green eyes and now you say they're blue. Unless they're a doppelganger, that's something you want to avoid. The other one is when you've stated something in general - "these tunnels have lots of bats", and then indicate something else in particular "there are no living things in this tunnel". This isn't always bad, but players will note it, and chase after it.
So, which do you use when? Well, the main thing you're looking for here is speed. Just as a player flipping through books looking for a particular spell or feat description holds things up, a DM flipping through notes does the same. And the holdup can break the atmosphere, break concentration, or worse, leave people bored. In this art, as in any other, that's the last thing you want. So if you don't know straight away, ask for a check. And then settle a rule for yourself - a time limit, 30 seconds, or one minute, after which you'll make something up, make a note of it, and deal with the consequences. Sometimes, this spontaneous material can give much more life to a game than would otherwise be in it. But keep notes - I'll deal with good not-keeping, as opposed to cryptic scrawls, in the next post in the series.
Posted by Drew Shiel at May 11, 2005 2:38 PM | TrackBack