DM's Deep Dive with Robin Laws

by Mike Shea on 30 October 2017

Robin Laws is one of the great deep thinkers of roleplaying games, showing up on many peoples' bookshelf with the thin but powerful Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering. More recently, Robin wrote the book Hamlet's Hit Points which focuses on the topic of pacing in RPGs by comparing them to the beats we see in movies. The book is taught in university courses and will soon have a more general sequel designed for writers of all sorts.

I had the distinct pleasure of having Robin on the DM's Deep Dive to talk about pacing in our RPGs and how we can bring the ideas in Hamlet's Hit Points to our 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons games.

You can listen to the podcast of this episode or watch it on Youtube or watch it below.

Here's a summary of the conversation.

A Selection of Robin's Works

Top Three Tips

Further Discussion Notes

The job of players is to build characters that have a need and desire to join in the story. Players shouldn't build characters that veto the characters. Players should have a reason to adventure with the group.

Instead of telling the players to "shut up", bring them in for a landing. Bring them into the story. If people tend to wander off from the game, don't be afraid to break character and ask people what they want from the game.

Seriously, read Hamlet's Hit Points.

Hillfolk is an example RPG built around the idea of scene types and hopeful and fearful beats.

People like deeper character arcs in drama than in action. Don Draper fails a lot more than Batman.

When it comes to the concept of Hamlet's Hit Points the hierarchy of importance starts with hopeful and fearful beats and then on the scene types. Just understanding and seeing the beats themselves helps our games. Are players having an easy time of it lately? Drop in a hard move. Are players having a lot of trouble recently? Give them a break.

When we think about the three pillars of D&D (combat, exploration, and roleplaying), these scene types map to the scene types outlined in Hamlet's Hit Points.

While we're planning our game, we can ask ourselves "what is the main procedural goal" and "what are some of the obstacles?" We can also ask "what are the dramatic scenes that will fit the particular roster of characters and players?"

When improvising beats during the game we can ask "what is an interesting thing to happen next in the story?" Our goal is to wire in the idea of oscillating hopeful and fearful beats into our brains to the point where we're doing them without thinking them.

Advantage and disadvantage in 5th edition D&D is a perfect mapping of up-beats and down-beats.

Mike's Tip: Change beats by increasing or decreasing monsters in an encounter.

Of the things already in motion, how can they be used to add upward and downward beats? Prepare a bunch of things that might leap in as a upward or downward beat.

Audience Questions

Is there a particular introductory beat for first sessions?

Ask players what their characters are doing at the beginning. Or in Hillfolk, have all of the characters in the middle of a crisis that gets them working together.

Best reveal or twist in a session?

Two characters who told all sorts of backstory turned out to be Apollo and Diana from greek mythology and gave out the primary quests to the other players.

Given distractions at the table, how often are players actually participating in the same story?

Make sure the consequences of an event affects everyone else. Give the players things that their characters may not know. Throw in something that affects one character while in the middle of another.

What is the best Gumshoe game to get started?

Pick the one with the genre that best fits what the players want. Even the complicated Gumshoe games are easy enough to learn.

Are you involved in Six Ages?

Yep, Robin has written close to a million(!) words for it.

Thanks again for Robin Laws joining the show! Check out Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff or see him on Twitter.

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