Ask the GMs

We here at Crucible Gaming Group have an extensive background in RPGs and Board Games and as with most gamers we like to talk shop. Whether it’s the no shit there I was stories we tell at conventions or “discussions” about best games, we like to share. So if you have any questions or thoughts for us to ruminate on please email us at askthegms@cruciblegaming.ca.

We asked on Facebook and some of our friends gave us some topics for jumping in on

Paige - One question I would like to hear answered by other experienced GMs/Players is “what questions or conversations do you feel are necessary to have a productive session 0 for a game?”

Chris -

Some important questions or conversations I’d consider would be.

  1. What style of game are we running?  It’s not enough to say what game, but what style.  Even D&D can be anything from a dungeon crawl to an epic GoT story to a horror game to a sitcom.  Everyone needs to be on board with the tone of the game.
  2. What do people not want in the game?  A session zero is a great place to establish boundaries and one of the most basic is to flat out state what the group does not want.  This could be no stealing from the party, it could be no graphically described violence, it could be no sexist talk at the table.  This is the place to lay all that out.
  3. Are there House Rules in play or should there be?  Do not assume that everyone at the table likes the same house rules or even knows the same ones. 

Those are pretty broad categories but they cover the basics of what I’d see in a session zero.  Laying out groundwork and setting boundaries are the two absolutely key elements in my mind.

Michael -

As the person I am, my creative self loves the idea and there’s several reasons why I do.

  1.  It helps many people to hear and talk about what everyone is looking at doing, so you can find ties and plans you never originally expected when you start forming ideas in your own head. Sometimes this leads to tweaks and even better ideas you might not have come up with just operating within your own head space or discovering that balance might be completely out the window (And the ST/GM could be fine with it and you might never have known.)
  2. It’s a great space to talk about goals for the game/campaign… length, session expectations, overarching story vs. episodic, PC goals, etc. I might have something firmly in mind which should be conveyed to my players, and I might have a whole pack of looser ideas that we can work out in house to further build the game and world we’re playing in. There’s not a lot of point in running something only you’ll enjoy, because the lack of engagement and enjoyment of others will detract and distract, but walking through things you can generally find ways to accomplish what you want to do but make it attractive to the players. Perhaps I want to run a Heist into Revenge Campaign (ala The Italian Job) but the player base is just into the Heist aspect… well, finding that out, there’s options to incorporate the Revenge side of things that I was interested in but they aren’t by using recurring antagonists who maybe they’re one step ahead of, or keep stealing from.
  3. You get to connect with each other in a setting that isn’t just ‘Game Prep’ or ‘Game On’ (which can be socially strained due to planning and focus on the game) and can be more social and fun, which can turn into a better buy in for the main game too. Not everyone has time or resources for Afters, so sometimes it helps to get as many chances to interact when you won’t be worried that Game will be held up like sometimes happens when we all settle in at the table after not seeing each other in a while.

Anthony - Pro's and Con's of Railroad vs Sandbox? Currently experimenting with a very Sandbox game and it's an interesting experience from a GM perspective.

Chris -

I think Railroad gets a bad rep, sort of like the term “metagaming”. The simple fact is that by and large if you let players run amok they’re going to fall into two camps. The try to do everything camp and the wallflower camp. Railroads tend to keep both of those in check. I read an article that said “there’s nothing wrong with driving the train to the destination” You can quite successfully start with the group outside the dungeon entrance, at the triad owned restaurant, meeting with Mr. Johnson without having to give the players free reign to get to that point. Because they usually won’t. Most players respond well to a goal – either GM created, story inspired or player created but when you say “you wake up in a city, what do you do?” It’s deer in the headlights time.

So a little railroad to get the players to a place where they can start making decisions and solving their problems and interacting with the world is absolutely fine IMO. It’s when the GM starts to decide that there’s only one way to solve a puzzle or one way to defeat an enemy or one way to open a door etc.

There’s little that will destroy a sandbox game like passive or reactive players and characters. Sandbox games need players to be proactive to be doing things. The GMs job becomes giving them clues or things to pique their interest and then to react in an organic way. Many sandbox games have withered and died because either the players/characters are too reactive or passive or because the GM doesn’t give them anything to chase. There’s a common misconception that a sandbox game is player driven and IMO it’s really not. At least 90% of the time. The GM needs to provide a framework/a context to get the players interested or invested. When you look at a sandbox game, like GTA or any of the Elder Scrolls games it’s an open world but not a vacuum. Even something like Ark: Survival Evolved or Conan Exiles provide some guidance and have an end goal.

An ideal game, in my opinion, has elements of both.

Michael -

Both have strong pros and cons, and they’re very similar to the pros and cons presented in video games. In Table Top (And Live Action) you do need at least some Railroad, or everything winds up scatter shot as players run from item to item, sometimes seemingly with no direction just because we don’t see things the way they do. However, you need at least some Sandbox for the players to stretch their creative limbs and contribute as they see fit too.

Creatively, Sandbox appeals to a broader spectrum of players, but sometimes it comes down to a lack of understanding on how dependent it is on Player Initiative and Onus… so really, we could come to a point where we describe them more as GM Driven or Player Driven. When we put it like that, the need to put things more into the middle ground becomes a little clearer I think, and that neither option is -bad-, just that in many groupings one would be Less Good than the other, and either would be Less Good than finding your middle ground.

Example: The GM sets the scene, the mood, maybe inserts a few NPCs for the players to interact with if they like, but sits back and lets the players RP and direct the pace they’re looking for and the exploration they want. Great RP is being had, but an hour passes and the group is in the same scene with very minor tosses to the GM for NPC interactions or extra details. If things remain at the pace and set up they are, you’re running a Sandbox game and the players could have a great time… or they might enjoy it but wonder what else they might have been doing. On the other hand, the GM might move the timeframe along slightly and introduce a little Railroad elements to guide things a little further, or even introduce a plot element for the players to chew on for a little more.

If you go hard into Sandbox and the players don’t engage, you run the risk of winding up adrift on the sea without direction, but if you go hard into Railroad you run the risk of subjecting the players to NPC theatre and one way dungeons, so really, if you’re not doing either, you’re already doing something that falls somewhere in the middle ground and if everyone is enjoying themselves, everyone is already winning.

Chris Fougere
Currently running - Conan, Shadow of the Demon Lord, D&D Odyssey of the Dragonlords, Stars Without Numbers, D&D Greyhawk and Fallout 2d20

Currently playing - Sentinels of the Multiverse RPG, Forbidden Lands, D&D
Michael Berthiaume on Email
Michael Berthiaume
Ancient lore suggests he is secretly a trio of foxes in a jacket who all enjoy different types of games, but the Bee is really just an avid gamer who likes to enjoy himself and see others having a good time. A veteran of The Edition Wars as well as survivor of multiple MMOs and JRPGs, Bee will play most things and weigh in on all of them.

Chris Fougere

Currently running - Conan, Shadow of the Demon Lord, D&D Odyssey of the Dragonlords, Stars Without Numbers, D&D Greyhawk and Fallout 2d20 Currently playing - Sentinels of the Multiverse RPG, Forbidden Lands, D&D

4 thoughts on “Ask the GMs

  • February 1, 2021 at 11:30 pm
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    Thanks guys. I’d like to say that my primarily Sandbox game seems to be going pretty well so far. That said, I’ll keep in mind to give ’em all a little push now and then.

    Reply
    • February 3, 2021 at 1:37 am
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      Chris – I always find it a weird thing. Give the PCs a plot and they’ll chase everything but. Give them free rein and they’ll navel gaze forever.

      Reply
      • February 19, 2021 at 9:13 pm
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        Contemplating Ones Navel grants a Level UP! >.>

        Reply

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