While you're technically allowed to "do whatever you want" in a roleplaying game, a RPG is still a game with "win conditions".
- In the case of adventure games like D&D or Mothership, it might be as simple as surviving long enough to get treasure, level up, or stop the villain.
- In mystery games like Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green, it's solving the mystery.
- In political intrigue games like Blades in the Dark or Apocalypse World, it's about getting and maintaining power.
Playing RPGs to Win
There are three major actions in every RPG:
- Investigate & Explore (gather information)
- Plan & Strategize (gather and allocate resources)
- Overcome Obstacles (combat, solve problems, set & lay traps)
Let's break each one down...
Investigate & Explore
When presented with a problem, players should take the time to gather as much information as they can. Players should ask themselves: "where can I get more information?"
There are many types of knowledge. Here are some suggestions:
- Book Knowledge - Places like libraries, town halls, police stations, guards barracks, and government offices is where you may find old records, legal documents, ongoing crimes, history and dossiers.
- Street Knowledge - Places like taverns, clubs, and local watering holes is where you may hear rumours, gossip, and get leads. Ask yourself, who would know secrets? Priests, tavern-keepers, hoteliers, beggars, and errand-kids are privy to a lot of conversations. Does someone in the party have criminal or intelligence connections?
- Field Knowledge - People like woodsman, hunters, and foragers would know the surrounding wilderness well and direct you to points-of-interest, warn you of places-to-avoid, and the like. Exploring the surrounding area of a dungeon will also give you clues as to what kind of danger you're walking into.
The key here is to think who might have useful knowledge and seek them out.
Plan & Strategize
Once you know where you're supposed to be going, it's important to "case the joint". That is, figure out what's going on at the location.
If you're looking to infiltrate a location... you'll want to find out where the access points (entrances & exits) are, what kind of security they have, and if possible, what traps there may be outside and in.
The same applies if you're attempting to invade or capture a place. You'll also want to know what their defenses are, how many guards there are, where they're placed, and what large weapons they may have.
Strategy is deciding...
- When to do things (day, night, low security times)
- What resources are needed (tools, spells, extra weapons)
- Who else you may need to hire (henchpeople, mercenaries, or wagons)
- How much stuff you need (rations, torches, and camping gear)
- Who you need to bribe, extort, blackmail, or make deals with
- Where to place and position yourself
- How you'll execute your mission goal (the order in which you act)
Finally, you'll put your plan to action, but of course, as the famous quote goes by Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke...
No plan survives first contact with the enemy
It is here that players must improvise and adapt. While your plans may go awry, all the research you did earlier will come in handy as you alter your next steps.
These are the scenes where quickthinking and cunning PCs will create unforgettable moments when they MacGuyver their party out of trouble. These are often the times where that odd item in your rucksack suddenly becomes handy. Or you use a spell in an unexpected way.
A Word on Combat
When engaged with the enemy, it's important to know your tactical role on the team.
Not every PC should rush into battle and trade blows. Some are meant to support the front line, some are meant to flank, and some are meant to stay behind, well-protected until they can cast heavy spells like artillery.
Here are some common roles on a "tactical team":
- Tanks (Front Line) - These are your heavily armored fighters, those who can take and deal tons of damage. They should have heavy weapons, high strength and health.
- Supporter - Typically bards and healers, they stand behind the fighters, ready to heal or pump up the fighters with spells and powers, keeping them alive and dealing damage.
- Marksman - These are the archers and sharpshooters who stand far back from the actual battle, with as much view of the battlefield as possible. In some cases, they are literally "calling the shots".
- Spellslinger - Here are your wizards (nicknamed "glass cannons"). They're typically weak, but with the right spells can cause a lot of damage. They, too, should stand far back... behind as much cover as possible.
- Shock Attackers & Skimishers - These are your thieves and rogues who can sneak in, backstab for heavy damage, and run back to safety. They're either flanking, behind cover, or standing by the supporters. They weave in and out of the main battle.
Combat is always risky and dangerous. And in real life, fights are dirty. There is no "fairness". If you see a weakness, or cover, or a way to suprise or outnumber, take it. Your enemies would do the same to you if given the chance.
The key here is to work as a team. Rushing recklessly into battle by yourself will nearly always result in sub-optimal results.
TL;DR to Playing RPGs Well
- Combat is dangerous. You can die. Think of ways to talk, trick or get past monsters without fighting.
- If you have to fight, fight dirty. Be sneaky. Use the element of surprise. Especially if you’re outnumbered or they’re bigger than you.
- It’s ok to ask and hire help in town. Henchmen are great. (Send them ahead or make them do chores).
- Magic is powerful but also unpredictable and dangerous.
- And remember — the point is to get your hands on treasure, not kill monsters. (This isn't a video game!)
And if (and when) your character dies, don't pout. Roll up a new one. It only takes five minutes. Or at least the way I play. None of this 30-60m of creating useless character backstory. Get that away from my table.