We live in wonderful times. Three of the best computer / console roleplaying games have all been released in the last 15 months. I speak, of course, of Dragon Age, Fallout 3, and Mass Effect 2. All three of these are wonderful games with great action, powerful stories, deep character dynamics, and fun tweakable character building. Beyond just giving us some wonderful electronic gaming, we tabletop roleplayers can pick up quite a few tips to make our own game more fun.
I will warn that, while I don’t plan on any direct spoilers in this review (omg, I can’t believe they blew up the Citadel!) I might step into the story just a little bit. If you want to be 100% spoiler free (Woo! You sleep with Miranda) you may want to read this when you’ve finished getting most of your crew killed by giant Aardvarks.
Let’s dive right into the tips.
Focus On Your Strengths
Bioware showed they were listening to their audience when they made Mass Effect 2. They got rid of a lot of the fluffy bits we hated like driving around in that horrid moon buggy and focused the game around the two things they did best: meaningful conversation trees and third-person combat.
Whatever game system you choose, play to the strengths of that system. D&D 4th edition has the most refined combat system I’ve seen in a tabletop RPG. While this might turn off a lot of groups, many others love the game for its detailed combat system. Instead of trying to find ways around it or trying to add in a whole lot of other systems, play to D&D’s strength and enjoy the big battles you’re going to have.
This, of course, depends a lot on your desires as the dungeon master and the desires of your players, but, assuming you already play and enjoy 4th Edition, don’t worry too much about what the system lacks. Instead focus on what it does best – combat!
Unfortunately, Bioware replaced the moon buggy with their new planet scanning mechanic, a boring and painful system for gathering up resources. What a snoozer.
Don’t be like Bioware in this area. Don’t add in tedious mechanics, story arcs, or sub-quests for your players. Every aspect of your valuable time at the table should be focused on fun meaningful things. Don’t add in a boring skill challenge just because you feel like one should be there – make it important! Instead of a skill challenge for traveling across the countryside in a pair of ox carts, have a skill challenge to defend the carts from packs of marauding bandits led by your main villain.
In short, don’t add filler to your game. Make every bit of time count towards something fun. If it feels boring to you, cut it out.
Unlike Bioware, we’re lucky enough to be sitting with our players while we’re playing. As a DM, you can see when you’ve lost the attention of your players and the excitement of the game. If this happens, do something! Don’t keep going because you don’t want to stop in the middle. Kill off that boring brute that just won’t die or cut off your skill challenge early when you feel the energy leaving the table.
Change Up Your Combat Environments
Good 4e DMs realize the importance of environmental effects. So does Bioware. All throughout the missions in Mass Effect 2 you’ll encounter a variety of changing environmental effects that offer advantages to you and to your enemies alike. “Shepherd, watch out for those falling exploding boxes!” you might hear or “Don’t cross the green lines or you’ll awaken nasty guys!” These little changes to the environment are what change the missions enough that you don’t feel like you’re doing the same thing again and again.
In 4e, the battle environment you build is as important as the monsters you choose. Put in effects that might challenge your players or give them an advantage against their foes. During the game, reward on-the-spot environmental choices your players might make by using the all-power DMG page 42 damage per level chart.
Build Deep Dialog Trees
Like Dragon Age, Mass Effect 2 has a wonderful, deep, and rich mesh of dialog trees. There are many decisions to be made throughout this game, though the game itself is relatively linear if you think about it. Think about how you can add a similar decision tree to your own game, even if the game itself is relatively linear. What choices can your players make that have real effects and real consequences without derailing your game? Don’t presuppose the answer, make both or all answers viable. As you build each night of adventure ask yourself what choices your PCs will have in front of them.
Handle Loot Differently
Inventory was a mess in the original Mass Effect and they learned this lesson well in developing Mass Effect 2. The limited loot and the upgrade system is a lot more elegant if a little less randomly interesting. Carefully consider your own loot system in your D&D campaign. Some DMs prefer random loot, some prefer to just let players pick what they get, others use a wish-list system. Try a mix of different systems and lean towards the one players seem to enjoy the most. Remember that they won’t necessarily enjoy picking their own gear all the time, a surprise piece here and there can add a lot of excitement and flavor. I tend to lean towards loot templates such as “level 24 or below Sword” or “Level 19 or below Plate or Scale armor” that gives players flexibility but still points towards a specific type of item.
Don’t follow the model of Mass Effect, however, where you simply heap random loot on your players over and over, filling their character sheet with items they will never use and end up selling at 1/5. If you’re going to do this, just give them a lot of cash and let them buy what they want.
Many PCs Per Player
Mass Effect has a wide range of characters available in a large stable ready to fill your three-person squad. Consider this idea in your own campaign or mini-campaign series. Have players build two or three PCs and let them switch them in and out throughout your campaign. Make sure these characters have a basic backstory, perhaps even arrange a night of adventure based on their background story as they do in Mass Effect 2. This also gives you greater flexibility should things turn dark and characters die. Even a total party kill can result in the second run PCs getting a chance for vengeance.
The folks at Bioware sure know their roleplaying games and there’s a lot we can learn from them. Consider your play-through of games like Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age as cross-training to pick up game design ideas, tips, and tricks. Those above are just the tip of the iceberg. Remember your quote from T.S. Eliot or Picasso or whoever the hell said it:
“Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.“