GMing Advice: The “High or Low” Method For Improvising Details In Session

This Article is also published on Gnome Stew.

Improvisation is an essential part of role-playing games, for both the players and the game master. Many GMs, myself included, love improvisation, and we rely on it to fill in the holes we decided to leave when preparing for games. However this often means that we’re improvising important story elements and game details, details that really matter to the players. As a GM I purposely leave these game elements undefined so that they can be reconciled in game through improvisation. Yet obviously deciding upon important details in game can often make a GM seem unprepared, or even capricious. If the players ask what the weather is like, and you respond with “ummmm” for five second, then answer with poor weather that will hamper the players, it can leave the impression that you’re being arbitrary. The players can tell you had not decided on that particular detail in advance, so they will wonder why you choose the option you did, especially when your decision is detrimental to their characters’ progress. To avoid this awkwardness I developed the “High or Low” method.

The Method:

I use the “High or Low” method when I need to come up with details in game, both when asked for by the players and on my own. When I have to make a decision I turn to a player and simply ask them “high or low.” For the sake of example let’s say they pick “low”. I then roll a die, typically a d6. If the result is closer to what they picked (so I roll a 1, 2, or 3 for “low”), the details I’m deciding upon are generally in their favor. If they picked the opposite of the roll (4, 5 or 6 for “low”), then the details are generally not in their favor.

Before I go into the many benefits of this method, let me provide some examples. Let’s say it’s nighttime, and the players want to adventure, so they ask how dark it is outside. I say “high or low,” they say “low.” If I roll a 1, then it’s a clear night with a near full moon (so generally good visibility). If I roll a 6 then it’s the new moon, and cloudy (so pitch black). If I roll a 3 I tell them “it’s not great, but okay enough to get around.” If I roll a 4 I say “it’s not great, you have some trouble seeing well enough to get around.” As a GM you can also easily quantify the roll. A roll of 1 is only a -2 to perception check, whereas a roll of 6 (because the player’s said “low”) is a -8 to perception.

Or lets say the players unexpectedly go to a tavern and start a fight to show off their superior strength (tavern fights shouldn’t be too unexpected, but this is just an example). The GM hasn’t prepared for this, so they turn to a player and ask “high or low,” and they say “high.” The GM rolls the d6 and gets a 6! Things go in the players’ favor. Perhaps several NPCs challenge the players to a fight, but the NPCs aren’t as powerful as the players, so the tavern patrons watch and cheer and the players beat their challengers. But what if the GM rolls a 1? Well then everyone in the bar throws their food at the players, or runs away in terror, as ten Town Guardsmen come rushing into the tavern ready to arrest the players. Roll in between 1 and 6? Then the results are somewhere in between the scenarios above.

Or lets say the players are trying to sneak into an enemy encampment. During prep the GM could plan out the exact forces in the encampment, their patrol patterns, and where every enemy soldier is located. Or the GM could improvise most of those details! As the players approach the perimeter the GM asks “high or low,” and they say “low.” The GM then rolls the d6 and gets a 2. So when the players try to sneak past the perimeter the guards they come close to are generally inexperienced and have low perceptions skills. The GM rolls their perception, fails, and the players sneak by unnoticed. The players then go over to the ammunition depot to plant explosives. They ask the GM what type of ammunition is stored here, and again the GM asks “high or low.” They say “high,” and the GM rolls a 6. The GM tells them the depot is loaded with TNT, so their explosives will react with the TNT to cause a much larger explosive! The players then head to the enemy General’s tent, with the goal of killing him. As the players approach the GM asks “high or low,” and they answer with “high.” Except this time the GM rolls a 1, not good for the players. When the players confront the General they find he’s in the middle of a meeting with a squad of special forces soldiers, on top of his personal body guards.

It’s important to remember that this method should be used to decide upon details within an already set parameter of possibilities. From the example above, this method shouldn’t be used to decide whether there are perimeter guards, whether there is an ammunition depot, or whether there are special forces within the base. Those should be the parameters set during prep, and the “high or low” method should be used to decide upon the details within those parameters. How perceptive are those perimeter guards? How much ammunition is in the depot? When the scene evolves and the special forces turn out to be meeting with the General, the GM has prepared the stats for these special forces soldiers ahead of time, but left how and when they would appear to improvisation.

The Benefits of the Method:

As a GM I’ve always relied heavily on improvisation, and this “high or low” method developed spontaneously. I don’t remember when I conceived of it, other than that it was in game, but ever since I’ve made sure to use it every chance I get. The obvious benefit for a GM is that planned improvisations means less game prep, and I personally feel that improvisation makes a game more fun and exciting for the players and GM. And I’ve found many other benefits to this method over the years as well.

The first added benefit I’ve touched on already. Rolling dice to determine in game details is much more “impartial” then just contriving the details, and it avoids those awkward situations where players feel like the GM isn’t “being fair.” Randomness is always fair. Even if you hide the die results from the players, by simply asking “high or low” the players know that you’re using it to determine the details of something. It also makes the players feel like they have a little more say and control over the game. Involving the players in the randomization/improvisation process can make them feel more involved.

The second benefit is that it grabs players’ attention. I always ask a specific player “high or low,” and I usually ask the player who looks the most disengaged at that moment. Even if the outcome of the die roll has nothing to do with that specific character, asking “high or low” pulls their attention back into the game. Two players are chatting? Instead of just saying “hey guys, pay attention,” ask one of them “high or low.” Maybe you don’t even need to determine anything, you’re just using it to pull them back into the game. Using the method brings everyone’s attention back to the game, which leads to the next benefit.

The method adds tension to the game. Tension isn’t so much a factor when the players ask the GM something directly and the GM uses this method to answer, but GMs should use this method to decide upon details before he reveals them to the players. When they hear “high or low,” the players know something important is coming. There’s nothing quite like asking the whole party to make a perception check, then immediately asking for a ‘high or low.”

Variations on the Method:

Many times the GM wants to conceal the result of the high or low roll, but often it’s fine for the players to see the result. If that’s the case, then ask one player for a “high or low,” then ask another player to make the roll. It only increased the feeling of involvement and the attention the players pay to the game.

Another variation is to use more than a single d6. I GM a GURPS game so I will often roll 3d6, but a d20 is great as well. Both option introduce the possibility of a critical failure or success. So if the players ask about the weather, and pick low, and the GM rolls a d20 and gets a 20 (in this situation a critical failure), then perhaps there’s an earthquake, flood, tornado, or some form of natural disaster.

Randomness Isn’t for Everyone:

A word of warning: to use this method you have to be very comfortable with improvisation, and able to be creative with only a second’s notice. Also be aware that using “high or low” can sometimes imbalance a game. If the players get a string of good “high or low” roll they may feel unchallenged, or too challenged if they get a string of bad “high or low” rolls. As a GM using this method, you also need to be careful not to inadvertently introduce elements into your game/setting that you don’t want to be there. Be mindful of the consequences for the setting and plot. Unplanned interactions and situations can often develop into their own plot arcs, for better or worse.

It is also difficult to anticipate how long a game will last when you are planning on improvising many of the plot elements. During prep, it’s easy to overestimate how much of a game’s time you can “pad out” with improvisation. In my experience, it often leads to games being much shorter than I anticipated. But the reverse can also be true, depending on the interactions. Finally, it’s also very easy during prep to say to yourself that you can totally rely on this method, and then in game look unprepared and sloppy because you didn’t prepare enough (something I’ve fallen victim to many times). Like I mentioned above, use this method to what, within a set of already decided upon parameters, happens in game. Don’t use the method to decide upon those parameters.

All that being said, if you’re like me and love to improvise, you’ll find this method serves you well. It’s a method of improvisation that actively involves the players, keeps their attention on the game, and adds tension. As I mentioned above this method developed spontaneously, in game. My players enjoy it, have come to expect it, and I’ve found it very useful as a GM who purposefully leaves details in the game vague so that improvisation can occur naturally.

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GMing Advice: Evoking Emotional Engagement in Players

This article is also published on Gnome Stew.

One of the primary roles of a GM is to serve both as the players’ senses and the interpreter of their senses. GMs not only tell players what their five sense are experiencing, they provide an interpretation of the environment the characters inhabit (“That NPC is angry”), and an interpretation of what the characters themselves are feeling (“That NPC is making you angry”). Pleasure, fear, attraction, joy, anger…these are all emotions that characters experience, and GMs dictating to players how their characters are feeling is part of the shared storytelling method of role-playing.

Telling Me I’m Sad Won’t Make Me Sad

How then should a GM best describe the emotional experience of a character to the player? When describing a physical thing the GM need only provide a more vivid description to better engage the players. Instead of saying “you see a goblin” the GM can provide more detail in order to give the players a better sense of what their characters are experiencing. However this can be much more difficult with emotions. Many GMs intuitively know that just saying “you feel sad” isn’t enough to engage the players in what their characters are supposed to be feeling, but unfortunately many attempts at describing an emotion just lead to a stream of synonyms: “you feel sad, depressed, somber, and unhappy.” Synonyms are not an effective method for evoking emotion in a player. So what is? To answer this question let’s look at a genre where evoking emotional engagement is absolutely essential: horror.

Many a GM (myself included) have tried to run a horror game and have discovered just how hard it can be. The biggest barrier to an effective horror game is that it’s so hard to actually instill fear into the players. No amount of “you feel scared” will get the job done. In order to be effective at horror a GM must evoke fear in their players, and the main way to do that is to describe the physiological effects of fear their characters would feel. Telling a player their character feels a slimy centipede crawling up their leg might creep them out, but then describing the physiological response adds another level of engagement, to the point where a GM can evoke the fear of a character in the player. Describing the physical feeling of fright is the best way to evoke fear: heaving breathing, a dry mouth, sweat dripping into ones eye, knees shaking, muscles spasming, the hair on your skin stiffening like pin pricks, heart pumping, teeth chattering, knuckles tightening, vision blurring, this is what fear is. Fear is a word we use to describe a particular set of physiological sensations, and remembering that is the best way to evoke fear in your players. When you’re describing these sensations to your players don’t even use the word “scared,” or anything like it. Don’t begin by saying “you’re scared” and then go onto describe the physiological response, drop the word “scared” (and all its synonyms) from your vocabulary and only describe the physiological reaction. You’re players will know exactly what emotions you’re talking about.

All Emotions Have a Physiological Component

All emotions, not just fear, are fundamentally rooted in physiological sensations. And the method described above for evoking fear in players is exactly how a GM should go about evoking emotional engagement when it comes to all emotions. GMs should drop words like angry, sad, happy, and scared from their vocabulary. Never speak them when referring to a PCs emotional state. Instead, use the physiological components of those emotions, some of which are below, to evoke the emotion in your players.

Fear: Heavy breathing through the mouth, a dry mouth, sweat dripping into ones eye, knees shaking, muscles spasming, the hair on your skin stiffening like pin pricks, heart pumping, teeth chattering, knuckles tightening, vision blurring, everything becoming louder, inability to distinguish sounds.

Sadness: Muscles becoming weak and sore, endless tiredness, lack of energy, head feeling heavy, pressure building up behind the eyes and across the forehead, dizziness, skin feeling cold, slow movement and speech, lack of appetite, yet hollow stomach, hazy vision, limbs feeling heavy.

Joy: Light feeling in the forehead, muscles relaxing, limbs feeling lighter, energized, wanting to have physical contact with others, feeling compelled to move your body, smiling, energy rushing through your legs, skin feeling warm and soft, intermittent laughing.

Anger: Muscles tightening, fist clenching, teeth grinding, pulsing in your ears that makes it hard to hear, eyes focused, heart beating loudly, toes curling, cheeks becoming hot, lips pressed together, biting the lips, heavy breathing through the nose.

Using This In Your Game

The list above is not only an incomplete list of emotions, it’s an incomplete list of possible physiological components to those emotions. It’s up to you, as a GM and as a human being with your own experiences of different emotions throughout your personal life, to come up with a longer list and to utilize it in your game. As I said before, do your best as a GM to drop all usage of words like “happy, sad, angry and scared.” If you replace those words entirely with something like the descriptions written above you’ll be much more successful at evoking emotional engagement in your players, and ultimately enhancing the role-playing experience for all involved.

A method like this is especially important when dealing with character’s quirks and phobias. As we all know many players create characters with unique preferences and fears, and it’s hard to get a player to empathize and be engage with a character who is obsessed with cakes and deathly afraid of red tricycles (I’m sure you all know at least one player like this). Especially when it comes to phobias, it’s awkward to role-play a character’s phobia when the player almost never shares that fear. It doesn’t feel genuine, and in those situations it’s up to the GM to try to evoke fear in that player. Not only will that player role-play their character better in that situation, it adds depth and genuineness to an otherwise awkward role-playing situations.

Don’t forget that this method also works with describing NPCs! Telling the players that an NPC looks “happy” or “sad” isn’t very engaging. Just as you’d describe what a goblin looks like, in detail, to the players in order to make them feel more engaged, describe what being a sad NPC looks like without using the word “sad” or any of its synonyms.

At the end of the day this method is all about making the players feel the same emotions that their characters are feeling. Evoking emotions in the players makes them more engaged with their characters, with the game, and with the story being told. When a player is just told “you feel sad” the player will nod their head and sit back, disengaged from the story and the game. That’s because being told “you’re sad” is like reading a terrible book. Great books and works of literature evoke emotions in their readers, and GMs should endeavor to do the same.