Heroes Should Show Off

A game of gritty realism is anchored by the gravity of pragmatic choices, logical consequences, and down-to-earth descriptions of a sober simulation. But if you and your players want to roleplay with a more super-heroic central theme, then you need to let them show off. More than that – you need to engineer the game so they can enact the extravagant with ease.



Setting Up Scene-Stealing Scenarios

Spiderman is an acrobat. He needs tall buildings to swing from, columns to slingshot around, and furniture to web-throw at the bad guys. Batman is stealthy. He needs shadowy corners from which to emerge, skylights from which to drop, and Gothic rooftops upon which to brood in the rain and watch his enemies. A comic artist drew those things into the scene specifically so the hero could do cool stuff with them. That’s your job as a heroic GM. A party of protagonists and a villain in an empty throne room is boring. Paint in some pillars, add in arches, swingable curtains, and smashable windows. Line the walls with suits of armor holding weapons in case they need a spear to throw. Make your rooms descriptive, dynamic, coherent, and useful to the clever player. Give them plenty of manipulatives and let them figure out how to employ it. And most importantly – when they come up with a way to use your room, let them.

The Reddit thread that inspired this article was written by DreadClericWesley and includes this important thesis: “Don’t forget to shoot arrows at the Monk.” At a certain level, a Monk can attempt to snatch arrows out of the air, but only if you as the GM remember to shoot some at her occasionally. Many characters have some really great talents or powers or spells that they want to use but can’t because you have yet to toss them a moment in which they can tumble into a battlefield, jazz-hands, and emerge on the other side with a fist full of enemy projectiles. If you don’t know what special tricks they have: ask. Or, make it a regular routine to collect character sheets every so often and take some notes. Sprinkle in a handful of show-off opportunities here and there and let them get some use out of those points they put into “Proficiency: Firebuilding” or “Personal Grooming.” Players don’t power-game as much if you give them a reason to improve something other than their Murder skill.

Reward the Roleplayers

If your players are accustomed to just shouting roll results for basic attacks and are having trouble getting into the spirit of heroic showboating, you may need to warm them up. Demonstrate what you want them to do with NPCs who model the behavior for them. This is also a useful trick for new players who don’t know the rules well. Teach them with a mentor figure (or an enemy who has similar abilities) and then whisk that model away (or have them die) once the lesson is learned.

Once players start using their full skill set, you can encourage creativity and description in several ways. One method is to support whatever they invent with some epic counter-description: take their starting point and emphasize it to make it even more awe-inspiring. For example:

  • Player: “I’m using my Woodland Stride to push through the overgrowth, pop out behind the Corrupt Knight, and clock him with my staff. Sixteen to hit. Four damage.”
  • GM: “Druidia dives into the briar-vines, slipping snake-like through openings revealed to her through her animal instincts. The Knight turns in a panic, watching her bound into his only path of escape, bursting forth in an explosion of leaves and slamming the faceplate of his helmet with a viper’s strike from ‘Gnarl,’ her trusty quarterstaff. His sweat reeks of sudden fear.”

Once players start to reach for those roleplaying moments that you’re laying out for them, it’s important to continue your encouragement with positive reinforcement. One way to do this is with NPC recognition. Have them overhear the general populace talking about their exploits. Turn them into celebrities with congratulations from local magistrates and bardic stories about the epic battles they recently won. Always emphasize the parts you want them to keep doing in future games.


Another possible reward involves bonus experience or some kind of “Cool Points” that can be exchanged for whatever seems appropriate for your campaign – maybe cancelling a fumbled roll or some special access gained only via reputation, like an exclusive night club in a futuristic city. Whatever you decide, just remember that rewarding the behavior you want to see is almost always more effective than punishing the behavior you dislike.

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