When designing or running an RPG, I think four basic questions are probably more important than any others:
1) Does X (what’s about to happen/not happen, or in the case of design – what might happen/not happen) benefit from uncertainty and/or from being a choice? If no real opportunities will result from introducing uncertainty/choice, narrate or let someone else narrate with authority.
(Unless powerlessness is a theme or the players aren’t comfortable/confident enough yet, or the like…).
2) If uncertainty/choice indeed improves upon the situation, then should the choice/conflict be resolved narratively or tactically? With what level of rigor? (e.g. how long does that combat need to go on for?)
3) Is it a good story? If not, revise the way you’re answering the first two questions.
Maybe the players are making bad choices, but maybe you are not offering them the right opportunities.
4) Is everyone having fun? If not, revise the way you’re answering the first three questions. Fun is more important than a good story – though ideally the two will not be at odds if everyone in your gaming group is a good fit for each other and for the game/story.
BONUS: Thoughts about themes in games…
In terms of bringing out the themes of a story, I think you need to think about where in the rules “story” happens.
In DnD, is it with a skill check? Is it a narrative plot point? Is it the outcome of a combat encounter?
What rolls matter and why do they matter? What choices matter and how do they contribute to the growth of a character, the group dynamic, and/or to external elements of the game world?
Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll have a firmer grasp of where and how your theme should be a part of play/rules/mechanics.
It makes sense to create a new stat or mechanic to call attention to Suspicion or Hope or Vice or whatever, if that’s an important aspect of the story you’re telling in your game- but otherwise more rules almost never equals more fun.
Rules slow story down- and while the “game” is an important element of the RPG, it needs to be present and fulfilling WITHOUT getting in the way of the creative experience. Otherwise, why not just play a minis game or better still a CRPG which does all the math in the background for you?
“But aren’t RPGs the legacy of tactical games with story just as fancy dressing?”
Yes, but anyone can add story/character to a game if the priority is the game itself. You can describe conflict cinematically in games like Chess or Pandemic or Risk (especially if you’ve got that one unit that somehow beat the odds), and that will likely scratch your itch- but if you are setting out to tell a story, you need to respect rules and implement them creatively, without letting them monopolize your attention.
New life goal: maintain the drive that makes philosophical thought actionable (or maybe action-oriented) without overstepping into presumption/arrogance, nor slipping lazily back into “personal development” and interesting conversation pieces (while helpful to some, that is an insufficient end goal).
Also, understand there is some measure of arrogance in presuming to make change- own that, don’t let it hold you back. Arrogance is only a problem when it means you’ve stopped listening/paying attention. Inaction and complacence are the real devils here.
Dear anxiety-prone nerds (and others who generally feel like outsiders),
All communities should have a site like this and promote the shit out of it: http://volunteer.jerseycitynj.gov/ That won’t compel people to contribute but it will help focus the efforts of those who seek to do so and that’s enough of a victory.