Jacob Rodgers is a writer and designer of role-playing games and more. His credits include material for The One Ring, Adventures in Middle-Earth, WarHammer: Age of Sigmar: Soulbound, The Ruins of Symbaroum and other systems, not to mention BEOWULF: Age of Heroes and The Hermit’s Sanctuary. He lives in Georgia (the US state, not the independent country).
Here, he talks to us about role-playing, about BEOWULF and about how to GM a really good game…
What are the core components of a really good RPG?
Any role-playing game has to serve multiple functions over its ‘lifetime’ in the hands of a player. When you first pick it up or download the .pdf, it must impress and inspire you — with its themes, its language, its art, its design (both graphically and system-wise).
Next, as you begin to read it for that crucial first pass, it must serve as an excellent teacher, providing clear instructions and sufficient examples so that folks can grok the game. Note that this is not just the writing choices, but graphic design can have a huge impact as well. Folks need to be able to visually identify topical breaks, optional rules, worked examples, etc. The recent Cortex Prime, written by friend-of-the-studio Cam Banks, has some fantastic work in this area.
The final function that a rulebook must serve is as a reference for game prep and in-game questions. The first function can be served again by having lots of good examples, random tables, and inspiring artwork. It’s absolutely fantastic to have an illustration provide the seed of an adventure and then to provide the tools to flesh out that seed and turn it into something ready to run. Fortunately for us, BEOWULF has a fairly strong structure and one of the chapters steps you through that structure piece by piece, so a GM can take their idea and write an adventure that they know will work in the game. And we will have lots of direct reference material in a separate easy-to-find section in order to make running the game super easy.
For BEOWULF, how closely does the game-path follow the original legends?
Fairly early on we discovered that there’s a repeating pattern to Beowulf, and that pattern shows up in surprising places — for example, the original Scooby-Doo cartoon. And, of course, we shouldn’t be too surprised — after all, Beowulf is one of the oldest bits of English literature we have and established a lot of tropes.
The actual path for both book and RPG is that the hero learns of a place plagued by a Monster, goes there and does some investigation, learns how to deal with the Monster (some secret weakness usually) and then does so. Most of the time they are rewarded for their service, but (and this part didn’t make it to Scooby-Doo) sometimes the Monster is too much for the Hero and they suffer a fatal wound. It’s the very stuff of adventure storytelling, whether literary or gameplay.
When designing the BEOWULF manual, what did you have to consider?
Well, of course, we wanted to keep all of the above in mind, not only the considerations about how the book’s utility to players will change over time but also how to evoke the feeling of the poem and the Migration Era (the poem’s time setting) in the choices we make for art, language and examples.
We also had to make sure that we were fulfilling our promises to make something that worked for a single GM and a single player, so that the game is always challenging and fun and doesn’t get bogged down if the player is temporarily stumped by the story. That also meant that we had to make decisions about the 5e rules engine. We want the game to be familiar to players who know 5e but we also want to make sure that the rules are at the service of the story and the setting, not the other way around.
Do you have any advice for a GM running the BEOWULF game?
Always be a fan of your player. While the GM should administer the setting and the challenges in a fair and impartial way, it’s always a good idea to cheer on your player when they’re clever or lucky or both. After all, the game is a story in the very framework of the setup (we imagine that every BEOWULF adventure is a scop telling a story about a hero to an interested group of listeners) and most stories are about a Hero overcoming the Monster, not the other way around.
Also, we’ve found that the nature of the game can shift dramatically between players. You can run the same adventure for two different players and, because of both mechanical choices (for example, the Hero’s alignment between the Old Ways, the Church or staying Neutral) and roleplay choices, the adventure might go very differently each time.
Motivating players (making them take the right cues) can sometimes be a struggle. How can you make sure your PCs follow the right plot hooks?
This is something I try to always consider, especially in starter adventures. There are certain clues and tropes that veteran gamers tend to pick up on that newer folks might not identify. (Once while running a completely improv session, the players insisted that I intended them to follow a particular path in the forest. I did not, I was just trying to get across what I saw in my mind’s eye. But that extra bit of description implied to them ‘adventure this way’.) So it can be worth it to break character with newer players and discuss things, especially if they’re playing it too safe. Remind them that they’ve signed up to play a Hero in this game and Heroes take risks.
The other thing that I often do (and admittedly this is something that becomes easier with practice and experience) is to be willing to rearrange the adventure. I’ve relocated entire groups of enemies to put them in contact with the characters, had family members track down the PCs to insist that they take action against a threat, and wildly changed timeframes to make sure something happens where the players can see it. But the best solution? Make the player right. Connect the plot hook to whatever the players have clued in on and make it so that if they pull that string then they make progress in the adventure.
Do you prefer a ‘storyteller’-type GM, or one that lets the players lead the game?
For BEOWULF in particular, one of the excellent parts of it being a duet (1 GM, 1 Player) game is that you can adjust the scale very easily. With only a single player it is very easy for them to be in charge and they can go and do whatever they want. If the player is a bit less active or stumped for a way forward then the storyteller GM component can come forward and you can introduce more elements that drive the player to action.
For other games, I vary my approach. For example, with Ars Magica the characters (especially the wizards) tend to have very strong personal motivations and you can just provide a sandbox for them to experiment within. Other games, like Pendragon, it feels more right to set a quest in front of them and the game’s assumed structure (that the knights have a lord that they are sworn to) makes that easy.
How would you create – and play – a really convincing PC? What would you think about?
Here’s a deep dark secret — I’m a terrible player. I’ve just spent too much time on the other side of the table and I enjoy GMing so much I’m almost always a forever GM.
That said, when I do get a chance to play, I do try to think about a character’s relationships and context. After all, most everyone has the same basic wants and needs, it’s just a matter of who is around them and their way of social interactions. And that affects how they express those wants and needs.
Thank you for talking to us! You can find the LATE PLEDGES for BEOWULF: AGE OF HEROES still on Crowd Ox – but time is very short!