Listen at the Door

live-action fantasy role playing game

Listen at the Door

Part IV: Game Master’s Guide

This section can be read by any player to gain insight into the game. There are no secrets, but the Game Master is often the only person who can use choose to use the rules in this section.

All players adhere to rules in this section, but don't get new abilities in this section. So, it can also be safely ignored unless you are a GM. If any of the rules in this section come into play, the GM will explain them at that time.

Table of Contents

d20Preparing for a Game
d20Ideas Scenarios for Game Masters
d20The Players Choose The Path
d20Hostages and Prisoners
d20Continuity and Melee Sheets
d20Game Balance
d40Game Balance and Melees
d40Game Balance and Artifacts
d60Adjusting Artifact Powers
d60Adjusting Artifact Interestingness
d40Game Balance and Characters
d40Game Balance and Vocalizations
d40Game Balance and Role-Playing

Preparing for a Game (top)
The GM prepares for a game by determining the approximate number of players and the amount of time they will be playing. The GM thinks of a fun scenario that could work in the venue in which they will be playing and perhaps be completed in the timeframe allowed for the game.

The GM imagines a goal or theme of the game and plans one or more melees. Melees might take 30 minute to complete and involve multiple rounds, more or less, depending on many factors.

The most important fact that affects the duration of an melee, besides
unenthusiastic battle cries from players enjoying their reward phase, is the number of initial melee life point gold pieces allowed to each player. If each person is only given one melee life point gold piece stake for an melee, it will probably be over in one or just a few rounds. Whereas, a stake of 10 melee life point gold pieces might take an hour or more and dozens of rounds to complete.

Each game has its own natural pace, and depending on the length of the reward phase, the game might proceed quickly or slowly.

One group's "rule of thumb" might be "10 minutes per melee life point gold piece" while for another group it might only take 5 minutes each on average, or 20 minutes.

As GM you decide which of the melees are "shorter" and which are "longer" based on how they fit into your story. The final battle, in the room where their goal resides, might be a long one. Or, the main battle may have been in the ante room, and now all that remains is a solitary guard monster with a gleam in its eye.

The GM names each melee and describes any special rules and assignments for minion monsters. Minion monsters can be assigned new character classes, attributes, given spells, anything the GM wishes. Minion Monsters adopts as much of the persona the GM gives them and makes up the rest to suit their own taste.

The GM decides how many hit point gold pieces are at stake in each of the melees. But, if they find that the game isn't proceeding at a pace that suits the scenario, the GM may lower or raise the stakes.

The GM decides what, if any, treasure will be available to be picked up or plundered in each melee and in the exploration time in between them.

The GM decides how the game will begin. That is, the starting location for the players.

The GM may also, if they wish, chart out a set of rooms or caves on paper. They keep a master map. Players may not see the map but they may make their own.

The GM can pause the game and move everyone to a location within the venue that is similar to the place where a melee will occur. For example, to a hallway outside a door. Then the GM can resume the game.

By describing the route from their last location to the current one, the players may learn about the room system and use that knowledge to:
- go back to a room they were in to look again for something they missed
- not go into the same in-game rooms over again
- get back out of this twisty little maze of passages that all look alike

Ideas Scenarios for Game Masters (top)
First, if players just want to interact, a complicated scenario is a burden. It would be better to have no scenario and just place players on opposite sides of the door and let them have fun.

If there is no scenario, there isn't much to explore, but the GM can describe the current settings and can even place artifacts and treasure in the scene.

There should still be an exploration mode even without a scenario, but it may not last long and it might occur only before a melee. It is possible that some groups will play only one melee, and therefore once the game leaves exploration mode it never returns, except perhaps long enough to collect treasure and plunder.

So, a scenario is actually optional or even unnecessary for some groups of players. The game works fine and is a lot of fun with no scenario at all.

But a scenario is great for players who enjoy the idea of the heroes going on a quest, opposed by the monster minions. Players in a game with a scenario are, in effect, telling the saga of their character's "hero's journey."

A quest can be anything, but here are some ideas:
1. Retrieve an artifact or other object that is hidden and protected by monsters
2. Destroy an artifact or other object by placing it somewhere protected by
3. Discover the magic qualities of an artifact by repeatedly using it during melees until players can guess what it does.
4. Win a certain amount of gold while marauding and destroying monsters
5. Rescue a prisoner held by the minion monsters or someone made
into a zombie
6. Discover a secret about a locale
7. Explore a fascinating locale, such as crystal caves or ancient ruins
8. Confront one, super-bad boss monster after defeating their lesser servants who give clues about what is needed to defeat boss

What is missing from these scenarios is the details about the locale, the sought object or person and the "whys" that underlie the scenario.

The GM weaves together whys and the locale and goals and obstacles into a cohesive whole that can be played as a game.

The Players Choose The Path (top)
The GM doesn't know which door the players will choose, or which side of the caverns they will explore first, or whether to enter a room when they hear monsters on the other side.

The players have the choice to proceed as they will. The GM can throw minion monsters at them to take that control away, but it isn't necessary. The game plays better when the players who aren't minion monsters control where they go and what they do. It is best when they can choose to engage or walk away, because some melees won't bring them closer to their goal, and some will.

So, the GM needs to understand what melees are important and allow other melees that aren't important to be smaller.

Perhaps the room in which they have the melee doesn’t really matter.

The GM can also present no choices to the players, so that there is only one path forward, or very very few choices.

There is also no requirement that the goal be reached in one meeting. A subsequent game can pick up where the previous one left off and the scenario can continue.

If the players are nowhere near where they need to be in the locale the GM can subtly move them in the right direction by placing only one minion monster, or even none, inside a room. Or, the minion monsters might have instructions to bribe the party instead of confronting them.

Not all melees need to involve "attacks." A minion monster can also be a player that provides information to characters instead of attacking them.

A minion monster could be playing the role of an innkeeper or constable or an innocent bystander.

Players in a scenario who see minion monsters who aren't trying to attack will often want to speak with them to see what they can learn. Players not in a scenario often have no reason to talk to minion monsters.

Hostages and Prisoners (top)
How can players be taken hostage? If they cannot retreat because of terrain or other players and are engaged with a minion and the player becomes disabled, the GM may, at their discretion, allow the disabled player to be taken hostage by the minion monsters, if that fits into the scenario.

While hostage, the player is free to simply engage nearby minion monsters, and if they are not otherwise restrained, may simply walk away during exploration mode, unless there is no clear path that would allow them to leave without touching one of the minion monsters. Because all touch must be with consent, a group of three or more minion monsters can stand around a player and they will be unable to escape. This person is considered to be "imprisoned" so long as the minion monsters standing by them do not need to leave for any reason. If one leaves, two cannot contain a prisoner and they may escape if it is exploration mode.

Once a hostage becomes a prisoner, the minion monsters and the player may relax and nobody has to actually stand there. They can sit down near each other and watch the game for a while. The rule is that the prisoner must wait until there are fewer than three monsters to "guard" them. This is a good time for the player or the minion to get a beverage or take a bathroom break.

The minion may also sing their prison song or carry on like an insane person who has been imprisoned too long. They may scribble tiny, unintelligible things on pieces of paper and then suddenly realize that they can't find a very important one, looking in each pocket in exasperation. It should not feel comfortable to imprison someone, but they may have fun.

While imprisoned, a player may attack their guards beginning a private-melee that could mean the number of minion monsters falls below three, allowing the player to escape. When and whether and who the player chooses to attack is up to them. Prisoners are given one extra defense per round. Prisoners are also allowed to replenish their hit point gold pieces, one per melee that occurs without them because they are imprisoned, up to the stake set by the GM for all players for the melee in which they were imprisoned. In this way the prisoner gets stronger and eventually can take on their captors.

A private melee “recharges” all artifacts that were limited to one-per-melee, but not one-per-game.

But, usually, the GM will not have enough minion to keep a player prisoner and will have to let the player go in the next exploration mode. They are already out of the melee in which they were disabled, so usually a hostage player is released at the end of the melee.

Hostages can also be minion monsters who are instructed not to attack and to retreat from the other players. In that case the minion monster could be playing the role of a princess or a prince or some innocent victim that was kidnapped. The minion behaves like the role they are asked to play by the GM. So, sometimes minion aren't really monsters, they are more like temporary player characters who might even work with the opposing team for a while. Such is the life of minion.

Continuity and Melee Sheets (top)

One of the challenges facing the GM is continuity. An artifact is used that has a side effect that lasts for four rounds. How do you make sure it happens?

If there are only one or two such things to keep track of it isn't so bad. But, with more than a few interesting characters doing interesting things the number of effects and requirements that must be tracked can become overwhelming.

For this reason a GM should have a clip board with pencil and paper so they can chart out a series of rounds.

Each round would begin with a horizontal line across the paper. Each round would be numbered. You'll need to add more as the melee continues so that you can stay about four rounds ahead on paper.

Most effects last until the end of the melee, but some last for a few rounds only.

Simply write effects in each round in which they are to apply. Use a nickname for each player to indicate to whom it applies.

If the effect lasts until the end of the melee, write it at the top of the page.

Start a new melee sheet for each new melee, but you might need more than one sheet of paper per melee if it goes on for a while.

This chart becomes a reference for all effects that occur over time and usually it is fine for all players to consult the chart to understand what side-effects are still in effect, etc.

Players will often keep track of their own side effects, but if they forget the chart can be consulted to determine the truth.

It probably doesn't matter that much if someone forgets a side effect, and the Game Master doesn't have the luxury of following every resolution to make sure the effects are honored. All the resolutions are happening at the same time.

If the GM feels that some of these side-effects are important to the game or the scenario the GM can track them and remind players at key times about them. The players should at most only need to be reminded.

A GM probably cannot turn a melee sheet into a record of the melee and an accounting of gold. There is no need for it to be. Players are unlikely to knowingly cheat and if they do, the GM can easily adjust the rules or scenario to rebalance the game. There is not much incentive to cheat in a game where losing is also fun.

Instead, a GM uses and melee sheet as a timeline primarily, and as notes about the current status of artifacts and players if they are needed.

Experienced players may keep an melee sheet for themselves, but it isn't necessary unless the character is complicated or has multiple attacks/round, etc.

Game Balance (top)
The words Game Balance may already be wearisome, but it is an important concern of the Game Master.

The problem with defining Game Balance is that such a thing doesn’t actually exist. It is really all a matter of perceptions. It would be impossible define a calculus of balance to determine if a game was balanced, and even if you could, what actually matters is how people feel. Does the game feel balanced?

It is entirely subjective and there can be no correct answer. That is why everywhere in the rules Game Balance is left to the Game Master, so that there could be one person who would make a decision. Regardless of what is decided, a decision can be made and all players agree to the GM’s authority to make these decisions.

If a Game Balance decision doesn’t feel right as the game goes on, adjust the game until it feels more balanced.

The sections that follow discuss different aspects of game balance and provide specific ideas for how the GM can affect game balance.

If you really can’t decide what to do, do nothing. Let things happen the way the players want rather than saying “No.”

The bottom line is that the GM is a facilitator first and game balancer second.

Game Balance and Melees (top)
The idea of "game balance" stems from the principle that the game should be fun for all players. If one player is too powerful compared to the others, the other people might not have as much fun, always being upstaged by someone with one of each possible artifact and double movement. It isn't balanced for one player to be that way and the others to be "normal."

For the game to be fun for everyone the players need to be in balance with each other and with whatever they experience in the game.

That doesn't mean all melees need to be 3 on 3 or 4 on 4 to be fair. Some melees are "supposed" to be won by the heroes and some are supposed to be lost, according to the plans of the GM. That might not happen, but the GM is free to make it happen if they wish. That doesn't violate game balance, though, because unless the game is one melee, other melees can balance it.

If the GM has created a scenario the players will have to survive long enough to accomplish it. That means each melee cannot be to the death and some melees will have to be easy so they don't cumulatively wear the non-minion players down to the point where they have insufficient gold pieces to continue the game.

The GM can, of course, just let the players find more gold, but non-minion players are supposed to defeat monsters usually, if they are playing in a scenario. So, many melees will feel one-sided in favor of the non-minion players.

But, minion monsters are replenished by the GM as desired. Whereas, non-minion players are only replenished through game mechanism, including picking up gold in exploration mode and using it as hit point gold pieces in future melees. You could say the GM can replenish players of all kinds.

For game balance in a scenario, many melees should be one sided to some degree. The monsters can feel proud and may be rewarded to losing well.

For game balance without a scenario it makes more sense to have more-or-less equal teams interacting and for melees to not be one-sided.

Game Balance and Artifacts (top)
Artifacts are the other main area where the GM should consider game balance.

Players are encouraged to create new artifact powers that are fun to use and novel in how they affect the game. How does a GM decide if it is too powerful?

1) No "zap you're dead" anything. Artifacts should not be allowed to do more than take one hit point gold piece. In theory that could be enough to end them, but only if they are already that weak.

2) Special rules should be easy to understand and interpret even when interact with other special rules. If it can't be explained easily or presents complications when mixed with other known artifact powers it should not be allowed as-is.

3) Benefits should be limited. An artifact can give an edge to some transaction in the game without obviating the transaction completely. An extra defense is different from automatically winning, regardless.

4) Confusion should be limited. An artifact should not cause confusion in the game, such as moving all players to random locations or other broad changes.

5) Tracking should be limited. If an artifact requires a complicated scheme to keep track of what a player must do to comply with its passive side effects, these details are not in balance with the game. The player may wish to use the complicated tracking scheme, but it can interfere with the game or keeps the player from performing other tasks already required of them. If it would interfere with the game, it should not be allowed into the game.

6) Artifacts aren't weapons. The more an artifact resembles a weapon, the more it should be suspect. Interesting artifacts let the player do interesting things in the game. Weapons have no place in the game because they don't win attacks, so artifacts designed to simulate them aren't very useful and therefore aren't as interesting.

7. Artifacts should not make each other jealous. Artifacts can be thought of as having personalities with fragile egos. They're enchanted and have special rules! They tend to be embarrassed about their side effects and they get upset when other artifacts are too powerful. Artifacts can affect each other, at the discretion of the GM, such as not operating if the other has already been used in a round, or an melee, for example. Some players talk to their artifacts. Some artifacts may talk back, if the GM wishes to speak through them.

8.) Artifacts should be interesting or fun. New artifacts are like food to experienced players who look for new ways to tweak the rules and keep the game balance. Without unbalancing the game the GM should try to embrace ideas presented by players unless there is a reason not to. New is interesting so the GM should let new ideas into the game somehow.

Adjusting Artifact Powers (top)
Rather than reject an artifact proposed by a player, the GM is free to adjust its enchantments before the game.

Its enchantment can be adjusted in many different ways. Here are some examples:
1. Can be used only once per melee or once per game.
2. Can be used only when no other artifacts are used in the same round.
3. Has only a 50% chance of working and when the gold piece toss is lost,
a different enchantment happens instead, or nothing happens.
4. Has a diminished effect in some way than what was proposed
5. Has additional active and/or passive side effects
6. Requires the player or their entire team not to move or retreat in any round
when it is used
7. Requires the entire team not to move or retreat in any round when it is used
8. Requires the player increase how interesting the artifact is

Adjusting Artifact Interestingness (top)
Artifacts might be affect game balance if they are boring too.

An artifact can be made more interesting with:
1. A better name
2. A catchphrase that is always said when it is used
3. A personality and an ongoing dialogue between it and the player character
who is carrying it
4. A strange personality or one with a fear of inadequacy or one with poorly timed emotional needs.
5. A pet personality, requiring many "good xxx" and "no! bad xxx" where the xxx is the kind of object and never the artifact's name.
6. Unusual manner of use, such as wearing a hat upside down, or spinning it on a finger for it to have its effects.
7. Unusual manner of being passed from player to player (as long as it doesn't take too long.) For example, only using one's toes to transfer from one player to another.
8. A battle cry that the artifact makes before it is used. This has to be in some kind of an accent so that people understand that it is the artifact talking and not the player character.

A more powerful artifact that is more interesting should not necessarily be let into the game without adjusting its power, but any boring artifact that would otherwise be acceptable can be made more interesting.

All artifacts want to be popular. A boring artifact just brings the other artifacts down and then they don't want to talk. Game balance is maintained when no artifacts are too boring compared to the others.

Don't let boring artifacts into the game or it is more likely to be a boring game.

Game Balance and Characters (top)
For the most part characters should be balanced, but they should not be similar. The more different the better.

It is better to have a character with more power in one area and less in another to make an uneven hero, one with flaws. In this game is the flaws that make a character interesting, not their strengths. An invulnerable character would be boring in this game.

So, balance isn't about making characters that all have the same power in everything, it is about making characters that together, as a team are powerful, but they need each other to complement their foibles.

A team will come to depend on each other and interact with each other more if they actually need each other than if they don't.

Balancing characters begins by making sure none are too powerful to unbalance the game itself. But, once that is handled, the main part of character balance is finding ways they characters fit together.

Here are some ways to balance a team of characters:
- Character Class Diversity. Is there at least one of each character class? There should be, if possible.
- Personality Diversity. It is good to have a variety of personality types. Not everyone in the team needs to be a "leader" and they shouldn't all be followers either. There should be a mix of thinkers and doers, people who plan and people who are hasty. You wait players to disagree on the way to proceed so the GM can surprise them with some wandering Minion Monsters while the players argue in minion mode.
- Game skill. It is good to have at least one experienced player in each team if possible; similarly, it is good to have at least one beginner in each team. The variety of skill levels benefits all players by interfering with patterns in the game. Patterns make the game less interesting.

Players sometimes develop an attachment to their characters in the game. The GM doesn't need to allow the demise of characters who have no gold pieces at all. The GM can invent a rule or let them find gold to keep them alive.

As a rule of thumb, if a player doesn't want their character to die, find a way to save the character so it can continue.

Above all, remember that this is a game people play to have fun, not to feel regrets. So, keep the characters alive.

Whereas in other fantasy role playing games a character is something a player builds up over time by acquiring magic items, treasure and experience in successive adventures, Listen at the Door characters are simply created by the players and require no tedious "building up."

So, as GM it is not your job to look at characters with scrutiny about how their character came to be. It is only your job to make sure that playing the character will not upset game balance too much and that the characters will be a fun addition to the game.

The role of the GM is not that of a gatekeeper, it is that of a mechanic. You don't throw away characters and artifacts that aren't balanced with the game, you just balance them by changing as little as possible, so that as much of the original idea and flavor of the character or artifact is preserved.

Game Balance and Vocalizations (top)
The game requires people to say things, lots of things. If people are uncomfortable they will simply have to cope because the game cannot be played without communication.

As GM you could consider reducing the speech requirements for a player if they aren't comfortable with it, but you probably should not. This simply may not be the right kind of game for all people. This game is designed to give people both a reason to say things and some things to say. They make up the rest. If that isn't fun for someone, this game probably won't be fun for them either. Careful about making a concession for one player who may not enjoy the game, you may only be causing more people to not enjoy the compromised game.

Game Balance and Role-Playing (top)

One challenge that some GMs face is players face is uneven role-playing. Some people are great at assuming a voice and an attitude and playing the character to the fullest. Some people are themselves in a character's costume and their delivery of vocalizations is in their own voice, without an attitude and sense of the character's role.

d40"I, um. I guess I'll use this, what is it? This artifact thingie against, him. Is he a monster? Well him. What does it do again?"

Face-palm: this isn't role-playing. But, it is a hard problem because if you just criticize someone, they will not only not learn how to participate, they will also stop having fun right then.

Any player who isn't having fun is intrinsically an unbalancing force in the game. Their fun isn't your responsibility, but the game balance is.

If you can't confront them with their lackluster, mundane communication instead of enjoyable role playing, what can you do?

You must gently encourage them to explore role-playing in a fun, nonjudgmental and non-confrontational way. Here are some ideas of things you can say that might improve role-playing, but you should follow your instincts. Not all of these would work with all players:
- How would your character say that?
- It doesn't work. To use this artifact you must make your request quickly and boldly for it to work.
- "Well, I guess, um, you can use your, what is it? That artifact thingie you have against him. Yep, he's a monster. Hey, how about them Niners?" While mocking and sarcasm aren't nice, you can make it funny and harmless because as GM you will usually be very into the game, so adopting their distracted, not-into-it tone will make it obvious that it has caught your attention."
- "You speak strangely, friend. From what place do you come?" In-game communication from other players and minion monsters can make it seem that those characters are dismayed by the style of speech. Making it an in-game issue can turn the problem into an asset. A player could pretend not to be able to hear someone unless they use an accent or otherwise speak "in character." It is better when fellow players ask for more interesting role playing than when the GM does.
- Find a way to pair them with someone who role-plays well and loves speaking as their character. As GM you can give your minion orders to move and attack in a way that brings two hero players near each other, kinda.

Above all, don't ever try to force a player to do something they don't want to. Encourage them to and accept No from them if that is all they can manage right now. Assume it isn't a final No and that when they see enough of how other people play their characters, they will naturally pick up how.