Tabletop Role-playing Games
Visit the Wikipedia role-playing game page if you wonder what this is! In here you will likely find a definition of PC (player character: the role you play in the game), NPC (non-player character: other characters in the game, often minor, not played by players)
I am a big fan of role-playing games. I like the fact they have elements of games (dice rolling, statistics and story-telling) but in a much "freer" environment. If you are playing Risk have you ever wanted to try and set up a base on the moon? In a role-playing game you can come up with an idea like this and explore it. They are also, generally, cooperative instead of competitive.
A simplistic way of describing role-playing games is as dice-heavy games and dice-light games. I am a fan of dice-light games as described in a Reddit conversation about rolling less dice.
Role playing games are played with a lot of talking in character about what you are thinking and doing. Sometimes miniatures or tokens are used on maps on a table to show where you are standing and to help with the storytelling. A low-budget option is to use stand-up paper pictures of the characters. A great website for these is One Monk Miniatures.
RPG communities exist at local, national and international levels! For example, there are websites such as https://www.rpg.net/ and http://theescapist.com/, an incredible, creative convention in Denmark and there must be thousands of small conventions around the world such as IndieCon in the UK.
Role-playing Game Playing Advice
It is possible to get stuck in the playstyle of your own group and I find reading articles written by others on role-playing is really good for improving my own games. http://www.highprogrammer.com/alan/gaming/gmtips.html, http://theangrygm.com and http://www.mit.edu/afs.new/sipb/user/yandros/rpg/gm-sins.txt are similar articles to this one written by other GMs.
“Have fun. Let others have fun. If something works for your group it is the right thing to do.”
Dr Duncan James
I like the five minute rule. The GM should introduce (either overtly or via the first few things that happen) the rules of the universe the story is set in. If no-one has demonstrated a superpower within 5 minutes then it is not a thing in this game. If no-one has seen a zombie (or overheard something about zombies) within 5 minutes then it is not a thing in this game. After five minutes, the players can then freely improvise as long as they follow the rules of the universe. (If the GM has a very flexible style they might allow the players to improvise from the start but if I have prepared a cool story I will ask players to be guided initially so I have not completely wasted all my planning.)
Between adventures there might be downtime for the PCs to chill and explore their own personal hobbies or interests. There is a good video about downtime on the Web DM YouTube channel. I've never GMed anything like this but my feeling is that it would work well with creative players. And probably in that case it would flow naturally. As a GM I'd be tempted to slowly start feeding information about the next campaign to the players during this time "unrest in the north", "missing baggage train", "storms out at sea", and so on. And with my usual principle of planning out what will happen if the players do nothing, just wait and see how long before the players jump into the story and start influencing events.
Something I am very bad at in my GMing is adding flavour events that do not add to the main story but add to the general experience of the story universe. This can include meeting interesting characters, dealing with monsters that make sense to be in this story universe, suddenly having a little side-plot that makes sense as the type of thing that would crop up in this story universe, and so on. Traditional storytelling often has these elements. I am personally challenging myself to do this more in my GMing at the moment.
My approach to scenario design is to have a clearly laid-out set of things that are going to happen in the story universe. If the players do nothing things will progress. I make sure the scenario is designed with lots of ways for the players to find out information, meet important players in the plot and influence what happens. However, what they do is up to them. By having a very clear set of NPCs with motivations and plans that will happen if the PCs do nothing I find I can more easily improvise and give the players free reign.
Related to my scenario design approach is that I create consequences of inaction. If the players ignore the raiders and run north then I might decide in advance that they will meet a raiding party and be captured for a slave market. Is this railroading? I strongly argue no. I am allowing the players to choose not to initially take the moral high ground and fight the invaders. But, by being selfish and running, their personal story becomes about escaping the area safely. It makes sense that this significant local event will impact them. They should not just be able to run away from it. I would then have additional outline plans for what to do if they avoid being captured (perhaps the raiders chase them hoping to steal their valuable weapons or magic items), if they are captured and do nothing (well, they are going to be hung tomorrow so they'd better act soon), if they decide to join with the raiders (have a clear idea what the raiders' plans are so this can be shared with the players and perhaps the raiders actually have a grand plan to raid a secret wizard's lair under cover of the pillaging) and so on. Consequences of inaction are fundamental to how I design my scenarios to be an open play experience for the players that requires less improvising from me and still has flavoursome overall story elements that I can enjoy creating.
The best villains don't necessarily: (1) Think they are villains. (2) Act like classic villains. (3) Wear black. And villains may well: (1) Pretend to be good to avoid detection. (2) Lie outrageously even once caught to try and squirm their way out of things. An unusual idea for an RPG story might be that the PCs start working for a charismatic leader that later turns out to be a villain.
Player agency is a popular topic in RPGs. Also in other forms of game and activity. I would summarise it as follows: (1) The player needs to be able to make meaningful choices. (2) So, the player needs to have been given meaningful information about the situation (either now or in the past and either directly or indirectly; it does not have to be in-your-face information). (3) And it is annoying as a player if you make a meaningful choice that then feels like it was irrelevant and had no real impact on the game, for example; "Wait, was that monster going to be behind whichever door we opened?!"
Immersive roleplaying is a name for playing the game always in character. It means no puns. No talking about the cinema. No saying "it looks like the monster from the third series of Star Trek". It means always acting the part of your character. (You might have to step away from the character to roll dice but this can be done briefly, efficiently and with bland language before dropping straight back into character.) I personally love immersive roleplaying. It is my personal preference. I learn it from improv. In improv there is this thing that can be called the roleplay pain barrier: you need to stay in character beyond the initial awkwardness for the really sweet rewards of easy, natural, fun times to be found. I think the same applies in RPGs. Sadly, I think I observe a lot of players unwilling to push through that pain barrier. As a GM I always encourage immersive roleplaying, including giving pep talks and help to keep players on track. However, as a player I typically feel powerless: it only takes one player (or the GM) to destroy all the good work of the rest of the group. So frustrating! But so amazing when it does work. (I found a nice forum discussion on this topic on the RPG stackexchange website.) Other GMs have different ideas http://theangrygm.com/through-a-glass-darkly-ic-ooc-and-the-myth-of-playercharacter-seperation/ about this topic.
This is the introduction I like to give to new players to give them the idea of what an RPG is: "As GM I have created a world for you to live in. I have decided what environmental things will happen. I have created other people to live in the world, some very powerful, who as you start the game have their own agendas and motivations and some of them will be historically important in good, bad or neutral ways. If you do nothing I can tell you the story of what happens but that is not the idea! You can change things. You can be part of the story. You will be at the right place at the right time to become important characters in the story if you so choose. If dragons attack the country you might, by coincidence, be witness to one of the early attacks. If a new government starts taking away personal rights you might, by coincidence, be in the first area where these changes are trialled. If a zombie apocalypse begins you might, by coincidence, meet a stranded scientist who needs help getting back to his lab where the outbreak started. Sometimes the high drama will be created by the compelling story of trying to save your own family. However, what you do is up to you."
A snappier introduction might be: Seen A-Team? Magnificent Seven? Buffy? X-Men? Well, you are in a team now. Its a bit like the real world, but there is a strong element of fantasy. Are you the smart one? The strong one? The charismatic one? Mad one? The quick thinker? The caring one? Find your niche. Add to the game. It will be fun!
Making the imaginary world believable. For me the trick is to come up with an idea for an interesting world with interesting characters first. By this I mean have an outline of the history of the last few hundred years (or even more) with at least an idea of what parallel universes or nearby planets or other such things exist. I also like to have an idea of the physics of the world, how magic works (if there is any) and whether any environmental distasters are going to happen during the period the characters are living in. Then after planning all this the plot seems to just evolve. I find this makes it more believable because as the PCs interact with everything there is a feeling of consistency and believability which comes from the underlying world design. Sometimes a campaign will end with the players finding out all the details of how the world works and why things are the way they are: if the players are inquisitive then this might be the final payoff at the end of the story arc. And sometimes they will never find out but it was the invisible glue holding everything together.
How to start a campaign is an interesting question. As with a lot of hobbies there are many with "fairly fixed ideas" about how to start a new campaign. However, I am a big fan of finding something that you think your group will like and going for it. There is a nice discussion on Reddit about how to start a new campaign. My personal feeling is that it can be good to make it a slow start and then perhaps hit them with something dramatic after an hour-or-so. The reason for this is that it can give quieter players a chance to get comfortable. Also, you can use the first hour to give completely new players a chance to get used to how the game works and the mechanics without the pressure of it being a critical moment in the game: for example you might use a visiting fair to give them a chance to try and win prizes on the archery stall, fighting stall and the magic stall. New players can practice rolling the dice and making decisions without the pressure of konwing they might kill the party off or lose a key clue and experienced players might be more likely to back off and let the new player learn.
Some GMs allow players to discuss tactics for ages. I will allow this if it makes sense in the story. However, if a monster is charging them I often say something like: "The monster is getting closer. If you don't do anything it will smash into you all very hard. It will hit you in approximately 10... 9... 8... " The reason I do this is because I think it works! Yes it denies a chance to problem solve or chat. But this is an action scene! During other parts of the story there is plenty of time to chill and chat and strategise! I find my players like this and I think it is because it enables us to get through a lot more story in a typical session which many players find rewarding in itself and also gives a context for their great role-playing and game-playing to shine. Similarly, if the group suddenly stand around arguing about which inn to stay at: perhaps people start coming up to them trying to sell them stuff, get them to stay at their inn for a discount or a local sheriff might get suspicious. If they want to chat it should be round a campfire, in a clearing pulled off the road out of people's way, at a bar with drinks in hand, in the room they have bought for the night, at some benches in a park or somewhere so deserted nobody else cares: the reality of the game universe should impact what they do!
I am currently working on developing the chase mechanic for RPGs. I'm working on using a similar turn-taking approach with actions as is used in combat. People can sprint or run or create obstacles or try to tackle someone and so on with action points limiting them and meaning that if you try to tackle someone you compromise on your running speed and so on. I will publish a nice set of rules here if I can make it work. Here is a nice archived discussion on Reddit about chase scenes that I found useful.
The tone of the game is often determined by the loudest player. Also, a group of immersive roleplayers are pretty much powerless to stop one joker from continually making puns using real-world (not story) vocabulary and derailing the atmosphere for everyone else. Now, nobody is right or wrong but there should be a collective decision. My experience is that very often a single joker (I think unknowingly) forces their playstyle on everyone else: a single immersive roleplayer is by contrast pretty powerless to impose their playstyle on a group of jokers. As GM you have the power to do something about this. If someone makes a joke that is not consistent with what the majority want, you could have an NPC say "that's a strange thing to say" and walk off scared therefore denying information from the group. Keep creating impacts to the story and the joking will rapidly stop. However, obviously if everyone wants a jokey tone that keeps drifting in and out of the story then that's OK: It's just not OK for one person to derail the agreed atmosphere. Oh, and you can obviously give a joker a chance to retract before unveiling the consequences: "Did you really mean for your character to say that?"
Does a player really want to joke around? And does everyone else want to play immersive? As GM you can encourage them to play a character who is jokey in the story universe. They can then make jokes as much as they like but just ask them not to bring in things from outside the story universe. I consider this to be similar to how I like problem-solving and so always try to play intelligent characters so I can enjoy doing it while staying in character.
I am really into writing my own homebrew stuff for RPGs. Personally I'm not keen on published adventures as I often find the time it takes to read and understand it is longer than it would take to write my own. However, there are exceptions and some I find easier to use. One thing I do like are the litle ideas that can add a sparkle to a game such as you can find on this list of magical items.
The creation of bad choices can add a lot of "fun" for the players. What if an endless hoard of orcs are running at a village? Everyone is running and there is a group of three children playing in the park that simply don't know what is happening. You could try to save them but the orcs are also about to over-run that area and you are certain you don't have time to get them. However, villagers are already being caught up by orcs and if you run from the village now you can attack the fastest orcs and aid the escape of the rest of the village. As GM you could say: "Time seems to slow down as you make the decision. You can all have 20 seconds silence to think then I will give you 5 seconds as a group then move your counter/character/miniature towards the village or towards the hills. Anyone who does not move will not be helping to save anyone." The problem you have here is if people go for the children as you have set this up as a death trap. If only one goes perhaps it is time for a PC death if your group is ok with this. Alternatively, have the PCs who go back for the children captured. The capture option is good because if I were GM in a game where this was happening I would probably make sure the orcs were under instructions to capture the PCs alive as a safety-net in case the PCs make a crazy mistake.
Should a player character be allowed to die? In RPG circles this is a controversial question. Many would say no. Many would say this is contrary to how an RPG should be played. I would ask in return if there is one correct way to play any game. If my group is one where a player character death can happen and the whole group is enjoying the game that seems ok to me. A typical situation where this could be dramatic might be where the PCs are outnumbered and perhaps they are trying to save a village. Everyone is running for the safety of a nearby castle. The endless swarm of orcs are running fast towards the village. However, the orcs must cross a bridge. The GM says: "You see the orcs running towards a bridge. A village shouts 'we could hold them at the bridge is anyone with me?' The villager who shouted this will be old but clearly martially trained with good posture and an old but well-kept sword. You are sure he could not hold them for long. But one more warrior standing with him could make the difference." This would be an incredible way to die. Many reading this would in real life be willing to make that sacrifice. Why should we deny our players the chance to similarly be heroes in an RPG? The names of the two would be remembered, perhaps a statue would be made, perhaps weeks later they would be in a tavern and hear the story of two legendary fighters saving a village by making a last stand on a bridge. This is epic stuff!
You can also plan in advance for PC deaths. One option is to approach players individually and see if they would be ok with their character dying. Keep this secret from the others. If someone says yes then you know you have licence to create a very real sense of danger by having that dramatic player death at some point in the story. I would then give that player the option to be involved in creatively working out a new character and finding a nice way for them to meet the party and perhaps already have a vested interest in the same quest the PCs are engaged with.
Remember to create scenes in spectacular places. You can try to escape a giant spaceship freefalling towards the surface of a planet. You can visit a giant monastery carved in the side of a 20km high mountain. You can make the players run from a series of giant tornadoes ripping across the desert. You have unlimited budget when designing the scenes in an RPG: use it!
The West Marches is a really interesting concept in RPGs. The general idea is that the PCs are in an interesting place and have complete freedom to do whatever they want. My personal feeling is that a lot of creative GMs probably do this already but don't realise it has a special name. However, I think it is brilliant that it has a name and that championing the idea can help spread the word about this approach.
The three clue rule is an interesting concept in GMing. An extended article on the three clue rule is on the blog The Alexandrian. I have heard it in many contexts. I have heard it used to argue against perception rolls: give the PCs three clues for something before as a last resort rolling for perception. I have heard it to describe a way of guiding PCs without railroading: for example, you can give three clues about the amazing treasure over a period of four or five sessions and allow the players to pick up on the hints and head to the ruined castle of their own accord. I have heard it used to describe the general approach for introducing all things from the game universe to the players: this is a subtle topic and a nice article about plot and situation relates to this.
Brian fails a perception roll for his 4 hour watch duty while sleeping. What if he fails his perception check but nothing was there? You could tell him that there is a rustling in the bushes and he sees a dark shape moving back and forth: actually there is nothing there but he did fail his perception. On a side note, I think this is one of the few times rolling for perception makes sense. If someone is not actively on guard-duty I prefer to make a decision on whether the characters would see someone coming. I have heard people argue that you might not see someone in the mist but my GMing style is an NPC is either too far away to be seen or eventually they will come close enough so why bother rolling.
As a GM I would never think "wow the PCs just did something really dumb and I will make them pay for the mistake". If this happens it is very likely that me, the GM, did not explain something clearly enough. The PCs are not going to walk over the bridge as a single group singing and stamping if the ropes are fraying. The PCs are not likely to run into the water if the zombies are already chasing other people into the sea and proving to be really fast swimmers. And so on! If something like this starts to happen you might need to repeat the information (or say it for the first time if you forgot or did not make it clear) saying something like "as you walk towards the bridge you see again the frayed ropes and wonder if it is really safe" or "as you turn you see zombies already running into the water and demonstrating they are really fast swimmers". Yes PCs should be allowed to make mistakes. No PCs should not be doing dumb things that are just because the scenario was not understood clearly.
Consequences are important. Did they save a village? If they return they won't have to pay for anything. Did a PC cut themself out of a rope to escape? They might just have partly cut through their kit straps and have their rucksack fall off during a chase a day or so later. Did they steal a horse either because they are not playing honourable characters or because they were desperate? Perhaps months later the victim will see them sleeping and sneak up and steal back the horse which might just happen to have an important bit of kit tied onto it and maybe the victim is now part of a travelling mercenary group that look like they can really handle themselves in a fight. However, don't overdo it because if they are nice to a random traveller on a road one day the likelihood of meeting that person again is probably quite low. Make "call-backs" happen naturally; meaning not too often.
There is a thing called the false choice which many GMs use. For example, perhaps you want them to find a hidden cave. You could put it near where they stop to make camp next time so it will be found when they look for wood or maybe see damp air circling from the entrance in the morning. How come they happened to stop near there? They didn't it was just the GM did not commit to the location of the cave until they camped for the night! My personal feeling is that if you do too many false choices you will be rumbled by the players. However, sparing use of this technique can make life much easier for a GM. One false choice I sometimes use is to give the players three or four options: I then have a contingency for each of these options so they are kidnapped or fall down a hole or meet the wizard or find themselves accidentally stealing the crown or whatever. I use this sometimes to guarantee a new storyline can start.
At start of session remind players what happened last week.
Cut a session short if necessary and maybe play another game or chat to avoid stretching past a natural finish point.
Getting family members of the PCs to appear and ask for help, money, a job or something else can be a fun device. The PCs might ignore these requests and there may or may not then be consequences immediately or later on that day or weeks or years later.
Creatures the group encounter are likely to have evolved strategies for hunting. They are not likely to launch themselves at an obviously strong group. Perhaps they will stalk the party for a few days and wait for them to weaken. Perhaps they will use an ambush at a strategic location. Perhaps they will use traps. Clearly be careful not to just wipe out the players. But I think that to make it feel realistic the party should not have multiple small battles. They should have a sense that other travellers and creatures are wary. An innocent traveller with a wagon and some straw can be casual as he knows he is not worth robbing and probably has a big axe to scare off bears. A traveller carrying gold would have protection and act carefully. These are all random thoughts and ultimately the nature of the world your players are living in will determine much: is it war-torn or well-policed or a wild border of a growing civilisation or?
Ultimately a RPG is not PCs versus GM. If you are the GM ask your players outside the game what they want. Do they want easy or difficult? Do they want PCs to die to create more realism? Do they want a gritty, ultra-realistic game? Do they want more of an unrealistic experience where no-one really dies and fights end in the victor walking away with the loot and the loser regaining consciousness later? As a GM I see the challenge as being the creation of an enjoyable experience for the players where (typically) they win at the end. The only exception to winning is if the group is up for more creative role-playing and is OK with, for example, a zombie story where everyone dies at the end.
Should a GM fudge the dice? This is a debate about whether a GM is allowed to ignore a dice roll if it is not the answer they wanted and/or sometimes not roll and choose a result. I think this is a created-debate that should be allowed to be personal preference. My feeling is the root cause of the problem is that we call this hobby "role-playing games": the title includes the words role-playing and also the word games. If you explore the hobby in depth some people emphasise the role-playing aspect and some people emphasise the games aspect. Some people seem to be very into the exact meaning of words/phrases and they often seem disturbed that there is not a single, clear definition of a role-playing game. I think it is better to treat "role-playing game" as a collective noun that covers a whole hobby that within it includes many different approaches. In this case the fudged-dice debate is simply a question of play-group preference.
Regarding fudged dice, my personal GM-style is that I roll dice to give my imagination a break from creating every detail. I have tried using no dice at all and for me it is too much. My brain explodes with having to create every detail (note, I enjoy improv so am OK with this in other contexts but I find that when GMing it can be too much). The die roll is a random number generator that I use to give the roleplay a realistic variability. This is why I might use it to decide if it is raining. I might use it to decide how much gold they find. However, if it is a story-critical moment I will use my imagination to pick something that is narratively appropriate. Note, I try very hard never to roll and then ignore the result: I would always choose not to roll if I thought it might produce a result that messed with the narrative.
For those who are interested, here are some examples of when I would not roll a die/dice: Perhaps a player had an amazing idea and it makes sense to reward it and let it work. Perhaps the final day would be dramatically more effective if it was raining heavily in which case it is raining heavily! (Don't roll for the weather.) Perhaps they are travelling in the wilderness and very weak and low on supplies in which case I would not roll a random encounter in case they accidentally got killed off by marauding orcs (although orcs in my games are often friendly but that is another story).
I think a fantastic aim for a GM is to give every character a memorable moment during every play session. That gives them a story to tell their friends, a great thing to keep reliving and I think it is in the unspoken social contract that players should get to be significant in the story.
How to justify that the PCs need to stay together. I have heard people say that this does not need worrying about. It is part of the "social contract" of a RPG that the players know they have to stick together or it just doesn't work. Obviously it is OK to split up in-game to achieve certain tasks but I mean how to avoid half the players saying: "That's fine, you go on a five month quest to save the world from the Ice Wizard and we'll stay behind and get drunk every day in this tavern." So, you could as a GM pause the role-playing and say: "Come on guys obviously if you don't act heroic at this point and go after the Ice Wizard this won't work as a game." However, assuming the players drawn to the tavern are not just trying to be awkward then maybe there is a problem. I like to make the narrative as compelling and natural as possible. So, here are some ideas for how to keep the party together:- the PCs are all linked by family or racial ties; the PCs have all been blackmailed at the same time; the PCs have a long history of adventuring together; an authority figure in the village/town/city approaches each PC individually asking them to help in a quest and offers something individually to each character such as a pardon, payment, a place on the town council, etc; the PCs have all lost something important to the same enemy which might even be something as dramatic as their children being kidnapped. I think it is possible to get too distracted by the need to keep the group together; the explosive collars on their necks will explode if they separate. You can also just say as the GM: "If you want an epic story stick together."
A great way to help the group create an identity can be to have an NPC say: "You're a really unusual group. Why are you together?" By answering this question in character during the game, the bonds of the group can strengthen.
If you have players missing a week or joining a game part-way through it can be a bit jarring. Personally I like to have one of two approaches. The first is to have the character of any player who is missing to just "disappear into the background". The character is still there but is never referred to and does not do anything: I think this is fine because people often have quiet days in real life and anyway this is a game and this a simple way to deal with the situation and allow the focus of the session to be on the people who turned up. Alternatively you could have some kind of explained in-game reason for people to disappear: perhaps there is a magic bottle that you can enter using a ring and the characters keep taking turns to enter the bottle and search for clues. At the start of a session anyone who is not there is in the bottle and when they return they get a one minute scene explaining what happened in the bottle which probably will be "not much". I have heard that other groups will have a character kidnapped so the game is about saving them, or maybe the character goes on ahead to scout or maybe the character falls ill. My concern will all of these is that my group often has people turn up late (due to real life demands on adults with children and jobs and such) plus I am not keen on giving the spotlight to the missing player. I think the players who are there should get the spotlight.
Narrative vs non-narrative logic: (My personal preference is to use a blend of both styles so that when the narrative logic helps them it actually feels like they pulled it off and not that I fixed it.)
Narrative: You can only arrive somewhere just in time or too late.
Non-narrative: You can theoretically get somewhere with plenty of time to spare.
Narrative: If you blunder into danger you'll end up captured and have an exciting escape sequence.
Non-narrative: If you blunder into danger you may die.
Narrative: Whether the characters go through the blue or the green door exactly the same thing is on the other side. The other door is then the place that needs visiting second in the story.
Non-narrative: If the characters go through the wrong door first they may immediately find out the secret in a boring way.
Be creative about how the characters meet other inhabitants of the world. The rustling might turn out to be deer. A roar and crashing of trees means it's coming for you; or is it going for something else hidden near you? And will a bigger monster take it down as it is about to smash into your camp? Perhaps howling wakes everyone up? Are you being followed? Did a dragon just swoop down and fly off with a pack horse? Did a thief just steal something un-noticed that the characters then find out later because someone tries to sell it to them on a market?
The interweb is full of random name generators and even things like random map generators to help make GMing easier. One excellent site is http://donjon.bin.sh/ and you can easily search for more.
A phrase I discourage in my games is "my character wouldn't do that". The challenge to the players is instead to create a reason as to "why my character would do that". Perhaps their character is being reminded of when they were young and they never got to prove themselves. Perhaps their character doesn't like to see innocent people being kidnapped because they saw this happen to their sister years ago and only their mother was brave enough to rescue her. Perhaps their character doesn't like the government and wants a chance to uncover a conspiracy. Perhaps their character fancies an NPC and want to impress them. And so on! This does not mean endlessly justifying a series of actions every few minutes: but I think it is appropriate at key moments where saying "no" would prevent the story from developing in an obviously interesting way (unless they can really justify how the alternative is good but if the rest of the group want to do something I sometimes ask the dissenting player to back down for the good of keeping a fun game flowing).
"But my character just doesn't care!" Well, if that is really the case perhaps stay in the background for a while and let the rest of the group have some fun. Ideally every story/adventure has elements continually interesting every character but it won't always be perfect.
Keeping it pacy. A classic problem I have seen is players spending ages preparing a camp in a fantasy game in case they get attacked at night: asking about the terrain, describing the watches, working out how they will sleep so they are ready to act quickly. I then find this really annoying if the GM then says "you wake up refreshed and ready to continue your hike". I just feel like we wasted our time. So, as a GM I often say things like: "If you don't have anything specific for your character to do we can skip to the morning. Is there anything particular you want to declare that you did before I continue the story?" (Are the players fumbling around making various choices and decisions without a compelling thing happening in the story? As GM I would immediately push things on and handwave away some time so we get to the next good bit!)
When describing NPCs I often struggle but good examples I have heard or read usually have something visual and something active such as "short and always licking his lips" or "yawning a lot and whenever his head falls foward you see his bald patch". But obviously this is not a hard-and-fast rule.
Questions? Ideas? Links for me to add? Contact me and I'd love to hear your thoughts.