Saturday, 20 December 2014

More Lessons

As I said in the last post Eve, my wife, is rather keen on me doing another ten lessons I've learned, I think this is purely because this is my 20th year of gaming, which is I guess I should have kept my mouth shut about. Having had a think about it I came up with the following:

1. Keep the Game Moving: Pace is a difficult thing to get right, and it is also something that varies from group to group. One set of players will lovingly linger on a combat, relishing every bit of damage dealt out and every NPC death. Others will breeze through to try and get past the fracas as quickly as possible in order to get to the plot. The same can be seen in all aspects of a game, some players want action, action, action whilst others want to take their time and get an idea of place, shape and character. There are even players who will happily roleplay mundane things like shopping or going to the pub (one GM I had would happily let us sit our characters in the pub for a game session, talking in character and enjoying ourselves... whilst outside the plot moved on accordingly).

As a GM you have to learn the way your game operates and try to work out a compromise if its different to your own tastes. This includes pacing, if you love description and character conversation and the group want to cut the chatter and get to the head smacking; well ideally you should have sorted that out in the pre-game chat.

2. Give the Players a Place to Call Home: Everyone needs a place to rest their head, somewhere to feel safe and relax. Your PCs are no different. Establishing a place for them to let their guards down can let you establish some of the more high falutin' parts of the game as well as providing some of the more down to earth aspects like where they  buy new gear, or get existing equipment fixed. It can be a place to get new quests, hear local gossip or even just get blind drunk without worrying about a dagger in the back. In some games this concept of 'home' takes on a more significant role, in
Werewolf the Apocalypse for instance the Sept is the only place the characters can truly by themselves. In Ars Magica the Covenant allows characters to research their magic as well as providing a place of safety. Many of the New World of Darkness (and how odd it is to be using that term when the second iteration of WoD has been around for a decade), allow characters to go a step further and buy up a piece of supernatural real estate to use as their own, be it a spot in the Hedge or a simply duplicitous part of the world that allows them to hide more effectively.

3. Keep your Attention Balanced: This relates to the last point in the first 'lessons learned' blog and relates really to the players who are very 'alpha' and want to be the centre of attention. It's easy to let them grab centre stage and dominate the game, sometimes letting them rack up subplots the way they would point in a computer game. It's up to you to let other players get a fair crack of the whip. It's hard to drag attention away from the sociable players though and there's something of an art to it, though what it is I'm not sure as I've not mastered it (yet). This is something that's easier to do in smaller groups where lots of people are not trying to be heard and you can devote attention to everyone. I do recommend you work out what your optimum group size is and stick to it. Personally I find anything over four players gets me flustered and annoyed on a regular enough basis that I do not plan to go over that in future.

A slightly related topic is that players have a tendency to talk about anything and everything. Conversations about television, internet memes and other games can derail what you actually got together to do. Sometimes that's not a problem... but it can be annoying when your carefully planned out session gets held up not by a cunning twist but by a discussion  of Game of Thrones or comic books. It might be best to meet up early and get all the chat out of people's systems if this is something you encounter. Sadly, my own experiences are that in these situations you have many different conversations rippling around the table and nobody has a damn clue what's going on in the game.

4. Don't be Afraid to Change Things in a Game: I often feel this is somewhat contentious. It is an area that needs to be handled with care, but is going to come up if you're playing anything that tries to cleave to the real world and its history, because frankly the past was sexist, racist, dirty and full of disease. If you have players who do not want to approach that sort of material then you will have to make some changes. In a Victorian game, for example, waiving the need for women to be chaperoned may well make female players happy, whilst the chance that characters might die from food poisoning in something like Dark Ages Cthulhu seems distinctly like unfun., It is not just limited to historical or quasi -historical games however. In a game of Exalted, Regent Fokuf's name might evoke so much laughter he becomes impossible to use as a character. I usually moderate the addiction rules in SLA Industries to give Frothers a longer lifespan because otherwise it does not seem worth them being played (thank the Gods for Chain UltraViolence).

So changes, anyway, can be advantageous.

This does not mean 'change things willy nilly' though, I feel strongly that the game designers will
have chosen to present their game in a certain way in order to evoke a mood or theme and if you start monkeying about with it you might well end up destroying what they were trying to create. Taking Qin or Warhammer 40K and shoehorning a Dungeons and Dragons module into them is not something I recommend, even though I have only experienced it from the perspective of a player as the assumptions and styles are too diverse to work properly.  Changes should always consider this and how different games work. Every game is written with a different idea in mind, or we would never have seen the market as we know it evolve; there would just be Dungeons and Dragons in a variety of different flavours (Space Dungeons and Dragons, Urban Fantasy Dungeons and Dragons, Crime Dungeons and Dragons etc). The fact that Wizards of the Coast discovered the Open Game License they issued for D&D Third Edition delivered diminishing returns suggests that this is not a market that would have been sustainable and that as players and GMs we should keep design goals in mind whatever we do.

5. Let the Players Write the Plot: All those ideas you have in your head, the ones that are great and seem full of potential? Forget them and listen to the players. If you have the right type then what they come up with will be twice as good and you will be rewarding them for coming along and playing by using their ideas. There is another thing here too, it helps to create a virtuous circle between the two sides of the table, underlining that for all the GM and player labels you are actually on the same side - the one that wants to build a fun game and have a good time.

6. Divvy up the Hospitality: The thing players like to do, apart from talk, is eat. Most gaming tables have some sort of snack etiquette and it is common for there to be food at most gaming tables. It also becomes obvious over time that there are people who do not contribute and people that do. In the name of fairness you should have some sort of rota rather than relying on pot luck, or you may end up with a feast or famine situation with either too much food or even none at all. Depending on where you play it might be worth considering who your host is too, if they are paying for electricity and drinks, then they should really get a pass on the food buying front.

Beyond that remember simple courtesy and be nice.

7. Keep a Sense of Humour: A lot of the stuff I am talking about here seems really heavy and if you look at it in a certain light, terrifying - the last few points relate to how to survive as a GM. First, keep a sense of humour. You are running this for fun and taking it too seriously, which I have in the past, is just going to make you stressed and make the game no fun. Most gamers are dirty minded, so you can expect penis jokes and double entendres with little or no warning and really, it's best to roll with it.

8. Don't be Afraid to Take your Time: In play you are going to encounter something that makes you go 'oh shit'. This might be a characters actions or something that you have overlooked (for instance, if you plan to do a ghouls based plot involving a motorway and crashed cars then you should really give the players a reason to go and investigate, not just try to survive). What do you do when the players assassinate an uber important NPC or manage to piss off the king (who you've managed to get them to like and listen to)?

First, breathe and take your time. Take five and let the players talk whilst you work something out. Second, don't punish them for their ingenuity and third, be honest. If they've thrown you a curve ball so bad that you cannot deal with it, put the game on hold, play a board game and pick up the next session. Lastly, if the worst comes to the worst, talk to them and get them to suggest solutions. I know that in traditional circles this is not really done... but if everyone is on the same team (the having fun one) then sometimes its best to get the players to help out, especially if they helped make the mess in the first place.

9. GMs game to have fun too: This is something that sometimes seems to be forgotten, it is easy for players to get into a mind set that sees you as a entertainer, or doing it because it is your nature to do so. There can be an assumption that somehow you are psychic too, able to provide what players want with them never actually expressing it. Remember that you game to have fun, if you stop enjoying running the game then stop running it too and let someone else take over for a while. Burn out happens, stress happens and fun activities stop being so because of the amount of stuff that gets landed on your shoulders, both by life and by the hobby.

This is where I hit one of my bugbears for gaming. GMing is a lot of work, away from the table you plan and stat, sometimes having to chase the players to see if they're available for gaming and so on. Labour saving devices,  often sites like Obsidian Portal etc can look like a blessing but at the same time they can actually just add to the work you have to do. At the table you have to keep things moving and have everyone on the same page, even if the characters are in totally different places. Frankly it feels, sometimes, like players take the piss a bit and just make life more difficult and the fun of the game gets affected. In the interests of being completely open I know that there are times when I have been one of those players and I have also run games where I have had those players in the group. All in all it is a bad place to be in and is not at all helpful to anyone.

 10. Don't be Afraid to Walk Away: This last, I'm afraid to say does happen. People change, work gets too much, new players join and their play styles and expectations change the way the group works. Sometimes, sadly, it gets too much and you're too out of step with the group for things to be enjoyable anymore. At that point it really is best to bow out as gracefully as you can and start fresh. The friendships that are worth the effort will remain and its worth remembering that 'friends always play together' is a bit of a geek fallacy; you can be great friends with someone away from the table, and find them obnoxious to game with (and that's okay).  Seriously, there is more to life than gaming, and if it stops being fun, then stop.

The danger here is that because being a GM carries so much responsibility it is very easy to assume that it is your fault if this happens. It is not, please remember that other people threw in their tuppence too, so the blame, if there is any, should be shared. Be kind to yourself, this is a hard job but can be very rewarding.

And... that's your lot. I'm all out of pearls of wisdom. I hope you enjoyed reading it, please let me know if you agree/disagree with what I've put and I'm sorry that this blog was not as anecdotal as the last one.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Lessons Learned: Ten Things I've Learned about GMing.

 As I'm pondering about gaming and what's referred to as 'best practice' in the hellish circles of administration in which I labour in my real life, I've started to realise that I've actually learnt some stuff about running games over the past 20 or so years where I've been a roleplayer. I've started to try and gather some of it together into one place and put it to use.  Given how many games I've run that have failed (most of them since you ask), I do feel a bit of a fraud but at the same time, I believe that we exist in a 'try, fail, try again, fail better' situation even within the hobby and that if you don't stop to think about your mistakes then you're going to repeat them ad nauseum.

Below, I've put down ten things I've learned, with some collaboration from my friend Bert via email. They are a  mixture of 'game hacks' to help things move more smoothly and general things that really need to said from time to time because its easy to get carried away.

 1. Get players to generate characters together: This practice has a number of advantages. First you avoid players making duplicate characters, you get people talking and developing links between characters, building a more cooperative party. You can also use it to work out common skills and if what you have planned as a GM is going to fit the party (though I would hope that if you have a game planned with lots of investigation and the players want to spend their time in combat, that would have come up when you pitched the game in the first place).

The other important thing here is that you don't get characters that are out of phase with everyone else. To use a hypothetical example, if you are running a low down game of Call of Cthulhu, you may welcome a character who is all big muscles and gun skills... or you may look at them and think the player has rather missed the point and is going to spend a lot of time being bored. Either way it is a situation that might have been avoided if they had done their character in a group session rather than on their own.

2. Don't Double Up: ultimately everyone whose playing a game wants some time in the sun, even the quietest players want to feel they're contributing... (this is what I call 'usefulness' - if the character isn't useful then the player might feel they're wasting their time). I hate to say it, but that's the GM's responsibility. I've long been of the opinion that the character sheet is often a message to the GM and that paying attention to what's on them is a basic part of running something.

The most basic thing though is to let everyone have their own niche and opportunities to contribute through that. I should add here that this really does tie into system, point buy games are a lot more
forgiving than class or career based ones; and there's a codicil that the latter tend flatten out a lot more because they depend a lot less on skills and more on attributes. But it can still cause issues especially when the game's just starting. When I started out running RPGs I ran a game of  Vampire the Masquerade set in Florence which had two Brujah in the group (in my defence, this was, literally, the second game I ran). Whilst this isn't as much of a problem as it is in other games, it still slanted the game decidedly towards the Rabble in the focus it had and it proved to be a struggle to keep both characters from attempting the same thing and make both players happy if only because they had the same powers and weaknesses.

3. Don't allow new joiners part way through a game unless you're prepared to sit down and integrate them properly. Phew, what a mouthful.... but it is an important point. Any group that does things together will develop a culture, a way of doing things, and in RPGs they'll learn ways to succeed. Adding new people stirs everything up, changing the picture, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.

What I've found over the years is that its actually very hard to expand a game that's already going on, without making fundamental changes to it. A group that's chugging along quite happily with three players can struggle when players 4 and 5 join, because the ideas in the game change and there are more people to include, which can change the nature of what the PCs are doing, especially if those new players want different things to the original group. In addition integrating the new PC into the existing group can prove to be a challenge especially if there's no real reason for them to accept the newcomer beyond 'they're another PC'. I recall a game of SLA Industries I ran where a new player joined up and his character didn't gel with the others at all to the extent that it often seemed he would have been better served in a different squad because he didn't get the 'culture' the original three characters had developed over their adventures.

The other side of the fence is that, if your game is successful, you're likely to get more people wanting to join the fun and it often seems unfair to turn people away simply because you don't want to include them. It cuts against the 'hobby' and sociability aspects of gaming.

This is where the second part of the sentence above picks up, though its difficult to say how I'd handle it from practical experience, though I think I managed it okay once. In theory I'd like to get the new player to sit in on a few sessions (not too many because gaming in front of a spectator feels weird) so they get a handle on where the game is and what the group's tone is like before sitting down with them and talking about what they want to play and how their character will fit. Alternatively I'd suggest taking a break and running something short and light to see what the new player's like before committing them to your big game (which may well be your magnum opus).

4. Make plots personal: This is where one of my prejudices kicks in. I hate it when I'm told what's important in a game, and can't see a reason why (at the most extreme this manifests as, 'he's the King you say, okay now tell me why I should care'). I believe good plots and stories flow from the personal, the small concerns and cares of the PCs that grow in size. In short, they need something to fight for, rather than just something to fight. The fate of their village in the spring when an ogre has woken from hibernation and it out to get fat by gorging on the village's livestock, young men and maidens, is probably a stronger hook than a kidnapped princess; at the start of the game anyway.

Obviously you need to handle it carefully to make sure the spotlight is shared and the game doesn't become the amazing adventures of Shiny McShiny of Clan Shiny and his hangers on. But the principal is sound. 

5. Expect the unexpected: No matter how much planning you do, a game is like a battle: within the first half hour of the game your plan is just so much junk., and in the best games that happens faster because your fellow players are busy writing plot as quickly as you are. And that's when the game's going well (the alternative is often a group that stares at you blearily without a clue or will to do anything but lap up what you give them). The other thing is that players will pick up things you throw in as flavour and run with them. Your raiders who have absconded with Old Time technology get away scot free because your PCs are busy poking about in the new bunker that's been found under the old Air Force base. Cue much scrambling to put together a back up plan because of course the PCs are more interested in the ruins and you have nothing to serve up to entertain them with. 
6. Keep the Party Connected to the World: This really relates to point 4, because it concerns keeping players involved and their characters at the centre of the world's gaze. To do that I believe that the game world needs some sort of 'depth', a sense that its a little bit real. A world that feels like its painted onto flats can ruin it for me (apocryphal, but I remember a Dwarf city a friend of mine
created, the arcades of shops and so on, with fondness, because he made it feel real). I tried to do the same with Roadside, a place I created for Atomic Highway, which I tried to make as real as possible and to make the feeling of a living, breathing community that actually mattered, rather than a faceless place where scenery was winched on and off stage by increasingly cranky cranes.  

This also relates to what I refer to as the 'PC Bubble' - the idea that there's a space where the Player Characters exist and interact with the world. In a tight bubble they only interact with people who are enemies, patsies and saps - even shopping becomes an automated process, which probably isn't a bad thing as it can be dull. A 'loose' bubble is more forgiving, allowing lovers, friends and even a place 'where everyone knows your name' (which isn't the local prison). Returning to the idea of the game pyramid, if you focus on action and the 'game' aspects of the hobby too much, it does suggest to me that you'll end up with a tight bubble, whilst an emphasis on the roleplaying/drama side might make things a bit too much of a soap opera. Each has its place, its about mixing and matching your game's tone until you get something that fits.

7. Keep Things Clear:  Ideally players should always have an idea of what they are doing and trying to achieve. Their objectives shouldn't get lost in a fog of 'stuff'. This is somewhere where I've fallen down in the past. Once, running a game of Vampire, I tried to spin the game towards intrigues within the Camarilla (I especially wanted the PCs to discover that the Prince had been raised by a Follower of Set and was slowly doing things to make the city's vampires dependent on the pair of them for blood). I fluffed it and the players felt lost because there wasn't any clear clue as to the direction they should take.

This, of course, is related to...

8. Don't Overfill the Game: There's a huge temptation to throw in loads of plots - especially in urban campaigns where it follows that lots of things going on at the same time. Cities teem with life and to me its always felt wrong if the PCs are unaware of other things that are going on - even if its something as innocuous as one of the NPCs having an affair with a hot young artist or as important as a Professor of Archeology's ongoing dig at a set of mysterious old ruins outside of town. These things often act as plot feeders, letting new adventures rise organically rather than yet another mysterious benefactor or haunted house appearing suddenly when the PCs are broke.


That's the theory anyway... in practice it doesn't work that way. Instead you end up with too much on the table and players who have no idea what's going on. Even if you meant things to be clear and straightforward the choice paralysis factor alone means your game grinds to a halt. This is something I managed to pull in, um, a lot of games and I'm not proud of it (hi my name is Steve and I'm an overplotter). A game of Legend of the Five Rings I ran ended up with a conspiracy to summon monsters into the Spine of the World Mountains, two clans at war, an army of Ronin, a love affair between one of the characters and the group's sponsor, another between a PC and a Scorpion samurai who was planning to use their child to blackmail him later on. In addition to that there was taint in the Realm of Beasts, a problem with the Lion clan who were suspicious about the death of one of their own and a fallen samurai who was one of the character's nemesis.

All in all its a bit much, isn't it (and you know I think there's more to throw in but I have spent the last few years trying to forget that particular game because I ended up tired and stressed out). On the other hand you need enough in the game that if things get dull you can switch tracks to something more interesting, even if its only for a short period of time. This, of necessity, means you have to have more in the game than just one storyline.... it is just best not to have oodles instead. In future I intend to set myself a limit of three plots to juggle (so for instance, the local wizards are plotting to take control of the nobility, a group of bandits are causing problems for local travellers and ghostly figures have been seen in the local woods), and only add new ones when they're exhausted - hopefully from the things the players provide.

In general I try to do what I refer to as 'Big Plot, little plot' - which is to say I set up an overarching plotline and then set up small adventures that feed into it, allowing the PCs to gather information and data about the big plot as they go through the smaller ones. It doesn't always work, but I prefer it to 'small plot, small plot, small plot' where nothing feels connected and the PCs might as well just be a bunch of mercenaries.

Taking points 7 and 8 together in future, when I run a game again, I'm going to steal something from Bert - a simple email 'round robin' every week to bring players up to date and keep the game's events fresh in their minds. I might add a slight wrinkle in getting the group to say what they think is important at the end of each session, rather than imposing my view on them. Bert also uses them to provide information that would be tedious to deliver in game, which has the added bonus of making the information reusable.

9. Make the Non Player Characters Interesting: These are characters you want PCs to like/hate, they're the second most important people in the game after the PCs.. At the very least they should be interesting enough to talk to. Dull NPCs mean dull gaming in my experience and GMs should always be happy to ham it up and add some much needed definition and character to NPCs. If your players can't tell the supporting cast apart, you're doing something wrong.

This is an area where I've managed to be both brilliant (though I do say so myself) and terrible. One Mage game had the players confused over who was who - my attempts to use Dante from the official NPCs were a disaster and they thought he was a white dude (so much fail). On the other hand I really think I knocked it out of the park with Donatien, the depraved and rather Sadean Toreador ex Prince of Vanity, who rejoiced in feeding on the terrified to the extent that he was a walking Masquerade breach. Tomoko the Imperial Cartographer in Legend of the Five Rings was another good character, she was in her early thirties and determined to enjoy herself by drinking too much, having copious amounts of sex and generally living in a disreputable fashion.

10. Keep Everyone Involved/Be Aware of Your Group:  I guess this returns to my first few points. Its easy to get carried away and focus on the players who talk the most and push their way to the front of queue. It's a difficult area, one with a lot of ramifications and a lot of what might be called 'moving parts'. First you have to know your players and know who needs the spotlight, who is naturally a bit of a wallflower and who sits between the two. Related to that is being able to read the room, getting an idea of when you've overplayed something and when, even though you're desperate to get on with the adventure the players want to linger and develop their characters. There's also the issue of subject, I've always thought it fitted the game to drop fetishism and BDSM into Vampire the Masquerade for instance, others... aren't so keen. Similarly some players get jumpy about paganism or shamanism, even in games where it's baked into the setting. If you hit that kind of subject you're going to lost players' interest and might find they bottle up. At the most extreme they might walk out completely. Which isn't to say don't include that kind of thing, but put it on the back  burner if you've got someone who's going to get upset by it, even if you feel it is a natural fit.

There's also the problem that sometimes, only very occasionally, players can feel left out because they get overruled by other players chewing the scenery and being the centre of attention... which I suspect I've done in the past, albeit never intentionally. A good GM keeps an eye out and draws other players in, either through various challenges specific to their skill set or by outright asking them. Character sheets can be used to identify what areas are important to which character, an interest in botany might lead you to set up a poison related plot line and allow you some more spotlighting time. 

That's the lot for now (Eve has suggested I do another ten because I've been gaming for twenty years but I'm not sure... nevertheless, consider this a warning *cackle*). Do you agree with the list? Let me know.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Games Mastering

As I ponder dipping my toe back into roleplaying, coming to the realisation that this means looking for an entirely new group from top to bottom (with the exception of my wife), I find myself stopping in wonderment at what a strange thing the roleplaying game is. Strange too is the role of the Games Master, Storyteller, Referee, whatever you want to call the person who tries to put it all together and make the thing work.

Please note that this blog does have examples, which are entirely fictional (and yes I made the games up too). There are no intentional references to persons living or dead within this blog post.

Gaming sits in a peculiar confluence between story, game system, action and acting, all ruled by that most subjective of values; fun. The perfect roleplaying experience balances on the peak of a pyramid, each side of which is one of these four elements. If it slips down one side too far the experience runs the risk of becoming 'unfun' for someone in a group, something that only emphasises the importance of being on the same page. Group style varies so much that a lot of how a game runs boils down to a matter of taste, especially as all gamers are playing for something different. If player x cares about tactics whilst player y is all about the power; player z meanwhile wants to play his character to their fullest, and its the GM's job to make that all work. To complicate matters further groups develop their own mini cultures, which are often resistant to change. What works for one group won't work in another and a lot of what makes games work is actually the ephemeral, everyday things like good communication and compromise between players (and the GM - but the GM is actually just another player, surely?) and nothing to do with the product, system or campaign. 

This is, to me, at the heart of any roleplaying experience. If you can't get everyone to contribute and agree on what they want, there's no point in even doing character generation. Ideally I'd like to get to a point where rather than the traditional GM/player divide (which as I grow older feels fundamentally unfair as the GM runs off to scribble down lots of plots, characters and so on whilst the players just turn up and, in a lot of cases, break things) there was a sort of 'editor's meeting' with everyone throwing ideas into a hat; real or metaphorical. I seek co-conspirators, not an audience. I'm not looking to write a novel; if you want me to put the work for a novel into my gaming, guess what, I'm going to go off and write one and the game can be damned. At least with a novel I stand a chance of getting published and making a living (of sorts anyway).

I'd include how settings are interpreted in this bracket. Its very easy to sanitise settings to make them approachable, but that comes at the cost of flavour. A good GM should always discuss their vision of the world before hand and see what players think. Whilst a game should always be approachable, I do feel that game designers create settings and systems to promote certain styles of play and it is easy to throw the baby out with the bath water. Stripping the things that made and informed the culture that created the French Revolution out of Shadows of the Guillotine, for example, leaves us with what, exactly?

The idea that players should do more than just turn up and play is nothing new, back in the 1990s White Wolf were talking about it in their Storyteller's Guides as open chronicle design. Hell the second thing I picked up for Vampire the Masquerade explicitly laid out the idea that the game isn't the GM's, but the players', and I imagine there were books in the '70s and '80s that did the same. Like everything else gaming is generational; every decade's designers thinks they got it 'right'. More recently, games like FATE or the new wave of World of Darkness, or if you want to go for really 'hippie' games, Microscope, have taken this and run with it, encouraging groups to talk about what they want and hammer out deeper, more rounded characters. FATE of course goes further, because there are no XP in the game, a lot of the games published with that system encourage the GM to make a character too, further diluting the distinction between GM and player (good, as its a load of baloney, the GM is more like the designated driver than anything else, sure you have additional responsibilities but at the same time you're still going out to have a good time).

Again this seems simple, after all we know what narratives and stories appeal to us as readers and watchers, so why do we let ourselves be content with expressing no opinion at all when someone asks us what we want at the gaming table? Surely we should be specific; nobody is a mind reader and it isn't fair to expect them to be. As GMs we shouldn't expect a player who hates politics but loves combat to warm to Vampire, or their  anti-matter universe twin to love Dungeons and Dragons. But that only works if players communicate too, and really unless you're going for a very safe game, everyone needs to say what they want and if there are any things they don't want in the game. To borrow from jargon, anything else isn't safe, sane or consensual.

I've developed similar quibbles with a couple of other areas. First, I dislike the 'play anything' idea at character generation. I've been in enough games that ended up with me feeling like a fifth wheel to be wary of it. This might just be how I feel of course and I know its subjective; and I'm sure that players in my games have felt that way too - I'm not seeking to claim any moral high ground here. But it still sucks to feel like that - for example if in a game of Martian Death Race Bob has designed a character who is all about business whilst the others have built racing crew members and drivers (who solve mysteries, obviously) and the GM is focusing on track side plots where there's lots of sabotage, driving skill checks and so on,  Bob might well feel like he's made the wrong character for the game and that the GM should have given him more guidance, even if it was advising him to get some practical skills on the sheet in addition to the Business, Economics and Financial Forensics skills he has.

A clear idea of what will make my character successful in the game is far more preferable; especially if the system doesn't channel characters down the route of being almost the same the way Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay does. As soon as you're out of this bracket, some sort of idea of what will work is needed. Legend of the Five Rings states this outright, tying character choice to the type of campaign in many ways and encouraging GMs to state what types of character they want in their games; and the concept is baked into a lot of modern games, simply because many character types are limited by geography. Often just a simple statement of 'there'll be lots of fighting to put your combat skills first' could be what gets everyone on the same page and that's what I feel we're aiming for here. Failing that, judicious use of spotlighting is a must, to bring characters who are in danger of being neglected into focus.

I've also grown less keen on surprises too, especially if they relate to a character's past and the GM is dropping it on the player without them knowing and consenting to it before hand. Its too easy to hit a trigger issue, and I think its better to veer on the side of caution than to risk your game by being bull headed and laissez faire. If Joe in a game of Metal Pulse Imperium puts in a scene that changes Marley's characters background to something that acts as a trigger or touches on a phobia, then its a problem. The onus is on him to discuss it with her before bringing it into play, and if he doesn't then it is on her to raise it after gaming. This is a two way street.

Returning to the idea of the pyramid, if the campaign slips too far down the pyramid's game system and action sides I start to get antsy, it stops being fun. I like stories, I like to talk in character and do a bit of acting - to the extent that long fight scenes feel boring because the game starts to drag (for me at least). I like to have some weight to conversations and have fond memories of a Werewolf the Apocalypse game where I pretty much ad libbed a ritual to summon a spirit. These are the things that are important to me, the things that if I had a group at present I would be pushing for more of.

To close then, what is the point of my waffle? I suppose its my GMing manifesto in a sense, my market stall of what I want in games. These are my ethics, my view of how I want to do things and how it should all work, with people first, game second and an end to the artificial break between the GM and the player. Beyond that I guess we'll see.