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.

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