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.