A Idea Concerning Interruptions

January 7, 2008

My group has been playing with an ever expanding roster lately, and we’re up to 7 players.  I’ve heard of much larger, but this is the biggest we’ve been.  We’re finding that interruptions and out-of-game chatter are strangling the fun.  So, an idea for raising awareness.  The idea here isn’t to punish or shame anyone, but simply to make people aware of how our game time evaporates.

So, here’s my idea: whenever someone interrupts a scene in progress or makes an out of character comment, they take a poker chip from a pile in the middle of the table.

That’s all.  At the end of the session, everyone will be able to see where the time goes and make a conscious choice how to act.  Maybe some people will change, maybe they won’t — but at least they’ll be aware of how much game time is devoted to things other than the game and of what it gets spent on.

A Vision For A Functional Group

December 23, 2007

There’s been an ongoing conflict in our group regarding styles and personal preferences.  I’m right at the center of it, because the things I’m after are quite a bit different than what people are used to from other players.  I’m essentially after “addressing a premise, answering a question” fun, while most of the group  members are after “tell a good story, emulate a particular thing, dream the dream” fun.

The perennial argument is about what the responsibility of the GM is in accommodating different notions of what a good game looks like.  Because others are used to dealing with each other and have very similar desires, supporting those styles is “easy.”  Since what I want is different, that’s “hard” — they don’t have as much practice with it.  To them, it looks like I am demanding a lot more from the GM, when really I just want different things.

Yesterday, someone said “But that’s pandering!” when I described my attempts to understand and provide, as much as possible, the kinds of fun that each player was after.  I realized that I find the concept of pandering to be self-contradictory.  Pandering means catering to other’s viewpoints, and implies that those viewpoints are less valid than the one you already hold.  But if your viewpoint is valid without basis, without justification, simply because its yours, then so is everyone else’s, just because it is theirs.

This realization catalyzed a new vision for what a functional group would look like to me:  The group members would each take responsibility for providing everyone’s fun, including their own.  They would acknowledge that each desired kind of fun is valid, and, in a sense, everyone would “pander” to everyone.

Another Practical Guideline

December 9, 2007

To these guidelines for GMing, I would like to add one more:

Instead of planning what the characters will do to the plot, plan what you and the plot are going to do to the characters.

So what does that mean? It’s an expression of the old wisdom “Once players get involved, nothing will go as you planned,” phrased in a way that focuses on what to do about it. And the what is: rather than planning out “the characters will go here and talk to this guy and then go fight whatever,” plan out “this guy will come to talk to the characters and try to convince them to fight whatever he needs them to fight.” And then maybe a fight will happen, or maybe it won’t. Or maybe the whatever will attack them by surprise mid-conversation.

See the difference? Good!

Group Rewards

December 5, 2007

How about rewarding the group for collaborative efforts? I don’t just mean in-the-fiction or dictated by the system here either. This could also apply to things like cutting down extraneous chatter, making sure everyone gets spotlight time, or collaborative setting creation.  It’s something that can be explored in almost any system, and could be overlaid on almost any game.

Out-of-character knowledge and exploration

December 5, 2007

I have a long-standing disagreement with one of the players in our group, and I’m just starting to make sense of it.  We have very different opinions on how to deal with information that either some or none of the characters have a reason to know.  One incident that highlights our differing opinions involved a two hour conversation in a separate room in order to keep details of someone’s character background secret form the rest of the group.  We had to postpone certain scenes until it was over, and predictably, everyone else was quite bored while this was going on.  To this person, the less than desirable effects on the rest of the group were regrettable, but acceptable in order to preserve alignment between in and out of character knowledge.  I have never found knowing things out of character to be a serious hindrance to my enjoyment of the game, and I’ve never found “surprising” twists and turns to be critical for me.

It occurred to me recently that one reason for our differing opinions is our differing goals.  He prefers to explore the parts of the game outside of his characters, while I prefer to explore the inner life of my characters.  So for me, knowing what’s coming up can help me set up situations that explore my character’s motivations and psychological state in interesting ways.  For him, knowing what’s coming up ruins his exploration.

On an even more general level, the core of this realization relates to the One True Way.  Just as there is no One True Way, there is no One True Goal or One True Technique.  Instead, there are lots of equally valid goals, and for each goal, lots of techniques for getting there.

So that’s how…

December 2, 2007

Over on SG, Ron Hammack’s humorous and insightful description of how he ran a D&D game.  Worth reading to the end.  Wait for it…

Collaboration and Participation Gone Wrong

November 29, 2007

During my session last night, we ran into the age old problem of characters spewing out endless streams of new plans without any of them being acted on.  In light of last night (and perhaps some of your roleplaying experiences too), this passage from a post by Levi Kornelsen on Story Games seemed worthy of reflection:

“Where collaboration can go south is when it becomes “shallow” and starts to override participation. When I stop really listening to your cool stuff, and start just waiting for my turn to speak, and add my own ideas, then I (and likely others) aren’t actually exploring the ideas already on the table. We’re just making up shit and piling it up. If nobody actually uses those ideas and takes them further, enjoys them, and participates in their exploration, then they are devalued.”

This problem seems to occur both in the planning phase of an adventure, and with the cool stuff contained in character backgrounds that never gets used.  This leads me to ask myself questions like:

  • How can I explore the ideas already on the table more fully than I currently do?
  • How can I encourage others to do the same?
  • What sort of concepts from a character background are most likely to be explored by the rest of the group?
  • Does it make more sense for me to rely on the GM to link the concepts important to my character into the story, or for me to do it myself?  Which one will result in group exploration more often?  Which has a higher chance of producing enjoyable, fulfilling, or rewarding play experiences?

Killing Sacred Cows

November 28, 2007

This thread over on Story Games is one of the best in recent memory.  It’s about the assumptions we hold about roleplaying.  There are also a number of threads titled “Kill a Cow: (whatever)” devoted to showing ways that the assumptions can be violated.

Technology for Self-Evaluation

November 27, 2007

Some time ago, while our group was discussing how best to elicit feedback for the GM, someone suggested that player feedback might be worth doing too. Most of us immediately said “No way!” It sounded like an excuse to air long standing grievances rather than honest effort to improve the situation. But there’s something at the core of his idea that might be worth examining: None of us are perfect players, and that means we have room to improve. I think this is something that many people, including me, don’t think about often.

So here’s an idea for prompting this kind of thought: After each session, ask each player a few questions. No one is allowed to answer or respond to the answers except the player in question.

“What did you do well this session?”

“What do you feel you can improve on?”

I think answering these questions has some value. Part of that is being prompted to think about it. Another part of it is that publicly committing to an answer encourages that thought to reach a conclusion. Of course, we’re all trapped inside of ourselves, so our own perspectives of ourselves won’t always line up with others’ perspectives. In this case, I think that’s OK. Growing and developing as a roleplayer is probably most rewarding when you’re growing in a direction of your own choosing.

Practical Guidelines for GMing

November 24, 2007

Remember the Dungeoncraft series of long ago? I was thinking about that recently, and I think there are some more secrets of GMing that deserve to be tacked onto the list. This is my compilation of GMing wisdom, with the middle two straight from Dungeoncraft:

Everything you create needs a hook.
Everything you create needs a secret.
Every secret you create needs clues.
Every NPC you create needs a motivation.

What are these guidelines supposed to accomplish? Let’s take a look.

Everything you create needs a hook. At it’s most basic, a hook is typically construed to mean “a way to get the party involved in an adventure.” Let’s expand it a little bit: a hook is a reason to interact with something. Since every adventure will presumably require the party to interact with a number of NPCs, monsters, traps, locations, and objects, it would be nice for them to have a reason to do so. So, each of these GM constructions should include its own hook, or have the hook provided by something else. A troll that attacks the party is its own hook; the hook for finding a long lost artifact can be provided by the scholar who tells the party about it. (But then, the scholar is going to need a hook too — unless he approaches the party, in which case he is his own hook.)

What problems does this approach overcome? Games that stall because the players don’t know what to do next, and reams of GM created material that went unused, to name a couple.

Everything you create needs a secret. The aim of this one is to ensure that there are always more things for the players to find out. It will make them feel that the game world has depth and prevent “nameless NPC #12” syndrome. The secrets don’t even necessarily need to be related to the adventure at hand. This one helps to make sure that GM created material gets reused. And it’s fun to run into NPCs you met long ago who become story relevant again.

Every secret needs clues. This one is pretty obvious: all those secrets you created will need to be discovered to add to the play experience. Also, they can be used to foreshadow later events. As I read recently, the “Aha!” experience is much more fulfilling when it’s preceded by the “Huh?” experience.

Every NPC needs a motivation. This is what makes the NPCs seem like real people, rather than cardboard cutouts — it’s another way to combat “nameless NPC #12” syndrome. These don’t necessarily need to be related to the adventure at hand either. They can just as easily come up again later, perhaps it conjunction with those secrets you created.

So, those are my four guidelines for GMing. They’re all focused on game prep, but they also make running a game much easier by improving the quality of the material you have to draw on. GMing tends to suffer from the snowball effect: small mistakes early on quickly turn into big problems down the road. By putting a little bit of extra work into your preparation at the beginning, you can avoid a lot of problems down the road — and thus save yourself a lot of work later on.