Thursday, December 29, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Famous Players

...And the Games Which Begat Us
Every once in a while, I'll post a piece and at the next game I'll hear, "Man, Lowell...someone pissed you off." I've usually taken on a particular player pet peeve, pointed at a bad behavior, or a addressed problems I've seen at the game table. They're often ones I (and other GMs) have wrestled with. Breaking down player types, trying to identify disruptions & riff on solutions, and figuring out "what went wrong" are easy fallback topics in many ways. They offer the illusion of being practical.

But here's the thing- I have really good players. More often than not, I'm not talking about the present games. Most of the problems I've talked about over the last couple of years, the biggest ones- well, they're in the past. I'll admit that it is easier to focus on the negative, to pick out what goes wrong in a group than to pick out what goes right. With that in mind, I want to analyze what my players do well.

Right now I have a solid core group of a dozen players spread across five campaigns. In the extended group beyond that, I know about another dozen who I've played with or met and would play with again. We've lost a few people from the group over the last few years, but generally that's been about incompatibility. And we'll leave that at that. I want to focus on the positive here.

I love having a diverse cast of background characters- and the players usually do as well. They're open to the extra detail of having lots of names, knowing that they get greater choice about interactions and relationships. The players generally treat NPCs realistically- not assuming them to be cardboard cutouts, tools for the GM or a means to screw them over. Attitudes may shift once they get to know the NPCs, but players understand that an NPC has his own agenda and desires, existing for themselves and not for the party. At the same time, the players assume that should the players wish to engage to conflict with an NPC, that will be handled realistically. The shopkeeper won't turn out to be 50th level, an urchin won't be an assassin, etc. The players don't read NPCs as Mary-Sue characters who can't be overcome or as tenpins to be knocked over.

The group's unselfish. That's a trait that really demonstrates mature play. If a player knows they're about to get a chance at a big scene, more often than not, they'll bring along another player to share in the action. If someone hasn't gotten as much table time, the players are just aware of that as I am and try to push that forward. If another player wants to interact with an NPC that a player has a standing relationship with, they encourage that. If someone's had the center-stage for a long time, they'll usually step back in the next scene. If other players need help or support, the players inevitably step up to the less glamorous task of backing someone up.

Just as the GM strives to say Yes or Yes, But... instead of No, my players do the same thing with each other and with plot, subplots and details that I throw at them. They don't negate things but take those elements and run with them. They're excellent improvisers and quick on their feet.

When presented with a challenge, my players rise to it. I'm not talking about the easy stuff like combat. Combat's a fallback- a place where people have solid ground underneath them, and mechanics to back them up. No, what I mean is that when my players face real questions: moral dilemmas, character development questions, social challenges, problems requiring sacrifice- they don't shut down. They might grind their teeth, they might wrestle with the problem, they might get upset (in character) about the costs involved- but they rise to deal with it. They don't pout, they don't get angry, they don't go passive-aggressive at the table. They use those challenges as a chance for drama, a chance to show who they are, and a chance to move the story in the direction they want.

Good Losers
They don't like to lose, but when they do- they run with it. They deal with setbacks and use them as a motivation to push themselves forward. They expect me to be fair with that, and give them serious obstacles but not GM fiat losses. They also know that I'm careful with some of the player hot-button issues (like hostages, surrender and being captured) and pull those out rarely.

I have a group of players who approach problems in very different ways. Some tend to direct, some to sneaky, some to negotiation, and some to crazy. Combine that with differences in what the players value in terms of solutions- compromise, victory, a heap of bloody corpses and you end up with some radically different takes on the game. But the players work through those differences. They balance those contradictory impulses. They talk to one another. Everyone gets a voice.

I had a player several years ago get really angry at the table because the other players were discussing an approach to invading a bad guys stronghold. He hated the need for discussing at all at the table- everything had to be get 'em. He doesn't play with us anymore. Planning is a part of play for most of the group- a chance to discuss options, figure out player strengths and call on resources. Players who step up to the leadership role are usually pretty good about involving everyone in that discussion. Everyone participates in that process.

On the flip side, my players don't overplan. They talk about what they can do, they assess possible obstacles, and consider solutions- but they don't dwell on every conceivable obstacle. They know that sometimes they have to just jump. We've also worked out some openness with that- if the players have taken at least some time to talk about their approach, they gain some room to "retcon" preparations. They have the tools they need, they can spend resources like drama points to set things up, etc. They also know that challenges and surprise are part of the game. Sometimes things go like clockwork and sometimes a monkey-wrench comes flying their direction. But they trust the table enough to be willing to go forward.

I've been playing with some of this group for many, many years. We've played through many of the classic genres and tropes (fantasy, horror, supers) but my players still manage to throw me for a loop. I tend to set up open-ended situations, without defining solutions or exits. I count on them to be able to figure something out- I trust in their abilities. But from time to time, they absolutely blow my mind with the connections they make, the ideas they pull out and the approaches they take. They've completely turned the direction of campaigns around more times than I care to count. Years ago, that might have been grounds for me to retool the plot to make it more challenging, but now I try to reward inspirational success like that.

At the same time, I can pull out surprises for my players- and they're generous enough to admit shock. I'd say I manage to pull out fewer of those twists on them than they do on me, but they're pretty smart as a collective group and as individuals.


I try not to run when I'm sick, tired or off my game. But it happens. Just as players have sessions that don't click for them, I do too. They're willing to take a skip week if necessary. When I quit smoking a couple of years ago, just as I was coming off three weeks of bronchitis, all combined with my birthday ending up crummy, most of the players were incredibly gracious and generous towards me. They're good people.

No Lawyers
Rules rarely come up in the group. If I'm wrong about a rule, the players know enough to mention it after a game or scene is done (unless it will dramatically impact the moment). They're tactful and good with their criticism, never coming at me antagonistically. Rarely, if ever, do we end up going to the books to look things up and bringing the game to a halt.

New Things
I'd say only a few people in the group seriously follow what's happening in rpg gaming. You end up with a couple of folks who keep an eye on that, myself included. I read a lot of gaming blogs and try to see what's going on with new games. And every once in a while I bring some of those things to the table: new techniques for character examination, new approaches to resolution, new mechanics for handling sub-systems like chases. Most of these are experiments and some of them work better than others. The groups are really good about willing to try those out. That's how we've ended up with an evolving homebrew that's picked up a lot of elements of FATE in the last year. Its how we used a modified version of Night's Black Agents chases for a fantasy session last Friday, and its how we decided to use Microscope as a tool for play.

But at the same time, the group's willing to speak up and advocate for what they do or don't like. They like some systems and games and speak up for them. That keeps the worst of my toolboxing tendencies in line. They seriously consider what they like about Game X vs. Game Y and will talk about that. I'm never worried that they aren't giving me their straight opinion on something.


They make me like their characters. That's not to say they always have likable characters- but when they have more prickly characters they balance that with vulnerabilities. They openly show their weakness and secrets, because playing those out at the table is more fun than being angsty and brooding. Ward's hard-bitten commander in HALO seemed like a gritty *sshole...until we ran into an alien race that terrified him with flashbacks from a mission gone wrong. Sherri's Wizened Changeling Sarah No-Tears is prickly and angry, but she explicitly addresses that in her play. It undercuts her in some situations and she lets the other players use it to wind her up. Chas; crazed fire warlock loves her pet dog magic item. Even when their characters are solidly good guys, they have flaws that make them sympathetic. Sergei's a handsome and noble hero, but he worries about the responsibility that brings. He has the pressure of expectations hanging over him- not all the time, but enough that his character feels solid and human.

My players like growing their characters. Beyond the concrete markers of spending points or adding levels, they like to evolve and change their characters. They learn from their mistakes and make new ones. If they have a tragic past, they might work to overcome that, fall back, and then struggle forward some more. They like playing limitations and flaws and enjoying figuring out opportunities to advance and move beyond those. They also know that secrets, flaws, plots and backstories don't mean anything unless they actually get played out at the table. That makes them much more open about dealing with and addressing those issues.

I really trust my players. And I think that they've got a degree of trust in me. I trust that they will rise to the occasion, and that's why I throw heavy stuff at them sometimes. I trust that they will talk to me if they're not enjoying something in the game. I trust that they'll mention and point to plots and stories that they really want to see played out. Trust doesn't come easily- it is a currency built up over time. I'm lucky enough to have a dynamite group, and I keep working to make sure I earn and repay their trust.

I have to thank a great group of players for an excellent year of gaming. I got the chance to participate in some campaigns that were an absolute blast to run. I also had the chance to play in a superb Fallout campaign run by Dave Enyeart, who sets the bar pretty high for me with his preparation, story and attention to detail.

My thanks to this year's group Sherri, Steve, Scott, Kenny, Dave, Sharon, Ward, Jacque, Chas, Jeanne, Alan, Chris, Rob, Gene, and Kali.

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