Thursday, April 11, 2013

Table Management Strategies: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 8

In this episode of the podcast with talk about table management- the crunchy idea of how you "run" the game table. We cover many issues tied to this: pacing, combat timing, distractions, maintaining flow and so on. GMs have to have many skills, but table management may be the most crucial. I've seen great and imaginative games brought down because the GM didn't have a handle on how to make the players feel involved, how to offer options, and how to give the individual players a sense of importance in the context of the game. I've seen GMs who clearly weren't ready for a session still pull things out because they motivated their group to come up with their own fun and spin off to find new threads. 

Table Management Strategies

A few additional thoughts hit me in listening to the podcast:

1. TRUST: We mentioned trust, and I can't overstate the importance of that. The GM has to establish goodwill and trust with the group. Players have to believe they're going to have their own turn, their own opportunities,  their own scenes. If I trust I'm going to get something cool, I'm more willing to sit and listen to the GM give attention to the other players. I'll enjoy their stories because I know I'm going to get mine. I've run for players who've tried to jump into every scene- because they've played in games where they had to do that to get any table time. I work hard to show they don't have to do that.

2. ONLINE: I’ve run now about three dozen sessions online using G+ or Roll20. I think there’s a whole show worth of material on running games well using those tools. One video which helped me get enough courage to actually try it was this lengthy YouTube video. Running online faces the same challenges of managing or participating in a remote meeting. One of my campaigns, Changeling the Lost, focuses less on combat and tactical choices and more on narrative and interactions. We don’t use a map- the most sophisticated add-on to the actual play is Screenshare and a wiki. The video feed for each participant helps, but there’s still a gap between that experience and f2f. You don’t have as many cues, the GM shares the attention-space with the players, and gestures & expressions can easily be lost. I’ve noticed an ebb and rise in the conversation. People will start to talk, realize they’re talking over one another, and then pull back to talk less- resulting in energetic moments contrasted with pauses. Luckily, the more players play with one another, the better they get. The online GM has to make clear when someone has their turn- naming names and so on. There’s also the impact of these sessions being only two hours long every week.

On the other hand, the other campaign I run has no visual player feedback. That’s Mutants and Masterminds using Roll20. We use Skype for the audio as it avoids some of the chat lag we got early on. In this case no one has a video feed. There’s a shared map, with tokens when we get to combat. But out of combat it is pure radio play. In combat I have the advantage of the initiative tracker showing players when their turn is coming up. We didn’t have that with Tabletop Forge, and I’m surprised what a difference that makes. Outside of combat, I try to be really explicit about whose turn it is- i.e. who has the scene. If someone interrupts, I explicitly acknowledge their question and tell them that I will answer it after I’ve finished with the current player. One dose of that and players learn to be more careful. On the other hand, because the players aren’t on camera they can more easily step away from their machine or mute their microphone (thankfully). That means more gaps when I call on them and don’t get a response. I’m trying to be more consistent about that-giving one repeated request before I move on to the next player.

3. KNOW YOUR CREW: We begin to allude to it at the end, but there’s also a level of meta-table management that involves learning about your team. Different players want different things from the game. We’ve seen various player type breakdowns in books like Robin Laws Guide to Good Gamemastering. Those taxonomies offer a perspective, but I think run the risk of obscuring the complexity of your players. Some like being more ‘passive’ as we GMs might define it. They may dislike being pushed forward to the limelight. My instinct is to make sure everyone gets an equal share of time at the table, but I don’t think that’s measured in minutes or scenes. I think that’s measured in opportunities. You offer players the chance to push forward on the things they want to do- if they can come up with some. Then you offer some plot threads or characters to see if they bite or follow up on them. If they don’t, it isn’t a loss. You continue to do that, perhaps discussing with them what they’d like to see. Interests and energy vary from player to player and from genre to genre. I have some great players in fantasy who run cold in other settings, and vice versa. My job as a GM is figure out what they do like within those contexts. It is also worth noting that information and feedback is often skewed in the early sessions of a campaign. That’s when players begin to figure out who they are, what they want to do, how to interact with others, or even if they’re enjoying themselves. As a GM you need to give the group time to gel before you become aggressive about retooling things.

4. FEAR OF CONTROL: I tend to be pretty freeform about my game plots. Even in the superhero game I try to throw many different hooks and threads out there and let them pick which to follow up on. I have incidents, events, things to be dealt with, etc. I try not to be a railroad GM, but offer signposts for the players. Control, management, narrative, railroading, etc- often get a bad rap. And I think rightly so- I’ve been in games where we had no real choice about what we could do. There was only one road. When we’d try creative approaches or solutions, the GM would either smack us down or else fairly explicitly shift things so that what we’d done didn’t matter. But those are extreme cases- and have grown rarer in recent years. I've talked a little about that before.

I think there’s a pushback that comes from players burned by those kinds of GMs. The idea that things should be wholly random, procedurally generated, with the admonition that the GM will always make decisions “based on what would actually happen, not on any other basis.” This suggests a kind of objectivity a little undercut by a game revolving around unicorns and magic swords. These approaches picture the GM solely as rules arbiter and judge. They reject as loathsome any form of “storytelling” on the GM’s part. I’ve read a number of blogs focused on campaigns- they’re doing interesting stuff and clearly generating games that their players enjoy. It isn’t my cup of tea.

What I’m saying is that table management isn’t, or shouldn’t be, railroading. It has less to do with plot control and event arbitration and more to do with keeping things running smoothly. GMs who pride themselves on freewheeling games shouldn’t feel bad about stepping in to manage the table from time to time. Where the rubber hits the road on that isn’t combat, but rather group planning, and discussion. I think party debates require amazing skill and gentle handling on the part of the GM. On the one hand, you don’t want to appear to be influencing things- making suggestions, shooting down ideas, etc. On the other hand, PC parties can often talk themselves into frustration before reaching consensus or a decision. There’s cross talk, people not hearing (or listening to) other player’s suggestions, misinformation, wrong assumptions, tuning out,  characters not knowing each other’s skills, and naysaying. There’s a particular dead-end that can occur where players begin to spin off into fanciful assumptions- “But what if everyone’s actually a Werepig?” in a game which hasn’t yet introduced lycanthropy. I have a couple of player notorious for this kind of second guessing based on coming up with wild hypotheses. Bad meetings like this can build resentment, frustration, send players running off on their own, or simply produce no results.

I used to try to zone out when players were planning things. I want to avoid the appearance of developing counter-plans. Now I listen very carefully. When a player makes an explicitly incorrect statement I step in to correct them- unless I believe they’re deliberately lying. I’m the player’s lens for the world and effectively their institutional memory. I also try to track what suggestions have been make and break in every once in a while to repeat them- hopefully without judgment. I also try to ask questions to explicate a player’s ideas, especially if they tie into something else brought up in the discussion.

Table Management Strategies

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at www.playontarget.com.