This week Play on Target we switches over to the other side of the screen. We try to articulate things we enjoy (and don't enjoy) when we get to be players; you'll hear me groan and swear several times. I'm pretty with this episode, despite not having Andrew with us. However we do have a guest host this week, Sherri Stewart. An excellent gamer who happens to be my wife, she brings a non-GM perspective. As I mention, I’m more a GM than I am a player. I’m lucky enough to have Sherri there to talk with about issues- especially because she’s primarily a player. She puts different values on different parts of the game. She also helps focus me on what actually gets prepped and played at the table.
PLAYER VS. GM
There’s been some discussion on G+ and elsewhere about whether someone needs to play/GM regularly to talk about gaming. I don’t think they have to be an active gamer at present, but it does help. I can find my ideas and approaches challenged when I come to the table. That forces me to reappraise them. In particular I think that GMs benefit from playing whenever possible. Usually I restrict myself to a single ongoing campaign I play in. But in the last few years I’ve been better jumping into one-shots. That’s allowed me to see how some of these new systems work in practice and how other GMs do things. More importantly I try to take note of the frustrations and elations I feel. Is that the experience I’m giving players in my game? That kind of basis helps. I have several “grail” campaigns in my memory and I strive to match those.
Notice that we don’t hit the question of rules in our discussion. For the most part I can handle different rules systems, some I like better, but I can adapt if the table’s a good one. As a player I do appreciate when there’s one voice teaching the rules. When someone’s teaching a new boardgame, I try to keep my trap closed. I keep any interjections to a minimum. After the explainer has clearly finished, I’ll throw in perhaps a point or two, but even then I feel I should muzzle myself. The same way with an rpg- I really only want one authoritative voice during basic instructions. You can add your two-cent’s worth in after the GM’s given me the run down.
Related to that: I don’t need to know everything. That’s especially true when you start crushing me with options and choices. Keep those simple and stagger them. If you have archetypes or classes, pitch those to me. If some of them don’t fit with the gameplay, just leave them out. If I tell you I want X type of character and that works, put that together for me. Don’t explain every piddly rule, go over all of the mechanical minutiae, or talk about balance issues with the game. I want enough that I can play and not make truly stupid decisions. Everything else I can pick up later. That often means that I don’t really want to know the full backstory of how magic works in your setting, I just want to know I can cast Flare.
INTRODUCTIONS ALL AROUND
I talked a little bit about this yesterday in my post, but when a new player comes in (or I’m a new player), I hope the GM has given them the briefing on what the players are like. I don’t just mean the characters, but sense of the group dynamic. Tell me that Alan’s a good guy but he’ll push a joke to grotesquery, that Heather’s excitable and will try to insert herself into scenes, not to bring up politics around Cat, or that Rob’s thin-skinned. I don’t mean being negative about the players, but preparing new players for landmines- and making them aware that the GM’s aware of those foibles, and trying to limit/rein them in.
REACTIONARY GAME DESIGN?
I should also explain a passing joke I make in the episode. Sherri and I have discussed how some games and game products seem to be built as a response to bad games. For example I’d argue games which have player narrative mechanics (like Fate) might have come from having been in games where you had no control. That might not be true- it might just as easily have come from a GM's desire to open up the floor in an easy way. On the other hand we’ve seen a number of games which restrict the GM’s options. They’re limited in what kinds of moves they can make, how they can interfere, what kinds of challenges they can set up. My instinct- probably wrong- is that these games come as a response to campaigns where the GMs ran roughshod over the players. I mention Burning Wheel as an example of that (again probably wrong). But I’ve seen other games which circumscribe gamemaster choices. I don’t actually think that design just came out of frustration of with awful GMs. (It does get me wondering when we first got games that explicitly limited what the GM could do in a mechanical way…)
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.