Wednesday, October 5, 2016

GM Detective Work: What Players Want

In this episode of Play on Target we talk about strategies to get feedback and a sense what players hope for from a game. Communication’s the simple answer to that; ask them. But sometimes it’s not that easy and you may deal with unreliable narrators. We talk about those challenges and ways to agilely adjust to them. We offer some useful suggestions, stronger I think for guest host Sherri Stewart’s player-side perspective.

I’ve also had the privilege of guest hosting on The Gauntlet Podcast the last few weeks. I’ve covered several campaigns including Legacy, Middle earth, and OCI. On the most recent episode I talk about the Millennium Blades board game, leaving other people to actually discuss rpgs. So it’s good to see me abusing my opportunities.

The Gauntlet’s a great gaming community- with solid discussions, dozens of organized rpg sessions each month, a zine, and multiple podcasts. They’ve just begun a Patreon and it’s definitely worth backing. They get cool rpgs out there for people to play online, with little of the cancellation woes that plague many online gaming groups. I’m running several games as part of the Thank God It’s Thursday lineup: City of Mist, Worlds in Peril, and Coriolis.

I mentioned last week that I helped out with the current Steam-Powered Bundle of Holding. Since I posted that, they’ve added two new items to the collection. Airship Pirates: Ruined Empires is an adventure offers a swashbuckling romp in this Neo-Victorian setting. The Widening Gyre is an original steampunk campaign setting designed for use with Savage Worlds. It offers, “a world of wonder, of horror, of adventure, of magic, of strange technology and unprecedented cultural revolution.” They’re both awesome additions. Don’t forget about the parallel Victoriana Bundle on offer.

In relistening to the episode a few things occurred to me, as they always do…

1. A PARTY FULL OF FIGHTERS SAYS A LOT: Archetype-based indicators of player desires can be awesome, especially if you have clear roles. If you have a more opaque or unfamiliar system it may not help. That’s especially true where the GM doesn’t yet have mastery of the game. For example Legacy: Life Among the Ruins has a great section on what different playbook choices mean: what should you bring to the table for that PC. But the info didn’t click for me because I still wasn’t certain of the game’s shape. I didn’t yet know how Legacy felt at the table. So I couldn’t connect that advice to the play.

2. YOUR CLERIC MAY VARY: Convention games and one-shots offer the most challenge for these issues. Here archetype picks often offer the best indicator. Hopefully you know the character or playbook types well enough to gtol their hooks. That can be more complicated with abstract games like Urban Shadows. For example, a player may have a different perspective on a pick’s meaning. You have to be ready to brief them what those choices entail. Running Threadbare at Gen Con, I had to be super-cognizant of that. The more sessions I ran, the better I knew the opportunities to put on the table for different character types.

3. THAT’S IT? Playbooks often have questions and/or a collaborative process. That can be great, but it can also be a trap for one-shots. These may eat up a significant chuck of your time. They might set expectations which won’t be met if you’re running a structured adventure. It can also create a sense of building undercut by the fact they only have this world for a short time.

4. I DON’T CARE WHERE WE EAT: We mentioned players not actually wanting what they say they want. That at least assumes a response. For me the “Meh, whatever…” answer’s even worse. I’m not talking about uncertainty or leaving others to decide. I’m talking about players who strive to express absolute disinterest. They want to play, but they don’t want to commit any energy or engage. I had a player accept a campaign invite. Everyone had to pick a thematic world from a list of pitches. When I asked which one they liked (or did he have another one) I kept getting the “meh.” Even slimming the choices down to three didn’t get a commitment. I finally asked if they had any problem with the X option. Then I took their meh as affirmation.

5. REGULAR CHECK-UPS: Check in with the group as a whole from time to time to see if they’re on the same page about the campaign. Have them describe where they think they are. Use arc break moments to do this, allowing them to catch their breath. In mid-campaign you may not get kind of straight answers you will with a post-game session. Be prepared for that and instead watch for what gets mentioned repeatedly.

6. NO, BUT, NO: If a player explicitly asks for something, listen to them. Not necessarily when they beg for XP or a magic sword, but when they express concrete desires about what they want to see out of a game. Players often sail along with the game’s current. If they make the effort to rock the boat and make a request: seriously consider it. If the whole table asks for something, you really need to listen.

7. NO HOMEWORK: Don’t make feedback homework. Don’t make feedback homework. Don’t make feedback homework.

8. HOST OF OPTIONS: We’ve seen many different approaches to mechanical definition of player wants in PbtA games. Often these have a mechanical side to them (generating XP, Drama Points, or both)-- Bonds, Flags, Directives, Keys, Drive Books, and so on. I’m not sure what I like the most. Thoughts? Experiences? Reactions?

9. FIRE THE CANON: As a GM I want to get players’ head canon to the table. By head canon I mean those storylines/details a player imagines as important aspects/desires of their character but which they may see as tangential to the story. I want players to feel they can move to scenes illuminating odd corners of their character. At the very least they should feel welcome to express or dictate those things. And they know I won’t shut that down. A couple of weeks ago I played in Rich’s Tweaks game. In it you’re modern characters with dangerously untested cyberware and jacks. I ran a big brute. Rich asked me about that after session one since he wasn’t sure how to slot him in. I realized that while I’d hinted at things, I hadn’t made explicit the backstory I’d been telling myself. It wasn’t important to the story at hand. It didn’t matter that I’d been a Professor who had tried out experimental cyberware to make up for a neurodegenerative disease. And that it had effed up and messed with my head leaving me just a muscled thug. But Rich started the next session with a flashback scene to that: I got my head canon to the table and it made my character deeper for me (and I hope everyone else).

OK out of here until next Monday...

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