Taking the Hit
Although I’ve had to bump some games recently for work and illness, we’ve had some really solid sessions of late. A few of the groups really click well- playing off of one another, taking to plot and doing interesting things with it, coming up with creative ideas at the table. As my friend Art Lyon reminded me- no GM plot ever survives contact with the players. A game can embrace that and benefit from it. That’s part of the reason I don’t buy modules- at least for the kinds of games we’re doing the cost of the module and the time to get it into shape doesn’t balance against the benefit at the table. I’m sure there are exceptions- great modules and series out there- but running in home-brew worlds also presents an additional hurdle for conversion.
We had a good moment a few weeks back that I want to point at because it sums up the kind of role-playing I enjoy. In the Changeling the Lost campaign, they’re only a quest out into the Hedge- giving me a chance to explore some more fairy-tale landscape. We have three PCs so I’ve built each leg of the quest to echo the background and inner self of one character at a time. They came to a puzzle, a variation on the Honest Axe trope. Scott’s character, Nate Diamond had a choice between a lead axe and a golden crown. His character’s kind of a self-centered, former upper-class scion- he likes nice things. So of course, I leaned hard in my GM narration about how lovely the crown was, how the jewels glistened in it, how well it would fit his head and so on. Scott played that up- describing Nate’s hesitation, his longing stares and hesitation- even as the other two players watched on.
Now here’s the thing- I didn’t have any mechanical roll to resist temptation or anything. Scott knew the crown was a trap- it was an deliberately obvious one after the things they’d seen leading up to that point. I knew Scott would choose the axe, the other players knew- but Scott took his time and milked the scene, made it funny, made it enjoyable. He let the interaction between his character and the GM narrative run, instead of cutting it short. And he did it because for the fun of it and to entertain his fellow players. He was generous in letting his character appear vulnerable, in order to have a moment more interesting and dramatic to the players.
That willingness to play, to embrace the character’s flaws and to show that to other players at the table- that’s what I love about role-playing. Even though it is Scott’s scene, he’s acting it out to share and entertain the other people at the table. The strength I’ve come to appreciate in the last few years has been people at the table who react well to failure, react well to challenge, and are willing to be “open.” Johnstone talks about actors taking a moment and running with it- regardless of the content of that moment. That openness lets them keep energy in a scene. Part of that at the table comes from trusting the GM- trusting that they’ll offer some benefit and payoff for that effort. The other players as well have to be willing to enter into that contract. All of that comes from experience and time.
I’ve had some players over the years who haven’t been able or willing to enter into that exchange. Some of that can come from newness or uncertainty about play styles. Over the years I’ve seen players come from other groups and find our approach a little too open or rules-light for their taste. I’ll say that people like tangible and obvious rewards- treasure, victory and the like- and when they don’t see them in a form they’re used to they can get frustrated. A GM has to assess and try to work with that- offering those players something they’re used to, while slowly demonstrating the value of this new way of play. Certainly I’ve talked before about the importance of offering rewards to players, and I think that’s doubly true with new players.
But some experienced players come to the game with a “paranoid” style. They worry about their appearance and success, and invest themselves more heavily in it. As an example, we had a Changeling campaign in which early on, one character attempted to get candy from an isolated vending machine. She was an Ogre and the result she pulled indicated a fumble- so I narrated a humorous result in which she managed to break the machine, shattering the front plexiglass. It was an early moment, and I tried to make it more funny than serious to counteract the failure coming right out of the gate. I’d honestly forgotten the moment until month’s later when the player brought it back up- upset that her character had been painted in an unflattering and humorous light. That threw me- especially since her play since then had been to present her character as cute and funny. It took some time to work out exactly what was happening. The player wanted to be that ‘funny and cute,’ but absolutely under their own terms. They wanted absolute control of that narration. They rejected any interpretation or editorializing- from the dice results, from the GM, from fellow players- which wasn’t their own. They closed down any thread which didn’t come from their authority. I tried a neutral approach- staying hands off and letting the player narrate as much as possible, while describing the scenes clinically. However that fell apart when dealing with NPCs- the player became upset if an NPC reacted in a way other than they expected.
Other Defensive Modes
A variation on this “closed” approach that I haven’t figured out a way to deal with I call “Defer & Naysay.” In this case, a player gives a ‘whatever’ response when a challenge is presented. That ‘whatever’ can literally be that, ignoring the question, heading off to do something else, suggesting they won’t be listened to, or another framed approach. Then once the situation goes into play, they begin dismissing the solution decided on, questioning the leader’s right, ignoring the group decisions, and belittling the results- usually with some variation on “I wouldn’t have done it that way…” That’s a dangerous social script- and one some players use with awful efficiency. It allows them to avoid responsibility, while at the same time retaining their own sense of authority. Again, it comes to a question of shared play. Luckily I have to deal with that rarely these days-
Tomorrow- On Challenges and Rising to Them