Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Let Your Players Have Fun

Let Your Players Have Fun
by Tobie Abad
March 2012

Back in college, I had a class called Art Appreciation that had one of the most boring teachers I ever had to learn from.  Her approach to teaching was so efficiently boring that I was literally struggling to stay awake in every session we had.   Which was a great sad thing, to be frank, given her class was meant to introduce us to the wonder that was Art.  With a huge history of innovation, techniques and styles to explore, having a teacher that approached it so clinically to the point we were bored made me struggle to appreciate art.

And that, my friends, is something some Storytellers end up doing:  They are so used to their games, or so in love with their own stories and plots that they approach it so clinically to the point players end up wondering why they are playing.  It won't matter if your plots are more skillfully woven than George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice.  It won't matter if your challenges seem more well orchestrated than a John Woo action flick.  It won't matter if your fellow gamers are Mike Myers and Vin Diesel (then again that actually might help somewhat)... the point is, if you as the man in charge of running the game seems bored and unexcited by your own game, so will your players be.  Worse, if you love your stuff so much you feel it's the right way to do things, you may end up making your players regret playing with you.

My Worst Game Ever
I was once attending Strategicon in Los Angeles when I signed up for this science fiction game a woman (whose name I thankfully do not remember) posted openings for her home-brewed science fiction offering.  Deep down, I have to admit I was interested for these three reasons:  1) I was always running games, so why not experience being a player for others in this convention 2) It was a science fiction game that was described to have space opera drama, conspiracy theories and awesome science fiction elements in it  3) The person in charge was a woman, and frankly, one does not often find women willing to run a game for others.    So I signed up, showed up early, and was eager to meet the creator of the game and get a taste of her science fiction epic.  She soon showed up and quickly talked about how much she had been working on her game.  She shared the back story of the rival elements in the setting and how the militaristic group we were supposed to portray was in some ways the defacto heroes in the setting.   There were alien infiltrators, supposedly, that the group were to fish out, and I willingly embraced the chance to portray this female officer who was described to be stern, dedicated and strong.   Ten minutes in, I began to see what was wrong as players around me began to yawn and two very soon gave lame excuses about forgetting to do this and that and left.  But I told myself, all new games need prep time.  Just be patient.  Fifteen minutes in, she was not done talking about the setting and history that I was nodding off.  Eager to get into the meat of the game, I spoke aloud and asked, "So, when do we get to play?"  The other players laughed and she relented and started the scene.  Things were somewhat going well until she started telling us we were not playing the pregenerated characters right.  Yes, you read that correctly.  In one scene, the guards were not allowing me through a restricted region, I decided to throw my savvy and tried to convince the guards, "General [name invented] sent me to investigate on matters of Ultra secrecy.  Do you really want to disturb the General at this hour with how you are hindering me from doing my duties?"  The GM then replied, "Sorry, [name of her pregenerated character I was playing] would never do that.  In fact, she would do this.." and spent the next fifteen minutes talking to herself as the character I was going to run, and how the guards would eventually let her through.

Still I tried to be nice.  I stayed on.  The game continued with numerous more "But he wouldn't act that way.." moments and soon, the group of six players was down to me and a second player (who then passed me a note asking if I wanted to instead play a round of Vampire the Eternal Struggle, which I agreed to when we hit our thirty minutes of hearing this one person play by herself.  And no, not in a good way).

Don't Fall In Love With You Stuff Too Much
It is strange how many people don't get that basic truth.  A role-playing game is fun because you are doing a social act of storytelling. You are, with others, building a massively entertaining story that transforms into a shared experience.  If you aren't willing to let players do their thing, then maybe what you should be doing isn't running a game but instead writing a novel.  Gaming is inherently a social activity.  To refuse to allow others to shape the story is a great disservice to the very nature of gaming.

Bend the Story... If It Means More Fun
There was this other time I was running a Harry Potter game for some first time gamers.  I had written a massive plot that explored the idea that Voldemort was actually just acting as a villain to get Harry Potter to do what he needed to do, but couldn't.  (Mind you, at this time, only the second movie had come out.)  I had around five female players (Can you imagine?) who never played a role-playing game before so I knew I had to give them leeway.

The game began with Malfoy up to no good, and the players being all newly sorted students opting to follow him and see what he was up to.  They discover that Malfoy was following the orders of some voice hidden in the shadows when suddenly Harry Potter shows up behind them and asks what is going on.   I had hoped to bring a joint adventure where they discover hidden tunnels in Hogwarts that were once built by Malfoy's great grandfather.  Slitheryn Tunnels, so to speak.  And eventually discover He Who Must Not Be Named using them to send Malfoy commands.  What do my players do?  Transform the game into who can kiss Harry Potter first.

I could have refused and told them, "No, that's not what this game is about."  I could have simply continued the plot and have Harry tell them, "You girls are weird," and leave.  But no, I realized they wanted to have fun, and gaming is always about having fun.  I still kept my plot though.  Harry ended up dating one of the girls, and helping another find a date, only to later learn the date was a spy Voldemort needed to have smuggled into the school.  In the end, the girls used their magic to stop the spy and the game ended with them trying to tell Harry to keep their secret.  Fan service?  Yes.  Fun?  Absolutely.  So personally, I consider it a win since I enjoyed the game, and so did they.

Bend the Rules, if it means more Fun.
Almost all games remind us to do this now, but White Wolf Gaming Studios was the first to ever codify it as a rule as far as I could tell.  Called the Golden Rule, the Storyteller should never be afraid to cheat on the player's behalf.  And by behalf I mean keeping it fun for them all.

This, I discovered, is best to do with players who just need to get used to gaming more.  Mature players are used to this and sometimes test the Storyteller to see how far they can go.  New players, on the other hand, are deathly afraid of "doing it wrong" and that kind of feeling can get in the way of having fun.  Learn to make your games feel welcoming of any ideas and any insane plans the players may come up with, but don't be afraid of showing them that stupid ones do have consequences.  Telling them "No" out right simply presents gaming as something antagonistic and about following all these tables and rules.  Let them know that creative thinking and fun are very much welcome in a game.

And before you know it, you'll have your hands full with people wanting to play more.
And you just need to find a way to invent more time.
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