Saturday, May 19, 2012

Running Smoother Games

from Gimme Some Oven
Running Smoother Games
by Tobie Abad
May 2012

A friend of mine once lamented how his games tend to bog down after a few sessions, with players arguing more among themselves rather than dealing with the story that was unfolding.  Debates on systems would be thrown around, and dice rolls slow down into tremendously tedious moments where individual dice are thrown rather than quickly resolved.  The first thing I asked him in response seemed to me to be a simple question.  But to my surprise all he could do was stare back as a response.  The question was this:

What did the players say they were interested in playing in?

Smoother games happen when everyone is having fun.  The joys of smoother games are not the providence of diceless role-playing games.  Nor are they something you will only find in games where all the players are writers or theater actors.  Preparing for everything with enough world notes to fill your own version of wikipedia will not bring a game that flows without effort either.

The fact is this:  if the game is fun for everyone, everyone will naturally do things to keep the game going.  Here are some basic ways to help make this happen.

1) Ask the Players What They Want
Regardless of gaming system or gaming style, if you aren't clear with what the players want to explore in the game, you will end up throwing scenes and challenges at them which most likely won't tap into what they are interested in.  Even the most creative player will find himself frustrated if the game he wanted to play was one where he could explore human drama, and all you do is throw him a tactical battle that focuses on the bigger picture.
from Otama

A common practice of mine is to ask all the players to list down three things that interest them or things they would want to explore in a game.  From these lists, I then collate them into one grand list and take note which ones can work well or be strung together into a good story.    Many times, you will find that many of the items they list down would nicely interact well with each other.  And guess what, you've already got some story arcs ready even before the characters have been created!

2) Decide As A Group What Gaming Style Is Expected
There are many kinds of gamers out there, and admittedly, just as many kinds of Storytellers.  A table-top game is an investment of time, so to make sure that everyone is in the same boat of what the game will be like is vital to smoother sessions.   Take watching a movie for instance.  If you and your friends hit the theaters and don't discuss what to watch before buying tickets, you most likely will end up with a group that has some people loving the movie and others wishing you chose something else (and possibly making that point audibly clear while in the theater.)

Discuss what kind of game is preferred and if there are contradictions, consider with the group on what steps can be taken.  If you have two players who want a narrativist game where the story is paramount, and two others who just want to chuck dice and have fun exploring combat, then you'll have to find with their help a good middle ground that explores both.  Or, if that seems impossible, discuss with the group what approach you plan to take and clear with them if they want to play that or not.

In a group with mixed expectations, here are some suggestions on dealing with that issue that worked for me.
a) Suggest having each game session focus on a style.Just like how some shows have an episode that feels different than others, ask the group if they are willing to alternate gaming styles between sessions.  Or perhaps even between story arcs.   While this does have the risk of some players enjoying more than others in some nights, it at least is a commitment to them that you plan to make sure everyone has their moment in the spotlight.
b) Combine the preferred gaming styles.Just as shows like Ally McBeal surprised us back when they first launched by mixing what was once felt to be independent genres, consider exploring how you can turn the game into one that combines the traits of the different gaming styles that they prefer.    This might not work for all, but it doesn't hurt to try.
c) Offer a third approach as a challenge.So one group wants to try a dramatic game, and the other just wants to have a comedic romp.  And mixing doesn't seem probable.  Then why not suggest to them to take a stab at something tactical and action-packed for now, while you spend the free time between sessions to map out an eventual game more directly linked to what they prefer.  This could be a one shot game, or even a short limited session run.  This would be a last resort because ultimately you are suggesting they try something they didn't ask for.  But it would buy you time to prepare for something they like more.  And if you're very lucky, this could make them realize that something they haven't opted to try might actually be fun!  Trying something different from what they're used to might actually be more interesting for them afterwards.
by Tobyotter

3) Lastly, decide on certain House Rules early
While this sounds like a given, you'd be surprised how many people don't do this to the fullest extent.  Many make house rules on what elements of the game are ignored or what aspects of the game's setting are overlooked, but few actually make things clear on some more common causes of delay such as when dice can be re-rolled, how to deal with dice that fall off the table, or whether or not reading other books (or using one's laptop) during one's turn is welcome.

Amusingly, in our group there is this thing we call "The Curse."  At least twice in a game night, a player will have his or her turn interrupted by an important phone call, or a matter that requires the said person's attention.  We've had everything from a player's wife calling at the start of his turn, to someone at the door ringing the doorbell the moment I start a turn with my partner (and since the other guests aren't living in the house, they can't really answer the door).  The most amusing manifestation of the curse?  When a player only feels the moment his turn starts the intense undeniable need to use the bathroom.

For the Curse, we've decided on a simple house rule:  When it strikes, I just move to the next player.  And once the first guy is back, I can come back to continue his turn.   It removes the delays caused by the unnecessary need for the player to apologize and explain the interruption, and it makes the other players aware that they should stay alert for their own turns the moment the curse hits.

Decide on the small stuff sooner, and it will remove the small incremental delays that not discussing them brings in your game.

Here's to having smoother games!

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