Tuesday, December 8, 2015

What A Fool Believes

This is something of a follow up to my previous post.

Hold on to something, or strap yourself in. This one might get bumpy.


During a recent post-game pow-wow where we discussed what went well, and what could have gone better in that day's session, two of my players said they felt like they had little to do during the last third, or so of the game.

They complained, and rightfully so to a large degree, that I (as GM) didn't give them enough to do.

It's true. I did not. There were numerous reasons for this, and factors as simple as 'I didn't quite realize that was the situation at the time', to 'But you arrived to the game extremely late, after initially saying you wouldn't be able to make it. I didn't really have a lot for your PC in mind since I figured you weren't coming' played at role.

On the other hand though, there were several players whose PCs received more attention from me. Why? Again, there were a number of elements that lead to this, but the bottom line was:

Certain players are more pro-active. They get my attention, tell me what they are going to do, and then they do it. I like pro-active players.

I'm a real sucker for a player with a plan that they can describe it in under 5-10 minutes which can both solve problems, and generate new ones. Additionally, if the plan leads to adding material, expanding on existing material, getting the players to really role-play their PCs, and getting me to really role-play the NPCs, I'm going to jump on that like a Glommer on a bunch of Tribbles.

Present at the game were two such players who just happen to play more in the style I prefer. I mentioned recently that I'd played a Star Wars session with them. Well, as these two people got more attention, two other people got less. That's not good, and certainly I need to find a way to resist the temptation to give more 'screen time' to those whose approach I simply grok more.

This is certainly a Gamemaster character flaw of mine, although it's rarely come up over the years. Why? Well, I usually have a whole group of pro-active players who are really invested in the game.

Generally speaking, I remain aware of all the PCs, and their abilities, and try to include a variety of opportunities for various types of characters to perform various types of actions. The players are welcome to have their PC take any approach logical, and reasonable to the genre /setting/game we're playing in. If they don't, is that on me?

It's a game. We're there to play it. Do I need to give you something to do? Hey, here's something you can do - participate. Get involved. Do something. Make something happen.

In the session in question, a Star Trek session, it was the Science Officer, and the Engineer who felt that I did not supply them with something to do. More specifically, I did not directly stop to ask them what actions they would like to take.

Now I did, once or twice, ask the Science Officer what he wanted to do, and most of it did not directly relate to the event at hand.

The scenario involved a God-like Alien entering into our space-time continuum from subspace, using a static warp field/bubble that surrounded an entire planet. On the surface of the planet was a never before encountered emergent life form. Meanwhile, two alien species were fighting over the planet for very reasons.

Neither the Scientist Officer, nor the Engineer, tapped me, raised their hand, whistled, or did anything else to signal me that they had an idea. They never indicated that they wanted to do something. They simply waited until I got to them, and wanted to know what they could do in this particular situation.

A number of players during the same session grabbed opportunities, saw things they could do whether I directed them, or not (including planning out an intelligence gathering maneuver, and boarding a space vessel in danger of imminent explosion), and were genuinely entertained, and entertaining.

I know, I am venting here, and even ranting a bit, but I found it frustrating after the fact. I felt that there were so many things one could do! If you don't do them, and other players take the reins, is that on the GM?

It is. It really is. But it's also really hard for the GM, or at least for me, to stop those on a roll, and for those who aren't showing the same level of initiative.

It's like...

GM: "OK, let's hold there. I need to find out what these other want people do."

Player 1: "I want to ask you yet another question about what the aliens look like."

Player 2: "What is there for me to do?"

*Blinks. Twice. Slowly*

I'll be honest, I didn't realize these two players felt they had nothing to do until after the game. As I've noted, we try to have a post game debriefing, and that's where it was revealed to me. Both also said they felt rude interrupting the other players to say they hadn't had a turn.

I feel more embarrassed, and mad at myself for not noticing they weren't having as much fun then I am at not giving them something to do. As a GM of my years of experience, one who is usually really perceptive about such things, I felt terrible.

As you can see, I am pretty torn on this. On the one hand, it is my responsibility as GM to make sure everyone has a good time. My adventures should be exciting, or at the very least interesting, and should give everyone a chance to shine.

Yet, if in my head I did give everyone a chance to shine, and they didn't take it, did I fail in my duties? Further more, I feel that sometimes the investment level, and buy-in is there, but a certain level of detachment remains. Both of my current groups show this behavior. Is it a modern gamer thing? An element of the mindset of the younger generation? They sit back, and wait, assuming I will get to them, instead of showing an interest, and excitement in the events transpiring right before them!

One of the two players [who felt under-utilized] actually said during the debriefing -

"I don't want to have to work that hard for my meal."

My response was -

"Yet I should work as hard as I can to cook it for you? I then need to spoon feed it to you after it's done? That's not very fair, and kind of lazy don't you think?"


I feel a little better now. I needed to get this out of my system. Not every group is my old NJ group, my old NY crew, and my old High School gang. People play differently.

I need to remember, I play differently as well. Differently from most people. I have a rather unusual background, an atypical approach, and a way of looking at RPGs that is probably the exception, not the norm. Only a fool would be away of his unique nature, and then be surprised not everyone gets it. 

If I want to remain the GM for this group, I have to learn how to GM for the way they play. Hopefully they now have a better idea of how I play.

Somewhere in the middle is a consistently high quality game.

We'll get there together.

Barking Alien


  1. It's probably more than one thing at work here.
    First, the modern gamer angle, influenced by video games and the games' innate limitations of handling improvisation. Exhibit A: http://staticdelivery.nexusmods.com/mods/110/images/51469-4-1393205517.jpg

    It's a guy at a bar: you can ask him four different questions. Pick one.

    Second, it is the player's personality. Some people are just "The Buddy" as Aaron Allston would say in Strike Force. Others have a cultural or personal pre-disposition against raising their hand, but instead wait to be called on. You see it in class rooms: the quiet kid who has a ton of things going on in their head, but feels like just shouting it out would be forward, or rude, or something.

    1. I don't know that I would go so far as to say cultural, but yeah, it's definitely in the personality of some of my players not to be rude, or pushy as they perceive it.

      At the same time, I'm looking for someone so excited by the game that they will jump in at a free moment, or have the desire to tap me on the shoulder and say, "Hey Adam, you've been on the other player's part for a while. Can I have a go?"

      Believe you me, that would really help me out.

  2. I'll add that Star Trek is a very bad game for that kind of player behavior. Star Trek is all about innovative solutions, be they scientific, diplomatic or tactical. In my (very limited) experience, there are so many possibilities at the character's disposal that, instead of planning for the PC's actions, the GM does better by knowing the logics behind the adventure's setting. So, proactive players that offer entertaining courses of action are at a definite advantage, in the same way that astute, thorough players have advantage in Old School dungeon crawling (as opposed to showy, impacient people, who would die quickly and may feel the GM is too hard on them). Play styles and expectations are very important.

    1. THIS! OMG THIS!

      (BTW, the 'G' in my OMG stands for Gene Roddenberry. Just so we're clear)

      “Star Trek is all about innovative solutions, be they scientific, diplomatic or tactical. In my (very limited) experience,”

      Your limited experience is spot on brother.

      "there are so many possibilities at the character's disposal that, instead of planning for the PC's actions, the GM does better by knowing the logics behind the adventure's setting."

      Good grief. Why do I bother blogging when other people convey my thoughts better than I do. This is the primary philosophy behind ALL the games I run.

      "proactive players that offer entertaining courses of action are at a definite advantage"

      Yes! Yes! YES! I confess that the advantage they have is two-fold. It is the best approach to the style of game I run, and unconsciously, I do favor those people.

      The latter is not right of me, and something which, now that I am more acutely aware of it, I need to work on.

      Thanks for this Miguel. You took the words right out of my mouth, and then reassembled them more clearly.

    2. Hehehe, I'm glad you like it so much.

      The key word is "entertaining". You are also playing the game, so it is only natural that you tend to favor those players that make you enjoy it. To guide the players through an adventure exactly as planed may be very rewarding, but discovering the plot at the same time as they do is a different level of fun.

  3. I'm in agreement that some of it is the "now". Back when RPG's were new, most people's first experience with this kind of thing was a tabletop RPG where pretty much any option can at least be discussed. Now though ... video game RPG's are often the first experience and , as illustrated above, involve a limited setting, bounded by fixed maps or gated by level or faction, a small number of actions to take in or out of combat, and at best a few conversational options. Also, there is often a fixed story/plot/path that is meant to be followed and so players may expect to be led by the nose in a tabletop game too. It's not really the players fault, it's just the habits and expectations they have developed.

    I've noticed it in tabletop games too, especially with published settings and adventures. A module for D&D used to be "here's a map of an area, here are some interesting creatures and places within it, now go explore it". Nowadays - and I'm thinking mainly of 4th/5th/Pathfinder here - there are still maps and some interesting people and places but a big part of them is the plot. When the plot is built into the adventure instead of generated by the party, player initiative changes a great deal. I suspect in one of your Star Trek or Star Wars games that while there may be plot points to be discovered, I could go anywhere, try to make a deal with anyone, fight anyone, and explore whatever plots may exist at my leisure without you trying to hit me over the head with it so we can "get on with the story". Really, "the story" is whatever happens at the table, not what someone else wrote in the book. Sometimes players don't understand this. They get focused on trying to discover the right clue/loot the magic key/talk to the right person to unlock the next chapter so they can eventually solve or finish the game. That's not always how it works but it's how they've been trained by the Mass Effects/Fallouts/Warcrafts we have today.

    Pathfinder talks about "the action economy" referring to the limited number of actions each character can take in a round. There is a larger aspect to that though as players coming from videogames often have some limits in their head about what is possible even if the GM has never mentioned any specific limits so you get a kind of "action economy" at the player level where they think there have to be organized sequential turns all throughout the game. It's important to break that barrier if it is a problem.

    Now having said all of that I have embraced this plot-heavy style of play with my pathfinder campaign because I knew the one I had in mind was a plot my players would love. We have done enough open type campaigns that I don't think we're doing any permanent damage and they don't freeze up with analysis paralysis when not given a giant glowing arrow to follow. When I get the itch for a more free-form setup we play a side game, usually something with capes.

    In the end - it's a nasty condition, but it's curable with time. Don't give up on them just yet!

    1. Your assessment is both accurate, and troubling my friend.

      You see, the main driving force behind my dislike of Dungeons & Dragons has little to do with the games rules, bad experiences as a kid, or anything like that.

      It's this perception I've had for many years now that the game, which is supposed to be about giving life to your imagination, is really about setting limits to it.

      It's not the levels limits of AD&D 1E, the Race/Class combination limits, or even the way you can't do feat C until you've taken feat A, and B first. No...it's more than that. It's this feeling that grew in me over time that the creators of the game thought about it from the limits outward.

      Instead of trying to figure what player characters would be able to do in the game, what gamemasters could possibly create, the designers wanted to make sure they knew, right off the bat, what you couldn't do. What tools not to give GMs.

      Now I know that wasn't how it went down in a literal sense, but it's the persistent feeling I get when I read the rulebooks of D&D.

      Since D&D largely (if not wholly) inspired the computer, and video game RPG industry, it only makes sense that the latter built off the same model, and mindset.

      Now you have thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of tabletop RPG players (are there actually that many tabletop gamers?) who were weaned on this design philosophy. They look for what they believe they are allowed to do, what their character sheet says it's OK to try (whether it actually does that, or not).

      This is anathema to me. Even more so in a game setting like that of Star Trek and Star Wars, where it's been clearly shown time and again that every character is at least competent enough to do practically anyone else's job, if not as well.

      "I can't use the Phase-Whatsit. I don't have Phase-Whatsit skill!"

      Sure you do. You have Use Setting Gizmo skill. It's a setting gizmo. We all have Use Setting Gizmo skill. Why? 'Cause it's a setting with *%^king gizmos! That's what it is!!!

      *Grrr. Teeth nash.*

      Where was I? Oh yeah! What I try to do, and practically always have because I didn't know better, is to combine the two different story approaches: A plot I create, and a plot that forms out of play.

      I've mentioned it numerous times. It's part of my Storybox approach. Things are happening in the setting, bad guys are up to stuff, and world shattering events are set to, ya'know, shatter worlds.

      Players are welcome to get involved, or not. They are welcome to explore, or not. Just bare in mind that the events are happening whether you get involved or not. Your involvement will drastically alter the outcome of the villains' actions, but he, or she is out to complete them even if you never show.

      Sometimes I run games that are more 'staged', with a heavier hand on the part of yours truly to tell a story, but generally my preference is for the approach I just mentioned.

      Analysis Paralysis, or Overthinking Overdrive in the case of many players I know, is another major issue that I will try to address at a latter time.