I like to think of myself as a student of human behavior. What makes people tick. Why they do what they do. That sort of thing. I learned early on to detect minute changes in the moods of others and its stuck with me my entire life. Besides being useful in a fight or when working personal assets protection it’s also highly useful when gaming. Knowing what you’ll players will do before they do it can help a GM who is perceptive enough to tailor the situation to the player without him or her even noticing it. The best way to understand your players is to…play with them. Socialize with them. Talk to them outside of gaming. There are tiny things that will give you insight into them which in turn will give you insight into what they want at the gaming table. Of course, if you’ve been GMing a while you probably know this, but since this is my blog and I like to talk about gaming I’m going to assume you don’t. The following are a few handy tips/rules of thumb I’ve found while running games for the past 20 years. Note – this is based purely on practical experience and might not line up with others.
Railroading Without any Rails
Railroading is such a derogatory term in the gaming community, when someone says they were railroaded it usually means they had a GM who forced them to follow a specific series of events that they preplanned. Sigh. This kind of thing can happen and this brute force application of GM-power is a problem…but not because the GM is trying to get them to follow a series of events. That’s not the issue. The issue is he’s not being clever about it. If you want someone to do what you want the first thing you do is give them no choices, then you ask them what they want to do all the while suggesting what you don’t want them to do and what you do want them to do. Then make the choice you need them to select the most attractive to them. If you do it right they are going to do what you wanted and they’ll think it’s there idea. It takes a bit to do it right, but if you can master this skill you are going to end up with some happy players, not to mention a happy GM (yourself).
The Sandbox is a Lie (Like the Cake)
That’s right. I said it. I’m going to let some of you pick your jaws up off the ground before I continue. We good? Excellent. Sandbox play works in only two ways: 1) videogames and 2) with very active, very story-driven players. That’s it. I used to be a fan of “Let the players decide” but I was also running brand new campaigns every two weeks or so. It doesn’t work. Players need to have some sort of guidance from the GM – they just need it. Especially with the latest generation who are used to computer and videogames where they are given a list of finite choices (which weirdly is still Sandbox play even though the choices are limited). Avoid this style of play if you can, players (no matter what they tell you) always want some form of choice set before them. The best way is to involve them in said choices “Do you want to go to Tartall Castle or back to the Empty Hall? Or, better yet, where do you want to go?” Involving players in the decisions inherent in the campaign will enhance their drive to participate. A lot of GMs tend to leave out their players and I truly think this is a lost opportunity for all gamers involved.
All the World’s a Stage
Whether you know it or not, and whether the player knows it or not, they want you (the GM) to be involved in the creation of their character. They want you to tell them what you think about the choices they’ve made in design, what might work better, and how their character might act. And as a GM – you should be involved, you should say “This wasn’t what I had in mind because of X, but if you really need Y, we can alter Z.” or “That’s neat! I hadn’t thought of that, I think I can work it into the story.” If you get into the habit of working with your players from the get go I promise you that your games will improve for the better.
I’ll Gladly Pay You Tuesday for Thor’s Hammer Today…
Sometimes if you really need something to occur in your game the only way you can get this to happen is by bribing a player. That’s right, bribe them. You don’t have to be blatant about it (and really you shouldn’t otherwise it might encourage all your players to hold out) and a quick sidebar along with a reward and a reason ought to grease the wheels just enough to quiet the squeaks. I’ve been doing this for the past ten years or so and if your group is anything like mine – they will understand the need for story and drama to trump dice and player agency. Just don’t make a habit of it otherwise you’re going to end up with no players and no game, no matter how great the reward offered.
Picking Over the Bones
I’m sure I could go on and on about random bits I’ve picked up over the years, so I’ll just leave you with this final tidbit: Be involved with your players, let them know you care about what choices they make, ask questions, let them ask you questions. Don’t rely on the game engine to do this for you – that way lies madness. Of course, none of this is going to be useful to adversarial GMs or anti-Gamemaster players, but that’s a blog post for another day.