This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Whenever I serve as a guest at a gaming convention, I make it a policy to ask the seminar organizer to set up a panel on Game Mastering Troubleshooting. On a minute by minute basis, I’ve learned more about roleplaying as it actually occurs from fielding questions at these seminars than in any other forum. By keeping the focus on Q&A, as opposed to abstract panelist pontification, one gets a real sense of the practical problems that plague groups wherever polyhedrals are rolled.
The most common and most addressable class of problems consist of variances in taste between players. I’ve tackled these in-depth elsewhere, most specifically in Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering and the opening chapter of the Dungeons and Dragons® Dungeon Master’s Guide II.
Dealing with gamemastering problems in print poses a thorny challenge. Experienced GMs know all too well that roleplaying sessions can occasionally devolve into exercises in severe frustration. Though this is hardly a secret, neither is it a fact you want to dwell on in a book that should be selling the reader on the fun of roleplaying. We emphasize the positive as a matter of survival. The hobby needs a continual stream of folks willing to take on the time-consuming and sometimes thankless task of running games. The fear is always that an overly candid discussion of the various pitfalls of the RPG experience could send would-be GMs running to the comparative shelter of their Xboxes.
In the less formal atmosphere of a web column, though, maybe it’s safe to admit what everybody knows. Many long-running games are just fun enough to bug the hell out of us. With its emphasis on planning, execution, and group effort, a session where a group of adventurers plots its assault on the goblin redoubt of Xanthrukor can easily resemble a brain-shredding meeting at any typically dysfunctional workplace. Each contains many of the same dispiriting interpersonal syndromes: the guy who won’t listen. The guy who won’t shut up. The co-worker who can’t stay on topic. The professionally obtuse one, who returns to hash over the same agonizing point just when the rest of you think you’ve got it put to bed. And that’s just scratching the surface.
Granted, roleplaying sessions hold a couple of advantages over workplace conferences. First, you get superpowers. Second, you get to kill things. Third, once you kill the things, you get their stuff.
Fourth, and most important, there’s you. The GM. You’re the ultimate arbiter of the world reality, adjudicator of all actions, and driver of the storyline. However, your real power to keep the evening off the rocks of pointless wrangling, is, for all of its potential power, a subtler one.
Many GMs, following an ancient unwritten protocol that got its start in the early days of the hobby, take a hands-off approach to interaction between players. In principle, this makes sense. The GM has so much authority over so many areas of the game that she shouldn’t go horning in one of the few domains of pure player control. And indeed, the GM should never try to push player planning sessions so that they reach a particular outcome. An outcome, any reasonable outcome, should be the goal.
Most players stuck in a rut of circular discussion are desperate for a way out. A few words from you can carefully guide the discussion back out of the ditch. The key here is not to make decisions or suggestions for the group, but to underline and organize the good suggestions they’ve already made. Be content neutral, but help to shape the discussion productively.
Discouragement is quick to settle over a group when planning has turned to wrangling, and too few acceptable options seem to present themselves. Paralysis often results after a group rules out perfectly suitable choices. When this happens you need to do more than provide a concise, upbeat recap of the discussion’s present status. Instead, gently rebut the assumptions that lead the group to reject viable options.
A few players are pessimistic by nature. Others have had pessimism trained into them by absurdly punitive past GMs. Perhaps most common is the adroit debater, who skillfully shoots down all plans other than his own.
Players live in the real world, and apply its system of logic to your game setting. This entails a collision of expectations. Almost every game world out there is based on the logic of adventure stories, where obstacles are meant to be overcome. No matter how much time players spend consuming genre stories, whether in print or on the screen, it’s hard for most of us to truly take this logic to heart.
How many times, for example, have you heard players assume that the villain’s lair will have impregnable security in place? Remind them that a skilled group can find a way into the best-guarded of fortresses. “Impregnable” in adventure genre terms means, “very tough, but I’ve got a crazy plan and it just might work.” It means the Death Star or Goldfinger’s headquarters, not the equivalent real-world installations.
If you fail to uphold the conventions that make adventure stories work, you should be unsurprised when planning sessions bog down due to a lack of credible options.
Your players should be able to count on the bad guys to fight them in waves, to create a series of entertaining fights. When they assume otherwise – and they will – remind them to apply the correct logic set to their problem-solving.
Selfish motives and power trips do drive a certain amount of wrangling. Players who engage in annoying behavior for its own sake are hard to deal with. At best, you can learn to spot their behaviors and try to divert them as symptoms first appear. Expect a hit and miss success rate with deliberate churls. Their disruptive behaviors often stem from an unconscious attempt to assume a sense of personal power and control otherwise lacking from their lives. Catch one of these types on a good day when he feels in control, and your tricks will work smoothly. Hit him when he’s tired, cranky and beleaguered, and you’ll see your smoothest interpersonal strategies go up the spout.
Fundamentally and permanently altering a player’s personality quirks are beyond the skills of even the most puissant gamemaster. These folks have to be either tolerated or dis-invited from your game. As always, this decision is a difficult one, in which you have to balance your desire to accommodate a friend against the ideal roleplaying experience. The calculation is hardly unique to roleplaying: every recreational group, whether it be a bowling club or an aquarium fancier’s alliance, faces the same issue.
Personally, I’m an advocate of tolerance. We all have bad days. None of us is free of irritating habits. Often those least capable of getting along with others are most in need of their company. On one level, I have to admit that I admire folks who are sufficiently hardcore about their hobby to freely issue pink slips to participants whose personal issues prove consistently irritating. When it comes right down to it, though, I guess I’d sooner regard myself as an accepting person than the GM of a brilliant game.
Or maybe it’s just that I’ve never yet been unlucky enough to have a truly annoying gamer in my group.