Genre Acceptance

I was considering a Halloween game. Based on an old The Dragon magazine enclosure, about a group of scouts in a Haunted House.  I considered it, then discarded it, as i didn’t think any of my players would like the idea.  (Also, I didn’t have the time to play)  But…it definitely got me to thinking about playing characters who might do something that experienced players would be unlikely to have their characters chose to do…

When setting down to a gaming table and working out the social contract as well as what you are playing, it might be needed to consider the genre tropes you would expect.  For instance, there is that recent GEICO commercial where the kids are hiding in the woods and one of them suggests getting in the running car a drive away, but the others decide to hide behind the running chainsaws…This commercial is obviously poking fun at a great number of the slasher flick tropes.  The one character is the voice of common sense…Most players would normally play this character.  But, if the game you are getting ready to play is the Jason Vorhees story line, the players need to accept that their characters are blind to, or completely accepting, of the trope of this kind of story.  There are many fairly obvious examples of this, and some that may not be so obvious.  Lets consider this, As well as the player types and how they might be convinced to play these genre appropriate characters!

OK…Slasher horror flick, pretty obvious.  Your character need to not think about the general survival rules of these shows…never have sex, never separate, never go downstairs to investigate the noise or look for a weapon…Because, to play in this game, it needs to be understood that most of the characters will die.  Of course, the GM can just force them into the kill situations using tricks or just saying “after smoking the weed, you find yourself in a dark bedroom upstairs in just your underwear…roll to see if you notice the closet door opening!”  What about any zombie story since George Romero?  Every person who has the slightest understanding of modern fiction knows that they need to have their brain destroyed!   Again, the ref can change that by saying that his zombies need to have the heart, or the left pinkie toe destroyed…so the players are as clueless as their characters.  How ’bout we consider a favorite setting of mine: Deadlands.  Once the players have played for a few session, and likely from the moment you set down to discuss this setting, the players will know that evil is afoot.  And, If they finish a story arc, they will have a very good feel for what is going on.  But what about their next characters?  The classic Will-o-the-Wisp:  How many experienced players are going to go traipsing off in a swamp to check out the oddly flickering lantern?  On the other hand, if the character is youthful, and has heard that some treasure hoarding  fairies can be spotted at twilight in the same swamps…The wisp becomes an obvious threat again.  (Unless of course they have heard the legends or had an ex-adventure that took an arrow to the knee tell them about when they lost the thief when he went after a thief’s light in the swamp…

Horror type stories are obvious for this type of acceptance, but any setting, like superhero, or exploration need to have this acceptance.  So, to make these game better reflect their source material, or to maintain the replayability of a setting, players need to be willing and able to accept this.  Like the difference between Player and Character knowledge, this is a matter of suspending disbelief for the sake of playing the game.  The player may know that going into the rat infested cellar is actually a way to get them into the cellar and trapped in a caved in sewer, they may avoid it, unless that is the way the story starts.  It may seem that experienced players would be hard pressed to fall for some of the genre tropes that a new player might, even if they are playing the young and inexperienced new adventurer.  But take hope!  Experienced players will likely willingly embrace these tropes even easier than someone who does not have much practice at suspending their dis-belief, if appropriately baited enticed!

If that’s the case, how do we lay the groundwork.  Well, let’s go back to our player types!  The Bestest character type may be the hardest to convince to play with a handicap, such as not being aware that zombies are only vulnerable in the head.  How can they be the best if they have to wait like everybody else to learn that?  These characters need to understand that they can BECOME the BEST, but need to start behind the power curve like everyone else.  Once the characters start learning the secrets, then they can become their goal.  Until that point, they may become the mad experimenter…the best at figuring out how to deal with the issues…But in general, for the good of the game, they will have to delay their gratification.  Sorry.  The rule about a lot of things for them to do can keep them distracted!

How bout the escapist?  They are pretty easy!  Because they are often not at the forefront of action, they can easily accept that they don’t know that crossing the streams is really not as bad as expected!  Weather a tag-a-long or a dabbler, let them play the character who is there just to learn how the story turns out!

The Active explorer, profiler and storyteller may be your easiest to convince.  They play the game to explore the world and/or their character…so it is just natural for them to separate what the player knows or doesn’t from her character.  When you discuss with them the tropes of the game, particularly the latter two, they will likely embrace the challenge and the entertainment they derive.  The exceptions are probably the troublemaker and the avatar.  The troublemaker tries to break the setting, or at least test the boundaries.  For them, the ref and the other players will simply need to remind them that breaking the trope is not the same as breaking the boundaries.  As long as they keep that i mind, they should be controllable.  The Avatar is probably as difficult as the Bestest for this, maybe more so.  No body want to play a different version of themselves that has obvious dangerous flaws.  The avatar player is likely to be one of the least likely to embrace a character’s death or major flaw, and by defining their character with this weakness will be nearly anathema to them.The best way to deal with them is probably bribes!  The other option for the Avatars and Bestest might be for them to play the more sensible characters.  The Stick-in-the-mud virgin in the horror story, or the grandparent who doesn’t “ken to no nonsense” or the nerdy scientist type.

All of these thing considered, this really is just a form of Player vs Character knowledge.  When playing any game, part of the enjoyment is transporting everyone to some-PLACE else.  If you bring a modern player into a medieval setting, the player may know how to make gunpowder, rendering most of the armor useless.  You don’t let them do that, because it goes against the spirit of the theme.  This is exactly the same issue.  Most players know that getting in the running car and driving away will keep their character alive to fight another day.  But if the trope of the game is we need to tough this out and survive til morning, then hiding behind the running chainsaws might seem a perfectly viable plan!  Of course, no one would want to WIELD one as a weapon, (Too dangerous, I’m sure) until they are the last one standing and must face down the machete wielder! (Lets hope they haven’t run out of gas!)

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It’s Not the ‘Size’ of the Party…

But the quality of the game that counts!

The Composition of the party definitely defines the kind of game you play.  The composition is both the number of players vs NPCs as well as the type of players and their characters.  This post will be about dealing with the issues of player groups of various sizes, And yes, I will cover ways to deal with the party of 5 players that all want to play bugbear assassins later!  For the purpose of this discussion, each player is only playing one character at a time.  Multiple characters is for a later discussion…

Let me start by discussing my most common game setting; one ref, one player.  This has some of the best strengths, but it also has some of the biggest weaknesses.  First, the game can be tailored very fine to give the player exactly the game they want.  It is incredibly well suited to epic styles, and because it is a single player, the easiest set up for player dilemma and intense drama.  Besides that, you don’t need to worry if a player is not going to show up or not…if your player doesn’t show, then the other characters won’t notice, because time will not have passed the next time they meet.  These can be intensely story driven and satisfying adventures, probably the closest thing to an interactive novel experience one can get.

The downsides can be crushing, however, particularly for new ref’s.  The story is a very fine balance, because if you lose a character because the character dies, or the player tires of that one…well, the game is over, literally in the only way an RPG can truly be.  The cure is to have a character make a new character and take over somewhere else in the story line.  But, this is not as fun for the player, and it requires a significant understanding of your setting to find the place to weave in a new thread.  There are ways to circumvent this, such as have the player in an organization that controls their involvement in the plot.  That way, the next character can be sent in to find out what happened to the last character.  Or maybe the new character received a letter (maybe a bit meta-gamed) from a distant relative asking for their assistance.  NPCs need to be very carefully run.  they have to be able to assist the player, without taking too much away.   On the other hand, they can spoon feed a character exactly as much or as little as you need to press forward with the story.  Character interaction can be a problem, because there are no other Player Characters to interact with., so any in character conflict must be handled by the “REF’s of the world” and leads right back to how you handle your NPCs.  One final weakness, which is somewhat being alleviated in today’s connected world, is the isolation.  The only person a player could reminisce with about their phenomenal gaming experience, is the ref, that set it all up.

Two players are similar to one, but it blunts both the highs and lows somewhat.  I find that a party of three through five is usually about the perfect mix for my ref style.  I know many refs who would rather run about five to eight for the skill spread, and this can fairly easily be argued when you look at many game designs…with that type of character base, almost all skill sets have at least some coverage.  So, lets look at a group of anywhere from three to about nine or even ten (Probably pushing that high-end) for this piece.  This is usually the best balanced game setup you can get.  The character interaction tends to be good, but the number of people can be chaotic if not controlled.  A killed character can be replaced in the party with several different techniques and without major disruption to the rest of the plot.  In parties of this size, NPCs are not mandatory, and are as much set dressing or intrusive as you want.  A group this size, especially at the higher end, really limits the possibility of EPIC role play, simply because of the vast amount of time that would be needed between players turns.  One of the benefits of this size group, is a missing player will not really screech the game to a halt, where it can with smaller groups.  On the other hand, that makes coordinating times more difficult, particularly with adult players that have mundane lives and families!  Also, if you have a munchie table (as in someone brings and everyone consumes munchies, not as in munchkin as that would be a crunchy table) you can end up with bags of refuse every night (to say the least!)…

And lastly, a huge game group…more than about seven or eight in my opinion, but some refs are happy with more…This is usually the least enjoyable type of game.  Too many people all wanting to do things, and trying to build adventures or stories that challenge everybody without boring everybody…well…individualization is pretty much out.  You can, however, come up with some interesting things you can do with this size group.  Co-Ref’s can run simultaneous games, and separate teams can be playing in a similar setting…I have never done this, but I know folks who have and it is apparently quite enjoyable.  Or, partial games…where half your players meet in one game session, and the other half in another…you can again run parallel games, or, of course, different games…but some ref’s find it difficult for more that one game running at a time.  If you can find a place big enough to support all of these players, and you have players with excellent manners and are very patient, there is no reason it can’t be played like any other game…but just writing the types of adventures when you have an entire platoon of characters can limit the style and type.

Does this give you some insight in how to choose your player group?  I love single player games, but they are an entirely different flavor of game from a social group playing (where sometimes the social wins out over game.  yes, another topic for later!).  If anybody wants, I can work out any of these in more detail, but like some of the other very broad topics, this is more an awareness of the benefits and challenges that could be encountered when setting up your game session.

The Dynamics of “The Team”

Let’s do a bit of consideration of your game team…Some of the ideas that I cover here I will probably cover in greater detail at another time, but this has been on my mind as of late.  The “Game Team” I am referring to is not, necessarily, the archetypal characters that populate your character slots, but the players of your game, and you must remember that as a game ref, you are part of that team.  I’ve said earlier that without a ref, the game doesn’t happen.  Well, that’s also true of players.  I know there are RPGs out there that dispense with the ref in a free-form style, and some of those are really good, but this is a blog for ref’s, so I am ignoring those for right now.

In a later post I will discuss the types of players and why it is important, but here, I am going to make some, fairly obvious, observations on the gross mechanics of how a group works and things you can use or avoid.  These will include the size of your group, the need (or lack thereof) for blue-booking, and encouraging feedback.

Let me start with the size of your gaming group.  As you are probably aware, I prefer smaller groups and have played primarily (hours of game-wise) with My Lady Wife as the only Player.  I will do a whole post on single player games, so I just want to sketch out some observations.  With Smaller groups, simply because players get more relative “Stage-Time,” you can play much more character driven games, or even into the Epic game.  And because there is less wait-time between player “turns,” you can be much more rigid about the rules and all of the subtle nuances that the designer has built-in to reflect more unique situations.  As the group gets larger, the time between “turns” becomes greater, so the faster you can get through each characters action, the sooner each person has their next action.  Also, some games are designed and balanced for parties of more characters so the system itself can help support or hinder, your number of players.  How bout some ‘fer instances?”

OK.  If your players are involved in a grand battle between their characters and a small hoard of ravening trall, how could the combat go?  Well one character could sing their battle hymn, design an attack strategy that the rules support, begin their stealth maneuver,then attempt the ambush, then perform the attack.  Even if the rule system is quite abstract, the player and/or ref could embellish on what the 6 HP of damage were.  Or they could run up behind one and back stab it, next player.  While the first may be taken advantage of rules provided or just being very verbose as to their actions, it would often take a while between their description, the implementation, and perhaps the rules reference required, it is long and cumbersome when laid against the much more abstract: OK roll D20, stealth check good, roll the back stab…Is one better than the other?  Depends on your gamers…but if you have 3 players and each of them are verbose, the difference between that and 6 or 8 players…well…It could take 30 minutes to just get every players action done!  That is a lot of downtime between player actions!  So, group size can affect play style.

What about player experience?  That makes a lot of difference.  If you have players who are completely new, then a lot of concepts and rule implementations will need to be explained.  Again, really new players work great for simple rule systems, or just abstracting the rules.  Much more experienced players may want very in-depth stories and even backgrounds…so this can not only affect play style, but design style.  This can also lead to blue-booking questions…Do your players understand the difference between player and character knowledge?  Do they demonstrate it?  Is it a big deal to you as ref?  Sometimes, particularly in hell games, you might rely on players using player knowledge to get the game going.  And of course, many games are started with the mystical Player radar…where the characters join up with otherwise complete strangers because the both reached for the last bottle of bay rum after their shave!

If your characters are all experienced, and all play they same voice (narrative or character) and the are really good about separating player and character knowledge, then you still have to look at what they want from your game…why are they at your table.  Sometimes, its buffet food….just feed me all I can eat!  Don’t care if it is really palatable, sometimes it is for distinct and nuanced environment and character interaction…yup!  Another problem.  Given all of these issues, how can you, as a ref, ever hope to “Give Good Game?”  Well…

TALK!  It is that simple.  Make sure you talk with your players, make sure they talk to you…make sure they talk to each other!  Sometimes it will be a matter of all but one player getting what they want.  In that case, can you plan on a later game focused on that players desire that the other players can enjoy, even if it is not what they want?  It is a big compromise, just like life.  To use one of my outrageous examples:  As a ref, you have created a space roman empire game full of weird planets, detailed politics, volatile NPCS, and a 30 game story arc…but if your players are in the mood for dungeon crawl hack n’slash…probably everybody will be disappointed.  I am not going to teach you to be diplomats, but…you scratch their back, while they are scratching each others…and overall everybody has a good time!

Until the next one…