In my last post I talked about player activation, the idea that GM’s often need to do more in a ‘con game to ‘activate’ their players, in order to bring about more engagement and improve the overall game experience for everyone. That’s all well and good – but how do you actually do it?
I should clarify that when I talk about activation, I’m talking about players who would like to engage with a game more fully, but don’t for whatever reason. Not player’s who deliberately obstruct, challenge or proactively frustrate the GM – this I call ‘blocking’ and is an entirely different dynamic and has an entirely different solution, in my opinion.
Luke suggests 3 possible options; have fun, make friends with your players, love your PC’s. I think these are all good suggestions, and are techniques I use often. My note of caution about such methods comes from two sources - first, it’s sometimes hard to start a game with this level of enthusiasm (unless you’re Luke), and round one, after a late night, such an approach may not be sustainable. You sometimes need to build the fun slowly and draw off the energy of the other players. Secondly, by the GM taking such an active role, often you carry the game on your shoulders, meaning if your energy ebbs, so does the game, and it’s hard to know (while you’re doing it) whether players are actively engaging, or just being carried along for the ride. Ultimately, they may not find it as much fun as you do because they feel their agency has been diminished.
Here are some of my suggestions; I’d be very interested in hearing your own thoughts and opinions:
1. Be open about what you want and what you’re trying to achieve. Do this before the game (and preferably in the blurb) to be clear about your expectations and the kind of game you want to run.
2. Communicate the style, and provide some tools for player narration by using film techniques – describe the opening scenes as a director might (a dusty road, the camera pans up to windswept tussock and a clear blue sky, in the distance a man is trudging wearily toward the camera...). Tapping into such common ground should empower the player to use similar descriptive elements, even if they've never GM'd before.
3. Have pre-generated characters that support this. I found that providing some very basic detail, drawing on well established tropes and clichés, while leaving much of the rest to the player allowed for creative freedom, while not throwing the player in at the deep end. Give them something to build on, but too much detail often feels like a straightjacket.
4. Encourage individual scene framing. This adds to the idea that the players have a strong level of autonomy of their own character. You must help facilitate the scene, but if you start with some detailed description –then encourage the player to add some detail about their character indirectly at first (I like to use the opening sequence of the movie Sahara – the camera is panning over a desk, what’s on it? Is it neat or messy? What kind of pictures on the wall? etc.), then go back to the description – then more character detail, then start to force some decisions. A telephone rings – who is calling? A pizza is delivered, what sort of pizza? Did the character order it, or is it a mistake? A collector approaches the character in the streets, how do they react? Each choice helps the player solidify the character in their mind. Ideally each of these early interactions should involve NPC’s who are subservient to the character, minor parts in the movie, so the PC is clearly the focus and has the authority in each case.
5. Be sure to allow time for the player to process each of these elements. Not everybody grasps things in the same way and we all process information differently. If you communicate the idea that the players need to help frame a scene – talk about something else for a bit – and allow them time to think about it, and form ideas. People will feel less put on the spot. Last week in Australia I ran a game, communicated this idea, and before running the character intro scenes one of the players had time to make some notes, which actually led to a much more powerful, meaningful scene.
6. Kill the system. At this early stage the system just gets in the way. Players will often like to engage with mechanics, so they can optimize their play, prepare for challenges and get the best results. Unless this is the kind of game you want (see point 1 about being open) this is just going to lead to questions, and tie up player attention with mechanical crunch, which is likely to distract from the detail necessary to build a stronger character bond. I think we need system, but we need it to support this style of game, not detract from it. This is part of a deeper discussion about the kind of system we need for this kind of game.