Sunday, February 20, 2011

The GM Toolkit

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.


  1. Nice summary.

    Speaking strictly for myself, I usually struggle with points 1, & 2.

    I find it very difficult to describe what things look like, what kind of shot would be selected if it were being filmed, that kind of thing. Getting better, and I can see its merits!

    In terms of #1, that is the most difficult part of GMing; particularly horror. I generally feel for horror that the best I can do is check what the player "limits" are, and undertake not to go past that. That's why the blurb for THTF was written the way it was, and why Karen's blurb for "So Cold" was written the way it was. Neither really declares up front what they're trying to achieve, but both pretty clearly say "no limits".

    Having said that - I felt like at the table for both games that it went further than probably expected by the players.

    And a better desert movie is:


  2. I actually think #1 is most important for horror games. People are unlikely to allow themselves to feel scared or even tense, unless they have agreed in advance to do so. Creating this sensation is difficult enough, most people will insinctively and unconsciously block feelings of fear, so to challenge this response, I argue that we need players to take an active stake in the process.

    Secondly, of course, I object to running anything that might make people uncomfortable without consent. The players are the majority shareholders in the game, and as such, they need to both understand and agree to the premise and content of a game explicitly, and have mechanisims to tone it down, or take a break.

    That doesn't mean it doesn't happen, or that you can't get good results without skipping step #1, just that such an experience will likely be dictated by the circumstances and personalities of the moment. The point of writing this down, is to try and provide replicable experiences for all kinds of folks.

  3. I like this list. Though I agree about encouraging players to frame their own scenes I often find that, as a part of 1 and 2, the GM can help make suggestions to a player that help communicate the style. This is especially true of cinematic or genre heavy games.

    Sure it breaches the 4th wall on player/PC autonomy but normally, after a plug or two, it is no longer needed and the rewards are high.

  4. Blogspot hates me :( Every post on here takes 10 to 20 minutes of extra time just to deal with deleted posts, verifications failures and other technical issues.

  5. I pay extra so they toy with people who post authoritatively in my comments. If you just keep it to praise and compliments you should have no problem.

  6. Not a bad list Dale. Do you think all of them are needed to be effective, or can they be used piecemeal?

    A lot of them are things we do intrinsically with out regular groups, but are harder to do in a con setting.

    I would personally add a seventh in the form of 'create an atmosphere'. Under this I would include things like using a soundtrack, creating props and setting an ambiance through lighting. While quite hard to introduce in a con environment, all of these are incredibly effective in creating an immersive atmosphere.

  7. @Dale: Totally agree. That's why I tried really hard to spell out that the game would be tough going; but I also didn't want to give away the game in the blurb.

    But I generally take your point to heart that a lot of what makes or breaks a con game happens in the "pre-game", including the blurb and player briefing.

    @Andy: I see where you're coming from, but my experience has generally not been that great with "extras", especially music. I've yet to be a player at a table where music hasn't annoyed me.

    I ran my pseudo-horror "Gaslight" game 6 years ago under candlelight, and I got complaints for the first half of the game about poor lighting making it hard to read or take notes.

    Can't please everyone all the time! :) I agree that "Atmosphere" though, is important; but looking back at the moments that have really popped for me as a player over the years, very few retain much recollection of the physical space. For me at least, it's always been primarily about commitment to the game. Commitment to go where you have to go, do whatever you have to do.

  8. Yeah, I have played genuinely scary games in different outdoor places. Music and lighting can also evoke a lesser effect if people don't 'block' them - but to my mind these are all crutches.

    I see 'con games as the ultimate challenging environment, and while we can always try to tinker with the atmosphere, the true challenge is to create a scary game purely in the imagination.

    However, if horror isn't your aim, I suspect music and props may well help add atmosphere.

    As for whether these items can be adapted piecemeal - absolutely. The aim here is to achieve full engagement or 'activation' from all players. The challenge is being able to make an accurate assessment of your players buy-in during the game.

    You'll probably know if the whole game is flat, but it is pretty hard to monitor everyone during the game if you're facilitating - in fact it's damn near imposible. That's why I suggest covering each of the bases I've outlined, so you secure a strong level of engagement from everyone at the beginning and have put some responsibility on the players themselves. But obviously if the game is really flowing well you want to preserve the flow, and not get stuck following some list.

    An old school GM might do some, or all of these things without ever being open or explicit with the players about it. Carrying the game. I'd argue that this is an unnecessary bruden, The GM has become a performer, not a facilitator, and is likely to be blinded to the activation issue, particularly if some players are particularly vocal, or there are other challenges (like 'blocking').

    Player activation is a sly problem, which slips neasily under the radar - if as a GM, if you've ever wondered why a 'con game hasn't gone as well as you think it should have, and you honestly can't say why - this may be one of the causes.

  9. Interesting. I don't see music or lightening as any less of a crutch than a pre-game questionnaire. Indeed, I think they work best if horror is your aim. Where would Psycho be without its score? However, I totally agree it can be overdone and overused. Perhaps it's a case of 'hard to do well - easy to do badly'.

    I'll say some more later on your broader points, but I need to run off and get ready for tomorrow.

  10. Well, let me put it this way - if you can secure player activation in any genre without props and atmosphere, then you can certainly bring them in later to improve the experience. If you can only secure activation with the aid of external atmosphere techniques, then your ability to run at 'cons is necessarily limited.

    I don't advocate a questionnaire before a game - just a brief, frank, discussion between players and GM about the nature of the game.

  11. FWIW I have had some great experiences with music, even had a scenario that pretty much relied on its use (successfully too IMO). As with anything, I suggest using whatever tools you think achieves the result the best. No one tool will be universally useful. So music one game, questionnaire the next.

    This also varies from GM to GM. Both in terms of the GM's preferences and their total "range" within those preferences.

  12. I'm not down on using music or sound effects or lighting and acknowledge their uses.

    However, IMHO the Gold Standard of 'con scenarios, is a game that you can run at Kapcon 11 - one big hall with tables next to each other and massive ambient noise - and still achieve full player activation, and evoke the kind of feel and atmosphere you aim to achieve. That's the challenge.

  13. Another stray thought:

    How does the word "protagonist" interact with your term "player activation"? How do these terms interact with the game materials: plot & character? Does "player activation" necessarily require a particular kind of game?