Monday, February 7, 2011

Player Activation

Following some discussions of players and their impact on ‘con games with Mash, I was struck by Grandexperiment’s claim that he’d “never had a bad player experience at a Kapcon”. Clearly he and I may have different expectations and ideas about what makes a ‘bad’ experience, however, in the past I’ve certainly been guilty of blaming players when a session has felt flat or uninspired. As I work through some of the ideas around EPOCH I realise that player engagement must be a critical element of any successful horror game – the question is, what are the tools a GM needs to have readily available to help make this happen?

A brief detour back to 2009 when I ran a game at a university games day in Canberra. The roleplaying club needed to get a certain number of student members in order to qualify for funding for the year, so they has advertised widely and were offering a free pizza lunch as an incentive. I had decided to run a M&M supers scenario (the Proteus Plot) with my own mechanic for character creation which involved a degree of assisted narrative control; principally this allowed the players to tailor their own superhero characters and have shared authority over their ‘super team’ (I tried this again at Confusion 8). In this game I had 3 players who had never played a roleplaying game before - ever. They were there for the pizza. And yet these folks jumped into the shared narrative process. With a little prompting and scene setting from me, they deftly crafted characters, NPC’s and back stories, some better than the experienced roleplayers at the table. In fact, after the game got underway I forgot they were rookies until they tried to use narrative control to favourably influence the system mechanics for their characters.

What I took out of this experience was that, with the right tools and setup, people – irrespective of their experience - naturally engage with characters in a way that we’ve come to think of as ‘good’ play. So why, then, do we sometimes feel a convention game falls flat?

In a one-shot 3 hour roleplaying game, neither the premise nor the pre-generated characters are likely to create deliver a strong empathetic bond with a player. Compounded by the absurdity of the game premise, camouflaged by a system that restricts player interface in the interests of 'balance' and loaded with social inhibitors about expressing yourself before strangers; it's no surprise that some games become periods of tedium punctuated by occasional humour or farce at the expense of atmosphere.

I now believe that what we have to do is 'facilitate' the game in such a way that players can’t help but be 'activated'. That means we actually have to find ways to engage with them that allow them to feel comfortable - and for some people that's not going to be easy. If we keep a strong GM fiat, rules focus or adversarial approach, players have to decide to risk something in order to engage fully with the game, and many just won't. Because for some people a mediocre or even a crappy game is better than no game at all.


  1. Good post and certainly a part of how I think Con games should be approached. I am not sure I would apply it all to "home" games though, as they are very different kettles of fish :)

    BTW I am not sure I fully understood this comment, espeically the first on you list:

    "If we keep a strong GM fiat, rules focus or adversarial approach, players have to decide to risk something in order to engage fully with the game, and many just won't."

    I can see how a strong GM presence can be intimidating, but I can also see how it can be empowering if its a GM you trust.

  2. These remarks are intended to be general, so in a 'con situation I'm not sure that you should ever anticipate players that you know, or who will know (let alone trust) you in a game - and if you do it may well have unintended side effects of alienating the other players, as you allude to in your Kapcon clique post.

    I guess I'd unpick 'strong GM presence' to have multiple factors. Fiat, rules focus and an adverserial approach, or even a passive approach, I'd say would have unempowering effects to a broad audience. A GM who discusses the game openly with players as equals, shares narrative control, but also balances the fun of the other players might be empowering factors to a broad audience.

  3. This is likely to be dismissed as super happy nonsense :) , but I also think the following general stuff can help a GM in a Con situation:

    - Have fun: a GM having fun often spurs players on more than a GM trying to "engage" them.
    - Make friends: I find that GMing has stuff in common with making friends from the awkward start to breaking the ice to cheering them on.
    - Love your PCs: This will make you want to help the players give them justice.

  4. Good post Dale. I think you make a really relevant point regarding encouraging player buy in to a game. This is generally easier when you game with people you know and can become more of a challenge with a group of strangers.

    A related point is whenever I run a game at Kapcon, I get the players to introduce themselves to each other before we start players. It always strikes me as odd expecting your players to start interacting as team mates or whatever without known the name of the people your riffing off during the game.

  5. I also had good success with complete newbies in a systemless environment at VUWGC back in 05/06. I think that experienced gamers build up a set of internalized rules and habits that they struggle to break, which is kinda where I was going with my last KapCon post. Further articulation in due course!