RPGs: Whose Game Is It Anyway…?

Sunday , 9, April 2017 3 Comments

Peter Dell’Orto has an interesting observation over at Dungeon Fantastic:

“We tend to discuss campaigns as if they belong to the GM. Peter’s game. Chris’s game. Gary’s game. That guy at the hobby shop’s game. But you’ll get people who say, no, it’s not the GM’s game. It’s the players’ game. If you as the GM think it’s your game, you’re doing something wrong. But honestly, it’s everyone’s game. The GM has to enjoy running it enough to put in all of the effort needed for a good game. The players need to enjoy it enough to keep showing up and put in the effort to make it fun for themselves and others. If either is lacking the joy of their part of the enterprise, it’s going to end sooner or (perhaps rather than) later.”

This is pretty much spot on.

The ideal for me, especially when running B2, X1, G1, and Dwimmermount was… to as far as possible to merely adjudicate the game as fairly and as consistently as possible. (Now… this is not sustainable. Somewhere in around the 6th or 8th session, the game goes beyond the constraints of the rules and the module and the Dungeon Master will be forced to create entire towns, scenarios, non-player characters and more. But that is my ideal.) Players have ownership of the decision making. They control the game. They determine what kind of risks they’ll take. They sort out their disagreements and differences of opinion. As far as is possible the Dungeon Master stays out of all that. He intervenes only to facilitate the players making an informed choice if they seem to have the wrong impression about something.

Meanwhile, over at Revens N’Pennies Christopher Rice has some suggestions for avoiding campaign flame out:

“After you’ve got the numbers and results, get your players together for a prep session and talk about how everyone voted. Explain how you feel about certain things and make sure your players do as well. It’s perfectly fine to move the results about during this period. Perhaps a player didn’t fully understand what he wanted or changed his mind. Really, the numbers don’t matter. What matters is the GM and his players are having a conversation. It’s the conversation that’s important. It’s the conversation that can help you create a game that lasts. And its the numbers that help you start that conversation.”

Maybe we’re playing completely different games or something, but I totally disagree with this. The thing about players…? They have no idea what they want. Us game blogging Dungeon Master types…? We overthink everything. We compare a half dozen editions of our games to a half dozen other games nobody has ever heard of. We dig through three decade old magazine articles. We trawl the game blog scene shopping for awesome house rules. It’s a total arms race out here. News flash, though: players don’t even care about any of it. Whatever rule book you have, you’ll be lucky to even use the bottom twenty percent of it. All this stuff you think really matters…? The vast majority of it has nothing to do with that the players are showing up for. If you can agree on a rule set, a module, and a time and place to meet… you are already well past the level of consensus you are ever going to get from most groups of gaming fanatics.

How do you find out what the players want…? Come up with two or three adventure hooks. Deliver the gist of what they entail. Let them argue about it. And then roll forward with what they decide. If you do this in the context of play rather than from a meta “what do you want” type standpoint, you do two things. One, the act of sorting out this question is done while people are playing together. That’s huge! (I played in a campaign once where the first session was planning. That ended up being 25% of our total play right there. Lame!) Two, the less hard core people that are not rpg junkies like us game blogger types…? These people that don’t even know what they want can interact with the question of what kind of play they want to do without having to communicate in the sort of terminology and fads and hoodoo that us egghead types take for granted.

With D&D this is very straight-forward. “I’m going to run B/X by the book with B2 Keep on the Borderlands, but as you play I will gradually flesh out the area in response to what y’all are doing and what the campaign seems to need. When you get to the Cave of the Unknown… I’m not going to drop in the dungeon from B1. I’m going to grab one of Dyson Logos’s maps and then drop in whatever would make sense there based on what all has happened and what all you’ve decided. If it ends up evolving into a mega-dungeon or something, that’d be cool. But the blank parts of the map are just going to be whatever we end up needing when we get there. I don’t really have any preconceived notions about this.”

See that? That is too much information for 99% of players. You’d maybe say that to another Dungeon Master that you’ve played with for years, but for most people… “we’re going to play an iconic D&D module strictly by the 1981 rules” is all they want to know. Drop them into a sufficiently prepped scenario and they will take it in any one of a dozen different directions. All without spending an entire session hashing out what kind of campaign everyone really wants!

  • Brian Renninger says:

    When I made my Oriental Adventure game that was my tack. Minimal background and create what I needed when I needed it. It worked really well. I got to have the fun of creating something without it being drudgery. The players got to dramatically influence the game. I never imagined it’d be about kung fu barbarian pirates. The players immediately went outside the scope of my initial imaginings. I put stuff out there for them to grab onto but, I was always surprised with what they chose.

  • Aaron B. says:

    Agreed completely. The players are supposed to discover the Caves through role-playing at the Keep. Telling them that kind of thing ahead of time would spoil the fun.

    The players want to have fun, so you want to get into the fun as soon as possible. With players that are new (or at least new to you), I can see feeling them out on what expectations they have, to make sure there’s not something they want to do (“I want to play the dragon!”) that won’t work with the system you’re using. But other than that, roll up the characters, tell them where they are in the world, and get on with the fun, letting them (and you, sometimes) discover the rest through gameplay.

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