What we need to play

September 27, 2015

There’s a few common failure points to successfully running a game, however, the solutions to these mostly boils down to this decision tree:

Did you talk about it and come to an agreement?

A)  No, we didn’t. – > Go talk about it and come to an agreement.

B) Yes, we did.  -> Talk about what went wrong, or changed, and come to a new agreement.

C) We can’t come to an agreement – > either play a different game or play with people whom you can talk and come to an agreement with.  (also: don’t play games or with people you can’t come to agreements with.)

Keep this idea in mind – it applies to all of the following steps which are crucial to being able to run a tabletop roleplaying game.

Social Commitment: Can I even fit this game into my life?

How long is each session? How long is the expected campaign?  How important is steady attendance? How well can it adapt if people get busy, get sick, or schedules change?

The question underlying all of this is: “Can I even fit this game into my life?”

This is a question people don’t ask, yet it’s really the biggest question to start with – if people can’t make the time to play the game, maybe you need to play a different game.

And, if the game is bigger than a single session, you have to figure out what to do when it comes to life intruding.  Not having this conversation doesn’t mean “things just work out”, it means the game just stops after a point.

Agenda: What’s the point of the game?  What’s the fun part?

Note that if you play a superhero game about fighting villains and the fun part is strategically using your powers to win tactically and the same premise but the fun part is roleplaying the drama of balancing a secret identity with obligations as a hero – the focus of play, what you do in play, is very different.

If you don’t talk about this, then people may show up with all kinds of mismatched expectations and start trying to force each other to “play right” without ever agreeing on what “playing right” is.

Setting: What do we need to know about the fiction to play?

What’s the genre? The tone? The setting?  What kinds of characters make sense to go into this setting?  What kinds of decisions, or behaviors?  What kind of outcomes and conflicts?  Do you need to know the Culture of Vampires and Elves?  Do you need to know The Third Age?

This helps us create together as a group.  If we don’t know what we’re working with, some folks may make references or meaningful statements while the other players have no context at all.  If it is expected to be known, how much reading or “homework” is it, and again, can players fit it into their lives?

System: How do we find out what happens?

The actual rules.  How much do you need to know to play comfortably?  How much is it ok if you look it up during play or have someone handhold you through the process?  How do you, as a player, try to make things happen in play the way you want them to?

I mention “the actual rules” because a lot of games suffer from people saying, “You can do anything you can imagine” and then find out “Actually the GM has preplotted everything and you can’t really do much really” and similar issues.  Jono’s Big Flowchart of What Game Are We Playing? is a great example of a terrible and common issue.

Clearing these hurdles

Effectively what my Same Page Tool does, is take several standard RPG play tropes and sort them into categories to make it easier for a group to talk about and make a decision on everything except social commitment.  The problem I’ve always pointed to is that games should already tell you what the point of play is and how the system works and an idea of how to use the fiction and genre tools they give you to play – you pay for a game to tell you how to play it.

A well designed and well-written game makes these issues trivial – you are able to easily come to agreement because the game either sets the parameters or gives you tools to decide between the forms in which it operates.

So this fixes everything?  Not quite.

There’s two common problems this doesn’t fix.  However, these are fundamentally unfixable problems.

“What if people are dishonest about what they want out of a game?” 

Well.  In a game medium that exists through conversation, if someone is lying to you, about what they consider fun, in a game about elves, cyborgs and vampires or what have you – think about how deep the distrust has to be for that to be a reflexive behavior.   Someone who can’t be honest about what they find fun is someone you can’t find fun with.  Move on.

“How can I make people like what I like, want the same kind of game that I want?”

You can’t.  You can’t make people like music they’re not into, you can’t make them enjoy flavors they don’t like, and so on.  If you know that you have incompatible goals – don’t roleplay together.  Play games or do activities that you all DO enjoy, and leave the roleplaying to the subgroup that has the same tastes.  It’s ok, you’ll still be friends.

Having an honest talk will reveal both of these situations rather quickly.  Either the agreements fall apart in play because someone is dishonest, or you can’t come to an agreement in discussion because what you want is fundamentally different.   These are the hard truths people don’t like to deal with, but there it is.  Once you recognize these, you can stop wasting time and focus on people who want to play a game with you and have fun.

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