This is the second installment of a series I’m going to be calling “Don’t Be A Dick,” after the awesome Wil Wheaton saying of the same name. In this post, I commented on some basic gaming etiquette and vented some about a particularly frustrating situation in my current town of Killeen, TX. This time I’m going to talk about some core, foundational interpersonal relationship stuff that a lot of gamers do without thinking about. The reason I’m bringing it up is specifically because we don’t think about it a lot, and when a game group discusses these things beforehand a game can be saved from crashing and burning in fiery death. Or, put another way it can make an already good game even better.
I’m a big fan of Johnn Four and Roleplayingtips.com. If you’re not a subscriber already, shame on you. You should be. It has great stuff, every single week, relevant to both GMs and players. I’ve been a subscriber for so long I don’t remember when I wasn’t one. Makes me feel kinda old, but it really is that good. If you’re ever stumped for an idea, I challenge you to spend an hour going through the archives there and not come out with a handful. It’s like gaming crack. In the latest issue of his newsletter, Supers Tips For Beginners, Mark L. Chance of Spes Magna Games has this to say in regards to running a Superhero-style game:
Do your supers wear flashy costumes, do they kill people, and do they face real world issues with ambiguity and cynicism?
Everyone has their preferences, and it’s time to let mine show: superheroes don’t kill people. They can be all edgy and angst-ridden, but they don’t kill people.
Batman is a superhero. The Punisher is a murderer. Superheroes stand for Truth, Justice, and Some Sort of Ideal Way. The Avengers are superheroes. The Watchmen are not, and they deserved to be mistrusted and reviled.
I cannot emphasize this too much: set the parameters for acceptable superhero behavior before the characters ever get made.
What Mark is talking about here is setting expectations. The psychological world calls it priming, because just like your car it is easiest to get the best performance out of a pump when you manually put a little fuel/water/oil in it before you attempt to start it. This lets the pump run at capacity from the beginning instead of having to suck liquid from the reservoir.
Stop looking at me like that. I work with engines all the time. Don’t worry. It’ll make sense before the end.
I fully believe that Mark is right on the money here, and his advice can be easily applied to just about any kind of roleplaying game where the players aren’t actively opposed to one another. By sitting down and discussing the expectations of the game before the first character is created and the first die is rolled, you do several things that make your game run more smoothly. You are priming that pump so that your game doesn’t suck as much during those first few critical sessions of play. (See… mechanical reference. It makes sense. I told ya.)
Some folks call this the Social Contract. While I’m not so big on making it that formal, I think the players and GM need to sit down and talk about what they want from the game beforehand. Via email, maybe, as some folks have some pretty vehement opinions here and arguments can erupt almost without warning.Also for the record let me say that this should be a discussion, not a laying down of the law by the GM saying, “This is the kind of game we’re going to play.” That gets the game of on the wrong foot from the get-go, declaring the GM as authoritarian and rather unapproachable. It’s not a good way to go. I know that we as GMs often have an idea of where we want the game to go, or a story we want to tell beforehand, but I urge you NOT to impose your will on your players. Instead, listen to them and what they want to do and the kind of game they want to play, and do your best to accommodate both their desires and your own. I guarantee that as soon as you show them that you have heard and understood their wants for the game, your own game will improve because the people at your table will know you’re listening. And from that, when they know you’re listening and paying attention, they will be far more open to you adding in the elements that you want in the game, too.
The vast majority of us GMs will nod our heads ruefully if I start talking about the player who decides he “doesn’t like this adventure” and chooses to pull the entire party off the track they were on and do his own thing, disrupting whatever the rest of the party is heading towards. It’s frustrating and, frankly, rude of that player to treat the others in his party in that way– and I guarantee if you have shown that player you listen and are willing to work with the kind of game he wants to play as well as the other party members, those kind of events will happen less and less often until, miracle of miracles, they don’t happen at all anymore.
In any case, making sure everybody is working from the same set of blueprints will let your game get built with a strong foundation.Some things you mght want to talk about are:
- Hero-and-Villain Scale: Like Mark says in his article, figuring out what kind of heroes the players intend on playing is utterly crucial in a Supers game. I’m going to come out and say that it’s just as important in a fantasy RPG as well. While some groups might be able to have the Shining Knight and the Sadistic, Misanthropic Assassin in the same party, I believe that most won’t–at least not for long. I play D&D in order to tell stories with my friends about the good guys overcoming huge obstacles and beating the bad guys in the nick of time, and doing it while making Right, but often hard, choices in the process. I have seen far too much of the bad guy winning in my day-to-day life to want that kind of thing in my escapist fantasies, thankyouverymuch. It’s just how I get down, and I make sure that when I am running a game I tell my players that well in advance, before they create their characters. I don’t require all Lawful Good Paladins by any stretch– variety is what makes the game awesome. But I do require that every character in my games be a hero of some kind of stripe. They must be able to play well with others; no lone-wolf, I-don’t-need-a-group characters at my tables. In return, my players know that I will never put them in a situation where they are forced into a course of action that would compromise that. I’ll throw tough decisions at them all day long, but in the end there is always a possibility of success even if it is a small one. In 3.X I required PCs to be LG, LN, N, NG, or CG. That’s a whole lot of options, and in 20 years of gaming I’ve never had a problem with it. Everybody being on the same page in regards to what is acceptable hero behavior goes a long way to facilitating a happy party.
- Campaign “Rating“: I like to think of my games like a TV series or motion picture. It helps me to frame dramatic sequences, scenes and the visual arts have a lot of emotional impact on people nowadays. Because of that I have found it is often a good idea to talk to your players before the game starts about what level of sex and violence they are comfortable with in their gaming. Some tables, especially those with small children present, are likely to be kept to the “Disney Channel” kind of a game where good is always good, evil is always evil and any sex or nasty stuff that happens is always offscreen (yes I know there are some exceptions, but this is a good general rule.) The next level I call “Network,” where there is more standard levels of violence and sex, but for the most part it’s not too graphic onscreen. PCs likely wont be having sex at this level. NPCs might, but you won’t see it. Sexual themes might come up but wouldn’t be a focus. Truly ugly stuff can be talked about, but you wont see it. One level higher would be “Basic Cable” with channels like TBS, TNT, Spike and the like. Again the level of sex and violence is higher but most R-rated movies will still get a hefty edit before they are allowed. PCs could be having sex with NPCs or even other PCs if both players are willing to go there. Rape and other sex crimes might become the topic of an ongoing plotline and violence is graphically described. The highest level I consider at my games I call “Showtime” mainly because it sounds better than “HBO”. This is where sex is graphically described, violence often moreso, and just about anything goes. Do not assume that just because folks are of age to watch it on TV they are comfortable with it at the gaming table. The level of immersion that gaming can garner from people can make folks very uncomfortable when dealing with topics like sex and violence. This is why it’s important to ask your players before the game begins so you know what they are comfortable with and how to build your plotlines, encounters and scenarios.
- No-Go Topics: Along the same lines as sex and violence, it’s often good to talk to your players about what they (not their characters, mind you– the players themselves) are not comfortable with in their gaming sessions. We all get together and roll dice to have fun; a topic or event coming up that one of your players has serious qualms with can stop that fun dead in its tracks for the whole party. As I mentioned above, rape or sexual abuse is one of the big ones that might come up. I suggest you ask specifically about it, though if you do it by email and let your players answer individually it can be easier to bring up. Likewise, some gamers, especially those with families (like myself) are averse to stories of harm coming to children. Note that most folk are okay with “The kids have been kidnapped and we have to save them” but not something like “As you walk through the dungeon you see the corpses of dead babies blah blah blah…” Children as potential victims is far more acceptable than children AS victims. Again, this is something to ask specifically about.
- Religion: Faith, Religion and Spirituality are also something to ask specifically about. Most fantasy settings assume a pantheon (or pantheons) of gods and goddesses, but some settings that strive for historical accuracy can replicate real-world religions– often with varying degrees of demonizing or not-so-subtle commentary on the replicated religions in question. It’s very likely that you will have a mix of faiths at your table: my longest-running campaign had the eclectic mix of two non-denominational Christians, one devout Catholic, one Taoist and several neo-pagans all gaming together in happy harmony. I scrupulously avoided mimic-ing any real-world religions in that game specifically because of the mixed company involved. I’m not making any kind of statement about religion of any kind here– what I am saying is that you should talk to your players about it beforehand.
What all these topics come down to is one simple thing: talk to your players beforehand, in depth, to determine what their shared expectations are for your upcoming game. You can negotiate and compromise between you in a calm and civilized manner, figure out if there are any hot buttons to avoid, and everybody will be impressed by you as a GM being so aware of potential issues that could cause problems from the beginning. You as GM are priming that pump so that your games will run more smoothly from the very first session. Just like that fuel pump I mentioned earlier, it keeps your game from sucking, especially at the beginning– and a good GM knows just how important those first few sessions can be.