Whilst it would be lots of fun to share with you the trip-down-memory-lane I took this weekend while reading the MasterBook stuff, the shadow that has loomed largest for our group has been the question of who wants to play, why they want to play, and what they want to play.
When a disagreement bursts forth at Friday Night Roleplay, as it inevitably does from time to time, it usually does so out-of-session and by email. This week's problem was no exception. It started with one person having the honesty to express a long-held frustration from our gaming table and, when others were asked about it, proved to be a more wide-spread issue.
Strangely, though, when frustrations are aired they usually begin with a moan about something to do with the game... and this later proves to be a smoke-screen for other issues. The roleplayers at my table seem reluctant to make complaint about another person and unaware of the issues that surround playing style.
If you've found yourself uncomfy at the table, and not entirely sure why, then my tip is to fess up and talk to the others.
Who's Sitting In Whose Chair?
The question of who is sitting at your table is the first issue to consider. At ours we have recently had a lot of change, with some players dropping out altogether and some faces returning. Ages vary widely and levels of gaming experience also fill a wide range. Looking at the table with a critical eye you can easily see that it wouldn't be an easy group to manage.
The main subject of conversation that needed airing this week was all around expectations at the table. If one player is coming for the deep, in-character role-play and another is playing for the light, let-off-steam roll-play then you are going to have a problem. As the roleplayer seeks to engage the Orc leader in a negotiation, the roll-player steams up and slits his throat. Expectations all round have been violated.
Of course, when this happens, no one is going to SAY anything. It's going to fester and bubble, under the surface. People just aren't used to considering their expectations for any group.
Playing styles for RPGs are as varied as RPG systems, really. The trick is in bringing together a group of mixed styles and creating the blend that fits you just fine.
Here are some fictional examples:
Bob is into tabletop wargames and has just started roleplaying, being attracted to the idea of playing a role and developing a story collaboratively. He wants to enjoy tactical challenges from time to time... but mostly he wants to tell a cool story. He's into settings that range from Victoriana through to SF.
Mike is also a tabletop wargamer and enjoys the detail that roleplaying games bring to combat scenes. He also like a bit of story but feels easily confused if choices are not clear. He wants to smite a few bad guys and follow the mission plan... and enjoys the company of like-minded heroes. He doesn't care too much about the setting as long as it's clear and easy to grasp.
Jimmy is a long-time roleplayer who can remember the first time he played D&D, back before the dawn of time. He likes the structure that D&D's fantasy has always provided and likes to play the system for advantage. He loves to design a detailed heroic character and then tinker it up to perform in the situations that the party will face. Ultimately, Jimmy wants to show off his cool character and all the stuff it can do. He says he'll play anything, and he means it... but he is, at heart, a D&D fan.
Owen is a young player who has come to roleplaying recently and is enjoying taking part in games that give him the freedom to imagine the cool stuff he wishes he could do when he plays computer games. He likes to mash the gribblies, playing a very straight-forward character, and will avoid the roleplaying stuff unless he really needs to. Mostly, he's still trying to figure out how to fit in with the others. He wants to play games that feel like computer games.
Larry is there sometimes too. He's a quieter and more withdrawn player who loves to tell stories. He doesn't really enjoy looking up rules and isn't good at making a "top-notch" hero like Jimmy. He just likes to come and hang out, tell the story and roll some dice. He's not always free to come so he tends to be behind on the details and slower when making decisions because he's having to get up to speed again every session. He likes to play games in settings he's played before... so he's not a fan of home-spun games.
Chris is the GM. He is, like me, a butterfly-head who really finds it hard to settle on any single setting or system unless he feels he is "on a roll". The longest campaign he ran was modern day, featuring conspiracy and weirdness, and he misses that campaign more than anything else. He'll run anything... for a while... but, right now, when the guys gather around the table he feels unable to inspire them. Without that spark, Chris is going to be looking for the next cool idea that he can try out in the endless quest for another "cool campaign".
How can you forge a cohesive group from a seemingly disparate bunch of players?
What do all of these players have in common?
No Easy Answers
The truth is that the really cool game is going to arise from the interaction of all those players and the GM to create a roleplaying experience tailored entirely to them.
As GM, Chris suspects that his players like reasonably rule-heavy systems which provide tactical challenges. What he can't figure out is what genre and setting will spark their interest... what heroes will inspire them to play with energy and gusto.
Talking to the players Chris is frustrated by non-committal statements: "I'll play anything, mate... just want to roll some dice and escape life for a couple of hours." He can't get them to tell him what they liked or even disliked about the individual games they have played.
The one thing that unites this (fictional) group is the idea of playing something for the long-haul. Chris is yearning for it at heart and the players want to play their characters for a period of time. The problem is that Chris doesn't want to "nail himself down" to a setting and campaign that he becomes bored with.
This group, like my own, is in serious need of "The Chat".
Every group has a dynamic that, if not explored and aired, will limit it. I see this every day in the classroom as I teach teenagers: if I can get a group to talk to each other, to realise that they all want to learn but just in different ways, then I can inspire them.
The Friday Night Group has gone through so much change that we've forgotten how, after each change, you need to reset the expectations. This week has seriously exposed just how badly we need "The Chat"... an open, exhaustive conversation about what we want to play and how we want to play it.
Standing in the way of "The Chat" is the desire to play right now. People will be reluctant to lay aside current games-in-progress. Characters and settings, systems and ideas will all be clung to because they are seemingly alive. Stories demand endings. As one player put it, "I want to know what's down that damn chasm!"
The problem is that the game we need to forge may not be the one we are playing. It might be something close, that needs a subtle shift. It might be something totally different. The only way to find out is to talk about it.
This Friday is going to be very difficult for me. Like my semi-fictional GM Chris, I am seeking the campaign to inspire my players and fire adventures as yet not experienced. A part of me, however, doubts that this can happen despite having experienced it some years ago. We need "The Chat"... and some sheets of paper, pens and a big dollop of honesty. We need to listen to each other and find out what each of us likes.
If I could read the minds of my players and know what they wanted then I could help to create it. The problem is that I can't read minds.
What's a poor GM to do?