Underlying The Rules Part III; Making A Group Effort

  • Part One in this series – The Social Contract – can be found HERE.
  • Part Two – Adjusting The Spotlight – can be found HERE.

This one has taken some time, and is more than a bit rambling – but here it is at last.

Commandment The Third: Work With The Game Master

Almost every Game Master would prefer to be playing.

That’s a very simple – but very important – observation. Being a game master is a lot more work, and considerably less fun, than playing is. How do I know that? I know that because there are a LOT more published settings, and adventures, and “how to GM” guides, and sets of instructions for setting up encounters and adventures then there are books of premade characters with their histories, motivations, and group tactics all laid out made to be picked up and run by players or to used by game masters who are short of players. Similarly, I’ve seen a lot of groups sitting around trying to get one of the people there to game master. How many of you have played with really bad game masters because no one else was willing to take the job?

So why does anyone do it at all?

There are a few game masters who want to show off their nifty setting ideas. They’re the ones who get upset when people pick holes in their setting – and they often don’t last (player groups looking for plot holes and things to take advantage of can be quite merciless). Most of them have distinct limits on how much time and effort they’re willing to put into sharing their ideas.

A few more regard running an entire world as an intellectual challenge, and often run games that are essentially giant puzzles, wherein once the players gather all the pieces, and figure out how to put them together, the mysteries will be revealed and the campaign will be “solved” – probably to wind down with a few epilogue episodes about how the characters retirement goes after the group splits up. As can be seen in the Star Wars Twilight Seekers campaign logs, I have a fairly strong tendency that way myself.

Most game masters, however, have neither the time, the inclination, nor the skills, to set up a full campaign by themselves. A lot of them are even willing to pay good money to have someone else do a lot of that work. They purchase commercial settings so as to let their friends play. They are game mastering because they want a game – even if they’re not getting to play in it directly and have to put in a lot of extra work – more than any of the other people in the group. They may be obsessed with gaming, they may love building intricate, hyper-optimized, characters and want to see them used, they may just like to see other people having fun, they may be fascinated with designing intricate dungeons and set-piece encounters, or they (all too often) may be lonely introverts who have trouble sustaining social relationships where people don’t tell them what “they” are supposed to be feeling and so rely on gaming to have some sort of a social life.

When it comes to actual play the game masters and players have the same options; they can walk out or they can offer to run another game – but the game master has a greater investments of time and energy in the existing game, generally wants a game more than anyone else in the group, and has already given in to doing a lot of extra work to keep said game going.

These are social games. They are not player-versus-game-master events. The game master will be trying to keep things interesting, and everyone having fun, as best he or she can because he or she wants the game to continue – but the players are just as responsible for making the game fun for everyone as the game master is. Don’t wait passively to be entertained. Invest some time and effort into helping the game master out. Every game master has weaknesses. Compensate for them. Go ahead and…

Create some places, rumors, or NPC’s. That’s where the Tumbledowns and Temin’s Bed’n’Pottage originated (for a street urchin game). The tales of The Hunt and The Grove had similar origins – creating urban legends to be the core of possible sub-adventures. The Star Wars players created Sith factions, political groups, backstories, and several of their own arch-enemies. The Champions players created worlds, and cultures, and histories for their alien characters, as well as various enemies.

Remember… the more you add to the campaign, the more central your characters will become.

Switch out characters when it’s appropriate – or if you need a change. Parties aren’t glued together at the hip. Is your primary character down in combat? Stranded away from everyone else? In the hospital for a week? Having to deal with a family issue? Captured? Wanting to copy spells, make items, build a castle, or spend some time with his or her kids? Unsuited to the current mission? Don’t sit around glaring at the game master. Adopt an NPC. Bring in a secondary character. Ask if you can play one of the parties arch-enemies for a while (and perhaps come up with some reason for everyone to cooperate for a bit). Getting a vision or an account of some horrible monster attack? Why not everyone take local villager NPC’s and see how clever or heroic some doomed villagers (see “The Fall of Manchow, halfway down) can be? (Those who manage to get away have often been adopted as new secondary characters; players can become fond of minor characters quite quickly). Tybalt the Just won’t take this espionage mission? Perhaps it’s time to bring in Robar the Assassin for a bit?

One group created a secondary party, and had them cross the universe blazing a trail for the main group to follow – taking a break from their primary characters while they prepared for the final confrontation with a menace that had destroyed several galaxies. They later played a set of prequel adventurers, predating the main campaign by several thousand years – and saw how their patchwork solutions of the time set up adventurers for their primary characters long later. In the Star Wars game one player created a detective out to find his original character while his original character was out of the action for a few real months – and later decided to play his characters friendly nemesis for several more months while his character was out of action.

Run side-adventures. Is the game master sick or busy? Character interactions and personal issues – with other players running background NPC’s can fill in. So can running minor side adventures, such as a haunted house. You aren’t used enough to the game masters style to make sure that your minor subadventures will be an acceptable part of the campaign for the main characters? Use some secondary characters or agents (Kevin’s Thralls were particularly handy for that). Two or three sessions with no game master shouldn’t be a problem – and I’ve seen some groups run for months, rotating “who gets to come up with something today” from player to player as ideas occur to them, while waiting for the primary game master to be able to make it again.

Most groups won’t be able to manage it that long, but a few sessions really shouldn’t be a problem.

The Archmage Issolme of the Malavon campaign – approaching level forty after ten real years of play – decided to grant his kids fabulous powers of their own, but failed to put an age requirement on them – and so wound up with massively powerful five-year-olds. Given that the players had a lot of fun dealing with THAT, the Archmage then decided that it wouldn’t be “fair” to restrict his later children since he hadn’t age-limited the first batch (really because dealing with child-chaos you couldn’t just throw massive spells at had been a lot of fun) – and so the other players promptly made a bunch of his kids to harass their primary characters with. “What have the kids gotten up to now?” became a regular side-feature of the campaign for the next couple of hundred sessions.

Play the limitations you’ve chosen for your character. If you’ve taken a “hotheaded” flaw, or need your spellbook to be effective, or some such… don’t make the game master enforce those problems. He or she has enough to do already. If your problems are built into the game system, expect them to come up – and don’t get upset when they do. If your wizard needs his spellbooks, make backups, and invest in committing some spells to memory, even if you’re sure that the game master will never bring that weakness into play – because that would be the sensible thing to do. If you’ve made a stupid character… do some stupid things on occasion. This really shouldn’t be something that needs pointing out – but it’s become common to believe that anything that seriously inhibits a character is somehow off limits.

Remember; players can – and should – have more than one character, and should be willing to adopt NPC’s. Something happening to any single character is not really a problem.

Create your own goals. Real people don’t need all their motivations externally supplied. Why would the player characters? Thus Kira’s search for the “Anti-Force” drove many events in the Star Wars game. Anthony’s tendency to make mad-scientist characters who perform incredibly dangerous experiments using effects that they do not clearly understand just to see what will happen has driven many major events, as he swings wildly back and forth between creating disasters and amazing discoveries. In Shadowrun he found a way to open rights into the Metaplanes and create stable wells of magic, and also managed to turn loose a bunch of minor Earthdawn Horrors. In Verdun he managed to turn a friendly werewolf character into a pain-driven nexus of souls inhabiting a six-hundred foot tall mass of animated molten lead. In Star Wars he created dozens of disasters and was responsible for just as many triumphs. In the Twilight Isles he managed to short two opposing cosmic power sources together and created a bunch of Kaiju, monster island, and fallout that affected half the setting. In Champions Captain Mayhem’s attempt to reform the history of his species drove a massive series of time-traveling adventures – while another characters search for his three missing daughters drove many more.

It’s important to avoid going overboard – don’t try to divert the entire game to pursue personal goals unless the other players are willing to go along with it – but a game master will pretty much always be willing to let you follow the goals you provide. That’s work that he or she doesn’t have to do.

Investigate. You’ll want to scout, listen to rumors, and talk to likely sources. Not only is this a good way to get some warning if your game master doesn’t happen to believe in Balanced Encounters, but it provides an easy way to give the less-effectual characters vital roles. Even if George the casually-played barbarian is no match for the optimized druid, him being a popular member of the tribe and a respected member of the mercenaries guild (both of whom are very suspicious of those they don’t know) will give him access to all kinds of clues and information that the rest of the party may well have no other way to get at all. It also allows the game master to supply some backstory and exposition – and getting that out there is one of the few enjoyable privileges which goes with game mastering. Indulge it a bit.

This will often make a group seem substantially more powerful at first – but it also helps keep the players involved in actual confrontations. A little advance planning will usually result in every character having something important to do.

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