There are pieces of GM advice that seem so obvious that I find myself shaking my head, years later, finding GMs that don’t seem to know them. This article is about one of them.
I’ve run a lot of games, and most of them have been pretty successful. If I had to trace things back to a fundamental root of why so many different players, with many different playing styles, have enjoyed themselves at my table, I would say it’s because I have a strong sense of how to play to my audience.
This is a bit of acting technique, but it can and should apply to pretty much any time you’re interacting with other people. For example, in my “other” life, I sometimes answer phones and do customer service work for my company. As part of my opening ramble, after identifying myself, thanking the customer for calling, and verifying who they are, I ask an extremely leading question: And how’re you today? Their answer will color the rest of the call.
If they tell me they’re upset, I immediately go into empathetic hand-holding mode. “Oh, Ms. Smith, I’m sorry to hear that! What’s going on? How can I help?”
On the other hand, if they say that they’re great, ask me how I am, and ask if I’m in Boston, we’re going to have a very different conversation. By the end of the call, I can pretty much guarantee we’re going to be laughing and joking together, because I’ll have gone into what I call “best buddy” mode.
Why do I have these different reactions? Because I’m reflecting the caller’s mood and playing to my audience. I don’t want to come across as light-hearted and goofy to someone who’s already angry with my company, and I don’t want to come across as overly serious to someone who’s calling feeling embarrassed about calling with “one more question.”
So how does this help you run a great game? Well, read on!
Who Is My Audience?
Your primary audience, when you’re the GM of a game is, of course, the players. I say primary audience because, let’s not forget, you want to have fun, too!
When you’re just starting a game with players you’ve never met, you may not have as many opportunities to really play to them. When I was running the Dungeon Delves at PAX East, I didn’t know 99% of the players who sat at my table. I had to pretty much establish things. When they sat down, I would immediately try to set them at ease with a joke. I would say “Just for sitting at my table, you get two rewards. One, you get a delve point, automatically. And two, you get to play with me.” This almost always got a laugh, relaxed everyone, and got everyone in the mood for some fun.
If you don’t know your players, one surprisingly easy way to learn more about them is…to ask them, of course! I would ask how much experience people had, if they were new to the game, were there any questions they had, and so on. If I had new players, then I would explain things a little more, to show why I was doing what I was doing. If everyone was experienced, then I would pick up the pace, and do my best to give everyone a challenging experience.
If you do know your players, then it’s important to find out what they want out of a game. Before running my Seowyn’s Crossing game, I sat down with all the players, told them what I wanted and asked them what they wanted. We all agreed on wanting lots of role-playing, exploring the new mechanics of 4E D&D, and a campaign that would be very sandboxy but also organic – one where they’d have to be proactive about seeking adventure and where opportunities passed over might disappear as other adventurers took them on. This led to some great stuff in the game, as a group of mercenaries “claim-jumped” a job that the players were wanting to do but delayed on pursuing in order to follow-up on something else. When a couple of the PCs took a bit of humiliating revenge on the mercenaries, things snow-balled, ultimately ending up in an honor combat in the town square. Very fun!
Give ‘Em What They Want
Once you know what your players (and you) want, then give it to them. Now, when I say this, I’m not saying you should do everything the players say, but you should always have their goals, wants, and needs, both in and out of character, in mind when you create adventures. For example, one character in my campaign is playing an over-zealous, exceedingly competitive shifter ranger named Ghost. Ghost runs through combat, beating the baddies with her two longswords, but the ones that get her special attention are the ones that annoy her. So when she missed a dwarven cultist with an attack, I had him sneer, “You were trained by elves, weren’t you?” She was, and very proud of it, so this immediately earned her ire. When Ghost got the killing blow on him, she sneered right back. “Trained by elves, you [expletive deleted].”
Did I rewrite the whole encounter around Ghost? Absolutely not. Does the player remember that encounter fondly? Oh, yes. He grins about it whenever it comes up. I gave him the opportunity to have a great moment, and it worked out beautifully.
Another of Ghost’s quirks is that she hates monsters that get her dirty. Anything slimy, or that explodes with necrotic energy, or engulfs her, or swallows her…yeah, she doesn’t care for that at all and often goes begging to the cleric for a Fastidiousness ritual when it happens. So of course, I keep choosing monsters that will ick up Ghost, because it lets the player play one of his character’s quirks. It’s not every fight, but it’s always funny when it happens.
Most of my players are experienced players, so I often ask them to define things they’d like to see. Are there monsters they’ve always wanted to fight? Is there a magic item they’ve always loved but never had a character in possession of? Have they always wanted to try role-playing a romance, or a mystery? Do they love the idea of the Feywild and want to visit? If I know these things, then when I weave them into the game, it makes it very special for them.
One sure fire way to look at things a player might want is to have a look at their character backgrounds. In my previous campaign, someone had a very elaborate character background in which his father had become an evil wizard and had wanted to sacrifice the PC to a diabolic power. The PC had fled and become a warrior, and he was full of fear of his father finding him again. Did his father find him again over the course of the campaign? Oh, yes. It became a major story arc. His father was now a lich and trying to sacrifice the PC’s younger sister to the same devil, and only the PC and his friends could stop him. The player loved it, especially grappling his father into a wall of flame of the father’s own creation. It became a war-story the player loved to tell.
It’s important to note that there’s a divide between what the player wants and what the player character wants. One character I played recently was an escaped slave who was terrified of his former master’s house wizard. My character, Toby, never wanted to see the wizard again. I, on the other hand, certainly hoped that the GM would work it into the campaign, and indeed he did.
Don’t Forget About You
There were a series of animated shorts in the early 70s (God I’m old) with a theme-song that began “The most important person in the whole wide world is you.” As GMs, in our quest to entertain our players, it’s important that we never forget ourselves and what we want. This is something you can put out right at the beginning, and it might be a good gauge of whether or not you want to play with a certain group of people.
If you really have your heart set on running D&D 4E, and everyone tells you they’d rather play Pathfinder, you can either force them to play 4E, which won’t make them happy, play Pathfinder, which won’t make you happy, or go and find a group of players who want to play 4E, which can make everyone happy.
If you tell people you want to have a heavy role-playing campaign set in the world of Dragonlance, and everyone tells you what they really want is a hack-and-slash game set in the Forgotten Realms, then, again, either compromise needs to be reached, or you need to find a different group of players.
It may be that you really want to play with a specific group of people. If that’s the case, then you need to compromise with them over the game and style. If, on the other hand, you know lots of players and don’t have anyone specific in mind, then you can put out what you want to play and select from among that group. As always, if you need players, there are plenty of resources, from online groups to putting up a notice in a local gaming store, to finding more.
When 4E came out, I wanted to have the experience of being a player. I listed up on a local meet-up group exactly what I wanted. I wanted people I’d never played with, I wanted to play 4E, and I didn’t want to GM. I put some other stipulations in that I was more flexible about, like preferring a home-brewed game, but I was prepared to bend on those. Sure enough, within a few weeks, we had a group together, and I got to play in not one but two different games. While those games folded, I made new friends out of them, including a couple that are now playing Seowyn’s Crossing with me.
Instead of having a question, I will have a call to action this week. If you’re a GM, talk to your players. See how they feel your game is going. See if there’s anything they want that you’re not giving them. Maybe putting an owlbear in your game, no matter how silly you might consider them, will make someone’s day.
If you’re a player, think about your game. Are you getting what you want out of it? If not, try talking to your GM. They might be unaware that in your elaborate character history, you wrote an adventure hook, and you’ve been waiting to see it pop up. Communication is incredibly important in any relationship, and that goes for gaming, as well as for romance.