So anyone who had ever run an RPG knows that the first time you do it… well… frankly… it’s terrifying. You feel this strange weight on your shoulders because every person sitting down to play is counting on YOU for an evening of entertainment. So much can go wrong . Our stories can suck. Our players can get bored. We can screw up the rules or search for rules that bring the game to a screeching halt. I still remember the first time I ran a game many many years ago. I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous to sit down and play a game. I think that’s because roleplaying games are not like Monopoly or some video game. Storytelling is an intimate process; it requires trust and vulnerability. For an RPG to be successful, you actually have to connect to your players to jointly build a story. That is not always easy.
Some of these fears subside over time . As gamemasters, we get more confortable telling stories. We become more confident in the twists and turns of our plots. We even begin to memorize the rules (or make them up consistently). We develop GM habits – both good and bad.
While I have certainly picked up good habits along the way, I have picked up a terrible one as well – a GM ego. I’ve developed a certain degree of self-absorption when it comes to my campaigns. I have an idea for a story that I think is interesting, and I force my players to live it out. Sure… sometimes it works out great, but there are plenty of times when it falls short. I get frustrated when they aren’t into the story as much as I am, or I subvert any action they take that somehow undermines the direction of MY plot. It’s the “MY” plot that is the bad habit that I have developed. Let me explain.
As I mentioned before, this past weekend I ran a 2-hour demo of Reclamation for a group of very young kids – much younger than I would have ever expected. Just before we started, I decided that instead of running the same tired demo that I have done time and time again, I would just make something up on the fly. Why not? I’ve been meaning to create a few more scenarios for Reclamation, so this seemed like a good opportunity.
So here I am with several kids counting on me for entertaining, and I have no plan whatsoever! So I just start talking…. “You are guards at a high-security prison where the most dangerous convicts of the Dystopia are locked away. You have been asked to escort one such criminal who has arrived at the front gate to solitary confinement.” So they go out to meet the creepy guy and take him back inside. And then – for the first time in a long time – I just listened to my players. I had done my best to try and describe the dank prison setting, and they seemed pretty into it, but then they started saying things like, “But what does this have to do with zombies? Where are the zombies?!” So when they got the guy to solitary, I had him say something ominous and disappear, then alarms went off and the prison had been turned into zombies. Why? I didn’t really know at the time. Later I found a way to justify it. So now they are having a great time hacking through zombies with their golf clubs and sharpened flag poles, but then they start asking if there are guns in the game. So I let them find a cache of weapons: AK-47s, grenades, rocket launchers, etc. Now they are LITERALLY having a blast. It went on like this for the rest of the demo.
Am I saying that you should give into every request or demand of your players? Never! All I’m saying is that before you plan out an adventure, or you decide what the players can and cannot do in the story, first ask yourself, “How will their choices affect OUR story” – not MY story. The fun of any RPG is not to have the players tell your story, it’s inviting them into your imagination and seeing what they do with it. Those kids and I told a wacky adventure full of laughs and carnage, and in the next session, I made up another game with more adults playing, and I turned that into a prequel to the crazy prison adventure. That game was made up on the fly as well, and that group had a lot of fun too.
I enjoyed CinyCon immensely, but I think I enjoyed those kids the most. They reminded me why I fell in love with telling stories in the first place.