Monday, November 9, 2009

What Players Want

I got together with some friends of mine - both of them experienced gamers - as they wanted to talk to me about possibly playing in my new campaign.  We had gotten to a discussion of different styles of play, and what people want to do in a game and what makes a game good.  It was one of those conversations where everybody has a lot to say, and were falling over each other saying them.  But I was brought up short when one of my friends said, with an air of complete certitude, "Well, yes.  Campaigns are supposed to be all about what the players want." (or words close to that)

My eyes apparently narrowed, and I said something close to "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."  Well, what I said was a bit more pungent than that, and brought both of my friends up short.  I quickly apologized, as I realized that one of my buttons had been inadvertently pushed by what my friend said.

Some background: I had mentioned to my friends that I was open to running several different things: a Classic Traveller game; Original D&D using Labyrinth Lord; a Chivalry & Sorcery game; possibly Tekumel.  My partner, L., has always been interested in history, so I found myself putting together the C&S game, using Columbia Games' excellent Lionheart campaign setting.  I figured I would set up things with a little mystery, a little magic, and maybe some minor changes in history.  This sounded good to L., so I set out to recruit some other players, which is how I found myself in a diner in suburban Madison, somewhat embarrassed for swearing like a sailor.

It's a particular philosophical point: is the game all about the players?  Where do the needs of the referee come in?  It's been my impression based on conversations like this one and others, that there is a strong current in the hobby today that sees the referee as essentially a reactive (and somewhat passive) facilitator for the players and their ego trips.  In particular, I've found myself bemused at the suggestion that a referee doesn't really have any rights to shaping the game setting or rules, unless the players agree - as if they are supposed to start the clockwork on the setting and retreat behind the curtain.  (I blame this mostly on the emergence of computer games and MMORPGs, actually.)

There's two ways in which this philosophy is problematic: it is actually less of a challenge for players to allow them to determine things completely, and it pushes the interests of the referee out of the picture, unless that interest does not conflict with that of the players.  I'll take as stipulated that a game can only work if the players and referee are in collective agreement about the game and the setting, but I think that a referee has a legitimate and real interest in setting the boundaries of the game she wants to run.  To be sure, somebody could run a game nobody is interested in, but that's always possible.  I'm not suggesting that a referee be unresponsive to his or her players, simply that the players' interests should not determine everything.

Which brings me back to my conversation with my friends.  What I determined was a better statement of my belief was: the extent to which a player is interested in my needs as a referee is the extent to which I will be interested in their needs as a player.  Put another way, a game is enjoyable if it facilitates a dynamic between the players and referee such that everybody gets their creative needs met, and this definitely includes the referee.  Does that make sense?


  1. > is the game all about the players? Where do the needs of the referee come in?

    The "referee" is one of the players. Don't make it a "us/me vs them" thing. Everyone is (or should be) at the game for same reason, to entertain, to be entertained, and to have fun.

  2. If the referee isn't enjoying what he/she is doing then the players are not likely to enjoy it as well. Quid pro a famous cannibal once said.

  3. Norman is certainly right on this one - the referee is one of the players. He's just fulfilling different playing goals from those of the players themselves.

    Way back when, I was refereeing a Call of Cthulhu campaign, and at the end of most sessions, would ask the players (individually) if they had enjoyed the session and if there was anything that they wanted to see more of. I took their opinions on board, but did not feel bound by them.

    The rise of the sandbox concept has shifted the player-referee dynamic (IMHO)and now the players can enjoy the illusion of freedom to a far greater extent than was the case in the days of railroad campaigns and adventure paths. Besides, if the sandbox referee is doing his job right, he will have built in a good deal of flexibility, sufficient that the illusion of freedom the players have is almost perfect. Ultimately, however, he knows what's going to happen (to a certain extent) and how. The when is a more mutable point.

    In a well-run campaign, both players and referee are on a voyage of exploration and discovery. Both interact to facilitate and ameliorate this voyage. Some of the best campaign adventures may well have come out of a chance remark that a player made or a decision to go in a different direction from the one planned, forcing the referee to think on his feet and pull something out of his hat that was, in the end, so much more fun than whatever he might have had planned. The raw narrative power of the flowing and unfolding sandbox adventure is something to be cherished and enjoyed.

    When it comes down to it, the referee-player dynamic is based on one inescapable fact - neither can exist without the other. With no referee, there is no game. With no players, the referee is just a jobbing world-creator (although he may, as do I, wholly enjoy it). The problem comes when either (or both sides) forget this.

    Sorry if this is a bit long and rambling but it's a very interesting topic and I got going on it.

  4. Norman really hit the nail on the head here.

    RPG campaigns are a team sport and contrary to what ol'school D&D seems to have taught many of us, the GM is a part of that team.

    He or she may be viewed as the team captain but the in the end a campaign where the players and the GM are hoping for two different games is destined to fail.

    This issue is at the forefront of my mind right now, as I have an amazing idea for a campaign that I'm really not sure is right for the group I'm playing with. At the same time, I'm having trouble getting excited over any of my alternate ideas that fit the members' prefered styles.

  5. "The "referee" is one of the players. Don't make it a "us/me vs them" thing."

    You've missed my point. What I was noting was that it seems to me that players seem to leave the referee out of the equation. My questions were in response to this - I have no particular difficulty including players' needs; I simply want them to acknowledge that referees are people, too, you know.

  6. Great post! We GMs. DMs, Referees, & Keepers can be forgiven our hot-button response to this kind of thing. Not only are we also playing, we're the player with the homework. The other players have decided that they want to play characters, not run the entire game multiverse, they get their wish there, so beyond that they'll like what I tell them to like. Kidding! But you get my point? In the same way that Hollywood catering too much to the perceived whims of the public is often cited as a negative influence on cinema, good players need to be able to trust the DM to offer them something satisfying that comes from the DMs own interests and imagination, and go into the situation with an open mind rather than a list of demands. It's our DMish nature to want to amuse, challenge, and entertain players, it's part of good group dynamics that they trust us to do that.

  7. Interesting post. I understand, I think, what you're getting at. It should come as no great surprise that I tend to frame this for myself in terms of relationships, and model things after what's worked for me in non-gaming relationships.

    Which, as you know, is all about negotiation, and meeting the needs of all parties. Of course, the GM is part of this. Neither a passive participant, sublimating their own desires for the good of the group, nor as someone whose needs are primary, at the expense of the others.

    However, at least with the sort of games that you're talking about, there is an additional twist that makes this hard to deal with. In the traditional roles in a RPG, the GM is "strong" - there's a power imbalance in the relationship. And whenever that comes into play, the key determinate is trust. Which, for many of us, I think, is hard to do, and we end up with the old paradigm of GM vs player.

    The only way to deal with this, I've found, is to negotiate and talk a lot about the game outside of it. Trying to determine what the players want, in general terms, and expressing what you want as a GM. Some players, for example, don't like surprises - they just want to have some fun and kill some monsters. They want regular leveling, treasure, and other bonuses. They want opportunities to shine, and be a bad ass. This may or may not mesh with your desire to, for example, have a sub-plot, or screw with their characters to generate tension or drama.

    There are infinite variations of this. It takes talking, and listening. Or, alternately, it takes assumption, and being on the same page in some other way, which occasionally works, when the GM and players are all on the same wavelength.

    It's probably the hardest part about doing RPGs well. Many of us are not really well equipped with the skills needed to negotiate this. But it's worth it, certainly, to try. I know that this is an old-school gaming blog, and as such, it's probably not the place to mention newer ideas in this space, but some of the indy games out there do a good job at providing a framework for "shared creation" or at the very least getting everyone's needs met. You might look at some of them for inspiration.

  8. Malcolm - actually, I'm in complete agreement with you about the negotiation part. But I think that referees get to create a world within which characters are created. That seems to be a sticking point for some players - they want to create a character ex nihilo - without any reference to what the referee has created. That seems to be somewhat disrespectful to me.

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  10. And I think that's the crux of it: respect.

    If I'm a respectful DM (and I try to be) I need to make an effort to understand my players needs and design with them in mind, making sure I put in something for everyone each session. Daddy Grognard mentions getting feedback, and I definitely agree with that, it's helpful. Robin Laws' categorizing of gamer styles has also been helpful for me there. I think he pretty much sums it up with his Player Types essay.

    My players need to respect not just me, but the game itself and understand that they have a role in the group, the group does not exist to cater to their every whim. I might prefer to "blow off steam" and have my character slap barkeeps around and shoot up the town with her crossbow, but part of being an even halfway decent player means exercising some level of restraint in how I run my character, and understanding and harmonizing with the group dynamic. (both in play and in conduct at the table) That is definitely going to include making a character that makes sense in the game world we are collaboratively playing in.

    Frankly, I think the fact that this basic premise is hard for so many people is a huge reason the number of tabletop gamers is tiny compared to video gamers.

    But... I do have a certain level of conflicted feelings about Old School gaming, because while which rules are Old School is something pretty self-explanatory, I do have memories of the play style of that older era as being sometimes pretty wacky. I'm sure I'm not the only one who sat at a table where one guy brought a bad Elric clone, another a thinly disguised Conan, someone else mimeographed Bilbo Baggins, people thought the fact that it was on their character sheet meant they were entitled to have it (skills, items, licenses to kill) and the DM was supposed to just roll with all of that mess. And of course if the DM was influenced by what he was reading that week, (and he was) we might suddenly find ourselves on Arrakis, Dinosaur Island, or gods forbid Unknown Kadath. Which would suck for our characters and we just had to deal with it.

    Ever play the "You wake up naked in a dungeon. You seem to remember drinking in a bar, then it all went black." scenario? Good times!

    So now we get into what is, for me, the meaty part of the issue, which is once we choose to play with old RULES, we are still left deciding how much of the old style we want to adhere to. Personally I like to play the older games with my now more grown-up gamer skill set, but where we draw that line is going to be a personal thing.

  11. Kekone - you've summed up pretty much exactly how I feel. I want to use old school games and rules, but the style of play is going to be influenced by everything I've experienced since those days long ago.