Bored & Dying, part 1.5: Advanced Social Skills

Last time I went into some meta theory stuff about social skills and people at the table. I was vague on purpose, because there’s lots of vagueness involved in GMing and there’s really few golden rules that apply universally. If this sounds scary to you, imagine yourself in my shoes when I realized that cooking something doesn’t involve baking a thing for a set amount of time, but, get this; until it tastes good.

That is the mindset you need to get, especially in social things where there is no real science around it. There is, actually, sociology and its inbred cousin, the pick-up artist books but neither of them have cured awkwardness and miscommunication yet, so let’s try and tackle that. There’s a few specific things that you might encounter and this our part one point five will deal with them in a slightly practical way, a little closer to the user level, away from the depths of the unabstracted raw fiber that make up our interactions.

If you’re not a good leader, being a GM is going to be hard. No two ways around it; you’ll need to be able to tell people to shut up, get moving, get out, stop or speak up. You’ll be handling a horde of kindergarteners at the worst of times, you need to be able to shut down situations that could lead to disaster and be able to kickstart dead action back to life.

Leadership does not come easy and creating it from scratch is particularly hard. Conveniently enough, there’s a way around it: Borrow it. If you’ve played Total War or Crusader Kings, you will have no scruples hiring a strongman into your entourage, a big man who can get loud or angry at others when needed. The question of whether the GM is “against” the players or not is an often debated one, for this exercise we shall posit that he is; you need to break the group when it is doing wrong and reform it into doing what is right. If you can’t do this, hire one of your group, to do the yelling for you. I have had my good friend Kubo, a mountain of a player, to ruin problematic players days. When my face gets serious, voice shuts down and someone’s being inconsiderate: I can always trust on him to punch a shoulder with a force that shatters every desire to interrupt the flow of the game, in addition to bones.

I would like to point out that while we cover the simple strongman approach here, there is the subtler variant that I prefer. Silence, austere dignity, crowd control through willpower. There’s no tip here for how to acquire these skills and I can’t honestly claim to grasp them myself, but there’s more to arbitration than getting loud, violent or overwhelming the group with numbers. As a GM, you will find your own style in all things, from systems of choice  to crowd control. Don’t stay on the entry level. Getting loud is impolite, people don’t like being around that kind of person.

Let us expand on asking friends to punch other friends: Delegating work.

When I started out, I had the bug: I made tons and tons of maps, I could dream of nothing but the adventure that I was going to run, I prepared NPC sheet after NPC sheet, refined those corridors, that dungeon ecosystem, every goblin had his own personalized piece of scrap weaponry. On the other side, my players wrote their charsheets on blank A4’s or napkins, often lost them. There was no player-side note-taking.

I thought this was the way it was supposed to be, I was the GM after all. Weren’t RPG’s “like computer games, but more free and with one guy playing the computer”? Was I not the computer? How could I complain? What more, it was a joy to prep dungeons and other parts of the game! (Also, frankly, nobody at the table had the artistic skills to understand or reproduce my maps but me.)

Well the joy dwindled, even before the low hit, when I was just slowly getting out of the high and entering medium area, I noticed that I did most of everything. I brought a binder. I still have the binder. Nobody else brought a binder. I had rulesets in there, I had paper, I had maps and charsheets and prep. Granted, the players brought food (LIFESAVER PROTIP GOLDEN GM RULE: YOU ARE THE GM YOU NEVER PAY FOR FOOD AND DRINK) but was there not something they should be doing?

It took me a while to find out that yes, in fact, there was. It took a delve into “indie” games to find examples of games where players take over parts of the traditional GM job. There’s even games where there is not GM at all! The role of designing opposition, world, scenes, all that there is, split up equally between players, perhaps things that need to be done concisely done by everyone in turn. All Blackbird games, Remember Tomorrow and many others explicitly have no GM and have everyone at the table collectively make up NPC’s, factions, locales and most importantly the relationships between all the agents. Then come in situations, and PC’s and who even needs a GM at that point? (The GM certainly doesn’t.)

There is a valuable lesson to be taken from this. Players themselves sometimes have a desire to create cool things outside of their character and things that their character might create. They don’t just want to be the movie star, sometimes painting a piece of scenery brings joy too. If you can harness this, do so: At the very least, you will have gained extremely valuable insight into what your player wants from you, what he wishes you had done on your own, were you a mind-reader. (Let us not forget though that empathy is second to mind-reading and empathy is ultimately the most important skill we’re going for here. One could view this delegating of creation as a casual cop-out, were one so inclined, but the advantages gained in both player and GM satisfaction, not to mention the division of labor are far too great to completely dismiss.)

There is an interesting conflict arising in this situation under certain circumstances: what if you wish to take over only part of what your player made up? What if there’s 2 NPC’s that you’d prefer to melt together? What if a locale needs serious refluffing, but has a good crunchy core, or vice versa?
Would the player get mad? Should I ask him?  Am I losing control?

No you aren’t. The game is and will always be in your hands. Make sure to tell the player beforehand that whatever he thinks up, you might completely ignore forever, or shelf until it the stars are right, or perhaps even use only part of it. The last part makes creative types (like you and me) most nervous, something not getting used at all is no harm done but what if something gets bastardized? The horror.

The remedy to this is simple: bribes. When you use a bit made by a player that you have altered, and you will, start off by saying that it is good work by him, hand him the XP or scene points or whatever your system uses and then be quick to point out that you changed parts so that the player doesn’t get a completely free ride with the piece. Wouldn’t it be strange if the player knew exactly what the secrets and weak spots of an NPC are?  Wouldn’t it be unfair to the other party members? Of course it would. The player contends himself with his bonus XP and a job well done. You have used prefab material that is perfectly tuned to one of your groups wavelength and that essentially for free. You may have even made a party wealth balance adjustment. You have saved prep time and in turn been offered an opportunity to mess with the party on a meta-level, congratulations, you have schemed your way into paying for a lunch by eating it. It was free.

By the way, delegating work isn’t limited to the in-character level of the game. Keeping track of the combat markers, checking HP and ammo tracks, even real life food and drink logistics: all this is work that needs to be done and especially in the last case it would be disgraceful for a GM to handle it alone. Tell your players they suddenly got responsibilities and they better buckle up, because you’re an emancipated woman GM now and you’re not going to take it anymore. Now have the dwarf get you a glass of drink or else.

For a moment I’d like to return to weird indie games; while we’re on topic of trying out new games, make sure you know the table from both sides. Maybe you were like me, dreamed of a career as an elf wizard most of your youth, but once the game got together nobody was willing to be the GM and you were the only one competent enough to TAKE UP THE MANTLE? Well if so, you should definitely treat yourself to some player action, particularly if you know a good GM. You’d think being a GM would give you a player experience prerequisite, but it’s not quite what you think it is. Play a game as a player. Games I’d recommend for GM’s to play if their groups absolutely CAN’T produce a placeholder GM: KAMB, Blackbird, Grey Ranks, Hikikomori (not a group RPG strictly speaking, check it right now, actually.)

One last thing I would like to discuss is Social Contracts. Social contracts, in the broader sense are any spoken, written or unspoken agreements you have with people, but in this narrower scope, they are a wonderful thing that GM’s decided to make to get everyone at the table on the same page, settle disputes before they begin and set the tone for the game.  A social contract for RPG’s is a big ol’ paper, again I cannot stress enough how great it is to have it on actual dead tree, with a list of points regarding the game on all 3 levels:

  • out-of-character: issues like times of play, regularity, what happens to characters should a player not show up, food logistics
  • mechanics: what system is going to be used, who has rules, what optional rules are used
  • in-character: what is the group etiquette regarding third person, how is narrative control handled, how much OOC talk is tolerated, are jokes allowed (important if you want to attempt the herculean task of playing a serious game)

A good commentary on and sample of social contracts can be found here and the note at the end of the list plays well into my leitmotiv of empathy; mismatched players and telling someone it’s not going to work out without making it personal, both interesting problems. Again, the GM should be able to get into players heads and see why they want to do what they want to do and use this to manipulate players into working for him. There’s a million motivations and no point in attempting to list them, but you should be aware of those that you are faced with.

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~ by fatrpgdongs on 21/07/2012.

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