Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

An Amazing Sort of Ass

Alexis Smolensk posted the other day about two different personality types and why one would tend to make for a worse game master than the other. He comes down pretty hard on principled types and ends up painting them as being “selfish” game masters,¹ but there are multiple cans of worms being opened here. What’s worse, the worms are getting mixed together. Let me see what I can do here to sort this out.

The first thing is… that for a lot of these sorts of character traits, people just seem to be born with them. It’s like all the people that have seen my game collection when they come into my living room. Some people hardly notice it and don’t really want to hear about it. Some people stare at something on the shelf that’s caught their attention, but wait for somebody else to bring up the subject. Sometimes, I have to physically restrain a person that is in the process of dragging all the space games down and punching out counter sheets after I’ve come back from a trip to the bathroom. None of the people having these reactions to my games might ever have known that there sere such a thing as hobby games… but they either have the “gamer gene” or they don’t. No amount of coaxing or listening or coddling can change that in a lot of cases.

It’s the same thing with these politicians that Alexis is talking about. If you poll a bunch of them, you’ll see that about half of them would be scandalized by the idea that they might ever let their own personal beliefs affect how they represent their districts. The others are insulted by the implication that they might do anything other than follow their convictions. Each side would be deeply suspicious of the other. The second group would generally look like pushy hypocrites to the first. The first group would look to the second to be navigating life without any sort of moral compass.

Both sides would even be tempted to characterize the other as pure-tee evil. We tend to have all of our talking points down pat, so this is obscured when we’re rehashing the usual political debates. Translate these two personality types to parenting and it all becomes even clearer. The first will tend to say something like, “well… we want our Mary to find her own path in life.” The second will be incredulous. “Do you really have so little life experience that you think its a good idea to leave her to try to work towards the basic tenets of Western Civilization (or whatever) through trial and error…?” The two sides differ in their views on the inherent goodness or depravity of mankind, of course, and live accordingly.

Neither side will tend to think of themselves as being evil… despite the protestations of the other. The really good fictional characters steer clear of the usual stereotypes– particularly the stereotypes that one of these sides would make of the other in their less charitable moments. Take John Carter of Mars, for instance:

“The following of a sense of duty, wherever it may lead, has always been a kind of fetich with me throughout my life; which may account for the honors bestowed upon me by three republics and the decorations and friendships of an old and powerful emperor and several lesser kings, in whose service my sword has been red many a time.” — Princess of Mars, Chapter One

Not everyone is going to find this sort of thing admirable or respectable. If you could force a character like that into a contest with their nemesis while at the same time making each side believable, sympathetic, and with reasonable flaws, you’d really have something:

“What were you in the war, that big war you failed to win? You were a Sergeant, yeah? Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds, Balls and Bayonets Brigade. Big tough veteran. Now you got yourself a ship and you’re a captain. Only I think you’re still a Sergeant, see. Still a soldier, man of honor in a den of thieves. Well this is my gorram den, and I don’t like the way you look down on me. I’m above you.” — Firefly, Episode One

Man, that’s good drama, all the more so because to the multiple layers of contrast and irony. Propaganda never has quite that level of vibrancy…. Of course, you don’t need to understand people if all you need is a Two Minutes Hate.

There’s another key personality trait at play alongside of the Principled/Unprincipled axis and that is the Purist angle. I never really grasped this one until Peter Jackson did the Lord of the Rings. A whole bunch of Tolkien fans went to the first one and ended up debating the rightness of the changes. Some of the people that defended the choices underlying the adaption would end up changing sides once the next movie had come out. Some of the ones that had merely mixed feelings about the matter were pushed over the line into declaring that they wouldn’t even bother going to see the third installment. The thing that was going on here was that different people had different tolerance levels for how much dissonances they could handle between Tolkien’s themes and characters and how they ended up being portrayed in the film.

This seemed to be something that was completely decoupled from political, religious, and ideological views. People were either purists or not… and the trait seemed also to come in degrees. Or maybe they could be purists in regards to some things and not others. Another example: I once knew a director from New York. She was the very antithesis of the small town, religious/conservative type. But when it came to Shakespeare, she had an iron clad rule: you could cut parts out… but you could not change anything. That’s a combination of common sense, experience, and being a purist.

The point I want to make on game mastering here is that it doesn’t matter how principled or unprincipled you are or how much of a purist you are… you will sink or swim on the basis of your game mastering skills. And your ability to listen to what your players think they want has very little to do with your success. Consider:

  • Most people have no concept of what the implications are of putting money on Free Parking does.
  • If you sit down to play a popular board game with a mixed group of gamers, not only is it a safe bet that they are playing a crucial rule incorrectly, but they are liable to take umbrage at that fact being pointed out to them.
  • Otherwise serious hobbyists stand a very good chance of wanting to house rule a new game before they’ve even played it. (Case in point: people wanting to add some kind of flanking rule to Commands & Colors: Ancients.)
  • With role playing games, if you ask the players what they want, they generally only care about the most general aspects of settings, characters, and power levels. Unless they game master as well, they are very unlikely to have any preferences with regard to the rules. For most people, most of the time, they are content with their intent being honored and adjudicated fairly in the context of whatever the game happens to be. (If they are a hard core partisan for a system you’re not running, they probably were never much of a candidate for your game in the first place.)
  • Most people are neither connoisseurs nor gaming coaches.²

If you want actionable information on how to improve your game, the players are just not always going to be the best source. They might be too nice to tell you something that would help. They might be too indiscriminate with their negative criticism to be constructive. They might not actually want what they think they want. They might want something that the rest of the group wouldn’t want. They might not be compatible with the sort of game you’re capable of running. And most people care more about the quality of the people sitting at the table than anything else.³

You really have to be an amazing sort of ass to be running a game in the first place. You are liable to have some kind of personality conflict at the table, circumstances are sure to take you out of your comfort zone at some point, and being prepared is nearly an impossibility because you can’t anticipate the one thing that will go the most wrong! No matter how many times I run role playing games, I am almost always in a tizzy about them the night before. Factors that can ruin everything are often out of my control. The truly great sessions are due to several different threads harmonizing at once– and with every player being on board with it and satisfied with how it’s being handled.

Ultimately, the most critical element to good game mastering is time.⁴ You need time for the players to become an effective group– they actually need to “click” like a group of people figuring out how to climb a ten foot wall together. You need time to try many different things so that you can expand your repertoire in directions that are proven to be worth the investment. You need a chance to make a bunch of mistakes so that you can actually learn from them.

You don’t so much listen as you watch the players engagement levels. Is something working? Get out of the way and let it work! Are things dragging…? Try to pick up the pace. It’s generally going to be obvious whether or not you’re killing it as a game master– you don’t need to hand out questionnaires to find that out. If everyone’s paying attention and no one is looking at their phones or repeating Monty Python jokes… then that’s probably about as good as it’s going to get. Though it doesn’t hurt if the whole table is screaming at a critical dice result….

There’s just so much you can’t ask the players anyway. Sometimes the players just have to communicate within the context of actual play. They may not even think in terms of what you want to ask them and they may not even be able to form a consensus if they could. Just watch how they decide to order pizza together. If it takes them thirty minutes to sort that out, do you really think they’re going to be able to help you make the most significant decisions about how to run your campaign…?

No, it’s on you to figure this out and bring the game. Sure, you pay attention to how people respond. You take into account your players’ tastes, preferences, and limitations. But your vision, your enthusiasm, and your passion is part of what brings them to your table in the first place.⁵ And game masters routinely pull off good games regardless of their inclinations and personality types. No matter what your quirks and foibles and attitudes are, you can do it, too. Just stay at it until everything falls in place and don’t be alarmed when repeating your successes turns out not to be trivial. There are an uncountably infinite number of ways to run and play in a game. Don’t be afraid to contend for the one way that works well with your style and the sort of people that are willing to hang out with you long enough to get a game off the ground!

¹ I actually looked this up to be sure, but Kevin Siembieda has the unprincipled alignment down as being selfish. Just sayin’.

² There’s only one Bill Cavalier.

³ Notice the amount of time some game masters spend interviewing players before a new campaign to determine compatibility. Or how some people recoil in horror at the thought of having to play with a completely random group of gamers at a convention. Where are the cool kids playing…?

⁴  Check out Joanna Gaskell’s video about her campaign for an example of this. I wouldn’t be surprised if I had almost nothing in common with her in “real life.” Her system choice and house rules would probably trigger multiple nerd rages from me… but she managed a campaign just fine without the help of self styled experts like me. Time was on her side.

⁵ At the end of the day, it’s the game master’s job to be the biggest ass at the table. That’s just how it is… by definition! If you can’t out-ass your players, then what are you doing behind the screen, anyway?

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5 responses to “An Amazing Sort of Ass

  1. Jason Packer April 21, 2014 at 10:38 am

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the premise is flawed, if only because you’re comparing politics, which actually matter to people in the real world, and a hobby that might impact your life for a few hours a month. Blasphemy, I know.

    But it seems true to me – I prefer my politicians be principled, but not Principled, if you get the distinction (what a terrible, loaded term, “Principled” – like “Pro Life”, automatically labels any opposition as “Unprincipled”). It’s why I was such a fan of Clinton, and why so many people hated him. But get me at a game table and I’m as Principled as they come – I have some pretty strong opinions about how things ought to go, by god. But that just says to me that we’re talking about apples and oranges.

  2. Alexis Smolensk April 21, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    In fact I agree with virtually every statement.

    The one addendum I would add is that IF you appeal to your players – however pathetic they’re contribution – you make your players feel part of the process. It isn’t just that they’re going to offer great advice, it is that IF the DM becomes certain that they won’t, the DM will soon become contemptuous, unyielding and ultimately abusive. The DM, with all the vision the DM has, must occasionally be humble to the players, not just in lip service, but in actuality, to keep the DM honest and connected.

    Too, allow me to point out that IF the players are allowed to voice their opinions, and often, they will gain the trust to overcome their unwillingness to say what they really think. If they are a part of the construction of the game, they will gain experience in how the game is being designed, and they will get BETTER at giving advice. The player’s ability to contribute isn’t static; it is adaptive, and it is insight that can be encouraged and developed.

    Just because they aren’t able to give good advice today doesn’t mean they won’t give good advice later, when they feel safe, secure and trusting of the DM’s sincere requests for same.

  3. clark June 6, 2014 at 2:44 am

    My days as a pro gamer in the past now. Regret wasting 5 years in World of Warcraft, years in Warcraft and Starcraft ladders before and after that. Life life spent in virtual world takes its tall… The only games I play now days are completely harmless like Papa’s Freezeria, 15 minutes a day and I feel satisfied.

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