A wise man once told me, “Your ego is not your amigo.” After I shot him a contemptuous look, and decided he wasn’t that wise after all, I had to conceded that there was a certain truth to his statement, especially when it comes to running tabletop role playing games–or designing games in general.
As DMs or game designers, we want to create a world that people enjoy playing in. We want to tell a story, and paint memorable locations. We spend hours planning adventures, crafting characters, plotting elaborate story-line, and making up rules. Our adventures, levels and settings are our babies, and the temptation is to become overly protective of them.
But are they our babies?
The thing about gaming is that it’s a shared experience–more so than other art forms. One shares a novel or film with the writer or director, but there is limited participation. When we sit down to make a game, we expect players to participate in an unfolding, ever-morphing series of dynamic events. Video games are becoming increasingly open-ended, with multiple routes through the game, and an emphasis on player choice. Pen and Paper RPGs demand “collaborative storylines.” Good DMs are encouraged to work player backgrounds into their narratives, and to adapt to player decisions. The idea of “railroading”, referring to a design style that forces the player down a set path, has become a big no-no, although it happens more often than one would think.
In short, you might have created the world in which the game unfolds. But you don’t own it–it’s as much the player’s as it is your own. Failure to recognize this can result in some seriously stale gaming experiences.
Games are supposed to be fun. Almost every rule book I’ve ever read states this in its intro, and with video games it should be a given–so obvious it doesn’t need stated. But it does need stated, because designers can become so attached to certain high concepts that they forget to think about what their players actually want.
This requires a fine balance. I’m a firm believer that games are an art form, and as art they have the ability to challenge us. There’s nothing wrong with pushing people out of their comfort zone, or trying something new. But if people aren’t enjoying it, there’s no point.
Remember, not everyone at the table is there to have their mind blown by your amazing philosophical story line, or avante-garde game mechanic. Games are a serious time investment, and time is the most precious commodity. A tabletop session can last six or so hours, and these sessions often stack into campaigns that lasts weeks, months or years. Most video games take a similar number of hours to beat. There are many shorter experiences, but there are also longer ones. Much longer. Like over one-hundred hours longer.
When somebody goes to see an experimental film, it’s usually a night out and some food for thought. Maybe they decide they don’t’ like it. But they’ve seen it–finished it. If your game isn’t enjoyable, nobody will finish it. Nobody will see your part of the vision through to the end. Hours of material will have been wasted.
The truth is, that most of the DMs I’ve enjoyed playing with, seem to thrive on disruption–the unexpected subversion of their vision. Players will never do what you want them to do. Your story will never survive the player’s decisions. Sometimes it barely survives the first ten minutes of a session.
When I first began running games, this was a constant level of stress for me. The problem was two-fold. On one hand I was not yet experienced enough to “go with the flow”. When somebody deviated from my experience, I panicked. What do I do now? How can I get the players back into my story? The second problem was that I thought my narrative was cool, and that it would be a less rewarding experience to stray from the set of events I’d so carefully constructed. I didn’t realize that my story was not the story. It was simply a canvas for other stories to unfold.
As the campaign progressed, and my experience increased, I began to realize that I actually enjoyed the unexpected. Far from my formulation improving the game, it instead hampered it. And I learned to improvise. I’ve since come to the opinion that improvisation is one of the DM’s most important skills. I creates a sense of wonder. It opens up your world.
Indeed, the best settings, the greatest RPG stories, are supposed to sustain free-flow play-styles. Your world is best when it’s open. Being able to have the players explore a setting with the fewest limitations possible indicates that you’ve done your job–that the world-building has become powerful enough for people to roam it at will, without slamming into an invisible wall.
On one hand, this requires a tremendous amount of work. On the other, it simply doesn’t. Sure you have to spend time studying and memorizing your own creation, otherwise you won’t be able to improvise to the best of your ability. On the other hand, being able to “wing it” cuts down on the necessity of adventure prep you have to do. As long as you have a brief list of environments and encounters, and know your world well, you’re good to go. My adventures when from pages of detailed structure, to vague outlines. I gathered resources rather than linearities. And I was able to enjoy my creation grow and expand around me.
Of course, this doesn’t always mean your vision is improved by unexpected player actions. Not every gamer is a creative genius. They may stray into stereotype. They may also go the “murder hobo” route, and simply kill everything in sight. If a player does something especially stupid, or completely contrary to the spirit of the setting, often simply to show they can, or at a feeble attempt at humor, it’s frustrating. In these cases, I’m not afraid to kill them. Killing players is tough. I’ve argued that fun is the primary purpose of a game, and having the character that you’ve spent hours cultivating and getting to know isn’t much fun. But a game also needs boundaries. Collaborative storytelling requires that everyone, not just the DM, strive to construct an interesting narrative, and those who step out of this sometimes need to be reminded that RPGs have rules for a reason.
It’s a fine balance, and requires that one reads his or her players well. If people want an irreverent game you might have to give them one. But don’t be afraid to step away if the experience becomes miserable. Remember, the ‘fun rule’ also applies to DM’s. You’re supposed to enjoy the game as much as the players. You aren’t doing them a favor.
An effective way to ensure that this doesn’t happen, is to be honest with the players at the start of a session or campaign. You can talk about the tone and genre and what kind of thematic, rather than situational, boundaries the setting has. If someone doesn’t like it, they don’t have to play. And frankly it’s rude to put your own wishes over everyone else’s.
The takeaway is to meet the players halfway. It’s everyone’s game. It’s everyone’s world. Don’t let your desire to have your vision dominate, detract from the wonder of an open, truly malleable world.
And if anyone ever uses the phrase, “your ego is not your amigo,” politely tell them that they are an idiot.