While I was making breakfast this morning, I was asking myself what, as a game master, I want from a gaming group. It comes down to five points, all of which are variations on “proactive players.” Nothing in gaming gets me going quite like inventing NPCs and folklore and history on the fly. On the other hand, nothing slows me down quite so much as a table full of people sitting quietly, waiting for me to bring the fun ; worse, a table full of people sitting quietly on Facebook or IM or playing Minecraft or anything but focusing on the game we’re playing.
There’s a school of thought that says it’s the game master’s job to provide motivation and direction. This works all right, when everybody’s into that. I find it leads to games on rails, where players aren’t so much choosing what their characters do, but whether or not to resist the GMs plot hooks.
See, what I really do well at is reacting to what the players choose to do. I hate starting cold, finding an excuse to get the characters all into the same inn, or the setting-appropriate equivalent thereto. The player who sits up and says, “My character is doing…” gets the spotlight, because then I and my world can react.
I like characters who have agendas, and who actively pursue them. The bonus here is that it gives me a clear idea of what kind of game the player is looking for, an idea of what kind of challenges and situations to prepare for a session. More importantly, even if the player doesn’t give me an NPC to be that character’s personal antagonist, I at least get hints as to what kind of antagonists to create.
I like characters who have strong, play-driving relationships with each other and with NPCs. By “play-driving,” I mean that players will have their characters act on behalf of those relationships. Sure, it drives if I have the bad guys kidnap someone’s lover or what have you. It’s better if the player has the character choose to go on a quest to impress her lover, or challenge his brother to a duel for blackening the family honor.
I like players who are active in exploring the world. As the GM, I consider the game world my main character, and (like everybody else at the table), I love it when another player engages my character in the action. I want people to look at the setting I’m presenting and go, “ooh, I wonder what’s over there!” Then, go there and find out. This forces me to invent the answer, and I (as I wrote above), I love that.
I like players who are active partners in world creation. I like it when players contribute their own creativity to the creation of the setting. I’m always trying to get folks playing clerics to tell me about their character’s religion, or folks playing aliens to tell me what their home-worlds are like. Sometimes, players don’t like doing this, because they’re playing to discover these things, not to create them. That’s OK, I like creating these details, but I’d rather have a back-and-forth co-creation than have to be Mr. Exposition all the time.
I like players who engage the mechanics of the system. I’m a rules hacker. I look at the rules and see what chefs see at the market, what home improvement DIYers see in the aisles of hardware stores. So it’s great when my players get into finding out all the ways they can use the rules to make their characters awesome. It certainly beats having to stop in the middle of all that creative back-and-forth so that I can look up what kind of dice someone has to roll for something.
I’ll probably come back to these, eventually, and talk about what I’ve found that works for encouraging players to bring this kind of play to the table. Until then, I’d love it if you’d share some of that with me, in the comments.