What can a GM learn from being a player?

26 Nov

I was recently fortunate enough to get to play in two sessions with two different GMs. One a one-shot fantasy setting while a friend was over from Japan where we played philosopher assassins (who did a lot more philosophising than following the plot). The other was the first session of a globe-spanning Call of Cthulhu campaign that started at a symposium in Oxford. It will be  played sporadically when that GM is over in Australia on work from the UK. (It would seem that I have a lot of jet setting friends…)

Playing in two sessions was a valuable exercise from a GMs perspective. I can’t recommend it enough. Looking at myself as a player, I’d have to say that the things that really push my buttons are action, opportunities for characterisation and a fun party dynamic. I tend to get frustrated (being a GM, and therefore a bit of a control freak) when these desires aren’t being met. Now I was lucky to have two very good GMs who were great at dealing with my idiosyncrasies.

Some things I’d forgotten

  1. Split parties are boring for the other players. I know this sounds obvious, but it can often be forgotten especially if you’re caught up in point 2 and 3 below. You’ll be trying to give that player more of what they want at the expense of the others
  2. What’s the player’s concept for their character? This is often key, and less involved then you might think. It might be as simple as it was in the case of my Cthulhu character, “he’s good at talking his way out of situations”. Knowing this as a GM would help me one-hundred fold as I now know what to throw at that player to make them feel that they’re empowered (and if I know that “he’s afraid of loosing control of a negotiation”) what might make the session exciting for them.
  3. Give every player “their moment.” Teddy R is a great shot with a rifle. Let him have a scene were he’s sniping from the crest of the ravine. Of course, you don’t do this every session, but you can let it play out in other ways, “I hear you’re a dab hand with a .303” might be the reason the character gets asked to perform some mission, or a minor NPC might be intimidated by their reputation “for Gods sake, take the brief case, I don’t want you coming after me with a rifle”…
  4. Players are a party, not individuals that happen to be in the same place. Building party cohesion is key. If they know one another’s roles, can call on one another for assistance, have a sense of where they all stand and work together to resolve conflicts and solve puzzles, you will have less work on your hands at giving people their “moment” and avoid the split party problem. “Tessa’s saved our skin before, we should be really be with her while she visits her dying father…”

Knowing your audience

Building from this, it seems critical to me that I’d like to know exactly what my players might like and what might make them frustrated. I already have some ideas, and I’m sure more artful GMs would carefully take note of when players eyes light up during play and when they start tearing their hair out , but I feel a simpler solution presents itself.

I’m going to ask the players what they’re after.

Then I’ll include more of it in the sessions for their enjoyment, a little qualitative research to improve everyone’s game experience. I don’t imagine it will be a complicated process, something along the lines of “what are your favourite parts of playing the game, ie problem solving, opportunity for characterisation, combat/action, shared player goals, etc?” This should give me a more specific response than simply gleaning what they in to during play (when I have a lot of things on my mind) and as we put it in the project management business, achieve some important stakeholder buy in (lord knows what kind of spam I’m going to get now that I’ve used those words…but I digress).

Once I have their responses I’ll update this post. Perhaps it might provide some useful insight for others into the mysteries of a player’s mind?

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