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Because most RPG play advice goes to GMs, we tend to focus on them as the source of possible roadblocks in a session’s pacing. However, although in most game systems players lack the narrative control of GMs, they can also throw wrenches into the machinery of any plot.

I’m not just talking about moments when players shoot each other’s plans down (though that too can easily become a drag if you’re not careful.) No, I’m talking about the moment when the player leaps in, trying to turn a GM yes into a GM no.

As a player, when you hear another player propose an action to the GM, you may from time to time feel the temptation to leap in with a logical objection.

Other player: “I rush out onto the fire escape.”

GM: “Okay, once there, you—”

You: “Oh actually buildings in this part of the country typically don’t have fire escapes.”

Other player [fumes silently]

GM [fumes silently]

Now, put as baldly as that, you may be saying to yourself, “Oh actually I don’t do that.” And, as you are a fine and delightful person and a habitue of the Pelgrane blog, let’s stipulate that you wouldn’t.

But some people do, and you might be surprised if you were to inventory your past in-game utterances. Player-side blocking happens reflexively, and I don’t think that anyone who does it means to or realizes the implications of what they’re doing.

Some of us suffer a particular susceptibility to the urge to block GM approvals of other players’ actions. The temptation can strike players who mostly GM. Plot-hole-seeking viewers who have trouble suspending disbelief while watching genre movies and TV shows can also blurt out action-blocking statements at the gaming table.

As in the scripts you’re spotting implausibilities in, GMs are often letting strict practical logic slide in an effort to empower participation and keep things moving. Busting them on this slows or stops the action, shifting focus to picayune detail, at the expense of the broader narrative.

When you feel the tingle of a plot block dancing on your tongue, the easiest thing to do is nothing. Just don’t say that. At the end of the session you can regale the rest of the group with your superior fire escape knowledge while also implicitly praising the GM for not letting stuff that doesn’t matter kill momentum.

Alternately, in cases where your realism needs simply can’t be contained, find a way to turn a block into an adjustment. Instead of saying that the action the GM is ready to allow can’t work, propose a way that it can.

“Oh actually, there aren’t fire escapes in this part of the country, so likely Sajid watches the burglars from a balcony. Is it maybe made of frosted glass, helping him hide while he does it?”

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Previously on See Page XX, I talked about the difficulties we occasionally hear about when GMs who have trained themselves to say “no” come to the GUMSHOE system with those assumptions in mind.

This time I’d like to look at how early roleplaying culture took on that mindset, and how assumptions are shifting during the current RPG renaissance.

GUMSHOE, along with many other games, actively works to move the story forward. When we spot a barrier to narrative development, we add tools to help GMs and players push them out of the way.

For example, the Drives system found in many GUMSHOE iterations, from Fear Itself to The Yellow King, puts the onus on players to engage with the premise and take actions that lead to an engaging story.

It works to correct a previous prevailing unspoken assumption, in which it is the GM’s job to entice reluctant players to take risks with their characters. Drives remind them to make active choices a perfectly rational but uninteresting character might go to some trouble to avoid.

This assumption, like so much else, arises from the early history of the form, which thought more about reward and punishment than about building a fun story together. Early players learned at their peril not to make “stupid” mistakes that would kill off their characters. Drives work to change the question from an older model, “how can I avoid deadly mistakes?” to “what inspires me to make exciting choices?”

To repeat a Thing I Always Say, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson weren’t trying to create a new narrative art form when they developed the ideas that turned into Dungeons & Dragons, the original roleplaying-game-as-we-know-it. They were working in the wargaming tradition, inventing a new game that reduced the unit size from a squad, battalion or legion to a single individual with a sword or pointy hat.

Included in that brainwave was the brilliant, habit-forming concept of the experience point, a currency you continue to accrue to your character over time. That persistence and growth led by inevitable consequence to narrative.

But it also created an adversarial dynamic between DM and players. The DM has an infinite supply of experience points, creating an environment that withholds them from players until they fight the world and pry them loose.

Early DM advice advised against excessively punitive treatment of the players and the characters, not because the game wasn’t a contest between the characters and the world, but because the game stopped working when DMs abused their unlimited power. DMs had to remind themselves that they weren’t there to crush the players, but to give them the most exciting set of challenges.

Power-mad Dungeon Masters weren’t a mere matter of folklore. When I interviewed him for 40 Years of Gen Con, Dave Arneson recalled the time when he sat down to play with a young DM, who promptly narrated a massive anvil plummeting from the heavens to squash his character to a pulp. “I killed Dave Arneson! I killed Dave Arneson!” the kid cried, to the delight of surrounding tables. Such were the terrible lessons of the early dungeon wars…

Along with warnings against this sort of stuff in early books came contrary messages. DMs were advised to punish uncooperative players with bolts of electrical damage to their characters, or presented with the infamous instant-kill traps in Tomb of Horrors.

We often think of adversarial roleplaying as something that the DM inflicts on players. Anyone whose original Gaming Hut really had shag carpeting, wood paneling and a Peter Frampton album for a screen no doubt remembers players coming at them hard. They rolled at you either in search of those addictive XP and the new levels they brought, or just the opportunity to screw with The Man, who happened to be you. The greater the emphasis on the reward, the more the DM had to ride herd, controlling cheating, minimaxing, and rules lawyering. This was not an era of “yes and” but of “duh, no!”

The experience point still rules the land of D&D, but these days in a more enlightened tyranny. Over the years XPs have become a pacing element measuring the rate at which your characters inevitably get better. Years of design adjustments have cut out exploitable jackpot effects. Later customs of play encourage the whole group to progress at the same rate, and for replacement characters to rejoin at par with the rest of the party. No longer do we assume that they restart at level 1 and try to stay alive long enough to catch up on the XP curve.

Other games carried over the assumptions of rapacious players you had to say no to. Build point games such as Champions and GURPS rewarded system mastery and the search for bargain-priced powers and disadvantages. They relied on GMs to watch for and curtail abuses.

Assumptions of power and control extended to authority over the narrative. The idea that a player could invent a useful prop to describe during a fight scene seems like a dead obvious collaborative element today. When it appeared in the original Feng Shui, it blew minds. Even so, the first edition of that game is nonetheless rife with passages assuming that the players want to hose you, the GM, and that you can turn that thirst to your benefit.

With decades of story-emulating play devices behind us, players have not only become less rapacious overall, but also less movable by either bribery and punishment.

GUMSHOE’s first version of Drives included a mechanical penalty for players who refused to go along when the GM invoked them. This proved unnecessary; once reminded of a Drive, no halfway cooperative player refuses the adjustment.

In a world where thirteen year olds exist, the hunger for advancement and putting one over on the GM will never vanish entirely. But their version of fun is no longer the baseline for every table. Our latest generation of new players is as much influenced by actual play podcasts and the hunger for character and story as by an unruly desire to minimax and grub for XPs.

As player behavior has changed in the aggregate, what the designer needs to do to facilitate maximum fun for all has altered as well. Design change has both shaped, and been shaped by, cultural shifts within the roleplaying community writ large.

Gaming culture can change invisibly as our personal assumptions remain fixed and unexamined. That’s why, I think, when a GM who has played many games over the years misreads a rule, that the misreading will default to the forbidding, even in a system built to be permissive.

That presents a communications challenge, it’s also a tribute to the complexity of a form that continues to evolve in dialogue with its audience of collaborators.

by Robin D. Laws

It’s not true that there’s one in every group. But when there’s one in your group, it sure feels like there is.

I’m talking about That Guy. The overbearing, dysfunctional participant who dominates the room and sucks the fun from the game. He hogs the spotlight. He turns every discussion in an argument. He makes himself the gatekeeper, whose permission the other players must seek to proceed with any plan.

Sometimes That Guy is also the smartest, fastest thinker in the room. The one who comes up with the great ideas and spits them out at machine-gun speed the instant a new situation arises. That complicates matters. In more measured doses, he’d be entertaining, even essential. He propels the group to action. His energy infuses the room. It kills lulls before they start. When he misses a week, the group, deprived of its self-appointed leader, lapses into passivity and indecision. If only you could harness his That Guy-ness to serve the powers of good!

Sometimes That Guy is not a guy. I mean, theoretically, anyway. Just because every That Guy I’ve ever come across, or heard complained about, is literally a guy, doesn’t mean that the condition is exclusively male. Right?

Sometimes That Guy is the Game Master. (When he isn’t, he may prove himself a backseat GM, d20-blocking you from one end of the session to the next.) His narrative authority grabs you by the lapels, blasting you through his story. Whether he’s acting from a predetermined plan or winging it, he tightly controls the action, deflecting any input that gets in his way. If you’re happy sitting in your seat for a thrill ride, he can give you a great time. But if you want to collaborate, he’s going to shut you down.

And sometimes That Guy is you.

What if—and here’s where the premise becomes a bit of a stretch—you are a dominating extrovert, but have achieved the moment of epiphany required to see that isn’t always the best way to be in the collaborative context of a roleplaying game? How do you become more open to input, more attuned to the moods of others, more able to shift attention away from yourself?

This is one of those issues that goes beyond rules or game style. Or of anything that springs purely from the intellect. The process of de-That Guying yourself is one of personal transformation. That’s always hard. Intellectually deciding to change is way easier than actually doing it.

Roleplaying offers us a space to be creative and social. A big chunk of the folks our form appeals to think of themselves as neither. Many of us who eventually acquired those skills, or mental approaches, or whatever they are, did so with polyhedrals in our hands and grid maps at our elbows.

So look at it that way, That Guy. This is a challenge to be overcome, just like you figured out (mostly) how to deal with people at the gaming table in the first place. It’s possible that you have always been a dominating force in any conversation, socially fearless and a natural attention sponge. More likely, though, you started out shy and quiet. Then, one day, you found other people who would listen to you and you’ve never shut up since.

The dominating extrovert is often just a introvert in disguise. Both types are more comfortable inside their own heads than in reaching out to others. As That Guy, you learned simply to constantly verbalize your internal monologue. Like the quieter types you’re steamrollering—maybe like the person you used to be—you’re still not keying into the social cues that drive true interaction.

So here’s the exercise. Train yourself to listen, to read body language, just as you taught yourself to speak up. Learn to value other’s ideas as you chose to value your own. Apply your considerable force of will to the task. When the GM invites input, take a deep breath. Wait for someone else to speak. If no one else pipes up—if your verbal barrage has bludgeoned them into submission, they might not—pick someone quieter and ask them what they think.

When someone else takes advantage of the space you’ve left to propose an idea, don’t naysay it. No matter how wrong you think it might be. In fact, it’s better if you disagree with the proposal, because it’s better training. Find a way to support that idea, to build on it, instead.

Let’s say you hate plans where the players have to go in and talk to adversaries who outmatch you. You’d sooner sneak in, or subvert them from afar. Never mind that. When one of the other players suggests doing just that, swallow your instinctive objections. Instead, you agree to the plan, then find a way to make it better. You don’t make it your own. Add a little element to someone else’s thought.

You might invite other players to act as leader. Instead of proposing plot threads that revolve around your character, you might use your story-bending habits to bring about a storyline that draws in one of the less active players.

The object is not to drag others to your level of seeming extroversion. Some players are casual types who prefer to hang back and follow the flow. But a group consisting of a That Guy and a covey of casuals isn’t the norm. Instead, focus on facilitating the contributions of middle ground members. The ones who sometimes participate, until you weary them into passivity.

At the end of each session, go so far as to review your successes in your scheme of undomination. Who did you successfully defer to? How many times did you wait and let the others lead? How many opportunities did you take to build on someone else’s idea?

Ask yourself what the other players wanted and what they did about it. If you can answer that question, it means you’ve started to pay attention to thoughts and feelings originating outside your own skull.

Like mapping or creating the perfect point-build character, awareness and openness are skills you can teach yourself. Yes, some people started out with them, as talents, and can employ them naturally. But you can catch up to these social prodigies, because you’re a barrel of mental energy, ready to be harnessed.

Once you’ve learned the skill, you might even find it pays off when applied to real-world interactions unrelated to vorpal swords and the lairs of rampaging shoggoths.

A crazy thought, but it just might work.

Thanks to Philippe-Antoine Ménard for the topic request.