Leading Them to Water – How to Keep Your Players Going In the Same Direction

It’s the most common gaming story I hear. A group flies off the rails. The session, and maybe even the campaign, descends into chaos. Often it’s hilarious, or tragic. Regardless, the Game Master is probably frustrated (even if they don’t show it at the table). To help, here is my guide to help Keep Things Focused.

Deny Your Ego

How your session goes has no bearing on your value as a gamer or a person. Role Playing Games are too fragile for that. The only stakes are that this collection of people have fun. If you do, the game is successful. Anything you create that the players don’t encounter is just something you can use in another session.

Be Brazen

Think of a time you were playing a video game and you could not figure out how to move on to the next thing. Frustrating! Game Stop is full of games I got annoyed with and sold back to them. This is what players feel all the time. Part of the GM’s job is to help the players know what to do, and almost everyone struggles with it.

Do not hesitate to hit your players over the head with what they are supposed to accomplish. Stop at regular intervals in the session and recap what the characters are doing and where they are heading. Repeat yourself. Be brazen with where you want them to go. Your players will appreciate it.

One of the best ways to do this is by making the planned choices “shiney”. A well designed video game will make points of interest stand out with good design. They make the interesting things literally shine. You can do this in your RPG scenes by highlighting things that you want the characters to interact with. 

Does this feel like railroading? OK, make two or three things in the scene shiney, and let the player choose what they want to interact with in what order. Voila! Agency and choice!

Move Fluidly

When running a session, you need to leave as few gaps in player’s attention as possible. Don’t leave “dead air” at the table while you dither about, or look things up. It’s far better to just guess at what you might have intended as the next thing than to take thirty seconds to look up the “right” answer. Stay flexible. Pauses in the game make players minds wander, and they start looking for ways to spice things up. Pauses are an invitation for mischief. 

Don’t worry too much about it making sense. Your players will come up with all kinds of conspiracy theories to make stuff make sense. Just use one of those! 

Keep your eye on the players faces and body language. If they look bored, make something happen! Always be moving. 

Control the Camera

You know those moments when you ask the players, “So what do you do?” and you get crickets? Stop asking that question. Instead, describe the situation, then call on one player, asking, “What is your character going to do?”. Focus on that character only until something interesting happens (and make sure whatever they choose, that something interesting happens). Then move on to the next player, going around the table until everyone has had a chance to do something. State outright that this is what you are doing. This will have the pleasant effect of keeping everyone’s attention on what is happening, because they are guaranteed something interesting will happen!

What you need to do as a GM is make sure you are moving that spotlight quickly and regularly. Giving everyone a chance to shine before they get restless and start making their own fun. 

I think of this as controlling the camera. As a GM, we get to determine where attention is focused and for how long. By overtly stating that you are moving the camera around, you help keep attention, just like TV or Movies.

And Some Important Don’ts

Do not use a magical compulsion or other sort of mind control to force the characters to take a path. No matter how good your intentions, this is robbing the players of their agency, and breaks trust. You would be better served to just break character for a second, say “I’m going to move us on to the next scene,” and move on.

Don’t make fun of the characters or players for their choices. I’ve had some GMs that use snide remarks when my characters are going in a direction they intended. This behavior makes a player feel dumb at best, and at worst, builds resentment.

Avoid the temptation to make the wrong direction boring. Many times as a GM, when we see a character wheeling away from what we’ve prepared, we counter by just making nothing interesting in that direction, hoping they’ll turn back. This usually makes the player more apt to act out to try to force something to happen. Remember, the player probably chose that direction because you didn’t make the direction you wanted shiney enough.

Don’t make NPCs resistant to giving players information. Don’t make the players work hard to get the clue to the next scene. If the players choose to work hard to get more information, reward them!

Yeah But…

What about those times when a player is just being obstinate, and keeps pushing things in directions you don’t intend? You need to make a judgement call. There are three reasons for this. 1) The player doesn’t get it (maybe due to a social or maturity issue), 2) The player wants a different game than you, or 3) The player is an asshole.

The first two are solved by a quick bit of feedback, telling the player directly and kindly that they’re behavior is disruptive and unpleasant. If that feedback doesn’t work, then they are likely the final option, and should not be invited back to the table.

Finally

I have far more to say on this topic. I consider controlling player attention to be an intermediate to advanced GM skill, and it takes time, practice, and a bit of courage to develop. 

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Five Books of 2019

The five books I read in 2019 that I’ll think about the most in 2020.

Stillness is the Key – Ryan Holiday

I’ve read everything from Ryan Holiday. His writing points me to clear-eyed wisdom, and I often come back to his books when I need to be anchored.


Midnight at Chernobyl – Adam Higgenbotham

This is a thorough telling of a situation that was “funny uh-oh”. Though I was only twelve when Chernobyl melted down, I remember the global fear and confusion around the event. I remember not understanding why everyone was making such a big deal about something so far away. Though this book is written as a history of Chernobyl, it also serves as a lesson of how complex and fragile our systems truly are, and how little it takes to push things into disaster.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

This post apocalyptic set of interconnecting short stories felt like a science fiction version of Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts. The fleeting connections between the stories stick with me more than the events themselves.


Medallion Status – John Hodgeman

I never would have thought when I read John Hodgeman’s book “The Area of my Expertise” ten or more years ago, that I would be reading such an honest and touching memoir of lifestyle change. Rather than dwelling on his time as a minor, but recognizable celebrity, he instead writes about the sadness of losing that status and the joys of learning the next phase in his life. As someone who’s own life has seen many disparate phases, it is easy for me to relate.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Steven King

I read this mostly in a single sitting while home from work sick on a cold day in March. Like all of King’s writing, it is clear, feels honest, and is just so damned relatable. On finishing the book, I was sure I would be able to write my own novel in two months. That was nine months ago…

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Both Sides of the Screen: Solving the Scheduling Problem

I have not struggled to keep a role playing campaign going for over ten years. I have always had at least one going, and sometimes two or even three. Many of my campaigns go for several years, and the reason they end is because I wrap them up or make the choice to move to new projects.

When I’ve asked other Game Masters what they feel is the biggest obstacle to running their own campaigns, it comes down to scheduling, poor attendance and lack of time. The exact same things that keep most projects from moving forward.

When I examine why I don’t have this issue, I see behaviors that can be implemented by any Game Master to get better results.

The Easy Part

Putting the following behaviors into practice will help. Use them and you’ll be more successful at getting campaigns rolling. But if you want to take it to a new level, check out The Hard Part below.

Schedule the same time, every time. Decide how often you will meet, be it every week, two weeks, monthly or whatever, and make sure you always play at that time. Play even if everyone can’t show up. Play even most of the players can’t show up. One of the main reasons players don’t show up is because of a lack of trust, and cancelling games is a fast track to losing that trust. Make a schedule. Keep to the schedule come hell and high water.

Start on time. End on time. Again, this is about trust. Decide what time the game will start and start playing then, even if all the players have not arrived. Even if everyone is still “getting settled”. Starting the game when you say you will builds a sense of urgency to get there and get ready. Similarly, respect their time by ending your game when you say you will, even if you’re mid-combat or about to do the big reveal. 

Send at least two reminders. I suggest one about 5 days before the game, and the second either one or two days before. Also, use at least two platforms, like email and Facebook. Or texting and email. We’re all bad at one platform or another. Cover your bases!

Insist on an action. Make sure that your players have something they have to do before the game. I like to make the action that they have to bring snacks or beverages. This ties a task to the event in their minds. It creates a greater sense of obligation to the group, and makes it more likely that people will show up.

Be a generous host. Most Game Masters run games from their homes. If this is you, be sure to tidy up first, set up the table before hand. And do what you can to make your guests comfortable. Start the coffee maker, spritz some febreeze, light some candles. Yes it is an unfair burden, but once your players experience good hosting, they will be more apt to be good guests and show up time after time.

The Hard Part

If you want to master game organization, it takes more work — More work on yourself, and building skills that will feel uncomfortable at first.

Step 0: Acceptance. This may be the most valuable thing you can do for your emotional well being. Try, if you can, to accept a few valuable but hard facts.

  • It isn’t fair. As the Game Master, you are de facto leader, and being a leader means you have to put in more work. Gratitude is not always forthcoming. Fortunately, we’re not running campaigns to be stars or bathe in adulation.
  • You will need to leave some players behind. If you want your campaign to work out, you will need to make a choice that will work for as many as you can, but it’s unlikely to work for everyone. This is especially difficult if you are only drawing from your close friends for players. Be direct and be kind, and maybe help them find another group whose schedule works better for them.
  • It won’t always work out. Sometimes that game you want to run, and the group you are able to draw just won’t be able to make it happen. Recently, I had a Vampire, the Masquerade game that I had hoped to get kicked up with a fun group I met, but schedules did not line up and I didn’t have enough people in my network with an interest. I shelved the project, happy to have met new people and glad to have the material ready for when schedules do finally align.

Network, network, network. The best tool for getting a successful campaign going is to have a large number of players to draw upon. Depending on where you live and your situation, this may be more or less difficult, but there should be some combination of the following you can use to build the number of players you know.

  • Talk to friends and family. Even if they are not into role playing games, they may know people into it and looking for a group. I remember when my landlord saw a gaming map up on my wall, which led to a conversation where he connected me with his adult son, who was struggling to find a nearby group.
  • Go to events at your local game store. Make the time to participate in events even if you think it may not be your thing. Use the time to connect with people, learn their names, and add them on social media. Don’t be afraid to say out loud that you’re looking for people into starting a campaign. You’ll likely stumble on people at the events for the exact same reason you are!
  • Avoid chauvinism! Maybe you’re into rules dense, highly tactical simulations, and the person next to you likes rules-lite improve storytelling games. Be curious about why they like what they do, and find places where you have common ground. Even if their style does not match your own, I guarantee you they know people who do. I still remember telling a fellow Game Master how much I enjoy Shadowrun, and having him immediately retort “Shadowrun is the most overrated system of all time”. It was hard not to take the remark personally, and it always plays in my head when I consider inviting him as a player. He still hasn’t received an invite…
  • Play in other games. I know the goal is to have a campaign and steady group of your own, and playing in other groups is a great way to find people to make that happen. Role players organize naturally in cells, and there is a constant flow of people between those cells. People’s needs and restrictions are always changing, so meeting people in other groups may win new players quickly.

Show Energy! Enthusiasm and positivity are infectious. When you are gaming, make a special effort to smile. Go out of your way to praise people when they game well. Be the person that drives things forward. Always give kindness and encouragement. Be liberal with the fist bumps and high-fives. Despite what D&D suggests, charasim is more skill than attribute and it can be learned. If you are a happy and positive person, you will be much more likely to attract players (and more likely to attract players that like you, are overjoyed to commit to a campaign).

If you can put the work in, you can quickly get to a place where your challenge is less finding players and getting them to show up to your games, and more how to find time to play with all of the players you have. It’s a much better problem to have, as you move from just a Game Master to a master of gamers. Help other GMs get their campaigns off the ground, connecting people with similar play styles, and teaching others how to be leaders.

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Five Books of 2018

Books are important. I’m both proud that I managed to read 32 books this year — which is the most I’ve read in since college — and a little embarrassed that I only read 32 books this year, considering reading is what I wanted to prioritize in 2018.

Of the 32 that I muddled through, I’ve chosen five that impacted me the most.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

A surprisingly powerful book for a seemingly small subject, this book helped me adjust my mind to see what we do as individuals and organizations are built on top of piles of habits. It also shed light on organizational and personal behaviors that seem to spring from nonsense. When I can look deeper and see the habits that these behaviors are built on, things start to make more sense. More importantly, I have the perception I need to change the underlying programing that leads to these odd behaviors. Highly recommended for anyone who is focused on developing themselves.

Drop City

I have no idea how this book got on my to-read list, which admittedly has grown over the last thirteen years to a bloated 2707. (Yes, I know that at this rate, I will be 128 years old when I finish this list, assuming I never add another book…) However it happened, I’m glad it did. I went in knowing nothing but the title, and a vague sense of having heard of T.C. Boyle as an author. On the surface, this novel was about different American countercultures meeting; hippies and Alaskan bushmen. But there was something deeper happening worthy of re-reading. I wish I had read this when I was studying literature. I was particularly struck by how the author seemed to simultaneously present the most intimate portraits of his characters while presenting no judgement about them. The result was both cold and fascinating.

Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue

If Ryan Holiday writes it, then it is likely to be in my top books. I purchased this one in hardcover, a rarity as I tend to prefer digital, but his previous work has been so impactful that I knew I wanted this as a permanent addition. The book covers the demise of Gawker, which I admit when I purchased the book, I didn’t know it had collapsed. I also did not know who Peter Thiel was (Just a multi-billionaire investor who is largely responsible for some of the most successful companies in the last twenty years. Ho-hum). Even then, Ryan did a fine job wrapping me into the story. While the book is titled “Conspiracy” the thing that most drew me in was the egos. The characters were all larger than life. Some had suffered the pains that outsized egos can bring, some were about to suffer, and yet others had managed to master their own egos… at least for now.

Bluebird, Bluebird

I rarely read mysteries. When I do, they even more rarely leave an impression. This was an exception. While it was written honoring the mystery formula, the real joy of this book was the way the formula was used to accomplish other things. First, the mystery is a hook to hang a rich and nuanced treatment of race in the American South. It is also a love letter to rural Eastern Texas, a place I never thought would hold my interest. I burned through this book in two days, and immediately wished there was more.

Dawn (Xenogenesis, #1)

It was a slow year for reading science fiction. I had made it a goal to branch out to other genres this year, which made less space for my favorite. I am very pleased that I made space for this! Dawn does what only the best science fiction can do, create a story involving aspects that are alien and strange and use those to shine a light on things that are familiar. In this story, humankind has nearly destroyed itself and it’s remains have been taken by an alien race, where they exist on a living ship, acting as a combination of servant, test subject, pet, and exotic love interest. It doesn’t take much of a leap to see the parallels in how an isolated culture feels when colonists show up and rapidly begin the work of subjugation.

For 2019, I want again to push my reading further. I know better than to set my reading goal too high, so I’m going to aim for just a 10% increase. Rounding up, that is 36 books I want to read this year. Three a month is ambitious, and I best aim for four a month to start as there will certainly be obstacles along the way. Looking at this to-be-read pile, I shouldn’t have much trouble finding material.

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On Sale Now!

Super Fun TV Hour is now on sale and ready for you to pay dolcover1lars for! You can find your copy at DriveThruRPG!

I’m not going to claim that this product will change your life, but it will make you smarter, faster, and more attractive to your gender of choice!

Drawn from Power Rangers and other super sentai nonsense! You must perform mighty kung-fu, pilot gigantic battle mechs, and yes, come together to form a super mech; all while trying to keep from getting suspended from school! And let’s not forget about the stupid outfits!

Super Fun TV Hour is a framework for creating your own super sentai campaign. The super sentai genre is surprisingly under represented in tabletop RPGs, which is odd considering its rich source material and pre-established tropes. Just the fact that sentai teams are so often in groups of five makes them ready made for the gaming table. 

 

 

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What Comes Next?

With Super Fun TV Hour off to the printer, and Gen Con now a week behind us, it’s time to look ahead at our next projects.

First, the thing I’m most exciting about is working with Zeal+ Studios to create the Visual Novel “Robo Rinku’s Kissy Kissy Adventure Game!” You may recognize the art style in the following screen caps because Zeal+ partnered with us to provide most of the art in Super Fun TV Hour. Now it’s our turn to pay it back, by managing this project and making sure it get’s out the door by Q2 of 2017. That and it will be my first attempt and software development!

Rinku Duct Tape Rinku Hearts


Our next RPG project is a scenario we’ll be constructing with the Savage Worlds engine. Currently, I’m just referring to this as “Project Chi”; a long form scenario set in an eastern flavored apocalypse where power belongs to those with the strongest kung fu! Currently we’re only in the brainstorming stages, but I hope to have a deliverable project done by the end of January!

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Done!

cover1

 

It is done! I’m happy to say that Super Fun TV Hour is finished and off to the printer. I’m happy with what we’ve created and can’t wait to start hyping it at Gen Con. Next is to run some sample prints from a local printer to give away at Gen Con. I expect that PDFs will be ready to purchase by late next week, and paper copies will be on sale come December.

 

We learned a ton putting this together, and I’m really excited about out next project, which I’ll be blogging about soon.

In the meantime, enjoy a few pages from the book!

TVH Pg 1

TVH Pg 3TVH Pg 2

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Update! Arts and Tweeks

Crunch time is upon us for Super Fun TV Hour!  I’ve settled on layout tweeks, and Leah’s sketches have started to roll in.  We’re on target to have this ready for electronic publishing by August 3rd! I’m just going to go wet my pants in excitement now.

Intro layout

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Redesign!

After reading a book on layout design and how to not look like a 1000% amateur, I switched up a few things.  I got rid on center alignments, added more white space between sections, and made my sidebars look less like poop.

Redesign

New Sidebar

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Update: Sidebars complete!

We’ve finished writing and designing all of the sidebars!  At this point, all major writing is complete!  Major layout is complete!  Now it’s a matter of choosing art, designing a cover, and maybe getting some sleep!

SimpsonsEffect

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