This week the Gassy Gnoll got involved in a conversation over at the Gamer Assembly IRC chat room and it came up that some GMs occasionally complain that their players ignored, blew through, or flat out destroyed their plots. And in this gnoll’s experience, he had to cry “FOUL!”
Of course, I can’t just leave it there.
When you think of gaming at the table, what immediately comes to mind? Is it the fluid give and take between players and GM as they, together, create a shared world that exists only in their imaginations and on paper? Or is it pushing pieces like some heartless AI in a computer game attempting to achieve some pre-defined goal? If it’s not the former, I’m probably not going to enjoy your game table very much – though there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the beauty of a hobby where there are as many styles of tabletop as there are people with character sheets and a set of dice.
But here’s where I draw the line with my time… A game table is a symbiotic relationship between referee and player(s). It cannot truly be alive unless there is give and take on both sides of that equation. If the referee is a ruthless dictator limiting player options left and right until there is but one path to follow, that person needs to either start designing more focused gaming experiences for computers, consoles and portable devices or writing novels. On the other side of the table, it doesn’t work any better if there’s a player who would rather guide all the action, not just that of his or her character. Perhaps that individual would be better suited to refereeing their own game. It simply isn’t fun for me if that ebb and flow is chronically one-sided.
This next part is only tangentially related to the shared storytelling thing, but it got me thinking about what makes gaming enjoyable for me.
After some pondering, I determined that my key to enjoying gaming is three-fold… I must a) enjoy the company of the people I’m playing with; b) mesh well with their playing styles, if not their roleplaying styles; and c) feel like I’m contributing something to the tapestry we are weaving as a shared world-building exercise. If any of the three legs is missing or damaged, I likely won’t have a good time gaming and probably won’t last long.
If I’m at your table, my hope is that we have some similar interests, a common language through RPGs, and we can quickly establish a rapport based in the context of whatever we’re about to do at the table. All the better if we actually are friends and can chat about life in general – work, family, movies, books, whatever… But I’m betting I can probably hang with most gamers for a session or two and have some fun during the experience. Sometimes that isn’t the case. And if not, that’s ok too. There’s always another table.
Case in point… I played with a group in AZ while I was there and the players tended to smoke some wacky weed and drink a bit during sessions. I think I lasted a couple of sessions and bowed out saying it just wasn’t for me. I don’t begrudge them their choices, but I didn’t share them. Yet, in college I played with a GM who did acid from time to time – and though I didn’t agree with that particular decision, he was one of the best GMs creatively I’ve ever had and we had a lot of fun together because the decisions he made outside our gaming world didn’t really affect me all that much.
Playing styles for me is more important than roleplaying styles. For example, I’m not a fan of a character being a pacifist during non-combat encounters and suddenly becoming a bloodthirsty slayer of everything he or she surveys… I’m not a fan of those players who believe that every item from every body, every room, every pile of treasure – MUST be picked up even if it’s nailed down. If I’m playing a computer game, I expect to behave that way – taking what I need, slaying whoever gets in my way, and blithely moving from quest to quest. But at the game table there has to be some sort of balance.
If your character is truly a whirling dervish who flies into a barbarian rage during battle and happens to quote Shakespeare and arrange flowers when not in combat, maybe I’ll be ok with that if there’s a rationale from your character’s point of view. But if there’s no logical reason why they would behave that way then I’m going to get frustrated quickly.
And even if the first two pieces of the puzzle all jive together, sometimes I don’t feel like I’m contributing to the cause. Sometimes that’s just me. Sometimes it’s a combination of my character not jiving with other characters in the party. Sometimes it’s a feeling of being lost in a world I don’t fully grok. It can be anything. Usually this is one of those gray areas I can fudge with until I figure out a way to make it work. Change to a different character. Figure out how to interact with the other characters on an individual basis. Adapt (or adopt) a part of the world for myself and then work with the GM to figure out how it hooks in with the rest. This is the leg of the stool I have the most control over.
All of this said, I’m definitely not without my own flaws. Whether GMing or playing, I’m not perfect. And I hope that if a GM or player has issues with me, they feel comfortable coming to talk to me directly and not talk around my back. If we can work it out, cool. If not, it’s not as cool but that’s OK too.
So there you have it. I’m in it for the story, the camaraderie, and the unpredictable nature of the shared imaginative experience. Let’s get together, shoot the breeze, and play some games.