So I went to CONcrete Cow last weekend and thought I’d do it as a punter if possible, relying on other people running games. I’d taken something to run, but we found a game with empty slots and signed ourselves up and given that the GM knows *a lot* about the 40k universe thought that Rogue Trader should be fairly cool. Now here’s the first problem I’ve been encountering at convention and it may be just coincidence. It may be that I’ve got silly high standards about what I get from a game. It may be rampant misogyny and I need help. But whatever it is,I just can’t seem to get a lady to run my a decent RPG these days…
One of my very first (possibly *the* first) roleplaying game I played at a convention was GenCon UK back when TSR still ran it and we had a lady GM for Werewolf Wild West and it rocked. Sadly I can’t remember much about her apart from her leather pants, as I’d like to be in another game she runs, but every other female GM since then (if not fairly new to it all and therefore automatically cut loads of slack, we all need to start somewhere) has been lacking at best and largely woeful at worst. I accidentally made one cry once, but that totally wasn’t my fault and I blame Baz. So come on ladies, represent! Well, everyone’s different and there’s plenty of poor male GMs, it just seems the batting average for the away team needs improving. Colour me a chauvinist if it makes you feel better.
That quandary and query aside, I can only comment on this particular game without applying it to half the population as a whole – so why on Saturday did I pack up my dice tin, make my apologies and walk from the table? What was missing from the game, or could be done differently to turn my frown upside down?
Description. There wasn’t any. Part of the “sell” of this session was that the GM knew her onions, so if nothing else I was expecting to be drenched with flavour and kewlness about the game world and there was virtually none. I had no idea what our space ship looked like, how big it was, what *I* looked like or any of the crew, how far we could travel, what authority anyone had, what’s I would normally be expected to do… Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I came away from the game knowing no more about the universe than when I went in. And considering I don’t know that much about it, that’s criminal.
Background. Especially when you consider that the GM was unashamedly proud of her long character backgrounds. I’ve no real problem with a side or two of A4 reading, but what I do take issue with is reading all that and it not providing anything of value. The GM summed up the game background in a two minute pitch that made all I’d just spent 5 minutes reading redundant. There didn’t seem to be much relevant in the notes to my character in the plot, aside from some foreshadowing, and one player was a spy but it didn’t say that on the sheet. Apparently this fact was the “only logical conclusion”, but clearly not – as my reasonably intelligent friend had not deduced it. If you’re going to do background keep it succinct and relevant. And obvious.
Characterisation. Anyone we met was an empty suit. The Inquisitor seemed to be a bit of a pompous sort, but we got no sense of authority from him and pretty much said whatever we wanted with impunity. His demands were clear but didn’t make any logical sense, in-game or otherwise and the whole thing was a bit weird, with the players ultimately pushing to get on with it. In a space station later on some minion gave virtually nothing away up to and including being flushed out of an airlock for no apparent reason. He went to his death and we wandered to the next bit of the adventure (if you can call it that) anyway. The big baddie that was releasing doom upon the world was pretty non-descript and his collection of flunkeys virtually invisible. I had no sense of what was going on generally and certainly had no “read” on what should have been a charged situation.
Pace. There was none. One comment from another player after 150 minutes play was “there was about 30 minutes of game there”. Everything was like walking through treacle. Discussion over it taking us two weeks to get there and what could happen was eventually ended when it was determined that nothing was going to happen. Can we just get there and move on? We get in a rickety lift and it starts going down shakily. Pause. Fine… can you let us know when we as player characters get to the bottom or can otherwise get involved in the story please?
Knowledge Hoarding. The GM often gave little sniggers or other self-satisfied behaviours when something happened that anyone else deeply vested in the game world might understand. This was nothing but frustrating and gave us no idea what was “supposed” to be going on. It didn’t help that another player insisted on trying to use the game as much as possible and told us of rules for shopping and other things that just stalled the game and we didn’t care about. If you’ve got clever or cool stuff as a GM please relate it to your players so they can share. Lonely fun is not a good thing.
There’s plenty more to go at, such as learning to read players, checking understanding, having a comfort break, etc. but for now I think I can summarise some basics for all the would be GMs out there:
Describe the game world to your players if its different to out own. Ideally use all five senses, but one will do for now.
Don’t crack in-jokes or assume people know what the hell you’re on about – try to anticipate is this is the case and explain if you need to.
(Both of the above are particularly relevant if you’ve asked people if they know about the world already and they’d said “not very much”.)
Make sure there are things for the players to do. If there aren’t things to do, keep pushing forward rapidly to the point where there are things to do.
If there are things a character should know, make sure you’ve plainly explained what they need to know, even if it seems obvious to you.
Try to give your NPCs some personality, a silly voice, a way of acting, *something* to bring them to life. Describe what they’re doing and how they behave – don’t leave empty space hanging with nothing going on.
The caveat for all the above is that if the players are happy interacting among themselves, let it fly, but as soon as there’s a lull push things forward again.