Table Reflection: The Weakest Link

One of the things that I often run into as a GM is that there’s a lot of skill required to make a good game. My players tend to like my games, but the truth is that they tend to fall a little flat, and there are a number of reasons for this, and part of the reason is that I often get over-ambitious and put my energy into the wrong places. Put simply, the important thing for running a campaign is to pay attention to one’s weakest link.

I’ve never been able to finish Dragon Age. Why? The combat one-liners. They’re so bad I literally quit every other time I hear them and have to go take a break. Fortunately, I’m not an AAA game studio, so I don’t have to meet the quality standards that people hold BioWare to; I’m Kyle, and my players respect that. I’m putting together stuff at the table as often as not, because stuff winds up going off the rails more often than it stays on (and my style is open to that), and every once in a while I just epic fail at something or another, and it ruins the session.

It’s being human. 85% of my players have never quit one of my campaigns until it ends, and of the portion that do most of them either don’t continue playing on the tabletop at all (and weren’t really interested in the first place), or were driven off in their first session or two by a (mis)perception of an incompatibility between me and them.

So then what am I talking about? Simple: As a GM, your main obligation to your players is not to fail. Too many times have I seen a game with a massive amount of love poured into the mechanics or the setting, but the other parts of the game; the storyline itself, the narrative description, or the other bits are too weak to keep the game going; if the mechanics and setting are the foundation of a game, the actual table atmosphere serves as the walls and the roof.

What does this mean on a practical level? There are two things that can be done to ensure that your game doesn’t wind up failing.

  • Understand what’s going on in the rules and setting.
  • Make sure that you don’t ignore important elements.

The first one is a little more simple, but it’s a failure that I often see in novice GM’s. For the most part, this doesn’t matter so much, but there have been times when I’ve been discussing mechanics with a novice GM and I realize that they have no clue what I’m talking about. For instance, one of my Shadowrun players became a GM, but had no clue what thresholds were used for, only applying dice pool modifiers to rolls. This is, in terms of the way things work, probably relatively minor; he didn’t know about modified thresholds because he’d been playing at my table where I didn’t go into a lot of depth about them, and used them rather infrequently. However, he crippled his game, because he had missed out on an important part of the core mechanics on account of this, and he could only adjust probability curves in one way that was highly disastrous for the lower-powered campaign we were in, which was taking away dice from already small pools.

The second is just a matter of presentation. I consider there to be three core elements in the table experience: presentation, participation, and education. The first part of this is presentation; you must present your game to the players in a way that keeps them engaged. This is why I love running certain games more than others, because I enjoy being able to give descriptive outcomes, which is easier for me under some conditions than others. For instance, I don’t like to involve heavy social elements in my campaigns, because when I do I often handle the NPC’s incorrectly, which leads to a number of issues right off the bat when something they say comes off wrong or is unintentionally incriminating. On the other hand, while my players are piloting giant robots across the battlefield, that’s more my forte.

Participation is the other crucial element at any table session. This is a general thing; players can feel whether or not their actions matter as soon as you roll your first die or draw your first card. As a GM, your duty is to tell a story, but it’s important to remember that stories change based on the actions of the people involved in them-this is why professionally written adventures for tabletop games tend to be either freeform, with general plot points but no exact specifics, or have dungeons or other less flexible set pieces for people to crawl through, since there’s not a lot of room for them to go off the rails.

Education, on the other hand, doesn’t have to stick out in any individual session, but is instead based on how you weave your story. This is more than just a simple thing; education focuses on showing your players something that they didn’t know. It can be as simple as a piece of lore, or showing them their characters’ roles in the world they’re exploring, but if you’re not too heavy handed you can also use them to send moral messages, which the players can choose to accept or ignore. This is one of the reasons why I love Shadowrun and the cyberpunk genre so much, because they’re a great place to explore current issues from multiple perspectives, though you can do this in virtually any setting. Similarly, it’s a great place to explore narratives and tropes, and if you do so well your players will come back for more because they’ve been thinking about the game in the meantime.

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