Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Wanted: DM's with Charisma

Game masters need to develop the campaign setting, build the scenario, learn the rules - and they also need some decent social skills.  More and more, I've come to believe most problems at the table should be solved outside of the game, with a frank table discussion.  But it takes a bit of composure and a willingness to problem solve to lay it all out there and talk through a solution.

Here's some for instances:  you often see criticisms complaining about how players have sabotaged specific campaign styles and victimized their game masters - players that balk at adventure paths, because they want to go off the road; game masters that admit to failed sandboxes, because their players didn't know how to take control and everyone just sat there.  A competent GM needs to be able to discuss the parameters of the game up front, and then monitor when things are going sideways and take a time out to have an out-of-game discussion to get things back on track.

Negotiating skills are important.  Negotiation is about conflict resolution, and reaching a solution that works for everyone - it's like the art of getting to "yes" you hear about in the business world.  One of the big complaints about the older style of games is that they create arbitrary (authoritarian) game masters.  Maybe that's a problem for teenagers.  Good problem solving skills and negotiation skills allow the game master to deliver cooperative rulings that work for both sides - game mastering is another area where some life experience and maturity go along way.

Hey, I'm not just the president of the hair club for men, I'm also a client.  I've had a few irksome situations in recent memory, cementing my tenet that a DM needs to be able to talk to headache players, ie, confront the mismatch head on.  I've had the guy that wanted to treat the scripted, linear adventure path as an extreme sandbox, blatantly ignoring agreed-upon "missions" to hi-jack the sessions.  I've had the guy that insisted the only character he wanted to play was that neutral evil half-orc assassin, who promptly started messing with the other players as easier sources of XP than the dungeon.  I've had the guy that thought old school exploration was a quaint and interesting throwback to the ancient times; real D&D involved a fully laid out miniatures battle mat, with both sides set up on the table ahead of game time, so the session could always start with the first combat.

Most of these situations ended with the mismatched player finding a different game.

The indy-game term you see discussed about this whole situation is "social contract" - what are the implied agreements at the game table that define how the group is going to operate?  I'd go a step further, and say what's important aren't implied agreements, but tacit agreements.  Make those things verbal, express, and negotiated up front.  And be willing to part ways with players that want something different from a game, and can't reach a middle ground with everyone else.  A long term gaming group is like any relationship, and it's best to get those expectations out on the table right from the beginning.

One of my favorite lists of campaign and style preferences is still the original merit badges put together by Stuart a couple of years ago over on Strange Magic (original post here).  Here's the full list, and Stuart actually has some neat little icons over at his place for making a little merit badge sash.

  • Tactics are an important part of my games.
  • My games will tell an interesting Story.
  • My games will be Scary.
  • My games focuses on Exploration & Mystery.
  • There will be Player vs Player combat allowed in my games.
  • My games are Safe and you don't need to worry about content or character death.
  • I will Mirror back player ideas I think are interesting in the game.
  • My games use a pre-made Map and pre scripted content.
  • The GM is In Charge in my games and "rule-zero" is in effect.
  • My games rely on a lot of Improvisation rather than pre scripted content.
  • My games are Gonzo and can include a lot of strangeness.
  • Characters in my games are Destined for greatness, not random death.
  • I roll Dice in the open and don't fudge the results in my games.
  • My games include Disturbing content.
  • My games focus on interesting Characters and Drama.
  • Players characters Death is a likely event in my games.
  • I play By-The-Book and "rule-zero" is not being used to alter existing rules.
  • My games are more of the Social, Fun and "Beer & Pretzels" style.
  • My game is primarily Non-Combat in nature.
  • Players in my game should be prepared to Run when the odds are against them.
  • My game has Shared GMing responsibility with the other players.
  • I frequently Tinker with the rules of the game.
  • My game focuses on Player Skill rather than character abilities.

I should drop my own players a line and see how they'd rate our game on what seems important at the table.  I'll post what they say - it's a funny way to start the year.


  1. Player expectations vs. GM style is always a bit of a balancing act. My friends know I am a 'that guy' magnet. If there is a convention with one that guy participating, if he only plays one game it is usually mine. But in my home game it s a crew of casual gamers who just go with it. We are there to throw dice and have fun. Each of us has our own style of play and mess the styles together.

  2. I find while I have certain ways I defaulted to doing things, my style changes to accommodate different game settings and different players. Interestingly (to me at least) I think I enjoy a wider swath of game styles as a player than I like to run as a GM.

  3. Any intelligent person knows a social contract isn't worth the paper it's not written on.

    Like anything else, you must be this competent to succeed at life. Most complaints, e-mail, or trolls one gets are from people who dislike this when it is pointed out.

    Although the flippant tone of my response does not communicate this well, excellent post.

  4. I discuss the social contract when starting a new campaign.
    I agree with -C that conflict might be unavoidable at some point.

    The most important thing when discussing expectations is to be open for different play styles, otherwise negotiations will be very short.

  5. I agree that social skills are an under-rated, under-theorised and under-developed part of most roleplaying game sessions. I've written a few hands-on posts about it, and I put together a big collection of links a couple months back:

  6. As well as a DM who is a good negotiator, you also need players who are willing to compromise on play-styles. Everybody has their own favourite way to play, but part of being an adult is adapting to fit in with what others around you want. My favourite games are traditional sandbox D&D style fantasy but if I'm in a supers game where it's clear there's a defined plot arc, I'm going to go along with it and take it seriously, because that's what adults do.

  7. Good post, I agree.

    "Most of these situations ended with the mismatched player finding a different game."

    That's as it should be, IMO. I think it's rude to walk out on a game mid-session, and the GM should only throw out a player mid-session in extreme circumstances (I've done that once), but especially for a long-term campaign it's important that everyone enjoys the same things. The player that simply doesn't fit in needs to leave or get booted.

  8. Why aren't there badges for players? That'd help us a lot in figuring out a good mix.