Thursday, February 25, 2016

How do you inspire your players? RPG Blog Carnival – Feb 2016

This month RPG Blog Carnival is being hosted on RolePlayingTips by Johnn Four. He's asked people to post blog entries answering the following questions:

What do you do to get players excited and eager to play each session?  

How have you gotten players keen to dive into that new campaign you just spent weeks preparing?
 And what approaches do you take to keep players' faces out of their cells phones and focused on your game?

I think these are good questions and worth discussing. I will tackle the questions in order.

What do you do to get players excited and eager to play each session?

Well, to a certain degree this is in our control as GM's, but we also need to be aware that it isn't entirely so. As a hobby activity RPGing has to compete with "real life" quite often. And sometimes people are sick, or tired, or in a bad mood, and nothing we do as GM is going to make this person excited and eager to play. Some people, on the other hand, are always eager... for everything. No matter what horse manure needs shoveling, they always seem ready and eager. I'm thinking this is a personality type. A nice one to have at your table, of course. So I guess one thing to do is find enthusiastic people to play. Conversely some people are always down and depressed feeling. They won't be enthusiastic. You just know it. So one thing might be to kind of avoid this kind of person at your table. So, step one it would seem is to try to attract people who are naturally enthusiastic, and avoid those who are the opposite.

But most people fall in between. And they need a bit of coaxing to wax enthusiastic for something. And this is where the GM's talent comes into play. I started GMing back in 1978, so I have some experience with the question of how to get players enthused for a game. But when I started I had no clue. I just GM'd and whoever liked it stuck around, and those who didn't left. As it happened this worked reasonably well for me, and my table was consistently full of enthusiastic players. So in a way I was lucky in that I didn't need to burden myself with trying to figure out what I need to do to make players enthused. It seemed they simply were enthused anyway. But I want to go into how that happened in more detail.  Sometimes it's not obvious, even to the person doing it, what is making something work.  So lets take a look.

For one thing, I always focus on Characters and Story line. Lets start with Characters.  What I mean is that I watch for personality traits among the Characters and play off of them. I have a natural knack for improv theater so that helps a lot to bring NPCs and monsters to life. When the players know that whomever they encounter is going to be a full bodied individual with their own agenda, goals, secrets and personality then they are more likely to feel that the World is immersive. So part of what gets them excited to play is the the background knowledge that the world is going to offer them unique experiences. I'd like to counter this with an opposite example for contrast. I played at a number of tables where the GM had a set of 'stock characters' that they played as NPCs. When we got to a town, we always met a town guard at the gate. No matter what town we went to, that same town guard was there. Same personality. Same mannerisms. Same intonation in his voice. We also met this town guard at numerous other locations and in other disguises. He was also the clerk in the government building. We also found him on a farm stead tilling the earth to feed his family. We met him, well, pretty much anywhere there was an "ordinary Joe". This was the GM's "Ordinary Joe" character. Never wavered, never changed. The only thing that changed about Joe was that he had different information for us depending on where we met him. I think you get the idea. Joe, after the first few encounters, wherever we met him, got boring. We got to the point that whatever town the first thing we'd do is "Go find Joe" to get information on the town. So you see the problem with this. It's boring. What I do is try to give every character their own unique personality, traits, and goals. From an improv theater perspective this means that I give each NPC their own voice, intonation, and mannerisms. Now, you might ask, How can you do that? Well, I read a lot of books that have strong and interesting characters. I also watch old classic movies where there are many kinds of strong characters (modern movies have devolved, imo, so that we now have only a tiny handful of Characters. No matter what movie we go to see we will find Joe, and his associated generic-brand Hero-type, Love-Interest-type, and Villain-type. And that's basically it. So I go for classic movies and TV shows where the Characters are not carbon copies of Every-Other-Character).  In other words I am totally encouraging you, yes, to read classical literature, and tons of it.  Yup.  Go.

And then I go for Story line. Does this not mean I run a "Story Game" where "Story is the only important thing"? No, not really.  I like combat and tactics as much as the next wargamer, really.  I also happen to like though, good story, too.  So when I say "Focus on Story" I don't mean "Go play a so-called Story Game".  What I do mean is that I keep track of what's going on in the Story, and I try to have an interesting Story background in my World. This is a kind of complicated topic, but to distill it down to it's essentials I think of Story as the framework for the Adventure. It provides the motivation for the Character actions. Will they be fighting monsters and taking their stuff? Probably. But the question that is engaging for players (and the GM) is "Why are they doing these things?" And that is all about the Story. So having an interesting Story is key to bringing Player into your World and making it immersive.  And in my experience immersion = engagement = enthusiasm.

Lastly, I include in my game Emotional Hooks. These are situations that the Player Characters find themselves in that cause emotional connections for them to other Characters in the game. For example, I had a recalcitrant player who decided his Character had taken quite enough risk in his short life, had saved the village, gotten the girl, and now wanted to retire peacefully on his farmstead and be left alone. Ok. Three years (game World time) went by (one year real world time). Then, one day, (when I wanted to kick off the campaign again and he said, "Nope, my guy is staying the heck home"), there was a town council meeting. Everyone was invited. He went with his wife and sat outside the building on a bench next to the door so he could hear what was going on, but risk no danger of getting drawn into the encroaching adventure. Sure. Fine. The meeting progressed and the towns people discovered that three children had been kidnapped from their beds on three consecutive nights, each time during a violent thunderstorm. It started to rain. A distant peal of thunder rolled across the night sky.

The player suddenly said, "My character asks his wife "where is our little daughter?"

"Why she's home sleeping, darling.  Why?"

Lightning flashed across the sky.

Suddenly the Player's Character was hurtling across the village green and down the road towards his farmstead. Sure enough, his daughter was gone. There were little three-toed tracks from the window of his daughter's bedroom window down the muddy road, and out the village gate into the wilds to the West. The chase was on. It's been over a year. Yay.  Emotional Hooks.  They work.  Use them. But I will say this as well... Like seasoning in a soup, they are good when used sparingly.  Don't over do it.  I use Emotional Hooks only when I feel it is necessary to bring a player back into the Story because they seem disengaged.  That doesn't happen often.  Also note, I don't use Emotional Hooks on all of the Players all the time.  If one Player in a group has one going on, that is usually enough to drive everything forward.  I might have two, but be aware that when there are more than one at a time this can potentially lead to party splits as Character's priorities may diverge.  Just something to be aware of.  There's not strict or hard rules about this.  It's an art.  Treat it artfully, and you will do well.

So, my techniques, in summation, are to have an engaging story that pulls the players in emotionally, and to provide them with characterizations that are "real" enough for them to immerse themselves into the World. Once they know that your World is immersive they will beat a path to your door to attend each session. It's not so much what I do to prime them per session, as it is how I play my World generally that does it.

All that said... I prime them for the game each session anyway. How? I usually try to leave them off at a cliff hanger each game. So instead of letting them resolve every situation and then say, "Ok that's it for tonight, folks", I usually do something like ... "Ok, you have everything buttoned up pretty good. The room is secure, and there's the treasure chest busted open and full of jewels on the table... very good. Oh, wait. Johanikor the warrior notices something move suddenly out of the corner of his eye. Something darted between the shadows on the far side of the room. He didn't see what it was. Wait. Herakulia the Mystic also catches something moving out of the corner of her eye, too. She couldn't see what it was, but it seemed like a shadow moved within the shadows of the far side of the room. Everyone hears a creaking sound and spinning around they see the lid of the chest is slowly closing by itself, creaking as the ancient metal hinges grind against each other. ... ok, that's good for tonight. We'll pick this up again here next time. Ok?" "Noooooooooooo!!!" Hehe.

Secondly, I will often send them an email in between games that reminds them of something that they might want to pay attention to or discuss amonst each other before the next game.  Or at least something to think about.  Maybe a tidbit of rumor they remember overhearing, or a bit of history about the world.  Or something they noticed during a previous game that pertains to whatever it is I think they might benefit by remembering. Anything along those lines.

All of these techniques help to keep the Players engaged with what is going on with their Characters. You know you have them hooked if they tell you that they were thinking about what their Character was going to try to do in between games.

How have you gotten players keen to dive into that new campaign you just spent weeks preparing?

When I start a new Campaign, I use the "Go Slow and Build" approach. I don't at all try to hook them in the beginning. In fact I do the opposite. I start them off doing boring stuff like chores, or work, or dealing with mundane affairs of the World. There's a town council meeting and everyone has to attend. There's a wedding and everyone has to prepare. The village is in a state of drought and everyone has to struggle hard to go hunting in the hills for whatever spare game is still left.  In the rain. And sleet. Boring. Not fun. And this is all setup for "Start Small and Build" approach. Usually during these boring events someone will stumble upon something "different", or a clue, or be attacked, or discover a mystery. Or something. I don't have any set rule on how Adventures actually begin. But something happens that is out of the ordinary, and they get interested in it. After all, any interesting thing beats doing chores, right? Once interested the thing carries it's own weight, and the momentum for the Adventure begins. Once they're hooked, then the game moves along as though I never had to push anything at all. In fact, I didn't. This is what I think of as "the natural method" of introducing adventures. After all, didn't Joseph Campbell teach us that the Hero's Journey begins with the mundane world? Why yes, it does. And that's how I play it. Works great.

And what approaches do you take to keep players' faces out of their cells phones and focused on your game?

Ok, this is a tough one. In fact, I don't do anything along the lines of establishing a rule about that. For one thing, sometimes the Players are not engaged because their Characters are split up and one group is doing something and the other group "is someplace else". If the players opt for their cell phones, I don't say anything. Let them. Of course it might be smarter for them to pay attention as they might learn something, but they're purists who don't like to know what their Characters don't know anyway, so if they don't pay close attention in those situations, fine.

Conversely, sometimes a player is just bored and opts for the cell phone. If they should be paying attention because their Character is engaged and I see they are absorbed into their cell phone I will say something like, "Brian the wizard stubs his foot hard against the corner of a table. It's very painful and he lets out a yelp." This instantly brings the Player waaaaaaaaay back from Cellphonelandia to their Character in the game World! It's amazing how well bumping your head, stubbing your toe, or slipping on a greasy spot and falling down reminds people that they should PAY ATTENTION to what they're doing. :)

So those there are some of my techniques. I'll be very curious to hear how other GMs out there handle these things as well! On to reading the other RPG Carnival Posts!

I leave you with the the following Profound Thought  ...


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