There are a lot of bad World of Darkness GMs out there, and this annoys me because people who have a bad experience with a game, run by someone who doesn’t seem to have cottoned on to what makes the game different and worth playing instead of Ravenloft or Call of Cthulhu, seldom come back to play it again, and talk shit about it in my presence to boot. I could spend forever grousing about how a bad GM doesn’t make a game bad, or I could be pro-active and spend a week blogging about how I make story games, particularly the World of Darkness flavour, go well.
In this last general-purpose entry on the topic – I’ll be back on Friday or thereabouts with some Vampire-specific advice and some notes on my new batch of player characters, once we’ve… y’know… made them. For now, here’s a slightly scattershot approach to stopping some big problems before they start.
Make sure the local authorities are capable of handling the PCs in whatever manner the players are most responsive to being rebuked in, or at least that someone is. They don’t have to be able to beat the PCs in a straight fight, it can be through humiliation or taking their Backgrounds away. The idea is to encourage people to play citizens rather than the nomadic murderers and thieves that are encouraged by adventure campaigns, without losing the awesomeness of being a supernatural entity. Actions need to have consequences and some consequences just don’t stick with some players. Degeneration, derangement and Morality loss just don’t impact on some people, they’re mechanical rather than immediate and visceral consequences; Paradox or similar ‘backlash’ effects teach people not to use their supernatural-fu at all if you’re not careful, and that again defies part of the point of playing WoD. Someone needs to be able to deliver an in-story smackdown, or at least to present the realistic threat of one.
Save the puzzle crap for old-school adventure roleplaying. This isn’t MYST. The wits and initiative of the players should be employed, otherwise it’d be a ruddy boring game, but there shouldn’t be any of those ‘collect four parts to a McGuffin and flick seven of the twenty switches in exactly the right order in order to enter the next part of the adventure’ bits.
Don’t kill PCs casually. Death is, in real life and in stories alike, sometimes sudden and arbitrary and not always dramatic – look at Commodore Norrington in the Pirates films, but consider that he was no longer really part of the ensemble by the time he bought it (his player had evidently left the group, if you need a metaphor). PCs deserve a dramatic death – you can be as anticlimatic and abrupt as you like with NPCs, and sometimes that’s better.
On a related note, don’t grandstand with NPCs unless you’ve okayed it with your players and you have a plan to involve them in the grandstanding somehow. Once, I ended a Mage story with a duel between two NPCs. The players were responsible for maintaining the shield that kept the magic from that duel in place. That meant front-row seats at the fight where their favourite NPC got the stuffing kicked out of him and their least favourite came through to save the day after one of them talked him into it. That’s doing grandstanding right and NPC-focused scenes right; if you’re going to do it, make sure the players are still involved in the outcome somehow.
COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR PLAYERS. Ask them, at the end of every single session, how that worked for them and how they think the story’s going, and would they like anything to happen later. You. Serve. Them. Never the other way around. COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR PLAYERS. Can’t say it enough.
When it comes to dealing with problem players, you won’t have to, because you didn’t invite them in the first place. Pick the right people for a story game, keep the differences between story and adventure gaming clear in your own mind so you don’t end up running a schizoid mess that isn’t pressing people’s story buttons properly, and you shouldn’t have to deal with too much player nonsense. If by some error of judgement you do end up with some nonsense… well, the basic strategy of finding out what the problem player’s problem is and addressing it is as valid as ever.
Have fun, improvise freely, don’t let the dice dictate the drama and have fun. It’s so important it does need saying twice.