[Read and Respond] HoP’s Rob on Campaigns and Cat Herding

Been a while since I did one of these.

Timetables have killed every attempt at a regular long-form RPG campaign since university, with one very notable exception; the Vampire group which accepted a compromise. A few face-to-face sessions a year plus a lot of chat about what the characters were doing in between times. It’s not the classic but it works – it gives the two couples involved an excuse to come and see each other (we’re all lazy tarts and who’d want to go to Wolverhampton anyway?) and because everyone involved is some sort of actor/writer/hardcore roleplayer/artist thing we generally synch up and assume roles with reasonable ease.

I had a revelation, not so long ago. I was struggling to re-establish a dormant roleplaying guild in WoW-land, i.e. to make people actually log into their undead alts and do some undead roleplaying. Events (that’s ‘sessions’ or maybe ‘modules’ to tabletoppers) were dying on their arses, players were shying like thoroughbred horses from the material provided, and even rounding up four of the blighters took a week’s work and enough messages that one player defriended me for spamming. A couple of the more active players took me to task over this and I learned two things about campaign management.

The first thing: if you build it, they will come, but whether or not they stay depends on whether you’ve built the right thing. When I thought of ‘undead RP’, I thought about… you know, the usual tabletop stuff. Adventures, excitement, exotic enemies, convoluted mystery plots, where the player characters happened to be undead. When many of the other players in that guild thought of ‘undead RP’ they meant… life as undead. Smaller, domestic stuff, pottering around being undead at each other, living the day to day lives of people who don’t have to eat, sleep or even breathe unless they want to speak.  This is what a lot of WoW roleplayers seem to enjoy (I still think it’s because a majority of them are college or university students, myself) and it’s something I find utterly baffling. I don’t want to RP having a day job and going down the pub (well, maybe if I’m too ill to actually go down the pub) – I want the other stuff. The point is – people stopped turning up because they weren’t getting what they wanted and they weren’t getting what they wanted because I wasn’t interested in providing it.

This segues nicely into the second lesson, which I was taught with absolute bluntness by a member of the server’s highest-quality RP guild. Just because you had the idea doesn’t mean you have to do all the work. It’s really hard for tabletop GMs to grasp that. We’ve been told since we started that we are responsible for everyone else’s fun, that we have to arrange and schedule everything and prepare the entire environment, that we are the last resort in cases of dispute or misunderstanding…

What Calister tried to explain to me, at great length, is that a GM – Master of Games or Master of Guild, it doesn’t matter – is a facilitator. They bring people together for fun and they present a concept around which that fun will be formed and it’s up to players to bring something to the table.

If the GM is always rounding everyone up, host the events, players will get used to not doing things for themselves. They will lapse into the top-down, single-point-of-failure model of roleplaying and IF the GM burns out or gets bored or simply runs out of ideas they will sit, inert as tubers, silent as the grave until someone tries to suggest a change. Then they’ll resist, because there’s a dim prospect that they might have to do something for their bloody selves for once.

WoW RP is a very different experience to my old familiar favourite the tabletop game, but I wonder if it doesn’t have something to teach me about those. In the past I’ve always felt responsible for everyone else’s good time, like I’m the one who has to sort the schedules, find the venue, book the table, bring the snacks AND RUN THE ENTIRE DAMN GAME. I used to enjoy that sort of thing back when it was easy and I was even more of a control freak than I am now, but in these the times that try men’s souls I am weak and sickly and just want to play a damn RPG now and then.

In the Dark Ages Vampire game I have been asked several times to provide a venue for between-sessions storytelling – a space for characters to interact via correspondence, documents to be produced of their affairs, downtime to be charted and key relationships to be established so that we don’t have to waste time on in-between days when we DO get to play face to face. I have tried twice and failed twice and, in the spirit of my new ‘Why Do I Have To Do Everything?’ principle, the player who is most enthusiastic about these things has been invited to set it up himself.

He hasn’t, of course, but it’s early days yet. At least it’s not my problem now.

5 thoughts on “[Read and Respond] HoP’s Rob on Campaigns and Cat Herding

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  1. Snacks and venues don’t really have anything to do with the roleplaying part of the roleplaying game so you should be able to motivate players to help out in that regard(A GM bringing all the snacks sounds blasphemous to me).

    As for your heretical suggestion that PC’s can have meaningful imput on a game and are not just leaves drifting eternally on the rivers of your elfgame brilliance, you might be on to something there, but consider the following*:

    *asterisk added to provide context. This is from personal experience, not immutable fact.

    1. Most players are going to have about a tenth(incredibly optimistic estimate) of your experience with the system, maybe even roleplaying in general, so their suggestions are not always feasible and require a helping hand or at least careful examination before the implementation stage.
    2. I find relying too much on player imput(other then general feedback, which is always helpful) can fuck with the immersion but at the same time, as play progresses, that imput might be what is neccesairy to keep it fresh. Player’s outright telling you what they want or like is hard to implement since people often don’t really know what they want or like(or at least have only a partial idea). A good GM is observant to the desires of his players without ever appearing to be so.

    Hope the CoC playreport thing is still on the agenda.


    1. You would be surprised how often I have been saddled with the snacks and venues side of things. Frankly I don’t care for it. I prefer to take myself elsewhere to GM since leaving my armchair once in a blue moon is the stated goal of my hobbies, and you’d think the idle sods could at least provide me with a surfeit of Jaffa Cakes and Pimm’s, but these things aren’t always the given that they ought to be.

      1. I have run Pathfinder and its ilk for groups where one or more players are far more conversant with Da Roolz than I am, and I have generally used them as rules monkeys. I am also resigned to the fact that people who play lots of Pathfinder and that sort of thing are going to be far more up on mechanics, in general, than people like me who work out the core of things quickly and never bother with the rest. Nevertheless I am generally more seasoned in the given game than the majority of my players, and more to the point, wouldn’t take everything they suggest without scrutiny anyway. If all players had what it takes I wouldn’t have ended up the designated GM in the first place.

      2. I would sneer at ‘immersion’ but I find the pose of refereedom wearying these days. Generally speaking there is time set aside at the close of play for a discussion of the session and where/how things could go next. I’m not saying I act on everything my players suggest during this time but I do at least listen.

      As far as players not knowing what they want – neither do GMs, necessarily. I find that hauling these things out into the open helps us all be more articulate about our needs and in the articulation we have to construct and express our points of view in front of other, critical people. Again, people don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say but prising them out of the shell and having them explicitly state what they want and like provides more material from which to divine the truth of things.

      CoC play report will happen if CoC play throws up something that’s worth discussing with l’Internets at large. If there’s something about the game that you’d LIKE to discuss then that’s a reasonable way of guaranteeing a post on it. I do take requests.

      By the way, I’ve not forgotten your setting, but it’s busy season for the day job and I’ve been repellently ill for the last week. I’ll get around to it in my own mystical time.

  2. [snacks] Make it clear the ratio of tarrasques to treasure chests in any given area is inversely proportional to the ratio of them bringing snacks to your bringing snacks. Or talk to them or something.

    1. Damn straight. I try to avoid rules monkeys since i feel they are a crutch and i can anticipate challenges better if my knowledge of the rules is up to the task, but then again as people get older our memories(or at least that of mortal man, mine is amazing) gets shittier and clogged with trivia so learning a new system beyond it’s basics can yield diminishing returns. 3.5 and pathfinder are pretty dense but also very streamlined and i find that though it appears top-heavy it is actually a remarkably intuitive system. That is as long as you do not go splatbook heavy.
    2. No disagreement here, i am wholly on the side of stimulating player feedback.

    [CoC] I have yet to even master the basics of the game, therefore i was hoping for a sort of general overview of what a session is like so i can compare that with my mental model of what it’s like.

    [Setting] Haha, in your own time dude. I think ive added another…3 pages worth of material, maybe 4, since that time, but i feel that as it is getting more coherent i spend more time carefully weighing each addition to see if it mixes with the overal setting, or looking over it to see if something is missing. Hence the feedback.

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