Thursday, March 31, 2016

Rule One: If This Is Your First Game Night, You Have To Play!

I once had a player ask if he could bring a friend to game night. Of course, I said, the more the merrier! We had space at our game table and room in the party. But then he said they wanted to spectate rather than actually play... sorry, but that's just not a good idea. You see, when a group gathers to play a game there is a certain rhythm the group has to find in order to keep things running smoothly. This rhythm is based around the interaction and cooperation of every player in the group. Having somebody present but not participating is just going to throw off the basic inter-personal dynamics the game is built around. Frankly, it's just bad mojo.

Instead, I encourage game runners to find a place for new players that allows them to ease into the activity without becoming a distraction. They don't have to be put in the spotlight, but not including guests could become boring for them, and discomforting to the players. Give them a minor role that allows them to operate on the fringe, but whatever you do don't have them just hover on the outskirts with nothing to contribute. If nothing else, the presence of a non-participating player will be distracting or make your group feel excessively self-conscious. Tabletop RPG is not a spectator sport. It's based around the dynamics of the group, so the whole group needs to be involved in some way or another. 

A lot of the time, a reluctant player might be that way because they feel like they are a burden or are exceptionally shy. It is important to make sure your players feel comfortable at the table, especially if you have one that is timid about participating. Make sure that there is a positive and welcoming attitude among your gaming group before you introduce this new element. Everyone should be able to view each other as equals at the game table. The word 'noob' has no place in your game. There is nothing to gain through posturing or bragging about your tabletop experience, nor in diminishing another player for being new to the hobby. 

If the new player is intimidated by the rules, pair them with a player who can help them out. Be patient with them and encourage the other players to do the same. Remember that the best thing you can do for the pastime of pen and paper gaming is to demonstrate how fun and inclusive it is, making a good impression and showing how much fun it can be. 

Don't let your game become a competition between players. Highlight their importance to the team and encourage your group to make them feel welcome. Keep in mind the advice I have laid out for dealing with Watcher player types. If they are a one-time player, find a key position for them to take, like playing an established NPC character, or a PC with a connection to one of your regular players. Be creative and show them enough attention and care that they and your group feel okay about their inclusion. In the end, a new player that enjoys themselves is one more player that might come back to play again, or even start their own gaming group. Creating a fun and interactive environment is the best way to spread the tabletop gaming love!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Character Creation Part Two: Assigning Roles.

"Know Your Role"

When your players build their characters for an adventure, choosing their roles and assigning values to their skills and abilities, it is best for you to keep in mind how the group will fit together as a whole. One of the key principles behind any good RPG is that each character fulfills a unique purpose and gets to do something special that nobody else can do. If there are two characters of almost identical design, it is likely to cause a problem. Someone is going to feel left out if another party member is just as good at everything their character is geared towards.

This is why it is important to establish who is playing who in any given campaign before the game begins. Don't push it off until later, when your PCs are already stepping on each others' toes and arguing about which of their two computer hackers gets to break into the mainframe this time. If two players want to play characters that are functionally identical, discuss with each of them how they might adjust their plans to keep their characters from being redundant.

Overlapping Roles

This is not to say that there can be no overlap between the strengths and abilities of two player characters. It can actually be a lot of fun to have two similar but different characters team up and work together.

The rule of thumb to use when determining whether two characters can co-exist effectively is this: Do they use different methods to achieve the same results?

If so, it shouldn't be a problem for them to both operate on the same team. For instance, a thief who is a master of disguise could pair very well with one who is a cat burglar. A bard and a sorcerer are both charisma-based magic users who have very different techniques. An armored warrior and a nimble fighter could each bring their own flair to a heated battle. There is no problem with having multiple characters of the same class or archetype as long as they are designed to behave differently when put into action.

The issue of identical characters is not quibbling over who gets to play what, it's a matter of avoiding situations in which a player character becomes the "spare tire" that isn't really needed. You could still run a game with a party of all wizards, or all fighters, as long as you make sure each of them has a unique style that doesn't entirely duplicate another player. It's fine to have two characters with a lot in common, just don't let them share so many of the same features that they are indistinguishable.

Variety is the key! If you have a game with a party of police officers, they should each still have abilities and skills that make them unique, like the SWAT guy, the detective, and the negotiator. Don't let players play bland or generic characters, let them play a role that has distinction and a lot of character. Consider classic superhero teams like the Sailor Scouts or the Power Rangers, where the heroes have powers that are similar, yet each has a unique weapon and special strength, like the brains of the operation or the charismatic one. Don't obsess over making every character absolutely different from every other party member, just stick to these general principles and your game will be just fine.

Fulfilling a key responsibility on the team is a big part of a players' enjoyment of the game, so it is important to make sure each player has their own. Sometimes you might even run campaigns that have pre-set positions to be chosen from, like the classic Dungeons and Dragons configuration of Fighter/Wizard/Thief/Priest. This is all well and good, but it is not the only way to play. There are plenty of ways to run games without including certain character classes at all. It's all about having a game plan before the campaign starts, and knowing which role each of your players will take on. Consider all of this carefully before the scenario launches and you will be on your way to a fun and successful party of player characters!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Character Creation and "The Six Things That Need Fixing"

Previously on DMpathy I have mentioned the benefits of setting up goals and motivations for your character so that you can have a clear 'arc' for your role playing--a way to develop your character's personality and progression. Well, here is a nifty resource for finding inspiration for how you can set these goals to give yourself a jump start on your role playing.

Based on Blake Snyder's screenwriting book Save the Cat, the Six Things That Need Fixing are character flaws, enemies, and other personal challenges that a protagonist needs to overcome to achieve their happy ending. As the book itself explains, it doesn't need to be exactly six things, but it helps if there are at least a few. This technique is geared toward screenwriters and filmmakers, but it can be just as useful for tabletop players who like rich storylines and character development... If you focus on mapping out the characters most obvious problems rather than their strengths, it makes for far more useful reference when it comes to role playing their motivations and behavior.

Keep in mind that in a tabletop campaign you will often need to keep things organically developing so that you don't just resolve all six things and run out of RP material. Whenever you resolve one of the character's problems (And you should resolve them when you can, don't let your character stagnate and become boring)  it is time to come up with a new Thing To Fix to take the last one's place.

This method is basically the same as that of the DM, to keep presenting your team with challenges as they overcome them. This is just you applying that concept to your own character, providing your own challenges to yourself of things the character needs to learn or change in order to grow. By pursuing these goals, your character will indeed grow and evolve, and that will make for an interesting and fun experience for yourself and your fellow players.

Read more about The Six Things That Need Fixing via this article, which includes a list of examples from popular films.

Happy Ventures

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Player Notes: What You Need.

Today's entry is directed toward tabletop players rather than DMs, but contains information that could be useful for game masters to see things from a player-centric perspective, or to provide advice to their own gaming group.

Everybody knows that it is important for a DM to take detailed notes of their game, but it can also behoove your players to do this as well. Not only is it useful to have easy reference for remembering people, places, and things, it is also very good to have on hand for short term bursts of inspiration. Something like "I want to shoot out the lights in the room" or "Can I ask the shaman about these artifacts I recovered last session?" I can't tell you how many times a player has forgotten a really clever idea they had by the time their turn came up. Some really good potential moves have been lost to the mists only because the player got distracted and didn't remember what they originally wanted to do.

If you can, as a player, I strongly recommend writing down a very brief note if you have a really clever idea that you can't share right away. By the time it gets to your turn, you will hopefully have a list of things to do that you can pick from and rattle off to the DM. It's vital to have as many of these options as possible, as the simplest change to the battlefield could throw your plans into flux. An enemy you planned on attacking might be destroyed before your turn, or might have moved into a completely different position. If you focus on just one plan, it may be negated or irrelevant by the time you get to move. If you have multiple avenues to choose from, you will be less likely to get stumped when the spotlight turns to you. Keep planning and thinking on your feet, and make some fast, loose notes to help keep your mind clear.

In terms of long term notes, I also encourage you to  write down a series of goals, or "wants" for your character (I will cover this in more detail in a future entry.) Whether it is character flaws that need to be addressed, an enemy that needs to be defeated, or some long term achievement that your character desires, it helps to have easy reference for things that can motivate your character in the long term.

Of course, above all, it is useful to have a general quest log of your current mission objectives and useful information. It is far too easy to get diverted from the main storylines while fighting monsters and exploring the world. Keeping a list of important goals and plot points is one of the best uses of your personal notebook as a player.

Remember to consider what notes might be most helpful to you whenever you sit down to your next gaming session. Keep some extra paper or a notebook on hand to record anything that might come in handy, and pay close attention to the DM and your fellow players. It will be a real benefit to you and will keep you from forgetting the most important facts of the game. Above all, don't forget to have fun. Happy ventures!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Embracing the Spirit of Challenge

An important truth worth remembering when it comes to any game, tabletop or otherwise... making things too easy for the players can be just as frustrating as making them too hard. The enjoyment of gaming comes from problem-solving, risk, and reward. Without any one of these elements, it all falls apart and becomes tedious.

I have been both player and DM when this problem has surfaced. Sometimes it is something as simple as the DM being afraid to let any PCs die, or suffer significant setbacks after failing an encounter. It's nice that the DM is worried about their players and player characters, but there needs to be a balance. Somewhere between the antagonistic and apathetic "Killer DM" who seeks the destruction of the players, and the friendly game-runner who just wants to see his players win all the time lies a happy medium.

If your game is too easy, you will start to see symptoms soon enough. Players will start to actively pursue more difficult encounters and challenges in an attempt to test out the difficulty of the campaign. If they are consistently successful and impervious to any major consequences, then you risk boredom and the stagnation of your gaming sessions.

Oddly enough, some players may also begin to get increasingly paranoid about failing the simplest of tasks. This is why you want to show your players that they can overcome setbacks when they happen. You want your players to want to avoid negative consequences but accept them when they occur. Don't make your players afraid of failure. If a die roll goes badly and you soften or refuse to recognize the bad result, it's going to do just that. It's going to make the players feel like the consequences are so bad that even the DM doesn't want to administer them. Like an over-protecting parent, you make the PC afraid of the world around them. It's an unhealthy attitude that leads to either a lack of challenge in your games or a crippling sense of fear and reluctance to act from your players.

If the players accomplish every single thing they set out to do, it's not a game. It's not even a story. Stories require conflict. They require obstacles to interact with and overcome. The enjoyment we get from achievement comes from the fact that it is earned through persistence. Make each die roll count, remember to only roll when it really matters. Let there be truly compelling challenges and consequences in your campaigns. Let the players struggle and fight for their victories. Don't abuse them, but encourage them to stand up to the obstacles you present them with and find their triumph. You want an environment in which it isn't always easy to win, but it's possible and surmountable. There's no real satisfaction in a victory unearned, so make the challenge fit the reward. Then you can have truly satisfying moments for your gaming group, and fun stories that can be remembered and retold for days to come.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sorting Songs for Game Night

One of my most recent projects is sorting my musical cues for game night into categorical playlists. Rather than grouping my songs by album, genre, or performer, I am trying to put together comprehensive collections of songs based on the appropriate mood that I am aiming for. This is a trick that some of the more music-savvy DMs use, and it is a big improvement over using a generic collection of songs and themes.

If you are running a game of Dungeons and Dragons, for instance, you might use the soundtrack from The Lord of the Rings series... but the odds are that the various themes and medleys won't sync up so well with the action taking place on the tabletop and in your collective imaginations. Big bombastic battle songs will play when you are resting in a tavern, or whimsical flute solos will undercut your climactic fight with villainous warlock.

So that's why it's better to listen to each individual song and use whatever software you can... Spotify, iTunes, your computer desktop... to compile your favorites into categories of style. Exciting music, soft music, however you want to organize them. Just make sure you have a lot of songs and a few different moods to choose from. Some of my own playlists currently look like this:

  • Majestic Themes (For grand halls or wonders of the realm)
  • Standard Battle Music (For when a fight begins)
  • Triumphant Themes (For when the players are winning a fight)
  • Intense Battle Music (For truly epic encounters)
  • Travelling Ambience (For playing softly in the background)
  • Sad Music (For pulling the 'ole heartstrings)

It also pays to have subcategories of these kinds of playlists, based on the genre of the game you are running (Like science-fiction playlists with techno and synth beats versus the orchestral strings of a high fantasy song.) In any case, I encourage any DM who likes to use music to enhance their campaign to subscribe to this method of music organization if they can. If you have a musically-inclined player, it might be good to have them help out with this. Maybe even let them run the soundtrack and switch playlists during the game so that it frees you up to concentrate on your notes and DMing.  In any case, if you have the right song to fit the moment it will be the perfect tool to complement the action of the tabletop.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

100 Random Observations (Part Two)

And now I present the second half of my hundred thoughts and tips for running and playing tabletop RPGs!

Happy one hundred posts!

  1. It pays to keep notes on the types of players attending your games, and their personal preferences, so you can address their specific needs.
  2. On the subject of notes, don't forget to encourage your players to keep their own! Player bookkeeping takes a lot of undue mental strain off the DM.
  3. A single monster in a room is the most difficult encounter to make entertaining. At least give them additional turns if you can.
  4. Remember to have at least two maps or visual aids per session to keep things interesting. Even if you just sketch them up yourself on the fly.
  5. Remember that when you adjust the challenge level of an enemy, more HP=longer fight. Try increasing damage if you want a quick and lethal encounter instead.
  6. You don't have to track complicated XP rewards if your group isn't into that sort of thing. In many systems it works fine to just grant a new level after a certain number of gaming sessions.
  7. The more sides on your die, the more randomness in your results when rolling. Keep this in mind when choosing a game system.
  8. Not every friend to the party needs to be a hero themselves. Introducing sneaky and corrupt allies to your players is a nice little way to keep things interesting.
  9. Expect every player to try to find a way to turn their meta-game knowledge into something their character knows about. Allow them some opportunities to do so when it would be believable.
  10. Higher numbers result in more number crunching and slower play time, so try to simplify the rules when possible. It may be impressive to roll a fistful of dice, but it is tedious to count up your results.
  11. If you are good at impersonating certain celebrities, use this talent to create some memorable NPCs.
  12. Every mystery should have many clues that are clear and apparent. Allow multiple avenues of investigation, and remember that the players can't read your mind. Keep things simple and understandable.
  13. It's okay every now and then, but don't let your players end every combat with capturing a survivor and interrogating them for more information.
  14. Make your players realize that the DM is not their enemy, but task them with truly challenging threats. Your players may surprise you with their skills, more often than not.
  15. Read, read, read! Novels, sourcebooks, web sites, comics, these are the best resources you have to get inspired for your own RPG creations.
  16. If you are in the right place for it, consider running a game from a standing position for a more active approach to get the creativity flowing.
  17. Starting a stopwatch or an hourglass is a diplomatic way to put the heat on a player to reach a decision without saying a single word.
  18. For larger encounters, split the encounter into segments. Have some of the enemies held in reserve at first, or make the map large enough that they can only reach targets in certain areas.
  19. Give the players a choice between two terrible options, and let them make the best of a bad situation.
  20. Don't be afraid to ask your players what you can do for them, and do your best to accept criticism without taking personal offence.
  21. Limit the number of NPCs in a campaign that are on par with the player characters, it can make the players feel insignificant if overdone.
  22. If you have identified something the players care about, you now have the key to motivating them into action.
  23. A mug full of markers, pens, and pencils, is a handy resource to have at the game table.
  24. Have rulebooks on hand, but set limits on how much time you spend flipping through them. It can really kill your momentum.
  25. In addition to notes on your own monsters and locations, it is also useful to have some notes on the player characters themselves (history, strengths, weaknesses...)
  26. It can help to keep an eye on the clock and have a timetable set with session goals, like reaching a certain milestone within the first couple of hours.
  27. When the players reach a high enough level, consider letting them revisit some threats from earlier levels to compare how much more powerful they have become.
  28. Players: strategy is good, but don't overthink things. Sometimes going with your gut can yield the best results.
  29. Conversely, don't rush into a fight just because you can. There are often subtler means of resolving a problem than the direct approach.
  30. Low magic fantasy settings can work, but don't try to run them in game systems like Dungeons and Dragons which are built with a heavy focus on magical beings and abilities.
  31. I don't believe in XP penalties for players who miss a game night due to other commitments, but you might still allow minor XP bonuses to the present players for their actions during the session.
  32. Sometimes calling time out and explaining the situation to the players isn't meta-gaming, it's just common courtesy.
  33. Let the players collaborate or make additions when building a new campaign setting, and they will share a personal investment in it as a result.
  34. Try to run the kind of games that both you and your play group share an enthusiasm for, not just one or the other.
  35. Music playlists are good for ambiance, but make sure you have music on hand that is appropriate for the style and tone of the scene you want to set.
  36. If your group tends to get chaotic, you might need to work out a system to give everyone a turn to speak. Just don't restrict the players to the point where it's a classroom rather than a game room.
  37. If it is something simple that a character should be fully capable of, don't make them roll dice for it. Just let the character automatically perform the action.
  38. If a player wants their character to join the dark side or do something else drastic with their character, it is best done openly with the cooperation of the group. Otherwise it can become a mess of characters interfering with each others' plans and pushing their own agendas.
  39. Don't give your DM too much of a hard time if they flub a line or misread a rule. It's a hard job to pull off, and you should be considerate if you want to receive consideration in return.
  40. When I am a player, I make an effort to respect the DM regardless of the quality of their game running. There is a time and place for criticism, but not at the game table.
  41. Care about your players, and they will care about you. I can't stress this enough.
  42. When you start out, play with people you know and are comfortable with if you can. It's easier to game with people when you already have an established rapport.
  43. The first session of any new campaign will be a bit bumpy to start out. Don't feel bad if not everything works as well as you had hoped. It gets smoother with time.
  44. Digital books are great, but I find it much easier to access and share a physical copy. I try to keep computerized materials at my table limited to notes and media like pictures and music.
  45. Snacks and drinks at the table are great, but someone is always going to spill their soda or beer on something at some point.
  46. Try addressing the players by their character names when asking them about their actions, if only to keep track of who they are playing in the campaign.
  47. Always have extra dice on hand, a communal pool for players who tend to lose their own.
  48. It's nice to be considerate to the host on game night. Offer to provide some snacks or drinks sometimes, or loan some gaming supplies like dice and miniatures.
  49. Don't let anyone bully a player at your gaming table. If you see anti-social behavior in your group, put a stop to it.
  50. Keep on sharing your stories and ideas with other players and DMs. This is how we enjoy the hobby and learn more about it. I enjoy taking this journey with all of you, and look forward to hearing from you.
Follow DMpathy on Facebook and Twitter, and check back each week for more tips and tricks for running games in any tabletop RPG system. Happy ventures!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Hundredth Post: 100 Random Observations (Part One)

To celebrate the hundredth entry here on DMpathy Blog, today I proudly present one hundred random observations and tips from the top of my head. Thanks for reading, and I hope some of these tidbits come in handy in your own game running endeavors! 
  1. Rogues: If you steal FROM your party instead of FOR your party, you will surely be left to rot in the darkest dungeon.
  2. Speaking of rogues, scouts should always be sure that they don't distance themselves from the party without a backup for contacting them if things go sideways.
  3. It's all too easy to rush players from one mission to the next. Let them have some down time occasionally to role play and manage resources.
  4. If a scenario is not going according to plan as a DM, change the plan and take it in a new direction.
  5. If you find something a player really enjoys, that's your carrot on a stick to keep them motivated during your campaign.
  6. Tracking supplies like ammunition and payload should be dependant on how much the players enjoy resource management, not a mandatory chore.
  7. Random tables should still be modified and tailored to your current adventure so they add to the experience rather than detract from it.
  8. It's always a good idea to watch other DMs and find out what you can learn from their techniques.
  9. Rather than just threatening players with damage during combat encounters, hit them with other conditions, or place their resources or allies in jeopardy.
  10. Social and mental encounters need clearly established goals for each party involved, and you should be sure that you know everyone's motivations and allegiences before you run the encounter.
  11. I always consider the battle map itself to be an ally or an enemy to the players.
  12. It's always good to recognize early if your players are not following a plot hook. Give them more reasons to be interested if the first one doesn't work.
  13. As a DM, conspiring with a player is a great way to pull off the whole "shape-shifter replaces a teammate" trick.
  14. Mind control or simple deception is the most effective way to threaten muscle-bound but weak willed combatants. Turn their strength against themselves or their team!
  15. Letting your players describe their own attacks is a great way to get them engaged in the action.
  16. ...And don't forget to allow your players the opportunity to deliver witty one-liners along with those attacks.
  17. If one of your players is causing distress in your gaming group, always try to address them outside the game rather than making it an issue at the game table.
  18. Remember the old idiom "If you stat it, they will kill it." Make sure your favorite villains have some sneaky backup plans for escaping and surviving.
  19. Remember that even Lawful Good characters could make for appropriate antagonists if they are sufficiently misguided. 
  20. Reworking cliches into something new and different works just as well as avoiding them altogether.
  21. Keep things moving at a brisk pace if you can. If one player is still mulling things over, consider offering the next player to prepare their own turn.
  22. If players are new to as system, try introducing the game with a half-hour "tutorial" encounter where you cover the basic game mechanics.
  23. If you provide your party with NPC reinforcements, you might offer them the opportunity to play these reinforcements themselves, like bonus characters.
  24. If the party doesn't have a healer, make sure there is some sort of mechanic like healing potions or special medicine to keep the game balanced. 
  25. I like to close out every game session with a unique song from my personal playlist, like the credits roll at the end of a movie.
  26. Don't just run a game because you want to be the center of attention: be a DM if you enjoy the process of creating and coordinating adventures.
  27. The best surprises to spring on your players are the ones they realize they should have seen coming.
  28. One shot, single-session adventures are fun ways to break up monotony and offer players a new gaming experience.
  29. The term "noob" doesn't need to be part of our vocabulary. Welcome new players to the table without judgement.
  30. A DM is not a god, they are the players' guide to the world of adventuring.
  31. Spend at least an hour of prep time in order to have a successful game session.
  32. Decide how you are going to handle lethality and character deaths at the beginning of your campaign, in collaboration with your players.
  33. Don't roll the dice unless you are ready to accept their results as being the deciding factor of an event.
  34. You don't have to start a campaign at level one, you can begin at whatever point you feel would make for a fun game.
  35. Don't panic if something doesn't go according to plan when you are DMing. Call a time out and arrange your thoughts.
  36. Cultural references can be really fun, but don't overdo it. Original humor is still better than rehashed jokes.
  37. Initiative tracking can be complicated. Consider employing a player to help you manage it properly.
  38. Sometimes the real world gets in the way of game night. Try not to hold it against players if they frequently miss game night, but be honest with them if their inconsistency is causing problems.
  39. Character death is scary, but still not as scary as a long-lasting character injury.
  40. I personally don't like forcing players to deal with clunky currency conversion systems. No copper/silver/electrum pieces if I can avoid it.
  41. Giving your player a mentor character is a good way of previewing some of the powers and abilities they will be capable of in the future.
  42. Bottlecaps from beers and sodas make really easy to find tokens or "fate points."
  43. Sometimes your players will relentlessly follow red herrings that you didn't even intend to lay out. Enjoy the resulting hilarity.
  44. Have a list of miscellaneous names on hand for people, places, and things. You'll be amazed by how many times you will need it.
  45. Keep track of which players have had more of a spotlight during each session. Try to give each one their own time to shine.
  46. Practice calm, steady delivery of DM narration. Take a deep breath and take things slowly when you speak to your group.
  47. Props and handouts are a fun addition to any campaign. Don't underestimate the benefits of a nice looking visual aid.
  48. Don't take the rules too seriously. As long as everyone is having fun, it is a successful game session.
  49. If it makes for a cool scene, consider bending the rules to allow it to happen. Fun trumps everything, every time.
  50. You don't need to stat out every enemy and NPC in the world. Design them as a general outline and work out the rest of their details on the fly.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Link: West End Games' Star Wars Style Guide

Today I would like to share something really neat and helpful for running Star Wars RPGs. The following link collects excerpts from West End Games' style guide for writers of their Star Wars gaming material. Included here is a lot of very sound advice for storytelling and adventure building in the SW universe to maintain its iconic themes and tone of the setting. For those interested in the setting, it serves as a very straight-to-the-point guidebook, advising the game builders to avoid cliches based entirely on the movies and explaining how to treat the galaxy as a vast expanse filled with unlimited potential.

Enjoy these little behind the scenes tidbits, thanks to Pablo Hidalgo of the Lucasfilm Story Group, and may they serve you well in your next foray into a galaxy far, far away.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Tabletop Gaming as a Popular Activity

Why is tabletop gaming not more popular as a mainstream recreation? Why does it remain such a niche pastime? In a world of comic book movies and mass marketed video games, it's still a hobby that is considered by a lot of people to be "geeks only." 

I think part of that is based on the way a lot of groups play, which can be kind of over the top with silly voices and play-acting (A style that I indulge in myself a lot of times.) But the bigger problem is that it is difficult to organize a real high quality tabletop RPG session. At least not without running into the challenges of time, resources, and having the right kind of group to play with. 

When you go to the movies, play a video game, or read a book, you can choose your own time and place to do it. You are immersing yourself in the creativity of an artist who has risen to the top of their field, who has honed their craft, and you know that they wouldn't have gotten that far without demonstrating some talent in their medium. When you play Dungeons and Dragons, you have to hope that you find that kind of creative mind in your own hometown, be friends with them, and coordinate a time when you can all get together with a space available to meet in. 

I was talking to a Dungeon Mastering friend once, and we agreed that just about everyone has a story about a bad DM experience, and for most people it is also their first experience with gaming. That's a big mark against the hobby right there. Something like four out of five dungeon masters will run a game that is just not as much fun as your standard video game or comic book.

The players might keep playing because there is still a core appeal that hooks people in even if the material they are playing is bland.  And keep in mind, that I have struggled with these short-comings when running my own games. I am far from a perfect DM, and my choice to deal out advice doesn't come from a sense of superiority, but from wanting to share my experiences and ponder the inner workings of what makes a fun game. 

The problem is that a lot of DMs don't ask the question "What can I do better?" Whether it doesn't cross their mind or they are afraid of the answer doesn't matter. The point is that a big part of being the GM or DM is learning how to develop your techniques of problem solving and resource management just as much as your players.
That's why a lot of game-runners have problems if they are not used to being in a position of leading or coordinating things. If your personal issues with ego and authority crop up during a game, it can be disastrous. I have personally found myself on either end of that problem, as I have run some bad adventures myself. 

The trick is to never let yourself get discouraged.  Pick yourself up and keep writing and using your imagination. And don't let your worries that it won't be good enough keep you from running games. Practice makes perfect. Put your best ideas out there first and foremost, don't try to store them all up for later. Your imagination isn't finite, you can always come up with something new and improved. Start by building on your best material and keep reading your players and learning from them. Check in with them whenever you can, and ask them what they want more of in your games, what they like and dislike.

I have a rule that after every game I find one thing that I can improve for the next session. One thing, every time. Even if it's something as small as changing the placement of the maps and miniatures on the table, or having extra pencils or dice on hand. Sometimes it might be remembering to add more traps or making a list of the most frequently used skills so I can provide more challenges related to those skills. The point is, it's best to be constantly improving because there is no such thing is perfect and if game mastering is something you enjoy, you should certainly enjoy doing it better.

Happy ventures!