On the 29th of April, our gaming group got together to play. It was a plummeting game and the group had not “jelled” in months. As to why I am certain that my collection of ideas and reasons could be stacked with everyone else’s and there would be few duplicates. Mostly, it was a simple issue of style. At least that is what has been decided on, now, by the group.
After the game one of the players became vocal about the frustration the last games had created. In the post-game conversation (which lasted about 3 hours) it came down to the following:
- Lack of Communication
- Lack of Cooperation
- Lack of Common Purpose
- Differing Expectations
- Differing Styles
The largest issue was that none of the characters would talk in character about their needs or plans. While facing a common enemy they each had a different approach to dealing with it and did not take any time to even talk about it. They also approached the Game Master with the same mentality; if you don’t tell the GM then the NPC won’t know. The problem here is that the GM doesn’t Metagame. The NPC couldn’t know, and so they don’t. But the GM needs to know so the necessary calculations could be made before the issue is presented.
Secondly, there was a marked lack of cooperation between the characters despite attempts within the game to avoid that. A large number of issues were designed to need most or all the characters to deal with it; they won’t cooperate and so they can’t.
Despite a common origin and enemy, even despite common needs, there was no attempt to connect to the common purpose they shared.
The game had a player that was rules oriented and wanted to see some lasting effect in the game world, a player that wanted to “run around and do things that are fun”, and a player that wanted to deal with the plot. The player with building goals never really tried to interact with the world, opting instead to protect themselves by isolation from the plot. The one wanting to run around spent most of the game watching the others and making outbursts about or toward NPCs that limited options. The one wanting to confront the plot spent most of the time waiting for the rest to do something or training to do something.
Then there were the differing styles. One is building the perfect character, one is emoting the inner character, one is feeling what the character feels and vice versa. Min/Max, Role-Player, and Real-Lifer in Confusion.
Then there was me… Trying to make everyone happy. Trying to give them each the game they wanted. Trying to tell just one story where the plot and conclusion had some common thread. And failing on all sides. The only group I have ever had that was a total failure and all related to me being permissive (or, at least that’s what I think). And, in the end, I found I had been Railroaded!
How does a GM get railroaded? When you build a world, set a plot into motion, deliver a story-tread and every player ignores it: then you rework it all to fit what they claim to want and repeat a half dozen times in as many sessions you realize no one cares what you’re doing. When what you’re doing makes no difference to the game you are being Railroaded. That’s how.
Let’s talk some reality, shall we? By “reality” I actually mean MY reality, MY perspective, and MY needs.
Here are the issues (in part) I see in my game, and in gaming in general. (And, yes, I am venting. But since no one is ever going to read this, who gives a shit.)
Sandbox Settings are a great idea. But, like all sandboxes, it is easy to find cat turds if you look around just a little. It has the potential to create a game in which the players can do anything, can achieve anything, can go anywhere. But, conversely, it does not insist they do so.
The issue comes up when styles of play and differing expectations collide.
What if no one knows what they want? What if a given idea is rejected by others? What if indecision, for whatever reason, is the guiding emotion?
Cat Turd! Each one is a cat turd in a Sandbox game.
“Sandbox Game” is supposed to mean Open World, a place in which you can go and do anything. It is a sales pitch for a computer-based MMO. And, if you look at an MMO you will find they are not at all open worlds. You have limits of direction and distance (“Well, it is a computer game. There have to be limits or the box would break.”); you have missions to complete to drive the plot and story, and anything not part of that is repetitious and boring (“Well, you need a sense of direction or just end up doing nothing.”); you have a small collection of NPCs that have names, all the rest are one type in two genders and 3 costumes (“Well, they don’t matter. You aren’t going to interact with them.”) There is nothing but limits. And vastly more limited than ANY RPG World I ever ran (or seen run), EVER!
Yet, thanks to the post-hypnotic suggestions of MMOs every player spouts off about Sandbox Games with absolutely no idea of the diarrhea tumbling over their lips. Yep, they are talking shit.
Here is what a sandbox game should be: no matter what direction you take or what character you run into there is consistency and the freedom of choice. The events of the past within the game still exist, the plots (whether interacted with or not) still unfold, and the NPCs have their own lives independent of the players. As such the players can go anywhere and do anything and the feel and results are consistent and authentic.
This requires both the GM and Players to support the world equally. The GM has to be consistent, but the players also have to maintain consistency in the history and ideals of the character. If the characters ignore or forget the details they will lose focus and purpose and as a result, they will become inauthentic.
I heard a shitload about this, and that it had to be avoided. But what is it, anyway? The answer to that depends on who you ask. Generally, it is defined as “making the players do things in which they have no choice.” But, what about when the players disregard the story and ignore the plot?
I have only two answers for this one: change the plot to fit the group’s desires or quit gaming with them. I tried the first option only to have every plot in every game disintegrate into inaction. I had to resort to the second one.
Competition and Frustration
One thing that happened in every game the four of us were in was a competitive process that would end up with frustrating behavior. One player (usually the same one) would want to do something a little odd, another would want to do more to outdo the strangeness (a different player, but usually the same different player) and the game would subtly be derailed in a session or two.
Over the months, the frustration built, and finally, it resulted in a near-constant process of two of the three players mouthing off at any NPC that presented themselves as authoritative. On more than one occasion the NPC was there to be an information source… but after you call them a fucking bitch you can bet they have no desire to help you.
This leads to inaction due to a lack of information.
One argument put forward was “a good storyteller provides other sources of vital information.” Yes. And a good player doesn’t constantly call every NPC vile names, or snub them, or make demands of them before their names are given. In the last game, we played I tried to provide the same information in 5 different characters that they either pissed all over or refused to talk to.
I have no answer for how to handle that. And, after months of the same, frankly, I gave up.
All three players brought the real world to the table, as did I. It happens because we are dealing with the real world all the time. But…
One of them has a job in which they deal with frustrating issues via interactions with people. They would bring the pent-up frustrations with them and act them out at the table.
One of them has a job in which they deal with frustrating issues via the nature of the job. They would bring this pent-up frustration with then and challenge every NPC’s authority.
One of them had a job that provided little challenge and spent an amazing amount of time developing the other player’s characters and sending an e-mail of what they needed to do. In most cases, as far as I saw, it was always to make the character more useful to the goals of this player.
I had a house fire, and never really dealt with the stress or grief of it. I used to use gaming to do that, but with the dynamics of this group that never could happen. I became frustrated at the sense of wasted time.
One of the things that constantly left me puzzled was that the players would express goals and desires and then never go do anything about them. At our last gathering, it became obvious that they all felt everyone else was stopping them.
One player who told me they would just go off and do things in their other groups ignored me when I told them several sessions previously, “The do it. Have fun, damn it. This group is dying from inaction.” Despite this, all they really did was wait. There were some attempts to sort of follow the plot, but no attempt to find that moment of fun in the game.
One player always talked about building something lasting, then would spend time trying to create special rules that allowed that to happen via character advancement rather than story advancement. You know, spend Character Points to make it happen while doing nothing in-game to build it.
And one player just pushed the plot sometimes, pushed the character sometimes, and tried to martyr themselves for the others every so often. I never had any real idea what the goals where, and they were never pursued.
For my part I expected them to want to know why things happened. Why two different sources told them different things. You know, ask why. Never could figure out how to make that happen.
Why Not Kill Them?
My mistake was choosing rules systems that granted finesse. Rules that allowed characters to be more unique. But the rules also required more time to make a character in and supervision. If I kill off a character the game ends for the day. I didn’t want that and I thought the rules would make the game fuller.
What makes a game rich and full are the players. The rules made me reluctant to deal more honestly with the mortality of the situation (you know, kill the character for their rudeness). But, at the same time, the issues between the different players and the players and the GM removed their luster. Rich became wretch in no time, and I took all the wrong actions to correct it.
One of the players even asked the others in that after-game conversation, “How does the GM punish us when we do shit wrong? He can’t kill us and keep the game going and none of us take the threat seriously. Even if we don’t think he will, our characters don’t know that.” By this time, I think, it was too late.
What I Learned
I would love to be snarky here and say something like, “people are stupid” or whatever, but I already knew that. No, what I learned is something I already knew, but either chose to ignore or forgot: when egos clash, everyone loses.
Also, that play style has everything to do with ability. As does the source of training. One of us grew up with D&D as the source, and there were issues with that on all sides. One learned from World of Darkness, and there were issues with that. And I had decades of great experiences in different rules systems and there were issues with that.
But, I also realize now that the two things that really failed were that I didn’t shut down the BS when it started (I thought I was being nice) and I let gaming buddies become friends (they are different).
One Last Thing
Last night one of the group came over to talk and after they left I thought about the issue. One thing that became obvious in this talk was that one of the group and I have very deep issues with each other. And it rests in our similarities, I think.
We can talk, play board games, even work together. But when we get out the dice, years of pent up frustration boil over into the game group on the subtlest level. Week after week of this has created a situation where the setting initiates the attitude (what is known as a “state” in psychology, and no “state change” was done to fix it).
While they are a friend, has been a friend, and I would like to think could stay a friend, I am at a loss for how. If we have such deeply felt issues between us I see no way to overcome them.
But, the one answer I have is to wait and see. Maybe the situation will have some clarity after some time. I don’t know.
And that’s it… that is how a gaming group dies.