Game Mastery

The Little Things That Count

by on Apr.06, 2010, under observations

I always knew that the little things counted.  And I always knew that as a GM I sucked at giving out those little things.  One of my difficulties as a GM is that I don’t like to hear myself talk (and yet I never have that problem as a blogger – maybe I should run a game in WordPress).  In my new game, which has struggled to get off the ground, I’ve been forcing myself to mention more of the little details.  What I didn’t realize was that while the little things always count, if used wrong they’d count as negative.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I use index cards for NPCs.  To force myself to mention the details of NPCs and to play them like caricatures, I’ve been making sure to write down three distinguishing traits and three distinguishing acting hints on each card.  This way when I look at an NPC I can instantly bring up his surly demeanor and magically everlit cigar.

Anyway, the criticism I got early on in the game was that it was too quirky and silly.  I thought this might have something to do with the NPCs.  I myself am quirky and silly, so maybe that got reflected in their defining traits?  After all, why would I define an NPC by his brown hair and glasses?  I probably did go a little overboard in some of those traits.

So this weekend I ran the 5th session.  It went a lot better and all involved said it was the best one so far.  One of the fights was particularly memorable.  The players were explored an abandoned mine that had recently developed an infestation of cultists.  The big fight scene took place in a collapsed area of the mine.  Rather than the ceiling falling in and blocking off paths, what happened here was that the floor had sunk inward.  Rubble remained along the edges of the chamber, effectively creating stadium seating.  The finely crafted mine cart rails (did I mention it was a Dwarven mine) still hung above the room.  Best of all, we played the combat on Construx.

Afterwards one of the players said it was the best low level combat he’d played in 4th ed.  What really made it awesome in his eyes was when the minions on the far side of the room rode across the still standing rails in a mine cart.

Now, I don’t disagree that that was awesome.  What confused me is that, as far as I could tell, it was the same sort of quirky detail that they hadn’t taken too kindly to in previous sessions.  Why did this detail get a good reaction and the other ones fail so badly?

To be honest I haven’t figure out an answer yet.  But I have a working theory.  What I’m thinking right now is that the details effectively amplify whatever the players are already feeling.  I can’t help but avoid the cliched food analogy, so let’s just roll with it and pretend I came up with something original later.  Details are icing.  When the game is going well, they’re the icing on the cake.  But when the game is going poorly, instead of a cake you have shit.  And the details are icing on that shit.  And the players are sitting there wondering why you just frosted a turd.  Did you think you could write a bad game and disguise it with a little humor?  Or are they wondering why you wasted your time on some meaningless fluff when you could have written a better, if blander, game session?  Either way, they resent those details.  And if the details are memorable and quirky, you’ve given them an easy way to remember what they hate.  So don’t waste your icing on a shitty game.  Let steaming turds lie.

Anyway, that’s the theory I came up with as a GM.  I’ve tried to switch back to my player mentality and look back at some of the shitty games I’ve played in (where shitty games applies to the game written or run, ignoring circumstances caused by other players).  More often than not I can remember the wasted details.  They made bad sessions memorable.  In some cases, those details are all I can remember.

Even if that theory falls flat, I do still believe that details count positively and negatively.  I’d like to say that I’ll find some way to test my theory, but I’m much too lazy for that.  What I will do however is skim the details whenever I detect unhappiness in the game.  If the players are upset at a plot, I’d rather not give them something else to dislike, especially if skipping those details can bring us to a better part of game that much more quickly.   I’ll let you know how that works out.

2 comments for this entry:
  1. Matthew Sachs

    I have some problems along this line with my JIST game (PC’s are a cold-war special forces unit.) I usually have their “facilitator” insulating them from the sprawling military bureaucracy, but I wanted to let them spend some time gazing into the face of the abyss and dealing with top brass, so I sent them to the Pentagon to testify at a committee meeting.

    Well, the half-dozen people on the Joint Oversight Board and the factotum Colonel or two they had there were probably very interesting to the characters, I don’t think they were interesting to the players. While it’s realistic to have the PCs dealing with lots of different people who they have trouble keeping straight, it’s too hard for me as a GM to keep eight different personalities straight, especially when they’re cross-conversing, and while the PCs might be bewildered and overwhelmed, or intimidated by the presence of the SecDef, in dramatically interesting ways, I think the players just tune out.

  2. sagotsky

    I tune out in those situations, but that’s because I’m playing Steve, the half baked human crash test dummy. If I weren’t zoning out it would be bad roleplaying 😛

    I know it’s unrealistic, but I try to avoid cross conversing between NPCs. It takes too much focus off the players. I’d rather NPC one character and let the players respond to that. When I play several NPCs at once, the players sit back and watch. When they enter spectator mode it’s that much harder to get them back as active participants.

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