Meeting in the Middle

One of the not-so-dirty secrets I’ve learned of being a good GM is you run what the players want to play, not what you want to run. Remember this rule, and, as the Umpa Lumpas sing, you will go far.
— John Wick, Play Dirty

Came across this gem in my PDF copy of Play Dirty, the collection of John Wick’s articles from Pyramid Magazine. I agree with that quote… mostly. I’ve had my fair share of games that have tanked because no one was really interested in the game in question. They signed on because I was running and… that wasn’t really enough to keep them interested. Or, worse, we headed in a direction that the players really didn’t like or the players constantly frustrated me by not really fitting well with the game in question.

The problem I really have with that bit of advice is that… it’s a little too cut and dry. And even the Wick indicates that he doesn’t follow that guideline to the letter. He makes that comment after saying that he is running D&D for some people, a game which he rarely has anything good to say about. But he follows his advice with, “The game isn’t your standard hack ‘n’ slash campaign, though. Oh, no. I’ve got something much more interesting in mind. At least, interesting to me, and hopefully, interesting to the players.”

And that’s where it gets a little stickier.

I’m the sort of person that always likes to try new RPGs. Two and a quarter bookcases testify to that. (We won’t go into how many I’ve actually played.) Invariably, I want to play stuff that the rest of my “regular group” is uninterested in. (And, you know, I can almost never convince anyone else to run the more crazy ass shit. Trust me. I’ve tried.) I imagine a lot of roleplayers reach this point. At some point, they want something different from what’s being offered. A lot of edgier/weirder gaming communities have people in this boat. Whether it’s the Amber Mailing List or the Nobilis one, you always have people coming on there saying, “Wow, I’d love to play this, but I can’t convince my usual band of D&D players to try it out.”

So what do I do? My “regular group” (whoever that may be at the time) consists of my friends. This is a social sort of hobby. And for some of my friends, this is the main point of contact with them. We get together, we pretend we’re other people for five or six hours, and then we go home. It’s a weird, perverse sort of friendship, but it’s a friendship nonetheless. Do you leave your old gaming group behind and find a new one? Do you play in more than one group? (This is how I end up in six different games. I’ve got it down to four, though!) And if you’re the only guy who’s willing to run most of the time… do you let yourself get sucked in to running 4 or 5 different games just so you can try stuff out?

But solutions to that start to diverge into a different topic. The core point I was orbiting there is the problem that sometimes what you want to run doesn’t match up with what your players want. I’m a huge fan of sparklypoo in games, but it can’t be a one-sided equation. If I’m bored as a GM… the game just grinds to a halt. When I find myself in a situation where I’m running a game that I’m not normally big on (D&D springs instantly to mind), I end up pulling a Wick: I run it arguably by the rules but I run it like I run every other game. Which… never really works out quite well. There are some notable exceptions to the D&D clichés (a_belletrist‘s going on forever D&D game comes to mind), but for the most part the thing that attracts most D&D players I’ve met to D&D… is not what I like to play. And when I run for them… well, they usually seem to have fun. Me? I feel like the equation is a little one-sided. They just aren’t that engaged.

Some of this ties into expectations. I get ambitious with running games for the usual D&D crew and only found myself frustrated. I wanted engaging character-driven storylines and lots of passion for the game, all hearkening back to my salad-eating days playing Amber. The D&D players didn’t really want much more than, “Kill, loot, repeat.” Everything past that was gravy. But with the Shadowrun game I’m running, I put out the statement right up front: this is a beer-and-pretzels style game. Knowing who some of my target audience was going to be, I gave up any thought of serious roleplay. This wasn’t going to be some psychological examination of the impact of magic and transhumanism on the global subconscious of the 21st century. No, it’s just Tolkien-esque fantasy races with guns going on missions. Some of the missions are a little weird. I’ve done that just to keep myself from getting too bored. There are occasional bits of character-driven play in which elements of their backgrounds come into play. There’s also a lot of goofing around. The gay troll strip club known as the Billy Goats Gruff is something that will probably manifest every time I run Shadowrun now. (The song “My Humps” takes on new meaning with this place, lemme tell you.) It’s really the roleplaying equivalent of a poker game with the boys. We fall of our chairs laughing over poop jokes. Good times.

I can tell I’ll get bored with this eventually. I’m already starting to a little bit. We’ve talked about playing something else and that may stave off the boredom. Changing to something like Exalted or 7th Sea could add a new flavor to it. Or I may just break out the beer since I’m not having to drive anyone and most of the kids have mustered out of the game. Or possibly both.

So into this social hobby comes a creative edge that needs a little fostering and that often seems challenging. What if other people don’t match your level of involvement with the game. That’s always a buzzkill for me as a GM: I spend hours prepping for the game, the players don’t even bother to respond to emails in the time between games (even to say “I won’t be at the game”) and show up expecting to just be entertained. It’s an even worse situation when the roles are reversed and the GM never seems to do anything involving the game during the downtime and the players do. Or what if everyone’s enthused about the game and contributing heavily, but no one seems to be sharing a vision? One player may be trying to build his character up to be like Aragorn or the Scarlet Pimpernel, while no one else is really buying into it. (“No, dude, you’re just a tool.”) The GM tries to run a game around a certain motif, and players just don’t buy into that motif.

It’s hard to be critical in these sorts of situations. Because the criticism ultimately boils down to, at it’s most generous, “I don’t like your idea of creativity.” And I feel like I don’t have an answer for this. I dream infrequently of having a game that well suits my tastes, but the more cynical side of my personality wonders if such a thing is possible. The Buddhist answer is to let go of expectations and enjoy what I have and I’ve been trying to do that more. But a part of me whispers, “If only…”

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