10 Ways To Belittle Your Players

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AKA How to make your players feel trapped in an alleyway of trash rather than at a fun event!

A few weeks ago we discussed the many ways that players can help the Game Masters burn out so they won’t want to run a game ever again!  Now let’s discuss another hot topic — ten ways to belittle your players and make them wonder just why they’re playing this game again.  The joys of belittling your players are many and varied, and you can do it in a slow and insidious way where a multitude of little comments build up in a way that undermines their self-esteem without ever revealing what you’re doing and why!

1.  Give your group of players a nickname they’ll really hate.  Call them your “adorable little munchkins who could power game their way out of a paper bag,” or your “band of dumb crazies,” while shaking your head whenever you discuss their antics.  Sure, some players might like those nicknames if they are actually trying to be crazy or the game is about power gaming, but this pointer is directed to those many players who have to suffer such nicknames despite their actual intentions, desires and play style.

2.  Laugh at your players when they don’t understand your plot.  Blame them for ignoring all of the obvious clues you’ve seeded throughout your complex story line and conveniently forget that they have several days to a few weeks between each game to dull their memories.  Without the big picture framework, it can be easy to lose facts among the sea of words typical of any campaign.  You can always make your laughter sound playful with a paternalistic shake of the head to show that you’re not being mean (or bitter!), you’re just astounded at how little their pretty little heads can retain.

3.  Call your players fools, and laugh at them some more, when you manage to trick them.  It doesn’t matter that part of the reason why the game can run at all is because players conveniently overlook certain details (such as not doing background checks on every quest giver that comes along) or that you have control of the entire world and how you describe it.  It doesn’t matter how easy it is to overlook, blank out or get confused about a few lines of verbal description amid four hours of what is essentially a conversation.  Now while every GM should be able to take pride in a job well down with a cleverly crafted conspiracy, you can take it several steps forward by making it all about how much the players are failures because they didn’t figure it out.  Remember, you don’t win unless they fail.

4.  Grumble when your players move cautiously and do those constant background checks that you taught them to do.  Encourage them to just do the damn quests, then go back to No. 3 when they comply and punish them some more for not taking their time with every situation.

5.  Rather than having a conversation with them out-of-game about any behaviours that are causing problems in the game, passive aggressively punish their characters for their choices instead.  That way the player won’t quite know why it happened or how to fix it and your players get to enjoy having every other player annoyed and frustrated with them for consequences that affect them all.  That way you get bonus belittling from the other players!  Since many games involve consequences for in-game actions, you can easily cover it up as a normal outgrowth of a situation rather than an attempt to teach them through punishment.

6.  Give the characters belittling nicknames that will stick and influence how other people (and the player themselves) sees that character.  Call them “that annoying little girl,” or “the dumb lug,” or “the stuffed shirt.”  After awhile it’ll become difficult for the other players to see them as anything else.  When describing encounters they are in you should also reinterpret their character’s actions in line with the nickname, perhaps by OOCly expressing astonishment at “the dumb lug’s moment of wisdom.”  Remember that even if your player started that nickname, you can make it belittling by continuing the joke even after it’s long stopped being funny.

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Toxic behaviour can poison any game.

7.  Why only give such nicknames to your characters?  Give them to your players as well!  Have oodles of fun by consistently referring to your friends as the min-maxer, the manic pixie girl and the drama queen to make sure they know how little you think about their roleplaying ability.  Use these nicknames frequently without ever asking your friends if they’re actually okay with it and never protect their reputation by adding such silly caveats as, “but they only min-max as far as would be fun for the campaign.”  Instead make it seem like they can’t play or do anything else!

8.  Just be upfront with your belittling with phrases such as “I can’t believe you idiots did….” or “You guys have really screwed up this time.”  This punishes the “play to lose,” “accept what happens,” or “play for story,” dynamics and ensures the players know that there was a right way and a wrong way to game and they did it wrong.  This way the players themselves feel like failures and may even try to find someone to blame among the group.

9.  Reward only one type of behaviour and then punish them for doing it like there was an alternative.  In other words, make combat the only option which works in your campaign and then taunt the players for not bothering to talk to their enemies.  Point to the one or two options where diplomacy could work and ignore all of the times that the players tried to use diplomacy and it just blew up in their face.  Or make diplomacy the only workable option because the bad guys are so enormously powerful and then complain that the players never want to fight.

10.  Talk about how running games is such a burden and how your players always ruin the game for you in vague and powerful statements within ear shot or while discussing the game with them and other people.  Fail to have a real conversation with them about what you need to be happy and how they can help out with that.  Expect mind reading.  Ignore the possibility of compromise.  Be a martyr and refuse to respect your own time and effort as well as the players by continuing to run a game you hate rather than finding a game that can suit all of your interests.  (Real Advice: If your players are really that toxic and the game is truly horrible, stop until you can find a better group.  Seriously, don’t hurt yourself and other people by wasting hours on what you hate.)

NOTE: This is a satirical article so please don’t take these ideas as actual advice.  Also bear in mind that many of these toxic habits can be picked up by a Game Master through previous experiences with players and GMs and probably aren’t intended to actually hurt you.  This doesn’t stop it from being a problem as unintentional belittling is still, well, hurtful but it is important to be mindful of if you need to approach your GM about a toxic behaviour.  Assume the best intentions until proven otherwise, but do have that conversation with them about anything they are saying or doing which is causing you harm.

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

 

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One of the trickiest parts of starting up a game is ensuring that all of the players and the Game Master are on the same page as to how the game is meant to be played. Unfortunately, there are certain meta-game considerations that should be kept in mind when creating a character in order to get the most out of a particular game. Some of these considerations are in the feats and attributes chosen, but a lot of is about the character’s mentality and design.

If I were creating a character for a classic dungeon crawl where the whole point is to fight monsters for fun and profit, then I shouldn’t make a Barbarian whose fear of her own rage convinced her to be a pacifist. Now this isn’t to say that you couldn’t make a pacifist Barbarian, as that could be a fantastic character concept in a different kind of campaign (even certain kinds of dungeon delves) only that it won’t work in this particular campaign unless we toss the essential premise (kick in doors and hit stuff) out the window in favour of something else.

So what can a Game Master do to ensure that everyone knows what the campaign is about so that they can take that into consideration when creating their character?

Firstly consider whether what you intend to make is something they would be interested in playing. You should look to create something different for a party of combat heavy munchkins than you would if everyone was a budding investigative sleuth. This isn’t to say that you can’t include investigation among the combat or combat among the investigation (variety is the spice of life), but that a game that punishes combat or blocks off investigative routes just won’t be as satisfying for them. They’ll keep trying to creep off the edges of the social contract by instinct alone or will sit around bored and neither option is very fun for anyone.

Once you know that the game in question is something they might be interested in, begin with a chat about what the campaign is going to be about. While you can talk a bit about style and setting, the most important and so often forgotten element is how the game is best played.

Is this a conspiracy game fraught with hidden peril where even the other player characters might be out to get you? This sets out a very different kind of social contract than a game of silly goof balls where people jokes around and use their super powers in weird and wacky ways.

Then talk about the sort of tactics which could be particularly useful in this kind of game. While rule books give people a vague idea, they’ll only take you part of the way. Will the conspiracy be primarily solved through clue hunting, resource gathering, social maneuvering or violence?

The point of this talk about tactics isn’t to create a comprehensive list of what the players can do (hello rail roading!) but to give them an idea of what could work. And definitely get them to ask questions and pitch ideas. Is creeping around through air vents a viable option? How about nonlethal tactics? Would they work? Would not killing the bad guys only feed into the villain’s plans or will it help the PC’s bypass obstacles while keeping their integrity intact? Is the police department well-funded or corrupt? Be willing to compromise.

Maybe your game world has a well-funded police department and skilled ballistics team when a murder happens but they just don’t pay all that much attention to high speed chases. Now be aware the point of this exercise isn’t a series of Thou Shalt Nots. The point is to ensure that everyone knows what consequences this game is running with and the easiest points of contact. If the players know that an assassination will be seriously investigated, they will know to plan out their murders with greater care and perform them more rarely.

It doesn’t remove creativity to set up a campaign in a particular style and setting for players who could enjoy that. It enhances it. Get them onboard, talk about your various game expectations and then have people build their characters. That way, at least, there’ll be no useless skills.

Hook: The Bizarre Mystery

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Fahrenheit is a videogame example of this hook.

Something happens … but the players can’t be sure just what it means.  Perhaps they receive a mysterious letter addressed to a previous owner and have to find out who they are and what it’s about.  Perhaps they find themselves with blood on their hands and have to figure out how that body got there (akin to the Sudden Event but far more slow-paced).

The mystery hook requires active participation on behalf of the characters because their enemies aren’t (yet) looking into them and so if they persistently ignore the hook the campaign will fall apart.  Therefore it is important to have the players on board first and foremost.  If they are the type who hate doing something that wouldn’t make sense for their character, make doubly sure they have characters built who would take the bait.

The trick with a Bizarre Mystery is to take the initial situation and make it odd enough to inspire attention.  It can help to have a second hook in case the first doesn’t provide sufficient incentive.  Perhaps after the mysterious letter, they find a mysterious break in as someone steals the letter.  This is still not a Sudden Event hook because it happens while they are away and if they simply file a police report and ignore it than there will be no further pokes from plot.

So make it interesting and tie it into the characters as best you can — both through nudges in character generation and through adjusting the hook to suit them.  The Pathfinder campaigns often encourage players to select campaign traits that provide in-built motivation.  You could borrow a page from their book to nudge die hard character immersionists into having the incentive to follow the plot line.  Sample traits could involve an interest in local history or a desire to be an amateur sleuth.  It doesn’t really matter so long as it helps ensure the characters get involved.

Once involved, the characters need to behave proactively for the first section of the game until they draw enough attention to themselves for the villains to put them on the defensive.  If you’re curious about seeing this sort of hook in action, take a look at the grand majority of Call of Cthulhu games where the character hunts down a particular clue thread until they surprise the evil villains in the middle of their ritual.  Naturally if it’s a campaign the situation might not remain so proactive throughout but it is important to bear it in mind that to begin with the PCs will control the pacing unless you put in an obvious ticking clock.

Do you have any advice for baiting a mystery hook?  Seen it done particularly well?  Feel free to put down more ideas in the Comments section.  Alternatively if you’d like to check out the base article you can learn more about other forms of campaign hooks.

Hook: The Slow Reveal

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A great example of the Slow Reveal.

The Slow Reveal is a style of hook where the players are slowly but surely drawn into the tale through a series of off-kilter hints that all is not what it seems.  While it’s a bit of an older video game, Alan Wake provides a really good example of the Slow Reveal and you can readily imagine how it would feel to be the players behind the main characters in this game.

The game begins with an introduction to the characters as they’re traveling to a new town. We’re introduced to Alan’s wife, his agent, and his problems with the blank page. He has a massive dose of writer’s block and so they’ve rented out a nice little holiday home on a lake in order to find some way to break through that block. The characters themselves are the primary hook. They’re interesting enough that we’d like to know more.

These interesting characters are followed by some little hints that all is not what it seems. You hear about the woman who desperately tries to keep all the lights working in town. You try to speak to someone who’s locked themselves in a toilet in a dark corridor only to run into a rather creepy woman who stands in the darkest shadows of that corridor.  The small town setting flows into the resort home itself to add a very creepy vibe – a long and rickety-looking bridge promises future problems and the building’s isolation suggests future terrors.

A Slow Reveal hook works because of anticipation. When hordes of the dead are running at you, you don’t have time to anticipate. You don’t have time to let your imagination work or to really get immersed into the situation.  You certainly won’t have time to connect to the other characters and grow attached to those locations that are about to be blown up.

This hook works best when the whole point of the campaign is a plot that has infested the world around the characters without overhauling it completely.  A vampire who moves next door and starts corrupting the local populace suits a Slow Reveal hook far more than a vampiric bikie gang who smashes up the town, turns the player characters and dumps them in Mexico.

It’s important to give the players something to do during a Slow Reveal that is interesting and filled with minor complications and hints of something worse.  Brainstorm the issues that currently face their characters and the signs and omens of what is coming.  Interweave these ideas so that the players always have something to do, some issue to resolve, and that they can additional hints as to important NPCs, locations and situations as they do so.

Remember you can make NPCs more memorable by tying complications to their introduction — such as having to track down the realtor to get the key and finding they broke down en route, or having to convince an argumentative couple to calm down long enough to pay them when you fuel up at the local petrol station.  By giving the players an interesting reason to spend time with these NPCs (while repairing the car or calming them down), you’ll make them more likely to remember those same NPCs when their personalities change (now the couple never argues) or a situation repeats (all visitors break down en route to that address).

LARP HINT: A slow reveal works best in a longer session or campaign game where the first couple hours can be involved in a relatively mundane situation.  Perhaps everyone starts off in a speed dating convention in an in-game pub and they don’t realise they’ve been put in quarantine because a few of them have fallen ill from some terrible plague or the wild west campaign of dealing with vermin and dangerous bandits also has a supernatural side that will slowly reveal itself to the player characters.

It’s important to inform your players that the game will switch conventions partway through and to let them know the kind of game it will become though you don’t have to give them any plot details.  This prevents them from becoming confused and frustrated when the game they signed up for suddenly ends.  Don’t worry, knowing things will turn dark and not knowing how or when will only build up the anticipation all the more.

What are some of the best slow reveals you’ve seen in action?  What’s some advice you would give others for using one?  Check out the base article for more hook ideas over here.

Hook: With a Bang!

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Bam!  Soon you’re in the thick of it in this videogame.

The Sudden Event hook gives players a short amount of time to introduce their characters to the setting (typically between a few minutes to half an hour) before throwing them into the middle of the action.

Boom!  This happens!  What do you do?  The pace is frantic and the characters are forced to react.  There’s no time to think, no time to plan and nothing will ever be the same for them again.

Perhaps they’ve been turned into a supernatural and spirited away for training by their vampiric mentors.  Maybe a bomb goes off in the bowels of the ship and they must now try to find their way out.  Perhaps they all just happened to be in the same newsagency when a heart attack drops one of the first zombies into their lap.  Or maybe the mouth to hell merely opens up and the tavern is awash in demons.

Whatever it is, it sets up expectations for a high energy campaign filled with action and reaction.  The characters must react quickly with limited information to perform their objective or die.

This hook needs to occur in a mini-sandbox.  The players need to feel that there’s room to wiggle in this tight structure so long as it makes sense for them to do.  Perhaps they don’t immediately flee the newsagency but attempt to barricade themselves in and distract the zombies.  Sure that won’t work forever (discouraging defensive play is often important) but maybe the zombies are drawn away from the exit and that will help them escape when an accidental fire forces them to flee the premises.

React to them and make them react to you.  You distract the zombies, sure, but now there’s fire!  What do you do?

Keep the action moving.  Don’t let the players debate unless the characters get that chance.  Do build in rest breaks here and there so it doesn’t get too exhausting.  Maybe they can have a ten minute chat in a basement between the newsagency and the police station.  Once they start getting cozy, motivate them to move.

Keep the motivations simple.  The players haven’t had much time to immerse themselves in the setting so situations need to be clear and the objectives straightforward.  Escape the newsagency.  Fight off the demons.  Reach the emergency boats before the ship sinks.  Sub-quests should be equally clear and based around obstacles to overcome or additional goals to achieve (i.e. save the child, grab the wedding photos).

Be mindful, though, that a Sudden Event will give players certain expectations so it’s not a good one to pick unless you know the Finale, at the very least, will surpass it in terms of danger and excitement.

LARP TIP: Sudden Events are often best used only when there is a definitive leader (typically an NPC) and pre-set goals.  Remember that large groups tend toward inertia or pointless panic even when there is a clear real life threat.  “Smoke?  Yeah, I smell smoke, but no one else is doing anything so it must be fine.”  You can often deal with this by either having the players fully expecting the scenario, giving a quick in-character briefing from a superior that outlines the expectations, or having several in-game NPCs reacting realistically to the set up.

Get more ideas on how to write a good hook over at the base article.

To Bait a Plot Hook

IMG_6222.JPGOne oft-neglected part of roleplaying games is to set an exciting hook.  Most published scenarios are so focused on the meat of the adventure that they neglect to put much thought into the set up.  Usually this is because the scenario needs to be usable by widely divergent gaming groups and so it can be difficult to find something suitable for a wide range of players.  In many cases the introduction is overlooked as it makes up a very small percentage of the campaign and is easily forgettable.  Plenty of Game Masters consider their introductions in the same light and fall back on newspaper clippings and fantasy taverns to hook in their characters.

And this is a shame because there are so many different hooks out there that can really make a difference to your campaign by evoking the right mood and setting up the right expectations.

The main three hooks include:

The Slow Reveal: The campaign weaves hints of some terrible future throughout relatively mundane quests, goals and complications in a way that builds anticipation.  The character typically doesn’t realise what is happening until they are already committed or caught up in the situation.  This hook requires some degree of active character participation so that they don’t leave the moment things get spooky but the characters themselves don’t have to do anything special to continue the campaign.

Start With a Bang: The campaign begins right where at the point of some great change in their lives that prevents them from ever going back to what came before (at least not until they have finished the story).  Often the campaign will begin a few minutes to half an hour before this great event to give the players some sense of continuity but there are few – if any – hints as to what’s about to happen.  This hook can make do with largely reactive characters as there’s no way for them to ignore this event.

The Bizarre Mystery: The campaign begins with a tantalising question so important that the players can’t just walk away without solving it.  This could involve a murder they need to investigate, a news article about some strange occurrence or a weird situation that happens around them.  This hook requires characters who will take a very active role as the characters can theoretically ignore the mystery with relative ease.

I’ll go into more detail about different types of over the next three Fridays so stay tuned for more in-depth suggestions on how to make these hooks work for you.

Can you think up any other types of hook?

9 Ways to Deal with Splitting the Party

9 Ways to Deal with Splitting the Party

2015-06-13-02-38-00Occasionally players will send their characters off in different directions to try to save time by accomplishing tasks simultaneously (at least in game-time).  Sometimes they’ll do this in response to a Game Master deadline.  Sometimes it’s hardwired into the game such as when a Game Master purposefully splits them up to make them more vulnerable.  Sometimes the player characters just feel like it’s a solid option regardless of Game Master nudging.  While this often sounds good in theory (get more stuff done at the same time, make people feel vulnerable), a split party has a lot of logistical issues that get in the way.

A split party often means that tense scene will need to be snappy or you’ll either bore the uninvolved players or potentially throw off the pacing by swapping back and forth.  If the players don’t pay full attention to what they wanted to do, the entire scene might take longer as they have to be brought up to speed time and again.

Uninvolved players are likely to get bored if too much time passes or frustrated if you flick back and forth too quickly. They might turn to mobile phones or flicking through rulebooks or gossiping among themselves if their attention span isn’t ironclad — even if your game is otherwise riveting.  So what can you do to off-set this?

In some games you can keep all of the players involved in any particular scene even when their characters are split off.  You could do some of the following:

  1. Some players are happy being the audience. This is more often true of small parties than large ones.
  2. Keep it snappy. Perhaps it only needs to take ten minutes before the whole thing is over.
  3. Prepare NPC roles and have one set of players roleplay them for the other.
  4. Allow one set of players to play ghosts, whispered fears, that affect the involved characters.
  5. Allow one set of players to team up with the other, providing those characters a tactical boost as a nod to those character’s skill-sets and intelligence stats as two heads are better than one.
  6. Provide comm-units so that both sides can stay involved. Bonus points if you use baby monitors and separate rooms so that one side has to struggle to hear what the other side is saying.  (Impossible if both groups are performing tense actions synchronously unless you have a co-GM).
  7. Put them in another room with a co-GM you have briefed earlier who can run them through the action.
  8. Sometimes a player can function as a co-GM if you have a series of rooms, traps and combat encounters written down. Be sure that all players are okay with this and take a break before leaping into the action so the sudden co-GM has time to go over the notes.
  9. Simply set the players up in two different rooms so they can chat out-of-character until you get back. This way they don’t interrupt anyone else and can often be safely left to their own devices for up to half an hour without too much trouble.  Note that lone individuals will feel more bored and isolated if left in a room Out-of-character on their own so don’t do so for more than 10 – 15 minutes.

Sometimes, if one player decides to do a lone wolf and run off from the pack, you might be tempted to let the lone wolf play through their inevitable demise and let the other players bear silent witness.  Don’t do it.  If the player had the best intentions behind their actions, then it’s not fair on them.  If the player was doing it to hog the spotlight, than all you’ve done is reward them.  Who cares if their character dies if they got to have an audience?  Worse yet, what if they miraculously survive?  Now they looked awesome doing it.

If a player problematically sends their character out on their own you should make their journey incredibly dull. Have all of the encounters, drama, and excitement occur where the others are and have that individual have a remarkable easy and boring route to the end that still takes about as much time.  Naturally if the single player running off adds to the game and fits with the style of play, just use the above techniques as normal.

So how do how do you deal with split parties?  Do you have any plans or idea?