Plot Barriers Part 2

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Sometimes plot is obvious, sometimes it’s subtle.

When players feel they don’t have enough plot, what they normally mean is there are serious issues preventing them from getting much out of the plot they do have.  There are often a number of reasons why they can feel this way and there’s a bunch of things that can be done to change it.  Here are some reasons why you might be feeling disconnected to plot:

Someone might be trying to protect the plot for emotional reasons or just might not realise your relevance to it.  This might even involve higher ups within your character’s team actively removing your character from the plot line.  This issue can come up when the GM weaves people into the same plot from different directions.  Someone wants to protect their loved one but that loved one is the only witness, and possible culprit, of a situation you want to investigate.  Naturally the other character wants to protect them but you really need answers….

There might be an in-game misunderstanding or issue that you’re not aware of.  After all, if your character keeps talking about setting off the atom bomb it makes sense for the other characters to restrict their access to it!  Or it might be that the authorities attempts to block you *is* the plot (turns out your boss is a turncoat!) and that exploring their motives would be a worthwhile angle.

  1. Firstly try to see the situation as a challenge. Find ways of distracting them away or negotiate to have a chance to talk to them.
  2. If that doesn’t work perhaps your character’s reputation plays a part. It makes no sense for them to give you access to their loved one if it’s likely your character will assassinate their loved one in seconds (especially if they’ve vowed to do as much in earshot of that other character).  If this is the case, either find ways to modify your character’s reputation or have a sincere OOC conversation with involved players about how you can get the next piece to the puzzle.
  3. Maybe a third party could play a conciliatory role or get you an in on the plot-line you’re after. This has the added benefit of getting extra players involved.

There’s no time to actually touch your particular plot.  Everyone is busy dealing with the central plot that there’s just no time to actually do the thing or discuss the issue that is central to your character.  It may be that the GM isn’t providing enough time for general conversation and activities or it might be that your character is just busier than the others.

This can sometimes be solved by quick in-character conversations between games (if allowed by your campaign), being super-organised in wrangling people for 5 minutes during the game or by writing out brief notes that you can hand out that detail what you need from others.  Sometimes it might be that you’re trying to stay on top of all the plot in the game which isn’t always possible.

In the end, no one character can tackle all things so if you’re trying to be on top of two sub-plots and a main plot you’re going to run yourself ragged.  However, if there’s just a single sub-plot you’re trying to focus on and it’s impossible to even talk about because giant plots keep striding through the room every 10 seconds that everyone *had* to get involved in then definitely talk to the Game Master.

You just don’t think the plot is very relevant or very interesting.  Or you don’t trust that it will be fun to explore.  This may, or may not, be the categorical truth but it certainly feels that way so you avoid it.  This can be a hard one to tackle.  Everyone has their own idea of what’s fun and it can be hard to tell the Game Master “No Thanks.”  Especially if it’s already entered play in a public way.  So what do you do?

When having such a conversation, be calm and nonjudgmental.  Don’t tell them the plot “sucks”.  That kind of blank negative criticism is just going to make them defensive and it’s probably not categorically true.  Different players like different things.  Instead tell them that the plotline doesn’t interest you or negatively impacts the direction you want to take your character in a way that just isn’t fun for you.  Reassure them that others probably would find it fun (someone probably would) and that you’d like to find some way out to disentangle your character from the plot-line.  If you have any ideas, now’s a good time to give them.  Ideally three potential exits as it gives the Game Master the most wiggle room in case your first exit plan doesn’t work due to plot reasons.

Please note if you don’t want personal plot flung at you out of nowhere, let the GMs know that as well.  Be mindful, though, that this will mean that you will need to be more proactive with plot.  You mayneed to either approach the Game Master with ideas or you may need to focus on other people’s plot-lines rather than take a starring role.  The benefit of this is that you have full control of your character, their history and their involvement (to a point).  The downside is that you have to work harder to find plot relevant to your character.  It’s always a balancing act but only you (in concert with your GMs) can find the right place for you.

Plot Barriers Part 1

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Once you have plot you need to know what to do with it….

Most often when I hear complaints that a player doesn’t have enough plot, what they normally mean is there are serious issues preventing them from getting much out of the plot they do have.  In some cases I’ve been able to show entire laundry lists of plot connections that a particular character has, but the player will sincerely feel that they don’t have any plot worth a damn.  Often this boils down to one of several issues:

 

The player can’t do much with their plot hooks because other characters aren’t paying any attention to it for whatever reason.  Interactivity in LARP is key so without other players buying into it, it can’t become part of the focus.  This often boils down to other characters not realising the relevance of the plot you have to their character’s situation.  Folks are often bombarded with stuff to do at most LARPs and during the quiet times they are busy trying to *find* stuff to do.  This means that they won’t always pick up on the ramifications of what you’ve just said.  If you’re finding it difficult to hook others into the plot you have, perhaps try the following:

  1. Look around the room and find those who are experiencing a quiet time for their character and then give them a summary of the situation. “Look, I know how to do Blah but I need Blah to do it.”
  2. Think about their character’s feeling sand needs and centre your issue accordingly. “If we get this done then we don’t have to do Blah which might save a lot of lives.” 
  3. If that doesn’t work, exit the conversation in a character appropriate way and move swiftly to someone else and try a few times until you see someone’s eyes light up. Trust me, there’ll be people in that room who get what you’re trying to say and are keen to get involved.  It might just take a few goes.

Plot seems minor and irrelevant compared to other players’ plots.  Sometimes this is because the plot hooks’ connection to other characters or the central storyline is unclear.  Sometimes it’s because the player isn’t confidant dragging other players into it or emphasising its importance.  Sometimes it’s true.  And sometimes it’s just a mismatch between the players’ interest and the plot hooks their characters have access to.  Perhaps the hook you have might be loved by others, but not by you.

The path to engage with the plot isn’t clear.  Your character has a strange dream but there are no mechanics on how to draw more details from that dream.  Or the plot might not appear accessible even though it is — such as you might feel you can only approach your contact when the NPC shows up in-game whereas you could call them at any time.  Often Game Masters don’t clearly explain the ways you can interact with plot or they throw you something that looks cool but doesn’t actually offer much interactivity.  Alternatively there might be a wide array of things you can do with it but it’s not immediately apparent.  So what do you do if this comes up?

  1. First try and engage with the plot in good faith, check around the location, and chat to people to see if anyone knows anything or has any idea on what you can do with it. It can often help to give it as a summary and then follow up with a question to them.  “I know this guy who has a bunch of information, but I don’t know how to reach him.  Any ideas?”
  2. Brainstorm possible angles that you could approach the issue with. Ideally involve other interested characters in this.  You’ll all be looking at the same situation with your character’s own skills, experience and point of view so you’ll get more ideas if you include more people.
  3. If none of that works you can approach the GM and say: “I’m really interested in following up Blah. Any ideas on what I can try next?”  You can even throw in a: “I’ve tried Blah, Blah and Blah thus far,” so they know what you’ve done and what hasn’t worked.  After all, maybe the answer *was* in the room but another character moved it.  If the Game Master knows you’ve already searched the room then they know not to send you looking again.

NOTE: Sometimes plots are legitimately inaccessible for a couple sessions.  If that’s the case then the Game Master should be willing to tell you that there’s not much you can do … yet.

 

Getting Your Hands On Plot

31189981_10211339470713748_5364121042660884480_nOne of the most common complaints in any LARP is how to get your hands on more plot.  Plot being defined as compelling connections to the greater world or the overarching themes or wider narratives of the game.  It involves being able to make a meaningful connection to how the game plays out.  Being involved in plot is a two-way dance between GM creations and player actions and if you want to become more tied within the weave you can take some of the following steps.

First check if you have any plot.  You don’t have any plot?  Are you sure?  Sometimes it’s worth checking with the GM if you think you have no plot as you may be surprised at the large plot hooks that your character may have which you may have forgotten about or overlooked.  Significant chunks of time between sessions can often leave key facts by the wayside.  Seriously I’ve seen players overlook massive game-changing information and connections they had because time had obscured its relevance.

If you really don’t have any plot, contact the GMs (ideally between sessions) and ask them if there’s anything your character could be connected to or even suggest certain plotlines you’d like to be tied into.  Your best bet is to be relatively vague about this because GMs will be trying to find ways to connect you to existing plot even if in an unexpected fashion rather than create something entirely new.  If they create brand new plot for you, great!, but they might not be able to do so in a way that is immediately relevant.

Contacting GMs can also be useful because sometimes they will have made general offers of plot that you might have turned down or never responded to and if that happens a few times then they’ll assume you want them to take a hands off approach with your character.  If that’s the case, then that’s absolutely fine.  Some folks prefer making their own fun!  But if it’s not the case then you may have to let them know.

Finally, if you want to tap into plot be mindful that the essence of all story is conflict.  This means that plot of all kinds will have its benefits and its drawbacks, its pain and its enjoyment, and that it may interact with your character in unexpected ways.  If you want to maintain complete control of your character then you’ll need to focus on either engaging central plot (stories affecting the entire room) or leverage the plot affecting other characters.  Asking GMs to weave your character into the plot might just not be fun for you otherwise.

In the next article we’ll talk about barriers to engaging with plot and then we’ll talk about what to do with plot once you have it.

Players Planning for Success

Players Planning for Success

dsc_0093Okay, so let’s say your character has a really big goal that can’t be managed through a full frontal assault.  You either need to politically tear down your enemy, gather the evidence required to indict them or set yourself up to have some sort of strategic or tactical battle to come. Let’s take a Vampire: the Requiem example and say you want to erode the head of Clan Ventrue’s power base and humiliate him until the entire clan refuses to have any dealings with him.

No easy task. If you start by hurling baseless accusations around, or take a step wrong, you’ll likely end up being the one humiliated … or even murdered. So what do you do? How do you take control in this situation?

Firstly you need to keep accurate notes on your enemies.  Find out their motivations, likes and dislikes, allies, enemies, assets and other resources.  Find out the same information on those allies and enemies.  Get the best perspective on the situation that you can and record it because if you don’t than you will forget it.

Then brainstorm some options with your own allies, jotting down (OOC at least) each and every idea for both short-term and long-term plans.  It’s easy to just toss around thoughts verbally without writing it down, but if you don’t, you’re likely to forget half of your best ideas and get distracted by a less-than-ideal option that seemed easiest at the moment.  If they’re all written down, you can also go back to other ideas once you’ve fully nutted out whichever idea seemed the most valid in the moment.

If you’re looking for new ideas on how to achieve those goals, perhaps take a look at your character sheet and brainstorm a list of ways you can use each skill or supernatural power to achieve your goals.  Oftentimes we forget what we have on our sheet or don’t realise the unusual ways we could use Survival or Socialize to achieve our goals.  Perhaps we could get their childe drunk in a bar or track their ghoul’s movements through the parklands after an Elysium.  Some of your ideas might be terrible.  That’s fine.  Jot them down and move on.  The brainstorming phase isn’t a good place for criticism as that can dry up your ideas.  Weed out silly ideas once you move into reviewing your lists.

It can also help to do some research into how other people with your character’s skill-set might manage the situation.  Read some books on CIA advice when looking at recruiting moles and manipulating events in your vampire book.  Check out the Writer’s Guide to Police Procedure or Forensics: A Guide For Writers (in the Howdunit series by D.P. Lyle, M.D.) when trying to determine some useful tactics your ex-cop might use (writer’s guides are great for outlining situations most likely to come up in a fictional universe).  After all, you’re probably not a secret agent or a police officer so it makes sense that you might not see things the way your character would … and you may be missing the right opportunities.

Finally it pays to know your game master and the genre assumptions appropriate to their games.  Every game master has their own biases in terms of whether it’s a good idea for vampires to attempt to manipulate the police or not.  Or whether it’s better to lay out precisely what your character is doing or to just call for a roll and let them tell you what tactics you use.  It may seem like a meta-game choice, and it can be if taken to extremes, but if you keep it to simple details related to how the world itself, or the mechanics, vary from the norm then you’ll do just fine.

What other general tactics can a player use to help their character’s plans succeed?  What are some pitfalls to avoid?  What do you think?

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

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.

Why Players Need to Read the Books

Why Players Need to Read the Books

pzo1110-peThere are plenty of experienced players who find it hard to remember all of the rules and setting details peculiar to their game.  That’s pretty normal.  Some players aren’t keen readers, either, and would much prefer to learn through listening rather than going over the books.  Some systems have dozens and dozens of different rule books and setting guides which is a lot to go through.  Due to all of these reasons, there are plenty of players who don’t know the rules in the games they are playing and there are even a few players who boast about never having read the rule book.

The problem is that it’s important to try to learn the rules, even if you can’t remember them all.

It’s important because when a player doesn’t know the rules, they need to ask someone else to do it for them.

They are, in effect, adding extra work for other players or the game master to guide them through character generation / levelling up their character or get someone else to do it for them.  They are requiring other players or the game master to remind them about the things they can do which means that player or game master are also partially controlling two character sheets.  Sure, you decide whether you do the thing or not, but you’re not really getting to choose from all of your options — only those options that appeal to others or are so quintessentially your character.

And typically only when their own characters can’t already do the thing — not out of selfishness, but because they’re too immersed in their own character to spend time thinking about what you can do at the time.

After all, if you don’t know if the game allows you to charge another character for massive damage, you won’t think to do it.  If you keep forgetting you can hack, others might not think to point out all of the terminals you can use until they get stuck halfway through a mission.  You might need to ask people to retro events (if it’s allowed at your table), when it turns out your character has an ability that they would have logically used and which would have changed everything if you’d thought to use it.

If you don’t know the basics of the settings, you’ll also damage immersion when you try to get items that don’t exist, keep needing others to explain basic terminology your character should know and make decisions that are clearly bad ideas in the game world to anyone who has read about it.  If reading is illegal, it’s not a good idea to mention your favourite books to the Grand Inquisitor.

And this is a problem.

Now if you are a new player who is learning the ropes or have a disability which prevents you from remembering the setting and/or rules, than you don’t need to worry about all of this because you are doing as best you can.  No one can fault you for not being able to do a thing, either due to a lack of prior experience or a disability.  Read or listen to what you can and learn what you can.  Everyone has different limitations and it’s important to respect this.  No one expects mastery in a day.

The problem arises when players consistently turn to game masters and players to remember things that they could remember.  When they believe it’s too hard or annoying so refuse to pick up the books at all.  No one expects any player (or game master, for that matter) to know everything about the game but it is important, crucially important, to have a decent idea about what your character can do even if you don’t know the mechanics that underlie that rule.  If you are playing a hacker, know that you can hack and which devices are hackable.  If the mechanics are simple, but hard to remember, then jot them down on your character sheet where you can easily see them.

If you can’t build a character on your own, then fine, but pay attention as your guide builds it for you so you can make legitimate choices about what your character can do and so that you know what your choices will be during the game itself.  If you need someone to level your character, again pay attention and learn what you’ve been given.  Many players and game masters are happy to help with this section of the game most of all because it doesn’t take up mental resources during the game itself.

If you’re hanging around in Cheliax (Pathfinder setting), read enough to know that they don’t worship devils but feel they have bested them in a series of deals.  Read enough to know that they abhor demons and the gods of chaos.  Read enough to know about the complex legal system and their connections to Nidal.  Hell, know enough to know what the words Nidal, Taldor and Varisia mean and their relationship to Cheliax.  You don’t need to know a plethora of details but you should know the basics — even if you prefer Pathfinder wiki, podcasts, or audiobooks to the actual books.

And if you can’t remember some obscure rule, or some complex mechanic that rarely comes up, don’t worry about it.  A lot of games reach a level of complexity that very few people can truly comprehend.  It’s a collaborative game and everyone should help each other along where they can so that we can all stay involved.  All that’s requested is that each player learns the basics so that they can remember the fundamental choices their character has before them.

What do you think?  Have any advice on helping people remember the game rules and setting?  Have any counterpoints?

15 Ways to Burn Out Your Game Master

15 Ways to Burn Out Your Game Master

img_6057When most people talk about Game Master burnout, though, they often talk about the gaming equivalent of Writers’ Block. We’re going to look at the nastier form of burnout defined in psychology where a person experience long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in a particular sphere of our life.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory uses a three dimensional description of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, which opposes the psychological construct of Engagement which is defined by having energy, involvement, and efficacy. Basically, if you burn out your Storyteller, they’ll grow frustrated, cynical, feel down about their skills, and basically get sick and tired of running games.

It’s a pretty serious issue and one that can be self-inflicted as often as it can be caused by other people, with some Game Masters working too hard for too long to achieve something too difficult to accomplish.  Of course, since it’s more amusing to tackle a serious subject by writing a joke guide, I’m going to do just that.  So read below to find the best advice on how to actively burn out your Game Master.

  1. Keep the work load heavy. A game that requires a lot of effort compared to the Game Masters’ inner reserves of energy is going to burn them out faster. This may be partly the Game Master’s fault as they throw themselves headlong into props, histories, NPC charts, and a whole bunch of other wonderful details. So make sure that you demand the Game Master meets the same high standard with every session and show your displeasure when they don’t.
  2. Make the work load boringly light. Discourage them from trying anything more taxing than a random map and a monster generator when they’re really itching to do something more. Also, you should ignore NPCs and plot in favour of sitting around talking In-Character about golf for hours at a time.  Never involve any NPCs in these conversations about golf so that the Game Master has to just sit there.  If the Game Master has to start leafing through a book just to find something to do, you’re doing it right.
  3. Be unappreciative and unimpressed. Many retail outlets have known this for years. If you want a high staff turnover, ensure that you disregard any effort they put in as simply being the new average.
  4. High demands. Sickness, tiredness, and a hard luck week should be no excuse for your Game Master giving a sub-par performance. Make sure to point out all of their mistakes in order to keep them de-motivated from trying harder.
  5. Lack of control. Some people like to refer to games as collaborative storytelling and that’s true. However, it should be a collaboration between the players only. The Game Master is just the world map and their preferences and interests should have no bearing on the game. If they want a Cyberpunk Thriller, you should be sure to turn it into a Cozy Mystery at any cost. Or better yet, turn it into a comedic Cozy Mystery. Compromise doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
  6. Punishment through loss of control. If a Game Master doesn’t do what the player hoped they’d do, the player should punish them by acting out both in-character and out of it. Players can either sit there and tell them off for making that ruling or decision OR they can make their character really go off the deep end and start doing increasingly ridiculous acts in retaliation.  Other players should support this misbehaviour in public, and then complain to the Game Master to fix it in private to ensure urgency is maintained.
  7. Unfairness. Players are allowed to gossip, chit-chat, forget rules, egg on other players, and try to break the genre conventions. Game Masters, on the other hand, must be completely on the ball, maintain focus, control the actions of other players’, and reduce rules confusion to an absolute minimum. Players need not assist in any way.  Always declare that a good Game Master can produce sterling results in spite of the Players actions and desires.
  8. Anti-Community. Game Masters like to juggle so ensure that the party splits as often as possible, clashes willy-nilly and does everything short of self-destruct so that the Game Master must constantly use the world as a Diplomat for the in-game issues. Party cohesion is their responsibility, after all. Bonus points if the players end up clashing with each other out of character so that the Game Master must be responsible for tactfully maintaining real world relationships at the same time.
  9. Role Confusion. Don’t let the Game Master know what you want, ever. In fact, don’t ever ask yourself what you want in a game in case you give something away. Make them guess at it, and then complain when they get it wrong.
  10. Values Clash. The Game Master wants comedy, so you want seriousness. They want drama but you hate improvised theatre and just want to smack face. Sure, values clash all the time and this is just one aspect of gameplay … but you can completely ignore that there’s a problem so that there’s no chance of a compromise.  Offering to pay more attention to clues so long as there are no consequences to beating down the bad guys is a big No-No.
  11. Inadequate Resources. The Game Master must find some way to purchase all of the books, print all of the sheets, fund the snacks, supply dice for everyone, and otherwise ensure the game goes ahead. This isn’t simply a nice thing they may do but a necessity. Never offer to bring food, extra dice, character sheets, books, or anything else. Be offended if they ask you to fetch them a drink when you’re getting one from the fridge.
  12. Boring, repetitive tasks. Even if your Game Master hates it, they should be the one to keep tallies of your arrows, mark down your damage, and do all of the statistical grunt-work. If you can find some way to make them do a job you don’t want to do, then go nuts! Heck, if you need to keep notes, why not ask your Game Master to do that for you? (This doesn’t count if it’s an occasional thing or a necessity due to illness, tiredness or disability — you should be demanding it as your birthright.)
  13. Don’t Consider the GM’s needs. Tell them repeatedly that the sole purpose of the game is to entertain the players and that any desire beyond seeing players enjoying themselves is a sign of a selfish and entitled attitude.
  14. If you don’t know, don’t ask. If you’re confused and frustration is mounting, don’t ask to make some kind of roll to figure out where to go next. Just sit there and bang your head against the wall in the expectation that the Game Master will notice … while they run NPCs, locations, and other miscellaneous details.  Get increasingly angry that they haven’t figured it out based off various passive aggressive cues.
  15. An impossible environment. Remember all those Work Health and Safety research on how the environment can cause issues for workers? Well, the same holds true for Game Masters. Put them in a noisy, uncomfortable room full of distractions and you’ll burn them out faster. Why not make them keep the television on so they have increased competition? Especially if there’s a show you wanted to half-watch. Or invite around people who hate roleplaying games to sit and scowl at the game. Kill the immersion and keep the players preoccupied with everything but game. While it’s true that sometimes there’s just no other option, the trick is to ensure this happens even when it doesn’t have to!

Disclaimer: I haven’t actually personally encountered each one of these methods but I have heard, read, or thought about them. This is basically a list of the worst options and is meant to be tongue in cheek. One day I’ll do an equivalent list for players burning out other players or game masters burning out their players.