I Have Met The Enemy

Posted: 1 August 2012 in GM Advice
Tags: , , ,

There’s a post up at the Transitive Property of Gaming blog about how the author had a really great idea for a homebrew zombie apocalypse game, and how it didn’t go at all how he planned.  I want to reiterate how awesome this homebrew idea sounds: he has a whole apartment complex and neighborhood that he was personally familiar with, he made up maps of the floor plans, rules for improvised barricades, a flowchart for zombie behaviors, a timeline for how bad the infestation is from one block to the next, systems to encourage foraging outside the fortress — some really cool ideas.

The problem is that from session one the players decided that staying put was a bad idea, and so made it their goal to escape the city.  They knew, as we all do, that most “successful” zombie movies are the ones where the characters escape the populated areas, and movies where characters whole up end with the social unit collapsing and people turning on each other.  But that situation, the one where the characters have to deal with the break down of social bonds, is obviously the game the author wanted to play.  Instead, he had to toss out a bunch of his prep and resorted to believable roadblocks like a military quarantine and making the easiest path be the one that lead back to the fortress — but the players just interpreted this as the requisite obstacles that needed to be overcome.  They thought *that* was the game, rather than the GM’s attempt to get them back to the game.

I wasn’t at this particular game, so I can’t say how well things were communicated or not, but I can say that I’ve seen this happen over and over and over again, in games I’ve played in and games I’ve run.  There seems to be this unspoken rule that GMs aren’t allowed to tell their players what kind of game they (the GM) want to play, which is kind of silly when you consider the amount of effort those same GMs end up putting in to guide/railroad the players back to where they “should” be, back to The Plot.  Back to the Game.

It should be a pretty simple fix: just tell your players before you start before Character creation or anything) what kind of game you want to play.  The GM is as much a player as anyone else at the table, and you deserve to have your fun as much as the next guy.  For most of us, this is a hobby and we shouldn’t treat it like a job.  You aren’t their to entertain an audience, you’re there to play a game with your friends.

“I want to play a game where your characters barricade their apartment building against the zombie hordes and have to deal with each other in the resulting stressful environment.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are professional adventurers who delve into ruins and make a living selling ancient treasures they find.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are small-town folk who are thrust into adventuring when your town is destroyed.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are non-combatants who travel cross-country to reclaim their fallen kingdom from an ancient dragon.”

I’d say that adding “and if you fail you will likely die” to any of those is probably healthy, too, but your mileage may vary.

My only observation is that as GMs we feel like we need to cajole our players into the game, that what they want is more important than what we want, because without players there is no game.  Or because we want to play a game with *those* friends, specifically.  Or some other situation where compromising our fun seems to be the best or only way.  Maybe this post says more about my experiences than any wider phenomenon in the hobby, I don’t know. And while I don’t think the GM should give away all his secrets and twists, I think we’d all be better off if we stopped playing “guess the plot.”

  1. […] play, if there’s a GM and players, communication between them can avoid a lot of problems. Jack @ Jack’s Toolbox offers a great story about an instance where a lack of communication led…, but makes some strong suggestions on simple ways to avoid the […]

  2. mikemonaco says:

    For a one-shot adventure, I think it’s totally appropriate for the GM to tell the players what the ‘plot’ is. Or even drop obvious cues about a mission etc.
    But having played in a few extended campaigns with a ‘plot’ that was predetermined by the GM, I found them to be awful. Just my opinion but I think the notion that ‘my campaign has a plot’ is the real spoiler, not whether the players know about it. Giving the players a train schedule doesn’t stop you game from being a railroad. I like actual player agency, though, not illusionism. If my players go off on a tangent I didn’t expect or ignore my carefully planned mission/encounter/adventure site, so be it.
    If you want to run a zombies game, cool. But if you have decided ahead of time it’s ‘going to be like a particular kind of movie’ or ‘the party has to decide to deal with the situation this way,’ maybe you are better off not playing an RPG. Write a story or screenplay.

    • Jack says:

      Generally I agree with you.

      I think having a “plot” for your RPG is a Bad Idea; I tried it for years myself before realizing that was the root of a lot of my problems. But what I’m talking about here is a softer kind of “this is the theme and setting I want,” rather than “and then you go and kill the Dark Lord.” It’s at the same level as saying “I want to play a Conan-style fantasy game” versus “I want to play a Star Trek-style exploration game.”

      I hate the apparently-pervasive notion of illusionism rampant in the hobby. The whole point of Role Playing for me is the ability to make choices, and finding (or even suspecting) that those choices were false or meaningless destroys my fun.

      • Jack says:

        To the point of “the party has to decide to deal with the situation this way,” I get your point, that’s generally a bad place to go. But there’s a big difference in theme and setting between a game where you barricade yourself in and try to survive (with zombies mostly as an incidental backdrop explaining why you’re barricaded), and one where you fight your way through the hordes trying to get to Safety (with zombies as an active and primary obstacle). It’s a Conan vs Star Trek kind of difference, and if you expect one and get the other you’re going to be disappointed.

        I guess you could argue that the GM should just set it up so that trying to leave the barricade always results in death, but now we really are back to illusionism — you can’t REALLY choose to escape, rather than setting up beforehand that escape isn’t really the point.

        • casewerk says:

          I think that every game, either campaign or one-shot, should start off with players and GMs discussing their goals and expectations. The GM should point out some of what they’re looking for and thinking about (not The Plot, of course, as you say), and the players should also make it pretty clear what they’re looking for. If what the GM is looking for is an immersive political game and the players want nothing more than a dungeon crawl with lots of stabbing and looting (exaggerated for effect, but perhaps only slightly), and neither is aware of the divergent goals, then the game will end up being unsatisfying for everybody.

  3. San says:

    (I’m not saying anything new here, but…) I think it’s perfectly acceptable for the GM and PCs to agree on some restricted formal constraints in the game. If I were GMing this kind of set-up, I might say, “okay, I’m gonna spend X hours prepping stuff for one area, so just try to stick to it and I’ll do my best to make it fun.” And then I’d welcome some claims from them too, like “we want to be able to make our own weapons, so you should come up with a list of random junk around the apartment complex.”

    • Jack says:

      Yes, it should definitely be a two-way street. If there’s something the Players want to do they should definitely let their GM know up front so he can see if there’s a way to work it in. Everyone comes to the table looking to have fun; pretending like we shouldn’t talk about what we find fun is silly.

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