The Art Of The Poker Face — RPT#139
Power Comes From Uncertainty
Being able to express your feelings and the feelings of your NPCs is an important part of GMing. However, there are times and places where the ability to mask your feelings is important, and a good poker face is the key.
It is sometimes misunderstood that the power of a poker face stems from the face itself. The point of a poker face is to show *no* expression so that others cannot know whether you’re happy, sad, angry, fearful, or frustrated. It is this uncertainty that gives you power during games, not the face.
This is an important distinction to make because most poker faces fail when people try to maintain a specific expression for it, such as a frown or smirk. A poker face should be neutral and unreadable–that’s where your power will come from.
Dealing With Difficult Players
A good poker face is a great tool for dealing with difficult players. While there are many kinds of difficult players, the worst kind is the Bully. A Bully wants his/her own way for whatever reason (stubbornness, belief they’re right, shortsighted, control freak, etc.) and will try to intimidate a GM into giving them what they want (more EXPs, a ruling in their favour, more treasure, etc.).
The poker face skill helps prevent the imbalance of power that usually occurs when a GM is seen as an “easy target” by a Bully. Being an easy target means a GM can’t say no, always wants to make everyone happy, is indecisive, or becomes intimidated by person-to-person confrontation.
Many GMs who are easy targets don’t know how to respond to bullying and show their embarrassment, desperation, or uncomfortableness in their mannerisms and facial expressions. These are the cues a Bully looks for to know they’re winning, and then they’ll put even more pressure on the GM. Once a GM crumples, this scene will be repeated in almost every future game session. 🙁
A poker face is one tool in your bag of tricks to help you defend against the Bully should you have one in your group, or ever encounter one in the future.
Players often take their meta-game cues (i.e. non-player character knowledge that is then used in-game to benefit the PCs) from the game master’s body language, especially his/her facial expressions.For example, a smug look on your face could tip the players off that they’re forgetting something, like doing a search. A smile you couldn’t mask lets the players know they’re headed in the wrong direction towards the special surprise you had prepared…
Sometimes you can use meta-gaming purposefully as a GM tool to help steer the PCs or the story, but when you don’t want to do this, a poker face is a great tactic.
Create Focus & Seriousness
Sometimes the group starts getting silly at the wrong moment, or the players let distractions take them away from the game table. However, asking everybody to be serious or giving players heck only makes things worse. A poker face helps solve these problems because it creates an aura of seriousness without the uncomfortable intensity of a reprimand or the out-of-character break of a plea for seriousness.A poker face can still nod “yes” or shake “no”.
And once you’re confident with your poker face skill, you can speak as you normally would while GMing with your face on. This means you can continue running your game normally when the players start acting silly or misbehaving. You just simply maintain your poker face to indicate you’re not taking part in or approving of their actions–most players will take the hint without getting offended and change their gameplay.
Avoid Thinking About Your Cleverness
The best way to ruin your poker face is to think that it’s working or that you’re being quite clever with it. Those thoughts lead to smug grins, poorly suppressed smiles, self- conscious expressions, and other GM “tells”. Focus on the game play instead. As soon as you start to think about your poker face, switch to thinking about what’s happening in the game.
Practice Relaxing Your Face
A relaxed face is a perfect poker face. Tension creates some kind of expression in everyone’s face, and a poker face is supposed to be completely neutral and unreadable.Tension might transform your face into a frown or a grimace. It might make a vein throb, cause a blush, or make your forehead wrinkle. None of these are neutral and they might give away what you’re thinking.
Practicing relaxing your face so that you’ll be able to blank it instantly during games for perfect poker faces.
Your jaw stores the most tension, so start with that and relax those muscles. Let it rest in a natural position and don’t clench.
Relax your brow and forehead next. Then your eyes–they shouldn’t be squinting. Relax your scalp next. Your scalp can store a lot of tension, believe it or not. Lastly, stretch your neck and shoulders.
I find it helps envisioning a wave of relaxation that starts from my jaw and spreads out over my entire face and head. I can relax my face to a neutral expression in about one to two seconds now, but it sometimes takes longer depending on what’s happening in the game.
Don’t Show Your Teeth
Keep your lips together, but not tightly, when showing your poker face. The mouth supports your whole facial expression, and, if you can control your mouth, adopting a good poker face is much easier. Keeping your lips together also helps them stabilize each other (i.e. if you’re fighting off a smile) and gives you better leverage for maintaining a relaxed, neutral expression.
Avoid Looking At Players If You’re Close To Cracking
Emotions are contagious. If your players are laughing, or trying to make you break your poker face so that you’ll reveal what you’re thinking, then looking at them will be your undoing.Instead, consider these options to distract yourself:
- Look down and start reading your notes
- Pick up a book, read it, and use it to hide behind
- Duck down behind your screen (this is my preferred method because I can make any face I want in secret and get it out of my system)
Avoid Staring Intensely
Intense staring is another “tell” that your players will pick up on and get meta-game clues from. It can also cause you to tense-up, thereby ruining your neutral poker face. Intense staring makes players uncomfortable as well.The reason I mention this is that a good poker face skill is often liberating and you’ll find you can stare without losing control. You might begin staring intensely at your players without realizing it because you’re relaxed, confident, and concentrating on the game, and you won’t feel compelled to ever be the one who looks away first. So, be careful.
The bane of all poker faces is reaction. Your poker face needs to be an unreadable mask of neutrality. A show of pleasure, anger, or dismay will ruin your facade.Avoiding reacting is a skill too, just like relaxing, so be patient and work at keeping your expression neutral when you want it to be, regardless of what’s happening at the game table.
A good way to avoid reacting to situations is to analyze what’s happening. Think about why the event is occurring and what its effects and consequences will be. The faster you begin earnest analysis of an event after it happens, the better you’ll be able to mask your emotions.
For example, the PCs have just met the powerful NPC they’ve been questing for and want help from. However, the NPC is in disguise and the characters believe they’re just dealing with a beggar. The warrior PC draws his sword, pokes the “beggar” in the chest with it and orders the NPC to tell him the location of the nearest inn. The mage comments on how badly the beggar smells. And another PC makes a crude joke about the beggar’s mother.
You can’t believe what you’re hearing, but before you crack up and laugh out loud, blowing the NPC’s disguise or tipping the PCs off that something’s amiss, you think about how the NPC would react, what this will mean for future PC-NPC relations, and how it will affect your plans. This analysis focuses your thoughts and helps you concentrate, thus enabling you to maintain your composure.
Mask Your Mouth With Your Hand
If all else fails, cover your mouth with your hand to mask a smile or frown and help retain your poker face. While you’re at it, massage your mouth and cheeks to relax them up a bit, to help you better keep a neutral expression.
Watch Your Posture
If you’re too relaxed then it’s harder to keep a straight or neutral face. If you’re too tense, your poker face will turn into a frown. Watch your posture and maintain a sitting or standing position that helps your poker face best.
Readers’ Tips Of The Week:
World Building Categories
From: Neil F.
For the last nine months or so I’ve been subscribed to a mailing list devoted to world-building and it seems to be dominated by anthropologists and social historians. It’s also geared more towards science fiction writers than fantasy rolegamers. The impression I’ve received over that period is that there are three competing (but not mutually exclusive) approaches to world-building:
- Emulation: an accurate and plausible development of a world’s history, society, culture, technological progress, etc., derived from a thorough understanding of how the real world has evolved.
- Narrative: telling an exciting story, where many elements of the world have a symbolic meaning or impart some kind of moral message (i.e. the Arrogant Wizard Empire collapsed because they were haughty dudes who deserved to fall, not because they had over-extended their agricultural resource base or whatever).
- Aesthetic: putting things into a world because the author simply likes them.
I suspect most, if not all, world builders use all three approaches, but with one particularly dominant and another particularly marginalised. I’m primarily a Narrative/Aesthetic type.
I’m not suggesting that any one approach (and there may be others) is intrinsically ‘better’ than another. They all have their uses.
Use Menus For GM Screens
From: Brian R.
One of my players is a waiter and he just handed me one of those menus with the transparent panels. It makes an ideal custom GM screen. If you don’t have any waiters in your group, you could probably just ask a restaurant manager for one–you never know what you might get until you ask, after all. Look for one which can stand up by itself, is a comfortable height, and has enough panels for your needs.
I like smaller screens with only three panels, but some GMs will want a four-panel folder.One might also be able to write on the panels with a dry- erase marker, but this should be tested in a corner first to be sure that it does not stain the plastic.
Dice Rolling Tip
From: Neil F.
I read the dice-rolling tips issue and I’ve got a possible tip for the ‘secret player rolls’ mentioned in RPT#138 Tip #10. Note that I’ve not actually had the opportunity to try this…Some systems (i.e. GURPS and the original Star Wars RPG), involve rolling several dice at once. If the situation indicates that the GM should roll for the PC (for use of a stealth skill, for example), allow the player to roll up to half the dice, the GM rolling the rest.
That way, the player can get some idea of how well his/her character has done, but not know fully for certain.Skill rolls in GURPS are made, for example, with 3d6. If the player rolls one of the dice for, say, an attempt to hide, and rolls a 1, then his/her PC has reason to be nervous (but the GM might have rolled high on the other two dice, allowing the hide attempt to succeed). Or the player might roll a 6, giving her/him a level of confidence that may or may not prove to be justified.
From: Travis B.
In addition to the campaign tip #4 from Lyos about keeping your NPC active, I also suggest making the players choose between two or three threads in a complex story involving a few key NPCs. Each path they choose means that they thwart one villain’s plans but they allow another to succeed (sometimes even helping).This makes the players feel more like they make a difference and instills some responsibility.
But I have found if overused players get frustrated because they are only one PC each and can pursue only one thing at a time.For example, in one of my campaigns there was an Evil Wizard who wanted to take over some nearby gold mines. Additionally, there was a Powerful Slave Trader who was planning to raid the city.The PCs heard stories about both at the same time and they decided that they should prevent the Slave Trader’s attack.
Since the Trader basically had a small army of his own, the PCs decided to get involved in the politics of the town and call on the guard to be waiting in ambush to thwart the invasion.Eventually the Trader withdrew and went on to look for easier pickings; however, calling on the garrison left the mines vulnerable and the Wizard easily took them over while the players were entrenched in their private war.
The players then spent the next four games digging up clues and fighting off the Wizard to free the mines, something I don’t think they would have been as interested in if they did not feel connected to the loss of the mines.
Use A Cataclysm To Fool Knowledgeable Players
From: Nick C.
Using an established setting and its continuity as a game world can be fun, but can also bring with it a few problems. One of the biggest is the often large discrepancy between player and character knowledge (players who have read up on the setting know more than they should and require constant correction: “your character would know not to do that.”).A second problem can arise when players feel the GM is not being consistent with the established game world (often the case if the players have more free reading time than the GM does).
A solution a friend of mine came up with (and it seems to be working well) was to begin the game with a significant or even cataclysmic event that creates a definite break from the established continuity. This creates all sorts of opportunities for stories and gives the GM all the wriggle room he or she needs.The particular game I am referring to above is an In Nomine campaign. To shake things up a bit, the GM had Eli wipe out all the current Tethers to Earth and send every celestial on the Corporeal plane into trauma.
This means that bungling amateurs with no idea of how things are meant to be done (i.e. the PCs) are given missions that would have otherwise have gone to more experienced celestials.Fortunately, both sides have been just as badly affected by events, and the enemy is having similar problems. We still get all the cool background that comes with the In Nomine setting, but things are shaken up enough that the GM can shape things towards the sort of campaign he wants to run and we want to play, with a clear understanding that we don’t need to worry too much about matching the existing continuity.