How My Ego Trashes Games
Today I want to talk a bit about how you might be influencing unwanted player behaviour without realizing it. Imagine if you discovered you were sometimes the cause of bad group tension? If you could stop this behaviour, would you? If so, keep reading.
There’s one basic human trait we should think about while we GM.
Our Most Powerful Motivation
That trait is pain versus pleasure.
People recoil from pain and move towards pleasure. And the former motivates us more than the latter.
All things being equal, we’ll choose pain avoidance over taking action for pleasure. This makes survival sense. Stay alive and response-able. Pleasure can come tomorrow when we’re safe.
This plays out at the game table in all the ways we can experience pain and discomfort.
Social interactions are nuanced. We aren’t mind-readers. And RPGs are often creative-intensive. So we often get trapped in our thoughts and fail to observe how our words and actions affect others.
For example, if you hurt a player’s feelings, even if unintentionally, they might withdraw or counterattack. Fairness, objectivity, and rationality go out the window. Pain => Reaction.
This happens all the time in normal life. People take our meaning wrong or we don’t put the energy or emotional labour into empathy.
RPGs Make It Even Tougher
Now add a game into the mix, and things get very tricky.
For example, you talk over someone while chatting, it’s not a big deal. But you talk over someone when it’s their initiative, that is a big deal. The player has the spotlight. And they want the space to ask questions, make decisions, and advance the game for their character and the party. Block this and it’s trouble.
Unfortunately, I do this all the time.
Puns and humour are like fun puzzles to me. And I am quick to quip when something clever comes to mind. I should bite my tongue more. It’s just ego that wants a reward here.
I also let other players interrupt and I’ll respond to them. That means I’m not listening to the spotlight player anymore — the player I started to interact with. That’s pretty rude of me.
Worse, though, I’m training my players to be ok with interrupting each others’ turns all the time.
And this is the crux of my point. What bad behaviours are we unintentionally rewarding and thereby encouraging?
And what desired behaviours are we making painful and thus discouraging?
But wait, it gets even more interesting.
We’re playing RPGs. So we’re doing a lot of roleplaying. A whole new layer of social dynamic!
Our NPCs, through us, can cause player pain and unwanted behaviour.
For example, the character with the social skills does all the talking because they have the highest skills and chances of succeeding. So that player now gets 80% of the roleplaying spotlight, even though roleplaying can be done in other ways by characters of any stats and skill level. Portrayal does not need a high charisma.
We can’t control how our players decide what is painful and what is fun. All we can do is watch ourselves.
We can put energy into empathy and how we speak and act.
We can observe with as much objectivity as possible how players are responding to us so we can make course corrections if we’re rewarding and discouraging the wrong things.
It’s tough to do. We need to assess gameplay, ourselves, our players, and all the micro-contexts between GM, player, and character. The good news is it’s all learnable. Like any skill. Figure this out over time with practice and you can be a consummate game table companion. You can lead by example.