Rewarding The Game Master – A Simple Framework
The games we play and the people who play them are complex. We cannot simply write a script and have the audience passively follow along, clapping when the applause sign lights up.
We play an interactive game in a social environment. Everyone wants a role to play and the ability to affect outcomes.
Player agency might come easy to you or not. For me, it’s on the difficult side.
Players who bring characters named Bob to my gritty sword & sorcery game and who talk about work during play piss me off. As do players who try to play me or the others. As well as players who do not add to the integrity of the campaign.
I also always want some control so my idea of baseline fun for all gets met each session.
Further, I want the game to serve as an outlet for my ideas so I can see how the players greet them, interact with them, and change them. While that seems like a lot of agency, I want to be the primary agent serving those ideas up.
Personality flaw perhaps, but when players have a major voice in game elements and then introduce things that leave me cold or fail to inspire, I struggle mightily to enjoy the game. I also deflate when the fourth wall gets broken from meta-gaming or agency that lacks artifice.
Such are my shortcomings. Throughout the years I’ve been blessed with players content to happily game under these constraints.
My point is, before we think to demand good gameplay from others, we should demand it of ourselves.
We need to understand what draws us to put in the hours of preparation, what brings us to the game table, and what makes us want to co-create awesome interactive experiences with our friends.
Else, we should go back to video games or write a book.
What I’ve found works for me, and I think you should consider doing for yourself, is to gamify your GMing, especially the rough parts.
- Like any game, first give yourself intrinsic challenges or objectives.
- Then create the rules to accomplishing those goals and how you’ll measure your progress.
- Then you set up a reward, even just a small one, to make your brain want more play and success.
- Last, you build your winning strategy and plan your tactics.
Thus we condition ourselves.
But wait. After defining the objectives of GMing As Game Within The Game, reflect a moment on them:
- Are any extrinsic (do they require external conditions being met, such as players doing exactly what you want)?
- Do they promote fun for all or just at others’ expense?
- Do they respect the players?
- Are they worthwhile pursuing on your path to becoming a Master GM?
Change By Example
Herein lies our greatest leverage. If we create a personal state of awareness, of enjoying the moment, and of kaizen, we also establish mighty levers of influence with our players.
Some players will self-correct when observing skill and benefits. Others will pressure out those with bad behaviour when good behaviour offers comparison.
Some players will remain oblivious and continue their enervating ways. But think of all you’ve accomplished within yourself and the others along your journey!
It’s satisfying winning a game, especially a game about being a better game master and a game that means others win too.
I’ll give you an example.
Perhaps a player often challenges your rulings and it’s ruining the fun. Let’s make The Rules Game for this.
The Rules Game
Objective: Collaborate with the Rules Lawyer to make the game better for all.
Rules: The Rules Lawyer must have fun. As do you and the other players. You must be respectful, firm, and fair. You must address the issue when it happens to re-enforce expectations and signal you are serious about improving gameplay.
Measurement: Each time a rules controversy sparks up, make a note and rate how it went after gameplay resumes. Perhaps victory is only one incident with an intensity rating of more than 3 per session.
Reward: The brain does not place conditions on rewards. It only needs positive reinforcement after victories to release dopamine.
Give yourself a fist pump and some positive self-talk after each session when victory condition have been met, plus positive self-talk or a mental high-five during sessions after each low-intensity incident you handled well.
Strategy: Get to know the Rules Lawyer better as a person and find more about their gaming philosophies and points of view. Bring forth a house rule next session on how you want to handle rules controversies — perhaps a two minute time limit and group vote. Make a checklist of Socratic questions to ask the Rules Lawyer each time to get to the bottom of their objection and to understand the player better.
After each game, assess your tactics. Refine.
Sometimes tactics are way off. For example, if the Rules Lawyer is a bully, getting group members involved only subjects them to the mistreatment, so you’ll need a different approach.
Change strategy only after several attempts. Give your learnings a chance to kick in and iterate.
Gamification might not be for every GM. However, as you and I both love games, I think it’s worth a shot.
[Next Musing, let’s talk about setting up rewards systems for players. If you inspire players to play better and have more fun at every game, it changes their expectations of the game and helps them identify what to focus on for superior gameplay.]