Game Culture Six: Talk is Good

I wonder how many issues within gaming groups could be solved if everyone talked to each other? I have a feeling that it would be running well over 75%. Hell, I think if more people actually talked in the gaming community, and sought to understand rather than fight from their ideological trenches, we might be in a much better place but that’s for a different article.

Of course, we don’t, generally, talk to each other half as much as we should. There are many barriers and when I think of them I am reminded of the Five Geek Social Fallacies. For those of you who haven’t seen this quite old article before, it outlines that geek culture is locked into these five behaviours.

  1. Ostracizers (sic) Are Evil
  2. Friends Accept Me As I Am
  3. Friendship Before All
  4. Friendship Is Transitive
  5. Friends Do Everything Together

So, if you have a problem with something in a game, you might be seen as pushing people away, not accepting their fun, or doubting their friendship and not joining in. It might not seem like that, but how many times have you, personally, baulked at saying something about a game, or some passage of play, because you didn’t want to upset someone?

What makes this worse is that as we get a little older, and our time with our gaming group drifts into decades, it goes beyond being just a gaming thing. It can shift into being almost familial. You go to each other’s houses, you are invited to parties, your partners and children become friends. You might even be the godparent of one of your friends that you game with.

All of that makes the question ‘But Dad, why do we not see Uncle Bryan anymore?’ more difficult, when the answer is ‘Well, you know our friend Sue? Well she ruled that we didn’t have enough time to take a long rest before the next encounter, and Uncle Bryan said it was the last straw and he wasn’t taking anymore of Sue’s bullshit and couldn’t be part of the game anymore…’

So learning to talk to each other is pretty damned important and it is definitely something that the GM can, and in my mind, should be championing.

But Neil, what about …

I know, I know – the GM is just a player taking on a different role. I say it online about once a month across various fora. It’s my one fundamental rule of gaming. However, in this case, that role includes the responsibility to set an example that talking about and negotiating game issues is an absolute must.

  1. Talk about the game you want to run

I’m not sure if this is a personal one, but it’s one that I try to hold to – I can’t remember a time when ‘GMing by compromise’ worked. You know, when someone says they want to run Game X, but the players ‘uhm’ and ‘ahh’ about it and they suggest Game Y and eventually, everyone comes to an agreement on Game Z. Nobody wins here, especially the GM. They were HYPE about Game X. They had the books, they had the adventure seeds, they were getting stuck into the inspirational media. It was hardcore Game X. Now they have Game Z. Very few people can harness the same enthusiasm for this negotiated game and it will, in my experience, inevitably fail.

So make the GM pitch something that is a binary decision – and make it absolutely OK for people to say no. Come with more than one pitch. Make it usual that more than one person pitches. At the start of one campaign, let the next GM know they are on the clock for their game, and let them sound out the sort of game they want to run. Have this first step in your group’s collective fun be an ongoing discussion rather than some sort of forced labour.

2. Set the foundations well.

In my eyes, one of the greatest innovations in gameplay of the last decade was the normalisation of the concept of Session Zero. Taking an entire game session to really work your way into the roots of the campaign makes a lot of sense, especially in games where the drama plays off the character’s interactions. You get those right and the game will run itself. There have been numerous blogs and podcasts created about Session Zero, so I’m not going to bore you with the obvious, but I am going to address two issues that should be touched upon to help create that culture of communication.

The first is what mechanism you are going to use for feedback? This is not just player-to-GM, it is also GM-to-player and the most elusive, player-to-player! It might be a post-game chat. It might be something structured like ‘Stars and Wishes‘. It might be done on a Twitter or Whatsapp group. However, it is important to have a channel to give and receive feedback and to use it! Now I am terrible at this and it’s something I’m trying to work on at the moment. One thing I have been trying to do, especially with new players, is giving out some positive reinforcement at the end of a game – mentioning things that they did that were really cool and flavourful etc. It seems much easier to build good play by reinforcing the great than critiquing the poor.

The second is the method you’re going to use to resolve conflict, either at the table or for bigger issues. For at table stuff, I lean heavily on ‘The GM rules, we make a note and sort it at the end of the session’ as my method of choice. I do not want my wonderfully crafted encounter derailed for ten minutes as we discuss the exact way the Hide action works! This is, of course, also the place for a mention of safety tools such as the X-Card, a CATS discussion in Session Zero and many others. I know some people don’t like these, but frankly, if your take on the X-Card is that it is more likely that your group will use it to pull some shady nonsense than allow a warning mechanism when something dodgy is happening, you need to look to your group rather than the X-Card!

For more serious, intra-group conflict, I’m going to be blunt. We are (mostly) all adults. We are all here to have fun. We are all just playing a bloody game! If find it incredulous that gamers find it so difficult to sit down and talk about things, early on, before they get out of hand. But they do, and I have seen games end, groups splinter and friendships be strained to breakpoint over the most facile things. So the GM can lead in avoiding this by laying out at the beginning of a campaign how things get handled. It could be raised on a game forum, or as a chat before a game, or after a game. I’d avoid, if possible, ‘doing it through the GM’ as that just turns the GM into some sort of faux UN peace envoy. Whatever your group settles on, learn to use it early and often to ensure that little gripes don’t grow into seething hatred and backbiting.

3. Talk at the table – share, build and aid

Talking in-game is important. It is, after all, the medium of the hobby. Rather than cover every single aspect, I’m going to touch on three that are really important to me; sharing, building and aid

Share One of the most fundamental things the GM can do to increase talk at the table is to make sure that there’s not stuff going on off the table that replaces it. I’m really talking here about people who play their character in their heads, or have a really strong ‘authorial’ stance in games but tend to keep it close to their chest. You have to prompt them to get that shit out of their brain and into the game. I do this through questioning – not ‘what do you do?’ but ‘how does that make you feel?’ and ‘what are your thoughts on this?’. Getting these internal players to express themselves at the table brings their contributions out into play. You never want to be walking away from a game thinking ‘If only I’d said…’

BuildEncourage the space in the game for players to actively build upon the hooks that their character has embraced and lead by example when you can. So, for example, if one of the PCs is a Cleric of War and they are about to head into battle, have some NPCs ask them to bless them before they go to their potential deaths. It’s a small thing in the game, but it hammers home that the PC has a place in the world and that they are respected. As GM you can encourage players to add details to the game themselves, detail buildings or important (to them) NPCs. There’s nothing new here, but the trick is making sure everyone understands that they have permission to do this.

Aid One aspect of at-table talking that can be sometimes controversial is that of making suggestions. This generally falls into three cases; a ‘How to play your character mechanics’ suggestion, a ‘You seem to be struggling to come up with something, so what about…’ suggestion and a ‘That’s cool, but this is cooler!’ suggestion.

In the first instance, it’s important to read the table on who is fine with this and who sees it as you trying to play their character. It’s an art, rather than a science. Maybe make a note for after the game and mention it then?

In the second instance, I feel that this is a sign of a good group, working together and helping each other. No one wants to see someone floundering at the table and it’s happened to all of us I bet in one game or another. As the GM, you can help out by inviting suggestions, if someone is obviously floundering. You can even ask for suggestions of GM-narrated stuff too. Strangely, in my experience, players tend to not hold back…

In the third instance, again there have to be limits or you just get a case of cool escalation and usually one person dominating, overwriting everyone else’s cool with their own. In general, I draw the line at suggestions that are ‘delete all and insert my idea’ and tend to prefer stuff that tweaks the already established idea to make it better.

4. Talk between sessions

Something I miss from my old gaming endeavours was between game talk. We used to talk on our own game forum about the game endlessly. It was a real hot bed of creativity and enthusiasm for the game. I can almost mark the slowdown and inevitable disappearance of this, with the appearance of social media as a communications channel. Nowadays, very little talk happens between games, about the game. I find that quite sad. It makes me feel like the games are a lot more transactional now.

[Quick sidebar here: I do have one draconian GMing culture rule that I inflict on people – you will do your homework between games. If you need to level-up your character, you do it between games and don’t make people wait for you to fanny about at the start of one. Similarly, if you have to choose spells etc. they can be done between sessions. Not coming to a game ready to play is a proper bugbear of mine!]

So I would encourage GMs to set up somewhere that people can talk. It might be a Whatsapp group, some social media group, or even a private forum, but do it and use it. Prompt people by asking about the game, what they want to do in it, ways that it could be improved – anything really!

5. Be respectful but open

Finally, we need to remember that this is supposed to be an entertaining pastime for everyone involved and it is incumbent upon us all to make sure that it is just that. Some of the things I have talked about are quite challenging, especially for gamers who pour their heart and soul into a game and then get told, bluntly, that it’s shit. It can be soul-destroying and rock their confidence for sometimes years. Don’t let it get to that, and don’t be that idiot who attacks the person rather than the game.

Again, I’m not going to wax on about the dos and don’ts of giving feedback, because there are already loads of places that cover it thoroughly but stick to the basic principles:

  1. Praise in public, criticise in private
  2. Own your feedback (It’s ‘I think you’re being overbearing’ not ‘Everyone thinks you’re being overbearing’)
  3. Address the subject not the person. (‘The game’s not quite working for me at the moment’ vs ‘The way you’re running the game isn’t working for me’)

What’s the emergent play from all of this? Well, simply a happier and more creative gaming group hopefully. It’s not rocket science and I sincerely hope that in reading this there have been a lot of ‘Well yes, Neil. That stands to reason!’ moments.

Next time: I’m going to wrap up my Game Culture series by bringing them all together into a sort of starter-kit for a game, and then I’m going to launch a Play Culture series, talking about my attitude towards being a player.

[A coda to this piece is also knowing when not to talk. We used to have face-to-face games filled with out-of-character asides, jokes and general tomfoolery. I can still vividly remember the day one of us addressed the issue and suggested that we spend a little more time at the start of the game catching up with work, life, politics etc and then when we sat down at the table, it was game time and we cut the banter. We never looked back and it has become a pretty strict and valuable part of our game culture. When the GM starts, game faces on!]

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