[Game Mastering Secrets]

copyright 2001, 2002 by Heather Grove, adapted from an article at the Burning Void

How to Get Along with Your Players

by Heather Grove

I get a fair number of emails from game masters (GMs) who have problems with their players. While it's true that not every player-problem is easily solvable, I do find that a surprising number of these issues can be handled. The solution is something that many GMs simply don't think about: making your players feel like they're working with you rather than against you -- which involves, oddly enough, working with them.

To that end, here are a handful of tips on creating a cooperative atmosphere in your game.

#1. Ask for Your Players' Opinions

Find occasional opportunities to ask your players what they think. Not sure how to deal with a rules quandary? Ask your players what they suggest. Not sure what direction to take your campaign in next? Ask them what they'd like to do. Not sure what sorts of plots they can easily be drawn into? Ask them what they enjoy. Don't blindly follow their suggestions, but carefully consider what they have to say. It helps you tailor the game to appeal to them, and they'll know you're taking their desires into account, which will make them happier.

#2. Make Use of Character Backgrounds

Players feel like they have a greater stake in the game if their characters are personally involved in the goings-on. If you have players who like to create character background, make use of that. Integrate their material with your world. A couple of tips:

  • Don't ignore character background. You don't have to use it all at once or right away, but don't just shove it aside, or "use it up" as fast as possible.
  • Don't override or negate things you don't like. Instead, bring them to the player's attention (before the game starts if possible) and work with him to change them into something you're both comfortable with. Explain why they bother you, and give him the chance to convince you that they'll work out anyway.
  • Don't get flustered when players remind you of background you've forgotten -- it happens. Accept the reminders as helpful, and in fact, encourage them! (It'll make your job easier, and it'll make your players more comfortable.)
  • Don't resolve background plots and kill off player-created non-player characters (NPCs) carelessly. Devote a little care and attention to making the event climactic and dramatic for the character and player involved.

#3. Give Your Players Reason to Trust You

You can be perfectly straightforward and honest, and still have players who think they can't trust you as a GM for various reasons. Here are a few tips for making sure your players feel comfortable with your decisions:

  • Don't make decisions too quickly. Don't be dismissive or impatient when players bring issues up for your consideration. You want them to know you're taking their desires and needs into account.
  • Ask your players for their opinions. (Back to point #1.) Even if you don't rule in their favor they'll know you took their needs into consideration.
  • Don't get flustered by mistakes. Don't rush to cover them up or try to fix them too quickly -- remember to carefully consider your decisions. (See point #10.)
  • Explain your decisions when appropriate. It makes them seem less arbitrary.
  • Consider what will make the game more fun for the players. Make sure your decisions promote an enjoyable game for all.

#3b. Be Careful When "Fudging" (Altering) Die Rolls
Some groups feel that die rolls and such shouldn't be altered on-the-fly by the GM at all -- it's effectively cheating. Others feel that anything that makes for a better game is fine. It's good to know which view your players hold! If you decide to try this route, don't be obvious with your alterations and and don't go to extremes. Fudging is best done under two circumstances: you don't want something to be boring, anticlimactic, or seemingly unfair; or you thought you had planned something well, and you discover during game-play that your estimates were wrong. Some cautions to remember when altering events:

  • Don't cheat to kill a player character (PC). If the players think their characters will die whenever you're in the mood for it and they can't do anything about it, they won't want to create interesting, useful characters.
  • Don't go to ridiculous lengths to keep the PCs alive. If they think they can do anything no matter how stupid and you won't let them die, then they'll do lots of stupid things, and they'll stop caring as much about the game.
  • Don't force the party to succeed. While it's a good idea to make sure the party has a reasonable chance of success, even if that means a little fudging, you don't want them to feel they're only winning because you helped.
  • Don't force the party to lose. If they feel their efforts have no effect on the game because you refuse to let things come out any way other than what you had planned, they'll feel cheated.

#4. Allow the Party to Have Free Will

Don't railroad (force) the party into doing everything your way. If your players wanted to be led around by the nose through a display they'd play a computer game. One of the real advantages that a tabletop game still has over a computer game is the ability to let the players do (or at least try) anything. So unless you want your players to decide that computer games are more fun, let them take advantage of that flexibility. This means you have to be willing to improvise -- make things up as you go along.

#4a. The Party's Actions Should Impact the Plot
One of the dangers of planning too much of your plot out in advance is that the players won't do what you expect them to do. GMs who feel it necessary to get to the planned end-goal of the adventure at all costs railroad the party, or they plan the adventure so that no matter what the party does, the adventure will come out the same way. If the party picks up on the fact that what they do doesn't matter, then they're likely to feel that there's no point to playing. Allow them to change your game world with their actions -- it's one of the great keys to player fun.

#4b. Don't Insist on Doing Everything Your Way
Roleplaying is a group activity, and everyone's entitled to a share of the fun. If your game isn't fun for your players for some reason, then find a way to change it such that it is. Don't run roughshod over your players' preferences just because you like to do things differently than they do -- allow them to take the game in directions that they'll enjoy.

#5. Don't Jump to Conclusions

If you want your players to trust you and work with you, then you must return the favor. This doesn't mean turning a blind eye to problems, but it does mean not jumping to conclusions and assuming that a player is always trying to do something "wrong" when they do something you don't like.

#5a. Don't Punish Preemptively or Publicly
Instead of assuming the worst, talk to the offender(s). Ask them why they made the choices they did. If you don't like their answers, explain the problem you're having with what they've done. Work with them to find a solution that makes all of you comfortable. There are plenty of things that look like cheating that aren't. There are also times when it can be tough for a player to tell whether they're being clever or taking advantage of a loophole in the rules (the dividing line can be very thin). So it pays to ask first.

Also, have talks like this in private. Publicly humiliating people is almost never a good way to improve your relationship with them.

#5b. Solve Problems Within the Context of the Game
Perhaps you believe a player designed his character to take advantage of a loophole in the rules. Or you think that character behavior within the game is unrealistic. Instead of punishing the player, adapt your plots and game world to accommodate or react to the new twist. If someone comes up with an unlikely advantage, allow NPCs to adapt to that advantage. If the character behaves oddly, have other NPCs react accordingly. Let your game world solve your problems for you.

#5c. Explain Your Punishments
If you get to the point where you feel you absolutely must dock experience points (or whatever) in order to teach the player that he can't get away with cheating (or whatever), then you must explain why you're doling out said punishment. Punishments do not work if you don't explain what you're doing. The player won't necessarily connect his actions with yours unless you spell it out for him.

#5d. Is It Really a Problem?
If your players play characters that you don't expect, is it really that bad? Why not take advantage of it to play with some interesting new plots instead? Sometimes GMs start to see anything that they don't expect or don't like as cheating. Look at your problem carefully and make sure it's really a problem. If a character has an unbalancing advantage, can you find a way to make it less unbalancing within the context of the game? You don't have to take every unexpected player idea as a problem -- take some of them as challenges instead! Relax and find a way to work with them instead of against them.

#6. Keep Your Players Informed

If players have some idea of what you're up to, they're more likely to go along with it and trust you to know what you're doing. Let them know when you're going to try some sort of experiment and ask them if it's okay. If you're not sure they'll like something you want to do with their characters, talk to them about it ahead of time.

#7. Be Flexible

If the party tries something you weren't expecting, let them. If the players want to try something new, go for it! Let them take the game in unexpected directions. After all, the game is something you and your players should be creating together.

Some GMs get into a pattern where they want the plot to be solved a certain way. They'll reward the party if they happen to think of the right cunning plan, and punish them if they get creative in a way that the GM doesn't expect. All this does is frustrate your players. Your players shouldn't have to think like the GM to solve the plot -- they should be allowed to be creative in their own way. Yes, this does mean that your carefully thought out theme or moral dilemma might be "ruined." So what? Save it. Sometime later on dust it off, create a new plot around it, and try again.

#8. Be in Control

After all this talk about letting players do what they want, this point must seem awfully out of place. That's because I have a slightly different definition of "control" than some people do. Control does not mean "tyranny" or "power trip." It means that your judgments are final; your decisions stand. But it also means that you listen to your players when they express their concerns and take those concerns into account. You don't dismiss complaints out of hand. You remember that your players are there to have fun. You don't want to follow every suggestion they make; you have to take the fun of the group into account, not just the fun of individual players. This is why control is important -- a disruptive player can make a game miserable for the rest of the group.

Once people learn that they can run all over your decisions and do whatever they feel like, they'll do exactly that, and you'll probably never be able to fix things again (most players aren't like this, but there will always be a few). If you keep control from the start, and if you make it clear that you are taking the players' concerns into account, there will be less reason for them to try to make life difficult for you. No, it won't solve all problems. But it will help.

#9. Make Sure Your Game Promotes the Kind of Play You Desire

If you make the entire first plot of the game combat-oriented, then don't be surprised when the players spend all of their experience on combat skills and try to solve subsequent plots by beating things up. Make sure that your very first game session sets the stage for the kind of game you plan to run. If it isn't meant to be high-combat, then pick a plot to start with that won't involve combat at all.

This works for mood as well as type of game. If your first game run is silly and humorous, then you'll have a hard time getting your players to be serious later on. You are teaching your players how to behave in your game. Make sure you don't teach them the "wrong" things. If you're months into your game and saying "it's too late!" then don't despair just yet. Tell your group that you're going to try something a bit different, and create a new plot that causes a complete break in mood and feel. Pick a night to start it on, and go all out from the very beginning. Keep a very tight rein on it, and use the other suggestions in this article to help ease the transition.

Keep in mind that games tend to "degenerate" in certain directions. Moods will more easily degenerate to the silly, because laughter and funny stories are infectious. Experience point expenditure will degenerate towards combat, because lack of skill in other areas is less likely to get the party killed. Plot solutions will degenerate towards combat because it's simpler and easier. These are trends that you need to be aware of. If you want a serious, non-combat-oriented game, you need to put more work into making sure you promote the kind of game you want. It can help to tell the players what sort of game you plan to run before character creation even starts (this is a good idea anyway!).

#10. Handle Mistakes Calmly and Rationally

No one likes making mistakes when they're GMing. Unfortunately it's too easy to get flustered. When you get flustered, it's tempting to make a ruling as fast as possible and move on, so you can forget about the embarrassment. Resist this temptation. Consider that decision as carefully as you would any other, if not more so. As always, make sure the players know you're taking their views and needs into account. Don't leave them in a position where they have to choose between trying to handle the results of your mistake without saying anything, and having you get upset at them.

The more important it is to you to be seen as "perfect," the easier it is for problem players to manipulate you by pointing out mistakes you've supposedly made during game. The more carefully and rationally you consider how to fix your mistakes, the harder it is for them to manipulate you in this way.

#11. Respect Your Players

Don't call them stupid. Don't get mad at them when they unintentionally mess up. Don't indirectly call them stupid -- no "a smart player would have done this," or "your characters will only die if you do something dumb." Don't embarrass your players when they screw up, and don't tell them they aren't good enough for your game just because they can't think fast enough during combat (or whatever). A game is supposed to be fun, not frustrating, embarrassing, and humiliating. Also try to make sure your players respect each other.

Note that long-time friends can often call each other names without meaning any disrespect or causing any bad feelings. That's fine -- as long as no one feels hurt or embarrassed, there's no need to curtail this kind of thing. Just keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn't drift into a problem area.

#12. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Communicate with your gaming group. If they know you're on their side, they're more likely to be on your side. If they know what's going on they'll be more comfortable with it. Remember that every player is different. Some are so trustworthy that you can let them try pretty much anything and not worry about it. Some will try to find an advantage in anything. Most are somewhere in between, so don't assume they're all out to get you.

Pay attention to your players. Figure out where they're coming from, preferably by talking with them. Concentrate on how to make the game work out well, rather than how to make the game come out the way you want it to, and many things go a lot easier. If you don't know what people want, then ask. Many roleplaying problems can be solved through communication, yet few GMs think of it as a solution. Most of the suggestions in this article boil down to the idea that you should remember to talk to your players -- and convince them to talk to you.


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Last modified: 2002-September-24
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