Or: Don’t be a Player Hater

In my last post I wrote about some of the misguided things GMs do trying to produce cool scenarios for their players. Most of it was based on situations that came up in my long-running Erom campaign. When one player throws his dice and mechanical pencil down hard and another puts his books in his backpack and zones out, those are signs that they are not having fun. And if your players are not having fun, guess what? Your prep work was a waste of time. The truth is, you are probably not having fun either; you’re just too busy running your game to notice.
So what I recommend–and there are plenty of books and articles on the subject–is that you work out some kind of agreement with your players about how you–meaning you and the players–will be running the game.
Think of it as a contract with your players. But what might it cover?
My friend Janyce–whom I think of as the ultimate GM–wrote in response to my last post. That post was about giving your players their moments of awesome. Janyce pointed out that in addition to that, “the contract should encompass more than giving players their rewarding piece of the awesome pie.” She cited one example: “the contract can be an unspoken system to negate the GM versus the players paradigm.”
Oh, how right she is. In fact, I would insist that changing that dynamic is the root of a good campaign. Think about it; if the relationship is adversarial, then the GM has set up the scenario, knows where all the traps are, puts in whatever dangers and opponents he or she wishes, and rules on the results of all contests. Such a GM plays with a stacked deck. If it’s an adversarial relationship, it’s an extremely unfair one.
Those of us who have been playing a while have all had the experience of playing under (not with) a GM who seemed to delight in frustrating the players and making their characters suffer. Shades of Jonathan Edwards and his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”!
So I would insist that the first item in the contract between GM and players would be this: We are playing together, not against each other. And that means that we are all trying to make this game as fun as possible. Which means if there is a challenge, the GM has made it challenging enough to be exciting, but not unbeatable. And if there is something that is clearly difficult to defeat, it will be obviously so, but there will be ways to avoid it, plenty of warnings of the difficulty, and some sort of means of winning that may require further adventures or encompass help from NPCs the PCs encounter. So maybe fighting it today is a bad idea, but someday? It could be something to train up for.
Every adventure has setbacks. If adventures didn’t have setbacks, they would be pretty bloody boring, right? The key to keeping the contract is to make sure that the setbacks make the awesome more delicious when it comes. As the amazing John Wick once pointed out, player want their characters to be like the Bruce Willis character in Die Hard. “They want to be knocked down, punched out, bloody, battered, and beaten. But…every time they get knocked down, they want to be able to get back up.” And so it is important for the players to trust that every reversal has a possible payoff. If the players trust the GM on that, and if the GM delivers, then there is fertile ground for a great gaming experience. Of course, a PC can still blow it. Failure is always an option, but it should be entirely based on the player’s wrong decisions. Otherwise the game is just another railroad.

What else might be a part of the GM/Player contract?