Wednesday, 20 January 2010

ON LOCATION - Improving the gaming atmosphere

The hour has arrived. You, the Gamesmaster, have spent the last few days preparing a new campaign for your players to get involved in. It concerns a plot where an ex-military officer has taken over a weapons lab and is building his own war machine. The players have to track him down across their sector of space and stop him, meeting several beings and visiting several locations as they travel. Each planet and non-player character has been designed, with narrative and descriptions of them laid out on sheets ready to grab at a moments notice.

The dining room had been prepared, and one by one the players arrive. They sit and talk amiably for the first half-hour, going over what’s been going on since they last met, tales of real life and the imaginary. The game begins. The characters meet their foe and learn of his plans. He escapes. A battle, a starship attack. They meet another NPC who agrees to help them, puts them in touch with another who might help further. They’re double-crossed. More fights and you look at your watch and decide that that’s enough for one week. You wind things down and the players relax, going over what’s happened and leaving.

The next week arrives. You’re ready with the notes from the last game and the repercussions of the player’s actions. They seat themselves and prepare. Just as you’re about to start, one of them asks:

“Sorry, but what happened in the last game again?”

You stare at him, dumbfounded. How can he not remember? Didn’t he enjoy it?

“Yeah, I enjoyed it, but you know, it’s been a week.”

But why didn’t he remember what happened?

“I’ve been busy since then. It didn’t really stick in my mind.”

But if that happens you’re going to have to make notes during the game every week to re-appraise the players of what’s been going on. It’s hard enough work GM’ing.

“Why can’t one of us write it down?”

Because that’ll still slow your game down. You’ll all be waiting for the writing player to finish sentences or making sure details are correct.

“I get it. What can we do?”

You said that it didn’t really stick in you’re mind. Why was that? Are you sure you enjoyed it?

“Yeah, I did, but this room has become the normal thing every week and I forget sometimes what game we played when.”

Maybe you should change locations. Ask your friends if you can hold the game somewhere different.

“It’s possible we can do it at my house,” says one of the others, “but it’ll have to be in my bedroom. There’s not a lot of space.”

“We could do it at my place but my younger brother would probably keep interrupting. It’ll ruin the atmosphere.”

So, the option of locations is a problem, and, as stated before, the normal thing to do is to congregate at your house. Is there something you can do to improve the location you’re in at the moment, try to make the atmosphere right to make the games more memorable? If you do choose to change playing locations you could start by making sure there are no distractions, which will interrupt play and ruin the continuity of the game. If there are others in the house you live in then make sure they know that this night is you’re gaming night and that you’ll need a couple of hours to yourself. The last thing you want is for people to wander into the room and start a conversation as they ‘pass through’. Where exactly is the room you are holding you’re games? If it’s a dining room, which is the only access to the kitchen, then you’ll get people wandering through at regular intervals and spoiling the moment. If there are things in this room that others in the house may need then they’ll be popping in to get it and that will generate the same problem. If that’s the case and you’re limited on options as to other locations in the house then you will have to make do as best you can. Warn the others living there that if they need something then they should get it before play begins. If they have to pass through then make sure they understand that they should pass through with minimum fuss. Not everyone understands the necessity of atmosphere during a roleplaying game, may not even understand the hobby itself, and carry on regardless. Explain it to them politely, asking them if they wouldn’t mind taking you’re group into consideration before doing anything. Getting upset or impatient about it won’t help, and they live there too, after all.

“But its okay here, we don’t get interruptions. It sounds as though moving the game to another place might be more trouble than it sounds. What can we do to make things better here?”

Take a look around you, you’re usual roleplaying area. What’s in the room? If the room is filled with a simple table, chairs and minimum decoration then you’re already half way to a decent place. If there are too many things in the room then the players may get distracted. That may come in the form of books that are to hand, magazines lying around and anything else that a player might turn to whilst they are waiting for their turn.

“But when someone else is doing an action that takes a while then I get bored.”

That’s fair enough. You’ll have to try and divide you’re attention between the players equally, make sure they don’t feel left out or ignored. Spending a maximum of three minutes per player, as far as independent actions go, is about right. It’s difficult to judge but try to keep the time you spend on a player consistent between everyone at the table. Keep an eye on the other players and if you see one of them looking a little bored or start reaching for something to read then switch you’re attention to them. Get them into it again, it doesn’t matter what you want them to do. In fact, ask them what they want to do.

“I’m not sure. This doesn’t really concern me, does it?”

Doesn’t concern him? Why is he here then? Look at your game design and make sure that what you have written down has enough in there so that the players, no matter what they do for a living or what they’re skilled at, will have some hand in the game. It can be difficult to allow for every player character, that much is true, but the players should feel as though they’re involved even when another player is performing an action. You should make sure that the players around the table take notice of what’s going on around them. If you turn to a player and ask them for their action and they basically tell you that they weren’t really paying attention, then just shrug. You can’t tell them, the other players will have to. Make sure they understand that if they don’t take any notice then their characters don’t take any notice. You can’t spend precious gaming time re-explaining what happened five minutes ago. Have the other players tell them in character if possible to keep the atmosphere going, maybe even chide them for not paying attention. This way the player won’t feel left out, especially if they’re being told that they’re not paying enough attention through their character.

Now, is there anything else you can do?

“The games seem to be getting pretty run-of-the-mill. They’re fun but...”

That’s understandable. Maybe one of them should try GM’ing for a change?

“I’ve never done it before.”

Then start. Every GM has to start somewhere. You can’t be expected to continually create and execute games on a week in, week out basis. That well of creativity needs to be refreshed from time to time. The players may respond well to another perspective, increasing the enjoyment and making the games more memorable. What else can you do?

“There’s nothing in this room that makes me feel I’m in the game’s setting. Its all romance novels on the shelves and pictures of flowers on the walls.”

Well, you can’t re-decorate the room just to make your games better can you? Unless the place belongs to you, which in this particular instance it doesn’t, there’s not a lot you can do. Having a location you can change to suit your own tastes is a gamer’s dream, which is not always attainable. If you can move the odd bit of furniture or the odd fixture, which is easily replaceable, to help out then so much the better. Going the whole hog and filling the room with
roleplaying items may have opposite the desired effect; there’ll be more things for the players to be distracted by.

So, you’ve got a few ideas on how to change the room and how to get the players more involved. Films are a good start. What else makes a movie?

“The sound effects. They’re good.”

Bit of a problem, that one. How can you generate a blaster bolt with every shot, a starship roar with every manoeuvre, a clash with every sword strike? You can’t. Unless you’re a pretty good mimic there’s not a lot you can do, apart from getting hold of a special effects recording and choosing those certain sounds that sound like a busy bar or resemble a starship yard. That’s one thing that’ll be down to the player’s imaginations.

“What about music?”

That’s easier. Most movies release their soundtrack on CD, so why not put that on in the background? Fair enough, the music that plays may not suit the scene you’re in at the moment but the idea’s there. That’s why CD’s are excellent. With a flick of a button you can go straight to a track, even repeat it if the scene goes on longer than the music. Don’t reach for the CD player until you’ve started the scene, mind you; if the players see you reaching for the button as they sneak into the next scene then they’ll figure out that something’s going to happen. Let the scene begin before jumping tracks. If it’s a tape player you’ve got then you’ll have to either let the music play quietly in the background so that it’s not intrusive but audible, or pre-record the tracks you’ll need to follow the games planned progress.

“How about props?”

Player handouts are always a good thing. If the players can get hold of the item or a photocopy of information they need then they’ll respond to it better.

“Let’s start this week’s game, then, shall we? I can’t wait to see who was in that starship we boarded.”

“I want to see what Gerrat’s going to do with that parcel I gave him.”

“C’mon, GM, its time. Get going. What happened about the ship? Is Gerrat on there?”

Ahh. Now that’s what you wanted to hear.