It’s Friday night, and you’re sitting around with your gaming group. But the game isn’t until Saturday. So what are you doing? If you’re anything like me and my friends, you’re probably talking about the game. I do that often – catching a player at work and chatting about the projected level progression of their Tengu rogue-assassin, or Facebook chatting with an ST across the state about what my plans are for my character for the PbP game. We, as gamers, tend to spend an awful lot of time talking about our games once they’ve started – so why aren’t we talking about our games before they happen?
(Avert your eyes from this next chunk if you don’t feel like reading about sex-stuff.)
In BDSM play (that’s Bondage, Domination or Discipline, Sadism or Submission, and Masochism), there’s an acronym called ‘R.A.C.K.,’ or ‘Risk-Aware-Consensual-Kink.’ What it means, basically, is that if you’re about to hit someone with a paddle, you should be aware of the risks that the action could entail, talk about those risks with the person you’re about to hit, and be aware and okay with those risks. The point of this is so no one gets hurt (in ways they don’t want to), and everyone involved knows what can happen if things go wrong, and knows how to make sure things don’t go wrong. Generally, this also involves a way to say ‘hey, I don’t enjoy this,’ or even, ‘stop for a second, I might pee.’
This may sound odd for a gaming blog, but hear me out. Applying the idea of RACK to gaming can lead to richer, fuller games in which the Storyteller and the players have far more freedom and awareness of the setting, the rules, and how to use both those things for more awesomeness to happen.
RACK mostly involves getting everyone on the same page. Which means explaining things to newer people, and talking about intricate, involved play for those who are more used to the setting and tools at their disposal. For a first-time player, this may involve the DM letting them know a bit about the setting, so they have a better idea of the world they’ll be playing in. If you’re the DM, it may mean detailing exactly what is and isn’t allowed in the setting you’ve chosen. Have you banned the ninja class? That’s fine – now would be the time to tell your players why. If it’s just because you hate the classes, that’s okay, but telling them that the reason you’ve nixed the masked night-wall-crawlers is because you’re not interested in running a game where breaking and entering, stealth, and strange codes of honour feature heavily in play. While the former is a completely acceptable reason, the latter will help get your players on the same page of the game you want to run. Or at least in the same book.
Speaking of books – some systems lend themselves far better to this kind of mutual information sharing and collaboration than others. Dresden Files, for instance, actually works characters backstories and settings into character creation, so the players have to talk about their characters and where the game is to take place. Dogs in the Vineyard also takes this collaborative approach, allowing the players considerable control over Town Creation – which will affect the drives and desires of the characters for the rest of the game. Even The Adventures of Baron Munchausen basically encourages the players (which is everyone, as there is no DM) to work together to build whatever world with which they’ve chosen to tell stories.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that you have to sit down and reveal every twist and turn of your plot to your players. Or that you have to include your players in the setting creation. But what it does suggest is that as a DM, you sit down and explain to your players what you want for the game. And that they, in turn, explain what they want. A player expecting political inrigue is going to get quickly bored with the spy they built when the game launches into corporate espionage. A character built for hack-n-slash will end up making sketches of the DM with funny hats on if the game becomes a teen romance drama. And if these players become bored, or frustrated, or even despondent at the table, the chances that they’ll leave, or become a distraction, or act out increases.
So what do you do? You sit down with your players and you tell them what kind of game you want to run. What genre, what setting, and as much about the world as you’ve got planned, or you can reveal without giving out major plot points. By explaining what your vision is, you’ll help get your players on-board. From there, they’ll be able to operate in the same world. Which gives you, as a DM, more time to plan sessions and build encounters – and less time you have to spend fielding questions that you think are silly from the players. In turn, players need time to sit down with the DM and talk about backstory. And feats. And abilities. It means asking questions about where your character is from, and how that fits into the world. It’s hard to be from a provincial French-inspired 1700s ish town when the setting is late 1800s Chinese steampunk – but if you don’t ask, you won’t know – unless your DM has also adopted the RACK idea.
When DMs can discuss their ideas with players, their time is freer from fielding basic questions about the world – and you’ve more time to be creative – especially when your players (because they understand what’s going on, and what kind of setting you’re going for) are willing to work with you. That creativity can bring in some awesome events and settings and villains that you may never have had the time to create before. Trusting your players is an awesome thing, and when you can trust them with the grand concepts behind the game you’re about to run, it’s easier to trust them with little things – their own backstories, the feat and spell selection of their characters. And then it’s easier to craft a world around what you want. And even better? They’re going to want it too, because they have a vested interest in it. They got let in on the concept early on, and their characters work within it as well.
As a player, of course, it goes both ways. If you can talk to your DM about what you want and get on the same page, you’ll be able to be a happier, better, more creative roleplayer as well. If you can tell the DM why provincial 1700s France is important to your character, even if the game is set in Victorian steampunk China, the DM may be able to help you port those ideas into their setting – with minimal changes – otherwise, you may have to scrap that concept. And by being able to explain what you want from your character to your DM, you’ll also have an added bonus: the person telling the story will be on board with the story you want to tell. Which means it will get worked into the game. Which means you get the DM spotlight. Issues in your backstory will get addressed. Your character’s strengths will come into play for dramatic triumphs, and the weaknesses will get played like tragic harpstrings. A win-win for everyone.
When you talk about the game beforehand – getting everyone on board – you can head off problems before they even start. If, as the DM, you don’t want to run for magic users, you can tell the players that you don’t want them because you want to run a game where you explore the inner workings of a thieves guild – or because you don’t feel confident running for a bunch of game-breaking, reality-bending wizards. The reasons behind your restrictions can shape the game – and give your players an awful lot more to build their characters from than you may have realized. And as players, when you tell your DM what you want to do with your character, you help them build a richer, fuller world – one in which you feature.
You may have the coolest idea. I ken ya, when you say that. DMs, you may have the best villian-masquerading-as-party-member-double-cross-at-the-last-moment PC you’ve helped a player to build. But when the double cross comes – are the rest of your players going to be thrilled, awed, and secretly clapping – or are they going to be grumbling about you pulling victory from their hands? You won’t know until you ask them how they feel about that kind of game. Players, your mage-turned-humble-blacksmith-with-a-grudge-against-the-king might seem cool. But if the DM doesn’t have a monarchy in the setting, and there’s sufficiently advanced tech such that blacksmiths are a moot point, your character’s going to take a backseat to the action, and you’re going to get bored. Quick.
Sadly, after talking, you may realize that your ideas as a DM or as a player just aren’t going to work with the group you’re rolling dice for. And with an eye to Geek Social Fallacy #5 (Friends do Everything Together), I say this: you may have to leave. Or to ask someone to step out – for this game. This doesn’t have to be the end of the world. But if someone can’t let go of the idea of their spell-slinging wizard in a modern, gritty, noir setting – or the DM wants to only run Monster Hearts for a purely hack’n’slash group – it may be time to either compromise or let someone go. How you do that is, of course, up to you – but if you’ve talked as much as suggested, it probably won’t come so hard. Likely, it’ll end up a bit more give and take. The magic user becomes an occultist, the teen romance saga becomes more Buffy than Degrassi.
Re-thinking, or re-skinning existing options can be another benefit of talking out elements of system or character concept that don’t fit with the game. The DM is always encouraged to work with a player to create something balanced and custom that fits within the current setting – though re-thinking concepts is often easier, and lends itself better to the game world. If a ninja is banned, a spy often works just as well (re-skinned rogue, of course), for the espionage and stabbing aspects. If a player is dead-set on France, and you’re setting the game in China, I don’t have much advice besides this – figure out what they wanted from France. If it’s the class system, shift it over to the one in China from a similar era. If the wanted the costume…well, who cares? It’s a make-believe game. People always wear weird clothing. If they wanted a particular town with a certain history, help them find a town with a similar catastrophe, notable person, or event from which to build from.
There are a few things which may facilitate the exchange of ideas between players and DMs. I’ve modified the player (and DM) questionnaire found here. Tweaking this for the group that you’re playing with (adding questions about setting, about PG rating, etc) will give a deeper idea of what the group wants. DMs, having a plot arc sketched out before any of these conversations (or while they’re happening) may help you steer your players in directions you want without sacrificing their creativity. And having everyone sit down and discuss what genres, themes, and tropes they love and hate will also help get everyone on the same page.
Of course, this all involves a lot of planning. But what’s an extra day of planning when it brings about a story that your entire group will continue to talk about for years to come?