A recent meme I saw floating around Facebook contrasted the Avengers with the Mystery Men, suggesting that the Avengers are ‘what the GM hopes for’, while the Mystery Men are ‘what the GM actually gets’. Well, I’m going with an unpopular opinion on this: There’s no one to blame but yourself if your players don’t give you a group that lives up to your expectations.
Sure, there’s the occasional player that likes making ridiculous characters for the hell of it, but most players actually want to play competent and effective characters. Unless the game is intended to be goofy and off the wall, the players want their characters to be the Avengers just as much as the GM does. If they’re trying to play someone like Captain America and end up with the Spleen instead, the GM really needs to take a step back and ask themself some questions.
- Was the game’s concept clear to the players? Whether it’s the dream campaign you’ve been planning for years or an off-the-cuff game where the players are creating the characters on the spot, it’s the GM’s job to sell the game to the players. Beyond setting and genre, this also includes the theme and tone of the game. If you’re trying to run a spy game where the characters are all on par with Jason Bourne, but they bring a bumbling crew of Maxwell Smart and Inspector Clouseau to the game, there’s absolutely been a communication problem. When I run a one-shot of Monster of the Week, the players not only create their characters, but they also give me the reason why their collection of monster hunters work together. Whether they’re a secret government agency or a demon hunting death metal band, they’ve given me the conceit of the game they want to play. If one of the players starts going in a direction that isn’t going to work with the group’s chosen theme, it’s my job to redirect them towards a character that will work.
- Did my players want to play a different game? It’s been stated many times around here, but the game belongs to your players just as much as it does to the GM. Pay attention to the characters they’re making because that tells you exactly what type of game they want to play. If those characters don’t fit with the game you were expecting to run, it might be worth taking a step back and adjusting the game you planned to run rather than forcing the players to change their characters. If you were pushing for a super serious, highly political game but the characters they bring to the table are a rag tag team of murder hobos, your players might be telling you they just want to let off some steam instead of navigating murky political waters. Try and balance their needs with yours.
- Does the game system actually support the style of game you’re going for? Not every game system is suited for every game. While gamers often try and shoehorn the square peg of a game idea into the round hole of their favorite game system, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes you’re better off finding the game system that’s already good at conveying the game you want to run. Savage Worlds makes for some great “two-fisted action” games, but if I want to run a game of psychological horror, I’m going to look at Dread instead. There’s also the matter of power level. If you want to run an epic Avengers style supers game in Mutants & Masterminds, but you only give your players enough points to build PL8 characters, you’re all going to be very disappointed. You’ll both get frustrated when they can’t stand up to the global level threats you want to throw at them. I’ve seen plenty of GMs start campaigns out at low power levels, because that’s how you’re supposed to start campaigns, but then get frustrated because they can’t get to the grand, world shaking storylines they want to tell.
If you’ve got those bases covered, there’s one other really important area to consider. Are you respecting the competency of the characters? THIS is probably one of the most important points to consider if you feel like you’re not getting characters that live up to the heroic ideals you want them to. When you as the GM fail to acknowledge that the characters are competent and effective residents of the world they inhabit, you’re giving the players a message that you don’t think their characters are capable of the heroics you want them to attempt. In most games, the PCs are supposed to be heroes. Treat them that way!
A while back, I signed up to play a 7th Sea game. My expectations were for swashbuckling and some daring adventure. Instead, the game I got was a boring slog of tedium where the GM treated the characters like they were stupid and forced us to explicitly account for absolutely every step we took. “You didn’t say you were closing the door behind you as you snuck into the room, so the guards see you as you’re going through the chest.” I’m sure the GM felt like he had a bunch of idiots at his table, but that’s pretty much his fault for not allowing us a chance to be the roguish heroes advertised on the character sheets.
Conversely, the GM of the D&D game I’m currently playing does an amazing job treating the characters as if they’re the heroes of the story. Even though my Sorcerer was only first level, since her background was as a Charlatan grifter, he had the NPCs react to how charming she was at talking and flirting her way into getting what she wanted. In his hands, the world reacts in a way that reaffirms the core concepts of the character I created. Our characters are regularly challenged and pushed to work for our success, but no player at the table ever doubts that we are the heroes of the story. We’re good at what we do and the world and the NPCs react in kind.
Many Powered-by-the-Apocalypse games tell you to be a fan of your players’ characters. This means recognizing their strengths and having the world they inhabit recognize them as well. I recently picked up both Bubblegumshoe and Urban Shadows, and I’ve been enjoying their suggestions on how to treat the characters. Both games take care to encourage GMs to acknowledge the PCs strengths while staying true to the truth of the game’s world. Challenge them with adversity to overcome, but don’t hesitate to cheer when they succeed. If you want the Avengers, treat them like the first tier A-list heroes you want them to be, not some team of goofy second stringers.
What do you do to ensure you get the group your game needs? Even when the players are being goofy, do you remember that the characters are the heroes?