The Magic of a Great Game

I shouldn’t make plans when I DM. Of note in that sentiment is “shouldn’t.” I find these days that I do make plans… I just shouldn’t.

I was thinking about the ineffable qualities of what I consider a “great” game and I realized that I almost don’t care what system I’m playing or what setting I’m playing or what dice I’m rolling (or not rolling). For me, I suppose, roleplaying is relational. I only care about the players. Whether I’m one of those players or the DM doesn’t matter. I just want to be in a group of creative, exciting, engaged people who are looking for a similar experience. And that engagement is a big problem for me.

When I think back on the greatest games I’ve run/been involved in… They rarely had a plan. I once ran a one shot of D&D 3e for two friends. It was meant to be a one-shot, one-time deal. It ended up turning into a long campaign that evolved my whole home-brew world. My favorite game I’ve ever run — my second Amber campaign — was really all about the players. As the GM I barely did any work outside of game… my most important job was actually listening to the wild theories my players would spin and the insane stuff they wanted to do… I had pretty much zero plan in that campaign. It lasted three years, saw players take on generational roles in some cases, and had whole sessions that amounted to nothing more than four hour talking sessions… and it was a blast. Because the players were deeply invested.

When I plan, I worry. When I worry, I get stiff. When I get stiff, I run bad games. When I run bad games… I try to plan. It’s a bad cycle.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while but a rather awesome post over at Hill Cantons today is what finally got me to the point of writing about this.

DMs get a bad rap. I hate hearing some player bitching about their GM. Makes me crazy. Sometimes GMs suck — it’s true. But DMs get a bad rap even when they don’t deserve it. And it may be an unpopular thing to say but one solution as a player is to take more responsibility for making the game awesome. Don’t get me wrong… not everyone plays the same way or enjoys the same things at the table… that’s fine… For my two cents though, when I’m at a table I want to ham it up. I want to be involved… no, let me say it again — Involved. Even if I’m playing a relatively quiet character I’m an enthusiastic player. I like being at the table and it shows.

I don’t want to wander too far afield… I just was continuing my week of pondering posts. I’ll try to get back to writing something of more depth next week. It’s just a strange thing… when I think back on what games I’ve had the most fun with it’s always the ones that were just plain off the wall.

The last time I ran my own game, the one I wrote for myself, I had a party that consisted of a malformed cat warrior, a flying mouse-man who summoned tree spirits to dance with him at royal balls, a fire mage who might have been insane but we could never really tell, a drunken ex-demon hunting knight, a tainted thief who was the heir of a noble line of doomed slayers, and the wife of that thief who just so happened to also have another spirit inside her and lived a second life (part time) as a gay, male bard who fell in love with the prince of a dream kingdom. For some of you that probably sounds like a typical Friday night (and man I wish I was in your games) but for me it was an odd game and one of those other times I didn’t actually have a plan… I just fed off of what the players were giving me.

I want to go back there — to that place where I run completely by the seat of my pants and worry about whether it makes sense after the session is over. That’s when I’m at my best — not with a plan. But that only works if my players are in it to drive the game with passion about what they are doing.

In the Amber DRPG book, one of the best pieces of advice is about “loving your character.” He talks about what it would be like to play Corwin — amnesiac, blinded by a brother, imprisoned, and what it would take to come back week after week to that table, to play that character, knowing that your life was hard, that it was challenging, that you were up against it… but loving your character so much that you were all in.

I took that to heart.

For me that is the magic of a great game. It’s about the players loving what they are doing. It’s the only way I know. I suppose the question is — how do you make everyone else at your table as excited as you?

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4 responses

  1. Hey, Cassandra wasn’t THAT crazy. Just determined. And bitter.

  2. A good GM loves the players’ characters as well, and good players create characters the GM can love.

  3. It’s hard, especially when your players are busy. I tend to hype up my games a lot. I make little movie trailers, quick websites and little handouts ahead of time to get them excited about content before they hit the table, then I ask them to bring their own ideas about what they’d like to do. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I’ve found that success or failure at getting players invested actually has as much to do with where my players are in their real lives as it does with what I’ve prepared or not prepared.

    One thing I will never, ever do again, though, is try a truly RP-heavy game in the evening after everyone has left work. One of my best roleplayers said halfway through an intense scene, “I don’t know! Ugh! I’m too tired to roleplay this!!” It was actually hilarious in the moment, but it made me realize that for our particular group, certain times just aren’t available.

  4. […] DM side of things as I am going to try and wing it a little bit (once again slightly influenced by Mr. Rhetorical Gamer). I have been trying to jot down some NPC’s and anticipatory ideas, sort of how I might react to […]

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