It is no shock that some drivers are observing traffic and some drivers are focused on their own objectives. The ones who observe traffic are cooperative in the sense that they are working with others to prevent problems in order to get what they want, and the drivers who focus on their own objectives are taking dangerous risks in order to get what they want. The cooperative approach works out the best for everyone, while the selfish approach results in horrible wrecks on the road.
In many ways this is exactly what GMing a game can feel like. As the GM your table is the expressway. Your plot and preparations are your vehicle. The players’ characters are the players’ vehicles. The system, setting, and a game charter  if you have one are the rules of the roads.
Now everyone does not have to take the same entry ramp to get onto this expressway. Some take the “Epic Story” ramp, while others merge on from the “Hanging Out With Friends” junction. Likewise not everyone has the same destination. Some are going to “Strategic Victory Lane” while others want to make it to “Cool Character Moment Avenue”. Having the same starting points and end points are not important though.
Not crashing into each other and screwing up traffic for everyone is the important part.
So how does this analogy wrap up into some useful GMing advice? Well before you can legally drive in any of the fifty states here in the U.S., you need to qualify for a driver’s license first. In order to get your driver’s license, you need to pass a written exam as well as an actual driving test. That means people need training first before they can get their licenses.
Perhaps before you let anyone onto the expressway of your game you should have a “Driver’s Education” session?
To begin with you might spend a little bit of time teaching the rules of the system, but that is the equivalent of teaching someone how to operate a vehicle. Overall, learning how to operate a vehicle is easy (brake, accelerate, steer, signals, headlights, wipers, and the cup holder is located on the dash…).
The real training is to teach new drivers how to participate in, observe, and respond to traffic conditions. Spend a session at the start of your next campaign not for character creation, but after character creation, to discuss what it is that everyone is hoping to get out of the game and what the ground rules are for obtaining those objectives. If you do not have a game charter as previously mentioned, this session is a great opportunity to draft one. Once you and the players have an understanding of how you will all cooperatively work together to make the game fun and fulfilling for everyone, you are all set to get on the road.
You might not be running a game during this session, but you will be running the table. Make sure that everyone has a chance to talk. Do not allow players to interrupt each other, and do not interrupt anyone else yourself. Take notes of what each player wants to achieve. Wrap up the session by stating to the group how you will be running the game and what your expectations are. Keep the session friendly, but make sure to have an agenda and stick to it. You want to build the framework from which a great gaming experience will be built upon.
Some might object to this idea as being a waste of a session. Yet I prefer to think of it as a single session to ensure that many more wonderful sessions will follow. Plus you may want to have the occasional refresher session to make sure that everyone is still aware of the “traffic laws”, just like you have to renew your driver’s license from time to time. Just try to make sure that your initial and refresher sessions are enjoyable experiences, unlike most visits to the DMV.
Remember that the objective here is to promote cooperation as a group of individuals with different starting points and objectives. You are not dictating what people must do, but instead you are simply letting people know what they should not do for everyone’s benefit. The rules of the road do not tell you where to go. The rules of the road just make sure that you get to where you are going safely.
So try a “Driver’s Education” session and see if it helps to make your next campaign even more fun than the last one, and may all of the roads the game travels upon be paved with the spirit of cooperation! Or ground up gnomes (they are great for gas mileage, trust us).
What do others think? Have you ever ran a “Driver’s Education” session focused on how the group will cooperate at the table? Leave your comments below and share with the rest of us what you have learned!