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Player Buy-In Trumps GM Interest

Posted By Martin Ralya On December 5, 2008 @ 4:48 am In GMing Advice | 21 Comments

I didn’t come up with this, but it’s become a truism in my current gaming group — one worth articulating here: When it comes to choosing a game or campaign, player buy-in trumps GM interest.

What do I mean by that? Let’s talk about a few terms, then pull them all together into a useful rule of thumb (bearing in mind that these are all defined in the context of choosing your next game or campaign):

  • GM interest: Your personal interest in running a particular system or setting. This is hugely important — after all, if you aren’t interested in GMing a game, it isn’t going to go well.
  • The “no fucking way” threshold: The point where your lack of interest or outright hatred for a game means there is absolutely no way in hell you would ever run it.
  • Player buy-in: The level of excitement your players have about a particular game or setting. The more intense this is, the better your game is going to be — there’s just no substitute for stoked players.
  • The zone of pleasant surprises: The point where player buy-in trumps GM interest, and leads to a really awesome gaming experience.

Or, in shiny chart form…

As you can see, making charts isn’t my strong suit — it makes perfect sense in my head, and I hope it makes sense here, too. Here’s the written version:

If your players are seriously excited about a game that you’re not — at least initially — that interested in, but your personal level of interest is above the “no fucking way” threshold, then player buy-in trumps GM interest and you should try running that game (because it falls in the zone of pleasant surprises). You’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by how much fun it turns out to be.

In other words, whether or not you’re personally interested in a game matters a lot less than whether or not all of your players are interested in it. If they’re interested, they’ll be motivated to create awesome characters, and will work together to make the game more fun for everyone at the table — yourself included. And you’ll find that you feed off of their interest, and get excited about the game as a result.

I don’t know how well I’ve articulated it here, but this rule serves my group well. It’s one I think most of the GMs in my group would agree on, and we seem to have arrived at this conclusion collectively. It’s also the basic principle that led me to run Mage: The Awakening for the past year, so I know it works.

Mage wasn’t on my radar at all, though I liked the previous edition as a player, but when I saw how interested my players were in it, I got interested in it as well. And it turned out really well, resulting in one of the best games I’ve ever run.

Give it a shot sometime — it might work just as well for you.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Player Buy-In Trumps GM Interest"

#1 Comment By greywulf On December 5, 2008 @ 6:08 am

Absolutely spot-on post.

Maybe it’s because GMs have a lower boredom threshold, but I find that they (me included) feel the itch to try out new systems and settings more frequently than players. Either that, or it’s because they subconsciously feel that it’s their responsibility to come up with things that are new and innovative each and every session. I dunno.

In comparison, players are usually a conservative lot who are happiest when they’re chilling inside their comfort zone. It takes a lot to convince a group of 4 or 5 players to switch systems or settings, even for a single tester session. If you can persuade them (substantial food bribes usually work), the effort is often worth it. I’ve run both Dogs in the Vineyard and 3:16 with my players, and it’s all thanks to pizza – and they loved them both.

Zone of Pleasant Surprises indeed.

Well said.

#2 Comment By DNAphil On December 5, 2008 @ 7:12 am

Excellent post.

Any time our group gets ready to start a new campaign, there is a period where the Players and GM hash out what game is going to be run. Often the GM presents a few choices, and pitches his ideas to the players.

The players then decide which of the choices sounds the most interesting (there has never been a case where all the choices were bad) and the group picks the game.

The one thing that we do, in addition, is that after the GM has run his 4th session, the group discusses if the game is working out. It has been our experience that by 4 sessions in, the group knows if the mechanics are acceptable, and if the campaign is strong enough. This way, we don’t languish in a mediocre ruleset or campaign, when we could be getting much better gaming done.

If the group (GM and players) don’t feel like the game is working out, then it is scrapped and the GM (or another GM) pitches a new game to the group.

#3 Comment By BryanB On December 5, 2008 @ 10:30 am

I think player buy-in is critical for a games success, no matter how much a GM might like a particular system. In short, I agree with most of what Martin posted.

@DNAPHIL — Our group does the same thing pretty much. We hear pitches from any GMs that have a game they would like to run and then we vote on what to play next. People can toss out more than one idea, because some of us in the group are flooded with more ideas than we can actually use.

Our group decided to not have long campaigns be our ultimate goal. The goal is to have a mini-series which lasts from 4 to 10 game sessions. Once the mini-series wraps, we move on to another game and most likely another GM for the next mini-series.

This allows us to play more systems and take turns in the hot seat. There is nothing that prevents us from revisiting the same characters for another mini-series later on (sequels). It seems to work well for us, when scheduling issues aren’t eating us alive. :)

As to the “No Fucking Way” threshold, I have found that players have this threshold just as much as GMs. Unfortunately for me, two out of three core players consider Star Trek to be right around that line.

As a GM, I was pressed into running a system I didn’t particularly care for one time. I say one time, because I have made sure to avoid doing that ever since. The game was a trainwreck of biblical proportions.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 5, 2008 @ 11:48 am

Well said; enthusiasm is contagious, and it flows both ways. If my players are all gung-ho for something, then I should try out whatever it is that they’re raving about. After all, they are my audience, and they’ve put up with my oddball experiments…

In my experience (and apparently Greywulf’s as well), players are a conservative lot, and sometimes need to be poked, prodded, and downright threatened or bribed into trying new things. We GMs pretty much know this, but we should also take a look at ourselves. Since we’re the de facto leaders of the group, we should make sure that we’re not being sticks in the mud.

#5 Comment By Sarlax On December 5, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

In my current 3.5 game, which is my favorite RPG, I began running not because I was burning to, but because the player who most objects to D&D was excited to play – I think he was on a WoW high.

We sat down for joint character creation which, while fun, ended up producing nothing like a group with interwoven links. Everyone ended up making PCs separately and I had only barely sketched out the campaign premise when I was being yelled at to run the first session with two hours notice.

It’s ended up being my favorite campaign I’ve run, but I don’t think that would have happened without the players having been as enthusiastic as they were. They gave me the energy to run a game I’ve ended up having a ton of fun with.

#6 Comment By Rafe On December 5, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

So very true. I attempted to introduce my old gaming group to 4e not too long ago and, with the exception of the two brand-new players I brought in to the group, the others were really lackluster. Had I paid more attention to player desires vs what I wanted them to enjoy, we’d be much better off. As you said: You can’t beat psyched players. The mark of a good campaign is gauged by the number of emails or phone calls exchanged between games. :)

#7 Comment By Karizma On December 5, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

This is actually strikingly relevant to me!

I *JUST* pulled together a few interested people who are willing to role-play. I would like to GM, but there’s one player who is adamant on playing WoWRPG. Being completely unfamiliar with the intricate workings of World of Warcraft, and the Warcraft universe, I felt it best if I did not try to run it. The player who wants to play it said he would be willing to run it (with a GMPC, which isn’t a problem for us).

As much as I want to protest, I’d rather play with an excited player/GM than a disinterested one. And we’re all making concessions. He will run/play the WoWRPG, and I will start up my own game, and we’ll take turns running. We’re going to start the WoW game first as I’m still converting myself from Iron Crown’s Rolemaster FRP to the newer Iron Crown’s HARP, which is far less complicated. The WoWRPG GM/Player–I suspect–is going to collaborate with me for GMing, as he’s never GM’d before, which I think would be great fun!

So I’m making some concessions, but as long as I’m Roleplaying with happy players, it’s a good game.

#8 Comment By Swordgleam On December 5, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

I think that works for a lot of groups, but in my current gaming circle, I am the only one who even realizes that games outside of D20 exist. We had a d6 group for a while, and a tri-stat group which went well, but that’s it. No one else has any curiousity about other systems. If I left it up to player interest, we’d be playing nothing but D20, ever. So I try to get them to humour me for an occasional one-shot in another system in the hopes that eventually they’ll find something to get excited about.

#9 Comment By nblade On December 6, 2008 @ 9:49 am

In general, I think that in many groups the GMs are usually the more experienced RPGers. Usually that means, they know there are other games to play and other ways of thinking about the same problem. I know I’ve played so many games (the good, the bad , and the ugly) that I have a hard time listing them all. Many players I meet have experience with only one system. This does make it hard to convince them. I know when I first started out in gaming some twenty plus odd years ago that I only wanted to play DnD, when someone tried to introduce me to Traveller, I balked at them. These days, Traveller is one of my favorite Old School Games to play. That said, never stop trying to get your player from doing something new. Eventually, they will understand that the are more than one type of game to play.

#10 Comment By Micah On December 6, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

This is one of the first truly original posts I’ve seen in the RPG blogosphere in a long time. I would never have considered what you’re saying, but it makes perfect sense in hindsight. If the players are not involved, no matter how much I like the system, the game is going to suck. Likewise, if everyone’s having fun, then we’re probably ignoring the system anyway.

Thanks for this. It’s truly useful.

#11 Comment By Martin Ralya On December 7, 2008 @ 10:01 am

Huzzah — my sloppy chart didn’t get in the way of my point. ;)

Thanks for the stories; I love hearing how ideas like this have their own permutations in each group.

#12 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On December 7, 2008 @ 10:38 am

I think your char is actually wrong. the “Zone of plesant suprises” should be above player buyin, representing that with player buyin you should run even if you don’t feel like it. As written now, I think you’re showing “the Zone” to reside where neither you or your players have particular interest.

However, to be accurate, I think you need to take into account that the two items are actually independant of one another via a two-axis model. I’ll send you a crappy chart of my own to see what I mean.

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 7, 2008 @ 10:55 am

Beware, gamers! ‘Tis at the crossroads of subjective gaming theory and mathematics that madness lies…

(But yeah, I’d like to see Matthew’s chart… Tempt us, good sir gnome!)

#14 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 7, 2008 @ 11:08 am

Crap, now I went and did it…

http://s215.photobucket.com/albums/cc93/Telas_photos/?action=view&current=Chart.jpg

Labels may not be for everyone’s tastes…

#15 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On December 7, 2008 @ 11:23 am

OK, try this one:

http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3200/3090052564_d40a8cc749_o.jpg

We can see the areas of player and GM buy-in. The ideal zone is where both groups have buy-in, but Martin’s “Zone of pleasant surprises” resides where GM noninterest meets Player Buyin. This leads me to believe there’s a second Zone of Pleasant Suprises when GM Buy-in meets Player noninterest.

So, I’d say your priority should be:
Ideal
GM Suprises
Player Suprises
General Noninterest
GM NFW
Player NFW
Mutual NFW

#16 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On December 7, 2008 @ 11:30 am

I’m actually curious as to another point:
How different are our GM and Player NFW-meh-Buyin lists?
I know there’s the phenominon where we as GMs want to run the games we REALLY want to play, but can anyone cite a game they’d love to play but have no interest in GMing or vice-versa?

#17 Comment By Swordgleam On December 7, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

@Matthew J. Neagley – I really want to play Scion, but I don’t really want to run it. I like running 4e, but I’m not crushed that no one else is going to be running it any time soon. That’s about it.

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#19 Comment By Millsy On December 8, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

Wow! I’ve had a niggling feeling about this for a while, but thanks for putting it into words. My system-specific gripe is that I really can’t work up any enthusiasm for playing D&D3.5 any more. It just feels dull. I’ll quite happily run it, though, cos I get to call the shots.

There’s a number of games I want to run and play, and a few others that I really don’t want to play, but would happily run. Maybe it’s just a case of us GMs loving being the centre of attention? Like, we might not like the system, but if we’re in charge, we’ll put up with it?

#20 Comment By The Stray7 On December 9, 2008 @ 11:11 am

I ran straight into this during the last few months, so this feels strikingly relevant. I wanted to run a “Changeling: The Lost” game after falling out of love with D&D 4e, but apparently Changeling was in the NFW zone for most of my players. I begged and cajoled them into a compromise (where they’d play hunters instead, and I got to use the Changelings as antagonists), but it dive-bombed badly in the middle of the very first session.

So I offered another suggestion, one that was on my “want to try someday” list: Scion. Ears perked up immediately, and character ideas poured forth. 90% of the players were sold on just the concept, and most of the players popped out at least two different character ideas while I perused the materials. And while I’m not a fan of the system itself (I preferred Aberrant to the Scion method for superheroic characters), I’m finding the high player interest a boon to getting the game up and floating. Most of the stuff I’m planning for is running off the various ideas the players floated my way, instead of my normal MO of trying to come up with a skeleton plot before I start character generation. It’s an interesting experience to be riding the wave of Player Buy-In this time around.

#21 Comment By zerfinity On December 15, 2008 @ 2:11 am

Love the article.

In my group the way this theory hits the road is that the GM interest has determined game system for my group but that good pre-campaign dialogue helps determine what happens in the campaign. This helps players describe what they’re interested in doing but also helps them write characters that have the skills/background/personality that help them succeed during the campaign.


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