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Right Game Wrong Time

I have not had a good run of games lately. Seems like just a few articles ago I was talking about my new Agents of Oblivion [1] campaign, on the heels of a failed Corporation [2] game. Over the past year, I have not been able to get a game to run for any length of time. So when it looked like Agents of Oblivion was not going to make it, I sat down with my players to find out what was going on, and we learned that there is a lot more to a successful campaign than rules and dice.

It Was Like Physics Class

The sign that AoO was in trouble appeared when I was GMing a session a few weeks ago. We were deep in the middle of an investigation; asking questions, following up leads, and putting pieces of the puzzle together. I looked up at the table and stared at four blank faces. They looked like they were all in physics class (no offense to any physicists out there). Were we really having fun?

I asked everyone at the table if they were having fun, and they said they were – but I did not believe it. So I waited a few days and asked by email. Turned out I was right, they were not having fun.

Figuring Out What Is Fun

The next time we got together we sat and discussed what was going on. Everyone was very candid, and through discussion we started to come up with a few observations. The first was that as a group, we are under much more stress than we were years ago. Among the group there were a number of issues hanging over us: work issues, finances, children, relationships, etc. Bottom line was that this group is under considerable stress.

Coming to that realization, we agreed that our game needed to be a stress reliever and an escape. Playing a a game of deep investigation and horror was not going to be fun for a group with as much on their minds as my group did. Rather, we needed to look for games that are more upbeat, with a higher tempo, and that at the end of the session people felt that they had accomplished something.

A New Definition of Fun

With the understanding of what kind of game would be more fun – upbeat, positive, high tempo – our discussion focused on what kind of rules would help support that tone. We decided that we wanted a lighter rule set vs something heavier. Light rules would be easier to keep up with and with a lot of the guys, having to work extra or long hours, something lighter would be better. We all agreed that we would keep playing Savage Worlds to keep that fast, fun, furious feel.

Having selected Savage Worlds [3], we would need a setting, and that turned into the longest part of the discussion. We went around and around for some time, focusing on sci-fi games, and out of the blue, one of us suggested a super heroes game. We decided on using Savage Worlds Super Powers Companion, and coming up with a home brew setting. A Supers game would easily meet our criteria of upbeat, positive, and high tempo.

The tone and rules of Savage Worlds fully support the criteria we had set. It would be easy to keep the supers game focused on action and not on investigation. The idea of playing super heroes doing heroic things should be a nice diversion for a group that is not having the easiest of times.

So I have begun to work on a campaign setting, and a story arc, and my players are putting characters together.

The Learning Part

While that was a nice tale about my group, how does this help you all? There were some important lessons we learned though our discussion that are applicable to any gaming group, especially those that are in the process of selecting a new game.

Know Thy Group

It is important to know your group and what is going on right now in their lives. While we would like to believe that we can all keep the baggage of the world at bay when we get to the table, that is not always true. What is the overall tone of your group? Is everyone happy, do people have a lot on their minds, have they been effected by life-changing events recently? Make sure that the tone of the game you are planning on running is a good fit for your group.

What are the types of activities that your players want to do when they come to the table? Do they want to track rations and torches in a low-fantasy hexcrawl, or do they want to command capital ships in galactic combat? While some settings sound interesting, they favor certain types of actions that may not be a good fit for your players. While the lure of the Cthulhu Mythos [4] may sound inviting, the heavy emphasis on investigation for Call of Cthulhu [5] may not be fun for your players.

How much free time does your group have? Some groups are being squeezed for time by work and family, and have less time to work on RPGs between games. Playing games that require lots of between game planning or metagaming might not be a good fit. Games that have complex rules and often require maintenance between games might not be a good fit either. In those cases, look for lighter rule sets.

Things Change

This applies more to those groups that have been together for a number of years: what has been true for your group in the past is not going to be true now. We often hold onto past images and precepts of our groups, especially those heady days of gaming all night and having little responsibilities. In the past, my group would have eaten up a dark investigation game, but now that same game is too heavy. As the lives of the players change, we need to be aware of how the group dynamic changes and re-evaluate what that means in terms of what is fun. Some changes will be temporary, and others will be more lasting.

Pair Your Games To Your Group

Different games offer different things in terms of mechanics and metagame activities. Don’t feel the need to be married to one system. If Pathfinder [6] feels heavy, then go for something lighter like Savage Worlds or Hollowpoint [7].

Better Gaming Through Introspection

By understanding your group and what is going on in your lives, you can better understand what games are going to be more fun for your group. In the end gaming is suppose to be fun. We gamers spend a lot of time thinking about the games we play, and the games we play should not feel like our work. It is inevitable that change will creep into every game group. When it does appear, we need to be cognizant of the effect it has on our group, and adapt to it, through a change in playstyle, setting, or rules.

What are some of the changes your group has faced in the recent past, and how have you adapted to those changes? Have you ever had a game that was fun to play in the past, that you found was not fun to play years later?

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Right Game Wrong Time"

#1 Comment By Silveressa On October 25, 2012 @ 6:20 am

“Have you ever had a game that was fun to play in the past, that you found was not fun to play years later?”

I found as I grew older (as did the age of those I GM’d for) my group gradually gravitated away from “power gaming” (and hack and slash adventures) more towards games with a heavier investigation, tactical, or roleplaying element.

In our late teens and early 20’s Rifts, was my groups favorite game of choice hands down, the over the top power of Glitter Boys, Juicers, and combat borgs really appealed to everyone at the table, as did the heavy combat approach to most adventures.

Now as we’re in our late twenties to early 30’s we find games like Supernatural, Eso Terrorists, Serenity, and Shadowrun better fit our groups play style.

Sheer over the top action and damage dealing, has taken a back drop to storytelling and character development, along with an emphasis not just on having a exciting adventure, but exploring a deeper storyline along side the action scenes, and a plot that’s deeper then the average shot glass depth of a Rifts adventure.

The same held true with rule systems, as we grew older heavily crunchy rule sets no longer appealed to us. (trying to keep track of a mechanics heavy system like d20 or Palladium took more effort and book work then we were willing to invest time wise.)

Instead, fast playing systems, such as Cortex, and Savage worlds fit the new play style better, and was simple enough to let new players grasp the mechanics quickly without needing to pour over source books and memorize lots of special use rules. (The more cinematic flavor of the rule sets also fit well into the kinds of stories our group wanted to experience.

About a 1/2 a year ago I set down with some friends and we broke out the old Rifts books just for a weekend one shot, but the game really lacked the “spark” of energy it used to have for us a decade ago.

After only a hour or so of play, the group’s interest in combat encounters went from in depth descriptions of maneuvers and actions to the blandly generic versions of “I shoot them” and the one session winded down not long after.

#2 Comment By shortymonster On October 25, 2012 @ 8:08 am

Last night I did this before the first die was rolled in a campaign. We are going to be playing a cyberpunk game, but within that general premise, there’s a lot that can be done. There was no universal group response – party due to the disparities of experience the group has – but it was still worth taking the time to get a feel for what people wanted. It turns out this group are happy to avoid a combat fest, and that when a fight breaks out it should be brutal, and would rather play it as an investigative type game. There was even a call for a little bit of horror gaming to be added, which I’ll be translating to the dark allure of things that shouldn’t be done in cyberpunk futures.

Did it give me a sure fire hit of a game? Nope. But it means I’ve a better chance of keeping everyone engaged for the whole campaign.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On October 25, 2012 @ 8:51 am

Yup. Call of Cthulhu (BRP) mated with the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign.

15 years ago we got part way through and had a ball before family grew more important (with a new kid).

Everyone would reminisce over those sessions with fondness so I rebooted with some new players, some of the originals and in no time we had two players per game. Exactly because of the reasons your guys weren’t having fun, too. Everyone now did tedious stuff for a living. Rooting through endless clues only to go insane or get killed (it is a very deadly campaign) was no-one’s current idea of fun.

I also hit a crunch with my clue-infested Delta green game in which the seven players had all the info they needed to solve the case, rescue the hostages and save the world from the vile sorcerous cultist swine but were swamped so badly they couldn’t synthesize the details from what they had.

So I made a portable whiteboard on which they could do police procedural doodling and they spent an hour going over what they had, at the end of which they had the case wrapped up all but the ritual of dismissal to rid the world of a Thing That Should Not Be and Bob was everyone’s mother’s brother.

Said whiteboard is now a popular prop and tool at every session.

#4 Comment By Redcrow On October 25, 2012 @ 10:01 am

Gaming can be a therapeutic stress reliever and the more responsibilities you have, the more you may need that relief. It can be a real downer when your character is stressed as much or more than you.

After a long week of dealing with a harsh reality sometimes the last thing you want is to deal with a harsh fantasy too.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On October 25, 2012 @ 10:30 am

Our group has had a lot of challenges this year that made all gaming trickier. Now that we’re getting things in order, we’re embracing D&D (well, Pathfinder specifically)–for nostalgia and simplicity as much as anything.

There are a lot of games that I’ve tried and enjoyed at different times in my life, that I wouldn’t look forward to in standard situations as much anymore. The biggest decline in personal interest is in detailed point buy character generation requiring skill mastery (like Champions); I loved these as a teen and through college, but they just don’t sing to me now.

#6 Comment By Nojo On October 25, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

Your article hit the nail on the head for one of my players. He want’s to be powerful and throw his weight around, because in his life he can’t.

I have at least one player who won’t consider any system other than Pathfinder. So I’m trying to GM a kick-ass Pathfinder game so he’ll learn to trust me.

Any tips to speed up the learning process for a new group? Asking some people elicits answers they think I want to hear. Others give me answers that put me in a box (“system X or I won’t play”).

#7 Comment By Silveressa On October 25, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

“Others give me answers that put me in a box (“system X or I won’t play.”)

Sometimes I’ve found it helpful to ask such a player the simple question of “why?”

Sometimes players prefer a particular rule system because it emulates a specific class of character or style of combat/coolness they find especially enjoyable, and don’t want to give up that fun factor by switching to a different rule system. (Other players have learned how to min/max their char in rule system X and don’t want to give up that exploitative advantage.)

Other times it’s because a new system they feel would be too challenging to learn, or are worried is too deadly/not deadly enough for their realism preference.

With such players a private discussion can prove productive since it gives you a clear idea why they are hooked on a specific game system and allows you to give examples on how a different rule system could still let their character concept shine, or be adjusted/house ruled to encompass the particular aspect of another rule set.

Having such a conversation in private (be it in person or over email) lets the player talk to you at length without being pressured by other players into agreeing with them, or feeling put on the spot/singled out about their particular likes.

At the very least knowing why they love system x will let you hunt around for alternative rule systems that also have what they like about that system, and are better suited for the campaign setting you want to game in. (Rule sets that work great for fantasy gaming often fall flat emulating sci-fi or modern day settings, and vice versa.)

#8 Comment By Phil Vecchione On October 25, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

First, thanks for all the great comments, its nice to know that this is one of those things that many of us are wrestling with.

As for Nojo’s comment about speeding up the learning process for a group, its really a tricky exercise. Sometimes my group can come to a consensus on the toppings for a pizza, let a lone a game system and setting they would be into.

The best advice I have, is that we have a rule in our group for new games…4 sessions and the vote. We figure it takes about 4 sessions to know if a game is going to be fun to play or not. So we give GM’s 4 sessions to hook everyone. After the end of the 4th game we all vote and if the group wants to change games, then we change games.

Some people will be more apt to try different games, if they know there is an escape clause in it, if they wind up not having fun.

#9 Comment By randite On October 25, 2012 @ 10:06 pm

I’ve found that sometimes my campaign ideas don’t really please my players but I try to talk to them beforehand so we’re all on the same page and nobody wastes too much of his/her/our time. I’ve actually only just figured out that my wife isn’t happy with a game unless her character is a badass. She doesn’t have to be over-the-top, ridiculously powerful (unless that’s okay considering the tone of the setting); she just has to be significantly better at something than everybody else (usually a couple of things really). Realising this simple (and in hindsight wildly obvious) fact has really helped me in the pre-planning, brainstorming stages of campaign creation.

Oddly, just a few months ago I ended a campaign prematurely that I’d stopped enjoying almost entirely. As it turns out everybody else (the players) was still really into it but I just had no passion for it. The opposite side of the the same coin as it were.

We’ve had so many dropped campaigns that the 4 sessions then vote method would just be too unpleasant for us. At this point we just won’t play anything unless we’re reasonably sure it’ll come to a satisfying close.

#10 Comment By clight101 On October 26, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

I love the last section title: Better Gaming Through Introspection. I’ve been thumping the drum to people about figuring out what is fun for you for so long it’s starting to feel like I’m talking to myself. Seeing someone on the Stew say it to thousands of readers is excellent. In fact this whole article is a lesson in trying to understand what is fun for a person son they can get the most out of their recreation time. Sounds a lot like life hacking brought to gaming once again.

#11 Comment By Zach G On October 26, 2012 @ 7:14 pm

I had something similar. Only it was my tastes that had changed. My life was stressful but that didn’t alter my taste for heavy plot as much as it meant I wanted little mechanical prep time. That and my group was still big on the higher powered fantasy games where they could stomp just about everybody in most pre-made modules. My system interests turned towards Savage Worlds whereas theirs was fully cemented in Rules Heavy Pathfinder or D20 variants.

I think one thing that made it especially hard was that while they each had to focus on min-maxing their single characters (and maybe a companion) I, in order to make anything challenging, had to do something similar for everything else. Either way, it was easy to get burned out in a system like that. Unfortunately, while Savage Worlds had everything I ever wanted D&D to have (a health system where players might not laugh off eight heavy crossbows aimed point blank at them for instance), it was a number of things they *didn’t* want. I have since moved so I can hopefully find a group more to my liking style wise, though the old group (all old friends) talk about trying to get something going online.

#12 Comment By MasterSilverback On November 16, 2012 @ 8:09 am

Though we didn’t have any problems with tone, this is why my group switched our Star Wars campaign from Saga to FU. Our group is a bunch of busy people and sessions are often crammed into Sunday night after dinner. Speeding things up and simplifying them was a big help. There’s also a lot less math. Plus, I never find myself at the end of a combat thinking, “Oh shoot, I forgot to use/didn’t apply that one talent/feat/etc., no wonder my villain went down so fast.”