Telling Players the Obvious

Last week at MisCon, one of the panels I was on was titled “Guerilla Warfare in RPGs.”

How do you GM a resistance-based game where the PCs must fight a guerilla campaign against established, entrenched bad guys? Can they sleep safely in the woods at night, sustain themselves by hunting and gathering, and gain the assistance of local farm folk? How do they build the requisite rag tag army? What about retribution against the peasants suspected of harboring them? How do they eventually kill the evil emperor and lift the people from oppression?

It was a really good talk, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to record (as my device fell over and turned off partway through).   Of particular note was conversation about the difference between conventional and irregular forces, how that dynamic plays out, and how typical fantasy gaming doesn’t fit that dynamic at all.

When we got to the “how do they build the requisite rag tag army?” bit, some of the people in the audience asked us how to get the players to understand that they should.

The answer started as “put the characters up against overwhelming odds,” and I watched the crowd not be satisfied with that. Some of them already tried that, to no avail. So I said something that seemed obvious to me, but never stated:

Tell the group that the option exists.

There are so many things going on with a game that the different options can get lost, especially when looking at a game’s given ruleset. Games where “anything is possible” but leave everything outside of combat up to nebulous rules can make it hard to narrow options — the book isn’t going to say “oh, right, there are people, we should totally turn them into an army.” And the sense of narrative might not be shared — you might be thinking “rally the people” and others might be thinking “protect the people from harm.” Finally, if you’re playing with people who had never been in situations where this subject came up, they might not think to deviate from what gaming habits they’ve learned.

So that means you should be explicit. “Hey, guys, that force is pretty overwhelming. You could train up the locals into a force for freedom, not just do it on your own. Just so you know, that’s an option in the game.”

Then, if you want to hammer it home, sure, make the opposition overwhelming. Maybe have the locals ask for help in learning how to defend themselves. But it all starts by pointing out what you think should be obvious, because it isn’t always obvious to others. That advice doesn’t just fit here (as I mentioned that in a couple later panels), so keep it in mind when you’re watching the table react to new situations. Don’t just rely on pressing in-character buttons to communicate what you see as obvious.

– Ryan


9 Responses to Telling Players the Obvious

  1. Dave T. Game says:

    This is part of why my GMing style is to throw my own cool ideas in for the players to consider: the stuff in your GM brain may not be as well-communicated to the table. And with your specific example, if there’s a reason the players don’t want to train up the locals, they’ll bring it up and hopefully put their own idea up instead.

    (As an aside, I had a Seven Samurai-style adventure that failed PRECISELY ALONG THESE LINES.)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      The other side is, of course, that they don’t have to take the option. After all, it is an “option” for a reason. :)

      Also, we totally brought up “watch Seven Samurai” in the panel.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      There’s also more that could be said about how to present such things, but that’s a longer post that involves different types of players. Talking about rules is one way to do it. “If you guys are interested in the mass combat rules, you could train up the locals…”

      Or refer to other media: “Training up the locals could be another resource for the big fight. Think Mass Effect 3 or Seven Samurai.”

      Or even just be explicit about your thoughts: “I was thinking that training the locals could be a cool quest on its own, but I’m flexible.”

      – Ryan

  2. Lenny Balsera says:

    It’s kind of amazing to me, how much “new-school” GMing advice basically comes down to, “Be unsubtle about this thing you’ve convinced yourself you need to be subtle about.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Heh, yes. And also “you’re allowed to talk to your players not just in-character.” That frees up responses to ideas to be based on player desires rather than character portrayals.

      – Ryan

  3. This is what I refer to, somewhat stupidly, as “shop talk” — the conversation that goes on between the players (incl. GM) as collaborators. A lot of good stuff happens in that talk. This is one reason why I routinely violate the “Address yourself to the players” rule in AW/DW, by the way, and thus run those games wrong. (I get what it accomplishes but what it accomplishes is not always what I am after.)

    FWIW, I often but not always try to phrase possibilities as questions, too: “Do you want to try raising an army to fight these overwhelming numbers?” I also use my two-approaches technique: “Do you want to try raising an army or maybe try infiltrating their ranks?” Even if neither approach gets embraced, it helps get things moving.

  4. John Powell says:

    tl;dr: “Talk to your players.”

  5. John Powell says: