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.