The Culture Beneath the Stairs
By Conan McKegg
Best of the Best: What Constitutes Good Gaming? Part I - The Players
If there is something that I hear more often than anything else amongst gamers, it's the common habit of identifying certain players and GMs as "the best GM/Player I have ever met" or, conversely, "the worst GM/Player I have ever met." It seems that regardless of where I go, or which roleplaying group I speak to, this is one of the most common statements around.
But what is really being said here? In some cases it is that standard statement that is rife in the roleplaying community - "that GM/Player/Person doesn't do things my way, so they must be bad." Yet in other cases there really does seem to be something more being said here. It is something more to do with how enjoyable a game is, rather than the style of the GM/Player.
So over the next two articles, I want us to start discussing what it is that makes us enjoy a game. Let's see if there are some attributes that we can recognise as "good gaming" regardless of whether we personally like the genre or style of the game.
To help facilitate this discussion, I shall present a number of examples of GM and Player habits that seem to be universally desirous or harmful to a good game. I'll also discuss my personal feelings on these, in order to get the debate going.
In this article I shall look at Players. Next article, GMs.
Bad, Bad, Gamer!
We hear many of these names all the time when people refer to bad gamers. Twinks, Munchkins, rules lawyers, roll-players, combat beasts... But are all these things necessarily signs of bad gaming? Surely a group consisting of rule lawyers will be in high heaven, playing their games and constantly referring to the rules to make sure everything is perfectly in place. The Combat Beasts, they'd all be happy if they were together in a high-action game with large numbers of opponents. Right?
So what are the truly bad gamers? What are the attributes that would demonise someone as a truly, truly awful gamer? The following are the more identifiable types of players that often are called "bad gamers."
- Munchkins: We have all likely heard of this title by now. Munchkins are not all precisely the same, contrary to what some may believe. There seem to be a number of "subtypes" that would appear, to me anyway, to relate to how they have offended other players. Regardless of type, Munchkins are min-maxer players. That is to say, they balance out all their stats and abilities to gain the maximum benefit with the minimum amount of drawback. The most skilled munchkins can even turn a flaw into a benefit. I remember the player with the berserker with a short-fuse and uncontrollable rage. Didn't matter to him if the PCs got harmed, it made his berserk rages last longer and happen more often...
- Loners: I am sure we have all either played this type or had someone play it in a game. Sometimes it would seem to be a spin-off from the angst ridden games of the nineties, but in reality, the Loner is the product of players who took the idea of a Solo from Cyberpunk too far. This is the player who always does things his way and never relates or interacts favourably with the other players. Often the worst offender of the defence "But it's what my character would do!" Somewhat similar to the Actor type, the Loner player always takes rebellious PCs who do everything in their power to keep away from the other PCs. Nothing can convince them to work with others. The bad player element is that this player either ends up taking up a lot of the GMs time doing his own thing while the other players sit around and get bored... or spends a large amount of time sitting around being bored because the GM focuses on the other players. (The outcome of which is usually the Loner accusing "that GM is a bad GM.")
- Boasters: Okay, I will come clean here. This is a type that I am sometimes guilty of. I've finally made a character that I really like, and I just can't stop telling everyone in the group how cool this character is. All the time. Look! He's rich! Look he's got better attack scores than your character! Look! He's ... and it's usually at this point that I'm lucky enough to have my friend Stephanie tell me to "shut the hell up." Nothing pisses people off more than to be made to feel that their character is just not as good as someone else's; especially if the concepts were never meant to be the same. Sure, we get excited about a new game, but there really is never any need to show off and tell everyone how kewl your PC is.
- Actors: This is another type of player who will often do something that derails the game and then decry the defence "but it's what my character would do!" Actors feel that you are only a roleplayer if you genuinely act out your character. Actors emote. They feel and they sometimes end up making royal asses of themselves by just going too far. The worst crime an Actor can commit, though, is expecting every other player to make the effort to do voices and actions. The bad gamer aspect comes from an actor just not recognising that not everyone plays the same way.
- Attention Seekers: In a way, Attention Seekers are like Actors. They tend to be flamboyant and loud at the gaming table. But whereas Actors will often give other players a chance to do something - after all, it allows for more chances for them to interact with characters - Attention Seekers must be at the centre of the story. All. The. Time. They will continually ask questions of the GM when it is someone else's turn, they will always aim to get in first on every discussion and event. They will even display PC teleportation abilities to appear in every scene. Often combined with the Boaster type, although not always, they can be a really annoying gamer for both GM and Players.
- Rules Lawyers:You know the type. The Rules Lawyer has read every book in the game system. He knows all the rules off by heart, and isn't afraid of correcting a rules violation, even if it is the GM who committed it. Rules Lawyers are a very common sight amongst gaming groups.
Of course the list could just go on. However the thing that I immediately note whenever looking at any of this list is that there are usually a few traits that are universal to all these types of players.
The first is that they are selfish. Every one of these player types is only thinking about what they are getting out of the game and what kind of character/style/rules they want to play. They will do things because they expect something from the game that they have just assumed all the other players also want.
Secondly, they tend to be unaware of this solipsistic behaviour. They genuinely believe that they are excellent gamers, but they will often be quick to note that the other players "just aren't up to par."
Finally, they don't always understand the point of the game or genre they are in. These are the players who will create a character who behaves totally out of genre for no particular reason.
Seeing the Good in the Bad
So what can be done - either as players or as GMs - to get the best result from all this? You could ask these players to leave the game, but this seems a bit extreme to me. After all, these are friends who genuinely want to have a good game. They might not even be that bad all the time, and it is simple gaming that seems to bring out these bugbear characteristics.
In a way, I feel that despite the negative aspects of these styles of gaming - there is something good to be gleaned from them as well. The trick is for the other players and GM to note the benefits that can be gained from the annoying habits. A lot of the time I find that even the worst munchkin can be utilised to the best effect for the group and the game. It is a case of looking for the good aspects.
So let's consider the groups we've been discussing:
- Munchkin - Perfect Character Design: Let's face it; most twinks/munchkins know the stats system inside out. Make use of that. Get the munchkin player to help the other players best allocate their scores to represent their respective characters. The trick lies in making sure that they keep to the concepts. I have played and GMed a number of games where some players who were unfamiliar with the system ended up placing stats into skills and abilities that didn't fit their concept, nor served any purpose within the game. Munchkins can help these players make every dot and point count. This means that players get to have the exact character they aimed for - you just need to convince the munchkin that having a lower powered character is an advantage because they will get to grow into something grand... (Unless you're playing Exalted, which tends to make it even easier to deal with the munchkin player...)
- Loners - Antihero: Loners tend to be one of the toughest players to deal with. Munchkins can be utilised to help in a game, but Loners can end up derailing the best laid plans. The solution lies in two main actions. The first is much like the munchkin - and any of these types of players - talk to them about how they can help to make the game more enjoyable. Be certain not to accuse them of ruining the game, rather point out how they can change an aspect of their style to improve the game. Secondly, suggest that the Loner plays an antihero for the other PCs to play off against. Essentially, the Loner can be used to further accentuate the heroic choices of the other PCs. Chances are, eventually the Loner will warm up to the idea of joining the team - and still gets to play his/her favourite character and provides your group with some very intense roleplaying. Just remember to convince the Loner that they can be alone and individual without always abandoning the team...
Boasters - Social Character: Okay, most boasters are really just excited to play. That's why they boast. The character has turned out perfectly and they just get carried away. Tap into that enthusiasm. Get the Boaster to talk to people about the game, get him/her to help the other players with character backgrounds and interacting with the group. The Boaster is the person you should be able to expect will talk to every PC and NPC. Take them aside and again talk to them. Make them feel that their character will be more helpful if he/she is strong in one particular area that will keep the team together. Yes, pander to their ego a little, but promote their enthusiasm even more. You'll soon find that it will wash off on to the other players.
- Actors - Inspiration for other players: Okay, this type can be either a blessing or a curse. On one hand, they are lively and fun; on the other, they can over cloud everyone else and make the other players feel that they aren't good at roleplaying. Again, tap into the Actor's desire to play in character to inspire the other players to give it a go. Rather than reward the Actor for acting, reward the other players whenever they try to play. Get the Actor onboard and tell him/her that you want help in getting the other players to try to act in character more. For rewards I'd suggest something non-game related. Take a leaf out of QAGS and reward the players with sweets or a chocolate bar if they make an effort. If some players don't like acting - and some players really don't like it at all - then reward them whenever they get involved in a prolonged character interaction.
- Attention Seekers - Challenge Other Players: Much like the Actor, the Attention Seeker can be used to challenge those players who are shy into taking a more active part in the game. Again, talk to the Attention Seeker and convince them to give the other players a chance at the light. Make it sound as if the Attention Seeker is the glue. Their enthusiasm will be like the Boaster's - something you should tap into and use to the advantage of the group as a whole.
- Rules Lawyers - Conflict resolution and assistant GM: This is pretty self-explanatory. The Rules Lawyer can be dealt with in a number of ways. One way is to declare ˇ°the GM has ultimate fiat over what rules applyˇ± - but this is a rather antagonistic approach that can seriously go bad for you. The other way is to again tap into the benefits. Rules Lawyers are especially handy in rules-heavy systems; have them deal with the combat complexities, freeing the GM to focus on the narrative aspects. Get them to play certain NPCs or handle certain mechanical details so that the GM can focus on narrative.
Ultimately, the best ways to improve someone's bad habits are to find ways to help them overcome those habits. Rather than kick them out or accuse them of ruining the game, be honest - but also provide solutions that use the better elements of their gaming habits. You will find that with the positive responses from the rest of the group, the player will begin to develop more team-like habits.
I once said that the oddest paradox about roleplaying games is that they are primarily a social form of play that attracts a lot of people who are not renowned for their social skills. Yet, the best way to develop social skills is to roleplay. To me the sign of a good roleplayer is someone who is inclusive in their style of gaming - allowing other players their opportunities and helping the lesser players improve and develop their own styles.
Game Masters better not think that they are going to get away scot-free though - next time we'll look at what makes a bad GM, what can be done to fix it, and finally I'll sum up with some ideas as to what we might mean when we refer to good gaming...
Remember - you can always contact me at Culture Beneath The Stairs if you would
like to discuss any of the ideas I mention, or have any other questions relating to this
Until next time! Take Care!