Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Breaking Through The Wall

Although a common term, the idea of The Wall usually springs to my mind when you talk about exercising or running. However, I think the idea is equally applicable to gaming, and especially GMing long-running campaigns.

I've been playing in a Traveller campaign since May of 2007. It has been a long and frustrating experience, and although I've mentioned it in a few articles here now and then, I probably have never expressed the full scope of how annoying the whole situation has been.

I joined this group being formed via an advert on a mailing list. As a general rule I don't game with people I don't know (they don't have to be friends, but I want to test drive the car before I sign the deal), but as my gaming circle was shrinking and I hadn't been in a game in a while, I signed on and went ahead with it. It was a decent crowd of folks, but I had immediate reservations for two reasons. Foremost was that the GM was a total gaming neophyte, and this campaign was going to be her first campaign, and while I don't like to think of myself as a Problem Player, I was hesitant to sign onto a shakedown cruise.

The second reason I was hesitant was that two of the other three players knew the GM already, as one was a player in her first and only RPG campaign, and the other was her GM for that game. Now, most of us gaming vets have GMed for players who were our GMs off and on - in a long running gaming group, this is all but inevitable and we all eventually hammer out who runs what best and should run most often - no big whup. However, this other GM was not only 12 years older than me (and I'm two years older than our GM), but had been gaming for 25+ years.

To make matters worse, I could tell rather quickly that he was going to be, if not a Problem Player, at least a Difficult Player. Too narrow a history of gaming experience, too long being a GM for his own (20+ year long) campaign and not enough time as a player, and worst of all, it was he who introduced our GM to Traveller in the first place, since he had been a player in a Traveller campaign 20+ years ago in college. And in fact, we'd be starting the game with his old PC (a Major General and a Duke of the Realm) and his 400 million credit super-yacht (the yacht carried a TL 15 grav-tank aboard that could probably shoot down the yacht itself in open space combat). All our other PCs would be working for this Duke, and sailing around in his ship.

I don't think I need to get into the gory details of how that situation worked out...

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I'm dropping out of sessions for one reason or another, we're not meeting for weeks on end, everyone's frustrated, and over IM one day I tell the GM:

"Look - I'm not giving you an ultimatum of 'make it better or I'm leaving', but if things don't get more interesting soon, I don't know how much longer I can keep up the enthusiasm needed to get on the subway every week and show up for gaming."
Which was, of course, a nice way of saying "Make it better or I'm leaving". We had gotten to a stalemate in the game where the GM was unwilling to hand us a suitably exciting challenge because A) She was (I feel) intimidated by the system, and B) She was (I'm sure) intimidated by the older player who was her GM in the other RPG. He knew the Traveller rules better than her and was always pulling them out and pouring over them with a fine toothed comb, as well as second-guessing everything she did because he'd often feel that it wasn't "true to the way the Traveller universe worked" (he was constantly irritated by the notion that planets would have an "Internet" because there wasn't one in the original Traveller, despite the fact that any sufficiently advanced computer network is going to begin having some sort of "web" and it isn't that far fetched since there's been an "Internet" of sorts since the time Traveller was created, but I digress).

It became clear to me that we'd never get to have any big, exciting, dangerous adventures because our GM was loathing the occasion when she makes the first big, exciting, dangerous decision and this older player immediately begins tearing it apart and bogging the game down to the point where they both start shouting at each other (it's happened to a lesser degree several times already). It was the reason we almost never got into any kind of violent altercations, and the reason why most of our adventures ended with a fizzle instead of a bang (of one kind or another).

So finally a few weeks ago we were talking on IM, and I told her:

"Look - you can't be afraid to make big decisions and force us to react to them. [the older player] might complain, but it's your game and you run the show. You need to blow through this fear of giving the PCs a spanking and kicking us into the gutter because it's the only way things will start to get interesting around here. Sometimes as a GM, you need to learn that it's OK to kick the puppy."

I had said similar things to her in the past, but without much success. But this time, after my mini-rant, I had given her a few ideas as to where she could take the plot and drop us in the dungheap so we'd have the fun of digging ourselves out. Last night, to my pleasant surprise, she took one of those ideas, twisted it around a little, polished it up, and threw it at us like a brick.

It was great.

The older player, of course, began tearing things apart from the get-go. However, the GM just rode it out, explained things as best as she could, and let him sit in his own poop until he smartened up and realized that - ta da - here's the adventure and excitement that he had been complaining he wasn't getting, while at the same time being the reason it wasn't happening in the first place. He was still something of an over-meticulous dweeb about everything, but at the end of the day, he was happier after that game than we had seen him in a long time.

We've still got a long way to go. We didn't actually engage in any combat last night (although our launch was damaged by a surface-to-air missile), but that is no doubt coming next session, and for the first time in ages, we're all eagerly awaiting the next session of the campaign. And it's all because our GM screwed up her courage, said "Eff it, let's go", and Broke Through the Wall.

Questions, Comments? I normally loathe that whole "Oh look, how funny is it that so-and-so is blogging about the same thing I am! Tee Hee!" thing, but it is amusing that over at Grognardia there's an interesting article on Traveller posted yesterday. Go figure.


Anonymous said...

Man, she has alot more patience than I do. I'd have hit him with a brick long ago! Excellent article!

sirlarkins said...

"Look - you can't be afraid to make big decisions and force us to react to them. [the older player] might complain, but it's your game and you run the show. You need to blow through this fear of giving the PCs a spanking and kicking us into the gutter because it's the only way things will start to get interesting around here. Sometimes as a GM, you need to learn that it's OK to kick the puppy."

That's probably the best GMing advice I've ever read.

Ben Overmyer said...

"Sometimes as a GM, you need to learn that it's OK to kick the puppy."

This comment is going in my signature internet-wide. You, sir, are brilliant.

taichara said...

"Ye gods."

That in a nutshell was my first reaction to this little tale, and I have to give kudos and a little bit of stunned amazement to your GM -- because I would have had the rules-lawyering obnoxious git out of my game a long long time before things hit that point.

Never even minding that his monstrous PC got into the game; I wonder, really, since he'd been playing Traveller for so long -- was he even capable of remembering that Traveller started as a ruleset and the setting is still bloody optional?

Just ... gaah. My sympathies to you, your fellow players and your GM. And your advice was bloody brilliant.

Badelaire said...

Thanks for everyone's great replies. Much appreciated!

With regards to our "Problem Player", unfortunately he was the person who not only introduced our GM to gaming and gave her the Traveller rules to read (thus motivating her to run a game), but he's also a neighbor and friend (although I think this campaign has strained that friendship somewhat - the GM gets along far better with his girlfriend, who plays in his campaign).

So telling him to piss off and leave the group would have been, at best, a very difficult and problematic decision.

But don't think I haven't suggested it several dozen times...

S'mon said...

The guy just needs to be told to SHUT UP.

I do think Traveller attracts some particularly difficult personalities, for some reason.