That’s a lot of hats

People are clever. We can do two, three, four things at once. We can wear a lot of hats and take care of a lot of different things all at the same time.

But there’s a price. It is pretty much guaranteed that the more you try to do at once, the harder each of those things becomes. And sometimes we don’t even realize all the different things we’re doing at once. We forget to look up and count just how many hats we’re wearing. And then we wonder why we’re so worn out.

First things first: when you sit down at the table to game, you’re wearing your player hat. If it’s a game with a GM, maybe you’re the GM instead, but either way you’re trying to play the game in some capacity. Ideally that’s all you’d be doing: playing the game. Done!

Because we’re talking about gaming, you’re pretty much always wearing your player hat. But sometimes you’ve got more on your plate beyond just playing the game. Or on your head, to stick to my metaphor.

If the other people at the table don’t know how to play this particular game, someone’s got to explain the rules. Guess who? So now in addition to playing, you’re the facilitator. Even after you’ve finished describing all the rules and the game is in motion, you’re still on duty, because you’re watching to make sure the other players got it. You’re ready to clear up confusion or point out when the game has unintentionally drifted away from the rules.

Maybe this isn’t even a finished game. Maybe you’re wearing your playtester hat and keeping an eye out for glitches, rough spots or anything you should give feedback about. You may even be the game designer, in which case some part of your brain is _always_ watching and analyzing how your creation works, even if it’s supposedly finished.

If your single game is part of a larger gathering, whether that’s a con, a mini-con, or even just a (ahem) weekly public meetup, and you’re responsible for the whole thing coming together, then you’re also wearing your organizer hat. Not only are you paying attention to what’s happening in your game, you’ve probably got one ear cocked to make sure the rest of the event is going smoothly as well. Even if it’s just a simple gathering of friends in a living room, if you’re the host you are probably spending a little thought to make sure everyone is comfortable and taken care of.

Yep, that’s a lot of different hats. And yes, you can wear them all at once. You can sit down at a table as a player + facilitator + playtester + designer + organizer. You can do all those things simultaneously (trust me, I know). But recognize that when you’re wearing multiple hats, it’s going to be harder. You’re doing more work.

Play takes the hit

So if you are stretched thin, what gives first? Play. Every time. Sure, you could be a terrible organizer and get so wrapped up in your game that you don’t notice the south wing of the hall is on fire, but I’m guessing it’s more likely you’ll be distracted by the demands of the event and pay less attention to the game you’re in.

Why does playing take the hit? I guess it’s because playing is a creative process that works best when you can immerse yourself in the moment, sans distractions. All the others are logistical or logical demands that can easily butt in and grab your attention, yanking you out of the deep game space. Interrupts trump zen, particularly when you’re actually trying to attend to those interrupts.

Plan Accordingly

This explains some things we already knew, like that playtesting is never quite the same as just playing a game. You’re doing two things at once, being creative but also sitting back and analyzing (yes, criticizing) the experience so you can give useful feedback. Actually, if you’re the one explaining a playtest game to your group, they’re doing two things (play + playtest) and you’re doing at least three (play + playtest + facilitate).

Likewise when you’re organizing a game event, there’s a natural inclination to step up and run games for folks, which is awesome. But again, recognize all the different things you’re trying to do at once, particularly if you’re considering running that new game you’ve been working on all weekend (play + organize + facilitate + design + playtest). It may go great, but if you want to recharge your batteries, consider just sitting down and playing in a game someone else is putting together. That’s only two hats (organize + play) instead of five.

Bottom line: I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying know what you’re doing. If you’re aware of all the things you’re trying to do at once, it will be easier for you to keep it all under control. Recognize when you’re biting off a lot for yourself.

Blessed are the Facilitators

And while we’re at it, this should make it crystal clear that we should tip our hats to players everywhere who take on the duty of sitting down and teaching everyone else the rules. They’re working harder at the table so you can have fun and play.

Oh you facilitators, you are the gaming angels of mercy. No joke: most people don’t learn to play games from reading the rules. They learn by having someone else at the table explain to them how to play.

Facilitators, we love you.

    Ben Robbins | April 11th, 2011 | | hide comments
  1. #6 ben robbins says:

    @ ouzelum

    Given that most people don’t learn games from rulebooks, but from an experienced gamer instead, do you have any advice for choosing new games that you think a group would enjoy, or any tips for learning a new set of rules when nobody knows it?

    That’s a fairly huge kettle of fish. The only simple answer is that you should pick games that your group would like. Everybody has different tastes. Some people like tactical. Some people want character monogamy. If you want to find out if people are interested in a game pitch what the players do in the game, don’t just describe the fictional setting.

  2. #5 Geoff says:

    I was vaugely aware that I was stretching myself thin in my first campaign I ran where I was GM (play), hosting and scheduling (organizer), teaching most of the party the rules (facilitater) and learning both how to GM and the rules of the system myself (learner). After awhile of doing all that, I also became aware that if I didn’t get the opportunity occassionally (about once a month minimum) to just be a player in someone else’s game, I started feeling burned out as a GM. I was aware of that, but not on such fine terms of “why”.

    When you break it out that way, however, it suddenly makes much more sense why my games lately have felt much easier to run. I recently moved out of range of weekly in person games and have started running games with my group via Skype, with them all gathered at one friend’s house with a laptop and webcam whilst I run game from my computer. I dropped one hat by no longer being responsible for hosting and another two by switching to a system more of the players at the table were familiar with.

  3. #4 ouzelum says:

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter.

    Given that most people don’t learn games from rulebooks, but from an experienced gamer instead, do you have any advice for choosing new games that you think a group would enjoy, or any tips for learning a new set of rules when nobody knows it?

  4. #2 ben robbins says:

    @ Scholz: Ooh, good one. Yep, if there’s a facilitator, there must be a learner. The ratio can be a total mix: you might have a four people, one facilitator + three learners, or you might have that same group with one facilitator, one learner, and the other two who’ve already played the game.

    Just like you said, learning definitely distracts from creativity. That’s one of the reasons in our weekly story games meetup I strongly encourage playing the same game more than once: the first time you’re busy absorbing what to do, so you don’t really get to stretch your legs.

  5. #1 Scholz says:

    Don’t forget “learner” hat. Sometimes you are learning the game in the early stages too.
    Learning how to game, learning to play THAT game, learning the rules, learning the style, and depending on the game, learning the genre. There are probably more things to learn than that.
    I always try to play a game with experienced people first to learn some of that. But depending on the group and environment, that may not happen.

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