Be Interested

When you look out from behind your GM screen at all those beaming faces, there is a natural human tendency to focus on what is interesting. Chuck is doing cool stuff, so you pay attention to Chuck. You react to what he’s doing, which means the game world does too. The other players aren’t doing anything interesting (or as interesting) so for the moment they are just along for the ride.

But here’s the thing: part of your job is to run the game for all the players, not just some of them.

Group social dynamics is a complex ball of wax, and games are just social situations. Who’s bored, who’s interested, who’s disenfranchised or secretly pissed — these can be tricky things to stay on top of in the middle of a game, particularly when you’re also trying to figure out what spell the witch should cast next round.

It would be great if every GM was a natural social wunderkind and could stay in tune with every player without any effort, but the truth is there is nothing I can say that will magically give you better social skills — that’s just where you spent your points me bucko. Instead let’s forget about complexity and focus on one simple thing anyone can do:

Be interested in each of the player characters.

Don’t worry about what that means, or how that will change your behavior as a GM. If you are genuinely interested in each character and what happens to them, curious even, you will naturally pay attention to them in the game. When a player is sitting quietly you’ll stop and ask “Hey Mikey, what’s going on with your navigator guy? What’s he think about all this?” because you’ll want to know.

I’m not talking about pretending to be interested in order to engage the player (though it will do that), I’m talking about having genuine interest in that character.

I Endanger Because I Love

Here’s what happens: when you are interested in each character, you pay attention to them, which means the game world pays attention to them. That doesn’t mean that each character has to be equally important within the game world, they just have to be equally important to you, the GM and therefore to the game.

In a particular West Marches game (session #53 if you must know) one character was having a toe-to-toe magical duel with the sorcerer-outlaw Armuth the Crooked while another less powerful character scrambled under a wagon to hide from the other bandit thugs.

The normal reaction would be “ah, the first character is doing something cool, let’s pay attention to that — the other character is just ducking out of the scene so we’ll ignore her.” Oh no my friend. I’m into the clash of magical powers, but I’m also totally into the character hiding under the wagon. What’s that character thinking? Is it scary? Is she scrambling behind a wagon wheel? And when some grimy bandit trudges right past the hiding character, it’s dramatic and interesting to me — I want to know how it turns out, so I run it as being interesting, not unimportant.

Note the obvious contradiction: the hiding character is having no impact on the situation. The magician is blasting people and really deciding the day. But because I care about the characters more than just who wins, I want to know how each character reacts to the situation. I want to know all about each character’s subjective experience, because that is the heart of the game. Careful observers will also note that this holds the secret to running games with characters of mixed power levels.

Is there a player character in your game that just doesn’t interest you or feel kind of ‘blah’ about? That’s a problem. Even a mundane interest in seeing whether this character lives or dies is a start. Ask questions until you start getting interesting answers. Push, don’t ignore.

    Ben Robbins | February 27th, 2008 | , , | hide comments
  1. […] read everything Ben Robbins has ever written about GMing, but start with these two recent posts: Be Interested and Bad Trap […]

  2. #4 ben robbins says:

    “But how I wish that I’d been given the advice put forth in this post all those years ago, when I ran games as a kid!”

    Thanks Eric — me too! ;)

  3. #3 Tommi says:

    Good post.

    I think that the advice about being interested is something players should live by, too. Be interested in other player characters, prominent NPCs and whatever other things are central to the game.

  4. #2 bignose says:

    I’ve been reading Burning Empires with much interest. One of the core mechanics is a formal breakdown of game sessions into scenes: during every stage in the story (called a “maneuver”) the player characters each get an allotment of three scenes of various types (one “color”, one “building”, one of either “conflict” or “interstitial”). Each of the different scene types has a game-mechanical effect, so the players need to use them all to get what they want for their characters. The GM’s major characters also get an allotment of scenes, usually fewer than those of the PCs.

    This “scene economy”, it is reported by those who play the game, leads to very intense play — there’s always more the players want to get done than will fit into their alloted scenes, so they have to decide what’s *really* important right now — and it also ensures that everyone’s characters gets a fair chance at spotlight time.

  5. #1 Eric Ullman says:

    Ben, my man, I’ve recently gotten back to gaming (~4 years) and GMing (~1 year) after a near-decade-long hiatus. I’ll be turning 40 this year, and I started gaming as a pup, so I’ve been around a bit. I started reading your blog about a year ago, having found it when I started getting serious about putting up the GM screen again. You’ve written tons of excellent stuff, and I’ve learned a great deal from your posts. (Thank you, from both me and my players.)

    But how I wish that I’d been given the advice put forth in this post all those years ago, when I ran games as a kid! I think this is very likely the single most important advice for GMs that I’ve ever read. It’s so simple, yet it gets right to the heart of the matter of what role playing is about. It’s something EVERY GM can do, no matter what their level of social mastery or what the game is. It just _applies_.

    Thank you. I’ll remember this one always and be a better GM for it.

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