Can I make my game better?

Not everyone asks this question, of course, but it – or some variation of it – is common enough. Sometimes, it’s just a feeling. A worry after a session, or a weight that builds as sessions dwindle in the rearview mirror.

It’s a curious question isn’t it? It invites a series of other questions. What is meant by better? Is it a struggle with a specific game or games in general? Who is asking? How much time has been spent on play, and what efforts have been made to address whatever problems are perceived with that play?

If this question doesn’t invite questions like these, and more, and on an ongoing basis, then is there really a game group or is it a few individuals tempting fate both in fiction with their characters and in fact with their use of leisure time? Is anyone driving the bus to Funtown, or are the passengers expecting the bus to find its own way there? Do we even agree on where Funtown is?

Can we improve our games? Can we make them better?

What does better mean? Does it mean system mastery? Does it mean creativity? Does it mean description? Does it mean character development? Character action? Recognizable story forms and beats? Does it mean earned success or believable success? Does it mean dice? Doritos? Danger? Drama? Does it mean long-form play? Short? Does it mean sticking with one system or sampling many? Does it mean the same thing to everyone in the group and does it mean it all the time?

Can we improve our games?

Yes and No

I’ll bite: Can we improve our games? It’s possible. It is just as possible that in this instance, and perhaps more besides, it isn’t. Usually posts like this are all positive and full of encouragement, but this post isn’t a post like that, it’s its very own thing.

Why? Well, it is a matter of how much attention we have been paying to the people involved and how they interact with each other, the system, and the setting. Just as much, it matters how much of what happens in play is the result of conscious decision rather than habit or convenience. Momentum, habit, and a willingness to look away from growing signs of trouble in favor of enjoying a present moment of goodness – however illusory it might be – are powerful forces.

How much of the game is really in our hands, and how much are we simply leaving to luck and wishful thinking?

If we aren’t willing to take more control of how we play, then the answer is going to be in the negative in regard to any question of whether we can make our games better. If we are willing, then we come right up against the reality that there might be a little bit of work involved in our play. Like anything worth doing, practice points the way toward the attainment of perfection. Interestingly, the closer we get to what we once perceived as perfection, the more our notion of perfection changes. In my experience though, by the time this has happened, the pursuit of that elusive perfection has become a pleasure of its own and cannot rightly be called a problem at all. That this happens for me is not proof that it can happen for you, but it also isn’t proof that it won’t. Try it, you might like it~

There will be parts, however, that we might not like or that we might not be willing to accept or implement. We might have to change games, because we have been playing one that doesn’t match one or more major requirements of the group. We might have to change the distribution of roles and responsibilities in the group – perhaps radically, perhaps just to a new person. We might have to add or subtract one or more people. Finding new people can feel like a lot of effort at times (for some it is effort all of the time), but removing people from the equation of the group is worse in my experience. Imagine if you played with people who had the sense and sensitivity to remove themselves from a game that they were dragging down? Imagine if you played with people with the sense and sensitivity to choose games and pitches that fit the group as a whole from the start? In my experience, a lack of ability to predict the future is far harder to improve in humanity than common decency, but I could be wrong on that score.

So, if we were trying to turn a no into a yes, what would we need to work on?

Attention is paid, not earned

There is a lot of talk now about what has become known as Session 0. I fully support and encourage this process, but it cannot end there. Paying a lot of attention at the start cannot be simply lobbying for and winning a debate over what game to play and leaving the rest to chance. It cannot be about choosing who to play with and then just winging the rest. It cannot be about just being nice. Attention begins with the holy trinity of being willing to Talk with the Players, Choose the Right Game for those Players, and Be Part of Solutions for that Game and those Players (don’t be a dick). This is where it starts. It does not end here nor does the Trinity end once the play begins. We are gamers and the Trinity is our flag, our uniform, and our Oath of Office.

Reflection is not a mirror

We are not prescient, nor do the flowers of our collaborative creativity bloom in identically perfect blossoms – we need to monitor how things come to differ from what we may have all agreed to, and we should be ready to understand and discuss how those changes affect our shared enjoyment of play. Session 0 cannot simply be a memory of what we did when we picked the game. To be true to the decisions we made when we started and be true to the decisions we want or need to make now, and to even see what is really going on, we need to take the time to consider and reflect on the game, both alone as individuals and together as the group. This isn’t something that has to be heavy and a cause for telling people to play right. For me, almost all of the time, it is a celebration of the game and its players.

Session 0 then, never really ends. It must be allowed to cast a long shadow down through the weeks, months, and years of play. A shadow, please note, does not change or force its environment to conform to it, rather it conforms to the shape it encounters, adding a perspective of time and distance that reaches back to the point of origin and colors what it crosses. It adds information, and if we look hard, we should be able to discern its shape and how that shape has changed with distance and a shifting of the light.

Casting metaphors and shadows aside for a moment of clarity, there is much to be gained from reflecting on our group, our play, and our behavior to assess how things are going. It might be a moment, or it might be a chat outside of game time, or it might be a course correction meeting instead of game time. Session 0 comes before play. Other such sessions, take place as a regular part of the ongoing experience of play. If they don’t, then what happens in the group and where we end up is just luck. We can not prevent the bad times and we cannot repeat the good times. We aren’t running the game, the game is running on its own.

Session 0 can take a lot of forms along a (wait for it) spectrum of options ranging from accepting a specific and detailed pitch from one player to brainstorming and deciding to execute an idea as a group of players. Regardless of approach, things still change. They change in play and because of play, and because of work, and diapers, and cancer, and mood, and misunderstanding, and because of all the myriad messes that make us more than meat. Regardless of approach, even if we assume that we are there to realize the clear and planned path of one particular person or in the other extreme if we assume that we are all to be equally making things up as we go, things can turn out to be not what we as a group wanted. What then is to be done about that? Do we cancel it because it isn’t what we wanted or do we identify and then fix what needs to be fixed?

Are these sessions 0 and course correction sessions all that can be done?

Decisions, decisions

Once we get to this point of seeing things that need to change and acting on them, we find ourselves putting some work into our game; social and analytical work, but work nonetheless. This can be too much for some. Some would prefer to ‘just play.’

For those who put very little into their games, this minimalist strategy can work wonders. It can be a fantastic recipe for fun providing no one screws it up with differing expectations. With little invested, it is a simple matter to pivot quickly to something else, or to jettison the game altogether. Play can be as simple as ‘just add water’ and voila, a tasty snack is ready for the whole gang. In contrast, a game that asks for or is given more effort can be a delicious stew – providing all the ingredients are present and no one adds too much or too little of anything.

This recipe is more complicated. More can go wrong, and it isn’t always obvious what it was that went wrong. Worse, it isn’t always possible to fix it. Sometimes you can keep it on the stove a little longer, or remedy a lack of flavor with a pinch of seasoning. Sometimes you do actually have to throw the thing out, change the ingredients, pay more attention to the preparation and process, and start again. If you don’t, you are left with a meal you don’t really want to eat, ether because it is bland and uninteresting or because it actually leaves a bad taste in your mouth. How do you know which you have to do? A quick glance back at the headers reveals my thoughts on the matter. We might not actually know what to do, but building a process that includes reflection on play and paying attention to the people we play with can provide a lot of useful information when having to make such a decision.

In my experience, for what it’s worth, an enjoyable game is also enjoyable to talk about. What are people thinking has happened and will happen next? What do they intuit about the characters in play? How did they feel when the dice hit the table? What are they planning to do with their characters in play and in terms of development? What are favorite moments about someone else’s character? What are moments of brilliance from the GM (if there is one)? How is the group moved to action or emotion by the setting and circumstances of play? Is the feedback some variation on the expected ‘good game’ or are there specifics – good and bad? Who is thinking about adding or taking on a different role in the group? Who is struggling with something and could use some flexibility and understanding?

Conclusion?

In the end, like with most things, we get out what we put in. If we are in the habit of just showing up and just playing, then we should not be surprised if the group breaks up, that the game falters or collapses, that goals are not understood and are not met, and that fun is fickle. After all, nothing was being done to ensure those things would go well. If things have been going well, we should feel thankful for being so lucky. Autopilot is great until it encounters a situation beyond its capabilities. Worse, a habit is often something we just do, without even thinking about it, not necessarily something we enjoy.

With an eye on things, with a bit of consideration, with a bit of involvement in how things are going it is possible to have a better game for all participants.

Or, we could just rely on luck~

Comments
5 Responses to “Can I make my game better?”
  1. Batjutsu says:

    Who is driving the bus? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YulZ4qZz7M
    A great article, in particular I loved the point about Session 0 never really ending 😀 It is always Casting Shadows, an important consideration, and a good play on the blog name 😉

  2. Last D&D session, I was getting back in the saddle DMing White Plume Mountain after a multi-week hiatus where another in our group was GMing a Star Wars mini-campaign for us. Before we started we got to talking about D&D group horror stories you can find in abundance on Reddit. And we were so grateful to have such a steady and considerate group of friends to game with.

    I think it also helps that we pass GM duties back and forth. Everybody’s got GM and Player experience in our group. Creates a lot of understanding of the pressures and rewards of both roles.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Absolutely! The healthiest and most creative groups I have had the pleasure to be in were those that had multiple people who wanted to run games and play in them. For a while, living over here, I regretted missing out on big conventions, but I have come back around to finding more pleasure in gaming with friends~

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