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My husband and I raced in the Run for your Lives zombie 5k this weekend. It was largely a good experience, except for the terrible waiting at the parking lot. The race producers had decided to set up a shuttle bus to take people from there to the main site. Cars got stuck in the mud on the way to park, the race had too few buses, there were long lines, and people had time to get grumpy–and to let that grumpiness bounce off of the grumpiness of others and multiply– before they got to the part of the race that had been done well. Unfortunately, the same experience on the way back out meant that a largely positive race experience was bookended by two unpleasant experiences. The result? A lot of needlessly unhappy racers.
As most things do, it got me thinking about games. I’ve generally been most unhappy at gaming tables where the GM forced us to sit through lots of downtime. Everyone needs to look up a rule or adjust a scene at some point, but some GMs do that much more gracefully than others. The right group will chat through downtime and have a good time–but even that will often be out of character and detract from the game. At my own table, moments of forced downtime tend to mean that everyone checks Facebook on his iPhone; God help me if someone has posted a funny internet meme, because then the players pass the phone around the table and talk about the hilarious duck dressed as a fire hydrant for the next ten minutes. Even at conventions, though, where people tend not to feel comfortable enough to check phones, downtime leads to some weird staring at one another.
What to do, then?
First, see if you can’t look through the scenario before you run it and find the places that will require downtime. Will you need to change the scenery on the table? Is there a big battle that will require you to set out lists of NPC stats behind your screen? Is there a moment in town that’s likely to split the party so that some players are sitting with nothing to do while others are going about their PCs’ personal business? Does a scene highlight the skills of one or two characters for an extended amount of time, leaving the others with nothing to do?
I’ve already handled some ideas for what to do while changing scenery, but if you can always give the players some long-term tasks to work on in moments when they’re not directly engaged with the GM or the plot. Here are some ideas for things they can work on during downtime:
- Make a code for them to work out. You might work your code into the story so they must solve it when you hand it out, but you can also have the code remain a task in the background. They can pull out and decode it when you’re setting up or others are taking their turns in town. The easiest codes are made just by typing something into your word processor, selecting all, and then choosing one of those picture fonts on your computer, like Wingdings; players can figure out how the substitution works from the letter patterns. If you want more challenging types of codes, you can use internet code makers like this one.
- Ask them to map the area through which they’re traveling, then have them do it. Other ‘produce it during downtime’ moments might be asking them to write and sing a song or draw a commissioned portrait of a particular NPC. Not all groups will go for this type of interaction, but you might try it–you’d be surprised at what your players might enjoy.
- If in town, have PCs work on individual character development by planning any letters they might send to acquaintances, key contacts, family members, etc., while waiting on the others to take their interactive turns. They can either describe these to the group, or just jot down the ideas and give them to you as future plot hooks.
- Ask those not in the spotlight to plan actively for the upcoming battle/negotiation. Sometimes players will sit and wait until things are “in the moment” to decide what to do, but if you don’t mind a bit of meta table chatter, you can listen and get a sense of what they’d like to see in an upcoming scene.
Downtime at the beginning and end of the game remains the most crucial. If you want your players to take the narrative space of the world seriously, easing them into and out of the game helps them focus and get ready for the tasks to come. Personally, I like Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts for this purpose. (Yes, I know! I sound like a broken record on this one. But they’re really good mechanically.) If you don’t want to focus that heavily on individual characters, though, you can still start by having one player recap the last session; it’s a good idea to tie a reward to the recap or to require that a different player recap the session at the beginning of each game. Otherwise, the task can fall to the same note-taking player over and over again. You might also want to give the players a moment to lay out some group goals for the game ahead. (If you’re playing WFRP3e, this might be a time to review the standings of Party Tension with the group.) You might even just start with a check-in: “How does your character feel right now as we begin the day? What do the others see as they look at him/her?”
At the end of the game, you’ll benefit by doing much the same. Ask how each character feels now, and get a sense of what his/her goals will be in the upcoming play session. That way, you’ll be able to consider each player’s hopes for the next session as you plan it.
Most importantly, each player will feel as though his time at the table has been used well, and will remember that he had the spotlight at least once or twice during the game. If you can manage that, you’ll generally have players who feel as though their pastime has been a good use of their day.
So, that game I said I wasn’t going to order (but obviously did) arrived today. So there’s that.
Also, Monday marked my first venture into GMing Mouse Guard. I was a little fussbudgety going in because I wasn’t sure if I could keep my wits about me as much as Mouse Guard requires. I generally allay my fears by prepping copiously, but found that my trusty technique didn’t really fly for MG. With only a couple of plot points written ahead of time because the game aims to be so responsive to player innovation, the prewritten material didn’t lend itself to needing a whole host of cardboard buildings or excessive highlighting/notetaking. Even my plan to pull pictures for my iPad failed, largely because I couldn’t find naturescapes with tiny mouse buildings in them. Go figure. I pulled a couple of atmospheric pictures, but they seemed so irrelevant to the feel of the game that I ultimately gave up that approach.
After a half hour of wandering around disconsolately with the rule book, I decided to make some player kits.
We are as enthusiastic about our board games as we are about our RPGs–and just as obsessive about the stuff that comes in them. As you can imagine, our place has a whole drawer full of multi-sized baggies to help organize all of the bits from each game. We separate what each player needs at the game’s start out into player kits, which speed up the beginning of the game. (This is totally normal where we come from. Believe me.) Here, for instance, is the player kit for my team in the new Blood Bowl card game:
There’s everything you need to crush the opposing teams in one handy baggie!
With idle hands and nervous energy, I decided apply the same principle to my Guardmice. I went onto the excellent Burning Wiki section dedicated to MG and downloaded the character sheets for the premade characters, deleting the prewritten Session Goals because I wanted my players to create their own. Then I either downloaded or typed up descriptions of each mouse’s starting city so that my players had a better sense of where their mice originated so their backgrounds could inform their RP.
Finally, I made copies of those awesome flow charts, too, just in case, although we didn’t find ourselves using them. I packed all of that into a clear plastic page protector, and, of course, pulled out my bag o’ mechanical pencils.
It’s not the kind of prep I’m used to, but I finally felt like I’d done my “homework,” so I could relax a bit and feel ready to go.
As for the actual game play, it seemed to go well. We had quite a bit of party tension; one mouse wanted to slip away from the party to go get revenge against a former friend who had wronged her, but her Patrol Leader wouldn’t let her out of his sight because he wanted to keep her safe. It led to some interesting tension, especially when the other two mice decided to let them fight it out and deal with the main mission head-on with rope. (When it comes right down to it, most things in RPGs can be tackled with rope.) It does seem easier in MG to split the party than in other games, because so much relies on the players just talking out their decisions; while the GM resolves one set of checks, the other team can be talking out what they want to do. Our group really enjoyed the social combat rules, having a really great time thinking up direct points, rebuttals, and confusing errata to represent their Attacks, Defends, and Feints. I let them down on combat a bit; it was our first major conflict, so I focused too much on the rules, leaving them feeling like there was no RP to combat, when in fact, I was just trying to make sure everyone knew how the order of events went. Sill, you live and learn. They seemed to enjoy learning that they had far more power to negotiate about what the world was like, but were, as I predicted, a bit nonplussed by the fact that there wasn’t as deep of a prewritten story to follow or as many premeditated puzzles/challenges to “get right.” I suppose that ultimately, I could remedy either of these in subsequent sessions, should they choose to give it another go.
Given that we’ve played WFRP for so long, they were right at home with the cards in the MG Box Set, and remarked several times on the charming illustrations and the high production value. It seemed completely worth it to have the additional pieces since it gave this far more abstract game a bit of an anchor for my players.
Overall, it was fun for me to see the group work together in a different way, and I enjoyed the experience of more free-form GMing. I may try to GM a Mouse Guard game at a convention at some point. After all, there are so many possible ways I could make newbie-friendly player kits for a convention!