Few game masters (GMs) and players seem to think about the issue of communication. Yet, I believe it to be essential to a good (i.e., fun) game. Let’s take a look at a few of the ways that communication can improve your game.
Areas for Communication
Ask your players what sorts of plots they like–preferably before you start your game. Ask them what genres they like and don’t like. Privately, if possible, ask them which topics they just wouldn’t feel comfortable tackling in the forum of a roleplaying game.
Why? Simple. If you know which plots and genres they like and don’t like, you can tailor your game to appeal to your players. If it appeals to them, they’ll enjoy it more. They’re less likely to ignore your plots, gripe or miss runs if they like what you give them. If you know which topics they don’t feel comfortable with then you can avoid those topics. This avoids discomfort, anger, hurt feelings and worse.
Many GMs allow their players to write up background for their characters–family, history, likes, dislikes, past traumas, friends and enemies, plot hooks, etc. Go over your players’ character backgrounds before the game starts. If you don’t like something that you see, point it out to the player. Explain why you don’t like it. Work together with her to solve the problem.
Why? Because if you hide your head in the sand and hope that the “bad” detail goes away, it won’t. It’ll just cause you trouble later, when you can’t fix it as easily (and when any fixes are almost guaranteed to cause hard feelings). By talking to the player you may find out that the “problem” isn’t a problem after all. Or at least you can get the player to fix it in a way that will make both of you happy. By explaining why you think the detail is a problem, you not only increase the chances of the player finding a solution that makes you happy, but you keep her from thinking that you’re being arbitrary, vindictive or capricious. Again you avoid hard feelings.
If you have a good idea of what your players like and don’t like, and you tailor the game to them, they won’t be as likely to ignore your pet plots. Thus, you’re less likely to feel that you have to “railroad” them into doing what you want them to do.
If you’re in tune with your players and talking to them about how the game is going, you’re more likely to view the game as a group activity rather than “your story.” This also means you’re less likely to railroad the characters into playing the game exactly as you want to see it come out, which means the players are more likely to enjoy themselves. You’ll also enjoy yourself more, too, when you’re not struggling against your players all the time.
First, if you remember to ask for players’ reasons when they do things that bother you, you may find out that they aren’t trying to cheat after all. You may find out that the “cheating” is actually a misunderstanding. Perhaps the player’s last gaming group did things a little differently than yours, and he didn’t realize the differences. If you communicate with your players, you can fix misunderstandings like this without hard feelings.
If you still think they were cheating but they insist that it was a misunderstanding, let them have their public fiction as long as they stop. If it helps them to feel a little less embarrassed and they fix the bad behavior, then who cares? There’s no need to drive the point home unless they continue to cheat. Giving a warning before punishing is a good idea anyway; it helps to prevent bad feelings.
Players who cheat can often be stopped by telling them privately that you’ve noticed and explaining that if they do it again, you’ll punish them in some way, such as by docking experience points. If you tell them to stop they might not, but if you don’t tell them to stop then they certainly won’t!
If you decide to punish a player for cheating, you must explain why you’re punishing them, preferably when you punish them. Many GMs just dock experience points or screw over the character and they never explain why. People don’t automatically draw the connection between their behavior and your response unless it’s made extremely obvious to them (take any basic psychology class and you’ll find this out). If you make the connection clear, the punishment may actually convince them to alter their behavior. If you don’t, they have no reason to alter their behavior. They’ll just think that you’re being capricious, and then they’ll probably become even more antagonistic.
Involving Your Players in Fixing Problems
If there’s a problem, get your players to help you fix it. For example, let’s say that you discover after the game starts that some of the characters just don’t work well together. It’s pulling the group apart and resulting in bored and frustrated players. You need to fix it. Instead of declaring that a character must change in a certain way, or trying to warp things to make what you want happen, sit down with your players. Explain what the problem is and ask them to help you fix it.
If you enlist your players as your allies, they’re much less likely to view the player-GM relationship as an antagonistic one. This means they’re much less likely to cause you problems. It also means that any solution the group comes up with is inherently more likely to please everyone involved, and people are less likely to feel that you’re being capricious or vengeful. This makes everyone much, much happier!
If you communicate well with your players, they’re more likely to trust you. If they trust you they’re less likely to challenge your rulings, grumble about your decisions or undermine your authority.
If you really develop an atmosphere of trust, you can take advantage of it in all sorts of ways. If you can trust your players then you can use them to make your job easier. You can have them give you write-ups (and maybe even character sheets) of any NPCs mentioned in their character backgrounds. You can let them put interesting and useful plot hooks in their character backgrounds, without having to worry about whether or not they’re trying to slip something past you. This makes for a lot less work on your part!
Trust also means that your players will trust you to know what you’re doing more often. They’re more likely to let you take the game in directions they’re uncertain about. They’re more likely to go along with any weird ideas you have for how to do things.
Finding Out about Problems
If you’ve fostered an air of communication with your players, you’re much more likely to find out about problems before they become real issues. Your players will tell you when something makes them unhappy, or at least they’re more likely to say something in your presence. This makes it easier for you to fix things, and to make sure that everyone has fun–including you.
Pulling Your Players In
If you listen to your players chat, before and after the game, you can find out what pulls them into your game. Pay attention when they say “wow, things just flew past tonight!” or “that was an amazing game!” If you develop a habit of chatting with them about the game, you’re likely to hear these things. Over time, this will help you figure out how to draw people into the game, how to make it more intense for everyone. This is one of the keys to a truly amazing and memorable game.
Most players love to talk about their characters. Grab them now and then before or after the game and ask them questions. How is their character doing? How are they enjoying the run? What are they looking forward to? Sculpting a run to really draw people in is rewarding for both GM and player.
In short, communication is the road that makes all other RPG endeavors easier. It’s the grease on the wheels of fun. It lets you head problems off at the pass, run a better game, and use your players to make your job easier. It stops most cheaters cold, makes fixes to problems easier, reduces your load of headaches, and solves world hunger in five easy steps. Okay, I may be getting a little over-enthusiastic here. But really, communication shows up somewhere in almost every article on GMing that I end up writing, and that’s for a good reason. Give it a try. I don’t think you’ll regret it.