Thursday, October 1, 2015

GMing: Communication Is Key

I have something I call the "Tavern Problem."  It has something to do with the trope where player
characters meet in a tavern, get a patron for a job, go out to said job and come back.  Rinse and repeat.  As trite as it is, the overall trope I don't mind.  It isn't a problem, necessarily, if you and your group are doing fine with it.  If it gets you to your story and game the way you want, then keep it.

You can alter or change it however you want.  The "Problem" I have with it is a inherent externality (side effect, whatever).  It can be traced back to the origin of going to a "Tavern" for a job: Rivendell.

Damnit Elrond.

In Fellowship of the Ring, you get this moment in the council scene.  In addition to being one of the most unreadable things ever, its also the scene where our "adventuring" party, the Fellowship is born.  Everyone agrees on a course of action, and are sent off on their quest.

I mean, I give the credit to Tolkien on this one, but I'm sure it goes back to Jason and the Argonauts.  Either way, a group gets a mission, goes off on a mission.  The problem is the part where most of said group, tend to in stories, be complete strangers.  That irritates me more than anything else.

Its the most annoying part of the trope.  When players use the phrase "I just met you people..." as a excuse.  An excuse to trigger an argument with other players (not characters) and just force things to boil into a fight.  An excuse to block plot or story instead of helping it move forward.  An excuse to be an ass.

I'd prefer people to play characters that are friends.  You know, people who can work together and enjoy each others company?  That.  It's interesting to play someone who goes against the rest of the group or is a loner...  ...but doesn't work without a lot of trust and some sort of work done ahead of time.

During a Tavern Scene, characters don't have to be strangers.  You can, of course, know everyone else's character.  Your characters could have histories that go back decades.  Or months.

Uh... How?
The first problem a player could point to is that he or she doesn't have the faintest clue of what their history's together might be like.  I try to avoid asking a direct question about this.  Asking anything specific to someone without context means a player will freeze up.

So here are few things to help.

1. As a GM, you can ask useful questions to help get thoughts going.  Its fine to pause the action.  PAUSE it.  Tell everyone you are pausing things.  Discuss the relationship between characters.  Talk.  Communication is that thing you should try to get everyone to do.  Characters want something from each other internally.  If you think that players need help thinking about that, start talking with people about it, then and there.

2. The DramaSystem Robin Laws has in Hillfolk is handy for figuring some of this stuff out.  The ideas in it sort of are part of what a questionnaire can answer.  If players don't know things, then put their feet to the fire and ask questions.

3. Don't buy "I just met you people" as a explanation.  Ask a player instead, if they know anything about that character.  Don't let it fester there.  If they don't, let them know they can ask another player, out of character, questions.  Players can pause the action.  They do it all the time with a GM, they can do the same with other players.
Yeah.  Players are like this.

4. If neither players have a good answer for a thing, then make something up.  Creatively speaking, this sounds harder than it actually is.  I've always informed my players that I'll point out anything that breaks continuity or contradicts other information, but that otherwise they are free to create bits and pieces all they want.

If a player, or even you, has trouble thinking of things, that's easier to fix too.  I always have these various things around me for helping generate inspiration on the fly.  But even without those, anyone can be creative really easily: just steal ideas from something you like.  All stories do that.  Originality is a lie.  Even if other players call it out as a theft, you can adjust it a tad to fit and move on.

5. Lastly, look for sources on improv.  Improv is the best for ideas on how to help others and yourself roleplay.  One key concept is "Yes and..." or building on what others have established.  A character mentions that time with the unicorn, so you can elaborate on how he shouldn't tried to ride it, and so on.

Don't Be An Island
It's important to be aware of the dissonance that exists between you and a character you play.  GMs deal with this all the time; we aren't the crazy cultist or lunatic mad scientist we play.  There is a dissonance there, a distance.  Players can, in my experience, be unaware that they need that dissonance too.

You can play a character that is at odds with another character at every turn.  But if the other doesn't know that is planned or isn't intended as negative, it can come off as annoying or distracting.  It can create problems.

So the key is the solution that always is needed in a tabletop RPG: COMMUNICATE.  You can go down that route.  Pause the game.  Talk with other players about your characters, outside of the game.  Talk with the GM about it.  This sort of thing takes little time to conduct.

Me, I'll actually encourage situations that end in character versus character antagonism.  But I do so because I trust my players.  I try to keep people communicating.

I also let players play NPCs in combat with other players, not just to ease my load, but to help players get to engage others in conflict.  The underlying thing to all of this is that no one knows what another person is thinking.

Hence communicate.  No one can understand what you intend unless you say it.  As neat as being subtle is, sometimes its kewler to just explain a thought on something.

Thoughts?  How do you help foster communication at the table?

Edit:
Because I'm a unabashed thief, I'm going to post most of one of the comments up here.  Loved how his group handles this sort of thing:


Interesting thoughts.
We use a similar-but-different solution, that seems to be inspiring the same sort of information.
We use two tools - the character survey, and the relationship map.
Before running a game, the GM thinks about what sort of group of PCs they want. Like, when I was running a Gotham City game, I wanted PCs that had psychological damage that would motivate them to fight crime, but also get in the way of them having healthy relationships. But I didn't want a handful of loners - I wanted PCs that would work as a team. And I wanted that psychological damage to pull the team apart and create conflict and drama, but not so badly that the team fell apart. 
So I wrote up fill-in-the-blanks questions. The players are free to write whatever they want as the answers, but the questions themselves guide the players towards the type of characters that will work for the game. 
So...questions like:
I wanted to join a team because ________________ but I stay because___________ 
My biggest fear is that my team will discover ______________ 
I might have become a villain because ____________ but became a hero because _________
Obviously, the questions need to vary for the game. But they avoid the "I just met you guys!" problem, partly because every player has written a reason, right there, about why they want to meet the other PCs and work together. So you'll instantly get a lot of RP as three or four players are simultaneously playing out their motivations. 
Partly because, since you've got the answers written right there, it's very easy to pull the group together. So you don't need to have them all meet in the tavern. If someone has a motivation of "I want to become a Paladin like my father, and join the Royal company" then... they might have been sent here by the Royal company as part of becoming a paladin. 
The second part, the relationship map, is how we brainstorm the existing relationships between the players. Instead of putting them on the spot by asking questions, I leave it for the players to decide what they want to explore. 
We get a large piece of paper or whiteboard, and write the PC names in circles. The players can then write other names of NPCs, locations, or groups. And they join those circles together with arrows, and write what the relationship is. Usually I ask the players to add at least three relationships from their PC to the chart, but often the players will then get inspired and keep adding more.