The Keys to a Great Game…

…are great players, preparation and buy-in.

This realization comes from three sources – listening to a lot of actual play recordings, the end of our Heroes of Karia Vitalus campaign Friday, and trying to run a D&D game for 7 middle-schoolers Saturday.

Actual Play Recordings

I’ve been surprised with, in honesty, how boring some of these recordings have been. Part of the problem is that indie games tend to be pickup games, so you’re listening to people who have very little investment in the story or in their characters, and who possibly have not played together before. But even when I listen to an established group playing, there just isn’t much there a lot of the time.

I think that this is because of a lack of buy-in. If you’ve just picked up a story game, very little preparation has gone into things – and it shows. A lot of story games are powerful ways to produce story now (whatever that is, I still probably don’t get it) but they do this at the expense of preparation, or story before. It means that the story you’re creating is just being pulled out of thin air, and even with a great system that churns out conflicts, it is still a story out of thin air. It lacks depth and interconnectivity.

And then there are these pauses as dice are rolled to find out what happens next. The dice rattle on the table, and then someone starts interpreting what’s happened. Its almost like the dice are playing the game with themselves, and the players are translating. Its really weird to listen to, being someone who mostly plays “traditional” games.

(In experience, Mortal Coil can avoid this problem to a degree because the players create the world and the rules that govern magic together, meaning once they’ve done this, they’ve bought into the setting to some degree already. There are probably other indie games that address this in some way, but I think the point still stands.)

Heroes of Karia Vitalus

Holy shit this was a good game, a good campaign, that ended with a bang. There are a lot of reasons it was so good, but I can narrow them down to good players and incredible buy-in. You can have a good GM and a good storyline and still have a game fall sort of flat, but good players, perhaps more accurately, a good group overall, will make magic out of any kind of garbage they pick up.

I’m going to talk more about Karia in the future, but I wanted to mention the buy-in. Half of the 100+ NPCs were made by the players in the game. Loads of scenes and conflicts and stories were created entirely by the players. A lot of this happened on the Heroes of Karia Vitalus blog, and more of it happened in-game.

A weakness of most story games, I think, is that this depth of buy-in is impossible if you just sat down to play with maybe a sentence of story worked out ahead of time. This limits how good the game will be, in my opinion. To be powerful, a story has to be nestled in a system of stories, in a larger story that contains it. It has to be part of what I think I’ll call a storysystem of interlocking characters, scenes, conflicts, history and future, breadth and depth. No way around it – this kind of storysystem requires preparation.

You might be able to get around this requirement if you are playing in an established setting that everyone is familiar with, but I still think it would take preparation to connect your story with the larger setting-story. And even if it doesn’t, because you’re in an established setting, a lot of the preparation work has been done for you.

D&D Game for Middle-Schoolers

In this case, all I really had going for me was preparation. They buy-in was close to nil and the players varied from enthusiastic to completely unfamiliar with D&D. Even the ones who said they’d played before looked blankly at me when I said things like “make an attack roll” or “make a Reflex save”.

This was a great example of system mattering a lot. Knowing that I didn’t have a strong group of players and had no buy-in to start with, it would have been a great situation for a story game. I’m thinking The Prince’s Kingdom, for example – but I was brought in to run D&D, so that’s what I had to do. (I had a lot of experiences that night of D&D’s rules actively killing the fun).

Part of having great players is having a strong group template and social contract at the table. We had a group template of sorts – I pre-created characters who all had relationships with each other and had different pieces of a mystery/puzzle that the game revolved around. But there was no social contract. The players were all there with completely different agendas and modes of play and priorities.

I’d love to have been able to watch them play D&D on their own before I ran a game, but I had to come in blind, so even my preparation, the only strength I had, didn’t get me very far because you have to know the players you are preparing for.

In Conclusion (for now)

Great players: who like to make the game more fun for each other, who move from stance to stance easily as the game allows, who know the system and who have a strong group template and social contract at the table

Preparation: the night’s story is connected to a storysystem that has a past, a future, breadth and depth before the game even begins. This doesn’t have to be all the GM’s job, but it needs to be there

Buy-in: there need to be ways that the players are invested in their characters and in the setting as well. It has to matter to them what happens and why. They should be participating in creating the story and the storysystem together as the game progresses – people buy into stories involving characters and situations they helped create. I prefer, in this case, if the dice serve the players, rather than the other way around…

I can already see I’ll need to unpack this in the future, but this was just on my mind.

One thought on “The Keys to a Great Game…

  1. I wonder…there might be advice for things like social contract and group template, which we have up already, that could help you make the best of the players you have. Also other advice, like meeting prospective players socially before you decide to game together, etc. Something I'll think about…


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