Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Parsing the Social Competencies of GMs

Okay, I can't help myself. For over a decade my job as a coach was built on three pillars: turning abstract goals into simple, effective plans, calling people on bullshit in a professional capacity, and teaching people social skills as simple, easily practiced procedures. 

When I wrote my last article, I went overboard on the first section and added in tips and tools for having the best impact in the social aspect of running a roleplaying game. 

It would be a shame to let that material go yo waste. So, here it is. 

Reading the Room

Reading the Room is about taking advantage of natural pauses to check in on the facial expressions, body language, and breathing rate of the people at your table to make sure they are having a good time. There is a lot of nuance to this, of coue, but I will give broad strokes here. 

Your ideal posture for players at a table, or at a desk is leaning slightly forward, eyes on you or looking off up and to the right, hands in front of them on or above the table (dice or pencil in hand) taking short, deep breaths, and either smiling or thoughtful. If you see this, you are in the sweet spot for that player; they are attentive and getting something they want from the game.

If you are spread out in chairs and couches, you want to see players with the same breathing and expression, but sitting up with hands in front of them or, better yet, hovering near the coffee table or their dice tray. 

Furiously drawing maps or scribbling notes are great, too!

There are plenty of opportunities for you to take a moment and scan the room while running a game. Make sure, whenever you make a major change to what you are doing in game to pause after a few minutes and look for these signs of engagement. It will help you fine tune your content and pace to your players. 

If this is not what you are seeing, the body language you are seeing can often give you a clue about how to adjust to recapture your players. Here are some common positions and behaviors and what you can do to re-engage players. 

  • Building Dice Towers: this fidget is a common one when players don't feel like they have a role to play in the present scene, but want one. Give their character something to do. Trigger a trap (or telegraph one), present an odd mysterious item, ask for a test, pass them a note about a creepy feeling, put something in front of them that demands their character's specific attention (idols, murals, fallen debris, wandering monsters, glowing runes, etc.) You will reel them back in quickly. 
  • Thumbing Through the Books: if you aren't in a combat scene, this is often a sign that the player is looking for something different: they are planning for action, their next level, or the kind of scene they look forward to playing. Make a sudden change, push on to your next encounter, or change how an NPC acts. In combat, it is a sign that they are planning a move or checking their abilities, and a sign that they are engaged. 
  • Leaning Back with Arms Folded: This is a sign that the player is not getting what they want or are not enjoying the company at the table. If there was a recent interaction or ruling that can explain the closed body language, you probably have a player who feels the game is not going well or fairly. This is a good indicator that a break is needed.
  • Doodling: This one is complicated. Some bright, sensitive, or high-energy players doodle to bleed off energy and facilitate attention. Others doodle when they are bored and don't have enough for their character to do. The former tend to draw things and characters from the game. The latter scribble, draw random unrelated stuff, or make their character sheets needlessly ornamental. If the player is doing it to focus, and it doesn't bother you, leave it. If it does bother you, or you are dealing with a bored player the solution is the same: introduce a sudden danger, sneak attack, trap, or threat. Doodlers in general are the best players to ask to draw maps.
  • Knitting, Beading, Making Chainmail, etc.: Crafty types often use the more tedious and repetitive tasks in their other hobby to help them bleed off energy just like a doodler. Crafts at the table do make it harder to guage attention. If the craft gets put completely down to focus on the game, you know you've got them hooked in, but even when they are crafting it not a sign of inattention unless they are not looking up frequently.  Try and check on how frequently they look up and what expression they wear. A player that buries themselves in their craft nose-down is likely bored, up the stakes, add danger, or put something new that requires their character's attention.
  • Slouching and Unfocused (table) or Slumped (couch): This is a sign that your player is tired or extremely bored. Call for a bio-break, see if you have any takers if you offer to make coffee, and take a moment to plan to change the adventure direction. Ask your player how they are doing. Often a change of direction is the best medicine if they are bored. Try changing the type of encounters they are having.
  • Staring at a Tablet or Phone: This used to be the universal sign that a player was not interested in what is going on. And it is rude. Accordingly, I used to ban computers of any sort at my table. But as manuals have moved to .PDF and work has changed its nature, that has become a lot harder to enforce. Sometimes using a device is actually Thmbing Through the Books, and should be understood accordingly. If they are Doomscrolling through social media, on the other hand, you have lost their interest. A break or a hard turn in game are your options. 

Reading the room and adjusting the game to dial in as many players as you can is key to having a great session. A good session, like a good date, should bounce frequently between different kinds of activity to keep it exciting. More than anything else, you keep players engaged by finding a sweet spot in pacing. 

Building Rapport

Building Rapport is about create trust and comfort with your players. Time spent together in good gaming experiences are, of course, the best way to build this in a way that is lasting and automatic. In the short term, however, there are ways you can help to build trust and comfort with players until that longer-term relationship cements. Unfortunately, most of them are harder to do online. 

Rapport first and foremost comes from having a sense of common feelings and common ground. There are a lot of ways to do this that are simple and effective. 

In time when you are not playing, ask a lot of questions about your players' common interests; the odds are good that you share a few. Once you find them, use them to break the ice frequently. If you are in a party of metal heads talk about favorite bands. If they are passionate about hiking and camping, talk about trip planning and gear. If you are foodies, plan to split bringing fancy snacks to the table. 

Dress to match your players. Not identically, obviously, but in a similar fashion. If your players are band shirts and jeans kind of people, dress to match. If they are business casual or athletic, try to keep up. It will make an instant difference. 

Match your snacking drinking and pauses to your players' rates. I used to slug my coffee down, and only have a few bites at the beginning of my session. When I started pausing for the odd canap├ęs and sipping my coffee like my group did, they felt way more at ease. 

Amplify engaged body language, lean in when you players do. Build up tension in your voice when your players are tense, make lots of eye contact. It will do more to keep your players excited than elaborate encounter design ever will.

Seeking and Accepting Feedback 

Seeking (and Accepting) Feedback. No one grows as a host or entertainer without some feedback. While people coming back for more is a good indicator that you are doing alright, it really helps to ask two questions at the end of a session. The first is "Did everyone have fun?" 

If the answer was "No." then the only other question that needs asking is "Why not?" 

And this is where it is best to develop an approach of genuine curiosity mixed with detachment. Remember: no criticism of the game that you run is a criticism of you, personally. After all, you are not your game.

Of course, some players are going to come at you with feedback that comes off as personal and aggressive. This is often an error in their own communication style way more than it is a reflection of you. One of the surest ways to put anyone on the defensive is to structure feedback as "You X, and so Y. " rather than" When I see X happen, it makes me feel that Y."

The latter more honestly points out that the criticism that the speaker is expressing is particular to their experience, rather than necessarily a reality about you and your actions or intentions. Sadly, this is not a common technique for communicating.

It helps to remember as well that whatever feedback you are getting, you will end up with a better game if you honestly listen to it and then asses whether it is True, Honest, Fair, and Actionable.

But the odds are that your answer to "Did everyone have fun" is going to be "Yes."

In that case your next question ought to be a multi-part and open ended one about a single, specific aspect of your game that you want to work on. Here are 20 top-notch specific and open questions that will up your game:

  • Did you find that the game moved at a comfortable pace? If it dragged anywhere, what could I have done to make it go faster?
  • When I have to make rulings on stuff not specifically covered in the rules, have I been fair or consistent? Can you think of a time where my rulings have felt unfair to anyone at the table?
  • Do my descriptions help you imagine what your character is experiencing? What was my best description tonight?
  • Was there any particular encounter you enjoyed tonight that you liked enough to say you want more like it? Can you tell me why?
  • Do you feel like your characters are in danger of failing when we play? What can I do to make sure you feel like there are real risks and dangers to your characters?
  • Are the stakes of my adventures high enough? Do you feel like your character's have something important to lose or to gain?
  • Is there any kind of event or encounter that you would like to see more of in my games?
  • Do I make the rules, and how I am using them, clear to you? Is there any way I can be more transparent about my process.
  • Do I ever seem like I am out to get your characters? How can I do a better job of making sure that I am giving you a challenge rather than trying to "beat" you?
  • Do I give you enough information about your environment that you feel like you could use it to your advantage? Would you like more time to ask questions about the space, or for me to present the information in a different order?
  • Do I give you the sense that your choices are important and have an impact on how the game unfolds? What is one thing I could do to show that to you clearly?
  • When I am speaking for NPCs, do I usually make it clear who is speaking? How can I help you keep track?
  • Are you guys getting enough break time between encounters?
  • Do my adventures feel fresh and original enough to keep the game interesting? Is there any way I can add a little more variety into the kinds of adventures you are having?
  • What has been the most memorable adventure in the campaigns so far and what made it stand out?
  • Cam you think of some things I have done well that keeps my campaign setting from feeling like generic fantasy world #244?
  • How would you grade my ability to make memorable villains? Am I doing enough to make them stand out? 
  • Are our house rules working for you? Is there places where you might like to adjust how the game plays? 
  • Are there ways that you feel like I could make magic or the supernatural feel more wonderful, strange, or terrifying in our game?
  • Does this feel like a short and finite campaign, or one with enough possibilities that you could keep exploring for a long time? 
It can help to let players know that you would like to ask for feedback on that one aspect of your game ahead of time. A statement like: "Hey, guys, tonight I am thinking about how I pace the Game. I'd love to hear how find the game flows once we wrap up the session." can set you up for golden advice. 

It also bears saying that not every bit of feedback you receive will be equal, and you are not obligated to put anything into practice. The best thing you can do with any feedback is to write it down, thank your player, then sit with it later and ask yourself, again, if it is True, Honest, Actionable, and Kind.  Then, if you see that there is worthwhile advice there, figure out how to use it immediately. 

Overcoming Anxiety

I am a born drama nerd, I act professionally, and I have been DMing Dungeons & Dragons for 35 years as of the writing of this article... And I still get the jitters about running the game

Feeling nervous about running a roleplaying game is perfectly normal. It is human nature to be uncomfortable about putting yourself up in front of a crowd; for most of human history, speaking out and failing to impress - or worse yet - voicing an unpopular opinion could cost you status, resources, possibly even your home. Your mind has a defense mechanism that fills you with apprehension any time you start thinking about speaking in public. It forces you to be damned sure of the importance of what your saying before you speak up. 

Like a lot of these "hard-wired" emotional responses just don't serve us in modern life. Feeling nervous about speaking in public might have helped your hominid ancestors avoid being brained by an australopithicine alpha male, but today it can keep you from enjoying your hobby to the fullest. 

Just knowing that this is a normal feeling, and that there is nothing wrong with you - that it is a maladaptive instinct - is a big part of overcoming it. It is ultimately an instinct that you can dull, but never kill, with time and experience in performing I'm front of others. 

However, there are things you can do to help you relax and reduce anxiety. 

The simplest of these is to give yourself ten minutes ahead of the game to break the ice before the game begins. This will make you feel more like you are in safe, intimate company. Taking this time for rapport building exercise is an ideal way to kill two birds with one stone.

I tend to be on about 20 minutes before a scheduled game to tinker with Roll20 and let my players know. I almost always have someone pop in to chat either about in-game or out-of-game topics. If you find you continue to have trouble with anxiety, meditation, crafts, artwork, a short walk, or working out before sessions can help you reduce your nervous energy. 

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