Society for Interactive Literature West

Game Design

Take a Number

Copyright (c) 1992 Stephen R. Balzac
Society for Interactive Literature
Originally printed in Metagame, the Journal of the SIL

It's Friday night, and you're going through your character packet. There's the usual stuff: character sheet, maybe a few bluesheets, rules, assorted other papers, item cards, and ability cards. Hmmm... there's an interesting one: Combat Master. What's a combat master? You continue reading the card, hoping to find out exactly what it is that you'll be able to do should some thug come along and try to mop up the floor with your face. Unfortunately, the rest of the card reads only: "You can do amazing things in combat. See a GM if you are involved in a combat." Not very informative, is it? Oh well, no combat until tomorrow morning anyway, so you can always worry about it then.

At ten Saturday morning three other players walk up to you. One of them flashes his combat card and announces that the three of them are attacking you. You pull your Combat Master card and the four of you go to the Control Room for a GM. Sadly, there appears to be a bit of wait; in fact, it seems that most of the game is waiting for a GM. You and your supposed opponents spend a thrilling morning waiting for GM to resolve your ability card, forgetting the entire point of the combat in the first place, which might be fine for you since you never knew it, but probably annoyed the other people no end. To add insult to injury, it turns out that your ability is something minor, a small bonus if you have certain weapons. Couldn't they have printed it on the card? Well no, the GM explains, it could be different next time. You walk away from the experience with the sure and certain knowledge that at least no one will attack you again, as most players have better things to do than wait around for hours.

While this scene may appear to be a slight exaggeration, it, or similar events, happen over and over in games. Somehow, without ever quite understanding why, the GMs suddenly seem to be in such tremendous demand that there is never one around when you need him. Almost everyone will agree that GM-intensive games are somewhat less fun than games that run along quite fine without the players constantly needing to speak to a GM. Why, then, do GM-intensive rules, mechanics, abilities, and so forth, constantly creep into games?

There are several reasons for this, split between problems involving the plot and design of the game, problems with the mechanics, and problems with how the GMs approach the actual process of running the game. Although these problems will each be dealt with separately, they are, in fact, frequently intertwined: how a GM feels a game should be run will influence how he or she writes plots, designs mechanics, and so forth.

First on the hit parade is the D&D Mentality. This is where the writers of the game see it as nothing more than a large game of Dungeons and Dragons, and design their plots accordingly. Now, in most tabletop games, the players are interacting with their environment through the medium of a single GM. Interplayer interactions are usually considerably less intense than in a live game; in any case, there are certainly fewer people involved at any given time, so the waiting around isn't as noticeable. Other players will often get impatient and demand that the party "move on," if a quarrel between two characters drags on too long.

At its worst, in a live game, this mentality produces plots that are so tied to specific details of the imaginary environment that the players can't move without consulting a GM: "What do you mean I was attacked? It was an empty hallway!" "Ah, but this is the famous hall of monsters. You should have asked a GM before walking down it." How is the poor player to know? The game ends up becoming a forty player, sit-down roleplaying game as the GMs attempt to talk the players through the world and at the same time moderate all the interplayer activities that the players would normally handle themselves in the course of the game: "I attacked him from behind." "He couldn't even have come near me!" In a live game, it would be much clearer if the attacker had ever come near the other player. In short, the imaginary environment has become the focus of the game; interactions between the players are relegated to the background. This little story, by the way, really happened in one ill-starred game. The details have been changed to protect the foolish.

A less severe version of this problem is the secret ability. This is where the GMs want a player to have certain abilities that the player doesn't know he has. While in a table-top game, the GM is there all the time, in a live game, he's not. As a result, the player has to either check in with a GM constantly, or, at the very least, call a GM whenever certain specified conditions are met. Sometimes this can be worked around with nested envelopes and instructions to open each one under the right conditions. Even so, excessive use of this mechanic will annoy the other players, who constantly have to stop and wait for the poor person with the envelopes to read everything and maybe still need a GM.

Related to the secret ability is the open-ended ability. Frequently, GMs will hand a player an ability reading, "You are a brilliant scientist. You can build almost anything. See a GM to use." Nice ability. Unfortunately, the player really has no idea what he can do. He must consult with a GM constantly, which can be quite irritating if the GMs are busy most of the time.

Finally, there's the NPC problem. Sometimes, GMs will have a plot depending on the players dealing with a certain NPC who is played only by one particular GM. Again, this is a very table-top type of thing: the party meets the NPC in the woods/city/prison/etc, and must figure out how to gain his or her support. The point of a live game, however, should be to deal with other players, not interact with the GMs all weekend. Sure, dealing with NPCs will happen. After all, the GMs can't put every possible character into the game. However, it should be minor, quickly resolved, and something every GM can do. The players should not have to spend sizeable parts of their weekend sitting around waiting to roleplay with a GM. That's not what the players are paying for.

Problems with game mechanics are another fruitful area for GM intensiveness. Overly complex or incomprehensible rules can stall a game for hours while the GMs attempt to explain to every player that "no, you subtract the number in column A from the result of taking the square root of column B, but only if the person attacking you is using a sword, otherwise you must first..." If the players can't understand it, it's a safe bet they'll ask. And if enough people don't understand enough things, it can take a very long time to explain everything.

Related to this is the case where the GMs do not adequately playtest their rules. Suddenly, a disastrous problem arises. One example of this is the combat system where players had specific holes in their defenses and once a player scored a hit against his opponent, he got to keep hitting until he missed. Of course, now that he knew his opponent's weakness, he tended not to miss very often. The combat system this was based on included a mechanism for learning the defense in the course of the combat. Without that little rule, it was an entirely different situation. More careful playtesting could have averted a very embarrassing moment.

Next, there is the failure to anticipate obvious situations in the rules. This is distinct from the previous situation. In the latter case, the rules don't correctly do what they are supposed to do. In this case, the rules work fine as far as they go, they just don't go far enough. A classic example are the GMs who forget that people might want to engage in multi-party combat. Suddenly, the GMs have to come up with an on-the-fly extension of their combat system, debug, and explain it, while the players are getting restless. Of course, the GMs can sometimes get away with claiming that multi-party combat is impossible. This does have the advantage of guaranteeing that at least one person will be happy: the character with the best combat scores, since he doesn't have to worry about people ganging up on him. It's not enough to just toss off a set of rules. The GMs have to consider very carefully how those rules are to be used and what they might want to do if they were in the game.

Finally, there is the mechanic or plot that only one GM understands. Like the NPC problem above, this can cause large groups of players to come to a screeching halt in their activities while they wait for the GM to be available. Since that GM probably has several other responsibilities, there's every chance he's going to be busy. If nothing else, he might be dealing with some other problem, or (gasp!) someone else with a question about the same mechanic. There are few things more frustrating to players than to find three idle GMs in the Control Room, and be told, "Sorry, we don't understand how that works. Talk to Fred. The line starts over there."

The next major source of GM intensiveness comes out of the philosophy with which the GMs approach the game. The less willing the GMs are to put as much in the players' hands as possible, the more they have to do. Seems obvious, right? Yet it is truly mind-boggling how many GMs seem to overlook that basic point. The basic problem here is that the GMs want to be the center of attention. They want the game to revolve around them. Well, it doesn't. The best thing the GMs can do is get out of the way and let the players play. That is why they're called "players" after all. If they were supposed to spend their time waiting in line, they would be called "waiters."

Still, it is important to think about where this attitude comes from. Why is it that so often GMs are unwilling to let the game out of their hands? One answer is that the GMs don't trust their players. They assume that the majority of players will cheat if given the chance. In fact, most players are pretty honest. So long as the rules are well-written, those that aren't so honest will be obvious to the other players. At that point, a GM can be called. In the meantime, the players can handle the situation themselves, telling the GMs later. For example, simply requiring that dead people come to the control room is generally quite sufficient to guarantee the GMs finding out about things quickly enough to make sure that nothing egregiously wrong has occurred.

Alternately, the GMs don't want to rely on the players to implement the rules. The GMs are convinced that the players won't be able to correctly interpret the rules when they need to. Since most players are pretty bright people, perhaps the GMs have not made the rules sufficiently clear (see above). On the other hand, if the rules are clear, straightforward, and well-written, then perhaps the players can handle them just fine. In fact, many players may well prefer the slight risk of screwing themselves over to having to waste time hunting up a GM every time they want to do something trivial.

Of course, this still leaves the problem that some GMs just want to make sure that they see everything. They don't want one single action to occur that they don't know about. This isn't because they distrust the players, it's simply that they spent a great deal of time writing the game, and now they want to see how it comes out. Alas, while forcing everything to go through the GMs may mean that the GMs will see everything, it also tend to mean that there isn't much to see. Sorry, folks. Most of the time, game actions will out of sight and out of control. Some of the most fun, most enjoyable activities will take place while you're handling something completely trivial. That's part of being a GM. Live with it.

By now, many people might be thinking that most of the games that have gotten bogged down didn't exhibit that much of any of these symptoms. That's probably true. Rarely is one particular problem so major as to halt the entire game. Sometimes, but not often. Instead, it is a combination of little things, things which are easy to deal with individually, but when compressed in the time span of a weekend and fighting for time with dozens of other issues, suddenly became major time sinks. For example, the Combat Master example from earlier. When putting it into the game, the GMs probably figured, "Oh, what the heck. It's only one ability. It'll only take five minutes to handle." Unfortunately, when everyone has to handle ten things that take "only five minutes," someone has to wait almost an hour. It builds from there.

Alternately, the "little things," might be issues that the GMs thought were completely trivial when writing the game, but when they have to be decided upon on the fly, suddenly seem to take on Earth-shattering import. For example, a player approaches a GM and says, "It says Joe and I met in college. Where did we go?" Now, the GMs need to check both character sheets to make sure that the answer they give won't contradict anything. Or, "It says I graduated from Harvard, and now I'm an assassin. What did I major in?" The GM might be inclined to respond, "Who cares?" This, however, rarely goes over well. The player obviously does care, and the GM can't just give a pat answer; players are clever and will, quite reasonably, attempt to incorporate that information into their characters and make use of it. That's why they're asking.

So, what are some ways to avoid a lot of small, irritating, time sinks, that suddenly accumulate into massive lines outside the Control Room door?

Consider when a character is written what the players might ask about it. If it says the character graduated from MIT, why not tell him his major? It'll save you the time needed to figure out if he asks later. And, you'll have the time to consider what he might do with that knowledge in the game.

When you give out an open-ended ability, why is it open-ended? Does it really need to be? Will the player want to use an ability that requires them to wait around for hours? Is that really what you want?

Why do all your rules require the presence of a GM? Are they really that complex, or are you just afraid of missing something? Is a GM really necessary, or can the players police themselves 95% of the time or better? And if the rules really are that complex, can you simplify them?

For any situation that may come up, how many GMs can handle it? Only one? And how much else does that GM have to do? How hard will he be to find? What happens if he comes down with the flu halfway through the game?

Thinking about all the little things and streamlining your game to cut them out may take a little longer during the writing process, but can make a tremendous difference when the game runs. And that, in turn, can make the difference between the players having a blast or having to take a number and wait in line.

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