About a year ago (has it really been that long?!), I brought up the empowerment effects that RPGs can have on learners and their self-esteems. One caveat: empowerment isn’t necessarily assured if there’s no personal investment in the game. Let’s look at what might go wrong, and how we can fix that.
Going down the rabbit hole
A good game master (GM) normally assumes the best of their players, but with younger audiences, there are a few things we should anticipate. For one, they know they’re playing a game, and as a result, might meta-game. To explain to non-gamers what this term means, it’s to put oneself outside of his/her character’s perspective to influence certain aspects of the game, disregarding what the character should logically do or not do. This isn’t necessarily bad — I have no problems with my players crunching mathematical probabilities to make powerful character builds, for example. However, there are variations of meta-gaming, one of which can be identified through an indifferent play-style, that can ultimately undermine the full experience of the game, fun, learning value and all.
Another potential issue is disinterest, which can lead to meta-gaming (or the other way around). This is where the player has no interest in most of what’s going on, and typically just wants to derail the game for his/her enjoyment or in pursuit of an agenda that is not logically consistent with his/her character.
Let me share an anecdote of a game with a player, whom we shall call G. The system we were using was Barebones Fantasy. The module was Maidens of Moordoth. Before we started, expectations and rules were laid out. G had created a pretty powerful character with high ability scores. He was excited. We were ready to roll after all the prep work.
When the story began, however, it was clear that G had no interest in doing anything except fight. His answer to every situation was “I do nothing” or “I ignore it”, despite his character’s supposed brave and fearless nature. He played very indifferently, even though hints were dropped as to what could happen if he persisted this way. Obviously, this resulted in his character’s demise. Was he mad about it? Did it affect him?
Of course not.
Why this problem happens, and fixing it
Regardless of any game being played — be it board game, role-playing game, or video game — a lack of commitment to play it properly will breed disinterest, which in turn leads to the bad kind of meta-gaming (or it may be the other way around). When the game ends, neither the player(s) nor the GM will feel that gratification one usually gets after an awesome session. There needs to be a social contract, whether silent or spoken, in which the player agrees to be mentally and emotionally invested in the game.
Easier said than done though, especially if we go through the usual advice (establishing backgrounds, laying out expectations, etc). As a GM, what solutions do we have for players who could be unusually disinterested, besides dropping them from the game? Here are a few that I’ve come up with over the years.
- Start the player character on a high note. Make the campaign a higher level one, or give the PC some form of recognition or prestige. For instance, a few months back, I created a new campaign for a player after the last one fell through. In this new campaign, his character was a fallen prince, so he started off with several network connections and better gear than the norm. He appreciated this one a lot more than the previous campaign. The idea of giving benefits right at the beginning has the effect of doubling a player’s investment as they stand to lose a lot more should they choose to play recklessly; at the same time, it gets them to identify better with, or at least treasure, their characters because there is an attached status or sense of being recognised (which is usually something they seek in real life).
- Be logically consistent with positive and negative consequences. Be a fair GM; reward good choices with good consequences, and likewise bad choices with bad consequences, just like in real life. Playing with RPGs are a great proxy for teaching such lessons, after all. Some players might still do it just to troll the GM and others at the table, but hopefully suggestion #1 mitigates that.
- Get the player to role-play his character’s background story, rather than just have it as background exposition. Backgrounds are a great plot device to have in-game, but players who try to come up with them may just be doing so for the sake of it (“Oh the GM asked me to, so here are 3 random ones.”). In other words, the character’s backgrounds may not necessarily resonate with the player, which defeats the purpose of coming up with them in the first place.
I’m sure RPGs aren’t for everyone. There’s no one-size-fits-all hobby (heck, that includes ‘sleeping’), and RPGs certainly won’t break that mold. Nevertheless, I do believe that we can turn disinterest around, if only because ‘demonstrated disinterest’ isn’t necessarily ‘absolute disinterest’. I hope the suggestions above prove useful, and if you have any of your own that you use at the table, don’t hesitate to share them. If you’d like to stay up to date on future posts, do follow S&S on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for reading and have a great week ahead.