There are a lot of reasons why we play games. When we sit down to play a game it can be to lose ourselves in the fantasy of being someone else or to experience an amazing narrative. It might also be to experience the challenge the game presents or even just to tune out for a while and not think of anything while you play minesweeper so much you begin to see number patterns in your sleep. Whatever the reason that may be, when playing a single player game, you can indulge in that aspect to your heart’s content. If you want to spend 4 hours exploring the countryside in Skyrim, nobody is going to tell you to get on with the plot already. However, when we come together to play a game as a group, things can become a little difficult.
The group dynamic when you’re playing a game is incredibly important. It is crucial that before you sit down to play together, whether it be close friends or total strangers, everyone needs to be on the same page in terms of what they are looking to do. To make a sports analogy and lose half of the 8 readers I have, if you say “We’re going to go play football” and half the people show up thinking it’s going to be a friendly two-hand touch game and the other half think it’s going to be a serious full contact scrimmage, someone is bound to be upset. In the same way, when you sit down to play an RPG, if half the people show up thinking it is going to be a roleplay heavy LARP session and the other half think it’s going to be a tactical combat simulator, someone Is bound to be upset.
This is true for basically any game, whether it be a pen and paper RPG or a co-op game online. Generally, though, the on-line games let you be more selective in finding the right fit. Maybe you only play a certain mode of a game or maybe you specifically seek out a guild with goals that align with yours. When it comes to playing a game with people sitting around a table, however, you can get into some much more serious trouble. Many table top gamers don’t have a lot of options for groups that are playing a game they want play and so often find themselves in groups that aren’t familiar. Similarly, getting your friends together to play a game can lead to disaster as any gamer can tell you that just because you get along away from the game doesn’t mean you are going to be wanting to play the same thing when you get back to the table.
So how do you make sure to minimize any problems that come from trying to get a group to play nice together? The first key is, of course, communication. If you’re running the game, make sure to let any perspective players know what type of game you are looking to run. If you want a game of political intrigue where characters trade quips instead of sword blows, you should let your players know exactly that before Bob shows up with his min-maxed bloodthirsty Barbarian. As a player, you should also talk to your GM to let them know what you want in a game so your min-maxed Barbarian isn’t going to waste. If you don’t voice what you want in a game, there is no way for the person running it to know that they should include it.
You also need to be able to practice the delicate art of compromise. It is going to be basically impossible to get a group of people together that have exactly the same goals in what they want to do. That doesn’t mean that you can’t provide the ability for everyone to at least be engaged in the way they want to a little bit. If you’re running a very tactical, dungeon crawl type game in D&D 4e, you can still include NPCs that want to talk to the players whether in town or in the dungeons or just provide breaks where players can RP. Having even just one scene where a player gets to play the way they want to can be an incredible experience for them. Having your player that loves combat get jumped by assassins will stick with them long after you’ve moved on to having a tea ceremony with the local daimyo to discuss family politics.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons to learn in all of this, though, is that it is always ok to not play. Often as gamers, especially ones with a more niche game of interest, we feel like we need to cling to any group that comes along like a piece of driftwood in the ocean. I’ve been in that situation myself where I’ve stayed with a group that wasn’t what I wanted just so I could get a game in. By all means, if you’re having fun even if the game isn’t exactly what you would like, you can keep right on playing with them. If, however, you find yourself looking across the table at your fellow players and feel naught but a deep seething hatred for all that they stand for? Maybe it’s time to let the game go and find something else to do with your time.
What we want out of the game isn’t the only place that you can find conflict. Often you will find that how other people approach the game can be just as infuriating even if you are both playing for the same reasons. In later columns I’ll go into the mindset of some other gamer archetypes and how you can deal with them at your table. For now, I will just leave with the same reminder as last week. We are all here to have fun. Your idea of fun might not be the same as someone else’s but that doesn’t make it any more or less valid. Try to make the game as fun as you can but if it stops being fun, it’s probably not worth investing your time.