A Gaming Curriculum: Four Stage Roleplaying/Behaviour Management
Roleplaying sessions are quite hard to plan. They’re frequently quite long and include diverse and multiple encounters – indeed, they are sufficiently long that a break is often needed midway through. So prevalent are the issues surrounding this pastime that the very matter of snacks and the best moment at which to interject the takeaway has been a matter of debate and discourse - yet I assure you that the four-stager has merit here. Planning at session level is inappropriate; the conventional lesson plan would elongate to disinteresting and demotivating proportions if stretched over a four, or six, or eight, or twelve hour session of play, so instead, treat each ‘lesson’ as a particular instance within the session as a whole.
Introduce each with a recap; develop it by presenting an environment, encounter, problem, puzzle, fight…; the main part of the session will be dedicated to resolving the whateveritis; the plenary to addressing the fallout and aftermath; then break, reintroduce, next instance/encounter/scene. Simple enough. However, thus far we have considered primarily the playing of wargames and the writing of posts in which the learning behaviour we have discussed is our own, confined within one head and manageable. In roleplaying we have multiple people at a table, and the dynamic – one person invested with power to shape a shared experience and the responsibility of making it a good ‘un, and others whose entitlement to fun is paramount, whose definition of fun varies, and whose capacity to engage with the game in hand is easily challenged – is much closer to classroom teaching. As a result, we have to think about differentiation, to account for different needs and priorities and playstyles; we also have to think about behaviour management, or what to do if your session goes wrong.
The thing about roleplaying is that it’s so easy for a session to ‘go wrong’. The Almighty Smallest (new-ish flatmate) and I have been chatting about this, given my cunning schedules of sessions for when she’s not in and my new insistence on being done and dusted with the game before she comes home; because it’s the simple truth that long sessions breed distractable players, and talkative flatmates needing to vent their long day to anyone who’s listening are only one of a million and six possibilities for the derailment of play. Our home is fairly open-plan, full of things that can distract. A group of seven people with shared interests and diverse opinions and odd knowledge to share is a derailment waiting to happen. An improvisational GM who occasionally calls for halts so he can work out outcomes to situtations that are viable in the long term rather than ruling in something he’ll regret later? You’re getting the idea, assuredly.*
To deal with this we have to address what ‘going wrong’ actually means. This article is not scholarship, but it does indicate something which teacher training is gradually coming to terms with: that the learner who is doing something other than what the teacher has planned for them to do may actually still be invested in the learning, and that the teacher who is in a position to notice what their learners are doing may actually be stopping them from thinking and constructing. It’s important to note that these are not definites – note the word may, roll that little auxiliary around your mind for a bit. Someone who spends the entire session enraptured in a text conversation and who is blatantly more interested in that conversation than in the topic at hand is not learning. Someone who sends a quick and stealthy text under the table, though, is just passing a note, having a quick whisper, getting a thought out of their head and freeing up brainspace that could be used to think about what you want them to think. So there’s a place for short bursts of distracting activity, as long as the outcomes of the experience are still being worked towards, or if the activity is not actually a distraction. Doodling on character sheets, fidgeting a bit, whistling a tune – they’re all ways that people keep themselves engaged in something that is not engaging them, that’s passive rather than active.
Six will get you ten that the bits of your sessions that make your players tap, twitch, doodle, hum and fiddle are the bits where they are reading, hearing or seeing; when they are listening to you exposit, or when they are waiting their turn in between other players’ when the party has been split or you’re playing one of those new-school scene-based games. The player is not fully engaged, so they do these things that help them concentrate (or, and this is crucial, they do them in order to disrupt the session to get attention because they’re bored and want to be saying and doing, even if that means starting an argument), so they either break the atmosphere you’re trying to create for someone else’s turn or interrupt the sound of you dictating your novel, depending on whether you’re a boring GM or an interesting one.
Valid as that behaviour is, it’s still annoying. There are three ways to deal with it. The first is to devote yourself with zen-like calm to accepting the behaviours as part of people’s engagement processes, even when they’re actually part of people’s inability to wait their turn without getting bored and fractious. The second is to prevent these behaviours from emerging in the first place by keeping players engaged as much as possible. The third is to introduce methods of play that shut them down – punitive GMming, punishing people for being bored, which is not something I’m keen on. Punishing everyone for one person’s transgression is not cool. Punishing characters for player transgressions – in-game consequences for meta-game events – is also not cool. Assuming that you, as GM, have the right to punish, is not cool. We’re not really teachers, even if I think teaching theory has a place in our toolbox, and to be honest I don’t like to punish people as a teacher because it’s simply not guaranteed to resolve the root cause of the problem.
The GM who wants to prevent the behaviours has to accept two things. Firstly, that the game they want to run may not match the group they have to run with. I don’t run the World of Darkness with more than three players plus GM because it’s intense and development-focused and characters often split off to have their own scenes, so more players means a longer wait. Secondly, that they might need to explicitly discuss things with their players and might have to challenge some assumptions that everyone involved holds about themselves, vis. the games they like, the sort of person they are, that they are automatically invited to anything their housemates are invited to, and so on.
They also have to become more of a Socratic GM. Learn to describe the bare minimum of details and ensure your players know that they are to ask questions about what’s there, what it’s like, what it’s all about, rather than making assumptions. My favourite session ever was the Mage opener in which the characters walk through a familiar door and all end up in the same space, with their doors having disappeared behind them. The opening description? “You’re facing the other two, in a white room. No doors. No windows.” I could have stopped at ‘white room’, but going on to describe the lack of obvious exits does two things. Firstly, it sets the emotional tone of the scene; trapped in an unfamiliar space that shouldn’t be where it is, with people you don’t know. Secondly, by describing what’s not there I immediately invite questions as to what is there. Likewise, I always ask the players to recap. It lets me assess learning – umm, retention of events occuring during play - and it engages them by making them think and remember and utter something and correct each other and bicker for my amusement instead of disengaging them by letting me talk at them. If nobody remembers anything, that’s probably a sign that the game’s been off too long, or that ti wasn’t terribly memorable to begin with.
People will still be asking questions all at once, though. Turn-taking is a big problem in my current group and in several that I’ve run before; everyone talking at once may be dramatic but it’s hard to keep track of, especially if you’re the GM and sort of required to know everything and be ready to answer anyone’s question. I find that groups where turn-taking is particularly ragged benefit from introducing an initative roll for conversations, loot divvying, or whatever it is that people all dive into at once. We use them for combat to keep things tidy, so let’s extend that to other things that need to be kept tidy. Again, establishing a clear turn order and possibly a time limit for turns helps people wait, because they know roughly how long they’ll be waiting and who’s in front of them.
Another technique is to use cuts and cutscenes, as I’ve discussed recently at the Lich House. If the players are spending a lot of time apart, I cut between them – pause a scene at a key point or a major decision and jump to another player to give the first some thinking time, or some edge-of-the-seat cliffhanger time. If there’s exposition to be delivered, I use cutscenes – but sparingly, and as a result of player choice and decision and agency (choosing to review a CCTV tape, or scry on the enemy base, or sneak up and spy on the entrance to the wizard’s tower). Beedo does something more direct, with short narratives at the ends of sessions, but I want to steer away from talking at the players once we’re past the character-building-world-establishing-playstyle-discussing bit at the start of a game.
One thing to point out here is that I explicitly say “cut to [player]” when doing so; people tend to have problems with turn-taking when they’re bored and fractious and making the transfer of turns explicit is part of the job of a referee and isn’t that what a GM is, on some level? To be honest, I sometimes wonder if this is where all the “don’t split the party!” tropes come from – GMs who, wanting a quiet life, ensure that players don’t need cuts and turn-taking strategies to manage by ensuring that they never, ever split up and are in combat most of the time. What do you think?
* – Apropos of nothing: Distractions & Derailments – crazy meta-RPG game waiting to happen. A version of Munchkin where, quite literally, the only way to win is not to play… or at least, not to play the game you’re contextually there to play.