The Game Mechanic: Mixed Company.

Image courtesy of BarefootLiam-Stock.

I play with a fairly mixed bag of psychotic cats individuals: a few old hands clashing with the newer generation of gamers, while those with a foot in either camp watch with bemusement from the sidelines. While there are no real edition wars to speak of at our table, the difference between those who have been running in a system for a few versions and those who have just arrived to the campaign can become fairly weighty over time.

After the jump, we are going to examine how we can help bridge that gap during game, as well as helping to run a better game for people who might have conflicting concepts of what they want from the table.

Have a little empathy. 

This is something that both sides of the fence could stand a little more of. New hands: Understand that the veterans have been playing this game through various incarnations for a long, long time. Some of their fondest memories of the tabletop came from what seems like a clunky, overly convoluted and/or poorly designed system. They’ve built lore, stories, and legends on the bones of these mechanics, and they’ve watched the game evolve and grow through the years, which gives them a much better grasp on the lore and spirit of the game itself. Furthermore, games do tend to get a little diluted and oversimplified as time goes on, and it’s quite possible that the latest edition of the game streamlined the soul right out of huge portions of the game. Newer is not necessarily better, and it might be good for you to try to appreciate something the way it was once intended to be.

Old hands could stand to ease up a little themselves. You have the benefit of experience, something that is not necessarily shared by the other players. They haven’t spent years running across various editions, absorbing the lore and mechanics and committing them to cherished memory. The world you’ve created, especially if there are a few of you from the good old days, is practically impenetrable to outsiders. Sure, you’ve been playing Shadowrun since first edition, and have come up with an odd mishmash of second and third that works fairly well balance-wise. You know the races, you know the history and the setting, and you have strong interpretations of each of these things. The other players don’t live in your head, and the knowledge and world you’ve built up over years likely seems opaque, arbitrary, and utterly bewildering at times. This is not because the other players are mentally deficient; it is because you are essentially speaking a made-up language that they don’t speak, and expecting them to be fluent after a few sessions is both unreasonable and annoying. Also, it might behoove you to actually pick up the rule book every now and then. You’ve been playing across three editions and it’s really easy to get that data confused, and giving someone three different answers to the same question is only going to make that gulf of understanding wider.

Know your audience. 

The differences between player goals have caused a lot of frustration at our table over the years. Some people want to be involved in epic, driven adventures where the plot sweeps along and the various paths to the end are easy to spot but difficult to traverse. Others want more autonomy, the ability to pursue individual character goals and be awesome in a colorful backdrop that changes and reacts to their deeds and actions. The problem with this dichotomy is that it tends to make one style or the other pretty frustrated.

As GMs, we tend to run what we would like to play. Those who prefer story-driven adventures will usually run such a campaign, and get frustrated at the amount of cat-herding they have to do to keep the autonomous players moving along with the story. On the other side of the coin, they have to handle the frustration of the players at getting personal projects and goals, even ones that contribute to the story, sidetracked and disrupted by the ebb and flow of the story.

Those who prefer autonomy, however, might find themselves with a group of confused and unmotivated player characters. Waiting for the story to show up and hesitant to take action on their own for fear of disrupting it when it does arrive. The GM may try to mitigate this with little plothooks, but they could only make things worse if they are not delivered in enough detail. The players will get the idea that there is a story, but it will seem like it’s happening somewhere in the background where they can’t find it.

A solution to the problem of running a campaign with a split group is to weave both styles together. Have a strong, driving narrative and clearly established goals for the story, but give the player party a lot of leeway in how they are accomplished and give them the time to do it their way. Furthermore, you can get the individual motivations for the characters, what they would seek to accomplish if left to their own devices, and then make those things critical elements of the plot. It helps move the story along and it helps everyone feel like they are getting to fulfill their character motivations.

Game Density.

This doesn’t come up as it should. The density of the game mechanics and the setting lore can make for a huge stumbling block in your campaign. For example; one of our regular DMs decided to run a game of Death Watch, in the Warhammer 40K universe. I love the setting and I really enjoyed the game, but trying to get anything done in the campaign was just a little bit of a nightmare. Three people, the GM and two other players, were setting fanatics. Each had read several dozen of the canon novels and spent hours sifting through the lavish corebooks for even more crunchy goodness. I am reasonably familiar with the setting, and as a firearms enthusiast/armchair survivalist (would a nerd by any other name smell as…sweetly?) I was able to more or less make sense of the book and was able to pick out my equipment for each mission relatively quickly with a little help from the more experienced players.

The rest of the party, however, had problems. They were all more or less new to the setting, were never that interested in guns to begin with, and were completely unfamiliar with the setting. This sort of thing is usually easily rectified, but the 40K setting is so incredibly lore-dense and crammed full of technical detail that you can’t exactly hit the ground running. I experienced most of the following problems as well, and it was a pretty frustrating experience for everyone involved.

  • Due to the mission-per-setting nature of the game, we wound up starting each campaign with Shopping: The RPG. This took a ridiculous amount of time. If you aren’t interested in the minutiae of regular firearms, trying to pierce the thick, subjective shell of “crazy BS space guns” is particularly difficult.
  • This was a problem partly because most of us were unfamiliar with the lore and races of the setting. It’s difficult to pick weapons ideally suited to clearing out a Space Hulk full of Tyranids when you don’t even know what Tyranid is, let alone how any of these wacky far-future armaments work or their tactical applications.
  • Overly-complicated answers to simple questions are a big problem. When dealing with a newb-versus-fanatic paradigm, you frequently run the issue of a fairly straightforward question getting a ten-minute answer. It is extremely difficult for our brains to process and retain information entirely devoid of context, so veterans, keep your answers pithy and to the point. Setting knowledge should be painted in broad, shallow strokes of information first, and then once a basic understanding is reached you can starting going into heavier, narrower strokes.
  • Sometimes the solution is obvious, but only if you are familiar with the setting. I’ve seen this happen in a bunch of RPGs, but it usually pans out in the same way. Knowing that a specific monster is vulnerable to precisely one metric ton of silver fired from orbit makes killing it that way a fairly obvious solution, but you shouldn’t expect players who don’t even know what that monster is to arrive at that specific all by their lonesome.
On the other hand, once we had assessed the issues facing us, the party pulled together and started running things in a much more orderly fashion. We started pooling resources to afford better gear and minions, the veterans each adopted a few of the newbies and ran them through Shopping: The RPG and helped them level in a productive direction while keeping all the math and such straight. We began running longer missions and carved a successful swath of destruction through the Jericho Reach in the name of the Emperor. The campaign even left on the high note of us accidentally unleashing an eons-old race of psychotic killing machines known as the Necrons on the region.

In closing. 

Try to see things from the other person’s point of view; it’ll make things go a lot easier for everyone involved. I also suggest trying out a system that’s new to everybody if you’re having problems with your group; that way you can play through a few editions of it and bond over being curmudgeonly together in a decade or so.

One thought on “The Game Mechanic: Mixed Company.

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  1. A quick thought on vets versus noobs. We have a similar mix in our society, and every ‘big’ game we run has a mix of both. We don’t seem to have too many problems with conflict, mainly due the noobs seeming to very respectful, pretty much from kick off (with a very small amount of exceptions – no one being perfect), and the vets have a very simple way of looking at any one new to the table; They’ll be the vets in ten years time. The best way to make them veteran gamers, is to keep them at the table. Because of this mentality, we (yup, being doing this a while myself) do everything we can to help the new players engae with the setting, system and society.

    Once your more experienced players get that frame of mind, the rest should fall into place.


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