The other day, while one of our two cats rubbed against her hand, my girlfriend jokingly remarked that I should write an article about how running a game is like being a cat owner. We both laughed and threw out a few pithy comments about why that was true and then I really started to think about it. There are a lot of good Game Mastering lessons that can be drug out from that metaphor.
We’ve all heard that idiom applied to many facets of life, but it has always struck home when thinking about gaming. I know my group uses it in a very continuous and self-referential manner. People attracted to role-playing games often tend to be fairly intelligent, curious, people who latch onto ideas and run with them. We establish rules and boundaries in each game and setting, but more often than not those rules get stretched because a player wants play something that kind of fits in the setting, but not really. We’ll craft intricate plans and paths that will make an incredible game, only to find the players aren’t interested in picking up the clues we are putting down.
So, in the same way that we can only keep a cat’s attention with the red dot or feather toy for so long before it gets bored, we have to understand the individuality, intelligence, and self-motivation in the players we run for. We also have to understand that every player is engaged by something different and be able to use those tools to engage them.
If you do not provide a place for a cat to do it’s business and make sure it knows it is safe to do it’s business in that place, then it will do it’s business anywhere. When we give players a bit of free reign with the world setting, they are going to change the setting and they will probably change it in ways we don’t envision. That is what sandbox style games are for. Even if we have set paths and adventures and aren’t running what we would consider a sandbox game, the players want to change the world with their actions and we need to make that possible. If you aren’t providing opportunities to do that, then they are going to do it anywhere that they can within the story and at least one of those moments will be in a place you don’t want it to occur.
Make sure to provide some room for growth and character impact in your games. If one player wants to rise to the head of a weapons empire in your cyberpunk game, make plans for that to be a possibility in your game. Even if it is just a side element alongside the more major story, understanding what the players want for their characters and giving them a place to make that happen is essential to player enjoyment.
When we make a choice in life, we close off a possible path. While this isn’t as noticeable in real life, players loom over the game world and have a different perspective than the characters they control. The players can see the multiple choices they close off with a decision and sometimes that makes them indecisive, just like a cat who can’t decide if it wants out or in. They just don’t want to be stuck on the wrong side of the door.
If you aren’t trying to make a life or death situation, understand the tough situations players are in. Sure, it’s holding up the game when they have planning paralysis, but they only really get one shot at it. Provide options for redoes or give them encouragement when their plan sounds solid. It’s not giving away the plot or the story or making things mechanically easier, but providing a little assurance from a common sense roll or an NPC that their plan isn’t a death trap can give them more confidence in their path.
Even though we game together as a group, every member is an individual and has their own goals. Unless we do group character creations or work on a solid theme for the group that really binds them together, it is rare that everyone is completely focused on the same goals. Just like cats that tolerate each others presences and will stalk the same mouse together, there are individual personalities at work that need to be understood.
The section in Robin’s Laws Of Good Game Mastering about player types is some of the most solid gaming advice I have ever come across. Understanding how your group interacts and what engages each player individually can help you work the group dynamic so that everyone is having a good time.
The mechanical aspects of many of our games are about challenging the players to overcome some barrier so that they have a feeling of success. Players are crafty, and they will find ways around those barriers that you never envisioned. Just like a cat will magically find it’s way into the locked, top cabinet where the catnip is stored, then drag it to your dresser and open the drawer where your best shirts are kept so that it can roll around in a nip frenzy in comfort, your players are going to come to some wild ways around your challenges.
Truth be told, despite the way it ruins lots of things along the way, those types of off the wall ideas are pretty entertaining, especially when they fail. Be cool with some off the wall ways to tackle the challenges you put before your players. They’ll have more fun knowing that they could put their plans into action, even if you aren’t making the connections they are about why it works and is fun.
When we make comparisons and look at ourselves in new ways, we gain new perspectives on what it is we do. So, what other metaphors can you make about being a Game Master and what kinds of hidden nuggets of wisdom do they hold?