GM Field Guide #5: GM Sessions (Players' Psychology)
Updated: Mar 27
This is very much a more “high-brow” aspect to the GM Sessions posts, in that it isn’t directly attributable to the crafting, presentation, and management of your campaign. That said, there is a very crucial dynamic a Game Master must keep in mind at all times throughout the process, up to and including when people are sat down at the table (be that physically in person or virtually) and are rolling dice. A lot of times it gets boiled down to the term “social contract,” which certainly has some validity to it, but glosses over some of the finer points. My hope is that this post provides newer and prospective Game Masters an idea of some of the elements to consider when starting to craft your adventures and campaign across any of the Palladium Books’ settings.
Being the Game Master is a position of privilege. In many respects it is a sort of “service” to the gaming group or a group of friends. You have taken it upon yourself to be to do the work involved in researching your setting, crafting an adventure and/or campaign, and setting up the time spent together so everyone can have an enjoyable few hours together. Something of a niche party planner, there is a bit an art to the process, much like public speaking, which has some parallels. You may look at your role with some trepidation and not unlikely, some of the following questions may pop into your head: “What if my work doesn’t meet expectations?” “What if they don’t have fun?” “Can I stick-handle their interactions and move the storyline along?” First off, rest assured that you are not the first to have these quibbles, nor are you going to be the last. Hopefully, some of the following discussion will provide you some insight into the art aspect of Game Mastering, with a view to providing some helpful hints to allay your fears.
GM Sessions: This sub-set of The Bazaar posts is intended to provide some insight for beginning Game Masters, or those that are new to the Rifts RPG and Palladium Books in general. I’ve collected a few thoughts together in a number of posts, in what I hope to be a sort of primer or précis for the target audience. By leveraging the information presented, I hope to ease some of the initial sticker-shock that a Game Master invariably feels when starting to build their campaigns and then presenting their adventure to friends; particularly if you’re new to the Palladium Books’ Megaverse.
The Epic Journey. A key element the Game Master needs to recall is that, ultimately, this is about setting the parameters for your friends to adventure through/work within and express themselves through their Player Characters. You are providing them the opportunity to interact with a system of Non-Player Characters and settings they must interact with. Most times players are controlling larger than life personalities, with matching abilities and skills. They want some level of escapism, leveraging a certain suspension of reality that games provide (be it RPG or computer/console gaming). The difference between RPGs and electronic games is equally subtle and vast; both provide a certain level of escapism, but I truly believe the RPG has a few elements the electronic game lacks: you are creating a Player Character from scratch (greater player investment) and the campaign is not bound by the programming (increased scope of adventure). This provides the GM with great flexibility to craft this epic campaign the Players can contribute to (even if they don’t know it), their actions/consequences bound only by their imagination and group dynamic.
Set Goals. Something that can be examined much further into the psychological aspects than I’m willing to tackle in this forum, the setting of goals is a key element to the success of a gaming session/campaign. There are several elements, some of which require player input, others that rest squarely with the GM. Bear in mind this is not something resting squarely on your shoulders:
Players – Character Creation. During your ‘Session Zero’ it is likely a really good idea for Players to come up with their background and a story that compels their actions within the adventure. These goals can be very broad-based, which is perfectly fine! Think back to when you were in high school imagining what your career was going to be like. Some might be more detailed than others, but use that level of foresight during character creation, and have them develop a couple of short-, medium- and long-term goals for their character (e.g. avenge the death of family by the CS, become the best mage the Federation of Magic has ever seen, eradicate the Xiticix scourge, become a well renowned Rogue Scholar). I’m also keen on having Players develop some or most of these goals in private, so Players have role-playing opportunities amongst themselves. What these now provide you, as a GM, are key plot and adventure ideas to lace into an overall campaign.
GM – The Gaming Session. As the GM, have a set idea (goal) on what you wish to achieve in a gaming sessions *before* you sit down and start rolling dice. I’ve always found a very vague agenda with some timelines associated with things helps keep pace. Personally I just scratch what I’ve termed as ‘Scenario Boxes,’ which are nothing more than blocks with a single word or phrase, with lines connecting one node of the adventure to the next. This provides the architecture for the adventure, with likely flow of gaming and times associated with each (e.g. Meet at MercOps in Town – 15 mins, Discuss Contract/Prepare Gear – 30 mins, Encounter 1 (Bandits) – 60 mins, branch to Bandit Camp or Faming Village). It also allows you to understand when you might need to speed things up or allow yourself more time. Fair warning: Don’t be a slave to it, especially if the players are fully engaged with the role-playing aspect; what you thought would take 15 minutes might last an hour or an entire session – go with the flow! You’d be surprised how players can really connect with non-combat situations and fondly recall those elements years after.
GM – The Campaign. Something I’ve found useful is to not get too heavily invested in a mega-campaign early on. As we’ve discussed, the idea of the adventure is provide Players something to bounce their interactions off and role-play their part in the epic story. Because your Players can (really should almost be worded as “they definitely will”) react in ways you did not forecast, you may find yourself backpedalling a bit to try and adapt. The super-fantastically-amazingly-complex plot you have crafted may be completely derailed by the group choosing some random piece of information and inferring an adventure out of it. I suggest you limit yourself to planning a few sessions out. The further out you plan, the more I’d stick to bullet points and “idea boxes” linking one element to the next. Anything more than that I would leave as a point form, as a kind of theme you can rally planning around (e.g. super-secret CS death squad come after party thinking a Player Character escaped with key information, or the party will head to Madhaven, or link the campaign to the Juicer Uprising). Two key things to remember: try to link these themes with your players’ goals; and, avoid railroading players into a ‘Scenario Box’ or a campaign stream you insist they follow. The former reinforces Player agency, the latter strips Players of that agency.
GM – Integrate Player Actions. Something I always do is make notes after the session of key points that come up in-play. There may be random statements or grandiose actions that you can leverage into the campaign as fodder for future adventure ideas. This is key to capturing your pPlayers’ attention and giving them agency in the campaign as they see what they say or do being directly reflected in this epic journey. By tweaking your campaign to include elements from your notes, it promotes the persistence of your campaign ideas and longevity of the plot. It also rewards Players for their participation, demonstrates your attentiveness to their actions, and bridges that GM versus player gap that sometimes develops.
GM – Integrate Player Styles. This can be a really crucial element that is *entirely* dependent on the group dynamic. Things like level of maturity (e.g. age, but not exclusively tied to it), role-playing game experience (e.g. played RPGs for 2 months or 20 years), familiarity with the Palladium system (only played d20 or has played various systems), player gender and player character gender (yes, these are separate considerations), and expectations of the role-playing experience (e.g. hack-and-slash, dungeon-crawl, more soft-skill role-playing) will all come into play. In many cases you will come into the first adventure with a fair idea of many of these, but there may be some back and forth on this element as you go. Makes notes and try to incorporate them as your adventures continue.
Setting the Scene. Sometimes starting in a new game setting can prove difficult to explain or prepare players for; playing Rifts can certainly be a different experience than playing AD&D/Pathfinder, and not just because of the setting. This can begin as early as the character creation process, whereby players are trying to find their character’s niche in the world. Additionally, if you expect them to generate goals for you to mine for plot points, it behooves you to give them some context.
Session Zero Primer. Something I do with people unfamiliar to the setting is provide a primer to the major elements they need to know (no more than 2-3 pages). In the case of Rifts, I’d give a summarized version of the pertinent points from Erin Tarn’s World Overview and World Book information as it relates to the campaign. This typically gives Players enough to start with and through Session Zero we flesh things out. What it also does is give you the opportunity to gauge player preconceptions of major players (e.g. the Coalition States, Tolkeen and Federation of Magic, Psyscape, D-Bees in general), how this may be used within the overall campaign, and how to help shape the Player Character goals.
Use Genre Conventions/Tropes. Most will have an idea of what a mage/magician is, but not necessarily a Ley Line Walker; they understand Terminator, so a ‘Borg should not be too much of a stretch; they’ve seen Star Trek/Star Wars, so playing D-Bees as non-humans may be something they are familiar with. Leverage tropes and conventions of sci-fi/fantasy to simplify both character creations and game play. If you want to simplify the Coalition States as ‘Nazis in Rifts’ and forego the nuanced opportunities, it’s your game space – make them the ‘Red Shirts’ for your campaign, so long as everyone is having fun. Be careful not to use conventions/tropes as a crutch and be prepared to manipulate your adventure (e.g. your players might choose that option where you now have to develop the character/personality of the CS squad leader they've captured). Alternatively, try not to subvert these conventions too far, as player tolerances may stretch beyond what they are willing to accept (e.g. make them suddenly have to sympathize with the CS soldier may cross a boundary they are unwilling to accept).
Player Agency. This speaks to the level of commitment and internalization the player will adopt from your adventures, the campaign in general, and more specifically, their character’s perspective.
Decisions, Decisions…. Giving Players interesting decisions is something that comes with practise. At the outset this may be realized through Door #1 or #2 format, and this can work brilliantly even with more experienced Players. As the game progresses and Players and Player Characters “level up,” they may come up with more complex options to solve the problem space you’ve presented. If you can, give them something that makes them consider and project the ramifications of their choices (e.g. do we destroy the CS squad entirely, or take prisoners if they surrender?).
Limitation of Choices. Something I pulled from game development theory, you absolutely can overwhelm your players by giving them too much information and too many choices. This complicates your campaign and plot arcs to no end. Do yourself the favour of only giving a few choices; sometimes it requires giving players the appearance of choice to move things along. This can be done through role-playing interactions, providing 'unwinnable' encounters to escape rather than fight through, or maybe limitations on resources to accomplish a task (e.g. jeep runs out of fuel, anti-magic cloud, numerically superior forces PCs must avoid).
Scope of Choices. There is something to be said for balancing the scope of goals and choices Players can make. It may be well and good that the Player Character has the goal to assassinate Karl Prosek; how are you going to affect the changes such an action will have? The world building of those consequences may be more expansive than you are willing to tackle. Of course this also presents the opportunity to manipulate results into something players might not have foreseen. If they succeeded in killing Karl Prosek, how does this change the regime? How does the remainder of the CS react, or will it? How will enemies of the CS react? If Karl is dead but the military regime remains, it is likely someone new will step up with possibly worse results! The PCs will likely be targeted by everyone (and I mean *EVERYONE*) for the level of bounty they will have on their heads. So when sorting out goals with the players, keep this maxim in mind: “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!”
Trade-Offs. This is a more limited aspect, but worth mentioning. When presenting a choice (or appearance of one), sometimes the element of a trade-off required could help shape the choices. Something akin to the ‘If X, then Y or Z’ dynamic (e.g. time limit on the contract so limited decision space or risk losing the contract reward/money). Perhaps their Player Character goals require them to adapt the mission to meet those goals, which may or may not have consequences down the road (e.g. party let’s women and children go before a battle only to be attacked by the womenfolk who are all practitioners of magic; or they skim off the top from a raid, their Black Market contact finds out and puts a contract on their heads). A benefit of hidden goals is that one player's goal may conflict with another; more plot points to exploit.
Progress & Learning. The idea that both Player and Player Character develop over time is not something to ignore. Despite the Player Character demonstrating the most obvious element of development, Players themselves have a part in “leveling up” through game play.
Progress. Levelling up a Player Character is one of the most tangible metric for success. For some OCCs this has greater impacts than others, but in every case it provides Players with a sense of achievement. Perhaps their character has been able to accomplish a conclusion to one of their initial goals, or achieve a key step along the path to doing so. This is yet another point where the persistence of the campaign gets reinforced through player agency. They are also points for the GM to better invest in their campaign, folding emerging character details into the future adventures.
Learning. As the Player Character develops, so too does the player. By investing the time and effort, they learn more about the character’s OCC and ways to leverage skills, abilities spells, gear and equipment, group tactics and the like moving forward. The fine balance of going too fast or too slow is a tipping point that GMs may need to play with; there is no magic solution as the group dynamic plays such a massive part in it.
Too Fast. Levelling up too quickly robs the player of the time to truly get to understand the dynamics of their OCC and how to employ their powers and skills. In all cases, there is the administrative process of updating skills, Hand to Hand Bonuses and the like, which takes time away from game play. For practitioners of magic or psychics, you also have the extra burden of spell/power selection.
Too Slow. The Players will find the sessions to be a grind, making them start to look for ways to “game” the system and progress more quickly. If you dole out XPs mostly for combat, they will ignore narrative elements of the campaign in favour of the combat = reward element, which could derail your efforts.
Anticipation. This is where things get wrapped up. The anticipation that develops from your revelation of the plot elements as they arise, the PC reactions to your injects, and how that interplay develops. This leads to both Player and Player Character development as a result of the success of their choices. Player group decisions and the upgrading of their abilities (e.g. skills, magic, psionics) helps support the players’ goals and reinforces their agency in the campaign you’ve designed.
To be sure, there are a lot of minutiae to manage as a Game Master. This is no small feat for many, and certainly something I hope to try to alleviate, even if a small measure. The management of Player group personalities is a hurdle that all Game Masters have had to deal with, so don’t feel like you are breaking new ground. The idea of gaining player agency to reinforce the epic journey that player characters inhabit is something that takes work, but part of the effort comes from your players. By having a better understanding of their needs and desires within the context of a series of adventures, this starts to take a lot of the pressure off of you as a GM. Everyone is looking to have a good time, and having someone dedicate themselves to the role of GM allows the others to “play the game.” By playing the game, players need to give you *something* to work with, and if you are having some frustrations in how to develop those goals and plot injects, my hope is that this post and others that follow will provide some measure of direction and guidance to achieving the epic journey your players want, and the confidence in the campaign you hope to present.
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