What Do You Want to Do Tonight, Brain?

The most important thing to keep in mind when running a game is that it has to be fun for both you and for your players. This means you have to keep in mind what your players want from your gaming sessions just as much as what you want. Every time you sit down to plan out a gaming session, ask yourself, “What will my players enjoy?”

How do you know what they want from the game, though? Well, the easiest way is to ask them. Trust me, they’ll tell you. However, whether the information is actually useful or not is a completely different story. While it’s possible you my get useful information about the kind of challenges they want and the sort of setting they want to game in, odds are you may get a lot of lists of magic items, specialized weapons, military explosives, and exotic abilities they want their character to have. In one game I ran, the response was simply “I want to be a vampire!” Which would’ve been great if we were playing World of Darkness or even Shadowrun…but rather useless in a game like D&D where vampires are universally evil and have abilities which greatly destroy game balance.

Sometimes, you’ll get lucky though and the backstories for your player’s characters will tell you everything you need to know. Someone who writes a 10 page single-spaced background involving a demon lord who has plagued his family for five generations obviously wants a game involving said demon at some point. Even a short backstory with just a few notes about growing up in a large city as part of a ring of thieves tells you that the player probably wants a few urban sessions involving sneaking around a heavily urban environment.

Even if that doesn’t help you, just a look at your player’s character sheets may tell you exactly what they want. Skill points tell you what the player wants their character to be good at, and that’s all you need to know to craft a session for them. If they use the game rules to boost that stat at the sacrifice for other abilities, then you know they really hope to be able to use it (for example, a player spending a feat to boost a skill rather than increasing their chance to hit or damage). You may even be able to get an idea what sort of foes they hope to encounter if they take skills, abilities, powers, and equipment which are focused on that group or race.

Even if there are no such overt hints given, you can still get an idea of what your players want before the game begins. Check out their bookshelves and DVD collections. Conan and Beastmaster movies abound? They’d probably enjoy a barbarian-themed game. Scanners and Dune point to psionics and possibly a Dark Sun game setting. Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans probably wouldn’t mind a game filled with undead to slaughter, and if a lot of George Romero’s films are in there as well, zombies should probably go on the agenda at some point. Try to think past the genre itself and into what the film is about. Just because you’re playing D&D doesn’t mean that the Thief’s Guild can’t replace the mafia for a fan of The Sopranos, Goodfellas, and the Godfather films. Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t about fighting Nazis as much as it is about a race to a secret artifact by following clues. Whether those clues are the riddles to find the Eye of Vecna or cracking security codes to locate the secret satellite’s prototype, it follows the same premise.

The best way to figure out what your players want in a game is to pay attention to what they do during the game session itself. If they roll their eyes and let out exasperated sighs because there’s another trap or skill challenge, they probably want more combat. If someone keeps trying to talk to the bad guys rather than fight them, she may be itching for a social encounter. If they completely zone out during a fight unless they’re attacking or being attacked, watch then they do get engaged in the battle otherwise and figure out if it’s just the battles taking too long or if the opponents or terrain is too boring for them. But it’s not just where you lose then but where you have them as well. If your players seem particularly focused and engaged during one point in the session, moreso than usual, make a note of it. You did something they liked, and odds are they’ll like it if you do something similar again.

Don’t despair if what your different players want doesn’t mesh, or even if what they want and what you want don’t mesh. Running a game is all about balance. If one player wants an urban game while another one wants to stay out in the wilderness, you don’t need to choose between both when you can split the difference, either giving one exactly what they want then the other, or going somewhere in the middle with a city in the treetops (two great examples are Lothlorien in Lord of the Rings and Kashyyyk in Star Wars). Some may want a low-level game where they’re adventuring for their next meal and staying in one small village or town, while others may want a massively epic globetrotting adventure where gods and dragons learn to fear them. Splitting the difference here may be going somewhere in the middle with the PCs playing a smaller part in world-shaking events (like HALO: Reach and HALO: ODST or Merry and Pippin’s roles in Lord of the Rings) or by starting with humble beginnings and building to the epic scale (Frodo’s simple hike to Rivendell ending with destroying the power of the Dark Lord, the simple ranger “Strider” rising to lead the armies of men to the gates of Mordor and reclaiming the Throne of Gondor, Harry Potter’s biggest problems evolving from escaping the Dursleys and going to Hogwarts into saving the entire wizarding world from Voldemort, or a simple farmboy on a remote desert planet storing the sacred line of the Jedi and defeating the Emperor).

No matter what you do, remember that this is not “your” game, but belongs to you and your players equally. You may control the majority of what happens, but they are the main characters of this story and their part is no less important than yours in how the story you are crafting together unfolds. If the players’ interests are piqued, their participation in the game will increase. And the more your players are involved, the more they will feel the story is about them and their characters.


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