Playing With Strangers

A friend told me, a long time ago ((So long ago that I don’t really remember being told this, and it’s just a truism that I’ve always known. But it must have come from somewhere.)), that you shouldn’t game with anyone you wouldn’t invite over for dinner. There’s wisdom in that – gaming is an hours-long social situation that forces you to interact with everyone at the game. Why would you want to spend that time with someone you don’t know you get along with?

I run a lot of games in public – at game days, at conventions, at parties, whatever. That means that I don’t always get to choose who sits down at my table ((Though I can choose who gets up and leaves, sometimes.)). Sometimes, I can be pretty confident that I know who’s going to come to a game, and sometimes it’s really a crap shoot. And playing with a player you don’t know can be challenging. Playing with a whole group of them, even more so.

I’ve learned some things by running these games about how to make things go smooth ((Even Firefly games.)). They’re not foolproof, and they require some effort on the part of the person running the game ((Why do I talk about the person running the game, rather than the GM? Because these things are just as applicable when you’re demoing a board game as when you’re GMing an RPG.)), but they can help the experience be fun for everyone at the table.

First, some assumptions:

  • I assume you want to create a welcoming, fun experience for everyone who might sit down at the table. If not, you may want to ask yourself why you’re running a game.
  • I’m not going to talk about “problem players.” I don’t like the term, because it’s behaviour at the table that’s the problem, not the player. Also, any problematic behaviour might just be a cultural mismatch between your gaming ideal and the player’s ((This last idea may be worth it’s own blog post in the future.)).
  • I assume you’re not deliberately trying to piss off someone at the table. If you are, you’re on your own with that ((And again, why? Why bother?)).

And now, some tips that I’ve found useful:

  • Set expectations at the start of the session. If you want to keep the language and content PG-13 because you’re playing in a public space, for example, say that up front. Tell the folks what kind of time investment they’re looking at. Talk about when breaks will be, if there are going to be any. If you don’t want people writing on the character sheets, tell them so.
  • Remember that, if you’re playing in public, you’re likely representing someone else. At a game day at a local store, for example, you may be a volunteer, but your actions reflect on the store. At a convention, how you behave affects how people talk about the event and the organizer. Do your best to make sure the impressions you make reflect well on the host. Even if you’ve just added a person or two to your regular gaming group, how you act will colour how the newbies view the entire group. So, y’know, Wheaton’s Law applies.
  • Read the diversity of your group. In a random group, you may have kids, older people ((Like me. I’m old, now. I’m not telling you which of the other categories I also belong to.)), young people, people of colour, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, people of a different gender than you, people of different religions, folks for whom your language is their second language, people on the autism spectrum, neurotypical people, Klingons, Whovians, Trekkers, Trekkies, Stormtroopers, Jedi, Ricks, Morties, furries, vampires, LARPers, grognards, n00bs, bronies, Marvel fans, DC fans, and trivia-stuffed blowhards ((Okay. I lied. I belong in that category, too.)). You don’t have to take a survey or anything, just be aware of any obvious diversity, and realize that there might be more that you don’t see ((And is none of your business.)). Keep the diversity in mind when you think about my first assumption up above.
  • In keeping with the previous point, and the assumption about making your game both welcoming and fun for everyone, I learned about a neat little tool when I ran some games for Games on Demand at GenCon. It’s called the X-card, and is the brilliant idea of John Stavropoulos. The link explains it in wonderful detail, but the idea is that you have an index card on the table with an X on it. You explain at the start of the session ((While you’re setting expectations, right?)) that you want everyone to help you make a fun game for everyone. So, if someone is uncomfortable with something that happens in the game, all they have to do is tap or lift the X-card, and that bit gets edited out, no explanation necessary, no judgment attached. I’ve been using this at all my public games since I learned about it, and it has rarely been used, but it provides a really useful safety valve if someone is facing something that’s going to ruin the game for them.
  • Remember that this is your game. Don’t let the players push you around or bully you. Just be firm in your decisions. I’m talking about your game decisions, here, but I’m also talking about your out-of-game interactions. If someone is ruining someone else’s fun – saying rude or inappropriate things, trying to quarterback, ignoring the X-carding of a subject, whatever – , ask them to stop. If gentle admonishments like, “Come on. Let’s not have any name-calling,” or, “We X-carded baby-eating, so how about we come up with something else?” then you may want to call a short break and speak to the person one-on-one.
  • If you have to speak to someone about their behaviour, speak to them about their behaviour. Don’t talk about the person. “I don’t like some of the language you’re using. I think it’s making some others uncomfortable, too. Can I ask you to rein it in, please?” This is all conflict management stuff – “I” statements, addressing the behaviour, clear language, polite and respectful but firm, etc. You’ve probably learned at least some of it just by running games with your friends, even if you don’t realize it. You can also find a whole lot more of it online by searching for conflict management.
  • If behaviour escalates to the point that it’s ruining the game for everyone, call a break and ask the person to leave the game. This is supposed to be fun for everyone at the table, including you; if one person’s fun is causing everyone else to not have fun, it’s time to cut that person loose.
  • BE FAIR. Running a game makes it easy to play favourites, to fudge things, to reward or punish the players individually or as a group. Don’t do that. Play fair. And applaud good play by the players.
  • If, however, you are demoing a game with a winner and loser, especially if you’re demoing it for the manufacturer at a convention, try not to win. Yes, this contradicts the previous point, but winners get excited and are more likely to buy the game. You must serve your corporate master in this regard.

So, that’s a pretty long list. I’m now going to answer a few questions that I think it might raise:

What, I’m supposed to think about that huge list of different kinds of people who might be at my table and remember them all? No, of course not. Some of the things on the list are serious things to consider, and some are me just trying to be funny. If you can’t tell which is which, you may want to rethink running games in public ((Though, to be fair, some of the funny ones can be serious concerns, too.)). It is important, though, to recognize that you can’t always know all the various intersections of diversity that will show up at a table, and treating everyone like a human being, worthy of respect and courtesy, and a welcome addition to the group, helps get you in the mindset to accept any diversity that does come up. Again, my assumption is that you want to welcome everyone and for everyone to have fun.

Why do I have to be the one who calls out bad behaviour at the table? If it’s bothering someone, why don’t they say something? Well, they might. And if they do it calmly and reasonably, that’s great. But some people aren’t comfortable with that kind of confrontation, or get too angry, or are dealing with other issues, and just won’t. They’ll suffer silently, and then talk to their friends about how much your game sucked. Like it or not, this is your game. You’re the boss of your table. Maintaining courteous behaviour amongst the players is part of your job.

What happens if someone seems likely to become violent if I ask them to leave? Well. This can happen. It’s not good, but it can happen. My recommendation is, if you think you might get hurt, get back-up. Store staff or convention staff, or a buddy from nearby, or even a police officer if you can get one in time. Remember: this is a game. It’s not worth you – or anyone else, for that matter – getting hurt because of a game. If you have no back-up, but the situation has become untenable, call the game. “Sorry, folks, I’m out of time. Thanks for coming out, and I hope you had fun.” If you think there’s a chance of violence, you can be sure that some of the others have also picked up on it, and will be willing to wrap up before things get ugly. It’s sub-optimal, but better than an actual violent confrontation.

This sounds like it takes practice. How do I get practice? It’s like any skill. You get better with practice. If you’ve got a local game store, talk to them about running a game at the store. There are regular D&D games supported by WotC at local stores, or Pathfinder, if you prefer that flavour. Other game companies are usually really supportive of anyone demoing their games at a store, and my even be able to provide support – scenarios, prizes, stuff like that. Look them up and e-mail them.

If you really want to go full-bore, though, nothing beats volunteering for Indie Games on Demand at a convention. They have a presence at most gaming conventions these days, they’re always happy to have more GMs running stuff, and they have a top-notch support system to help new GMs find their feet and not feel abandoned. This is also where you’re likely to run into the widest variety of gamers, and will get the most practice making strangers feel comfortable and getting them to have fun.

I’ve got one last tip for you: relax. Have fun. If you’re not enjoying this, why bother doing it?

Gaming is for fun. Remember that.