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The Big Trick to Game Mastering

I remember a while ago I was broadly championing Primetime Adventures as a nice, simple game that would help generate heaps of fun; so simple that fun could still be had even when played over Skype. I tried twice to put a game together, and what happened? Each attempt petered out after a couple of sessions; scheduling conflicts got in the way, which is fair enough, life sucks sometimes; the real problem was that the group as a whole wasn’t in any hurry to work around our schedules and continue the game.

So much for "The most reliably fun roleplaying game in the history of fun." (Apologies, Vince.) So what went wrong?

Most accounts I’ve read about successful Primetime Adventures games make mention of the Click! This is the moment when the whole group suddenly goes from bouncing around show ideas to engaging with one specific show idea. It’s telling that I’ve yet to experience that moment in one of my games, and I don’t think I’m far wrong in my presumption that none of my players had experienced it either. I blamed it on the nature of playing across Skype at first, but after some time and reflection, not to mention listening to the session recordings I made using PowerGramo, I frankly think the problem can be laid at my feet.

One thing I don’t think I’d really taken on board when I took on the role of Producer for my Primetime Adventures games was that the Producer really needs to drive the Pitch session, the first session when the players assemble and create the “show” (a.k.a. campaign) and their protagonists. The Producer must keep show ideas moving and be willing to shelve an idea that not everyone is keen on and recommend the group brainstorms some more. To borrow from the How to Run: Primetime Adventures entry on the RPGnet Wiki (which I partway wrote before actually doing my first game), a neat trick that Judd of the Sons of Kryos podcast uses when Producing a Pitch session is to roleplay that he's "(A)n obnoxious producer from Hollywood, except not stupid... and these imaginative people are getting together to make something out of my money." His objective is to keep things moving.

I wasn’t really doing that. Listening to those Skype session recordings, I noticed how much um-ing and ah-ing I was doing instead of prodding the brainstorming along. I didn’t once mention the Click! Moment. I let half the group get away with introducing core show concepts that the other half of the group had stated up front that they weren’t interested in, let alone familiar with. I should have shelved the whole thing and kept the group moving. And if we didn’t come up with anything? I should have just taken that as an indicator that, well, Primetime Adventures simply mightn’t have been the right game for that particular group (and there’s nothing wrong with that; it just means that, like show concepts, we can shelve it and move on rather than wasting more of each other’s time with a game that no one’s enjoying).

Instead, by the time I recommended we started looking at characters (around an hour into the process), we had two separate show ideas masquerading as a single, unified pitch. During the pilot session, I struggled to come up with interesting conflicts for the PCs and at least one player wasn’t happy about my trying to coax people into the game. Fun it certainly wasn’t. Like the first game, scheduling conflicts have cropped up and few of us are in any particular hurry to re-organise for Episode Two.

If I’m learning anything, slowly and agonisingly, it’s that, ultimately, the overriding goal of any game master (frankly, it ought to be the goal of everyone around the gaming table, but we’re talking about the GM here) must be to make sure that everyone around the table, the game master him- or herself included, is interested, engaged and having fun such that they will make time in their schedules for the next session. And it can’t just be a lofty mission statement; the GM must work at it, be a little aggressive if necessary, but not shirk leading the group (after all, the GM can only do it wrong, which is how everyone learns).

Frankly, I think that at the next game I run, I’ll state that goal up front. If I run PtA again, I’ll discuss the objective of the Pitch in terms of creating a show concept, and then discuss the Click! Moment, how it’s worth striving for and how I intend to push for it. If I get a Burning Empires game going, I’ll talk about the central, “fighting off invasion” concept and how, by the end of the World Burning process, we’ll have a planet that each person at the table has had a hand in creating and will want to return to, even if that means watching it fall to the enemy.

It’s kind of scary…

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