Habit #5: Stop Trying to Be Right
Here’s what I don’t mean: “Don’t Learn the rules of the game! Be less knowledgeable!” What I do mean is to get out of your game’s way and stop focusing on the correct in-game response to everything. Planning and scheme-hatching is great, but when one gets to obsessing over each detail and planning contingencies for your contingencies, well…let’s just say the game’s pace will suffer. Gamers are generally smart, geeky folk, so the impulse to do things right is understandably strong. But here’s why getting everything perfect sucks:
stories are best when mistakes are made. Characters who never err or suffer poor consequences for their actions are pretty dreadful on-screen. They might be 90% right, but that 10% really bites them hard, causing new twists in the story, and giving room for real surprise.
Am I advocating the willful making of mistakes? Not really, though sometimes a good old-fashioned mistake is what your character would make in a situation. But really the emphasis is on letting that last bit of your plan that’s not perfect be not perfect. That last 30% of your plan is not worth fighting for, because that percentage of flaw is where the best part of your stories live. It is fun to plan so thoroughly that a GM has no recourse but to let you have your way unchallenged, but if that’s the main way we are getting fun out of our games, I feel we have to look at what that game is really about. Circumventing conflict is a whole lot like not playing a game that revolves around stories, which revolve around conflict.
To phrase differently: would you watch a movie where no conflicts ever took place because the heroes meticulously plotted and planned for the villain’s every move?
Villain: “Here’s my dastardly plan to…ah, what is that?”
Hero: “My dastardly counter to your dastardly plan.”
Villain: “How did you know?”
Hero: “Had you followed back to your ‘secret’ lair and bugged it. We’ve had you under surveillance for the last 3 months. Here’s your cuffs, try them on!”
It’s a bit more interesting to play that out than watching it, but just barely.
When in doubt, doing something is more fun than trying to do something perfect. It keeps the pace of a game strong and gives the GM room to challenge the players.
Gamemasters, you can instill this habit in players by making sure they understand that you aren’t looking to hose them for every gap in their plan, though you will use those same gaps to create new complications. Players feel the need to be “perfect” and disengage from conflict when they feel every conflict has a high percentage chance to kill them.
I understand that most of what I say sounds at first blush like I’m saying “Take it easy!”, but I’m really not. What it boils too is this: if you are running games, you need to think of challenge and consequences as more than just life or death. If the only way a character can be challenged is life or death, players will seek ways out of those conflicts. They will play “safe” and “perfect”, both of which are ways for them to avoid conflict.
The problem being is that RPGs are about the generation of story, which in turn is about the generation of conflict. There are many structures and rules for getting to that generation (and in turn, resolution) of conflict, but if we can’t have conflict, then something is off.
How do you create an environment where characters don’t have to be “right” all the time to move the story forward?