Top Rated… (Building Player Ownership)

One of the key elements in running a game, homebrew or module, is player investment. You can have the best story, great maps and stunning descriptions but without player engagement it is all meaningless. On the flip, it is rare that player investment can ever really be “too much” though I have seen people push the envelop with it. Some tactics to consider when driving player ownership of a game:

Get “Buy-In” to Your Concept – Sell your players on your idea. Preferably BEFORE you commit to running it. If you don’t get the reaction you expect it is possible you identified a possible flaw in your ability to talk about the adventure. It is also possible that your players aren’t interested in what you think they are or the idea that interests you to run. Don’t be afraid to allude to it in table talk at the end of the game or while out with gamer friends elsewhere: “I am thinking of running a wuxia-flavored asian-inspired mythos game… I already bought all the expansions for it. What? Don’t you think Steve and Ray would be into it?”

Care about the Characters – Take the time to get to know your player’s characters. Understand how they work mechanically. Read their backstory and vet it. Validate it. Nothing is quite so off putting as a GM who busts out his module and asks everyone to “role-call classes” at the beginning of a game while you sort through your maps. Naked visibility to mechanics that you are paying less attention to that your players diminishes your credibility and gives off the impression than you are not really interested in them. It may seem that you just intend to drag them through the story. Don’t be the GM who has no idea what his characters need: “I give out good treasure all the time, I practically labelled that Circlet of Intellect for you wilder! Why are you looking at me like that?”

Recognize the “Islands” – In my article on the perils build guide-use I mentioned this phenomenon. The “vacuum character” or “island” is a player that is going to pursue their concept or build with relative ambivalence to the story at hand and will pursue their mechanics regardless of the support or reality of them in your setting. This is very key for two reasons. First, their characters lack of engagement is going to likely make the experience poor for them. Additionally, and probably more importantly, their negation of involvement in your setting will diminish it for other players: “An elven realmlord’s keyblade? Sweet! Awesome! It should go for at least 40k gold pieces and I can finally get a new naginata! What do you mean Claire’s disenfranchised elven noble wants it? She isn’t even a fighter.”

Delegation and Extra Credit – If you group is willing, offer extra incentives for painting figs, drawn portraits or pictures and stories (vetted for your story) from your players. Offer jobs like initiative tracking or cartography duties. Have a player record party experience or log entries of each sessions events. Don’t reward it in a way as to punish people for not doing it. Disproportionate rewards with game significant benefits can lead to game imbalance. Sometimes players will even volunteer or requests these roles. Nothing gets good levels of investment more than time sunk into prep or facilitation duties. “Jason, that doodle of Rozarg is awesome, could I scan it for our portal page on that campaign site?”

Be Permissive or Direct – Even the most “broken” of rules elements are not really a challenge to a steady-headed GM. You control the universe after all. Skill Focus is NOT going to ruin anything unless you let it. A brief conversation of what expansions, third party products or optional rules sets you are running with is a good idea. Asking the players if they have any additions they’d like to see is an even better conversation. Remember though that we are trying to “Care about the Characters” so don’t allow something and disegard how it works. If you do you may miss key elements they need mechanically and they will have a bad experience even if your game is awesome. If you don’t want or can’t manage a concept in your game, be direct and don’t allow it. Be prepared for a similar directness and don’t take differences in play-style personally. “Time Warden? What is that… it sounds cool?”

Follow Through on Your Presentation – If you promise that you have just arrived in “the largest metropolis in the world” don’t pull back from the idea just because it isn’t convenient, interesting or something you “want to deal with”. If you offer up a cosmopolitan paradise, give it. Don’t suddenly have every merchant be out of a vital spell component because you hate the spell or have a previously unheard of monster become common place because it trashed someone’s alpha. This lack of campaign consistency and integrity will undermine any effort to draw players in. “An anti-magic eye beast again? That’s three since christmas… my caster teleports back to Grimskull Island and starts tanning on the beach…”

Reality Checks – No one really likes it but things change. New jobs, babies, and health issues all contribute to players ability to focus in-game. The game night or start time that worked for the last four years might suddenly be the worst possible one for a player. Watch for warning signs of life changes that will impact your game. When possible be positive and pro-active about it: “Dean, congrats to you on your son. Did you need some time off while you figure out your new life-rhythm. Jason has been asking about that pirate game I was thinking of running and I know you don’t want to do that one…”

Stitch the Seams – I favor homebrew customized adventures, but some of the best GMs I know have almost exclusively used modules, adventure paths and “canned” settings. Why were they good? The GMs read the material and massage it together with a little inter-connectivity. Doing Goblin Rise and then Werewolf’s Bloodmoon? Build moon imagery in the first module, maybe slip out a silvered weapon, and then during the second module, maybe have a minor NPC from the first one play the role of another less significant NPC from the later module. Examine geography and minimize conflicts and adjust the settings of the modules to mirror each other more smoothly. Reprise and reprise some more: “That girl is the same one we saved in the Temple of Ash!”

Solicit Feedback – Ask everyone how the game went as you wrap up. Encourage an atmosphere where it is OK to offer an opinion or voice “in-character” concerns in a metagame “out-of-character” way. If a player is quiet, mad, or disengaged that is a sign to engage them. It may not be appropriate in the moment but definitely follow-up on it.  Keep perspective and remember that sometimes it is real-world stuff impinging on their ability to immerse: “Jason, you seemed way bummed out tonight and when your character died, you hardly cared.  Wanna talk about it sometime?”

When looking for your ideas to get players more “head’s in” rather than “checked out” your best source is the table. Listen to the tones and choices they make and effort they bring to their immersion. Chances are they are telling you what they need already.

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