With all this emphasis on getting into character and staying in character during the game, avoiding anachronisms, using medieval(-ish) period jargon, one aspect the GM must learn and remember to do is to keep the players and their characters separate in his mind. The GM cannot allow himself to be shocked or appalled, or show dismay, over the actions proposed by any player for his character, for they will sometimes seem “out of control”, as it were. The players use gaming as a means to “blow off some steam”, for their recreation, and many of the more pragmatic necessities of running a character in a medieval fantasy setting, in a “Swords & Sorcery” genré, may well be repugnant to modern sensibilities.
If a PC does actually start to get “out of control”, to cut across the grain of even the medieval society and the social morés and rules of conduct described for his benefit in the pages of the Players’ Guide (which tolerates much, including minor violence), to run amok, the GM should first leave it to the rest of the characters in the party to police his actions. They will be the first to come down on another player for this behavior. They can come down on him easiest in character, and are likeliest to do so hardest if they take offense at another PC’s actions. By association, such behavior puts ALL the PC’s in the party at risk for reprisal. If they should fail to do so, or should their behavior be just as bad, the GM always has medieval law at his fingertips, and can see how the PC’s feel about living on the lam, about being outlawed, about having any property (houses, lands) and their moveable goods confiscated, about having a 5s. bounty on their heads and being chased by bounty-hunters, sheriffs, the constabulary, and so on.
Before it gets to that point, however, the GM can also make sure the PC’s take note of the pillories and stocks and the dungcarts with their petty law-breakers trussed to them with the signs of their infractions worn about their necks, smudged and caked with offal and rotten vegetables hurled by passersby, subjected to harassment, catcalls, and other public humiliation. He can make sure they see or actually encounter a few NPC’s maimed by the medieval due-process of law (especially when among the society of Rogues and Knaves), and also get a good look at the bodies of a few criminals left swinging on the gibbet after being hanged until the scavengers have stripped their carcasses, the heads of malefactors of gentle blood dipped in pitch or cedar oil to preserve them and mounted on pikes over the gatehouse entrance to castle or town.
Otherwise, unless the PC’s get out of control by the medieval definition in the context of the game, the GM should take the characters plans and actions in stride. He has the Virtues and Vices to employ when he sees the need. they should provide a moral compass for the PC’s and also for the GM in determining the PCs’ relationship to the medieval fantasy gameworld. The GM must remember it is the characters making these actions, not the players. Due to the nature of the game, the characters might well be set to tasks without a second thought that the players would never be able to perform in a million lifetimes. Some tasks thoroughly repugnant to modern man may not only be possibilities to the players, but necessities in the context of the game.
The GM should always treat the players with respect, and always insist on the same from them in return, and that they treat each other with the same respect. While this sounds pretty simple and basic, some days and with some players it is not as easy or as obvious as it looks here. Every time he sits down to run a game, the GM must be willing to listen patiently to everyone who even looks like they have something to say, to take the time to coax the shy, to encourage them and draw them out. He must be prepared to keep a rein on the brash and more out-going who may all too easily run rough-shod over them. If several want to talk at the same time, the GM must make them settle down and take turns. The GM can go right around the table if he wants, or make the players sort themselves out into whatever order they like.
The GM must not allow any one player to dominate the game. If the GM’s habit is to take the players in order running around the table, he should make sure that the same player does not always take the first chair on either the right or the left (depending which direction he likes to take to the players, to the right or to the left). But this respect must be reciprocal. While the GM gives the players the courtesy of his attention when they have issues they need to discuss with him regarding the game, everyone in the gaming group should be listening attentively when the GM in turn has something to say to them.
As far as character actions in the context of the game, the PC’s are under absolutely no obligation whatsoever to act the way the GM wants (beyond the basic standards of the medieval fantasy world set forth in Chapter?) or to do the things he wishes or as he wishes just because that is the way he planned the adventure. The fact that the PC’s are free-agents reacting to and working through the GM’s settings and plots to resolve things in their own inimitable style, adding their own wrinkles whither they will, is supposed to be a good part of the charm and allure of this game of social interaction. The game consists of the social interplay of the characters, between one another and with the GM’s NPC’s, BUT without the other players, there is no game.
So, the GM should NOT revile the players, or call them dumb, sigh in exasperation, or roll his eyes at them, or otherwise show contempt for them just because they have not been able to figure out his latest, most Machiavellian plot. Just because it seems perfectly clear and simple to the GM, who is in the know, doesn’t make it any clearer than mud to the players if he has not provided sufficient clues. And what is “sufficient” is for the players to decide, not the GM. The GM will simply have to keep creating new clues and feeding them to the PC’s until they figure things out.
Nor should the GM dress the players down for doing something he thinks is “wrong” (or at least not “right” in his point of view). Generally speaking, the PC’s do the best they can with the information they have been given. The GM needs to treat them with patience and equanimity, in short, respect. Dressing people down and treating them rudely as described in the midst of a game can ruin their composure, embarrass them deeply, certainly eliminate the possibility of any fun they might otherwise have been having, or even make them angry and hostile towards the GM – definitely putting a strain on any friendships, if not actually bringing them to an end. Stranger things have happened, and all from a game of “Let’s Pretend”.
As far as getting off the track and doing something “wrong”, the GM must remembers that he and he alone is the only link between the players and the fantasy world of the game. He is their eyes, their ears, and so on. When things get bollixed-up, he should look first to himself and the job he is doing, what information he has given them – or NOT given them, as the case may be, before he starts throwing blame about and pointing fingers because things have not gone as planned.
Being in so pivotal a position to the game and the players, having to moderate the game, in charge of pace and balance and general (and sometimes specific) plot direction, the GM will always have some share, and often the greater share, of any blame to be laid when things go awry. It is the GM’s game. He is in charge, thus he is responsible.
When dealing with the players, the GM should always try to keep a cool head, think clearly, and remain reasonable. He should never let the players see him sweat. The GM’s role is much like that of an entertainer, the greater part of his enjoyment is supposed to be derived from the effect and emotions he inspires in his players by his storytelling, from his NPC’s, his staging and descriptions, from their own enjoyment as it shines in their faces. He will never see this if he spends his time criticizing them and the way they play. The success of a roleplaying game actually depends on the input of ALL the players, as well as the GM. As noted, without them there is no game.
As has been stressed on a few occasions in the previous the text, this is a game – different in many particulars from most – but in importance no more than any other to the lives of the players. This is a fact that all players and GM’s must understand. The GM and the players are all supposedly Real People who supposedly have Real Lives in the Real World. Those who are not and/or who do not had best understand that most of the people they are dealing with are and do, and they very likely form the majority of their gaming group. Recreation, roleplaying games in this case, are NOT supposed to get in the way of Real Life. All those involved with these games are supposed to have better grip on their priorities than that. This means that when the game session does clash with Real Life, either the game scheduled to take place at the same time is going to have to be cancelled (especially if the GM is the one who has the conflict – kinda tough play without him), or the GM is going to have to try and figure out what to do with the soulless lump of fictional flesh who up until that point had been Elmo the Fearless, with which they are suddenly saddled while Elmo’s player goes to dinner with spouse and in-laws, or has his teeth scaled, or attends a family member’s birthday celebration. How can a missing player be covered for?
What can be done when one of the players must be home at a specific time for dinner and will not be able to get away again until after the dishes are done, when none of the other players have similar obligations?
To start with, the rest of the players have to be willing to help. If it is only one of the players, the show very likely will go on. If it is only a temporary absence, the group can break for eats at the same time. Unfortunately, trying to reestablish the mood and the atmosphere when the players return can be more difficult than starting a game out fresh, from the top. Doctors’ and dentists’ appointments, baseball, football, and other sports practices and game commitments, and the like tend not to fall at such convenient times as meal obligations, although they do tend to follow a regular schedule so they can be planned around.
Real Life is rarely so neat, however. What can be done when traffic makes people late, or previous engagements run longer than expected, when someone has to leave early, or take a bathroom break, or just plain fails to show up? Then there is the perennial problem of gaming sessions that start at noon on the weekend and run past midnight. What to do when the players start dropping unconscious, one by one? Some players can be shaken awake at need, rousing clear-headed and agreeably enough when the game situation requires them, and continuing along virtually without them without causing any problems, otherwise. Many people are not such light sleepers and may arise irritable, even angry or swinging, making such a practice more trouble than it is worth.
Before the first few gaming sessions are over, maybe even in the very first one, the GM can be assured of having to face one of the forms of this problem. The GM can establish a standard procedure, or establish a standard set of principles and practices to deal with these events. Because of the great number of variables, few, if any standard procedures can really be called satisfactory.
Although most players tend to be very possessive about their characters, for the brief occasions needed for bathroom breaks, a few directions for the next few intended actions can be related to a fellow player and control passed to him until they return. This usually works quite well. If the GM gives the character a chance to act while the player is out, the player will not be missing anything, his character will continue to act according to his wishes, and the party will not be kept waiting for his return. This is especially import in the midst of a tactical situation or battle. Putting the party on hold while one of the players is off answering the call of Nature breaks the flow of play and destroys the sense of urgency, the atmosphere and the excitement.
If a player’s absence will be of a more prolonged nature, especially if he will miss the entire gaming session, the solution becomes more problematical. Many solutions may be tried, but there are none that are really satisfactory. Having a character simply dematerialize with all his gear from the middle of the adventure and reappear at a later date, when the player shows up at the following gaming session, is just ridiculous and a silly way to play fast and loose with the internal consistency and believability of the of the game, and also may play havoc with the rest of the party, should that character have piece of gear vital to the evening’s play. Having a character simply drop over dead in the player’s absence at least acknowledges the need for continuity of physical reality for the rest of the PC’s, but is just absolutely outrageous – like using a stick of TNT to kill a fly. Most players will only be gone for a single gaming session, and usually through no fault of their own, but due to the demands of Real Life. Should a player be missing for weeks on end, deliberately missing a handful of gaming sessions or more and no attempt made to contact the GM and explain, then the GM might have some basis for assuming he is not coming back. In this case, the character’s suddenly dropping dead, sudden cranial explosion, or spontaneous combustion might not be considered out of line. Of course, simply retiring the character and using him as a NPC friend and ally for the party’s benefit might be a more constructive course of action.
Having a character simply fall unconscious for the duration of the player’s absence might seem like a cop-out, but can be blamed on evil spirits, “elf-shot” from the Færies, or the like, but it certainly compromises the continuity of the game. If the party is down in some subterranean cave system, catacomb, sewer, or other labyrinthine complex, they suddenly have a body they must drag along with them until they come upon a safe place to leave him, and an attendant for him, for they must surely wonder what malady has befallen their comrade. This is not only extremely awkward, it is grossly unfair to the players who did show up to play.
If the hour is late and the munchies are gone, cold, or stale, and especially if the GM is starting to feel fatigued, as well, it is better by far for him to call it a night than to sacrifice the quality of play. Over-tired players and GM’s can be irritable, anger easily, and make stupid mistakes, which in turn make them more irritable still, and frustrated.
If the hour is not so late and the GM is still up for the game, or someone doesn’t show up and the players insist on forging onwards, the show should go on. However, the continuity of the previous game session must be maintained. The character whose player is absent must be disposed of in such a way as to preserve the integrity of the game, the adventure, and the specific situations that may arise during that game session. On the other hand, endangering the life of a character whose player is not present to take up his defense and try to influence the result of the challenge posed by the threat just is not fair. In this respect, roleplaying games have absolutely nothing to do with Real Life. Games, including roleplaying games, should be fair to the players. A PC should never be in danger of losing his life in the absence of its player, especially when that absence is due to circumstances beyond his control.
The GM cannot hope to have an answer for every game situation in which this occurs, but having a few guideline for implementing this principle should get the GM through most of them.
Characters in the party whose players are absent and who are otherwise supposed to be present among the rest of the party and engaged in the adventure at hand will be considered to have lost ALL initiative or will to act of their own volition. They will effectively have nothing but jelly or the breezes that blow between their ears for the duration of the player’s absence. An absentee PC like this will NOT have sudden inspirations to bale the party out of a tight spot. Neither will they risk life and limb on the party’s behalf just so the other characters whose players are present do not get hurt.
One thing the GM should never do is take on an absent player’s character and play him during that absence for the party’s benefit.
These policies will help make the GM’s life so much easier.
So long as an absentee PC is present with the party or accompanying any PC whose player is present, the absentee PC’s abilities and resources should be at the functional character’s disposal on demand. If the party depends on a character whose player is absent for the tending of their wounds, those services must still be available. Likewise if the absentee PC is the party Huntsman – how else will they find their way around, find comfortable camping sites, be warned of the approach of inclement weather? In regards to an absent Wizard, only those magicks that are considered essential to the furthering of the storyline for the evening’s gaming session should be allowed by the GM (GM’s discretion). This is another good reason for the GM to keep a photocopy of all the players’ characters with his gaming materials, or perhaps to take up the players’ character record sheets at the end of the gaming session to store with his gaming materials.
This allowance regarding the absentee PC’s abilities and resources must have some restrictions on it, however. Other than to provide the skills for which the party normally depends on him, according to the niche he fills in the group, an absentee PC will never utilize his skills or abilities on the party’s behalf except in REAL emergencies (GM’s discretion). This means only when the rest of the party has exhausted all attempts allowed with their own skills in trying to get out of the predicament. If alternative actions remain untried by the party, the GM should insist that the players put some thought into it and really explore all options to their full extent, rather than allowing them to lean on an absentee character.
The GM must never allow the resources of an absentee PC to be squandered in that player’s absence. this includes items or substances the GM knows the absent player particularly covets or values and would object to being used if present, and those the GM knows are being saved for a particular situation or purpose that has not yet arisen. The other PC’s may not raid the absentee PC’s rations or larder of foodstores in his absence, nor his treasure nor stores of coin or plate or jewelry. They should have sufficient of such necessities of their own. The PC’s should only be allowed access to the absent PC’s purse, so to speak, to pay that character’s own necessary expenses during his player’s absence.
Other than the tightly controlled interaction and presence described above, absentee PC’s will always simply follow meekly along behind the party or in the middle, or where ever they are told to be. If the party should split up for some reason, the absentee PC will follow whichever group the party decides on. In all situations where an absentee PC is in the party and a trap is stumbled into or otherwise triggered, the absentee PC will be farthest from the danger and take the least amount of damage possible. If the whole party must fall down a rabbit hole, the absentee PC will always find the softest landing at the bottom and suffer the least amount of damage. Should the absentee PC be abducted by a NPC foe or foes, he will never take more than 1 or 2 points of damage here and there, but will suffer nothing worse so long as the player is absent – although the NPC’s are likely to threaten it.
In the event of a battle while the party has an absentee PC along with them, that character will hang back and will not participate, except to defend himself. If he is a member of the Warrior or Huntsman trades he will help to defend any non-combatants (domestics, servants, as applicable) or party members whose skills lie in other areas (Wizards, etc. or Mystics), but that is all (GM’s discretion). He will NOT rush forth to waylay the enemy and risk life or limb in the player’s absence.
Absentee PC’s really do not do much. They are not supposed to. Their motive and creative driving force is NOT there. This means they generally do not earn very many SP’s. This is as it should be. Even if a player’s absence is not his fault, why should he be rewarded with SP’s for it? The lack, and the further accumulation of SP’s by his comrades, should serve as an incentive for the player to make sure he misses as few games as possible.
If at any point during play it becomes possible for the absentee PC to be left to stay at some sort of lodging, religious house, inn, friend’s home, base camp, or the like, especially if this is a possibility from the start of the session from which the player is absent, the character will do so, regardless of the player’s wishes. Should the rest of the party set out on a journey, that character will be left behind, to catch up later, except in the event that the character has been left at a base-camp and the camp is broken so the party may continue their travels. Again, this just makes the GM’s life easier. In these cases, no untoward encounters of any kind should ever befall the absentee PC, although kidnapping might be acceptable if it furthers the plot. Of course, when the absentee PC is in the company of his comrades, they will have every opportunity to defend him from any such kidnapping plan.
Of course, in the case of players who stiff their gaming group for non-family, non-work related commitments are another matter. Gaming is a social engagement and commitment like any other and the people in the gaming group should be accorded the same respect and priority as any other, and perhaps moreso because it is a standing engagement. Well, darned near, anyway. If a player has a girlfriend or boyfriend, he or she should schedule their dates around the regular scheduled gaming commitment, or let the gaming group know of his commitments far enough ahead of time to allow them to help work the game around their love-life. If at all possible, a gamer with a love interest could bring his date along and get her or him involved in the game, perhaps even as a regular player.