Leaving the Nest

by Eric Loren

I am a curmudgeon. To wit: After reading a recent Bloomberg piece about the side gig of professional GMing, I have a crotchety philippic to deliver, and my thesis is as follows: You are not a baby bird.

Before I proceed farther, Caveat #1: As long as your effect on other people’s fun is at worst null, you can play however you want. There is no BadWrongFun. The intent of this piece is to recommend strategies to enhance your and others’ table’s experiences. If they don’t work for you, that’s fine: fun is an ineffable, mercurial beast.

Caveat #2: It is assumed that you can be a basically civil person. When I harangue you about all the ways you should play differently, take it as implied that you should listen to others, respect their comfort, etc etc. In this way perhaps we can avoid the truism “all you need for a good game is a good group.” It is correct but if you don’t know what constitutes good play it is useless.

 So: to the birds.

Baby birds, as science class and sunny afternoons by the window birdfeeder have taught us, spend most of their time peeping and holding their mouths open in the hopes that someone will puke a worm into them. Charming. By analogy, I think too many players, even experienced ones, approach tabletop RPGs like baby birds. Including me. I can be a very loud, squawky little bastard when I’m really into the game.

 By this I mean that those players:

●     Expect to be fed fun by an essentially superior creature

●     Make as much noise as possible in order to maximize allotted fun

●     Ignore other birds in favor of clamoring for space

Even if we don’t do so rudely, or don’t manage to utterly dominate table play, many of us still essentially operate in this mode, even if with a modicum of restraint. We cheep more quietly, or less often, or use our phones when not being fed, but our basic attitude is that we are there to share a zero-sum amount of spotlight with other players, awaiting a chance to do something. All the more so, I fear, when we have paid a GM to “entertain” us. What purer expression of baby-birdness could there be?

Caveat #3: Not all games encourage or even allow this style of play. I’ll leave classifying various games as an exercise for the reader, but obviously [your pet game] may be exempt from this model.

For the rest, I implore you, or at least lightly exhort you: Share ownership of the table. Acknowledge and observe other players. Are their actions signaling that they have a certain kind of story in mind? Listen and push that ball forward. Do their narrations imply interest in a particular subplot, mystery, or peril? Help them cultivate it. Has a slow-starting player been excluded because they can’t or won’t jump into any quiet moment in order to act? Draw them out.

I hypothesize that you are giving up nothing by doing so. It is not merely arithmetic; I am not merely lending you X of my Y table time out of pure beneficence. This is not a redistributionist ethic. Quite the contrary: by creating a play culture of ownership, of symmetry, buy-in, proactivity, and responsibility, I believe we will increase the total amount of (unit-agnostic) fun had.

Your attempts to contribute to the game will be more fruitful, as other hear and accept your “offers”, in the parlance of improv. You will have fewer game moments undermined, ignored, stymied, or needlessly drawn out. The GM will no longer be a benevolent deity, but just the person who’s chosen an interstitial or organization role in the story. When GMing isn’t a part-time job as a stage actor and novelist, it will be less terrifying. You will be able to get someone to run games for you without pizza bribes (or wages).

Caveat #4: There is of course a definitional vulnerability here: You may define “sit back and engage in a hybrid of dinner theater and board game” as an activity, which is perfectly embodied by baby-bird play. Again, if that’s what you aspire to, enjoy yourself. You have my blessing.

If not, if games sometimes seem to fall flat and you’re not quite sure why, ask yourself: Could I be puking worms into other players’ mouths? Could we be willy-nilly swapping mashed-up worm spit in a welter of glistening annelid flesh and damp feathers? I think you could. I believe in you.