Achieving Player Buy-in

Dale’s last post suggests:

that the GM must get the players on boardbefore the game. Explain and discuss the nature of the game he or she wants to run, seek input and advice, and then work with the players to integrate their characters into the plot in a way that will allow them to engage with it in a consistent and meaningful way.

Which is a cogent summary of the GM’s job that I think shows the shift I’ve been seeing over the past decade from the GM as storyteller to story facilitator – the GM is increasingly not the star of the game, and games in my circles are increasingly not about them revealing some grand story to their players.

The problem of player buy-in becomes progressively more pressing the shorter the timescale. For a long-term game you can spend a long time negotiating with players through the medium of in-character action to find mutual stories – I think that for about the first 30 sessions of Lace and Steel no player had any real knowledge of or investment in the GM meta-plot, but after 5 or 10 we were deeply invested in the mutual stories emerging organically from play. At the other extreme, in a session of Zombie Cinema, you have approximately 5 minutes to establish your character & buy in to the other PCs, before you’re in the middle of establishing conflicts and scenes that are supposed to be engaging.

My answer to the problem of instant buy-in from players for short-run games is in two parts, blatantly stolen from far more talented GMs than myself.

The first tool has been the relationship map – sitting down with players and hammering away until each PC has two strong ties to other PCs. I first encountered this mechanism in Jarratt’s long-running Invisible College LARP, where as a newcomer to a somewhat established large-scale friend network it was invaluable for me. I used it very successfully in my Gaslight Buffy game, where the players built all of the game’s momentum into their relationships – as soon as I chucked my pre-written plot and ran with their organic enterprise the game went extremely well.

The second tool was introduced to me by Luke when he ran the pre-written Dread scenario “Beneath the Mask” – a slasher game set in a small cabin miles from anywhere – was the player questionnaire. There were no “character sheets” or anything like that in the game, only a series of 13 questions about the character. The questions were not neutral; they are extremely intelligent leading questions whose totality builds a particular context for the character, and encourages you to write a particular kind of answer. Let me give you an example:

Why do you intend to convince the others to split up whenever the opportunity arises, despite the recent events?

Think about that question for a moment – does the character have an innocent reason? Or are they in fact secretly evil, hoping the others die? Or have they failed to recognise the gravity of their situation? The player makes this choice, and lives with it – they get to play the character they want to play, while still playing the character that the game needs. I think you would struggle to get a player to execute a comparable directive straight from the write-up: “You
plan to split up everyone else because you believe this is a practical joke, and you want to give the prankster ample opportunity for more mayhem.”

My first experience with the questionnaire went extremely well and that game remains a highlight of any KapCon gaming memory. I bought a copy of the game, and began experimenting with that format for character information for a number of short-run and convention games, expanding beyond the slasher horror of Dread and into other formats.

I have used a questoinnaire for:
Trail of Blood – a Dread game of a fantastic journey
Succession – a neo-noir gangster game about mafia politics
Dirty London – a short-run Dirty World adventure (5 sessions)
A World of Possibilities – my TORG-redux scenario and last night in The Hand That Feeds – my Western horror game

I’ve tended to provide a character sheet as well as the questionnaire where it’s not a Dread scenario, so that players can get some idea of their character’s capabilities before deciding whether they’re afraid of caterpillars or whatever.

I think that on the whole, players have been ambivalent about the questionnaires. A handful have been enthusiastic and really tried to wring every last bit of meaning out of them, a handful have really struggled to come up with answers. The majority take the questions at face value, answering one or two terse sentences to officially answer them, but not particularly engaging with the wider possibilities that the questions are intended to raise.

Either way, I’ve found that the time it takes for a group of half a dozen gamers to digest a one-page character write-up is fairly similar to the length of time they take to answer half a dozen questions, so there doesn’t seem to be much of a disadvantage in terms of getting a scenario done and dusted in 3 hours.

As a GM, the questionnaire is typically as or more time consuming to prepare as the one-page write-up. It also introduces two small difficulties for the GM.

The first is that you can’t really communicate any expository material in the character sheet, unless you can phrase it in terms of a question. This was a major problem for The Hand that Feeds, where the play-test group struggled to glean the context for their involvement in the adventure or the specific location from their questions. Both groups also started the game without any real idea about how to go about finding and killing the demon, because I couldn’t really convey enough information in the form of questions to answer everything without overloading them.

This then becomes a structural problem for your adventure – all the exposition needs to be explicitly in-game. I actually think this is generally beneficial – it promotes better writing, and it reduces the risk of someone not noticing or not processing key information from the write-up. I think that it really helped me to ensure for A World of Possibilities that the adventure was structurally redundant – it didn’t rely on key actions from specific PCs based on the write-up. (That had been a major factor to Horror Victorianorum not ever working all that well).

The second problem is that because players have so little information to work with, they can produce challenging cognitive dissonance via off-track answers. I’ve had two or three sheets come back with answers that seemed almost deliberately obstructive to the functioning of the scenario. A hypothetical example would be someone answering the example question above “I would never separate the group, because I’m deathly afraid and think it’s far more sensible to stick together!” The player either doesn’t understand what the question is really doing, which is trying to ensure that you get the splitting of the party so essential in a slasher, or they get it and are deliberately trying to break your game.

But even a well-intentioned and on-topic answer can introduce unforeseen complications and information that the GM then needs to integrate into their vision of the game on the fly. For example, someone answering “because I want to create an opportunity for my friend Charles, who’s hiding in the woods, to come into the cabin and steal from the rich kids”. It’s a great answer, but suddenly now the GM has to figure into their thoughts an entirely new NPC that they know very little about.

Again, the second situation can be turned to your advantage. In Trail of Blood, I left at least a couple of questions phrased in such a way that creative players were encouraged to create inserts, which gave the game a personalized feel that the playtest group really enjoyed. Unfortunately at KapCon, the group didn’t take anywhere near as much advantage of those opportunities, and the game was very flat as a result.

Inspired by the very successful play-test of Trail of Blood, I tried to use the same kind of concept in Dirty London, but I over-reached myself, and was unable in the end to actually make effective use of the players’ answers, leading to the game basically not working.

My latest spin on the questionnaire is the cross-over question. In The Hand that Feeds, each player has one question for each of two other PCs. The reason I did this was to extend the power of the buy-in from just your character and into another character. The intent is effectively to combine the two tools that have worked so well individually. For all that it’s a very fine game, A World of Possibilities essentially has four PCs without any meaningful intra-party dynamic. This hasn’t ever been a real problem, because of the procedural spine of the game and the relatively strong concept of any individual character. In procedural games people don’t worry so much about intra-party interactions, and if their own character is strong and comes out strongly in the roleplaying, the dynamic works well enough.

Structuring the cross-over questions was extremely difficult, and in the end I think I’ll have to own up to the attempt largely failing, both in the play-test and in the game. Or at least, that on a structural level, it is not in any way reliable, whereas I think that even for desultory answers to the straight questionnaire it is approaching the reliability of a conventional write-up. The reason is that it is very difficult to structure questions that are guaranteed not to conflict with the other character’s view of itself.

My intent was to create a kind of power cascade, where one character had power over the next character, who had some hold on the next character, returning in a full loop. However, I missed the exact right line on a couple of the cross-overs, and a couple of the answers came back skewed the wrong way or were simply not integrated that well into the character’s personality, probably because of cognitive dissonance.

I think that I will continue to experiment with the cross-over, but whereas it was a crucial ingredient of the game dynamic for The Hand That Feeds, it should really be more of a detailing/perspective question that will build a connection between characters rather than determine a story element. As to questionnaires overall, I think that given the same write-up, any two players will have radically different interpretations of a character anyway, and the questionnaires turn that feature into a strength, allowing players to better understand their character’s motivations and achieve buy-in easier. While I don’t think that the benefit is large for the average roleplayer, I think that for those who really find a way to deeply engage with the questions, it is far far better.

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5 Responses to Achieving Player Buy-in

  1. Great post, Mash.

    “…each player has one question for each of two other PCs.”

    Do you mean that each player makes up a question to ask another character? Because I’m stealing that 🙂

    • mashugenah says:

      No – each played had to answer a question as if they were the other character.

      But your interpretation of that concept might work just as well.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I liked the questionnaire. I like questionnaires in general life: they are exams that I always get full marks on because there are no right answers other than those I invent. I answer phone surveys if I have the time, and afterwards I have a pleasant glow of having done a job with honesty and integrity.

    I answered the questionnaire in character. Thus answering was a chance to play my character in my own head: doing her word choice, as she considered her past and her ways of thought. I had a chance to play her alone before I had to add the game, the world, the other people, or what anyone else was saying, to the complexity of emulating a different operating system on my hardware.

    I liked editing this first chance to play my character. I feel my way into a character, and quite often I’ll find that of the first 10 things I do, 4 may be in character, and 6 quite peculiar, so I’ll do things more like the 4 than the 6 in future. With the questionnaire I was able to rub out the answers that reflection showed me were not as in character as the others, and this short practice meant I could open the spoken and public-to-the-group beginning of the game having already done some of that range-finding, in a private and impermanent place.

    -Susan

  3. Anonymous says:

    Possible causes of obstructive answers to character building questionnaires intrigue me.

    If the player went “too far” into character, they could find (eg) that the character is in denial about their tendency to split the party, and so answers seemingly honestly that they don’t do it.

    The player might go too far into the pre-game game and be playing that the questionnaire is real for the character and they might find that their character won’t admit on paper to a tendency to split the party, despite accurate self-knowledge.

    Some people don’t like questionnaires at all, some say they feel that questionnaires are exams that they can’t possibly get full marks on, because nobody knows the answers. This is a habit of thinking in a player that might give obstructionist results in character generation despite full intention to have fun and help make the game work.

    I’m sure there are other habits of thought that would make players likely to make up bad answers.

    The player might not understand what the questionnaire is for. (Lazy, confused, stupid, tired, thinking about something else at a crucial part of the explanation and too embarrassed to ask why the questionnaire is happening).

    They might be worried about how long they are taking.

    The player might be fearful that the question is setting their character up to lose, and that this is their only chance to communicate to the GM that they don’t want to be picked on.

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