A House Divided: Appealing to Different Play Styles at the Tabletop

My wife and I are terrible at making decisions. Not major life decisions like where to live or how to raise our child, but rather micro-level decisions that will have very little impact on the following day. What should we watch on Netflix? How should we celebrate Valentine’s Day? And don’t even think about asking us where we want to eat. I can’t speak for her, but I know for me I tend not to want to make final decisions on these matters because I don’t want to drag my wife someplace she doesn’t actually want to go. I’m always concerned that if I make a decision, that other people will simply go along with that decision but secretly be resentful that they aren’t getting what they really wanted all along.

It’s even worse in a larger group of people. The group I play tabletops with, for example, can never come to a decision on what we’re going to do about meals. Should people cook? Should we go out? Why not just order a pizza? What kind of pizza do people want? You have all the classic players at the table: the really picky person who shoots places down but doesn’t offer counter-suggestions; the person who insists they can’t afford to go to even the cheapest restaurant; the person who says “I’m fine with anything” every single time someone makes a suggestion; and the person who stays silent just wishing everyone would pick because they’re SO hungry. How we ever actually settle on something is beyond me, but these very different people don’t just have to make decisions about food – we have to make decisions about this game which we play together once a month.

Schedule Meme 2

Getting all of the players at the table to agree on meal plans or schedules is tricky enough, but when it comes down to the game itself, making decisions can be truly difficult. With my group, it started when we discussed Lines and Veils for our game of City of Mist – some players were choosing content as their lines that other players were legitimately interested in exploring as part of this 1940’s noir experience. We all pretty much agreed that sexual assault was off the table, but blatant displays of racism or sexism? In the 40’s? I discussed in the article above how even I had to take some time and have a conversation with my wife to understand why lining such things could actually be good for our game.

Despite everyone saying that they felt the Lines and Veils discussion was good to have, a few of the players did express to me later that they were surprised and a little let down by the amount of content that was covered up. One player even stated that he felt it would be difficult to tell a true film noir story with so many dark subjects off the table. I did my best to convey that we’d have a lot more fun with lines firmly in place, and even shared an anecdote I heard on Office Hours about a particularly negative experience that a group had when a player was harmed emotionally by content explored at the table.

Our next big struggle was choosing the series concept for the game. City of Mist has multiple concept suggestions in the book, from the classic “grizzled vigilante detectives stopping street crime” scenario to the more esoteric “members of an ancient order dedicated to fighting evil” to the quirky “a bunch of friends in school struggling with their personal demons.” The group was caught between two particular choices: a crew of professional criminals/mercenaries working for a benefactor (called The Pros) or a crew of otherwise unrelated individuals linked by a single defining event that affected all of them (called The Event).

Players in favor of The Event argued that it was the best way for each individual to be have no limits on their character concept – none of the characters had to have any sort of meaningful connection outside of whatever crazy event they had all survived. This was particularly important to some because they felt like there was no fictional basis for some of the characters to know each other. How does the high-society wife of a wealthy doctor brush shoulders with a Chinese immigrant fighting for the triad? Why would a private investigator determined to seek truth and justice ever befriend a professional con man? The Event could justify their relationship with the least amount of resistance – they just all happened to be at the same place at the wrong time.

The Breakfast Club
Just like these unlikely companions

However, not everyone was excited about The Event. One player stated that yes, choosing this concept would be the easiest way to relate the characters, but they were not interested in taking the “easy way out.” Another series concept could be more compelling and meaningful even if it was more difficult to work out the details. My wife, who has been in nearly if not all of the RPGs I have run in the past, stated that she felt we’d done The Event many times before even if it hadn’t necessarily gone by that name at the time. It was a fair point (and a fair criticism of my GM style – I need to vary the way that the characters are related to one another in the future). These players argued that The Pros still allowed every character to be from a different background; the only thing they realistically had to have in common was that they were good enough at whatever they did to be hired for a professional crew as a result.

Although The Pros didn’t fit perfectly with the character ideas already present at the table, the majority of the players preferred that idea so we ended up running with it. This required some folks to rethink their concept and make changes to the characters they had wanted to create. It’s all part of the give and take of playing a tabletop together, but it’s important that there’s enough compromise that even those who didn’t quite get what they want still got something of what they want. In this case, the players who preferred The Event got to put in a few words about what kind of jobs they would be most interested in working as The Pros, as well as defining whether their character cared more about the crew’s mission or the crew’s money.

The next big hurdle that we all need to tackle together is the balance of Crew endeavors versus personal ones. At the end of our first session I asked my players what concepts they had a hard time with or what things about the game they’d want to change up during the next session. After we discussed our common struggle with the mechanic of story tags, a few players voiced that they would like to have more opportunities to explore their character’s personal interests. Each City of Mist character is designed with mysteries to explore or identities to display – some of these characters have jobs, families, or vendettas that don’t necessarily get addressed when the whole crew is together on a job. Those players want an opportunity to explore those things in a more meaningful way than the Montage (Downtime) move offers.

Batman

Not every player at the table was particularly excited about spending game time on matters not related to the crew. There’s an understandable fear of what I refer to as “Batman Syndrome:” players striking out on their own to do cool stuff and leaving the rest of the crew hanging. It’s tough to feel engaged when another player is spending a ton of time on their personal stuff that doesn’t involve the rest of the party. I’ve discussed this before in a discussion on splitting parties in tabletop RPGs – this concern is one of the reasons that beginning gamemasters are advised to avoid the technique entirely.

In the next session I play with my group, it’s going to be on me to try and create an environment that is enjoyable for both the players who want the crew to stay together and those who are interested in exploring their character’s more personal themes. It’s an intimidating prospect, so here are a few steps I plan on taking as I prepare myself for this endeavor.

SMALL GROUPS, NOT SINGLES
It’s simple math, really – having two groups of two or three players in a scene at one time is engaging more people at the table than targeting one at a time. Not focusing on the entire crew all at once helps those players who wish to explore their themes get the screen time they are craving while not forcing the entirety of the group to just sit and watch. This is also helpful because I can use player characters to push on each other’s themes and potentially to create the opportunity to Make a Hard Choice.

Peter Pan

As an example, the character Sylvia has Peter Pan as her Mythos. As a result of both this and her childhood being spent on the streets, she’s quite independent and feels like she doesn’t need anyone (especially an adult) to take care of her. She has an identity which states that she can survive all by herself. Conversely, a PC named Kitty has a mission that’s all about taking care of the less fortunate. Putting these two in a scene together is certain to create some tension – sure, Sylvia might accept one meal from Kitty, but how much will she let the woman care for her before making a hasty getaway? What kind of stunt might she pull to show that she doesn’t need Kitty? Or vice versa, what might Kitty do to prove to Sylvia that there’s no way she can handle herself? Exploring a scene like this gets very personal for two characters at the table, making it more engaging for the group as a whole compared to a scene about one individual.

STAGGER THE SPOTLIGHT
It can be tough to focus when you’re playing a game and you have to wait half an hour for your turn to participate. Sure, the first person in a string of five character vignettes is gonna be pretty engaged, but what about the fourth one? She’s gonna be checked out for a long time while she sits through three other stories. And once the first person is done, he’s probably going to go off to Neverland because he knows he’s got four scenes of other players’ individual stories before he has to pay attention again. Rather than having five consecutive scenes focused on single characters or small groups, it may be more effective to have one more personal scene then change to a full group scene and then focus on a different person/small group afterwards.

At the end of our last session, the Chinese triad member nicknamed Q procured a sample of strange liquid from a corrupt priest the party brutally assaulted. He could perhaps play out a scene where he visits his brothers in the triad to see if they can give him any information about the substance. As they are his Defining Relationship, this gives him a chance to focus in on a pretty important personal theme. Once that scene plays out, the whole group can come together to talk about what the substance is (if the truth was discovered) and decide what their next move should be. Now the whole team is focused again, and later I can pick another character or pair of characters to give some individual screen time.

JUST SHARE, DANG IT
Ultimately, I think my players will simply have to work on being more willing to share the spotlight with one another. City of Mist is very intentionally framed like a television show, and the players are the audience for one another. When Jason and Ethel are at odds about the nature of their next job, the players for the other characters should be willing to take an interest in that scene. We’re all coming into this with an understanding that everyone wants different things, so compromise is key. Folks need to be willing to let other players take the reigns, whether that means having a scene focused on them or focusing on the Crew as a unit.

So what about you, adventurers? Have you had to deal with disagreements at the table? How have you managed these situations and found a middle ground? Feel free to share your own stories in the comments below, and thank you for taking the time to drop by for this edition of Tabletop Tuesday!

12 thoughts on “A House Divided: Appealing to Different Play Styles at the Tabletop

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  1. One thing that might help: let players who do not have PCs in the scene play secondary characters. I do this in every game, even ones that don’t have that as an option. Haven’t read City of Mists, but it doesn’t sound as though it’d break the game to do this?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. No, I don’t think it would create much of an issue in City of Mist. That’s a solid suggestion, I will keep my eye open for NPCs that would be good to hand over to a player. Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your RPG games sound a little different to my D&D games (they sound really cool though I’d love to try one!) I still related to it though. I’ve actually been having a problem recently: I host our fortnightly D&D session the players end up split into two groups: two guys that intentionally make everything happening in the game silly which would be OK but then they end up talking over everyone else that wants to play more seriously and then everyone else just ends up giving up and letting them take the spotlight until I finally manage to get us out of the situation. I want everyone to have fun but it’s so hard to balance. They often end up splitting off within the game as well because the more serious players just want to get on with it but unfortunately that doesn’t help me much. I would normally not tell the annoying guys when we’re playing but a) we need the numbers and b) I live with one of them!
    I guess I need to put my foot down, like you said, compromise is key!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I think acknowledging it with the group as a whole could potentially be helpful there. The serious/funny split is one that I have also dealt with frequently. In college, my RPG group were also all members of the Improv Comedy club at our university, so coming up with jokes on the fly was kind of our thing. Which is all well and good until someone wants a scene to be emotional and meaningful for their character and the other people at the table are cracking jokes. Finding balance is tough and honestly I think it’s just a product of open conversation and experience.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If you were part of an improv comedy club (which is awesome by the way) I bet the jokes were a lot better quality than the sort of stuff at our table! Yeah, I’ll have to put on a serious DM cap and have a chat with them all =/

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    2. Sounds like you need to split the group. Maybe tie them into the same campaign, but let the silly & serious players work separately for a bit. Maybe have them cross over in the future.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Depending on how far you want to take it, you could even have all of your players make characters for each group, so if you want to focus on the silly group for one session, or part of a session, and then the serious group for a session or part of one, no one really gets left out. You could conceivably run them as halves of the same campaign and have them impact each other in various ways, directly (if they meet) or indirectly through the changes they affect on the world. I did this in the past with several groups who were in the same world, but different places. They heard news about the other parties from time-to-time, and NPCs would cross over into each group’s campaign, which were essentially different sides of the same campaign. It really let us stretch out in interesting ways.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I keep up a little with gaming, because I used to love tabletop, but its been close to 20 years since I ran or played anything. If the story isn’t working for you, change it. I tended to work somewhat on the fly, with a skeletal plot (mostly key scenes/encounters) and I let the players dictate what they wanted to do a lot, making up the world as we went along. I know that play style isn’t for everyone, but it worked for us.

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