Sorry, this is lengthy, but I want to put this into context.


After many years (try 15) of not GM'ing a group of my own, I recently made an attempt to return to the head of the table and shake off the rust. I have a gaming world of my own making prepared, which is well-developed, but mostly in my head.

My idea was to take the characters on a first adventure, which (by design) would be somewhat railroading them (personal guards for a certain person on a lengthy boat trip upriver, but each for his / her own reasons). My goal was to:

  • get some time to describe the world and its inhabitants, so the players could familiarize themselves with the environment and their characters;
  • give the characters time to bond a bit in a series of minor "scenes", giving them a reason to continue adventuring as a group;
  • give myself some time to get back into the routine of GM'ing;
  • introduce the first few hooks for later campaign story arcs, with the end of the trip making them a new friend and a powerful enemy (to get things going).

One of my players decided to play an officer of the Royal Guard, which was fine with me at first. I had talked to her about the world and the background of her character at length. Since she had problems taking the fanatic loyalty of the guards for their Queen at face value, I wrote up several pages of background elaboration, planning to do the rest en-route.

None of my plans really worked out, and we had a falling-out after a single session (two days into the trip), basically desintegrating the group.

It turned out that we had vastly diverging concepts on, for lack of a better word, "background density".

When a couple of street thugs didn't bow before her authority, she was miffed, because she understood the "high respect" of the populace towards Royal Guards to include the lowlife.

When I sensed an opportunity to sink in another hook for later storylines, I made the keeper of the inn they just rented rooms in an old acquaintance of her character, thinking they didn't have that much interaction with that NPC to make a real difference at that point. (Perhaps a bit heavy-handed, but I admitted being out of practice for long.) She was miffed because "I would have played the greeting scene differently".

Other things happened, but I think you get the drift. I am hesistant to blame it on her, because I know her for an excellent player through several other campaigns in a half-dozen of systems - however, those either being based on printed sourcebooks or campaigns created by her husband GM (most likely talking with her about the gaming world at length).


Now, my questions:

  • Were either my expectations to "get started and wing it a bit in the beginning" or her expectations of "I want the whole backstory up front" wildly out of place?
  • How do you handle demands for detailed background in a game world of your own making? Do you actually write long passages of text on demand (which would delay the beginning of a new campaign significantly), do you give outlines and fill in the blanks as you go (as I tried)? Or do you have another approach entirely?

This incident put a severe dent in my self-confidence as a GM, and I want to bounce this off a few people with more recent experience than me before making another attempt.

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    Have you played in the group with her husband as GM? I GM with my wife, but painful experience with other groups has made me quite sure that she gets handled the same as any other player. Is your person perhaps expecting a more cooperative GM - as in - her husband cuts her a lot of slack? I'm not saying that's the case, I'm just asking because it's important to the frame of my answer. But please don't just give up! It's great to have new GMs coming into the hobby and RPG.SE is here to help you get going again! – gomad Jun 26 '12 at 17:38
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    @gomad: I've played in groups with her husband as GM and her as player for many years, two systems (Rolemaster / Midgard), and half a dozen campaigns. I'm not sure about how much of her assertiveness in those campaigns is because she knows the background, or because she simply asserts facts "her way" and the GM runs with it. Note that I have GM'ed her before, in a Star Wars campaign, without major difficulties, so I somewhat blame it on "game world she's unfamiliar with". – DevSolar Jun 27 '12 at 5:48
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    @gomad: We also found a severe difference in overall playing style: I tend to start a character with a general idea on personality, enough background to give him "color", and see where the GM's story takes my character. She prefers to have a very detailed backstory, "sees" all events through that filter, and basically expects to see her story "fulfilled", either by the GM or herself. I'm currently not sure whether to make a second attempt including her (and, by implication, her husband), or to assemble a different group. It would be a shame, after so many years of playing together... – DevSolar Jun 27 '12 at 6:05
up vote 27 down vote accepted

The GM takes on more work than any individual player in making the world and the game come to life. Obviously a GM without players has nothing, but the lynchpin of the game is still the GM. Having played in many games and GMed many more, I come into any game with the understanding that because the GM has to do so much work just to get the game going, that person should be given the benefit of the doubt where possible.

Your player's reaction to me seems a bit off, in that you were just getting back into GMing and this was the first session in a new campaign. To expect everyone's expectations to align perfectly, and the session to play out without corrections or adjustment is asking quite a lot.

For detailed background, I generally provide overview text and invite the players to ask questions as they come up. It's perfectly acceptable for a player to say, "I figure these thugs should be licking my boots because I'm a member of the guard. Is that right?" This approach requires that the GM be able to fill in details on the fly, but it also puts some of the responsibility on the players. Some players may bristle at this approach because they find it too meta, but the necessity of using it fades away as the campaign develops and the players become more immersed in the world.

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    I especially like the "I figure..." part. It just somehow puts the finger right on the spot: Her failure to communicate divergence of game reality from expectations right away, my failure to make clear I would expect this. I really didn't see this one coming, so I couldn't have communicated it up front, but I can do so before I start the next attempt. – DevSolar Jun 27 '12 at 5:59
  • All answers are good, but this one put a big neon sign on top of the central miscommunication for me, that's why I assign you the additional +15 rep. – DevSolar Jun 29 '12 at 8:18

Were either my expectations to "get started and wing it a bit in the beginning" or her expectations of "I want the whole backstory up front" wildly out of place?

Either one is reasonable, as long as it is understood up front. I tend to go with the "wing a whole lot of it" version personally, but I make sure the group knows that up front.

And yes, that approach occassionally leads to "well, my character should have known that, and if I had known that I would have done things differently." Depending on the exact situation I tend to deal with that in one of three ways:

  1. Go back and let them change it (especially if the scene just happened).

  2. Go back and change what I just said about the backstory (They should have pointed out that this creates a conflict right away)

  3. Make up some reason on the spot that character didn't actually realize it (Well, it occurs to you as you think about it that you knew him, but he was years younger, much thinner, and didn't have a beard at the time....)

How do you handle demands for detailed background in a game world of your own making? Do you actually write long passages of text on demand (which would delay the beginning of a new campaign significantly), do you give outlines and fill in the blanks as you go (as I tried)? Or do you have another approach entirely?

It depends. Again, I am generally open right up front that I do a lot of winging it. So, sometimes I just bluntly say out of character, "I don't have that developed yet, but I'll get back to you before its important." Sometimes, I will make up the answer and give a brief outline then, especially if it looks like it is going to be important. I will not be too detailed to avoid derailing the game, but I'll try to get the pertinent stuff and keep notes so I don't contradict myself.

My third approach, and one I use all the time, is "Your character doesn't know that yet, how would you like to go about finding out?" Unless their character has taken some sort of relevant background or skill, there is absolutely no reason they understand things like the geopolitical forces currently at play before those forces impact their lives. The average American cannot name the Prime Minister of Britain or locate Palestine on a map (a frightening number can't name the president of the US or find Texas on a map...) This works especially well in games, like Call of Cthulhu, where the players and characters are meant to be partially in the dark.

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    +1 for 'Your character doesn't know that yet', but I find the second half more useful: 'How do you plan to find out?' The player shuts up or goes thoughtful; either way, good for you and good for the group. – TimLymington Jun 26 '12 at 22:17
  • Thanks, that does make a good addition, I'll have to use that next time it comes up. – TimothyAWiseman Jun 27 '12 at 16:15
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    I think I followed more this approach. In general I usually opted for characters coming out from little villages / isolated places or from places far far away (kinda: "you start your first adventure by stepping out of the immigrants boat that took you to this continent, that is all new for you and you know only that you want to make a fortune quick in it"), so that they know very very little of the places where they play. This way you don't spoil their pleasure for exploring and discovering the world. – Yaztromo Jun 27 '12 at 19:44

The first part, seems like a classic miscommunication problem which can be solved by just talking about it after it first appears but before it becomes a major issue. It is all about expectations and disclosure of what the GM and player want. The first part of your question would serve superbly as an example of what you are trying to do. Making sure the players understood that might have averted the whole situation.

That said, your player could have mentioned her disappointment better. Being angry or miffed is hardly the way to go about it. Being assertive on the other hand, is always a good thing.

To avoid most of those, I tend to use the (American) football time out sign. Once that's out, we are no longer in play and more in meta game. A quick explanation, re-wind, and play generally does wonders to solve those tiny annoyances that will grow into big arguments if left unchecked.

As to your second point... I tend to know the kernel of my world, of how things work, of the NPCs' motivations and information. From there, I improvise. I may have 60 NPCs (names, a profession, an image, whatnot) and as the PCs decide to interact with them, I fill up their backgrounds with interesting details. The world is as detailed as the PCs (and myself) need it to be and no more. The rest is cardboard cut outs. Generally for a game running 15 to 30 sessions, I will have about 10 to 20 pages of notes at the start and about four times that by the time we are done.

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    +1 for Time-Out and Rewind. I find that many of these instances can be handled by the willingness to do one or both of these. And the expectation of a living, breathing world makes upfront fleshed out descriptions more of a hindrance- there has to be room for growth. – Chuck Dee Jun 26 '12 at 19:08
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    +1 for discussing problems after they become apparent but before they become severe. That said, I find assertiveness can be counterproductive unless combined with a willingness to listen to other people's assertions. – GMJoe Jun 27 '12 at 5:03

Keep at it! GMing is a constant learning experience, and it takes a lot of hard work; but, it's worth it when players take your world, and make it their own, and make it grow in ways you never expected. Even if you have years of experience, there is always room to learn. =)

Personally, I've discovered that half the battle of GMing is letting the players have what they want, with the caveat that it has to make sense in your world.

For the Royal Guard bit - think about how people interact with police officers in real life. Ordinary people treat them with respect, deference, and maybe a hint of fear of authority. All but the most hardened criminals will be evasive and nervous, or seek to flee, rather than confronting the Guard. Everyone knows that if you hurt one of them, you're in for a world of hurt, later. If you think your particular criminals would be defiant, let her make an Intimidate check or similar to cow them. If she succeeds, honor the result and let the criminals defer to her.

As for the detailed background demands - "Knowledge" checks are your friend, here. Try to give players the opportunity to make checks just before the background knowledge would become relevant in a scene.

In the case of the innkeeper, it seems like this issue has more to do with the player's background than the world background. Bear in mind that the player is the author of that particular segment of the story; if you want to make changes to it, it's a good idea to ask the player's permission, beforehand. In a typical D&Dish RPG, unless the character has some particular disadvantage like memory loss, or secret birthright, you shouldn't introduce surprise changes to her background during a session. However, I believe some newer RPGs have mechanics that encourage background buildup during game, and even offer rewards. If you want to use this style of play, you should talk to the players, and work out a system that everyone understands and agrees with.

  • In terms of "Knowledge" checks, History would probably be the most relevant. – V2Blast Feb 28 at 18:34

In most of my games, I leave the specifics of the background to the players so long as they bow to the hard constraints of my world (or how I run an established one). Usually these are few in number, but vital. Sometimes I'll even let them push the boundaries when they're in a situation where it's not important but I do expect them to own up when it is.

That being said, if your player decides she needs to take things to the extremes, that is some perfect seed for an arc where she is prosecuted for being too heavy-handed about her duties.

EDIT: I once had a problem with a player (actually, I was a player in that particular game, but it still was a problem nonetheless) where a player was too aggressive. It was an OWoD game with a little of everything, and one character decided to hate wererats, which someone in the party had randomly made (it was a piece-meal game where people came and left as schedule permitted). That player decided that he would mercilessly have his character attack the ratling, even after being tied up and intimidated down he would try to savage the ratling character. Unfortunately this led to the game focusing around stopping him from being aggressive until the character had to be knocked out and locked up (effectively removed from the game). He claimed he was just playing his character but we had a sit-down and explained why it was troublesome. We then had a bit of a seminar about how sometimes a little meta keeps a game together but there can still be conflict as well as how not to be one-dimensional.

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    +1 for ...perfect seed for an arc where she is prosecuted for being too heavy-handed... Nice – Vethor Jun 26 '12 at 21:30
  • Good general advice; didn't work out in this case as the campaign was stopped dead in its tracks before any arcs could develop. – DevSolar Jun 27 '12 at 5:54
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    Point taken. The only thing I can suggest is reminding the player that weren't inflexible about her character (IE letting her have such a prestigious role), and that she shouldn't be either. – CatLord Jun 27 '12 at 15:53

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