Monday, February 22, 2021

Game Masters, Goal-Oriented Players Need Challenges (Or They'll Eat The Setting)

You thought things were going to be great at first. He was enthusiastic, and involved, and really following along with everything. It made you feel good to just let that energy wash over you, channeling it into the activity. The problem was that you left him alone without anything to engage him. He didn't have any toys to play with, or anyone else to spend time with... you thought it would be okay, but you didn't realize just how much destruction could be wreaked out of boredom, and the search for a greater purpose.

You were busy, so I may have, ugh, toppled the throne and assassinated the king.

While this is usually a concern that homeowners have for pets that require a lot of stimulation and play time to prevent them from becoming destructive, or for zoos who want to keep their animals engaged through enrichment activities, this metaphor also applies to a certain type of player. I say this as a goal-oriented player myself, pleading for the game masters out there to listen.

If you do not give us tasks to complete, we will make our own fun. And nine times out of ten, you're not going to like the direction we wander off in.

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Toss Us a Pumpkin, Already!

There's a variety of different players you'll share table space with, and no two of them are entirely the same. However, it has been my experience that goal-oriented players tend to be like high-energy herding dogs, or tigers in captivity; we need to have activities in order to keep us occupied and moving forward. I love story rich games, I greatly enjoy lore and setting, but for me to be engaged with a game I need to have a goal I'm expected to achieve... and if one isn't put in front of me, I'll go find one.

"What's in your mouth?" The Necronomicon... "No!"

To be clear, here, you can't just toss a goal-oriented player any old task and expect them to immediately be engaged in it. As a GM, talk to your player, review their character, and get a feeling for their skills, the arcs they want to pursue, and the stuff that will get the player's attention. Or use a Session 0 creation sheet, possibly using 10 Questions To Put On Your Character Creation Document as inspiration. Then figure out a way to tie it to the direction you want them to go.

As an example, if your goal-oriented player shows up with a big bruiser packing a greatsword, and your player tells you they want to get their character knighted for their deeds, find a way to dangle that carrot. If the game you're running is a political drama, don't let the hulk wander off to start bar fights or see how many city guard it takes to put him in jail. Instead, let the bruiser get involved in preventing an assassination attempt, and give them a title from a grateful lord as a reward. Once they did something using their skills and received a reward they'll be locked in more firmly, and as a bonus you now have an NPC mouthpiece you can use to give them more tasks to accomplish (sending them along as protection with the party, asking them to root out conspirators on behalf of their new lord, etc., etc.).

If you give goal-oriented players a chance to use their characters' skills to achieve their goals, they will turn all of that attention and energy toward solving the game's plot. Usually in the direction the reward came from, which is exactly what you want them to do.

The Arms Race

Something that's happened in several games I've been part of that were either extremely open-ended, or where certain players/builds simply couldn't participate by following the path as it was laid out, is what I call the arms race. Or to be more descriptive, it's an escalation of tactics and methods as a player attempts to participate in a meaningful way, despite road blocks and challenges being put in their path. Because while the GM might think they're discouraging the goal-oriented player, they're actually making the problem worse by unintentionally giving them what they want.

You know how they say kids act out to get attention? It's partly that, if the only way they can get time in the spotlight/interaction with the world is going against the grain of what's expected, but the other issue is that goal-oriented players need a challenge to overcome. So by handing them a challenge, you're giving them what they want... the problem is that if this isn't a challenge you want them to get past, all you're doing is frustrating your player as well as yourself.

There's an army over there? Like... how big of an army? This is getting exciting!

The arms race is frustrating for everyone involved, because when you're the GM you're trying to send the message, "This is the wrong way, turn back!" But when you're a goal-oriented player and you find a way around, over, under, or through the road block, it can feel like the GM is punishing you for succeeding when you did what it feels like they asked; you overcame the challenge they laid out. And if the GM just create bigger obstacles to try to send the message more clearly, the player is just going to keep meeting the challenges and getting more frustrated when they don't receive rewards for their efforts.

And it becomes a cycle of endless frustration for all parties involved.

So if you start seeing goal-oriented players going off in directions you didn't anticipate, or which are causing problems, don't just slap bigger threats in front of them. Sit down with the player, and ask what they're trying to accomplish. Work out a solution, and re-direct their efforts in a way you feel is helpful, and which gets things moving more in the direction you were aiming for.

If you want them to stop setting things on fire and carving out their own kingdoms, engage them. I promise you directing that energy will be worthwhile, and once you've got their noses pointed in the right direction it's full steam ahead!

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