Hello TopSecret readers!
Putting together a gaming group is rarely easy. Conflicting play styles, mismatched schedules, and just plain finding a group to game with can feel like a mountain of obstacles that stand between you and a good night of gaming. When you do finally have a group together, it’s important to make the most of that time; no one wants to be stuck in an uncomfortable, awkward, or frustrating game.
At TopSecret we’ve had a lot of really great RPG sessions with awesome gaming groups. We’ve also seen the flipside of that coin: the group that slowly dissolves, the group where a player becomes increasingly alienated and frustrated to the point of sabotaging the game, and the group where the GM is gradually worn down and burnt out.
Tabletops should be a good experience for everyone and to that end we’ve developed a method to help reduce negative group experience.
The theory behind group calibration is simple: a bad gaming experience results from mismatched expectations. No one goes to the table expecting to have a bad time (if you do, why are you playing?) but everyone comes to the table with expectations.
Maybe you expect to play a game of social intrigue, maybe you expect to dungeon delve with absurdly powerful heroes, perhaps you expect a night of horror or of humor, etc… When expectations are not met, people become disappointed and disenfranchised from the game.
Group calibration is a technique that ensures everyone’s expectations are matched and everyone is on the same page before the game starts. You generally don’t need to calibrate a group mid-campaign unless someone drops out our enters the group.
To calibrate your group, answer the following questions with all the players and the GM. They are listed in order from easiest (least contentious) to most difficult (most contentious).
What game should we play? The first question; it would be interesting if it wasn’t asked. We’ll call it question 0.
1) What genre should we play? Are any genre’s or subgenres specifically disallowed? Don’t bring chemistry to a magic fight if it’s going to peeve off the players; don’t bring magic to a steampunk fight if it’s not allowed in the setting.
2) What will be the setting? Urban, jungle, dungeon, starship, island, oceanic, other? Where the adventure happens is key to preparing for the adventure.
3) Where does the typical session fall worth respect to combat, puzzles, and social encounters? Mostly combat? Some social? Lots of puzzles? It’s important to set the expectation for play. If a player comes to the table with a social character and the game is almost entirely combat, they are virtually guaranteed to have a bad time.
4) What is an appropriate power level? Are we playing characters that are on the path to godhood? are we playing characters who are new to combat? If you have mismatched power levels it usually leads to players feeling useless as certain group members hog the spotlight. Where the power level is does not matter, as long as everyone is in the same ballpark.
5) What are the special rules/quirks? What are the GM’s houserules or rules that the players feel should be implemented? It is always bad to surprise players with new rules, get these out of the way before you start.
Answering these questions helps to align the group expectations before starting a game. When everyone’s on the same page it reduces burnout, keeps people invested in the game, and opens room for discussion about the direction of the game.
Group calibration is usually performed in some manner by nearly every gaming group before starting. Unfortunately, sometimes critical questions are missed and players or the GM lose interest in the game. These question help mitigate that, but they also help the game to stay on track by opening up for meta discussion.
If the game starts drifting into another genre, players become too powerful, there’s an abrupt change of setting, etc. players and the GM can now say “This is an interesting direction the game has taken, but in our group calibration we decided we would do X” This opens the discussion and allows the group to consider if they’re OK proceeding into new territory or if it really is best to go back to the initial game settings.
Answering these questions explicitly and honestly is the key. If everyone is on the same page going into the game, then no one will be unexpectedly disappointed. By calibrating the game beforehand, you open up an avenue to discuss changes to the game later on and increase player investment in the game before it begins.
Group calibration works for us and we’re always looking to improve it. If you think of any other important questions, head over to the forums and let us know.