Awhile back, Nick published a three part series of articles known as “Wielding the Empathy Hammer,” which discussed how players and GMs should view and treat each other at the table. It also went into detail about the “politics” and “power dynamic” that must exist with every campaign. This article will be a spinoff of sorts from that idea, and I will be asking this question: As a GM Wielding the Empathy Hammer…what do you do with it? This is Part One of a four part series, so be sure to keep your eyes out for the release of the other three parts!
Now you’ll notice that the title of this series is “The Hand of Power.” I’d like to explain that briefly. The Game Master of any game has power over how NPCs react and how the world is shaped around the players. There are a lot of different ways to handle the world around the players based on the party’s experience, and a GM’s discretion can have a major impact on your world. Depending on how soft or firm a GM is with their chosen rules and stories, it can dramatically change the world the player’s experience, and their enjoyment of the game as a whole. Without any further ado, let’s get into Part One of The Hand of Power!
Today we will be discussing the pros and cons of having a soft-handed approach to a game when your party is primarily made up of new players. Usually the term “new” applies to any player who has less than five sessions experience with a game, or has never played a paper RPG before. These players need a slower pace (usually) so that they don’t get lost in how much is going on at once. They have a lot more questions that may involve long winded answers or multiple repetitions before the lesson sticks. In this way, a soft handed approach is incredibly beneficial. The player has a lot of room to make mistakes and is able to shape the world in a way that they understand, so it can drastically lower the barrier to entry. Approaches like this rely heavily on the players driving the story because usually there is a lot of breathing room away from major threats. Generally speaking, one-shot campaigns are soft handed by nature because they provide a freedom from commitment of sorts. Players feel less attached to things on a personal level and find more freedom to do what they wish rather than fearing for the lives of a character they’ve bonded with. A lot of this feeling translates into longer campaigns as well. In a softer campaign, players fear less for the lives of their characters except when it feels a little bit more justified to feel that way (i.e. final confrontations with villains, very difficult encounters, personal quests etc.). Speaking from experience, it can get frustrating when you’re constantly on the brink of death because the line between balanced gaming and too much threat is very thin. Especially as a new player, a lot of these things were over my head. I didn’t understand the concept of challenge rating, or how multiple enemies affected difficulty, or how the battle changed because of terrain, or how one small factor from a previous encounter can throw off the entire plan that the GM had. When those things aren’t understood in the most basic sense, they seem to be targeted at killing the player and ruining the fun. Being a little more soft-handed, which essentially makes the campaign easier, can make the new players feel more welcome in the world until they get their feet underneath them. Once they understand the way the game runs and the mechanical side of things in some way they can handle a little bit more heat from the man that rolls the most dice.
Now there are some drawbacks to this approach as well. New players do have a chance to see a soft handed approach as the only way a game should be run. A lot of them won’t understand how easily it can be taken advantage of, and feel left behind when someone with more experience becomes infinitely far ahead of them in terms of progress and items. Either that or they’ll try to run a game and find themselves being taken advantage of by the players. As a new GM there is no harder pill to swallow than the one that makes you know your entire 10+ hours of work was wasted because your friends decided they didn’t care enough about the story and wanted to go on a murder spree in the middle of the enemy camp to cause a “distraction”. Not that i’m bitter or anything…*cries softly*…but that’s just the beginning. If the campaign continues for a long time, and a player doesn’t show much advancement in their story, it can cause a serious rift in the party. The ones who understand the game have a good chance of becoming annoyed by the player who fell behind. The one who fell behind may feel picked on because they think it’s getting too hard too fast. Suffice it to say, the “soft handed” style is one with a very short shelf life. Eventually players will want more of a challenge, as all people do, and this style will not be able to keep up with the needs of the party.
New players can be harder to deal with because they require a lot of extra attention to perform things that more seasoned players would consider simple. The soft handed method allows them to grow at their own pace, but the fatal flaw in this format is that new players will outgrow these shoes very quickly.
Thank you so much for reading this article! Remember to keep your eye open for parts two through four of this series! If you’d like to keep up with all of our new content, follow me on twitter @Skunkosourous or the blog @nblogcollective. If you want to support us so we can keep making awesome contact, go check out our patreon page here.
I hope you enjoyed the article, and as always…