I recently read Phil Vecchione’s article Levels of Play. In it (and the sequel), Phil discusses four aspects of player style: game, character, group, and story; and how GMs can accommodate all four throughout gameplay to engage all of their players.
Near the end of his article, Phil talks about players advancing along his progression of levels throughout their tabletop-playing careers. We all have recognized that a novice player most often focuses on the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the game, and often moves into the “higher” levels as he or she spends more time with the hobby. However, I think that rather than being a macroscopic progression, this growth is triggered very specifically by a similar progression within individual games in which the player is gaming.
When games start, the players tend to focus on its mechanical details. This is often highlighted because the start of a game is almost always character creation, which runs entirely at the game level (even in systems which include “fluffy” elements in character creation, they are in most cases mechanically integrated into the rules). Typically the first interactions of the campaign are similarly game-level: the party receives a quest, the party is embroiled in a fight, etc.
Of course, one can talk about games that really do add non-mechanical elements right at the beginning: motivations, various systems of inter-character bonds, etc. Many players simply gloss over these “fluffy” elements. They will add them as superficial traits to their characters and completely neglect them during the game. This is a particularly common affliction in D&D and similar such highly mechanized games. Obviously, this is an undesirable outcome, because the players are neglecting a fundamental aspect of the game design. This can lead to GM burnout as the players continually ignore the nuances of the world and the GM cannot understand why. In worse cases, these “fluff” traits are a part of the game’s balance, and ignoring them makes all sorts of trouble.
Why is this so often the case, and how can a GM put these elements back into the game without causing problems? Essentially this problem is an expectation mismatch. The players are still acclimating to the game, and simply can’t be expected to deal with the higher levels of the progression yet. This is frequently the problem with the “you have all been friends forever” style of backstory gloss-over. While that may be true in game, at the table your players have absolutely no context to work off of for those character linkages, and so they go to waste.
In order for players to work comfortably with the background forces of their character, they need to spend time figuring out what the character does in the present. Similarly, in order for a group to have meaningful inter-character relationships, each character needs to be fleshed-out enough that the others can have something to connect with.
Most of all, this applies at the story level. A truly compelling narrative requires an enormous amount of context, and this context will necessarily have to develop before the big story is actually in motion. Try to have a sweeping narrative from the beginning, and players will complain of railroading because the story is getting in the way of figuring out the game, character, and group levels of play. But, the same story later on is far more enjoyed by virtue of incorporating what has been learned about the characters and group in a way that never feels like railroading.
We can now reframe the macroscopic progression of players in context of the microscopic progression of games. In many cases, a successfully executed game which operates at the group level is far more rewarding than one that just engages the game. Naturally, then, as players keep gaming, they eventually are part of games that go beyond, and afterward expect more from future experiences.
As GMs, we are often interested in the high-level story elements. However, it is important to build towards these experiences so that our players are adequately invested in the characters and group before shoving a big story into their laps. Similarly, we must manage differing expectation levels of our players so that everyone can advance at a fair pace. Otherwise, we risk alienating players and driving our campaigns to an early grave, and we never get the big payoff.