Switch’s Three Surprises About Change and IC/OOC Motivation

We’ve all had one of those games that isn’t quite what it used to be and wanted to do something about it. I know many people think that in situations like that, the best thing to do is just to scrap the game and start a new one, and it might be true, but let’s suppose for a moment that you’ve already considered that option, and decided that this one is worth salvaging. What’s next? I’ve been wondering that about my primary game for a while, but I’ve decided, it’s worth trying to save. (Almost more so because one of my players has told me what he’d want me to do anyway if everyone gave up on the primary game.) And then I ran into a book at my library: Switch, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It’s about effecting change, generally in an organization, but since motivation—mine, that of my players—is what’s mostly at play in the difficulties I’ve been having, I started applying it to reviving a flagging game.

Within the first chapter, Switch talks about three major facts that most people don’t know about change—and that most people trip themselves up by not knowing them. What are they, and what do they have to do with IC and OOC motivation?

  • What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. In short, it’s not that they don’t care about the goal, it’s that they see too many potential paths they can take to get there, and can’t just choose one. In how many games do you think this has created tensions between the GM who doesn’t get it and the players who can’t explain it? This one’s been a problem in my game longer than I care to think about; I was used to games in which the GM seemed to do a minimum of planning for us (and those plans they had, we tended to run roughshod over) and the players’ creativity and between-game planning sessions practically carried the rest of it along, so I figured everyone was like that. Imagine my surprise when I gave my players a wide-open sandbox…. and nothing happened. Or gave them a problem, with plenty of means of solving it that I could think of… and they didn’t take any of their options. It wasn’t that there weren’t enough; it was that they couldn’t pick just one.
  • What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. For the GM, it’s easy to be annoyed with the players for their end of things. “I just spent hours putting this world together, figuring out this complex problem/setting up a perfectly nice campaign wiki for you/doing all the work one way or another, why can’t you participate in the way that would help me continue to create this nice game for you?” Emotional involvement needs to come naturally, rather than being forced—you have to motivate both the characters and the players, or else you’ll get a situation where it’s all they can do to stay engaged, let alone get into the ‘homework’ on your side of the situation.
  • What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. This one’s particularly important for GMs to keep in mind. It’s easy to assume that what’s going on is that your players are being the problem, one way or another—their minds aren’t twisty enough, they’re not willing to put in the effort you are, or there’s just something plain wrong with this picture. I’ve had my own problems with that: “I wish I had me in my game,” I once griped to a friend of mine, noting that most of the games in which I played tended to be the ones with the try-anything plans and world-shaking (or at least world-jiggling) ambitions, with the really awesome descriptions in which three or four people might all coordinate on the same attempt, and the people analyzing like fans outside of session—in short, all the things I ever wanted from my players. But sometimes it’s not them. Sometimes what’s going on is something we need to weigh in on by remembering the prior two points and using them to guide our players in the right direction. (By the same token, though, sometimes it’s neither us nor them, so we shouldn’t immediately jump to beating ourselves up if the game isn’t going smoothly.)

Keep these in mind. They’ll come in handy.


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  1. Impractical Applications (Process of Salvage) | Exchange of Realities

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