In your game group, do you know the guy or gal who picks up the room tile in Betrayal at House on the Hill and reads it out loud, then sets in on the board and asks the player whose turn it is where they’d like to place it? Do they do this for each and every player?
Similarly, do they hold the common deck and deal cards to players, rather than letting those players draw cards for themselves?
Introducing the Puppet Master
This person is something different from an Alpha Gamer™, but similar – the player who steals “fun” from the other players, who hoards it all for themselves. I think of this player as a “Puppet Master”, a player who insists on being in control of the game state and components, who has to touch every thing that changes hands or moves on the game board, and who absolutely, positively, can’t let you draw cards for yourself.
“Discovery” as a game concept usually refers to information that players get, or events that happen in the game, that are random and surprising. For many gamers, myself included, discovery in gaming is one of the core “fun” things that games provide. When a “Puppet Master” reads a card out loud instead of letting a player do it, or flips over a tile instead of physically allowing the appropriate player to do it, precious moments of discovery are lost.
I think of this as “Player Autonomy”:
A game player’s right to move pieces, draw cards, and generally resolve game states and make choices on their own, without outside assistance (unless requested).
The more I demo games in public and host game events, the more I notice folks violating the autonomy of other players, including myself.
It always bothers me, as it feels like somebody is “stealing” fun from me during the game, which leads to a negative experience in an otherwise positive environment. While holding a door open for a person in real life might be a polite thing to do, in the magic circle I can get the door for myself! (Especially if it leads to the next room in a dungeon.)
Ironically, I am one of the most active “Puppet Masters” I know, and after talking with a bunch of other designer friends, it’s a common thing for the hobby. A few folks said it’s a result of doing so many game demos, and having to keep a game flowing in front of folks who likely aren’t entirely invested, or who aren’t sure how to maintain the game. Once I decided to write about this, I almost immediately became more aware of my own need for control at the game table, and how I was taking that control – the autonomy – from other players.
If you’re guilty of this, perhaps reading about it is enough to make you aware of it. Do you feel like you need to change?
Or do you think it’s valuable to have a player at the table who controls the flow of the game, player autonomy be damned?
Post your response in the comments, and let’s have a discussion!
Latest posts by JR Honeycutt (see all)
- Five Things I Learned While Developing SeaFall – July 8, 2016
- Cooperative Games: Advice From the Experts – May 18, 2016
- Player Autonomy: How to Let Players Have Fun – July 15, 2015
22 Readers CommentedJoin discussion
I find myself doing this all the time. It’s almost unconscious. I GM a lot. I introduce games to kids. I introduce games to adults. One of my gaming groups had a blind member, who needed information read aloud since we didn’t make every game completely accessible otherwise.
Once I realize that I am doing it in a casual game, where I’m not actually the GM, or the only one who can read, I get a bit embarrassed and it can be difficult to stop, because the other players seem to have resigned themselves to it.
Great piece! I’ve played games with puppet masters who taught the game and ran the game exerting so much control that when I got done playing, I still didn’t know how to play! Part of really learning and absorbing a game is handling some of the setup and procedures – so that you can take that knowledge and play the game with someone else.
The worst offenders I’ve seen are some novice designers running playtests/demos – where they’re handling a bunch of complex procedures and leaving only the “easy” part for the players. They’ve developed games that are really too fiddly or confusing for players to be able to handle on their own, or they don’t want to bother teaching players how the game really works under the hood. Then the players get a really distorted perspective of what the game is like – because that designer isn’t included in the box!
Then you have the total opposite of this in the players who do not draw their own cards ha ha. Players who look or ask to other players to move pieces for them.
This can be an easy thing to fall into for those of us who are used to running demos and teaching games. I think it’s more a matter of presence of mind than psychology though. Sometimes we just forget ourselves and lapse into demo mode, and it’s important to remember when we’re playing for fun.
Oddly enough though, when I catch myself doing this, I don’t feel like I’m “stealing fun” from others. It’s more fun for me too when I’m not managing all sides of a table.
I have been a puppet master more times than I can count, but its more that I pass the card along to people for them to read, so that I don’t completely steal the thunder. We usually end up playing larger games so the card decks and sidelined pieces have to be kept out of reach for at least half the players.
Essentially, your best bet is to just ask your gaming group if they mind passing out the cards or reading them. If someone asks for a card, “would you like me to read it for you?” I can see how it might be offensive, but if they are your friendly gaming group, there shouldn’t be an issue with that.
I’m absolutely guilty of this. But I don’t think all cases of this should lead to guilt. A lot of the time I’m playing with players that are not thinking of the strategy of the game on the same level as myself (not bragging, I swear) because I’m inviting new players to a game or boardgames in general. I consider my puppet-ing to be a bit more on the teaching side of it. I’d rather be playing games with players who make high level decisions based on the knowledge of how the game works. So SOME of the time I view my interaction as bringing players up to my level so that we can all enjoy and appreciate the game at it’s finest. Let’s be honest, no one likes playing chess against someone who doesn’t know how to play as well as you. You either crush them, or you teach them so that when you crush them you don’t feel guilty for taking advantage of a player that isn’t as skilled. I do think I need to tone it down a bit, but I also thing that in the right context, being a Puppet Master can lead to future games where you don’t do it as much because you realize you don’t need to!
An interesting topic! I think it’s easy to pin it on a person, but there are definitely elements of the game design and your specific table setup that can make Puppet Mastering more or less likely.
One of my favorite components is the drawstring bag. The drawstring bag is brilliant because it’s easy to pass, it doesn’t take up table space, and it’s a way to keep your tiles/meeples/gems randomized while keeping that element of discovery for everyone. By contrast, there are non-mobile things that everyone wants to play with (like the tower in Amerigo that you drop cubes in and a random assortment come out). Very fun little toy, but its very nature means if you move it, you’ll mess up the system, so it’s kind of a bummer.
Since board games are such a tactile experience, I think we could all stand to be mindful of our table layouts (especially, as Luke says, if we demo a lot of games) to arrange and delegate that table-setup specific stuff to keep people engaged. Maybe you split the cards into two decks so everyone can reach. During setup, you can ask someone else to do a drop and determine start player. Take turns shuffling then the cards run out. Put the tableau of tiles that people need to read near the newest players so they can read them during the game (and for god’s sake not upside down!) instead of necessitating a narrator. Things like that.
I love the bags too! I’ve got to finish my game that uses one.
You nailed it – taking a player’s autonomy is stealing their fun.
However, there’s a more benign puppet master that takes care of the fiddly bookkeeping that the game requires: Setting up for each round, dealing out the cards, cleaning up unselected components, adjusting the bidding markers, etc. This player can help the game run more smoothly.
When demoing a game, one should strive to be the “game janitor”, to make the game flow, without undermining the players.
Game janitor… I like that. I guess there is a fine line between helping and ruining s game. Great comment. Thanks!
I think Christina brings up a good point that components can encourage behavior towards or away from Puppet Mastering. I know I do this when I’m introducing people to Red November because the game uses tiny cards for the event deck. If the cards were larger (and more stable), it would be significantly easier for players to reach across the table to draw their own bad events.
On the other hand, perhaps a different approach is to encourage delegation of Puppet Mastering. I know a lot of games explicitly direct one player to act as “the bank”. you can do the same thing as host. If there are multiple piles of resources and/or decks of cards, try making everyone responsible for passing out a different thing when needed.
Fantastic article! I don’t really have much of a problem with this as I tend to be assertive when faced with either the alpha gamer or the puppet master. Worst case scenario, I simply refuse to play with them again. We usually divvy out the jobs in our groups so that it’s very clear who has which task. But, I have no problem asking a player to keep their hands on their own components. Now if I can just find a way to help players interact more when they turtle.
This is one of those times when I say, “why would you ever play with such a person?” Policing such people is part of the game group; I don’t know why the game designer could be expected to account for it.
Maybe it’s a generational thing.
I can see how someone in “demo mode” might do this, but once the game is being played, a primary rule of games is “don’t mess with other people’s stuff” including their pieces.
I did once know a “gamer” who insisted on teaching people how to play a game, told them how to play their turns, and got disgusted if they didn’t play as she directed. All in aid of winning, you understand. As you might guess, I did not play anything with her.
My gaming group recently used this concept (OK, really the game janitor concept) to keep a 3 year old from messing with our game of Agricola: we made her responsible for handing out all bits and retrieving them when spent. Worked like a charm. 🙂 I wonder if some of the adults who exhibit this behavior are also the more fidgety among us…
On a tangential thought, isn’t that basically what computer ports of board games do? They handle all the pieces for all players, do all the math and scorekeeping for you, and sometimes even show you the odds of different choices, influencing your play. Taking out the non-face-to-face aspect, since we’re purely discussing a handling of bits here, are these games less fun to play, multiplayer or otherwise?
If everybody does this, only for you and not for each other, consider the possibility that you slow down the game almost as much as I do.
I think the absolutely depends on the individual group.
As a DM/GM I do tend to do this (an obvious theme, it seems), but more as an efficiency/ introductory mechanic. In no way would I ever want to take enjoyment of a game away from someone.
I try to ask each player their preference the first time something like this comes up each game and we go on from there.
I think the most important thing is that there be open discussion in the group. If someone doesn’t like something, bring it up (maybe between games so as not to disrupt everyone’s experience). I think most groups will self-correct for what is most fun for the most people.
Admittedly some personal dynamics don’t work as well in all groups, but that’s why you have the conversation.
I’ve been guilty of this, essentially playing against myself while the other person is merely present, when younger but it’s a result of growing up with a family that doesn’t really care as much about games. I found that there are certain games that bring out this tendency more than others though.
Take Pandemic, the most experienced player usually becomes the one calling the shots and flipping the cards. The game becomes boring fast for the others.
I’ve found that those who typically design their own games tend towards this behaviour – even when playing against people who are supposed to be demoing the game to them!
I guess the best way around this is to either choose more suitable games, or do what I’ve done recently and sit out the first play with new groups and effectively DM the game by keeping the turns flowing and only jumping in when things deviate too much. And never flip other people’s cards – slide them to them face down if need be – they need to be the first to see the info!
I have this same affliction however, I learned while teaching a Go class this simple lesson. When we have a deeper knowledge base of a game than a “newbie”, we want them to be at the same place of understanding that we have for a more richer experience of the game. We didn’t start off with that deeper knowledge though and it took time and practice to learn. When teaching (or in demo mode) it’s important to remember to have patience and let the player unpack the lessons to reach a deeper level at their own pace and they’ll have as much appreciation for the game as you do. When you try to unload everything at once to “catch someone up” with your level, we only become an information vomitter and the majority of the information is lost anyways. I now try to instruct but let them play and make mistakes so that they’ll learn through trial and error like I did and I just try not to humiliate them in the process so they’ll want to play again. Just my two cents. 🙂
I do this sometimes, I suppose. But at least for the game I’m play testing right now, I literally can’t do this, because it’s a hidden role game.
On the other hand, I think I still need to do a better job teaching the game because there’s a thing you do while others eyes are closed, and so I literally can’t help them if they’re having trouble there, which again hurts their autonomy. So teaching the game effectively is another part of giving players autonomy.
The interesting part is, my blind testers haven’t mentioned that as being a problem. So I’m conveying the idea well in writing, but not so much in person.
Someone mentioned different player groups. Some players are not really interested in taking responsibility for what happens to them in a game, and those might be more inclined to let someone lead them on (and move their pieces). In a group that takes responsibility for playing the game – admittedly a less common attitude over time – the players are likely to want to do their own moves.
After reading this I’m definitely a “puppet master”. I’d suggest that a puppet master isn’t entirely a bad thing. If a player is new having a puppet master help them out when they seem flustered or unsure can be a good thing so long as they don’t essentially play the game for them. Also if you play with a group (like I do) that regularly gets distracted they can carefully draw players attention back to the game after the distraction has gone on long enough (don’t forget, we’re here to have fun, sometimes having fun involves simply letting the game slide for a bit). I’d suggest that it becomes a problem when the puppet master is drawing, reading or almost playing the cards for the newbies (as stated above, let them have the excitement in discovery for themselves) or trying to “master” the more experienced players. It’s all about balance and being sensitive to the flow of the game and more importantly the group. If you need to sate the puppet master, have them in charge of clean up/set up for the next round (basically my job in games like Village).
On a different note, if you want to see who the puppet master is see who is reaching across the table to draw a card or tile for someone who is beside the deck/pile.