So the rule in fiction is “kill your darlings,” and by and large, I recommend the same for GMs most of the time.
Since GMs are typically the ones suggesting the games being run, it follows that we have something we love about the setting, system, or story of the game from the get-go. While it’s important to respond to player wants once the game gets rolling, you’re running the game you’re running because of something you want to see hit the table, and it can be difficult to let those things go if the players don’t share your interest.
But while I emphasize again and again that games are for the players, they’re also for the GM to share in and enjoy, so killing your darlings the second they don’t resonate with your player group isn’t always the best solution if the goal is ‘everybody wins.’
Enter my brilliant partner with the solution, as usual. Fittingly, the latest rule comes from dealing with children who are turning up their nose at the idea of trying new food. The rule in her house was ‘try two bites – if you still don’t like it after that, we’ll find something else.’
Why this is so crucial is that, in my house, the rule was typically ‘try it, you’ll like it’ or ‘they put people on the moon, I think you can stomach some broccoli and live’ – neither of which made me terribly inclined to enjoy whatever it was. It would be many years later before I came back to many of those foods and, trying them again, found that I actually loved them and had been missing out the whole time because I’d stopped after one bite.
The point of two bites is that it’s not much more of an investment than the initial bite, but it does give the taster a chance to try out something new when it’s not quite so new anymore. The taster is over the initial kneejerk reaction against whatever it is based on the knowledge they brought to the table in the first place. For instance, if they know it’s a vegetable and they typically don’t like vegetables, they’re already against it before the food gets anywhere near their mouth.
That initial bite is up against a wall of resistance. If it’s anything less than spectacular, the sheer weight of all that confirmation bias will come crashing down on it and crush any agreeable response that might have been hiding underneath.
The second bite, though, has more time to breathe. It gives time for the taster’s internal logic to sneak back in, pointing out the parts of the experience that don’t match their earlier assumptions – the little pleasant surprises. That second bite enhances those differences, and may give them a far more accurate picture of whether they genuinely like or dislike whatever it is they’re eating.
Same thing when it comes to the elements a GM wants to hook players on in a game. Say you’re a big fan of intrigue, or large-scale combat, or one particular element of the setting your running in, but any time you’ve mentioned it to test the waters, your players are either lukewarm or rolling their eyes. If your believe games are entirely for the players, you’d leave it on the shelf and move on.
But if you think they might like whatever it is given the right execution, then have them try two bites. Bring it in early in the game and keep it brief (it’s a bite, not a meal). Expect them to make a face and reel away, even mock the thing you love and your love of it. That’s fine. It’s the broccoli response. It’s normal.
The next step is time. Give it a while before reintroducing the element later in the game. They need time to get over the initial response and to not feel like you’re going to be cramming it down their throats all game.
The last piece is context. Shift up something about the exposure for the second helping. If it were food, let them add a little sauce or something to shift up the flavor before they try again. In a game, it means switching up the groups involved, the system being used, something to make it not the exact same bite as it was the first time. From there, your ‘tasters’ can triangulate how they feel about the thing itself.
After the second bite, try to get a realistic sense of how they liked it (or didn’t). Remember that your own confirmation bias plays a bit part here, so don’t read into subtle cues – ask outright if you can. If the players are at least more willing to try it again after the second bite, then continue the pattern – give it time, shift up the context, and try again. If they’re still groaning and mocking like they did the first time, then it’s time to shelve that element and just understand that it’s not meant to be for this group.
But then, that’s what conventions and gamedays are for.