Thursday, 4 December 2014

Games Mastering

As I ponder dipping my toe back into roleplaying, coming to the realisation that this means looking for an entirely new group from top to bottom (with the exception of my wife), I find myself stopping in wonderment at what a strange thing the roleplaying game is. Strange too is the role of the Games Master, Storyteller, Referee, whatever you want to call the person who tries to put it all together and make the thing work.

Please note that this blog does have examples, which are entirely fictional (and yes I made the games up too). There are no intentional references to persons living or dead within this blog post.

Gaming sits in a peculiar confluence between story, game system, action and acting, all ruled by that most subjective of values; fun. The perfect roleplaying experience balances on the peak of a pyramid, each side of which is one of these four elements. If it slips down one side too far the experience runs the risk of becoming 'unfun' for someone in a group, something that only emphasises the importance of being on the same page. Group style varies so much that a lot of how a game runs boils down to a matter of taste, especially as all gamers are playing for something different. If player x cares about tactics whilst player y is all about the power; player z meanwhile wants to play his character to their fullest, and its the GM's job to make that all work. To complicate matters further groups develop their own mini cultures, which are often resistant to change. What works for one group won't work in another and a lot of what makes games work is actually the ephemeral, everyday things like good communication and compromise between players (and the GM - but the GM is actually just another player, surely?) and nothing to do with the product, system or campaign. 

This is, to me, at the heart of any roleplaying experience. If you can't get everyone to contribute and agree on what they want, there's no point in even doing character generation. Ideally I'd like to get to a point where rather than the traditional GM/player divide (which as I grow older feels fundamentally unfair as the GM runs off to scribble down lots of plots, characters and so on whilst the players just turn up and, in a lot of cases, break things) there was a sort of 'editor's meeting' with everyone throwing ideas into a hat; real or metaphorical. I seek co-conspirators, not an audience. I'm not looking to write a novel; if you want me to put the work for a novel into my gaming, guess what, I'm going to go off and write one and the game can be damned. At least with a novel I stand a chance of getting published and making a living (of sorts anyway).

I'd include how settings are interpreted in this bracket. Its very easy to sanitise settings to make them approachable, but that comes at the cost of flavour. A good GM should always discuss their vision of the world before hand and see what players think. Whilst a game should always be approachable, I do feel that game designers create settings and systems to promote certain styles of play and it is easy to throw the baby out with the bath water. Stripping the things that made and informed the culture that created the French Revolution out of Shadows of the Guillotine, for example, leaves us with what, exactly?

The idea that players should do more than just turn up and play is nothing new, back in the 1990s White Wolf were talking about it in their Storyteller's Guides as open chronicle design. Hell the second thing I picked up for Vampire the Masquerade explicitly laid out the idea that the game isn't the GM's, but the players', and I imagine there were books in the '70s and '80s that did the same. Like everything else gaming is generational; every decade's designers thinks they got it 'right'. More recently, games like FATE or the new wave of World of Darkness, or if you want to go for really 'hippie' games, Microscope, have taken this and run with it, encouraging groups to talk about what they want and hammer out deeper, more rounded characters. FATE of course goes further, because there are no XP in the game, a lot of the games published with that system encourage the GM to make a character too, further diluting the distinction between GM and player (good, as its a load of baloney, the GM is more like the designated driver than anything else, sure you have additional responsibilities but at the same time you're still going out to have a good time).

Again this seems simple, after all we know what narratives and stories appeal to us as readers and watchers, so why do we let ourselves be content with expressing no opinion at all when someone asks us what we want at the gaming table? Surely we should be specific; nobody is a mind reader and it isn't fair to expect them to be. As GMs we shouldn't expect a player who hates politics but loves combat to warm to Vampire, or their  anti-matter universe twin to love Dungeons and Dragons. But that only works if players communicate too, and really unless you're going for a very safe game, everyone needs to say what they want and if there are any things they don't want in the game. To borrow from alt.sex jargon, anything else isn't safe, sane or consensual.

I've developed similar quibbles with a couple of other areas. First, I dislike the 'play anything' idea at character generation. I've been in enough games that ended up with me feeling like a fifth wheel to be wary of it. This might just be how I feel of course and I know its subjective; and I'm sure that players in my games have felt that way too - I'm not seeking to claim any moral high ground here. But it still sucks to feel like that - for example if in a game of Martian Death Race Bob has designed a character who is all about business whilst the others have built racing crew members and drivers (who solve mysteries, obviously) and the GM is focusing on track side plots where there's lots of sabotage, driving skill checks and so on,  Bob might well feel like he's made the wrong character for the game and that the GM should have given him more guidance, even if it was advising him to get some practical skills on the sheet in addition to the Business, Economics and Financial Forensics skills he has.

A clear idea of what will make my character successful in the game is far more preferable; especially if the system doesn't channel characters down the route of being almost the same the way Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay does. As soon as you're out of this bracket, some sort of idea of what will work is needed. Legend of the Five Rings states this outright, tying character choice to the type of campaign in many ways and encouraging GMs to state what types of character they want in their games; and the concept is baked into a lot of modern games, simply because many character types are limited by geography. Often just a simple statement of 'there'll be lots of fighting to put your combat skills first' could be what gets everyone on the same page and that's what I feel we're aiming for here. Failing that, judicious use of spotlighting is a must, to bring characters who are in danger of being neglected into focus.

I've also grown less keen on surprises too, especially if they relate to a character's past and the GM is dropping it on the player without them knowing and consenting to it before hand. Its too easy to hit a trigger issue, and I think its better to veer on the side of caution than to risk your game by being bull headed and laissez faire. If Joe in a game of Metal Pulse Imperium puts in a scene that changes Marley's characters background to something that acts as a trigger or touches on a phobia, then its a problem. The onus is on him to discuss it with her before bringing it into play, and if he doesn't then it is on her to raise it after gaming. This is a two way street.

Returning to the idea of the pyramid, if the campaign slips too far down the pyramid's game system and action sides I start to get antsy, it stops being fun. I like stories, I like to talk in character and do a bit of acting - to the extent that long fight scenes feel boring because the game starts to drag (for me at least). I like to have some weight to conversations and have fond memories of a Werewolf the Apocalypse game where I pretty much ad libbed a ritual to summon a spirit. These are the things that are important to me, the things that if I had a group at present I would be pushing for more of.

To close then, what is the point of my waffle? I suppose its my GMing manifesto in a sense, my market stall of what I want in games. These are my ethics, my view of how I want to do things and how it should all work, with people first, game second and an end to the artificial break between the GM and the player. Beyond that I guess we'll see.