Friday, March 16, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part the Final: Can GMs Change the World?

How arrogant is that, to think GMs can change the world?  Do GMs really need more of an excuse to increase the sizes of their egos?  Well. . .no.  But we'll forge ahead anyway, because this idea—that we can make the world a better, or worse, place through our gaming, one life at a time—is a powerful one, and is in part responsible for one of the biggest threats gaming has ever faced.

In 1979, James Dallas Egbert III "disappeared" in a well-publicized case that inspired the publication of Mazes and Monsters, in which a live-action roleplayer has a psychotic break thanks to participation in roleplaying.  In 1982, Patricia Pulling's son Irving committed suicide.  Pulling blamed her son's suicide on the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG and founded BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons), an organization dedicated to promoting the idea that tabletop roleplaying games promoted an entire litany of immoral practices.  The idea had a resurgence in 1988 thanks to the Leith Von Stein murder case in North Carolina's own Little Washington, in which a disturbed stepson was able to convince his roleplaying group to aid him in killing his stepfather.  A complete listing of the controversies surrounding roleplaying's biggest name can be read here.

This is a big idea, and while the instances above can be accounted for more by the psychological torments of their perpetrators than any innate danger of roleplaying, this idea cannot and will not be dismissed out of hand.  To this day, Israeli soldiers are officially not allowed to play D&D, as players are "detached from reality and susceptible to influence."  These ideas are often met with the findings of studies which seem to indicate that roleplayers are better-adjusted, less suicidal and more prone to cooperation than the population as a whole.  And when both gaming's detractors and defenders hop on the "gaming can change people" bandwagon. . .this idea warrants some examination.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 09: Avoiding GM Pitfalls

As a GM, you need to know something if you don’t already:  you’re going to screw up.  You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to try and cover them up, you’re going to hem and haw and you’re going to make things up that make no sense whatsoever.  Get used to that idea; and while you don't necessarily need to be content with it, become comfortable with the idea that you're not infallible, and become comfortable that you don't have to be.

That's part of the problem with a policy of "the GM is always right": eventually, we start believing our own lie.  The problem with believing the lie, of course, is that we forget it's a lie, and we forget why we started telling it:  so that gameplay doesn't get bogged down with minutia.

That's precisely the kind of pitfall a GM can fall into.  Let's take a look at some of the more common ones:

Tyranny:  The classic role of the GM as the final decision-maker can very easily lead to a slippery slope wherein the GM can start to see himself as the only person at the table whose opinion matters.  GMs who suffer from this delusion don't have players for very long.  Even GMs who only speak like they're always right, but only do this to show they "just have to be convinced" they're wrong, will find themselves painted by players with this brush.  The reason this is such a pitfall is because the players and the GMs together make a game happen; if players don't feel like they're going to be heard, if they feel they are value-less to a GM, they will not want to game with that GM.  The easiest way to avoid this trap is through talking with your players, and listening to them, and being ready to make compromises.  But watch out!  If you talk with your players and listen to them, but never compromise or never side with them, you're only confirming your tyranny.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 08: The GM as Mastermind


In many ways, the GM has always seemed to be smarter, faster, trickier, and more knowledgeable than the players at the table.  In more traditional games, the GM has all the information laid out for her disposal:  the story, the enemies, the stats for the enemies, their behaviors, the dungeon, the treasures, and the like.  In less traditional games, the GM shares the story with the players, but still generally knows more about the world and its people than the players, and must be ready to improvise new behaviors at the drop of a hat, often more so than GMs of traditional games.

But does that necessarily mean the GM has to be smarter, or more clever, than the players?  While it certainly helps (in the same way those characteristics usually do), with a little trickery you can appear to be all of these things without actually being so.  "More knowledgeable," in a strong-GM system where the GM creates and/or is in full control of  the scenario, can be used to very easily mimic smarter-faster-cleverer if you put in the time and effort.

Harkening back to that understated role of preparedness, if you are fully aware of the motivations of your NPCs and their goals in a scenario, and you also know the ins-and-outs of the locale and the history that's led up to the events in your scenario, you have all the datapoints you need to be able to make it seem like you're ready for every turn the players take.  This kind of Practiced Improvisation is very useful and doesn't require overmuch effort, though it does require understanding the material thoroughly and not just skimming over the important bits.  And if they take some turn not covered by the material you've got?  Take a five-minute break and make something up, then be sure to write it down so that you don't forget it or get confused about it later. 

What about weak-GM systems, then, where the GM guides the story and the players do as much of the storytelling as the GM does?  In these systems, there are two major paths you can take:  you can either try to create just about everything, which is a heck of a lot of work but well, well worth it if you have the time and energy; or you can be more spontaneous, taking what comes and rolling with it, while also ensuring everything is kept consistent and logical.

The second road is harder.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 07: The GM as World-Builder

"A wizard did it."

These are some more of those "classic words," and they are usually invoked right after someone has said "but that makes no sense."  And, while this is a convenient excuse, the closer we as GMs strive for realism in an internally-consistent logical structure to the settings of our stories, the less we have to hand-wave and the better our players will be able to suspend their disbelief.  This is the crux of our role as world-builders.

When most people read "world-builder," they often immediately jump to the idea that they need to break out their home-cartography kits and get to work.  But building a world is so much more than drawing maps, because ultimately it is about crafting a place that the players can believe in, a place the players can lose themselves in, a place the players can care about.

Because you don't just practice world-building when you're making up a planet in some far-distant place where people wield swords and magic, and you don't just practice it when you're playing a sci-fi game and landing on a planet.  If you're roleplaying a GURPS game taking place in the next city over, and you're in the Real World But For Just A Couple Changes, well, you're world-building, too.

One thing that's important to note is that it's generally easier when you are operating in a completely fantasy world, as opposed to a world which is just a step away from our own reality, because in a fantasy world a slip-up here or there won't necessarily shatter the illusion.  In a world that is mostly like our own, though, what may seem like a minor thing can completely shatter the illusion you're trying to create, so research—and plenty of it—is pretty necessary unless you're fairly confident you're operating in an area or situation your players will know little about.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 06: The GM as Actor


Some GMs are shy.  They’re not comfortable standing up from behind the Screen, or looking up from their notes, or they’re afraid of looking silly.  As a result, all their NPCs tend to be samey, with the same voices, the same mannerisms, the same vocabularies—and these are usually the same voices, mannerisms and vocabularies of the GM, or the writer of the module the GM is running.

We’re the GMs.  We don’t get to be shy.  Do you have stage fright?  You’ve got 3 or more people staring at you and hanging off your every word whether or not you’re pretending they’re not there.  Don’t want to look silly?  Let’s be brutally realistic here:  our hobby is playing pretend with dice.  We can’t afford that kind of vanity.

One of the best ways to set yourself aside and just be an entertainer is to put yourself in the mindset of the characters you’re playing as if you were a player, not a GM.  You will find yourself more readily thinking like your character, and less readily thinking about your own trepidations.  The old saying goes, “lose yourself in your character,” and it’s just as true for GMs as it is for actors.

When you lose yourself, though, make sure you also don't lose your sense of propriety.  All too common, a GM who loses himself in a role tries to become a comedian, and oftentimes the jokes that get laid forth are entirely inappropriate.  Reskinned jokes about other races or genders applied in the context of a game can be very offensive to many gamers, who likely already heard them in their original context.  In the game, as in life, "I was just kidding around" is not an acceptable excuse for inappropriate behavior.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 05: The GM as Challenger

Players game so they cantriumph over adversity.  And who provides the difficulties they face?  Why, the GM,of course!

Now we’re starting to reach the point where GMs find their roles in real competition.  First, we have to tell a cohesive story.  But next, we have to let our players poke around at it and try to break it.  And we have to give them a fair break, even though that may make our ability to tell the story more difficult.  And we have to provide them with fair challenges, ones they have a chance of overcoming, but not so easy that they get bored.  It’s enough to drive a Gamesmaster crazy!

These challenges that we craft are one of the things that distinguish us from improvisational storytellers or novelists, though, and are core to our interaction with our players.  The nature of the challenges we provide are going to be different for every group we run, because the purpose of challenge is to keep players interested and actively engaged.  Once they reach for their smartphones, your hold on them is slipping!

Since the purpose of challenge is to give the players something to overcome, you can present both social and combat-oriented adversity. Additionally, depending on how skilled they are, you can present them with the opposite of what they are best at.  Is your party filled with orc barbarians?  Perhaps they need to make friends with an Elven nobleman!  Are they diplomats and computer hackers?  Perhaps they face a squadron of hunter-killer cyborgs.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 04: The GM as Referee

“Story trumps rules.”

It’s an old adage, and a good one—but it can lead even well-meaning GMs astray.  Because the rules are important.  They carry weight, and meaning, and it is because they are important that so many arguments are had about them.

The temptation is always to become the Authority, He Who Is In Charge.  This can be both a blessing and a curse:  it is a blessing, because it makes you the final arbiter of how things work, regardless of any books, any dissenting opinions, or the like.  This ensures that any information you do not want in your session, story or campaign simply does not exist for the purposes of your game.  This would go for rules or, if you are playing in a shared worlds (like Pathfinder, Buffy or the Forgotten Realms), story information as well. 

But being an authoritarian is also a twofold curse.  First, though it gives you a firm hand with which to guide your players, it requires you to always be on top of the rules, on top of the adventure, and a step ahead of the players.  Second, and completely avoidable, taking this tack may lead you ever-further down the path of absolute control over your table.

It may seem at first that needing to be sharp on the rules and story and a step ahead of the players is just what a GM is supposed to be.  But there are consequences to this style; by crafting yourself as an authority, the players will turn to you to be their guide and governor.  Moving forward, you run the risk that any tentativeness you may experience as you calculate your options may be seen as fumbling.  Fumbling will increase player frustration, and frustrated players will be more likely to challenge your authority, either by trying to find ways to stymie you (players who try to push and push to find your limit), or by trying to find maybe-too-creative interpretations of the rules. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

4dventure, Part 3: Eye Heart Tyranny

My group of eager, willing victims took their next painful steps through the monstrosity that is "Madness At Gardmore Abbey" last night. I had taken time during our hiatus to look ahead at some of the encounters detailed in the module and make some alterations to better suit the adventure material to their level and party size, and also to flesh out one or two encounters all on my own to see if I was hitting the right balance between too hard and too easy. It's been my personal feeling thus far that Gardmore Abbey leans heavily toward the "too difficult" side of that spectrum, and I can't say that last night's play session did anything to dissuade me of that opinion.

After tying up some loose ends on the roleplaying side of things (returning Analastra to her brother Berrian in the Aornil camp), the PCs were given information on some of the structures nearby that they had managed to scout or spot from their previous position at the old bell tower (the site of the brutal displacer beast/stirge fight I talked about in my last post). After considering their options, they decided to head south toward the old watchtower they had passed on their way in through the crumbling wall when they first arrived at the abbey.

I had intended to plant one of my homebrew encounters here anyway, so this gave me an opportunity right off the bat to test the waters and see how I did. Since I was reskinning all of the orcs in the abbey as gnolls, who are primarily desert dwellers in my campaign world, I had started plunging through Monster Manual I and II looking for gnoll- and desert-themed creatures. One in particular interested me: the witherlings. These are described as shrunken, emaciated gnoll corpses with exposed skulls and unnaturally long claws. I liked the flavor and the suite of powers these creatures have, but not so much the description of them as small creatures. Luckily, D&D 4E doesn't base many creature attributes off of size like D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder do, so ignoring this cosmetic affectation didn't require any stat rehashing on my part.

I had already established that a powerful gnoll necromancer was moving around in the vicinity of the watchtower, so placing a witherling ambush here was in keeping with my ongoing story. I also added in an NPC from a previous game: Syon Telba, the ghoulish undead manservant of a powerful Shadian villain who was here to recover an item for his master from the watchtower. The PCs came upon a small valley formed by two foothills at the base of the tower and dotted with boulders of various sizes. They observed Telba sitting in front of the tower door, contemplating how to open it. Maeve sent her raven companion ahead to scout the area for enemies, and he reported two cloaked shapes that smelled of death hiding atop each of the foothills (he missed the witherlings that had burrowed beneath the sand in the valley, however). Not long after doing their reconaissance, the zombie gnolls atop each foothill spotted the PCs and prepared to roll more boulders down the hill toward the heroes; the burrowed witherlings popped out of the sand in front of them and readied a murderous charge.