Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The role of self in RPGs, part 1: GMs and writers

Part of a series. See the intro here, part 1 (on songwriting) here, and part 2 (on fiction) here.

So as it turns out, RPGs are a thing that I think about quite a lot. I took a bit longer between posts than I was intending; ironically, because I was trying to hit a deadline for an RPG. It was during this that I realized what I wanted to talk about should probably be split up into two sections - GMs and writers/designers (for the purposes of this series, those roles are actually pretty similar) and players. Would you forgive me if part 3 of this series itself had a part 1 and 2? Let's find out.

Things are about to get fractal up in here.
To anyone who feels that math cannot be beautiful, I direct you to this Mandelbrot fractal.

Why I Think GMs and Writers Go Together In This Case

The internet is full of GMing advice, and roughly fifty-large percent* of it makes some version of the following point**:

RPGs are an interactive medium. If you want to determine how things go, go write a novel.
Which, sure. That's a good observation. It's worth noting, however that writing for an RPG and GMing an RPG for your friends have a lot in common.


Specifically, the roles of a GM are many and diverse. But fundamentally, they both set out to create something that can be interacted with by players, they both work to create an enjoyable experience for others, and they both need to consider outside perspectives when making plans. The primary difference, at least from this perspective, is who's on the receiving end of their efforts.

The GM creates for specific people. The writer creates for an audience.

But in both cases, they need to allow for the possibilities inherent in diverse perspectives.

Let's create a hypothetical gaming group. For reasons.

This is a wikimedia image for role playing gamers, and happens to match my hypothetical group pretty well!
 Thanks, Wikimedia Foundation!

Samah GMs for Paul, Leslie and Jamal. She's run for this group of friends for a while now, so she knows a thing or two about their preferences:

  • Paul loves it when a plan comes together. More specifically, he tends to enjoy taking a strategic approach to problem-solving, and is pretty engaged when faced with challenges
  • Leslie, quite frankly, is here to wreck shit and have adventures. Bar brawls, car chases - she really enjoys exciting, dangerous scenes. She also has a soft spot for hijinx. 
  • Jamal really enjoys exploring a setting, and meeting interesting NPCs. The more time he spends having conversations in-character, the happier he tends to be
Samah herself gets her primary slice of glee from designing a cool chunk of world -- sometimes down to little details -- and seeing people run around in it. With all this in mind, when she's preparing for her new game, she knows she'll want to have:
  • Both tactical and strategic challenges for Paul
  • Exciting, eventful encounters for Leslie
  • And plenty of interesting characters for Jamal to roleplay with
Now plenty of GM advice stops at around this point - after all, Samah's got everything she needs, right? -- and proceeds to talk details. And while this isn't exactly what I mean when I talk about "the role of self," I feel it bears mentioning in heading text.

The GM enjoying themselves is important too!

Critically so. If the GM is slogging through a bunch of stuff they don't enjoy, the game will suffer, the players will know, and everybody will be better off if they keep that in mind. GMing shouldn't be some faux-noble personal sacrifice for others' enjoyment. Not only because that is silly, but it makes for terrible games, so it's really not worth the effort.***

Back on task.

So Samah is crafting her next game. She's decided to go with a magepunk-ish corsets and airships setting -- kind of like Jim Butcher's The Areonaut's Windlass -- and focus on some political upheaval. This should give her plenty of tactical challenges for Paul, both in an immediate sense, and also as larger plots unfold. There should be plenty of galas, providing both political intrigue for Jamal, and abundant chandeliers for Leslie to swing on, and duels on airship decks should be plenty exciting for her.

Samah is pumped. (And I'm pumped too, as this game sounds freaking amazing to me, so somebody run this for me please.)


That's our overall structure, and it's a good one. What we don't know at this point, is if it's exciting to the players or not. Samah is hyped for this world, and has absolutely done well by shaping things toward her player's interests. 

And now we get to the promised point of the article, as mentioned in the title. Nobody buries the lede like I do; note it.)

The role of self in planning for players

Maybe everything is fine and great with Samah's game. But for the sake of discussion, we'll say it's not. What could be causing problems? A lot of things, but we're going to say it's how Samah planned things out. 

RPG parties can be pretty diverse.
As it turns out, Paul really doesn't dig political machinations, or maybe he's just burnt out from the upcoming election cycle. Either way, he'd much rather solve a Sphinx's riddle than try to figure out who's going to be the next Duchess of Everblossom. 

Given the high-society element -- corsets and noble titles everywhere -- Leslie doesn't really feel comfortable engaging in the kind of antics she'd usually enjoy. It just feels wrong to her to pick a fight at a debutante ball, so she's mostly sitting on her hands while boorish nobles insult her.

And Jamal isn't really engaging with any of the major NPCs - as it turns out, he feels like big social events are pretty fake, and he prefers more intimate, personal interactions. 

So how did we get here?

It's not that Samah didn't plan for the things her players like. But in doing so, she made assumptions based on how she would approach things. There's nothing inherently wrong with doing that, and oftentimes, it's great. But it can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that others will approach a situation the same way that you will.

Now, this particular example could be easily solved with some discussion before the game got running. But what if you're writing an adventure, or GMing for strangers, like at a convention? You can't tailor your game for players you don't know, right?

Well, not exactly. But what you can do, is consider things from a number of viewpoints.****

This is where a lot of prep work winds up missing the mark. Not just GMs planning, oh no; plenty of published adventures fall completely apart when players take perfectly reasonable actions that the GM hadn't thought of. Or really, do things that don't fit on the author's railroad tracks.

If you're writing one of those, then yeah, maybe see the advice at the top of this post. Novels do not react to what the audience wants in real-time. RPG adventures do, because the audience is also the main characters. This is not to knock fiction writing -- which would be extremely silly, given the prior post in this series -- fiction writing is great. RPG writing, also great! Just know what you're writing, and then maybe do that thing.

So when you're prepping a new RPG, talk with your players and make sure you're on the same page. When you're prepping an adventure for a publishing, or just something fun for a con, playtesters are your friend. Multiple people approaching a problem from different perspectives will think of things that a single person might not. And if you've created something with plot holes, gaps in logic, or just hadn't considered what certain types of players might do, this is a great way to find those things out.

Gaming is not a solitary pursuit. As such, it's understandable that one person isn't always going to catch everything. 

Fortunately, gaming is not a solitary pursuit. One person doesn't have to.

* - fifty-large percent is a pretty good approximation of my confidence in this matter. That is to say, I do not have any confidence in this number. To the best of my knowledge, nobody's done a comprehensive content analysis of RPG blogs. Though I have to say, that would be pretty rad.

** - it's worth noting that I feel like this is a pretty good point, though it's occasionally phrased too confrontationally for my tastes. Still! RPGs are inherently a collaborative medium; that's part of the joy of the art form. It's also delightfully self-serving; it's rare that the line between content creator and audience member is so incredibly wispy. 

*** - if you are wondering who this advice is targeted at, let me save you the trouble: it's me. I have a real problem with this in social situations generally, so it's no surprise that it rears its head in this context as well. If you find yourself with similar tendencies, maybe don't do that so much? Let's all try to be happy together, shall we?

Sounds corny. But it is my ACTUAL PLAN.

**** - useful in a variety of circumstances, not jut gaming. There's your Life Pro Tip for the day.