Tuesday, May 29, 2007

When did the GM become Evil Incarnate?

Interesting thread on rpg.net at the moment, critiquing the attitude of Luke Crane in The Burning Wheel as 'anti-GM'. This is based on the premise within that game that the players can, and indeed, are encouraged, to have more power at the table than in so-called 'traditional' rpgs. The roleplaying game adage that 'The GM is God' is, apparently, fundamentally challenged and there are a number of people who don't like this. And naturally a number of people that are.

At the heart of it, however, I believe lies a very basic question - who's game is it? Traditionally, the answer would look something like this.

The GM creates and controls the world, the NPCs and the adventures.
The players create the player characters and control their actions.
They control all aspects of the character, the GM controls all aspects of the world.

Fundamentally though, that places a massive onus on the GM to be very much on his game throughout every session, and that simply isn't going to happen. I have, in the past, seen this of games where the GM is literally tasked with entertaining his friends, almost despite their best efforts to thwart him. It's not pretty. I've also seen times when the GMs performance has been critiqued down to the last nuance of his speech, but the players? Their behaviour is almost sacrosanct. Normally, someone will now say, 'ah, but he chose to take up the GM position. It comes with the territory.' Really, thats bollocks and you know it. These are your friends, your buddies. These are the people you choose to hang out with and spend quality time. This is not a cabaret bureau or some indentured service that people have volunteered for. There has to be some redress of the balance, surely? However, that simply isn't so. Scan your eyes across any roleplaying forum and see how many threads there are on GMing, improving as a GM, how to be a good GM, world building, adventure design and all the trappings of the GM centric game. Vast mountains of them. Why? Because thats the way it has always been and for many there is no reason to question that.

And yes, there are 'indie' games which take a different direction. Sometimes they share the burden of creation from the GM. Sometimes they allow the player to be the one that adds the spark of creativity to the game. Sometimes they shake up the narration. Sometimes they ditch for the formalised GM role altogether.

However I don't think this is the solution.In my opinion, the problem seems to be that people are looking towards a game to solve this problem when in reality it is based in respect and responsibility. You don't need a rules system to engage these principles of human nature. You need to have some emotional conscience that looks at the lonely GM and says 'can I help?' or 'Is there something I can do to enhance this game?'. These things aren't the purview of traditional or indie games, they are something any player can do if they want to. It doesn't have to be whatever the current hot technique thats just popped out of a 'Forge' game - it can be something as simple as bringing along a special soundtrack CD or drawing some sketches of the PCs or taking the time to detail your characters family tree (if appropriate).

The thing is, whilst some games have these things built into their mechanics, the games that don't do not have rules which specifically prohibit them. No Wizards of the Coast ninjas are going to leap from the shadows and eviscerate everyone at your Eberron table if you allow the players to create backgrounds with taggable keywords that give the GM some flags about your desires for the character. (And remember, there is a fundamental contradiction in the premise that a game which is the story of the players character has virtually no direction from that player and all the direction from the person at the table who has no character). I'm sure that Kevin Siembieda isn't going to unleash the Palladium lawyers if you allow the players to dictate some of the NPCs their Coalition Shocktroopers answer to as they crush the world under their jackboot.

There's nothing exclusively indie about being a considerate player and there's nothing engulfing about 'traditional' games that wouldn't allow an under pressure GM to spread the joy a little bit. Do what you need to do to have the fun you want to have, as an individual and as a group. As a GM, look at the players and say 'Is the way I am running this game truly reflecting the fun that my friends, the players, want?'. As a player, look at the GM and say 'Am I supporting my friend in his undertaking to run this game?'

Thats the message I take from the way Luke Crane approaches Burning Wheel. This is what he needs, as a GM and as a player, to have fun. More power to him.


ps. A bit of podcast serendipity on this topic from Sons of Kryos #42 if anyone is interested.


Anonymous said...

I think we're seeing a maturation of the hobby as it's audience matures. I don't think it's too controversial to say that many people got into rp-ing in the 80's through the early 90's and that those people are now adults who are reassessing what they want from a game. A natural evolution has occured. Wargames are the monkey, the first D&D game the missing link, WW's storyteller system is the guy with the protruding forehead. The maturation of the audience coupled with the internets abilitiy to disseminate ideas is creating a new step on the ladder. There'll always be those caterpillars who see the butterfly and say 'you'll never get me up in one of those' but the rest of us move serenely along.


Vodkashok said...

And clearly FATAL is the missing link?


Anonymous said...

More an evolutionary cul de sac.


René López Villamar said...

I think that respect and responsibility are a very important factor, but that isn't the whole picture.

I think that one of the great things about "indie" games is that they take off a lot of weight from the GMs shoulders and distribute it around the table.

Obviously, if one of my playes in a D&D game says 'Hey, how about some Nagas at the other side of that door', the GM might get upset, specially if he planned and statted the next encounter with care. On SotC, on the other hand, that would be a great thing!

A lot of the attitudes you talk about come, not because of a lack of respect, but because a lack of power. In a "trad" game, the GM has a lot more power than the players. And, you know, with great power...

Vodkashok said...

My disagreement is that I see no reason why the players couldn't edit in some naga in D&D? The world wouldn't crash down. WotC canon-ninjas wouldn't pour through the doors of the game room and enforce 'proper' 3.5e rules. I'm pretty sure any GM worth their salt could rustle up a Naga encounter in a minute or so. (About the same time it took Ian to try to find the tank in the SotC rulebook when we sprung that one on him)

It's the techniques and ideas that are the driver, not the games. The games are just words on the page. We instantly took the novels idea from SotC and transformed it into 'Modules' for our high level D&D one-shot. It took zero conversion because it was a great technique. That didn't mean that we suddenly turned the monolithic giant of D&D into an indie game though.

I'm not wholly convinced by the 'GM has massive power in comparison to the players' argument either although I readily admit that this might be the by-product of playing in a mature and intelligent group and not having too many horrific experiences in my gaming youth. I will say though that I have seen far more instances of players actively trying to derail a game than of GMs enforcing their book-given power on the players in an uncomfortable manner.


Anonymous said...

I find it ironic that you pitch this as an idie game solution.

Flick through the boards on WotC, ENWorld or GitP and you are almost certain to find threads decrying the 3.x move to take away power from the GM and give it to the players.

Inevitably there will be a hard core group of old school players and GM's who want it like in the old days. Some of them are still playing D&D Basic, a few even still using the old 1974 original boxed set and many having converted to Castles and Crusades.

What is interesting is the reaction of the new generation of gamers brought up on 3.x. They are very much in the mindset of players having power to make choices.

Mostly it comes down to things like class and feat choices, available supplements etc but its only a short hop from there to co-operative world building.

Anonymous said...

That was me by the way.


Anonymous said...

As you say there is nothing exclusive about the tools in some indie games that says they can't be used in other games. There is nothing to say you have to have rules for it to do it.

At the same time, the existing of rules in the game, linked with a currency (often the important bit people mistt). After all the aspects in SotC, and the BITS in Burning Wheel are what people go on about, but in truth it's their direct link to currency that's important, actually make the game about the aspects and the BITS.

When you don't have that currency generating feedback loop, you may include such elements and tools in your game, but the game actually only remains about that in as much as the group keep it to the top of their minds, and the system being used may actually be detracting from that as its about something else.

Of course, you can ignore the system, but then we might as well stop the discussion as you have no basis for comparison.

So basically, yes, nothing exclusive, but don't underestimate the influence of rules to make it actually work as then the game your playing is actually about those things, rather than those things just being put on top.

Anonymous said...

Also, in terms of the 'loss of control' question, I can see their point to a degree (though in D&D it's a different sort of control being lost I think).

After all, it's a loss of control, to a degree, that puts me off Primetime Adventures and other games of that ilk and makes me like SotC and The Burning Wheel - as they are traditional games that just put what we do anyway in the rules to make sure the game is about that 100%.

So the loss of control thing has degrees, obviously.


Anonymous said...

Funny, I think that loss of control was one of the first things that Ben pointed out when he read PTA and decided to adapt it rather than adopt it. Ben has a particular story/scenerio that he wants to run, and that calls for a more GM-centric approach.

Certainly I can see the huge benifits of this approach, particualrly where Ben is concerned and I'm really looking forward to having a predetermined set of prepared scenes which I know Ben will have put a lot of effort into to play through.

On the other hand, I know that a more player orientated system, like SoTC leans towards and PTA adopts wholeheartedly would be just as interesting another time, in another game.

Returning to the idea of a maturing audience, isn't that the heart of it now? I'm happy to play in a GM-Centric Game, I'm happy to change to a Player-Orientated game. Just like in my work-life I am happy to work in a team, work alone, or even work with students/clients towards certain objectives/goals.

Isn't being adaptable and open to new things what Bens "maturation of the hobby" is all about? Or have I got the wrong end of the stick, and lots of people out there would like to stick to by the rules D&D (play Warcraft... it does Dungeon Hauling better....)

Certainly though, I can see why a number of people have many problems with these ideas. I came from a gaming group before this one which I think would find it *very* difficult to run something like SotC and just probably *couldn't* run PTA. Simply the players wouldn't both get it, and they wouldn't see the goals/point. Hell, they run/ran the Vampire WW storyteller system like a D&D action game so even edging towards that kind of RP would be hard for them.

This though is starting to sound a little elitist, which is clearly wrong, but I think it's a fair comment, that there are certain groups of players and people who will *get* some of these games and the way you play them, and there are some people who just won't and will be happy with more traditional games.

This places two possible stress points.

The people who want to try these new types of games, but can't as their player base can't/won't try them.

And those players who like a traditional approach, and feel uncomfortable in these "indie" games.

Both are valid points of view, and neither is right, nor wrong, after all, the hobbie is about fun and enjoyment, no-one is ever really wrong (apart from those people who play FATAL...)

I think also, we have to look at why our game group is so easily adaptable to many of these ideas (and again this might sound elitist snobbery, so forgive me). But lets face it, we're hardly a normal gaming group. We do things like Cottagecon and try out new games! Half of us are off to Gencon to RP our little hearts out (and get very drunk admittedly). And we are the a group of Ben's sterotypes. Players who have matured *with* the hobby, have reassessed what we want out of it, and have genuinely thought about it.

Did I mention I love my gaming group and I think you guys are great? :-)


Anonymous said...

Players who have matured *with* the hobby
You make us sound like a piece of vintage cheese, kept in the dark until ripe enough to be brought out with a decent bottle of wine.

I am really not all that convinced we have matured. Admittedly my experience with the group was only with the original Crescent Sea campaign but my recollections of that game was of co-operative world building and player driven conflict, in fact using many of the things current indie games promote but within 3.0 D&D. The rules didnt facilitate that style of play but the group did as I suspect many groups do irrespective of system.

So I think its more a case of the hobby catching up with us rather than the other way around.

Of course I may just have some rosy coloured nostalgia glasses on.


Vodkashok said...

And its in the shadow of that maturity that I suggested in my original post that you don't need to have a game system to adopt some of these techniques. In fact, with a 'mature' play group (and the hassles that come with that) you might well need to adopt them so as to facilitate the non-burning out of the GM?

I find the entire thread that spawned this fascinating because it underpins the diversity of the hobby. Currently the debate has drifted to 'how do you jump over a pit'? Some people are saying it's black and white, success or not. Others are needing a layered succession of levels of success and failure to determine the outcome. Some are condemning the pit as bad game design!

Me? I'm biting my tongue. In my head you know the character is going to leap over the pit. The question is how it is done and why it is done that way. It reminds me of the scene in A New Hope when Luke and Leia are trapped on the (non)extending bridge in the Death Star and he swings across on his grappling hook. You know two things as a roleplayer. First, the grappling hook was authored into the scene. Second, he is never EVER going to fail to get across or drop Leia to her certain doom. Splat!

So it's all about how he gets across the bridge. Does he just manage to get there, showing a vulnerable side. Does he easily bound the chasm, showing a strength not seen before. Does he perilously hang off the edge and then pull himself up, showing his defiance of fate or does he do it in such a manner as to land with Leia's lips inches from his, her breasts pushed to his chest, to amplify the sexual tension between the two of them (eeew!). The success or failure of the 'roll' dictates whether the way the pit is jumped conveys that intent or another. The pit is never the bloody problem!

So many points of view. What a diverse hobby.


Vodkashok said...

You make us sound like a piece of vintage cheese, kept in the dark until ripe enough to be brought out with a decent bottle of wine.


This is my 25th year of roleplaying. I've been kept in the dark so long not even one of Daves bottle of Chateau Neuf de Paps is going to do me justice, bonny lad!

I love the concept of the hobby catching up to us. Get Dave to tell you about Big Jim and the lynching mob against elitism that nearly formed in the midst of our Buffy games!

Hilariously though, some of the stuff I did in Crescent Sea was simply laziness. Why should I do all the work when you lot were equally, if not better, placed to contribute. And look where it lead eh? Tsk!


Anonymous said...

I am really not all that convinced we have matured.


Having played in a number of different gaming groups, certainly I think it's fair to say we have a different perspective than most, and also I have seen over the last 18 months a distinct willingness to sort through a number of things/issues rather than ignoring them.

Witness No 1: Our willingness to tackle Pendragon and address the issues that players where having in a constructive way.

Witness No 2: Our highly constructive Post 1st session SotC talk.

Maybe you could argue we haven't matured at all, we've just become more aware that we are able to have these kinds of constructive discussions and them actually be recieved in the constructive manner they are intended. Thus it could be perception, not maturity, I'll agree, but certainly I can't see these kinds of discussions that we had being very successful at all in my prevoius gaming groups.

Certainly the Pendragon discussion we had would have killed any game we'd had in my last gaming group, not made it even better.


Anonymous said...

Btw, I tried to have a look at that thread, but it weighs in at 48 pages now, so I just couldn't be bothered. Someone needs to write an exectutive summary of it :-)


Vodkashok said...

Executive Summary

1. Luke Crane does like GMs
2. Yes he does.
4. GM's are evil and abuse players
5. Show me on the doll...
6. Look, theres this pit ok?
7. Different games, different resolutions.
8. But have we jumped over the pit yet?
9. Why should GMs have all the power.
10. Why shouldn't they?
11. Back to this pit....?

Rinse and repeat

Vodkashok said...

Clearly #1 should say 'doesn't' not 'does'


Matt said...

I think #1 works well either way, due to #3

Anonymous said...

Just tried to read the anti-GM thread, got six pages in before my brain starting dribbling from my ear. What was enlightening was that I've returned to the hobby after a long time away and with a completely different outlook on what I want when I'm running a game and seems that parts of the hobby have already evolved in those directions too. I feel a lot less like a lunatic voice in the wilderness now.