Thursday, September 5, 2013

GM Advice Woes!

While I was writing my rough draft of the GM chapter for Jadepunk I realized quite a few things about myself. I have been running games for years and I thought I knew how to run a good game. I do know how to run a good game, but one thing struck me. Skill does not equate to knowledge. What I mean is this. I am a skilled GM( I have been told), but a great deal of what I do during a game has been internalized to such a degree that I do not really know how to explain it. So I spent a week, digging through my memories and trying to express how to maximize your GM experience in Jadepunk. Here are a few of the ideas I have come up with. Some of them may show up in Jadepunk, some may not. I would love to here your thoughts on these nuggets of advice I have managed to illuminate.

Suppose [Blank]

This is more a campaign framework tool. When I start a game I like to start with this idea. If it sounds familiar, it is. I stole it from Socrates, I do that sort of thing. How you answer this will lead to logical ramifications. This does not mean that you need to come up with every possible outcome of the suppose statement. Work with the players to figure it out. This helps in a lot of ways. It lets you find out what the players find plausible. It also lets gain a bit of a window into the worldview of your players. That knowledge will be very useful as the campaign moves forward. All things must be internally consistent: things cannot just happen. They must always stem from the suppose statement. This method is most useful in a science fiction or fantasy campaign. If you are set in the normal world with no tech or magical elements the Suppose [Blank} does not work so well.

Genre, Character Focus, and Central Conflict

The Genre of a game is crucial to keep in mind at all points of the game play. You and your players all showed up for a specific experience within a specific genre. Often times as GM I will have the idea to run a session or two in a slightly different Genre, or my players and I will have differing ideas on what the tropes of the Genre are. These are problems. The obvious answer is to talk about Genre with your players. However this is problematic because everyone has a different experience with the genre and a different focus within the genre. The way I have found to keep this working is to go with the tropes you have and when someone points out where you and he differ, that is when you discuss that instance. Try and suss out if your interpretation, or his, is a deal breaker. If it is not, play on. If it is, compromise.

Character focus is key to many role playing games. In general characters are the levers on the world. also by focusing on the characters you are reinforcing the importance of the characters and their decisions. This is subtle and easy to overlook, but it really pays off in the log term. The idea of character focus influences a lot of other things I have said about GMing so I wont go over it all again.

Central Conflict is what the whole story is about. Whether that is a single adventure or an entire campaign. When you are running a narrative of one sort or another you need to keep in mind the central conflict. If it is a campaign every adventure should focus around this truth of the game. It does not have to be the main focus of all the adventures, but it should be a part of every adventure. By doing this you build a cohesive narrative. It can be overdone but I think this is one of those things that works really well when done even moderately well.

If you are explaining you are losing

You can lose at RPGs. You can. Do not believe the lies, you can lose at RPGs. the way yo do this is when you undercut the reality of the game world. This is when the players begin to lose interest. When you have to start explaining and justifying things to the players, this is one of the early signs of player disinterest. They have started questioning the shared imagine space. This is the first steps on the path to oblivion(but not the cool video game)

Keep it simple

Yep. Keep it simple. Complicating things makes it hard for players to understand what is going on, and increases the amount of fail points in the campaign. If you keep it simple you increase immersion and understandability.

Investigation is not the point of a scene

Investigation is what gives you the information required to make an informed decision. Decisions or repercussions from decisions are the point of scenes.

The ending should derive naturally from the story

This is really tricky. You don't really plan this, instead you have to understand how to recognize when a natural ending has occurred. That is not to say that you cannot plan an ending, in the loosest sense. A planned ending as I see it is mostly an end condition. Its and If/Then statement. If X happens, then it is the end of this story.

Therefore/But rule

Every scene should connect to every other scene by the phrase, "Therefore [Blank]," or, "But [Blank]." what this does is create a logical and consistent connection from one scene to the other. If you find yourself having to connect your scenes with, "And then [Blank]," it shows the weakest form of narrative you can have. It can make everything feel a bit unconnected.

How something feels is way more important than how it actually is

Its true, games register on an emotional level and not a rational one. You want to know why people will spend years telling you about their character is because they have a massive emotional connection to the character and the world that character inhabited.  You need to understand this and internalize this idea if you wish to understand why your players are reacting the way they are. it is also why game discussions get so heated. they look like intellectual debate based on logic and rationality, but it feels like everyone is calling you names and saying that your style of lay is stupid.

Joseph Campbell can suck it

Ok, not really. As a folklorist I really dig  Campbell's(hail to the king, baby!) influence in the field. What I am really saying here is that, "The hero's journey," is often completely misused and misapplied in GMing. you can use it to build a fantastic game. You can. However it often gets complicated and convoluted. Also it can start to feel samey and boring. also it can get a little to narrowly focused. How all of that happens is that there are between three and seen main characters. This means that it has that possibility to really complicate things, when you try to run the hero's journey for each of them it gets...weird. If you don't and are only running it for one or two of them, it will feel more coherent, but it can make the others feel less important and plot central.

The other big issue with, "The Hero's Journey," is that if it is handled poorly it can feel very linear and samey. Linear is not necessarily bad, but it has had a mixed history in role playing games. Linear often gets equated with, "Railroading." I think it can be done well, but that is tricky and requires trust from your players. the feeling of sameness is my real issue with this. Because Campbell was writing about themes he saw in a great many cultures and mythologies his descriptions come across as iconic and symbolic. What he wasn't doing, however, was trying to explore nuance and difference in culture. He celebrated universal themes and metaphor, while ignoring differences and subtle influences. It becomes a crutch for GMs that makes a game feel like a Tolkien rip off.