When we talk about games and game design, we use a lot of occult language. In other words, I use literary terms and he talks like an actor. I talk about theme, metaphor, and plot. He talks about breaking the fourth wall.
“It’s more than just addressing the audience,” he tells me. “It’s making the audience feel as if they’re a part of the event.”
“What about the fifth wall?” I ask him.
I smile. “Making them feel that they are the event.”
— John Wick, Playing Dirty
Thought I’d open with another Wick quote. I whipped this one out a while back on my personal blog, and colomon felt that there was a flaw in it because… well, there’s not technically an audience in roleplaying. I gave my response to him briefly then, but since then I’ve been mulling it around since then. The notion was fanned a bit recently by a friend complaining about his attempts to run games for his usual D&D/Champions friends and not feeling like they roleplay much. They make their character and then they show up to be entertained. I’ve had similar problems in games as well. (And I’ve likely been that player more than once.) And talking to him about this made me think, “There’s the audience right there.”
Running a game is a lot of work. Especially a really solid game. Playing in a game, not so much. If you are a player who does nothing from one session to the next, there’s usually no impact to your fun. You can show up, play and go home. All good. If you put in some work you have more fun, but it’s not really necessary. But if you are the GM and fail to prepare… man, your name is mud. Really.
Is it any wonder people would rather play than GM?
There are lots of games where you can get away with little to no planning. And some games are built around that very concept. But… there’s something really magical about a well prepared game. There’s a world to explore. There’s a mystery to solve. There’s an element of the unknown that I just can’t imagine getting in a game where the story is crafted more on the fly by a group.
I got to play in some very player-authored games at Go Play Northwest, and it’s a very different experience. Playing in something like Wilderness of Mirrors, I had more than one instance where I just found myself stalling out. I would roll really well, which meant I got to entirely narrate a scene, and then I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I would search the pockets of some person I had taken out in the game and would just find myself staring into a narrative void, since I was so used to saying, “What do I find in his pockets?” and then someone else would tell me what I find. There was a mechanism for the players inserting secrets and surprises into the game, but that was a very different sort of beast.
To steal another line from the Wick, in his blog he posted the intro to his GMing chapter. You can read the whole entry in the link, but the part that sums it up for me is this: “This is your primary goal as the GM. To make the players feel what the characters feel. What they see. What they smell. A hint of danger. That whiff of scented hair. The taste of the wine. The bliss of new love. The cut of steel against flesh.”
A traditional GM-run game can end up being more like theater than cooperative storytelling. Either the GM may be too driven on railroading the players in order to present his plot or the players may be too passive and unengaged. The model that I’ve gotten used to using for many of my games involves having a plot on hand with events sketched out with enough room to accomodate whatever the players do in-game. I try to aim less for a script or schedule, and more for a trajectory. In theory I like to accomodate what players want, but my actual execution of that varies in quality. Some bad experiences with aggressive players has left me a little heavy-handed with the “No” button. When you open the door to allowing players to have more narrative control, some players are really awesome and make the whole game better. But others just use it as a chance to dominate the game and/or the camera. And some just don’t know what to do with that power so they do nothing but wait for the GM to provide plot. But the awesomeness of the good players never really seems to counterbalance the raw lameness of the lame players.
I haven’t found a great way to deal with this. I lack the social jujitsu of Power GMs and my last attempt to insert a mechanism into this was kind of a bust. (I’d tried giving players “Drama Points” instead of XP for contributions the last time I ran Amber, in hopes of countering the power inflation that you usually run into with contributions-for-XP in Amber. Really, most people forgot they had them and would only seem to whip them out in situations that were beyond the scope of what Drama Points had been intended to do. I eventually just let them cash them in for XP.) I think I have more faith in a good mechanism than the off chance of me suddenly developing awesome social kung fu. For my upcoming Exalted game, I’m going to try and institute a fan mail/hero point system so that players, drawing heavily from my experiences in the Zorcerer of Zo game. (Hmm… maybe I should spend my time during the character creation session soliciting story elements that the players want…) Basically it’s a player-to-player system to reward each other for awesomeness. The players can give each other tokens to represent their appreciation of the other person’s awesomeness. The tokens can be used during the session to improve dice rolls or shift add in elements to the story.
None of this really resolves the prep-time issue. I’m giving out contribution XP a la Amber, but that may just result in half-ass contributions whipped out for the basis of XP and provided at the last minute so as to thwart my ability to use said contributions as input into planning. My biggest hope is that people will gel with their characters, each other and the campaign and be so into it that they just do lots of email roleplay and just froth with so much excitement that all my work will consist of simply feeding off their energy and channeling it back into the game.
One can hope, right?