In the last couple posts I made about Amber I mentioned the challenge of subjective viewpoints when running (or playing in) Amber Diceless campaigns. And really, other games aren’t immune from this problem either. Any time you get into something not explicitly covered by the rules (and sometimes when you do come across something explicitly covered in the rules), there is some punting involved. The extra challenge with Amber is that the rules really cover very little so there’s a lot of punting involved.
Sometimes you feel stonewalled because the GM hasn’t provided enough information to keep you from chasing after a dead end. Sometimes you just think the GM is being unrealistic (or, if you’re the GM, the players may seem unrealistic). The person viewed as unreasonable likely doesn’t think they are being unreasonable, and perhaps if all the cards were on the table they would realize where things went wrong. But in the GM/player relationship there’s often a degree of keeping stuff back for dramatic effect. (One guide to GMing I’ve seen insists that the worst thing you as a GM can do is show weakness to your players. What kind of assholes do they play with?) Clearly some better way of communicating is needed, but what could that be?
I’ve been on both ends of the miscommunication gun. (And often the gun fires both ways at once.) I have no great answers. I thought I’d toss some examples up since it’s a slow day here on the eve of Thanksgiving and I can’t work on my NaNoWriMo wordcount. I’m going to try and avoid picking on GMs that have frustrated me and mainly draw any examples from screw ups I’ve made. I’m open to input on ways to work on these.
Searching Canada for Clues
It basically boils down to the player either going off in a direction that is unlikely to provide the answers they are looking for or going off in a direction that the GM isn’t expecting and the GM flails about in a panic.
In a Star Wars game I ran the big plot secret was that they were really trapped in a giant VR MMORPG and Palpatine and Vader were the software watchdogs that prevented people from accessing the “god mode” in the game. The god mode was known of by a handful of NPCs in the game as some legendary artifact called Ianua and various factions were trying to get hold of it. It was mysterious and powerful and it’s power was only exceeded by its mystery. They didn’t know they were AIs in a game. They just wanted the power.
So one of the PCs tries to use her Use Computer skill on the Holonet. Which is, in some ways, the Internet of the Star Wars universe. The downside was that the Holonet was utterly Imperial controlled. But she hid out on her ship in the middle of nowhere, trying to google the location of the most powerful thing in the “universe.” The Empire would track her location, show up with Star Destroyers, they’d jump into Hyperspace. Wash, rinse, repeat. I could not find anyway of conveying in in-game terms that she wasn’t going to find anything of significant use. There wasn’t going to be any conspiracy theory Web sites or files that the Empire mistakenly left on their Holonets. Had she sought out ancient libraries or whatever, she might have found something, but she didn’t and I couldn’t think of a way to convey that. Again, I got stuck in the rut of trying to keep everything in-character.
Another example comes from the Corwin-verse game I ran. The PCs were the princes and princesses of this realm and effectively running the government. I can’t remember the exact details, but essentially the Courts of Chaos was acting through intermediaries to cause some sort of problem in the Kingdom of Argent. Sending assassins or some such. Their MO was this: their agent provocateur would trump in, hire someone through a series of intermediaries and then trump back out. So the trail would lead back to a person known to have ties to the demon ghettos of Argent, but had mysteriously disappeared. My hope was that they would feel thwarted but figure out that these were agents of Chaos and send agents to the Courts to find more clues.
And then they didn’t. They didn’t have any intelligence network going on in Chaos. (IIRC, the players heading things up thought we would already have agents in Chaos set up by Corwin before he skedaddled, so obviously any information that was relevant would get to them. D’oh!) I couldn’t think of a way to point them that way any harder without utterly tipping my hand. The player leading up the investigation thought this was my way of saying, “You can’t solve anything with this so don’t bother trying.” And so we were both disatisfied.
You Use That Power A Lot. I Do Not Think It Works That Way.
Then there’s the problem of the GMs and the players having a different sense of how the powers work and getting frustrated with it. Sometimes it’s a matter of different paradigms for a power or ability. You try to pickup a car and throw it only to realize that you can’t pick up that much and the GM doesn’t warn you in advance. Or the GM just puts you in situations where your powers or abilities are useless. Or, my personal favorite, the GM has come up with a new mechanic, you try to use it and then it doesn’t do anything for you.
In the first FTF Amber campaign I ever ran (Web of Malice), a big plot point was Undershadow and a threat that had found a way to access Shadow by possessing Prince Brand. (It was, essentially, the same plot I used in my first PBEM game.) The short version is that Brand’s Living Trump ability was due to possession by brainchiggers native to Undershadow and his ability to instantly travel through Shadow based off of him stepping in and out of Undershadow.
So Brand was staging assaults on one PC’s Shadow, using Undershadow as a staging area. Said PC, being a sorcerer, uses sorcery to examine it. And then he wants to use sorcery to access Undershadow. And my brain explodes.
Because on the one hand, this was a reasonable thing to ask for. The way sorcery was structured in this campaign, it could accomplish this but it would take buying an additional chunk of power. And I was using the basic Amber rules for advancement: You get XP in a chunk somewhere down the road and that’s when you put in your wishlist. But the player was focusing entirely on trying to use sorcery to do this. And for reasons I cannot quite fathom with 7 or 8 years of hindsight, I didn’t have a way to communicate “this will cost points.” I think in novice panic I just couldn’t find a good solution. It didn’t help that the player intimidated the shit out of me at the time. But I didn’t want to just hand it to him, either, because this was basically using Sorcery to achieve rapid travel through anywhere in Shadow through a venue not generally available to the cosmology at large.
Instead I stalled, hoping the player would try something else after getting no results, explaining something like, “Oh, you think you can solve it but it will take time.” And they player didn’t give up. He was single-mindedly trying to get into Undershadow. He started napping. It took up at least one session, maybe even more than one. (I can’t recall at this point.) But he would not have his character do anything but work on this problem.
I’d go around the room to all the players, I’d come to him, and say, “So what are you doing?”
“Same thing I was before,” he’d respond. I’d suppress the urge to cry and move on to the another player.
These days I know more about game prep so that I’m less likely to have a kill switch like that in my game. And I’m more willing to admit defeat when my “great mystery” has been revealed much sooner than planned and try to restructure the mystery around the current revelation. And I now have a system in place for handling pushing into powers you don’t possess. And I actually know to talk point costs to players. ;)
In the category of house rules that blow up in your face: My one-time foray into using Drama Points. This was with the Corwin-verse game I ran. I had liked the idea behind Miracle Points and their connection to flaws in Nobilis. And I’d had problems with contribution inflation in other games, in which players would use the pay-as-you-go contribution rewards to just bulk up their characters really fast. (And then stop when they got all the toys they wanted.)
So: Drama Points! Players would get 1 character point per session as well as 1 Drama Point. Enemies and flaws were worth Drama Points. Contributions got you Drama Points. What did they do for you?
The problem was that no one kept track of how many Drama Points they had. They always forgot they had them. When they did remember, it was usually as a last ditch hail mary that was beyond the scope of what I saw the rules accomplishing. And so the players got the impression that the Drama Points didn’t do anything. The one example that stands out clearly was that one player, in order for his character get revenge on his father (Corwin) wanted Deirdre to fall in love with his character. I’ll admit I was biased against it: it just came off as a lame idea and it would have been utterly out of character for Deirdre in that campaign. But I tried to compromise: I wouldn’t say she’d fall in love with his PC, but he could at least convince her to sleep with him. That didn’t satisfy him and he left the situation disgruntled.
In the end, I just converted Drama Points into character points and gave up the idea for a while.
The worst is the feeling that your characters can’t get a victory against the NPCs. The utter worst is when it feels like the GM is just bent on you failing and having things pan out in ways that seem unreasonable. If you’ve ever gone up against street thugs with the determination and training of a SWAT team, you know my pain.
Back in that Corwin-verse game I mentioned, one of the antagonists was Brand. (I’d given out the roles of two antagonists to two of the players with the thought that they could provide challenges in the game that I wouldn’t think of.) The PCs had the Jewel of Judgement and Brand was peeing his pants to get hold of it. The Jewel was perpetually kept in the same spot for most of the game. This was, incidentally, the game where I’d done a series of prelude/time-jumps with point dumps in order to reflect the PCs spending time together and growing within the realm.
Brand would spend most of the intervening years studying the arcane defenses of the Castle (created by a combination of Fiona, Merlin and one of the PCs) in order to try and get the Jewel back. Once we hit “mainline” time for the game, then it would be weeks or even months at a go. It became a little absurd after a while. Brand would try and get the Jewel, the PCs would thwart him once again. The Jewel was not moved. They’d just try to patch the holes in their security in hopes of getting it perfect. It got a lot harder when Brand re-drew the Pattern in Amber and gained a large degree of protection from that. (“Yet I could not be truly harmed because the Pattern protects me,” Dworkin once told Corwin.) They killed Brand once, utterly destroying his body’s ability to sustain life in any fashion. It took him a decade to regrow a body. And then he tried to get the Jewel again.
The players got really frustrated. Nothing seemed to keep Brand out forever. Whereas I had the attitude that nothing was immune to intruders if you had the right tools. If all they did for the security of the Jewel was put up more spells and security procedures, it wasn’t going to solve anything. (Granted, there were serious drawbacks to other security options.)
But I never conveyed that to them. They just got more and more frustrated and I think it was one of the contributing factors for one player leaving the game.
So those are the examples I got. As a GM I strive to make the game fun but challenging. And challenging for me means that not everything goes as planned. (And, I’ll be honest: I tend towards the approach of “there’s no perfect solution for anything.” And my favorite endings to campaigns involve cities ruins, tears of blood and the taste of ashes in your mouth.) On the other hand, communication breaks down: I don’t understand what a player means sometimes and I don’t convey to them everything that they need to know. It doesn’t help that I don’t necessarily remember everything from session to session. (Hell, I sometimes don’t remember things the following morning.) I’m getting better at taking notes, and a laptop has become an invaluable GMing tool. But still: communcation fails, things get missed, I insert something as a challenge and it just ends up making the players think I’m stonewalling them. Meanwhile, the players don’t see I see how much of my plot infrastructure they’ve managed to annihilate and how much I’ve frantically had to come up with shit on the fly, generally feeling like I’m too much of a pushover who lets the players get away with murder. They also don’t know the raw panic I feel when players seem stumped or uninterested.
Communication in general is a hard thing that easily goes horribly wrong. It’s even harder when the spoken word is the only tool you have to convey everything that they could see, touch, smell taste and hear. And you have to do it on the fly.
What’s a person to do?