I’ve been mulling around the idea of sparklypoo GMing lately. Also, it has occured to me that I don’t think I’ve ever explained my sparklypoo theory at any length outside of my private blog, and even then only in the comments of a post. So here are assorted sparklypoo thoughts.
As far as I’m aware, the term originates from a short Web comic about a fifth house at Hogwarts designed to accommodate the influx of Mary Sue characters. I became aware of it when Madeline Ferwerda ran A Very Sparklypoo Amber at ACNW 2006, in which players were encouraged to play the most over-the-top Mary Sue characters they wanted.
After playing it I came upon this notion: Ultimately, player characters are Mary Sue characters of some sort. They are an idealized aspect of your personality that you project into a fictional universe. They may not be an over-the-top Mary Sue, but there is an aspect of our tastes and desires that manifest in this fictional character. I’ve infrequently joked that roleplaying games are a form of group therapy since so many of our personality quirks, cravings and neuroses come through there, and I think that ties into there. If we were utterly content with our lives, we wouldn’t spend so many hours pretending to be someone else.
And it occured to me that little attention gets paid to that. GMs, myself included, will have our plot (whether it’s the big UBER plot or just the threat-o-the-week) and maybe some plots directly tied to the PCs, but that does not necessarily give players the TLC they want from a game. Invariably we start to get adversarial as we fend off the rules monkeys, power gamers and camera hogs that clamor to stand out and be appreciated.
And so I’ve batted around the idea of “sparklypoo” as a overarcing philosophy to roleplaying games: Games in which the GM strives to make the game tailored to the interests of the players. Some games (and the culture surrounding them) are more inclined towards sparklypoo than others. Amber and Nobilis? High sparklypoo potential. D&D? Not so much. In fact, John Wick has an amusing anecdote about D&D that gave me the name for sparklypoo’s polar opposite: “Fighter the Thief.”
GMing sparklypoo games is really hard. I’ve tried to be more sparklypoo in my GMing, but it’s really challenging. In some ways running a sparklypoo game requires a lot more of the players. It requires them to not just communicate what they want out of a game, but also to know in the first place what they want. You would think that would be the easy part, but what I’ve found that what we think we want and what we actually want can be different things. As an added bonus, it requires constant dialogue. Some GMs can just read people and know what they want. I am not such a GM. I need to constantly check in with people and adjust as needed.
From the GMing end, the challenge I often face is what to do with that information once I have it. Hemmingway’s white bull never hits me harder than when I’m prepping for a game. Because I’m not just trying to make some creative expression. I’m specifically trying to entertain a half dozen people I know for six hours and hoping I get it right. On the best of days I’ll have input from players and have half a clue what I’ll do with it.
An overarcing challenge to all this is making a half dozen people feel like they are significant to the story. Many characters are drawn from fiction and a lot of fiction involves a single protagonist. But unless you’re getting a one-on-one session with the GM (or the GM has set up the whole game to revolve around your character), you’re having to share the limelight and that can diminish the sparklypoo shine.
In that same vein, some characters are really sub-games all to themselves. As an example, one character that I foisted on several GMs over the years is a thinly veiled knock-off of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Sometimes there’s a little bit of Batman thrown in. Sometimes there’s a little bit of Iron Monkey thrown in. But in the end, it’s about the same: foppish wealthy dilletant by day, masked crusader by night. I’ve always loved the madcap capers and escapades, always three steps ahead of the posse thanks to your clever wit. And so that’s a sparklypoo character I try to weasel in sometimes. (Never mind that I’m not nearly that clever.) In fact, it’s the character I played in Madeline’s sparklypoo game. The problem with that is that a Scarlet Pimpernel type character is really a game unto itself. There are all those missions and a secret identity to keep from the other PCs (unless they share your mission!!) and… yeah. Either the GM would just have that as a tangential item to his real plot, (“You’re having capers when the real plot runs into you!”) or else the GM would just leave me to do my capers while everyone else is involved in the real plot. I would, instead, be left alone to play in my rich internal landscape, with minimal interaction with the other PCs or GM supervision.
Which begs the question: Is it possible to have a sparklypoo game with a character that doesn’t play well with others? My character was passively lame, but some people have actively lame characters. For some their idea of fun is to assert superiority over the other players. Which I find tedious at best and detrimental when they try to do so in a game not geared towards player-vs-player conflict.
The other problem is that some genres only have so many popular tropes. How do you stand out when everyone is a bad-ass Jedi in your Star Wars game? Or the brash new guy in the musketeer game? Or the gritty, hard-boiled shamus in the film noir game? Clearly you need something more to distinguish your character outside of genre clichés. Or just find some other way to stand out that doesn’t involve the standard tropes, which on a certain level isn’t as fun. I tend to go the whacko angle when there’s little to distinguish characters from one-another. Which is entertaining and has left a trail of characters that certainly stood out (and some of my fellow players remember the characters fondly).
But really I would rather have been a bit closer to genre. Yes, playing Boonja Dass, the overweight, herb-friendly gungan homeopathic doctor was fun, but really I’d rather be doing anime leaps and swinging a lightsaber.
So, what are some solutions?
I’ve been increasingly fascinated with the idea of players providing sparklypoo with one another. Having them think about how their character relates to the other PCs has helped a bit. I think that helped with the last campaign I ran. From a thread in John Wick’s blog I also picked up the idea of asking players not only “What do you want from this character?” but also “What good will that do everyone else?” I think that will be a mandatory portion of character creation from here on out.
In a similar thread since reading Primetime Adventures, I’ve been enamoured with the idea of ensemble casts, like those seen in Lost or the new Battlestar Galactica. So that’s something I try to highlight first thing. I’ve also tried to go with the group character creation, where everyone builds characters collaboratively, but that seemed more like, “Everyone came to the table with an idea and then tried to shove it into place with everyone else’s.” I’ve already stolen Fan Mail from PTA, which has encouraged people to be more active in the session and give each other props whent hey approve of what another person has done. I keep dancing around the idea of using Screen Presence for sessions, to tie in with a fixed-duration game. I may just decide to do that next time I run.
I’ve also considered not giving out the base XP award unless the players provide me with an update on what they want to do the next session and provide it in time for me to prepare for the game. It feels a little draconian, and I’ve been trying to be kinder and gentler. I’ve always bristled under the hard-ass GMs I’ve known, but it feels like nothing much gets accomplished when you’re wishy-washy about it.