Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Game Running Styles

I have thought, for a few years at least, that there are two broad types of role-playing Game Masters, the tactical or encounter-based GM and the storytelling or world-based GM.

The tactical GM crafts many combat encounters, arranges miniatures on a battle mat, and tells short-burst stories that they weave into an arcing storyline with character progression. They also often follow the early D&D trope that as characters become more powerful the game morphs into a tactical army game rather than tactical game involving player characters.

The storytelling GM crafts a game world, arranging civilizations poised at the precipice of conflict. They craft intrigue and mystery, and spend a lot of time worrying about character motivations rather than a character's combat ability. The encounters come as they come, some combat will inevitably occur as the game proceeds toward final (often global) conflict and resolution.

These are generalizations and there is a lot of cross over, and I'm certainly not saying one is better than the other.

Both types of GMs (the best of them anyway) let the players make all of the decisions about where to go and how to handle any encounter that they stumble into. Both try to craft adventures that are challenging (potentially involving intrigue, mysteries, tactical combat, puzzles, riddles, etc..) and are fun for the GM as well as the players.


I met a third type of GM recently, and he nearly shattered my two styles theory and certainly changed the way I see role-playing games. He told me:
"The only thing that matters is what [the player chooses] to do... The story isn't something that play is focused on developing. When the unconnected events are related later they [might] take the form of one... [but that's not the GM's concern]." 
He also implied that by making decisions about the game world I'm making advanced rulings on what can and cannot happen in the game, taking those choices away from the player. In his mind, a GM's job is only to adjudicate the player's choices, not to create or run a story (either in the form of encounters or on a grander scale).

This GM has himself taken a tumble down the "making decisions about the game world that limit the players' choices" slippery slope by deciding what monsters will populate his dungeon, what traps he'll install there, and what treasure resides there.

How is the GM who creates kingdoms with rich governmental structures, trade routes, and deep interpersonal relationships between NPCs any different from the GM who populates a dungeon? How is a GM that designs the crises that befall a character who tries to interject him or herself into those interpersonal relationships any different from the GM who decides what kind of trap to put on a chest? The scope or setting changes slightly, but nothing else.

Most of all, what is wrong with telling a story if that's what your players want? Why is telling a story through the medium of a game setting a faux pas? They are, after-all, called role-playing games.

Let me break that down.

Game: A form of play, played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.

Playing: Engaged in activity for enjoyment and recreation.

Role: A character assumed for a play, movie, or (in this case) game.

A game in which you are playing a role. But, he was telling me that all that matters are the decisions that the player makes (not even the player as a character, or the character as a member of a group. The player alone, no role necessary).


The problem I have with this type of GM is precisely that this style of play necessarily prizes player skill over role-playing. He insists on calling his hobby role-playing, but despises the very process. I'm not asking him to stop what he's doing (and ostensibly enjoying), but I'd love to see a different name applied to it.

I would call him an "old-school gamer". Not as a slur, just an observation of a genre of gaming that is currently making a resurgence. These old-school games often contain only trace amounts of role-playing (i.e. If your character is an elf  then your 'role' is simply to make use of your character's Infravision and can Detect Secret Doors abilities). "Now, grab your ten foot pole and your mirror, roll up some hirelings, and let's clear out this dungeon."


Please remember that when you are at your gaming table and I'm at mine we should feel free to do what we and our players enjoy. Whether we're telling a story or not let's avoid telling people they are "doing it wrong" just because they enjoy rolling more or fewer dice than you do, prefer intrigue over combat, or prize player skill over role-playing ability.

However, this GM managed to offend me mightily by implying that I'm a bad GM for telling a story while running a game, and I ask for your forgiveness for the following micro-rant that breaks my own rules about friendliness and tolerance.
"You can keep your no story-telling allowed, no role-playing desired old-school game. I want to part of it. I ran those kind of games when I was 16, and my players and I outgrew them."
As a GM I happen to enjoy telling an interesting story and challenging my players' skills (both tactically and their role-playing ability), and as a player I want to take on new and exciting roles to help me learn what I can from experiencing the game world in their skin.

Monday, February 27, 2012

FLAILSNAILS oD&D 2/20/12 Session 1

FLAILSNAILS oD&D 2/20/12 Session 1 - Run by +David Brawley

Cast: Alzbeta (me), Lemmkainen the Elf (+Michael Curtis), Unik - Hired Spearman, Kaldue - Swordsman (RIP), Alfirth - Hired fist, Kroenen - Hired fist.

Alzbeta retreats from her room at the Inn after hanging her recently acquired tapestry. She skulks, head down, through the town gates and into the darkened woods nearby where she finds a fetid pool. She kneels, and dips the tips of her fingers into the inky blackness, meditating silently for a few moments.

Alzbeta confesses the day's events to the mangled trees and foul smelling earth.

"All that I have done in your name is according to your wishes, my lord. I convinced some of the old dead to rebuke their masters and obey only you."

The rest she is less proud of, but she feels the urge to tell all when her God is present with her.

She quietly continues, "To bring glory to you I descended into The Ruins of Seteh Zandana with able companions and hired men, searching the ruins and slaying all who disrespectfully reside there. Many had come before us, but we managed to find a few untouched chambers."

"The greatest of these was an ornately painted room with four pillars carved to look like trees reaching up to the domed ceiling. We were led there by some sort of playful fairy and told of 'shiny things' that could be found there. I'm afraid my greed got ahead of my sense. I turned my eyes away from the threat of danger to the lure of treasure."

She scratches her head before continuing, "Before I could blink a green heap dropped onto me from the ceiling. Its mass crept into my cloak-hood and I could feel my flesh starting to sting and burn. Lemmkainen sprang into action, commanding Alfirth to set the beast alight with our only lit torch. A few seconds of Alfirth's useless scrambling scorched me more than the ghastly mold. I managed, luckily, to entangle the mold within the folds of my cloak and cast it to the floor."

"We returned to the town with a mortally wounded hired-hand in tow. Should he die, I will endeavor to raise him for you as my ally."

"I've never seen as much gold as spilled out of the secret compartment of the pillar in that room. After the treasure was divided up, Lemmkainen and I headed to a gambling house with precious gems the size of my fist. We traded them for tokens and spent the evening cavorting among the dreary townsfolk."

"All was well until a farm-boy with a few copper pieces to his name mistook me for a woman of ill repute. He snatched the hood of my newly purchased cloak away and cursed me for what he found there. That accursed mold managed to extirpate every follicle of my well-coiffed black mane."

"I followed him to his room after he found a suitable playmate, a redheaded wench with a half dozen teeth and barely an ounce of grey matter. I waited a moment and burst in on them howling like a banshee. I perhaps knocked a low-burning lamp to the floor."

"I met up with Lemmkainen outside a few minutes later and brought him up to the roof of the Inn in which I reside. We sung drunken bar songs and watched the gambling house burn from our perch."

Hi, my name is Gavin and I'm a Storyteller...

I started role-playing at the age of five without firm rules, any way to determine the success or failure of our stated actions, and little framework for a story. We called it Cowboys and Indians, and while it wasn't the most rewarding role-playing experience I've ever had, it did have a significant impact on me.

At the age of fourteen I discovered console-based RPGs. I loved the hell out of Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy I, and played them for hundreds of hours teasing out every last spell, treasure, and secret. But, eventually my friends and I ran out of console RPGs (little did we know that computer RPGs were at the height of their popularity).

My best friend and I decided to draft a story for a blockbuster console RPG. We set to work at it at once, and spent months brainstorming story events, creating monsters, magical items, plot hooks, and fully fleshed-out three-dimensional playable characters and NPCs.

All of that out of the way we realized that we didn't have the other skills needed to make a console RPG (art, programming, or money). We languished for months trying to figure out how to make use of literally hundreds of pages of dialogue, monsters, and character stats before finally realizing that we could play out the scripted dialogue and combats without the use of a computer.

I programmed a TI-84 with attack and defense macros and we dusted off an old chess board to use as a battlefield. We enlisted the help of a third friend and started reading lines of dialogue and diving into the slow, mechanical combat of a table-top console RPG.

Soon we became aware of what was missing, spells lacked important attributes like range or area of effect (which were unnecessary in a console game) and we had to scramble to revise them. We noticed that our characters were stationary on one side of the board "attacking" monsters on the other side of the board so we added movement rules and restrictions. Later, we added collateral damage rules when we realized we were repeatedly blasting certain areas with fireballs. Our table-top console RPG was turning into something very different from what we envisioned.

We finished the main story and made new peripheral characters, but soon the game went stale.

In the summer of the year I turned sixteen I was walking through Toys-R-Us when I found a D&D board game. I carried it around the store reading the box, back and front, over and over for more than an hour before I decided to buy it. I took it home and hunkered down over the manuals for a few days.

I had a hard time with combat rules like THAC0, got confused about saving throws (I thought you needed to roll low to pass them), and nothing enraged me more than the idea of hitting a monster then rolling a one for damage. Regardless, I asked my closest friends to play. We agreed that it would probably suck, but gave it a shot anyway.

After the first combat we realized how similar it was to what we were doing a few months earlier.

I ran them through the first dungeon giving them far too much treasure and so many magical items that the old +1s and +2 daggers were barely worth using as toothpicks. My players and I learned quickly from our mistakes, though it still took several years for me to go from being the kind of DM that runs a series of dungeons to the kind of Storyteller that runs a game world (no thanks to the D&D manual which stated unequivocally, "The world outside of dungeons is unimportant aside from the towns which the characters use to resupply for their next dungeon adventure.").

Later that year we met a group of AD&D Second Edition players. They seemed to be breaking every rule in the book, but it was so much more interesting that way. They introduced me to Shadowrun, a high fantasy, post apocalyptic, dark future game, which helped me break away from the D&D mindset (please hold the flames, I have come to respect D&D for what it is).

After running Shadowrun myself I became ravenous. I looked in every darkened corner of any gaming shop within driving distance for the oldest and most obscure games imaginable. I read (and sometimes ran) Star Wars d6, Star Trek, Battlelords of the 23rd Century, GURPS, Rifts, Toon, Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, and a hundred others.

After I graduated from high school I was introduced to Vampire: The Masquerade. This was another massive sea change for my running style. My players had far more cinematic control over the game, and even carried some of the responsibility for creating the story themselves (especially once we got ahold of Mage).

During these twenty years of game design, playing hundreds of sessions, and running thousands I've learned out a trick or two that have made my games more enjoyable for me and my players. I plan on sharing many of them here, and I hope you'll share some of yours with me as well.