So, this piece started off as a short narrative about a couple of GMs who run really great games, but it might have spiraled a teensy bit out of control and ended up as a long meditation on different modes of consuming RPGs.

The Games I Love to Play

While at PAX, we had the pleasure of playing in a game of Fortune’s Fool with Pantheon Press‘s Rob Trimarco and Jason Keeley. They had planned on running the introductory adventure that we had run several years ago the first time we met them, but when they realized we wanted to play, Rob suggested with glee that Jason “just make something up on the fly.” I had a little heart attack; as you all know, I’m a planner, so I would hate having to ad-lib in the middle of the chaos of a convention, but Jason seemed into the idea, and off we went.

I won’t spoiler the original fantastic demo adventure for FF, but just know that it involves saving Pinocchio from a very bad event on his seventh birthday. This follow up adventure returned the characters to his home on the evening of his eighth birthday, but Gepetto had gone missing, apparently kidnapped by a large man smelling of wood chips and death. I won’t spoiler this adventure, either, except to say that it involved a magic Ferris wheel, people being turned into donkeys, and a ghastly workshop.

What most struck me about our game session, though, was how much it differed from our weekly Vampire session, and how much both of those tended to differ from other games I’ve played.

Our Vampire ST knows the goals of every NPC during the span of the upcoming game, and if we cross paths with an NPC, he knows the backstory of each one inside and out so that it’s easy for him to explain what that character would do to us if push comes to shooting, as it so often does. He plans his NPCs carefully, and the rest of the story evolves logically from their needs and wants. In fact, if you catch him in a good mood and ask about one of the NPCs’ backgrounds, you can easily get a short story about what happened from the time that NPC was a child until now. His NPC backgrounds are always fresh and interesting, including lots of unexpected twists and turns. Things in our ST’s world always make sense, and if they appear not to make sense at a given point, it’s just because we don’t yet know the whole story. Our job usually involves uncovering it. We progress with caution because the world is dangerous and the plots are meant to hurt us, but it’s absolutely thrilling when we make a discovery about how pieces of the plot fit together. During play, our ST remains very calm, because we really can’t derail him; he simply works out the NPCs’ logical response to whatever madness we’ve decided to do. Of course, I also think he remains calm because it drives us insane when we know we face (im)mortal danger and he sits there placidly staring at the ceiling.

Keeley, on the other hand, personifies energy. He races from idea to idea with a lot of shouting and gesturing. Not everything in his games has a logical reason for existing; in fact, many things seem purposefully illogical, but it doesn’t matter because everything in his worlds floats in an atmosphere of childlike wonder that makes details symbolically and atmospherically sensible even if they don’t fit together logically. His games have a breathless, vertiginous feel to them that suits the whims of the Fortune’s Fool universe; the tide sweeps players from one event to the next out of the sheer delight of seeing what kind of wackiness will happen around the next corner. I haven’t talked to him at length about the depth of his NPC backgrounds, but they don’t seem to work in quite the same way as the NPCs in our Vampire game; NPCs stand in for familiar fairy tale types, so players ‘know’ them immediately upon meeting them, and the puzzle comes from uncovering the ways in which they deviate from expectations. (I said quite a bit about this in my review of the FF campaign, too. It’s a delightful use of the familiar.) I certainly don’t mean by any of this that his adventures are saccharine; on the contrary, they’re often just as creepy as our Vampire adventures partly because the game so skillfully juxtaposes the cute with the grotesque.

Despite their extreme differences in style, these two GMs run some of the best gaming I’ve every played, partly because both show a willingness to let their players engage fully with their worlds. Whatever we ask, we can try, and the mechanics assist rather than hinder us. Theoretically, most RPGs work this way, but in my experience, some games and some GMs just wind up making the players think more about mechanics than story. A great gamer can tell a nuanced story with almost any system, but I do believe that system matters; if you have a sheet full of powers and a bunch of monsters that only respond to certain powers, you’ll spend your brainpower working out the relationship between those things instead of asking questions about how the monsters got into the Royal Society meeting house in the first place.

When I play games with the GMs I most enjoy, I feel as though I’m going head-to-head with another first-class mind in a strategic game of investigation and question. Can I figure out what’s at stake? Will I have the resources to outwit the limitations on my character sheet and find a workaround that can happen regardless? In games I like less, I feel as though I’m pitting my wits against the game itself: can I figure out how to use these skills most effectively to anticipate and react to what someone has set up? I think of a Pathfinder con game in which we were supposed to know from lore to use a particular kind of spell on a particular kind of creature; the ‘challenge’ of the encounter was in having purchased enough product to anticipate the correct answer and to match a specific skill to a specific encounter.

The Games I Love to Run

It’s a strange thing to say, but I’m not really sure I would have liked playing in my own Warhammer campaign all that much. In spite of its significant problems, I still love the unwieldy WFRP3e and loved running it. The crazily rich Warhammer universe (and all of its passionate fandom) provided plenty of interesting, quirky, engaging background to use when planning my games, and the design of the rules made it easy to create and run many different types of encounters effectively. Note, though, that I say “run encounters” rather than “tell a story”; even as much as I wanted my players to immerse themselves in the Warhammer universe and love it as I did, I ended up thinking of our games primarily as a series of individual puzzles that the players could solve using different skill sets.

booksI think my GMing suffered from our emphasis on gamist play. I inadvertently encouraged that play in a few different ways, I think: miniatures and terrain tended to make my players focus on the tactics of winning rather than on narrative, and my choice of a rules-heavy system like WFRP3e probably didn’t help, either, as my players and I constantly had to shuffle the bits that reminded them to think about mechanics during our sessions. In some ways, focusing on rules so much made running the game easier, as I could always refer back to the game designer’s decisions. By the end of our campaign, I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the types of interactions my players had with the setting. I wonder if I could run WFRP3e differently now, or whether the limitations I experienced were intrinsic to the system itself or to my own way of thinking about gaming.

Mouse Guard, as much as I love it, can suffer from some of the same problems. You can’t design a MG game around encounters, but the system encourages you to create sessions rather mechanically, focusing on things like the time of year and the assigned task, leading you to think more about what the players will do than about a fictional world spinning on its own axis. The system attempts to ‘assist’ RP via mechanics, which meant at our table that RP occasionally happened because of mechanics rather than because of narrative logic.

I suspect my love of running mechanical games comes from the fact that I’m a bit of a control freak. If your rules strongly suggest particular solutions, you can cut down on the possible outcomes you must anticipate. While I love not knowing what to expect as a player, I didn’t always love it as a GM. Now, my players didn’t seem to mind my style too much; in fact, they were more eager to railroad themselves than I was to railroad them, often asking after the session, “So, what were we supposed to do? Did we miss anything?” They enjoyed guessing the anticipated answer. As a player, though, I find the feeling that I’m playing through an interactive book irritating. I want a hand in dictating the storyline, not just a chance to react to it.

The Games I Love to Read

When browsing a store bookshelf, I tend to find myself drawn to quirky, rules-heavy systems, partly because I like the notion that an unusual ruleset can push players past their usual narrative strategies. The less I understand the logic behind the rules of a given RPG on the first read-through, the more likely I am to love it. Trying to work out why the rules to a game like Freemarket or A Thousand and One Nights seem so unintuitive to me at first glance forces me to rethink my own preconceived notions about narrative. Reading these games has made me a better GM, and I know they make me a better writer of fiction.

What Does All This Mean? (Or the tl;dr Section)

First, that I’m crazy.

Second, that my bookshelf is filled with RPGs that we will never play.

Third, not all of the groups I love to play with are likely to love my GMing style.

I wonder, though, how many of us realize that we have slightly different preferences when playing, running, and reading games. Although we like to think of these as equivalent areas of competency, they aren’t quite the same, nor do all of us scratch the same creative itch by GMing, playing in, or reading RPGs. I never feel that I’ve wasted money if I’ve bought a system that I’ll never play if that system makes me think differently about gaming; I never feel as though a particular GMing style simply ‘doesn’t work,’ although it might not mesh well with a specific system or group of players. Yet acknowledging that we can have different modes of consuming RPGs can make us better at choosing the products and groups that will fit us best, and that makes everyone at the table happier.

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