Monday, 30 September 2013

Yoga and the Art of GMing

What does yoga have to do with GMing? Get ready for your Tortured Metaphor of the Day.

GMing is all about being flexible.

Anecdote: I just finished a campaign creation session for a new game I'll be running through the Western University Roleplaying club this semester, Carnaby Street.

I had always wanted to run a game that was inspired by the Beatles, in some way. When I was trying to come up with ideas for games we could play, to give one of the new incarnations of Fate a test-spin, I came back to that concept that's been on my "compost heap" for a while and tossed it around. The Swinging Sixties are a big, colourful era with lots of gaming potential, although I'd want to steer well clear of the Austin Powers take on the era (which I feel stopped being funny over a decade ago). Also, no camp please. I like the Adam West Batman, but in small doses.

I was probably affected on some level by the recent CENTURY storyline in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on some level, and I won't go into the details of why, but what I ended up zeroing in on was Harry Potter. The underlying concept of the Potter books is to take the setting of many classic British children's books -- the British public school system -- and add magic. What would happen, I wondered, if you took that premise and applied it to the world of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones?

Carnaby Street. I was picturing something big and bright and stylish, something that borrowed heavily from Grant Morrison's brilliant comic The Invisibles (specifically, the look of the "Gideon Stargrave" and "Mister Six" digressions) and told a tale of magical youth kicking down the doors of perception. I started watching re-runs of the Diana Rigg incarnation of The Avengers as inspiration. (I'm not sure I actually got much for my game out of them, but I can't complain of an excuse to watch Diana Rigg look fabulous and kick people in the face. Also, the daffy implausibility of the plots is gold.)

I brought all that to the table. But my players took it in an entirely different direction.

Their Carnaby Street is a world of repressive government crackdowns, camps where young magicians are stripped of their power and reprogrammed into good citizens, and stylish young drug-experimenting magi on the run. Special Branch cracks heads and sorts out the "wrong sort" from tinkering in the domain of tweedy Eton types who run the country (the world?) from the oak-paneled back rooms of centuries-old clubs. But that's not stopping the young and stylish from taking a witch's brew of dangerous new drugs that help them stoke their magic and see into brave new worlds.

I'm not complaining. This is pretty cool stuff. And that's the tradeoff you make when you agree to collective campaign creation. You loosen your grip on the game world, let others play with it a bit, and see where that takes you.

Old school GMs probably get their knickers in a knot over this idea. And yes, it can be a nerve-wracking process surrendering a good deal of the design to your fellow players.

But the yoga masters? The flexible guys who go with the flow, they get paid dividends of buy-in by their players.

It's good to be flexible.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

To Crunch or Not To Crunch

There is an argument in the roleplaying community that is as old as the hobby: to what extent do rules affect the game you are running? Do rules count, or are they just a context for fiction created by the players?

In recent years, at least, I fall on the side of "rules count quite a lot". Which isn't necessarily to say that I think you need a very large, complex, or detailed set of rules to facilitate good roleplaying.

Rules condition behaviour, both from the players and from the GM. If a game system devotes half of its page count to detailed combat rules, it is a reasonable assumption to make that combat is intended to play a significant role in this game. Does that mean that you have to play the game in line with that assumption? No, but then again, if you are playing a game system that does not support the kind of play that you are inclined toward, one might reasonably ask "Why are you playing that system?"

Case in point: the Sanity rules from Call of Cthulhu. These rules reinforce the theme that investigating the Mythos is not only dangerous to life and limb, it can make you crazy too. It increases the feeling that the characters are fragile, that the forces they face are overwhelming (based on the number of things that demand a Sanity check in a typical scenario), and that the inevitable result of play is a downward spiral. Sure, there are plenty of players who play CoC in a more guns-blazing, pulp adventure mode, but there is very little support in the rules for that. You would have to be either very, very lucky or ignore a large portion of the game system to play a CoC game that rewards that mode of play.

And if you want to play a pulp adventure style Lovecraftian game, why not run it in a game system that expects and rewards that type of play? Such as Spirit of the Century (or more recent incarnations of Fate) or Adventure! or Hollow Earth Expedition?

The default mode of play in Dungeons & Dragons (which has, it must be said, remained popular for forty years -- so who am I to disdain it?) is killing monsters and accumulating treasure. Sure, you could use it for a highly political game of wheeling and dealing in the Game of Thrones mode, but there is very little support from the actual rules for that kind of thing. You might as well be using Big Eyes, Small Mouth.

Rules are not neutral, as we claimed Back in The Day. Rules are built around expected and implied behaviour from everyone involved. You could play a game of D&D that's high on drama and character development, but there is nothing in that system to reward you for making choices that are dramatically powerful or narratively interesting, as opposed to just hunting down some hapless orcs and taking their stuff. Killing monsters and getting treasure improves your character, letting you deal with bigger and bigger challenges, creating the framework for epic adventures. This is the point of the game design. The details have changed a bit over the years, but the focus is the same.

I'm not slagging D&D. It does (and has always done) what it does very well, and that's why it remains popular (as do games like Pathfinder or Castles & Crusades which borrow heavily from the D&D playbook). What I'm implying is that choosing D&D for your fantasy game is choosing a style of fantasy game. Choosing Warhammer Fantasy or Runequest changes what your game will look like in significant ways, as does choosing Everway or Amber Diceless or Burning Wheel.

Sometimes we choose a particular ruleset because it's what our group is familiar with, and that familiarity means that the rules have a certain transparency -- we're not thinking about how to do something, according to the rules, only about what our characters want to do. That's something that can't be underestimated, and sometimes the familiar choice is a good one. Having a strong foundation for your game came make the ambitious things you've got in mind seem easier and more achievable.

Sometimes we choose a game that's new, simply because we want to give it a test drive and see how it goes. Novelty has its own pitfalls, though on the whole I am a big booster for trying new things and seeing what they can teach you about different kinds of play. There's always something that you can steal, even if a game doesn't do everything that you want it to.

Once you've got a good background in different game systems, though, I think a GM must make the choice of ruleset very carefully, with an eye toward what kind of game they want to play. You can always change rules part way through, if the game's not doing what you want to, but sometimes it's very hard to change directions once your players begin to condition their play toward what the rules emphasizes.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

A HTHD Manifesto

A few weeks ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to one of those articles that was allegedly for our betterment as human beings. It presented what it characterized as "hard truths" about life that were somehow supposed to improve our lives by stripping out dumb illusions. Really, it was just a screed of utter cynicism, and I have little patience for that sort of thing. "Why aren't you as cynical as I am?" is not a persuasive argument as far as I'm concerned, though there is plenty in this dirty old world to be cynical about.

Here's a song you can listen to while you sit in the dark and drink hard liquor and frown about how lousy it all is. Be my guest.

Cynicism isn't good enough for me.

Cynicism is lazy. It's the philosophy of "everything sucks, so fuck the world". Cynicism has nothing to contribute except a pouty face and the conviction that the knowledge the world sucks makes you dreadfully cool and smart. Cynicism doesn't try to change things or contribute something that doesn't suck.

Sometimes I'm cynical, but I try to do better. Today, I'm going to try to give you a shot of not-cynicism as an innoculation against cynical people who would rather you just sit in the corner with them than build something meaningful with your life. Call it an Anti-Cynicism Manifesto, if you like. I will frame it in terms of positive stuff you can do at the table to improve your HTHD play, but really it's intended as a means to live your life in a way that's more positive generally. Your mileage may vary. Here goes:
  • Be Honest, Trust Others
Creating an open, honest dialogue is a great way to create the conditions for HTHD play, and also a great way to live your life. I'm not advocating that you hand your wallet to everyone you meet, but it's an easy way to improve your relationships. Tell people what your thoughts are, rather than bottling them up. Let people into your life and they will begin to do the same. This is what friendship is all about, and it's easy to forget; we start to think that a relationship is about trappings like the things we do when we hang out, and not about the connection that makes those things possible. Deep connections are rewarding, and they start with openness and honesty.
  • Listen
Be mindful of the people around you, and the things they say. Even if you've got a good relationship with someone in your life (or at your table), sometimes communication is strained. Someone is trying to work something through, and it's hard to talk about. Or they need some help, and don't know how to ask. Or they flat-out just need another human being to really pay attention to them for a few moments and let them know that their little struggles matter. Mindfulness doesn't seem like a hard thing, but it requires work and patience.
  • Be Generous
Share the things that are important to you. Natalie Goldberg writes that it is a great kindness to take someone by the hand and show them something you love, something beautiful. At the table, a lot of the joy some players get out of gaming is what has been called "lonely fun" -- writing a detailed character backstory, world-building, that sort of thing. It's so important to get these things on the table, into the game, so that everyone can appreciate the things that make the game cool to you. The more you share, the more you get back; artists know this, because art can't exist without someone to appreciate it. And it's a great thing to do away from the table too. My wonderful, kind wife writes reviews of books she loves on GoodReads, and she makes a habit of giving away books she loves to friends. She wants people to share the awesome.
  • Be Bold
Regrets can poison your life. If I could give one message to my younger self, it would be that trying something and failing is not as painful as wondering what would have happened if... Life doesn't come with a safety line. You have to stick your neck out sometimes, to get what you want in life. Choose your battles, but keep striving. Ambition and self-improvement are one of the things that gives life a special flavour, and when you make a positive change in your life (or in your gameplay) it feels great. You don't have to have six-pack abs or an Olympic pole-vaulting record to enjoy exercising. Striving is its own reward.
  • It's Okay to Be Vulnerable
This is one of the hardest things I've ever had to learn, because practically everything in Western society tells you that this is not The Way It Is. People aren't supposed to tell each other what they feel -- a lot of common wisdom would tell you that it's a terrible mistake to let down your emotional armour even for a second. But this is exactly wrong. The way to have a deep connection with a friend or a spouse or a fellow gamer is to share those moments of vulnerability. There is nothing so powerful as the feeling that you have given yourself entirely over to another person, and they have not turned you away. The creation of a "safe place" in your life with your close friends, family, and fellow gamers means that you will feel more yourself, because you aren't hiding a large chunk of yourself away from the world. It's scary to be vulnerable, but it's okay to be afraid sometimes. Every intimate connection I have is all about the times I let my guard down and opened up my life to someone else.
  • Be Kind to Each Other
This is the bottom line for me. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, ' On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies - "God damn it, you've got to be kind." ' Making art or building relationships is all about being kindness and compassion; so it is at the gaming table. Support each other and create safe places. Be honest and help each other be both vulnerable and bold. The world is improved by even a small kindness, cynics be damned. How many times has a single kind word or small good deed -- from a friend or even a complete stranger -- made your day better? When someone at your table has really gone for it, and stuck their neck out in a scene, let them know how much you appreciated it. Let them know it mattered to you.

Be kind. Make a better world.