Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Begin the Beguine

The title has very little to do with what follows, other than the word "begin", but what the hell. Here's some beautiful music for you. Thank you, Ella.

An average game for our group these days lasts about 10-12 sessions, sometimes a little more or a little less, not including initial game creation steps or meetings to "check in" or re-set somewhere in the middle. Since our group meets bi-weekly, that means an average game runs about 5-6 months. If you really want to get technical, with an average session length of 3-4 hours, that's an average of between 30-40 hours of play. Nothing like the marathon games we played when I was in university, with sessions that could go 6 or 8 hours, or occasionally all night, and campaign lengths that stretched over multiple years.

Still, 30-40 hours is a respectable length of time for a game, easily as much as most "premium" video games these days include in their main storylines. If you're playing games hard, like we often do, this is more than enough time to fully explore the characters and put them through the ringer right and proper.

It also means that, on an average of twice a year, the group is resetting for a new game. That's where I am right now: reading different games, toying with story ideas, weighing them against my personal skills and ambitions, and wondering what will mesh best with the other players.

There's a lot of pressure on a GM bringing a new game to the table. If you've just had a long, good game experience (like our run of APOCALYPSE WORLD), you feel like you have to live up to the high bar the previous game set. You're asking yourself how you can push yourself a little further, pick up on some fruitful ideas or unexplored moments, and at the same time distinguish yourself with something different and fresh.

There are a few ways to go about this, some of them broad and some of them very specific. Finding the one that's most useful or interesting for you is the trick.

Genre. Although HTHD games sometimes wander into the nebulous world of what you might call modern/literary drama (or perhaps, American freeform LARP territory), with realistic characters in realistic situations, it's very common at our table for games to incorporate "genre" fiction like fantasy or science fiction in some way. Sure, we tell those stories with a focus on characters and drama, but genre fiction can give them an extra spicy goodness. Most of those genres feel familiar and appropriate at the gaming table, and let's face it, a lot of gamers are also fans of disreputable stories that include dragons and robots.

Another thing that genre can do for you is give the group something to subvert. The familiarity of genre fiction in roleplaying means that you have expectations and tropes to play with, seeing them from different angles, exploring kinds of stories that might not have been easy to tell with a traditional roleplaying game framework. We have had great luck at my table playing games that turned SHADOWRUN and TIANXIA into dramatic pieces, rather than sci-fi/wuxia punch-ups, using the settings for flavour and texture rather than a platform for exploration and action (though we usually have some of that too).

Game System. Sometimes you've got a new game system you're all hot to try out, or something that's been on your shelf for a while that you didn't quite "stick the landing" on the first time out. Playing with different game systems stretches your group's ludic muscles, and it's a great way to add new tricks large and small to your toolbox. Even an old game system that's been in your rotation can freshen up certain skills, or bring them into focus. Playing a game with some crunch after a lighter affair makes people mindful of different things at the table, in exactly the same way that a rules-light game can be freeing after a game that's rules heavy. Either path can lead you to a rut if you don't change it up once in a while, and a comfortable rut is still a rut.

Challenges are good, and often they start with system. This places the onus on the GM to marry the game content with a ruleset that will support it, and often you find partway through that the system isn't doing you any favours. That can be okay, and isn't a deal-breaker if you can re-set effectively, in addition to teaching everyone something about how rules work along the way. As far as storygames go, often they have a very specific focus that is about telling a certain kind of story rather than a multiplicity of different stories (which is what "trad" games are all about). DURANCE isn't going to help you tell your tale of rollicking space pirates or politicking interplanetary diplomats, but boy howdy is it good at telling the story of convicts on a penal colony built on an alien world. If you're interested in telling that kind of highly particular story, storygames can help a lot.

Strangely, I have found that sometimes it's desirable to have a bland rule system that can fade into the background when I'm creating a game that has a strong flavour of its own. The rules aren't going to help you out any, but they're also not going to get underfoot (assuming you know them well enough to run the game effectively).

It is also sometimes desirable to take on a rule system that helps you create a particular kind of pressure on the players. "Powered by the Apocalypse" games like MONSTERHEARTS and NIGHT WITCHES are very good at this. Every Move the players make counts, and every Move is a risk. That's strong mojo.

The Pitch. Sometimes you have a very particular idea for a game, or maybe several, and you present that to the group as an option. This can be good and bad. It's very motivating for a GM to have a game that they're highly invested in, and for myself, if I have a clear picture of a game in my mind, I know I can capably communicate that at the game table. This is very important for improvisational purposes - if you know your game world better than anyone, you can roll with the punches a lot easier when players mix it up. The downside is that you need to make sure that your idea isn't held too closely, and that players can actually get their hands dirty and contribute ideas / changes too. (See below for more on this.)

Pitching a game effectively can take a lot of forms. I've lately been making little "trailers" using iMovie, compiling evocative imagery with music and title cards to give players an idea of the feel I'm going for. I've also done this in script form, which lets players participate a little more (as they take the parts of various characters in the scenes I've written). Here's one I wrote for a Macbeth-style fantasy game of backstabbing nobles and dark magic I intended to run using REIGN.

Collaboration. This is the default mode of games like FATE, and also possibly PRIMETIME ADVENTURES and DRAMASYSTEM (though in my experience GMs tend to come to the table for those games with a slightly more concrete pitch). You take the tools the game provides, and maybe a few broad ideas -- even, perhaps, some of the ones I've suggested above -- and build the game everyone wants to play. If your group is like-minded and creative, this can lead to some very satisfying experiences where everyone feels invested in the game.

The flip side of collaborative creations is that often not everyone is as invested in the creative parts of the process, and sometimes people just plain don't want to have anything to do with the setting other than what applies to their character directly. Forcing people to come up with ideas on the fly can feel like a burden sometimes, if that's not what they signed up for. The other part of this is that you may have some players that are more interested in an ongoing collaboration of setting building, which may be fine, but could also lead to disagreements when things that haven't been specifically discussed at the table (but are assumed to be x or y by the GM and your creative player) suddenly become relevant. Negotiating who gets to have the last word can be complicated, if the GM has other ideas that are tied together in some way, or has difficulty keeping up with improvised/extrapolated setting ideas they didn't come up with themselves.

Or, if the GM allows the players to drive setting creation, they could end up in a situation where they themselves are the person at the table least invested in the game they're running. This is a real problem, because the GM is often in the position of being the cheerleader and creative "voice" of a given campaign. A GM that's not feelin' it for their own campaign can lead to games crashing early or making the GM's job Not Fun. Neither of those is a good option. You have to hold your ideas lightly as GM, but at the same time, you need to be committed to what's happening in your own game. Anything less is a recipe for bad gaming.

Social dynamics. There's also the question of what games are a good fit for your group, exclusive of your GM-ing desires for challenging play and fresh content. Sometimes you want to play a certain game because you think the group needs a break from play that's particularly heavy, or after a game full of treachery and betrayal you want something where the players are explicitly team-mates or close friends. That's a dimension of games that we often don't think of, and it's another place we tend to fall into ruts at the table. Players that enjoy dark games often don't take the time to poke their heads up and enjoy the sunshine once in a while. Having a game with some laughs and lower pressure can really cleanse your palate after a meaty game has put everyone through the ringer. Or sometimes your players need a little rollicking adventure to recharge their batteries.

The GM sometimes has to act as caretaker, and ask what kind of game people need at the table right that moment, though you can't always be shouldering responsibility for your players' mental health. If a player has particular needs, or can't handle particular content, the onus is on them to say so. The GM must a) listen to them, and b) create a space for them to speak in the first place. That may not be at the table, where they might feel pressured by other players into going along with the group consensus. That can lead to big problems later on, when they find the game is taking them places they really aren't comfortable going.

I've got all of these things swirling around my head right now, and about a million games I'm debating bringing forward for a January start.

Wish me luck!

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