Wednesday, 12 July 2017

First There is No Mountain

This is going to sound weird, probably, but it's one of those internal contradictions that make human beings so interesting. I've mentioned in these pages my Twin Peaks-inspired game, LOST PINES, and the game I wrote for Game Chef a couple of years ago, THE LONG SLEEP. I'm unreasonably proud of both of those games, despite the fact that neither one of them have been published or widely distributed. LP is a dramatic game in the style of soap opera, where everyone plays a part in the main cast. TLS is a meditative, internal game that's set in dreams, a kind of free-flowing improvisation on a theme. Neither one of those games has a GM role.

But I'm actually not a fan of games with no GM.

I like the idea of GM-less games. Having a game that more equally distributes the ability to make creative contributions amongst all the players is very appealing. Modern game designs often give players more explicit authority to take control of the narrative, and often invite the entire group to collaborate during campaign creation, so why not cut out the middleman? Do we really need a GM at all?

I'm sure a lot of people would answer that question "No, we don't." And that's fine. Different groups are always going to function with different comfort levels, different social dynamics, different expectations when they sit down to play.

In my experience, at my table (or, more accurately, tables), GMless experiences have been uneven at best, and meandering and unsatisfying at worst.

Part of the problem, for me, is that GM-less in theory and GM-less in fact are two rather different things. In theory, you can say that everyone at the table has the same power and tools to shape the narrative as it unfolds. In practice, it's actually quite rare that everyone at the table has read the rules of the game thoroughly (or at all). GM-less games in practice often require at least one player to act as a facilitator, teaching the game and guiding other players when they have an opportunity to take control. And yes, this is not quite the same as being a GM, but it's also not the egalitarian gaming utopia I pictured.

Someone is still doing the work. And often, in dramatic games, if no one has the authority to cut scenes or externally push the PCs to act, that can mean play stalls or wanders interminably. Players being granted equal power and autonomy is not the same thing as accepting equal responsibility, and I say this as someone who comes from a very high-functioning group. We have a lot of players who GM at our table, with strong ideas about what they want and how to get it, and we still have the capability of flaccid, directionless play without external pressure.

I play with great players. They constantly come up with surprising scenes and powerful moments that I couldn't have come up with all by myself, as a GM. I often give them a lot of freedom to add their own twists to the narrative, because I trust them and I value their contributions as much as I value my own. But I also know that they're better -- and I'm better, on the player side of the table -- when they don't have to be responsible for making the game as a whole hang together and stay on track. And with no one player being assigned that responsibility, it often falls to someone as a de facto job. So I might not be GM, but the other players could still leave all the responsibility for structure in play up to me. Now I can't enjoy the game as a player the same way as the others at the table do, because I've got a second job to manage. Egalitarian play gets twisted into a way of unevenly distributing emotional labour.

Equal power versus equal responsibility. Equal responsibility requires equal effort.

A lot of people (including game designers) would say that messy and unfocused is okay, and maybe for some players it is, but for myself, I have a limited amount of time to invest at the game table. As an adult, I'm lucky to get 3-4 hours a week of gaming, and I want it to be as productive and intense as possible. If play is weak, I feel like I've wasted my time.

I like having a GM because I feel play needs someone to be responsible for all the ephemera that makes good play possible -- the thankless labour of organizing a session, getting the materials together, preparation, facilitation of rules -- and someone who explicitly agrees to act as a dispassionate observer to play. Someone who is a fan of the player characters, and a fan of the players, and wants/enables them to experience riveting play. Someone who pushes them in interesting directions, then stands back and watches what they do. Someone who sets the tone for play and keeps their eye on the big picture, so that the other players can devote their attention to their own characters and go deeper, push farther.

Players already have enough responsibility, if you're playing in a drama-focused game. They have the job of playing a character with depth and integrity, and the complex give-and-take that's required of playing a really good dramatic scene with another player. When someone accepts the responsibility of being GM, they make space for the other players to fully commit to their parts.

No comments:

Post a Comment