Monday, August 20, 2018

Striving against the world

I find myself looking for a fight.  An uphill struggle, striving against a world opposed or indifferent to my goals — that's what I like in a roleplaying game.

(In this post, I'll be using a lot of shoulds and don'ts and unwarrantedly absolute statements.  These are really just for me.  As long as you're having fun, you're playing the right way.  If you want to play the way I do, read on.)

But in the midst of all the talk about how roleplaying games should work, it's easy to forget that the players and the GM are playing two different games.

As a player, I'd better be using my wits, paying attention, and coming up with good plans, lest I get all our characters killed.  For me as a player, this is war.  Whether it's a gunfight in the street, a court case over our colonial charter, or chasing cryptic clues to buried treasure, I want to strive as hard as I can.  Whatever the struggle we're facing, the world isn't going to play fair and it's going to hurt if we fail.

Hopefully it's not too gauche to quote my own article about another game I worked on:
[This game] is like climbing a mountain it's about a titanic struggle against a cold, hostile environment, striving to be the first to the top. It's about facing a challenge and working to overcome it. The greater the challenge, the more triumphant the victory.

As a player, I'd like to use every tool in my arsenal to achieve a triumphant victory (or at least manage a narrow escape).

As a GM, on the other hand, I can't do any of that.  Struggling with all my might against the world or against the players' plans isn't helpful.  Being in control of the world, the GM is no longer a reasonable adversary.  This leads to an important principle:

When you have creative control over the world, striving is meaningless.

If the players want to strive the way I do when I'm a player, there needs to be a dividing line.  On one side of the narrative boundary the players strive and contend for glory.  On the other side the GM manages a world for them to contend within.  Crossing the boundary in either direction ruins the game.
  • If the players control the world their achievements are made meaningless, like they've been playing with cheat mode turned on.
  • If the GM controls the players' characters, the players' achievements are also made meaningless, as their characters have become merely puppets for the director.

So what kind of game is the GM playing?  How can they be successful?  For me, it's twofold:
  • presenting a living world
  • making the adventure be worth the struggle
A living world is a tall order.  As much as I'd like to build my own creation and see its every detail, making a whole world is beyond any of our abilities.  Instead, I'd like to make enough of a world that it feels like there's always more to be seen.  Make enough agents and cities and forests for a first glance, then keep building under the spotlight of the players' gaze.

To make the world feel alive, it should act on its own, apart from any plans of the players.  If the party doesn't go down to the docks, the ship headed for the Summer Isles will still leave.  If the party never comes back to the old mission, goblins will probably move back in.  The world is full of its own comings and goings and generally pays little mind to the party unless they make it take notice.

Presenting this world well is also part of the measure of a GM.  An intricate clockwork realm entirely in your head is worth very little.  The best enjoyment in life is best shared.

All that worldbuilding is good, but I believe it's not sufficient.  Putting dangers and rewards in the world is necessary, so the players have something to strive for and struggle against, but just putting it there isn't quite enough.

The players need to know that the dangers are worthy of their skill, that the rewards are worth attaining.  In short, the players need to know that the adventure is worth the struggle.

To that end, it's my job as GM to give the players a hint of where the adventure lies, to tantalize them with treasure, to raise the stakes to make sure they know this is an adventure worthy of their efforts.

As a player, I think I'm probably somewhere in the old-school camp, poking at rocks, ambushing enemies, and expecting death around every corner.  As a GM, I'm probably in some muddled mix of narrative, story-game, simulation, whatever the kids these days are calling it.  Those of you better versed in theory, I'd appreciate your insights.

But as I said, this is all just about the kind of roleplaying game I like best.  If none of this sounds like fun to you, go find your fun and know you're doing it just as right as anyone else.

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