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Saturday 21 February 2015

Little Notes on Player-GM Power Relations

Ok, so one more time!  Someone has protested my recent arguments about GM authority by saying that a GM who just rejects all of his player's ideas is a bad GM.

A GM who always shoots down his players ideas is a bad GM, sure. but keep in mind:

1) It has nothing to do with "not giving the players power", nor is "let's give all the players the power so they can be a group of 4-6 Little Stalins and destroy Immersion" the right solution.


2) the reason he's a bad GM moreso than just seemingly being interested in frustrating the players, is that he's not really creating a Virtual World.  If he just arbitrarily decides "no, there's no magic shop there specifically BECAUSE I want to fuck over my players", then he's failed at his job at making a Virtual World that exists outside of his own active consciousness.

Now for part 2:  every time I make this argument someone inevitably rebuts by saying  "Well I don't know what kind of people YOU are playing, but I'm only playing with my Best Friends Who Gave Me A Kidney And I'd Trust With My Kid".  As if that makes them superior, or eliminates my point.

Well, to that I say:
a) Great for you, but so what? There's going to be lots of people who aren't in that situation, who are not playing as a way to keep the old gang of fuckheads you knew since elementary together, but are rather playing for the sake of gaming itself. Most groups I know and most groups I've been with have consisted of people who generally get along but aren't all Besties 4 Ever.

b) You seriously NEVER have a fight with your friends? My BEST, closest friends are people I argue with and bitch about constantly, and vice-versa. It's a feature of being friends at that close a level, the very same level of friendship which defines that intense trust also defines that you can feel safe to fight about stupid things. So don't give me this bullshit that "playing with your friends" means you don't need ONE GUY to be the ultimate deciding Authority. It probably means you need it MORE.

And seriously, if everyone at your table is your best friend, including your GM, what kind of an asshole are you to not trust your very best friend to have absolute authority over your life with respect to a game for a handful of hours a week?  Some friend you are, you cunt.


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  1. Could it not be that different playstyles and divisions of authority work for different groups? Must one be objectively superior?

    1. Those two things are not necessarily contradictory. An inferior method might work well for a given group, and yet still be inferior in the bigger picture of things.

    2. Could you give an example, please? Given that different methods of playing RPGs are meant to create good gaming experiences at the table, what sort of bigger picture could trump a specific group's experience?

    3. One group might like, for some reason, a way of doing things that in the bigger picture does not work as well for the general population.

  2. Pundit, I've been reading this series (sorta) of posts for a while. If I get it right, you think the reason storygames exist is to placate bad, tyrannical GMs ? The way I see it, it proceeds instead from a desire from the players to be more active and to contribute to the game in terms of universe, NPCs, story ideas, etc. with the added benefit of alleviating the work of the GM.

    I don't play that way because I think it comes at the cost of losing the sense of wonder and immersion RPGs provide but it seems to me there's no GM-Players conflict at the core of the storygaming approach.

    1. Which still ends up as shit due to the simple fact there is to many cooks in the kitchen. It is great to have your players have a little freedom than most traditional games, but they should never have a equal power to the game master. Nor should they be allowed to make up a setting along with the game master. Maybe a minor tweak here and there.

    2. "Storygaming" got its start when Ron Edwards protested against the White-wolf style of 'storytelling', which consisted of a shitty authoritarian GM who imagined himself a great novelist 'weaving' a crappy tale that the PCs had to move from scene-to-scene to watch as passive cheerleaders for the GM's great events and great NPCs, and couldn't actually do anything to change the story.

      The reaction Edwards and co. had to that was "we have to change RPGs to something that can make story", but it was also "the answer to bad GMing is to castrate the GM". It was an inherent visceral reaction to the shitty format and shitty-gming of the White Wolf era, and lumped in with what Edwards & Co. understood to be "Bad story", which was story-imposed-by-the-GM.

      So yes, it was very much connected to player-GM conflict. Some significant figures in the Storygaming movement (Luke Crane, most notably) have been completely open about their utter contempt for the GM and his role, and for wanting to make him as powerless as possible to 'fuck up' their 'genius' game design (that will finally create 'coherent story', which the GM is the enemy of).

    3. Actually the greatest freedom to the players come, in my experience as a referee, from the sandbox. There is no pre-made plot; there might be factions and events outside the players' control, but the group's story is made by the players' actions, as well as their consequences as judged by the referee. The referee presents the world and responds to the players' actions; the players act. The game is player-led, not led by one big central plot written by the referee or by the module designers. The story is as coherent as the players want it to be. The referee needs power so that the players' actions will have a context and consequences and thus be meaningful.

      The entire notion that the game needs a proper 'story' (rather than facuon interests in the world and whatever the players wish to do) is one of those 1990's RPG "Big Ideas" which many of us fell into back then. In recent years I have learned to lean back and let the players do whatever they want (and face the consequences).

    4. Well the way I see it it all depends on what you want to do. If your game is "let's pretend to be adventurers (or Timelords or whatever)" nothing beats RPGs. If you want to play "let's write a story together" instead (as WW indeed advertised without providing the proper tools to do it) then storygames may be the way to go. Now that some people in the storygame scene went all vanguard of the proletariat when they found their thing, that's on them...

    5. Omer: I certainly agree with you about the virtues of the sandbox. But it's the RIGHT response to the railroading-style of the 90s. The wrong response is "let's keep trying to 'make stories' but give the world-authoring power to the players now".

  3. I believe that in the end, the players always end up with more power than the GM, at least if the GM is an honest GM and not a simple demiurge that has just a bunch of dice rolling drones.

    From my short experience playing, what feel makes a good GM is:
    1-Tracking of information
    2-Tracking of events
    3-Providing or coming up with answers that would fit the setting no matter how strange the ideas the players have.
    4-Dealing with the players and organizing the venue in a simple fashion.
    5-Above all, coping with the endless fuckups and possibilities.

    I’ve played my great share of computer games and what I felt limiting and not appealing is the lack of possibilities, and if I were to want a game where my options are restricted, I’ll go right back at playing countless hours of computer games, actually steam keeps track of the hours ;), but not, I have a creative and active mind.

    I just know I don’t like being a dice rolling drone.

    1. That's a very insightful analysis! The right way for the GM to empower players is by creating the world, with a strict framework of how that world works, then NOT trying to impose a 'story' (only opportunities for a variety of scenarios, which is what a sandbox does), and then pressing the "start" button on the world (and as you say, keeping track of what goes on in the world, not like a novel but like a virtual-reality, where things are happening everywhere, not just where the PCs are, and where the PCs' actions create ripples that change the course of events in the world in a variety of ways). Then after doing all that, letting the players do what they want to do WITH THEIR CHARACTERS.
      The right way for a player to feel empowered is to feel his character is empowered; that is, that what he chooses for his character to do actually matters, and that he can theoretically choose to do anything he wants with his character within the physical/mental/power limits of his character's actual ability. Of course, some of those choices might end up in a dead character but that's another story.

  4. "Of course, some of those choices might end up in a dead character but that's another story.'

    That would be a short story then. ;-)