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Wednesday 23 September 2015

10th Anniversary Classic Rant: The Multiverse

Today I'm not going to go into a rant; instead we'll be talking about something positive.  Not to worry, I'm sure there'll be lots of rants to come, but from time to time it can be good to discuss the more positive aspects of roleplaying.

My rants about RPGs are almost always impersonal, rants with companies and fandom in general.  On the specific level, RPGs are a passion, the best of all games.

And my games in particular seem to be good. I'm not sure what it is that makes me a great DM, but there's something there that does.  Nothing is quite so satisfying as having that confirmed by my players, which happens fairly often.  Just a few days ago, I had the treat of having a couple of players express to me that they've become far better gamers since getting into my campaign; not long before that, I had a couple of others tell me that if they were only playing one campaign, the one I was running would be it bar none.

This got me to thinking: just what the fuck is it that makes my games special? Certainly, I've gotten better at GMing over course of the years, but aside from the practice of experience, what else is it about my campaigns that seems to so appeal to my players?

I think there are a couple of key techniques I apply, that I came to apply just by instinct, that tend to differentiate my game from many others, that make them work so well.

One of them is what I term the "multiverse".  By this I don't mean something like RIFTS or TORG, the concept of multiple universes within a single game.  Rather, to me the "multiverse" refers to a phenomenon that I have unwittingly developed in all my games, all my campaigns.

My games, the ones I'm currently running, and all the ones I've ever run in the past, are all happening in the same reality.  They are all in different settings, but the reality is mine, and they are all linked.

This is something that doesn't manifest itself overtly, only subtly. But anyone who's played more than one of my campaigns will at least subconsciously pick up on it. Themes, characters, and events in one setting somehow overlap in the others, they connect.

On the most basic level, this appears in the form of recurring characters.  There are a few NPCs (and the occasional PC) that have been in past campaigns, that inevitably pop up in my current ones.  Not always as exactly the same person, not always in the same context, but they are there. One particular example is Smiley, the crazy Scottish barbarian.  He started out way back in my Star Wars campaign as a humble starship pilot and gourmet chef, and since that time there hasn't been a single campaign where Smiley hasn't shown up.  Sometimes he was right there with the party, adding muscle to the group when they needed it, other times he might only make a brief cameo. But the players know at some point or another Smiley will show up.  There are various others who will show up in certain campaigns, but not in all of them.

But recurring characters are only the most basic and visible manifestation of the multiverse.  There are far deeper elements that connect my campaigns.  Items of power that appear in one form in one game, only to appear again in some other way in the other campaign. Themes and events that rise and fall coursing their way through my games like a wave.

Just how intrinsic this multiverse has become to my own game is something that only very rarely impacts on my players on a conscious level.  Recently one of my players, the only one who is currently in all three of my active campaigns, had a moment of total realization and told me that the War that is going on in my D&D campaign, the one that is just starting in my Traveller campaign, and the one that is only foreseen in my Blacksand campaign are all tied to each other.

He was of course correct.  It's not that those three campaigns are "directly" linked, that they have any intrinsic connection, but all of them are a reflection of the same event.  They're all the same epic conflict, rising out of my inner self, manifesting in all my worlds. The multiverse has become so absolute that what one group of players does in one campaign sets a tone that affects the others.

And there is how it becomes appealing to my players. They get the feeling in the game, knowingly or not, that they are part of a much bigger movement, and that their actions have an effect not just on their immediate surroundings but on the universe as a whole. They don't just contribute to one setting that will disappear once the game becomes unprofitable; they participate in a universe that will be there long after any individual character or game is discarded.

That's one of the two features that I think go a long way to creating a superior game; the other is what I call the "cast of thousands".  The "multiverse" is the more ephemeral of the two, while the "cast of thousands" is the direct.. and I'll talk about that one in the next entry.


(Originally posted June 28, 2005)

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