Friday, April 12, 2013

The Role of the GM or How I Learned to Stop Telling the Story and Love the Challenge Part II

The answers to these questions bring your world to life, but all of those details are wasted if you can't answer the most important question in any game: why do the players care? What is at stake if they fail? Succeed? It's not enough to threaten the city, the kingdom, or the world with a tough monster. Stacking loot for the sake of stacking loot feels incredibly purposeless. Deciding the fate of a cursed child won't have any gravity if there isn't some tangible connection that player's feel.

When players care about the in-game situation, they make decisions. They drive the narrative. The opposite is also true: players who don't care about the in-game situation still make decisions. They ignore the GMs bait and keep fishing for something else. They take off in a totally unexpected direction. Whatever their decision, they are steering the ship.

Having read entirely too many forums and blogs related to gaming, one of the biggest fears that GMs seem to have is the players choosing to go off in a direction that was unanticipated. This is the problem of having a story that you want to tell. A bad GM reacts to this situation by railroading; a good one, rolling with the punches and improvising.

A whole other style of game, the sandbox, seeks to remedy this problem by presenting several hooks and letting the players bite the juiciest one. Not only is this style of game a lot of work (you're preparing multiple plots), I don't know that it fundamentally solves the problem of the GM having a story he or she wants to tell. While it certainly engenders more player choice, I'm not sure the amount of work it requires pays is worth it.

However, as I said, these actions and decisions cannot exist in a vacuum. They have to take place somewhere, populated by the illusions of living, breathing people (or demi-people). Rather than labor over one or several stories for your players, why not step back before any characters have been made and talk about the kind of game you all want to play?

At the beginning of this post I posited that the single most important question you need to answer is why the players care. This is by far the easiest way to answer that question. Give them a say in building the setting, the major conflicts, the immediate situation at hand. Let them incorporate relationships to the people they are saving or protecting. Let them make their own purpose, and then challenge them to fulfill it.


  1. Hi Vanguard,

    I would disagree that a sandbox is a lot of work. Aside from the meta-game goal of leveling, the idea behind the sandbox is that there is no plot, hence there are not multiple plots to develop and therefore no work as you suggest.

    I would add that I never try to tell a story in a sandbox. That would defeat the purpose of playing in a sandbox.

    As for the question you are addressing, why the players should care. Well, they can figure that out. I'm busy DMing. ;]

  2. There is no such thing as a game with no work or no plot. You still have to place all of the toys in the sandbox. The plot comes based on what the players choose to play with.

    As to why the players should care, that you can't answer that is a problem. That they can "figure it out" while you go and DM says a lot about your group. They are either not articulating their wants to you or you are not listening.

    1. I am happy to disagree, but I don't believe your black-or-white statement holds true. If my tongue-in-cheek remark says anything about my group, it's that they are capable of determining their own goals without any help, let alone from the DM.

      As players, they should determine what they do in the game, not me.

      I think we just play different style games. And, you're right, I do have to place something in the sandbox. I assure you it's hardly any work.

      When you wrote, "I'm not sure the amount of work it requires pays is worth it." I honestly couldn't think of what you meant and mulled over what I was missing before adding my comment. For me, the sandbox is the least amount of work a DM could ask for.

    2. The issue I take with your play style (it being the norm) is that it's still not the story of the characters most of the time. While it's true that the sandbox does engender a lot of player choice, there are a lot of stories that don't get told in that setup. When I play, I want it to be the story of my character, not my character in the GMs world, or (far too often) the GMs world.

    3. I looked over your other posts and comments and you do seem to enjoy "story games" and that's awesome. That's just not for me.

      I don't enjoy the idea of the players being the center of world/universe, nor do I enjoy "hero games."

      To be clear, I do not use the terms "story games" and "hero games" in a derogatory way. I just think that's where our preferences differ.

      With this understanding, perhaps you are creating more work for yourself when you've tried to run a sandbox game? Since you would want story and plots and all of those things.

      I don't want to assume, which is why I ask.

      I was truly stumped when you implied sandboxes where so much work. Perhaps our preference in style of play is what makes the difference?

    4. I think the appeal for story games is that they tend to offer a larger variety of plots than more traditional games do. I think both have a place.

      And story games do not make the characters the center of the world/universe, but they do make the focus of the game about the characters and their goals, however big/small, which is how it should be.

      I still think you're underselling the requisite amount of work for a sandbox. You do have to make decisions about the milieu, some of the major names, organizations, etc. Even if this is just a simple list of names you're still doing this in the dark, so to speak. There is no guarantee that your players will chase any of those threads or care.

    5. Sandboxes, well run, are much less work than any other form of GMing, IME. Of course, I am not interested in "story games" either. What I am interested in is role-playing from the standpoint of a character in the world, who must deal with the world that he is in.

      IMHO and IME, nothing offers a "larger variety of plots" than a sandbox. The plot in the sandbox is whatever that group of PCs is interested in on that day. As I understand it, the plot of your story game is relatively singular - what that group decided on the first day.

      IOW, while your magical school might appear in my sandbox as a component part, my sandbox will never appear in your magical school.

      Different strokes for different folks and all that, but I don't believe that the objective claims you are making are accurate.

    6. I mean variety in terms of setup. In traditional Sword & Sorcery or High Fantasy games, setups beyond the traditional adventuring party are far less common. While those game CAN accommodate these kinds of plots, they are not necessarily engineered to do so. Different rule sets encourage different play styles (I mean beyond cosmetic things like setting). Story games, in my experience, can accommodate both well (that is, unusual setups and more traditional adventuring parties alike).

      My Wizard School game has a lot of other threads in it, too. There are the week-to-week assignments, the newly discovered mysterious past, the fact that the Noble in our party has effectively been removed as the heir from choosing to study, and the Squire is building romantic relationships with his fencing partner. I understand this isn't the same amount of variety, but if this is what the players want to do, other possible threads don't really matter. If the players lose interest, two things happen (like in any other game), either the players shift their focus or the game ends.

    7. Variety in terms of set-up is potentially infinite, regardless.

      I would agree that Bob is likely to have elements that Bob likes in his game, and that they are likely to come up in any game run by Bob. I would also agree that a well run sandbox is not engineered to run any particular plot, although it is open to anything that fits within its basic parameters.

      And, by definition, its basic parameters are going to be wider than that of a "more focused" game.

      So, kudos for finding something that you like, and something that works for you, but I see neither evidence nor a line of reasoning that would lead me to believe it is either less work or more diverse. In fact, quite the reverse.

    8. /Variety in terms of set-up is potentially infinite, regardless./

      This is due to different definitions in terms, but it's really not true. When I say setup, I am referring to the roles a player assumes in relation to their world. I don't mean this in terms of classes. The party, in the fantasy sandbox RPG, is almost always a group of "adventurers" (I mean that in the S&S sense). So while the world can have any number of infinite permutations and the characters can be any number of permutations that fit within the milieu, they are almost always going to fill the role of an adventurer exploring the people and phenomena of their world.

      Now, this is obviously due to the difference in rule sets, but that is expressly not the case in the Wizard School game. None of these characters could be described as adventurers. We could just as easily have decided to play out a situation involving the royal court, each player a member wielding varying degrees of power.

      /And, by definition, its basic parameters are going to be wider than that of a "more focused" game. /

      This misses the point. In the sandbox, players make decisions within the parameters of the milieu. In the approach I am suggesting, they make the parameters in which they want to make decisions. See the difference?

      As to the amount of work, I've already answered that question.

    9. I meant to add, you still haven't answered question: do you have direct experience with this type of stuff? Since we're right on the fringes of a gamist vs. narrativist argument, story games in general?

    10. Direct experience? More than zero, and less than you, or so I would imagine. However, I am not at all certain that the question is relevant. If I take your words at face value, rationality would show me that there are problems with the conclusions, even if I had no experience with said games.

      For the record, I have not found such games very satisfying, which has been an (obvious) limiting factor in my experience. Oh, to discover a good Doctor Who rpg that eschews the story game setup entirely!

      In any event, although neither you nor I could possibly have enough experience to know that the party, in the fantasy sandbox RPG, is almost always a group of "adventurers", I think that is a fairly acceptable given. It follows, though, that this is because games of this type sell/more people are interested in them. There is nothing whatsoever that limits a D&D group (for example) from exploration of field planting.

      Green Ronin's /Testament/, for the d20 system, does this to some degree - community building is as important as slaying foes.

      However, if you were complaining that you couldn't find the game you wanted to play in, my first response would be "Go out and make it yourself." Since you've done that, I see no problem with your having done so.

      I just don't find your comparison, in terms of effort or flexibility, to be objectively accurate.

  3. That is a pretty unreasonable standard to have for this conversation. I mean, we're not talking about the absolute values of numbers or the laws of physics; we're talking about the best way to run a game. Best according to who? Me. Or you.

    More importantly, you totally ignored my response. Why bother to respond if you're going to tell me I'm wrong, but not why?

    1. /you totally ignored my response/


      I do not think that I did.

      Nor did I say you are wrong to play the way you do - quite the opposite! - but rather that I don't find your arguments about objective qualities (flexibility and effort) to be accurate.

      That's okay, too. You don't have to convince me. Convincing me, AFAICT, will add nothing to your gaming experience.

      But IF your reasons that X is best relies on objective claim Y, THEN objective claim Y can be examined in order to determine its validity. That is a reasonable standard. By definition.

    2. This is tedious.

      It's an unreasonable standard because it's not possible. What works for me (that includes flexibility and effort) may not work for you. It doesn't matter that you don't think they are objectively true, because I have found this approach allows for the most flexibility and reduces my work load. Therefore, I can make those claims.

      And you did ignore my response.

      /And, by definition, its basic parameters are going to be wider than that of a "more focused" game. /

      /This misses the point. In the sandbox, players make decisions within the parameters of the milieu. In the approach I am suggesting, they make the parameters in which they want to make decisions. See the difference?/

      You did not address this, and, as it stands, your claim is about the width of parameters is a bit of a false comparison because it does not account for these differences.

    3. /It doesn't matter that you don't think they are objectively true, because I have found this approach allows for the most flexibility and reduces my work load. Therefore, I can make those claims./

      Imagine a man with great upper body strength, but little leg strength. With his arms, he can easily lift 250 lbs, and with his legs he can lift about 150 lbs. He then claims that it is easier to lift the 250 lb weight than then 150 lb weight.

      So long as his comment is limited to himself, he can make that claim, because he /feels/ that it is easier. However, from an objective standpoint, 250 lbs is still harder to lift than 150 lbs. Also, from an objective standpoint, although he does not feel it in the same way, his body is still required by physics to produce more energy to lift the 250 lb weight than the 150 lb weight. It is just better conditioned to do that with his arms.

      Moreover, if the same man switched the weights, so that he was lifting 150 lb with his arms and attempting to lift 250 lb with his legs, he would soon conclude that 250 lb weighs more than 150 lb.

      If you make the claim that you find it easier, cool. If you make the claim that it /is/ easier, then that is far more questionable. It is not only possible to examine the level of work needed to run a game in a particular way, but I examined some of the extra work that may occur when you posted the same in the comments of my blog, to which you responded that you mostly wing it anyway.

      If the cost in effort of winging it is "1" and the cost in effort of getting consensus is "1", then 1 + 1 > 1. That you like the extra effort, and feel it brings value to the table, does not remove the extra effort's objective existence.

      /This misses the point. In the sandbox, players make decisions within the parameters of the milieu. In the approach I am suggesting, they make the parameters in which they want to make decisions. See the difference?/

      I thought I had addressed this before, when you brought it up on my blog.

      I see a difference, but not the one you do.

      After your initial session, in which the milieu is devised, both groups are making choices within the parameters of the milieu. One milieu is more focused, the other allows for greater range within those parameters.

      You can make the claim, I suppose, that in /one session/ the players have a greater range of choice, but that range within a single session does not make the overall degree of choice higher over a course of 200 sessions. If your game only lasts 10-20 sessions of so, you /might/ get an objective net benefit against the first 10-20 sessions of a sandbox. I wouldn't count on it, and I would not assume a game lasting only 10-20 sessions.

      As I said, you can be in a wizard school in a sandbox; you cannot be in a sandbox in a game focusing on a wizard school.

      But you are right. This is tedious.

      I have been trying to avoid going too deeply into where "they make the parameters in which they want to make decisions" creates real differences, and, for what I want out of gaming, makes the game lose value. But I will if you want me to.

    4. Your analogy is logically fallacious. The difficulty of lifting weight is impacted by the force of gravity, which is applied equally (objectively) to all things on this planet. For the last time, RPGs DO NOT WORK LIKE THAT.

    5. I think we had better agree to disagree here. I don't think I am any closer to convincing you, and I know that you are no closer to convincing me.

      Ultimately, what is important is that we both have games we like, even if they are different.


  4. Sure, but you're kidding yourself if you think there is an objective way to measure this stuff. Games don't have an absolute weight, whereas 150 lbs. weighs 150 lbs.

    1. Information theorists would disagree with you. There is a branch of applied mathematics which does objectively measure this stuff.

    2. (From that standpoint, it is not the objective effort being lower, but the perceived value being higher that is important. And, as perceived value is subjective, no one can argue with you there. IMHO, you should always strive for increased value, however you define it, and therefore you are doing it right. For you.)