Actual Play: Gathering My Thoughts

I think most people would generally agree that it is a poor GM who fails to follow his own advice. Therefore, in the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is I will be taking the opportunity of my gaming group’s current campaign ending to launch a new campaign using the advice from my book  as a guideline.

The game itself will begin in January. Which gives me plenty of time to devise a Campaign Outline and Group Contract, and plenty of time for the players to make characters. Continue reading “Actual Play: Gathering My Thoughts”

Paradigms of Authority

In the week since I announced the release of The Game Master, I received quite a bit of feedback from various people—most of it positive, some negative. I certainly have some things to chew on, should I choose to do a follow-up or a revision to the book at some point in the future.

For the moment, there was one piece of commentary that I found particularly salient. A poster on named Ergodic Mage had this to say:

If you classify GMing styles as Planned, Cooperative or Improvised (there are other ways to classify), most advice uses one of the styles and expands upon it. The parts I read of your work may have suggested incorporating all 3 styles in different areas. If that is what your are attempting to bring out then it is an unusual approach that could be very flexible. Take that and clarify it, coordinate it with your advice, where to use which style and so forth. You could even use this to inspire different GMing approaches and in different contexts.

After thinking about this statement for a bit (and getting some follow up clarification from the poster), it seemed to me that these were less discrete styles of GMing and more different points along a single spectrum.

On the Planning end of the spectrum you have groups for whom primary authorship of the game lies with the GM. He or she takes an active role establishing the agenda of the game, and the players react to whatever the GM throws at them. On the other side of the spectrum you have the Improvisational GMs, wherein the primary source of authority is reversed: the players actively set the agenda of the game and the GM is reactionary. Last, the Cooperative GMs lie somewhere in the middle between Planning and Improvisation. The players and the GM pass the buck back and forth in terms of authorial power.

Now, I use the words active and reactive intentionally, because what this reminded me of was another theory about RPGs titled Active and Reactive Players, although the post that expressed this perspective is about 5 years old. I was intrigued by the theory at the time, although something about it seemed incomplete. In hindsight—and in the context of this Planned/Co-op/Improv spectrum, I think I finally see what it is.

As I discuss at various points in The Game Master, the role of Author is shared amongst all of the players in a group. When a GM takes total authorial power away from the other players we call it Railroading or Deprotagonisation—both of which are rightfully seen as bad things to do. However, there are also those cases where neither the GM nor the players is able to take effective narrative control, and the game flounders. There are also those cases where GM and players butt heads, as both try to exert active narrative control simultaneously.

The thought that now occurs to me is that there is a natural ebb and flow to the authorial role, as players and GM take active or reactive positions depending on the situation, and each person at the table will have their own preferences and expectations as to how the authority is handled. To that extent, being able to articulate and demarcate one’s own preference either as a GM or a player can be very useful both when forming a group and in resolving issues of inter-party tension as they happen.

If I were the ambitious and scientific-minded sort, I might consider devising a Kinsey scale for roleplayers.

The Game Master, available NOW.

Yes, the time has finally arrived. My long in the works eBook, The Game Master, is now available for download, from the crazy man on the right hand sidebar (don’t worry, he’s chill). I am releasing it on a “Pay what you want” basis, and it is free to download and distribute. So take a copy—hell, take ten. It comes in both PDF and ePub flavors, and there’s plenty for all. Tell your friends!

Heck, how about a free sample? Here’s an excerpt from Chapter IX, on writing adventures.


When confronted with a situation where they are losing control of the plot, the most common GM tactic is to bully, cajole, or trick the players into following the preordained course that has been laid out for them. These methods are collectively known as Railroading.

Railroading is to the tabletop RPG what the Rail-shooter is to video games. The players are essentially on a track that leads inexorably along the path the GM has devised. All wrong paths are blocked, all wrong actions are punished, all wrong objectives are impossible to achieve. Only actions which advance towards the destination the GM has predetermined can possibly succeed.

By far, the worst campaign I was ever involved in fell apart because of this sort of railroading. After several near riots—and a nearly successful hijacking of the plot—the game ended with the players sitting there for an hour while the GM simply gave a monologue explaining the climactic final battle. We were not even permitted the illusion of participating by being allowed to roll dice.

That is, however, a particularly egregious example. You rarely run into railroading quite that severe. Rather, railroading is often a subtle and insidious problem, committed in small doses by a GM with the best of intentions and accepted by players who don’t want to fight over minor details. As a game master it can be tempting to simply kill every player idea which strays away from the path you had intended. While on a certain level it’s alright to “dead-end” ideas that are completely off the mark, in the long run it’s better to adapt the story around what the players are trying to do.

Years ago, I ran a D&D game in which the party was negotiating to gain access to a nobleman’s private library. Soon after arriving in the city where the nobleman lived, they were visited by a messenger—a gnome, as I recall—who gave them a letter from the nobleman asking them to meet him at a specific time. For reasons that have never been clear to me, the players decided that the gnome was suspicious and decided to follow him.

In my mind, the gnome was a nobody. He didn’t even have a name. I didn’t have anything planned for him, so I tried to kill this plot divergence. I had the gnome perform some incredibly mundane actions, hoping the players would get bored and move on. Instead, they followed him across the entire length of the city, until he finally went home.

Now, at this point nobody had really done anything wrong; either myself or the players. Perhaps they should have given up a little sooner, but for whatever reason, they were interested. So once the gnome went into his home, the party decided—again, I have no idea why—that they would break into his home, take him captive, and search the building.

At this point, I had two good options. The first would have been to simply pause the game for a moment and tell the players flat out, “Hey guys, this guy is really honestly a nobody. Maybe you should move on to something else.”

Not the best option, but sometimes you have to give in to the nature of the game as a game and do whatever is going to get things moving again, regardless of how you rationalize it in- character.

Option number two would have been for me to make up something interesting for this guy to be. It wouldn’t have had to be terribly complex, but I should have at least give them some kind of reward for pursuing the guy. This was potentially the best option, assuming I could have come up with something good on the spot.

Option three—which was, sadly, the direction I went—was to try to shut the players down however I could. Note that I said there were two good options, because this was where the railroading really starts. I basically turned this guy’s house into a fortress. I stated that the door was locked and un-pickable and all of the windows had bars. After several unsuccessful attempts to break their way in, the players attempted to scale the building in order to get access from the roof. So I inform them the walls were flat surfaces, too slick for them to climb. They pulled out a rope and grappling hook, so the gnome responded by cutting their rope from a second story window and overturning a chamber-pot on their heads.

By this point the “mysterious gnome” sub-plot had been going on for over an hour, and the game had devolved into a narrative shoving match between the players trying to get into this random nobody’s house and me trying to come up with reasons they can’t. Having reached this point, everyone was way too frustrated with each other to continue, and we had no other choice than to completely stop the game for the night and come back to it fresh the next week.

Now, while not every instance of railroading is quite so…mundane, there is a common thought process on the part of the GM: an idea that there is a “right” thing and a “wrong” thing for the players to be doing, and if they don’t do what you were expecting then they are wrong, and that wrongness needs to be corrected, by force if necessary.

Monte Cook talks about Magic Items


It’s worth the quick read, but his core message is short, and to the point:

Over the years, magic items have become something that most players simply expect. In fact, in later editions of the game, characters were balanced with expected encounters assuming a certain level of magical gear. While that might be accurate, it raises a couple of problems.

First, treasure ends up being a part of the characters’ advancement track, not a reward.

Second, if magic items are assumed, they lose some of their mystery.

There’s a certain element of “well, duh” at work here, but it is important to note what Monte has recently come back to Wizards, reportedly to begin development of D&D 5e. I’m hoping this is an indication of what the developers are thinking about in terms of design philosophy for 5e, after 4e sucked a lot of the heart out of the game in favor of tight mechanical balance. At least in my opinion.

Coming Soon

So all of this time I have been busy not blogging, I have been secretly working on a revision/expansion of the various articles I’ve written on the topic of RPGs. The culmination of this work is an eBook titled The Game Master, which will be available soon on a “Pay what you want”/Free to distribute basis.

However, I’m so excited that I’m going to show off some special previews, starting with the illustration for chapter 8, lovingly rendered by the fantastic artist (and my long time friend), A.M. Thompson. Enjoy.

Chapter Illustration

Against the use of “One True Way”-ism as an argument

One True Way-ism is, for the uninitiate, the simple declaration that your way (or your group’s way) of doing something in an RPG is the one true way, and everyone else is doing it wrong. Fudge the dice? That’s not how my group does it. Female Space Marines in Warhammer 40k? That’s not canon. Using misdirection and illusion against the players? You’re a liar and a fraud!

It’s easy for someone pontificating on the nature of RPGs to slip into a little bit of OTWism (if you’ll pardon the abbrev.), and they are usually called out on it pretty quickly: “there is no Bad-Wrong Fun”, “however your group has fun is the right way to do things”, and all of that.

Unfortunately—and this is my real beef—there seems to be a tendency among gamers to attack any strongly held position as OTWism. If I stand up and say, “My experience has been that doing X causes/solves problems in all of my games, and I suggest that you do/don’t try X”, it is very likely that someone will come along an accuse me of OTWism, and tell me all about how they would love/hate X in their game, and how dare I treat my players that way.

In any conversation I’ve been in, an accusation of OTWism has only served to stifle meaningful discussion. Beyond that, however, I think it misses a subtle truth: that while there are many right ways to play, there are equally many wrong ways to play. As long as you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. But any action which diminishes the fun of the players at the table is wrong, and as long as any objection can be met with “Well that’s just One True Way-ism and I’ll do things however I like”, it prevents meaningful growth within the RPG-community.

There needs to be a level of distinction between “Whichever way is fun/works is the right way to play” and “There is no wrong way”. There are plenty of wrong ways, as evidenced by the profusion of bad games out there, and people need to understand that. To that end, I am declaring Blogger-fiat to exclude OTWism from all future arguments. By reading this, you are now bound by the laws of the internet not to use it.

You Gotta Be Firm.

I’ve recently been embroiled in a rather lively discussion about appropriate and inappropriate GMing styles. I’m not going to hash out that argument here, but it did prompt a deeper thought about the nature of RPGs that I wanted to share briefly.

There exists a spectrum in RPGs between games which are principally narrative and those which are principally simulative. Which is to say you’ve got games which try to tell a story as devised by the GM, and those which are a big sandbox for the players to run around in and the story is whatever happens to develop. You could also label them “strong-hand GM” games and “weak-hand GM” games.

Each has their benefits and drawbacks. A Strong-Hand GM can tell a tighter, more elaborate story, but does so at the expense of player freedom. Taken to its extreme, you end up with Railroading GMs who just usher the players through the One Narrative Path. A Weak-Hand GM gives the players a far greater level of freedom, but surrenders the power to tell a centrally planned narrative. Whatever happens, happens, for good or ill. Taken to its extreme, you would find GM-less games which are just a series of adventures without a plot.

I personally love me the plot, and prefer a fairly strong-handed GM, both as a player and when GMing myself. I’m willing to make the compromise of giving up a degree of latitude in order to enhance the ongoing story.

However, whether you take a strong-handed or weak-handed position, you need to do so with the consent and understanding of the players at the table. If the GM takes a position too far in one direction or the other, they risk alienating the majority of players who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

It’s also useful to have an explicit understanding of your players’ tastes in this regard, because it determines the tools which are available to the GM for running adventures. What’s perfectly reasonable to one group may come off as railroading to another. While conversely, using too weak a hand with a group accustom to a strong narrative will leave the players scratching their heads, confused about what they’re “supposed to do.”

Master of the Game [Sidebar]: The Player/Character Dynamic

I suppose this is a continuation of sorts from my post about 6 months ago, on Symbolic Control Schemes.  I don’t have a firm conclusion here, so I’m going to call this a “sidebar”.  A topic that I will hopefully return to in the future.

I’m about three years behind the curve when it comes to this very in-depth analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2 (which I highly recommend checking out).  However, there’s one piece of that analysis that stood out to me as having some very interesting implications from an RPG perspective that I’d like to discuss briefly.

In the essay I linked, under the Terms section the author talks about the difference between the player and their goals, and the character they control within the game and their goals.  [In his article, the author uses the term Player as we would, but refers to the Character as an Actor]:

I have distinguished between Player Objectives and Actor Objectives. The former term describes the literal demands that a game places upon its player in order to complete the game’s objectives, including physical manipulation of hardware and the resulting in-game actions. The latter term describes the actor’s responsibilities as informed by narrative context and as they create the narrative.

The videogame Ms. Pacman illustrates how Player and Actor Objectives traditionally contrast and complement each other. The player must manipulate the joystick to guide Ms. Pacman through a series of mazes, meanwhile avoiding ghosts and eating pellets. In her narrative context, Ms. Pacman must survive her trip through the maze and consume. Ms. Pacman affirms that the Player Objectives fulfill the Actor Objectives since the player’s success guarantees the actor’s success.

The game splits the rewards: his score increases, and she lives to eat another day. Ms. Pacman has as little practical use for the score as the player has in her survival. He will leave the arcade without regret that she has repeatedly died, and she, in context, becomes no happier when he breaks the high score.

Continue reading “Master of the Game [Sidebar]: The Player/Character Dynamic”

Master of the Game: Grounding

I’ve edged around the topic of grounding several times before (notably in the articles on genre and the player sphere of perception), but never dealt with it directly, so I feel it’s time to remedy that. As a general rule, it’s necessary for the party to be grounded in the game setting, both on a character level and on a player level. On either level, “Strangers in a Strange Land” presents numerous problems which need to be addressed. Continue reading “Master of the Game: Grounding”

GM/Party Communication

A while back I made some comments about the nature of players in a game versus the audience of a show or book.  Of specific note, I said:

When you are planning your adventure you can never make your plots dependent on predicting specific player action; especially when that action is predicated on the players not making logical conclusions.

This became relevant again because of a conversation I had over IM recently with my friend and former group member Ben, discussing his newly formed Deadlands game.  It also ties back to comments I made in a number of previous articles, and especially the one on the group contract.  The text has been edited for spelling and clarity: Continue reading “GM/Party Communication”