Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Evolution of My GM-style -- or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb(ast)

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. Every GM has his or her favorite system, but in these articles we endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you are a blogger, and you’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at and supply the URL of your blog.

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Scott Robinson, who asks, "How has your gaming and/or GMing changed over time?"


Back to the first person :).

I recommended this topic because I have been thinking a lot about how my approach to gaming (as a player and a GM) has changed considerably over my the decades.  I will provide an (I hope mercifully) short biography to set up what I see are the largest changes in my play style.

It may be because I am about to turn 40; but, the differences in how I play now (as opposed to various other decades of my gaming life) are becoming obvious.

I have been roleplaying since 1980.  No, seriously.  On the playground, I somehow fell in with a group who were playing something they called Dungeons and Dragons.  It was D&D as interpreted by some grade school kids, but I was hooked.  In retrospect, it was basically hazing.  I still remember that in my first few mornings I basically just hung out with the players who did things, got turned into a unicorn, and had my horn broken off the first time I actually tried to do something.  These kids were basically bullying me -- and I loved it.  I never noticed they were just hazing me.

I played off-and-on with my extended family for years before a period of more active and consistent play in junior high (starting with the launch of 2E D&D mostly).  Here the game was almost entirely consistent with the negative stereotype of young D&D groups.  We badly misinterpreted the rules (Ranger Myrmidons FTW) and cheated or manipulated the game to create as crazy a power fantasy as possible.  The game seemed mostly players vs. DM and each other.  Personal conflict spilled over into the game and it seemed became the setting for us to enact various resentments.  At one point, I missed a game and my character was castrated by the rest of the party because.. well, I am not entirely sure.  And yet, I remember most of that gaming fondly.

In my early college days we switched to Darksun, Planescape,  and World of Darkness campaigns (Vampire and Wraith, mostly).  This is where I started to see what gaming could be and how it could engage serious narratives rather than re-enacting in-person versions of the SSI Gold Box games.  Playing in the World of Darkness in particular revealed a whole different side to role playing.  The combat rules (this was the 1st edition of these games) were... not great.  Some might say, terrible.  The game was not designed to focus on clearing dungeons, killing monsters, and taking their stuff.  It required designing stories about politics, exploration, and inter-personal relationships.  This fascinated us but I had to basically start over in understanding what RPGs could be.

I had various returns to RPGs (around the launch of D&D 3E, a little Pathfinder, some D&D 4E, etc.).  Like so many people, I had moved almost entirely to PC games to scratch the RPG itch.  Within the past couple of years, though, I have jumped back in to playing.  I have a not-as-regular-as-we-want 5E campaign with some of the same people I played within Jr High and High School.  I had a short Pathfinder campaign with another person from the same period.  I added my Strange playtest  on top and the contrast is what made me realize how different my play style has changed -- as has the play style of most of the people I play with.

Here are several of the ways that my style has changed -- and, mostly, this applies to the other people I play with as well.

1]  A focus on story:  Most of the groups I am playing with now are really focusing on creating an interesting story.  Sometimes this focus on the micro-narrative of combat and individual action.  Sometimes it is a participatory approach to world building.  In each of the games -- whether it is 5E or The Strange -- all of the people are playing a bigger part in creating the story.  People criticize 4E D&D for being like a computer game (discrete sets of actions, movement on a grid, attention to reach, etc.).  Frankly, that game was pretty much everything my Jr High D&D player ever wanted.  It had clarity of the rules.  It allowed for crazy visual powers.  There was a sense of "defeating" what the GM put together.  Etc.  To me it was not something that moved away from the roots of D&D -- it just moved towards a specific style of play that I had embraced at one time. What had changed was that 4E was a game that catered to my Jr High play style when I was looking for something different (which I readily conceded can not be easily called "better" -- just better for me, right now).  We had fun using it once we houseruled it enough to let us play as we wanted and limited combat frequency.

2] Time - Dammit:  When I was younger, I could spend a great deal of timing coming up with elaborate campaigns and carefully balanced XP budgets for encounters.  I drew crude maps filling pad after pad of graph paper.  Almost none of this was ever used.  I just loved doing it.  Of course, I don't have the time I once did (ungrounded criticisms of university faculty effort notwithstanding).  Now, the ease of development is a key part of any game system for me now.  For related reasons, it is also important that I be able to develop material while sitting in a meeting.  Any system that is more narrative based for development (simple levels for challenge as in the Cypher system, aspects for Fate, etc.) can serve this purpose.  I can just jot down notes and have enough to play 3 hours off of.

3] Coordinating play:  I have had a terrible time coordinating in-person game play.  The D&D and Pathfinder crowd have a hegemonic grip on play in my area.  Getting my personal friends together is also difficult at this stage in our life -- not the least of which because I am 3 hours away from most of them.  I am trying out online play (tonight, actually -- GM Day) but most of my play is at conventions at this point.

4] The relationship between players and GM:  I have a very different approach to adjudicating player actions now than I once did.  Though my players still don't always believe it when I say it, if they ask me "can I?" I almost always say yes.  I would prefer to let them endanger the game by overpowering the challenges than get caught back into the cycle of a player vs. GM relationship.  If a player abuses this approach too much, I may talk to him or her after the session about dialing it back.  I increasingly see it as my role as to allow the group to generate a fun story -- not to protect the integrity of the rules, to serve as a neutral arbiter to test the players against the rules, or to "beat" the players in any sense.

5] The importance of rules:  I try to refer to the rules as rarely as possible.  I would prefer the game be fun than correct.  I don't think I looked at the rules at all in 3 sessions running The Strange at Gencon -- and that was soon after launch with players who had not read the rules.  This means that I will sometimes just say "we'll try it this/your way and check later" rather than look anything up in the rule book.  As any of you who have read my previous posts know, I am fast and loose with the rules.  If a rule -- on further research -- does not seem to facilitate the fun for my group, I will drop it without hesitation.  This could have been a problem in the old days of debates about who actually survived the "real" version of the Tomb of Horrors (correct answer:  no one).  Now that I think of games as all being group-conditioned narratives, there is no sense in comparing the correctness of games -- just whether everyone enjoyed their time.  Some people enjoy a particular type of rules experience (I am looking at you Pathfinder) but that is not what I am looking for right now.  I would feel that it was important in Pathfinder to adhere to the rules so that people thought that playing through, say, Rise of the Runelords meant a specific play experience.  For narrative game styles, this is not even a consideration.  I doubt there is much uniformity even in the launch campaign arc for D&D 5E.

6] I don't judge:  I hear a lot of talk about younger gamers "getting in wrong."  Some of this was veiled criticisms of D&D 4E -- or other systems.  The complaint was usually that the focus was on combat, rule mastery, map-based tactical skill, etc. Given my history, I don't see this as wrong -- just a style I have moved away from.  If my trajectory is common, we may see some of these players at narrative tables in the future.  I don't want to run them off because they don't play like I do now.  I have played various ways across my life and choose to embrace it all as "right" if it is a style people have fun with.

What do you think?  Feel free to discuss on Google+ or in the comments.  This post is part of a broader discussion across several Cypher System blogs.  You can find the other contributions (when they are posted this week) at:

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