16 November, 2010

Table Consensus

In my readings and podcast listening, I’ve noted a few people discussing the idea of collective GMing, especially in regard to the notions of dividing up responsibilities such as narrative framing, awarding experience and determining if a character is “being played correctly”.

Each of these is a very different topic, but the last one has seen some controversy. So that’s where I’ll be turning my attention.

GMing is a delicate art of maintaining a collective dream (that mysterious thing that many people refer to as a “Shared Imagination Space”), and by keeping a degree of authority imparted to them by the gaming group.

In traditional roleplaying games, a group might impart virtually limitless control to their GM. They allow the GM to frame scenes, tell them when to roll dice, and then tell them how the results of those die rolls manipulate the unfolding narrative. Often, in this type of set up, the players don’t even mind when a GM fudges die rolls just to ensure their story unfolds in a predetermined manner.

It’s a lot of responsibility on the GM. They basically have to prepare the story in advance, prepare the scenes and any props that might help make things more immersive for the players. The GM basically plays the role of a raconteur, telling a story to their group and occasionally allows their players to become scene focal points when the story demands it. The players sit back and either enjoy the ride, or get bored/frustrated and find a new GM. It’s just the way things have been and most players put down a bad gaming experience to a “bad GM”…and as a flipside to this, most traditional players feel fearful of the idea of stepping up to GM duties.

The main “expected right” in a traditional game is the idea of player advocacy or protagonism. When a GM is given the rights over everything else in the story, a player expects the right to make choices that are important to their character, and through the process of character generation and backstory, they expect the right to decide which choices will actually be important.

If I make a character who is a “high school kid seeking popularity while coming to grips with newfound psychic powers”…I expect a story where seeking popularity will play a role, where I’ll get to use my character’s psychic powers in interesting ways, and where I’ll probably face issue of being something other than human. If my GM isn’t planning to tell a story relating to any of those things, I’d like him to tell me from the beginning. That way my character choice won’t clash with the GMs story and I won’t get frustrated.

There is advice like this in GMs guides for many games, White Wolf’s Storyteller system is riddled with it. But that’s the whole point of the storyteller system; it’s right there in the title. The system is designed for one person to tell a story with their friends portraying characters in some of the key roles. It gives you the tools, gives you pages and pages of advice on how to use those tools and offers suggestions for how to tailor those tools to your group. Too many GMs I know simply ignored those pages of helpful hints and advice, simply running the World of Darkness as a dungeon bash or concocting elaborate conspiracies regardless of the character types devised by the players. To make things worse, a lot of GMs would then tell their players “make any type of character you want”, to appease their players up front, not realising the treachery of their words in the long term.

On a few occasions, I was one of those GMs; but over time I learnt the art of incorporating the chosen concepts of player characters into my stories, getting players into the story generation right from the point where their characters are created.

But is it enough to ensure characters are integrated into a story to ensure that they have a degree of fidelity and internal consistency.

I’d say probably not.

These are just the elements for valid testing of integrity. If a character is incongruous with a story, none of their decisions make sense in context. If a GM declares that I’m not playing my character right, I need to have a valid point of reference if I’m going to take their critique. Metaphorically, if an accurate portrayal of a certain character is 23.5 degree Celsius, an inappropriate story is like trying to determine that temperature with a ruler. If my “high school kid seeking popularity while coming to grips with newfound psychic powers” was critiqued in a setting riddled with immortals, vampires and werewolves in the southern states of the US, it would probably get a very different critique to the same character played the same way in a sci-fi space opera. If I knew what the Gm was planning from the outset, I’d tailor my performance…and my performance would tailor the way the true nature of the character was portrayed. I guess it’s a symbiotic feedback loop. When certain things get tested, those are the things that become the defining aspect of the character.

That could be argued as one of the important reasons why “system matters”… but it’s probably more of an important reason why everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to story, character and the shared dream.

That gets me back to the topic title, and sets groundwork for the actual things I’d like to delve into.

In a traditional game like Dungeons & Dragons, characters advance based on their success in encounters. More recent (but still traditional) games, like the Storyteller system and certain variants of d20, characters get the chance to improve based on a player’s consistent portrayal. Maybe they earn Willpower points (or some other mechanism altering benefit) for acting according to their “nature”; in other games they might earn a few bonus XP for achieving goals associated with their personal agendas. This type of advancement is another arbitration decided by the GM, but many groups I’ve been a part of have allowed this decision to be arbitrated by the other players on the table.

Here’s where the controversies arise in the discussions I’ve been reading/watching/listening to.

How do we determine what is an accurate portrayal? How much do we want to reveal about a character at the early stages of a story, especially when a character is meant to be slimy or treacherous?

How much do we allow meta-knowledge into the game? How do we persecute it when we discover that it has been used/abused?

I’ve been playing with the idea a bit in some of my recent game writings…

I’m trying to find a way for a player to be rewarded for sticking their character to a core concept, while allowing that core concept to grow.

It’s one of those problems seen fairly frequently in the fan-fic community. One person writes a story about Leia Organa in the extended Star Wars universe, carefully defining the character’s reactions through the instances when the character has faced something similar in the past…another person says that the character isn’t portrayed correctly because things worked out badly the first time the decision was made and now they’d make a different choice…another person still claims that certain events aren’t canon and therefore the whole piece of prose is inaccurate.

The shared dream just isn’t there so the gauges of character fidelity are instantly skewed. With established and famous characters it’s hard enough to get agreement on the accuracy of the choices made. Therefore, trying to get an accurate assessment of a personally created unique character must be next to impossible. It seems like a great way to get the players more active in the decision making for the game, but is it sound judgement to base a game reward mechanism on a system that is inherently flawed? Is there something we can do to make the system more structurally sound?

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