Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Selections from a GM's Recent Reading

Sidebar: A couple of quick points to follow up from my last post about Playing Chicken with the GM. To answer a comment Kenny made to me-- the post wasn't done in reaction to anything which just happened in the games. I've had that topic in the back of my mind and finally got around to sketching out some of the difficulties. The terminology we use potentially obscures the topic. For example, we could describe the act of “Playing Chicken” as the player 'challenging' the GM. However I think that gives the impression of a different kind of relationship at the table, with the GM as a controlling power-holder. I've been in those games, but in recent years those have become fewer. I guess there's something to be said for trying to evaluate and judge a legitimate versus and illegitimate challenge: in less technical terms, whether someone is being a d*ck or if they have a legitimate grievance.

I think the topic's a potentially useful one-- but also one fraught with some risks. Looking too hard at this can lead to over-analysis or invite recriminations. Most gamemastering guides have some discussion of the group and social dynamic-- with the common approach being to break players and gamemasters into types. But I wonder what a serious social analysis of the tabletop role-play dynamic would be if executed over time. How would you define that kind of study? Through thick description? Through language or expression analysis? Self-reporting? Would you compare rw interactions to those of the table-top? What comparisons between groups? In some ways I'm not sure if the analysis would be more psychological, anthropological, or sociological.

Me, I just want some tools to help me recognize and deal with problems at the table before they get out of hand.

I have to admit that even when I read for pleasure, I tend to be looking for elements or ideas which I can incorporate into games or other forms of storytelling. Imagine it as a kind of purpose-driven reading. With that in mind, here are some things I'm working through:

As I mentioned before (I think) I've started back into Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. I've read it before and even on the second read through I find it manages to create a real sense of dread for me. He has a lot of tricks going on the book, mostly meta-textual, but the work holds together. One of the details that strikes me is that it is a 'horror' novel which works on several levels-- a work about a work about a work. Yet he keeps you twisted and lost about your emotional investment in the levels. I think there's perhaps some lesson to be drawn from that about maintaining atmosphere at the table: where we play in another story and try to elicit vicarious emotions through that. I don't know what the lesson is yet.

I also picked up and started reading a coy of Boy's Life by Robert McCammon (my sister left a copy here when she visited). There's a real King/Straub vibe in it, but a little more distance than in those authors. At first I was pretty sure it wold be a conventional aping of King's style, but then there's the moment when the neighborhood boys develop wings and fly around. I don't know what to make of it. On the one hand, I like a kind of magical realist approach to things. On the other hand, the story hasn't pulled me through enough-- it feels like a series of anecdotes. Also, as with King, Straub and some other authors, there's a nostalgia for a period of time growing up in America that I really can't connect with. I grew up in the 1970's and I'd rather see a fictional work which considers that experience. Or at least which has details I can bring to bear on a game.

Then again, I keep reading these Falco mysteries set in Ancient Rome. I've been working on a couple which I picked up but hadn't yet finished, The Accusers and Venus in Bronze. Next month the Falco Companion, an encyclopedia to the series, will be coming out. I'm pretty excited by that. I still want to do an ancient Rome game and I think I finally have a hook to hang that on-- but I'll come back to that. The thing I appreciate about the books is that they do have strong detail without being to melodramatic like some of the other historical mystery books. I know the details and plots from those I'll easily be able to lift and transform for games.

Related to that is A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela. I won't say it is the deepest historical analysis, but the author provides a real ground-level view of what living in ancient Rome would be like. I'd love to see more material like that (like perhaps some Renaissance period places). It has a kind of pop style to it, and he switches to anachronistic observations from time to time, but overall I'd say this is an excellent resource for anyone running a game set in this period (or in any like period). I need to find and consult with a historian about a couple of ideas this brought up.

I'm also just about done with Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money. Unfortunately I read this while grilling the other night and left it out in the rain. It remains readable, but I'll have to throw it away when I'm done. Not that I'm entirely adverse to that. I think I'd tried one of Ferguson's earlier books, but I can't recall anything about it. My hope, and certainly one reinforced by the back cover and a quick flip through, would be that this book would be a nice, comprehensive history of money, wealth and financial instruments. I'm always curious about those issues and how I can place them in the backgrounds of my games-- more as a passing detail than anything else. At the same time when I am doing world or nation building, I don't want to be too exact on details but I also want it to have some logical consistency. Unfortunately The Ascent of Money ends up being pretty cursory about the history-- passing anecdotes and quick overviews on the way to making assertions about the modern world. Feh. Not so useful to me.

I'm also disappointed with the Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies. Mind you that's one of those Barnes & Noble press bargain books. I'd hoped for more, but it does show the general banality of conspiracy and secret holdings in the real world. The Illuminatus it is not, nor even Foucault's Pendulum. I'm more hopeful about the Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols-- though that may turn out to be banal as well. Still, it might prove useful for the Scion campaign or for the Changeling game. The latter is built on a set of ideas about symbolism and a relation to strangeness.

I've also started reading a John Bellairs anthology I found at Goodwill. I'd always seen The House with a Clock in its Walls in bookstores growing up, but I never read it (or either of the two succeeding young adult novels). I recall seeing a brief snippet adaptation of it on a CBS Saturday Morning reading show-- but that was a teaser to get you to read the book. In any case, I'm working on it now and enjoying it-- a nice set of details for modern games. Strangely I'd always had an imagined story in my head about the plot of the book-- which actually influenced some of the plots in the current Changeling game. I'd also never put together that Bellairs wrote this and one of my favorite fantasy novels The Face in the Frost. All of which are fertile and useful things for GMs who use magic in their games.

Lastly and full circle to my point at the start, I've been re-reading The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. It was also at Goodwill for a buck and so I picked it up. Generally Haden-Elgin's work is OK-- providing verbal pattern illustrations-- but has a kind of narrow application. It also seems like the examples provided lack any real subtlety. I'm going to track down some of the supplemental volumes to see if they might give some further insight.


  1. Hmm. From the Wikipedia description, you want multiple narrators and narratives. First impulse for me is to say GMs. Can you make a complex campaign where multiple GMs take turns, and no single GM knows all the secrets? Robin Laws has discussed similar ideas, with different GMs controlling different plot lines/NPC groups. If another GM's plot comes up during a game, he can jump in and take over temporarily.

    Another trick could echo your reality jumping games. You have parallel campaigns run by one GM, separated in time. The later campaign is reading about the earlier campaign (in newly translated fragments, discovered clues, in a tale told by an easily tired storyteller, or a book they can only read in bursts).

  2. I think the thing that strikes me is less the question of multiple or unreliable narrators, but more the positioning of the reader. When I'm reading the book, I'll come to a particularly evocative passage-- one that will fill me with dread.

    Then I'll realize that the passage is actual a description of a film within a text which purports to be an analysis of said non-existent film which is itself a fake text being talked about by the supposed narrator which is contained within the actual book House of Leaves. The meta-levels have a definite geography, and a moving down through the layers (which parallels itself something on the thematic of the book).

    So I'm wondering how that might apply to our perspective as people playing false identities and diving down into the layers of a false world, the rpg setting. I'm wondering if there are techniques of immersion and impact which could usefully be applied to the table.

  3. Sigh. I've reserved it at my local library. Yet another mind blowing book I've got to read :) After I read it I might have truly constructive things to suggest.

    It's definitely an evocative question you've posed. In part, it's finding new ways to present information which the audience hasn't learned to dismiss yet.

    The false identity angle is interesting. For work, Lisa is a reading a really bad historical romance, Mistress by "Amanda Quick". I think it's set in Georgian or Regency London. In it, the main character is trying to catch the man blackmailing her aunt. The blackmailer claims to have killed the missing "Earl of Masters" (ugh, worst fake names ever). To enter that social circle, she pretends to be the Earl's once secret mistress, Lady Starlight. The book opens with "Lady Starlight" encountering the not-murdered Earl at a soiree. The plot's not bad, but the writing is execrable.

    Anyhow, you could do a campaign where all the players have to assume someone else's identity, and discovering all the horrible things the previous nameholder did and experienced. As ever, I don't know if you've already done this multiple times: your campaign history is amazing! But it's new to me.

  4. Something bothered my mind about what I wrote. Like I knew you'd used that idea.

    I just remembered that that's what we did in the last Libri Vidicos adventure I sat in on. Duh. Which was much better managed than Mistress.