Thursday, October 30, 2014

Player Empowerment: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 35

In this episode of Play on Target we consider the question of player empowerment, but we come it from an unusual place. As we mention in the podcast this topic arose from someone asking if RPGs are power fantasies. I think the suggestion was more, "are they simply power fantasies?" So here we dance around that topic and consider how gamers talk about that as a positive or negative in gaming. I think its worth pointing out that there’s definitely a bias in our conversation. We’re three gamemasters, male, white, and generally not “killer GMs.” I don’t mean that as a pejorative…I need to come up with a better way to describe that. Perhaps more that we’re ‘softer’ GMs? I’m not sure. I think we’re less concerned with the simulationist and mechanical elements. Does that make our gaming more subjective, less objective?

I'll also note that Episode 17, "Player Investment" is a solid complement to this one. 

Experience and expectations shape a player’s feeling of power or lack of power. I have a couple of players in my online game who haven’t played a tabletop session in several years. One of them’s very conscious of all the things the GM could do to screw the party. They drill down on decisions because of that. That means often slowing down to examine situations that, as a GM, I’ve already handwaved away in my head. That’s not a matter of either of us being wrong, but more a conflict of styles. I have to find a way to better communicate my expectations and to take seriously his concerns. Voiced questions and a players' pet focus can be an indicator of uncertainty, but also of interest. I have to look more carefully in those instances to see if what’s being addressed is coming from mistrust or instead is something the player wants to wrestle with at the table.

There’s a great post on Ryan Macklin’s blog this week where talking about the question of “success at a cost” in Fate Core. For my home group, I don’t run Fate, but instead a card-based homebrew (Action Cards) that borrows several elements. Success with a cost comes up from time to time, buts it is explicitly called out as a player-facing choice. It’s also notably one of the places which slows down resolution at the table. When I run Fate otherwise, I usually keep the power to choose the cost on the GM’s side. It actually hadn’t occurred to me that it wouldn’t rest there. I pictured it like the hard choices Apocalypse World games offer.

But Macklin’s post suggest another view. It arises out of the player empowering side of the Fate rules, which puts more narrative power and decision making in those hands. I’ve run Fate several times online and it never occurred to me. I hope that I’d be willing to go along with a player-driven suggestion in those cases, but you never know. Sometimes I’m trying to move things along to keep things under time budget and cut corners. I wonder if I’ve ever left players feeling like I cut them off from power or decision-making in these sessions?

  • When we all made up characters and the first session the GM made all of us take on magical alternate identities to play instead.
  • When I ran a Netrunner in a Cyberpunk 2020 campaign and my contribution to operations consisted of making a single check every fifteen minutes real time and getting a “you don’t make it” response before the GM returned to the firefight.
  • When I attacked a standard NPC in a True20 game and the number I needed to affect him meant he was essentially made of solid steel.
  • When, after sacrificing my character to save other members of the party, the GM said I didn’t have to do that because his cool NPC would have saved everyone with no problem.
  • When the GM spent an hour after a session telling us all the cool things we missed because of the choices we’d made.

In the episode, I mention a GM I played with who seemed worried about the broadness of “backgrounds” in 13TH Age. These are aspects that function as skills in that system, like “Student of the Seventh Sanctum” or “Destitute Noble.” In play he seemed to dislike when we applied those too often, in too many situations.

I’m running 13TH Age now. I find myself doing the same thing. Seriously. I look at a couple of players’ backgrounds and think “he’s going to try to apply that to everything.” And then in play, I come up with reasons why that won’t fit for situations. So yeah, that’s dumb. Those backgrounds help define the players. I need to be more open to that and not shut things down because they’ve put their eggs in one basket.

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

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