Thursday, June 27, 2013

I Know Who You're Running: Three Poles and Player Acknowledgement

Last night we scheduled the grand finale for the second arc of our Mutants & Masterminds campaign. In our previous session First Wave confronted and defeated one of the last Cabal Overlords- Kang, revealed to be Tony Stark- with their own armor-wearing Tony Stark revealed to be a clone. But that victory proved to be short-lived as they looked out upon NYC and saw the horde arrayed against them: gargantuan monsters of legend like Fin Fam Foom; Dog Demons; and Hela and her armies- and alongside, her general the Mighty Thor!

...which would have been awesome except one of the players had a power outage  so we had to reschedule for two weeks from now. I'd planned on writing something about the campaign for today, so instead I'll offer another piece that I've been working on and is more than a little raw- I'm still not sure about the concepts. 

At a recent session of our new Legend campaign, we found ourselves in an Inn. That’s pretty standard fare- a stopover for rumors as we headed on to deal with the question of the silent village. It has been a while since I’ve had a chance to play rather than GM. I’m enjoying the slow reveal we’re getting about the GM’s world- a place with lots of interesting bits and pieces. He’s smartly presenting those in drips and drabs. In any case as we come in- the GM describes the common room, with a few striking characters and clear plot hooks. Then he mentions that one of the groups in the room consists of members of a particularly brutal mercenary company from my home region. They recognize my heraldry and give me some scowls. It prompts some discussion in the group about my history.

And that’s it- we don’t get into a fight with them until a later session. They didn’t seem to tie to the main plot. They’re there and offered some color. More importantly they acknowledged that the GM remembers who my character is. I gave Derek a pretty Spartan background, a few details, but those details remain importantly to me. It has been a while since I played with Derek; the last campaigns were more procedural. We had cases or assignments. If something popped up from someone’s backstory it was because it tied to our current undertaking tightly. Here, in just a couple of minutes of scene I felt like my character mattered in the world and that the GM was thinking about cool stuff for me. Not just random plots, but ideas and concepts which played off of the work I’d done.

The moment stuck with me when I caught up on Ken & Robin talk About Stuff podcasts the following week. They had a segment on the perennial question of railroading, something I think every gaming blog and podcasts has wrestled with. I’ve written on it more than few times; Sandboxes & Finales and Another Inevitable Post on Railroading. Anyway that discussion plus some ideas about ways to use skill competency to mark players got me thinking about another way to see the tensions between what some might call “directed” versus “free” in an rpg. Instead of seeing that simply as a tension between the GM and players, I think we can three poles operating in a game. I’m hoping that thinking about it this way might help me understand where my campaigns- run and played in- work or didn’t work.

Story: We traditionally considered the GM’s core interest. The idea that the GM has a tale to tell that links or works at a meta-level to the scenes and sessions. Some gamers discuss this negatively- where a GMs focus on the story means that they don’t get to make meaningful choices, don’t have their characters acknowledged, and their result have been effectively mapped out. Gamers often point to Dragonlance as an exemplar of this kind of story orientation. As with all three poles, focus on this can exclude other elements. Story can be softer than this- where there’s a plot the players explore, such as in a mystery. Struggling to defeat a big bad’s a story trope and form. There’s a difference between plotting and plot in this case. Story can also be added later- with an emergent story, crafted by the players and/or the GM as things move along.

Characters: The narrative and details players tell about who they are. It includes character sheet bits and also how that gets expressed at the table. At the most basic level, this consists of the PCs class/race/role. In other games, this includes stories about those details (i.e. The Elves of Alfheim bear no ill-will towards the Dwarves of Rockhome). In games with an emphasis on character this often includes somewhat mechanical details like aspects, merits, flaws, disadvantages, complications and so on. More broadly it includes the backstory and character history which players come up with- told at the table or written up. Generally these elements are of greater value to the player than to the GM. Taken to the extreme offers a game that’s simply about the characters interacting. A negative spin on that might be to call it diddling around. GM-less games like Fiasco focus on this.

Environment: The setting and backdrop. Not the backstory, but simply the things which the group interacts with. Places, battle maps, described locations, discrete incidents, NPCs- these all make up the environment. This may be more or less interactive and responsive- for example NPCs on one end and a dungeon room on the other. This also includes the rules covering the game since that’s a both a kind of environment and the laws governing the backdrop. Hex and Dungeon Crawls often put an emphasis on this over anything else. In extreme versions, there’s no compelling story beyond a win condition or goal. You characters don’t really matter to the game, except as they impact available rule choices. But generally any characters could be slotted into games with a focus on environment.

Some games focus on one of these poles- that’s less interesting and less fun for me. Below are some notes about the extreme versions of these positions. What might be the implications of an obsessive focus?

Story Focus: No power, no interactivity, no choice. What the players do doesn’t really matter. I’ve played in games where it became pretty clear that the GM had a plot and we were going to get there regardless of what we wanted. Work we did to shape events would be washed away or dismissed. I’m not sure if it is better to know that up front or find that out as the campaign progresses. Sherri played in a game where she had the opportunity to build up resources and contacts for her character. She was given the impression that would be a significant part of the game. After several sessions of that, the GM threw them away and moved the party on to the location he wanted them to be at. Her worked ended up discarded and unmentioned.

Character Focus: No driving group goals, lack of direction, potential for misreading. I think when people dismiss some games as being dithering, dollhousing, or pointless, they’re talking about games like these. Character focused games draw plots and details from the PCs. Exclusively doing that suggests that the world revolves around them. If the group has players with different levels of energy, some can get left to the side. If can also devolve into everyone playing in parallel rather than towards something collectively. A character focus requires the GM to know the characters as well as the player. We had a series of campaigns with a player who communicated their goals and desires badly- and moved the goalpost. They became resentful when they weren’t given what they wanted, but wouldn’t communicate what that was. It meant they didn’t have to justify themselves.

Environment Focus: Characters don’t matter, board game play, disconnection, higher rewards for system mastery. Could devolve into a mechanistic approach: calculated challenges needed: monsters, traps, skill rolls, and plug those in. Strip away materials to get to the engine and result underneath- a procedurally generated approach. Games become samey. Characters become dismissed as tools. Non-optimal characters for the environment don’t work.

OK what does breaking that down actually do for me? Is it a useful way of doing things? I’ll say this- I tend to have a Story and Character focus in my games. I know and can identify that, so how can I bring that better into balance with the Environment. How can I present and scale challenges to make them interesting. I’m thinking about the mechanistic side of things there. But how can I present the environment/setting in a way that allows the players to muck around with it.

Crucially the GM- in the early days of a campaign, and then on a regular basis throughout the campaign- should show the players they know and remember their character. I talked before about the importance of establishing trust with players. This can be mechanical- showing that you have mastery of the system and want to use it for fun rather than straitjacketing the group. It can be about attention by demonstrating that in a scene everyone will get an opportunity. It could even be about taking them seriously- taking them at their word and considering even the goofiest ideas with some care. I believe that players need to trust that a GM recognizes who they are and acknowledges that the player has a kind of cool character.

As a side note, in an ideal game, as a GM, I love all of the PCs. I have affection for them or at the very least I don’t hate them. That doesn’t mean I’m not going not put them through the ringer. It doesn’t mean I’m going to protect them. But I’m going to do that because I want to see them rise to the top, I want to see how they overcome the challenges set before them. Depending on the game, I come to enjoy the character in several ways. In more classic games, that’s purely through personality and play- clever, funny, interesting, whatever. That’s how the player puts themselves out at the table in a heavily procedural game- like a dungeon crawl. In longer games or those with a greater narrative focus, I’ll come to that additionally through things like backstory, personality flaws, and dangling plot threads.

So how can a GM acknowledge the characters? At the basic level that’s remembering who the characters are- names, classes, event details. Where characters have competencies, like thiefly skills or particular kinds of spells, I can present opportunities to use those. Call on those players who have those skills and abilities- which in many cases may be several at the table. The nature of these games is that there’s often overlap. A GM has to figure out how to give people with a focus in something a chance to use it, while at the table time giving others who’ve invested in it some opportunity: offering a bonus, an insight, or even splitting the group to give additional players shots at those things.

But that’s really a set of crunchy conventions- about practical play. Most often I’m running more narrative games, so I have to figure out how to integrate the player’s backgrounds and history. Every session, I want to at least once mention something about a character that’s a call-back: a tie to their history, a past event they were key in, a description that centers on skills they’re excellent at, an NPCs comment on them, mentioning them to another PC or an NPC, putting forward or highlighting something that their character likes, getting them to express a goal, even something as little as asking them to describe their character or how they’re acting in a particular situation.

This isn’t about planning the session around the PC or shaping the story to them- I figure GMs will know how much they want to do regarding that. I’ve posted before some ideas on how to do that easily in GM prep (my Three Things sheets or the 3 Up/3 Down character assessments.)

NEXT WEEK: Practical applications and further thoughts. 


  1. Thanks for the call out. I appreciate it. The reason they didn't start trouble was actually a character focus reason. Not only did I want to introduce a part of your background, I wanted to see how you would react to the situations. I did the same thing with Patti's character and the elf lost finder. Plus, bar fight at an inn in a fantasy game? Who does that?

    The dwarf was a setting piece. The group had not really interacted with one up until that point.

    The troubadours were a throwaway. I knew I wanted them to be something, but I had yet to decide what.

  2. I think the most important thing there was to demonstrate to both Patti and I that you remembered important things about our characters- which encourages trust from us that you'll have interesting things for in general and that our backstory and ideas about who we are will actually be important or in play. It makes me think that one solution to the "not sure I'm reaching/satisfying X player" would be to simply start with things that show the player you know about their character and will touch on their concept.