13 Nov 2007

GM Responsibilities

Early in my Spirit of the Century game one of my fellow players made an interesting observation:

"The more I see of these story games the more I think it is all about the GM being lazy and getting the players to do his work"

I am paraphrasing this from memory but I think I have the gist right.

This interests me on many levels, due to its resonance with Big Model theories and various techniques espoused by Narrativist game designers and players about distribution of traditional GM roles. But my first thought was that it was almost exactly the opposite from my side of the table.

When I started running HeroQuest my aim was to encourage a style of play where the Characters were set free in the world and their actions would somehow shape and dictate the plot. Without a theory background I was attempting to resolve the Impossible Thing, by divorcing my responsibility to the story in order to allow the players to tell it through their actions.

The Impossible Thing:
The GM is the author of the story and the players direct the actions of the protagonists.

Where the game failed in my opinion, and it's still in its death throws, was that there was a story void in the centre of the game, and when the players didn't actively start to fill that void I was forced to. Slowly without me realising it, the game was transformed into the reverse solution, and I was dictating much of the story and allowing contributions rather that encouraging protagonism. Realising that things had gone awry prompted my turn to theory, mainly at that time through the now closed HeroQuest Forum at the Forge.

And the main thing that this journey has taught me is to prepare better. Instead of the logic that said "if I want story to be told at the table then I should do the minimum preparation and be prepared to roll with the players' suggestions" my preparation should be focused on facilitating the ongoing story.

An old RPG tradition has been not to cement stuff before play, a technique that allows the GM to keep his story on track. If the PCs capture the evil assassin then he turns out to be an underling: if the PCs obtain the enemy plans then they turn out to be an elaborate bluff, if the PCs make a wrong turn in the dungeon it matters not when the map hasn't been drawn. This technique takes away GM responsibility, but it's covert and works against protagonism because the players achievements are filtered through the GM's story.

Player: “I did it!”.
GM: “Yes but what did you do?”
Player: “huh! Oh your evil.”
GM sits back with a satisfied grin.

As a player this is fine if you are happy for the GM to provide story, the declaration of evil may be genuine appreciation, but it falls short when you want to reach for and achieve things set by your own agenda. For this the GM needs to have more than the narrow confines of the story prepared. He needs to know what kinds of things would be triggered by both success or failure or the big grey area in between, and ensure that any outcome is fun.

More radically, for a Narrativist Agenda to become established, it requires buy-in from the players either way: either an informed choice between success and failure or a trust that the methods of resolution provide scope for the characters and allow the players to further the story.

This requires just as much preparation, and just as much work for the GM, but the work is facilitative rather than directive and requires preparation to that end. Instead of constructing devices and plots that continually withhold resolution until the designated moment in the story, the GM needs to provide ways that the players can become involved in the story, and present situations that allow the players to achieve their character's objectives or at least ask the characters meaningful and action-provoking questions that allow further investment.

Back in the HQ game my preparation involved an incoherent mixture of the two, and unsurprisingly the game was also an incoherent mixture, but for this SotC game I am trying to confine my preparation and active involvement at the table to facilitation. Which still means providing story occasionally, but as a means to an end not the end itself.

It may appear to some players that my preparation has disappeared but it has instead been directed towards a totally different arena.

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