Wednesday 21 March 2018

Why I play and GM the way I do

This one's gonna ramble a bit. I'm throwing ideas and oppinions out without much planning.

So, Zac's been doing a series of long and detailed blog-posts in which he takes apart GNS theory. It's been interesting to read, in a 'somebody insightful and acerbic is criticizing something I think is stupid' sort of way.

The thing about GNS is that it at least gets people thinking about what they like from games, and how they can achieve that, even if the specifics leave a lot to be desired.
I play Empire, a large (nearly 2K) UK based fest larp, and one thing I really like about it is that it accommodates lots of different playstyles and priorities. The costume-and-special-fx loving people all play certain areas, the people who love interpersonal drama and relationships and angst (in larp circles, this has aquired the nickname 'ballgowning') play certain types of character, the fighty people have their area, the argue-about theology people (I'm one of these!), the spreadsheet nerds who want to be efficient... all the different areas of the game are pretty nicely signposted so if you know what you want, making a character to fit is simple. In many ways, it's very good design.

I used to be one of the hardcore storygame types. Games can be Art, and they can be Deep and Interesting, and their design can be inventive. All that wank. I got slowly disillusioned with that for a few reasons. 
Like, to make that style of game work, everybody needs to be creatively on peak form. You can't sit back, have a beer, chuck dice around and enjoy a game with your mates. You need to be creative and proactive and insightful so this beautiful story can work.
I remember fairly recently playing a game of Ten Candles with some close friends, and it was probably the single most miserable experience of my gaming history (worse than the one where my meds ran out at the same larp fest where a cat. 9 storm destroyed my tent and the mud was up to my knees). Ten Candles, for reference is a high-concept, arty game about losing hope in a dark (metaphorically and literally) world. It's post apoc and mysterious and theatrical, and uses extinguishing candles to bring the dwindling hope to the fore. In particular, it sets things up in a very 'pass the talking-stick' shared narrative rights way, but gives a narrator just sliiightly more information than everybody else. I spent the first half of the game having my ideas shot down by others in the group. The second half was spent using my creative input in the alternating cycle of 'introduce something highly explosive' and 'make the highly explosive thing explode in the hope of ending this sooner'. 
God, it was horrible.
See, that's the problem with shared narrative rights: fundamentally, it means putting a bit of creativity on display and risking it getting stomped on, and when it is stomped on, it sucks.
I've had similar sorts of problems playing monsterhearts. 'Everybody is playing supernatural teenage monsters in a buffy-style setting' is my jam; I play a lot of WoD. And yet, the loose, story focussed nature of the system just grated on me. I didn't want all the themes about sexy awakening and personal identity that the mechanics kept thrusting on me, I wanted to roleplay as a hive-mind of spiders (basically, aracnopolis rex from VotE, but wearing a sexy teenage girl's skin as a disguise). Constantly being asked to evaluate and contribute towards the queer metaphors for emotional impact got in the way of my arachnophilia.
SO yeah, screw that stuff.
On a similar note, screw the following: PvP (which monsterhearts had loads of), character builds that make the system their bitch, fights that go on for ever, setting agnostic systems, and slavishly rolling for everything.

I don't play RPGs for the story, and attempts to do so have mostly resulted in me having a bad time. This is a great shame, as most of my close friends are all about the narrative.
I do, however, play games for the annecdotes.
Let me give you some examples:
  • I'm running Orpheus, the old WW game about ghost hunters. My players come into some money and use it to hire a mercenary company and set up a militarized base of operations on an off-shore oil rig, and end up basically being bond villains.
  • I'm playing VtM. The ventrue seneschal botches a drive roll while in another domain, and crashes his car. Into a church. Owned by that domains millenia old nosferatu primogen. Hilarity, complications, and Major Boons ensue.
  • I'm running Wolfpacks. One of my players is confident that she can survive this 'lethal meatgrinder game'. I make a bet that her PC won't survive the first session. She rolls up a mutant with what is essentially a glowing weak-spot. First encounter turns into a fight, first roll of the fight hits her weakspot and the mutant is gibbed ten minutes into the game.
  • I'm running Deep Carbon Observatory. One of my players picks a fight with the Crows and tries to fight them face-to-face. He's level 1. The crows aren't. He's turned into chilli con carne. Meanwhile a more sensible player unties the crow's captives while they're beating up the murderhobo and sneaks off with them.
  • I'm playing LotFP. My halfling is infested with parasites devouring their flesh at a rate of 1 hp every minute. She goes and finds some hemlock to down, on the basis that she's got a 3+ save vs poison and the parasites probably don't, and she's dead in five minutes anyway. I roll a 2. Thankfully, the parasites failed their save as well, so at least the infection didn't spread.

None of these were scripted, planned or really even a natural consequence of the rules. They just sort of happened through player inventiveness and (un)lucky rolls. They're anacdotes that are cool because they happened in games we were invested in, to PCs we cared about, and the combination of players and luck butterfly-effected into this badass and/or hilarious results.
The spontaneity is important to me, I think. The feeling that it's not people being creative and crafting a story, but just 'this cool thing that happened'.

As a player, I tend to go for information-gathering abilities. I managed to perplex a 5e D&D GM by building a wizard with pretty much nothing but divination spells. She sucked in combat, but god DAMN did she know what the plot was about. In VtM I tend to play characters with auspex, necromancy, koldunism, animalism.
I like finding out about the setting, basically. It's why I still read oWoD splat-books. The world is big and cool and well realised, and OK, the rules are a mess and the writers make their favourite factions the strongest, but it's fun to learn about.
I know a lot of players who, when introduced to a new game , go "Oh, for fuck's sake, do I have to read all about the setting?" Whereas I go "Oh fucking awesome where do I learn about this setting?" I never actually learned how the mechanics for shadowrun worked when I played it, but I could give you an in-depth in-universe explanation of the  HMVV infection and its biology.
So when I play, I want to be good at exploring and finding details and seeing what's there.
This is, partly, why storygames rubbed me the wrong way: the idea that I can add and invent details breaks me right out of the fun of discovery.

This is also, I think, why I love random tables in play. Every time I roll up a cave system in Wolfpacks, or roll a random encounter, or whatever, I'm effectively discovering something about the setting. Not inventing it (although I may need to be creative to tie everything together): I'm learning about it at the same time the players are. There's that little thrill of possibility there.

This is also why I love 3d6-in-order character gen. Roll up six stats. Look at them and work out what kind of person this must be. "Oh, they've got high con but rubbish strength and dex. Maybe the're arthritic but hardy? OK, so that means they're probably old...". I get to discover who I'm playing.

The Gardens Of Ynn is this principle writ large. Every time your players go deeper, you roll and discover a location together. Every roll for events lets you discover something or introduce something. As a GM, you see the map unfold and expand as your players explore.

It's probably also why I like anecdotes rather than narratives. Anecdotes are stories you discovered by chance rather than wrote on purpose.
This certainly ties together my two main loves as a player. OSR, for its exploration-based gameplay, its willingness to throw new ideas together, its willingness to treat the dice as an oracle. And then WoD for the sheer hugeness of the setting.
It's why Made In Abyss is my favourite Anime. It's why I liked Voyage Of The Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair more than the other narnia books: they showed you new, weird bits of the setting, and tantalized you with the bits of the setting they hinted at but never revealled. Even as an adult, the descriptions of Bism in TSC still excite me with the unexplored possibilities.

No real moral here. Just some musings. Maybe your own priorities are similar: since you're reading this blog, I suspect they may be.


  1. I too prefer anecdotes over narratives. That's why I love dungeons and interpersonal conflicts the most: they combine discovery, problem-solving, and shit-what-do-we-do-now moments just the right way.

    Surprisingly, my most successful campaign is still a 2-year nWoD game where my two (and later three) players were thrown into a shadow war between two cults. Without supernatural powers, gadgets, or superior knowledge, it had this survival horror vibe low-level D&D games have. I didn't use random tables at the time, but I only had a single spread's worth of notes for that campaign: the rest was improvised on the fly - so it even had this tripping chaotic aspect I sometimes still strive for.

    Looking forward to seeing what you do with Esoteric Enterprises!

    1. WoD mortals has a lot of potential for interesting gameplay because you can't rely on Badass Powers to get shit done.
      I quite like how Hunter gives you weird esoteric tools rather than raw powers. It encourages similar inventiveness.

  2. Wolfpacks sounds really interesting. Where can I learn more about it?

    1. False Patrick did a very flattering review of it here. It sums it up quite well, I think.

  3. Have you ever played DCC? I love the randomness of that system, and the 0-level character funnel concept. It generates a lot of pretty hilarious anecdotes. Lemme tell ya about that time we dried and smoked that wizard's brain...

    1. I have not. I have, however, given the book a read and harvested it for ideas. I'd be interested to try it, though...

  4. I have to agree! The story takes a backseat to table antics. I'd rather my players walk away with stories about that one time they almost "doomed" the city by causing a Boil Bunny outbreak. They have more fun watching the narrative evolve serendipitously, rather than designing it themselves. In my experience, storygames really do require everyone to be on the same page, and if they aren't it nosedives into a total wreck, as you've said.

  5. Hi! Great blog! I was mesmerized by the Idea of thorns!

    I haven't played many games, I've read a few small press games, but for the moment I have a terrific time playing d&d 5e. I'm going to agree that it seems boring as hell to play a game that should or must play like a "good" story or narrative. It seems like an antithesis to role playing, really. I haven't read or played Ten candles, but it doesn't sound like my cup of tea if that is what the game does! I think some games get traction on the internets because their design aims to produce a certain feeling or a certain type of story or genre, which some people like and others don't. Sometimes these games gets a lot of attention because of production values, and sometimes because of their new and, for people that like them, exiting techniques and rules. I think some of these games takes it too far. They produce *this kind of story* full stop, and people don't really reflect enough about the hardwiredness or pre-determination of the play experience because they are happy with the collaborative larp-like or writers club-like story creation, happy with the shared aesthetics or tropes that the group came together to experience. I think those games are nothing more than bad designs, really.

    What I don't understand is, what is a story game? Is it those games? Those that aim to create a certain story so much that they don't surprise the players or the group, hardwires things in the way I described above to get drama of a certain kind? Because I feel that's really just badly designed games. For example, a game where where the participants must discuss things to come anywhere or where ideas even can get shot down by fellow players, is a badly designed game.

    1. It's way too big a topic to adequately address in the comment section, but the short answer is that not all story games are like that. In fact, this is one of the design aspects that divides the story game community.

  6. You are probably right about the big topic thing. But interesting, about the divide! you're probably right. Although it saddens me that we have so many more or less meaningless divides and categorizations within role playing, with identity politics dividing the people that play. Still, I know it can be helpful to search OSR when I'm interested in playing or reading about a game with a certain feel (even if it's a broad and diffuse categorization). So somewhat divided myself!