Saturday, June 13, 2020

Make the Gamemaster shine (so the players shine as well)

Not sure this idea will carry a post, but I really want to keep it from getting away, so here we are, talking about it ... Maybe I'll mix in something else. For now, this is about the dimension of writing a rulebook that allows an aspiring gamemaster to fulfill their role.

The rules are not the game ...

So here is another insight I just had about writing a game that I don't see much represented by roleplaying games out there: you don't only teach a reader the game, you teach them to fill their position in the game with confidence.

That whole discussion about how games need to be inclusive and diverse and all that totally underlines how games these days would rather create a space people can be what they think they are, instead of giving the players (including the Gamemaster) a path laid out to work towards a specific experience.

Don't get me wrong, games come in all shapes and forms, and as I keep saying, we are far from done in exploring what kind of games roleplaying games are or what their ideal form might be. Or forms, really. There is, however, something about how things like that are processed by the mainstream that'll reduce a game from 4d chess to the equivalent of a chess-themed amusement park:

Or this:


And rightfully so, if you think about it, as it builds roads and bridges to the real thing. Not all will follow those hints. Some will just seek the thrill of cheap entertainment and be done with it. For others, however, it can be the start of a journey, and that's how those things have value.

Inevitably, to keep with the analogy, some people will assume that the amusement park is the real thing, the final manifestation of an evolution and real 4d chess is just a thing left in the past or not worth bothering with.

What can I say, knowing that people like that exist and following the argument I'm making here, the only conclusion must be (for me, at least) that those people have no credibility and should be dismissed like that. I've talked (at length when talking Dungeon World) about how all those Powered by the Apocalypse games are scripting and manipulating player experience in way that allows mimicking certain themes and tropes by paying lip service to them while lacking all depth or complexity beyond that (some good DM advice, though).

The success of games like that, shows that there is an audience for it, and as far as I can tell, most people that like those games, are less drawn to more complex games like AD&D. The argument is the same: those light rules games are enough for many, but for some it can be the jumping of point to something a little more involved.

Anyway, why the detour? We have to understand that the level of investment someone is willing to bring to a game is on a scale. Some just want to sit in a car that goes through loops, others want build and tune a car to take it for a ride themselves. Some just want to experience the rush of a Marvel movie, others want to make the decisions and rolls that make it seem so in retrospect. It's the difference between rolling the dice to find a clue and solving the riddle yourself and everything in between.

Still a VW, isn't it? [source]

Now, the further you get away from the imitation game, the more involved need the theories to be that make the game work. Most of us aren't firemen or soldiers, none of us are knights or wizards, so if you want more than just waving your arms and screaming "Fireball!", the game needs to deconstruct the experience and make it accessible not only through game design and game vocabulary but also through offering insights on how those stories are told.

Not only that, you do it in a way that they can be confident about bringing it to the table and running it in a way that teaches the players how to be confident about it as well. It describes a journey, a development, a path to play a game expertly to a degree that you need to describe it as a 'skill'.

The Book is to the Gamemaster ...

... what the Gamemaster is to the players. Again, this all overlaps within a spectrum. A good Gamemaster can make a bad game shine and a good player can be a great example for other players. Ideally, however, a book of rules will offer a complete deconstruction of how the game is supposed to be played in a way that experienced Gamemasters can relate and adapt while new Gamemasters get everything on hand they need to understand the game and make it their own.

Step 1, illustrated ... [source]

Part of good game design is being able to explain the game design in a way that others can extrapolate from it and deeper you dive into a topic, the more you'll have to lay out systems and ideas that are in the periphery of a game design decision.

Think about it: if your game follows the basic principles of, say, a specific fantasy book series, you have to put the Gamemaster in a position that they are able to reproduce the experience the books series is famous for. Not by quoting scenes or characters from the book, but by manipulating and presenting the narrative in a way that is recognizably akin to the source material.

And through the Gamemaster presenting the game like that, the players follow suit. The result is experiencing a story with the same intensity as the one that inspired the original series through the combined effort of game design and comprehensive literary analysis. You allow the Gamemaster to shine and they will not only make the game shine, they will inspire their players to invest more into the game.

The Star Wars RPG by Westend Games is another excellent example for this. When WEG got the contract for a Star Wars game, they don't just created something within what the movies established, they expanded on it in a way that allowed players to experience stories that felt like Star Wars while being something entirely different (here is a great article about their decisions and success).

How could it be the same, but different, you might ask. In a way all of that is related, again, to the decisions that made Star Wars work. The philosophies of the Jedi and how that relates to Japanese Samurai movies, the narrative necessities of the space opera genre and how all that translates into game design. There's also an aesthetic to it that translates to more than just visuals.

An understanding of all that informed the game designers when expanding on Star Wars. It's one important aspect of making it work. Opening that world and its machinations up to a Gamemaster will put them in a position, where they can do just the same for the players, but not through reading, but through creating a story.

Step 2, illustrated ... [source]

Don't reduce Roleplaying Games to 'Storytelling'

And that should be the last point I make in this post, something many don't seem to be aware of (or at least not aware of the implications): rolelpaying games transfer and translate established tropes, stories and genres form other media to a narrative environment that is entirely based on group communication that is enhanced by some sort of gaming mechanic.

And just like a book translates differently to a movie or a computer game, it translates differently to a roleplaying game. It is crucial, in my opinion, to understand that it's not the communication that manipulates a narrative in a way that it emulates a certain genre or trope, it's the additional rules that are used that bring that effect.

Designing roleplaying games in the context described above means altering the rules of language to a degree and with the purpose to create a certain headspace within those playing the game that echoes specific experiences from other media in a collaboratively manifested narration instead.

Still the best representation of this idea, imo. [source]

Each of those experiences follow different rules. Grindhouse is different to romance is different to western or books to movies to tv series ... and you just can't assume that a Gamemaster is savvy with all the exceptions and rules to begin with. As a matter of fact, given that Gamemasters will most likely be interested in more than one game/genre/setting, it's actually necessary to provide them with all they need to make it happen.

I feel like hitting all the same notes again ...

Another post by the Disoriented Ranger talking about how important DM tools are and the same distinctions of games and some of the same theories. I hope you enjoyed this post nonetheless. I feel there is value in approaching those topics from different angles and it all is a learning process for me as well. That, and there is value in mantras like this, as it helps me internalizing some of the insight presented here, which then, in turn, makes it more intuitive to integrate them into my designs (here's hoping ...).

For some things, you just have to sit down and do them to get a new perspective on them, and writing a game for publication is definitely one of those things. It also helps appreciating well written games. It's a shit load of work to write a game in a way that allows some stranger to play it as intended ...

Anyway, yeah, that's what I wanted to tell you guys. If nothing else, it might help you in understanding the games you read and play a bit better. I'd love to hear about games that fulfill those criteria and maybe about popular games that don't. Stay safe and healthy, guys.

Now with new context [source]