Yeah, provocative title, I know, but I am genuinely blown away by this counter-intuitive overlap.
The trad GM railroad
I'm one of those gamers who was introduced to GMing as something of a power trip, and was drawn to the power of being able to tell "my story". I loved my NPC and backstories and schemes, my planned developments and plot twists, my cities and factions and histories and worlds. Whatever my explicit goals may have been at the high school game table -- I can't even remember -- the biggest motivator was probably that moment where I showed the players a thing I'd made up and they provided the desired reaction.
This crypt hasn't been opened since the reign of the Chaos Priests! -- "Ooh!"
As he moves to attack, you see he's holding a sword which looks... familiar. -- "Could it be- Oh fuck!"
We don't actually want to make magic more accessible. We want to wall it off strictly for our own sorcerers. And by defeating the Sentinel, you've gotten us one step closer! -- "What?! Nooooo!!! You bastards!"
That was my favorite part. Of course, there was a lot of other game going on, and getting to my favorite part could be tricky, especially because it wasn't always clear what the players' primary concern was, or should be. The characters had motives and goals, and there were times when we all worked reasonably well together to make sure their goals were about my plot stuff. Some synergy was planned, some was emergent, and overall it worked well enough, but we certainly weren't immune from the predictable hitches.
You know the hitches -- that part where the players want to do something, and the GM feels obligated to go through the process of letting them try, but in the end will only allow outcomes compatible with the GM plan. Which can drive the players crazy, to the point of anger (not so much in my groups) or disengagement (yeah, we had that).
No more trad GM railroad
Like many gamers, I was excited to encounter other approaches to RPGs which left these particular problems behind. Games which were truly open-ended; games which really let the dice and the rules decide how player tactics or choices worked out; games which gave the GM a more limited role, or used no GM at all... I liked all these at first, and I like them still.
They didn't scratch that same itch, though. Backstories and NPCs and worlds? Sure! Most games which have a GM can still incorporate those to some effect. But plots? No. If the players are steering, then the GM can certainly improvise twists and reveals etc. to throw in their path, but the GM can't plan out arcs and build toward predetermined events beforehand. I'd basically lost the "lonely fun", the fun of between-session scheming that had kept me interested in GMing. I still liked GMing the games I created (for various reasons), but whenever a campaign of some published system was proposed, I'd opt to be a player.
I was happy with my gaming, and still am, but I did, and do, occasionally miss the old experience of sitting by myself concocting places and people and plots, and then coming into each session revved up to earn those "Ooh!" and "Oh fuck!" and "You bastards!" responses to them.
The hippie LARP
What I mean by "hippie LARP" is this: more talky than crunchy, more mundane than gonzo, more emotional stakes than physical, more huggy than cutthroat (players, that is; not characters). Superficially, this seems like the most distant roleplay style and culture imaginable from the GM-dominant flavor associated with the "trad" label. Feel free to point out the crappiness of both of these labels; all I'm trying to illustrate is why it seemed counter-intuitive to me to bump into a meaningful overlap. But, lo and behold:
At Camp Nerdly a few weeks ago, I played a game which fits all the above "hippie LARP" characteristics (I don't feel qualified to actually classify it -- "American freeform" by a Canadian for a Danish contest?) called Hope Was the Last Thing in the Box. This game included:
- A mission for the characters that would span the entire game.
- Pre-made characters with reasons to pursue that mission. These reasons were strong, yet in need of player investment to specify them, make them their own, and ultimately judge if any of the events of play would nullify them.
- A structure with four pre-written acts, each describing a new development and phase in the mission.
- A phase in each act where the players sit and listen to the GM, soaking up what the characters have lived through since the previous act, internally forming their takes on it.
- A next phase where the GM asks the players scripted questions about their takes, and everyone gets clued in as to how each character is reacting to their experience on the mission.
- A next phase where the GM hands the players a revealing scenario to react to, a scenario crafted to threaten the hows and whys and character of the mission rather than threatening whether the mission can proceed. You still have the option to get to the end, but (for example) will you do it in luxury and risk feeling like a sell-out, or will you do it barefoot and penniless, facing a destitute life after the mission? No dice needed, just roleplay.
Look at that. Suppose I'd written this scenario -- isn't that everything I wanted when I was running players through my plots in high school? I get to plan out my arcs and twists. I get to hear what it means to the characters. We get to roleplay out some scenes that complicate their relationship to the plot, building more investment in whatever direction. This is the fun part for me! As long as I know they'll give a damn, and as long as I know they're committed to the ride, I love the suspense of, "How do they take it?" Do they pursue the mission in panicked fear, or triumphant exultation? That is the "play to find out" component of the GM-scripted game, and that's exactly what this hippie game about hope emphasizes in play.
Maybe it's about time to dig up some of my old plots about super-powered conspiracies, and look at them anew, with an eye toward unifying long-term mission goals, logical breaks in the action, good reflection questions, events which threaten the mission's meaning rather than its viability, etc. It's a different sort of development than the "what are these NPCs up to" stuff I used to love, but, for now, I'm optimistic that they'll fit well together and I can get some of my old-time between-session GM enthusiasm back (plus some awesome play thereafter).
Thanks for reading. Any and all thoughts welcome. I'll add a link on Monday or Tuesday to a more concise version on G+ for those who prefer to comment on that platform.