The Game Designer Usurping the Game Master

edited May 2007 in Story Games
Something crossed my mind (crawling stoically onward across that vast trackless waste) as I was hearing for the umpteenth time about a perceived problem with "traditional" style GM-led games. There has been a definite move in many story games to make everyone equal, in that the idea is no longer to have a GM come along and present the setting and situation in its entirety but rather aim to let all of the players participate in the process of creating the world for the game. All nicely democratic and I've certainly no beef with this type of game, nor with the GM-led type; I've played and thoroughly enjoyed both sorts.

With the strong emphasis on game mechanics driving play in many story games, though, I wonder if this doesn't just mean that the designer of the game is really coming along and replacing the GM. Instead of a bloke tucked behind his screen at the head of the table there's a bloke tucked behind his PC in some distant city, creating a game ostensibly allowing total freedom but actually (and perhaps unavoidably) driving the players in a certain direction. Is that better or worse than the old approach? Personally I'm all for different ways of doing things and I'm really only throwing this out as a point for discussion, not as a criticism of anything in particular. I do wonder, though, if the only way to create a playable adventure / setting is to have someone providing the direction previously given only by the GM, albeit in a less dictatorial fashion than was customary with some people, or else the whole thing becomes hopelessly vague.

And is there anything actually wrong with having one person at the table who is responsible for providing the setting and plot as long as that person is aware of his players' needs?

Comments

  • Posted By: BigJackBrassI wonder if this doesn't just mean that the designer of the game is really coming along and replacing the GM.
    I haven't seen many game designers who package themselves along with their game. The GM is a guy who sits at the table, and who is often accorded special authority and responsibility from a broad set of options (things like "playing the NPCs" and the like).

    The designer is not that guy.

    I think your argument may be about something more like what I've heard people talk about as "alpha player" ... the person who sets the tone for the SIS, and provides first inspirations for other players to work off of. That can be the same person as the GM, but it is not the same thing as the GM role. If I'm right about what you're thinking, it might help to make that distinction a little more clear.
    Posted By: BigJackBrassAnd is there anything actually wrong with having one person at the table who is responsible for providing the setting and plot as long as that person is aware of his players' needs?
    Nope. Ain't nothin' wrong with a flat-head screwdriver, either. But it's not a hex wrench. Different tools do different things well.
  • I see what you're getting at here, and I think this line of thought has some merit, BJB.
  • I think the "alpha player" insight has more impact on play than any GM/game designer role discussion. (Probably not surprising because of my belief that the game designer is dead.) If I could nail down what exactly the alpha player is doing, I would have more to say about it. All I know is that if I don't send out an e-mail saying "we are meeting at 3 PM and playing game X" then it doesn't happen no matter who is GMing the game.
  • Heya, Jon.

    I think the question relies on a lot of points and stances reduced to absurd levels. Indie games are not about "making everybody equal" and they're certainly not about "making everybody the same." Even Matt Wilson, who is all about social engineering at the table to bring in everybody's contributions to play, gives different players different roles and different amounts of responsibility at different times. And on the other hand, the characterization of traditional games as where the GM "provides the plot" or presents the setting and situation wholecloth are not really accurate descriptions of how those games work at real tables. "Traditional GMs" -- although making any generalization at this level is dubious at best -- may be told by the GM Book that they create the story and they may believe it, but they are more often providing a framework or skeleton on which everybody at the table to creates a story.

    The big difference, to me, is not that indie games make gaming more democratic, but that indie games actually address the different social roles at the table and reconfigure them in new ways. Most traditional games that I've seen assume so much about the GM/Player divide that they don't even address it or explain it: they say "the GM creates a story" or somesuch one-off line and start listing stats for super powers. The actual roles of "traditional" GMs are built more of communities of practice and word-of-mouth than by advice in books. The big "revolution" of indie games is that they dictate actual responsibilities and roles to the players at the table. Since they contrast with the amorphous mass of undefined "tradition," they seem to be striking off in a single direction, but that is not, really, the case -- unless that direction is "give procedures for different roles around the table."

    Which gets around, eventually, to your point -- traditional or mainstream RPGs assume that your gaming group will determine most or all of the roles around the table. Your group's GM and my group's GM actually do rather different things, but we call them by the same name. The difference is because the same books that our groups are using do not give many explicit tasks to anybody around the table. When some guy comes along and publishes a game that does do that, he is usurping some power from your table. That power may be taken from the GM or they may be taken from the host (if the host is different from the GM) or, hell, they may be taken from the GM's girlfriend who always has the ideas of what kind of thing happens next in the game.
  • Posted By: KynnI see what you're getting at here, and I think this line of thought has some merit, BJB.
    Eureka! After fifty thousand posts on forums across the web I've made a shred of sense!

    Joking aside, thanks for that Kynn. The Internet suits my particularly rambling style of discussion rather poorly (just a skill I need to adapt to a different medium, really) but somewhere in there I think there's something worth considering, at least.
  • Hey BJB, here's an analogy for ya: traditionally, RPG rules treat the GM as a dictator with absolute power to do what's best for the game. The storygame alpha player is more of a republican executive. Her powers are enumerated and circumscribed by the game constitution as set down by the designer. So it's not a matter of replacement, it's just a shuffling of powers.

    (I've been watching Rome. In the ep I watched last night, the story-gamers murdered the traditional gamemaster...)
  • Posted By: Joshua BishopRobyEven Matt Wilson, who is all about social engineering at the table to bring in everybody's contributions to play, gives different players different roles and different amounts of responsibility at different times.
    It's really that I'm just a lazy GM and don't want to do all that shit on my own.

    Seriously. Also, I just had 7/8 of a bottle of Trader Joe's wine, so maybe I'm lying. But I think I'm serious.
  • Posted By: Matt WilsonIt's really that I'm just a lazy GM and don't want to do all that shit on my own.

    Seriously. Also, I just had 7/8 of a bottle of Trader Joe's wine, so maybe I'm lying. But I think I'm serious.
    I hope you're serious, Matt, because that's friggin' inspirational.
  • Posted By: Matt Wilson
    It's really that I'm just a lazy GM and don't want to do all that shit on my own.
    Paul Tevis, on playing FLFS: "This seems like a really good game for lazy GMs."
  • Posted By: BigJackBrassAnd is there anything actually wrong with having one person at the table who is responsible for providing the setting and plot as long as that person is aware of his players' needs?
    Totally nothing wrong with it, from where I sit.

    I still don't buy the who "GMs are a problem" argument that I hear from folks. I suppose I never will, given that I game with a group who, as players, know when to tell the GM that he's being unfun -- whether in a game that says the GM has a vast writ of power or not.

    But, I think what a lot of games are doing isn't communicating "hey, autocratic GMs suck." I suspect a lot of groups with designers have spoken or unspoken social contracts that create similar play, and they're writing those ideas into their games because they're trying to codify as much of their play experience as possible. But, that's just one man's hypothesis.
  • edited May 2007
    I have this metaphore I use to describe the difference between something like Dogs in the Vineyard or My Life With Master vs how I've seen the majority of games like Call of Cthulhu or Vampire run.

    Dogs and MLwM are like the rules of Haiku. Maybe the rules of Haiku and a topic. However, the players can SAY anything they want about the topic so long as it conforms to the rules of Haiku.

    Vampire and Call of Cthulhu (as I've seen them run) are more like the GM shows up with a Haiku already written and players get choose what font, size and color to print each word in.

    And I'd like to point out that Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life With Master and Sorcerer all REQUIRE strong central GM authority over Situation.

    Jesse
  • RPG.Net has a 1500-post thread about GMs who need to be beaten senseless. From where I sit, it's not hard to see where this kind of attitude comes from.
  • Jack

    Do game designers build in strategies for success in their rules?

    YES!!!

    We set up structures with mechanical rules of what the players are going to do in the game. If players buck these rules they don't get the rewards and thus with repeated play they "learn" (in a very behavior mod way) to follow the rules.

    This is more pronounced in board games (trying to negotiate peace in a wargame is decidely not rewarded for instance) but it is in RPGs as well. If a game is geared to support one style of play - narrativist for instance - it may handle one situation well but fail at another.

    Say in My Life with Master - the player decides they could care less about life and love. They gleefully do all their master says and more. The rules are a numbers game about building up connections with the outside world to be able to break away from the master - not revel in torture like "Saw" "Hostel" or "Touristas". The rules assume a different motive. Or in Sorceror if the players don't use their powers and instead ignore problems and go on shopping trips to the Mall of America, the game falls down. The designer clearly has a game in mind.

    Is the designer as powerful as a dictitorial GM? I don't think so. And that isn't always bad. There are times when the last thing in the world I want to do is think. In those cases I'm fine being lead by the nose through a story (really a pagent though because I'm a witness more than a participant).

    I don't think we should feel embarrassed by having agendas as game designers. That is fine. We can be easily thwarted - which is also okay. Once a game is in some one elses hands they can use it as they like. I'm just glad it's being played. I heard today that someone ran a hybrid Matrix Game miniatures game at Kublacon. They didn't need to ask me if they could do it - but by doing it they were playing in a style that I enjoy. I feel the power coursing through me as I type (er... not really.)

    Chris Engle
  • This is a bit of an aside:

    I see the main thrust of story games being consensus-based decision-making rather than democratic decision-making per se. Quite a few use some democratic things here or there (often as a last resort), but the big shtick that unites, say, Dogs, Shadow of Yesterday, Spirit of the Century, and Polaris is that they turn the same kind of process you use to agree on pizza toppings or clean up an article on Wikipedia into a fun, game-like process. The idea of trade-offs and concessions is pretty prominently built into all those games. It's like "consensus-building -> fictional event."

    The traditional games I'm familiar don't give that kind of consensus-building a lot of attention. My play experience here is that the consensus-building occurs either before calling up the rules to resolve troublesome conflicts or the rules are referenced in the consensus-building but don't actually direct it. Then, in what we've been calling a "traditional GM" game, it's up to the GM to actually do anything with that consensus. Not in the sense of "oh, he can veto it." In the sense that, unless he actually acts to put it into play, nothing happens. It's not enough to just agree and acquiesce. (Example: how elements get introduced in play. A player will pitch a character and say "I ran away from home and my father has got bounty hunters trying to drag me back" and the GM will say "Sounds good!" But the bounty hunters will never actually show up unless the GM explicitly goes out of his way to make that happen, since he's the sole authority on scene-framing.) So the process becomes "consensus-building -> dictatorial decision -> fictional event," which is both ugly and oftentimes slower as well.

    What's really awesome about a GM is that you've got someone who doesn't have to sweat being ignored, so he can put his "don't ignore me" energy into moderating the consensus-building: moving the spotlight around, emphasizing ideas that other people missed, and keeping the peace if things get too heated. I love being that guy. What I hate is that other part where this is all just for show and then I have to actually just make everything happen myself. I think plenty of games (including "traditional" games being played in inventive ways) show that you can do the former without the latter, though.

    -- Alex
  • Aw Chris beat me to it.

    Put as suscinctly as I can... if you don't think that the rules do anything, then play freeform. If the rules provide positive structure for you, then that's why they exist, and why designers try to improve those structures. Whatever they may be.


    Note that we've often noted that in Universalis - a poster-child for GM-less play - that the Alpha player almost always emerges. Which seems proof that it's not a GM thing. Note that this is biased, since a lot of experience I have with the game as designer is that people defer to me on the rules (and because I'm often an Alpha player). Which is ironic when some other player is currently more up to date on them than I am. :-)

    Mike
  • Ostensibly allowing total freedom? What texts are you reading here? I'm pretty sure the whole point of the Forge school of design (note: not the same as story games or indie games) is to recognise that the designer does have influence on the system that people use in play, and that system does have an effect on the play that results. Which means that the designer can make real, considered suggestions about what he wants to happen in play, using the text as a proxy.

  • edited May 2007
    Posted By: BigJackBrassWith the strong emphasis on game mechanics driving play in many story games, though, I wonder if this doesn't just mean that the designer of the game is really coming along and replacing the GM.
    Yes, indeed. Because the "traditional" GM is in fact a game designer. He has to be as many "traditional" RPGs are no games at all, but more like toys. (D&D as most tradtional RPG is notable exception.)
Sign In or Register to comment.