Monday, December 20, 2010

The Role of the Player

Many people tell me that as a GM it's my job to tell a story, and their job as players to experience it. Likewise, many of the books on my shelf define the GM's role as the storyteller as well as the judge and adjudicator. It is the GM who creates the plot, makes the individual scenarios and scenes, creates and plays all the NPCs, and pretty much puts everything together for the players to consume.

That's wrong.

I'm at a point where that's not even an opinion. It's just wrong.

I've written plenty of stories. Those are my stories. I've also run a lot of games. Not a one of those are my stories. The difference is that when I'm writing, the protagonists are my characters. I control all of them. They say what I want them to say when I want them to say it. They only do the things I want them to do. Never do I have to deal with someone deciding not to deal with the problem at hand because he'd rather bed down with sexy young thing. But I've had that exact situation in RPGs lots of times.

That's not an indictment of my players, by the way, but a demonstration of my point: a game is about the PCs. Any GM who introduces his own PC tends to become unpopular right quick. Players want to be doing something, not watching the GM play his own characters. But if the camera is on the PCs all the time, how can they not be responsible for the story?

There is a way that it works, and it goes back to the roots of our hobby. When you're playing a dungeon hack, you need someone to tell you that there's a door in front of you, and that it opens to a 10 x 10 room with an orc standing in front of a chest, and if that chest is locked or trapped. Now, there is a way to put this in player hands, which John Wick described in his dirty dungeon, but that came out decades after the first adventurers trudged into multi-level subterranean death traps, and while what he suggests works, it's not necessary as long as your game is mostly about killing monsters, avoiding traps, and recovering treasures in a physically restricting environment, which is exactly what a dungeon crawl is.

Once you get out of the dungeon, however, things begin to break down. Now there's more to do, more directions to go. It's no longer a choice between two doors. Once out in the open, you can potentially go anywhere, talk to anyone, do any number of things. With this literal opening of horizons come the potential for different, more character involved adventures. Have a look at Shadowrun. Yes, you've got top down GM runs it all adventure design, but the situations and settings are far more open. Instead of working inside a restricted map, you've got a whole city of places you might go, not all of them relevant to the mission at hand. Players can talk to the "wrong" people, go to the "wrong" places, and wreck all kinds of holy hell with your pre-planned story.

That's not to say that you need to make every detail in your world germane to the mission at hand. Instead, I argue that it means the players need to be more involved in these kinds of scenarios. They can passively accept the plot crumbs you toss and dutifully try to find the end of the trail. They can decide to make their fun by messing around with the characters they meet. The can do these things, but the game will be flat, no matter how intricate and interesting you make the underlying plot.

The only way to make the game really come alive is for the players to tell the story. The GM is a facilitator to this, an assistant ghost writer who can help put the character in positions that make his story better. But it is the role of the player to create a character that has a personal agenda that synchs with the GM's campaign, and who can pick up and own the game after a time. Someone who will proactively get involved in the situations. Someone who will talk to NPCs. Someone who will go out into the world, who will take actions, who will help drive the game forward and not plant himself and dare to be moved by anything.

I'm not talking about "problem players" here. People who play these characters aren't looking to crash your game, and they're not taking their fun at others' expense. They make characters with histories that tie into your campaign, but once everything's up and running they don't really touch the big picture except when you make them.

For example, you have the strong silent warrior. He's basically a good guy, but he's gruff and tough. Think Batman. Scary, not approachable, but still a hero. This character wants to do the right thing, but he won't go to social events; he won't say more than what's necessary to NPCs; in short, he's going to stay insulated within himself and while he'll go on whatever quest the campaign asks, he'll only go when the plot demands. It's all up to the GM to make anything happen.

Then you've got the jester. He's the guy who is often good for a ton of laughs at the table. He likes the mood light, and his character doesn't take things any more seriously. He'll trip up NPCs and prank them for the laughs of the party. When the party needs to board an abandoned space hulk that might be home to dangerous xenos or rebels, he'll bring a tray with tea and cookies to make a good impression. When he takes a serious injury, he describes it as a stain on his silk shirt. Again, he's going to jump at your plot points and he's going to try his damndest to complete the adventure successfully, but his eye is looking for ways to introduce the silly wherever he goes, and that light touch means that he's never responsible for anything in the story.

I've run into many players who default to one of these character types in a game. All of them want to play, and want to do so constructively, but their default disposition puts the campaign at arms length from them. They are involved, but only so much, and getting the game to move can be difficult. Again, for something like a dungeon hack this isn't a problem. If you're looking for something more involved, more character oriented, as many games try to deliver these days, you need more involvement from your players.

This can be a scary thing for some. Graham Walmsley discusses some of this in this book Play Unsafe, specifically the idea that coming out of your shell in an RPG makes you as a player vulnerable, ergo the title. However, having looked over the games I've run and played, the best ones weren't the ones in which the characters were well developed, had histories, personalities, or any of that other stuff. They were the ones in which the players got involved at a story level. They invested in the campaign personally and worked to change the situations I gave them through the lens of their of characters.

There's no mechanic to make this happen, but I'm absolutely convinced it's an essential element to running a truly top tier game.

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