being the mental (and scholastic) wanderings of Collie Collier
Copyright © 1994 B. A. "Collie" Collier
For those of you puzzledly looking at the header and wondering what happened to Firestarter #4... there isn't one. Don't ask me why... I made a mistake! :-)
Also, this zine reprinted one of my papers: Cultural Comparison/Contrast Between Minoans and Classical Athenians. If you'd like to read it, please click on the paper's title.
Ah, summer... and the pangs of "writing withdrawal." No multiple page papers due tomorrow, no e-mail to answer. As the two great writing loves of my life are currently no more for me, I've returned to IR's hallowed pages. Hopefully this zine will be as kindly met as my previous efforts... and thanks to W. Shakespeare for his inspirations.
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
Thrice; and once the hedgepig whine'd.
Recently, due to communication snafus and perceptual differences, I've been thrashing uselessly in the games I've been in. I'm also tired of feeling like I'm in a different game than everyone else -- including the GM! I thought I'd explore these problems a little. It's okay, this is the only "whine-bitch-moan" paragraph. :-).
I'm not sure how to fix the problems I'm currently having. I thought I'd start by trying to figure out what I want in a GM. Maybe that will help me to find a game that I want to be in.
Harpier cries: -- 'tis time, 'tis time.
Round about the cauldron go;
What skills does my perfect, ideal GM have? This hypothetical person should be able to keep control of their game without being a tyrant. They should maintain objectivity. They should be honest. They should have a strong idea of what the story is and where it's going to go, while maintaining flexibility. They should be able to build interesting and consistent NPCs and backgrounds. And they should know their mechanics system very well.
In the poison'd entrails throw. ...
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot!
By keeping control of a game, I mean someone who knows how to organize both the players and the game processes. Here are some of the problems I think my perfect GM should be able to handle:
A few personal examples: in a recent game I was in, the GM didn't look over the starting characters very closely. Consequently she was not aware of the extensive skill duplication two of the PCs had. It was frustrating for the two players -- each was trying to fill the same game niche. One of the two PCs was subsequently played as having an "attitude," in an effort to make the PC stand out within the game. After that run that character's player was told by the GM that she should stop, as her actions were apparently causing the other "same-niche" player to become depressed.
Another example from another game: two of the players developed an intense dislike for each other. Reason did not suffice to solve the situation. The players sniped at each other constantly, making the other players and the GM miserable. By the time one player's actions caused the other to leave the game, any trust or teamwork potential within the group was shattered.
In another game, the GM was not a quick thinker. Random rolls were made on several pages of tables, and many minutes of thought were required to fit the results smoothly into the game. Combats were hellishly long and convoluted. The GM rolled dice many times, and needed to think for a while about each roll, in order to most perfectly apply them. "Pacing" was non-existent, and the players spent a lot of time sitting and waiting for the GM to make decisions.
The above problems wouldn't occur in a game run by my perfect GM. Pre-game perusal would have easily pointed out the skill duplication, and a simple bit of discussion would have fixed it. Incompatible players wouldn't be gaming together -- a brash, out-spoken person isn't really a good choice to have in a game with someone who has painfully underdeveloped social skills or emotional inadequacies.
I'm not talking here about the shy person who just needs a little help to become an enthusiastic part of the game. I'm talking about loud, foolish, petulant, and childish people who feel they should always have the toughest PC, who think they should be the constant center of attention, and who sulk and try to make everyone unhappy when they're not.
If such a "problem child" should occur within the game, and reason cannot resolve the friction, someone should be politely asked to leave. The departing player need not be 'discarded' -- the GM can certainly run for them in some other game.
Finally, the GM should be ready. If several random rolls will be needed, the consummate GM will have rolled them up ahead of time. All the tables and papers needed will be easily to hand. The dice will be color-coded so only one handful needs to be rolled. The ideal GM knows the players aren't gaming when she or he is waffling.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and cauldron, bubble.
The perfect GM is objective. He or she realizes that the player is not the PC, nor are the NPCs estimates of the GM's personal worth. Furthermore, the ideal GM can help the players to achieve this objectivity also.
In a game I was in, the GM and one of the players disagreed on how the player's PC was being portrayed. At some point the subject of their long discussions subtly changed. The two of them were no longer talking about ways to improve presentation and play of the PC in question. Instead, the player decided the GM was inferring that she was a bad role-player, and the GM determined that the player was saying he was a bad GM. The suggestions being made to each other became less and less objective and constructive -- and eventually rather acrimonious. The two of them were taking the game criticisms personally, trying to assign blame, and sniping defensively at each other. The game floundered.
In another game, the GM realized (a little late) that his favorite NPC had just mortally offended the PCs' collective honor -- and they intended to kill the NPC in a duel. The GM didn't want his favorite NPC to have to apologize or to die... so he stopped running the game.
The ideal GM doesn't care who started an argument, but rather wishes to resolve it, and keep the game rolling smoothly. She or he is there to tell a story that the players will be able to participate in. The perfect GM is not there to build up her or his ego in a system rigged to the GM's advantage and the players' disadvantage.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
The perfect GM must be honest. If there's a problem, this person should speak to those concerned, not talk behind their backs. If a concept isn't appropriate, the player should be informed of that before the game starts. The GM shouldn't waffle -- he or she should be as crystal clear as possible.
I was invited into a fantasy game recently, and was told that I'd be welcome to play a character with a particular type of unusual background -- a type that had yet to be played in the game. I suggested a character concept and background, but pointed out that more points than initially allotted would probably be needed to accomplish it -- would the GM like me to play this concept, regardless of its cost? The GM enthusiastically agreed.
While trying to build the character, I (unsurprisingly) ran out of points. After much hacking and slashing, I managed to bring the incipient PC down to acceptable numerical levels -- except for one part of the concept. I asked for more points, since to my understanding the GM had agreed that this PC would need a few more than the average human. The GM declined to give me more points, and was somewhat huffy with me.
I was startled later when one of the other players told me that the GM had said that she felt that I was whining for more points so that I could play a PC that was the best at everything.
If the GM didn't want me to play this expensive a concept, why didn't she say so, way back when I first told her this? At the beginning of character creation, the ideal GM would have told me either that I couldn't play that concept, or how many points extra I could expect. I would have known exactly where I stood and what I could expect.
This honesty should continue through the game -- if a player is insisting (as a quickie example) that the profession of 'spy' is Evil(TM), and the GM feels that spies are merely misunderstood messengers, then the GM should let the player know this, as soon and as clearly as possible. Otherwise the discrepancy in perception will grow. Other players may also come to believe (incorrectly) that spies are Evil(TM) and kill them on sight, due to the original mistaken player's assertions. It is probable that at some point within the game there will be a potentially disastrous reaction, where it is conclusively proven that spies are not Evil(TM), and the PCs have just killed the one person that could help them. And all this could have been avoided, if the GM had immediately, insistently, and clearly told the player that spies were merely misunderstood messengers.
In a game I was in, the GM had a "beef" with me. However, he never told me what it was, denying its existence when I tried to talk with him about it. Instead, my character was coaxed into a situation where the GM screwed her over, then gleefully informed me of my PC's complete humiliation at the hands of her enemies. Consequently I refused to follow any more specific-to-my-character GM "leads" within the game. So the GM went to a different tactic. Whenever my PC would give good advice or make useful actions (which she did repeatedly), my words were ignored. Her actions were never acknowledged, even when they helped the other PCs. Her advice was ignored by the GM until some other player repeated it -- at which point the GM would use it, and all credit would go to the PC of the player who'd repeated me.
Honesty should also be used to solve player problems within the game. If the GM has a problem with a player, a good GM should go to that person and talk openly with them about the situation. Whacking the PC within the game is not honest. Nor is ignoring the player in an effort to manipulate them or persuade them to leave. If you never tell the player of the problem, how can they correct it? Most people aren't mind-readers, and will simply bewilderedly (and resentfully) wonder why everything always goes wrong for their PC. This isn't fun -- for the other players or for the GM.
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing, --
For a charm of powerful trouble,
The perfect GM should have a strong idea of what the story is and where it's going to go, while maintaining flexibility. A "long-term" game has more than just one story arc within it. The ideal GM not only has the first story arc planned loosely out in his or her head, but also knows roughly what or where the group might want to head for next, and how to help the group onwards towards that goal.
I have been in many games where the GM had a strong idea of the first "story arc." However, once that story arc was finished, the players found themselves lacking either personal motivations or a reason to stay together. They floundered around within the game, trying to figure out where to go and what to do next. Unsurprisingly, they also all split up, much to the GM's consternation. He hadn't planned ahead sufficiently.
I have been in a game where the GM knew exactly where the story and the PCs were going -- to the exclusion of the players' opinions. Whenever we tried to do something the GM didn't want us to do, it failed. All roads led towards where the GM felt we should go. We (the players) quickly became bored -- we were being force-fed a story, not participating in one.
The consummate GM plans his or her game ahead -- but they also know that sometimes players do unpredictable things (understatement of the month, I'm sure. ;-). To handle an abrupt change in game direction may require quick thinking -- but the good GM will "go with the flow," even if it takes ending a run early to plan ahead. After all, theoretically both the GM and the players are participating in the game.
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our caldron.
The perfect GM should be able to build interesting and consistent NPCs and backgrounds. The NPCs shouldn't always be better than the PCs; the PCs shouldn't feel overwhelmed by the NPCs. The game world shouldn't be perfectly static and unchangeable. On the other hand, the GM doesn't want the NPCs to be so fluid that they have no background or consistency -- and the game world shouldn't vary wildly from run to run.
The GM flipped through the Villain's Handbook for a few moments before the game, making some notes as he did so. When the game started, the group was attacked by a group of villains -- the ones the GM had just selected. One of the players objected -- hadn't that particular villain been put in jail just last run? And hadn't that one repented and started working as a hero? The GM thought a moment, then replied that the one villain had escaped, and the other had changed her mind.
Another game: the GM's favorite NPC was supposedly vital to our mission. The NPC knew this, and was consequently horrifically patronizing and obnoxious. The GM was puzzled when the players refused to deal with the NPC: "But you need his information!" However, putting up with that appalling and repulsive NPC was too much for the players. We struggled on without the "vital information." When the GM tried to force us to endure the NPC anyway, the players quit the game rather than have constant abuse rammed down our throats.
In the first case, the players had no connection to the game world. They knew the GM didn't care about story consistency. Any triumphs the PCs managed to accomplish were completely revokeable by the GM by the next run, if he felt like it. The actions of the PCs were ultimately irrelevant to the game world. Consequently it was hard to care at all about the PCs or the world.
In the second case the GM wished to use the game and the NPCs to bolster his ego. He found the players had better things to do with their time.
Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
Finally, the perfect GM should know their mechanics system very well. Which mechanics system is used is irrelevant. Mechanics are like a language that is mutually agreed upon. Within the framework of that language, a consistent story can be told. It is possible to have players that don't speak the language very well -- the GM merely needs to be very clear with them as to what's going on. However, should the GM not speak the language well, disaster looms. When the GM -- the leader of the game -- doesn't know exactly what's happening, how can anyone else be expected to understand the situation or to take it seriously?
I personally don't want to hear about the way the mechanics work. But a GM that knows (mechanically) exactly where everyone is and what they're doing is a GM that understands the relative abilities of the (N)PCs, and that will keep things running smoothly and consistently.
From a game that was apparently 'mechanics-light': one of the PCs was characterized as "a fantastic negotiator and diplomat." The events of the game, however, failed to support this claim. There was apparently no consistent mechanical resolution. Furthermore, the character's skills superseded the player's. Thus, in the absence of something like dice-rolling, the player's skills could not adequately model the PC's. Consequently most of the (N)PCs either completely ignored the PC, reacted with hostility and annoyance to the PC's presence, or denied that she had any ability in her skill-set. The PC had no consistency in her skills because, at any given time, everything depended on the mood of the person running the character she was talking to -- not the PC's skill set.
A good set of mechanics would have solved this dilemma -- just roll the dice. However, when you have no definitive measuring stick for skills it's far too easy to fixate on some small irritant within the game, and to make that the (usually logical sounding) reason the PC never quite succeeds. Think about it: "people skills" have very little objective measure. You know exactly how far your character can jump, you have an intutive grasp of damage and defenses and other physical relationships because you can measure them. Other than "pass/fail" how can we measure "social" success? In the most brutal sense, mechanics mean that the players know the GM isn't "cheating."
O, well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i' the gains.
There will be those of you who are currently wondering why I ever game if I'm always having such a miserable time of it. Also, others of you may be thinking, so run a game! Unfortunately, I hate GMing, so that's out as a personal option.
I admit, due to some of the above reasons I'm not currently in any serious games right now, nor do I see any looming on my mental horizons. Consequently, I'm doing some internal review as to my reasons for gaming -- what exactly am I looking for? What do I get from gaming? I'm not sure if I should bother trying to find a game I want to be in, or whether I should try to create it. I feel, on occasion, quite Frankenstinian. :-)
Also, I realize that I've just described a positive Deity of Gaming(TM), and I know I'll probably never find such a paragon. However, I now have a clearer idea of what I'm looking for in a GM -- and I can now decide what characteristics I want, and which I can do without. Hmm... perhaps in my next zine I'll try to write up the perfect player -- responsibility is, after all, a two way street!. :-)Comments on Interregnum #9 and #10
Last Updated: Tues Mar 24 1998