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The rusty bottle opener of truth - NaBloPoMo Post 5: In defence of gamesmasters (and storytellers, dungeonmasters, etc)

Nov. 5th, 2012

11:48 pm - NaBloPoMo Post 5: In defence of gamesmasters (and storytellers, dungeonmasters, etc)

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Today's blog is somewhat written in response to something my work colleague has written in her NaBloPoMo blog for today, which came off the back of the game of Fiasco we played on Sunday. I'm not trying in any way to say that she is wrong and I am right, but it seemed interesting (and an easy prompt) to provide an alternative viewpoint, to look at the other side of the coin. And in so doing, note the benefits we get from those poor sods who run roleplaying games for us.

I'm reasonably sure that the vast majority of people reading this will know what traditional tabletop roleplaying games are like, but since Fiasco is less well known. You can watch Wil Wheaton and others playing a game of it to get a better idea, but for anyone who's wants a primer but doesn't want to watch a long video…

[Here"s a quick description of it]To describe it briefly, you start by rolling a load of dice, and picking from the dice to work out relationships between characters, and important objects, locations and needs, then you start playing scenes between two or more characters as their plans build up, and then explode in their faces. The dice limit (though don't utterly dictate) the setup, then are used during the game to mark whether scenes have gone well or badly for you, and they're rolled at the end to determine how good or bad your eventual fate is, but the individual scenes are purely descriptive, there's no mechanics for working out if you succeed in an individual action, you just describe it individually or collectively.

Having played Fiasco several times, and comparing it to a few sessions of the Slaine D20 RPG, her response was:

first impressions of role play games was that they requires hours of commitment, character development where learning how to fight required homework. Intrigued by the comics and the basic backstory I was interested wanting to see how my character could develop but put off the complexity. More so the commitment needed to see those games through.

Taking out the gamemasters and limiting the number of scenes is a real advantage.

I found [Fiasco] a real gateway into a world of gaming.that would otherwise find too intimidating and closed off.


Whereas my perspective is that I enjoy an occasional game of Fiasco, but it couldn't replace my weekly Exalted or Pathfinder games, as I just don't find enough depth in it to hold my attention in a more regular slot, and a lot of that depends upon those rules, and the gamesmaster behind them

A lot of this does come down to the gamist/narativist/simulationist divide of roleplaying — are you after challenge and achievement, telling an awesome story, or building a world that feels real?

Obviously everyone falls somewhere in the middle, but it was the (reasonably strong) gamist part of me that found it somewhat empty when my Fiasco character Maxwell Billingham-Smith (late of the Shadow Cabinet, now a zombie hunter) was chopping down zombies left and right whilst being interviewed on the nightly news, or when he crept out of the zombie infested Tower of London — both were situations of risk to the character, but the descriptive nature of the game meant I was in control of whether anything bad happened to me.

At their best, roleplaying games can combine the sense of victory and achievement you find in a tough computer game, with stories that rival great films and books, and with the opportunity to put yourself in someone elses shoes, someone who might have a personality completely different to yours, or might be yourself with certain aspects exaggerated, adjusted, or allowed to run free.

In a Pathfinder game I play on Mondays with a few friends, we were recently trying to free a city from the people who'd taken it over, and were squeezing it for all it was worth. Because of the power that the D20 system gives to high level characters, combined with a lot of careful planning, we were able to retake the city within three days — decapitating giants on the first night, gassing guards on the second, finally on the third day rescuing the rightful ruler and variously killing, chasing down, and offering a job to the people involved in the usurpation.

This took us a couple of gaming sessions, and I'd say we spent as much time planning what we were going to do as we did in the actual encounters themselves; it was all about using all our various capabilities, predicting our opponents, and playing the odds. There were many moments where it could've gone very badly for us, and several moments when it nearly did, and it's because of those moments that our eventual victory felt awesome.

And to bring this back to the posts title, the gamesmaster is critical for that sense of victory. Yes, a chunk of it comes from the rules, from the base potential for failure inherent in 'Roll to hit'. But a lot of it comes from the man behind the curtain, from the person who knows what our enemies were doing whilst we were planning, who presented us with the situations and workout out the fallout from our successes, and who ignored what the preprinted adventure said, instead deciding that the bad guys (having lost most of their fighting forces in two nights with no visible source) would try and execute their hostage, forcing us to try and rescue him, despite having spent most of our resources on dealing with the aforementioned forces.

Roleplaying games, whether GM'd or not, allow you the opportunity to try and do anything you can imagine. But it's the gamesmaster/storyteller who brings the real surprises, the twist that has been been quietly signalled ahead of time, and who can judge your strengths and throw just the right level of challenge against you.

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Comments:

From:portilis
Date:November 6th, 2012 10:20 am (UTC)
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I'm not a big fan of narrative games myself, and I tend to find that a lot of people who are (not all, but many) actually are some of the worst powergamers around in their own way. The problem with not having rules and a gm is that you only lose when you choose to, and this is especially problematic if anything vaguely PvP comes up. With some this is less subtle than others, I've seen certain of those who prefer that style whose every character is of near-godlike power, and others they tend towards everyman types with very balanced and restricted skillsets.

But, each to their own. I've only had one time where I've found it an issue, which was with a narrative/freeform larper who regularly does other systems but refuses to even try to actually follow the rules. Most people I know who prefer them will still play according to what rules their current game runs under, it is just the exceptions who can be an issue.

I totally agree though - without some level of force acting against you, there's no challenge, and no sense of accomplishment from completing the story. I'd actually say that that is in many ways the difference between improvisational theatre and roleplay - in the former, you take a character and act as you wish through a scenario, doing what you feel like; in the latter, you have some level of restriction on your actions and they may not always go off as you desire.
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From:dainul
Date:November 6th, 2012 10:59 am (UTC)
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I just think that there are things you can't really do in a narrative game. How do you go out, investigate and solve some mysterious puzzle if everyone (or no-one) knows the answer?

Also: having a gm is intimidating? Shit gm.
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From:draxar
Date:November 6th, 2012 11:24 am (UTC)
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Less 'having a GM' more 'having to learn a substantial amount of rules to play'.

Compared to fiasco where the initial table that sets out the situation you're in is pretty damn simple, and beyond that it's just describing scenes and assigning whether those go well or badly for people, with a final roll at the end to say how you end up.
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From:omniscient_fool
Date:November 7th, 2012 04:58 pm (UTC)
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As well as the rules learning, the social context it is set within can be incredibly intimidating. I didn't mind having to learn lots of rules when I first dipped my toe in that water, but I really minded being treated like an absolute fucking moron if I forgot something, or tried something that didn't work, or didn't laugh at some obscure geek reference. I know not all RPers are like this, but there are enough of those types in there to make gaming seem elitist and so a slightly less full on game where there are fewer opportunities to 'fuck up' and look like a complete idiot might be appealing from that point of view.
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From:draxar
Date:November 7th, 2012 05:33 pm (UTC)
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Unlikely to have been an issue in this particular instance as it was a game being played in the office, and where I think everyone bar the GM was a tabletop RPG newbie. But as a general thing, yeah, that can be an issue.
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From:draxar
Date:November 6th, 2012 11:22 am (UTC)
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I think Fiasco avoids some of the problems you describe by being explicitly short-run, and intentionally moving towards a crescendo where it'll go badly for just about everyone.

On the other hand, I have been in Fiasco games where I've basically been described into a corner by other players, and not really felt able to do much; I think that's where I find issue with it, given (as mentioned) the ability to affect the world is a big thing to me.

I still enjoy Fiasco, but as a once in a while fun and fairly silly game, rather than as my preferred style of roleplaying that I want to do on a regular basis.
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From:zornhau
Date:November 6th, 2012 11:52 am (UTC)
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I think the problem with gaming is that games tend to either please people who like games for their own sake (holy sub system, batman), or or be so "lite" as to remove meaning from the setting.

People like me who are interested in experiencing favourite genres from the inside don't have time to learn pointlessly complex rules systems, but at the same time are frustrated if the distinct qualities of different genre props are worn away - a revolver is different from an automatic, a sword is not an axe or a mace.

I'm tinkering with ways to square this circle....
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From:draxar
Date:November 6th, 2012 12:24 pm (UTC)
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I'd've thought that would be a good argument for using a generic system like GURPS; whilst the core rules won't be aimed at that genre, there's probably rules hacks you can apply to get them close, and it means you only need to learn one core set of rules for all the different games you want to play.
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From:zornhau
Date:November 6th, 2012 12:30 pm (UTC)
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I think so - it's what I'm tinkering with. (I have to because my players, who average 8-years-old, change preferred genres every few months).

I'm also starting with a viable mass combat/system so that the roleplaying can segue seamlessly into that.
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From:draxar
Date:November 6th, 2012 02:58 pm (UTC)
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Whilst it's somewhat tilted towards the adventure side of things, I've heard good things about the Savage Worlds system.
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From:alitheapipkin
Date:November 6th, 2012 02:03 pm (UTC)
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I've never come across Fiasco but I've played Full Light, Full Steam which sounds like it is somewhere between that and a traditional RP - you basically make one roll to determine the outcome of an entire scenario, whereby the players get to narrate the scene if they succeed and the GM does if you don't. I found it highly frustrating at times, I'm not a fan of endless combat rounds but an epic battle against a Big Bad isn't as satisfying wholly narrated and it can make the pacing very odd indeed.
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From:draxar
Date:November 6th, 2012 03:01 pm (UTC)
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Hmmm, I'm not sure if I'd find that better or worse than Fiasco; whilst it gives you some sense of suspense/achievement, it is (as you say) a fairly limited amount thereof, and at least in Fiasco you can concentrate on the 'anything goes' nature of it.

I think part of it would depend on to what extent the players coming up with clever plans affected your chances of success in Full Light, Full Steam.
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From:alitheapipkin
Date:November 6th, 2012 04:58 pm (UTC)
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I forget the exact mechanic - I played a short campaign a few years back and I'm not the sort of player who obsesses about rules - but I seem to remember the GM could modify the roll according to your proposed plan. We used it to basically play Firefly and it was good fun but the system got in the way more than it added to the experience in my view.
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