Following on from my previous post, which generated far more discussion than I anticipated, I played in my regular d20-modern based sci-fi campaign yesterday afternoon. I like the group and the game, but our GM is a palette-shifter, fudger and illusionist of the most inveterate kind. His campaigns have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you can be pretty sure that whatever you do you will always kind of, sort of, end up where he wants you to end up. This doesn't mean his games aren't fun; he's very good at creating puzzles and challenges and making play interesting that way. It just means they're a lot less fun than I think they could be, and I sometimes contemplate near-suicidal actions during the game just to see what kind of genuflections will be carried out to keep my character alive.
Anyway, yesterday's session only confirmed in my mind what I like in RPGs and what I suspect most of the readers of my blog like too: player creativity. Not GM creativity. Player creativity.
This may sound strange coming from me, the arch-setting creator, but for me a great deal of the enjoyment in our hobby comes when the players get set loose on the game world that the GM has created and start, for want of a better term, fucking it all up. They go where they're not supposed to. They start fights with people they shouldn't. They do stupid and dangerous things. They decide on courses of action you never could have dreamed of. They squabble with each other. And 99% of the time this leads to a good time had by all.
It can even happen, as it did yesterday, in the most rail-roaded game. Four of us, with the help of an insider, infiltrated a base run by a rogue corporation who were using time machines to plunder from the past. We were masquerading as new recruits, and the insider insisted we lie low and do absolutely nothing to cause any trouble for at least a few days while we oriented ourselves. So what happened? Within 5 minutes we'd found a locked door, tried to find a key, created a disturbance to distract a security guard while one of us tried to steal the key, whereupon three of us got arrested while the other got trapped hiding in the air ventilation system for the facility. The sole free member of the party ended up on a long, quixotic voyage through the base, trying to pass herself off as a member of the corporation, while the three of us in prison plotted our escape. This set off a chain of events which resulted in an invasion by laser-toting time-police who levelled the entire base, and the party being split into two units at entirely different points in time with apparently no hope of reunification. The GM was utterly aghast.
My point? None of us, as players, were being dicks and deliberately trying to ruin the game. All of us were behaving in character and doing what we probably would have done in our characters' positions. The GM, to his credit, went along with us entirely and followed through on what the consequences of those actions would have been - he never once told anybody 'no'. But simply by exercising our agency we created bedlam with the 'plot' of the game and probably had 10 times more fun with it than we would have done if we'd stuck to what he would have preferred we'd do.
(He may have been palette-shifting, of course. But I doubt it. I know him and I know his games, and I have a good palette-shifting detector when it comes to him.)
The lesson of all this takes us back here. The OSR way of playing the game works by giving the players agency and consequences in a sandbox. Narrativist story-games work by giving the players agency and consequences within the 'plot' - because they create it. Somewhere in the middle you have the rail-roading illusionist GM, shifting palettes and playing around with quantum ogres, and this poor fellow is missing out, caught between two stools, trying to make the game fun and interesting for the players while failing to realise that you achieve this in spades simply by putting the power in their hands.