Wednesday 28 July 2010

The GM as Reluctant Court Jester

I've returned, windswept and rain-sodden and midge-bitten from the extreme North West of Scotland. (Some people go to sunny places in summer. I can never understand this. 7 years of Japanese summers were enough to convince me, if I didn't know it already, that the sun is our Enemy and not to be trusted. I like rain.) So naturally enough I want to write some posts about Scottish Highlands style D&D, because the bleak and empty hilltops, deep dark lochs, and abandoned castles of Skye, Wester Ross and Sutherland would be a perfect place for sandbox D&D.

But first, I want to talk about being a serious and high-minded GM, because the day before the missus and I went away there was a session of a regular Call of Cthulu game I'm involved in, which contained a moment which I think summed up rather nicely something which I've noticed over the years.

Most GMs, I think, are rather high-minded about the games they run. There are plenty of gonzo-style GMs around, of course, so I'd hate to generalise, but I think by and large they tend towards wanting their games to be taken at least somewhat seriously. They spend a lot of time carefully crafting worlds, adventures, NPCs and encounters, toiling often for hours every week to make a deep, meaningful and interesting game session that the players can really be immersed in.

And yet it so rarely ever comes off, because more often than not players just don't have the same investment that the GM has. They don't put in a lot of work outside of gaming sessions, as a rule, and much of the time what they're primarily interested in is their own character, and hanging out with friends and eating lots of fatty foods. This is true of most players and is certainly true of me when I'm a player, not a GM.

Last week during the Call of Cthulu game, we'd just learned that an old arch-enemy of the group had not in fact been killed in a fire (as we thought he had) but had in fact survived. This was quite significant, as it was an NPC we all loved to hate and who had come close to killing all of our characters in days gone by. So the scene was set for some good immersive role playing reactions. One of us, I forget who, blurted out, "He's alive?", with a serious "in-character" expression on his face. To which, on cue, another player immediately murmured "Gordon's alive!?" in a pitch-perfect Brian Blessed impression. Everyone sniggered and the moment was ruined. All that careful build-up was for naught.

Just as the remark was made I glanced at the GM's face and saw writ there the GM's tragedy encapsulated perfectly: caught between having to laugh because although it was a stupid and obvious joke it was executed with such panache, while at the same time having to be disappointed and crushed by the carefully built-up mood being so utterly spoiled, he ended up doing neither. He just looked down, paused for two seconds, and carried on. But I knew that the moment cost him, as it costs all GMs dozens of times every game session, all across the land, and he had felt it like yet another pound of the huge weight which he, like all other GMs, carries John Bunyan-like on his journey through the valley of role playing.

Monday 19 July 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday: Fangs of Fury (III)

[I'll be away hiking and camping in the Scottish Highlands until the end of the month-ish, so this is the last update from me for a while. I know posting on this blog has slowed down a lot over the last few months, so I hope after the break I'll come back refreshed and full of energy.]

Back here, we were confronted by a naughty goblin who seems to have mistaken us for an ally and wants to know our regiment. Being a bunch of deceitful scumbags, you decided to bluff and give him a name.

In Zamarra, you've heard stories about the Bonecrusher Battalions so you decide to use that name. The Goblin immediately pulls out a sword and holds it to your throat. 'The Bonecrushers have not landed yet, Coney!' He calls out to one of the soldiers, 'Get the list. I think we have another spy.' The Goblin marches you to a deep earth dug-out as another Goblin arrives clutching a large battered book. He looks at you, then flicks through the pages. The book seems to contain information about King Elidor's knights, squires and nobles. The Goblin shuts the book, disappointed. 'Nobody important, no ransom, kill him.' Do you shout out that what you meant to say was that you want to join the Bonecrushers (turn to 250) or 'admit' that you've deserted from the Citadel garrison (turn to 181)?

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Something tells me it's all happening at the zoo

There are some animals which really hog the fantasy-monster-beast limelight. Wolves (werewolves, wolfweres, dire wolves), bears (werebears, cave bears, owl bears), snakes (yuan-ti, medusae), lions (lamia, manticores), eagles (rocs, griffins). Enough with these trite creatures of cliche! Instead, what about:

  • Seagulls. Herring gulls and black-backed gulls are mean, noisy, vicious and cocky. They swagger about picking fights and causing trouble. Humans don't scare them - as you'll know if you've ever had one stare you down as you walk past with your shopping in a busy city street. They have sharp, strong beaks and powerful wings. Imagine one eight foot tall and the damage it could do to you. Now imagine a dozen of them.

  • Chameleons. Colour-changing lizards with spooky independently moving eyes, eerily smooth movement, and hyper-fast extendable tongues which can grab prey at a distance. Endless patience in ambush. They swallow you alive and let their digestive juices do the rest.

  • Walrus. A walrus is big, heavy, fat, and can scare off a polar bear with its turks. A giant walrus would be able to crush you like a flea, and unknowingly capsize a ship in its wake - then gobble up the survivors, floating helpless in the sea, as if they were plankton.

I also think there is mileage in dugongs, beetles, turkeys and ostriches.

Friday 9 July 2010

D&D is About...

I've been playing some more 'modern' or story gamish games recently - things like Blood & Honour, Unknown Armies and Burning Wheel. One thing you notice about modern games is that they all tend to be 'about' something. They're not just tabletop games that you play to have fun. They're supposed to enable you to explore certain deep human emotional themes. Thus Burning Wheel is 'about' having your beliefs challenged; Blood & Honour is 'about' how obsession with honour leads to tragedy; Unknown Armies is 'about' making sacrifices for the pursuit of knowledge; Changeling: The Lost is 'about' finding onself after personal tragedy. And so on.

I think there's a tendency to contrast this with more trad games like D&D. You find this on both sides of the old school/avant-garde divide, so OD&D grognards poo-poo story games because "it's about the game, not the narrative" and story gamers poo-poo OD&D because it's "incoherent" and doesn't have a goal. Both sides perpetuate a supposed gulf between the two different play styles.

Au contraire. I think D&D is actually 'about' something too, and moreover, it's about something very specific. What it's about is ambition.

What else could it be? PCs begin at 'level 1' and hope to progress upwards to level 9 or 20 or 36. They progress upwards by gathering ever more wealth and doing deeds of derring-do of ever increasing magnitude. They learn new abilities and magic spells. They behave avariciously, whether in terms of wealth, power, or experience, and are never satisfied with what they have. Their goal is almost universally to dominate the world, even if this is usually unspoken, because world domination is implicit in their drive to succeed.

Ambition even seeps into the metagame, because in my experience it's generally only in D&D that you get DMs doing the crazily obsessive worldbuilding which you find all over the blogosphere and which I also engage in with so much gusto. You don't get people DMing Unknown Armies and coming up with the gargantuan folders stuffed full of random encounter tables, maps, random treasure generators, weather and climate charts, new monsters and NPCs, and campaign notes. You don't get the almost megalomaniacal ambition of a true D&D DM to catalogue an entire world in other games. Or, at least, not at all as commonly.

D&D is about ambition, greed, power, and the will to win above all costs.

Monday 5 July 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday: (And it's actually Monday!) Fangs of Fury (II)

[I hear there's some sort of celebration in America on the 4th of July. Can't imagine what it is, but I hope my American readership had a nice time.]

It's been a while, but if you cast your mind back you'll remember that, after a very convoluted and contrived back story, we were in a labyrinth trying to decide whether to go right down a tunnel and disobey instructions, or climb over a pile of rubble. The votes were to be a good boy and climb over the rubble like Captain Laski said.

You scramble up the pile of rubble. It moves under you and, suddenly, you see bright sunlight. You scamper up and at once hear gruff voices shouting commands. Just then you slip, and a large warty hand stretches down and helps you up. You stand there blinking in the bright light and see a Goblin smiling at you. Behind him a group of soldiers are pushing a giant battering-ram against the huge outer defences of the Citadel. There is dust and smoke everywhere. You look down to see the rubble move again and the hole you emerged from seal itself. The Goblin shouts at you. "Watch your step! Next time I'll let you get buried! Now, who are you and what regiment are you marked for? I don't see any insignia."

Do you admit that you don't have a regiment (turn to 298) or do you give him a name (turn to 378)?