Thursday, 18 August 2011

On the GM as Frustrated Novelist

I think a lot of what I dislike in RPGs arises from what I call "Frustrated Novelist Syndrome". This psychological disorder affects approximately 67.8% of geeks, according to my impeccably-conducted empirical research, and has a definition in the DSM-IV as "Wanting to be a novelist very badly indeed - so much so that it manifests itself in ones gaming in all manner of undesirable ways".

Frustrated Novelist Syndrome (FNS) is primarily responsible for a heck of a lot of game-manual fiction, which is without doubt the worst sin committed by game designers anywhere, in any context. (By definition, if you were a fiction writer worthy of being published, you would be being published as a fiction writer, not as a game designer.)

But it is also, I believe, responsible for the worst sin committed by GMs in general: railroading. Having a 'plot' which the players are supposed to follow in a more-or-less predetermined path, fudging a large percentage of dice rolls, and assigning missions and goals to the players from the beginning - all of these make for less interesting gaming in my view, and they are all problems that arise deep within the psyche of a GM who really wants to tell a story of his own devising. It is the frustrated novelist inside him wanting to get out. It is FNS manifesting itself in destructive and foolish behaviours.

The only known cure for FNS is random generators, and lots of them, combined with burning the sufferer's DM screen so dice fudging becomes impossible. Another, more experimental, cure, is being conducted under the auspices of the Indie Game/Story Game movement - with the aim of removing narrative power from the GM. Results so far appear to be mixed.


  1. The other cure is for the GM in question to actually go and write some books.

    Leaves you free to use your GM-time to do GM stuff.

  2. The only time I even have a bare semblance of a plot is with pick-up games, because exploring the world to decide what you want to do takes time that may not be available.

    And I always have trouble with that starting point of "hey do this, because why not". I would have a serious problem attempting to run a non-sandbox game for more than one session.

  3. The only known cure for FNS is random generators..

    To me, this is what puts the "G" in "RPG" and it is absolutely the cure to anyone's tendencies towards railroading. Even a plot-heavy campaign can work as long as the GM is randomizing enough shit (and sticking to it). In fact, I find as a GM that adding randomizers actually make the game more fun since they force me to figure out how to work in the unexpected developments they introduce.

  4. I think there's a good bit of difference between FNS as manifested in overwrought fiction in game manuals and as manifested by GMs forcing PCs to play a part in a "story."

    I always thought the former was kind of awesome, and sometimes even contained good adventure hooks. Even if game designers don't have the chops to crank out a fantasy novel, they are usually good enough creative writers to crank out half a page of fun pulp.

    The latter, however, is enormously frustrating as a PC.

  5. Just wanted to say that I found your site mostly by accident and it is a great way to spend my time. Since I see Zak posting here too, I will add that D&D with Pornstars is not only a great name but a great site as well. If I were asked to recommend two sites to anyone on this subject it would be your two.

  6. Zak: Well, yeah, but I get the impression FNS-sufferers already do that. The problem is they don't have an audience. With a game, the players are a captive audience - the best kind if you're a frustrated novelist.

    Zzarchov: Me too. I don't get how an overarching narrative is supposed to work. Once play actually begins and the players do the unexpected things that players always do... what then? But I get the impression that the majority of GMs think of it as the natural mode of play.

    sirlarkins: I agree. It's why I love tables. Any game product I ever produce is going to be stuffed with the things.

    Ivan: I've never read any of it that I've enjoyed, but maybe that's just because I'm playing the wrong games? I liked the little made-up quotations peppering the Planescape stuff but that's about it.

    Anonymous: Well, that's very nice of you to say. Thanks.

  7. I agree, as the GM, I want to push a boulder right to the lip of a ledge and the players' actions push it off and we all get to roll dice, make shit up and see where it lands. Or as my friend, Jim, says, "Kick this setting in the teeth."

    The other technique I've seen in indie RPG's that has nothing to do with narration in play is to have bits on the character sheet for the GM to riff off of. I'm thinking about the list of names on the back of the Sorcerer sheet and Beliefs, Instincts and Traits in Burning Wheel.

  8. What do you think about using tables to pre-generate random events.

    I'm asking because lately I've been generating the random encounters before the gaming session in order to streamline gameplay and to give me more time to develop the encounter. I still have to think on my feet because I don't know where/when the encounter is going to come so it will still need some adaptation.

    Some examples are the encounters in the last two Polish Resistance sessions I ran:

  9. Judd, I'm recommending this extemporaneously, as it were, because I haven't played any games there yet. But why not run a game of Sorcerer or Burning Wheel online, at Zak's constantcon, say? If time zones allowed, I'd be interested to see how it all works.

    Billy: This is one of those zen questions. See here. If the random generation has happened in advance, is it still truly random? /ponders

  10. I've had my eye on the Constantcon for a while now. Once I have some time I'll jump in. Right now the priority is getting resumes out and getting to NYC.

  11. I have to disagree with about the game manual fiction comment. That fiction was why I liked the old World of Darkness manuals. They blended fiction and mechanics to give the reader a real feel for the setting.

  12. There are other cures. My Frustrated Novelist phase was characterized by wanting to have these awesome moments in play that I felt I only saw in other media. I knew we could get closer. I tried to house-rule my way there, but that was a failure.

    The problem was trying to force it to happen rather than having players that were working to make it happen.

    Once the players were trying to do the same thing I was trying to do, we started getting the experiences I had hoped for all along. But the critical thing was that they were experiences the players were looking for too.

  13. Sand box games is a new term to me. It almost reminds me of PBeM Star Trek or something. I used to use a definite plot for the players meaning that there were goals that each character had, dangers or obstacles they would face. Sometime during the AD&D era people got the idea that in a really well designed adventure nothing should be random.

    All the encounters should be integral to the plot and the characters. I've never felt that way but I did try to create some 'non-random' adventures.

    They were not as fun for me as GM. If there's no randomness the only surprises are what the characters do. Which can be surprising enough.


  14. Nate: It's a matter of taste of course. Now that you mention it, I quite liked the little vignettes in front of each chapter in the old Changeling: The Dreaming book.

    Ry St: It's all about everybody behaving like adults and just talking about what they all want from the game, really, isn't it? Strange how rarely that seems to happen.

    Don: Well yeah, there's nothing more random than what goes on in players' brains. Problems arise when the GM tries to somehow predict or steer that.