Tuesday, August 23, 2005

GM Techniques - an Epiphany

Krista started an online Harry Potter game for some offline gaming friends. Three of us made up characters, and then made initial posts, about a month ago. That is where things pretty much stalled out. I have been talking with her, and she was sort of at a loss about how to get things going. I recommended kickers, a concept from Sorcerer. A kicker is an event designed to start play with an exciting and unavoidable scene. The basic idea is you describe an event central to your character's concept that your character cannot ignore. I wrote a new post for my character that incorporated a pretty big one.

My character’s parents were accused of being Death Eaters and were killed by Aurors. The kicker is that he receives an anonymous note telling him that the truth about his parents will be revealed, he just has to meet with the note-writer at a particular time and place.

After this, the game still didn’t go anywhere. While Krista and I were packing last Saturday, we got to discussing game design theory a bit, as I was putting my game books in boxes. As she has done in the past, Krista expressed her annoyance at my game theory babble, saying she really couldn’t tell what practical use it was (a testament to my rotten explanatory skills, I would say). Then we began talking about the structure of play in Dogs in the Vineyard and The Shadow of Yesterday, and how the players’ choices pretty much create the plot and drive play.

She had an epiphany. I finally managed to explain this. She explained to me that she had been having all of this trouble all along because she was trying to create a plot, and then couldn’t figure out how to work all of the characters in. And she was having trouble coming up with a plot in the first place. Suddenly, a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She could let us do the work, and worry about NPCs and backstory as the players created scenes and supporting characters with our contributions. Now she is excited about running the game and is eager to get things moving.

It felt great for me to be able to help her make a breakthrough on this game, and to finally describe all of this theory bullshit in a way someone who hasn't been discussing this for years could understand. When folks talk about a “great GM”, they are usually talking about someone who listens to the players contributions and makes game play about them and their characters. This concept is so fundamental to how to play an RPG and have a good time, and yet it is so rarely communicated. I’ve run games instinctively, learning these techniques over the years of role-play GMing that I have done. Through trial-and-error I discovered what techniques work. I rarely start with any materials, just a basic idea of possible villains and a direction for the plot. Then, I take whatever the players contribute and construct the game around that. For those of us raised on "modules," this can be a difficult transition.

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