Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Starting in January, I'll be playing my first roleplaying game campaign in fifteen years, in a world loosely based on John Brosnan's pulpy Sky Lords books. I pitched four character possibilities, and in writing them up I realized that they'd make an interesting character set for a novel or graphic novel (which I'm now kicking around as a back-burner project while I finish up a bunch of other writing projects, and work full-time). This thought led me to consider my two long-term Gamemasters, their styles, and how that influenced my perspectives on Gamemastery, and in turn, about storytelling.

Dave Osborne was my GM through junior high and part of high school (he's older than me, so he graduated, leaving only summer campaigns until I went to college). With Dave, I played several years mostly AD&D, Twilight 2000 (a great, underrated game), and a hybrid of Cyberpunk and Shadowrun. We started playing mostly by the book, or so we thought, but it quickly became clear that Dave was cooking the books to make the campaigns turn out how he wanted them to, modulo what he thought of our decisions at each turn. This realization pissed-off his brother to no end, leading to several dorky fistfights, but I saw the utter wisdom of this approach. Games of chance are boring, games of skill require actual skill, but role playing games should be neither -- they are group storytelling, and the role of the GM is to keep the story engaging, suspenseful, and enjoyable for the players. By the time we got to playing Cyberpunk and Shadowrun, we had evolved as gamers to the point that it seemed utterly natural to merge the two systems as each had weaknesses -- Cyberpunk was, for us, the better gaming system, and Shadowrun the more interesting world (though Shadowrun did have a better system for hacking, and Cyberpunk had no magic system, so we had to integrate modified versions of a bunch of Shadowrun rules into a Cyberpunk framework).

When I got to college, my Gamemaster was Sylvan Clebsch (a great GM, and also creator of Stellar Crisis, Roger Wilco, Targetware, and other interesting gaming software). Though he was creating in essence a better version of the G.U.R.P.S. idea (an RPG rules system that adapted to any game world) that ultimately became his thesis, and we playtested it for about two years (in a game world that was a hybrid sci-fi/fantasy environment where everything went), it was incredibly obvious what was going on. Sylvan was also an adherent of the shared storytelling approach to gaming, despite working on a rules system, and we'd roll dice and he'd work out the statistics of how his system was doing so he could improve upon it -- and then everything would be fudged in order to make the game go in whatever direction we had collectively convinced him was most interesting.

Occasionally we'd start a new "stick to the rules" campaign to help him shake-down the system, but those were always short lived. Characters died left and right, and the campaigns came to abrupt halts. Sylvan got some good data about his system from these campaigns, but nobody particularly enjoyed playing them. I also recall that we tried at a few other systems (definitely AD&D, and I think also Twilight 2000, GURPS, and Shadowrun) to see if these lackluster campaigns were because of a flaw in his system that was not present in other systems. No, his system was in fact superior (I still wish he had released it, but the paper gaming market was floundering in 1992). In the other systems campaigns were as short or shorter, and the shared storytelling was at least as encumbered by annoying rules accounting.

What I came to realize was that for really successful GMs, running a campaign was all about story, but not quite like in filmmaking. Role playing gaming is a shared story, evolving based on interactions between players and GM, and does not fit into a three-act structure. The idea with a good role playing campaign is more like improve theater meets serialized novelization, comic book series writing, or television series writing. What happens with the best campaigns is putting a continuing cast of characters into exciting situations that give the players (and the GM) stories that are enjoyable to weave as they work their way through the situations.

Dice rolling and lookup tables were just opportunities for the GM to make a decision about where they wanted to take things next, their modules and notes merely suggestions of possibilities. The absolute best GMs (such as Sylvan and Dave) could go "off script" for hours based on an interesting idea thrown at them by a player. On more than one occasion I caught more than one great GM "looking up" results on a blank piece of paper, merely using the rules accounting time to think about what would be a interesting thing to have happen next. (Another option is to more or less stick to the rolls, but to keep giving the player more chances, stuff like: "Sorry, you miss the jump across the chasm and are plummeting to your death -- but you land on a ledge but a couple meters down taking damage, what do you do next?")

Some people enjoy being rules lawyers and playing games of chance with their campaigns. I do not, and fortunately I grew up with two very skilled GMs who could weave a great game story, and bring their players into it (and I'm very sad that I am no longer in contact with either Dave or Sylvan). My opinion is that the most talked about, most enjoyable, and most interesting RPG campaigns have always involved Gamemasters making gross violations of the so-called rules (the ones written down in the handbooks) in favor of adhering to the one canonical rule of RPG campaigns: make them fun.

Because our GM for this upcoming game is a writer-director-story artist, I am hopeful that his approach is 99% inspiration and 1% computation. A really good story-based role playing game is even more fun than the best novel or movie you'll read, because it involves a group of friends, by creating the story together, invest themselves in it in a way unlike any "read only" entertainment (and, frankly, in a way that video games also completely lack).