Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Master is a Slave

This image is blatant pandering to
my sister in law

Continuing from my previous post, another thing that makes RPGs so different from board games is the notion of a Game Master. I realize that phrase might make some people shudder away in disgust and exclaim, “that's just too nerdy for me!” but I implore those people to continue reading anyway.

As far as I can think, there's nothing quite like having a game master (or GM) running the game. In video games the player is limited by the bounds of the game itself. If you walk to the furthest reaches of the map, you'll find an invisible wall that blocks the way. Books and movies are different because the reader or viewer is effectively on rails for the entire duration. The experience is passive instead of active. This doesn't make it better or worse; just different. The audience has no control of what does or doesn't happen on the screen; they're simply along for the ride.

Meanwhile, sitting at a table with a person who is the author, narrator, voice and personality of the characters is something to behold, especially if it's done well. If a player decides to travel to the farthest reaches of the planet, it's the GM's responsibility to have something suitably surprising waiting there for him to find. This is why I keep stressing the importance of imagination in games. If imagination is limitless, the world is limitless.

Now you can start to see where the difficulty of creating this kind of game can be. In a previous blog I mentioned that RPGs come in books. Most of the time a portion of the book is devoted to explaining the world (also called a “setting”). Essentially a setting is an elaborate list of Do's and Don'ts. A setting could take place in the Wild West, except with strange and grungy magic. It could be like Men in Black. It could be based on My Little Pony.
This guy knows what I'm talking about.
However, people are wild and unruly creatures who desire above all things to get their own way. This was one of the first things I learned when I jumped headfirst into running my first game. It can be frightening; I had spent hours trying to anticipate what a group of three players might do inside a single tavern. Within two minutes of playing they were already doing things I hadn't thought of. This is something I think every writer should experience just once; people like to break things. Look at what happened within a few weeks of the new Star Wars game coming out; people got inside the game and found ways to break it, giving themselves an advantage.

You see, when a person sits down to write a story, they have time to ponder and caress their words and characters. They can carefully sketch and sculpt their style and narrative to suit a certain purpose. This is one of the reasons it takes so long to write things. Compare this to RPGs, where the writer can prep as much as they want but still be fairly unprepared for the game. It doesn't matter how much time an author spent describing the perfect woman; when suddenly asked by a player if she's ever killed a man, all preconceived ideas are quickly called into question and the author has to stop and think. It's this very unpredictability that makes the game both a blessing and a curse.


  1. You do make it sound like a fun thing to play. I see why you put so much work into it.

  2. It's that storytelling-on-the-fly that I'm interested in seeing the process of.

    Wow, that sentence has really horrible structure. XD