Dealing with uncertainties

Let me break Kayfabe for a moment, don’t worry it should not happen often.

As you probably know by now (if you read the rest of the posts), we are currently playing a game called Night’s Black Agents (NBA) by Kenneth Hite (see Pelgrane Press Site) based on the GUMSHOE system by Robin D. Law. And if you look at my first post you will see some of the reasons (I could/should have gone in more details then) why I like the GUMSHOE system so much.

The reason I break Kayfabe today is due to an event that happened in our last game. In short I was planning to have the Agents (PC in the world of NBA) attacked by some Nigerian pirates off the coast of Cyprus. In my mind this was pretty set as a combat encounter, the players would deal with the threat and go on to the actual operation knowing that the bad guys were really pissed off. Using the NBA system to its core a player managed to stave off the threat by “creating” a Nigerian contact and asked if he would be on the boat by any chance.

Now as most gamemasters probably know, this is really hard to deal with, even after reading “Play Unsafe” by Graham Walmsley, it can be daunting to venture in the unknown of letting other people add and create “unlicensed content”. I’ve got this comment from one of the other player in the very same game, a player with many years of role-playing experience. She was of the impression that giving that much control of game content to players would only results in problem.

Looking at it more deeply later on, I think what she was saying was that letting the inmates run the asylum would be probably break the rest of the game planning. That got me thinking on the medium itself, role-playing, and the games that form the rule structure that allows us to tell stories. She was right that letting players have that much control over creative content would break many story based medium but not all, and should never ever break role-playing. Role-playing is not a single person affair, it’s not story telling, it’s story making.

Going back a few years, for you youngsters imagine a world without the internets. Roaming the Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) we often created stories on forums called “Neverending Stories”, a never ending story was started by any forum dweller. In which they wrote about a page of text,  the next post coming from someone else took the story to yet another unknown location. To be able to write these you needed to take whatever was given and take to its next step.

Going back to most tabletop role-playing games I’ve played in the past, both as a GM and player (see the distinction here), player inputs has been mostly regarded with amusement or in the extreme case disinterest. First and foremost because any player suggestion of this kind could risk breaking the game master  / storyteller story. I have been guilty of not letting player input in my games, looking back this is pretty sad. It was me, I figure I am not alone here, confusing the medium. Role-playing and story based gaming are not story telling. Now that would break traditional gaming (board and computer alike) flow, but role-playing and improvisation will not break, they should even be strengthen by these types of players input.

The problem at that point is not an issue of player input, or even breaking the story arc, it’s confusing the medium. For several years we have approached role-playing as storyTELLERS and gameMASTERS which by definition implies some form of command, control and communication, the writers of these various games  perpetuated the problem by using these terms. Frankly it does not work. At least for me, and for some others I’ve seen, they let the title overpower everything else. Why is it so hard to deal with? As a game MASTER, I get to believe that I decide everything that comes up in the world. The world is my responsibility, any NPC actions, any events, anything. It also implies I am to be the sole provider of fun at the table, and if at the end of the night I was a bit off, then the players can blame me. In a game with five players, one of which in the GM, it means that 80% of the potential creative juice can blame the other 20% for not having a good time.

So most people responded in two ways, first they overworked their games, putting countless hours in designing completely railroaded sessions that would make sure that the players would find the story entertaining. Thus was reborn the dungeon crawl, disguised under the trope of Mage needs crew to retrieve artifact, crew does deed, gets screwd over by said mage, exposes/destroys evil mage, gets the tresor. We got this handed to us one way or another for the past 15 years, and since that’s all we got we took to it like junkies for one last hit.

The other more pervasive problem is that some players just threw their hands up and stopped/never tried to be gamemasters, gaming became/was hard. In my opinion Role-Playing should never be hard, it should just be fun. It should provide escapism for a moment, it should make me a boy playing with toy figures in the backyard inventing stories that only I knew the complexity and deepness of. When playing these crazy games in my backyard, most often with my brother, there were no real rules, just us inventing stuff on the fly, as needed and having a blast. Following this rather simple idea, please take a look at most modern RPG system character sheets, are they simple? They are black belt level mathematics, for a hobby. They transform ideas in formulas and then tell people that they can’t do stuff because the mystical rule set said so. For frak sake, dragons are flying around burning a village while the corrupt prince is accepting bribes from the barbarian tribes and the rules are telling a player that he can’t jump over a running horse while holding a torch to light the armory to destroy the fortified position of the corrupt prince, WAT?

At that moment creativity is destroyed, and the player becomes a passive participant. Might as well watch Law & Order. And I won’t talk about gaming session where some players are mostly reading through the rules to be able to do something that should be resolved organically at the table, by the player themselves and not some meta lawyer represented by an abstract rule set.

But “It is make believe, you can do anything you want” says the first time gamer at the table, while veterans sadly envying the innocence of the newly arrived recruit. The noob is right, we are wrong, the fact to the matter is, we are playing games to feel like kids, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, space dudes and aliens, we should be allowed/encouraged to dream impossible dreams, we should strive to offer the new players a mirage of reality instead of the harsh mathematical coldness of rules.

Reading the Fiasco companion foreword by Wil Wheaton, of Über Geek Fame, told us that Fiasco gave him a window to what role-playing gave him when it was fun… While I do agree with Mr. Wheaton on this, Fiasco is fun, Fiasco is role-playing at its core. I also believe that it should apply to any role-playing game.

I love role-playing because on the best of days, when I play,I feel like a young boy again, playing in the backyard with my brother, dreaming impossible dreams.