New on Desk #117 — Creative Discourse pt. I

More newsletters, more! I still need to write four more before getting back to Muster! Being at the mercies of yon muses, particularly the crazy-cuckoo postmodern ones, is a bitch!

Players having opinions in roleplaying

Generally speaking, the big picture of the rpg hobby is that it is simultaneously an intensely artistic pursuit, but also very hierarchical. I’m not talking about structural theory here (there are all kinds of theoretically available ways to structure a game), but rather the historical nature of the hobby. This is how it plays out in practice:

Game Master artistic expression is the foundation of the exercise: Actual play events occur because a game facilitator personality is hooked on the art form of roleplaying and wants to set up a game. The very utmost we can expect any other player to contribute to the emergence of a play event is prodding the GM about wanting to play; otherwise the fact that play happens rests solely on the GM, who provides the creative desire, plan and leadership. This is fairly similar to how traditional arts, sports and other cultural endeavours tend to play out.

Gamification elides hierarchy-formation: The reason roleplaying is nevertheless perceived to be fairly egalitarian is that the gaming activity that occurs within the play event framework set up by the GM has the potential to indeed be egalitarian: everybody engages and plays, making choices and contributing to content. A GM doesn’t need to cheat, you can actually just play the game as you’ve set it up to play. The game’s existence and availability (and generally its practical playability) is thanks to the singular artistic figure of the GM, but if we ignore that he built the theater, the play put on by the group is more interactive and contributory than what the audience does in most arts.

Or, to put this analysis into a simple dictum: Generally speaking roleplaying has the potential to allow players to make genuine choices. The GM provides the questions and often enough the multiple-choice answer sheets, but the players do contribute some, too.

This creative hierarchy between players who participate in games and GMs who set up games causes a distinctive creative culture in roleplaying, with its own paradoxes. Check this out:

The people who understand you are other GMs: Setting up games is an intensely creative act, it’s about what you’re interested in doing. It makes sense for community of creativity to form around this activity. Said community consists of other GMs, because these are the people who relate to what your part of the activity is like. However, these people are by definition not participants in your actual game. It’s like if you were a movie director and the only people who you could relate to creatively were other directors: you would practically never work together, for each movie only has one director.

The people you actually work with are not GMs: Contrariwise, the people you actually work with to achieve gaming are by definition not as GM as you are; if they were, presumably they’d be GMing the game instead of you. Of course this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but more of a general observation. Most of the time, you conduct the game for players who are relatively unconcerned with the construction of the theater; they are there to play, not to create.

The paradox, in case you missed it:

The community of creation and community of play are separate, and therefore players do not participate in creation: Sure, players contribute to the moment-to-moment proceedings of the game, within the framework the GM provides. They put up a play within a theater the GM provides. That seems to be the practical limit of equality in the rpg form.

While not expressed in quite this way, the creative conflict caused by the GM-player distinction has been a big theme in avant garde rpg development over the last 20 years. The implied creative goal of “egalitarian play” is to reduce the caste distinction between the GM and the player populace. And that runs directly at these facts about the nature of the hobby: GMs participate in build and run games, while players participate to play them.

Playing is orthogonal to creation: Much that is actually insightful and relevant about post-traditional rpg design concerns the question of how “play” and “creation” can be aligned and unified into a singular activity. I would argue that this creative program has not advanced much; game facilitators, GMs, are just as much building the theater today as they were in the ’90s, and the players are still merely visiting. The main reason to grant “story gaming” (or whatever you want to call this creative campaign) any laurels on this is that the lightweight “boardgamey” rpg design popularized at the Forge actually does reframe the GM task in a way that makes it somewhat less laborious to perform. Players are perhaps not being enfranchised, but at least setting up the game is easier today than it was 20 or 40 years ago. The game designer takes more of the GM’s task upon himself, basically.

This situation isn’t important to everybody in the rpg hobby, but for some of us it’s a big deal in one way or another. For some roleplaying games are first and foremost gaming spaces, so it’s important that the GM can be a stable functionary who provides a stable space. For others rpgs are creative projects of expression, so making the game be “more powerful”, iteratively developing towards greater heights, is paramount. Understanding that you’re sharing a hobby with these other people, and that largely determines how you relate to the activity, might be helpful. This is arguably one of the defining features of the way the GM-player creative contradiction developed as traditional roleplaying matured over the 1980s and ’90s: hobbyists interested in self-expression gravitating to be GMs, and hobbyists interested in playing a game gravitating to be players.

I again ended up blathering about the generic background for a thousand words here, without managing to get into my actual practical topic, so I guess this’ll become another two-parter newsletter. Maybe this is going to be my future standard format? Two 3k word newsletters in pairs instead of one 5k+ piece. Makes the stream of consciousness less easy to follow, but also practically reduces the amount of writing I do per week on this, which feels like a good thing for my blogging/work balance overall.

In other words, cut here and I’ll get back to this in an upcoming newsletter. I want to discuss the creative development of our D&D campaign.

AP Report Pile: Coup de Main #80

At the end of March, our long-running Illmire adventure was coming to an end. I’ll let Tuomas describe the events:

Knights Temp were sieging the Fearmother at its own lair and had plan to bury the dungeon to keep it sealed, potentially forever.

The plan went without big troubles, enough of the Knights managed to brave the Fearmother’s influence and carried load of dirt down to dungeon and packed it in front of door leading deeper. They also had burned Sven’s body and laid his bones and paraphernalia to rest in the dungeon that had claimed his life. Finally, they filled the stairs down with dirt to seal the tomb/prison.

Meanwhile Bard and Artemur had interrogated their new prisoners. Some new bits of information were learned. The abandoned mine had had an accident, one miner had died and returned as undead. He had killed couple of miners before rest had escaped and the mine was sealed and abandoned as cursed. The cult had brought kidnapped people there, but they had never left the place.

Knights Temp returned to Illmire after successfully finishing their siege and brought all the townspeople who helped them safely back. On the way they encountered some giant gecko trappers, who impressed them so much that they immediately offered to hire them for future expedition.

Back in Illmire more interrogations followed. Knights learned that the innkeeper had been receiving the fear potion shipments from the cult lab at the swamp and dumping them to town well. Thrumhal figured out that mercury used in the potion was the cause of sickness running rampant. They checked the inn’s drink supply but found nothing suspicious there.

Knights spent some time trying to figure out the “zombie” cultists. They had previously learned that they had somehow been forcibly converted by the cult priests but didn’t yet know exactly how. They could detect Fearmother’s aura on them, more specifically on their heads which lead them to suspect a parasite. Kermit tried to burn it away by channeling raw Power of Pelor to the fellow under Fearmother’s influence. Something went wrong, he only managed to produce extremely bright flash of light that temporarily blinded both him and the cultist. Aelfstain tried his psionics to ward the cultist mind against fear, but he too got a bad reaction suffering minor psychic burn in the process.

Knights had concluded that the abandoned mine was a point of interest for them, and they would venture there next. Rob started making plans and ended up making plans for days since late summer weather turned foul. Multiple days of thunder and gale kept Knights Temp in town.

When they finally got underway a sudden plot twist forced Knights to consider their immediate plans.

They met a group of armed men on the hills outside Illmire. Bard engaged their leader in civil conversation but after they parted ways Bard, Thrumhal and Rob were quite concerned and shared their thoughts with others.

It was obvious that the group were slavers from Pomarj. They didn’t know exactly what they were planning but just by reputation it couldn’t be anything good (heh) and general sentiment in Knights was clearly anti-slavery. They hadn’t seemed hostile when they left but they had headed towards Illmire.

Knights Temp huddled up to decide what they would do next. Would they go hunt some slavers or just observe them hoping they would go away when seeing that Illmire was not completely defenseless? Was their leader planning to rob their treasures they had left in town? Something completely different.

For me the actually worrisome possibility here was that the slaver squad was just outright planning to attack Illmire and make away with wealth and slaves. There were just a dozen of the slavers, but Illmire was just a 400-people hamlet at this point, albeit with town walls; with the gutted town guard and seemingly non-existent muster the town enjoys, and with the grade of professional competence that some of these slavers in this setting have, I could see them cowing an isolated community like this. Worst part is that if they were going to do that, the odds would be fair that they’d also find out stashed treasures in town.

This was a good example of a highly disruptive random encounter element in an otherwise complacent scenario. As you can see, nothing else that happened during the session was anything but routine; it was one of those sessions where we just finesse the situation and wrap it up. After deciding to seal the dungeon with the fearsome Fearmother still inside, the rest of this cult affair has been fairly routine, and would be likely to continue so. But slavers, now…

In case you’re wondering, the reason why “slavers” means so much in the wider strategic scope of the campaign is multihued. A simple summary:

Rob Banks is strategically entangled: One of the leading PCs in the campaign, Rob Banks, has a Pomarjian prince among his personal retainers, and although he’s not personally involved in slaver operations, he’s kinda-sorta peripherally aware of such things existing and possibly intruding upon his criminal interests. The chain of confluence is too complicated to explain here, but let’s just say that Heikki the player was highly interested in this slaver appearance this far inland.

Slavers are a big deal in the setting meta: One of the major original TSR era campaign arcs set in Flanaess and therefore in play in this campaign is the so-called Slavers series of adventures. The individual players are more or less familiar, one assumes. The gist is that we might or might not be tackling the Pomarj slavery-industrial complex as a mid-tier adventure concern, and if we do, these sorts of ins are relevant.

Watching TV: Life on Mars

I watched a bit of tv drama, the British crime drama Life on Mars. And I just now, reading Wikipedia, learned that not only has it been adapted for American tv (that I knew already), but that it’s also been adapted in Spain, Czech, Russia and China. I guess it’s a game show instead of police procedural. (I’m gonna check out some of these, I like new adaptations of old stuff.)

So anyway, Life on Mars is old-people tv in the popular kids anime genre of isekai, or portal fantasy; a modern-day cop gets hit by a car (an actual cliche of the genre, right there) and gets transported 30 years back in time, where he’s still a police officer and now has to fit into a police department in the ’70s. It’s life on Mars because you might as well be in a different world, see?

Life on Mars was, as I understand it, a flash in the pan hit, and I think I know why it was so popular (and popular to adapt) while also losing audiences over some time. Here’s my take:

Period drama is high concept crack: The historical setting makes it really easy to be appealing, and the show being a police procedural makes it easy to write and fill in episodes. So the concept of time travel synergizes well with the concept of cop show, the former helps the latter feel fresh. This is, of course, something that mangakas (Japanese comic book authors) have know for a long time by now; “modern day occupation drama except in a historical setting” has been a hook since long before the time-travel thing brought in the easy modern-day viewpoint person vibes.

Life on Mars is kinda mediocre: So the reason why the series doesn’t seem to have had long-term legs is more interesting, though; the idea is great, the cast is fine, but… the writing is really mediocre. It’s not easy to see without watching the show for like an entire season, but ultimately this thing was written by boring people, in a boring way. You hope to see it become better, but it never does, and it seems like the writers don’t quite get what is it they’re doing wrong. Namely: they’re writing an old-fashioned episodic police procedural that’s been long out of fashion by this time.

So it’s a show with a great premise, acceptable character cast, but the plot stuff drags. There are so many things that are missing: the writers don’t seem that interested in commenting on how Britain has changed since the 1970s (weird, you’d think that stuff would write itself), and they clearly, obviously don’t want to do anything with the “mystery” of how the protagonist has gone back in time. And the episodic crime stuff is just passable, it’s not great. So you watch this series, and keep watching, and ultimately you might as well be watching Murder She Wrote or some such old-fashioned murder mystery thing.

They’d have had something great here if the writers were more in tune with modern tastes: a solid season-long occult mystery plot over the time travel, the protagonist actually not fitting in in a politically meaningful way in 1970s Britain, and more hard-hitting crime drama in the episodic plots, and you’d have a friggin’ British Death Note except for adults. Instead it’s a series that might even be better without the time travel stuff. At least it’d be more approachable for the grannies if it was just a buddy cop show.

State of the Productive Facilities

I’m improving, I think. But then that’s what I often think. We’ll see how productive I’ll be after Easter.

4 thoughts on “New on Desk #117 — Creative Discourse pt. I”

  1. “This is arguably one of the defining features of the way the GM-player creative contradiction developed as traditional roleplaying matured over the 1980s and ’90s: hobbyists interested in self-expression gravitating to be GMs, and hobbyists interested in playing a game gravitating to be players.”

    Agreed. The way rpg rulebooks were written in 1990s was definately making the GM the star of the game. For an example, the idea of having a huge game world explained in the pages of the rulebook pretty much guaranteed that only the GM knew it and thus the GM was made the gatekeeper of the whole thing. If a player wanted to make a character, they had to go through the GM.

    “Setting up games is an intensely creative act, it’s about what you’re interested in doing. It makes sense for community of creativity to form around this activity. Said community consists of other GMs, because these are the people who relate to what your part of the activity is like.”

    Sure, most discussions around and about roleplaying games come from GMs talking to one another. The players rarely participate. However, if you look at the folk to whom “rpgs are creative projects of expression”, the situation might be different. These tend to work as a gaming group and discuss matters inside the team only. I remember many situations from the 1990s and early 2000s, where people tried to talk about their creative projects, but few people seemed to understand them. I assume these people (GMs) talked with the people they played with (their players) and had better results, exactly because they were participating in creating these expressive games together.

    1. Why would you assume that, though? Isn’t it more credible that said GMs were finding even less of a community of discourse among their players than they were finding among peer GMs?

      The part of the topic that I didn’t quite get to here (will get it next time) is that we’re having what I feel like an unusual amount of creative discourse among the group in Coup. Of course we’re not literally the only group ever to have that situation, but surely it’s the exception, and the normal pattern is that your group is at most mildly aware of the creative craft of setting up the game, and is mostly just there to “play” instead, making for that gap in the creative experience between the castes.

      1. The assumption is based on what they told about the games and the playstyle they had. The games / campaigns I have in mind were strongly influenced by larping, where player participation is essential. The games are freeform-ish (mechanics are tailor-made for each campaign) and build a lot on the relationships of the player characters. It would make sense for the GM to talk with the players and let them participate into the game design. The GMs (and campaigns) I have in mind are Stenros (Lohkeileva kynsilakka), Pettersson, Pohjola (Tähti), Rautalahti (mafia game?), “Merten” (I don’t remember his real name) and Nissinen (not sure about the name, but they had the wizard game, where spells had physical elements).

        This is an assumption, as I don’t know for sure how they ran their games and what (if anything) they discussed among the play group.

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