New on Desk #118 — Creative Discourse pt. II

Let’s keep with the train of thought from the last newsletter, finish the idea.

Players having agency in game setup

In the last newsletter I suggested that roleplaying usually (not every time, just most of the time) involves a caste hierarchy of participants separated by the type of their creative engagement: GM types participate in the game primarily to develop and execute a creative vision, while player types primarily participate to experience and play. GM types want to execute their ideas of what the game could be, and see that vision flourish in practice; player types want to experience a new or familiar intra-game space that is fun, comfortable and self-affirming to engage with. Most of the creative discourse of the hobby and art of roleplaying is created by the GM types, talking between themselves. This big picture, I suggested last week, is important for understanding what it is that even goes on in the rpg group creative discourse.

Credit where it’s due, by the way: considering the essential caste distinction is trad rpg theory, arguably originating in the earliest 1970s considerations of the structure of the game. Traditional notions of the GM as the master of the game are founded on this idea, seeing its heights in the high trad era of the ’90s, and its degeneracy in the ’00s; and of course much of the Forgite rpg theory of the ’00s was born out of struggling with the concept, leading to various still ongoing strains of serious investigation into egalitarian play. In many ways it’s an “obvious” observation that GMs and players are different; the real questions of merit concern the reasons that cause this to be the case, and the implications of how and where it matters.

(For rpg theory long-timers, a word on how this observation relates to Big Model type creative agenda: a coherent, functional CA is a social payload of inter-player interaction. The kind of creative framework interest I’m observing here is a prerequisite and limitation on what kind of CA is possible between a group of players, not a CA proper. So don’t think I’m engaging in the old theorist hobby of relabeling CA modes here or anything like that; “GM type” is not some kind of new synonym for “narrativist” or whatever you might be thinking of. It is in fact possible to observe rpg activity on different, inter-related but distinct layers.)

The kind of situation where individual player-side participants in a roleplaying game actually have genuine, actionable, concrete and legitimate observations/demands/suggestions about the conduct of the game is in my experience very rare, whence my interest in discussing that a bit here. Others no doubt have different experiences on this, but mine is that the normal way players relate to a game is that they participate, and at most give general feedback on whether they enjoyed the game or not. The GM is understood to be the receiver of such feedback, who “takes it into account” in whatever way while the project (campaign, group) proceeds forward. Besides such general feedback players normally only engage in type of creative maneuver over the game: they’ll drop the game if it’s not rewarding enough for them in their particular circumstances.

This default circumstance is not ideal for me personally, and I imagine for many other “GM types”; the creative arrangement is something that often seems to lurk in the background of other, more overt and concrete discourses on this or that structural issue of roleplaying. Ultimately we’re often talking about companionship in creative work, and a desire to widen the creative circle of participation in various ways. It’d be nice, such a GM thinks, if the other players committed more in making the game great and helping me accomplish that.

What this supposed sharing of creative responsibility even means is a complex question, one that I’ve found myself becoming more critical on over time; I suspect that ultimately the “story gaming” program of round-robin storytelling means nothing to me exactly because it’s trying to sell me a bill of goods: pretend that players engaging in a form of play that’s about doing GM-like literary narration is somehow essentially different from players limiting themselves to PC maneuvering in the traditional adventure game style. It’s not that different, though; those are both just players doing the game-space play activity of their respective games. In both cases the GM is still the one deciding what we do, and caring about having us do the thing well. They might not be called the GM because the game is GMless and formally speaking everybody has symmetric roles in it, but they’re still the one choosing the game, learning the rules, teaching the rules, and facilitating the game.

Because people only care about rpg theory that comes with new labels, here’s some classification of play groups on the basis of what kinds of players, with what kinds of concerns, the group happens to possess. You’re welcome.

Traditional Caste Hierarchy Group (TCH): One GM type pulls the group together and maintains it on the strength of their own creative passions. Typically involves treating gaming as “perfecting the craft”; the GM type is like a crazy scientist who iterates over their own understanding of roleplaying to present ever-improving gaming, with the rest of the group as their audience. The rest of the group consists of player-types, or gamers willing to adopt the player role; they’re there because the game is fun, and don’t generally know or care about the creative concerns of form and technique that the GM wrestles with in preparing the game. The most common type of play group, and also the one most assumed by trad rpg texts.

All-Star GM Group (ASG): These have grown more common in the Internet era, as you can just form a new group with other hardcore rpg enthusiasts, all of them of the GM caste of participant. The Forgite story game tradition often implicitly assumes or encourages this kind of group composition. In my experience true ASGs most naturally remain stable and together in a sort of writer’s circle arrangement: everybody’s working on their own gaming projects, and they run games for each other and provide in-depth studio critique on each other’s work. Running long-term trad games is actually unlikely simply because the GM-type players involved ultimately lose interest in “just playing”; whatever they think themselves (not like a human knows themself very well), they’re not in the hobby to actually just play a functioning game.

Do Your Own Game Group (DYO): A game group that doesn’t have a GM-type in it is also possible; this is the big white whale that modern D&D and other commercial games of its ilk have been hunting over the last few decades, basically. Gaming without creative responsibility, just follow the rules and add water. I encounter DYO groups in the wild mostly as orphaned groups (the only GM left, so one of the players stepped up to run the game). They mostly seem to play highly boardgame-like inflexible games like modern D&D, obviously with a fairly high focus on the use of official rules and play aids; the group’s into it just to play, after all, so they’re not bugged by the creative pressures that a creative GM type suffers. This is perhaps not the stablest of arrangements overall; either whomever is actually GMing catches the GMing bug and starts doing it out of passion (symptoms: start reading rpg forums, collecting game texts), or the game dries up because it’s too much effort for the amount of fun.

And these labels are, of course, a continuum of particulars. It’s not like the GM and player castes are somehow binary in themselves either; it’s usual for gamers to develop a clear caste identity, but being a switch isn’t terribly uncommon either. So yeah, I’m sure your group has one main GM and another guy who also loves to run a game but is fine with only doing it during the holidays or whatever. Reality is rarely pure. But maybe it’s not difficult to classify most of your groups into those boxes; I know they work for my experiences, it’s socially very obvious if I’m playing in a TCH or ASG group. (I’m dyed-in GM type myself, so while I have participated in short games with DYO groups, I’ve obviously never been long-term in them; they turn into TCH when we figure out that I want to GM more than whomever we started with in the director’s chair.)

Egalitarianism in wargamey D&D

We’ve been wrestling with these creative concerns in our Coup de Main D&D campaign a fair bit over this last winter. The Tuesday fork of the campaign is more calm sailing, operating more as a traditional caste hierarchy group as per above. The Monday game, however, is a highly disassembled affair in comparison, with many of the participants having actual opinions about the conduct of the game. It’s an all-star GM group of old school D&D, which is somewhat unusual (dare I say unique) in my experience; over the years so many of my D&D pals have turned into serious GMs that now that we’re playing together again there’s plenty of opinions flying around. This isn’t normal for D&D, which started and has mainly developed historically as a GM-facilitated experience-oriented adventure game. Players having strong opinions about how the game should go is a new experience for me.

(The situation is clearly self-inflicted, to be clear. Not only do I encourage open technical discussion of the game on many levels, but I’ve actually outright been a significant mentor for many of these guys in them becoming passionate GMs themselves. The situation we find ourselves in is not accidental.)

I of course love the situation for all that it makes the game more complicated to conduct; I imagine that most GM types enjoy the idea of engaging the game more as peers with the other players. I have my own weird creative goals for the campaign, involving frankly spiritual-grade notions about process legitimacy, simulation-based resolution, sportsmanship and so on; It’s great to be playing with people who seem to get what I care about, and care to various degrees themselves, and also bring their own creative concerns into the game. I of course try my hardest to foster this sort of buy-in and campaign pride; as far as I’m concerned I can’t “reach Name Level” (one of those explicit creative goals I’ve set for the campaign) alone, I need companions willing to journey with me.

My experience with ASG groups from before is strictly from avant garde indie game design circles where we would convene weekly or whatever to run iterative playtesting over each other’s and other people’s experimental games, making notes and writing studio critiques. So I don’t really know how a wargaming ASG group plays, but from the way our Coup group has been developing, I have some guesses: strategic planning, after action reviews, rules challenges, alternate GMs all seem to be involved. It’s different because the unit of design/development is different, with the singular campaign stretching as a regular process over years, being developed as it goes.

What fundamentally breaks the pattern of “GMs prep games, players just play them” in Coup is, I think, that the group has multiple people aside from me who care about how D&D gets played “right”. The normal player caste participant is playing for enjoyment of the game space, or to learn the game, or to hang out, so the utmost limit of their creative contribution is always to signal whether they enjoyed the session or not. Apparently we’ve developed enough of a shared “D&D theory” over the years for this to no longer be the limit of the participation, because in Coup I seem to be sharing the table with several other players who also have their own notions about what the legitimate, perfected D&D campaign looks like.

AP Report Pile: Coup de Main #81

All right, what we consider the last session of the Illmire cult business! The adventure by this point has taken ten sessions, beginning with the apparently entirely incidental kidnapping of young Will, our hapless hireling, and since then leading a trail of death and logistics through one of the dumbest, crudest cultist-in-dem-hills setups we’ve ever seen. (Really, it’s kinda realistic but also beyond realistic how stupid this cult has been.)

I’ll let Tuomas tell us again:

Knights Temp continued from last time and continued to the abandoned Copperclaw mine outside Illmire to check it for possible cult activity. They did have long conversation what to do about the obvious slavers but ultimately decided to not do anything right now. They concluded that they would most likely meet them again in Illmire when they returned from the mine.

The mine itself looked abandoned. Rob scouted the place ahead of the main force but couldn’t find any trace of anyone moving about the couple buildings on the surface. There had been heavy rain over last half a week so the grounds were muddy and would have had obvious footprints if someone had been around. Only worthwhile info was smell of rot from the mine shafts. Didn’t surprise anyone since the mine was abandoned due to zombie attack.

Knights formed battlelines and entered the main mine shaft, zombies attacked, and Knights slayed them. This was bread and butter for the experienced Knights. They mopped up some more zombies in the mines and collected minor loot. They also checked the lift in the main mine shaft, it looked functional.

Aelfstain tried to pick the aura of the fearspawn the Knights suspected was somewhere deep in the mine and found it. Unfortunately, the shaft leading in the direction was completely flooded after the storms of last few days. Few body parts ominously floated on the water.

Knights tied a body part to long rope and started fishing in the mine shaft. They has some info about wide network of tunnels at the bottom they had got from miners and cultists in town and they hoped that the abomination from beyond universe would bite and they could drag it up and kill it.

Gotta say, this entire part seemed to me like it was dangerous and unlikely to work. I was consciously taking a more passive role here, partly because the business wasn’t a character strength for Bard and partly because there were plenty of other players driving the action. Just as a general after-action comment, this entire course of action smacks of “target fixation” to me.

Target fixation is a well-known cognitive bias where a human (or a dog, why not) concentrates on pursuing a goal so single-mindedly that the targeting context causes them to mis-interpret in-coming information and basically just make a bad call that should be evident when considering everything you know of the situation. There are ways to combat it; one of my favourite methods in D&D teamwork is to assign some players to “strategic overwatch” (or “strategic leadership”) while another player leads the party tactically. The conceit is that the strategic overwatch remains unconcerned with the tactical particulars of how the dungeon crawl proceeds, avoiding target fixation. If the tactical leadership seems to be going into a dangerous direction, the strategic overwatch can then provide a warning about the perspectives that have possibly been missed.

In this case, the Knights were facing a partially flooded mine that probably hid an aberrant Feardaughter within its brackish depths. The tactical “trail” leads into the water, so what do the adventurers do? They start fishing in the dark waters of the lower mine, hoping to bait the Feardaughter. While this makes perfect sense for the dog hot on the trail, wagging his tail and figuring out how to catch the prey, surely it’s also fairly clear in hindsight how this is a long shot at best, and dangerous to the fishermen at worst. The best case scenario is that we attract the monster to come to us, but how likely is that, and how much do we actually need to catch it?

That’s part of the elegance of the grand strategy game, by the way: you’re not only responsible for how to get the goal, but also for how much you want it. In this case I would argue that our interest in the Feardaughter couldn’t possibly be very high; we had just decided to leave the Fearmother itself alive and active, merely sealing its dungeon. Catching and killing the Feardaughter would be a nice bonus, but mostly we were at the mine to make sure that no cult leadership remained to resurrect the cult once we leave Illmire behind.

After long time something took their bait and they dragged it up with spears ready. Unfortunately it was only more zombies. Even more unfortunate was that young Will once again plunged into peril, zombie managed to grab his spear and pull him 10 feet down to water with them. Aelfstain dived after him and rest started to pull out their bows. The real miracle was Kermit, channeling Power from his relic mace down on the zombies and driving them back to the depts. Meanwhile Aelfstain had managed to grab young Will and climb back up on a rope and no arrows struck them.

At this point it was concluded that Knights couldn’t do anything now, at least not until the rainwater had drained away. The place had a reputation as a haunted mine and no cultist seemed to have been here in couple of days so it was probably okay to leave the place be.

Knights headed back to Illmire. On the way they spotted a group of men heading east, could be the same group they met in the morning.

Rob wanted to talk private with their leader, Soulton, since he suspected he might know something about the situation with Donmas Kaapu in Yggsburgh he was investigating. Rest of the Knights headed straight to Illmire, and Rob went after the group of men.

Rob met with them and got his chance to talk with Soulton. The meeting was civil and two thieves checked each other’s credentials before sharing bit of info. Soulton was near Illmire to meet with someone but it didn’t happen, now he was returning back to roadside inn. Soulton didn’t have any other business in Illmire and didn’t know Donmas but he had heard about Sarios, the weapons merchant Rob had entanglements but he didn’t know the man, less done business with him. Soulton didn’t seem to be connected to anything Donmas was doing.

This was an interesting inter-GM coordination encounter because of how Soulton the Slave Factor potentially relates to some big stuff we’ve been brewing for practically the entire campaign back in Selintan Valley. It’s interesting how he’s heard of Sarios there, that sort of places him into some places and circles of acquaintance.

Back at Illmire there was a small celebration. The Knights Temp concluded that they had indeed saved the town of Illmire and a major (8k xp) quest was scored. On top of that they had found some quality rum at the mine. The town wasn’t in any immediate danger though the Fearmother and her spawn lived underground around the town…

Tuomas is absolutely right here about Illmire being safe forever from the Fearmother and its cult now. Never ever will our brutal yet slip-shoddy quick-fix methods of dealing with it come back to haunt us.

AP Report Pile: Coup in Sunndi #53

We’ve been hexcrawling on the Hollow Hills with the Beast Society, our Chaotic Evil adventuring party… Magister of the Song, our erstwhile 4th level Cultist, is looking for black agate (also known as onyx) mining opportunities for his necromantic pursuits. I mean, this is apparently my D&D: an Evil, fucked up party, and what they get up to is inspecting abandoned copper and iron mines for easy to reach agate deposits. I don’t wonder it at all that there are players in the campaign’s orbit who think that we should adventure more.

Yeah, of course this would be where Koraktor is hidden.

Speaking of: Magister’s not alone in the hills, he’s accompanied by Aku the Akuma, a 2nd level Wizard and student of the Book (yes, the horrible thing from that one LotFP adventure), so basically def similar grade of total asshole as Magister himself, just less into the whole mining mania thing. Aku is actually in the hills for his own purposes, or rather the purposes of the Dark Master of Beast Society, Melchior the Black (a NPC ally); Melchior’s fell designs require the retrieval of the Koraktor, the Bible Black, the Hell-Bound Tome, the Embossed Charter — a lovely book with several names and a potent program of demonic divine magic within. Melchior needs it as pedagogical material for his new school… it’s a long story, basically NPC say fetch, adventurers leap to it. Even if it might not be the best of ideas. 10k XP in it for the loyal sons of Beast Society.

So Aku accompanied his Beast Society pal Magister to the Hollow Hills, but really just because the old cult hideout where Koraktor was supposedly hidden was also there. Naturally when the crew made contact with friendly-enough locals, who knew of the infamously evil and cursed mountain upon which the Koraktor’s hiding place lay, Aku wanted to beeline that’a’way. And equally naturally, Magister was like hell no, he’s not going to stick his nose into anything so dangerous. About part for the Beast Society; as we say in the Beast Society, it truly is a society of friends.

Or to express that on player level: Sipi left his character Magister out of this leg of the adventure and instead created a new character for himself. A couple of new players (old friends and veterans of the game rather, but new to this campaign) also joined the game here, which suited me just fine; we were just starting a new exciting adventure, after all. Despite Death Frost Doom being an absolute modern classic, which I’ve used several times over the years, somehow I’ve never actually conducted it for any of these guys (not even Sipi, who I’ve been playing with for ages), so here we go and damn the torpedos!

I always enjoy it tremendously when we have a big and varied crew with new players bringing new perspectives, and it was fun this time as well. Sipi tends to naturally gravitate to being fairly active in party leadership, which this time showed in how his new character Scar the Barbarian took up a role as a party guide; a native of the Hollow Hills, brother to the Narfaln clan chief, Scar Narfalni was a brave and blustering man who would ride a horse and bring his own foot-slave (another player character). According to Scar, while the “Accursed Mountain” is forbidden to approach, such taboos are for cowards, and it was well attested in the clan lores that treasures stolen from his people were still to be retrieved from this dismal, abandoned place.

The session featured a hexcrawl journey to the Accursed Mountain, with the usual Hollow Hills difficulties (particularly finding water) ameliorated by native wisdom. The Mountain lays beyond the grazing lands of another clan, but the clanspeople are usually fairly chill towards each other, so no big deal as long as the party would encounter nobody and wouldn’t confess to where they were actually going. Forbidden mountain, after all.

So we met Zekander the Coot, this peculiar old mountain hermit familiar from the adventure module. The players hilariously were taking a super-careful approach to the mountain, and they were afraid of Zekander being a hidden dragon (as in, a high-level Fighter), so great respect and much face was given. The party actually spent a couple of days outright helping ol’ Zeke craft his grave memorials with the cunning intention of secretly following him up the mountain after he finishes his batch and goes up there to plant the memorials as part of his eternal toil.

Amusingly, when the time came, the party found that the route up the Mountain and to the thoroughly cursed cult hideout was a very straightforward trail. The hardest part was without a doubt the formidable logistical challenge of the 8-hour climb up the mountain to reach the place. The way this ended up working out for the party was that once they’d followed Zeke up once, they came down halfway, camped, then on the morning climbed up again, found that they’d run out of water, solved their watering issues by the local well, and finally were more or less ready to start their location exploration.

I’m jumping over the generally extremely spooky nature of the environment here, but the players certainly were not left in the dark on that during the game. This is a horror adventure, after all. The party was surprisingly determined, though, for whatever reason; seemed like there could not possibly be anything I could say about the howls of the cursed dead that would convince them to turn back. Not even the weird and unsettling details of the Cabin itself could shake their conviction.

We ended the session here with the party ready to descend down into the Shrine proper, where Aku the Akuma expected the Koraktor to lay, as per reminiscences of Melchior the quest-giver NPC. So all good so far; I’ll tell you how the next session went in the next newsletter. Fun times!

State of the Productive Facilities

I guess I’m three-ish newsletter issues behind after this one. Still apparently struggling to manage more than one per week, considering that I’ve been three behind for the last month. I guess there’s no helping it except by trying to write more. Maybe run less; the jogging season has started around here, but I find that I am unlikely to write on the same day I jog. Shows how lazy I am.

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