The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast
From "The Provisional Glossary" by Ron Edwards
This entry in the glossary (among others) has always bothered me. It seems to come from the mistaken belief that an author can do whatever they want in the story.
"Wait!" you say. "The author writes the story--by definition, they CAN do whatever they want." Well, yes. But not if they expect other people to actually read it.
For a story to be successful, it must make sense. It must be believable. The character's actions must feel like a logical reaction to their current situation based on their established personality. Everything must follow the rules of cause and effect. Fiction is actually held to a higher level of coherence and continuity than reality. In the real world, things are often arbitrary or random. In fiction, this is simply not allowed.
When writing the story, the author is actually confined to a very tight space. Of course, the author can always go back and edit the story--to produce the necessary justification for whatever they want to occur. GMs don't have this luxury. But the constraints placed on an author are similar (if not in fact, then in spirit) to those placed on a GM.
Still, I often find myself struggling to explain a GM's role. They don't create the story in isolation--though they do play a vital role in building the story. They don't plan the plot--since the PCs will inevitably do something the GM did not anticipate. They do plan much of the background. They breathe life into the NPCs. They craft the deep currents--secrets and mysteries whose effects will eventually rise up and in many ways shape the plot. They also continually increase the level of conflict facing the PCs, generating new situations that cause trouble for the characters.
For the players, the role seems more straightforward. The player has absolute authority over their character. Except, what about fear checks and the like? These often seem acceptable--especially if they're an integral part of building the proper feel for the game. But they do stomp on player authority. Truth is, different games grant or remove different amounts of authority from the players. Can the player determine when and if his character dies? Can a player determine when or if his player fails? Who describes the failures? The successes? All games force the player to give up some authority. Do you give up authority to enhance the game mechanics (such as traditional saving throws, hit points, skill rolls and similar mechanics), or do you give up authority to enhance the story?
But players also help create the world, either implicitly through their character backgrounds and by asking the GM for specific details ("Do I know of any good bars in this town?"), or explicitly by stating facts in character ("I know a good bar around the corner. Lets talk there.").
I strongly feel that players should have a large role in shaping the world around them. They should have the freedom to flesh out those details that the GM has not yet penciled in. More importantly, their actions and decisions should have a visible effect on the world around them. They may not shake the foundations of society, topple civilization or raise up kings, but their actions should have consequences--both good and bad.
For his part, the GM needs to remain responsive to the players. He must work to create a story the players are interested in. He must incorporate the player's ideas and contributions into his story outline. In short, he must give up some authority over the game world and over the direction the plot will take.
Let's briefly revisit the idea of writers and outlines. As a writer, I spend a lot of time writing notes about the world and the back story. I flesh out all the antagonists and support characters. And, I spend the least amount of time on the protagonists. I know from experience, the main characters will change considerably as the story is written. They will develop quirks and habits as I go along. The needs of the story will force them to deviate from my original impressions. Similarly, I block out the main turning points of the story--but I rarely write a scene-by-scene outline. I let the individual scenes unfold as they will, and if the story deviates from my original plan--so be it. To me, this seems to be a good pattern for the GM as well.
But, if we're not going to call the GM an author, what is he? Editor is clearly not correct. The GM's roll in creating the world is much more authorial than editorial.
Previously I used the image of the GM as a gardner. I like this idea. He takes the story seed and plants it in rich top soil. He makes sure it has enough water, sunshine and fertilizer. He picks weeds and prunes the story. He ties it to supports when necessary. But he's not just any gardner. In my mind, the GM is a bonsai master, teasing the story into a dramatic shape. Like the bonsai, he cannot control where new leaves will bud. He might anticipate a branch's growth--he might restrict it or modify it. But, he must work with the plant to create art.