Sunday, January 28, 2007

Eyes and Ears

If you've been following my rants, then you already know. One of the things I keep struggling with is the exact role of the GM in the game.

For the most part, I favor the recent, indie-game attempts at empowering players. I even argued that players should have more control over how and when their character's fail.

But, unlike many, I feel the GM still plays a unique and vital role. She is the keeper of the secrets. The knower of all mysteries. She sets the pace and the tone. She keeps a careful eye on consistency, and provides structure--a skeleton on which the story can hang.

And, there's one other important job for our already overworked GM. One that often doesn't get a lot of attention. She is the eyes and ears of each and every character. In some ways, she's part of each character's brain.

Let me explain. I am currently sitting at my kitchen table, looking out across Honolulu. But I'm not seeing the city--not really. There's just too much information, too many details streaming in through my eyes and ears. My mind filters that information based on my personality, my pre-conceived notions and my current mental state. My mind automatically focuses on the few details that are important to me.

Right now, the lights of the buildings look like stars. The city looks full of hope and possibilities. But then, this has been a good day. My family spent the afternoon out at the park, and my daughter and wife are now both peacefully asleep. Work's going good, and I'm ahead on my classes. So, my reaction really isn't surprising.

If someone else was sitting here, they would undoubtedly see a very different scene. Perhaps they would focus on the overcrowding, and the noise of traffic rumbling up to my window. Perhaps they would notice the stretch of run-down apartments huddling in the shadow of the new luxury towers. I can find those things, if I look. I know where they are. I've seen them on other days, when I've been in less-happy moods.

So, what's the point. Well, when the GM describes a scene, she is our window into the world. She is responsible for telling us everything our character sees, hears and feels. She needs to use her descriptions to create atmosphere and mood. And she must taylor the description to each individual character.

Most of the time, GMs just give a plain vanilla description. Everyone sees the same thing. And this is fine for the broad strokes. But the GM should give each character a little taste from their own particular perspective. Maybe not all the time, but the more often the better.

Here's an example. I'm playing a swashbuckler fop who spends an inordinate amount of time on his wardrobe. Mark is playing my partner, a grizzled guardsman who worked his way up into the queen's guard. We're making our way across town to meet a friend, when suddenly...

GM: A figure steps out of the fog ahead of you. "Ah, I'm so glad I found you. There's a change of plan. Jean needs you to meet him down by the docks." You don't recognize the man, but he's dressed in a fine silk doublet and half-cape. On his shoulder he has the insignia of the King's Guard. "Please, follow me. I'll show you the way."

ME: Do I notice anything unusual about him?

GM: Make a perception roll--both of you.

ME: One success.

MARK: Two.

GM: OK, Rich. Something's odd about the hang of his clothes. The doublet seems too loose across his shoulders. Expensive clothes like these should be finely tailored. Clearly these were not tailored for him.

GM: Mark, you notice the way he keeps his weight centered on the balls of his feet. There's a coiled tension to his movements, like he's ready to run at the slightest provocation.

Note, both of us get a clue that something is not right. But our clues are tailored to our character's interests. This helps bring out each character's unique personality. And draws the characters further into the story.

But this is not easy. It's not even hard. It's very, very, very hard. We expect the GM to keep track of all the plots and subplots, mysteries and hints, and now we want them to be familiar with all the character's skills and interests as well. I can tell you now, that's not going to happen.

But, this is a goal worth working towards.

I have two recommendations for the players.

First, ask leading questions. If you want to see the world through fashioned-colored lenses, ask questions about how others are dressed. Bring it up again and again. The GM will eventually get the hint.

Similarly, if your character should know something that you (as the player) don't. Ask. Playing a 16th century scribe, but you don't know how books are bound? Ask. You're playing a courtier but you don't know how to bring up certain questions in polite company?
Ask. The GM can't expect you to be an expert in every aspect of your character's life--especially when your character is different than your real-world persona.

The GM (and the others at the table) may not know the answers. But at least you can agree on a consistent answer for your game world. Most importantly, you will know what your character knows.

This should go without saying, but you should only ask when the question has a direct impact on the story. For example, if you're trying to remove a page from a book without leaving a trace. Or if you're trying to seduce the duke's daughter so that you can plant incriminating evidence upon her person. If it's not important to the story, just let it slide. Please.

Second, and more importantly, each player should select one aspect that is their viewpoint. This should be something that is sufficiently broad so it frequently comes into play, and it should be unique to that player. Finally, the viewpoint should grow organically from the character's background, skills and abilities. I would even recommend creating the viewpoint first, then building the character around it.

I haven't tried this out in play, but my instincts say the viewpoints should start as relatively broad topics. Good examples might be combat, politics, finance or fashion.

The viewpoint represents the way your character sees the world. It is their prime filter.

The GM should then, as much as possible, tailor description through this filter. While it is impossible for the GM to remember all the details of all the characters--she may be able to remember one important detail about each character.

If more than one character wants the same (or similar) viewpoints, then break that general topic up into several smaller sub-views. If two characters want a combat viewpoint, one could take brawls and one could take infantry maneuvers. This helps partition the world into unique world views, while keeping each viewpoint as broad as possible.

If you have any other suggestions on how GMs could tailor information to specific players, please let me know. I have seen a couple of GMs do a good job some of the time, but I have yet to see anyone do a great job across the board. So, I'd definitely be interested in hearing your take on this matter.

Friday, January 19, 2007

What happened to the game stores?

In the immortal words of Granny Ogg, "I 'ent dead!"

Sorry to be away for so long. Things got kind of crazy around here, starting with finals, then the holidays, then a disaster involving my wife's job. I think things are finally setting down to their usual level of chaos and disorder. But no promises.

Needless to say, I haven't had a lot of time to think about gaming lately. There is something I do want to talk about--but it's a little bit different from my typical rant. More a question, really.

What has happened to game stores?

I've always been a game-store junky. I probably went once a week on average, just to check out the new stock and drool over books I couldn't afford. I always had a long list of purchases that I wanted to make--more than I'd ever be able to read, much less actually play.

Then something changed.

Is it just me, or has something about game stores changed? I don't feel excited when I go in them anymore. I just feel sad. Recently, it's hard for me to find even a single book that appeals to me. I still stop by, maybe once a month now. More out of habit than anything else. Habit an a desperate hope that I will find something interesting.

Back in the day, I would wait in long lines at Gen Con to pick up the newest White Wolf game the first day it was released. I would usually read the entire book by the time I got home. Sure, I've purchased some of the new White Wolf games, but I haven't managed to even read any of them all the way through.

It's not that they're bad. They're OK. But they're not great.

And it's not that I've lost interest in the hobby. I still get excited. But now, it's usually places like Indie Press Revolution (http://www.indiepressrevolution.com/) that leave me drooling. I recently purchased burning wheel (http://www.burningwheel.org/). I devoured all three core rules over a weekend. Why can't I ever find games of this quality in my local store?

What has happened to the game stores? What has happened to the gaming industry?

I don't know. But it makes me sad.

-Rich-