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.


Anonymous algi said...

I might have a solution on this in the case of classical RPGs. (For example not Universalis.)

I haven't been GMing for some years now and recently started it again. My opinion is that when "writing" an adventure, you have to go back to the roots, the things wich are already set down and are unique. The most unique "things" are the characters, the second unique thing is the game (setting and system) itself.

That means that the adventure itself is derived from the characters themselves within the boundaries of the game. If I have a problem with one of the characters (for example there is a looting barbarian among the peaceful natives - archenemies), then the adventure can't be anything else (by me) than the retroactive explanation of the situation thus solving the problem.

That means it is no effort for me to take the PCs pov in account, because that is the adventure all about. When the PC-generated adventures are over, then I can fly away and save the princess from the dragon that non of wich has anything to do with the characters.

And I think you missed (or I missed, in that case forget this paragraph) something in your article: there can be (and there will be) a common AND subjective perspective of the PCs. Because even the broad strokes can't be perfectly objective. And the RPG is (IMO) more fiction than a model of reality, thatswhy it is good, if the GM guides the subjective perception of the group as a whole. This is important because 1) there WILL be a common subjective perception if you will or not, so better guide it intentously, 2) the party mostly decides as a whole and it is unpleasant, if they go astray, and you can guide them without greatly disturbing the believability of the scene (it's better than using an NPC to tell them what to do).

Or maybe not, I just recently started to GM again, and I still make some stupid mistakes after I bang my head into the wall. :)

3:06 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

I think we may be talking about slightly different things here. Obviously, the story will develop as a reaction to the character's actions (just as the characters will react to events in the story).

But, I'm really talking about trying to bring out the unique flavor of each character by tailoring their descriptions especially for them. What the story is about (plot) is--at least in my mind--orthogonal to how the story is told (description).

You can use description to drive the plot--but that's can quickly become an overt manipulation of the characters that I'm not really comfortable with. In general, it's better to use descriptions to build atmosphere and style.

The broad strokes descriptions are, by default, not tailored to any specific player. I wouldn't call them objective, per se. I'm not sure what "objective" means, in terms of a make-believe world. But, they are the most vanilla.

The broad strokes also tend to be minimalistic. Just a few, choice details to capture the flavor of the scene. Then, players can help bring things into focus by asking questions. This also lets the players tailor their own perceptions--they should ask questions based on how their character sees the world.

If they're playing a warrior, they might ask about those things that are important to a warrior--details about the armor and weapons. How do people hold themselves, how do they move?

If they're playing a courtier, then the questions might move more towards fashion and social standing. Issues of class and wealth.

Ideally, this forms a feedback loop, that helps bring out each character's unique personality.

And I guess that's the important bit. I'm not interested in tailoring things for the group. I want to focus on the individuals.


6:21 AM  
Anonymous Yoki said...

Very well articulated, great article. I will discuss this with my playing group, as asking those "leading questions" you refer to will help all of us get more color out of the characters.



7:12 AM  

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