Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Another piece of the GM puzzle

Over the course of this blog, I've spent a lot of verbiage exploring the role of a GM in a story-based RPG. The general movement in narrative games is to reduce or completely eliminate the GM. However, I feel the GM plays a vital role in story creation--or at least in the creation of the stories that interest me.

For a brief overview, check out any of these essays: Controlling Players, Eyes and Ears, Character Integrity, Impossible Things, Story is Structure and My Original Manifesto.

Ironically, my last essay (on player-generated conflict) helped me better explore the borders of the GM's role. As I thought about the issues more, I've come up with another central role that the GM plays. The GM introduces and manages conflict.

OK, it's not really a new idea. I've picked at the edges for a while now, and it seems pretty obvious. But, the implications are not so straight forward. I'm really talking about drawing a line between introducing conflict and creating the plot. GMs should introduce conflict, while the plot should emerge from the interactions between the players and the GM. The GM introduces a bit of conflict. The characters respond. The GM then responds to the characters' actions by either introducing new conflicts or causing the existing conflicts to evolve. Meanwhile, the plot grows organically.

The difference between plot and conflict may seem overly subtile, but I think it's important. Saying that the GM creates the plot assumes that the GM knows how the players will respond--or, worse yet, that the characters' responses ultimately do not matter. The GM can plan it all out (more or less) in advance. The plot will continue on its expected course regardless of what the characters do.

If we are going to create real stories at the table, the characters must make real decisions that have real effects on the game. If the GM creates the plot, then the story is already written, and the group is just acting out his script. Don't get me wrong, a lot of interesting games follow this model. But, it's not really a story, or at least, not a communal story.

Now, if you've been paying attention, you may feel that my new emphasis on GM created conflict contradicts the advice I gave last time. True, my last essay largely encouraged players to explicitly design a central conflict for their characters, but that was the central conflict for a character arc. The GM should manage (most of) the conflict for the story's plot.

Stories often contain both character arcs and an overall plot. An in-depth description is beyond the scope of this essay; however, there are a lot of good writing references that cover both. Briefly, a character arc focuses on how a particular character changes and develops during the story. While the plot focuses on the central conflict that binds all the characters together. Of course, there's some overlap between the two, and each one will affect the other.

So, I'm not suggesting that the GM is the sole source of conflict. Players can and should introduce their own conflicts. Most of these will become minor subplots. Some may grown and develop into major conflicts in their own right. Every once in a while, one might even take over the story, becoming the plot's central conflict. That's OK. The GM should follow the story where it leads. But, the GM is responsible for making sure that the story has a sufficient level of conflict. That often means introducing new conflicts, but can also involve managing those conflicts already brought to the table.

Furthermore, while a player might introduce an interesting antagonist. The GM is ultimately responsible for breathing life into the NPC. He must weave it into the plot, making it an important part of the story.

The GM must also make sure that the conflicts actually interest the players. Hopefully players have done their part, indicating their desires through flags during character creation and in their character's back-story. Note: this is a bit of a balancing act. The character's skills and abilities usually indicate those things the player wants the character to succeed at. These represent the characters' strengths and they should be a part of the story, but they're often not good sources of conflict.

Imagine a sword-master character. Clearly the player wants the character to win sword-fights. And the character should be given ample opportunity to excel at swordplay. But fencing-based conflicts are unlikely to be very interesting. Either the character will win easily (and there is no real conflict), or the character will face a steady stream of sword-masters with equal or greater skill. The character's identity as a sword-master will largely be destroyed if everyone he meets has an equal or greater mastery of the blade. It's probably best to keep major challenges to the player's key abilities for a climatic encounter.

Instead, conflicts usually come from the characters' weaknesses and failures. The GM should create conflicts that play off the characters' strengths (giving them a chance to shine in the spotlight) while forcing them to confront their weaknesses.

And remember, the conflict needs to engage the character as well as the player. Unfortunately, characters are harder to predict, since a lot of the characters' personalities are developed in play. Still, the GM must introduce conflicts that the characters feel passionately about. And these conflicts must adequately challenge the characters. If the players can just walk away, then it's not a good conflict (or, at least, it's not their conflict). And if the conflict is little more than a speed bump, then it's just not story-worthy.

Finally, the conflict must give the characters frequent opportunities to make meaningful decisions--decisions that will influence the plot's final shape. If the conflict only has one good solution, then the GM is really creating the plot, not just introducing conflict.

Ironically, having an overly-challenging conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Many interesting stories come from characters facing impossible odds. It's OK for the PCs to retreat on occasion. Let them hide away and lick their wounds. Send them out on quests for allies or magical relics that will level the playing field. After all, nothing makes you hate the bad guys more than getting your ass whooped.

Not surprisingly, these are largely the same criteria I discussed in the essay on character conflict.

After all this, I feel that the GM's role is solidifying in my mind. They have two main functions: providing structure and managing conflict. They also have a number of secondary roles, like creating and maintaining the story's atmosphere, acting as the characters' eyes and ears, and running the NPCs. While these lesser aspects are important to a successful story, they don't compare to the first two.

In fact, conflict is really part of the story's structure. Introducing and managing conflict, controlling the story's pace, maintaining consistency and managing the stories mysteries--all of these are part of maintaining a sound structure. In many ways, by focusing on the difference between introducing conflict and creating plot, I am just adding tighter restrictions on a previously identified role. Well, I can live with that.


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