Getting in your own way

A game, when it is going well, has a certain flow to it, almost a cadence. Unlike a scripted tale, however, story beats are not always, or at least not entirely in your hands. I have purchased but not yet read the inimitable Robin Laws’ renowned treatise on this issue, Hamlet’s Hit Points, and wish to get my own thoughts out-of-the-way before I do so. I suspect I will agree with him, and I would like an indication of how much of my thinking was my own before the book seeps into my mind and supplants what was there. Technically, I suppose, this would place this post under the useless and antiquated category, tagged with behind the times. So be it.

Exploring my own thoughts on Story Flow was not entirely the impetus for writing this particular entry, however. I was scanning the forum at this week, and a plaintive sounding post title called ‘Please let the party die‘ caught my eye. I think it was the “please.”

In it, the poster described a campaign wherein the players were having encounter after encounter, and due to a variety of factors, their characters were essentially beaten to the point of death, but…that which trounced them, did not finish the job. The comments go on to analyze why that might have been, but primarily focus – in the first few pages – on what needs to be done to solve the immediate problem of group unhappiness. If a group is begging to be allowed to die, one can pretty safely assume that the fun has gone in search of Elvis.

What inspired me to write a post was imagining how the events described might have come to pass. By the time I had time to post a comment, the thread had long since moved on to 4+ pages and the moment had passed, but… I wanted to try and get the idea out there anyway.

How does a game get away from the GM?

I have never thought the moniker of ‘killer DM’ was anything to be proud of, but I have always respected those who run a consistent game with a real threat of character death. I have to balance this a bit awkwardly with having little respect for balance issues between characters, but feeling that while a GM can populate the map with whatever the hell they like, any encounters that the party has no choice but to undergo had best have some possibility for an appropriate success of some kind. If the GM designs an encounter which the party cannot win, the entire story up to that point had better have been about the tragic lives and lamented deaths of that party. Otherwise, what was the point? That is not a ‘win’ for the GM.

Still, games get to a point where dumb things happen and really the only person who can rescue it is the GM. The means for doing this vary widely, from injecting a new player, to fudging die-rolls I suppose, but ultimately, the other hat the GM must wear is EMT for badly damaged games.

Damage might arise from several sources, but commonly I think that the most common way to lose control over a game is to have never really had it in the first place. If the party is just a random assortment of independently generated characters held together by virtue of it being ‘game night and we need characters,’  and if the story is generated on the spot or by skimming a talk-by-numbers module and claiming to have ‘prepared’ I would argue that one should not be surprised if the story and its associated fun winds up in the tank as often as it does in the ‘fun-zone.’  Probably more often.

In conjunction with this is the sensitivity one develops to how a story must run when one is empowered to change the conditions of it, but not the reactions to it. Because these are not fiction, but a form of living story, the GM can only affect the world around the characters unless he wishes to engage in a “You can’t do that!” approach to gaming. This requires the development of a feel for how the story is moving around the characters, and what they are likely to do, and able to do in order to make it flow in the manner they desire. Without these… there is no control.

Here comes the train again:

What I thought of immediately when I read the forum post was that the GM in question was trying to ramp up the tension by adding complications, challenges, puzzles and threats  – despite the flow he had been building. It is possible that he just misjudged the difficulty level of the encounter, or did not know how to adequately describe the clues to the players so that they were unable to properly discern what sort of challenges they were about to undertake, but… does it really seem logical that that could occur so many times unless there were some other factor behind it?

You know as well as I do that the next comment to be trotted out involved long iron tracks, and based solely on the original post that could certainly be it. The characters are not necessarily surviving, but the party, and therefore the story goes on. It certainly might building toward something, but protecting the players to usher them toward one’s dramatic set-piece of railroaded glory does not normally involve so many random-seeming encounters with blase rescues. It’s hard to say.

Bad Jazz:

In a case where it is not something like story protection aka railroading, there are a few things which contribute to mucking things up beyond all possibility for having fun. In one case, the GM might, through feeling that the game has lost momentum and excitement, try to artificially create it by adding in complications and danger with each passing scene. The odds, by the fact of attrition alone, radically swing away from the PCs unless all of these sudden encounters are pitifully easy. While constant struggle can be tense, it can also completely undermine the direction, and flow of a story until it becomes something else… more like a couple hundred funny things happened on our way somewhere, but we never got there, than a funny thing happened on the way to the concert. Ostensibly this is done to generate more fun, but… no one waxes poetic about all the ostensible fun they might have had if what was ostensibly to happen had happened instead of the actual annoyance they got from what actually happened.

Free form alteration, or playing jazz with your story requires two things: creativity, and having a story in the first place. By creativity, I mean the ability to alter elements of the story on the fly with a full sense of how that alteration will affect what has already been established, and what needs to come next to maintain the entertainment value, continuity and consistency. By having a story, I do not mean depriving players of choice, but rather having an awareness of what is out there in the game world to provide interaction, and what choices can result from that interaction – as seen by the characters.

Killed by Death:

A truly bizarre case where this problem can arise is to work at cross purposes to your own intentions, and I cite it as bizarre as it seems to happen more often than one could reasonably expect. Sometimes, a GM will tout a system as being “deadly” and “realistic,” or will trot out that most holy of words, “gritty.” This will have the totally predictable effect of encouraging players with sense to either play cautiously or dare the GM to off their characters. In both cases, the GM is faced with having to deal with sudden difficulties in advancing the story as the characters are either holed up in their safe-house, or in the morgue.

Often, it will be necessary to coax cautious players out with survivable encounters, thereby diluting the previously touted ‘deadly’ aspect of the system, and building a false sense of confidence in the players. Once this confidence has been established, and characters are once again in motion, the GM no longer feels like the game is as ‘gritty’ as intended, and so it (cue trumpets) becomes necessary to remind players how deadly, realistic, and above all, gritty a game this is. I mean, seriously… what do you want? Characters who act and interact, or characters who are too afraid to leave their homes?

The same holds true for the brazen. If they all die, there are few groups who will feel like jumping right back in to try again. If they don’t… they will soon either come to feel like the game is not “gritty” or realize that the GM has been letting them survive when they should have died and so… any previously occurring fun becomes retconned to not fun.

I also see a parallel here to attempts to increase enjoyment by making each stage seem like more of a challenge. The reward of success will be all the sweeter if the road to that glory is bathed in wet, steaming hardship, right?

I suppose there is some truth to that… as long as you don’t ramp the difficulty so high that you find that you have not only just shot yourself in the foot, but the ricochet has hit you in the face.

What the hell do I think, anyway?

I am an early passenger on the communication bandwagon, and I also fully support the idea of ongoing skill development for those in this or any other hobby. It is not just GMs who need to develop skills.

I dislike the idea of the entire weight of the story resting on the GM, and think that players should feel an interest in trying to predict and enhance the flow of the story. I think players should regard their characters as an investment, and do their best to nurture and develop their personalities, treat their backstory and points-of-view with respect and consistency, and help the other players do the same. If the characters become fully developed, it becomes easier and easier to prepare story challenges for them, and these stories will have better and better rewards for the players.

I dislike the idea of an adversarial relationship between players, and between players and the GM. That is what wargames and other boardgames are for. The goal of an RPG is to mesh a series of skills and harness those and team play toward the goal of producing an evocative tale of the group’s devising. To that end, the GM needs to focus on realizing and using links between characters, allowing for and developing links to the setting and the NPCs who populate it, and sparking stories that the characters (and the players) want and need to be involved with. No story should really be ‘the story I want to tell’ with the players held captive to realizing it for you. The group should have an interest in a certain type of tale, create characters through which to explore it, and then go at it – no holds barred.

This brings us back to flow. If there is no clear story, sandboxes notwithstanding, there is no flow. If there is no understanding of the characters, there is no flow. If there is no consistency in the way a player plays a character, there is no flow. If the GM is forcing the story instead of providing access to interactions and descriptions then there is no flow. In each of these cases there may be instances of flow, but ultimately, there will be an interruption and the flow and its story momentum will be lost.

How do you recognize it when you’ve got it?
  1. The events of the story are clearly building or escalating toward something.
  • That something can be as mysterious or obfuscated from the group as you like, but it must exist in some fashion or another
  1. The players are picking up clues, and assembling theories about where things are going
  • They can do this because there are clues, and the story is actually going somewhere
  1. Players are voicing and shooting for goals which go in concert with the idealized storyline, not in opposition to it
  • This happens because the players have become engaged in the story, and its events and subsequent effect on their characters has become important.

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