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Game Design: The GM Isn't Playing a Game

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Game Design: The GM Isn't Playing a Game

Postby Xefas » Wed Mar 16, 2011 1:44 pm

Firstly, let it be known that when I say "Game", I'm referring to the Game Theory/Game Design definition of "A system for modifying behavior", not the colloquial "An amusement or past-time" definition. It's an important distinction; just getting that out of the way.

Now, to my main point. In many games, D&D included, the GM isn't really playing a game. The players are playing a game, but the GM is essentially working from some vague guidelines and winging the rest freeform from there. For many people that is "The Way It Has Always Been" or the way it should be, or the way it must be. The main sentiment of folks working off of a knowledge primarily born of D&D, GURPS, M&M, L5R, or similar games seems to be that game design stops at the players. You modify the players actions, but the GM just runs wild and we all hope for the best.

It need not be so.

But first, why might this be a problem? Well, for one, "railroading" was basically created from this. The players have constraints, the GM has none. Who do you think is going to have more agency in how things turn out? Both DMPCs and the attitude of "Gah, well I guess I have to be the GM this time" are born of this. Good rules are fun (or else we wouldn't be using a system at all). The players get to use the rules, and have fun - because they're playing a game - but the GM doesn't. Loss of player agency can result as well - how many times have you heard of "fudging"? The GM is playing freeform - he's allowed to just make up die results; nothing says he can't, and there are actually systems out there that say you should. When you fudge a die result, you're rendering countless player decisions completely worthless. I'm sure there's more, but I think my point is made.

Now, I'm sure there's someone out there saying "But my GM (or GMing ability) is perfect in every way! He's just awesome and none of these problems have ever happened, ever, at all. Of course you need an awesome GM to have an awesome time!"

To preempt that, I'll just say to think about all those people out there who aren't as fortunate. Not every group is going to start out with a guy whose GMed for 10 years and knows how to beat the system into working properly (and should he have to in the first place?). Think of how many people have been potentially turned off to roleplaying because the GM of their first session was running off of no other guidelines than barely pubescent male hormones and a Dungeon Master's Guide that says awesome things like:

"You're a member of a select group. The real fun is in your hands. In your role as Dungeon Master, you're the focus of the game!" (This is an actual quote. No really.)

I'm sure that's not going to end with Darkevil Fellbad the level 35 Lightning Warrior solving everyone's problems for them and then anally raping anyone's character who tries to jump off the rails (this is almost an exact excerpt from the first game I played in Middle School that was not GMed by myself).

So, in conclusion, as game design folk - think of GMing mechanics! Don't just give guidelines. For some inspiration:

Apocalypse World. The GM has a set list of "moves" he can use. They are: "Separate Them, Capture Someone, Put Someone In a Spot, Trade Harm for Harm, Announce Off-Screen Badness, Announce Future Badness, Inflict Harm, Take Away Their Stuff, Make Them Buy, Activate Their Stuff's Downside, Tell Them The Possible Consequence And Ask, Offer An Opportunity With Or Without The Cost, Turn Their Move Back On Them, Make a Threat Move". These are the only things the GM can do - and you may notice they're all reactive in nature. You may also notice there's no "Tell them they can't do that" move, or "Force them back into your pre-structured plot with an insurmountable challenge" move. This is intentional.

In a Wicked Age. The GM is bound by pretty much exactly the same rules as the players. If the GM says "No, you can't just save the Princess from being captured right now", a player can say "Yes I do." and then you roll dice to see if the PC is better at saving people than the kidnapper NPC is at stealing them away. It works both ways obviously, so if the PC says "Yeah, I just smash his phylactery", the GM is free to butt in and force an opposed roll if he thinks the plot would work out better that way.

Poison'd. Everyone is playing pirates. The GM plays any NPC pirates on the vessel if they are specifically singled out by a PC, but otherwise, dice determine the various default attitudes the crew have with the PCs when they aren't being directly interacted with. The PCs actually call on the GM, and tell him when an adventure begins, and how dangerous it will be (and rewards are always better for more dangerous adventures), and the GM sculpts it in kind with the words of the characters (So, if the PC Captain says "Out there is a vast fortune in gold bouillon guarded by two companies of His Majesty's Army and a docked privateer sloop" - then it is so). Other than that, the GM has control over playing "Cruel Fortunes" such as "Malcontentment", "Urgency", "Divine Judgment" and so forth, which have various in-game effects that the GM can adjudicate.

Now, as a final disclaimer; I'm not saying a game has to have GM mechanics to be good. Burning Wheel and Dogs in the Vineyard have what amounts to just firmly stated guidelines - they just happen to be really good guidelines - and those are both great games. This is more to just let a design space be known to folks who hadn't ever realized it was there.
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Re: Game Design: The GM Isn't Playing a Game

Postby Xefas » Tue Mar 22, 2011 6:13 pm

So, it's been almost a week now. Does no one have any input? I was at least expecting a "This is the worst idea since Apartheid and I hope someone stabs you to death in a dark alley sometime in the near future so you'll stop polluting the internet with this kind of stupidity." or something to that effect.

I was kinda hoping to do another thread like "Why Roleplaying Systems Exist" and/or "What a Roleplaying Game/Roleplaying Mechanic Is", but if this sort of thing isn't interesting, I guess I'll find something else to write about.
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Re: Game Design: The GM Isn't Playing a Game

Postby Draz » Thu Mar 24, 2011 11:57 am

It's a slow-paced forum, especially the Game Design segment. Give it time.
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Re: Game Design: The GM Isn't Playing a Game

Postby DragoonWraith » Thu Mar 24, 2011 12:25 pm

I actually really like this concept but I'm not familiar with any of those systems. I should check em out.
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Re: Game Design: The GM Isn't Playing a Game

Postby Xefas » Thu Mar 24, 2011 7:40 pm

Draz wrote:It's a slow-paced forum, especially the Game Design segment. Give it time.

That's true! I didn't mean to sound impatient. It's more that I'm nervous, being in what is effectively a new community, and then posting my first thread.
DragoonWraith wrote:I actually really like this concept but I'm not familiar with any of those systems. I should check em out.

What about Mouse Guard?

If not: it also has a bit of this with the Player Turn and GM Turn mechanics. The players aren't allowed to do certain things on the GM's Turn, but the GM is also not allowed to do certain things on the Player Turn. It's kind of like, the Players agree to throw themselves full force at whatever the GM (or, rather, the Mouse Guard's Leader, Gwendolyn) decides is the mission objective for that season. Then, on the Player Turn, the players get to go batshit crazy on whatever the hell they want and the GM has to abide them. There's even a mechanic whereby if a player uses a Trait or Instinct or whatever to make a conflict more interesting (i.e. make it harder for the PCs) on the GM Turn, then he gets to take more actions on the Player Turn (called "checks"). It works out pretty well, and I could see that sort of mechanic being adapted to any setting where the players are subordinates in a decidedly benevolent organization, but also have personal downtime. I could definitely see a Jedi Guard, or a Men In Black Guard, or something.

But, anyway, another point I forgot to touch on in my original post with the "I just want people to know this design space exists" bit, is that, well, the world has a lot of fantasy games. It has a lot of skirmish-based fighting games. It has roleplaying games about science fiction, and steampunk, and cyberpunk, and super heroes, and transhumanism, and all that kinda stuff. There're a lot of games with interesting tactical decisions, and tons of interesting character generation rules, and strategic depth, and all this kinda stuff. And there are tons of people working on churning out more of the same.

There are not a lot of people exploring the possibilities of interesting GMing mechanics. It's mostly sea serpents and folk tales out there, and only a tiny bit of the map has been charted. What I'm trying to say is - if a prospective game designer out there is looking to do something new and unique, and not a rehash of stuff we already have but crooked slightly so, this is probably fertile ground for it.

And to tie this back around, I'll reiterate that I don't think this is the only way to make a new, interesting, game. Just that it's...y'know, fertile. Something to think about. I'll leave you all once again, but with a stirring Penny Arcade comic to simmer your creative juices. Until they curdle. Into some kind of...game design curd. Completely distinct from the Whey of Monotony. Right, this metaphor is now over.

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Re: Game Design: The GM Isn't Playing a Game

Postby Gralamin » Mon Mar 28, 2011 6:22 pm

I'm going to note here that Game is, despite what a dictionary will tell you, undefined in the context of the English Language. And we also don't need a definition. There is some interesting philosophical work by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations which explores this concept very thoroughly.

The concept of the GM as a player on another side has some interesting roots though. Specifically, the idea can be seen on some Battle.Net maps in Starcraft and Warcraft games. Sadly, I no longer have a memorized list of good ones to look up.

Fortunately some of your problems I don't see in my eternal DMing quest. Sure, playing is nice and fun... But DMing has a kind of joy to it that is hard for many to grasp. As such, I strongly object to your idea that somehow that DMPCs and fudging necessarily damage a game, and "[render] player decisions completely worthless". Further more, you have attributed there is a link to this behavior from the constraints, and have completely failed to demonstrate this link in any way.

Now with my general objectiveness laid bare, a bit more structured of a response.

Not every group is going to start out with a guy whose GMed for 10 years

Certainly not, but if everyone did, this would be a problem. New blood, and new ideas, are what keeps gaming going.

and knows how to beat the system into working properly (and should he have to in the first place?)

Absolutely yes he should have to. Not only is providing a system that comes "working" 100% nigh impossible, but beating it into shape allows a DM to leave their own mark on the game. That said, if you aren't a DM who wants to, this will seem like a torturous process... In which case I really question why it is so important for you to DM. I am not an Elitist by any means, I just think people shouldn't choose to do things related to a game meant for fun that aren't fun.

DMG Stuff

That sounds like a 3.5 quote. Regardless, the problem there is poor guidelines, and a very shaky grasp on game math by the designers.

Apocalypse World. The GM has a set list of "moves" he can use. They are: "Separate Them, Capture Someone, Put Someone In a Spot, Trade Harm for Harm, Announce Off-Screen Badness, Announce Future Badness, Inflict Harm, Take Away Their Stuff, Make Them Buy, Activate Their Stuff's Downside, Tell Them The Possible Consequence And Ask, Offer An Opportunity With Or Without The Cost, Turn Their Move Back On Them, Make a Threat Move". These are the only things the GM can do - and you may notice they're all reactive in nature. You may also notice there's no "Tell them they can't do that" move, or "Force them back into your pre-structured plot with an insurmountable challenge" move. This is intentional.

By limiting DMs to such moves, you are also putting a limit to the believability of the plot, which depends on the moves of agents in game. Depending on the group this might be fine, but it is hardly fitting for a game mechanic. More of a variant really.

In a Wicked Age. The GM is bound by pretty much exactly the same rules as the players. If the GM says "No, you can't just save the Princess from being captured right now", a player can say "Yes I do." and then you roll dice to see if the PC is better at saving people than the kidnapper NPC is at stealing them away. It works both ways obviously, so if the PC says "Yeah, I just smash his phylactery", the GM is free to butt in and force an opposed roll if he thinks the plot would work out better that way.

If you let luck decide, then you are actually removing agency from both the Players and the DM, unless there is absolutely no disadvantage to trying for either side (In which case, this is all that would happen for non-trivial matters, and gameplay would slow down). Part of what people do is evaluate risk, and they have to ask themselves, "Would I rather smash the phylactery, and potentially suffer now, or deal with that problem later down the road." Removing a factor of risk in trying instead makes it so that they might as well try, after all on average they both win.

There is also a question of modifiers, since who decides what the modifier is, etc.

Poison'd. Everyone is playing pirates. The GM plays any NPC pirates on the vessel if they are specifically singled out by a PC, but otherwise, dice determine the various default attitudes the crew have with the PCs when they aren't being directly interacted with. The PCs actually call on the GM, and tell him when an adventure begins, and how dangerous it will be (and rewards are always better for more dangerous adventures), and the GM sculpts it in kind with the words of the characters (So, if the PC Captain says "Out there is a vast fortune in gold bouillon guarded by two companies of His Majesty's Army and a docked privateer sloop" - then it is so). Other than that, the GM has control over playing "Cruel Fortunes" such as "Malcontentment", "Urgency", "Divine Judgment" and so forth, which have various in-game effects that the GM can adjudicate.

I've thought of running this type of campaign, and have an idea of how to do. This has far more potential then the rest.

This is more to just let a design space be known to folks who hadn't ever realized it was there.

I've known it's there, I am just skeptical of it's use.
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Re: Game Design: The GM Isn't Playing a Game

Postby Xefas » Thu Mar 31, 2011 10:12 am

Gralamin wrote:I'm going to note here that Game is, despite what a dictionary will tell you, undefined in the context of the English Language. And we also don't need a definition.


If this were true, then we can't meaningfully discuss games or game design at all, ever.
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