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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Summing Up...Is Bad

Well, this weekend I was at the Youmacon anime convention, and I naturally latched onto the one panel about GMing an RPG. Which, by the way, was utter awesomesauce. The panelist made a number of good points, and in particular she said something which I believe fixes a great many problems that a GM runs into in-game. She laid down a simple rule: "Don't paraphrase." Don't tell the players that "the king agrees to your demands", but rather step them through what the king says, and how he says it. Once you do that, the game deepens, because every aspect of what is said will provide story hooks.

Convoluted Plans
As a GM, you may have run into those crazy plans which a PC wants to use. They kidnap the tax collector to force the town guard after them, so that a teammate can steal into the captain's headquarters and swipe the plans for the infiltration of a den of thieves. They then plan to sell these plans to a group of vigilantes, who are holding one of their fellow party members hostage, to create a diversion when they go to take out the thieves, to save their party member.

These sorts of situations always seem to be either accepted or rejected on the spot, a very black-or-white response. In reality, though, it should be getting somewhat fuzzy. The problem is, the GM doesn't want to wade through all of those details, or even wrap his mind around it. So either he says "Okay, it works pretty well, maybe a few things go wrong, but generally well," or "It doesn't work. It's too complicated." The first one is just uninteresting, and it leads the players to exploit the GM. The second one is too restrictive, and makes the GM an evil GM who isn't incredibly fun.

Kudos to those GMs who take the third route: "Let's play this along and see how it goes." Complex plans will generate complications, and they will encourage players to improvise. The plans never go totally right for the heroes, and complications can be juicy hooks for story. Those who are familiar with Mouse Guard will remember the "failure just makes things interesting" approach. "Okay, so you swipe the plans, but there's a servant coming into the room to clean it up. Now what?" Make those heroes earn their crazy plan. Don't boil it down to a series of odds; run through each step and figure out what they have to overcome, and what complications can arise.

The Problem of Evil
A question which came up with the panel was how to deal with heroes who want to "bend evil to the will of good". Examples given were a good character using necromancy or summoning a demon. The panelist used a rather strong word to describe this sort of...well, to paraphrase, "nonsense". She never exactly touched on the best way to handle it, though. I actually feel that this idea of "never paraphrase" fits nicely into this situation. Indeed, it also covers the problem of "this action is good-aligned, so my character is justified in it". That idea is also baloney, in my book.

Many GMs don't bother to treat with good or evil as realities, but merely as sets of rules and statements. This approach makes sense, as it's easy. Smiting undead is a Good action, summoning a demon is an Evil action. But that's a paraphrase. The player never really understands why these are Good or Evil, but only that the Powers That Be have determined so. That, in a word, is stupid. Sure, it's fine for games where you don't really want to touch on morality, but I'm of the opinion that it's the more meaningful games where you grapple with right and wrong.

Bad Approach: Player wants to summon a demon. The GM enforces an alignment change. This is cheap, easy, and pointless. Alignment has been reduced to a tag devoid of meaning. If you do certain things, your alignment says "Good". If you do others, your alignment says "Evil". The meaning is minimal.

Good Approach: Player wants to summon a demon. The GM warns that this is probably a bad idea, and that it will affect the character. These things have actual consequences, and not just an alignment change. If the player goes ahead with it, any number of things can happen. A demon has his own agendas; he's out to cause chaos and dischord, and to lead souls off of the path of good. If the PC's goals align with his, then he'll follow them. If not, he'll probably find a way to bend his actions to cover. Or he may just bust right through the "restraints" that have been placed on him, because the PC called forth a beastie that was far more powerful than they thought. Infernals don't play fair, after all.

In a Few Words...
Don't sell short. Take your time to think through what the players want to do. Go with it a little, and then treat it like it's real. Don't paraphrase. Let the world come alive, adding in complications and details for the plot's sake. Then watch the game unfold.


  1. Always better to let things go wrong for the characters (and the NPCs) and see how things spiral out of control. Because that makes the game interesting and, if things work right, fun.

    However, as far as alignments go . . . I am not much for them. Much more interested in consistent characterization and consequences for actions.

    Summaries should be saved for getting everyone back up to speed after a break, not as an excuse for short-circuiting gameplay.

  2. Out-of-control spirals are quite fun. As long as you can wrap it up in the last session. ;)

    I do agree that consequences for actions and consistent characterization are better for morality, though I'd rather see a character who wrestled with good and evil than a character who made the same choice time and time again. To me, consistency doesn't always equal humanity.


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