Friday, January 09, 2015

The GM as Master Artisan

Lets talk a bit about the GamesMaster as Artisan.

The idea struck me this morning, not entirely for the first time, but in a sufficiently organized way to write something about it.

There's a lot to being a Master Artisan.  It takes a combination of natural talent, studied skills, and enough time to cultivate greatness.  Artists aren't simply born into existence.  They are cultivated through enormous effort.

I won't go into the vast array of skills required to be a great artist as it would take too long.  And if I attempted to do so for GamesMastering I suspect it would take even longer.  The reason why is that GamesMastering combines a host of arts into one activity.  Improvisational Theater, Literature, Story Telling, History, Art, Game Play of various kinds, and so on ... in fact it can encompass a very wide range of existing arts and knowledge.  The more you can master all of the component arts and knowledge that is useful for Gamemastering the better a GM you likely will be.  Being born with talent is easy.  Cultivating it into a Artisan quality craft takes time and effort.  Things to study are Literature, History and depending on your interests I would also include Science, and possibly Folk Lore, Anthropology, and Ethnography.   A study of comparative Religions is also a pretty-darn-nice-to-have, as well as basic Psychology.  In other words, you could spend a lifetime studying all the various subjects that might pertain to your role as Gamemaster.   Easily.  And that is simply covering the knowledge aspect, and not touching on the skill sets required.  

So instead of going through all of the various aspects of what it takes to be an Artisan quality GamesMaster, I'm going to focus on providing what I think are a few bits of Key Advice that come primarily from my experience as both a GM and artist.
  • Details & Flourishes.
    • Details and Flourishes matter.   If you take a piece of artwork and put it on a page, and it has a nice outline, good composition and basic colors then you have a piece of artwork.  If you add shadowing, it gets more refined looking.  If you add a border its even more refined.  If your border includes flourishes in the corners it starts to take on the quality of a finished work and a delight to the eye.   Applying this concept to GMing is a matter of doing the same thing, but for your back-story and Narrative Descriptions.   Think in terms of filling in the details, not necessarily in advance, though you can, but along the way as well.   It is a matter of being able to improvisationaly expanding your Players vision and understanding of your world.  This can be done, for example, by including details such as smells and sounds, as well as what the Player Characters see.  Naturally a lot more could be said on this, but I'll leave it to you to consider how you might go about it for yourself.
  • Composition 
    • When looking at a painting or photograph composition is extremely important.  How do the elements of the scene visually line up with one another?   Is the scene balanced (or intentionally out of balance)?  Does the composition flow so that it guides the eye to the main subject of the thing easily?   This concept as applied to GMing involves knowing how to shape your story.  What are the main elements of the thing?  How do they relate to each other?  Is there a sense of balance (or intentional imbalance)?  How does this concept translate into story?  The things you might consider have to do with how well balanced the story is.  Do you have a number of Main Characters who have clearly defined objectives?  Do those objectives balance with one another to form a holistic tapestry?  As a contra-example, if you have four Main Characters but their objectives are completely unrelated to one another, this will not produce a story with a good composition.  Consider it. The whole of your back story should blend together to form a cohesive narrative.  It should, in other words, tell a story, and a compelling one, and in a compelling way.
  • Subject Matter & Meaning
    • Great art, despite what modernists may tell you, have meaning.  The greatest art has the greatest meaning.  It stands the test of time because people who look at it find value in it.  The value is that they derive meaning from it.   And this has to do with subject matter.  What makes Greek Art so intriguing for example is the many layered nuances of meaning behind each story, and what one can learn about human nature from them.  Freud and Jung went to town on analyzing Greek mythology from a psychological perspective.  They found untold depths of meaning in the works.  Most people will not immediately recognize the meaning of a great work of art unless they've studied the subject.   But throughout the ages people have been drawn to it because they sense there is a meaning, and in their subconscious heart-of-hearts they connect to it, and it answers something for them at some level.  Maybe they don't know why.  But they come back to the art because their interest in it is piqued.  The same thing is true for great literature.  And it can also be true for your RPG.  You just have to think about it and put meaning into your world.  I would recommend reading works by Freud, Jung, or Joseph Campbell to get an idea of how that can be done.   Another pair of interesting books to read that give clues as to how this might be done are "Tolkien's Ring" by David Day, and "Holy Blood and Holy Grail" which though an apparently debunked conspiracy fabrication by Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln, nevertheless is fabulous at revealing how art and history can merge together to form an amazing hidden tapestry of inner meaning.
  • Story Arcs
    • Lastly for today is the topic of story arcs.  A lot of people have talked about this already and you can probably find tons of blog posts on how to apply this idea to RPGs.  I won't go on about it except to say that it's important, and that you can link this idea to both Composition and Subject Matter to form amazing RPG stories. 
I encourage GMs to think about how to merge all of these ideas into a unified whole.  There is every reason to believe that going forward into the future we will find GMs who aspire to Great Art via their talent and skills by making their Worlds into beautiful tapestries of Theater, Story, and Art.

Of course there's much more than can be said on this subject, but I will keep it short so that my post doesn't become TLDR.  Oh darn... too late, probably.  ;)
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