Friday, June 26, 2015

Thoughts on Modes of Gamemastering

I've noticed that I have two modes of Gamemastering my games. One is where I kind of carry some of the load for the Players, which I might call Aegis Mode, and the other is where I'm playing, in essence, no-holds-barred, and out to defeat the Players, which I think I'll call "Danger Mode". Why and when to play one way or the other?

In the first case there are sometimes good reason to pamper the players a bit. Some examples are... when the Players are new to a system, and they are likely to miscalculate things like their chances of success in combat. Another case is where they are playing only once a month and so their ability to remember the story is a bit tenuous. Another is where the subject matter of the game may be an area of sensitivity to some players, such as those dealing with race, gender, or creed. In these cases as Gamemaster I might want to either help the Players to think more carefully, or help them steer clear of problems that might cause them to blunder into a disaster. Another case might be when you're playing with young children whose loss in the game could lead to along night of crying. And so on. To my mind these are a number of valid cases where helping the Players should be considered a necessary evil.

Why is it an evil at all, though? There might be considerable disagreement on this point out there, but I will give you my perspective without saying "this is the one true way" or the "only way" to think about these things.  It isn't. But it is how I think about them.

In my opinion the game is the most fun, and runs the best, when the Gamemaster acts as the principal Opponent to the Players. The NPCs, after all, should be acting as though they want to succeed in their goals just as much as the Player Characters want to succeed in theirs. This is important for two reasons. One it creates a certain sense of verisimilitude where the Players have a chance to further immerse themselves in the World. It is easier to suspend disbelief in a fantasy that behaves like a real thing. If the World's villains behave like they're pulling punches and not acting in its own best interest, they become very difficult to believe in at all after a while. And once you lose that sense of verisimilitude, it really is quite difficult to regain. It's an overlap of meta-gamiing, and usually is transmitted simply by "the sense of things" where the Players can tell over time that the Gamemaster is 'helping' them along. Maybe the attack by the Ogre that really should have crushed the hobbit under the iron banded club (by the odds and known dice of damage) just didn't kill him ... somehow ... unfathomably. And so on. The Gamemaster's ability to fudge the results of things is a double edged sword. Perfectly fabulous in hands that know how to wield it skilfully, but often disastrous in hands that don't. It is an acquired skill, but one worth obtaining.

The second reason that Aegis Mode can turn out to be an evil is because the game itself becomes more fun and interesting the more challenging it is, and far less so when the Challenges are removed by a Gamemaster who carries the Player's load with Easy-Outs. When the Players know that they can either win or lose, it enforces the notion that they must always play as smart as possible to maximize their chances. What happens when the Players are overly pampered by the Gamemaster, and they begin to sense it, is that they subconsciously begin to slacken their effort to play smart, and begin to rely on the idea that the Gamemaster will "not let us get killed". And so they may begin to take extraordinary chances in order to further their objectives in the World not because it's smart, but because "God is making sure we don't lose". It fosters, in other words, the dreaded condition of Dumb Play. And Dumb Play is a bad thing. I've seen more than one game disintegrate because after a period of Dumb Play all of the Players lost interest in the world. They could do no wrong, and whatever crazy dumb thing they tried somehow managed to succeed. Although some Players will claim that "That's what makes the game fun" and insist that this is the way the game "should" work... I find that for me, the opposite is true. Gamemasters should be very wary of spoiling their Players.

On the other hand "Danger Mode" makes the game more intense, and more exciting. When the Players see that their Characters are not immune to poor planing or bad luck, they tend to begin to Play Smart. This does not necessarily entail Min-Maxing, by the way. It could simply be that their Characters do more reconnaissance, better planning, and better preparation before lurching ahead into the Dungeon. Maybe they get smart by learning how to treat the locals like potential friends, so they can acquire better information about things they could and should know. Maybe they think ahead and purchase what could turn out to be life-saving equipment in advance of a delve down the Kobold Well. And so on. Playing Smart can be about selecting the advantageous terrain, or not simply crashing through the old wooden double doors, but listening for a while first to see if they can hear what might be on the other side. And so on. Smart Play is about maximizing your chances of success. We do it all the time in real life without even realizing it. And yet, it's there. So Players should be doing the same for their Characters by having them play as smart as possible. Unless of course their Characters are in fact, by their Requisites, not smart. In which case they would be justified by playing them as impulsive, overconfident and foolish. And also get them killed in a World where the GM is has not put an Aegis of protection over them. With a party of dummies, actually, that might be another legitimate reason to playing in Aegis Mode. Yeah, I could see a case being made for that. But I could also see making a case for doing the opposite. The question is, what will be more fun for the Players?

The bottom line is that you have to Gamesmaster what's fun. It's tricky because your mode of Gamemastering can not only change, but it can change fluidly throughout the course of the Campaign, sometimes pulling punches when bad luck at just the wrong time wold seriously demoralize the Players to the point where they give up, and yet at other times playing the Villains as the ruthless and cunning creatures they really ought to be.

Some Gamemasters set the rule at the outset of their Campaign. It is quite a good idea, I think, to tell your players up front what mode you intend to run your Campaign in, and stick to it. No matter what. This will create a better sense of trust between you and your players in the sense that over time they will know what to expect. You could say "No one knows the rules in this new system, so I'm GMing it in Aegis Mode for the first four games. After that, you better look out. I'm coming at ya." That would be fair, and also help to set expectations appropriately. But again, most often, I find that the smoothest way is to nuance things as you go and ride the wave as you see it coming. But this is also the hardest way, and the one most fraught with potential danger. Yet if you can do it, and it works, it leads to the best most fun games where the Gamemaster Mode is adjusted in the background, none are the wiser, and everyone winds up feeling that the adventure was "just right".

At the moment I'm playing a cut-throat Campaign. But I warned the Players at the outset that I will be doing so, and that the dice will rule, and that they are expected to Play Smart. So far... they ain't playing so smart, and they've had some bad luck, too. So far two Characters are dead and one is rendered magically inert under a pixie-dream and is being carried along, and the party has been split into three separate groups that have no way to stay in touch with each other. Ah well... their opponents on the other hand are crafty, clever, wily and quite ruthless. One wonders if they will manage to survive.

Especially if they don't take a moment to stop and realize that they've not been playing all that smart and that really ought to start doing so soon... Or not. As Gamemaster its often a good idea to be detached from your sense of outcomes. Many Gamemasters want a Good Story to come out of their games. But you don't always get a Good Story if the Players are Playing Dumb. Which is why its usually a good idea to set expectations regarding Game Mode early on, and to keep things challenging by staying in Danger Mode as much as possible. It fosters Smart Play.

So managing your Mode of Play is really important as a Gamemaster. It's not necessarily easy, and sometimes you're trying to do one thing, and the Players wind up playing it the opposite way... and you get to logger heads. Keeping that from happening, keeping the game flowing forward, in other words, is a key and critical skill for GMs to master.


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