Sunday, September 08, 2019

Some Thoughts on Traditional vs GM-less RPGs

I pulled this from a recent Meetup that has just launched in our area.  It got me thinking some thoughts.  Here's the part of their FAQ that made me think...
4) How are story games different from other role-playing games?
The games we play are designed around distributed authority and improvisational play. Most traditional games have an MC or GM that directs the action and determines what is allowed during play. They also have robust rule systems to adjudicate disputes. The rules and the GM have the authority and the biggest impact on what and how stories get told.
However, we choose to play GM-less games that let everyone at the table have equal say in how the story develops. We also play without prep, so no one has any more knowledge or input into the story we create than anyone else. Instead, the story emerges from play as we improvise together. These are the key ingredients to our gameplay: improvisation over prep; shared, negotiated authority rather than a singular, definitive one; and complete single-session episodes rather than ongoing campaigns.
First let me say that I have nothing against people enjoying whatever kinds of games they want, and that this style of play is just fine with me. 

That said, here is why I prefer the GM directed games, and what my problem with GM-less games actually is.

GM authored games have potential to be vast worlds that are amazing at several levels.  On one level can be the detail the GM puts into the history of their world.  Another can be the completeness of the vision the GM has regarding the back story, both in terms of intricacy, but also in terms of theme and meaning.  When playing in such a World the player has a far greater chance of deriving Immersion out of that play, provided the GM is also a master of Descriptive Narrative, and Improvisational Theater.  Of course some people quibble about what Immersion means, so I can only go by my own definition based on my own experience.  For me it is the entering into someone else's imaginary World and experiencing that it is real in some sense. It is a rare phenomenon, and one that I've only obtained in a few special circumstances. 

There are some GMs who are masters at all of these aspects of the game.  I've played with a few, and in those cases the immersion I was able to achieve was akin to slipping into the World of J.R. Tolkien.  It was an experience that illuminated my mind and sent me along the path toward Great Gamemastering.  It's an art.  It requires both skills and a touch of genius.

The problem I have with GM-less Story Games is that according to the design there is no way to derive those effects that would lead to Immersion.  You can't create a vast and coherent back story that way.  Instead, all of the elements are introduced randomly by the players as the game progresses.  So there is no underlying "true story" beneath the surface level of the game play.  Everything just gets tacked on as you go along, and made use of as-is during the course of the game.  As an exercise in improv, I'm sure it's a wonderful thing.  But if your goal is to achieve Immersion (which isn't easy to begin with), then Story-Games as defined above won't bring me there.  Pretty sure.

So nothing against Story Games, or those who play them.  I might even enjoy them once in a while for what they do offer.  But I think it should be understood that Story Games is simply a different kettle of fish than traditional RPGs, with different goals and different results.  I tend to prefer at least a chance at Immersion. 

There is also another aspect that should be mentioned as well ... Gamemastering is an art.  Creating great Worlds is a pleasure.  Having players run around in them having adventures and discovering the World's story is one of the more fun things to do in life, in my opinion.  So for those who like traditional RPGs there is a creativity eco-system that that works to deliver a powerful, immersive, and fun experience for everyone at different levels. 

Another thing that comes to mind is that Story-Games, by virtue of their name, and what some people in the past have claimed, suggest that traditional RPGs are not disposed to producing "good stories".  However, I don't think this is necessarily the case.  And it also occurs to me that Story-Games are not actually synonymous with GM-less games either.  You can have GM'd Story-Games whose rules tend to favor story development by tamping down on crunch, but most light weight rules, traditional or otherwise, would then fit into that category, and I don't think that's what is intended to be implied by those pitching Story-Games per se.  On the other hand, you could also have a high crunch RPG, and play it in GM-less mode if you really wanted to, and give players 100% agency as well, because most traditionalist RPG rules sets talk more about how to handle the crunch than how to GM the game itself.  And at any rate, one can always house-rule any game, and simply ignore the parts that are not convenient for your preferred style of gaming.   So in other words, there's a lot of ways to slice and dice RPGs in terms of Story-Game and GM-less games, vs. Traditional RPGs.  None of them, btw, are "right" and none of them are "wrong"... it's really simply a matter of preference.  You have yours, I'm sure, and I have mine... and those are also likely to change from time to time.

I have enjoyed the hobby in its traditional format since 1978.  I'm pretty sure I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. 

One of my Story-Maps for my Traditionalist RPG, Elthos.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Elthos Vignette - A Squirrel in an Enchanted Forest


There once lived a squirrel in an enchanted forest high in the boughs of an oak tree.   She was a merry little thing and her name was Chippy.  

Chippy's Birthday Party
When she was born her parents were delighted and invited all of their friends to come to a big party to celebrate.   They served every kind of squirrel delight, acorns and nuts and all kinds of delicious little berries.   These were either fresh or carefully sun baked so that every squirrel commented on how good the food was.   Everyone brought a little gift of food or something for their home or for the baby to play with.   In the end the squirrel family had more than they started with and the surplus became their winter stock and so despite the early winter that year they had plenty and slept the winter in good stead.  

Chippy and the Faeries
When Chippy was young she used to go out and play on the high branches with the faeries of the oak leaves who danced all day long along the bows of the trees, riding on butterflies or floating along on dandelion puffs, singing faerie melodies.    Chippy listened to all the faerie tales she could and learned many stories of the forest from them.  Sometimes Chippy would try to dance with them, but it was  dangerous for her, so her father forbid her to dance with the fairies.

Chippy's Adventure
This made Chippy sad so one day she decided to run away from home.   She packed up a little parcel of acorns and nuts and took off down Big Branch outside of her happy little home.    When she got to First Fork she departed from where she usually went to play and headed along toward the Bright Leaves at Sunset.   She was scared to go where she had never been, but also excited to see something new.    After she had gone on for a ways she was hungry and sat down for a bit of lunch which she munched merrily singing a little tune to herself.    An old Crow as sitting nearby and said to her, "My little dear, aren't you far from home out here on Bright Leaves at Sunset?"   Chippy, who had never met a Crow before, said that she was on an Adventure to find the Golden Acorn, which she had learned of from the faeries of the Branch in the Shade, and the Crow nodded sagely.    He told her the story of how the Golden Acorn was once seen high in the bows of the tallest oak of the forest, old Grand Daddy Oak, and that for nothing in the world would he let that acorn fall from him.    The little squirrel was not daunted but said that she would find it herself and ask old Grand Daddy Oak for it and he would surely give it to her, and so she begged the Crow to tell her where to find it.   Crow said that he would guide her to it if she wanted.    She happily agreed.    So the Crow told her to hang on to his neck and he would fly little Chippy across the sky to the great tree.    She climbed on his back and wrapped her little arms around his neck and they flew high up on the winds of the summer morning.   Chippy was so frightened at first that she almost let go, which would have been the end of her, but after a time she grew accustomed to the sight of all the trees below and had great fun flying along.   Finally below them they saw a great big old oak tree and the Crow lighted down on a high branch.    Chippy was overjoyed.    She left the Crow with a great big thank you hug and headed on high up the trunk to the highest branch.    And as the sun was setting there she suddenly saw a golden sparkle and beheld the Golden Acorn.    Quickly she ran up to it, but when she got near it she found that it was really but a large nugget of rock made of shiny golden metal, and not a real acorn at all.    It looked like an acorn, but it didn't have a smell, and when she nibbled at it her teeth could not so much as nick a sliver off of it for flavor.   Then she was very sad, and hungry and tired and she began to cry.    Old Grand Daddy Oak heard her lament and said to her, "Little squirrel, why are you crying in my branches?   You have seen the Golden Acorn, and though you can't eat it, it is still a goodly thing to see, for all who see it become true friends of the Oak People and will never be hurt so long as they dwell in an oak tree.   You have my blessings, little one."   But Chippy was homesick and was scared because it was getting dark and she was hungry and tired and had no idea how to get home.    So old Grand Daddy Oak called an Eagle who lived with him and was a great friend of his and asked him if he could help little Chippy get home.   The Eagle, who was ever vigilant, had been flying high in the upper airs that day and had seen exactly where Chippy had been flown in from, and he said he would take her home, except that it was already dark and it was time for everyone to go to sleep for the night.   So old Grand Daddy Oak, who was very kind, found an empty nest that had been left by a bird family recently departed and asked one of the acorn faeries to bring her there.    It was a long ways off, by Squirrel reckoning, and she almost slipped once, but she eventually made it there, guided by the red feathery plume in the faerie's hat.    There Chippy slept the night and in the morning the great Eagle came to fly her home.   Chippy climbed aboard and the great Eagle took off flying higher than ever the Crow could have done.   Within no time she was home at her own branch.   Having spent the entire night searching high and low branches for her in a state of parental squirrel panic, her parents caught sight of Chippy being flown to them on the wings of an eagle and they were amazed.    Chippy lighted down on the branch near her parents, thanked the great Eagle heartily, gave him a gift of an acorn (which he gracefully accepted, but of course eagles don't eat acorns), and then he said to her parents, "Lady and Sir Squirrel, your little daughter Chippy has come back from an Adventure where she found the old Grand Daddy of the Oaks, bravely climbed upward until she beheld the Golden Acorn.   Hence she is a friend of the Oak People and no harm will come to her or to you while you live among the Oaks.   So decrees old Grand Daddy Oak."   And then with a majestic nod he turned and flew off high into the sky and disappeared.   This made her parents very proud, and Chippy became a little bit famous among the squirrel tribe of that region of the forest, but never did go on another Adventure, saying only that, "I learned from my Adventure that being home is the best place to be."   And so Chippy became a very contented little squirrel and never strayed far from Big Branch again.

Chippy's Suitors
When Chippy grew to become a very pretty young lady squirrel she acquired many suitors, mostly because all the other squirrels of the glade had heard that she had seen the Golden Acorn, and they presumed that she must be very wealthy in secret.   They imagined that she had a horde of golden acorns, or that the old Grand Daddy Oak had given her some secret treasure.    And so her suitors would gather daily on and near her branch and compete amongst themselves for her attention.   She on the other hand knew all about their intentions and cared not a twig for any of the lot.    She had her mind on finding a brave and honest young squirrel who would love her for her ample teeth, not for rumors of her money, which of course she didn't have.    One day a bright young lad by the name of Chibble-Dee came along the branch and he was new in the neighborhood having traversed a wide span of glades and forest seeking a new home.    His old home was burned down in a fire, and he was the only among his clan to survive.     When he came by he passed Chippy who expected even a stranger to know all about her and her supposed treasure,  she was surprised as he didn't try to impress her with acrobatics, or with gifts of acorns, or with his ability to count leaves, or dance with faeries.   He just sat down next to her and asked her if she knew if there were and open space anywhere on the tree at that time.    Well, she took a liking to the strange Squirrel, and soon after she introduced him to her parents.   They also liked young Chibble-Dee and offered him a room in their little dwelling.    It wasn't long after that that Chippy and Chibble-Dee were married and had little squirrels of their own. The first of their children was named Ribble-Dee, and it is of him that the rest of our story is told.

The Story of Ribble-Dee
Ribble-Dee was a handsome, honest and brave young squirrel.  He lived a rather ordinary life for a squirrel, seeking acorns and chestnuts and playing with faeries.  One day, a great old owl saw him as Ribble-Dee was sitting alone on a branch munching an acorn, and stretched his wings with a famished gleam of malice in his eyes and sped forthwith down upon silent wings toward his prey.   However, the old Grand Daddy of the Oaks remembered his promise to Chippy and just as old Owl was about to snatch his prey by the throat in his razor sharp talons, all of a sudden a large branch smacked old Owl right on the head so that he missed young Ribble-Dee altogether.  Ribble-Dee didn't know what had happened and even helped himself to another acorn while old Owl hooted his annoyance as he fell some branches downward before righting himself.  It was after this that old Owl decided to make a lunch out of Ribble-Dee somehow.   Old Owl remembered the story of Chippy's Adventure, and he was wise enough to see that so long as Ribble-Dee lived in the branches of the oak,  old Owl had not a chance of getting at him.    And of course Chippy had most certainly made a habit of never leaving the security of her tree, and had told Ribble-Dee and the other children about her Adventure and how the Old Grand Daddy of the Oaks had decreed that she and her family be protected among the Oaks.  

Ribble-Dee's Adventure
Ribble-Dee, however, whose father Chibble-Dee From Far Away and had traveled much, didn't wish to spend the entirety of his life in one tree only.   And so one morning he set out on his own Adventure to go beyond Big Branch and Far Leaves and made a mighty leap through the air to Chestnut Tree on the Brook, their nearest neighbor, so that he could rustle up some chestnuts which he loved more than any other nut.   Old Owl had figured, being wise and having thought much on it, that Ribble-Dee would some day leave the oak tree, and on this day he was watching from his airy perch as Ribble-Dee made his way around the branches of Chestnut Tree on the Brook.    Again his eyes narrowed with a malicious gleam as he waited very patiently until Ribble-Dee was loaded up with Chestnuts and waited longer until Ribble-Dee had come to the edge of Chestnut Tree on the Brook so as to leap back to his oaken home, and then, without a sound, spread his wings and flew straight as an arrow down as Ribble-Dee was in mid leap.   Swap!   Ribble-Dee cried out in pain and terror and old Owl caught him up in his razor sharp talons.    And away flew old Owl with Ribble-Dee for lunch, for he was patient and wise and knew what he wanted.  

It was a sad day for Chippy and Chibble-Dee and their family, but thereafter they remained quite resolutely and quite securely rooted in the branches of their old oak, and ne'er more did any of the Chibble-Dee family stray further than Far Leaves, and so they lived their remaining years merry little squirrels high in the boughs of the old oak tree.