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.