Long long ago, in a past barely intelligible to anyone under 20, there was no internet. Folk like me got our roleplaying discussion done in person, generally with people we knew. A smidge after that we had Fido.NET and the clones. There were two dedicated NZ RPG forums: Play & Chat. My scanty recollections and archives of that early/mid 90s period shows we talked about things with a basically similar game chasis: missions and distinctly “adventuring” characters. Sure, some of us did this new weird WOD thing, but that was just the same, only modern.
Then came along an idea which changed the way I thought about roleplaying: The Threefold Model. Sure, as points out, there were alternate models of the same area of gaming, and some of them were better. But that was where I started to see there was roleplaying beyond Adventuring ™. But what GDS didn’t provide was any kind of idea about what that might look like in application. It’s all well and good to say “let’s not fight monsters, let’s tell a story”, but what kind of story? In particular I think “Simulationism” created a messload of problems, because as I recently articulated elsewhere, it tells you you’re interested in building a model of a universe, but doesn’t tell you what will happen in that universe.
Then at some point GDS mutated into GNS with an explicit agenda, not of understanding what was already going on, but of creating a template for how to make your game better. In turn GNS was supplanted by “the Big Model”, which is so laden with jargon that I can’t be bothered.
This change engendered a bit of a backlash as people interpretted that agenda as being prescriptive. Pick one of these three play styles, and then obey the logical implications of them. I think it was always intended more like a guideline to ensuring that the different areas of your game were functioning properly. If you’re having a “gamist” interlude in a fight, the game should be “fair”. However, since games invariably mix “modes” and there’s a lot of grey area anyway… GDS/GNS is useful mostly as a high-level or strategic tool, but in the nitty gritty can become rather like the AD&D alignment system: contradictory and restrictive without being informative.
Which leads me to my disillusionment with theory. I still get a lot of enjoyment out of the analysis, and I generally think it’s like a skeleton somewhere below the flesh of my games, providing shape and support. But each time I think that I can ignore it completely, it crops up in some useful application. Most recently the GM of the WFRP game I’m playing in wrote: “Personally, as a GM I need more from a game to justify my time committment etc. which is why I generally gravitate toward investigative/story based games.” It doesn’t take Ron Edwards to spot a “narrative” theme there. Despite that occasional utility, I’ve been thinking a recently that there have got to be things I can think about that deliver a more consistent result per hour of thought.
As I said: GNS is but an increasingly small part of a large machinary of thought. However, I am intrigued by an alternate ends-based approach, having noticed over the years that what you’re thinking matters less than who you’re thinking with. I am of course picking up on my post of a few weeks ago: how you get to grips with playing well. In that post I identified a few key concerns, and I think I can expand on that for looking at a game in totality.
The parts of a good game that can be at least partially separated, and looked at on more of a small-thinking basis seem to me:
– Game Management
– Story Shape
Game Management is the ability to keep the action flowing, and all people involved. Restrict or increase your involvement in the game to ensure that whatever it’s function, it’s moving well.
Showmanship is how you bring life to the game. Most GM guides have a section on how to describe scenes, and they’re tapping into this area of being a good roleplayer. One of the things which I’ve found frustrating over the years is people heavily internalizing their roleplaying, because it doesn’t easily allow feedback. Distinct from out-of-game discussions on how things are going, people who can show, rather than tell, you about their involvement in the game and the life of their character will be a joy to play with.
Story Shape is something I plan to return to later in excruciating detail; but at its simplest, I am talking about the ability to recognise what the demands of the story are. I remember the wave of original Vampire players who treated the “world of personal horror” as a super-hero game with gothic set dressings: they were not aware of the natural story arcs inherent in the game.
Characterization is the awareness of how characters function; it is the engine driving the Showmanship and Story components. Or acting in conflict with the story in characters unsuited to their game.
Adaptation was the theme of my last post, so I won’t repeat myself here.
My impression is that Game Management is slowly being a lost art, as people conflate it with the negative stereotype of meta-gaming. I think that bearing in mind the four things above is useful whichever of the three “models” applies to you. As with anything, these stances need to be moderated with each other, and not taken to extremes. Overly managed games can become “railroads” or mere tactical simulation with a veneer of roleplaying. Characterization in opposition to other meta-game structures can lead to player isolation or campaign derailment. Too strict an adherence to a story arc can lead to stale or repetative play. And if you’re infinitely adaptable, you will find yourself continually disappointed.
And of course, by formulating my own advice in words, and in even a partial intellectual framework, I too embark down the treacherous road of being prescriptive, even of preaching a “one true way” of gaming that is eternally elusive.
(I haven’t forgotten my promise to talk more about campaign length. I’m getting to it: honest. :D)