Monday, March 16, 2009

GM-Less D&D

Copied from my post on ENWorld.

Among my internet habits (beyond over-posting for two weeks straight and then disappearing for months on end) is the overwhelming need to talk and post about the cause of a [I]disease[/I] and not talk so much about the symptoms.

For instance, someone might complain about hit point progression in 3.75 and how at the higher levels, some classes just outpace one another, yadda yadda. And while most gamers will try to find the sweet spot of the hit point conundrum, I for one would like to see hit points removed from the game.

See. I've just cut away the cancer, not tried to treat it like a cold sore. This often gets me into trouble because I...

a. Oversimplify problems
b. Ignore the debate raging and present a new caseload
c. Am often wrong

Over on another thread, Jack7 brought up a great post about World Design… is the world there for the characters or are the characters there for [to explore] the world.

A lot of great debate started, and in the end I pointed at two causes of the disease, rather than pointing out the symptoms.

One. Many tropes of 1st Edition (stealing from the dead, XP, and [I]found[/I] magic items) continue on into future editions while other tropes (PCs as mercenaries) get dropped off and replaced with notions of Heroism. After all, if the PCs are heroes, why is there an alignment system? Why do I still get XP for killing baby goblins?

Two. [More important to this thread] I think D&D suffers from so many problems because of the GM vs. PC mentality that there's no immediate solution to Jack7's initial post.

Let me explain.

First. Let us start from the basic premise that D&D is not a game, but a toolbox for creating gameplay experiences. What's the difference? Expectations. D&D sitting on my shelf is nothing more than a nerdy book with cool art. Risk on my shelf is still a box full of dice, cards, and plastic cannons. D&D requires me to think, create, explore, develop, and about 200 more steps before I'm ready to play. Risk is ready to play as soon as I shuffle the cards and pick a color. D&D involved a social contract, preparation, imagination, and suspension of disbelief. Risk requires two or more players and a flat surface 30" by 40". D&D is explored and played differently from house to house. Risk is the same the world over.

For today's examination, I'm going to use a number of theoretical examples. Any one of them could be replaced with another example. Please do not try to pigeonhole or demonize my thesis with anecdotal evidence that "my group doesn't do that." Jack7's entire thread is filled with people "offended" by the notions he is presenting because they don't game that way. And frankly, I don't see much use for "my group" evidence when the hobby is about trends.

Imagine the GM has just spent 30 hours prepping a new campaign world, setting up the first adventure (or two), outlining his campaign, and generally getting ready. Each player makes a character in a vacuum for this campaign, because even though the GM has asked everyone to make the characters together at the game table, two of the six players refuse to do it this way and prefer to have a week to read every feat tree for every possible combo imaginable.

So far, nothing I've said is out of the ordinary or is impossible to imagine.

Imagine that the GM has built an open-ended game plan. He's heard complaints about "railroading" before and he's decided this campaign is going to offer opportunities for PCs with goals. In fact, most of the campaign is urban and combat will be (about) once a session, maybe a little more.

Now. This is where the example forks. In one example, the PCs sit there doing nothing, waiting for the GM to give them a plot to follow (railroading). The GM has made it clear this campaign won't work that way, but old habits die hard and the players are uncomfortable in this new sandbox. If they aren't pointed at orcs to kill, what do they do? In no time, the campaign begins to grind and in no time, the GM is forcing plot hooks onto the PCs, removing choices and options.

In another example, one of the PCs decides to do something so stupid and inane (set off a fireball in a tavern, for instance), that the obvious ramifications of this action can be felt two houses over, where people don't even know what D&D is. The campaign has now run aground, but for very different reasons. Three of the characters are found culpable in the act, sentenced to death, and replaced with new PCs. The other characters now have to either figure out how they know these new PCs and/or ignore the obvious logic flaw of just having a new wizard in the party and/or leave it to the GM to explain away.

In both examples, the GM has done 99% of the work to make this campaign and the responsibility of making it work and getting the engine moving has all been his.

Hardly seems fair, right?

A vocal minority might say, well the GM gets more fun out of the game, so he should do most of the work. To you, I say, "you're wrong."

Another minority might say, that sounds like my group. And to you, I say, "you're a jerk."

Another segment of the populace might say, "yeah, we've got those guys at our game table, too."

The list goes on.

And for 20+ years most of us have learned to either, put up with this kind of behavior, and/or learned to expect less from our game sessions. To quote my buddy James, "Yeah. I just take it all a lot less seriously now. Too many campaigns die so quickly, I just don't get invested in my characters anymore."

This is not an uncommon attitude. Many people eventually move on from gaming because of it.

[My point is coming. Hold on.]

Now. Imagine we decide we want to solve this problem. Because, wasting 30+ hours on a game to have someone ruin it, is a problem. If you're a PC that doesn't think this sucks, please do not post. If you're a GM who feels my pain, continue reading.

There's two problems at work in this scenario I've described.

One. Player investment. The only time they've spent on this game is making their characters and reading a few new character class/feat/race combos that really work together.

Two. Expectations of a GM. Players raised to expect the GM to "entertain" (read, do all of the work) come to the table with different wants/desires/fallacies about the social contract. Short of asking them to leave, the solutions don't grok with everyone. After all, who among us didn't ruin his fair share of campaigns as a teenager before realizing, "crap, that's not cool."

[Aside: Three. Breaking the GM. I actually knew some gamers who set it out as their goal for each campaign to "break the GM." I thought this ranked high on the douche-bag scale, so it doesn't make it into my argument, but it is a funny anecdote about piss-poor players.]

Now. The solution to this conjecture is two-fold. One, we put the PCs in the driver's seat. We involve them in world building (ala Burning Wheel) and give them a stake in the events of the world (even if that means starting them off with a house in the urban setting and making them residents of the town they are adventuring in). If the PCs are invested in the world — if the players get to help design it's elements, choose it's adversaries, build some world elements (race relations, geography, etc.), impact it's tone, and generally HELP the world design — then they are less likely to burn it to the ground. I could go on about this for days, because I've done this many times. If you'd like, I'll post some advice on my blog about it. But it's not my point at all.

The second is going to make a few head's spin off their tops, but it's the whole point of all of this.

GM-less gaming.

And that might sound like a pun, but it's not. It means two things.

Running without a GM and running with a GM who is less involved as an overseer and more involved as a moderator. Notice the slight shift in terminology being used as more than just a 1980s smoke-screen to disguise the role of the GM.

I'm talking about actually playing an RPG without a GM. D&D for that matter. This is an extremely radical point of view, to be sure. But it can be done. [In fact, as much as I dislike 4E (please no version wars), it's actually perfectly designed for it.]

Now. Before I continue, let me be very clear.

This isn't the only remedy for certain kinds of gaming ailments and this cure isn't for everyone. It's just free advice. Think of it like an internet hug.

Now. Let's break down some of the functions of the GM and figure out how these projects can be handed off to the team.

World Design. Back in the day, Last Unicorn Games produced one of the most underrated projects of all time. An RPG called Aria. In it, they described a new concept called the Metamyth, or mythbuilding. Instead of being an RPG about collecting treasure and killing monsters, it was an RPG about building a world, village, character, and myth. The second book in the series was fantastic and basically taught the players how to world build.

Using this system (or an abbreviated version), any team can build a game world worth playing in. Barring that, Burning Wheel has a fantastic world-building system as well. Barring that, everyone buys the same game world from company X and reads it. We did this one for Ravenloft, only we had a jerk at the table so it didn't go very far. But the experiment was worth the time.

Campaign. Not to be confused with world-building, the campaign is about the elements of the world that PCs want to explore. What's the widget they need to acquire? What's the dragon's name they need to kill? What's the thrust of the campaign that's worth sacrificing a year of your life to accomplish?

Stealing from the 36 Writer Plots, the campaign can be generated randomly or determined through bidding, or… just agreed upon by players who get along. The entire campaign thrust, however, should be about something, even if the smaller pieces to get to the THING don't always add up to the gestalt of the THING.

For instance, a campaign about wiping out the orc nation of Bone-Bone will probably be about an accumulation of power, some treaty signing, and a few quests to prove yourself worthy of this lauded goal. In the end, the final battle with the Bone-Bone orcs will be epic and massive, requiring all of the PCs resources (and even the expectation of failure).

Since the players can easily choose a campaign plot, we've eliminated another TASK from the list of things a GM must do to "entertain."

Moving on.

Adversaries. This one is pretty easy, actually. While it sounds complicated, it's not. First off, everyone loves making characters. Secondly, there are about 6,000 published books (number not verified) about NPCs and things to encounter. If you can't jot down a name, class, and a few relevant stats on an index card, then what good are you?

A stack of adversaries should be about 100-200 high depending on the scope of the campaign. It should be mostly NPCs of the dominate race in the game world. In fact, each card can be double-sided with NPCs on one side and monsters on the other. Draw one at random when you need to. Keep the important NPCs handy if you need to refer to them again.

Plot. This is a little trickier, but still manageable. In fact, rather than tell you how to do it, I'm just going to point to the successes of games like In a Wicked Age, Burning Wheel, Inspectres, and so on. Seriously good stuff and a lot of advice on how to let players build scenes.

Moderator. Here's where the fun comes in. Many players turn to the GM for interpretation of the die rolls. Why? Is his logic so much better than mine? Is he really smarter, more creative, more capable of determining what a '16' means? Why can't I narrate my successes? Why can't the guy to my left narrate my failures? When I designed George's Children this is the number one thing I did to remove a GM from the game and let everyone play.

It really is that simple. For that matter. Why can't the guy to my left roll the dice of the monster that is attacking me as well? In the open? Why does it have to be a secret?

XP and treasure should be a cinch to figure out if you can do all this other stuff. Although I'm guessing the rewards of running a GM-less game will resonate in such a way, that stopping to roll up treasure will stop being as fun as it used to be.

Cause and Effect. One of the most important roles of a GM is determining the ramifications of the PCs actions. If they burn down the village of ABC, how are the people in village DEF doing to respond? Again. Why is the logic of the GM so much better than the logic of the PCs? Couldn't the players themselves determine for themselves that they need to hide out for a while and/or skip town for stealing Mrs. Blankenship's pies?

Okay. I think I've said enough for now.

I think this is a good place for the discussion to begin.