Monday, September 14, 2009

The Limits of GM Vision

When I first started playing D&D back in 1981, I didn't really give much thought to individual campaign or feel. We talked about individual GMs as tough or stingy, but not about individual campaign styles. Part of that was because we were what, 13? We didn't notice that kind of stuff. But also, we just kind of played, and mood, feel and style were things that evolved out of play.

Mind you, there was plenty of assumed and imposed mood and style based on the materials we used, but that's a different story. By the time we were moving into high school, though, things began moving into the direction of mood and style. I had read the Thieves' World anthology and several Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books, and wanted to have an urban campaign filled with intrigue, secrets, and pulpy moral abiguity. My friend Brian wanted to run a campaign set in a largely isolated island filled with magical faerie tale elements, powerful and mysterious forces at work, and a strongly mythical tone. Both games petered out with our game group, and as we re-formed game groups, I found myself running pre-made modules for a party that didn't want to pursue the urban adventure I wanted. I'm not sure what happened to Brian's game idea, but from what I can tell he started to step away from RPGs to focus on theatre.

Once I got to college, we all played around with mood and feel of our games. The GM vision became part of the whole play style, and was one of the things we talked about. Geoff runs a gritty game, Fred runs a political game, Tina runs a high-power hack-and-slash game. Our styles as GMs and players had changed.

As I put together Athanor, there is a lot of vision both implicit and explicit in the setting. With that comes the trap of being too caught up as a GM into your precious world and its trappings. It's easy, after investing so much time and energy into developing your world and your ideas into something playable to want to dictate what kinds of adventures, characters, and plots can develop in your world. To some extent that is, after all, your job as a GM. But the problem with that is that your players always get some say. They only play along if they want to. You need to give them some direction, some guidance, and some abiity to be the exceptions to the rules.

Back to high school: my game involved Brian and two others, Harry and Todd. Brian like the paladin types, and loved my previous campaign in which huge epic conflicts had come about. He had a hard time coming up with a character that fit his ideas of being a "hero" and fit into the mood of the campaign. What evolved was that his character sided with the law, while Todd and Harry became a Fafhrd and Grey Mouser style pair of rogues. Only more criminal and less charming. This set up a two-on-one conflict early on, with adventures being about Brian's pursuit of the criminals and their escapes. After a while, it was frustrating for everyone. Brian knew this was a criminal-centered campaign, right? He'd have to live with swimming upstream! But all it did was make it feel like he couldn't get involved in the game.

If this happened to me today, I would work with all three to adjust characters and the setting to allow for some sort of cooperation. Back then, I foolishly thought my vision would force it all to work. Everyone needed to compromise, most importantly I did, by opening up more options to play.

So with Savage Swords of Athanor, I need to find ways to be more open to interesting options. While I like the idea of unstoppable horror, swashbuckling, science fiction and fantasy living together in sin, I need to make sure that the style of game stays good for players. I need to switch things up and let them set agendas. I need to bait hooks, drop some rumors about, and see where things lead. I need to let this be their game, even if it is played on the backdrop I created.