Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Threading the Needle

As a GM, I find that I often have to choose between two things in a game that are fairly incompatible; each choice will radically affect the way the game is run and played, so I can't have both. Part of what I have to do is try and guess, based on what I know about my players, which one to go with in order to run a game that is the most enjoyable for everyone. Ultimately, I'd like to run enough games to be able to get all of my options in play, but it's hard to do, so I think I'll just talk about some of my choices here.

One of the biggest choices when running a game is what to play. Generally, I'll just ask players what kind of game they want to play, and work with that. The choice here is not what to play, really, but rather what kind of system to use to play. There are really two kinds of RPG systems - rules-light and rules-heavy. With rules-light, there are few concrete rules, and the game is fast and loose. This depends a lot on the players, and is often much harder on them than it is on me - if you get to choose, say, five defining characteristics of your character, and use those to resolve things, what do you pick? I've seen a lot of players freeze up when faced with this, though I know some who live for rules-light systems; a system like FATE is a good one for this. Rules-heavy is often what I end up going with, because the greater body of rules helps define and codify a character more easily; a 3rd-level Ranger has a set number of abilities, and can do certain things better than, say, a 3rd-level cleric. D&D is my go-to game for rules-heavy, though there are certainly others with more flexibility - GURPS is an example.

Another question is how free to let players be when coming up with their characters. I know this sometimes treads on some toes, but sometimes I want to run a game about a group of escape prisoners, or maybe a group of adventurers who also double as a troupe of traveling performers. So the question is, do I let everyone come up with their characters separately, with no input from other players, or do I give them a set of guidelines to create their characters with? One of the best ideas I've seen for something like this is to have all the players get together for a session of nothing but character creation and let them bounce ideas off each other, but since my main gaming venue is online, this can be difficult.

Probably the bigest of the needles I have to thread is on how much to involve the players in what goes on around them. By this, I mean how much of the description of the places they go and the people they see do I do myself, and how much do I leave to them? This is a technique that goes with collaborative campaign-building; if you want the characters to get involved, let them create the situations and people they involve themselves with. If they want to talk to a street urchin, I could say "You see a bunch; describe the one you talk to." The only problem with this is if the players are expecting me, as GM, to provide all the details of the world - in that case, asking them to describe said street urchin might leave me staring at a blank face. So, do I try and get them involved in creating the world around them and risk a total lack of response, or do I just create everything myself and risk the players not being happy and not getting involved?

Being a GM can be a balancing act at times, and on the rare chance I get to be a player, I get to see what another GM chooses to do when faced with these kind of decisions. It makes me wish that I got to be a player more often - and that I could be a better GM.

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