Friday, 10 July 2020
Go with the flow
The referee of our latest campaign shared this (from Shamus Young's DM of the Rings on his TwentySided site) after I scored a series of critical successes that stopped the Big Bad dead in his tracks -- to the slack-jawed astonishment of everybody around the table.
The comic gave us all a good laugh, but like all good comedy it makes a serious point too. "We need to adjourn for a bit of re-writing." Not a bit of it! If something like Gollum getting shot happened in a game I was running my first thought would be, "Wow, didn't see that coming! I wonder where this will go now..?"
Roleplaying at its best is jazz, not an orchestra and conductor working from sheet music. The referee is one of the band, leading but not dictating -- which is the reason I don't like terms like GM. There need never be any pause for re-writing because there shouldn't be a prescripted storyline you're trying to shepherd the players through. Play to find out what happens, as they say. The story that emerges will always be more involving than a plot you wrote in advance because the players will be right there in the moment, not watching to see which clue or trope has been planted there for them to pick up on.
And consider too the campfire mythology of the game, the stories players tell each other afterwards. Occasionally I've seen players make astonishing dice rolls that allowed them to overcome a threat that looked almost insurmountable. Years later they'll talk about that kind of victory with much more passion than one where they found the magic whatsit that was the only way to defeat the evil whosis and they used it at the exact time the scenario said to.
The pre-planned finale is not roleplaying, it's the kind of story you get in a movie or novel. There you can't have million-to-one shots come off (much as writers strive to convince you they have) because there's no element of chance. Every outcome in a scripted story is (by definition) contrived. The USP of roleplaying is that genuinely unforeseen and unlikely outcomes do happen, and immediately get folded into the action. Celebrate that and use it, is my advice; don't try to shoehorn roleplaying games into the same genres and tropes that linear fiction is bound by.
I've been thinking about this because our group is about to try the Yellow King RPG mini-campaign The Wars. I get that it's all about playing in a genre, and I'm always willing to experiment, so I set out intending to embrace that. But what is the genre? (Genuine question, for anyone who's played the campaign.)
I started out looking at All Quiet On The Western Front and Charley's War -- and, yes, I know The Wars is not WW1, but the flavour is what I'm looking for. The trouble is, I can easily see the action moving from the very specific mystery-on-the-battlefield to other settings: home leave, quiet moments back at HQ, and so forth. Do I have to prepare injury and shock cards for every eventuality? The Yellow King system looks like it's intended for games where you've carefully set the rails beforehand, but what do you do in a game like that when the players do the unexpected? I could use a less prescriptive set of rules, obviously. One option is just to have generic -1, -2 and -3 injury cards and hand them to the players saying, "OK, that's the game effect; you tell me what the injury actually is." But the point of the exercise is to see what the YK system is like. If you've tried it out and can offer some tips, I'd love to hear your comments below.
There's a little bit more about themes like this in the latest episode of the always-excellent Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice. Mike and Roger cover some of the same ground as I have, only more winningly and in stereo. (If you enjoy their discussion, don't ignore the tip jar.) But before you scoot off to listen to them, I must make a very important point: