The Von Show #12 – A Very Special Day

Sorry about that. Back now. Still feel a bit rubbish in the voice department, but at least I actually remembered to record something this week, right?

Apparently, the fourth of March is a very special day, for celebrating the contribution a very special person has made to your life and lifestyle over the twelve months preceding, and will continue to make for as long as you don’t alienate them into neglecting you, disowning you, or just pushing you down a well and dropping rocks on you until you die.
No, not your mother, stop panicking. That’s the eighteenth. The fourth of March is GM’s Day.
A bunch of chaps on enworld.org started this fine, upstanding and noble tradition some ten years ago, in the cause of addressing something quite significant. From user ‘spunkrat’ in the source thread:
It’s clear from another thread I was reading many GM’s out there don’t feel appreciated, and clearer still that many players don’t appreciate the amount of work their GM’s are putting into their games. So what I propose is GM’S DAY
GM’s day is the day the gaming community would celebrate all the hard work our GM’s do for us. It would be like Mother’s day or Father’s day, and give us all the chance to pamper our GM.
Maybe we could run a game for them as well!
Of course, it would get all commercialised, and gaming stores would put ads up like “What are YOU getting your GM this GM’s day?” and we would all end up spending lots of money, but that all comes later…
Prophetic words – I only heard about this laudable endeavour to spoil people like me rotten via the DriveThruRPG newsletter. However, beneath all the crass commercialism is something worth talking about, and that something is how much work running a game actually is.
I can’t remember where I first heard the adage that running a good game is about as much work as writing a short novel – neither can I remember when I stopped believing it. It’s not. Not always. There exist more and more products with more and more of that work pre-done.
There was a time, for instance, when using anything but the most sketchy of Tolkienesque fantasy worlds required you, the prospective GM, to do all the legwork of creativity for yourself. Likewise, there was a time when rules systems were sketchy and incomplete, literally referring out to things beyond themselves, things to which you might not have access, things you might not even know exist.
Matt Colville’s blog SQUAREMANS has a lovely depictionof these halcyon days and, for bonus points, an evaluation of the kind of person who had to GM those games…

The rules themselves were barely there. You had to make it all up. This put so much responsibility on the GM. He had to be entertaining, imaginative, fair, rational. In many ways the steady march away from original D&D has been a sustained effort to remove the effects of a bad GM on the game. The more game elements are objectively determined, written down in books, the less you have to rely on the GM. The less you need a really good GM to run the game. And yes, the more of a science it becomes, and less of an art. Running this game was an art form and only a few people could do it really well. There’s something magical about that. Newer versions become more systematized and therefore more people can play. Mediocre GMs can run good games. But, if I’m being honest with myself, something of the magic is lost. That feeling that most of this game lived in your mind. Because of that, I think, it was more real. As more and more of the game lived in the rules and on character sheets, it became a game instead of a world in your head.

You had to be capable of filling in these blanks in the rules system capably, creatively and with flair; you had to be capable of generating a fantasy world that was plausible enough for the tastes of everyone at the table, open enough to have fun in, and responsive enough for the players’ actions to have some sort of impact. You had to be capable of improvising like the clappers when, as they do, the players decide that actually they don’t want to delve in the Lost Temple of Arr’guth-Mekhare and would rather explore the mysterious and forbidding forest that you only put there to make the road to the Lost Temple more interesting. And you had to resolve the disputes that invariably emerged when these loose rules and looser worlds gave rise to conflicts between players, whose interpretations of what was there, and whose grasp upon what had been put there, would invariably be different.
Have we lost all that? Is GM-ing no longer an art, something that takes work, something you need to be really good at to do? I’m not sure. I agree that a mediocre GM can run a good game, but I think a good GM can run a great one – and a bad GM can still ruin it.
See, I came of age in the time of big, thick rulebooks with a corner case for everything, and truth be told I’ve never actually played any of them as written. Life’s too short. I took to using a GM’s screen not because I wanted to keep my SEKRITS, but because I wanted to “uphold the beautiful lie that a system, even a system with embedded randomness, is at play” (thanks, Tycho).
Every time I’ve run one of these hefty great games with their hefty great rules I’ve bounced off the rulebook and run with what core principles I can glean from the first pass. I make the rest up as I go along. Always have. I don’t need to know exactly how pulling punches or non-lethal damage or called shots are ‘supposed’ to work to know that having a thing on your character sheet called Strike To Stun means your dude is good at knocking people out without killing them, and run the game accordingly. Crucially, I also know that you don’t need a thing called Strike To Stun to knock people out – having that thing just means you’re going to be more likely to do it, or less likely to cock it up. Doesn’t mean I won’t use the system’s prepared solution if I can remember it – it means that if I can’t remember it, on the fly, during play, I’ll make up something that is memorable instead.
Taken to its logical extreme, this sets you to wondering whether or not you actually need all these rules for using our imaginations at all. It’s a compelling argument. I occasionally look at my ever-decreasing RPG shelf and sigh and ask myself “do we really need three hundred pages of text telling us how to pretend to be vampires? Do we really need any?”
The longer any of my games have run, the fewer dice have ended up being deployed in them, until in the end we’re only rolling when it’s universally agreed, without any explicit discussion, that this is Too Big to be left to our shared sense of drama to decide – that a character has put themselves in a situation where only sheer luck is going to save them.
What started as a desire to escape Sorensen’s Thief – the issue of having the locked door here, the player characters here, anything of remote interest here and a die roll potentially barring the move onwards – became something celebrated. People would cheer when, inevitably, at some point during the second or third session of play, I’d sweep the rulebooks onto the floor, steeple my fingers, and suggest that we didn’t actually need to roll every last die that we were supposed to.
Those games ran on a principle of trust and a shared sense of drama. The players knew that I wasn’t going to arbitrarily kill their characters or punish them just because I thought it was funny, but they knew I wasn’t going to give them a free ride either. If they did something stupid, they’d suffer the consequences. If they did something clever, they’d probably get what they were trying for, though it might be a poisoned chalice now and then, just to keep them on their toes and the unfolding play lively and interesting. Likewise, I knew that they weren’t going to push for invincibility, because invincibility is boring; they wanted a sense of struggle, a sense that they couldn’t just charge through the world but had to plan and scheme and know what their characters were capable of and what the world had in store for them.
Systems can do all of that stuff. I think a good GM is one that doesn’t need a system to do that, and in my more egotistical moments, on a good day, I like to think I don’t need to. And I think a goodly part of that has been my distaste for complex, stodgy, situational rules or complicated, ponderous setting details that I can’t remember in the middle of doing funny voice make-believe time. Consequently drifting backwards in developmental history, toward those early RPGs, where the GM was doing more work than the system because there wasn’t enough system to do the work for them. 
 
I also think part of that has been witnessing some truly appalling GM-ing from people who were relying on the system to do the job for them. Maybe I’ll talk about that next time – unless anyone suggests something better.

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