The Von Show #8 – Balance of Power, Part III

Funnily enough, after the comments on the last two weeks’ instalments that suggested the death of player characters and the differences between games as Important Things To Discuss, this week’s third and final instalment of the increasingly-poorly-edited ‘Balance of Power’ conversation touches on just those things.  Hark waxes philosophical about under-achieving goblins, being crushed by tanks and tickling tentacle beasts back to the underworld, while I consider ways in which the GM can shoot any attempt at an even semi-serious atmosphere in the foot.

What are your expectations, as a GM?

 As a GM, I expect that players are prepared to show up and be clever, to actively engage with things and not dodge out with skill rolls, to turn up actually wanting to play a game and not just sit around chatting shit for four hours – which is cool but it’s not what we came here to do, and if I’ve… I hate to sound so entitled about this, but if I’ve gone to the trouble of building NPCs and building a world and thinking about how it’s going to work… to have thought about all that and to have it be wasted does put a bit of a toothpick up my nose, I have to say.

Responsibilities of the GM… I think that it’s the GM’s job to keep the session moving, to notice when people are bored and find out why they’re bored and do something about it, whatever that something needs to be.  I also think it’s the GM’s job to make the world an interesting and engaging one to play in, and to give players an opportunity to be clever, to challenge themselves, to generally get that sense of accomplishment that comes with playing an RPG.  I think that’s what it’s all about at the end, that you feel you’ve accomplished something. 

Yeah, even if you’ve not killed anything that session, or gotten any PHAT LEWTZ, or levelled up, even if your characters have crashed and burned into a fiery pit of fire, and then they’ve had to get out of the firey pit of fire, all “hurrah, we saved ourselves from the firey pit of fire!” – achievement.  Even if, like our Goblin! players, all you’ve done is completely trash everything –

– get all of a hundred yards into the city and then set something on fire –

– it still felt like we’d achieved something, even if what we’d achieved was THE LOLZ.

All you achieved was being hilarious and not dying.  But that’s still an accomplishment, at the end of the day.

Even dying can be an accomplishment.  In our Dark Heresy game, we had a guy who in the last session threw himself on someone else and was repeatedly crushed under a tank, and he was just like “yeeeesss! dying in victory!” and for his character as well it was a great achievement, to sort of martyr-die, and we were all very impressed with his death.

Yep.   I mean, that’s sort of what we were talking about at the beginning, was that idea of risk, that if you’re going to play one of these games that simulates danger and death and derring-do and other awesome things beginning with D, you have to be prepared for the possibility that it is all going to blow up in your face, and as long as you’re in a position to say “no, that’s cool”, possibly even “yeah, that’s AWESOME!”, then you’re all right, but you have to expect that things can not go your way.  And that goes for GMs as well.

If the game is particularly ‘dangerous’, you have to sort of go “eh, that character’s dead, I’ll roll another one that these can join up with at some point.”

That’s the old-school D&D thing comes in, that “see this rulebook?  this rulebook is the Old Testament, that’s fire and brimstone and suffering.”

You will all die six times before the end of this game.”

 Do your expectations vary depending on what you’re playing, then? 

Yeah, a bit.  Also slightly on who i’m playing with.  If i’m playing Call of Cthulhu then my expectation is to go FUCKING INSANE by the end of the game, if not the end of the session.

I’ve never quite done that, you know.  Can’t be trying hard enough.

But if i was playing with someone who said “we’re gonna do it CRACKY”,  my expectation would be of hideous tentacle-rapey lols.

Do your responsibilities change depending on what you’re playing?

Yeah, ’cause obviously if you’re playing that deep dark psychological Call of Cthulhu game, you can’t really go “i tickle the tentacle beast – and it laughs, and then i run away”, because everyone else will be all “do you mind?  We’re in the Zone.”

If nothing else, the tentacle beast would get to save vs. tickles.  That’s a Thing.  If you’re in the Zone, as well, there’s a certain amount of respect that comes with serious gameplay.  You have to realise that even if it’s not your scene, if the party is split or you’re only in it for the violence, other people are committed to what we’re doing and enjoying it.  The contrariwise is true as well; you don’t stop combat to deliver a soliloquy, because there are people there who get off on the thrill and the challenge of maneouvre and tactics and buckling their swash and the last thing they want is someone Jar-Jar-ing about in the middle of it all.

You can be a little bit silly or a little bit sensible in the vice versa game –

 – but it’s a bit.

Yeah.  You have to be invested in whichever one it is.   If you’ve got the tentacle beast and you’ve read the dark tome – the dark tome may say ‘tickle it, tickle it, and it will return to the nether regions!’, and the entire party can run at the tentacle beast with feathers –

– but that’s okay because that’s the kind of game you’ve been running from the beginning –

– but if the dark tome says something about using the Feather of the Spiny Walsfleur you must incant the sacred runes and paint them on the squiggly beast and it returns to the Netherbilong, technically you’re tickling it with feathers again, but you can carefully approach the beast from behind, and the most forward of our party gently begins to caress the beast with the feather, carefully invoking the sacred runes…

Although as a GM I would say it’s your responsibility as a GM not to include those sort of ‘bottom falls out of the world’ moments unless you want to.  It’s okay to send yourself up and to have your game potentially collapse into a lulz-fest at any time, provided you want it to.  Players will go out of their way to collapse things into lulz.  When people are enjoying themselves, or when people are tense and relieving the tension by laughing, that’s cool, but don’t put in obvious bait, because it’s gonna happen anyway.  You’ve got to play things straight to keep them tense enough to make the players want to be relieved.

i’m saying that at the end of the session a player might go “did we just technically tickle that beast back to the underworld” and the GM would say “technically yes, you did”, but we were all invested in which runes we were carving on the beast, using our own blood and the feather we’ve just spent six weeks trying to get, so we’re doing the whole Buffy thing, with the tentacle beast and the opening of the portal and the sucking of the hellbeast.  But then in real life we might just sit back and go “yeah, that was just tickling a fucking squid monster wasn’t it, you lulrus.”

There’s a time and a place.  Sometimes catharsis is good and sometimes it’s a pain in the arse.  Part of this whole responsibility thing is saying “no, this is a scary game, there is a point at which the tension can collapse at the end of an event, not halfway through it”, and if you think of something funny you keep it to yourself.

You do have to respect it but sometimes you whisper “oh my god we’re doing this?” and snigger.

Sometimes that’s fun, though.  It depends on whether or not you’re trying to make the players feel stuff.  I’ve gotten into arguments with more old-school types about this, and they’ve said they hate being told how their character is supposed to feel* ’cause it means that dimension of the game can’t develop naturally.  In other words, if something lulrous happens, they want to lul about it, because the story of the game is more important than the story in the game.  That’s something that everyone’s got to be cool with happening, ’cause sometimes your fun is ruining someone else’s fun.

If you’re watching a horror film, there is going to be a bit where you think “god, that’s fake, his arm’s hanging off, and he’s just accidentally whacked some scenery with it.”

As fans of the old Doctor Who we know all about things looking ridiculous.

So you’re sort of like “[snort], oh dear”, but on the other hand you’re “his arm’s fallen off, now he’s about to be eaten by beats”, so even though you’re sniggering, there’s still a bit of tension.

Getting your foot gnawed off by a giant clam should still be a bit scary even if the clam looks rubbish.

The part of you that’s treating fake as real is going “oh no, giant clam, his arm’s fallen off, oh no!”

 I do prefer games where you can pull off both, that you can get a short run of something that’s quite passionate, but that it always has the potential to collapse into lulz and meta-jokes, because I don’t want to sound like I hate lulz.

Like you can sit there in those deep, serious ones and something happens and everyone sniggers, and you go “STOP THAT, THIS IS HIGH DRAMA.”

Because when that happens you are taking yourself far too fucking seriously, and I will break down and laugh with the rest of ’em, ’cause part of being a good GM, I think, is realising that the session is not under your control, that it’s not your game, that you run the game but you don’t own it.

But also, if something vaguely silly happens, and everyone cracks up, you do have to go “and we’re back in the room.  The dark, scary room, full of giant clams eating your feet.”

Do you think you can get back to dark and scary, once it’s cracked like that?

You can, i think, because the part of the player that needed the release of laughter is still scared, or still invested in it – not like “ooooh scary GM” but scared as in “oooh, i’m enjoying this, it’s scaring me, this is exciting”.  So you can break and laugh and then come back and say “no, i’m still in the fear zone.”

Yeah – at the end of the day, whatever was gonna happen’s still gonna happen, it’s just it’s now going to happen in a way that I can cope with and play.

There is a point where there’s too much tension and you say “i have no idea how to continue playing this, my character can’t get any more scared, i can’t make it act any more scared, there’s only so much shit i can put up with.”  So you need to break and come away from it so you can come back and amp it up again, at the same level…

… and that’s the end of the show, for this week.  That’s Hark and I talking about responsibilities, and the balance of power, and expectations, and I hope it’s been in some way informative.  If you’ve got anything you’d like to add, the comments box is where it usually is, so… pop down.  Cheers babe.

You’re welcome.

* – I don’t mean “you feel scared”, more that the GM is going out of their way to enforce scariness on the players and to artifically generate a sense of fear even though there’s no actual risk in continuing-the-game terms.

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