Discourses on GMing Series 1 Post 2
This is the second of the two posts that are going to say a lot about a little. Jamison’s assumptions and foundational beliefs about RPGs that inform the rest of his writing are, I think, too important not to pay a lot of attention to. Let’s get started.
The text may not necessarily make sense in some spots if you haven’t been GMing for a while. This reminds me of the time requirement for something like a private solo pilot’s license. You can teach a lot of things in a classroom, but some things just come up so rarely that teaching them is a waste of time – it’s assumed that the practical experience will act as a catch-all for miscellaneous and sundry little things that would be a waste of time to teach formally. I wonder how different a “how to GM” book would look for people who had never played an RPG before versus those that have?
The Book’s Organizational Logic
Jamison comments here that he found it annoying when GMing books make lots of assumptions and provide too few examples. I find this frustrating, too, and it’s something even professional teachers often fall victim to. Among the most difficult things to do when delivering instructional material is to remember that your audience is not going to have the same point of view that you have as an expert, and that you cannot assume they will have your intuitions. That is what makes clear, procedural examples and an explanation of one’s assumptions so important – and it’s why I am spending so much time on Jamison’s. Also, the real world is concrete and not abstract – we like examples more than we like principles.
Although the book provides tables of options where appropriate, Jamison suggests that wherever possible we utilize our particular judgment in selecting them instead of selecting them randomly. Some people really like true random generation while others hate it, but I like a middle path. I have always found that random generation is a helpful tool because it makes me think outside the box about unusual options I would not have selected at first blush, but we are in agreement that the final judgment needs to go to a person and not a piece of plastic with numbers on it.
Misconceptions & Terms
Jamison is not going to specifically address any kind of RPG except the pen and paper kind you do sitting face to face around a table. I run and play in most of my games online, so I will probably be making some comments about how to adjust his ideas for this – or where they seem somewhat inappropriate or impossible.
Although the author’s comparison of tabletop RPGs to computer RPGs may seem harshly phrased I think his bottom line is nonetheless basically accurate. A tabletop RPG’s most special property is how so much of it takes place in our heads – it gives us the freedom to do just about anything we can imagine with only the constraints we voluntarily accept. The person who talks about this the most that I know of is probably Courtney C. over at Hackslashmaster. We should definitely hold Jamison to task about making certain his ideas going forward emphasize and maximize this idea of player agency since that is what makes the medium so special.
Jamison also makes the distinction between an “NPC” (which he considers a poor term because it makes those characters seem unimportant) and “GC” (gamemaster character). I think going so far as to invent a new term is, frankly, a waste of time. But I do like what he is getting at. Basically, I believe he is emphasizing a middle road between “NPC as throw-away plot device or enemy” and “DMPC who starts doing things players should really be doing.” What Jamison calls here a Gamemaster Character is really best understood, I think, as a strong supporting character – allied or enemy. At the end of the day they are expendable and should not be in the spotlight – they are supporting, after all. But nonetheless NPCs should be recurring and important insofar as you can while not overstepping into player territory. We will see later that, just as Ben Robbins wrote regarding re-using physical territory in his West Marches game, Jamison emphasizes re-using character territory in his gaming style.
“How To Play Right”
At least that’s roughly what I would have titled this part given how it reads. Specifically, Jamison makes four claims:
- The GM’s job cannot be to “win”.
- The GM cannot be “neutral”.
- Commercial adventures are not an effective use of your time.
- Immersion is very important.
Regarding the first point, I agree with general idea: a GM cannot be literally adversarial in the sense of trying to defeat the players because, frankly, he would do so 100% of the time. However, “the GM is supposed to make everyone have fun” is an almost hopelessly broad principle to put into practice. Where does the GM’s responsibility for the fun in the game end? Pizza is fun, does the GM have to always buy pizza? I think some practices Jamison believes to result from this axiom do not necessarily follow, as we will see later.
Regarding the second, I think this is important most of all because actually what most people regard as “GMing to win” isn’t the sophomoric power fantasy Jamison warns about – it’s setting up what you believe to be a fair scenario and then playing it to be as challenging as it was designed to be. That is why it is very interesting that Jamison also says the GM fundamentally cannot be neutral – a sort of neutrality is required for that line of thinking. Jamison’s thinking here is that you can’t be neutral because if you’re neutral you’ll wind up in situations where you botched your design stage and now you have to kill everyone and that’s not fun.
The problem here is that it treats neutrality as “being a rule-following robot,” which I think is not the best depiction of what it means to be neutral as a GM. Let me say up front that I agree you should not be a rule following robot (unless that’s what everyone at the table wants, but I think that misses the main benefit of the medium and is relatively unpopular). I think a more practical way to refer to a GM is not “neutral,” but “fair” – they design content that players find reasonable, and then adjudicate its play in a way that players find reasonable. While Jamison is worried that neutrality requires one to carry through on botched designs until they kill everyone, the fact of the matter is the two halves are not necessarily in lock-step. You can design “neutrally” (or fairly) based on a sense of immersion (what would really be here?) or challenge (what would be suitably challenging and interesting?). Then you can adjudicate fairly in an attempt to meet your design intent. If it turns out something is much stronger than you believed it was when you designed I think it is still being fair (i.e. neutral) to adjust the design in the moment to be more like what you wanted. I think it’s pretty rare for a sense of neutrality to botch your design intent, though, especially if the players always have the option of backing off and approaching things differently. So I would say that while I agree with Jamison you do not want to be a rules-arbiter-robot, I think that’s sort of a strawman against neutrality. Considering neutrality as fairness is most practical because what is fair is going to depend on the group – some groups don’t find neutrality to be very fair, but others don’t find pro-player bias to be fair either.
(It turns out, by the way, that most people find “fair” to be good and bad things in at least a 3:1 ratio. So “fair” GMing actually is generally biased towards the players on average.)
Regarding the third point, I am mostly in agreement. I have increasingly found that lots of commercial adventures are badly made (for example, placing most of the adventure behind a difficult skill check – this sort of adventure is only useful in a sandbox campaign and not useful for “I need 4 hours of adventure tonight” as they tend to advertise themselves for). That is not to say that I could necessarily do better, but I can recognize errors when I see them. These days I most appreciate those commercial adventures that supply creative ideas I would not otherwise have considered, or function as site-based adventures I can put into a sandbox. The traditional sort of adventure that involves some kind of plot and an expected series of events I find often falls flat for the reasons Jamison provides.
Statement 4, of course, seems hard to argue against to any kind of serious degree. Given equivalent games where – in one – you find yourself immersed and in the other you do not is there any doubt which game is better? Maybe it is not as important as Jamison believes, but it is obviously nonetheless important- at least to some people. Of note, being “neutral” is actually how some people attempt to do this. A bit ironic, perhaps.
Whew! That was a lot of words to spill over an introduction. But now that we know where Jamison is coming from I won’t have to talk so much about his assumptions in the future, and can focus more on his suggestions as suggestions within the scope of his proposed method.
Next up: Chapter 1 – Jamison’s one and only absolute law of gamemastering. Sounds important.