April 23, 2012

The GameMaster (guest post by Black Bear)


I didn’t start playing role playing games until I was in college. Note I said “playing,” because I owned a copy of Basic Dungeons and Dragons from age 12 or so. Read it til the pages fell out. Rolled the cheap dice–the color of blue chalk–over and over, and drew up elaborate maps of the dungeons I’d explore if I had friends who wanted to play. But that key element was missing–and in hindsight, it’s a little surprising my middle school friends and I didn’t play. We were the right sorts of nerds; we all played computer games, we watched Star Trek (original series) obsessively each day after school… Yet somehow, D&D never got on the radar properly, and I didn’t have my first taste of real gaming until I began working at a local store called The Game Preserve.

The GP, as it’s still affectionately known, opened my eyes to the wide world not only of games (board games, puzzle games, wargames, role playing games) but to the wide world of gamers. We run the gamut; even back then it wasn’t just the guys in black t-shirts who William Shatner famously railed at on SNL: “Move out of your parents’ basements! Have any of you EVER kissed a girl?!” There were and are plenty of folks like that in this hobby–but there are also lots of folks who come to it from different angles. People who like stories, and fantasy, and improv acting, and solving puzzles, and working as a team with a bunch of other like-minded friends. That was a huge part of the draw for me; when I got to college and fell in with a real regular gaming group, it was a rich part of my social life every week, to get together and tell a fabulous story each Saturday from 2 until 10 (pizza break at 6. Occasionally take-out Chinese, if we were feeling flush with cash.) We all turned out all right, too–a doctor, two lawyers, a writer, a poet, an archaeologist, an alt-medicine practitioner, a computer jockey…and me, a so-called museum professional.

So, gaming is a large part of my life–enhanced by the fact that when I graduated from college with no obvious job prospects (thank you, medieval studies degree) I went right back to work at the Game Preserve for a number of years. I continued playing my games of choice–RuneQuest, and Call of Cthulhu–in the ensuing years, and in the process discovered that if I was going to play the sorts of games I want to play, I was probably going to have to be the gamemaster. That is to say, I had to be the one in charge. In college, I was always just a player, acting out my character’s part in our increasingly complex adventures; but after college, I began to mastermind these things myself. This isn’t as complicated as you might imagine; while I come up with the basic thin lines of a plot myself, my players are the ones that flesh it out, making it into a real Story, so to speak. As an example, one year for Halloween I literally had nothing but the following jotted down on a bit of notepaper for our H.P. Lovecraft mythos-based horror game:
My players made those four sentences into an evening of fun for all concerned. For those who’ve never played these sorts of games before, essentially the gamemaster is the one who says things like “The train is 8 cars long, including an engine and caboose. You’re sitting in the dining car, eating dinner, when the porter says, ‘There’s a mysterious crackling sound coming from the baggage car.’ So what are you doing?” And the players are the ones who say, “I’m grabbing a fire extinguisher! I’m running toward the baggage car!” (Or, perversely, “I’m stealing all the silverware while the porter is distracted.” Part of being a gamemaster is being prepared to roll with it when your players do things which are, from a story standpoint, utterly stupid.) This is where the fun comes in–it’s up to me what the crackling sound is, and what happens when the players come running back with the fire extinguisher. But it’s up to them what they do when they see a horrible ball of blue hissing flame busily charring its way through their steamer trunks. Spray the extinguisher? Throw a mail bag at it? Run like hell? I won’t know until they do it, and this is what makes the hobby so much fun for me–the constant back and forth of storytelling, balancing the predictable against the unpredictable.

Thus it happened that Robin and I came around to New Thing. As she said in her blog a few nights ago, I’ve been regaling her with stories of my players’ foibles for years now. It makes for great re-telling afterwards; Greg Stafford’s RuneQuest, which is the world I chiefly game in these days, is a lush and varied mixture of high fantasy, low fantasy, and Joseph-Campbell-esque mythology, making a fabulous backdrop for the ridiculous situations my players get themselves into and out of on a regular basis. As she also said, we’ve talked many times about ways to make a McKinley-based RPG happen on the website–but thus far, most of the ways to do it up right would involve a LOT more work on her part than the blog does now, not to mention skirting the edges of copyright disaster. But then she came up with the brilliant thought of approaching it from a different angle–we’d play our way through a story of Robin’s own devising, with me contributing unexpected situations and characters for her protagonist to encounter. But it’s all very fluid–each of Robin’s episodes influences what I may or may not toss into the mix for the next go-round. It’s less a game (no dice rolling, and as she says, the protagonist is NOT allowed to die) and more a cooperative storytelling experience in which Robin writes something amazing, and I keep monkeywrenching the works at key points in the plot. So we’ll see how it goes. I’m delighted to know that people are enjoying it–it’s fun to do! I love serials myself; Plot Without End is an appealing format for me (obviously) and so I’m excited to see where New Thing goes. Hope you are, too!

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Note (pant, pant) that we haven’t got to Cathy’s first monkeywrench yet.  I’m SLOW.  –ed.


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