Monday, February 7, 2011

Blurring the Line Between GM and Player

One of the standard conventions of modern role-playing is that a Chinese Wall must separate players from their gamemasters. Outside of some marginalia, no matter what generic or cornball title he is given, the GM is invariably described as the neutrally-adjudicating, virtually-omnipotent force behind the game world and the players as his primary cast of actors.

Was it always so?

Anyone who has been around the block a few times in this hobby knows there has always been some creep over that supposedly hard line. One of the most commonly encountered was the adversarial GM, the kind of killer ref who intentionally or unintentionally strayed over the line into being a virtual player by dint of his antagonism. This behavior just as invariably was a game-killer, and social conventions were thrown up earlier in the hobby's history prescribing it.

Other somewhat-less heinous examples persisted over time, such as the “DM's PC”: either a de facto one such as a much-too-beloved, virtually-indestructible NPC (think elderly, graying wizard here); or the more straightforward NPC that would double as the DM's PC when he passed the ref hat for a session. Controversy about such blur exists to this day

While there seems to be a lasting and understandable grudge against transgressing the gamemaster-as-player line, I keep finding myself wondering if there may have been alternative, interesting paths for the player-as-gamemaster passed by—a feeling only compounded each time I run across an odd little transgression in an older rule set or campaign history.

Here's an example.

First edition Chivalry & Sorcery (and a huge thank you to HC player Brad for his generous help here) has a notoriously complicated system covering the latter half of its name. What it lacks in easy-to-grasp brevity, it makes up for in color and scope; and one of the more colorful elements is the reliance on the guild-like networks of the Magick Orders.

Here-in lies an interesting player-as-gamemaster blur:
The rules governing “Magick Orders” provides that the first player to have a character who is connected with some Magical Order or Society should design the whole organization. He must determine the number and level of Masters, Journeymen, Apprentices, servants, and monsters.
So far a larger amount of control of the game world being granted to a player then is the norm, but still a reasonably contained one, no? The clincher though is that sentence above is in the section called “Designing the Place of Mystery” (coding for a C&S dungeon or adventure site).

Note how the sorcerer player is now conceded primary design and control in this process:
He must then design a Guild Hall or other headquarters for the order by drawing the complex on large-squared graph paper...showing the various quarters, libraries, storerooms, and catacombs. Patrols are established, traps, and warning devices are set, etc. In short, the player designs a place of mystery...
The player is thus not just designing a piece of his background or a stronghold, but a primary target for adventure by other players. The section is all the more remarkable in that it goes on to detail five long points on rules governing how the player would design this “dungeon” objectively from the limits on numbers of men and monsters guarding the complex to how treasure and traps would be apportioned. One of the most awesome being this one:
To confound the lovers of secrecy, rumors abound in the game, and once each year the player Guilds must publish a list of all the major magick items and materials that exist within the confines of the place. A bit of lying is possible...
I have to admit I am still a little too stuck in our conventions to wrap my brain about how this would actually work at the game table. Does the designing player don the GM hat when his complex is raided or does he hand over his design notes to the presiding GM? Would this require a larger play group with a different (and opposing?) group of players or a larger open-world campaign with other sets of GMs and players? Or what?

I don't have the answers, but I sure am intrigued by it. And truth be told I have, like many others these days mucking around with the open edges of classical play, have already been unwittingly experimenting with some limited forms of this by encouraging co-creation with players both in the HC sandbox and the Domain Game.

How do we keep up opening up more of these doors? How do we make it work? Or should we even bother blurring this line again?


  1. This isn't so different from how Diaspora does things, with the creation of characters and setting together.

    In the case of Diaspora, and other games highlighting fate, this might work especially well; the players are given a stake in the world and have ideas bubbling from the very outset so when they finally do interact with an element their familiarity and confidence could show up in the game, and there might be all kinds of apparent in-game coincidences.

    A few of us have been talking recently about the negotiation between GM and player, and the relationship of the game world to them. There could be a lot of fun to be had in greater blurring. Can't hurt to play around a bit and keep opening those doors.

  2. I think just talking about "blurring the line" confuses two different kinds of blurring. I see a player doing a piece of setting design as in a different class from a DM running a PC or something similar.

    A DM (traditionally) runs the whole world to begin with; moreover he knows his own assumptions about what will work in his world and game better than the players ever can, and has no limitations on his success except those he imposes himself. However pure his intentions, the tendency is to engage in plotting or even fan-fiction, unless he's so disinterested he runs it like a regular NPC.

    A player designing a setting element likely faces either a veto power by the DM or rules limits on how much he can place, as with C&S Orders. And if he does turn it over to the DM to run, even if "it" stays friendly and isn't an opponent, the DM still gets to come up with complications and challenges to use it. The player may get to set up plots but isn't pre-determining their outcome in the broader world or for the PC. In other words he's building a sandbox or toybox rather than writing a plot.

    Actually its interesting that modern collaborative/storytelling games have moved in the direction of giving players narrative or setting control without necessarily giving DMs PCs. (Google "PDQ game system" for one example.) Everything old is new again I guess.

    So, to be plain if repetitive, I'm all for blurring the lines in the second way, but not necessarily the first. That could be done either in a story-telling, narrative-control way or with sub-games or design systems, which the C&S system kind of sounds like.

  3. Depends entirely on how one views the "gaming experience": there's nothing inherently "wrong" in blurring the (perceived) roles, IMO - remember those Germans! - albeit there are no XP awards in (O)D&D for such direct interaction without invocation of the "roleplaying contract", per :)

    If the players are happy enough with the GM as God and there's zero interest in sociopolitical simulation, fair enough. It's an "easy" way to play for the (vast?) majority of participants and clearly can yield good results. Easier to model via computer, too, hence the rug being pulled out from under our feet. ;)

    Suffice to say, both PCs and NPCs require real-life-human imposition upon their actions vs. what their trajectories would actually be within the imaginary physical and cultural space, regardless of whether that is very near to being a traditional "secondary world" (approximated by the experience of running pre-factored modules in sausage-machine fashion) or a more "shared world".

    JM-02c, anyhow, as ever. :)


  4. David R and Porky beat me to the punch, but modern indie/story games hand a lot of setting and even narrative control over to the players. As someone who had run such games as a GM, I can say that it is a blast to riff of player generated content. Even when I run old/older school games, I like to do as much of this as I can without going completely off the OSR reservation. Mostly, it's stuff that people were doing from the get-go - such creating bits of the campaign world when explaining their characters background. But I also like to allow rolls (or other mechanisms in modern games) to define facts as per the PDQ method.

  5. I wish my players would create more on their own. We're all younger types, so maybe we're used to video games, where you don't get to create as you play, but it's like pulling teeth to try and get them to make something up on the spot.

    It must be deep in the psyche, somewhere.

  6. One of my major points, perhaps this should have been explicit in the post, is that experimentation with the edges of play was much, much more of a norm in the generation of rpgs that came out in the 70s then many people acknowledge (on both sides of the supposed old school line).

    I am not familiar with Diaspora--at least not the game version, too familiar with the real life not-so ludic one--but it sounds intriguing from your description. And if discussions on those topics are taking place on your blog please feel free to share links here.

    @David R
    Thank you for parsing this out a little more precisely. I would like to think that I was using fuzzy logic--in which the truth value is something between 0 and 1 as a variable--but that's just the self-justification talking.

    I'm completely comfortable keeping the GM as the final authority even when players are granted more control over the set dress. I'm not talking about the players becoming full co-creators, I do like maintaining enough of the boundaries to keep the vital core of what I enjoy in the traditional experience of playing a classic rpg.

    And yes everything new is truly old. Collaborative story-telling has a long, long history. Personally I fondly remember round-robin story games between my dad, brother, and me in the 70s as we cruised out west in our long car trips.

  7. @Irbyz
    By Germans I assume you are referring to the Magira/Armageddon crazy quilt experience of the 70s. Something that needs to have a complete treatment in English by an enterprising soul.

    On the flip side of your point is that the most exciting thing about experimenting with open-edged, worldgame-like classic play is the potential for doing richer things than any computer-mediated game can offer.

    "such creating bits of the campaign world when explaining their characters background"

    When I talk about co-creation in my campaigns, this is usually what I am mostly talking about. But I have gotten looser and loser about letting players create background elements after their characters are established.

    A recent example was letting an amazon PC create the rites and ritual (and virtually all the real details) of a vengeful female deity whose shrine the party had discovered.

  8. @N Wright
    You can only do so much, leading a horse to water and all that.

    But I've found even when we had some players under 13 that leaving the door open to letting them experiment can create some interesting results.

  9. I'm really interested in this issue and the example you give is one I'd never heard of, thanks.

    I think the closest analog in newer oldschool play is I've seen several DMs talk about allowing players flesh out deities for their own clerics.

    Back in highschool, playing DC Heroes we would rotate the villain and that player would be responsible for drawing up plans, devising schemes etc that the DM would then adjudicate. It was great fun.

    I think you and N. Wright hit on the pivotal issue: how to allow for player creative input without making it a burden, or putting them on the spot. Its tricky. I think a DM would need to be aware, offer up the reins and then be ready to take them back if the player looks uneasy or stumped.

  10. @Telecanter
    I like that example you give from your DC Heroes game. In fact it gets us to another area of blur in which players can be devolved certain NPC "plot"-related roles in the course of a game (another feature of really old school play).

    And I agree that like much of this is an experimental art. You play around with what works for you and the group of individuals at your table and should always be ready to not being so set in your ways that you don't correct the course when necessary.

  11. > @Irbyz
    > By Germans I assume you are referring to the Magira/Armageddon crazy quilt experience of the 70s.

    Indeed. Thank you, Chris. :)

    19/60/s,70s,80s,90s,2000s,10s... work in progress.

    > Something that needs to have a complete treatment in English by an enterprising soul.

    Probably as easy to immerse oneself in as Perry Rhodan but a very worthwhile project, IMO. Unfortunately my translator went awol at a rather inopportune time. (Can't blame them, given the stack of 1970s German RPG 'zines I had waiting for them!).

    The element that possibly causes most confusion in the Magira/Armageddon timeline is the step to a more "traditional role playing game" in 1977's EoM rip from EPT ( ); thence onwards to the Midgard "RPG". This is a false lead with regards to previous endeavors somehow "not" being "role playing".

    > On the flip side of your point is that the most exciting thing about experimenting with open-edged, worldgame-like classic play is the potential for doing richer things than any computer-mediated game can offer.

    Agreed. Even a vanilla worldgame which has "roleplaying elements that can affect the outcome of the game" clearly can provide a far richer experience that a computer-mediated/moderated game. A multi-layered/multi-scaled worldgame even more so.

    It's well known that CRPGs/MMORPGs face major challenges with regards to the manner in which a GM or GMs can play a constructive role in the development and running of the "game" and in the inclusion of player-created content. Trouble being that whilst these are known and being worked on, it's also a /lot/ easier to just leave the players to blast each other and have fun! :)