Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

How Role Playing Games are Played

“I kind of think of the Player–GM contract as, among other things, a willingness to give the other some slack (and some respect) in their respective spheres of play.” — Earlburt

Running role playing games is something of a lifestyle choice– you can never have enough material. In the scramble to keep up with players that have the option of going anywhere and doing anything… game masters can get downright obsessive. The bulk of gaming books focus on additional rules, situations, and setting information to supposedly lighten this burden. These things are not really the game itself, however. The core of a role playing game is ultimately a situation that is derived from these things. It is an imaginary situation that the players can interact with.

Game masters can often tease out the consequences of a hundred design decisions as their respective games change from edition to edition. Beyond that, they can accrue their own house rules over time, or else just get really comfortable with a particular subset of rules from their preferred system. For setting and adventure design, game masters can painstakingly compare and contrast decades worth of modules. They can use Google Maps and Wikipedia to research just about anything and add ever more verisimilitude to their games. Much can be said about this sort of thing– and it has– but there is almost a dearth of material that addresses the player side of equation.

One reason for this is that game masters have an almost god-like power… and with that power goes the responsibility to ensure that everything holds together and that everything remains fun. Everything that can impact the game state is filtered through his judgement and rulings. If the players don’t really “get” whatever it is that the game master has in mind, it’s his responsibility to adapt to the players, to keep things playable and fair, and to communicate the situation in such a way that the players can engage it.

Even so, players can play well and they can play poorly. Players can refuse to explore or map at all. Players can forget altogether what text adventure players universally knew in days past: EXAMINE everything! Dozens of players can go through the exact same scenario at a convention and all of them can independently fail to swing from the chandelier at a saloon. At the other extreme, players can be so careful… so creative that they can short circuit entire swaths of an adventure and waltz through challenges as if they are trivial.

Origins 2011: GURPS Prime Directive, session 2

This is further complicated by group dynamics. Some players make sabotaging their own party a game in itself. Groups of adventurers can hang each other out to dry instead of bailing each other out. Parties can split up and face challenges individually that were designed to be faced by a group. One pushy player may boss everyone else around and even exclude other players from the choice actions. At the other extreme… groups of strangers can “click” together almost instantly and then have a blast no matter what develops. Indeed, they can end up having so much fun interacting with each other that the game master is left only lightly guiding things for long stretches of the session.

Normally players don’t have to understand any rules to play– a good game master should be able to translate any described action into an appropriate rule. But even players that understand every rule in the game book can fail to appreciate just how dynamic role playing actually is. The nature of the game world can be fundamentally transformed just on the basis of what players obsess over or speculate about. They can even reason common objects into existence when facing a challenge as long as the game master agrees that the player’s suggestion is plausible.

Just about every role playing game includes a section that introduces the basic concepts involved in how these games work. Such things present only a fraction of what is involved. I suppose that is justified, for who would play games that included essays like this one in them? Still, role playing games are strange beasts. They can be so pointlessly nuanced and complicated… and then suddenly they can shift back into being glorified “pretend.” And yet… completely improvised scenes that are invented on the spot in response to bizarre combinations of random dice results and player whims can lead to strangely vivid moments that completely suspend everyone’s disbelief. When these things work… they can become downright magical. The more I play them, the more I am amazed.

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4 responses to “How Role Playing Games are Played

  1. RogerBW October 15, 2012 at 6:43 am

    Some players like to understand the rules – I see this particularly in fans of *D&D/Pathfinder and classic White Wolf. They want to build an interesting set of numbers, as well as an interesting personality, for their playing piece. I think a lot of players do this to some extent, but the more the numbers represent non-realisable things the harder it is to go rules-light (for example, the player of a swordsman can get a long way by describing sword moves, and in a game like GURPS those real moves will get plausible results, but the player of a magician needs to be much more aware of the spell options available).

    I think it’s worth bearing in mind the side activities that RPGs generate, too. Not just straight game prep like building a dungeon, or a continent – but things like a vehicle design session, which some players (sometimes including me) can enjoy a great deal even though they’re only peripherally attached to the main activity of the game.

    My current main group will spot clues and burn straight through investigative adventures that would leave a scratch group of convention players flailing around for hours – and this is really good for me as a GM, because it forces me to come up with more cunning and complex bad-guy plots.

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