Guest Post: The Rise and Fall of a Game Master

We were cooling off after one of our three-hours long gaming sessions and, as it often happens, we drifted to campaign building, sandboxes and all the usual topics.

Somehow I ended up retelling how campaign building, to me, was totally different when I was 16 years old. And yes, this assertion makes me sound like a wizened old moron.

When I was 16 I didn’t have to prepare anything before a session. In fact I could go on for hours, events and people would play around in my head and in my players’ eyes, all of it made up on the spot, coherent, a bounty of gaming opportunities.

In fact I recall starting one of our most tasty campaigns ever, one which my players still recall fondly even if it ended in a total party kill*, with just this thought floating in my head: the main character is a young noble coming back from the war, where he finds that his father has left, along with most of the cash and the entire family entourage, for a distant land.

I recall, during the middle of the first session, that I told myself: “Sure this father of his was mighty crazy to leave land and title behind for a random exploration, what sort of family would follow him?”. The abandoned castle exploration turned into a tour of the family’s follies, from the weird underground theatre where ogres were showcased and trained to perform circus exibitions, to the endless labyrinth of tunnels that Aunt Greta had magically dug to loose herself, finally succeeding, never to be seen again. The exploration went on and on for multiple six-hours long sessions, all of it was entirely made up on the spot, without effort and without worry.

I wonder if the style of that campaign, and others, could be defined as being a sandbox. There surely was no story arc for the players to follow, at first, then all of my ravings started to be pushed consistently in one direction by the players together. It somehow climaxed multiple times before, at last, the aforementioned showdown on the flying steps, versus a dozen Balrogs.

After that golden period though, I entered a dark age, from 17 up to 20 and maybe a bit beyond, everything changed.

My mind was empty, I felt a kind of suffocation, no matter how powerful was the initial idea for the campaign, after a few minutes into the first session I was lost into a bleak landscape and my players began to watch tv in the meanwhile.

I must have aborted a dozen campaigns after a couple hours of struggling, painful “play”.

At first, of course, I blamed the players, who would loose interest before I could enter “the flow”, which, I told myself, would certainly happen after a session or two. But, while it was true that I was never allowed more than one session to prove the worth of the campaign, the whole concept of just needing a couple sessions to start properly GMing was bullshit. I am now sure that, even if we had endured dozen of hours of the gray void I was evoking at each attempt, nothing good would have come of it.

Like the efficient customers of a product marketing simulation, my players killed my campaigns just in time, as I was starting to truly feel the pain. I guess that their perfect timing was due to the fact that they were feeling the same pain.

Witnessing the abortion of so many campaigns I started to put in more and more time in preparation, something which I never had to do before. Yet, all of the preparation in the world did not let me run a successful campaign; and, towards the end of the dark ages, I tried hard enough to know.

How did I leave the dark ages? In my humble opinion I never fully left them, or, better, I never could return to the golden age. Maybe that’s because we are unable to meet for whole afternoons thrice a week, but it’s also because I now only partially manage to enter the flow.

I start with a fine scenario, but it must be fairly detailed. I must have a good idea of all the entities involved in the core of the scenario and what are their goals and personalities. Then I fill in the rest during the game, and it works. I tend to begin with no more than a couple “forced” adventures to warm up the group and to provide ways for them to show interest in one or more of the seeds. The introductions are definitely part of the scenario preparation and I prepare them to introduce as many seeds as possible without messing everything up.

Unsurprisingly, this structure is pretty much the same that popped up in the golden age. During the dark ages, starting from this very same structure (albeit unconscious), I made a full circle, from totally unstructured “The characters are crazy deamons” campaigns, to meticulous “On the 6th of Larane the Agrikan knights leave Dirisa” epics, and finally back. All equally unsuccessful.

One very telling detail of the good campaigns is that, for all the preparation, almost nothing which actually proved memorable to me and my players was prepared. Most of the stuff that was really great, we invented on the spot, just like in the old days of yore. The difference now is that the great stuff is not present in such quantity as to be self-sustaining, I need solid, reliable, pre-produced mortar to support and breed the rest.

A few examples of the stuff that really worked great :

  • The merchant Galibaf, who will cater only the best stuff to the best adventurers, but who always leaves the PCs feeling like they have been duped, because, you know, Galibaf always wins a bargain, hands down.
  • The welcoming folks of the city of steel and coal, Volkgrendel, who speak like operetta nazi yet always gawk at the players and ask why THEY speak with “So veird an achzent!”.
  • The goddess Berella, who switched sides from being a dark and evil goddess into a purported goddes of light, thanks to her timely bedding with the head of the light pantheon, just as the fortunes of her previous partner, the god of violence, were waning. The switch meant that the PC who was worshipping her, as a professional assassin, found himself a paladin one week later. Yet, at crucial moments, he manifested peculiarly sinister powers, which hinted at the true nature of his Lady. He unofficially began to hail her as “The whore of heavens”, as she was often too busy “working” up the hierarchy of light, to answer his calls.

The stuff that I prepare, instead, even that which I consider to be top notch, which I often expect to astonish and gratify the players, the Blunderbuss, Dago and other cool stuff which does not belong to this post, is rarely a huge success. Sometimes it’s memorable, but it is not such a force in the campaign as I would have expected. I finally came to the conclusion that I must strive to prepare the best, most interesting stuff without hoping that it will guide the campaign. No matter how central I may believe a prepared piece of stuff to be, the central NPC in the main campaign seed, it will always be just context for the players, it’s the stuff I make up on the spot to react to the players actions in that context that becomes central and truly drives the campaign.

[And now, for something completely different: you would not believe it, but I just witnessed a snow avalanche while typing this. I’m on a train and while exiting the Gotthard tunnel I glanced out to see a previously green valley being engulfed by tons of snow sliding from mountaintops]

Finally, to wrap up this endless jaculatory with an endless closing, here follows my take on my shifting and ebbing performances in game mastering, and read carefully, because this is going to be utterly simplistic and obvious, proving that if there was any entertainment to grasp from this post, it was certainly located upflow from here:

Since the same campaign structure has both succeeded and utterly failed, which is the difference between the golden age, with its effortless and huge success, the dark age, with its serial failures, the silver age with much more technique and fair results?

A child’s unrestrained imagination, finally replaced by technique and experience?

Imagination, yes, but I think it has but a weak relation to brain age. The fact is that between 13 and 16 I was living and breathing my games. I didn’t invent all of that stuff on the spot without preparation, that’s nonsense. The preparation was there, it was pervasive, entertaining and completely unstructured. It took up most of my free time, even if I was apparently doing something else.

Lots of what I happened to see would push me to broad fantastications. Not plain stuff, as one might expect when picturing the way a child’s mind works, no, I was never inspired by a bus or by the bleak church standing beside my flat. It was the clouds, the mountains encircling Turin (which I could see once a week when pollution and fog were lifted by the odd windy day, thanks to the city’s marvelous weather), roman ruins, castles, NASA images, the Silmarillion (never a book was more boring, but such style!), maps, ancient pieces of furniture, game books, avalanches…

The good news is that this kind of stuff still has the same effect on me, it sparks my imagination. I just became good at focusing on “important stuff” and I didn’t let the multitude of inspirations around me run their full length in my head.

That’s what killed my games when I was a teen. I suddenly became focused on mundane stuff : school, technology, girls, friends, parties and the time my brain spent on thinking crazy was reduced to near-zero. What a waste!

Dedicated, time-boxed efforts to prepare the campaign resulted in a drift towards rigid adventures which killed the campaign even sooner than usual.

The first fine campaign I was able to run after the dark ages (the one which in fact marked the end of it) was run during a very peaceful period of my life, with little or no worries. Then I noticed that I had switched back to fantasticating and understood its relationship with the quality of my gaming sessions.

I’ve come to value my absent-mindedness, it’s what keeps me out of the dark ages. I’ve begun to breed it rather than the campaign itself and I’ve found that things have started to work, a bit, once more.

In one line: to me, the most valuable preparation is preparing a state of mind.

[*] : but it was a full-party kill set on the flying steps leading to the altar holding the ultimate sword of power, the only one capable of stopping the war between two races by proving that none was superior, but both were inferior to the now extinct smiths of said sword.

I asked Carlo, my GM to write a guest post, after the discussion mentioned at the beginning of the post. He runs a GURPS 4th edition campaign. It’s a rules-heavy sandbox and my character is a monk, whose order I shall label “celtic shaolin” for lack of better words. Anyway, he mostly does software engineering, not RPGs, so don’t expect to find about dragons & daemons in his blog. Yet.

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