My friend Don is really passionate about making characters — he pours a ton of detail into their backgrounds, and spends hours getting the mechanical details just right (or at least, that’s how he’s done it as long as I’ve known him).
When you run a game, your players’ characters are their primary investment in the game world — their single largest contribution to the shared setting, and to the overall story.
Conversely, as the GM you make a host of contributions to the game world and to the game itself, from small stuff like descriptive details all the way up to the real macro-level stuff, like writing adventures.
Thinking about Don’s passion for character creation, what hit me was that this disparity bears a striking similarity to the difference between expansive and focused campaign settings.
Like a focused campaign, a PC will often be created to fully explore one or two things in the game — aspects of that character’s personality or background, specific elements of the world, themes or other emotional stuff or even specialized mechanical abilities. And like a focused setting, PCs become richer as their players mine the depths of whatever interests them most about their characters and about the game.
On the flipside, your contributions to the game as a GM look a lot like an expansive setting: they’re broad, cover lots of ground, run the gamut from small to large in terms of their importance and, of necessity, come out wide and shallow. That’s not to say that you can’t explore things in depth, too, but it’s a lot less likely simply by virtue of the fact that you have your fingers in so many parts of the pie at once.
Much like my comparison between focused and expansive settings, I’m not sure what to do with this analogy — but I thought the idea might be useful in some way, so I figured I’d share it with you. What do you make of it?
Good observations, Martin!
Ironically, gamer expectations often flip these around. As GMs, we want our players to be expansive (more emotionally invested in our campaigns than in their own characters), while players want us to be focused (wrapping plots and scenes around their specific characters).
Spot on … this reminds me of a story Paizo publisher Erik Mona told Green Ronin’s Chris Pramas on their podcast a week or so back.
Mona was describing Gary Gygax’s approach to building/creating World of Greyhawk for his own personal gaming group (not the published Greyhawk setting, but the one for his own legendary backporch sessions).
Mona described that Gygax took a bullseye approach to building Greyhawk. Very focused on the city and the immediate environs itself, but as he got away from the center, the less and less detailed it became. His three=ring binder was thick with stuff that really mattered to the players.
Anyone who’s played in Greyhawk knows its fairly expansive. But the real focus has always been on the city itself. (Unlike REalms, which spans a continent, or Dragonlance, which captures an entire war).
In building a homebrew world, or adapting a published setting, I think the DM is best served by taking the same focused approach as the player, putting details into what matters. It’s those little details that give rise to meta plots anyway.
Anyway, that’s my 2 cents worth.
Like many things, I think players want the best of both worlds: they want a focused setting that gives their PC the spotlight, but they also want an immersive, living world that’s interesting to be in.
That’s why being a GM is so much tougher than being a player.
…at least in games where the GM is the only one who defines/controls the world outside the PCs’ immediate influence.
Anyway, the good news is that as long as the action is fun for most everyone involved, the particular focus – narrow/PC or broad/world – probably doesn’t matter. I would guess that mixing things up, even intertwining them, helps accomplish this goal.
I’m currently playing in a DND game, and running a game in another system and I can definitely see the contrast. My character that I am playing is my main investment in the campaign world. While I’m looking at what else is going on, and the other players actions, I still focus mostly on my character. The nifty thing that I see happening though (and maybe it is just the game systems I’m playing), is that GMs are focusing more on players and less on world settings. I think the pendulum from Indie game development is swinging back into more mainstream style games, and that is causing developers to think in different ways. While a lot of indie game developers make smaller games (because they are much less time intensive to complete, especially on a half a shoestring budget), people who are making bigger games are starting to focus on some of the themes of metagaming that have been brushed aside previously.
I think a lot of this is due to the kinds of gaming discussions that have been going on in the gaming communities. A lot of that is due to sites like this, especially like treasure tables, because they don’t focus on rules and minutia but themes and ideas that relate to gaming in general.
I like to think of a game as a good painting, where the PCs are the subject. The focus is clear and sharp on the PCs, and whatever they’re doing is clear and heroic. The immediate surround is somewhat muted, but is still easy to make out, and does not detract from the subjects of the painting. The landscape and background are muted and out of focus, providing just a hint of the world around them.
This strikes me as similar to the “flashlight vs. lightbulb” analogy, and is one of the common mistakes I see in GMing – forgetting who the stars are.
Eeek! I’m tangentially a subject of TT post! 🙂
This strikes me a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, however. As a player I need some information on the game I’m playing in to make informed decisions about my character. Conversely, the GM who tries to make a campaign focused (rightly so) on the characters needs a fair about of information on said characters as well.
As a matter of example, we’re discussing two potential games for this Saturday. I’d love to sit down and do some deep thought on the type of character I want to play but a) the game hasn’t been selected yet and b) the overriding theme/goals of the campaign haven’t been articulated. Both of these defy me putting in any real work or emotional investment towards a character at the moment. I certainly don’t want to start down one path and find out that I’m headed in the completely wrong direction (different game, widly different tone and theme).
It’s not for lack of trying; I want to…I just can’t yet.
I have seen this blossom in the campaign I am currently running, where my investment and the players’ investment are merging. This sometimes would happen by accident, but this campaign it was something I focused on achieving and communicating to the players in a way that they would understand it.
It has resulted ( so far ) in likely the best series of game sessions we have ever played. ( Well, except for that 8 hour one-shot where their 80’s gangster characters ended up battling bio-enhanced monsters on a space station… )
I hadn’t considered this from the perspective of merging the GM’s and players’ investments/contributions — that’s a great way to turn the focused/expansive thing into something useful. I’m still not sure what to make of the whole concept, though. 😉
As I don’t normally play in a group that has 1500 word character backgrounds, nor even in a group that levels up and such “off screen”, I feel that the investment of the GM is both in and out of the session itself, and the players investment is almost exclusively during the session.
I actually don’t encourage the basic idea of a player getting super invested in a single character. They should be invested in the story itself, as the story shouldn’t be overly focused on the individuals. Individual characters die, but the game goes on.
Only in one-on-one games do I really think that an individual character is really important. The game is essentially a biography of the character, or a report of one of his missions. In these types of games, I think the emotional investment can be shared more evenly. The time investment is still heavily biased toward the DM.