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Quirky is Good

Last month on Yudhishthira’s Dice [1], Brand Robins wrote a long post entitled “Why hearing about your game should suck [2].” Here’s a snippet:

Honestly, I think there is a degree to which any good RPG story should suck, or seem odd, twisted, or wrong to those who were not there. If it’s something that any group anywhere could have played, rather than something that came out of the idiosyncrasies of the stuff in the player’s heads, what’s the point?

He’s primarily talking about game design, but I think this might be equally applicable to playing RPGs in general.

Consider published settings: they provide the GM with lots of ready-to-use ideas and game elements, and they give different groups another layer of shorthand and connectivity to others playing the same game (i.e., not just, “Cool! We’re playing Game X as well,” but, “Cool! We’re playing Game X in setting Y, too!”). But do they also inhibit the group’s creativity, or tend to channel the game along pre-existing lines that are laid out in that setting?

And what about published adventures? Part of the fun there is running into someone else who has played (or GMed) the same adventure, and seeing what they did differently. Many GMs change published adventures around, whether to fit into their own games or to accomodate players who have been through those scenarios before. It’s also reasonably common, at least with D&D, for a GM’s game (whether based on published adventures or not) to be a very strong reflection of his or her playing style, preferences, etc.

But how many GMs really incorporate the whole group’s quirks, and not just their own? And I don’t mean adapting the game to the different play styles (a la Robin’s Laws, etc.) — but to the weird, engaging concepts that turn each person’s crank? Along the same lines, how many players ask for this kind of involvement?

I think running a game that tries to incorporate every idea that’s brought to the table would be unworkable — but what about just a few concrete ideas from each person, players and GM? For the GM, a lot of those ideas can come from the players’ backgrounds for their characters, and from asking for feedback between sessions (which is a whole different topic, and perhaps the subject of a future TT post).

This is pretty much what the GM in my last game (Stargate SG-4 [3]), Don [4], did with our PC backgrounds. I touched on it in my first post, “Every Campaign is an Experiment [5],” but I didn’t go into how it turned out: it turned out really well! I could see how he shaped the episodes around background elements, which was great, and at times it made for some intense (and very entertaining) roleplaying.

In fact, it worked so well that it changed my thinking on how much of each PC’s background should be included in the game — i.e., a lot. I’ve got a new game starting up this coming weekend, and weaving PC backgrounds deeply into the setting and our gameplay is one of my main goals with this campaign.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone is there to play your game, particularly if you’ve been GMing for a while. I think it’s more rewarding to look at it as though the whole group — GM and players — is there to play their game.

I know that’s not exactly revolutionary thinking, but it’s something I’ve never examined closely — or in quite that way — before.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Quirky is Good"

#1 Comment By Bankuei On July 18, 2005 @ 11:20 am

Well, if we look at a LOT of games, it IS revolutionary thinking 🙁

For most people, backstory is decoration, the characters are there to “walk through” the story, not be a major player in it. This links totally into my thoughts on play “not for players” and fear of player input.

#2 Comment By Martin On July 18, 2005 @ 12:12 pm

Are your thoughts on player input in one place over on Deep in the Game, or spread throughout several posts?

From the posts I’ve read on DitG, I can tell where you’re coming from, but I don’t remember seeing one post that spells it out (as much as possible, anyway).

#3 Comment By John On July 18, 2005 @ 2:12 pm

I agree. This is revolutionary thinking, when compared to the way that most RPGs are handled.

I don’t think this is something that can continue to be shoveled off into the “good GM” pile, either. RPG designs can step up and address this issue (strong connection of character to situation) directly with clear writing and/or embedded systems.

I don’t agree with your point, Martin, that an established setting limits creativity. But that’s not entirely on topic so I’ll hold off for now.

#4 Comment By Martin On July 18, 2005 @ 2:36 pm

I don’t think published settings necessarily stifle creativity, although they can — that one was more of a question than a point. 😉 I’d love to hear your thoughts on that topic, in any case.

You’re absolutely right about the “good GM” pile: there are a ton of tricks, techniques and ways of approaching gaming that are in that pile, when they should be in the rules (or at least accessible to more people).

#5 Comment By Bankuei On July 18, 2005 @ 6:02 pm

Hi Martin-

No full on essay about player input- yet. Throw some ideas my way and I’ll try to better organize something about it.

But yeah, generally all those techniques that people have summed up to the magic of “good GM’ing” or “style” really are the same kinds of things I was talking about analyzing and utilizing artistically.


#6 Comment By Martin On July 18, 2005 @ 6:19 pm

(I didn’t see your post when I threw out that last link, Chris.) My thoughts on player input are forming, and may wind up in a post on TT in the not-too-distant future — but at the moment, I don’t have anything concrete to toss your way. 🙂

#7 Comment By T.W.Wombat On July 19, 2005 @ 10:35 am

Weaving character backgrounds into the game really makes a GMs job easier. In my current game, every PC has something in their past coming back to haunt them at some point – family trouble, self-doubt, a bad experience that echoes in the present action, a deep dark secret, even phobias. It makes the game interesting, and I pushed the players to come up with something interesting for me to use at character development time.

Disadvantages: It’s harder to integrate into hard-and-fast published settings. It’s also tricky to design adventures at times, but this can be passed on as challenges to the characters, like figuring out how to cross the ocean with the hydrophobic dwarf.

Advantages: All the players feel that the game is more personal, that they’ve had some stake in creating the world and the story. As such, they give more to the game and pay more attention to the other characters’ hot buttons. It also encourages the sharing of secrets in character, which can be amazing scenes to play out.

Some systems already encourage character backgrounds – Cyberpunk’s Life Path comes to mind, as do DNPCs and vulnerabilites in Champions. Why not do it for every game? I’ve used character backgrounds in about 80% of my games, and it’s worked out really well. It gives a richer environment for the story to grow – it makes the world more vivid for the characters and for the players.

Also, if you’ve got the skills and know your players well enough, you can also use hot buttons on the =Players= to motivate them in certain directions. That can be really interesting, but potentially a game-ender. A friend of mine does it really well, but he honed his talent by running LARPs for years where the line between player and character can sometimes blur…

#8 Comment By Martin On July 19, 2005 @ 1:28 pm

T.W., you make some excellent points, particularly about pushing for interesting backgrounds. It’s easy to come up with a background that’s light on hooks if the GM doesn’t prod for details — I know I’ve done that as a player.

I’ve never tried pushing the players’ buttons in the way that you describe, though I’ve read about it (most GM advice books/chapters touch on it at some point). It seems like it could be easy to take something like that too far — but if you struck the right balance, with the right group, I bet it would be intense.