Many of us who are initiated into the world of roleplaying games started with a gateway ‘drug’ of some kind. For many it was D&D (earlier or later versions). For others D6 games, or even WoD. Dice pools or d20s. And then there’s a slew of indie games. Many different rulesets and arbitration concepts.
I’ve run games for friends since junior year of high school until the present (age 34). That length of time doesn’t mean I am any good, but it has afforded me the understanding of my own tastes and preferences within the RPG spectrum.
My experience with roleplay games has lead to some great group stories, and powerful camaraderie-building experiences. Like many GMs out there, if you’ve run long-term campaigns, and your players dug it, they probably still talk about the stories that were created by the group. That’s a great feeling to have, when someone else remembers the space and world you helped arbitrate.
For me, arbitration in an RPG is adding in the realism factor. The more realistic you want the game to be, the more rules and details get added in.
ROLEPLAYING AND COMPETITION
I think that roleplay games are a terrible environment for competition of any kind. The environment is fiction-driven (or, in my opinion, should be fiction driven). Problems will manifest because the world being fleshed out is a dangerous place, and spits forth danger at every turn. But there’s an order to it – it has its own rules and sticks to them. That’s the essence of consistency, and good storytelling requires compelling through lines (obvious or otherwise), and a clear way those through lines are implemented in fiction.
My opinion of roleplay games is that they are not written solely by the narrator/gamemaster. They are written by all players, game master and characters alike, working together to narrate an interesting tale in a compelling setting. I have met a mixed bag of GMs – some really get the point of making a dangerous and consist world.
But some GMs make a point of saying that their players are stupid, and their characters need to be punished in order to learn. That’s the moment bad competition enters the context.
THE BIG PROBLEM WITH COMPETITION IN RPGS IS THE GM = GOD
The GM is GOD in the game environment of the RPG. He/she/it controls the weather. The land. Natural disasters. The evil tribe of gnolls hidden in the foothills nearby. The goblins that are struggling to survive their new found servitude to an orcish warlord who has clapped them in irons. The GM is every trap you stumble into, every crushing blow pummeling aside your shield until your arm aches and the meat keeps coming, and you keep swinging… that’s all the engine of the mind at work, trying to make it flow and consistent. Players move that story around with their actions, but the GM is there to anchor those actions to a set of logical rules that the world follows.
So, why in the world would it be a big deal if this GOD decides that you, as a player, are stupid, and need to be taught a lesson? Well, because at its core, a roleplay is a play in which you act a role. At its core, it is PLAY. Not punishment from a power-hungry ego tripping GM.
Instead, it is encouragement, and consequence.
PUNISHMENT VS. CONSEQUENCE
Let me paint a few examples. Punishment is when the GM takes something away from you as a player, or your character, through use of GM fiat, and/or introduction of elements outside of the flow of fiction (inconsistency vs. consistency). Consequence is when the party/party member attempts something, and success or not, there’s an opposing action or attempted action against them (or their allies, holdings, stuff, etc.). In a sense, PUNISHMENT is derived from the GM’s judgement of the player’s chosen action. CONSEQUENCE is derived from inside the fiction, is consistent with the motivations of the GM characters, and snowballs logically from the actions that precede it.
The big issue I have experienced, and at times exemplified in play (to my shame), is the conflation of consequence and punishment. Unfortunately, I think this type of mindset stems from poor emotional skills (welcome to the greasy ball of humanity!). I can definitely attest to that from my own experiences growing up and playing games. Its hard to separate yourself from the world you are arbitrating, but the results are so much more compelling when we play to make the world real, and not to teach a lesson, or prove a point.
MY SUMMARY OF AN RPG
An RPG is a space for you and the players to create a story with the characters at its core. An RPG is not a place to push your personal moral code. A GM’s job is to make the experience dangerous and/or interesting. Easy to do when you’ve got good villains operating within the game environment, with defined sphere’s of influence (consistency!).
Many GMs will say it is “their” game. “Their” standards. “Their” rules. Fiat is an extremely powerful tool, and in my experience, misused nearly as often as it is employed.
At the core of an RPG is the FICTION. This is the place where all the story and intrigue happen. Everything starts and ends within the fiction. And contrary to the statements of many GMs, the moment you begin play, that setting you create as a GM is no longer owned by you. It now belongs to everyone that is playing the game with you. Without players, there is no game. Without the players’ characters, you have no reason to act or be acted upon.
While the GM might write loads of material, and wax poetic about their world creation ethos, or some other crap that doesn’t really mean anything, the real game happens within the fiction with players at the table. And at that table is where the magic happens.