Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Emulation: Let It Go

The RPG Pundit had an interesting piece yesterday on emulation in RPG--specifically, emulation vs. "scripted" games. In this context, emulation is following the rules and expectations of your game world and circumstances. Scripted, in this case, would be a series of pre-set encounters, with a set of defined paths set out.

I don't want to get into absolutes here or trigger any sort of debate--I think all but the most rules-enslaved GM/DM/CK/Referees would admit that being able to go off script and improvise is one of the essentials of good Game Mastery. I want to talk for a bit about resisting the urge to railroad or exert your will in little ways.

When you're a parent, it's nerve-wracking watching your child tottering trying to balance on new roller skates or a bike. But you know that if you never let go, they'll never learn how. Guidance and a gentle helping hand are fine, but eventually they've got to do it themselves.

I think a lot of GMs (even "adversarial" ones) can develop a paternal attitude towards the characters in and players of a game. We think they've mucked it up too badly; they ignored the obvious signs and stumbled right into an encounter they have no business being in. There's going to be an urge to step in and save them. And that curbs both learning and excitement.

I'm not saying never give your players a light at the end of the tunnel. What I'm saying is: wait. Give them that time to figure out something either purely brilliant or just stupid enough to work. They'll feel better about their accomplishment if they pull it off, and they've perhaps learned something if they don't. If you nerf or fiat every encounter the first or second time things fall by the wayside, you lessen the reward and the sense of accomplishment.

I used to have a pretty bad habit as a GM of interceding in those sorts of instances before I really should have. There's no telling how many amazing character rescues and awesome saves I missed because I was worried about the end result.

So the next time something of that sort comes up, don't worry about the script, sit on your hands, and give them time. Let it go--your players may surprise you.


kelvingreen said...

After a long break from gaming, I'm in my second go around as a GM, and I've been trying very hard to not nudge the players along. Instead I'm taking on the role of responding to what they do, and leaving the narrative control in their hands. I could have perhaps picked a better game for this than Call of Cthulhu, but so it goes.

Chris said...

"When you're a parent, it's nerve-wracking watching your child tottering trying to balance on new roller skates or a bike."

Wow, am I ever going to make a terrible father. RPGs have taught me that having the (metaphorical) child first fall off and then set fire to the (metaphorical) bike is a welcome and expected outcome.

The players may make a diabolical mess of my intended plot; but so long as their story is good that's really no big deal.

HinterWelt said...

I agree with giving them the space to do what they want and reacting appropriately as a GM. Really, agree with most everything you said Zach, but you also need a plan. Some idea, at the very least, as to what the game is about. Sometimes that evolves in game as with sand box adventures where the players themsleves inject much of the plot but at other times, you need some sort of outline. Script is too strong a term IMO. I lot the idea of plot points. I have seen groups sit staring at the GM and he is staring back. Both waiting for the other and when it comes down to it, it is the expectation of the group that the GM "do" something.

And that, my friend, is the root of it. It is up to the group and their expectations. You can have a group that comes in and expects nothing more than the GM to set up the monsters for them to kill. Others who expect to head off across the Wastes of Doom to seek adventure and the GM better keep up. Others still who want the premise and key points laid out during the play of the adventure. A truly good GM will be able to read his group and adapt.

Zachary The First said...

Bill: Nicely said. If you don't have a good read on what your group wants, all this doesn't mean a thing. That's a tremendous lesson for any GM to get a handle on.

Ameron said...

I’ve experienced this during our first few attempts at running skill challenges in 4e D&D. As you’ve described, it worked best when the DM let the players try new things and figure it out for themselves and not worry so much about the pre-set script. Good article and sound advice.