Update: I have written a follow-up post. Skip this, go read the new one: Role-Playing and Game.
I believe that at its most basic level a role-playing game is a conversation between everyone participating in the game. The conversation includes literal “in-character” talking, “out-of-character” discussion about the game rules, and hundred of other points in-between and beyond. I find that it still all comes back to communication in the end. One of the issues facing some participants is knowing “when to speak” since everyone has a number of roles, or combination of roles, for the game. The biggest two roles in a role-playing game are often the Game Master and Player, which seems as like a good place to start writing about the conversation. Understanding these roles helps to understand how they communicate with each other, as each role has different responsibilities to the conversation.
While there are Role-Playing Games that don’t need a specific participant to act as Game Master I’ve found that they still use the role, it’s just given to everyone instead of an individual.
In broad strokes, the Game Master is the person, or persons, responsible for setting the overall direction of the narration, presenting the Players with interesting situations, creating challenges for the Characters to confront, deciding how Non-Player Characters interact with the Player Characters, and managing the flow of the story in the moment. The Player role and Character role distinction comes into play because the Game Master should not make the game challenging or difficult for the Players, just their Characters. Communication between the Game Master and the Players needs to stay open, honest, and transparent.
For their part the Players are responsible for responding to situations presented to them, deciding their Character’s reactions to challenges, telling the Game Master what they would like to see from the narration, and helping set the course for their Character’s place in the story. The Player also needs to recognize that their Character isn’t the center of this story, just a vital part of it.
Both Game Master and Player are also responsible for ensuring that everyone around them has a good time. This means making sure everyone gets a chance to speak, the other Characters get the spotlight for a moment, and that no one leaves the game with a major complaint. Again, remember that Role-Playing games are rarely about a single protagonist and instead focus on a group of people who shift between being the main character depending on where the story is at.
Since everyone is responsible for a lot of stuff and often at the same time it can get a little confusing. To take a deeper look lets use the analogy of television or movies. If this was a television series the Game Master is the Executive Producer, Director, Head Writer, and Talent Agent. The Players are the Producers, Writing Staff, and Actors.
As the Executive Producer the Game Master must decide what the overall direction of the story is and work to keep things moving towards that direction. As a Director they are responsible for the current game session and making sure that this story fits into the overall plot. As the Head Writer they produce ideas and approve ideas from players, deciding what becomes part of the story and what is left on the floor. As a Talent Agent they create all the non-player controlled characters and either play them or turn them over for the player’s to control.
For the Players they act as Producers when they tell the Game Master what they would like to see from the narration. As Writing Staff they make suggestions for scenes, complications, and outcomes for the Game Master to consider. While they typically focus their writing on their specific Character it’s not unreasonable for the Player to make suggestions to other Players or even the Game Master. A good idea is a good idea, it shouldn’t matter if it was the Game Master’s or not. Finally, as the Actors they portray their characters in the moment, decide how they would react, and talk about where they would like to see the character taken.
It’s expected that everyone manages these responsibilities at once, with Players often acting as a Writer one second, Actor the next, and wrapping up the conversation as a Producer while the Game Master starts as a Talent Agent introducing a new character before they jump to being a Director for the scene, and then fielding ideas as the Head Writer. If you haven’t talked about what’s expected from everyone this shifting of roles can become taxing and often times one or more of those duties gets neglected. The Player doesn’t speak up and suggest an idea so the story moves in a sup-optimal direction. The Game Master forgets to Direct the scene because they were too busy introducing a new Non-Player Character, leaving each Player with a different vision of what the situation looks like.
To manage these responsibilities there is often an unspoken balance of power between the Game Master and the Players. Everyone expects the Game Master to consider what the Players want and to present interesting and engaging stories for them to interact with. The Players are then expected to take on the challenges and make interesting decisions to the situations presented while keeping the Game Master’s direction in mind. When Game Masters over-step their bounds they risk alienating their players with forced directions, lack of choices, or by simply not giving them anything they want to engage with. When Players over-step their bounds they can side-track the group, create points of contention, and be disruptive to the other participant’s enjoyment. When Game Masters under-step they can lose the players attention to distractions or irrelevant details. When Players under-step they can end up being nothing more than glorified dice rollers, too scared or bored to voice an opinion.
When the game session starts the Game Master often presents a situation that they believe the players will find interesting and challenging. They can arrive at this situation though their own creativity, from suggestions from the players, or from published information.The Players then get to decide their Character’s reactions to with consideration for the direction the narration is heading. They can ask questions from both the in-character and out-of-character perspective that help them decide the most likely, and interesting, response. Once the Game Master hears how the Players wish to respond they decide on how those reactions would impact the situation and respond themselves. Sometimes this is by presenting more information, changing the situation, or engaging in the mechanics of the game.
I am sure there are some people who will disagree with what I’m about to say. I don’t use this as a rule carved into stone and placed on the mountain for all to see. This is simply how I believe the mechanics of a game should interact with the narration that’s being built. There are always times when the mechanics are rewarding unto themselves and there are certainly games where the game play is a large part of what makes the game enjoyable.
When the result of a player’s response could lead the narration in different directions its time for the participants to turn to the game rules. Which are another kind conversation, just one that’s a lot more structured. I’ve found that while most games use a success/failure mechanic there are some that use their mechanics differently. The games that aren’t success/failure based are typically designed to ease communication of the story though, so I’m not addressing those here. The exact success/failure mechanic isn’t important to this point; it could be rolling dice, drawing cards, or spending tokens. It’s the results of this mechanic that I’m focused on as a way to inform the conversation and lead the narration on.
The most important thing is that the conversation, the Game Master presenting and the Players responding, continues until there is potential for multiple interesting outcomes of a Player’s action. At the absolute minimum both a successful result and a failed one must lead the narration forward. If the narration can only advance when the action has one specific outcome, success or failure, then don’t use mechanics. Whatever outcome drives the story forward, whatever result that will engage the Players, is what the Game Master should use. Good or bad. Success or failure. You should never use a mechanic if the result could leave the story stranded.
Sometimes a Player will have a good idea for both the positive and negative outcome for an action. While it is often be the Game Master who brings the mechanics into the game and describes the outcome its these times when Players can ask to use the mechanics and makes suggestions for the outcomes. It’s less important that the Game Master decides the outcome and more important that the outcome is entertaining to the group. The Game Master still needs final say, sometimes the suggested outcome could radically alter the story’s direction, but in general everyone should feel free to contribute when they have an idea.
The goal of mechanics are to help introduce options outside of the control of anyone involved. The mechanics become useful when you reach a point in the conversation that you could take things two or more ways that would be equally entertaining and the Game Master doesn’t want to, or can’t, decide which is best for the overall story direction.
It’s easy to think that when the mechanics start the conversation stops, but that isn’t true. The mechanics are simply a more focused conversation, where little details like what Skills are relevant or what Traits would help become important. The situation the Game Master presents to the Players is no longer a creative, or narrative one, but a mechanical one. The Player’s decide their response based on their character sheets. The conversation is still there, it’s just no longer about the overall story. It’s about that moment in time when anything could happen.
It’s easy to get distracted thinking that a Role-Playing Game is about telling a story or rolling dice. While those are both important parts of the experience I think it’s the conversation between participants that really sets a Role-Playing Game apart from any other experience. There is no other medium with the level of involvement and creative freedom that Role-Playing Games offer. At least not for a few more years when video games replace the hobby.