Somebody **** on the Coats!

I know he’s not as fashionable now as he was a few years ago, but there was a time when people were listening to Dane Cook. One of his skits rambled out of my ipod the other day as I was driving around and I realized that it was a really accurate depiction of how I GM. Well, it was an accurate depiction of how I GM when I feel like I’m doing it well… No, when I’m doing it the way I really want to be doing it.

Dane tells this joke about going to a party and going into the ruum (it’s just how he says room, I guess) where everyone is stashing their coats and just taking a dump on the pile. The joke is – that at some point – someone is going to wander out of the coat room and announce…

“Somebody shit on the coats!”

First off, let me admit that I still find this bit funny – mostly because I’m secretly like, five years old on the inside. Second, and this was where I had my moment… Dane says that this is the moment, once the deed has been discovered where you lean in and say, “What?!? I hope they didn’t shit on my coat!” Then, just like that, you fade into the background again.

Do the deed, don’t get caught, then stir the pot a little once the deed is discovered and everyone is buzzing about it.

That’s how I like to GM. I’m a “setter-upper” and a “gentle-nudger” when I’m doing it at my best. I love dropping a little bomb and then just waiting for it to explode. And from then on – I hit and fade. I’m in just long enough to make a remark or twist a thought sideways and then… out again. The goal is to provide a spark that creates engagement and then keep gently fanning the flames.

The conceit is that you really can’t do it and “not get caught.” You’re the GM, you do it all behind the scenes. Right? But the magic happens when the players aren’t looking at you but rather, suddenly, they have this amazing ridiculous desire to charge off and stab the “bad guy” in the face because they know who’s really behind their troubles. And they aren’t going to stand for it.

The best part is when the bomb goes off and you see the players look at each other, their characters shining in their eyes, and realize they did it to themselves. You brought them to the party – hell – you might even have shit on their coats, but it’s the middle of summer, why’d you bring a coat to the party anyway? And don’t you know better than to leave something important unattended in a strange place?

It’s the finest feeling in the world and as a GM I really thrive on that moment… I feel like that is always the goal, to build the campaign in such a way that all I have to do is occasionally fade in with a little nugget and they do the rest.

The funny thing is – I’ve started to pilot test Houses of the Blooded a little bit with a group I like and they are all people who are strong gamers and creative. Most are even GMs. But we’re struggling. I’ve played Amber with these people and they have no problem inventing Shadows out of whole cloth, blowing apart my plots with a practiced ease, and shifting the focus of whole stories with a well-placed word.

But this structure of “make a Wisdom risk and tell me things” is throwing them for a loop. We’re going to keep at it and keep trying but I feel like I’m making them jump through a hoop that I set on fire but there is no audience to applaud after the trick. It feels pointless. Letting them invent is so much more powerful than constraining that inventiveness – especially in the name of empowering them. It’s also worth pointing out that making a Wisdom risk with no wagers (which, even my player who has a 4 Wisdom can barely do) is next to pointless… because you get to say one thing and then the act is done…

It’s really disenfranchised me as well. They still want me/look to me for guidance with baseline questions. They want me to describe and to invent and when I turn the tables they react with some (understandable) confusion because they feel adrift. The poor bastard who took Wisdom as a weakness is really struggling because he can only make up details in very limited contexts (based on Aspects, etc.). As I mentioned above though – rolling only three dice and failing about half the time means that even the best Wisdom in the party only gets an occasional risk to spend and I (as the GM) end up with privilege anyway… Sure they have aspects and names and stuff – but these don’t always apply. So now we’re sitting here staring at each other with pathetically small dice pools feeling a little bit foolish as we struggle to establish details the way the game wants us to. Because we all feel like we could do a better job NOT rolling the dice. More on that in a minute.

While I have experienced a softening when it comes to FATE, I”m still not sure how I feel about this structure of “stat-based creative freedom/narrative sharing” that happens in HotB. Again, it might be that we’ll find our stride and suddenly it will all click and we’ll feel good about what we’re doing – but I’m on the borderline of stripping the dice out altogether and just running this thing on spit and raw numbers.

It’s clever and intriguing to call the simple act of rolling the dice “a risk” and the idea of privilege is a great one – in theory – but we often find that we don’t care who gets privilege, we just want a quick answer and to move on. And I know that we could rely on Style Points for that (and that’s a fine enough solution) but again, I may just be realizing that no matter how much I love the world of the Ven and their truly amazing outlook… this just might not be the game for me.

I don’t want to have to explain the trick. I don’t want to see the man behind the curtain. I want to shit on the coats and then act outraged about it. Apparently, that’s what my players want too. This goes back to my point above and it is a lesson the HotB has taught me – or reminded me of – that I am quite grateful for. See, I try to do it, but sometimes I forget.

I love the idea of letting players establish details but I don’t always give them enough chance to. I had a group of players stumble across a couple engaged in something… elicit and they asked me, are the couple married? I started to respond but then turned it over to them. The couple, it turns out, are married – just not to each other. And one of my players even set a great stage by making the young lady in the pair be married to the man who had flirted with her earlier that evening.

It was a nice moment and a good touch on her part. I liked it a lot. It’s what the system is supposed to do. But ultimately, I don’t need Wisdom, or Cunning, or Prowess rolls for my players to do that. I just have to set the stage and the expectations in such a way that they always have the chance to do that.

And it’s something I’ve achieved before – enough to know it’s possible and likely given the right circumstances.

Anyway – just thinking out loud a little about method and madness. Thanks for reading and remember to keep your coat close.

8 responses

  1. >>But ultimately, I don’t need Wisdom, or Cunning, or Prowess rolls for my players to do that. I just have to set the stage and the expectations in such a way that they always have the chance to do that.<<

    It comes down to the collaboration the players feel between themselves and the game play within what they perceive to be the game and/or system.

    One guy just wants to be Conan with a broadsword regardless of system design and to give him the ball (dice) so he can play as a part of the team. Another guy feels he cannot play it right unless he knows what to minimize and maximize according to system design. A third player just wants to make Nerd references and fart jokes – in-character or out of character. Yet another wants to win, and the loose form of a role-playing game means he can do that either through fudged dice or rules arguments. Then, someone like me, just wants to put himself into the game (like those kids in the cartoon) and work/play well with others to solve the story/game the other player, the one called GM, contributes; overcome some really dreadful ability scores; and talk about it all in first person with the others at the table for years to come.

    Players trump system.

    1. Your point is well made. And I’ll tell you, your last words are always important for us GMs to remember – “players trump system.”

      1. I think it is important for ALL players to remember. Certainly, the burden of pressure on new GMs is lessened when we realise the system comes down to the players. It is less of a test of memorization that way and more of a let’s play or (as Andy Rooney is quoted) “put on a show.” RPGs systems are less a ritual and more a transmission – my communications studies professor might explain.

        But who you play with is more important than the system. That does not necessarily define the outsider (beit the Mary Sue, The Min-Maxer, the Noob, etc) to be an asshole. It just means the outsider is not right for the particular group. No harm. No foul. No casting aspersions.

        It really is like the old analogy of “Cowboys and Indians.” We can play within any particular set of rules but we know that we do not invite all the neighbourhood kids to our games. We tend to invite those whose style complements our own. I think more people would play because more people would enjoy playing together if the emphasis was more to find complementary players to game with rather than focus on systems (and rely on systems to force the players, terming them a derogatory outgroup of assholes if they do not grok the system).

        [Not alot of hobby Kumbayah in a paradigm of system trumps player.]

  2. PS. I wish you were on Twitter, Mike. It’s not as big as a blog at only 140 characters, but it would be nice to feel your presence there nevertheless.

    1. Gah. If I understood Twitter even a little bit I’d consider it. I mean, I work with social media all the time at my job and I love my blog but Twitter always feels so… strange to me. You make me wish I could grok it.

      1. Think of Twitter as the TV Guide of The Internet. That’s my paradigm. Write “New #RPGs Post” and drop in the URL for The Rhetorical Gamer and you’re set. If you really want to get fancy, add a short TV Guide-like description: “Players **** on System & Coats.” Once in a while someone will reach out to you and, in 140 characters or less, comment. Someone else will echo your “New Post” posting and eventually new readers will find you based upon the echo from one of their group, just like how we used to find content on the TV using the TV Guide and water cooler talk.

        [ps. the # is how you tag posts on Twitter. Above I tagged your post #RPGs and when the Internets search for RPGs posts, your posts will come up.... sort of like how the TV Guide of The Internet identifies the network the show plays on.]

  3. Great post and fascinating thoughts. That to, is my dream game, when you just drop out a few hooks and let the players help you build it. As RA said, it doesn’t always work (depending on your players and how they play) but when it does, man it’s glorious.

    1. Yeah, it doesn’t always work… But like the questing beast, we just keep chasing it, don’t we?

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