Fever Dreams, Crazy GMs, and Bad (awesomely Bad) TV

I spent the last two days on my couch, running a decently serious fever, being wonderfully sick, and re-watching some TV that made me finally settle on writing a post I’ve been thinking about for a long time. When I was a good deal younger I played in three fairly long-term games (two of about a year, one a character that lasted at least two years) that I would say were hugely influential in my gaming past – and that I would like to run a version of myself – but I’m afraid to… Yeah, I said it – I’m afraid to.

I don’t know how to explain this better than to just start by talking about those games, and what was so interesting and just plain fun about them. So, let’s wind-up the way back machine and visit my younger self.

Game One: Star Wars D6 System – Jedi Adventure

The first game was a fairly typical Jedi game of Star Wars D6 from WEG:three players with some occasional guest spots filled in by players “just passing through.” This game lasted for a long time – and we loved it so much we came back to the characters for at least two “reunion” games long after the initial campaign was over. It was a fantastic game – full of the kind of impressive action and powerful drama that should always characterize the Star Wars universe. Started during the events of the Thrawn Trilogy in the EU, it ran until the near the end of the Jedi Academy series. We, the main three played a mid-level jedi, his apprentice (my character), and their pilot. We worked for New Republic Intelligence instead of directly with Skywalker and the Academy – and this also created some interesting tension for the characters as the game went on… but none of that is really what I’m getting at.

Three important things separated this game from many others I’ve been in. One, all the characters were pregenerated by the Gamemaster. Yes, you heard me, we played pregens (in a game that lasted two years). Our backgrounds were set, he designed our histories and all the NPCs we knew before the game began. He set our initial abilities and structured our relationships (outside the party) with the first game session being centered around the pilot and the more powerful Jedi coming to collect my character – who was way out in the back end of space doing bounty work in the Podunk-Nowhere Sector. The second importance difference was that the GM set all the events of the game in motion. Not only did he have a story arc planned out with a defined beginning, middle, and end – he had carefully planned waypoints in that story that he set for himself to know when we’d reached the middle and when we were ready to face the end (more on this later). The third point is less controversial than the first two, but in light of my previously written feelings about “balance” in games – I think it is still important – all three of the characters were on different power levels. The older Jedi was demonstrably more powerful than my character (or the pilot), I was probably more overtly powerful than the pilot, but the pilot had skills that neither of us were interested in pursuing for ourselves. In fact, my character was kind of the extra wheel in the group – since my mentor was already better than my character at anything we both wanted to do.

Now, I can feel the outrage from where I’m sitting at home (from some folks). I mean, everything about this screams GM-powertrip-railroady-choo-choo-bull****, right?

Wrong, but let’s come back to why I think that, because I want to mention – more briefly – the other two games that I feel fit this same general mode.

Games Two and Three: Kids Alone in a World Of Darkness

Shortly after the excellent Star Wars game I just mentioned, I got involved with this HUGE group doing World of Darkness (old 1st edition World of Darkness) soup-style games. I mean, we had vampires, werewolves, mages (Sons of Ether!), and even a pre-Changeling faerie in our party. Of course, party doesn’t really do it justice, since we had an average of 10-15 players at every session. That number dwindled over time, but early on, when I first joined that group, we were filling a huge conference table. That game was immense fun, but it’s actually only a prelude to what came next.

The Storyteller for those games really enjoyed playing “Mortals” games in the World of Darkness – but not mortals as in “you guys are bad-ass hunters stalking the monsters of the WoD.” No, I mean, we were all measly high-school students with lower stats, parents to worry about, curfews, after-school jobs, pimples, and the never-ending quest for something to do on Friday night.

And then, poof, right in the middle of our humdrum, high school existences, we would start to change – we’d start to turn into vampires, or werewolves, or faeries (and one of us turned into something that, to this day, no one who was in that game can completely identify). We, as the players, had no say in what befell our characters – in one version of the game I believe it was actually random. I ended up a Corax (wereraven) in one of the two and I don’t even like the Corax – at all. And then all these new problems entered our lives, and we started facing the problems of explaining why Randall didn’t come to school in the daytime anymore… New enemies started messing with our lives, our families, and we were drawn ever-deeper into the world of darkness around us. And the game was amazing.

So – how did this work? And what about that stuff at the beginning about being scared? Well, let me see if I can work through any of that.

First, I think these games worked because the gamemasters were very, very good. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to say that only a good gamemaster could pull it off, but a good gamemaster is a better treasure in a game than any +5 Holy Avenger. Not everyone is a Great GM though, so what else, what other practical information can I give that helped make these games great.

I think one part was the mystery. It was interesting not knowing what was going to happen. It was interesting to go through your day, acting like a normal teenager and then, one night, you walk home from clubbing and blam, you’re a Toreador. Life Sucks (no pun intended).

Same thing with the Jedi game. We had a huge amount of freedom in that game. We played the way we wanted to play, did things the way we wanted to. I mean, we worked for New Republic Intelligence so we were assigned many of our tasks by our superiors in the organization, but how we carried out our missions and what kind of follow-up we did was usually entirely in our hands. The GM also gave us lots of opportunities to play outside of that framework. Heck, at a point near the end of the game my character spent a day teaching lessons at Skywalker’s new Jedi Academy – by her own choice. I even fell to the Dark Side – kept it a secret from my master, attempted to kill him, and was redeemed. And that whole falling to the DS thing – that wasn’t in the plans of my GM (or at least not his main plan) – but he actually saw it for the opportunity is was and realized it was the sign that we were ready for the endgame. Some GMs (who didn’t write my character for me) might have confiscated that character and had me “roll up a new one.”

Another major thing I took from these experiences was the sheer challenge of it all. I mean, I didn’t get to build my were-raven character, so I didn’t get to min-max to the Nth degree. I didn’t even know what Gifts I had when I first changed, or even what the forms were. It was a struggle to live in this new and scary world of bird-people and danger and my stupid friends tin-foiling my house (SHINY!). I also didn’t have any clothes that were bonded to my character so every time I changed it was naked-time. That sucked. But that’s the point. My character was not a finely honed machine that could perform like a European sports-car. My character was full of unknowns that I had to work out and learn and struggle with – like a real person. And I loved every minute of it. (Okay, my character hated every minute of it – but I, the player, was having a blast.)

The final thing I want to mention here is the storytelling aspect – then I think I’ll postpone talking about what it all means for me and gaming until next post – this is long already. The nice thing about these two games having a stronger hand by the Gamemaster was all those storytelling devices that “just don’t work” in RPGs. All those storytelling devices we try to find ways to model mechanically with Hero Points and Scene Editing and everything else we’ve come up with that rarely ever work as well as we want them to – all were unnecessary. Since the GM was allowed a more direct hand in play – and since we didn’t have perfect control over our characters, it was easier to “mess” with us. The villain escapes (of course he does, I don’t know how to fly yet!). We get captured (of course we do, we’re just high schoolers, they’re the damn Sabbat!) I’m not saying that the GM should run rampant on the players (and neither of mine did) but that with the increased freedom to assert themselves in the story, the story felt more authentic. One last example of how it all came together…

In my Jedi character’s story – written by the GM – I was working bounties for this nobody crime-lord and had a cordial relationship with the Right-hand man who was my main contact. I kept that relationship open as the game went on – even turned it romantic – and the GM was able to really step up and be involved because the NPC was his to begin with so he really understood that NPC and was able to react in much more interesting ways to my character’s advances and interest. Eventually, the two ended up married – after I saved the guy from some left-over Sith wannabe who thought that my interest in this man made him good leverage against me. Stupid Sith Wannabes.

Anyway – I hope this gets you thinking. Thanks for reading and I’ll try to post tomorrow with the “I want to do this” and “Why I’m scared” portion of the post!

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2 responses

  1. […] Fever Dreams, Crazy GMs, and Bad (awesomely Bad) TV from The Rhetorical Gamer (morrisonmp.wordpress.com) […]

  2. cauldronofevil | Reply

    Neat post (most of them are, but this was especially worth commenting on).

    Of course, you could have just stopped with “We had a really good GM!” 😉

    I agree that you can ‘mechanize’ this kind of thing. But I also think that a good GM can do this even without having to build the characters and/or backstory for you.

    First, you simply don’t play games that can be ‘min-maxed’.

    Second, the GM doesn’t have to be “allowed a more direct hand in play” he’s got it whether your PC likes it or not.

    That’s part of the group that tells the story.

    In fact, I think it’s really only in min-maxing game systems that players tend to believe that because they built the character, they have a right to have been completed unsullied by any other life experience or potential danger.

    My rule as a GM is pretty simple. Whoever improvises it first wins and it’s now a part of the campaign history! 😉

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