Day 10: When did you most recently refuse to play a trad game because the central facilitation role was granted too much creative authority?

This is totally an indie caricature. I’m sure there are die-hards who actually throw a fit or whatever if authority isn’t precisely distributed to their preferences. Whatevs; the world is full of strangeness and wonder.

I will say this though: one of the biggest draws of the past decade-ish of indie design for me has been taking the creative load off me as GM or facilitator or whatever the title might be. Master of Hollyhock.

I’ve put my time in on the full-investment superprep games. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of hours doodling out maps and family trees and everything else. For whatever reason, I don’t actually feel like I’ve given much up by playing games where you can’t prep, or you procedurally generate material and improvise around it, or the prep has already been done.

Maybe it’s not a matter of giving anything up so much as trading benefits: I greatly prefer to focus on the parts of the game where the players are making meaningful inputs and the world adapts to what they do.And not just the game state of “the world” but also the narrative focus, yeah? That’s something about sandbox games that I haven’t loved: you can change the game state but the focus will resolutely remain out of the players’ hands.

Despite the neat tools available in games like Crawford’s OSR designs (Stars Without Number was my last attempt), the sandboxness means the setting is already in motion and the characters live within it. Compare to, say, Burning Wheel, in which the world accretes around the efforts and desires of the PCs. (This is where I know someone will want to start a fight. Don’t.)

Sandplot, this great little bit of jargon Mark Delsing threw out there once, is pretty great: that’s how both Mutant: Year Zero and The One Ring have played out for us here. Here’s the world, and it is proceeding, and within that changing backdrop are your stories, which sometimes impacts the world but the camera always remains on the players.

I don’t have a ton to say about Day 10. I’ll play nearly anything, although I just don’t have the bandwidth or interest to run games that rely mostly on the GM doing the creative heavy lifting. This small shift is, honestly, why my gaming circles got cut in half: not all players actually want to take up that slack.

20 thoughts on “Day 10: When did you most recently refuse to play a trad game because the central facilitation role was granted too much creative authority?”

  1. Stars Without Number, def puts the creative load on the GM. Not only with the setting, but the nebulous rulings you have to do to keep the game rolling. I def favor prep being procedural and played out at the table.

    I totally get how M:Y0 keeps the focus on the players; with the R-web, custom arks, and bosses. I’m curious how The One Ring focuses on the players. Is the ‘Sandplot’ that flexible in TOR? Because with so much setting already set in stone with TOR, it feels familiar to Stars Without Number. (I swear I’m not trying to start a fight, just working a thought out loud.)

    And now that I’ve thought it through, I guess the answer is the shadow points. That the story is way more about these characters succumbing to their darker nature, than whatever is going on in the greater world.

    So a ‘sandplot’ is like a metaplot that allows for character stories to shine through? Where would Pendragon fall on this spectrum? Is Pendragon’s metaplot too controlling? Because there isn’t much resistance to character death in Pendragon, or M:y0, (recalling a failed jump check) does that detract from the character stories?

  2. Aaron Berger okay, I won’t side-eye you about this not-fight. 😉

    TOR feels different than SWN mmmaybe because I chose to play it in a more character-focused way? I’m usually pretty good about sussing out my own play, but that particular compare/contrast is hazy for me. But let me think about that a second.

    TOR has much more stuff baked into it that promote character-driven play, in particular the Shadow traits/economy. And the Fellowship phase feel heavily character-focused: go home and visit with family/friends, build relationships with the communities of the free lands, all that. So those tools are already there.

    When we ran SWN, I had an amazing sector worked out. Awesome outline of a meta-plot sitting in the background, conspiracies and alien invasions and all that. But, like, during actual play it’s all just D&D: here are some stats, here are some skills, state what you’re doing, gain XPs, get some new benefits. There’s nothing there other than getting cash to run your ship to do more jobs to get more cash. Beyond that, it’s 100% on the players and GM to push character stuff.

    I did think about mentioning Pendragon in my list of “sandplot” games. That’s how we played The Great Pendragon Campaign for sure: here’s stuff that’s happening, but that’s in between the character-driven action, and then your character-side game is modified by the end-of-year stuff. And again there are mechanical aspects to the game that I feel like they prompt more character-driven play, specifically the personality traits, the end-of-year moves, the Manor Tycoon minigame, and the need to raise your heir. It would be beyond depressing to turn that shit into spreadsheets. (I know this because one of my players did exactly that, and it was depressing as shit to grind through in that way.)

    I guess the tl/dr would be that “sandplot” is plot that your characters can meaningfully react to, and that meaningfully adapts to their reactions while still providing the skeleton.

  3. I think I’m in the Never camp here. I’ve chosen not to play some games but it usually falls in the “this design is not for me” category (don’t like these systems, don’t like minis, whatevs) rather than GM authority.

    I did bail on a few games a while back because they were on hard rails. So I guess maybe early aughts? Can we link that to gm creative control (it’s more social contract in my book)? I’m terrible at these controversial fight questions 🙂

  4. Distributed authority is the “killer application” of  indie rpgs, not only makes playing and running games easier and more fun, but even the range of things you can do with rpgs is increased in a staggering degree.

    Said that, I would not refuse to play a game with a “traditional” GM-centric authority (assumed that I am not the GM – way too much work for something that should be fun – and that I trust the GM). What I would refuse to play is a game with very confusing authorities, or that hand-wave the entire issue with the usual weak platitudes about “playing it together”.

  5. _That’s something about sandbox games that I haven’t loved: you can change the game state but the focus will resolutely remain out of the players’ hands. _

    I wish to hear this unpacked. Please imagine me requesting this in the manner of a toddler, covered in chocolate, banging on the table and screaming MOOOOOOOOORRRREEE.

  6. I feel like I’m missing something obvious. I’ve read M:Y0 and don’t understand what specifically you’re talking about that would make the game significantly different than, say, a SWN game in the same setting.

    Forgive me if I’m derailing. When you talk about these things, it never clicks with me. I see M:Y0 as being just as GM-centric as a trad game.

  7. Aaron Griffin okay, some observations about MY0:

    * During setup, you build a relationship map between characters. Depending on how you treat that r-map, it may or may not become the center of Ark action. I use it to reveal interesting points of tension, AW-style. Find a weak triangle and push on it.

    * During play, you earn XPs for helping one character, fucking with another, and protecting your “buddy.” So there’s advancement incentive built into directly interacting with the characters.

    * Ark projects are an incentive for intercharacter connections and factional tensions.

    * The Zone and Ark are two distinctly different modes of play. That matters.

    I absolutely guarantee that MY0 and SWN play different, because the incentives and systems are different. Because the systems matter.

  8. Paul Beakley​ oh I absolutely understand the games play differently. I guess I don’t see a significant difference in the authority of the GM. Players create pivotal NPCs from the start and have a say in how the arc is built, but other than that, GM authority is basically the same, right? Or is that really what matters most? Is that enough if a shift in authority to change the game significantly?

  9. Aaron Griffin well…GM authority is a multifaceted thing, a category rather than a thing you can define with something pithy.

    There are so many ways for games to be “GM-centric” that it is, IMO, a meaningless term.

    Thus endeth today’s request to please not devolve my threads into definition arguments.

  10. The Zone is also procedurally generated during play. In MY0, the GM is usually finding out what happens right along with the players.

    The way the metaplot is buried, within the event cards, and the map, means the Big Picture is sort of out of the GM’s hands.

    Where as with SWN you have these factions, and you’re kind of waiting for the player’s to stumble upon your Big Picture. In MY0 there are other factions, but they don’t come into play until revealed through the games mechanics. So the GM is never ahead of the player’s really, he’s working with only what’s been brought forth through the fiction at the table.

    I love the faction turn in SWN. It speaks to a part of me that enjoys that lonely fun, but there is def a disconnect between its spreadsheets and what occurs at the table.

  11. Aaron Griffin oh no worries! I’m exceptionally allergic to definitions when they’re used as shorthand, so I greatly prefer to talk about actual instances and rules.

    “GM-centric” is so iffy! It’s like calling something “artist-centric” without revealing that you’re talking about sculpture and not uh…harpsichord. Terrible analogy; analogies also suck.

  12. I’m glad that sandplot is a thing that works, as I was worried for a while there that it’s just my wishful thinking, i.e., wanting to run certain trad games but hoping that “this time it will be different”.

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