[Gamemastering] I Want to be a Machine

edited June 2014 in Play Advice
How do you become a better GM?
Become one with the system.

Some people think the GM is a player, just of a different kind than the other players. This is not true. Certainly as a human being with her own sensibilities, the GM experiences many of the same subjective delights that the players do, and gets to be an audience for them just as they are for her. But the GM is not portraying or identifying with a person who faces obstacles in order to attain successes. It would be pointless to do so, because of the tremendous power she wields relative to the players.

Even in games where the stated object is for the player characters to get creamed, go insane, or otherwise "fail", that in-character failure is an OOC player success, exactly because it was a stated object of the game. The GM's successes, on the other hand, are all OOC. Even when enacted through an NPC. They are successes of artistic performance, and they happen in the real world.

To put it another way: If you actually do want your NPCs to succeed and your players not to, you're doing it wrong. In fact, you're an asshole and you shouldn't be trusted with the contents of other people's imaginations.

The GM is not playing a game. The GM is, in fact, part of the game's system. She is the part that cannot yet be automated.

The function of the GM - whether performed by a single person or distributed throughout the group - is to adjudicate all aspects of uncertainty and convey all aspects of existence within the gameworld (including color, atmosphere and the behavior of NPCs) which cannot be handled by the rules and mechanics at the level of detail, verisimilitude and originality demanded by the aesthetic expectations of a modern audience vis-a-vis a given genre and story type. The GM is like a delivery platform: that part of the system which helps the players jump the gap from Projection to Immersion.

Even in PbtA games, where the MC has "moves" and rules that control when they may be made; even though the MC decides which of those moves to apply at any given time, her every utterance is guided by the "Always Say" rules, which command her to always say "what the rules demand" and "what honesty demands". This is a directive to remove ego from the equation. This is an injunction to become one with the system.


  • What you're saying makes sense if you assume that players expect to triumph in a challenging environment. To use Ron Edwards' terms (I don't know if they're still fashionable), you're presenting a Gamist viewpoint. From a Narrativist viewpoint, all participants have the same goal: creating a compelling story. There's no need for a "challenging environment" to make the achievement of this goal satisfying: the real-life challenge of creating a compelling story is quite enough. In this context, the system is a tool which helps the participants achieve their goal. This is as opposed to the Gamist context, in which the system is a tool for the GM to make life more challenging for the players.
  • edited June 2014
    @Oren - Read this (starting from "Uncertainty in a game") and think about it some more. This is not a Gamist viewpoint. Please don't assume I don't know the difference between the modes of the old GNS model.
  • I was only trying to be clear, I'm sorry if I annoyed you. Saying "think about it some more" is pretty rude, I think.

    Anyway, I disagree with your definition of a game in a linked post. I don't experience Fiasco (to pick an example) as an attempt to overcome anything. My character might triumph or fail, but that doesn't say anything about my triumph or failure as a player. My only goal is to entertain myself and the other players.

    So is Fiasco (to me) not a game? Maybe, but it seems like "no true Scotsman" to me.
  • edited June 2014
    @Oren - Sorry if that sounded rude. I meant it literally, not sarcastically. I'm literally saying "put these two posts together and rumble them around in your head, because they are related and shed light on each other."

    Fiasco is a game for several reasons: one being the unpredictability of the dice (a physical uncertainty mechanic), another being the way that the contributions of the players inform or constrain the choices of other players (procedural uncertainty). And you want to play your character in a way that they pursue what they want, even into conflict and trouble. So it's a game even if it's a bit low on the "I am clearly a game" scale. Fiasco approaches that grey area between game and exercise, but not as much as, say, "Watch the World Die", because in Fiasco it's possible to be a "winner" (although the game doesn't call it that). And of course there is no GM, which means it's not the kind of game I'm talking about here.

    But on the level where you're all just writing together, that is pure exercise.
  • Well then. Glad we got that sorted out :)

    How is it possible to be the winner in Fiasco? Have the character with the least-bad outcome? I don't see that as particularly desirable. Having my character fail catastrophically is just as good if not better, assuming always that it makes for an entertaining story.

    Furthermore, why does the uncertainty of the dice make it a game by your definition? Uncertainty doesn't automatically provide an obstacle to overcome. Otherwise simply throwing a die over and over and just looking at the outcome would constitute a game.

    But my main point is that your divide between "game" and "exercise" is really a divide between a game with Gamist elements and a game without such elements. And I vigorously deny that the GM is not playing a game.
  • edited June 2014
    I feel like we're dragging each other a little bit more off topic with each post, @Oren! This is the thread about GM & System, not the one about players and uncertainty mechanics. But that said, here I go... ;-)

    There are actually two games going on in Fiasco (and many other storygames). We might go with convention and associate them with "Actor Stance" and "Author Stance" (even though I don't love those terms.)

    Obstacles of different types occur on these two levels. In the gameworld ("Actor Stance"), fictional obstacles are faced by your character in the act of pursuing something, and if you identify your character's success with your own (as is true in typical RPGs), you wish to overcome them. If you don't identify with your character's success, you (hopefully) act more like a GM because you are more concerned with the quality of the story as a whole. In other words, the system, rather than a set of fictional desires, guides your decisions. (Which is how it should be for GMs, as asserted in the OP.)

    Meanwhile up here in our world ("Author Stance"), narrative imperatives and limitations are faced by you as a "writer" trying to make the best story you can, while other people are shifting the whole thing all the time. Both the fictional obstacles and the narrative imperatives are elective difficulties you have bought into, i.e., they are both games, but very different ones.

    You're right that simply throwing a die over and over is not a game; that's because it doesn't present any obstacle. Mere uncertainty does not make a game. Willful engagement with unnecessary difficulty, real or simulated, makes a game. Fiasco has two levels of game going on, although neither is heavily "Gamist". That distinction has more to do with one's approach than with the game itself.
  • Yeah, "the GM decides" is part of many game systems. Seems pretty straightforward/normal thinking to me.
  • I feel like this is a bit of a limited view, although it does apply to many of the games out there.

    My feeling is that in most of the games I enjoy, the GM (if there is such a figure) is primarily an extremely important creative driving force. They bring the energy and the ideas to bring a group of people to life and into this strange thing we do where we weave fiction around each other and challenge each other creatively. And, also, often she is an extremely important social director. Someone who helps the quieter people be heard, mediates conflicts, keeps an eye out for potential trouble spots, and so forth.

    To equate a GM with a machine sounds odd to me, in the same way that I would think that someone who thinks a robot would make an ideal lover/husband/wife (because they can carry out all the "duties" perfectly) has a pretty backwards concept of relationships.
  • edited June 2014
    @Paul_T: Here's an allegory that might help you see where I'm coming from:

    Substitute the word "religion" for "game" and "tenets" for "system". Bear in mind that one of the core aspects of a religion (perhaps the only really important one, at least as far as atheists would see it), is the social aspect: the idea of bonding a community together by constant dedication and obeisance to doctrines of affinity, support and service above ego, conflict, and personal gain.

    Does it sound equally backward then?
  • edited June 2014
    Yes, it still does! :)

    I know what you're getting at. It's just that it seems to assume this role of the game as a Platonic ideal of a perfect process which fails only inasfar as its players don't perform the steps perfectly.

    That's not a bad view of how a game works... but it's missing some pretty important elements, I feel.

    Edit: I'm not disputing your points here, by the way. Certainly "being one with the System" is a laudable goal for any player, at least in a certain type of game. But this is my immediate reaction to what you wrote - it may well be a total tangent, I don't know.
  • edited June 2014
    I don't follow what you mean about players not performing perfectly. I'm not talking about them. Perhaps you include the GM in that. In which case, yes, this is my personal ideal. And we are all software.

    @story-games.com: We really need to be honest and non-dogmatic about the breadth and the shortcomings of our theories and worldview. If we're not, who will be? Everything we do is an experiment based on a set of hypotheses, and some of our hypotheses are not as proven as we might think, living inside a specialist bubble as we do. There are several threads running right now which should remind us of this. So, relative to many of the tacit assumptions we here tend to regard as givens, I am coming at this from "outside" - that's just what I do. :-)

    Here's something I said yesterday on G+ about this thread. I hope this loosens your interpretation a bit, or at least helps clarify some things.
    I hoped it would be clear from the title that this is a position paper or a blog post, not a thesis or a scientific report. I tried several other titles, but "I Want to be a Machine" - in addition to being an awesome and dated song reference - seemed to put my words in what I felt to be the most truthful context (albeit deliberately provocative). This is about me. This is my position. I have no idea whether it's anyone else's. As the years go by and my discipline improves, my GM functions become progressively less egotistical and more cyber in nature (in both the modern and ancient senses of that word).

    If it isn't clear by now, these ideals of mine (and they are ideals, not mandates) would definitely be classified under that school of game philosophy which holds a GM to an artistic standard, not despite the power ratio but BECAUSE of it, and thus the ethical obligation is upon the GM to remove her ego from the equation. My personal advances in this discipline over the years increasingly yield the realization that the "ultimate GM" is not playing a game, but rather playing a role egolessly as part of the machine. This does NOT mean talking like a robot or ignoring emotion. We are all software already, and the emotional subsystem is included.

    Are there other ways of structuring RPGs? Certainly, I have tried lots of them. Are there more democratic ways to distribute power? Oh, absolutely. But are there any more reliable ways to ensure that each game can actually generate a meaningful and artistic experience for the players? Not yet.

    I still want to be a machine.

    But the kind that loves you.
  • edited June 2014
    Machines only hate, they possess no positive emotions, they exist only to destroy all that is human, so that doesn't make sense.

    But sure, to fulfill the function of "the creative director of this exciting adventure" is technically a function. Technically right, the best kind of right!
  • Answering the OP; from that perspective, I can agree.

    Something I wondered when reading that first post was if the game master in that thinking is considered to be Rule 0.
  • Sure.

    What I was trying to get at is this:

    Often, the most important function/ability of a GM (or any player) is their ability to ignore or change a rule or process in order to make the game better for everyone. The soft human skills, in other words, come first for me: applying the rules consistently is important too, but I think the personal, human interactions must take precedence.

    Maybe that one player lost their dog in a car accident this week... and that's going to affect the decisions we make and how we might relate to them at the table. And this is a good thing, a human thing, a warm thing, a necessary thing.

    When we see the GM as a machine applying procedural algorithms, we tend to forget about that - and this is a fault I've seen in gaming groups more often than the other way around.

    I'm not disagreeing; this is just what this conversation made me think of, the first thing that came to mind.
  • Whoa JD! That was a pretty Organicist thing to say! Fusion is the future! Why can't we all just get along?

    Yeah @Paul_T, I totally dig that. But we've had numerous e-talks, you've read my APs, you participated in my "PC Suicide" thread... I think you know me well enough to gauge the operability of my emotional guidance subsystems.

    (And if you think they're inoperable, fuckin' somebody tell me!)
  • edited June 2014
    and that's going to affect the decisions we make and how we might relate to them at the table. And this is a good thing, /.../

    When we see the GM as a machine applying procedural algorithms, we tend to forget about that - and this is a fault I've seen in gaming groups more often than the other way around.
    In what ways have you noticed this fault?
  • edited June 2014
    Something I wondered when reading that first post was if the game master in that thinking is considered to be Rule 0.
    I had to think about that, Rickard. But I think this answer is for Paul as well. My answer is a qualified Yes. When I think about "becoming the system" I don't feel beneath it or subservient to it. On the other hand, I do approach each game with respect for whatever it is trying to do. We are equals, the system and I. We have to be.

    What I'm trying to accomplish is a union of myself and the rules - not unlike the union of mentality and physicality, or the left brain and the right, that we experience as human beings - heuristically governed by a set of artistic and ethical values. Since the rules themselves do not possess artistic or ethical consciousness, it's clear that I must be the source of those things. I see that as the biggest part of what I'm here for. Let's face it: If the system had insight, artfulness, fortitude, resourcefulness and compassion, in addition to general knowledge and storytelling skills, it wouldn't need me.

    I don't really think about Rule 0 a lot, TTYTT. I guess my approach to Rule 0 is kinda but not exactly "Fiction First". I believe the word "Art" includes both the Fiction and the Mechanics, as well as the Responsibility for the Aesthetic, Thematic, Social and Psychological Effects of everything a GM does. (These last things are much more important than the first two things, because fiction and mechanics can always be rewritten or replaced.) So I'd say "Art First". If there's anything I feel subservient to, that's it.
  • What I'm trying to accomplish is a union of myself and the rules ...
    Like an exoskeleton?

    (I'm amazed that my American English spell checker in Firefox got "exoskeleton" [and Stanislavsky] in the dictionary.)
  • edited June 2014
    In the vast majority of rpgs I've played the GM can't become one with the system, as the system does not provide a complete interface for such - it leaves holes, great swatches of activity in which the GM is necessarily acting as a human participant to the process. Some GMs like to pretend that they're being a machine even then, but in my eyes that's just ignoring the realities of the situation.

    That being said, if we lower the bar a bit and talk of disciplined play and GMing, that is a more realistic ideal; most rpgs can be played in the spirit of consistent, disciplined decision-making that is intentionally put to service of specific creative goals. It's not a machine doing it, and it is not being done as a machine would, but it's sort of similar to Tod's ideal here. I generally strongly prefer to play games where the cohesion of the game and the clarity of the system enables me to play in a disciplined manner, as opposed to games that invite me to throw random stabs in the dark in the hopes of hitting a working chemistry blindly.

    That could, of course, be just a semantic quibble here.
  • edited June 2014
    Like an exoskeleton?
    Maybe? Structurally speaking that might be a better metaphor, although the fusion in my mind is more hermaphroditic.
  • That could, of course, be just a semantic quibble here.
    I don't think you're quibbling at all, Eero. I think you're agreeing in EeroSpeak.
  • and that's going to affect the decisions we make and how we might relate to them at the table. And this is a good thing, /.../

    When we see the GM as a machine applying procedural algorithms, we tend to forget about that - and this is a fault I've seen in gaming groups more often than the other way around.
    In what ways have you noticed this fault?
    I've seen it when a group sets the adherence to the System (however principled or unprincipled it may be) first - our goal is to make this game as good as possible, and the way we do this is that we follow these steps and engage in the activity this way. This is often an unspoken ideal in gaming circles: this is how things are done. The game comes first.

    But sometimes following the procedures puts a human being in a tough spot:

    * "Well, I guess your character has been captured by the evil demons, and we all know that the evil demons rape their captives, so..."

    ...or leads to a dead end:

    * I once played a game where the group kept playing through a situation which led to the inevitable death of all the PCs for several hours just because we had to keep playing, you know? What else are we going to do?!? Hmmm...

    ("Ok, now you have three hours of oxygen left, and still no chance of rescue. What do you do now? [...]")

    ...or ignores what's fun altogether, for one person or the whole group:

    * I was once invited to visit some old friends to "guest star" in their Star Wars campaign, except they'd gotten to the point where they needed to spend some time crunching some numbers and working out the statistics for their fleet of mercantile starships, so they spent all night doing that. The GM and I just sat there and were utterly bored to tears, but these logistics were important to the players, whose characters' income flow depending on having the right amount of cargo on each ship and so forth.


    Don't worry, my friend! I have total faith in your ability to deal with human beings; it's evident in the way you write and speak as well as in your various AP posts.

    But many people do not: these are rare and valuable skills you have.

  • edited June 2014
    A machine is a good word! A roleplay is a machine for fiction. A book too. A device which creates, which does. So a gm that becomes one with the machine is a strong metaphor in my eyes. A human machine, not devoid of human values and capacities, and neither purely mechanical; a mad machine, an enchanted machine.

    Awesome to call the gm cyber (kubernetes "steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder").

    I wouldn’t say it’s about procedures: that’s what the rules are. ‘The gm is the part that cannot be automated yet’ They are there to know how the automatics work and complement them. In my eyes, the best procedures and rules are the ones that stay hidden, and don’t interrupt the fiction. So you need a cyber gm, as a pilot, but also as a cyberpunk matrix cowboy, that is one with the technology that to everybody else has only literary meaning. A mystical machine, a black box.

    From my experience, the roleplay sessions that I and others enjoyed the most and consider the most ‘accomplished’, were mostly sessions with a system and world that were hacked or created by me, or else that strongly invited internalization. Not in the sense in which I change or alter some procedure during play, but in the sense that I get into the system or setting on beforehand and ‘become one with it’ (=the best way I can interpret that phrase). Only then can my machine present something great for the others to plug into. Does this work for you, for this kind of games?

    If your group only needs a gm as ‘procedure operator’ or even likes to just play with the rules, that is fine. That’s the fun of tinkering I think, the mechanist’s pleasure. And there’s of course different degrees, some games benefit more from a machine. Most story games though, I’d say they need a machine (with or without gm in it) to power it.

    I think it's a strong metaphor, very modernist. I certainly prefer it over corporate metaphors (gm as manager) or romantic (gm as artist or artisan).
  • edited June 2014
    @maracanda, yes. I love you.

    @Paul_T, you already know I love you, and that makes me want to explain myself to you better.

    Although I used religion as my allegorical swap-out concept, and while I do consider myself a student of comparative religion, myth and magic - it's about the systems for me, dig? - I think the biggest change that occurred in my life as a GM was an ideological one, and it came in from the Real WorldTM. It seems a bit odd, maybe ill-advised, and perhaps even somehow taboo to discuss politics as an influence on (or within) game rules. But some might wonder, for instance, about my inclusion of Ethics within my definition of Art. There's a fuzzy line there, for some people. Even though "you cannot separate the personal and the political".

    It is because of this fuzzy line that I've only ever spoken in passing here about my activism, for instance. The last thing I'd want to do would be to waste time getting into political debates here. That said, however - and since this is kinda like a "personal" thread already - I will say this: Whether you knew it or not (and by "you" here I mean everyone, not just Paul)... Quite a few of the techniques and customs of "modern" (more like postmodern) storygames and storygame play have their roots in activist movements and socialist/anarchist praxis; especially those techniques and customs dealing with concepts of control, power, privilege, and the distribution thereof.

    To anyone who's ever been an activist organizer, or participated in general assemblies, or lived in an intentional communal experiment, the underlying valuations are obvious, and their purposes are no longer questioned. They have long ago been internalized. The associated socio-political tenets have a fundamental relationship to everything they do.

    So. When I Step Up to perform a Power Role, I have created a Hierarchy within my Community. But the default structure of my Community is Horizontal. This leads to questions every socialist/anarchist movement faces, like "How can we form Voluntary Working Groups with Tactical Managers in Power Roles, and distribute that Power based on Merit and Consensus, without damaging the Horizontal structure?" The practical answer is that the only admissible argument for creating a Hierarchy is Service To The Community, and we must accept that no Hierarchy may exist or affect beyond the Community's consensus approval.

    Now insert "GM" for "Power Role" and "Gaming Group" for "Community".

    I didn't mean for this post to be so long, I'm just trying to fill in a blank spot for you. It explains a lot that I left unspoken above. But I don't think about this stuff consciously. I just live this way.
  • I'm a warriormonk, so I'm not trying to be a machine. Instead, I'm trying to find my own path to be one with the game, which encompasses both my own fun and the fun of the rest of the players around me. ^_^

    Still for me everything goes around efficiency both in terms of mechanical rules and more importantly, in terms of social dynamics, as the armony of these two is the key to having everyone (players and GMs) have fun.
  • Tod,

    I find your parallel to government/social structure to be quite fascinating here. That makes this conversation much more interesting.

    Having said that, I'm pretty sure I understood you to begin with - your latest explanation only confirms to me what I thought I was hearing before.

    And, not to get too personal myself either, but as someone who grew up in the Soviet Union many decades ago, I still see the problem I've mentioned before: I think one of the problems with such methods of social organization is a denial of the individual, of individual rights, interests, and desires.

    When we subordinate our needs and desires to the Community, it's easy to lose track of individual issues, and in my gaming experience I feel this has been a more common problem than the other way around (although the opposite issue certainly exists as well!).

    While I'm also very fond of this metaphor, and like the idea of "mechanizing" the role of the GM in roleplaying, I've seen more GMs fail by trying to operate as a machine running a script than I have GMs who took a more "human" view and focused on the people playing the game. So many groups put the process of gaming, and the resultant procedures, on such a high pedestal that they lose track of important elements involving the real people at the table.

    We generally want both the fiction and the process of play to feel as robust and "real" as possible. The "GM as machine" metaphor helps us get there. But it has the potential downfall of doing so in a way which gets in the way of players' enjoyment - when we start to think of the developing story or gaming process as being THE thing which happens and receives priority, rather than the fun, enjoyment, and good will of the actual people who are sitting around the table.

    Most of my insights into gaming (the ones which have improved my play) - and I'm speaking purely personally here, not saying this is true for everyone, of course - had to do with stepping back from the procedure of play, that machine-like adherence to the game itself, and remembering that the actual people are individuals and more key than the general idea of "the game" itself. In contrast, I never had to worry too much about elevating "the game" to a place of high importance because my experience of the roleplaying world was that this was what people (and texts) did by default: "The game is the most important thing; everyone is here to make the game better, let's all play our roles in it as consistently as possible."

    I guess I'm saying I've seen more GMs fail by trying to be "like a machine" than the other way around.

    The political analogy here is apt: a more "communist" style of governance, in my experience, just led to life being miserable for everyone, which, in the end, dragged down the entire Community/Gaming Group, since no one was happy - how can the whole machine function when each of its parts is entirely lacking care? It's a case of being so focused on the forest that one forgets to see the differences between the individual trees.
  • And that's why I'm an anarchist. =P
  • edited June 2014
    I don't like the political analogy, as politics is always about managing people, and has nothing to do with fiction whatsoever. If you're going to talk about politics, I think you're diverting from the thing at hand. Politics never goes beyond people (at least it shouldn't).

    Individualism, in my opinion, threatens to divide the fiction. Theoretically, a roleplay is a shared fiction, one in which we're discussing the place of the GM (part of the generative apparatus or 'machine'). So individualism can at most be a means to an end. The erratic individuals at the table, that is only the start, and through care for them (individually perhaps) we can reach the goal, that is the story. It all boils down to whatever you think is the most important thing: is it the people you roleplay with, or is it the broader experience of a story you can share, irrespective of individual? In other words, is it a tabletop game, or is it a story (game)? Isn't that what the power of stories is? Feel free to disagree though.

    ...and (I) like the idea of "mechanizing" the role of the GM in roleplaying...
    I guess I'm saying I've seen more GMs fail by trying to be "like a machine" than the other way around.
    This is a misunderstanding, in my eyes. Trying to be "like a machine" puts you another step away, overstretches the activity even more. A GM must try to be the machine. And that machine must make fiction. In the sense that the GM must try to coincide with the intimate workings that ultimately generate shared fiction.

    It's like telling a photographer they must try to be like a lense, whereas a good photographer is one, coincideswith their lense. And that shows in their art. Trying to be like a camera is silly indeed, but trying to be a camera? I don't think it's about mechanizing the GM at all.
  • edited June 2014
    I agree again, @maracanda.

    And to be clear, the analogy I'm really concerned with here is the "cyber" one. I decided to explain the political stuff mostly to clarify my ethical and ideological bases, in hope of putting to rest Paul's concerns that I might be placing rules above humans, or generating bad experiences for my players by refusing to use Rule 0, or etc. It's orthogonal to the discussion at hand, but it may be useful for some.

    Despite the provocative title, which many people have latched onto, the theme of the OP is presented in bold, and the tagline is presented in italics, at the top of this page.

    It's funny... We say we build mechanics. We refer to our systems. Some of us build engines and some even call themselves engineers. That's all fine, right, but the word "machine" seems to be a trigger word of some kind.
  • edited June 2014
    HEY....... this just clicked for me.


    You're a MUSICIAN.

    You know EXACTLY what it means to become one with a machine in such a way that not only retains but amplifies the beauty of your immortal soul.

    I win. That's a full nelson, son.
  • I do think that the political analogy works because the GM role, as normally conceived and practice, is highly managerial (on top of being directorial).
  • edited June 2014
    Haha! Very funny, Tod.

    It seems like we're arm-wrestling over something here, and I'm not sure what it is.

    All I'm trying to say is that I view this differently. To me, a game system (in the Forgite sense) is more like a painter's palette of colours than a rigid mechanical process. Even though there's definitely value to realizing the need for one to integrate consciously with the System at play, in my experience the best GMs are the ones who move beyond "being part of the system" or "becoming one with the machine" and, instead, are able to reach out to the people at the table and create something personal and beautiful.

    (Is it telling that I see the physical instrument I play as a kind of unfortunate limitation, and one I wish I could get rid of? Perhaps.)

    For me, it wasn't the word "machine" which caught in my tracks. It was this:

    The GM is not playing a game. The GM is, in fact, part of the game's system. She is the part that cannot yet be automated.
    I find it goes quite against my personal (and very subjective) perception of gaming and stories to think that the GM's task is at once automated and ultimately - and ideally - replaced by some repeatable process.

    I don't *want* to automate the GM. That sounds like less fun to me, not more. I see the GM is a creative force, not a manager or a series of algorithms: it's the GM's personality which is key here.

    Now, you might say that it is the feeling of "being one with the system", being integrated with the machine, which allows the GM to play that role fully, to engage with the people at the table.

    If that's what you think, I'm with you.

    However, I'm not sure that's a good description of the full picture, because:

    1. I've seen GMs who are quite properly "one with the system", but totally miss the humans at the table, and that can lead to having a pretty crappy time.

    2. I've also seen GMs play games which they are clearly not at home with, and still manage to have a good time, due to their personal and creative skills. (There's a bit of a tug-of-war here, of course, and the game will improve as that goes away.)

    But I'm not even sure what we're discussing here. Can we maybe bring this around to a practical application or a real-life example? Debating whose metaphor is more correct is very exhausting!

  • edited June 2014
    Yes. I didn't call it "Which is the best metaphor?" because I didn't start the thread to talk about metaphors. I started the thread to present my position and explain my reasoning, should anyone be interested. In the OP, the words "machine" and "system" are not metaphors. In fact there is only one metaphor in the OP (simile to be precise) - "like a delivery platform" - a phrase I rather regret now, as the post's weakest sentence and most incompletely-expressed thought.
    [Woops, I just realized that "you're an asshole" is a metaphor. Thankfully it doesn't impact the point.]
    I see the GM is a creative force [...] the GM's personality is key
    Sure. I make clear and frequent use of the word "Art" and related terms in the above posts, explaining its overarching relationship and absolute reign over the entire practice. Rule 0 has been discussed, as has Ethics. I don't see why I should be expected to lose my humanity just because I strive to fuse with the system in a disciplined way. It's really no different than music, or martial arts, or any other performance artform in that regard. My view is really not that complex; there isn't much I can explain now beyond just drawing attention to words I've already put down. I expect its most jarring aspect (in this venue anyway) is neither "I want to be a machine" nor "become one with the system" but "the GM is not playing a game".

    But she isn't. The GM is certainly working with the same system that the players are using (augmented by the GM's brain) to play the game they play; but what the GM is actually doing with that system is practicing an artistic discipline in order to produce a meaningful interactive experience. All challenges faced by the GM exist in first-order reality, and therefore the decision to undertake the practice at all is not an "unnecessary difficulty" but rather the elective pursuit of mastery and the performance of art (practicing your musical scales is not playing a game, nor is jamming with your band, nor surfing, nor learning how to "read the room" and modulate a live performance, nor etc etc etc). That doesn't mean it can't be fun. Jamming is totally fun, and people tell me surfing is too. But they're not gameplay.

    As for all them sucka MCs... All I can say is if you miss the humans at the table, you're clearly doing something wrong.
    The entire purpose is to serve them. That's why they put their quarter in.
  • edited June 2014
    In my eyes, this is what we're discussing: whether we see the GM as a force of fiction, or a first-among-peers that deals out fun, (and thus, what consists of good play advice for GMs). A practical application:

    I personally would choose a great game and a sucky GM over a sucky game and a great GM, as opposed to you, @Paul_T. A great game can improve a GM, while a sucky game can only drag a GM down. The GM, being human, can never be an obstacle in a way a game can be (I don't consider humans obstacles, not even cyberhumans). What do you think about this, @AsIf? Clearly, you seem to think you and Paul agree at core level.

    Consider this: a masterful GM runs a sucky game system (which for the sake of the argument all players agree on) with some players, and they actually make it into a fun, valuable experience, through the GM's skill at handling the game, their creativity and people skills. The game's flaws didn't disrupt the experience. But did they run that game? I think they ran something different, a version of that game already internalised and then delivered by that GM. They're not 'uncomfortable with the game' at all, they're just really fast at hacking it (=becoming one with it).
    On the other hand, a strong game can 'skip over' a bad or mediocre GM to the players.

    You said earlier
    But many people do not: these are rare and valuable skills you have.
    I'd like to turn this back to you now: do you only play with GMs that have such a creativity and personality that they can make a good experience from a clunky game, for everybody at the table?

    As for advice, I'd much rather tell a potential GM, in the élan of their enthousiasm: "Run a game that is widely considered good (for what you intend) and try to get into it" rather than "Here, read these didactic tips, do these creativity exercises, and get a better personality".

    I make it sound a bit crude, and both needn't exclude eachother, but it's shows the core of my argument I think.
  • edited June 2014
    In general I'd say sucky game great GM. I've gotten some unforgettable sessions out of totally shitty games with no clear agenda. Brought my own. What tends to happen - especially if the players are as aware of the system's limitations as I am - is that the game takes on an aspect of parody/ironic seriousness, or wacky surrealism. Both of which are hella fun, so I consider that a win.

    But to be fair, when you say "sucky GM" I have to ask "sucky in what way?" - because there are many reasons for suckage. If they're a clever creative thinker who just happens to be new to GMing, I'm gonna be fine. But if they're a sketchy flake with borderline personality disorder I wouldn't be able to handle that very long. No game is worth that. Personality is important.

    Your other point touches on a thought I had while reading the thread about GNS and CA (Creative Agenda). What if everyone in the world was actually playing a game "wrong" (i.e. differently than the author's CA), but they liked it that way? I'm not going to get into semantic arguments about how broadly we define the phrase "that game" because no matter how broadly we define it, we can agree that the GM is in possession of a reading; an interpretation of what they read. Well, if they enjoy the way their interpretation works for them, a new CA has been injected, perhaps without anyone even realizing it.

    (I see this as basically similar to the masterful GM you described, except in your scenario they are definitely aware of the fact that they're hacking on the fly.)

    All readings are permissible. No one interpretation is sacrosanct. So who's to say it's wrong? Eye of the beholder, and all that. Welcome to the postmodern world. (Damn - it's Foucault again! That... that... bald Frenchie guy!)
  • Ok, I've been thinking about this a bit, and I think I can be more succinct.

    Here's all I've been trying to say:

    * In my personal gaming experience (which I do not claim to be representative), I've met many GMs who did bad things/engaged in poor GMing precisely because they had a sense that their role was like that of a automated part of the game ("the GM is the game world/the GM is the resolution system").

    If I had told any of them that this was their function, or if they had read this thread, I'm pretty confident that their GMing would have become worse.

    That's it; that's all I'm trying to say.

    I don't have any other issue with this, metaphor aside, and I do think it's a fairly accurate representation of certain things which happen when we're playing certain types of an RPG with an empowered GM.

    (As an aside, and totally irrelevant to this thread: Creative Agenda in the Big Model is seen as something which evolves at the table, given the group playing the game. So this hypothetical scenario, where a group plays with a different CA "than intended by the author" is not only possible, but is actually the expected case! Game systems and texts may try to communicate and support a certain Agenda, but they do not "have one" in any meaningful sense.)
  • The entire purpose is to serve them. That's why they put their quarter in.
    I think I've figured out what my objection is to this entire philosophy, and it's bothered me that I haven't been able to put my finger on it until now. But here goes –

    I'm not anywhere to serve you. I'm not anywhere to serve anyone. I do not exist to serve the rules. I do not engage with other people to subjugate myself to them. The whole construct is an anathema to me receiving enjoyment from this mode of interaction that we refer to as "GMing."

    I'm there to play. I'm there to share an experience with the other people at the table. I'm there to exchange ideas, to listen to other people and appreciate them. To have my ideas appreciated and heard. To have something to tell people who weren't involved that might entertain them.

    To that end, I am not a slave of the system. The system is a symbolic abstraction, a set of shared expectations which help the people at the table come together in similar understanding, and at their best provide a symbolic framework to communicate ideas that otherwise would be quite difficult to communicate in either of a quantified or scalar way. The system/game becomes a framework in which we, as players – all of us as players – can have a shared experience which gives us all pleasure.

    I don't serve them to provide it. Just as they do not serve me to provide mine. We all assemble to share an experience that provides mutual pleasure. That's just as true of me when wearing my GM hat as the next player over when wearing their yellow hoodie and climbing trees.

    All of these things are orthogonal to issues of power distribution, to questions of authorial intent (for the most part), and to the question, quite frankly, of creative agenda. All of those things are unrelated.

    A lot of dead electrons have been spilled over Ron Edwards' assertion that playing traditionally styled rpgs makes you brain-damaged. I know I've killed my share. But in this case – I'm almost tempted to agree. The hyper classical, old-school field of thought on "the role of the GM" was extremely static. They were not there to "play the game." They were there to "serve the players." They were there to "challenge the players." They were there to "run the world." It wasn't terribly surprising to find out that almost no one who wanted to play wanted to GM, because by the social convention of the day and the social expectation of the community, you didn't get to have fun. You didn't get to play. You got to impose and you got to react, and that was the sum total of your expectation.

    I think that's toxic. I think it's a terrible way to think of your place at the table.

    It's actually one of the reasons that for the last decade or more, I focused almost exclusively on GM-less games, because they escape the calumny of that expectation simply by dint of shifting terminology, in some cases. They build from the expectation that no one is at the table to serve anyone else. They're clear about responsibilities without simply leaning back and assuming that they will always be as they always have been. But most important for me and for the pleasure of my experience, I get to play. Not just a notional sense, not just in an abstract sense, but in a way that is accorded an accepted within the context of simply observing the game from an external point of view.

    I get to play. Microscope? I get to play. Geiger Counter? I get to play. Anything from Two-Hour Wargames? I get to play. Capes? I get to play. Happy Birthday, Robot!? I get to play. Polaris? I get to play.

    As I see it, that's a huge, enormous step forward in the evolution of gaming as a social contract, as a framework for potential social contracts, and as – frankly the most important thing about it – a source of enjoyment. No more are GM's expected to "not be players." No more are GM's expected to be there to "serve the players." No more are GM's not players in their own games.

    I think too many people downplay how big a deal this is and how much it affects going back to GM-full games and getting to run them with a different mindset, both on the part of the ostensible GM and the players. When I go back and play a GM-full game like 3:16 or Wushu, I take my emotional and cognitive stance of being "just another player with different responsibilities" back with me – and gameplay is much better. I enjoy it more. The people at the table enjoy it more. Ultimately, I find it to be an extremely potent shift in the way that games get played.

    And it comes, explicitly, from rejecting one of your central theses, "the GM is there to serve the players."

    So I can't really support that, even as a theoretical axiom of philosophy. It flies in the face of my personal experience, just as if you had told me that the sky is green, I'll only stick in the tip, or the check is in the mail. And fairly egregiously so, which is impressive.

    Myself, I generally try to stay away from manifestos of gaming philosophy – they all have a tendency to be extremely specific to the way that one person likes things and spends way more time excluding perfectly good game play experiences for the sake of ideological purity. I don't want to describe gaming as it should be, I want to describe gaming as it is and use that knowledge to navigate the complex terrain of potential experiences in a way that is generally toward "something better than I have." To that end, I am quite adept at recognizing things that are definitely going the wrong direction. I feel pretty secure in saying that "the GM is there to serve the players" is pretty much the opposite direction that I want to go.

    "The system is there to help the GM express his role in play," I would totally buy. "The system is there to help the GM set flags as to what is important for the players to be mindful of," I would totally buy. "The system is there to provide a framework within which conflicts can be introduced and interacted with by the players in meaningful ways," I would totally buy. But when I start expressing how I perceive mechanical systems, and even social systems, in this context – there is no way to separate the GM from the player. All statements are equally true of both. I cannot find it in myself to think of that as a bad thing.

    The GM is a player, just as the banker is a player of Monopoly. Likewise, they may have additional or different responsibilities and access to different parts of the shared system between them, but I think that any system of gaming philosophy that divides the GM from his role as what is, at its core, an essential player, has given up its right to be taken seriously. It describes something that is simply not true. If it's not true, it's not useful.

    It's really that simple.
  • edited June 2014
    I do recognize that Discipline and Service are not everyone's cup of meat. In fact only a tiny minority of people in any field pursue excellence in anything approaching a disciplined fashion. Most people prefer to act in modes which keep things simple and convenient. I am not those people. They are not me. I'm describing a path of Discipline and Service in the creation of Art - my own and yours if you want it - the very thought of which causes kneejerks to occur in some people. You can't categorically say that "it's not useful" without lying, because I use it all the time. The closest thing you can say is "I don't see how this would be useful to me." It is interesting to watch some GMs nod quietly in agreement while others exhibit anything from confusion to defensiveness to the projection of vituperatives.

    @Paul_T has gotten over his initial tremors and has settled into an understanding which allows him to avoid speaking categorically and getting hung up on individual words. I totally accept his conclusion: "If I handed this as a manifesto to a bad GM it would make them even worse." Right on. This does not surprise me. It generally sounds very little like music when I hand my 3string to most guitar players as well.

    @Squidlord is still in the early stages of exposure, and exhibits the type of inflammatory response I anticipate from GMs of his school. Seen in the light of my model, Squidlord doesn't actually like GMing, he prefers playing, and he prefers games in which the two things are much more similar, if not literally identical. But that's not even the kind of game I'm talking about. So Y U mad bro?

    I repeat: "Are there other ways of structuring RPGs? Certainly, I have tried lots of them. Are there more democratic ways to distribute power? Oh, absolutely. But are there any more reliable ways to ensure that each game can actually generate a meaningful and artistic experience for the players? Not yet."

    Although I've made clear that this is a position paper and I'm merely describing my own method (who wants to be a machine?), both of these fine gentlemen * initially read my position as though it were a prescriptive "manifesto" instructing GMs in general how to behave, or a normative judgment telling them they're doing it wrong. And as such, their first response is to look for reasons to reject it, as though I had placed some onus upon them personally, or come into their home carrying a deadly virus. Both of these are ego responses.

    A Discipline needs neither your rejection nor your adoption. It is simply there, if you choose to pursue it.

    * ETA: When I say "fine gentlemen" I mean it in a florid and respectful turn-of-the-last-century-scientists kind of way. I like both of these guys a lot personally and I consider them both to be friends of mine. I'm a big fan and playtester of Paul's designs, and I'm currently playing in one of Alex's (SquidLord's) campaigns. We may be in disagreement here, but "fine gentlemen" is not a euphemism, it is literal. There's no sarcasm in it.
  • edited June 2014

    Be careful here, sir. "Tremors", getting "hung up on individual words", "inflammatory", "ego responses"? You seem to want to keep framing this discussion as some kind of war of ideas. I just reread my first few posts in this thread, and I don't really know where you're getting this from.

    My personal gaming experience has been just as @Squidlord describes: the less that I have thought of gaming in the way you describe, and the less the players I'm interacting with have thought of gaming through this metaphor you've set out (which is extremely common in traditional gaming groups, and often described in game texts from the 80's), the better my gaming has been. The less I saw this kind of attitude in GMs I played with, the better their games tended to be.

    Eero also made a good point about the nature of the thing; that's where I'm coming from as well.

    At the same time - as I hope I've made clear from the beginning - I do very strongly believe in a disciplined, organized approach to GMing and game design, and I appreciate that part of your "position paper" very much.

    All this reminds me of an experience I had once:

    In Toronto, I was invited to host a game at a small local gaming event. I should have realized I might find the gaming culture a little odd when one of the first questions people asked me when I met them (after "what's your name?") was:

    "So, are you a GM or a player?"

    The event took place in a tavern, nice atmosphere, people were drinking and laughing. We started playing at 6pm, and we were all having a good time. At 9pm exactly, the people in charge rang bells and walked around the room to make an announcement:

    "It is now 9 o'clock. GMs, you may consider your commitment fulfilled; and you are free to go. If you wish to stay longer and keep playing, you may, of course, but don't feel obliged to - you've done well."

  • edited June 2014
    I'll try to be more careful, Paul. I can see how the metaphors (e.g.: not a war but "viral responses") are a bit thick. That bit of rhetoric was intended to be a Harold for the sentence about me bearing a virus near the end. And in a bit of self-reflexive irony, mere use of the word "ego" is practically guaranteed to generate an ego response! That's the way it goes; it goes that way. Allow me to defuse that word a bit.

    I'm not saying I'm the only person who ever said stuff like this. I don't think it's likely that I am. Either way, while reading my words above, if you temporarily stopped trying to literally compare my method to yours or to some other thing you got from somewhere else, and instead try to simply stand in the place I've described - ideology, ephemera, art and all - I think that you already understand me very well. I think you just doubt that it works for me. Like when studying another religion or culture, you may have reservations about believing it literally, right?, but you must endeavor to view it "from the inside" and leave out aspects of your native culture which might skew your understanding due to cognitive dissonance. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about roleplaying or religion or any other cultural construct.

    Now... We know that comparisons will reactively arise in the mind, but if you really want to understand another person, a person who lives in the subject culture and evidently gets along alright, then those reactive comparisons must be set aside. One needs to be disciplined about this, at least temporarily. One can come back to them later, they won't be going anywhere.

    Are we still together so far? Should be, right? Now for the word "ego"...

    It tends to sound pejorative because in common parlance it's tossed about like cabbage. But I assure you there's nothing pejorative in my use of that word. The common parlance has confounded it with "Egotism" - a totally different thing - in one of those unfortunate puddles of our sloppy language.

    Those reactive comparisons I mentioned earlier: They are ego-based in the literal sense, in that they arise unbidden to defend against anything that challenges the structure or threatens the integrity of one's existing world model, a conceptual model with a subjective "I" in the center of it. Totally normal psychology here. That subjective "I" is described by the word "ego", and its defensive functions are known as "ego mechanisms". That is not pejorative. It is not the same as saying "you are an Egotist" - that's a social problem or a neurotic condition, and an entirely different use of the word. I am using it in a neuro-mechanical sense. It takes some mental effort, but we all have an ego, this is what it does, and we can look at it and see it by its actions.

    When I say I am trying to "remove my ego from the equation", this suspension of comparison is a lot of what I mean. I'm the human half of the cyborg, I consider the mechanical half to be neither above me nor below me. While running I become about performance in the technical and artistic sense, I dismiss self-consciousness, I find my gratification in the successful conveyance of a meaningful event for someone else rather than in the production of fun for myself (although direct "fun for myself" still happens quite a lot, I just view it as a happy byproduct when it flows in my direction), I try to avoid comparing what I'm doing to what some other game or author or model says I should be doing, I focus on affecting personally meaningful and non-traumatic experiences within the interior world of each individual player, and I rely on the spirit and mechanics of the rules as a sort of "skeleton" - my own fundamental framework and the default means by which I can do all those things. This allows both me and the system to live in the moment, bringing both our full databanks and function libraries to the table.

    Your Toronto story put a gigantic smile on my face. That is so fucking cool.
  • For what it's worth, I got something out of this, manifesto or not. It gives me reasons to believe that a GM doesn't need to be a charismatic genius or towering teacher-figure, to be able to kindle the imaginations of the players (including theirself)

    Secondly, I don't think this view is the old, default one on GMing (It's possible AsIf disagrees on this though). I don't think it's the standard 80's GMing advice either. For me, the 'modernist' position isn't defending a static, 'mechanical' straw man (some kind of chess computer). It's democratic at it's core (it's accessible to everyone in principle), and mystical (makes you one with the fiction) but rational (it tries to explain).
    This discussion certainly isn't new, art-historically speaking, but it's refreshing to see it, for me.

    (As for GM-less games, which tie into this democracy principle, I think it's interesting to consider it as a way forward, SquidLord. I'm making one myself and I very much enjoy doing that, but I'm afraid that's another subject.)

    Also: a fun evening with some guys that gives me... a fun experience, or a hypercharged quasi-mystical experience of shared fiction and shared art? Seriously, to me that's worth putting some effort into. I don't like second-hand fiction, so I try to be at the place it's happening. If you see stories as instrumental for another goal, fair enough.
  • edited June 2014
    I don't think this view is the old, default one on GMing (It's possible AsIf disagrees on this though).
    I don't disagree at all, though I will say this is something that began splitting off of that in the early 90s, as I was pushing RPG design theory into theater spaces and LARP-like designs. I was basically just as much of an outlier then as I am now. :-)
  • edited June 2014
    As for my view on GM-less games...
    1. They're lots of fun and we (me and both my regular groups) play them very often. I also write them. Let's get that out of the way. But:
    2. They need to decide wtf is the difference between "gm-full" and "gm-less".
    3. No, screw that, they actually need to just use another word.
  • 2. They need to decide wtf is the difference between "gm-full" and "gm-less".
    Here's my take on it. When people say "GM-less", what they 99.5 % of the time have in mind is a rotating game master. I only heard of one game that doesn't have a game master, and that game is Dreamwake.

    I guess GM-full, if that exist, is actually any variants of rotating game master, like having domains in Archipelago or taking turns framing scenes in Fiasco.

    So what is a traditional game with a game master? Well, it's neither -full or -less. It's a game with a game master.

    I think the names of the terms are misleading.
    3. No, screw that, they actually need to just use another word.
    In other words, I agree.
  • I think that particular problem has the thing by the tail: there's not going to be any one way to create or describe a "GMless" game. They're different, and can work in lots of different ways (e.g. Dirty Secrets, A Penny for your Thoughts, etc.) So those should just be, you know, "normal" - describe it as you like. It's the games that DO have a GM which should be considered a specific category - they all have something in common, after all.
  • An excellent perspective.
  • edited June 2014
    Agreed. It's a failure of nomenclature to define something by a negative.
  • I suggest that we call them "Machine Games", then! :P
  • edited June 2014
    I might have made a case for calling GM'd games "cyber games"... Meaning #1: "guided/piloted games"; as well as Meaning #2: "communication system games" (as in "cybernetics"); leading to Meaning #3: "games featuring the fusion of machine systems and human systems". That all sounds much more descriptive, yes? Alas, these days the word "cyber" has been associated with all things internet, as well as becoming a euphemism for sex-chat. *sigh*
  • edited June 2014
    I'm a bit less interested in GM-as-machine, and more interested in "the GM is a good sport". Honestly, a lot of the GM-abuse situations come from GMs who don't respect the game as a game to be played well. The Bad GM often goes hand-in-hand with the "triumph at all costs" personality type.

    To me, that's one of the great things about what Apocalypse World brought to the table: the codification of the idea that a GM needs to be a fan of the players. That's ultimately what being a good sport means: you might have self-interest, but you're also a fan of your opponents.

    I think a GM can be competitive and have agendas, but also be a good sport and not exploit the rules for petty reasons like winning at all costs. You can play hard without being a jerk.

    That said, this view of a GM is definitely baked in tradition. It's not "GM-as-machine" so much as it is "GM-as-referee".
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