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Big Stakes GMing: Gamble Everything

February 6, 2014

I’m prepping for the last session in a game arc.  It’s… going to be hectic.  I’m excited and scared, because no matter what happens… the setting will be massively changed from here on out.

Losing Control to have fun

One of the biggest bits of bad GMing advice that has run throughout the years is the focus on “keeping control”.  Although part of it stems from trying to force people to play games they don’t really want to play, the other part is really just the idea that fun only comes from the GM and the GM must “protect” the setting, the NPCs, the as-yet-still-to-occur events they’ve prepped, etc.

It’s backwards thinking, though.  The role of the GM is to give opportunities to the players to DO THINGS.  It’s pretty obvious why your hobby would have a hard time if the core activity is spending hours to have one person keep you from doing interesting things for the majority of your time.

When I GM, I’ve got some ideas of which way it COULD go, but it just as often goes somewhere I didn’t expect at all – and that makes it fun.

One Big Target

One great piece of advice in Apocalypse World is, “Put a bullseye on everything”.  Don’t protect your NPCs, don’t protect your setting.  The players WILL break it, change it, destroy it.

Ultimately, everything you create as the GM is a target.  And targets are meant to be shot.

A lot of railroading or “fear of losing control” is a cascading series of protecting the very things that need to be open for change for the players to actually… play.

Consider Minecraft – it’s a game where the primary joy is the sense of accomplishment you get from building things, from changing the world.  You get to look at what you did and know you had a hand in it.   Now, if you’ve got this amazing setting, full of evils to fix and good things to protect, but you don’t let the players do just that?

Building Up the Stakes

So, a lot of what my games revolve around are things happening in the setting.  Sometimes it’s small scale (“What happens to your sister?”) to massive (“An angry god is about to rampage.”).

The trick to it is that you end up finding out what things the players care about and that’s what you revolve the stories around.   That’s not always “threaten or kidnap”… a lot of the most charged conflict comes out of simply having an NPC think less of a PC.

What it is the players care about, becomes worthwhile stakes.  And the choices and actions they take around it, should have a lasting effect.  If they protect or improve it, it should be changed for the better in a meaningful and enduring way.  If they fail to protect it, or if they harm it, it should be messed up or destroyed in a lasting way as well.

The elements of your setting -the NPCs, the locations, the local factions – are the things the players can look at and say, “I did that!” with pride or regret.  And we learn a little bit about what their characters are made of – what they’ll sacrifice and what’s most important to them in the process.

When we talk about Illusionism being exhausting to run? It’s because as the GM you do all this work and at the end of it, you don’t get to experience the joy and delight of the unknown story – of anxiously wanting to see how it turns out because, you, too, have no idea how exactly it will end.

Anything you create?  You are gambling.  You are throwing it on the table and saying, “This is fair game.  I might lose everything.  Show me what you’ve got.  Let’s play!”

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