A New Hope

(This is a post by Fang Langford, from the Forge in 2003. I’m reposting it here to preserve and share it.)

There seems to be a great conflict. One side is screaming: Let the damned player do what he damn well feels like! This is Star Wars, not Star trek! What kind of GM tries to control their players anyway? The other side is screaming: Eric! You need to set priorities and stick to them! STICK TO THEM!

It really is interesting. I think that I wanted the latter. I think I’ll try a bit of the former next session.

I see no conflict at all. Put letting the player do what suits them and Star Wars at the top of your priorities. After that comes things like ‘spread the spotlight’ and ‘pacing, pacing, pacing.’

At least I saw no conflict until…

Absolutely, the fact you would even consider forcing a player to do anything is a serious problem with the way you’re approaching GMing.

This confuses me. A GM who has no control over the player’s actions has no control over the game. Even if you don’t believe in illusionism, it is hard for me to understand the concept of “zero GM control”.

The mistake you are making is onto everything we’ve said here, you’ve projected your obsession with the gamemaster who controls the game. Forget it. Leave it behind. A gamemaster who controls the game is an attention-starved author who should be writing, not gaming.

The very first thing you need to do to improve as a gamemaster is strike from you mind the idea that the gamemaster should control the game. That alone is probably responsible for every one of your conflicts with the players and the source of your own lack of pleasure in gamemastering.

You know what happens when you don’t control the game? Back in Scattershot, we call that sharing. That’s right, a bunch a guys get together with some rules and share creating a cool game. The two best pieces of advice I can offer is don’t plan and don’t plan.

Don’t plan out what game will do (they go here, they go there, they do this, the end). Any time you do that you are assuming two things; your ideas are inherently better and that the players ‘not knowing’ will keep them from screwing up a wonderful plan. Sooner or later we call that ‘railroading’ because the players eventually catch on that they’re only being taken for a ride.

You want to gamemaster something that comes out like A New Hope? All you need is the character write-ups (one lives on a farm, another is a hermit, the third lives by his wits from payload to payload, and the last – a non-player character – has the plans), some vague idea where things will climax (the death star), and that’s it.

You set the stage by giving the plans to the robots and the robots to PC#1 to give to PC#2. What do the players do? PC#1 wants to go ‘back to the farm,’ not cool – think of something on the fly – blow up the farm! Okay now they’re off on the quest. Cut to the chase, don’t bother actually giving them a choice who to hire simply run the scene until their sitting at the table with PC#3 (maybe a little cool lightsabre action for just color). Scene starts getting to slow with ‘negotiations;’ time for stormtroopers to show up. Why? Um, um; oh yeah, the lightsabre antics. Toss in a scene with a bounty hunter to make PC#3 feel cool (for no more reasons than pacing, remembering the character write-up, and to ‘push things’ not just forward, but in any direction). Off they go….

Next you need to put some punch into the ‘what are the plans for;’ Alderaan is gone when they get there. Was this a part of some plan? Is the gamemaster controlling the game. Heck no, it was late and you realized that a bunch of sneaky stuff planetside would be boring. You can blow up planets on the fly, you’re the gamemaster. Next, capture them by the ‘big bad evil thingie.’ Don’t even run it, just tell the ‘now your captured and in the hold, think of something cool to keep yourselves out of the brig.’

And they do, soon their hacking the deathstar and sneaking around in stolen stormtrooper costumes. The plan? That they’d come up with something cool and they did. (‘Where did you get those hidey holes?’ Um, um; I’m a smuggler right?) They’ll need to do something while they’re there; and things are picking up a lot of pace; what’s left? Save the princess and destroy the fortress. Okay, that puts the princess on the deathstar; did you plan her there? No, you thought she’d be somewhere planet side or something, it hardly matters now. So off hoots R2D2, “she’s here, she’s here; I found her” and away they go.

Confronting the guards in the brig is stupid with a capital ‘S.’ But damn cool, go for it. Just let ’em get her, why not? You can always have the reinforcement beating down the doors as they leave if you need the tension. And that garbage disposal thing? Who saw that coming? The players make up something on the spot, you didn’t even consider space station sewage, but having them in the trash compactor is a great place to let them squirm and then just let them go. A few more chase scenes and since they haven’t invented a destruction for the fortress, you just let them escape. (But hey, Bob isn’t gonna be there next week, let’s kill off PC#2 just to ‘up the ante.’)

And so on. None of it is a matter of planning but simply responding to player choices (which are actually inventions with things like the compactor) and continually turning up the tension level and the pacing.

That’s really all there is to it. Don’t plan; don’t get hung up on cool places or cool villains so much that only a railroad will take the player to them. Remember let the players decide where to go and just put the maguffin in their way along the way. (In the above, you had some nasty fortress; you didn’t ‘control’ them to there, you kept moving it ‘on the board’ so it was in front of them. Think about it; at any time, did the movie goers know where the deathstar was relative to the motion of the characters? Only when they used the word Alderaan, you could just as easily establish that after the fact when play is done.)

So what I am saying is that you make your own conflict by deciding that ‘you know better’ and should be ‘in control’ of the game. I’m not surprised you didn’t have fun, they weren’t being obedient little characters like when you write a story.

So pick one: gamemaster or sole-author, ya can’t have both.

Fang Langford



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