Thursday, June 12, 2008

running the game

I'm sharpening my game notes for tomorrow and it got me thinking.

For many years now, I've been the GM (or Gamemaster) of an extended series of role-playing games, with intricate storylines that have taken many years to tell. I love fantasy and I love acting and I love telling stories, so it is an activity I relish - even if, at times, I get fatigued.

Why do I get tired? Well, fundamentally, I do three things: creatives, design and development.


The Creatives part is all about story. This includes the master plot/s, all the characters and characterizations, back stories, and such. This would be a daunting task on its own, especially since my style of creatives favors huge casts, multiple settings and a tremendous amount of drama (as well as comedic elements, of course). My players (changing in names and numbers from high school to college and beyond) who dwell in the world play only their characters - everyone (and everything) else is me. For someone who deprioritizes plot as a discourse element in his fiction writing, I revel in it in the game. I employ a variety of techniques such as seeding, prolepsis, analepsis, vignettes, solo focus as well as dramatic tools (I am still a playwright, after all) for dialogue and so on. This is the part I love best. Since I do not like linear games, I tend to construct plot skeins that go in different tangents; in my world, things go on with or without player participation - while the players may be central to parts of the story, they are not central to everything. My disorganized notes have the ability to delight and dismay me. Since I jot down thoughts as they come and develop them in a very general timeline, there are instances when I recover something I wrote that simply does not make sense anymore, typed in Deanish shorthand (the past Dean assumes the future Dean will get it). Sometimes though, I surprise myself by unearthing a multipage document that reveals, in detail, family histories, love lives and tragedies, complete with names, dates and family trees (those are the times I bless my past self - and wonder where the past Dean found the time to do such a thing).

The Design part of the game has to do with things like magic, artifacts, cultures, cities, philosophies and such. For the ongoing game (named "Imperium"), I created a whole slew of shards with abilities, personas, histories and organizations. For an earlier game, I created a new system of magic, crafting 66 orders of magic with spell lists and techniques. I like the Design part a lot but it isn't my favorite - because I'd rather be telling the story than fiddling with the things in it. But design is very important. A great degree of world building is design-related, and inconsistent design sucks. Thus, I have copious (and terribly sorted) notes on everything that I think is of interest in the game. My design philosophy is simple - it must be interesting to me and to my players, and it must dovetail into the story.

The Development part is my weakness. This is where I dump the rules for the things I've designed - how things work in terms of game systems (whether adopted, adapted or homegrown). This is number crunching, character stats, multiple character sheets, die rolls, charts, tables and so on. The sheer tedium bores the story teller in me (and even the designer) - but this part of gaming is quite important because a system creates consistency, and consistency of experience in vital in gaming. I needed to learn how to put some sort of order in the chaos of my creation (development needs to iron out all the ideas that I come up with, especially when I'm in intuitive idea mode with no patience to look at the small stuff).

In my life as a writer and as a businessman, I've found that I've been able to utilize (and even monetize) all three of my GM skills.

In business, the creatives part is obvious - one of the companies I own makes money based on ideas executed in terms of word and imagery. The design part has helped me handle complex business challenges that require structure and rationales - like nationwide campaigns with different handles for specific doors. Development - my hated number crunching - has proven itself when I deal with financials, and surprise, surprise, I can actually understand income statements, gross margins, percentage contribution of sales and other otherwise braindeadening things. And I am almost never intimidated in meetings with Big Names, because I've roleplayed even bigger entities (haha).

In writing, creatives is once again obvious (although I now ask myself why I veer away from plot and favor other discourse elements in my own fiction). Design weaves into the world-building elements of my stories, but more importantly, permits me to think of story and story elements in a metatextual manner. Development has helped in the business side of my writing, when I act as a publisher, with numbers and logistics to juggle.

And the funny thing is that role-playing games have continuously taken a beating in terms of negative perception. For me, all it has done is to help in my businesses and my writing - as well as provide endless hours of storytelling delight with friends.

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