Thursday, July 8, 2010

Not Just a Number

Luke’s comments about my ongoing D&D game, contrasting them with his own experiences, have made me pick up a proposition I made elsewhere a while ago, and reconsider it. Namely; is the GM’s style and personality a far greater determinant of a player’s game experience than system or setting?

My D&D 4e game may use all the bells and whistles of 4e (power cards, action points, milestones etc.) but, fundamentally, the game experience for me is very similar to 3.5, 3e and 2e, because the GM’s influence on the game, his NPC’s, the setting, and the types of encounters that he runs (epic) have always been pretty much the same. Yes, I think about my PC in different ways, and we have different tactical options (more immediate and less strategic IMHO) in this edition, but for me at least, that isn’t a massively significant element.

I then consider my own experience. I recently completed An Eye for an Eye, an intro scenario for my WFRP 3e players. It’s a fairly straightforward scenario with an investigation sandwiched between two fights. Now, I suspect that the investigation component wouldn’t be radically different then if I were running Call of Cthulhu, there are NPC’s who must be questioned and clues obtained. Yes, the setting is different (The Old World rather than New England), but I’m not sure that it’d really be a significant difference to the players experience of the encounter.

Then we get to the combat. As the GM I found it to be a fairly challenging time, the PC’s eliminated the initial bad guys in record time (the Waywatcher shot and killed 3 in a single action), but then had an extremely tough time with the subsequent foes. I found that running this part of the fight was very hard work, as there was quite a lot of system to get my head around. I need to make sure that the PC’s are using their actions correctly, and that they include the bad guys ‘defence’ value in their dice pool each time, apply any fatigue or delays that result from their roll, allocate damage if the attack hits and then be able to narrate the action. Then, for the bad guy’s actions I need to select an action, place charge counters if necessary, build a dice pool, queue a PC defence - and factor it into the pool, roll and assess if the attack hits, and then see if anything else is triggered by the result, attribute any wounds and critical and narrate the action. And I need to do that for each bad guy. At the end of the game I was exhausted.

All that work, made the fight feel very different for me than a similar type of Cthulhu encounter. Indeed it felt very different from most other kinds of combat’s I’ve run, but I wonder if the players found the experience to be significantly different from other games? If so, I wonder if once we’ve played more, and are more comfortable with the system, if it will still seem significantly different from a Cthulhu encounter…

In short, I’m coming to believe that the system and setting of a game may seem like a significant element for a GM, even the most significant element, but from a player’s viewpoint, I wonder if the same is true. GM style, ability and personality seem like they must be a far greater influence, and I’m not sure these change dramatically from game to game.


  1. I agree that a GM's style, ability and personality have a far greater influence on a game than system or setting. However, I disagree that these change dramatically from game to game unless the GM so chooses.

    In my opinion, my style consciously changes depending on what system I am using. I try and listen to what the system is trying to get the best from it by highlighting the advantages and moving away from the disadvantages. I have at times moved considerably far from my normal style to experiment with new ideas.

    This is particularly in recent years where RPGs are much more explicit and communicative about what kind of style suits them best.

    On saying, I am sure I have some common elements in my approach as a GM given that this hobby is an ongoing experience and not able to be broken down into discrete blocks.

    Also my style has changed over time as I learn, test and experience new ideas. How could it not? I tend to find that I go through periods where I actively push my boundaries (which tend to be hard and require more effort) followed by periods of reaping the benefits of that by subsuming the new ideas, apporaches and tools into my style.

  2. Well, for my hypothesis to hold, neither you nor I could be accurate on the manifestation of system and stye in our own games. Also I'm not sure you or I could be considered typical of GM's.

    Nevertheless, I take your points about the evolution of your style and your views on how you have interacted differently with different games; I'm more skeptical about game itself being more explicit or clear about the experience they expect you to deliver - I think that's more about how closely you engage with a particular system and supporting material and assoicated community. People will ultimately buy into or out of a system as much as suits them, and this IMHO is all about their style as a GM, kind of group they run for and stage in life.

  3. I think we get pretty close to agreement on this, though I suspect that "style" is so spongy as to hide the point of contact.

    For example, there are a number of RPGs that were explicit that I ran as written and found not to my preferences (and subsequently dropped). On saying that, I don't think I would persevere with a system that was contrary to my preferences. So from that POV I agree with you.

    Another thing that's worth noting is that many RPGers want multiple things from RPGs at the same time. As such, it is possible to be running two or more seperate RPGs using a different style.