RPGaDay 2018 Day 13 - Evolution of my GMing Style over the Years

This is an RPGaDay 2018 Question from my Google+ Archive: "Describe How Your Play has Evolved". I have a note at the bottom, written in 2021, which describes the next step.

Without thinking about it, I just wrote down some phrases that seemed to fit the evolution of my play style. I found that they weren't too far off, so that's where I'm going to start. (And warning...this one is a bit long.)

Revel in the Basics

This was the era of the D&D boxed set in blue-tinted grayscale, and characters that maxed out at 3rd level. It was adventures that I wrote on a blackboard for my little brother, and then my purchase of the "Advanced D&D Dungeon Master's Guide" (which blew my mind) and its two partners (PHB and MM) in the months after. I didn't really know what I was doing, but it was so much fun to do it. The potential of this new hobby and the tidal wave of ideas was just incredible, and I loved every second of it.

Ask Why

This is where things got difficult. I started to wonder WHY there was an orc sitting alone in a room with enough gold to retire on. I started to think about why dungeons existed, why players would get involved in things and why the local townsfolk and nobles would want the players involved. I evolved from creating dungeons to evolving worlds. They weren't good worlds, but they were mine, and they had some very loose logic to them.

I also started gaming with friends on a very regular basis and starting to evolve complex stories. During this time, I made some mistakes...some even serious, and there were some hard-learned lessons at this time. I started to evolve my thinking: gaming as a competition between GM and Player, game balance, understanding what the players wanted, and trying to fit those things without ruining either the campaign or the fun of others. These were some of my best and hardest times, but they led me to the next phase.

Playing with the Best

This is where I got to college and started playing with people who weren't just into playing with me but had their own backgrounds, worlds, playstyles, and game philosophies. Instead of being competitive, we learned from each other. We upped the quality of our games (literally).

Not long after this, I also started going to GenCon; I played new systems and started to understand gamer culture before it was trendy. As I ran D&D games for the RPGA and played with others, I realize now, that I had really evolved to be both a good player and a good GM.

Story over Rules

The steps above are really about becoming better at the hobby. Here, I began to evolve my own style. What I realize now is that I like running cinematic games. I like wild descriptions that are supported by the rules, and if bending the rules is necessary to allow a given action, I'm inclined to do it.

As I mentioned in previous essays, I have a game that ran for over seven years, from 2nd level through 17th. It was an epic story that ran across the world, through time, into children's stories, through the planes, and ultimately to a city of Illithid. Making this story successful required that the story, and the players' place in it, be the focus of my efforts--and that their investment in the story was both critical to success, and would support any problems.

I wouldn't be the first GM to fudge a die roll behind the screen, in the interest of a story, but the importance of having fun with a good story became my top priority.

There are Always More Monsters

This led me to the rules-light games, especially Numenera. While I still have my 3.5 game on Thursdays, I learned so much from reading a book with twelve pages of core rules.

I learned about using light rules to encourage players to try things. I learned about the importance of the story, and rules as just a supporting mechanism to it. And in a single reading, one of Monte Cook's adages got drilled into my head: "There are always more monsters." In other words, don't worry about the story you planned for. Let the party have their easy kill of your boss mob--especially if their good strategy or some lucky rolls get them great results; that's wonderful! There will always be more monsters down the road.

The key lesson here was not just the value of cinematic storytelling or even story-over-rules. It's that the SHARED story that is being told is what's really important--and that means the player's contribution to the story is as important as anything you bring as a GM.

Character-Driven Story

This brings me to my final step, and where I am now. Once again, Monte Cook Games has evolved my thinking. This time, it's with the Invisible Sun game. People have asked me to describe it, and my initial answers weren't great...magic is ubiquitous; the world we're in is just a shadow; you are one of the vislae: none of which is particularly compelling. And after reading all the books, and running it, I understand more fully "It's a surreal world of magic, where the story is defined by whatever the players want their characters to try."

Monte calls it out explicitly: "This isn't the type of game you are used to." but it took me reading everything to really get it. There are character bonds that mean something. There are character arcs that aren't just fun--they are fundamental to the whole game. They give players a specific goal in a sandbox world--whether they succeed or just as likely, fail.

It's such an obvious and important concept, I honestly don't know how I can go back to other systems without bringing it along.

My recent 3.5 campaign arc ended with a major disruption to the mythology, through the ascension of three new gods which throws the cycles out of balance--and the players appear to be involved or at least connected. In the past, I would have written the next part of the story. This time I'm going to start by asking: What do you want to try to accomplish?

A month ago, I'd have firmly been in the previous "always more monsters" phase. And I'm only starting to understand how to use these new tools. But they are so clearly "right" that it is definitely the next evolution of my playstyle.

Post-Archive Addendum

In the three years since I wrote the above, my style has continued to evolve and continued to be focused on ever more character-driven campaigns. I still like and use module-style adventures for one-offs and demos, but if I'm telling a long-term story with players, I let them direct what they want to do--and create situations and events that tie into that. I've also started learning how to encourage and reward such behavior, and am learning how to control all the new campaign information that comes from giving each player hosts of relevant NPCs, family members, personal side-plots, and so on. This may lead to a new phase of evolution that I'd call "different prep" but we'll see in 2022 and beyond.


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