August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:
Today’s question is this:
Which RPG have you played the most in your life?
Taken straight, this is not the most interesting question. My answer is the same as that of many others, I’m guessing: some flavor of D&D.
Or is it?
Technically, I barely “played” any D&D (as a player) at all. I count maybe six sessions spent as a player, divided between the friend who introduced me to the game, a DM I knew in middle school, and someone I knew in undergrad. I played far more sessions of games like Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse than I ever played of D&D, even though I never played in a series of more than ten sessions in a row of either of those World of Darkness games.
So it’s a funny question because I guess a lot hinges on how we define “player” and “play.” I’m going to dig into that a bit.
In fact, I’m going to dig by using questions.
Can we call what GMs do when running a game “playing” that game?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t have access to brain scans of GMs in mid-game, but I think it’s pretty obvious that what they do when running a game is different in quality—through obviously analogous to—what players do when playing an RPG.
Still, we could argue that this is true of people playing different positions in a sports team, too. The pitcher plays a ridiculously different game from the outfielder. I think the analogy here, though, might be whether the coach is playing a game, and that’s an interesting question. The coach certainly has a hand in the outcome of matches, but a lot of the coach’s work happens prior to the game right? The training, the decision-making, the preparations brought to the team.
I think GMs do more than just play these kinds of games. But I think we would be wrong if we excluded what they do from the category of “play” in some absolute or general fashion.
What are the biggest qualitative differences that make GMing so different from what players do?
Well, there’s the obvious, which is true in a lot of groups but not all of them:
- GMs buy the majority of game books
- GMs do the majority of whatever game prep is necessary for a session
- GMs tend to know the rules and to make referee-type calls when they’re needed
- GMs tend to be the ones crafting the setting when a pre-packaged setting isn’t used (and, in reality, often even when one is)
But I think beyond all of that, GMs are doing something cognitively different. Players imagine their characters and whatever stuff in the world they interact with. They’re responsible for an explicable set of motivations and forces controlled by one person (or a small group of people).
GMs grapple with imagining and presenting a world. They’re responsible for all the non-player characters (again, depending on the game) as well as the forces at work in the big picture of that world. They need to have a handle on the setting, on how magic or tech or the forces of evil work in a give game setting, and they need to have ideas about what kinds of conflict can be fruitfully set in play that will give players a good time.
Why do some people become attracted to playing games in the way GMs do?
I’m not exactly sure. When I was a kid, it was just sort of obvious to me that that was the role I wanted: that I wouldn’t be satisfied merely playing a single character (or, rather, a series of single characters). I wanted to read all the books, and know all the rules and systems for making a game session work. It was just inherently attractive to me.
I think, though, there are some character traits that I’ve seen in a fair number of GMs over the years:
- They tend to be very susceptible to compleatism. This has been a boon to the RPG industry, because more casual or even dedicated players aren’t half as compleatist as the GMs I’ve known… and, what do you know, the majority of RPG supplement products are pitched at and sold to GMs, not players.
- They tend to be interested in how games work. That’s not to say players aren’t interested, it’s just that GMs tend to be really interested in this stuff. They will talk with other GMs for long stretches about fiddly issues in games, or about conceptual things, or about all kinds of aspects of a given game.
- They tend to have been bitten by the creative bug. A lot of GMs I’ve known were at least amateur writers, and I’ve known plenty who were professionally published genre writers too. I don’t think it’s really a question of the chicken-and-egg here: I think the same kinds of people who’re attracted to GMing are attracted to creating worlds in stories. Not all—I’ve known GMs who were game hobbyists, and I’ve known writers who were dedicated players but not interested in running games. But I think there’s a fair amount of overlap because the two kinds of pursuits appeal to people of a specific sort of disposition.
Why are you attracted to playing games in this way?
I’m not completely sure I can answer that, just as I’m not completely sure I can explain in rational terms why I’m driven to sit and write fiction at length, and at the cost of a lot of my time and energy. Certainly it’s not the money: fiction (especially short fiction) pays terribly. It’s something else, something deeper, some part of me that really loves to create imaginary worlds and let characters loose within them. Sometimes the characters are ones I’ve thought up and control, and sometimes they’re character other people create and control. Each pursuit offers its own distinctive pleasures.
But whatever it is that is sated by games, it’s deep down: I spent many years away from the hobby, and yet having returned, I feel a kind of satiety from playing—or even from reading game books—that I hadn’t realized I’d been missing for so long.
Would you be willing to “play” (as a player) in someone else’s game, if you had the chance?
Sure, I’d definitely be happy to do that. Though GMing is something I love to do, I will add that it’s nice to take a break, and just worry about one character for a while. I’d totally be willing to do that, and I would definitely have done that if viable opportunities had been available. (When, in undergrad, I finally met another GM, I played in his games with enthusiasm and energy… and unlike some players, I borrowed the rulebooks pertinent to my characters and read them cover to cover.)
I think mostly I GMed the vast majority of games I was involved in for one simple reason: because nobody else volunteered to do the job, and I was happy to do it anyway. Habit has stuck, and I guess it’s emerged as my default way of thinking about games: how would I run this?