GM responsibility and constraints on PC backgrounds

Some various thoughts about GM constraints on world building vs Player Character backgrounds over at Facebook.LoGaS

Christopher LaHaise says:

The thing is, I prefer not having to extrapolate as a game master. If it isn’t explicitly said in the game book, then it doesn’t ‘exist’ officially. And I like things being tidy and official. I’ve noticed with LoG&S I’ve had to do a lot of extrapolating, and this kind of annoys me from time to time, because it means if I’m comparing notes between my view of how RAW with another GM, there’s going to be crossed wires. And that might become more problematic when we’re talking characters.

‘Well, my character did XYZ, because of these reasons’.
‘Err, that kind of physics doesn’t work in my setting, because of these other reasons’.
‘Huh’.

For example – how does a Gossamer L&L (Lord or Lady–ed.) take over a world and ‘claim it’? Is it a ritual? Is it just by being there long enough? Is it sheer force of will? Do they have to go someplace special? Does it involve use of power? All of these? None of these?

How does a L&L make artifacts? How do they make companions? Where do these come from? This is the kind of thing I often wonder as a game master, and what I REALLY want to know as a player.

IMC (in my campaign), the GM is very involved with approval of PC creation and background. This is not always the case with other GMs I’ve played with. Sometimes, a GM asks if you have questions, and if you don’t, the GM says ‘ok we start next weekend’ and you are off and running.

Christopher’s question above, touches on a reason why I consistently want to know more about your PC, and generally ‘sign off’ on what you have written into the PC’s backstory. Because every Player in my game is authoring legends and possibilities to the universe just by creating a Player Character. If I cannot wrap my head around the idea of your PC, or the legends that brought them into the game, then I’m not going to be as supportive of your intent as Player.

And that’s not good for the game, the GM, or the group going forward. That is a misunderstanding waiting to happen.

Case in point:

I write and run many convention games. I review the PC creations (weeks before the game is run) even though we are only likely to play that game for 4 to 6 hours. In recent memory, I ended up with a complete disconnect in the game as run between the Player intent and the GM narrative, even though I had exchanged a half dozen lengthy emails with the Player about the PC background to hone the creation process and wrap my head around what the Player wanted.

The Player made clear that the PC was very fond of outwitting Royals of Amber, and sticking it to them in their areas of expertise. But the PC was always willing to help ‘fix up’ the pranks and conflicts that resulted from showing up the Royal. The PC was supposed to be a ‘shake hands and all’s fair’ sort, within the Family Game.

But in actual play, behind the scenes of this PC legend, there were forces set into motion to take down this PC because of the string of successes and public pranks inflicted on the powerful. Payback was brewing.

End result, things blew up, and yet the Player was sideswiped by a storyline he did not see coming. The Player did not have fun, and I had to apologize for a rough finish to the game over the disconnect between us.

The importance of the anecdote is not just GM fallibility, but the idea that helping clarify the PC concept gives both sides better idea of the narrative and ‘fences’ of the story to come. Without some idea of PC backstory ‘why?’ and legend, you don’t have fuel for immersive narrative collaboration.

Now the other part of Christopher’s question is about what is ‘official’ and what isn’t between the rules, the game, and other GMs. What does the rule set say about creating things the rules have not specifically included?

Well. Um.

Actually, while Lords of Gossamer and Shadow is a step up in clear communication from the predecessor Amber Diceless Role Playing Game, the power of a diceless game and the collaborative space between a GM and Player is the actual fuel for expanding and making the game your own. So specifically, if the Player doesn’t write it into their background, it does not exist in the Player’s half of the collaborative space.

That does not mean it doesn’t exist in the GM’s half of that collaboration. It has to.

So the answer to Christopher’s question is, extrapolate the missing info, or invent something, or ask more questions of the Player, and/or provide a placemark in your GM notes for the Universe to have some mechanism for answering that missing info. So like some twisted version of the old Champions game, you do have to pick your ‘special effects’ with your PC story.

Did your PC legend come from scifi or magic? Well then, your dominion of a Gossamer world probably involves that same source. The hitech gal learns the ultimate hack codes. The sorcerer supreme fella finally takes over from the Ancient One.

Does your companion have special powers in a mundane package? Again you really should get the Player to tie this into their back story. How did you meet the shapeshifter horse you ride through the Grand Stair? Where did you acquire the golden belt that becomes a 30 foot tall beast?

My GM solution to gaps in the rules (or a PC’s back story) is that this is where the GM has to step up and make it all reinforce the narrative. How can I strengthen the story? How can I speed up the game? How can I make the group thread together more strongly? How can I illustrate the wonder of the Grand Stair through these little details, and also make it more exciting for me to be part of the canvas shepherding this narrative along?

For the Player or GM that finds this kind of sudden improvisation rather challenging or producing anxiety, it may be good to have a cheat sheet list of mysteries/narratives that can source your answer.

This list might be a genre list, or something from the Tropes wiki so you can avoid cliche. Perhaps showing this to the Player prompts them to give the GM the missing bit of info, or a promise to write up a little paragraph about the Artifact or Extra Power.

And then you can decide how it fits into the Greater Puzzles the Player does not know about yet.

Save

Crossing the Forbidden, and not Breaking the Universe, and GM responsibility

Some various thoughts about Shapeshifting in the LoGaS discussion group.LoGaS

The short answer is, yes, I’ve used these (shapeshifting) rule tweaks in my campaign and in convention play. I try not to use convention play for any examples, because I feel Players in a 4 to 8 hour game that only happens once (or maybe continues) will do madcap things and make choices that are certainly NOT long-term immortal mindset.

YMMV

IMC (in my campaign), the GM is very forthcoming with OOC warnings, and impartial to Players going across forbidden lines where they might/shall lose control of some aspect of their PC. Sometimes that becomes a story about ‘getting back’ to normal once the crisis is over. Sometimes it becomes a learning experience where the PC discovers something new about themselves.

Generally, I find Players do NOT want their PC changed by the GM and so they take these warnings seriously. In conventions, I see a more mixed reaction, where the Player may see more ‘spotlight time’ if they take the chance and dance across the Forbidden. There are certainly some Players who are OK torturing their PC concept and grabbing more face time with the GM.

As I say above, I’m pretty open and informative as a GM. I consider my advice to Players as not only their own Expertise (Attribute wise and/plus immortal experience) but also I definitely want it to be more than clear that if you go into a Forbidden Art, you may find you lose something of your original PC concept. Or you may find something new and wondrous about your PC, or perhaps you’ll just be trapped in a story line about how much your PC regrets having pulled that trigger. As seems obvious in the rulebook, owning a power sometimes means living with a certain forced perception.

As the GM, I’m your partner in perception. Just like Stuff changes how you interact with the Universe, and how people tend to see your PC, I think bigger pools of power, Exalted, or Primal, or Terrifying, etc, will tend to warp your PC’s perceptions to align with the power.

In other words, is Dworkin mad, or does he just see the Universe in a way no one else does?

GM responsibility here is not to steal authority from the Player or deprotagonize him/her, but to act as the altered perception filter. This is certainly dangerous territory for the Game Master. A bit too much, and the Player thinks you’ve ruined the PC. A bit too little, and it appears the Universe rewards crazy risks with insane amounts of unearned power.

What is the guide? Most rules do not actually address crossing the line into Forbidden Arts.

I think the guide is actually story tension. The GM and the Player both want the story to have tension. It isn’t going to be fun if the choices are gone. It’s not going to be fun if the tension is gone, or if the GM keeps saying, ‘No, your new bloodlust means you attack your friends on sight’. At the same time, it cannot be ALL FUN because there are costs to breaking the Forbidden. And the PC cannot be unchanged because they DID choose to touch/claim/swallow the Forbidden.

It’s also not bad if the other PCs are now looking at the changed PC as if they are a train wreck. Story tension, in effect, for everyone.

Review & Thoughts: Doctor Strange (2016)

Hey here’s a way to show you the goods without you having the read this whole thing. A very good friend/critic I’ve known for years put out a ranked list of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films as part of a Dr Strange review. I loved his list and thought I’d do my own, before I talk about Dr. Strange (2016).

!Captain America!
Avengers
Iron Man I
Captain America: the Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Thor
Doctor Strange
—Threshold of Awesome–
Captain America: Civil War
Avengers II
Ant-Man
Iron Man III
Thor II
Iron Man II
The Incredible Hulk

So there you are, films ranked as they contribute to the whole and stand on their own, not really going to chat about it, per say, but if you think my list is wacky you can stop now before the review.

Here there be spoilers:

I’ve read a lot of reviews for the film before I saw it in theaters. And I read a lot of comments on the Facebook for the film from my circle of friends. Generally, both places really liked the film, and for the most part, they focused on the visual story being told, often from the viewpoint of high marks for effects and connection with the original source material as conceived by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (genius!).

Dr Strange impressed the critics (and my friends) but the critics also often made a side comment directed at Marvel, “hey, we’ve seen this before”. And the implication, the subtext, is pretty easy to see, and to me, a very cultural American sideways compliment: “Marvel, loved it, but really, you’ve jumped the shark”.

Setting aside, that every critic wants to be on the good side of “I knew the MCU was headed downhill when I saw…”, I’m going to address my thoughts about the film, and then directly counter the entire competition aspect with other MCU films that many people will insist on making, because hey, that’s just who we are as fans and critics and long-time aficionados. Yes, it could have had stronger parts for women (but hey, Swinton was amazing). Yes, it could have been more true to the original casting of Eastern ethnic wisdom (but hey, it was so OBVIOUS that all the Enlightened masters were diverse and interesting, generally more so than Stephen.)

This is a great movie, well deserving to stand next to the rest of Marvel’s collective work. The script accomplishes an amazing amount of the original material, and better yet, actually refreshes it in a way that makes it much more accessible to audiences in general, and audiences like me, who poured through the original comics back in the day.

Dr. Strange has always been a bit of a sore thumb in the Marvel comics pantheon. He sometimes gets included in the most important, thoughtful ‘crossovers’ between the brightest and brainiest leaders of the Marvel supers (as he should), but he sometimes just isn’t around. I could spend a lot of time talking about how Difficult a character he is to write for, but perhaps you might take some time to read the entire web site devoted to writing for Dr. Strange instead. It has some really clever points.

Suffice it to say, from my point of view, Dr Strange is not actually a super hero like any of the ones that we’ve seen in the MCU.

In fact, if you do a bit of research, you’ll find that (like the Fantastic Four) Dr Strange has been translated into animated films, and previous TV and other efforts. These works have all pretty much been modest and then forgotten.

I do not think this film, 2016, will be forgotten. And it is not modest. It goes right back to the heart of the original story and grabs big handfuls of that wondrous stuff and drags it kicking and screaming 50 some years into the future. I could digress and talk about how many film failures there are for material written 50 years ago, but then, clever writers have done the job and made it work over and over. Dr Strange may be a little less accessible than most of these, Superman, Batman, Captain America. There is a list of American heroes that have been cherished, and some that have grown on us slowly, and a very few that suddenly stuck, like webbing, to our sense of fun and ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Dr Strange is none of these.

I’ll go a bit further. Dr Strange is not Tony Stark. It amazes me when I see the criticism that Marvel is retelling us Tony Stark’s origin in this movie. Because if that was the case, I would not have enjoyed this film at all.

The two stories have a brisk superficial resemblance (snarky white guy proves better than all others despite any challenge), and yet, when you look at the journey, they are from different places and going different places. I cannot stick to merely the films to prove this case. Both films are really good. Both actors are uncanny in their willingness to freshen the material. Downey has both captured Tony Stark and actually upgraded his story. But again, I cannot sing the Praises of Iron Man and get to what I want to say about Dr Strange.

But consider this:

Tony Stark is a genius, son of a genius, and his talents are at such a level that he is in fact SUPER before he ever invents the Iron Man armor. Stark discovers, personally, the tools he creates and the resulting chaos of war chews up good people. His creations make misery. Tony creates unstoppable mayhem because he excels at his gadgets and everybody (largely his own country, but really everyone) wants his toys. What does he learn? He learns a good fellow having a good life can actually be completely a dick because he never bothers to leave his circle of wonderful, his privileged neighborhood. And what does he do with this knowledge? Does he realize that with great power comes great responsibility? No. Does he stop being a dick? Well, no. He becomes superdick. And he stops making weapons available so he can decide who is going to have the best toys. That’s a lot of his journey; a very American hero, sure of his privilege and genius.

Captain America just threw up. Sorry, Cap.

Dr Strange has a different journey. Stephen Strange is an asshole. Stephen doesn’t seem to come from wealth. His dad was not a genius. His childhood was not one of wonder. (The original origin does not cover this and the movie presents us only with the adult, so everything I’m saying is reverse engineering.) Stephen is keeping score with material possessions (a sign he was not always wealthy.) Stephen is keeping score on Everything. He saves people who others say cannot be saved. He sets the bar higher when he’s mastered a level of amazing surgical technique. He doesn’t much have time for anything else in his drive to be the most amazing surgeon ever. He has to read the latest science. He has to know more than everyone around him.

People look up to him because he is really talented. But Stephen knows it is hard work as much as talent. He has earned his privilege.

And what happens? Unlike Tony Stark, who is caught up in the Fire he has often himself made, Stephen is smashed by carelessness, arrogance, and I guess we have to say Fate. Stephen makes a single mistake and crushes his own abilities, and his hands. It is his fault. There are no terrorists. No bad guy. Boom! Game over, Dr Strange. You are no longer special.

You are broken beyond repair.

I cannot see the two stories of Stark and Strange in anything like the same terms. And the Marvel bosses driving this film get that. They hammer it home.

So now what is Strange’s journey? Well, Stephen thinks it is all about him. He’s not broken. He can fix it. He has money, friends, colleagues, etc. And he’s wrong. It is not something to be fixed. And then he burns through all his money and all his friends. And he is desperate and savagely angry.

And he is still an asshole. And this puts him on another path. Because… Stephen is such an asshole, that a therapist cruelly wants Stephen to know he is wrong. There was a patient worse off than Stephen who got better. Someone did what Stephen cannot do. Someone got fixed.

This information sends Strange on the fated journey, to find out how the impossible is possible. Strange is no hero. He is a broken man. He’s not wealthy any longer. He’s not talented any longer. He has ruined himself. And it is still all about him.

Enter the Ancient One. Hey, if you are still reading this, you can enjoy the rest of the movie and come back to finish this review later. I’ll wait.

Dr Strange in the comics doesn’t often use his fists. He doesn’t always win. And in the early days of his adventures, he often barely got out of situations with his skin because he defended the world against really big scary threats from other Realities. He did have a community behind him. He was a student, promising, of the Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme of the Mystic Arts.

One of the best parts of the early Dr Strange books was, he had a teacher, a long relationship, and he was always learning just HOW STRANGE the universe was.

You cannot quite do that in a two hour movie. But they did manage to give you that sense of time stretching out. The learning sequences here are subtle and seasonal and pretty nicely handled. They may not explicitly say …seasons pass…. but it is interesting and effective to me, knowing the material.

So what does the film accomplish that makes it good?

Well, I for one, expect a Dr Strange movie to be weird in a way that will give Thor a jolt or cause Heimdall to raise an eyebrow. This movie does that.

I expect a Dr Strange movie to have a villain who is accomplished, talky, and probably better than Strange at obscure powers. This movie does that too. Indeed, it could be said that the villain is more understandable than Stephen Strange. (Critics disagree, finding the writing shallow and the performance ok. I think they are wrong, I’ll get to that.)

I want a Dr Strange movie to give me pause from all the other MCU stuff going on. I want the plot to make me start worrying about things I know the other supers are NOT watching and cannot be expected to defeat. This movie really does that.

This is a really first class Dr Strange movie. Go see it if you are a fan, and if you are not a fan, well you may have some of the reservations that critics had. Maybe you’ll agree Marvel has jumped the shark.

This movie is not a summer blockbuster. And really, Dr Strange is not quite an action thriller guy (there’s even a few explosions!) But what Dr Strange is supposed to be is mostly captured in this well constructed film. On top of that, there are great character moments for the cast. A villain that is convincing and misguided. A teacher that is a fine example to her students.

And the hero’s journey? Perhaps the reason this film will not be considered a major success is exactly the choice that Strange makes in the film. You see, very late, he learns something shocking, and then even more shocking. (That’s a great Dr Strange thing, by the way, always reveal the unexpected.) And Stephen Strange chooses NOT to recapture his wonderful life. He can be the man he was, can be healed, can fix the impossible. But if he does, he walks away from having his Third Eye open and spends his magic healing his hands. He really wants that old life. He wants to save lives and be the marvelously talented surgeon, but… he finds out that it isn’t all about him. He has changed. He takes on a bigger burden, a calling. And he loses his old life.

And Tony Stark? He’s still a dick.

movie grade: A, go see it and enjoy the story.

no drama, just make it stop

Linked article that is important for gamers to understand and think about. Trigger warnings for Harassment.

So here’s the thing, I’m not the most observant guy, and I don’t game much outside of a select group of very nice people, but to my great sadness this is real and happens every day. While I feel there’s little I can do about such shallow juvenile Terrorism, if you ever have questions, or need help, whether you are in one of my games or not, I will listen and take action. This kind of Social Terror should be talked about and I’m glad that gaming events I go to have harassment policies that they talk about.

Article: Gaming has a Terrorism Problem.