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.

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