Saturday, November 10, 2018

A Theoretical Manifesto

It's been a really long time since I've written on GMing. Part of that has to do with having a kid, leaving the Army, moving, and changing jobs; it's hard to GM when you've got so much going on. But, thanks to the wonders of The Burning Wheel and The Whitehack and solo campaigns, I'll be starting not two campaigns soon, but three. I've had some time to think about my methods and madnesses, and this is my manifesto: people need structure, ring plots are awesome, re-incorporate often!

People need structure. I don't mean structure as in "this is what the players are going to be doing today". That's called rail-roading. What I mean is that people, narratively, flourish with a structure that the GM follows. Now I'm assuming a Burning Wheel-esque structure: character sets Beliefs and Instincts and the GM challenges them, as opposed to the GM coming up with a plot to walk the players through. This means deciding, ahead of time, how you, the GM, are going to challenge the character(s) in a general fashion. And when I say general I think I should say "vague". The way I like to conceptualize what I'm talking about is to use Story World cards. The image draws up associations, which can be used to throw at the players' BITs.

If someone was to have a  Belief I must stop my brother the Duke, no matter the cost and I had that card to challenge the player with, I'd try and show just how similar the two brothers really are. I'd take the other two Beliefs the character had and copy them exactly. If one of the Duke's minions is an evil douche have the Duke punish the guy, publicly, in a manner the player agrees with. Have the Duke be horrified by any bad outcomes from his actions, whatever they may be, and swear to fix them. And do this for all of the Beliefs for everyone in the game. The thing is that this card can create completely different outcomes.

Ring plots are awesome. So the cards alone aren't going to be enough, because how do you balance all of this out? The point of a structure is to provide something that doesn't move so players can feel free to riff off of it. But some variance is needed; you can't just go and do the one card, over and over again. There needs to be a structure to the images, a series to run the campaign on. You can pick any structure you like, I suppose- 4 act, 3 act, matters little- but I like the ring cycle, as popularized by Star Wars. It can be summed up as Introduce, Subvert, and Re-Introduce, summed up as two cards. Determine how many sessions you're going to play each card. For a Burning Wheel game I suggest 4 sessions a card.

  1. Introduce-  Using a card, lay out a new situation for the player. Use the card and the Beliefs at the table to craft this scenario. There is much less science to this than art, feeling out what about the Beliefs and the card evoke from you. Each session advance the plot using the imagery on the card. Again, play it loosey-goosey with how you challenge. If you think a dog in an image should be used for loyalty in one session and cowardliness in the next, then who cares? Do it. You've got several sessions to play around with the image. Regardless of how you play around with it, this card is used to mollify the players. Whatever their Beliefs are, treat them as if they are utterly true! Let the players cement themselves into their convictions, playing with them very little. Let them feel secure for awhile.
  2. Subvert- This the card that knocks your players over. Destroy them with everything you have. Take these sessions to utterly contradict everything the players throw at you. You've spent several sessions allowing the players to build their stuff and to trust that their points of view are correct. Destroy their confidence.
  3. Re-Introduce- Now take your first card and introduce the same kind of stuff you did before, but flipped with the subversion in mind. Combine the two cards, with the first card being taking precedence. Go for tying up loose ends. You've laid down the groundwork and then destroyed it, now use all the pieces and bring it to a conclusion.
Re-incorporate often! Once you've laid down the Introduction step revisit those things. When in doubt, use a previously existing element in a new way, as opposed to introducing completely new things, whole cloth. It's always a good idea to take an old toy and break it and bash it up or build it up. This creates a sense of continuity and helps the players feel like they're in a world. And it will make them confident in doing whatever it is they like, knowing that you will honor their contributions before adding any of your own.

This will, in theory, create a good 12 session arc for Burning Wheel, or any other game. You can create a second arc by swapping the order of the two cards and running the players through the steps discussed above. Want another arc? Reverse the cards again.  You can do this as many times as you wish, until the campaign naturally comes to a conclusion, although I suspect 

Now there will be a few  objections to this method: it limits the GM's creativity, it's not organic, and it will tire over time.

To the first: limits to creativity can be a good thing, as can structure and order. In fact, limits on the human mind makes it sharper, not duller, so long as the limits are not meant to destroy the ability to work. This method is meant as a spring board, not a prison.The cards and the structure are meant to evoke comparisons and give you a place to return to when in doubt. If you're using the structure as a prison that is not the intent. 

To the second: vegetables and what's "natural" grow best with order to hold them up. Ivy and vines grow best with scaffolding to hold them up, it's why they attach to buildings and trees and anything. I don't know about anyone else with creative urges, but I find them to be wild and random, striking when I least expect it and doing whatever they like. If you give this seeming chaos structure and a place to fill up it will do it, organically. 

To the third: of course it will tire over time. Stories conclude. There's a reason why most American sitcoms are garbage: they just retread the same crap, with no actual ending to them. The problem is that most GMs don't know when their stories naturally conclude and want to keep them going as long as they can. Making a story structure can allow you to accept that you need to do so that your players can have the closure they deserve. Planning for closure means your players will get it, somehow. And there is nothing worse than a game that doesn't have even a half-fitting conclusion. Plan for it and accept it and your players will have a bittersweet time, not just a bitter one. 

Like I've said in the title, this is all theoretical. I've been sitting on these thoughts for a little while and am planning to try them out. Hopefully my players won't mind my experiments. And hopefully y'all won't mind following me as I post about the results of them. Onward!

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