The Master’s Attention

Where do you focus your attention when you prepare for a game?  How do you cobble together a convincing and engaging story?  What does your game teach Game Masters to do in the lonely hours of the evening?  Thanks to the Bear Swarm Podcast, and I have noticed three distinct ways that game masters and designers focus their attention.

The first approach is to focus on the characters. The idea is that the GM should focus on creating compelling, dynamic and engaging non-player characters.  You can follow the NPC’s personalities and goals during play, reacting to the players efforts. As a result, the players pay attention to character relationships and motivations.  This is the method of design for the video game “Mass Effect 2” for example, with the richly detailed team members.

The second approach is to focus on the locations.  This is where the GM draws a detailed map of the setting, describing each place as a uniquely themed gem in a massive world.  You can encourage a sandbox style of gameplay, where the characters choose their own path and explore the game as they see fit. This seems to be the method of design use for “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” for example, where exploration of the rich environment dominates the play experience.

The third approach is to focus on the narrative. This is where the GM spends their time on crafting rich plots, character-testing events and dramatic arcs.  This is where the group story is paramount, where matters of pacing and theme drive the action. An excellent example of this in the video game tradition would be “Dragon Age 2”.

Now, each of these methods clearly has their own place in game design.  You can’t have a character focused game without paying attention to their narrative arc.  Locations are defined by the characters they will interact with.  The story depends on exploring a rich world.  I think it’s worth _considering_ how much of each factor you include in your games.

What roleplaying games do you know which focus on one of those particular approaches?

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  • Kit says:

    I’m not going to answer your question, but I’ll say some other things related to it. Over here Joss Whedon says some fine things about “have something to say beyond ‘this will lead to many fine set-pieces’,” and I think it’s a relevant point. The location approach seems like it risks set-piece-ism, which is great for a war game, but is not story. Of course, location is really important, but it’s support and context for the meaty interactions.

    Now, character and narrative motivations are reallllly close in my mind. Not sure if I see a meaningful difference there. But I’ve also just come off a Smallville session today, for which the prep system is well-defined: look at the leads, find their conflicts, put NPC faces on those conflicts, figure out what will need to be revealed in approximately what order to make those conflicts get Big, and figure out where you start. So, the intimate ties between “conflicts between PCs’ relationships and values” and “NPCs that embody and spark those conflicts” is foremost in my mind right now.

    I think that, for me, Apocalypse World has the most natural style of preparation—daydream about what bad things could happen because complicated people want things. Then, make them act when you get to play, and see what happens. But at its core, that’s kinda the same prep: see where people’s motivations and desires smack into each other, see what you have to do to make that happen sooner rather than later, and see what comes out of it.

    Obviously, I’m playing games for classical-drama-style story, though.