Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Does Story trump rules? Only in cartoons and comedy

Over at Raging Owlbear, There is a thread about how Story trumps Rules. He makes some good points, yet at the same time misses some (IMHO) critical issues. This is not just Owlbear, This has been seen across the board with so many threads on so many forums, and its really scary that anyone should/would box RPGs up, to exclude anyone that doesn't agree with this.

If you haven't or are not going to read it, or just to clarify what I think he's saying:

Story Trumps Rules:

Owlbear talks first about how rules provide a framework for us to tell a story so we can have fun. He then goes into why you should not break the rules, I agree . Then how you should learn the rules, so you can know when to break them.. and lastly, When to break the rules, mostly this was "is it fun? then break the rules"

Whose fun?

The bulk of the posts these days seems to be "oh, the situation is too hard, just let them have their fun, scale down the difficulty, pull out the problems, let the players have fun"

At whose expense?

Owlbear doesn't go down this path, he uses example that seem fair, realistic, but read between the lines, and you can see that none of these 'rules' needed to be broken.

How do I portray this to you, the reader, clearly.. How about this: for the older crowd: We all knew it was illegal to record shows from TV onto a VCR and watch it later, the law was to stop people from setting up micro-cinemas, and showing lots of people, denying the production company the money to pay for the movie/show. For the younger crowd, Its Illegal to record Youtube Videos, and watch them later, same reasons. Yet people do it, why? because the rule is broken, its a blanket rule to cover all situations. Laws can't cover all instances fairly, neither can roleplay game rules. and that's why the Gamesmaster exists, She/He can gauge the situation and determine, does that rule apply to this situation or not.

Scafford of Consistency

When Owlbear talks of not breaking the rules, he talks of Consistency: A scaffold of consistency allow players agency to use their own world knowledge to play the game without needing to know the rules off by heart. If in real life, they think they can jump from a pillar to a window frame, they should be able to, If in real life, they can 'target' the head, with their sword swing, they should be able to. The Rules, are supposed to be an abstraction of physics to game mechanics, to allow players to do what they want to do.. or at least try.

Newer GMs

Newer GMs don't know when to use rules and when they don't, Often they'll break immersion to look up a rule, players go off, get a drink, return and have lost some of the flow of the game. so GMs learn quickly or look up on the internet how to do it better and what do they hit first?, 'break the rules to make sure the fun doesn't stop' and like the VCR/Youtube example above, they'll do what everyone does. to get done what needs to be done, so the game doesn't come to a crashing halt.

One of the reasons I advocate that new GMs should first be DMs, is to get familiar with a stricter set of rules. Dungeonworlds: Dungeon Delvers Twelve, puts the DM in charge of a dungeon, players have a more structured environment, a Dungeon, to get familiar with the rules, but so does the DM. Over time, after learning how to run a dungeon a few hundred times, they might advance to GM to deal with the outside world, the travel between locations, the open world, the sandbox and all the aspects of roleplay that both players and GMs need to get used to.
As they go though, they'll get used to what rules work in certain situations, but not others. If a rule doesn't exist, (like 99% of the time) the GM has likely learnt enough on how to gauge the situation, use a rule that matches best, and if no rule exists, make a ruling on what to do. No rule has been broken, players can maintain consistency, keep their agency and get on with the game, without thinking "Oh, the GM just fudged that, ok, so I don't need to think about what I can do, I should instead think about what is cool, fun, exciting and the GM will allow it, because 'fun!'.

Maybe they do that subconsciously, maybe the make a decision to do so, I know I fell into the trap, when my GM wanted my character to succeed, I felt no push-back to my antics, so I just kept pushing, not on purpose, just to know the limits. I quit the game when I should have died for the 3rd time and he just hand waved me through.. for plot.. sorry, I want to enjoy the challenge, and to understand the challenge, I need to know the bounds of the game.

What kind of fun? What kind of story?

Everyone has an opinion of what fun is, as they do what a story is. Romeo and Juliet is a classic tragedy, its an awesome story, its known around the world, yet I can't see a shred of fun in it. So why does fun trump story again? I think restricting all forms of roleplay to only 'fun' stories, is like limited TV to only cartoons and comedy. when so many other genres exist...

This is really another topic, but at the core of what we're talking about:

Limiting Roleplay to Plot and Story is, to my mind, akin to Railroading. Any kind of decision by the forces of nature (the GM) that pushes the plot in any direction, especially for Plot (story) will be viewed by the players as taking away their agency. So if Fun trumps Story.. doesn't that mean that guiding the game, to be more fun, is another form or railroading? What if the natural progression of the 'story' is to become a classic tragedy? If the GM obeys the fun rule, it forces a comedy, from what could have been an awesome tragedy, to something in the middle, and no-body wins.

Yes, Personally, I'm a Sandbox GM, I think we create stories in real life from moments of the mundane, I went to the shops, met a man, who sold me some beans for my cow and when I got home my mother scolded me.. Each of these events are fleshed out in roleplay, and more so in life, but when we tell them later, we only state the sentence that sums up all those events "met a man", did a GM somewhere make an encounter roll? sure, and he did so for the 20 people that met that man before me, but each one failed to swap the beans, and they went to different stories, not one of them is going to include the "met a man with some beans" in their story, unless its somehow relevant. Not everyone has the beanstalk 'fun' but for some reason, this topic keeps popping up, telling new GMs, misguiding them from the path for this 'fun' version of roleplay.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

My Thoughts on Pay-to-Play in roleplay, As a Full-time Paid GM.

At the height of my career, I was taking home almost 6 figures as a paid Gamesmaster. This is my story.

Pay to Play? Gotta be worth it

From 2003 to 2013, I was a travelling English Teacher, I started raw, I didn't know what I was doing, and frankly, it surprises me still that I managed to pull it off. The number 1. thing I did was to learn how to do what I was supposed to be doing every night, until I was as good as I said I was in the interview, it took 3 years.

In 2003, I left Australia to travel the world, and promptly ran out of money. So I needed money. I took on a bar-tending job in Shanghai during the evenings and started teaching English during the day.

I discovered after about 6 months, that I knew nothing of my own language, school had not trained me anything more than nouns, verbs and adjectives, and I still suffer to correctly Capitalise my words.. I capitalise when I emphasize, so if you want to read things in your head, like I say them, then raise your inner voice every-time you see a capital.

So I learned, I downloaded books on the subject of teaching, I studied English for myself and I got better at it.. and I discovered that there was a part of language teaching that I excelled at..


In Teaching, Roleplaying is a set of circumstance that puts the student into the 'role' of a person who needs to speak English, in order to get through the task. This might be getting through customs, or buying shoes in a shop, or business negotiations to strike a deal.

For a Gamesmaster, Roleplaying is of course So much More! These books on how to teach? were trying to tell me how to 'teach' with 'roleplaying' OMG I was laughing at it all..

So after getting my feet as a teacher, I started introducing the art of actual roleplaying to my students. I started with the TV series 'lost'. My students were to learn new words each week, so I would write up 20 new words that made sense to learn while being 'lost' on an island.. we put those words into sentences, played the scenario, the students would need to use the words, to survive.. plank of wood, hammer, nail, rope, rope bridge, chasm, I was feeding them clues on how to solve the puzzle, but since the words were not known to them, it was a puzzle unto itself.

the players... ahem,,.. students.. loved it, they came back for my, my classes got more interesting and the students grade went up.

The only problem was management.. when they saw we were playing games.. they thought it was a waste of money and dropped the courses.. until later, when I would provide them with statistical evidence that gaming lessons had a more than 30% improvement in language retention that all other lesson types.. I did this by running the same grammar lessons with one group and no roleplay, I had more than 50 groups, of around 4-6 students a group, at approx 2 years per student of learning, the lower end of the spectrum was 30% improvement, for students that were roleplaying..

That was when I went full time.

Now, jump back in time, remember how I used to run a games club for kids? That was Sunday afternoons, 5 hours, each kid paid $2 to come to the club each week, plus membership fees of around $10 a year, eventually we got up to 3 GMs and a profit of around $60 a week from sales of drinks, minis and entry fees, what I learnt from that was how to set up and run a game fast, how to keep the plot hooks going at the end of the session "Come back next week, same bat channel, same bat time" and how to keep the 'customers/players happy'

A few years later, Instead of catering to the Junior Roleplayers, I had a few phone calls to my club, asking if I could come out to their place and run a game. To begin with, It didn't quite feel right to ask for money, so I simply asked that they chipped in for the pizza and I'd supply the game, but after the first 2 sessions, I was losing cash on the deal as I had to transport myself across town, supply the dice, pencils and paper to the guys, charactersheets and such, so I asked them, would they be ok with chipping in for the costs, $20 a month would do it, else I couldn't afford to cross town for this group of strangers, they agreed and I got my next round of experience as a paid GM.

So, when I was showing my clients the difference between boring class results and roleplayed results, I had more than enough confidence to talk about how I'd been doing this years before and how easy it was to set up and run, I guess my sales pitch succeeded, because they agreed and I was roleplaying, primarily, for the bulk of my income from around 2009/2010.

I was, I consider myself, to be extremely lucky, to be in the right place, with the right experience, to be able to offer this unique service which had proven results, but I knew the laws of supply and demand, so I offered this service, but at a premium price. 2x 1.5 hour lessons, twice a week for $90 an hour, per 'group'. They accepted for those students who wished to participate. which was maybe 90%.

In such a closed environment, I was able to have groups run synchronously in the same world, meeting the same NPCs, either before or after previous groups, the logistics and economy of each group affecting any later groups, "Oh sorry sir, a group of adventurers just bought my finest sword just last week". I could even allow 1 of the groups to be the bad guys, having them just ahead of other groups, plotting evil, leaving traps and ambushes along the way, before they settled down in a well defended location, and only when a player from one group disguised his character as evil (and he asked the group if he could join, because he wanted to play an evil character too) could he then reveal himself at the last possible moment and foil their plans.

After watching this Legacy style play, I invited several other GMs I knew from other countries to participate. One from Estonia, one from latvia, Germany, England and the US, to have their 'groups' running in the same world, I sent maps of events via email to the GMs and their groups interacted, somewhat, with my groups.. I even got my old players from Australia to join in via skype for some epic moments.. it was amazing.

But real life, always seems to throw you a curve-ball.

My boss, who approved the games for the majority of my client base, and his boss who joined in once or twice, moved on, and the new guy was more hard-nosed to the idea of 'games as education', the country went into turmoil over govt restrictions, another of my clients warned me that things were going to get difficult in the next few years, so I left, returned to Australia and decided to knuckle down and get my degree, get my site up and running, and after raising some funds, publish my game.

I've run some Legacy style games since then, gotten my old Russian players and even the American players to join in, I think its the angle that sets my gaming apart from others, knowing that any NPC can often be a PC from another group, seems to wake players up just a tad more and take notice.

 So, my thoughts on Pay to Play

I've talked already in a previous post about how I think you need to bring more to the table than just 'run a game' to be a professional GM. To me, that's attention to detail in your world, your NPCs and being able to run your game without a rulebook. This usually means a working knowledge of Physics, Human communication, Psychology, Cultures other than your own, Sleeping outdoors, walking in caves, fighting in the rain, anything that gives you an edge from any other guy that just 'reads the rules and runs a module'.
When your paying to play a game, you're paying for the convenience of having a GM that is prepared and unable to flake and players of a like minded attitude of "I'm paying to be here, so I'm not going to mess around, or waste time with off topic chatter or argue about rules", Other players are there for the same reason you are, to have fun in the limited time you have, because you work hard, want to rest up, relax and play a game, and you only have 4 hours spare on a thursday night to do so. You could spend $30+ at any number of events IF you had the right friends and the timing was right for that particular time frame, so why not spend your $30 sitting down, relaxed at a table, with some like minded adventurers who wish to get their game on.

As a Paid GM, I love having players that are ready, attentive, pay attention to the details, play in character, don't cancel unless its actually important and bow out if its not the right group, the right setting or the right game, rather than stay 'because its your friends' and disrupt the game for everyone else.

So, it might be that I'm the highest paid GM in the world?

I was having a chat with a guy online about what it is to be a Paid GM, and we were looking for an analogy, some people refer to artists or movies or such, and as we talked about it, I admitted that I was already a paid GM for years, my first paid gig back in 1992, and he was offended, but curious.. and that seems to be the internet right now on the subject of paid GMs.. offended but curious, and when he asked how much did I make.. well that blew his mind.

  as a Paid GM, 2005 to 2012, from 5 to later 40+ hours a week

I think my 2 cents on the matter, well, matters?

I didn't start at 40 hours GMing, but it was mostly in the last 3-4 years of that maybe 50 hours, running 6-10 groups a week, but when I started I was scraping by for 'costs', bus & food, approx $20 ($5 each player) for a 4-6 hour session. I've been compared to being a prostitute to an artist, my sessions from a glorified conversation, to the equivalent of a theatrical performance worthy of the stage. Some people can't justify paying for a GM, any more than they can justify going to a restaurant, when they can cook for themselves at home. 

The Dungeon Master by KwongBee-Arts
I think (and remember, this is purely my opinion, not canon/law/rule) one of the differences between professional and not, is more about the ability to cope with all the things the average GM never would. As I trained in hospitality (and for some time as a cook) I'll compare as such:

Cooking at home, for friends, you pay for the costs yourself, lighting, heating, food (as would a GM, buys his own books, prep, etc) take the time, because you have it, and if it all goes pear shaped, your friends will accept an apology and a pizza. There is no more expectation than you showing off your ability to cook, and your friends saying "well done, you can cook" (Thanks for a good game, see you next week).. you are getting paid.. in praise and a feeling of success.

A Chef though, having trained for years, day in day out, thinking, breathing, living in a kitchen, is expected to be 'good' as a default norm. He can look in a fridge and prepare a meal from almost any ingredients, without thinking. He knows a classic set of meals, some variants, he can replace any missing ingredient with an equivalent and still make a fine meal.

So, I would say a Pro-GM is someone who has at least 3 years of basic training, daily sessions, 40 hours a week, so if you say been a GM casually, but that includes 10% cancellations, 4-5 hours on a Sunday, then you'd need 20+ years to match basic training. A Pro GM can run a game without a system, just as a discussion and a coin to flip, without skipping a beat, match the game to the players requests (space/horror/western) but not cow-tow to their demands.

You open the dungeon door to reveal... a filet!
Chefs also learn to create their own food, but they also price it, determine its caloric value, its cost to produce in goods and time and how repeatable junior chefs can make the meal. So that would mean the same equivalent of creating dungeons.. not just scribbling a random map and adding monsters, but fleshing out the ecology of said dungeon, how it came about, what existed here to begin with and why it got kicked out. what adventurers already came here and died to determine how the rumours of said dungeon eventually drifted back to towns to trigger the current team to come here.

Prep-time should be amortized over a more realistic schedule, You can't figure in 60 hours prep for a single session, (unless the client knows they are paying for a unique, once off, never to be repeated adventure), prepping a session should give you at least 3-6 sessions x 3-6 groups, breaking down to maybe 2 hours per group per session, If the average wage of your country is $20 an hour, and you run a 4 hour session, then $80-$120 might be viable for an equal -supply vs demand- environment, but until people recognise this proGM level of talent and are prepared to pay $120 (for a group, thats $30 each for 4 players, $7.50 an hour) for a Sunday afternoons entertainment, then you have to charge less.. and as your name becomes known, and your demand increases.. then, like any decent job, you can ask for a higher price.

When you go to a restaurant though, you get more than just a chef, you get an environment, you get to compare this to others who've been to this restaurant, you get to take photos of your food and post it on your social media. So this too could be considered part and parcel of attending a ProGMs game. Some people argue that running D&D isn't fair, because you're using their system, their worlds, you're not doing all the work. Well you could argue that the chef doesn't grow the food, but I sorta agree that while the chef uses recipes that are common to the world, the better chefs use their own recipes.

I've heard it said "make sure you have a doctor and lawyer in the family" so you didn't have to pay for these expensive costs. In my day, family and friends helped each other out. Hairdresser, builder, Electrician or Plumber you had someone to do these things and you paid them for the materials, but in return you supplied YOUR skills for free. Today as an IT guy, I'm often asked to 'fix' peoples computers.. for free?! So if you have a GM friend, it feels normal to get them to run a game for free, they're your friend.. but what service are you supplying your GM friend for free in return? 

At the end of the day, People will pay for an experience that they can't achieve themselves. Some people have a bar in their back room and invite friends, but the rest go to a bar, Some have a pool, but the rest go to a public pool. So if some people will pay to have a game run for them, which has a nice clean start, middle and end, is structured, run professionally, friendly and enjoyable, then more to them.

Now.. how do I get my players to post social media of our games.. lol..

The Little RPG Group - Merinid_DE