This past Saturday I ran a tabletop role-playing game session for the first time in close to four years. It was a session of the latest edition of the venerable cyberpunk/urban fantasy game Shadowrun, and it ran very smoothly. The adventure actually wrapped up more quickly than I was expecting, moved at a dynamic pace, each player got to contribute to the resolution of the session, and I think fun was had all around. I’m very much looking forward to our next game.
While the game went as well as I had hoped, I didn’t expect how fresh and new the experience would feel. Writing and running a tabletop gaming session after such a long absence (and after completing one prose novel and starting work on another), I was struck both by what a unique writing experience game-mastering can be, and by how many lessons can be carried over to other forms of writing.
The GM’s job in an RPG group is to write up scenarios for the other players to play through. And in many respects, this is very similar to writing other forms of fiction; the author either uses an established setting or creates his own, comes up with characters whose interactions drive the story, and creates a story that follows a basic structure with a beginning, middle, and end.
However, where tabletop role-playing differs from other forms of fiction is in its cast of leading characters and its audience, which are one and the same. The other players in the game each create their own character, including the character’s backstory, appearance, personality and skill-set, and control that character, acting as that character would act in the situation presented to them by the GM.
Returning to GMing after so long working in prose fiction, it really is striking how much of a difference not having control over the principal characters of the story makes. True, the GM does exercise a certain degree of control over what kinds of characters a player can bring to the game in the interest of making things run smoothly. It’s in everybody’s best interest for the GM to prevent a player from running a character who, by their very nature, is going to be arguing and fighting with the other player characters at every turn, or who simply doesn’t fit into the setting of the game.
But within fairly light restrictions, the players are otherwise free to create whatever kind of character they want. This leads to a story driven by a cast of main characters not of the GM’s own choosing, who are not at all in the GM’s control, and that’s a unique circumstance for a writer to be in.
Certainly it’s important for a writer to be true to his or her characters and in that sense a character can take on a life of their own; I think anybody who’s written fiction has experienced this at least once, regardless of how well they plan out their stories and think their plots through before writing them out. But that’s an entirely different experience from GMing, where a player character can do something that is entirely unexpected.
It forces the GM to try and anticipate what his players might do in a given circumstance, and even then, it’s unlikely that a GM can actually predict everything his players might try and how they might react to a given situation.
Case in point: in the adventure that I had set up the player characters were hired to investigate the disappearances of several missing girls, one of whom was known to work at a particular nightclub. The missing girls had all been kidnapped and forced into a prostitution ring run by the Russian mob, where they were surgically altered and brainwashed to be obedient replicas of famous celebrities. And the adventure was to conclude at the brothel where all of this was happening, where they would have an opportunity to rescue the girls and kill the mobsters, shutting down the whole operation.
The brothel had four potential entrances; the front, the back, a roof access and a basement access. When I prepared for the scene, I had planned on the PCs picking one of those four entrances and clearing the building of opposition, which consisted of eight mobsters and two black-market surgeons doing the “alterations” to the kidnapped women.
What actually happened was that the players entered the basement and ambushed the two surgeons. The noise from the ensuing gunfight got the attention of the mobsters upstairs, who headed for the basement. The team’s resident hacker, thinking fast, hacked the electronic lock on the door to force it closed. Having dispatched the surgeons, the rest of the team got the kidnapped women (who were in the basement) outside and into the getaway vehicles. Then, rather than fight the mobsters head-on, the group laid a trap, using a fire spell to ignite the tanks of anesthetic gas from the surgical theater, which exploded right as the mobsters got the door open and poured down the stairs, ready to fight. The resulting explosion killed all the mobsters who had been operating the brothel, and the building itself caught fire and burned.
What I had thought would be a stand-up fight between the two groups that would take a substantial amount of game time actually ended in less time than it took me to write this blog post. The result surprised me (pleasantly; I like it when players think outside the box), but it also got me to think about why they had reacted the way they did. In laying out the adventure, I had the client who hired the characters say that she wanted them to make sure whoever was responsible “couldn’t hurt anyone else.”
The players, hearing this, responded by enacting a literal scorched-earth campaign on the brothel. To borrow a line from Aliens, it was the only way to be sure. Additionally, I had laid it fairly thick about the disgusting nature of the crimes these mobsters were perpetrating against these unwilling women.
And the players responded by showing no mercy to them; one of the PCs (the same one who cast the spell to burn the building down), upon taking one of the surgeons down with a lightning spell, pulled her combat knife and cut the unconscious man’s throat. This was in keeping with her character (who is more than a little unstable), but it also drove home to me just how much animosity I had instilled in the players toward these criminals.
As a prose writer, often you work on a piece for weeks or months before another person ever sees what you wrote and gives you feedback. In a table-top game, however, almost as soon as you read your work to the players, they give you instant feedback in the form of action. And it’s feedback that, as GM, you must react and respond to, even if it’s not in line with your expectations. There is no intellectual barrier, where the writer can wonder if there was any misinterpretation on the part of the audience; there is action and reaction, stimulus and response. And whatever the response, the GM must deal with the consequences.
I feel that every writer, even if it’s only once in his or her life, should GM a table-top roleplaying game. Because nothing else in the world will make you think about the relationship between a writer and his audience more than your words resulting in unexpected arson.