Musings on Perfection

We’ve wrapped up our Apocalypse World campaign recently, and it’s left me pensive. Throughout the game, I embraced the AW maxim: “play to find out what happens”. Embraced it to such an extent that I discovered the true “motivation” of the psychic maelstrom (the not-really-well-maybe-antagonist of the world), doubling as the moral lesson for the entire campaign, as I opened my mouth to deliver it. It fit with everything that came before, mostly. It worked. But would it have worked better had I figured it out beforehand? Generalizing, just how much of the game world should we figure out at the start of the game, and how much of it should be left uncharted? See also the Dungeon World principle: “draw maps, leave blanks.”

Roleplaying games are a unique medium. A live one-off show where performers are also the audience. There are no rewrites in it, no fixing it in post, no rehearsals. Dice fall, characters make choices, the world changes. Well, that’s not quite true. We can amend what happened, fudge the rolls, rethink. We can fix mistakes, as long as we catch them quickly. Though when we do, the emotional impact is inevitably lessened.

Point being, RPGs are inherently chaotic. They by definition cannot be perfect, not like a static, complete work can be. The more input players have, the more input the game has, the more we relinquish control over the events, the more entropy we invite. Entropy leads away from perfection, but it can lead to life. We don’t want the high entropy system of everyone just yelling at each other while the dice are on fire, and can’t have the perfectly crystalline structure of static media. We want to find the right temperature and the right conditions that would let our games come alive.

What flowery nonsense, what does it even mean? Take combat, the most regimented activity in most RPGs. We don’t, generally speaking, plot it out. Instead, we trust that once we throw enough orcs and heroes into the same room, swords will clash and fun will be had. However, there’s initial preparation, in some systems a lot of it, in figuring out character and monster abilities and stats, terrain, likely monster tactics, etc. Then we let the dice and the players decide how things turn out. The game provides the elements, the GM picks the right proportions, then together with the players they throw these elements together. Cool and funny and epic moments arise out of this chaotic mess. Combat is not perfect, but it is often fun.

This is what I’m musing over: how do we know we’ve done enough to prepare the initial conditions of the entire game, the way we can be reasonably sure we’ve prepared for a combat encounter? Write out everything, and you have a pretty yet lifeless crystal railroad, players enacting the play. Write nothing, and there’s just a few incoherent story blobs flopping around on the table which may or may not converge into something meaningful. And that’s not even getting into a common mistake of many novice GMs, writing a whole setting that the players will barely see.

Apocalypse World, the game that prompted this post, does a really good job of guiding the GM through at least some of the campaign prep: everything and everyone is a threat, it says. Threats have wants, so no matter how the circumstances change, you’ll know how they react. They come at you from different directions, so make a threat map. Wherever the PCs go, whatever they do, there’ll be a threat there to do onto them. The GM Principles and Moves further help shape the game into a volatile, tense experience. Even the game engine itself, being a narrative rhythm engine, throws curveballs at players and GM alike.

Writers often talk about their characters taking on a life of their own, dragging the story in unexpected directions. In RPGs, the characters do have a life of their own through the players controlling them, and the dice wreak additional havoc. All you’ve got to do is let them. By leaving answers to fundamental questions up in the air, allowing them to emerge from the game seemingly on their own, we give ourselves an opportunity to not only be surprised, but also come up with something we normally wouldn’t have.

If you’ve played with the same group of people for a long time, they learn your storytelling habits and favorite tricks. Many times now, my players had guessed the underlying plot half way through the game. That’s harder to do if even I don’t know it. And the favorite pastime of many a GM, listening to their players speculate, becomes that much more meaningful: you won’t even need to rewrite anything if they have a better idea than you.

And so: just how much should you know about the game before you run it? There is no clear answer to this one, no one-size-fits-all recommendation. If nothing else, it depends on how comfortable you are with drawing connections between disparate plot elements on the fly: not just improv, but integrating results of improv into a cohesive whole.

While I can’t tell you how many big answers you should have from the start, you should try and have all the big questions. “What does the psychic maelstrom want?” gives you something to build upon, whereas simply positing the existence of a psychic maelstrom merely offers you a cool thing which may or may not fit anywhere. A while ago, when I was only starting down this road, I wrote about the benefits of including players’ ideas in your games and managing the resulting chaos. In the latter post, I suggested the “Chekhov’s gunpile” method of throwing cool things into the game in the hopes that at least some of them will “fire”. In that metaphor, the big questions we pose at the start are the targets these “Chekhov’s guns” will hit.

Another thing worth deciding upon from the start is the main theme of the campaign, or at least of the current story arc – a suggestion I first saw in tremulus. Something as simple as “revenge” or “hope”. The players are not likely to ever recognize it, but it provides cohesion, acting as a hidden context for most plot lines that occur.

Most importantly, remember that you will sometimes miss the mark, and that’s fine. However good you get at GMing, you’ll make missteps, or the players will, or the dice will refuse to cooperate. Plot lines will not always converge in a satisfying manner, characters will not always get their due. All you can do is learn and try to do better next time, one imperfect game at a time.

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