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Author Topic: GM control of player character concept across G/N/S  (Read 3024 times)
Paul Czege
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« on: April 26, 2001, 06:50:00 PM »

Hey everyone,

Years ago, I came up with a scenario concept for AD&D that required all the player characters to be clerics. I think the idea was that a sacred relic had been stolen from their monastery and they would set off across the kingdoms to find and reclaim it. The reason I don't remember exactly is because I never got the scenario off the ground. Some of my gaming friends were vocally against the GM restricting the AD&D character classes down to just clerics.

We could probably have a conversation here about players' "sanctity of the guy" and "it's in the book" beliefs about their rights, but that isn't why I bring up the incident. I've been thinking a lot about the validity and purpose of GM control of player character concepts as it relates to G/N/S.

My goal with the cleric constraint was essentially proto-narrativist; I'd been bored with the stereotypical balanced party, and had an understanding that constraint fuels innovation. Sonnets are a hell of a lot more interesting to me than free verse poetry. I figured by making everyone the same class that I'd force players to transcend class sterotypes.

Is player resistance to constraint of character concept less an aspect of the Gamist nature of AD&D and in fact an artifact of it being a class-based game?

GM constraint of player character concept seems more prevalent in Simulationist games. Take a game like Blue Planet. There isn't really any sense of direction if players are given free reign. I think most GM's would constrain the players to employees of a charter boat service or something. In another Simulationist game you might make all the players FBI agents or something. It seems like a lot of Simulationist games are about players taking missions.

What I've been thinking is that for both of these examples, the purpose of a GM constraining character concept is to enable somewhat decent story to happen. Without the constraint, a player group with a Gamist history playing AD&D slouches forward with sterotypes. Without the constraint, a player group in a Simulationist game has no sense of direction.

So you can see where I'm headed with this. Is the same kind of GM control of player character concept irrelevant, unnecessary and/or denigrated in the context of a Narrativist game?

Paul
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: April 27, 2001, 06:13:00 AM »

Hey Paul,

I think there are about four or five different angles on this topic, and many of them are not really G/N/S at all, or only indirectly.

PART ONE
Are you talking about SYSTEM CONSTRAINTS or GM CONTROL? For instance, many games use the "one from column A, one from column B" method. A recent example is Underworld - you pick a Breed and a Career, so that you might be a, say, Moleperson Bravo, or a Freak Librarian. Others use the "assemble from skill list and benefit/disad" method, like GURPS, such that a Freak Librarian concept might emerge from the list.

These are system constraints, which are, socially-speaking, different from GM constraints. That would be like what you describe, in which the GM says, "Hey, make characters, as long as they're clerics."

I think constraints of EITHER kind are necessary for role-playing activities of ANY kind. There are so many examples of so many kinds it's hardly possible to explain them ...

For instance, in GURPS, the system constraint comes in with point-values -- you get so many points, and that's it. Furthermore, this game demands GM constraint in terms of stated genre/setting (and consistent with Simulationist philosophy, provides sourcebooks for the GM to rely on).

The Window, which represents a very strong reaction to GURPS-style design, provides no system-constraints at all, not even in power level. However, it states unequivocally that GM constraint (shared with player, to its credit) is law, with story-creation and the attendant genre being the founding principle.

So that's one Simulationist and one Narrativist example of constraints in action.

PART TWO
Now for the next question: player resistance to constraint. If I'm not mistaken, you're talking about situations in which the GM imposes constraints that are not consistent with those expected by the game as written. For instance, the class-based AD&D system provides constraints ("clerics may do this but not that"), but the players seem to be rebelling against the GM imposing FURTHER constraints, for purposes that they either don't perceive or don't agree with.

And here, this is a G/N/S issue after all. Basically, AD&D (what people now call 1st edition) is set up for strategizing for victory, or Gamism. People who come all ready for the tennis match aren't going to like the ref saying, "By the way, the court is now twice as long and half as wide," or, "Hey, could you guys all play hopping on one leg?"

As that AD&D GM, you may have been trying to promote Narrativism (stories about what it means to be a cleric, conflicts that characters can share in religious or professional terms, etc). The Gamist players (OK, "players comfortable with the Gamist precepts of the system as written") refused.

So the constraints-issue simply becomes yet another element of the ongoing tug-of-war among role-players (players, GMs, or both) whose G/N/S priorities differ at a given moment.

Best,
Ron

[ This Message was edited by: Ron Edwards on 2001-04-27 10:20 ]

[ This Message was edited by: Ron Edwards on 2001-04-27 10:21 ]
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #2 on: April 27, 2001, 10:11:00 AM »

Hey Ron,

Good answer. My posting was driven specifically by an interest in exploring the extent to which GM constraint is sanctioned across G/N/S. It seems that although GM constraint could be used to drive story in a Gamist game, that it contradicts a player's ability to exploit it's in the book advantages; so it feels unsanctioned. Interestingly, GM constraint is almost universally mandated and sanctioned by Simulationist games.

At the risk of careening off of pure theory, let me ask, how would you have handled it if a player in your Demon Cops game wanted to play something other than a cop...perhaps an emergency room doctor? Now how would you have handled it if they all wanted to play something other than cops?

Paul
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And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: April 27, 2001, 10:35:00 AM »

Hi Paul,

Your question brings up a comparion I didn't make in my reply - the RANGE of constraint in Narrativist game design. The Window is obviously an example of NO written constraint (it's all on the GM and players to establish before play), and it's clear that most Narrativist RPGs tend to stay low-ish on written constraint (beyond any implied by the setting) but high-ish on explicitly expecting the GM/players to impose some.

Yet on the other hand, the constraints of Premise are severe, in these games. You might have wide-open PC concept options in Over the Edge, but you can bet that he or she will be exposed to reality-blowing insights and freaky surrealism -- and that the game is ABOUT destroying the PC's assumptions about his or her self. Implicitly, if you make a PC who's not interesting in that context, it's a lousy PC for Over the Edge. In Hero Wars, you have remarkably wide options for PCs, most especially his or her value system and loyalties. However, if he or she isn't appropriate for "rising to the occasion" of the wars and culture clashes, then there's no point to playing at all.

[I'm speaking here in terms of constraint on CONCEPT, not point/power levels. Over the Edge, Maelstrom, and Hero Wars, for instance, all impose ferocious, uniform constraint on power/dice of beginning characters. Sorcerer does so for the sorcerer-character, but permits wide-open demon power.]

Now for the Demon Cops question - it so happens that this setting/genre is highly constrained. You're playing a Demon Cop, in This City, with This Boss, with These Responsibilities. All the other options are deeply embedded in these. There's simply no other way to play; any other PC concept is to be shelved for some other game. [If they'd all wanted to play something other than cops, then obviously the setting/Premise hasn't grabbed them, and we ought to play something else.]

The setting and constraints on the PCs' concepts in Demon Cops are aligned 100% with the Premise, basically "by force" of the text. Given that consistency, story creation and structure are left pretty wide open.

By contrast, Schism, the mini-supplement by Jared Sorensen, allows a much wider range of character ethics, backgrounds, goals, and general definition - almost wide-open in fact, aside from being a "psychogenic." However, in reverse of Demon Cops, Schism relies on a well-defined story structure per character.

So we see two extremes of dial-twisting: Demon Cops with highly-constrained PC concept and open story-structure; Schism with wide-open PC concept and formal story-structure.

Best,
Ron

P.S. Apropos of perhaps nothing, the default PC in Orkworld is a male "thraka," an ork grunt-warrior. However, none of my players is playing this concept - instead we have a dowmgaday (maiden warrior), a tala (bard), and a dowmga (mother). Since in Orkworld, and given my notions for running it, the Premise of the game does not RELY on playing thraka, this is no big deal. I have to be a bit creative in coming up with Situations, but the relative oddity of the PC-mix isn't an actual problem.

[ This Message was edited by: Ron Edwards on 2001-04-27 14:40 ]
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