In our gaming group, like so many gaming groups, we have a number of in-jokes. One of which involves the players turning to the GM just before the game starts and telling them to ‘bring the awesome’ followed by cries of ‘yes, entertain me!’ etc – with tongue firmly rammed into cheek, may I add. My oft-stated credo that the GM is a player too and that the state of the game is as much the responsibility of the players as it is the GM was borne from the highly egalitarian nature of my own home gaming environment. However, it is not always so – especially in the world of convention gaming, and this time of year convention gaming comes into mind a lot!
I am often concerned that there is a bleed between campaign play and convention play. The analogy I usually use is that a convention game is like a blockbuster movie – short run time, quick bangs and scenes, pretty shallow character development and a tasty conclusion at the end. Campaign play is more like a TV series – longer run time, deeper character development, established and changing background and more room for pacing the game. I have been playing a lot of convention campaigns over the last few years; linked sessions that feel more like a TV mini-series rather than a movie or a serial.
Convention play almost demands a degree of performance from the GM that allows little chance of failure. Even with the hardest of lines in terms of player-GM balance of responsibility, there has to be an onus to provide some degree of value to the players in terms of a decent session. A decade into running convention games, I still sometimes feel it is a bit like an Olympics of Gaming (as Baz of the Smart Party calls it so often) where the GM is being weighed and measured by the players, to indeed, ‘bring the awesome’. I think this has become manifest in the tendency for people to enhance their sessions with ‘bling’ – jazzy character sheets, load of cool maps, models, handouts, posters … even hats! I quite like this and I have to admit I like to indulge the bling. I have had players using torches in the dark, a massive printed map of Tatooine for a Star Wars game, custom character sheets are a norm and video trailers for convention campaigns have become a tradition.
However, I have noticed that this is bleeding into my home gaming as well. In my Aetherguard game I made a load of character image cards to help with the slew of NPCs the game held. In our current Dresden Files Accelerated game I have indulged my inner artist and created a load of bespoke character sheets for the PCs and some of the NPCs too. Once again, I really enjoy this and I feel like its taking on a little of that shared responsibility from the GM.
And then I discovered this new fangled Twitch stuff and people recording themselves playing games. Roleplaying games as entertainment is now a thing, apparently. Thousands of people tuning into Critical Role as a fandom movement? My eyebrows were raised and my mind immediately jumped to ‘Hey, should we…’
And then reality slapped me around the face hard. No, no we should not. Maybe in the midst of the bling, the maps, the sheets, the figures and all the rest of the paraphernalia, we have forgotten about the core purpose of these things – actually playing a roleplaying game with your friends. I worry that if we become so fixated on the extras, we forget the basics and thus the balance of the game is broken. I think it is crucial to remember that the extra bits are just that – extra – and they add to an already great game, but they will not turn a poor game into an average one. What that means in practice is a little bit of restraint. It is far more important to get the game right than the bling. Working with, and reflecting upon, those basics of good games mastery – good plot, solid NPCs, good characterisation, evocative descriptions, pacing and flow etc. – will contribute more to the game than a short movie about the backstory or a bespoke soundtrack.
That’s the attitude I have taken with my Symbaroum campaign at the moment; minimal bling and maximum thought and execution. The hardest part was the character sheets – I love a good character sheet with art and flourish. However, this time around the players have B&W print outs which they doodle all over themselves. Working documents not pieces of art.
Back to basics.