Greg Costikyan Finds the Master

Greg Costikyan has picked up on what Ed Heil and I have known for a while — My Life With Master is very cool. Greg’s not approaching the game steeped in narrativist RPGs like Ed and I, which gives him a fresh perspective.

Ed linked to it before me, but I think Greg’s taken aback by more than just the fact that MLWM is narrativist. It’s the predetermined structure of the narrative that fascinates him. He conflates the significance of the game’s narrativism and its determinism, though:

In a standard RPG, player action is tightly constrained on a moment to moment basis . . . In Master, by contrast, there are no literal constraints on action, on a moment-by-moment basis; there are no systems to resolve the success or failure of actions, so that the only real constraint is gamemaster acquiescence, which is unlikely to be withheld unless you are doing someting inappropriate from the perspective of narrative coherence. On the other hand, the narrative is highly constrained; inevitably, Master will die, and each character will achieve or suffer one of five possible outcomes.

Everything but the last sentence is true of any game with a narrative, low-mechanics focus, and will be intimately familiar to fans of games like Amber or Nobilis. It’s the last bit that makes MLWM unusual — whether or not the word “groundbreaking” is appropriate here, I’m not sure. I can’t think of another RPG that consciously frames the entire plot arc of a story and leaves only the characters and details to the players.

. . . it is true that a power gamer will find little to like in this style of game, where outcomes are essentially predetermined, with minor fluctuations allowed. But if I were to sit down with a group of 13 year-olds who had never played any RPG before, I don’t know that I would have any more difficulty getting them into this type of game than D&D… It requires a somewhat different mindset, is all. Improv rather than dungeon-crawling.

All this could easily be applied to any narrative-oriented game, though it holds even more true for MLWM. But Greg’s right — those thirteen year-olds can take to a storytelling game just as easily as to a conventional, task-and-rule oriented one. I saw it happen all the time when I ran demos of Once Upon a Time for Atlas Games.

I have one rules thought on MLWM itself. Greg assumes that the game only allows for three different types of scenes: the Master gives a command; the minion carries it out (or doesn’t); the minion makes an overture to one of the townsfolk. Whether these are, in fact, the only types of scenes, and in what order they should come, is one of the things that the rules don’t adequately explain. When we played the game at Gencon we ran into situations where the ongoing story called for scenes to happen that didn’t fit nicely into that framework. If I were going to run this game at some point (and I hope I get the chance), I’d loosen things up considerably in terms of types of scenes while still maintaining a clear structure for who gets to call for scenes when.

Anyway, though Greg has stumbled across narrativist RPGs via their oddest possible example, he finds his way to an intriguing analogy:

. . . I wonder if this is an example of the “photography > abstract art” phenomenon. By which I mean that once photography was possible, painting was forced to respond by finding something to do other than producing realistic images of real-world things: photography could do that better than someone daubing in oils. I’m sensitive to the criticism that I’m a technological determinist, and I’m sure there were other cultural forces–but really, it seems so obvious.

In this case, I wonder whether the advent of MMGs, which do a pretty good (far from ideal, but not bad) job of satisfying the same jones as classic RPGs–with really pretty graphics, albeit much inferior storytelling–is forcing tabletop RPG designers away from the classic RPG style and toward styles that reward real storytelling, which nothing digital (despite Chris Crawford’s best efforts) can provide as tenth as well as a skilled GM.

It’s an interesting theory, but I’m not sure if it’s really happening, though. The advent of story-focused roleplaying, whether you place that with Ars Magica or Amber or wherever, happened a long time before the advent of MMORPGs. It’s still going strong now, but I haven’t noticed any shift in the number of narrativist games or players since the rise of Ultima Online and Everquest. (If anything, the only recognizable dynamic there is the familiar complaint that “Evercrack” is distracting lots of people from all the other games they used to play.) MMORPGs got big right around the same time as third edition D&D, which was an exuberant and explicit return to the good ol’ dungeon crawl, not a push toward story-oriented play.

While MMORPGs (or just computer RPGs in general) may replace tabletop RPGs in the sense that gamers spend time playing computer games instead of gaming face-to-face, they are not really the same “type” of game, don’t exercise the same muscles, and are, in the most important ways, a fundamentally different experience. This is true even if the tabletop game in question is a highly structured dungeon-crawling affair where the players are mostly concerned about leveling up. Even in that situation, a couple factors will make the tabletop gaming different. First, the fact that there’s a human GM means that the narrative is literally open-ended — new material can be generated on the fly, and rules can be adjudicated and changed as necessary to describe or account for, literally, anything imaginable. Second, the actual act of roleplaying, of behaving (or at the very least speaking) in character around people who are right there with you, is something that MMORPGs don�t duplicate. (I don’t want to say “can�t” because I know from my old NarniaMUSH days that text-based online roleplaying can, in theory, sustain a very strong performative element. But that sort of thing was predicated on virtual worlds where there were no respawning goblin lairs at the end of the path — description and performance were their entirety. Certainly the addition of graphics and a 3D environment, at least at the current stage of the technology, makes virtual role-playing harder, not easier.)

So: I don’t think people will turn to narrativist games because computer games fill the “dungeon-crawling” gap; I think they’ll always turn to tabletop roleplaying to fill a niche that computer games don’t, and within that niche some will prefer the narrativist style and others won’t.

I�m finding myself in deep water here, since there’s the fact that MMORPGs do engender community and interpersonal reaction in important ways. But I’ll have to leave it for another time, or just leave it entirely since I’m not playing any MMORPGs at the moment so I don’t have any direct experience to speak from.

In the last section of his entry, Greg brings up his own ludological perspective and the ways that My Life With Master refutes his argument on the subject. I think he’s on to something in that, by constraining some aspects of the narrative, the game allows for more freedom in telling the story at the scene-by-scene level. In an ideal narrativist world, would the players agree on the narrative constraints and not need rules or dictums to help enforce it? No, I think the rules have some intrinsic value as well — there’s art in the artifice of providing a context for group storytelling and shaping the story in a particular way.

And it’s also not at all evident to me how you go about “enforcing narrative consistency while permitting freedom of action in other spheres” in digital media.

I can’t see how it would work either. I think this is One of Those Things that make tabletop RPGs a whole different kahuna. While I realize that Greg was talking about MLWM specifically here, I think it speaks to a particular kind of flexibility that’s unique to traditional RPGs.

There are lot of other tangents to consider from here, but I’ll save them for another day. One quibble: I’m betting Czege has read Castle of Otranto. Suffice it to say: Greg, glad to hear you think this game rocks, too.

UPDATE: More talk on this subject can be found in Part II, here.