Tony Love mentioned to me today that he had a chat with Ed Healy recently about strategies for getting new people into RPGs. It is something I think about a lot. Since Tony’s comment to me, I have spent a lot of the day thinking about it.
I am going to propose a new method of getting people to play RPGs in this post. And it is a pretty unconventional approach. But before that approach will make a lot of sense, I need to establish where I am coming from, so please bear with me through a short story.
Europa Universalis II
When I was in college, I played a lot of Europa Universalis II. It is basically a glorified board game. A strategy game. Where you control a nation and you strive to kill off the others. In single player, it plays out very much like a Total War or Civilization game. You start small, build up critical mass, start crushing everything in sight, and push for world conquest. Where it got really interesting was in multiplayer. Because the game could be edited by someone with only a tiny amount of basic training. Everything was in text files. You could edit the saves and do some crazy amazing things in just a few minutes.
A social model evolved in the multiplayer community where people would set up games as GMs and run them in a similar manner to tabletop gaming. Every week, 4-5 hour sessions, then a week of chatter over ICQ/AIM. Because the GM could edit the save games at will, it allowed them to kind of control the AI forces a little. It allowed them to go beyond the rules of the game, fix the game in a manner they wanted, and change reality. This started out as editing to fix mistakes caused by lag or connectivity issues. So someone might drop out of the game for 30 minutes, their nation would sit doing nothing, the GM would go into the save file and replace some things lost by that (ships lost at sea from sitting there for too long, troops starving in mountain ranges, etc). Maybe even convert a certain amount of gold directly into an outcome so the player didn’t have to wait for the normal build time.
This led into simple treaties, which led to complex treaties. People would make treaties that would totally bypass the game mechanics. For example, in the game you could not “trade” provinces. I cannot give you the Azores in exchange for Bermuda. One of us would have to declare war, take one piece of the deal, then wait for the peace to expire, then vice versa. Big pain in the ass. But with save file edits, it was a cinch to arrange such a thing. This put way way way more onto the negotiation table than you normally get in a strategy game. It opened up the potential for non-aggression treaties, trade blocks, and other things not written into the game at all. Through editing, the GM created a new kind of game.
Playing this game, in this way, was more enjoyable than anything I have ever experienced in any game. I shit you not. But like all good things it came to an end. The game became dated, player base declined until only grognards were left, and they would then fight like bitches over minor things. C’est la vie.
The Gamemaster Model
The above story is the only example I have of taking the idea of a GM from RPGs and applying it to another medium. I think if we want to make the case for RPGs to new players, the idea of having someone who makes decisions in a manner of a GM is the way to do it. And this doesn’t necessarily involve making RPGs in the way that we traditionally conceive of them.
The role of the GM is to be an impartial structure provider, someone who adjudicates the rules as a referee, but also creates the reality around the players. Rules exist, but they exist to serve as a baseline and the GM can deviate from them if they need to. The GM provides judgement to solve problems where the rules provide a pre-ordained resolution method.
Any game that conceives of the players controlling a portion of the world and the remainder of the world under a GM can serve as a gateway into the personal avatar version of RPGs that we know and love. So in a strategy game, they might act to manage the non-player components of the wider world. The players might be England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, while the GM manages the rest. Or replace that with Steiner, Davion, Liao, and Kurita. Or everything except a small mercenary corps (oh wait, we already have that as an RPG!)…
Someone who plays computer games may not be willing to start playing D&D, but they may be willing to play an adjudicated wargame that has a kind of story structure built into it by a GM. Or a sports variant. Or whatever you can come up with.
The possibilities are staggering if you are willing to look beyond individual avatars or at something where there are multiple avatars. We already have borderline cases, like the Mechwarrior RPG reference above, troupe play in a game like Ars Magica, and so on. If we can remove the player from a single person, turn the game into a new kind of beast, I think we can push the appeal to a larger market. And we could tap into the growing hordes of people who are dissatisfied with the shortcomings of the video gaming world. We really need to explore this direction and take the GM model to more types of games than just personal avatar storytelling/exploration games.
So far I have talked about strategy because that is a genre that I love. But there are many many more possibilities than that. Basically anything you can make a board game or video game for. Having a GM solves a lot of things that are either too crunchy, too personal/relational, or too smart to solve ahead of time with rules.
I have two ideas in this vein right now. Both of which are similar but sufficiently different to warrant separate games. One is Regalia, where you are not just a single person but part of a larger dynasty and you control several characters simultaneously. I have talked a bit about this game in the past week. The other idea is…. well I will keep that under my hat for now.
What kind of applications can YOU think of for this model?