The Plotbound GM

There’s something I’ve heard being talked about here and there every so often among the tabletop gamers I know – a particular kind of GM who doesn’t overtly railroad the players, but who you can tell has a Grand Plot that they’re playing out with the PCs cast as the protagonists. I’ve even run into some of the breed, although I’ve never had to deal with being on the other side of the screen from one.

They’re the GMs who want to showcase their masterpiece story to people, with all the amazing worldbuilding and intricate details, the complex intrigues and national rivalries, and the players are who they intend to showcase it to. In effect, they’ve got a book and the PCs get the phenomenal good fortune, in the GM’s opinion, of being the starring characters in it. (Unless they’re bad enough GMs that they have a GMPC protagonist and the PCs are the character’s sidekicks, but one nightmare at a time for now.)

I can understand where these people are coming from; they’ve put all this effort and love into building a world and a plot, and they want to show it off. They’ve probably considered writing it as a novel, but either they worry that their writing sucks or they’ve internalized the false logic that writers are socially unacceptable weirdos. Thus, there’s only one outlet left for their work.

And that is where everything goes wrong. Players can tell when the road they’re on doesn’t fork or split anywhere, and when their characters are only tangentially connected to the world or the plot. This leads to player detachment and boredom, since they quickly get the feeling that nothing they do has any impact on the course of events. Mos will simply check out and either quit showing up or simply ignore the game when it isn’t their turn.

That, in turn, frustrates the GM, since their brilliantly concocted masterpiece is being ignored and left unappreciated by the players. Some get bitter and conclude that players are all just mechanics-hounds and combat-monkeys with no interest in a True Story; some get upset and quit running the game to look for another group, hoping that they’ll eventually find one who can appreciate their creation.

The solution isn’t something these GMs want to hear: this brilliant story and deeply developed world? If having to told really matters that much to you, you’re going to have to commit to the lengthy, arduous labor of writing it as an actual story. The players will never play through it and applaud your ideas, because the odds are that what you think is brilliant and original has half-calcified lumps of trope and stereotype clinging to it.

If you want to showcase your world, invite the players in. Acknowledge that they’re going to change things. Accept it, and learn to work with it. Give your players the opportunity to put their characters into the world and become an actual part of it, tie their stories into a plot that directly involves them, and you’ll find the audience you’ve been looking for. Acknowledge that it isn’t going to be just your world any longer; your players will sculpt bits of it themselves.

It’ll be worth it. No matter how thorough you are, there are things you won’t have written, and things where the voice you have falters in dealing with. Letting others come play in the world you’ve made will shore up these weak points and absences, give you an opportunity to make the world more complete and more alive. Take the things your players offer and include them; your players will appreciate it, and they’ll be invested in the world in turn because now part of it is theirs, too.

If you can’t do that, well… Perhaps it’s time to sit down and write that book.

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The Plotbound GM

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