Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Benevolent Chief

Currently, I'm reading Robin Laws fascinating new RPG, Hillfolk. Hillfolk may be the first "hardcore" story game I've ever seen. There are very few rules, yet very detailed procedures on how to resolve conficts between players. Such procedures are necessary because in Hillfolk, all of the players contribute equally to the story. The GM acts more like a referee/guide. Yes; there are some important calls the GM has to make, and those calls can have a significant impact on the story being told, but overall, the GM is right there in the trenches with the players, describing scenes and placing characters.

Maybe it's my age or my playing style, but I'm having a really hard time with this. I have always had a hard time with player agency (the practice within an RPG of giving players creative control beyond their own characters). I am a writer by trade. I have spent my professional/educational life learning how to put a good story together. It's what I do. And while I may not be the best at it, I AM good at it. Honestly, it's why I put these RPG sessions together. I'm not too good at very many things, but running an RPG, for better or for worse, is one of them. It's also why I play in so few of them. I'm more comfortable behind the scenes, crafting the story and pulling the strings. I don't consider my RPG adventures collaborative stories. I consider them stories told by me, stories that the players can actually enter, interact with, and even bend to their own will.

That last point is important. I don't railroad my players. I am ready, willing, and able to burn my own story right down to the ground the moment my players come up with something better, more compelling, than what I had planned. I have played with groups full of creative types who have all kinds of ideas on what they want to see in their games. When they're at the table, I tend to put my notes away and just roll with it.

But not every player I come across is like that. I'm not always in a room full of aspiring creators who want to flex those muscles in a game. Sometimes, I'm in a room with people who just want to be entertained. Creating a character, making a few decisions, and rolling some dice are all they really want to do. They're not interested in world creation; they're interested in world exploration. I host a lot of public games, and a lot of the people I put on a game for are just looking for a fun afternoon, something more invovled than a boardgame but less exhausting than creating their own story.

Do I regret buying Hillfolk? Of course not. Robin Laws is one of the best game designers out there, and even if I never play Hillfolk, his thoughts on story structure are brilliant and worth studying, for RPG gamers and storytellers alike. I bought Hillfolk because I was looking for the next evolution of story gaming. It's already been established with me that I do not care for overly "crunchy" games that have tons of rules for everything. I want a game that gets the rules out of the way and allows me to focus on the story, but still has that framework for me to fall back on when I need it. It's unfortunate that Hillfolk may enter the same dubious place of honor as Numenera or Rotted Capes as games that I love but will probably never play. But, thankfully, I'm oftentimes wrong.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hey Ed!

    I too understand buying RPG systems with no real idea on if / when they will ever be played in my group. Just curious to know what the system you run the most is?

  3. Suggestion: Check what the group wants aforehand. The way you describe your GMing style wouldn't captivate me - I want the players to be engaged the act of consensual world building at table.


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