Corey and Lori's Quest Log

Corey and Lori’s Quest Log

Posts Tagged ‘Game Master’

Master the Game of Life

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Last week I talked about “serious games” – games with a real-world purpose. I am a bit cynical about them. While games can teach useful lessons, a good game can also be addictive. Players escape into games because their real lives suck. They get feelings of control and success in the game world that they lack in the mundane world. Jane McGonigal suggests that we channel those positive feelings into real life accomplishments.

I have a different idea – If reality sucks, and games are more fun, change the rules! Make your life into a game, and find ways to make it a game you love to play.

Who Makes the Rules?

“Who makes the rules? Someone else.” – Oingo Boingo, “No Spill Blood”

GamemasterMost of us think of gaming as, “Someone else made the rules. We play by them.” That seems obvious and sensible. But that’s no longer the only type of game. Role-playing games have a “game master” (GM) who has special privileges. The GM can interpret and even modify the rules. The GM and all of the players are responsible for using their imaginations to create original stories that go beyond the rules.

And that leads to a strange truth about role-playing games: The rules don’t really matter!

I have seen similar campaigns based on wildly different role-playing game systems. And I’ve seen wildly different scenarios within a single game system. It is the imaginations of the GM and the players that make a good or a bad game, not the rules they use.

Of course, that’s just gaming, not real life. Or is it?

Life Is a Role-Playing Game

“Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret!” – Liza Minnelli in Cabaret

Read some personal column ads and you’ll soon find the words, “No games.” Ok, so they don’t like Monopoly. Of course, what they really mean is, “Don’t play to win in a way that makes me lose.” Most people think of games as having a winner and a loser.

Role-playing games are different. The players win or lose together. The GM sets the scene, and puts challenges in front of the players, but is not “playing against” the other players. A good GM wants the players to succeed, but for the success to be challenging, memorable, and meaningful.

A good life should also be meaningful, challenging, and memorable. Coincidence? I think not! A life lived with creativity and passion is a lot like a good role-playing game. Instead of trying to use games to make our miserable lives better, why don’t we turn our lives into games? Maybe they already are.

What is a job? That is where you earn game currency to make investments and pay your expenses.
What are taxes? They are game penalties. You need to earn more game currency to pay for them.
What is school? School is training to help you gain levels and skill points.
What are relationships? They are cooperative mode game play; you join with other players to help all of you reach your goals.
What are regular tasks such as cooking, cleaning, paying bills, and filing? They are the daily quests you perform to support your character, build your reputation, and support your friends.
What are accomplishments? They are the Achievement System of life. You work hard to achieve goals that you give yourself or get from others. Sometimes you earn Achievement Points for doing them.

Who Is To Be Master?

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Humpty DumptyLife is a game. But what kind of game is it? Is it one of those relationship “games” where someone always has to lose? Is it a game where someone else writes the rules, and we don’t like them very much, but we have to play by them? Or is it a role-playing game, where the rules don’t matter nearly as much as the creative stories we weave around them? In other words, who is to be the master?

If we treat our lives as part of a role-playing game, we can all have a lot more fun than we may have allowed ourselves in the past. We can also use some of what we know about game play to do better at playing the game of our lives. But first we have to decide who is the game master.

I’ve played in some fun role-playing campaigns where the players took turns being the game master. Each player took responsibility for a particular area. When the players moved into that area, the “owner” of that area became the game master for a few sessions. That was how Gygax, Arneson and friends played the “first fantasy campaign” that spawned Dungeons & Dragons.

Do you feel out of control in your life? Maybe you keep skipping your turn at being the game master. Or maybe you’ve put way too many “Skip a Turn” cards into your collectible life card deck. The funny thing is, most of us think that someone else decides who gets to be the game master, and who just plays. But nobody is making those decisions for us. In a role-playing game, a player gets to be the game master by saying, “I’ll be game master.” It works pretty much the same way in life.

A game master has a lot of responsibility, and it is hard work to run a game, but it is also amazingly rewarding. The GM has total freedom to create an experience for the other players. That, by the way, is the most important key to being a good GM – Your job is to help all of the players have fun. Fortunately, the GM is a player too. If you play the game right, life is better for all of you.

The rules do not make the game. They are just the context in which you define the experience of your life.

Guiding the Game

“The code is more ‘guidelines’ than what you’d call actual rules.” – Pirate Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Lori and I have some guidelines we use for every game we design. For example:
1. The players must have fun. This is our #1 “rule” for every game.
2. Make choices clear, meaningful, and interesting.
3. Creating the game must be fun – We are playing a “game” too.
4. Don’t frustrate the player with dead-ends or stupid responses.

These all apply to a good life just as much as to good game design.

Who are your players? Remember, we aren’t “playing the game of life” right now – We’re creating it and being the game master. Your players are the people around you – your friends, family, co-workers, and fellow students. When you work out the rules for your game, make sure that the people around you will have fun and a chance to earn their own achievements. Fortunately, Rule 3 says that you get to have fun too. Just don’t do it at the expense of your other “players”.

Clear, meaningful, and interesting choices keep players involved in a game. They’re even more important in life. Invest in the quality of your life by consciously making choices. Think about your goals and how you can achieve them. Make a list of things you would like to accomplish, places you’d like to go, and experiences you would like to have. You probably make lists like this for work or school. Why not take the time to plan the things that really matter to you? You can let things just happen to you, or you can decide on what you want to do and take the time and effort to make it happen.

Dead-ends, stupid responses, and frustration are part of life. You will have times when you feel that the game is rigged and that the world is actively trying to keep you from your goals. But here’s where life has a big advantage over games – With the exception of a few laws of physics, the rules aren’t fixed. If you are frustrated in one place, go somewhere else. If one approach doesn’t work, try another. Games are limited to the imagination of the designer and the time constraints on the development team. Real life has no such restrictions; you are limited only by your own imagination.

There is one category of “dead ends and stupid responses” you should definitely design out of your “game of life.” That is the set you impose upon yourself. The stupidest dead-end response you can give yourself is, “I can’t do that.” Take the phrase “I can’t” out of your vocabulary. Practice saying instead, “That may be hard, but I’ll give it a try.” If something seems impossible, think about how you can make it possible. Break the hard problem down into smaller, less difficult, tasks. Or redefine it to something that meets the spirit of the original goal, but that you can find a way to achieve. But don’t give up on anything that you really care about.

If you try, but fail, that isn’t the time to quit; do more work and preparation, then try again. Players fail a lot in World of Warcraft, but they keep going back and trying again until they succeed. Life and games are both about conflict and resolution. If you run into an obstacle, look for the solution – You could destroy it, temporarily move it, go around it, find a way over it, dig under it, or use it to redefine the problem. If you haven’t tried at least three solutions, you’re giving up too easily.

Mmm, Chocolate!

“Life is a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” – Forrest Gump

Meepsters of the GalaxyBeing the Game Master of your life is hard work, but that just means you are overcoming challenges. Challenges are the key to making games fun and rewarding; you get a lot more achievement points for doing hard things than easy ones. And there’s more!

As both the GM and as one of the players, you get to create the tale of life’s adventure together. That collaboration means that a well-played life is always a mystery. Until you bite into each experience, you never know how it will taste. You may just find that some of those “impossible” goals will be fulfilled in ways you could never have guessed.

When you make your life into a role-playing game, and take on the responsibility of being the GM, you turn your life into a mysterious box of chocolates. Will you taste them, or settle for someone else’s empty wrappers? The choice is up to you.

A Game Master’s Guide to Life – Friends

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

A strange group of people sit around a kitchen table, chattering and snacking on chips and Cheetos. They talk about history and rules; bitch about politics and life. One by one, they each place a hand-painted figurine upon the hex-squared map that covers most of the tabletop. Then, as the last miniature is placed, the Game Master begins the arcane ritual. Through the magic woven of words, the group is transported from this mundane living room to a land of terror, trial, and triumph. The Game begins.

So, my fellow Adventurers on this world of Earth – what wisdom can be gained by gaming? I have been a Game Master and player from the dawn (well, technically speaking, the mid-morning) of D&D. I have laughed and loved, cried and raged at the casting of the dice. I learned of love and life from cooperative fantasy role-playing.

So now, I’ll step out from behind the Game Master shield that hides the dice and GM notes (or in my case, the laptop computer screen with the dice rolling program and text editor) to share some of what I’ve learned over the years.

Get a Good Group

Advice DiceD&D requires the willing suspension of disbelief that the two-hundred and twenty pound man is actually a delicate Elf Maiden and that the tiny lead figure on the board is actually a huge, ravenous Wererabbit with nasty, sharp incisors. However, it isn’t just the storytelling ability of the Game Master or the imagination of the players that makes for the best role-playing experiences. It is the dynamics of the group.

The real magic of a Fantasy RPG occurs when everyone in the group is intensely involved in accomplishing a quest. All of the characters are using their skills and wits toward a common goal, and the energy and excitement build with the events in the game. If the group is too small, the energy never develops. If some of the players are cracking jokes or reading the latest Phil Folio cartoon, the energy is dissipated. If you have too many people at the table, everyone is waiting impatiently for their chance to do something in the game, and the energy is charged with frustration.

Everyone in the group must be involved in the story. They all need to have skills to contribute to the whole. That’s why traditionally D&D parties consist of a carefully balanced mix of character types. It means that each player has something different to contribute to the game.

So what does this have to do with real life?

Life is not a solo computer game. You are surrounded by people you need to interact with. If you want to really enjoy the experience of life, you have to find people you care about and do things with. These are your real friends.

Nor do you want only friends who are just like you. The greatest synergy in an RPG comes from everyone having something different to add to the game – the Priest chants a protective spell as the Warrior swings his glowing great sword at the Fiery Demon. The Troll Hunter sends his rhinoceros – named ‘Preposterous’ – charging at the Demon’s minions to bowl them aside (er, well, he would if we were playing the World of Warcraft RPG).

No two people in real life are alike, and yet we all have things in common. Many of my best friends have widely different political views and outlooks on life. We come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. We vehemently disagree on many topics. (Rabid Republicans, devoted Democrats, and leftish Libertarians all playing together at the same table – scary thought!) And yet, we travel for miles and waste hundreds of dollars to get together every once in a while to play a game together.

More than that – we learn from one another. I know more about the “War of Northern Aggression” than I was ever taught in school as the ‘Civil War.’ I have listened to first hand experiences from Vietnam War veterans. I know how hard it was to grow up black, brilliant, and poor in an inner city where everyone else looked down on you because you were smart. My friends are experts on many things I never thought about before.

When we game, we put aside our differences and, through the power of imagination, work as a team to accomplish great deeds. The things we have in common in real life – intelligence, creativity, and the love of the game – make our disagreements irrelevant. What we have in common is more important than how we differ. Yet, because we are so different, the game evolves through interplay of our varied thoughts and opinions. The game goes places none of us could have originally imagined.

Life is that way too… You never know where your road will lead or what you will find there.

Don’t Go it Alone

One of the worst ways to break up a game is to have people go off in separate directions doing their own thing. There was the time long, long ago when Corey and I were dual GMing a marathon Halloween Night dungeon using the original “Ravenloft” module by Tracy Hickman. We had eight players at the table. One of them was someone we had met recently when we ran a tournament game at a convention and awarded him the grand prize for role-playing.

Ravenloft is a moody, Gothic horror game set in a place much like Mordavia in Quest for Glory 4: Shadows of Darkness. (Coincidence? I think not.) I was dressed as the Gypsy Fortuneteller who guides the player characters into the game. The table was lit by candlelight. The characters were all trapped in this land of mists and shadows. The only way to escape it was to first defeat Strahd von Zarovich, the Vampire Lord.

The players were all experienced RPGers and the party soon entered the darkened castle of the Vampire. That’s when the newcomer decided that his Half-Orc rogue wanted to do some scouting all by himself.

Bad adventuring decision. Even though we tried to discourage him, he insisted that his character would do just that. Still, the GM’s aren’t there to force players to act a certain way. We just set the scene and tell players the results of their actions – wise and unwise both. So Corey and I took him aside in a different room and played it out.

The lone rogue soon got caught by the Vampire. He was charmed and then dressed in an illusion of Strahd and ordered to sleep in the Vampire’s coffin. As a result, the rest of the party murdered the Half-Orc thinking that he was Strahd, while the real villain got away. They only learned of their mistake after the game was over.

We can Make it Together

The moral of that sad story is that no one should go wandering through the dark unknown by themselves. While you seldom run up against Evil Undead Overlords in the average city (Los Angeles being a notable exception), you will sometimes find yourself caught up in events that are unpleasant and could have equally dire consequences. You need someone at your side.

Corey and I met when he ran a D&D game at a WesterCon Science Fiction Convention. We’ve been together ever since. We work together, play together, and sleep together at night. We also have our occasional arguments and disagreements. (It’s Wednesday –where’s the blog? Um… I… er… the werewolf ate it?) We’ve been through the Sisyphean Nightmare of working 12 hour days for Game Companies who then released our precious creations still riddled with bugs. We have been through periods of time with no work, little money, and no work potential. We’ve also shared the best moments of our lives in the birth of our son, the release of Hero’s Quest, and the creation of the School for Heroes.

The important point is that we do things together. We seldom go off adventuring alone when it comes to important things. We talk to one another and let each other know our deepest feelings.

So when you find the person who is your perfect complement – do what you can to make that relationship last. Treasure the personality traits you share, and value the differences. Be a team rather than a boss and employee. Do things together that you both love. The bonds formed by shared happiness can last a lifetime.

The Play’s the Thing

Clearly, the shared experiences are the best experiences. When our oddball playing group comes to the climax of an exciting adventure, we all feel empowered and thrilled by what we have done. Likewise, going out to a movie together and sharing a meal and discussion afterwards can be a great time. (The movie doesn’t even have to be a good one – we spent hours mocking the inconsistencies and bad science of Jurassic Park.) These shared times make life richer and more fun.

Bruised, battered, and beaten, the last adventurers stand before the dark altar. Most of her acolytes and the rest of the party lie dying on the cold marble floor. As the High Priestess of the Spider Goddess Lolth begins her final incantation, the Mage and Cleric look at each other grimly, and cast their last remaining spells.

The ceiling above the Priestess softens into mud in response to the mage’s arcane gestures. The High Priestess laughs exultantly, knowing that pitiful spell cannot stop her ritual. She has won!

Or has she? The Cleric completes his incantation – Dispel Magic – and the mud hardens into rock once again. Encased in stone, the High Priestess – and her smile – are frozen forever, her ritual stopped. The party has triumphed where any one individual would have failed.

So if you want to have a life that is full of adventure and great times, find some good friends and do what you can to stay together. Our gaming group is scattered for miles across several states, and sometimes years pass between games with our friends. However, we have all been friends through the decades and still enjoy playing together.

With friends like these, the fun will last a lifetime.