I don’t mean this in an arrogant, egotistical, “I am centre of the universe” kind of way – I’d need to think a lot more of myself for that – but to a certain extent I do seem to carry around with me the attitude that other people exist to for my entertainment. This means that in the rare moments when I am a happy bunny and have interesting and friendly people around me I feel as if they are to be engaged with, or not, on a whim (as I intimated when I mentioned the difference between loneliness and being alone). It has also surfaced into my conscious mind that a similar but subtly different principle informs my gaming habits and practices, and ultimately probably encapsulates why I prefer to GM rather than play.
That is to say: I get a large slice of my gaming enjoyment from sitting back and watching things unfold, and this is heightened if I have had a hand in setting up the situation concerned, as opposed to playing an integral part in the unfolding. This has been to the forefront of my thinking as I reflected on last weekend’s TROS game and why the final scenes of that weekender worked so well for me. Whilst this threw it up as a conscious consideration, the fact I enjoy watching the creativity of others is something I have long been aware of – it first came to my attention back when I was regularly playing Neverwinter Nights online 5 years ago. It was, in hindsight, the primary driving force behind the changes that I made in the summer of 2003 to the way I ran the campaign I was GMing in NWN. Yes, the discussions with others (most notably Ian O’Rourke) are what made me aware of different priorities, approaches and so forth with specific reference to RPGs and helped me pinpoint exactly what principles most appealed to me – and these extend past gaming, most notably into preferences in TV and film – but looking back now it is the desire to set things up that makes this tick, with me resting on the full knowledge of the situation, if not exactly how events will resolve.
The priorities I straightened out back in 2003 before I began to get back into tabletop RPGs again still stand: and I value a narrative focussed on pushing the PCs into personally resonant choices and individually defining moments, salient revelations and lasting effect over action, self-betterment or wandering through events untouched on a personal level beyond the physical scars of a fight or two. I have never, as a player, been very good at ensuring I get this kind of play; in the past I have put this down to my lack of dominance at the table, a reticence to impose myself in order to get what I want but I suspect now that the real reason is perhaps that I don’t want it so much for myself – I am, and have always been, quite happy playing in the style served up. Instead, I want to see others experience this type of drama and create entertainment for me out of the in game events.
Why is this? I don’t know. I am continually astounded by how creative others can be if given the opportunity, though I have to concede that I may just have been very luck with whom I have gamed in this respect. Certainly not every gamer has it in them to provide the sort of entertainment I value most – hell, I doubt I do; like in life, in games the strength of each gamer will be different. It may just be my talent for self-deprecation speaking, but I do not consider myself particularly creative or inventive when it comes to gaming, so perhaps I value the creativity of others more highly as a result?
I function well when bouncing ideas off people, or when picking up on key phrases from someone else and turning them on their origin – I do minimal world-building, but what is done is almost always a strict reflection of information given to me in character pitches. The same goes for plotting, where unless I am directly building something around a PC I do not feel confident in what I am putting together. When playing I feel that I am spectacularly bad at anything that equates to problem solving or requires on-the-spot thinking - why I have a penchant for playing socially gifted characters given this, and my dislike for using social conflict mechanics I don’t know, it’s not exactly playing to my strengths! – but feel I’m much better at identifying and focussing on how I can get interplay going with other PCs, be that one showing another up, encouraging intrigue or just personal moments of connection, realisation, respect or understanding between two equally fictitious personalities. I have always been wordy, but tend not to see my use of words in the same way I see others’ usage; consciously intentional or not there was a session in my recently completed game (summarised in two parts here and here) where almost everything that was said struck me as perfect, but I said next to nothing that session, instead getting my wish – I was able to sit back and enjoy as the players ran away with the situation creatively hitting high point after high point.
I feel my GMing style does play to my strengths, and thus I actually believe in my ability as a GM (whereas I don’t about almost anything else). It also plays heavily to this desire to sit back and watch others. I nudge, nurdle and tweak, setting up opportunities for PCs to hit their straps and players to get their teeth into issues and aspects of play that they have indicated (either openly, or by my inferring from interactions) are desirable in the context of the current game. Flags, in technical terms, are raised to be seen and engaged with and generally speaking I have found if I manage to nail that engagement players will run away with it and I can often take a step back and just enjoy the ride as they interact with each other. Worst case is that that player wants to run away with the idea with an NPC, which involves me doing something more, but really only insofar as I need to act as a springboard to magnify their input, before looking for a way to turn its focus toward the rest of the group. Actually, no – worst case is that the player doesn’t spot it, or react, the chances of both reduced if I’m not the player.
The bonus is that when it comes off, this adds to everyone’s enjoyment – the player gets what they wanted brought into focus, and I, as GM, get to play audience. In the best cases players will react to each others flags, and I can observe without ever having to interject. Like being the parent nudging their kid on a sled over the lip of the slope, I know they may well not have got there without the work I did to set it up, but their enjoyment and involvement in the runaway descent is plain and the experience of knowing I facilitated that gives the warmest glow.
When playing I take care to set up the kinds of characters riddled with hooks, flaws and foibles that would act as flags if I were a GM, but because I’m not (however nominally) “in control” I have the tendency to ignore them in actual play unless given a gaping opportunity, such as towards the end of last weekend’s game, where it all opened up too invitingly to ignore. More than that, it opened up in a way that promised some form of sitting back and enjoying: the manipulations I made even as a player had direct consequences, at least as they were being planned, for the other PCs. It was, in short, not a million miles away from GMing that scene, especially given the knowledge of motivations as the resultant mini-scenes played out. Perhaps not as personally resonant or as thought out as my tweaks and nudges as a GM would have been, these little manipulations nevertheless were going to throw the spotlight onto other players and their contribution to the climactic moments of the game. Maybe this is why I take to playing social manipulators even when I do not have the range of social manipulation in life – it provides a mechanically supported way of throwing other people into focus and assuring I get a show to watch.
Hence the conclusion that I’m seeing other people as a form of entertainment.
It is not that I do not enjoy being an active part of proceedings: I do. Engineering situations to spotlight other people can actually takes some work to pull off, not least because some people (like me, perhaps?) do not want to be engaged. I would posit it is more down to different requirements to meet, or at least to maximise, the pay-off for the time put into a leisure activity.
The point? I may not have been looking hard enough or in the right places, but I have not come across any place for this “audience”-like motivation in gaming theory or discussion (or if I have do not remember). It is not a desire that can simply be sated by reading a book or watching film or TV as these are much more fundamentally passive entertainments and the (inter)active nature of gaming is a huge part of its appeal, and it is the interplay between a game being something you are a part of and yet also something you can sit back from and experience as an observer that is of key interest to me here.
Does anyone else have this desire to set things up for others to knock them down, preferably with a minimum of interference once it is underway? Does anyone else thrive in a game where they can just watch most of the time, or am I alone in finding this sort of pleasure in gaming when others would look to movies or novels? Does anyone else approach gaming – consciously or unconsciously – with an eye on the expectation that the other participants are there to entertain them?