This week I find myself pulling double duty in the “Hobby” department. Considering how much I invest in both scenic design and this blog on a regular basis, the term ‘hobby’ really does deserve those quotes. (The big difference, of course, is that I actually have a paying gig with a theater for this scenic design.)
I’ve felt the pressure to make time for both. Pressure, however, is not something I want to experience while doing something I love.
As such, my subconscious mind worked hard to find a way to incorporate these twin passions into one convenient package. Then, late last night when my psyche discovered a solution and slapped me upside the head with it. In a flash, I realized that some of the limitations I faced on my current design project were not unlike the challenges I’ve recently confronted as a GM. That’s right, faithful readers: Once again, we’re going to exploit the potent connections between live theater and role-playing games. Not at the same time, however; you all know how I feel about LARPing.
Writing this post made me realize quickly that my latest foray into running a game saw me take on the role of ‘director’ of the campaign. I assembled a cast, established a setting, and gave them a plot to act out. I didn’t tell them exactly where to stand, or how to say their lines; they had some control over the story in that way. As discussed in a previous post, however, there was definitely a script at work for this game. I simply let them work their way through it in character.
The alternative to this approach was taking root in my mind while I penned my last post on this topic. However, it took another week for the idea to completely germinate. I mentioned the word “design” several times in my last post, in relation to the function I wanted to serve as GM of my next campaign. I admonished myself to “plan designs that will drive the story,” be they designs for NPCs or locations or significant events. And that’s exactly the role I should occupy; not the director of the show, but the designer of the scene. To do that successfully, I’m going to use these questions to focus me.
“How will the finished design look to others?”
A detailed rendering is frequently the first step in designing a theater set. This should come as no surprise in a very visual medium like live theater; a successful design is all about what can be seen. There is quite a bit to design that relies on what is not seen as well; specifically, a solid structure (see below), a functional performance space (again, below), and all the ‘real world’ nonsense that is taking place behind the play’s action. At the end of the day, however, what sets the scene in which the story is told is how a design looks from the seats.
For that reason, a good designer (in connection with the director) must look at things from the viewpoint of the future audience. They need the ability to see the ‘big picture’ of the scene as a whole, while still observing those minute details that create texture and realism in the scene. They need the ability to see gaps in the design that might draw attention away from the story itself, as such gaps will make it more difficult for the audience to remain immersed in the performance. Most importantly, they need the ability to envision what the scene should look like, and the skills to communicate that vision to others.
These skills and abilities are a pretty apt shopping list for what a GM would need during their campaign as well. A GM needs to have a clear vision of the feel of each scene his players will inhabit, and the ability to add those details so necessary in fleshing out an encounter or filling in its gaps. These details tend to be more aesthetic than technical; technical details fall more into the ‘structure’ category below. Having a list of sensory stimuli isn’t always enough, however; the GM needs a strong delivery to communicate these details in a way that the players will find meaningful.
This directive hearkens back in part to my previous suggestion for GMs to be a ‘news reporter’ about the pertinent details of the world their players are traveling through. Likewise, it fits well with the idea of knowing your ‘beat’; that is, the significant people, places, and events that the party will interact with. In order to have that depth of knowledge, the GM needs a firm picture in mind of how that world will look and sound and smell from the outside. In other words, every so often he’ll need to look at it from the other side of the screen and see if the scene is set the way he’s designed it, or if some redesigns might be in order.
“Is the structure adequate to support the action?”
Now it should go without saying that this design can’t be just another pretty face. All the imagery and detail in the world is worthless without a sound structure to support it. More than once, I’ve been handed beautiful renderings of how a set should look at its completion; further investigation, however, reveals that how it will actually be built has been left in my hands. How much lumber will we need? Can the second story support twenty actors at once? Will the grandeur of this stately castle actually fit in the physical space of the stage? These mechanical questions are no less important than issues like the color of the walls and the style of chairs in the castle’s dining room.
In fact, I think every actor would probably agree that the most important question in relation to the set is “Is the structure adequate to support the action?”. Now in theater, the answer to this question hinges on many factors: the number of actors on stage, the physical space available in the floor plan, the financial cost of materials, and the weight and/or mobility of certain pieces. Finding a solid balance between a firmly built foundation and an efficient use of resources is one of the biggest challenges a designer may face.
The beauty of designing your campaign as a GM is this: you have control over how many of those questions will be answered! The number of players in the party is important; you’ll need to design appropriate challenges for the group to face. For that reason, you may decide to limit the game to a certain number of players that the game will safely support. Your finances may dictate which books you can buy, and therefore which rules, items, and monsters might make an appearance in your game. Still, it’s easier for a GM to search the internet or borrow books than it is for a set designer to mill some lumber or weld a steel frame. Finally, issues like weight, space, and other physical dimensions are mostly irrelevant to the GM as they are only limited by his own imagination. That’s the beauty of role-playing and fantasy after all; it’s all about transcending the laws of nature and altering reality.
All that’s left to the GM as a campaign designer, then, is to provide enough rules structure to safely carry the narrative. This has always been my downfall as the GM; not providing enough, but jamming in too much. When I build a set, I can learn and test the integrity of my design before it’s put to use. Additionally, the relative strength and stability of the materials I’m building with are well-known to me. If I’m being honest though, when it came to GMing I wasn’t very confident in my knowledge of the game’s mechanics and rules; as such, I was constantly worried that if a player stepped off my carefully designed game they might find a weak spot and put their foot through the proverbial floor. I didn’t want to risk revealing any ‘weakness’ in my design, so I over-designed.
As I’ve begun planning a new adventure for our group, I’ve tried to remind myself that the structure of the rules will get spanned by the details and events of the story. I don’t have to fill in every space the players may use; if it looks like the mechanical foundation might have a gap or two, I can always shore it up with the plot. It also helps that I’ve been really supported and encouraged by the rest of my group; I’m much more confident that any revelation of ‘weakness’ in my design will be turned into an opportunity to build up the game by the players.
“Will this design allow the players to tell their story?”
A scenic design would be pretty useless if the stage directions called for an actor to exit through a working door, and instead the designer placed a solid wall in his path. If the script calls for a card game in the kitchen, the designer had best include one in his plans. A theater set needs to be laid out in a manner that meets the needs of the storyline. The functionality of the floor plan must compliment the aesthetics of its architecture. That means that the design must be tailored specifically to the story that’s being told, and the people who are telling it. One can draw out the most beautiful Victorian manor house, but if the story and the actors are expecting a rustic cabin in the woods, there’s going to be some trouble before too long.
Many scripts in the theater world feature workable floor plans in their final pages, suggesting a visual layout that will accommodate the story. Some RPG books contain similar plans. If a GM is looking to plot their own course, however, they’ll need to make sure the campaign will allow the players to tell their story. Please notice that I did not say “aid the players” or “make the players” tell their story. Without some conflict in the setting, the story that’s told will be pretty boring. This conflict may arise from challenging geography, or a conniving enemy, or cataclysmic disaster. Notice, however, that plot points within the setting that complicate the characters’ actions are expected; setting the group in a campaign that constantly prohibits them from acting as they’d like is just plain mean.
If the group sets out on a mission to locate a secret enemy base, there better be a secret enemy base. That base may be heavily fortified, obscured by a cloaking device, completely empty and abandoned, or under attack by a third party. Nothing says that, when they find it, they can gain entry. Nothing says one of them doesn’t get captured while trying to scale the fence. Those are some pretty great complications to work in to your design; indeed, designing these complications should follow the same guidelines explored above. However, letting the party wander in the wilderness for sessions on end because the base simply doesn’t exist is probably going to lose you some players.
In the same way, listen to what the players expect from the game. Glean design ideas from their actions both in and out of character. Some players will expect a fairly convenient info dump in civilized lands. Some players will anticipate at least one combat encounter per session, during which their fighter can wet his blade. Some players may expect a meeting or a reunion with notable NPCs if they cultivate those relationships in-game. Watching the players take those actions that will make their expectations a reality is what the campaign should be about. Creating content that makes it possible for the players to have their expectations met is up to the GM.