Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Good GM

I have mentioned several times before my hobby of tabletop roleplaying, and used it to discuss ‘railroading’ vis-à-vis predestination and free will, and talked about the fictional religions often used in such games.

I tend to run more games than I play in, and I’m a fairly experienced GM. I read online forums like RPG.net, I’ve written my own set of rules, and created several different worlds in which to run games. Recently I’ve been watching RPG streams like Titansgrave and Critical Role (the latter especially is excellent) and got some quite good GMing tips from these. I really enjoy running games. I love the creativity, the story-telling, the necessary improvisation when your players do something really unexpected (i.e. stupid). Even the frustration (e.g. when your players spend an entire hour discussing how to give a group of guards the slip, and then pop back to let them know where they’ve gone, just to give an example) is entertaining in its own way.

There are certain things that are considered good and bad practice when it comes to running games. I’ve discussed railroading (forcing the players into a given action instead of letting them choose) before. However, one of the other devices usually considered a significant no-no in GMing is the GM player character, or GMPC.

This is essentially what it sounds like. Usually, there is a firm divide between the one player character (PC) controlled by each player, and the vast number of non-player characters (NPCs) controlled by the GM, and with whom the PCs interact. The GMPC blurs that division, and can potentially take advantage of out-of-character knowledge that the PC’s can’t possibly have, purely by dint of being controlled by the person who knows the plot. At it’s very worst, the GMPC can become a self-insert for the GM, a power-trip in which the character is more knowledgeable and competent than the PCs, and becomes the main character in the plot, relegating the players to the role of observers, or, at best, assistants. It’s rarely much fun for the players, who rightly expect to be the focus of the unfolding story.

However, the GMPC can also be used effectively to help steer characters in the right direction and avoid the forbidden railroading, and if there are a limited number of players, can be used to fill a gap in a party’s capabilities. The GM has to take great care though that the GMPC never makes decisions for the rest of the party. It can and has been done well, but the dangers are constant and real.

C S Lewis used chess as an analogy (in Mere Christianity, I think) when discussing miracles and nature, but I am convinced that he was limited by the technology of his time, writing as he was before the invention of Dungeons & Dragons. I am not so limited, and can utilise resources denied to writers who would have been able to make much better use of them than myself, but I’ll do my best. With Easter just behind us, I’d like to think about the Good GM, and his GMPC.

The Great GM in the Sky is (if it’s not blasphemous to say so) a mega-nerd of the kind who has not only created His own campaign world, He’s even created the rules-set by which it operates. The best number of players for a game is generally considered to be between three and six, but God is currently running for several billion, and inviting more in all the time. That there is a plot, I have no doubt, although as a PC obviously I have no idea what that plot might be. The GM’s screen is vast and impenetrable, and we’ll only get a look at His notes when we lose our last hit point and our character sheet is relegated to the Folder of Dead PCs.

Like all players, we seem to have a remarkable ability to ignore the plot, and when we’re not ignoring it we’re messing it up. The Good GM will not railroad us though. We must choose to follow the plot, or else there’s not much point of playing, either for us or the GM.

Instead, He has done what other GMs have done since, and sent NPCs to us with tasks to draw us back into the story, or dropped clues or information that we ought to be following up to get us back on track. Instead we’ve either ignored the NPCs, or beaten them up and looted their treasure. We then complain that we’re getting bored, that the campaign doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and that we’re not levelling up as quickly as we think we ought to be.

The GM considered His campaign, and what would happen if events continued to unfold in the way in which they were. According to both the nature of His campaign world, and the rules by which He was running it, the only obvious conclusion was a massive and inescapable TPK; the complete destruction of both the world and every character within it.

With every other reasonable option exhausted, the Good GM had to take a drastic step, and introduce a GMPC. He had to insert Himself into his game world, build a character according to the rules by which His universe operates, and interact directly with the players. It is not best practice, but if anyone could do it well, it’s Him. Nor did the GM stop being the GM just because he was also the GMPC. He is capable of being and doing both at once.

The GMPC walked amongst us, but didn’t try to overshadow us with His perfect knowledge of the plot, or make decisions on our behalf. The Good GM used Him well, giving us extra information, dropping hints and clues, pushing us gently back towards the plot.

We beat him up and looted his treasure.

No doubt holding His head in His hands even though He knew it was coming, and as much as perhaps He wanted to, the Good GM could not fix things by merely breaking the rules. If he did so, then the game became meaningless and pointless. Instead, he did the next best thing. He fudged.

Every GM occasionally has to ignore a dice roll or hand-wave a rule to further the plot, and the Good GM has been no exception. From our limited perspective within the game, we call such things ‘miracles’. However, if you ignore every dice roll and hand-wave every rule, then there’s no game left to play. The rules are there for a reason, and have to be followed, at least most of the time.

Now though it wasn’t simply ignoring a bad roll or conveniently forgetting an incidental rule for a moment or two. This time, He had to fudge the rules in a massive way, but without breaking the world or the game. He also had to do it in a manner which didn’t remove player agency; which avoided the dreaded and game-breaking railroads.

He found a way. The GM subverted His own rules, and the GMPC sacrificed himself to change the way the game was going, and pull us back from the brink of destruction. The plot isn’t over; it’s still up to us PCs to get back on track and follow the story to its conclusion. It’s up to us to ensure that we play in the best way possible, use our abilities and equipment to greatest effect, cooperate to maximise the overall capabilities of the vast player party in which we find ourselves, and eventually bring the campaign to the end the Good GM has envisioned all along, whatever that might be. Whatever it is, I believe that it will be the best of possible endings, both for the Good GM who so ardently desires the enjoyment and satisfaction of His players, and for those players and their PCs, for as long as the great Campaign runs, and for ever afterwards.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Small Kitchen Waltz

Time to inflict some more of my writing on you. I am, apparently, a ‘millennial’. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it is a word used by trendy but idiotic people to pigeonhole every single person born between about 1980 and 2000. Because obviously generalisations made about such a broad range of ages, influenced as we have been by the rapid advances in communication technology over this period, must hold good. Ok, rant over.

One of the ‘millennial’ traits that does hold true is the fact that I do not own my own house; I’ve lived in a string of different rented flats and houses over the last decade. One common feature of such places, especially when shared with partners or housemates, is that the kitchen is usually woefully inadequate to requirements. As a result, when more than one of you wishes to use it, you are forced into an intricate dance in which you circle and weave around each other, often while holding hot pans or full kettles.

It is to people who have lived or still live in such circumstances that the below is respectfully dedicated. This is actually written as a song rather than a poem, and I do have a tune in mind. If you’re very unlucky and run into me in person I will share it with you.

The Small Kitchen Waltz

My darling we rented a small maisonette,
When we viewed it, it seemed rather ace.
But when we inspected one thing we neglected:
Does the kitchen have quite enough space?
It’s something we both should have noticed at once,
But really it’s neither our faults,
And we both can get in if we side-step and spin,
And we join in the Small Kitchen Waltz!

The space from the sink to the bin’s rather small,
From the fridge to the cooker’s not wide.
And when I am in it, you must wait a minute,
There’s no room to work side by side!
But if I step this way and you move around,
We can cook and wash up without halts.
And each day of the week we’ll be pressed cheek to cheek,
As we dance to the Small Kitchen Waltz!

As we join in the dance that’s been trodden before,
By those with no room to manoeuvre,
If you pass me the saucepan, and move to your left,
I can turn and then plug in the hoover.
Then I’ll move to the right, and we’ll circle again,
As you get down the spices and salts,
And my dear we’ll make do, though there’s no room for two,
We will circle and slide and we’ll spin to the side,
Taking our chance in this romantic dance,
As we master the Small Kitchen Waltz!

Copyright Thomas Jones 2017

Monday, 6 March 2017

The Scientific Advancement of Theology

An opinion piece by Giles Fraser on the Guardian website has garnered a fair number of comments, and being a piece of a religious nature, has obviously attracted the usual angry atheists.  One commenter rubbished the entire study of theology, and supported his position by quoting Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason:

The study of theology as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and admits of no conclusion. Not any thing can be studied as a science without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is not the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.”


Another poster pointed out that theology has changed since then.  A third poster responded to this with:
“What theology since then? As Hitchens said, "Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago". Nothing has changed since the days of Paine.”

There a few things to be said in response, least of which is that, as Paine says, theology certainly isn’t a science in the sense that most scientists would define it. I take absolutely no issue with that. Also, ‘Religion’ can speak no words at all, since it lacks a mouth, but I’ve been over that before and have no wish to belabour the point.

However, to suggest that theology has remained unchanged in the two hundred years since Paine wrote is simply untrue; it cannot be true. I say this because in many ways the people writing about theology now are very different to the people writing about it two hundred years ago. We have different outlooks, society is different, our values are different. We view what has gone before us with different eyes.

Ironically, given the constant attempts to set them in opposition to each other, this change in perspective and theology has changed, perhaps even advanced, because of science. Since Paine wrote his words, science and technology have changed not only our understanding of the universe, but the very world in which we live. We now know about evolution and genetics, our knowledge of astronomy is vastly greater than it was then, we know about molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles, radiation and quantum physics. Our place in the world is not what we thought it was, and so we have had to adjust our conception of God and how He works.

As a result of these, our understandings of God have had to become more nuanced. God didn’t merely wave his hand and there was the world. God didn’t create man out of dust. Our sun is not the only sun, our planet is not the only world that might contain life. Life itself might exist in forms that are almost totally unrecognisable to us. This knowledge has to inform our theology. Where it has not done so, we see fundamentalist sects sinking into extremism fuelled by a siege mentality as the tide of scientific evidence to show that Genesis is not literally true threatens to overwhelm them.

I have said that theology is not scientific; that’s absolutely true, nor should it be. After all, since it deals with matters upon which science cannot have a bearing, it cannot be scientific itself. However, it has changed with scientific discoveries, and with the social changes that have been brought about by those discoveries and the technology that they have produced. Theology is not, should not and cannot be static and stagnant. God is unchanging, but few would claim that we are close to an understanding of Him yet. Our understanding of God must continue to change, to grow, to expand, even as we do. We must constantly adjust and refine our conception of God based on what He has revealed and is revealing to us and, indirectly, science helps us do just that.