I recently read Ed’s post on Esoteric Murmurs which referred to a post on Vincent’s blog and Ginger Stampley’s in 20 by 20 Room… Basically, they all meditate on the question using your own ideas vs. recreating someone else’s fully developed ideas (either in a game’s setting or in how to create a game). I’m taking a slightly different tack than they, thinking about how a fully developed setting affects how I GM a game.
I have to admit that I’ve seldom run a game set in someone else’s universe. The major exception to this is an Amber campaign I ran for two or three years. That campaign, though fun to GM, was something of a failure in too many ways to list here. One of the major ones is my own tendency to create the underlying mechanism of why powers work and how to use them. It’s not a bad thing in itself, but in combination with more players than I can really handle (9+ on some nights), and the fact that my ideas were in direct conflict with the actual Amber RPG’s assumptions made me pay more attention to it than that aspect of the game deserved.
Not only that, but because I’ve liked Zelazny’s Amber books for years and know them well, I couldn’t help bring in unfinished business from all 10 books. That created an outrageously complicated plot that was most definitely in the spirit of the books, but was extremely hard to resolve.
I don’t know whether this sort of thing is what Vincent is trying to avoid, but it sounds like it. At least for me, the major problem with running a game in someone else’s world is that I want to experience their world, not mine. That means total consistency in details and a (much harder to achieve) consistency in tone.
I’m inclined to think that this takes energy away from what really drives me to play games–creating plot and setting.
I’ll contrast this with a campaign that was something of a success: my Cyberpunk campaign. Though imperfect, it was a great learning experience for me. I took the core Traveller rules, modified them for my setting, and then set out to recreate the feeling of being in Michael Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers, Walter Jon Williams’ novel Hardwired, William Gibson’s Neuromancer and/or the movie Blade Runner.
At the time there were no cyberpunk games out. They came out the summer after I ran the campaign so I was totally on my own in figuring out how to do this.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the sort of relationships characters could have with each other and the world (cynical, not trusting even the organization they worked for), the tone (gritty, urban decay), the technology (body modification, computer hacking), and the story (investigating a biotechnology corporation).
In the end, I grew a lot in my ability to tell stories in general and that campaign in particular worked out okay.
The difference between running Amber and running that cyberpunk campaign is less than one might think. Both games constrained me considerably because of the source material. The core difference in running the cyberpunk campaign was simply that I wasn’t constrained by specifics of any kind. I had no need to remain true to things that had happened in the past whether they are related to powers, characters or plot.
All I had to do was respond to players actions and ideas, think about what would happen next and how to make it feel appropriate to the story.
These experiences tend to point in the direction of Vincent being right–at least when I’m running the game. Working with a well thought out setting can paralyze you. Creating setting as you go along can do wonderful things for the game.
For me, this seems likely to be true mostly because it allows me to step in the direction that helps create a good story instead of a story that’s true to the source material.
Here’s a funny thing though:
I’ve got some background in Jazz. At points in my life I’ve been semi-competent in playing 3 different instruments (trumpet, bass guitar, and voice). I’ve also been taught the basics of how to improvise and how to train myself to become better at improvising.
One technique for improving your ability to improvise is to memorize other people’s solos note for note. More than that, you try to play the solo exactly as they did, ranging from dynamics to tone. Why? It forces you to expand your skills, exposing you to techniques that you’d never need to learn if you were playing stuff that came only out of your own head (and hands).
Moving back to role-playing games, I don’t know if I rose to the challenge, but gamemastering Amber certainly did require more skill than doing my own stuff. Amber games often seem to include an excessive number of players and one is forced to develop techniques to occupy them–ranging from quickly switching focus from player to player to encouraging them to play without GM intervention. Similarly, working with an intricate background had it’s own problems to overcome. I had no choice but learn how to elegantly retrofit things that were inconsistent into the story (even if I wasn’t always successful). Mind you, I do things like that in most campaigns, but never to the extent I have to when working with the endpoint of other people’s ideas.
I’m not saying that delivering a good version of someone else’s story is necessarily as creatively satisfying as creating your own new thing, but it does push you.
That’s not a bad thing, provided you don’t do it forever.