Published on January 11th, 2016 | by Luke Turpeinen2
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How letting my players GM in “my” world has improved our roleplaying sessions
In most roleplaying games that I have been part of, one of the most basic assumptions of the game is the division between the person who creates and runs the game world (the Game Master or GM) and the people who play as main characters in whatever narrative forms in that world. The GM “owns” the world, the backstory and any setting and thematic elements, while the players “own” their characters and those characters’ actions.
This sense of ownership can sometimes be fiercely defended by players or GMs who feel that others are stepping on their toes. In fact, most rules for RPGs exist mostly to help facilitate resolution of actions between people who have a vested interest in the plot going different directions.
If a player feels that the GM or another player is trying to dictate the actions of their character too much, the player can feel like their ownership of a portion of the story’s narrative is being reduced or diminished in some way. Also, if players show up every session and don’t feel like the actions of their characters are having an effect on the world around them, players usually disengage and lose interest in the game.
Likewise, the two most common complaints I hear from GMs is that players don’t seem invested enough in their characters and/or the game world, or that they try to steamroll the GM into doing things differently (commonly called “problem players”). These two complaints are really the same complaint that the player above had- essentially that there is an imbalance between the amount of influence the GM/players want/have over the story that they are telling together in-game.
There are several ways to address this issue- as many ways as there are game groups. A common GM tool to use in our area is to talk to your players about the RPG sessions in terms of “episodes” of a TV show that we’d be watching. This helps get players into a mindset where they are more willing to engage with scenery and NPCs, and it helps some people to think “in character” more fully. This method is usually strongest in episodic, cinematic style games.
In the RP game I’m currently running, we have more of a sandbox style set up. That means that instead of establishing a plot for the characters to follow like in a TV show or movie, the characters are given an open world and allowed to explore and get into trouble as they see fit. Mass Effect 3 is a cinematic style game, but Skyrim is a sandbox style game.
After several sessions of playing, I decided to give the players a map that would mark down places of interest for their characters to explore- facilitating the sandbox style approach. Now, instead of just guessing at what might be of interest in the area, I had given them a list of things I was prepared to for if they decided to go that direction on the fly.
Giving the players (and by proxy, their characters) access to that map really gave them the confidence they needed to fully immerse themselves into the game world. It let them see the direction that I was wanting to go, and gave them inspiration when they looked at parts of the map they didn’t understand. What happened next was that players started having ideas for new side characters and NPCs they wanted to introduce.
Knowing that I had a sandbox game, I had already insisted that the players make multiple characters that could split up as served the logistics of the story, while still allowing each player to have a character in every scene. This is a style called “troupe play”, and sometimes is paired with one player who never changes their character- usually in situations where it’s a wizard and her retainers or The Doctor and his companions.
For our game, most players have a “main” character and a “side” character as well as a fairly well defined list of NPC contacts that they keep. We soon realized that even with the wide breadth of characters and stories going on, we weren’t going to do everything interesting on the map- there was just too much to reasonably hit up with one connected group of people.
At this point I was sharing a decent amount of world building with my players- I hadn’t needed to make many NPCs recently as their contact list padded out most of the essential character archetypes needed to tell the stories we wanted to run. Those NPCs imply groups of other groups of people (e.g. a police officer contact brings along the opportunity to define the local police force) and I largely let the players set the tone in those areas, to better facilitate the characters’ needs.
I had already abdicated a portion of the traditional GM world-building role to my players, so the next step wasn’t that hard. I announced that, if people were interested, every third session would not be GM’d by me but by one of the players. These sessions would be one-shots, use characters that are usually NPCs or entirely new characters and would be based on some location marked on the map.
The players were really into it. This gives them the opportunity to show the rest of the group ideas they have for the game world that they were never able to fully express before because of their limited ability to world build in “my” world. It lets me collaborate with the players in a new way, and it lets them keep secrets about the world from the other players without it disrupting the game. Plus, it gives me a session to kick back as a player and experience something new.