Peaceable Demeanor #2

Being a House Organ for
(deleted address)
And being titled so only because I got to the computer first
Contact Collie
Copyright © 1992 B. A. "Collie" Collier

Let's Game!

As the perspicacious may have noticed, I have a number of strong opinions. Frequently I express them enthusiastically, so in a game I try to be careful with how much I monopolize a GM's time. I often fail. ;-)

In discussions with various players concerning my gaming ebullience, one thing that often comes up is how the attention of the referee is parceled out. Another common subject is that of role-playing game styles. These are often presented to me as the only correct way to game. Consequently I have felt a certain amount of pressure to game the way the speaker (who is describing the one true way of gaming) wants me to. [apologies to G. Phillies for use of a portion of his zine title, as he doubtless has the one correct true way ;-)]

Also, I have put in quotation marks some of the phrases that reappear frequently in the vocabulary of the person(s) espousing the particular style of play under discussion. These phrases turn up constantly when someone is trying to proselytize for their favorite style of gaming, and seem to be important if one counts the frequency of their use. Perhaps they will at least clarify my explanations.

I have set this small group of styles forth here mostly as a contrast and comparison exercise for myself. It would seem good to at least examine what different people believe, even if I decide not to abide by their gaming conventions. I have confined myself to unpleasant encounters or heavily "pushed" styles in this zine. Good GMing and experiences I shall reserve for another zine. My comments are my own, and yours will be read with interest. ;-)

Passing the Baton

"Passing the baton" is the phrase I have come to associate with a play style where only one character at a time has the complete attention of the referee.

This play style seems to have been developed to allow more "cinematic" stories to be told; that is, where a play session revolves around a particular Player Character. If another PC has a particular skill that would help, they are expected to have their walk on, do their bit, then quickly yield the baton back to the PC who is this week's center of attention.

This is useful in getting timid players front-stage, as you can build a story around them alone, and the more expressive players will take supporting roles to let the shy player have their turn. This can be incredibly annoying if the shy player can't make decisions and spends the whole episode either waffling, sitting unhappily silent, or asking the other players what to do, while never actually accomplishing anything.

A favorable example: A certain player loved to role play, but was playing a very quiet PC. He got the baton one night; his PC was the center of attention. He saved the day (in the game), and made good choices of action, both for the story, and based on the way his PC thought. The PC became much more important in later runs of the game because of the good contacts he'd set up on that run. That player was helped by this style.
An unfavorable example: A particular player complained a lot that his PC was constantly ignored. A story was crafted over many runs to allow him to be the center of attention for a game, and to make him more important in the game. The story was based on some difficult moral choices, and facing the consequences of one's actions. When the moment of truth arrived, and the choice had to be made, the player was very unhappy. He said (rough quote), "I'm saying this out of character; I think you're being really unfair to my PC." Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I'd have killed for that opportunity to role play.
Another unfavorable example: There was a game where the player with the baton had his hands full with a problem. There was another PC better equipped to deal with this situation, so she did. The baton-carrying player was relieved, the other players were relieved, the effective PC's player was relieved -- you get the idea. The GM was peeved. He felt that since the effective PC didn't have the baton that night, she shouldn't have butted into the plot line. She had "stolen" the baton, and ruined the cinematography of the story. To punish that player, the GM wouldn't let the player receive the baton in consequent games, but didn't notify the player of this decision. Surprise! She kept "butting in" where she felt effective or needed, and the GM kept getting more and more annoyed. This one does have a happy ending, however. The player and the GM talked, and a compromise was reached.


Similar to "Passing the Baton", the "Spotlight" style has the attention of the referee focused on a set of elements that a number of characters can, if they wish, interact with. Thus more than one person can be "center stage".

This play style seems to encourage a more "ensemble" cast atmosphere. If a player wishes to be in the spotlight and there is space available, they can simply step forward. However, it is expected that no more than two, possibly three, characters are the center of attention. This allows a fairly rapid turnover for many people being allowed to talk. It also allows for one person to "hog the spotlight" while everyone else gets a half share of time.

A favorable example: Any game where this technique works. Most fun games I've played in have had some variant of this style. It's better than having everyone screaming at once. It's also more fun to be able to comment on what's happening, rather than being told that it's not your turn to talk.
An unfavorable example: I was a player in a game with a GM who tended to have the world react to the PCs. This meant he pretty much let the players decide what would happen. There was one player who complained that his PC was constantly ignored. He also said that my PC was hogging the spotlight. I felt that this was somewhat spurious, since all he had to do to enter more strongly into play was to speak up. However, in the interests of party unity, I made up a situation where my PC was disguised as a small child, as adults do not usually trade diplomacies with children. All the other PCs also took on disguises that made them the wrong person for NPCs to talk to. For example, one (a shape shifter) took on animal form. You get the idea. Thus his PC was effectively made the group's mouthpiece to the world. He refused to interrelate with hardly anyone. Thank goodness it was a "spotlight" game. The group would have gotten into serious trouble had it not been for other PCs quietly saving him from making some obvious mistakes.
This example is one concerning which I am still somewhat angry. I changed the situation midway through the game because I got tired of literally nothing happening. Basically, I asked the GM if we were through the dangerous bit that had necessitated the disguises. When he said yes, I and other players took over the spotlight.

After the game the very player who had refused to communicate with any NPCs repeated how my monopolizing the spotlight wasn't fair. He had nothing to say when I pointed out that over half the game had consisted of him rejecting a chance to own the spotlight, and that I had not been in the spotlight at all while he refused to lead the group. Yes, I was angry. I'm not his or anyone's scapegoat for their own inadequacies.

Procedure can also eat up the spotlight, as I found in one game. If most of the game is spent arguing mechanics, no gaming is really accomplished. Alternatively, if a game world is filled with neat machinery, I think the role-playing should be about the people that run the machines, not the machines themselves. When machinery and its manipulation gets more air time than the PCs, frustration and boredom set in quickly. This is exacerbated if the PC you are playing isn't mechanically inclined. To have to sit and wait with nothing to do while other players (not PCs!) tried to mathematically figure out how our vehicle ran and if we had enough fuel was not exciting. It was unfortunate, as the game world seemed interesting.

"Group" GMing

You may have noticed that both the above styles are player-management schemes where it is assumed that the GM cannot deal with more than one problem at a time. Thus the GM must force a situation where only one to three people at a time may actually play strongly.

The only alternative to this that I have run into was a game where there were 20 or so players. The players tended to split up into small groups to run interrelating PCs. If something drastic was going to happen, they would "schedule" time with the GM and the bit would be run in front of him. This seemed kind of interesting. My only complaints were that I had a very bad reaction to two of the older players trying to overwhelm my new character (yes, I know that's not the GM's fault) and that the game seemed to be mostly an information gathering game: "If you don't know, you ain't worth shit". I would have liked to try that type of game with everyone starting out equally informed and powered.

Story telling

Another way to handle problems with who gets to play strongly is to never let the players have any control. I've heard this kind of GM referred to politely as a story teller, and impolitely as a pain in the ass.

Type AB negative

There are two variations on this theme I have noticed. The first one I met had his own ideas about who the characters were and what the story was, and woe betide whoever bucked his expectations. Also, what had gone before was unimportant; he changed his own story line as often as our characters. How can you build a persona for a PC when it keeps changing?

An example: a PC was okayed by the GM as having a phobia about a particular group of people. At one point in the game, this became inconvenient -- our only source of information was one of "those" people. The GM's comment was "Well, you don't really hate them that much." I didn't care for this at all; why not use such a strong change in personality as grounds for something interesting and character-building in the game? There was no effort made to discuss this with the player, or work it into the game, which might have been interesting; just a blatant bit of retroactive continuity. Aarrrgh!

Batter Up!

The second type of storytelling GM that I have met was much more subtle, and unfortunately quite good at making it feel like you were at fault. He was an excellent actor, and knew it. He also liked the power of being GM. Thus while he might believe you were playing your character incorrectly, he wouldn't tell you anything was wrong; he'd just have more and more unpleasant things happen to you in an attempt to force your character back into his conception.

The Pitch!

For example, disagreeable occurrences would happen to your PC, and somehow your answers to your problems never seemed to be the right ones. Unfortunately, this nastiness was perfectly reasonable within the context of the game; it just always seemed to happen to you. Also, NPCs run by the GM would credit your good ideas to other PCs. When you complained, the GM would ascribe it to other people playing their PCs better than you played yours -- an assertion that still astonishes me!

Another tactic for player manipulation was to let inter-player friction build up while proclaiming his neutrality because of his position as GM. This turned out to be untrue, as he was privately telling one of the arguing players that he completely agreed with them and would support any action taken in the game, while refusing to talk with the other player.

He also used the NPCs' positions of greater power to "railroad" the PCs into whatever story line he currently wished to follow. While the occasional mega-powerful noble before whom we are expected to tremble in fear is cool, having many is a bit much. We seemed to be effortlessly pissing off vengeful dukes on a weekly basis. He was not amused when I once asked who we would be adding to the "Duke of the Week Club" this run.

Since all this was done within the contexts of the game that he was running, anyone protesting was labeled a "bad" role-player by him. God forbid that such a label ever be publicly ascribed to you! It's humiliating to have what you believe is a reasoned and well-thought out argument given no more consideration than a patronizing, "Well, obviously you don't know how to play the PC very well yet."

Private thought: Why was he the only arbiter of "good" and "bad" role-play? I don't believe in the "GM as God" attitude. What's wrong with reasoned argument? Or the GM being able to gracefully admit that he was wrong?


Both of the storytelling types of GMs shared two other traits which I find reprehensible: they played favorites, and they pigeonholed the players. Playing favorites never makes for a good game -- it's frustrating and/or humiliating if you're the scapegoat, and too easy if you're the golden child. Pigeon-holing the players means that under that particular GM, you will never be allowed to stretch your role-playing skills, as your characters will always be forced into the mold the GM has built in his head for you.

As an example, I played in a series of games with a friend where it seemed the GM had marked me as the thief type and my friend as the mage type, with my character always serving or employed by his. We asked to be in a game where the roles were reversed. The GM made up PCs for us where I would be playing a beginning upstart scientist (e.g.: mage type) breaking into the established and respected scientific community. My friend found himself playing the "Kingpin of crime", retired. Once again, his PC was in control, and mine had to resort to subterfuge and trickery to survive. No, we didn't play those PCs. No, the GM didn't understand when we tried to explain.

The Wrap-up

I would like to interject here a few personal comments about playing a PC. I believe that it is impossible for you to play your PC incorrectly. I know that most people have the example of the Lawful Good whatever doing villainous things. However, I don't feel the PC is necessarily being played wrong; the words on its character sheet do not reflect the character correctly. The character sheet is the map, not the territory itself.

Alternatively, I don't think disadvantages (a la Hero system) should enforce what the PC will or will not do in every situation. To me, true heroism consists of knowingly attempting to transcend your limitations. To roll every time a difficult decision arises makes the PC feel shallow to me. It's not truly heroism if the heroic act was just an accident of the dice.

If the player has bought a disad that is obviously there just for the points, and refuses to actually play it, get them to buy it off. Or explain the problem you're having and ask for their help in fixing it. Sometimes new and imaginative story lines will result. Really, kids, blatant honesty works -- don't leave home without it! Don't, above all else, tell them they're playing their PC wrong. In a sense, you as the GM lose the moral high ground -- you are using your power to hurt someone unnecessarily. After all, how could you possibly know more about how to play a character than the creator and player of the contested PC? He can spend all his time thinking about one character, while the GM has to think about everyone.

Post-Game Analysis

I must point out that a storytelling GM can be a joy to play under, as the GM is heavily role-playing and expects the players to do the same. I admit freely, I love to role play, as long as it's within the character's conception, e.g.: no claustrophobes charging happily down narrow, poorly lit tunnels because it's convenient for the story. I don't care if it's a difficult situation for the PC -- that's just an excuse for more role-playing. A perfect example of this is the situation mentioned above, where the PC would have had to learn how to deal with his own bigotry in order to accomplish a worthy and desired goal. That could have been a demanding and fascinating bit of role playing. "Hogging" the GM's time is impossible (as far as I can tell) in this kind of game, unless the other players refuse to interact with the NPCs.

Unfortunately, at worst the GM is heavily role-playing both the NPCs and the PCs, and expects the players to shut up and listen. I've always thought that this type of GM should be handed your character sheet and politely told that you couldn't possibly match his role-playing skill and you suggest that he play with himself.

I realize that some of the above sounds very bitter. However, I have accomplished my purpose, which was to clarify some of my confusion. I have recently had some GMs insist that my gaming style was bad, difficult, intimidating, dominating, whatever. They've basically told me that their gaming style was best, and that I should conform. I've also had GMs tell me they loved my gaming style and the different approaches I brought to a game. I'm always flattered when a GM tells me they wished I was in every one of their games. I guess I'm trying to reconcile these contradictory statements. I appreciate your patiently reading this far -- constructive criticism is encouraged and will be cheerfully dissected.

And now for Something Completely Different...

I've been playing in a Vampire game since I wrote the above, and thought I'd put in some quick thoughts on this new (for me) genre.

First of all, like Ars Magica, the game lends itself well to story telling. I am happily playing a vampire woman who has some romance in her life (*gasp*!). However, the romance happens to be a vampire hunter. This definitely has possibilities!

On the other hand, it is surprisingly easy to ignore the fact that we are playing BFNs (or as Bob puts it: Blood-sucking Fiends of the Night. Yes, he hates vampires as "heroes"!). The GM hasn't really done anything to accentuate that we are killing and maiming innocents to stay alive (unalive?). We've had one "hunt" scene each, and it's been relatively free of moral ambiguity.

There is lots of role-playing, as the GM is an aspiring actor, and he often changes costume (quickly, thank heaven!) many times a night. There is also lots of mystery and suspense, as the GM loves to intrigue. It is occasionally confusing. We figured out his first two mysteries with little difficulty, mostly because my grounding in western mythology was at least equal to his, so he's started trying to throw in more red herrings. This sometimes causes us to wonder why he's got so many (seemingly) wildly unrelated facts floating around. ;-)

On the down side, some of the other three players do not seem to be as "into the role". For example, one not only constantly connives, he does it badly and then brags about it. Unfortunately, he is capable of the odd clever bit. After all, it's easy to get rid of no talent; it's harder to put up with flashes of talent interspersed with tremendous annoyance.

As an example, when my PC found out he had been lying to the group and was protecting the attackers of her "sweetie" she confronted him with it in front of the other PCs. His response to the rapidly deteriorating mood was to shoot himself in the head. This wasn't as stupid as it may seem. His information would be moot by the next night, so incapacitating himself until the end of the next night was a good idea. Basically he was gambling that we would not harm him while he was "out". Unfortunately, we were really annoyed by that time with his "I know something you don't know" attitude. So the PCs killed him.

It was played well, and completely within character. However, I personally found this incredibly distasteful, and hope that his next PC will be more inclined to work with the group. I'm somewhat worried that the group will never establish the necessary level of mutual trust that I feel makes for a good team and game.

Comments on The Wild Hunt #170, and #171.

  • Go to Collie's Home Page
  • Go to the APA zines page
  • Go to the Peaceable Demeanor page
  • Go to the previous Peaceable Demeanor zine
  • Go to the next Peaceable Demeanor zine

    Last Updated: Mon Aug 4 1997