Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Autonomy vs. Structure

            Two days ago on Twitter, Justin Achilli, author and developer on Vampire the Masquerade 20thAnniversary Edition and Hunters Hunted II, posted the following: 
            When gamers talk about structure in an RPG they usually describe it in terms of GM railroading.  Essentially the GM or Storyteller is applying too much structure, and the current feeling on gaming is that less structure is better.  No one wants to be railroaded from encounter to encounter with few choices about how those encounters are overcome or the outcome of those encounters.  However, the most basic type of an RPG is just that.  A basic dungeon style adventure is going to have hallways and rooms with traps and battles against monsters.  Go into a room, defeat the monster, collect the loot, choose a door and continue onward.  Many Dungeons and Dragons games that I have run were simply that.  I may have added an interesting plot to give the players a reason to be in that dungeon, but honestly, it was just a simple dungeon. 
The current trend, as I have seen, is for games to be more open world, especially with RPGs.  Players of MMORPGs or table top RPGs loudly proclaim their dislike of linear style games.  MMORPG players say that a particular game is a theme park, meaning that the player is expected to go from place to place, quest to quest, just the same as everyone else.  However, what they want are open world games where players have control of where they go and what they do.  In an open world MMORPG, a player could level his character through questing, grinding and killing NPCs, crafting, exploring, or any other method.  A classic theme park style MMORPG is World of Warcraft; while the most popular open world MMORPG would probably be Eve Online.  In terms of table top RPGs, a classic dungeon crawl game would be a game that emphasizes structure and linear game play; on the other hand, a game where the Storyteller/GM just reacted to player’s actions would be more autonomous and sand box style game. 
Players will often complain about Storytellers who don’t allow any variation on the plot that the Storyteller must tell.  On the other hand, I believe that players suffer just as much in sand box style games where they have no direction from the Storyteller.  I’ve seen too many Dungeons and Dragons campaigns where the DM allowed players to “make their own fun” usually to the detriment of the village, villagers, their livestock, and the nearby forest, not to mention the campaign.  Even when the players don’t become murderous mad men, players will get bored without a plot hook or something to do. 
            The other side of this problem is understanding what the Storyteller wants out of a particular game.  As someone who is almost always the Storyteller of a game, I don’t want to constantly react to the players, but neither do I want to predetermine their every action.  I want something in the middle where I can introduce plot points and see how the players react and influence the world around them.  I get a chance to tell a story where the players are the main characters.  They inhabit the world that I create.  They explore the dark alleys and sewers or the penthouse havens of the powerful. 
            I structure a session as a group of scenes in which the players are presented with a dilemma.  Either that dilemma is of my creation such as the players are ambushed by a Sabbat pack that has recently moved into the city or I create a dilemma that is a response to a player’s action such as when a player is asked to deliver a note to the Nosferatu Primogen because he owes a favor to the Toreador Elder. 
            My belief is that a chronicle should be more structured at the beginning and slowly the Storyteller allows the players more and more autonomy as the chronicle continues.  By having greater structure at the beginning, the Storyteller can guide the players better and show them how the world operates.  Each Storyteller is going to have his or her own style of running a game, some may prefer more socially focused games while other prefer that every difficulty is solved with a shotgun and lots of yelling.  Without some direction, players will flail about looking for something to do often at the expense of the longevity of the chronicle. 
The reason that I recommend this approach is because when I was taking classes in Education, my professors suggested that more structure at the beginning of the school year would make classroom management easier throughout the rest of the year.  It’s much easier to set strict rules at the beginning so that players know what to expect and the consequences of their actions are.  For example, I prefer to run chronicles with low stakes.  The world isn’t in danger of ending, but the players’ favorite elder could be in danger of losing his seat on the Primogen council to a usurper.  My games are investigative in nature and I like chase scenes, combats that finish in two to three rounds, and I reward players who circumvent dilemmas with clever thinking rather than players whose solution to most problems is decapitation.  Other Storytellers have different styles, none are wrong. 
I think the most important thing that players and Storytellers can do is to discuss what each wants out of the game.  Some people enjoy raiding dungeons and gathering more loot.  Others want in depth political machinations that would make Machiavelli blush.  Some players require more structure while others want more autonomy.  Most players will fall somewhere in the middle of that continuum.  They require structure and goals beyond their characters’ individual desires but also want the freedom to solve encounters in the way that makes sense to them.  They want to feel like their decisions have a significant impact on the world their characters inhabit.  They don’t want things to happen because the Storyteller thinks it should happen that way; rather, they want what happens next to be a logical continuation of events based on their characters’ actions. 

The sun is down.  I'm up.  What trouble will I cause tonight?
            Structure or autonomy, which do I prefer?  I guess I prefer a little more structure than some gamers.  I’ve played in too many games where I’ve had no idea what to do because the Storyteller/DM hasn’t given us any plot hooks.  However, I certainly don’t want to play in a game that’s nothing but one long track and the Storyteller is a train conductor.  I’m not like all players, and some players enjoy games with no structure at all just an open world that they can play in. 
            The best advice that I can give is for players and Storytellers to discuss what kind of games they enjoy.  Find out how much autonomy and structure do the players and Storyteller prefer in their games.  Each group is going to be different.  Listen to what others have to say and be willing to compromise so that your game will be a game you enjoy with your friends and adventuring party or coterie. 

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