PLAY SORCERER 47: The Role of the Game Master—Arbitor of the Fiction’s “Reality”

Sorcerer_Cover

The Game Master is the ultimate authority of the fiction’s “reality” at the table.

While the Players are complete masters of their Characters, the Game Master has the authority to determine everything else: how big the castle is, how busy the city streets are, how many stories tall a building is.

Note that I said he has the authority to determine these things, not that he has to determine everything.

When we play Sorcerer there will be lots of talking. Lots of generating ideas. Just natural back and forth brainstorming as people say, “I run up the stairs,” or “He grabs a knife out of the kitchen drawer,” or “I pick the lock with my toolkit,” or “I run across from the hanger bay door to the ramp of the starship.”

Well, how does that character know where the stairs are if he’s never been in the house? Or is there a knife in that drawer—and can the character find it quickly. Or can the character really pick that lock? How far, really, is the hanger bay door from the starship—can the character cover the ground that fast?

First, before we go further, let’s remember that there is no “reality” in a Sorcerer story. There is the illusion of reality—just as there is the illusion of reality in a movie or a novel or a video game. There is enough detail to suggest a reality beyond what is seen, described or coded. But the truth is, anything that is not seen (not shown, not described, not coded for the player to interact with in some way), simply does not exist.

In Sorcerer play, what is “real” is what is said out loud and agreed upon, either tacitly or explicitly. If someone says, “My guy runs up the stairs,” and no one comments on it, it is assumed that the character knows where the stairs are and runs up them. This happens all the time in Sorcerer play. In fact, it is the bulk of what we do when we play Sorcerer.

On the other hand, someone might say, “He grabs a knife out of the kitchen drawer,” and someone else might say, “How does he know there’s a knife in the drawer?” Or someone might ask, “Is there a knife in the kitchen drawer?” Well, if there is no “reality” how do we determine this?

This looks like a complicated question because, of course, there’s no “reality” to draw on. We are, after all, just making this stuff up. There’s no world to touch, to draw on. The words we’ve spoken are only piecemeal placeholders for the form and substance of a world that does not exist but that conjure in little bits at a time in our imagination. Even our Character Sheets and the Game Master’s notes are no more than place holders that only serve as a sketch of a fictional reality beyond we’re imagining a little piece at time. A map of a city does not tell us what is in a given apartment at any moment in the fiction to come or the fiction as its happening.

So how then do we decide, when a decision is made in the moment, which fictional detail will be added as true and which will be dismissed?

Here are the basic principles:

The Game Master is the final Arbiter

Ultimately, the Game Master has final authority in these matters. The Players have ultimate authority over their Characters. They can have the Characters decide to do or try anything. The story is about the Characters the Players play. In turn, the Game Master gets to shape the world around the Players.

To repeat the example from the Sorcerer rulebook, if a Player says his character is going to jump over an elephant, the Game Master is allowed to say, “No. There’s just no way person is going to be able to do that.”

That’s it. It might seem arbitrary, but it isn’t. Arbitrating the “reality” of the fiction is one of the Game Master’s jobs. Someone has to do it, and in Sorcerer that’s how the distribution breaks out.

If someone says, “I reach into the drawer to grab a knife,” the Game Master might say, “No. Actually, there’s no knife in there.” And if that statement stands, there’s no knife.

Moving Things Along—the Focus of Play

As noted earlier, playing Sorcerer is a conversation. And as noted earlier, it is a creative collaboration.

Because of this, there is always creative give and take. Everyone at the table will have thoughts and ideas. In particular, everyone will always have thoughts and ideas about what is “really” happening in the fictional “reality.”

If I say, “My guy reaches into the drawer and grabs a knife,” and the Game Master says, “No, no you don’t. There’s no knife there.” I might say, “Okay,” and move on. Or, if the notion that there would be a knife in the drawer is so clear in my head I don’t know how to let go of it, I might say, “Really? It seems there would be a knife in the drawer.”

So, what’s happening here? How do we determine this?

Well, here’s how I approach it:

If I’m the Game Master, I think, “What’s it going to cost me if I just say yes to the Player? If he says he opens the drawer to grab a knife, why not let him have it?”

And seriously, I say yes a lot in Sorcerer play as the Game Master when it comes to things like this. If someone wants something, it’s because they want their Character to do something interesting or compelling. The knife does not matter. What matter is they’re grabbing for a weapon to defend themselves from an attack (or whatever the reason). Why would I stop play from proceeding in a discussion about whether or not a knife exists in a drawer when what is really compelling—what is the Character going to do with that knife?—is still ahead of us?

So, a Player might assume the fictional elements are set up a certain way that I didn’t assume at first, I’ll usually just shift my thinking about the fiction to accommodate the Player as long as it doesn’t shatter in any way that really matters my understanding of the fiction.

If, for whatever reason, I really, really can’t wrap my head around the notion that there’d be a knife in a kitchen drawer, then I’ll say, “No. you open the drawer and find that all knives have been removed.” And I’ll expect the Player to go along with it. Now, I can’t imagine why someone couldn’t open a drawer and grab a knife in a kitchen. But the circumstances of that drawer in that kitchen in a specific play of Sorcerer might that result possible.

What is Most Interesting?

In general, when Game Mastering Sorcerer, here are the general principles I keep in mind when deciding what details of fiction to speak out loud:

Leads to better results in play:

  • leads to further decisions for the Players
  • involves the Players’ Characters with other characters
  • allows the fiction to move forward

Leads to worse results in play:

  • restrict options for the Players
  • prevents the fiction from moving forward

I use this little checklist whenever I’m introducing Bangs I planned out ahead of time, or am just making up something up on the fly, or deciding whether or not something a Player just said out loud bumps me the wrong way to add to the fiction.

I should point out that I don’t literally think through the principles anymore. I’ve been playing around with this stuff long enough that I sort of grab on to what is effect pretty well on the fly. Obviously, learning to brainstorm , and you can only really learn it from practice with actual people at the table.

But its vitally important you start teasing these things out in your head. After all, what is the Game Master’s job:

To provide threat and opportunity, reversal and revelation for the Characters of the Players to respond to, take action upon, to reveal their characters against. That, in a nutshell is why the Game Master is present. And why is this? Because how the Characters choose to behave is interesting. How the Characters choose to behave is the focus of a story. While there’s no need to rush from decision to decision on the part of the Characters (in fact, forcing one decision after another from the Characters is nightmarish and results in poor play and a poor story),

The Game Master isn’t there to be “the boss.” The Game Master is not there to frustrate the efforts and decisions of the Players. The Game Master is not there to shape the story a certain way. The Game Master is not there to say, “No.”

The purpose of having a Game Master at the table is to provide opportunities to the Characters, to reveal who they will be. These opportunities are the rocks along a shore. The waves are the Characters crashing against them. How the waves break is the story being made.

So… A Character grabs for knife from a kitchen drawer. Is there anything interesting about there not being a knife? I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of any good thing that can come from there not being a knife in that drawer. If there’s a fight coming, will the upcoming fight be more compelling if it’s fought only with fists and not a knife? I don’t know. But off the top of my head, it doesn’t seem so. Will the Characters’ choice really be that much more dramatic if he enters a fight with or without a knife? Not really—not as far as I can see.

But what does it get me if the Character opens a drawer to get a knife? What is that moment worth?

It means the Player has made a decision for a Character about the Character’s behavior and ambitions in the next moments of story. The Character is willing ready for a fight. The Character is ready to draw blood. The Character is, at this moment, saying that killing someone is on the table. The Player is saying something with the decision to grab a knife. We don’t know how things will turn out next. We don’t even know if there will be a fight—maybe the assailant will flee at the sight of the knife, maybe the assailant will make an off to the Character that the Character can’t refuse and they’ll become unexpected allies before the fight even begins. But before we find out what happens next, the Player is making a big statement about where the Character’s head is, what the Character is willing to do in the next moments, no matter how they turn out.

Why would I take that away from the Player? Seriously—why would I do that?

But sometimes, as the Game Master, I do contradict the Players expectations or assumptions about the reality of the fiction. As above, I always let “What’s more interesting?” be my guide, using the principles listed above.

We’ll Never All See the Same Thing in Our Imagination

I was the Game Master in a game set in the far future, in space, after humanity had settled an interstellar empire across the stars. The Characters were members of a company of mercenaries and landed at spaceport carved into the cliff of a mountainside of an alien world. The Characters disembarked from their ship, took actions toward their goals, and ended up rescuing a woman from being tortured by the planetary government.

As they entered the starport one of the Players said, “We run up the ramp to the ship.”

Now, in my mental image of the starport, the starport was very big. A massive, man-made cavern the width and breadth of several football fields cobbled together. When they ran out of a corridor and started running for their ship, in my imagining of the moment, they had a long way to run. Moreover, I saw them having to not only travel a long distance across an open area sprinkled with starport security, but also past civilians who hated the woman they had rescued and were trying to whisk to their starship.

Clearly, if the Characters could move easily and quickly up the ramp of the starship their day would be a lot easier! On the other hand, if they had to cover a great deal of ground in the circumstances described above, there would be complications and troubles. Just as clearly I had one image of the how the starport was set up and at least one of my Players had a very different idea about this.

The first thing to keep in mind is that this happens. We’re not walking around in the “reality” of the fiction. We can’t see it, we can’t touch it, we can’t measure it. We didn’t get a grand tour of it before we got into the scene, with the Players describing how their characters walked across it.

Nor do we normally want to stop play every time we enter a new location to describe everything down to the square inch. If we had to stop and describe every bit of the fiction’s measurements and details before we could proceed we’d be spending all out time building out all the details of the world but never get around to the part where the characters interact with each other… which is where the bulk of Sorcerer play resides.

Instead, we press on with the story, focusing our work on what the characters are doing and how they’re interacting with each other, and we add the details as needed. Certainly, we can pause to describe details and descriptions, but usually just enough to keep things moving along. Because, if the details don’t matter yet, we don’t want to focus too much on them. We want to keep going to get to the part where the characters are doing things.

This means, on occasion, different people will infer different images from the verbal clues people speak out loud and construct images that contradict each other.

So, I want to be clear about this: This is all fine.

The fact that we’re never going to have absolute agreement in our heads about what everything in the fiction we’re creating together looks like or is like is not a problem. It’s just a given. It’s part of the nature of sitting around and talking out a story as we go! And it’s fine.

Because most of the time it will never matter. Does it matter I see, exactly, in my mind’s eye what some sword a player’s character is carrying in the same way that the player does? Most of the time? No. For the most part these differences will never clash, never have impact on play, and never be noticed at all by the people gathered to make up a story together.

But does it matter sometimes? Yes. Sometimes it does. Sometimes people have built images in their heads that clash and the fact that they are clashing matters. The example of the starport above is such a situation.

When I first described the starport I might have done a better job in describing it to make my vision of the starport clearer. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that my description, constructed in a few sentences of words, would plant a clear, shared vision of the starport in the imaginations of my fellow players.

So, the first thing is to accept the fact that we’re never going to get everyone’s imaginations lined up and that’s fine.

The second thing is to accept is that if we ever reach a point during play when different players already have different ideas about the reality of the fiction and it suddenly matters, that’s all right, too. We’ll manage. What we’ll do is speak out loud about the details that do matter and clarify them. Keeping in mind we’re never going to get anything in our heads to completely match, no matter how hard we try, we know we’re going to get enough matched up to move forward with the story. And that’s all that mattes.

So, let’s say the Game Master thought a window was locked and a Player thought it was unlocked—but the matter of it being locked or not had never come up and suddenly it matters.

The Player says, “Well, I though the window was unlocked.”

“Oh,” says the Game Master, surprised by this. “I thought it would be locked.”

Now, I’m not going to lay down all the circumstances that could involve whether a window is locked or not in the middle of Sorcerer play. I’m just going to say the Game Master runs down the checklest:

Leads to better results in play:

  • leads to further decisions for the Players
  • involves the Players’ Characters with other characters
  • allows the fiction to move forward
  • doesn’t break the logic of the world or suspension of disbelief

Leads to worse results in play:

  • restrict options for the Players
  • prevents the fiction from moving forward
  • contradicts the logic of the world or strains suspension of disbelief

Questions like this will pop into the Game Master’s head:

“Is it reasonable the window would be unlocked? Will the fiction move forward if the window is unlocked? Will the Player’s Character get deeper into a mess if the window is unlocked and the crawls through the unlocked window?” If the answer to these questions is “Yes,” then why would the Game Master say, “No.” Clearly, there’s more fun on the other side of saying, “Yes” to the door being unlocked than saying, “No.”

So, if I were the Game Master I’d say, “Oh. Okay. The window is unlocked.”

And we move on. I mean, do I really want to have an argument about whether a window is locked? Hell no. I want to get on to the next cool part of the story.

But sometimes I’m going to go down the checklist and decide that what I had in my head about the “reality” of the fiction is better for building fun than what the Player has in his head.

Let’s use the example of the starport in the previous section.

I have an image of the starport in my head: the starport, carved from the rocky inteior of a cliff, is huge, with lots of starships and cargo lifters and hundreds of people moving across it. It’s like a modern day airport, but inside this enormous, man-made cave.

But I didn’t describe this well, and the Players saw something smaller. They saw, each in their own imagination, the distance from their ship to the edge of the starport as being relatively close and easy to get to while escaping with a prisoner they had just sprung from the jail.

So, when a Player, “We run from the entrance of the starport up the ramp of our ship,” I said, “Wait, hold on. The starport is really big. It’s huge. Your ship is parked off that way, a few hundreds yards away.”

And I saw on their faces that they didn’t think that at all. So I knew we had a slight hitch in moving the fiction forward.

Since I’m in charge of arbitrating the “reality” of the fiction, I now had to make a call. Now, I could just say, “Sure, just run up the ramp.” And that would be a fine thing to do.

But then I thought, “Well, wait. Why did I imagine it as a big, big area, filled with cargo lifts and passengers and flight crews and passengers embarking and disembarking space ships?”

Well, because I thought it would be more interesting.

If the Characters had to make a long haul with the prisoner they had rescued toward their ship, they’d have risk combat. They might have to choose whether to keep protecting the prisoner at the risk of their own lives if things went south, or abandon her. They might put the passengers and starport crew and the locals in danger if a fight broke out.

Moreover, given the Sorcerer setting we were playing in [see Holy War in the Examples section], I knew that the several Angels had offered their services to the Characters, hoping to tempt them into the Jihad spreading across the stars. The Players had thus far refused to accept help. But if they got into a bad enough situation, the Players might be tempted to finally make a deal and bind a demon to save themselves or their friends.

So, I went down the checklist:

Leads to better results in play:

  • leads to further decisions for the Players
  • involving the Players’ Characters fate or decisions with other characters
  • allows the fiction to move forward
  • doesn’t break the logic of the world or suspension of disbelief

Leads to worse results in play:

  • restrict options for the Players
  • prevents the fiction from moving forward
  • contradicts the logic of the world or strains suspension of disbelief

Now, if I assumed the Characters could just run up the ramp of their starship, there’d be no risk of worse results in play. But, on the other hand, if I did that, I’d lose all the possible better results of play. By having them have to make a break across the large starport for their ship, I’d be setting up further decision for the Players. I’d also be involving the Characters with the fate of other characters if violence broke out: the prisoner they were running with, the civilians around them if violence broke out, as well opening the possibility they’d call in the Angels for help. The fiction would move forward. And, at least for me, a huge starport for lots of ships made a lot more sense than just a little hanger bay…. Which is what the Players seemed to be assuming.

Given the fact that there would be more decisions to be made if they had to run the long distance and more characters would become tied to the actions and decisions of the Characters, I said, “You know, I really saw clearly that it was a huge starport. Lots of ships. A huge area, like eight or so football fields all stitched together.”

My Players said, “Okay.” And we moved on.

Don’t Play to be Right; Play to Play

So the big lesson that I’ve learned over the year is, “Don’t Play to Be Right; Play to Play.”

Whether I’m in the role of the Game Master or I’m playing as a Player and a difference of opinion crops up about the “reality” of the fiction and I, in any way, start feeling myself getting invested in any way toward winning the matter, I put the brakes on right away. I ask myself, “Did I come here to be right? Of did I come here to play?”

Because when I remember that making a story with my friends trumps being right, the need to be right immediately melts away. And once the need to be right melts away, I can see the issue at hand in a whole new light.

The question is no longer, “How can I prove my point?” but “Whether or not I win my point, can I stay focused on the playing?”

That means, as a Game Master, can I stay focused on the Players and their Characters and what the Players need to keep their Characters engaged in trouble and moving forward and invested in the things the Players said they wanted play to be all about—which is all the stuff written down on their Character Sheets.

And that means, as a Player, I’m focused on my Character, his needs and ambitions and passions, and the things I said I cared about, which is all the things written down on the character sheet.

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