Archive for the ‘GM’s Corner’ Category

Recently, I’ve been thinking about negative space. In terms of art, negative space is the empty space between objects, or parts of an object. It can also be the space that surrounds an object. A really famous example of this is the picture that can be either two faces or a vase.

Let’s think about a stone sculpture for a minute. The artist produces the sculpture by removing the rock around the form they are creating. Bit by bit, they remove layers to get the masterpiece. Since the sculpture is what remains at the end of the process, you could say that the sculpture is defined by the artist’s decisions about where the negative space should be.

When a game begins, it has all sorts of potential. The possibilities are endless. It’s up to the group to make the story. Their actions and their decisions define what’s important and shape the world of the game.

Let me give an example. A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to play in an Apocalypse World re-skin based on Battlestar Galactica. I chose to play a pilot. The GM asked me to scout ahead and see what the bogey was on the far side of the star system. He asked me what I saw, so I said that I saw a battlestar that had been totally decimated. And there were raiders.

Without batting an eye, the GM said: “Ok. I can work with that.”

The entire rest of the game was defined by the description that I had given. I could have said that it was a merchant ship. Or maybe it could’ve been the Ship of Lights from the original TV show. That would have given the entire game a different take. It would’ve definitely had a different feel from the 21st century show if that root had been taken.

(Damn, now I’ll totally have to try that storyline out at some point.)

It’s also interesting to think of the game’s rules as its negative space. Last week, I played Fiasco online with two friends. When we rolled the dice, a lot of threes came up. I offered to re-roll (technically against the rules), but they declined on the basis that limitations increase creativity. And, really, that’s the point of a rules system, isn’t it, to guide the play in a fun, creative way?  The penchant for messing around with the mechanics is interesting. When approached this way, you could say that people are trying to re-cast the negative space.

Gaming is a hobby of possibility and exploration. Isn’t it interesting that it’s almost as fun to define what doesn’t happen, as it is to define what does happen?


Just a quick interest check: would people be interested in audio versions of the GM’s Corner posts? I’ve been considering recording them and adding them to the feed.


Why I’ll Flunk Out of Gaming University

Posted: March 19, 2013 by jddennis in GM's Corner

Isn’t it funny how academic the role-playing game hobby is?

There’s no end to it. In addition to all the rules-sets I own, I have books on how to prepare adventures and how to work improvisational techniques into games. There are blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels all devoted to breaking down and analyzing gaming. As an example, here was a recent panel I watched: Is Fantasy Dead?

Oh, yeah! Panels! Ostensibly, we go to conventions to play games with new people or to pick up a hot, new rule set. All that’s available, but the panels seem like they’re ported over from an academic conference. Are you interested in the discussion about “A Postmodern Examination of the Prevalence of Monolithic Evil in Role Playing Games?” That’s in conference room 317. How about an examination of dice-based mechanics versus diceless mechanics? That’s 423. Oh, and did you hear that so and so just made tenure?!

Speaking of dice, there’s the analysis of RPG math. Dice probabilities are examined. Bell curves are charted. I’ve even seen comparisons of mathematical probabilities of dice brands. I have a friend who has a PhD in Mathematics. If she took a serious look at the math behind game mechanics, she probably would be thrilled to death with RPGs.  It’s just that all that stupid acting gets in the way.

And then there’s the part that really gets me. The self-labeling. Wherever there’s a group of people interested in the same topic, they have to divide themselves down into smaller groups. It’s like you’re talking about psychology. Do you take a Freudian approach, or a Jungian one? Which is more valid – tactical gaming, or cinematic gaming? Are you a modernist gamer , or are you part of the Old School Renaissance?

I sound like I’m breaking bad on all of this introspection. And, yes, I’m a bit critical of it. But I can’t condemn it outright. That’d be hypocritical of me. After all, the entire purpose of this website is to document the gaming sessions of my friends and me.  And, yes, I’m very aware of what our play style is and where we fall on the spectrum (cinematic OSR with modernist storygaming sensibilities).

It just seems to me that it’s easy to lose focus on actually gaming. We become so wrapped-up in the peripherals of the hobby, we can get lost in the social nature of the game. To me, gaming is great because it allows my friends and I share in collaborative creation and while enjoying each other’s company. In the famous words of everyone’s favorite Muppet Jedi, “do or do not.” While we may enjoy talking about what we do for fun, I’m convinced it’s more fun to actually do it.

It doesn’t really matter what it is I’m playing. Old school, modern, tactical, cinematic… Just so long as it’s with friends, and I’m having fun with them, I don’t really care.

And that’s why I’m going to flunk out of Gaming University. Because I was too busy goofing off with my friends.


A lovely photo one of my sisters took.

In 2011, I went with my sisters to Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello. While we were taking a tour of the grounds, one of the fellow members of the group asked if Jefferson felt any guilt about owning slaves. The tour guide gave a rather long answer, easily summed up as “no, he did not.” From the prospective of us visitors, it wasn’t pretty, but it showed that one of our Founding Fathers was just as human as we are. That’s a thought that can be both comforting and also a bit scary.

The exchange brought an another interesting thought to my mind. Often, we bring modern sensibilities and mores to the table when we are evaluating something from history. Not only that, we also use our own personal experiences to interpret the past. “Hindsight is twenty-twenty.”

This may be overly simplistic, but this lens could be referred to simply as their world view. Our interpretation of prior experiences and events shape our impressions of the world around us. We make decisions based on what we’ve been taught and what we see as true. For better or worse, in this regard, we shape the world which we experience. It could be argued that we all are moving through our own individual worlds. Every interaction we have with someone else is a place in time and space where two worlds collide. (more…)

“Do You Trust Me?”

Posted: March 5, 2013 by jddennis in GM's Corner
Tags: , , , , ,

There’s a really neat set of scenes in the movie Aladdin that I’ve been thinking about in terms of gaming. It’s those moments where Aladdin asks Jasmine “Do you trust me?” The first time, they’re in Aladdin’s den and the royal guards are chasing them. In this instance, Aladdin wants Jasmine to trust that he get them out of a hairy situation. The second instance is on the balcony. Aladdin is asking her to trust that Prince Ali Ababwa’s magic carpet ride will be safe. But I see it as more than that. He’s asking her to look past the obvious turn-offs that she sees, the stuffed-shirt, swaggering peacock routine that offends her so much. He’s asking that she takes a chance. (more…)