Dice Tales: Backseat GMing

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the thirty-ninth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


Years ago my husband and I took a ballroom dance class together. (I promise, this is still the Dice Tales series; you’ll see how this relates to gaming in a moment.)

It didn’t go very well, largely because of me. You see, I was a dancer for thirteen years. Not ballroom, but ballet, jazz, lyrical — which taught me how to learn movement. The teacher would show us a step, my dance background would cause me to pick it up quickly, and then I’d be trying to steer my husband through it from the follow position . . . and that ain’t how ballroom dancing is supposed to work.

Nor is it how games are supposed to work, but sometimes it winds up happening anyway. I talked a while back about building PCs with hooks in them, the foundations for a plot you’d like to include in the story; well, it takes at least two to tango on many of those things, either you and another player or (often) you and the GM. And that can be a problem when nobody else seems to want to pick up the threads you’re tossing out there. Sometimes that means you let the plot idea go: in the Changeling LARP, one of the other players wanted his character to pursue a romance with my PC. I wasn’t interested, so that just didn’t happen.

But sometimes you wind up backseat GMing.

This happened to me in a short-run LARP I played in, where the events of one of the games left my PC suffering from a curse. What kind of curse? Unspecified; we didn’t have an answer for that at the moment when it happened, so I thought, cool, here’s a neat little plot hook for the GMs to run with. I told them that as far as I was concerned, they had free rein to make up a suitable curse — “suitable” meaning something that would contribute to the game, tie in with some other plot or make another PC’s life interesting or whatever — but session after session went by, and despite repeated prodding, they never did anything with it. So I came up with my own answer as to the nature of the curse. Which was, to be frank, both dissatisfying and ultimately a bad idea; unbeknownst to me, the curse I came up with should have been affected by the secret backstory of another character. But of course it wasn’t, because I didn’t know. I only found out about that secret backstory in the final session of the LARP, and while I was able to reassemble the story in my head to be coherent, it wound up making my character’s ending really grim and depressing. Not at all what I’d been looking for.

In my experience, backseat GMing is more common in LARPs (of the ongoing variety) than in tabletop, probably because GM attention is spread so much more thinly in a LARP. A tabletop GM can legitimately be expected to remember what’s going on with each PC and to do something with it; they may choose not to, for a variety of reasons, but it’s unlikely to just slip permanently through the cracks. In a LARP, though, the GM is having to deal with so many players, they often wind up dropping balls. Another LARP character of mine had a central conflict that I intended to be low-effort, because it would only really require GM attention once a year, on the Japanese holiday of Obon. But as that time drew closer, it became more and more apparent to me that the GM wasn’t really preparing for it. I wound up proposing an entire backstory to that situation and a framework for how the relevant session would go, on the theory that if I did as much of the GM’s work as possible for him, that would make things easier. Which it did! And to be fair, the GM even added in a nice, creepy detail I hadn’t expected at all.

But ultimately, it just wasn’t satisfying. I didn’t want to script out a thing and then walk through it. I wanted to be surprised; I wanted to improvise. I wanted to react as my character, rather than think like an assistant GM.

In the comments to an earlier post, Alyc Helms raised an interesting point:

For things going wrong, it’s most satisfying when the players have some control. For things going right, it’s more satisfying when the players don’t have control (i.e., it is more competitive) because that creates a greater feeling of victory than pure narration would.

Which clicks pretty well with my own experience. I wanted my PC to be in a bad situation, haunted for three days every Obon by the ghosts of everyone he’d murdered; I was happy to be in control of the plot to the extent of saying “here is the problem I am setting myself up for.” But that session was supposed to be the Obon that everything changed, the first time in years that my PC was not alone and struggling to keep his soul instead of lashing out once more against the people he’d wronged. And that happened — but it was a victory I half-wrote for myself, setting up how the other PCs would know what was going on and have a reason to get involved. It would have been more satisfying if that was out of my hands. The plot wasn’t really a competitive one, but the point still stands: the victory my character achieved that night felt less like a victory precisely because I had so much OOC control over it. I may enjoy the triumphs I write into my novels, but they aren’t my triumphs the way those of a PC are. (Unless the plot was a difficult one to work out, in which case my victory isn’t the one my protagonist achieves; it’s the one where I defeated my own lack of ideas. And that’s a different, albeit still pleasing, kind of triumph.)

And that, I suspect, is part of why we do still play these games as games, instead of just collaboratively narrating a story. Because if we’re all just narrating, without rules, then there’s too much control for us to enter into the characters’ feelings of success. Sometimes we want to dance the follow position, without trying to steer.


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: Backseat GMing — 3 Comments

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  2. I feel like this is related to something I was thinking about last week about delving into plot and conspiracy. It’s something I really love doing if I know/can trust that the GM did their groundwork, has built up layers, and ultimately knows what is at the bottom of the rabbit hole. However, if they’re laying track right in front of me (maybe even building on or against my current theories) or if they’re Chris Carter-ing the whole thing, then it’s a lot less satisfying. I don’t need _everything_ figured out ahead of time, but I do need to trust that my GM has set a net out under me.

    • Makes me think of the people who argue that George R. R. Martin should change Jon Snow’s parentage because readers figured it out/the TV show confirmed it. People, it isn’t good storytelling to chuck all of your foreshadowing and hinting just because readers put the pieces together.