Reflections on Group Dynamics and the Problem of Epic
Last session ended with a rather frank discourse. While I heard things I found hard to hear, I also heard things I found profoundly wise. As I've said before, it is not often a GM gets direct, honest and constructive feedback. Let alone from the majority of the group. This was one such occasion. The pretext to this discussion was as follows. Item 1 – We now have two scheduled sessions left before the Pius Chronicle is officially ended. Item 2 – Some of the players thought that the evening's scenario felt futile. Bear with me while I try to reflect on what was said.
Item 1 is something we all feel strongly. We have been playing for a while, and we all regret coming up on the end. That is only natural, and I wouldn't wish it any other way. There are however certain problems connected to this. Chief of these being, I believe, "how do we, as a group, wish that the last chapter in our collective tale should end." Achieving this, the perfect ending, if you will, is not easy. For it to happen, all the involved parties must feel ownership of the story being told, and achieving this gets complicated real fast.
I am of the opinion that at the heart of the matter lies group dynamics. At the risk of being trite, we are all individuals, and each and every one of us bring ourself to the table, with our different qualities and flaws. It is in the synergy of the involved parties that the magic is buried. I sometimes equate roleplaying with playing in a band – we all have different things to play on, and when we achieve harmony, we rock. And as with a band, if we become so involved in our own melody that we forget to listen to the music, we won't.
As a fairly old roleplayer, I've played with a lot of different people, and almost as many player-types. I've played with small groups, and with bigger groups, and I've tried a few systems. Each of these variables will affect the story that gets told, but none moreso than group dynamics. Sometimes a game will end with people splitting up, or even with the splintering of the group, but all relationships has that risk. When it works however, it is a thing of beauty – fantastic tales are born out of that. But as with all things under the sun, this isn't black or white. Even a solid group will generate friction from time to time, and as always, this hinges on communication.
For a while now, we've been seven when the cabal has been full strength, but we've seldom had more than five or six at the table. This is not a problem in itself, but each time the group composition changes, so does the dynamics. Now, to simplify my group's player-types, let me draw up two axis. On one, we have dominant players vs. passive players. On the other, we have those who want to play the epic lines vs. those who want to kill something big. This is a gross oversimplification, but I hope it illustrates my point. Every player falls somewhere within those lines, but where exactly is also influenced by everything else that happens around us. Being human, everything we do is ruled by what goes on in our lives.
To avoid rambling into quasi-psychology, I'll try to relate this to the topic at hand. When the entire group gets involved, every one contributes to the story, and this makes it memorable. In harmony lies perfection. If not, some or all involved may start feeling that it is not worth the time. It doesn't even have to be that dramatic to cause dissent, but the outcome depends on how we manage to deal with this. I'll return to that part later, but now I'll just briefly touch on what I see as the most fundamental responsibility of every roleplayer. The social contract of the game is that we gather as a group to be creative and to have fun. We all owe it to each other to strive to make the game fun for all of us. If we lose sight of that principle, we move away from the ideal.
As I said earlier, the Pius Chronicles are now drawing up on the end. The clock is ticking, and the fat lady is putting her make-up on. There may yet be a few sessions in the first weeks of July with those who are still in town, but since the whole group cannot play, Endex has been declared. This puts a whole new strain on the group, as we all want the end to be as memorable as possible. Combined with the the factors of group dynamics, this caused last nigh 's conversation. I don't think any of us felt we'd done our best, and many of us felt we needed to say something. I hope we all managed to listen as well as talk, and that we came away from it stronger.
Item 2 concerns my responsibility as the GM. It is my job to supply the necessary tools for the players to be able to successfully resolve a plot line. This is not always easily done. As everyone who've done something for a while, I have my developed a set of techniques and idiosyncrasies, and contrary to belief, being a GM does not make you infallible. Returning to the musical allegory, if I get too hung up in my own tune, the harmony will suffer. It is no secret that I've put a whole lot of work into Argos, and perhaps I've become too fond of my baby – I've heard you're supposed to kill them.
When I host a game, my first priority is to try to make my game enjoyable for as many as possible, for as long as possible. This goes for being a player as well, but a special responsibility lies on the GM. For my part, I am very much a circles-within-circles kind of guy. As a GM I always try to have at least one or two layers behind what I show, and I can easily see that sometimes this can seem a little daunting. Especially if I present it in a way so as to appear like I'm god-moding or rail-roading. This, combined with the problem of epic has led me to adopt a few defined techniques.
One of my techniques concerns the God-like Enemy. Most epic villains are old and/or super-smart, and everyone expects them to be. To play such a being has a few challenges, chief of these being the GM's cerebral limitations. Had I been that smart, ancient, and/or evil, I would have quit my job long ago to pursue world domination. What I've done do compensate is to adopt a piece of advice I read in Dragon Magazine back when I was a punk; I evaluate the plan the players present, and if I feel that this is something the antagonist could or should be able to hinder, I assume counter-measures have been put in place. This can easily lead to stone-walling, or at least be perceived stone-walling, if presented wrong. Again, if the communication doesn't work, misconceptions will occur.
One of the guys mentioned that it shouldn't feel like we were playing against each other. I cannot agree more to that statement, and I take full responsibility for how I portray the setting. This brings me over on my ways of dealing with the problem of epic. There is of course the onion-technique – behind each cross-roads is at least one other. Another important tool is to scale the antagonist(s) after the heroes. It may sound simple, but when the heroes have reached epic levels, it becomes a little tricky. After a time it gets hard to logically support an opponent that can challenge the characters, without being powerful enough to just simply destroy the world. The margin of error diminishes, and combined with running out of time, this becomes outright difficult to balance.
I've never ended a campaign properly before, so I am in uncharted territories here. What I've come to believe is that if there's to be a final show-down, it can't be easy, but if it's too hard it won't work either. To put it simply, I know five really smart guys can outsmart me. However, before I let them, I look for the idea that inspires and involves the whole group, while staying true to the story we've already told. Its that harmony-thing again. I also expect not to feel like I'm pulling my punches. The latter may well be my pride talking, and I will spend some time reflecting on that. The last thing I wish for is to lead anyone by the nose through a plot I've cunningly laid out, but I also don't want to end the story on a sour note. Ideally, and I believe we will, we will come together, and play as a group. When that happens, it's magic, and whatever tall tale we end up telling will be worth remembering.
So, was this a catharsis? I don't know, but for my part, I hope I at least came out of it somewhat enlightened and a little more humble.
[Picture source: DM of the Rings]