Thursday, 16 June 2011


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]


  1. Wow. That was a lot to take in. Forgive me if my comments are rather simple.

    It seems like running the epic that you have put so much effort into would be very difficult under the best circumstances. With a large group and a changing players base, it'd be even harder. Take into account the powerful PCs and NPCs and that would be a task to shatter the most capable GM.

    I hope you guys can work things out in order to arrive at a wonderful conclusion to the campaign.

  2. I think epics are hard. They require everybody desiring a similar sort of epic (or an epic at all) and they require tolerance of setbacks. Authors constantly frustrate reader expectations to keep them wanting more, but in the game sometimes player's experience frustrated expectations as losing, and aren't willing to delay the gratification of winning.

  3. (This is turning out much longer than intended, but I'll type it up, and maybe refine it later).

    A fine summary of some of the issues we face together. All of us feel truly blessed to have been able to play in the setting for so long, with such a fantastic game master -- and I am certain we will enjoy the end game as well. But there are indeed diffuculties before the end.

    Some of us talked a bit more on the way home, and I think two of the insights that might have come out of that (and while mentioned, maybe not mentioned cleary enough directly after the session) -- is balance and dynamism.

    Balance in the session as it stands is pretty much impossible, and I think the late trend to lean more on the system for help has only made the problem worse. The pious cabal is made up of mages first and foremost -- and they are mere mortals. The more we lean on a system for mortal mages, the more hopeless the balancing act becomes. Mortals *cannot* defeat gods. Not by the book, anyway.

    Part of the joy we have all found earlier in this setting comes from the fast and loose feel; the radical inconsistencies and sheer madness. A demigod from the dawn of time, an ascended master of fate, a horrible demon lord of unexistence -- none of these elements fit with the system even remotely.

    Reducing dangerous spirits and drowned men to stats and bonuses only hastens disbelief and reduces the magic of the setting -- removes part of what makes it so special -- and what makes it truly a Story. It also makes it harder to cheat believably for the sake of the story.

    This leads to the "static" problem -- some elements have become so entrenched that they are hard to change. Understandably the GM is reluctant to kill of players, and the "sliding" scale of opposition hampers players. The mages do not become vastly more durable as they master more magic -- there are still only so many health levels. Even the prince, while certainly more potent than most mortals, cannot stand alone against an onslaught of demons.

    Henche the players become more careful, and Institutions form in the world. Some of this is good, it's world building -- but when some forces become (seemingly) insurmountable inaction becomes the only viable option, even for heroes (after all a dead hero saves no world).

    Looking back, a few of the early characters in this setting dealt with similar problems in different manners: Originally the second witness ran away, and later almost died attempting to kill a dragon (surviving by principle of interesting story arc, much to the players surprise:). The first witness (Dacola) was the only other survivour of a considerable party due to quick and ruthless thinking (and the willingness to kill another player).

    Now, looking at the story we have a few powerful factions that *will* battle it out -- some will win, and some will lose. We certainly all need to look at which is the more interesting outcome. Personally I don't feel the queen of star is quite charismatic enough to deserve taking over the world, now that the Orc is mostly extinct. So we, the players, will have to find the power, and a plan that may succeed.

    Now obviously we need to rally some of the men now stranded on the moon to do that -- the prince can't do it alone, and everyone knows that two mages can't agree on the colour of corruption.

    (Full disclosure: I play the Prince, and Giovanni deVito)

  4. This'll have to be a quick response to your comment, Eirik.

    The perfect balance between story and system is of course the Holy Grail of RPG's, but this is also one of those elements that are influenced by a wide variety of factors. I'll make an attempt at breaking this down as I see it.

    The first factor is group size. As many of you know, my ideal group is two to three players. With a group this size, there is plenty of "face-time" for each player. This also allows for problems to be overcome through achieving consensus. With a larger group, free-form storytelling becomes harder to pull off to a level of satisfaction.

    Then there is world-complexity and the problem of epic. I think you said yesterday that in the early days of the BoW, we killed off legends and made gods quickly and readily. That type of play is beyond my ability to sustain for years at a time. For that reason, there must be some manner of stagnation to balance the dynamism. I agree that this must be in moderation, otherwise it'll lead to story-death.

    Related to the two points above is the need for a system. I am aware that I have gradually placed more weight on the rules, and I know that this is a two-edged sword. To much, and it kills the roleplaying, but rules are vital to provide some measure of objectivity. Once the group reaches a certain size, a certain power-level, and the world grows past a certain stage, there has to be a common ground.

    Our group has now passed all those thresholds, and while I agree that reducing gods to stats is bad, I still believe that anything less than a god can, and perhaps even should, be quantifiable. Note that the system actually supports this. Spirits past Rank 5 do not have stats, rather they are supposed to be god-like, and thus able to do almost anything they want (within reason, of course.)

    As with all things, the trick is to achieve a balance between all the various elements of the game. If that cannot be done, a compromise is the best option left on the table.


    Eirik and me will be in London over the weekend, but I'll try to stop by, and to respond to any comments you may have on this topic. Personally I see this as touching on several of the fundamental aspects and challenges of both playing and running a good game, and I am very happy that the discussion has continued.

    I also welcome anyone outside the group to pipe in, as I doubt any of our issues are unique.

  5. @Christian:

    Your posts on maintaining group coherency has got me thinking, even before last night's debate. I regret not having the time to go into depth on any specifics right now, but as I said above, our problems are not unique. I don't even think they are unique to RPG's.

    Between you, me, and the fence-post, running an epic game is hard fucking work. Part of me is looking forward to ending this chronicle, and hopefully achieving a sense of closure. I would love to keep playing with the same group, but I have come to realise that no story can go forever without changing the perspective. In this context, I am referring to the characters. At a certain point, I believe retiring and/or killing the main heroes, and starting a new chronicle is in order. This allows the over-arching story to continue, while keeping the play on a level that is interesting for all involved parties.

    So, yeah, I am sad to see this chronicle end, but I am also feeling a sense of relief. I miss running a challenging encounter that does not involve a host of demons or the full weight of a civilization. Brigands in the forest can be fun too.

  6. While I am a long, long way from worrying about super-high-power play, I find any and all pontificating on the topic fascinating.

  7. As the longest standing player in the world of Argos I am saddend that it comes to an end - and as the foremost advocate for true mega epic doom my dissapointment at the end of last session came from the feeling that we have stopped collaborating. And to create an epic ending wothy of Pius we need to pull together.

    I for one am not interested in playing "a game" now at the end of the world, I want to engage in the STORYTELLING we have done so well during these years. I havent recorded a single xp for some sessions now - why? Because it isnt about xps, loot, wins or stats - its about the story of a band of mages and how they changed the world (at least this book is about that). And the thought of this has been occupying my mind almost to an unhealthy degree. Hence the frustration directed towards the "random encounter" at the end of the session.

    I hope that we in the coming few sessions return to collaborative storytelling (rather than being handed "the tools to resolve the plotline"). I have a very personal relationship to the book of worlds and promise to do my very best at the end of the road.

    (For the record; I star as Yolander van Zaar and have portrayed Franco da Cola before that. )