Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Multiple GMs

I haven't been in much of a theorizing mood, but here's something that may be of interest. If you remember my comments on the new "Shadowrun" game, this may be a bit familiar.

One of the biggest problems for me when designing/running a tabletop game or LARP is that there is a severe bottleneck: the GM. While the GM can be extremely useful, creative, and adaptive, there are very few of them (usually 1 for every 5-8 players). Since the players get almost all their information from the GM, this means that the GM is a severe bottleneck despite his usefulness.

In the past, I've tried various ways of working around this. I've tried to make resolution mechanics that can be run without a GM. I've tried seeding information among the players so that they can be distributed in a fashion similar to how a GM would distribute information, but without direct GM interference. I've tried making the players into GMs of a sort. I've tried prepackaging most of the information so it can be passed out in seconds, allowing the GM to communicate much faster than otherwise.

All of these efforts to either front-load or sidestep the bottleneck are somewhat effective, but none of them really compare to a computer game, where there is a GM for every player: the computer program is a dedicated GM and, what's more, it can relay info a lot faster than any GM ever could. It's kind of like the ultimate front-loading: someone has to design the program, put all the information in, but once it's in, it runs at top speed forever, no bottlenecks.

The downside is that there is no direct GM control over the situation, so you don't get the creativity and adaptiveness of a live GM making real decisions. You can actually feel the same thing happening the more of those tabletop/LARP options you implement: the direct control slips away little by little as preplanned or uncontrolled elements take center stage. The computer program is simply the most extreme example.

While this is a downside, there is a lot to be said for the eliminated bottleneck. Let me explain:

It's true that one GM has a hard time distributing information to even five players. Most tabletops are built specifically to maximize the applicability of any given piece of information. As an example, the idea that all the players are in the same party is a way to make it so that the GM can say, "GOBLINS!" and everyone in the group goes, "OH!"

On the other hand, as most players and all GMs know, if the party splits up, it gets a lot kludgier. While you tell one group that there's goblins, the other group is sitting on their butt with no input.

This is the core problem with Shadowrun: riggers and hackers and magicians can all see and affect different things, and will frequently not be with the party proper. Trying to give each player their own, specific information is a slow and painstaking process that leaves the other players sitting on their butts.

But this isn't a problem in computer games: all the information is being relayed by the program, and each player has an independent copy just for herself.

Most small-team games take some advantage of this. While you're deathmatching in Halo 3, each player has their own perspective and isn't quite sure exactly what the other players are all doing, even on his own team. However, this is a minimal separation and, for some mysterious reason, is pretty much contained to only shooters.

Larger games, like MMORPGs, shove all the players into the same group. While technically they are all seeing slightly different things because they are all in slightly different positions, it's relatively rare for a good player to not know exactly what everyone else is doing. Putting aside the slowness of the combat, the benefits of concentrating firepower mean that the parties will stay as tightly aligned as they can, all interacting with the same enemies in the same battle space.

It's true that you don't have to be in a party in a MMORPG, but that's not their primary method of play. Generally, if you're not in a party, you're completely alone. That's not terribly awesome.

Something like Shadowrun shows a particular example of how awesome it could be to allow the player's programs to keep them in the same mission space but in different battle space.

For example, a gunman and a street samurai make up the muscle of the team. They go in like any old MMORPG game, shooting and running through the halls and stuff.

Outside, in their van, their hacker is accessing the building network, gathering information, running interference on security systems, opening doors. The two teams are tightly interconnected: the hacker is important to keeping the main team alerted and somewhat safe, while the main team extends his influence by attaching additional interfaces, finding keycodes, etc.

There are a lot of similar kinds of separations you can think of, both short and long distance. For example, how about players that are all in one party, but they "see" different facets of the game world? The magician sees magic, the warrior sees combat auras, the thief sees opportunities and traps... How about a more distant separation, where one player essentially plays Q to someone's James Bond?

The idea here is that the players are still part of a fairly tight-knit team. But they're not in the same party. They're having very different experiences.

I would like to see that. How about you?


Ellipsis said...

Hell yeah I'd like to see that. I was huge Shadowrun 3e nut, but I never actually finished the section on the matrix because in every campaign I've ever played, the GM stated at character creation that there would be no deckers (or at least no full-time deckers).

It's a fun game with everyone charging and shooting/manabolting, but I always felt like I wasn't seeing the real potential of the game.

Also, there's only one game I can think of that provided anything like this: Neverwinter Nights. I played with my girlfriend on a LAN and had a much higher spot, so would regularly be shouting "Lookout, a trap!" Of course, if we hadn't been in the same room my warning might not have been fast enough...

Craig Perko said...

That's another important point: while the GM is not a bottleneck in a computer game, player to player conversation IS. Even with voice chat, you don't get nearly the kind of fast, free-flowing, nuanced interactions you get while sitting at the same table.