A thought on GM versus Player narrative power in indie games

With the few indie games that have entered my bookshelf I noticed that there is a scale of player’s narrative power versus GM’s power. Power is probably not the right word, influence? At one end you have something like Universalis that gives all the players GM powers by removing the GM. Then you have something like Shadow of Yesterday gives quite a lot of power to the players to control when and how they enter conflict (conflict resolution) and how their character is pulled along (keys). Then Spirit of the Century where players can “tag” narrative details that they may think are in a scene or story. At the other end of the scale you have the traditional RPGs like White Wolf and D&D.

The belief it would seem is that the more narrative power a player has, the better the game or experience is because the player has more ability to control and determine that. I think thats not completely true. They offer different experiences along the scale certainly. I don’t believe any is lesser than the other and people will be certainly draw to certain points in that scale.

Of course I am speaking a little through my arse as I haven’t played SotC or SoY yet. Planning to but that really doesn’t count. Thankfully I have played Universalis a few times and it is definitely one of my favourite games. But I’d put myself preferring the opposite end of the scale. (Universalis works for me because it’s explicit in it’s power-sharing, you go in with no pre-conceptions about who controls what.)

Part of it this is that, as a player and GM, I prefer long-running games over one-shots or single-adventure games. Universalis works brilliant in a single session however my group has never really got into the idea of running Universalis over several sessions. Don’t get me wrong, you can do it with all games. Yet I think games that give more narrative power to the players give more punch in the short term than games that work better in the long term.

Maybe that’s not complete fair. In economics: all variables in the long term are flexible. Games at the restrictive end of the scale are just as flexible in terms of who has narrative power as games on the other end of the scale, if you talk about the long term. For me it’s about what being GM means. For me as a player and a GM, being GM means giving the players a good experience. Take the narrative powers away from the GM, the GM can no longer guarantee a good experience for the players, the players have to do it more themselves. Thinking about this in the short and long games, if you have a short game and you want everything up and running quickly without much input, then you should probably let the players do it for you. Let them grab what interests them and run with it. In the long term, as a GM you have more freedom. You can present a world to them and you can setup and guide the players as part of that world and see what takes hold over time with them. An engaging long-term story must be evolved from the fusion of players and GM, I think while a short-term game can be just lighting the fuse of the players and watching it explode.

Or perhaps it doesn’t matter and I’m simply getting older and preferring the way “things were done in my day”.

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