Thursday, March 15, 2012

GM vs. Players: Who Owns What?

Ownership is a funny thing when it comes to RPGs. There was a time (the 90s is when I saw it the most) where the act of touching another man's dice was worthy of a beating that the toucher would be seen as to blame for. Now, sure, that is an exaggeration, but I am sure I'm not the only one who remembers who stern that simple rule was: you do not touch another gamer's dice without explicit permission. I'd imagine there are places where this is still true, particularly for those who still game at their FLGS. But when it comes to the game itself, the nitty gritty, who actually owns what? It's a subject of some contention, and so I want to talk about that today.

Ownership = Control
I'm going to be clear up front. The angle I am taking on these debates is right up there. I am interested in ownership with how it relates to control in the game. To lengthen it, ownership = control = power, and I've always been a fan of one of my professor's definition for power. That definition being: the ability for A to have their way with B without B's resistance. Essentially, if you have power you can do what you want and there's nothing that can really be done about it. Also, there is a good chance that most of this is going to be up for debate. I encourage this. Debate me on it, bring your own arguments, and lets really see what is going on here behind the scenes.

That said, let's get into it.

The PCs
I said this yesterday and I meant it. The players have complete ownership over their characters. There is not an action that the character takes that is not dictated by the PC. Sure, sometimes the rules will overcome this (charm spells, etc) but that is more the exception that proves the rule than anything. This ownership is one of the reasons why social skills can be so hard to use in a PvP nature, because no one but the player has the right to choose how their character reacts. No one but them can choose how they react to being intimidated, seduced, bribed, etc, etc.

At the same token, it is the Player who makes the PC from scratch. Yes, we have rules for handling how the mechanics are generated, but it is the player that executes those rules and puts those mechanics to action. Beyond this, no one but the player has the right to determine any internal reaction/impulses from a character but their player.

The World
On the other hand we have the world that is played in. This is the sole property of the GM. The GM designs the world - traditionally - populates it, fills it with structures and wonders, and ultimately gets to use it as their play thing. If the GM wants an earthquake to destroy a city, an earthquake destroys the city. If they want tidal waves to drown the world, then guess what? Yep, world drowned.

This is also how the GM exerts influence over the players and the PCs at the beginning of the game. Since it is the GM's world, they get to choose what characters are allowed into it. The player owns the character, but the GM determines if that character can exist in their world. For example, Suzy the GM has no reason to allow my dracolich into her sci-fi space opera world. It is still my dracolich, it just isn't in that game world.

Unfortunately, those are the only two clear cut points of ownership.

NPCs are generally considered part of the world and thus are generally considered to be the GM's property. However, the key word there is generally. PCs can have a lot of impact on NPCs. They can mold them, shape them, and in doing so the player exerts some ownership over the NPC. Sure, the NPC is still primarily the property of the GM, but there is a small staked claim there for the player.

Often this requires the player to invest XP or game time into acquiring this ownership. In other words the player makes there character weaker by comparison in order to gain some ownership in the NPC. How that stake works is between the GM, the Player, and the rules being used. In this way the players can recruit followers, develop henchman, and/or train up their right hand man/woman. The playing of these NPCs is still often up to the GM, but the player's mark puts special consideration on these NPCs. There are now consequences - of some sort - if the GM simply does what he wants with those NPCs, and that a lone means that the GM has lost some power over that NPC.

The Story
The story is generated through the interactions between the PCs, NPCs, and the World. As such, the story is actually the property of both the GM and the Players. At least, a good game has this break down. A game where the players have full control of the story is generally seen as having a weak or unskilled GM - or just a bad one with players running rough shod over them. A game where the players have little or no control over the story is seen as having a railroading GM, or the game is set to be on rails. In both cases the game becomes less fun for one group (the one with less power, usually) and can leave people feeling dissatisfied. At least, that is generally the case. Some groups like those dynamics, and more power to them.

In my opinion, a good game story is one in which the GM sets events in motion and the PCs take up the role of the protagonists of the story. They are challenged, pushed, prodded, and poked at as they act and interact with the world and make their way through it. This can be as simple as adventuring as a new formed group of level 1 nobody adventurers, to as complex as something like the stories found in Bioware and Oblivion RPGs. Each of these falls somewhere on the line between 100% player control/0% GM control and 0% Player Control/100% GM control of the story, and the dynamic for each is something everyone agrees to with the game type. Either way though, the players have some control, the GM has some control, and thus the story belongs to both.

The Game Itself
Finally, we have the game itself. This one is interesting because common diction is to refer to a game by the GM's name (i.e. I play in Bob's star wars game.) However, much like the story, the game belongs to everyone and as such needs to cater to everyone. A GM can not run a game without players, but the players can not play in a game without a GM. Thus the game belongs to the group as a whole and needs to be fun for everyone. It is possible for someone to leave the group without killing the game (they simply cede their ownership back to the group and leave) and for new people to join the game (everyone's share becomes slightly smaller as a new person jumps in), but either way the game belongs to everyone. That means that no one person can, or should, be able to kill a game on their own. That also means however that the game should not continue at the expense of one of its owners.

Your Thoughts?
do you agree with me? Disagree? Want me to go over something in more detail? Sound off in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. I think NPCs can belong to the player or to GM and player in equal shares in the case of friends, contacts, family ect. the player has come up with. I tend to put a lot of work into those (Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun) and then I hand them off to the GM. I trust my GM to take them and use them to tell a cool story and if that happens, I'm happy to allow him to do all he wants with the NPCs I created. But I will be pissed if they are changed or killed or whatever just on a whim...luckily, that has happened rarely and with none of the GM I now play with. It's a matter of trust, really.