(…and that title’s what happens when a 40-something Celtic guy tries to be hip.)

One of my players is getting ready to fire up a pulp campaign where I will actually get to play! (Whoo!) We had also discussed a superhero campaign where we could trade off GM responsibilities, similar to what I had done with a former gaming buddy in the late 1980s. That got us to discussing the merits of various RPG rules sets — a discussion that spread to the other gaming group.

It’s easy to forget how primitive RPGs were in the early days. They were an extension of war-games, and the heritage showed in things like Dungeons & Dragons, Gamma World, and other early settings. The rules were almost completely given up to combat simulation and movement, and roleplaying was really an afterthought.

Traveler, James Bond: 007, and other non-TSR systems tried to break this battle sim feel with more fleshed out character simulations — skills, weaknesses, etc. — and while there might be rules for seducing the femme fatale or car chases, in the end, the fists, blades, or guns came out.

The one thing that was central to these rules sets was the position of dungeon master or gamester…the DM/GM was the one that came up with the general world setting (or managed it, if it was a licensed setting), the players ran the characters and worked their way through scenarios of that person’s devising. Ultimately, the GM was the arbiter (although plenty thought of themselves as “god” at the table) of what happened, and tried to set up the adventures so that the players would be entertained, surprised, etc… It’s a position for a storyteller, but also someone who can juggle lots of tidbits of background material, flesh out NPCs on the fly, and otherwise manage a group of people.

In the 1990s there was a strong push to get away from combat as the raison d’être for characters to do things: romance was played up in the White Wolf line and in Victorian “steampunk” settings. Characters’ flaws, motivations, and allegiances became more important than their +2 sword of impressing girls. I, as a storyteller, loved this trend and it fit well with my notion of GMing — combat was not always the point. (In fact, for some settings, it’s to be avoided at all costs! Dead people attract attention…not good for thieves or spies, or pretty much anyone looking to avoid a trip to the local prison.)

Now it’s normal for the combat section of a game to be subsumed into the general task resolution rules (with some expansion for various combat specific mechanics.) Some systems have done away with damage — the new Cortex Plus for Smallville uses “stresses” from emotional to relational to physical. It’s a nifty idea and one that I’m intrigued by, other than the massive bit of book keeping it appears to make for the player to keep track of.

The other trend, and one that I’m not on board with the new hotness is the shift from a GM that acts as arbiter to a communal or troupe style of storytelling. Maybe it’s because I’m a control freak or I like to be the center of attention — this is all entirely possible. But having discussed it with my players, there seemed a consensus that the idea of everyone pitching in to create the environment and plotlines ala Primetime Adventures or Smallville was intriguing for the amount of input it gave the players, we all thought that it had a serious weakness — consistency and coherence.

Think of it this way: If every TV show, book, movie, etc. could have it’s universe tweaked to your liking, every plot could be crafted to what you wanted to see, every outcome was decided by the player should they succeed…there is going to be certain lack of coherence due to the “wouldn’t it be cool if?” factor. Even in the most interactive of media, computer RPGs, the player can alter the course of events but their decision tree is small and the outcomes they lead to smaller still — computer RPGs do exactly what critics of GMs who “railroad” complain of: they design the decision trees to provide a false sense of empowerment; ultimately, what you do will lead to one of a preset number of outcomes, unless your GM runs their games completely impromptu (and those that do, when they are good, are great!)

There is also a tendency to less cohesion in the plots, the story arc (if there’s one at all), and in the universe itself. Think of it this way: in the 1970s and 1980s, most TV shows were serial and their stories were contained in the events of the hour. Perhaps some characters might reoccur, some stories might resurface for another episode or two, but by and large, each episode was it’s own universe. The characters were general consistent, but might be completely miswritten to fit the story being presented (what I think of as the bad sort of railroading — the “it’s in the plot” railroading.) The shows that were consistent, where the characters remained true throughout, where the story arcs made sense, where the universe was consistent and coherent, relied on a smaller number of writers, more empowered producer or show runner input (think Babylon 5 or Hill Street Blues.)

Troupe style RPGs are Starsky & Hutch, or even Mork and Mindy; games where there’s no GM, rather than a new-agey facilitator, are more like Babylon 5. I’m a big fan of having a single central vision, altered and made the players’ own by their actions — nothing good comes of the GM that is playing to himself with the rest of the table as the audience.

So I guess that’s all I’ve got to say on that.