Game Masters: What Makes Us Evolve?

Trevor Kidd posted a great question on his G+ where he asked the following:

What was the first game (video game, board game, RPG, whatever) that resonated with you? Has it shaped the way you think about games or other aspects of your life?

I was immediately inspired by the question and posted a reply about Myst, Riven, and games with puzzles. You can read it here.

Answering Trevor’s question made me realise why I personally have never enjoyed any module or idea of a dungeon that employed puzzles. Thanks to my early limited experience with D&D, I was convinced at first that all dungeons were supposed to have traps and puzzles: that was the “right” way to make a dungeons. Frustration grew when I experienced puzzles in dungeons that were not fun, both as a player and as a DM. As a player, I could see other players argue and languish in frustration but it never occurred to me. As a DM, it didn’t feel fun, so I must have been doing something wrong, right? Over time my mind worked out a subconcious formula of dungeon=puzzles and puzzles=not fun therefore dungeons=not fun.  If I couldn’t do it right, I had no choice but to avoid it. My DMing style changed, I rarely ran encounters in a classic dungeon style setting.

I think that being unconciously driven away from dungeon environments pushed me to think about games that went beyond “go here, kill anything that moves, get loot”. Not that any DM doesn’t think of these things, but at the time there was a wealth of material for things with Tombs and Keeps and Lairs. A lot of maps and modules I bought were always full of walls and tunnels and rooms and secret doors. The maps I drew were full of open areas: a farmer’s barn, an open field, the rooftops of a crowded city district, etc.

Later, when I gained confidence as a DM, I returned to the occasional puzzle, but they were easy to solve, or I made sure they were heavily woven into the story. If my solution was never figured out then I would co-op the players’ proposed solution as if that was the correct answer the entire time, knowing it was wiser to reward the creative thinking than punishment for not thinking of my exact solution. Despite some successful uses, I still don’t feel comfortable including puzzles in my game. I no longer feel the need to expressly avoid dungeon settings, but neither do I feel an urge to use a dungeon setting very frequently either.

Trevor asked what video game resonated with people, so I’ll end this by asking a question too. To you Game Masters out there, what was something that profoundly affected the way you GM? Was it positive or negative? How did your style evolve as a result?

4 thoughts on “Game Masters: What Makes Us Evolve?

  1. I would say the most important event for myself as a DM was the first time I ran the newest release of Gamma World. It had been many years since I sat behind the screen, but I recall that as a younger DM everything was always pre-planned, organized and fairly linear.

    I agreed to run GW for some friends, promptly forgot about it and ended up scrambling to hack together something I could run in a few hours out of the material provided in the box set. The short version of the story is that I had to fake almost everything. I had a couple predrawn maps, a handful of tokens and six imaginative players.

    The session lasted about five hours and it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me at a game table. The level of improv required was thrilling and at the ens of the game I was astounded by how much fakery had been involved in the whole thing. I have never looked back. I have run many one shots and started a regular Star Wars campaign since then and improc has become my preferred style. While I have learned that there is an art to planning for improv, I will never go back to linear design again and I feel that I, and my players, are much better off as a result.

  2. Final Fantasy 7. The materia system was easily the best magic system I have ever seen in a video game, because it allowed you to customize your character in a way that was simple and intuitive, yet powerful. Sadly, the game systems that come closest to this (GURPS and Hero) have become far too complex and cluttered.

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