I spent New Year’s Eve being a nerd.
Well, that’s not strictly true. I spent the bit of New Year’s Eve that’s customarily spent drinking oneself into oblivion and partying until one’s eyes fall out asleep, engorged on a substantial mound of battered prawns and won tons, and full of a pleasing mixture of white wine and port and lemonade that had been consumed earlier in the day.
I feel no shame in this, partly because I’d been eating prawns, but mostly because I’d been drinking whilst running a five-hour session to wind up my Mage: the Awakening game, which had stalled itself almost beyond recovery at some point during November.
Perhaps it was the port talking – and, aside, I would like to tell you all that drunken Storytelling is enormous fun when one is running a diceless game and not called upon to act as a rules arbiter – but I really enjoyed that session. I enjoyed it because the plot was advanced, remorselessly, without really challenging the players’ sense of immersion; because we got to do one of those extended montages of horrific events which the characters dare not change because the resolution of said events is vital to their own destiny (these things have led to me being described as the Stephen Moffat of roleplaying games, a label of which I’m inordinately proud); and because the players’ customary ingenuity opened up some doors which, whilst they had to be closed for the sake of putting the chronicle to bed in the time available, would have been fascinating to travel though. I came to a revelation on New Year’s Eve, a revelation which has been described thus, elsewhere:
“Sitting behind the screen, my notes heaped high with treasure for the virtuous few, it became clear that what I actually liked was telling stories in more or less real time: snaring bits of player conversation in order to make them flesh, confounding people, embroidering every act in an effort to simulate their worthy band at the highest possible resolution.
I’d been so terrified of the responsibility for another person’s enjoyment that I’d forgotten what happens when it works: you are inviting other people to inhabit your mind. What a strange use of oneself that is; strange, and rare.”
This is how Von games have customarily rolled. The players are creating a shared experience, certainly, but the environment which they’re experiencing and populating through their reactions, their decisions and their constant, charming bickering… that environment is me. I’ve played NPCs whose appearances have left me physically shaken, surprised everyone with the intensity of sudden, random events provoked by a player’s interaction with their surroundings, because I sublimate myself into the worlds my players explore.
I’m not sure if that’s doing it right. It feels like a forced experience, like I’m imposing myself on them – I delude myself into thinking that the play environment is open and the players choose where to go, but I’m the one who guides them into particular areas of the environment, and they dictate how that environment reacts to them through their actions. I want to read it as an offering, or maybe a kind of sacrifice, but the same ego-loathing that makes me turn myself into a world rather than a protagonist seems to write itself into that process of world-making as well.
Perhaps, at some point, I should experiment with running a game where I haven’t devised any story in advance – in which the players decide not only who their characters are, but where they are and where they’re going, and dictate the environment I create rather than navigating through something I’ve made for them, empowering the players by running reactively.
In a guilty moment, however, I’m not sure I’d enjoy that half as much.