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Thematic Voyage: The Unseen Art of Gamemastering

The world is out to get you

Jocelyn Robitaille
November 21, 2001  

This month's installment is not for the frail of heart, for it deals with a technique to implement themes that has a very disturbing assumption at its core: the GM is allowed to be a manipulative bastard. His job is to provide entertainment to the players and himself, and sometimes it requires this kind of attitude, which I do not endorse outside the framework of GMing, by the way. If you find that you disagree with this assumption, you probably won't find this article useful. Do feel free to discuss and comment, however; the forum under this here column could use some debate.

Before we can go into actual gaming-theory, a concept needs to introduced: "transference". Transference is a term used in psychology relative to some mechanism usually at work in the client-therapist relationship. Since exploring what transference is exactly would be beyond the scope of my topic, I'll keep it simple and offer a very approximative definition: transference is the low-key process through which a client, usually without being conscious of it, brings the therapist to feel and think certain things about him or her.

If we leave out the part dealing with its subconscious nature, we find in the idea of transference a concept quite useful indeed to implement themes. While the goal of RPGs is usually total immersion in the game world, it'd be dishonest to deny that the GM's "out of game" behavior does not influence the players. Who among us here haven't suddenly had a bad feeling about a situation just because the GM was grinning evilly? My guess is no one.

The truth is that players read a lot into the GM's non-verbal behavior, and since they aren't allowed to do that by the very essence of what RPGs are, this information gets turned into a vague feeling that one gets what is going on, without being able (allowed) to explain it. Such a phenomenon is so close to the low-key emotions that make up a theme that they can be considered equivalent, and it would indeed be a crime not to exploit it to its fullest.

The example this month will be the theme of survival. It has been chosen primarily for two reasons. First, it's really easy to illustrate how to use what shall be dubbed "GM-transference" with such a theme, since it involves cues most roleplayers are used to. Second, while games in which day to day survival is a success in itself provide a kind of fun that's quite unique, some GMs have a hard time using it because of their more gentle nature, which makes them avoid taking the risk of maybe killing off characters at every turn. Using survival as a theme allows them to experiment with the feel specific to a survival game without betraying their slightly sugar-coated nature.

Basically, GM-transference can be described like this: expressing an intent, thought or feeling through non-verbal behavior. What follows is a description of three of the five aspects usually recognized by psychology of non-verbal behavior that can lead to the interpretation of a given message.

The case of a survival theme, however, is a little special, because it means lying to your players. Yes, fake it. Make them think you're planning something you're not. To keep it simple, I'll use a single and very specific example, and illustrate how those aspects can be used to implement your theme through GM-transference.

"You've arrived in town a few hours ago. Herein, your archenemy, evil quebecker mastermind Jocelyn Robitaille, was last seen. You walk into, if what you were told is true, his favorite bar. As your contact said, he knew and was friends with pretty much everyone in the place, so it shouldn't be too hard to find some info on his whereabouts. All in all, the patrons seem pretty jolly and friendly; you're guessing that as long as you don't identify yourselves as Jocelyn's enemies, you'll have the tidbits you're looking for in very little time."

Now, this seems like a pretty ideal situation, right? Right. And on the GM's side of the screen, it is. Everything is exactly as it seems. However, said GM has decided that his game world was a rough place to live in, and he doesn't want the players to feel like it has suddenly gotten easy. Enter the use of GM-transference.

The first non-verbal cue one can use to implement GM-transference is paralinguistic behavior. Everything related to the tone, pitch, rhythm, output and intonation of your speech falls into this category. Picture in your mind the GM speaking once again the narration in italics, but in a very sober tone of voice, in a very regular rhythm, recited slowly, and with an intonation that hints at a veiled threat. Suddenly, a perfect situation can lead to a lot of stress.

The second non-verbal cue is called kinesics. Body movements and positioning can speak volumes on someone's intent. Imagine the GM reading the narration with the paralinguistic cues mentioned above, but add to that a mental image of him smiling evilly, looking slowly at one player and then another, all the while leaning forward in a quite menacing fashion. Again, it gets scarier.

The third and final cue is simply timing. Once again, rethink the whole scene, including the two cues mentioned above. Now, imagine that just prior to reading the text, the GM took a few seconds to make sure his notes and dice were sufficiently hidden by his GM screen. Worse, imagine that while you're about to engage a patron to ask a few questions, the GM quickly flips through his notes and then rolls a few dice. It spells trouble.

There you have it: a situation that's totally benign, but will probably scare the crap out of your players, thus making them roleplay their characters as if they were nervous-- which is totally appropriate and even desirable for a game with a strong survival theme. If you're lucky, once they're out of the bar walking away scot-free, you'll have the satisfaction of hearing them debate on why the hell the whole thing was so easy, and whether or not they'd been screwed in some fashion. And if you're even luckier, they'll probably screw themselves up while in the bar by acting all paranoid on what was merely an imagined threat.

As a final note, I'd like to point out that the beauty of this technique is that you have to actually work on it only once. Take an hour or two before starting your adventure or campaign, and reflect on what kind of non-verbal behavior can help you implement your theme; make sure you're sufficiently at ease with that to communicate the theme decently. Once this is done, you've got a pre made tool, and all that's left to do is to use it from time to time, both in minor and major scenes. And in the case of a survival theme, be sure to use the technique not only when faking a threat, but also when there's an actual one. The feeling that the whole world wants you dead only comes when you can't discriminate between real threats and imagined threats.

Here's to being an evil bastard!
Jocelyn Robitaille TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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All Thematic Voyage columns

  • Of Dread and Wonder (part 2) March 21, 2002
  • Of Dread and Wonder (part 1) February 12, 2002
  • The world is out to get you November 21, 2001
  • When fantasy and RL mix October 11, 2001
  • Leap of Faith, Part 2 September 6, 2001
  • Leap of Faith July 6, 2001
  • Lean on Me June 8, 2001
  • Courage May 11, 2001
  • Emotional Landscapes March 14, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg