As I reflect upon the games I’ve run over the past two years, it is not surprising that I’ve mostly run games that I wrote. But in any gaming community, there is turnover. Writers and players move away, or move on. And they leave behind the memory of amazing games. And if someone doesn’t step up and run them, the new generation never gets to experience that particular joy. For various reasons, none the least is my big mouth and over-eagerness to help and maintain a vibrant LARP community, it has fallen to me to run many games I had previously played in and enjoyed. And just this last Friday, I found myself running a game that I’ve never even played in: Ouranos Expo (a game of mega-corporations in space).
Obviously, running my own games are the easiest, since I already know all the characters and mechanics and everything. I have an image in my mind of how game space should be set up, and over the course of game, which developments are likely to happen when. Knowing the intricacies of the plots, it is easy enough to cast people into characters. And hopefully, the games already compile on my computer.
Running games that other people wrote is a whole different ballpark, and a special honor. Games are hard work to write, can take a very long time, and like any creative endeavor, authors are protective of their work. In my case, I’m also self conscious about it’s potential shortcomings. To have another author agree to give their game over to your care, even for a matter of weeks, is an intimidating thing.
It is a lot of pressure. If the game doesn’t go well for whatever reason, it can reflect poorly on both the GM(s) running the game, and the original writers. Experienced players may opt out of your games in the future. New players may not come back at all, for any game. It can feel distressingly easy to break a game, especially one you didn’t write.
One of the weakest points in a LARP is the “go ask a GM” mechanic. I’ve been warned against such mechanics since I started writing games. I knew intellectually that too many of those mechanics make it hard on a GM to run a game. After all, they cause the GM to be too busy running mechanics to follow the general flow of the game. Caught up in the details, we can miss the big picture, and in doing so, lose out on one of the best parts of a game – watching people play it. Now i understand it in a whole different light. “go ask a GM” mechanics don’t get written down. There is no natural place to put them, so they get “forgotten”. Maybe the GMs who wrote the game remember, but anyone who takes up the game to run it later doesn’t have any way to learn these things if the original writers don’t pass along the info.
And so, there I was on Friday night, with 5 minutes to game-start and 3 mechanics that consisted of “go ask a GM”, and no idea what to tell the players when they did. Of course, the ideal here was to know the game well enough to reconstruct what was probably the original intention of the writers. Despite substantial evidence to the contrary, I am no mind-reader 😉 . And so, decisions were made. Sometimes with alarming arbitrariness, and crossed fingers that the decisions wouldn’t short circuit the game.
In reality, games are robust. Especially games that get rave reviews and draw enough attention that someone who never played it wants to run it. As writers, we must learn to trust our fellow writers. They probably wrote a game with enough redundancy and clarity that most characters will be self sufficient, or at least not broken outright by a “go see a GM” mechanic if it is mishandled. As GMs, we must also learn to trust our players. They are smart people, and even if they can’t see the whole picture the way the original writers could, they can often sense intention. They know which parts of game are weak, how the writers “intended” them to solve particular problems, and which mechanics they could abuse, but it would break the game. And most players, at least in the SGS, choose not to break games.
Despite the potential for disaster, magnified through my own worry-wort personality, in the end, everything was fine. People had fun. The “go see a GM” mechanics went off more or less without a hitch. And most characters ended up dead, but that’s more or less par for the course in a game like Ouranos Expo.