I’m blessed, or cursed, with a naturally analytic mindset. I can’t help but look for patterns and, having seen one, trying to understand what it means and why it is a pattern. Of course, the more frequently you can observe the circumstances that produce the pattern, the more easily those patterns are to detect.
Local television has been repeating episodes of Iron Chef five times a week. This has already inspired one article here at Campaign Mastery (Layers Of Mis-translation: RPGs and Dubbed TV), and now I have another. You see, I’ve started noticing patterns in the reasons why one contestant on this cooking contest appear to win and the other to lose, and those patterns have some surprising relevance to RPGs.
Sometimes, the reason for a loss is obvious – one chef simply under-performs in one of the key criteria – flavor, originality, and presentation, leaving the door open for his opponent to outperform him, even if the opponent does not do quite as well in the other two areas.
And there are obvious analogies to RPGs. One GM may excel at Adventure Construction, or Characterization, or Creating Immersion, or Rules Interpretation, or Prop Construction, or however you want to slice up the overall task of being a GM. In fact, most GMs will be at least mediocre in these and will have a reputation for excellence in several of them.
But it doesn’t matter how much the first GM excels in the other areas if they are completely inadequate in one of them. This fatal flaw will drag down the overall popularity of their game until that of another GM – who is not as brilliant in the areas where he is strong as the first GM, but who is reasonably good, and who lacks that weak point – will have greater success as a GM.
Showing why is simply a matter of adding up some fictitious scores:
- First GM: 10 + 9 + 6 + 4 + 3 + 1 = 34/60 = 56.7%.
- Second GM: 8 + 7 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 5 = 36/60 = 60%.
Here we have a situation in which a GM who is at least OK at everything, and a little better than that at a couple of them, is compared with a GM who is a genius at one thing, excellent at another, and OK at a third – but who is poor or worse at the rest. And, if for some reason, the GM’s strengths aren’t relevant to a particular day’s play, look what happens:
- First GM: 10 (not counted), 9 + 6 + 4 + 3 + 1 = 23/50 = 46%.
- Second GM: 8 (not counted), 7 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 5 = 30/50 = 60%.
The second GM’s game is consistently better than that of the First GM, in the eyes of the players who are supposedly doing the rating, and only when the first GM can exploit his natural genius can he even come close to the second, more mediocre GM.
Why should that be so?
If someone isn’t good at something, they tend to avoid it. It doesn’t take long for this to constrain the variety of options available in response to any given situation. It also begins to erode the palette of available adventures. Greater predictability and weakened versatility begin to wear away at the verisimilitude of the game – when NPCs don’t react in the most natural way to a situation because the GM is inadequate at refereeing that type of reaction, plausibility, immersion, and characterization all take a hit, no matter how good the GM may naturally be at them.
At the same time, the GM has the choice of either playing to his strengths every single time, further reducing variety of adventures and available responses to situations, or foregoing their greatest asset. Either way, it should be clear that any weakness – real or imagined – is far more important than any strengths that a GM might have.
A weakness in GMing abilities undermines any areas of superior capability that a GM might have.
Of course, if the first GM figures out that he is weak in one or two areas and expends extra effort into them, and into getting better at them, he will soon leave the second in his wake. Not only will all those direct negatives go away, so will all the indirect negatives mentioned in the previous section.
All they have to do is get themselves up to a “mediocre” standard:
- First GM: 10 + 9 + 7 + 5 + 5 + 5 = 41/60 = 68.3%. Noticeably better than the 60% of GM two.
- Excluding best: 9 + 7 + 5 + 5 + 5 = 31/50 = 62%. Still better than the 60% of GM two and MASSIVELY better than the 46% GM one scored the first time around.
The GM no longer needs to use what he is good at as a crutch, but can save it for those occasions when it really elevates his game.
In The Long Term
It might seem that these differences are too small to make much difference. But let’s see what happens when they have an affect, game after game. Let’s assume that a result of 55% is needed for a campaign to grow:
- 100 x (56.7%/55%)^1 = 103.1% approval
- 100 x (56.7%/55%)^2 = 106.3% approval
- 100 x (56.7%/55%)^3 = 109.6% approval
- 100 x (56.7%/55%)^10 = 135.6% approval.
- 100 x (60%/55%)^1 = 109.1% approval
- 100 x (60%/55%)^2 = 119.0% approval
- 100 x (60%/55%)^3 = 129.8% approval
- 100 x (60%/55%)^10 = 238.7% approval.
But those numbers assume that a GM can play to his strengths all the time. If they can’t:
- 100 x (46%/55%)^1 = 83.6% approval
- 100 x (46%/55%)^2 = 69.95% approval
- 100 x (46%/55%)^3 = 58.5% approval
- 100 x (46%/55%)^10 = 16.75% approval.
- 100 x (60%/55%)^1 = 109.1% approval
- 100 x (60%/55%)^2 = 119.0% approval
- 100 x (60%/55%)^3 = 129.8% approval
- 100 x (60%/55%)^10 = 238.7% approval.
One campaign is clearly going to be hemorrhaging players to the other. Using his strengths every game session or two will slow the rot but 56.7% is too close to the break-even mark of 55 to make up for the 46%.
So the fatal flaw in GMing ability can kill games even from GMs who are brilliant in as many areas as they are deficient.
The Opposing Brilliance
Sometimes, it comes down to the smallest of mistakes, especially when the two sides are equal or close to it. Let’s consider a situation in which one GM scores an 8 most of the time in two categories, but every third game, scores a solid 10 out of 10, while his opposition scores a nine in two of three games, but only a 6 in the third – using the same out-of-60 scale and 55% success mark. We’ll assume that the other scores are all 6/10.
- 8 + 8 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 40 out of 60 = 66.7% – most of the time.
- 10 + 10 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 44 out of 60 = 73.33% one time in three.
- so his three-game streak is 100 x (66.7/55) x (66.7/55) x (73.33/55) = 196.09%
- 9 + 9 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 42 out of 60 = 70% – most of the time.
- 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 36 out of 60 = 60%, one time in three.
- so his three game streak is 100 x (70/55) x (70/55) x (60/55) = 176.7%
These results show that there is more to the story. I mentioned previously that if the GM with the weakness applied himself to eradicating that fatal flaw, his games would skyrocket in popularity relative to the consistently a-little-above-average GM, and this is clearly evidencing that pattern. Yet, on his day, it doesn’t matter what GM Two can do, GM One will outperform him – he can’t touch that 73.33% top score.
Yet, it only takes one more bad session for GM One to be overtaken by a consistently above-average GM Two. Any time GM One is off his game, and GM Two is at his usual standard, GM Two will run the more satisfying game for his players.
Sometimes, you win because you are brilliant in one area and your opponent simply can’t make up the difference.
When I’m looking at Iron Chef, this is the equivalent of rating each individual dish provided by each contestant. Being consistently good can overcome a combination of one perfect dish and a couple that under-perform in the eyes of the tasters – but is not enough if the others are at least comparable.
Sometimes, a game will not succeed because everyone wants to play something else – no matter how consistently reasonably good your game is.
If another game is consistently reasonable and occasionally brilliant, your best means of countering the effect is to be just a little better than reasonable and be consistent at it. Playing the long game and improving yourself just a little in areas where you’re already OK works. The gaming equivalent is to go in for a niche that suits a couple of players who don’t like what the star attraction is offering, and get better at delivering what they want.
This is the equivalent of focusing on your “core business”, and getting it right, in order to fend off the competition from a rival who occasionally does things better than you can. And, if necessary, shifting the “core business” to target an area that he can’t compete in, because he has this diverse group of interests to try and satisfy.
Here’s a real-world gaming equivalent: For a long time (and in theory, still), my Fumanor campaign is stacked up against Ian M’s 7th Sea campaign. For various reasons, my players were either not interested in the latter game, or there was no room for them. Over time, many of my players have drifted away, for various reasons; but the two core players are still there. I’m not interested in trying to steal Ian’s players; my game can survive just fine without doing so, just by satisfying those players who aren’t part of his game, in other words, by targeting a different market segment. There’s room for both of us, so long as I don’t try to compete directly with him.
From the point of view of number of players, Ian’s game is the winner of a comparison between the two. But that’s not the only way to measure success. By choosing a different measure, my game survives.
Something that I have seen a number of times on Iron Chef is that a Wonderful recipe is undone by being too similar to other dishes served by the same chef. Blandness, in other words, can contaminate brilliance.
Games need variety.
That can be more easily said than done, because you still have to satisfy your players; if they only want a limited range of things, variety can get in the way of satisfying them, game in and game out.
This is actually some of the oldest gaming advice in the book, dressed in new clothes; if your players are action junkies, you can do anything you like so long as there is an adequate serving of action in the plot. The action can be in the service of political intrigue, or going shopping, or discovering the secret of the ruined temple, or finding the lost starship, or preventing the mutant uprising, or dealing with the star-crossed love interest; but the action has to be there, either resulting from the variety or altering the outcome of the variety plotline.
If you have one or two elements in your game that have to be central in order to satisfy your players, you still need to cloak them in variety, and that means looking for ways in which each variant plotline can lead to the core elements your players demand, looking for ways in which the two can co-exist at the same time, and looking for ways in which the core elements can be given context by the variation in plotline.
There is no excuse for focusing so much on the core “deliverables” that they become bland. There are reasons why it might happen, but they are hardly justifiable. Laziness. Failure of imagination. Habit.
Overcome these by starting all your adventure ideas from the point of view of variety and looking for ways to incorporate the requisite core elements, rather than the other way around.
A Bigger Picture
The final pattern that I have observed is that mediocre dishes that are arranged in such a way that they tell an overall “story” can defeat dishes that are excellent in isolation but which don’t connect to each other. Even when dishes stand in isolation, having a narrative flow is possible, simply by having some elements contrast while others provide a form of continuity. Spiciness, Sweetness, Saltness, Texture, and so on, can all be manipulated to create this overarching narrative within food.
This is relevant to gaming in two ways.
Bigger-Picture Content within an adventure
Contemplate this scenario: The PCs do something, and nothing appears to change as a result. The game keeps following the script laid out for it by the GM without diverging to any perceptible extent – perceptible by the players, that is. No matter how much may have changed behind the scenes, or how much the PCs opposition may have had to scramble to keep their plans on-track.
This has certainly happened to me in the past, and it really irks when you get accused of railroad plotting as a result, because you know darned well that it ain’t so; you’ve just been better at thinking on your feet than you have been given credit for.
Why does this happen?
There are two cause-and-effect continuities going on in any adventure – maybe more – and not just the obvious one of Characters act and opponents react.
The second one that I have in mind is “Characters act and opponents are seen to react.”
If the Players do something to counter whatever the situation is that the GM has orchestrated, there needs to be a tangible response by their opposition before the end of that day’s play. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the opposition has to abandon its’ plans; it may not even have to break stride. But there should be some evidence of:
- A pre-planned contingency plan being put into operation, even if the GM had to come up with it on the spot to keep the main plan on course; or,
- Some indication of a scramble to react on the other side, exposing potential flaws in the situation that the PCs can possibly exploit; or,
- Some definite and clear set-back in the progress of the other side’s plans, however temporary; or,
- The exposure of some fatal flaw in the opposition’s plans as a result of the PCs’ intervention.
How well thought-out the enemy’s plans should be is a function of their capabilities and is neither here nor there. Even a vexed message from the opposition complaining that the PCs (or their actions) have proven no small inconvenience can be enough. But there needs to be some visible reaction from the other side.
Perhaps a hidden asset has had to be revealed to the PCs in order to counter their move. Or a team of flunkies sent to deal with their impertinence (and keep them busy) while the big boss undoes the damage.
Best of all – and circumstances don’t often permit this – there will be no visible reaction from the other side until the climax of the day’s play, when it becomes clear that as a result of whatever the opposition have done to keep their plot rolling along apparently undisturbed, a fatal flaw in the plan has been opened up by the PCs actions – a flaw that they can begin to exploit in the next game session, and possibly one that the opposition is not even aware of.
I used to think – and this was a mistake that I made for a long time, and which is even embedded within some advice here at Campaign Mastery, I suspect – that it was sufficient for the NPCs to have to react to the PCs counter-actions. In other words, I was dealing only with the primary cause-and-effect layer. It’s only been quite recently that I have realized that my life as a GM would have been much easier if I paid closer attention – heck, any attention – to the second cause-and-effect layer as well.
PC actions not only have to affect in-game actions by NPCs, they have to be Seen to affect in-game actions by NPCs.
Bigger-Picture Content bridging adventures
This is probably the most obvious way in which the patterns of Victories on Iron Chef can be perceived as an analogy for something RPG-related. This was actually the observation that kicked off the entire train of thought encapsulated in this article. The chef in question arranged his courses so that each item had something in common with the item before it and something else in common with the item after it, but which contrasted with both surrounding offerings in other ways. The result was a series of strongly individual dishes that were individually not quite as highly praised as the best his rival was offering, but which were woven together to tell a more complete story, to make a more complete experience.
That’s a powerful formula, and one that GMs can definitely learn from. Have some point of similarity in terms of style or content, beyond the obvious, that connects this adventure to the one before it, and a second thing that connects this to the adventure that is to follow – and make other such elements quite different.
Follow something that’s grim and gritty with something a little more light-hearted, at least in places. Follow an uber-powerful enemy’s latest move with something more everyday and pedestrian, or something more socially aware, or something more uplifting. The contrast accentuates both adventures, while the point of connection keeps everything part of the same overall game universe.
This is emotional intensity control, as advocated in my two-part article “Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs” (Part 1, Part 2) on a campaign scale. It’s the sort of thing that I was trying to suggest back in Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow.
The “connecting threads” that I talked about at that time were
- Emotional Intensity
- Level of Action
- “Cosmic” content
- “Fantasy” content
- Mood/Tone (Dark to Light>
And these days, I would add
- Character Focus, and
- Sense Of Resolution.
The first five are described in detail back in the original article, but are largely self-evident in meaning, so I won’t go into them again.
“Character Focus” ensures that if a plotline is all about one character having the spotlight, that the spotlight shifts with the next adventure to either one of the other characters or to the group as a whole – refer to “Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign?” for more information.
And “Sense of Resolution” is something that has been coming to my attention lately as a result of the players in the Zenith-3 campaign pre-empting what was supposed to be a quick introductory adventure intended to populate the world and make the players aware of various characters and situations and running it to a conclusion of sorts, as described in Monday’s Let’s Twist Again – Eleven Types Of Plot Twist for RPGs part 2.
You see, I’m still not sure that I did the right thing in letting the PCs go beyond that initial intent when they wanted to. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough for a way to end the plotline before they got involved in the later adventure – for example, deciding that it would take time for them to track down the Cosmic Symbiote that was the MacGuffin they decided to go after. If I had done that, then I could have left the intended recipient, Thanos-Prime, as a menace lurking in the background – no overt threat, not figuring in any significant adventures hence (not for a long time, anyway), a dark and shadowy part of the wallpaper.
Instead, he is a threat neutralized and a potential future ally. I’ll be able to shuffle him to the sidelines for now – it will take time for him to “connect” with the Cosmic Symbiote he is about to receive – so I can keep him from contaminating future plotlines. But there is a sense of momentum that was building up with the introduction of many threats that has been dissipated by the premature resolution of the plotline. The PCs have achieved victory too soon, and for a while I’m going to have to shift gears to rebuild the intensity that I had been building up, or future plotlines won’t have the gravitas and drama needed to make them interesting instead of anticlimactic.
What’s done is done; the PCs have made some hard moral choices, prevented an interdimensional Nazi invasion by super-powered cybernetically-“enhanced” meta-humans, and sparked a revolution that will restore freedom to a planet of oppressed citizens, dealt with problems they were not supposed to be ready to face yet (which is one reason why it took so much angst for them to make those hard choices – the adventure itself, viewed in isolation, was a success). More importantly, from a campaign perspective, they have established a precedent and a policy; it will be easier for them to “go there” next time a similar problem arises, making it much easier to resolve some problems they have yet to encounter. Things that should have been difficult will be easier to contemplate.
Foreshadowing has become resolution, and the campaign overall might suffer for a while as a result. The flow of the courses from one to the next has been disrupted, and it will take careful planning to get it back on track.
A little behind-the-scenes info because it provides a cautionary tale for other GMs is appropriate. There were certain plot problems that I had not devised a solution to in terms of the long-term plotline for Thanos-Prime. When the PCs proposed their solution, they did so in such a way that I immediately saw a solution to those problems, and in a burst of enthusiasm, let the PCs get the results that they needed in order to progress the plotline. That’s why I didn’t look harder for a stalling tactic at the time – I was too distracted by analyzing the solution and it’s implications, and got carried away by my own enthusiasm.
The effect was a short-term success, but one that will cause problems for the campaign for some time to come. In fact, it’s badly damaged some aspects of what I had planned for the future.
Victory Over Whom?
Ultimately, the person a GM scores a victory over when he gets things right are his own worst instincts and inherent flaws – we all have them, and the wise thing to do is always to seek to control or counteract them. We’re competing with ourselves to run the best, most interesting, most entertaining campaign that we can. In return, we get not only the vicarious thrill of sharing the player’s enjoyment of the game, but we also get all the fun of being creative and of being the instigator of that fun.
I think it’s telling that the initial passages of this analysis described one GM competing for players with another – because it was by forgetting the opposition and focusing on self-improvement, of competing against yourself, that victory was to be achieved. Learn from what the GM at the next table (or its internet equivalent) is doing right, and doing wrong, and use it to make your own game better than it was. Everything else will follow, and everyone wins in the end.
Games run by Good GMs fail, just as they do for everyone else. But, Good GMs learn from the experience, and come back stronger for the next round – and ultimately win the war against themselves. That’s a lesson we can all take from the patterns of victories on Iron Chef.