Life’s full of surprises. Some are pleasant; others challenge us, and may even seem overwhelming. Take me, for example: I’ve been living in the same rented unit for the last 20 years or so. Last week, I was sent a termination of lease by the landlord; the place needs serious renovations, and he had forewarned me that it was a possibility, but even so, it came as a nasty shock.
Where will I be moving to? I don’t know. I have medical complications that restrict my range of options, and Sydney is one of the most expensive places on the planet – rents here are higher than in New York or Los Angeles. Add to that other challenging personal circumstances, and the magnitude of the problem only grows.
And like any shockwave, the ripple effects spread. The ripples of this particular personal crisis have already spread to my friends and family and my co-author here at Campaign Mastery, Johnn, and my doctor, and so on, and will eventually impact on the people around them as well.
And now, the ripples have spread to affect you, our readers. For the next few weeks or months, I won’t have the time to devote to creating 4,000+ word articles for you each week (though I do have a few big ones that I’ve been preparing in advance). Instead, my posts will become smaller and more confined affairs. For a while following the move, I may be without internet access altogether – potentially for as much as 5 weeks. That will, in turn, mean that I have to compress more writing into the already-smaller window of time that I do have. I will have to, and have been, preparing posts for CM in advance – but even that might not be enough.
In seeking ways to address that uncertainty, one idea I had was to invite those of our regular readers who also have blogs to do a guest post. They would be able to write on any relevant subject, and would also get the opportunity to plug their own regular blog, and hopefully we could grow both at the same time. If that’s going to be necessary – and it’s a distinct possibility – I’ll make a further announcement here, inviting our readers to participate, and spelling out some clearer guidelines. I’ll also contact people who fit the profile directly. In the meantime, if that sounds like something that would scratch your back as well as ours, feel free to add a comment to this post to make sure you’re on my contact list!
The Status Quo for Characters
My personal situation, in the meantime, has gotten me thinking about the Status Quo for the PCs in the games that I run – like, the fact that there is one. While some of that is due to the circumstances that the PCs have been able to arrange, some of it is due to the GM (me) trying to achieve verisimilitude and going too far, and some of it is simply due to lazyness and the trap of convenience.
The trap of verisimilitude
Usually, when we as GMs alter the Status Quo, we make a big deal of it. We may end the entire campaign and start fresh with new characters in the same game world. The reason for this is, generally, that we want to avoid “soap opera” – events should have a logical cause, related to the plotline of the campaign, and not be capricious exercises of the GMs power over the circumstances of the PCs.
I am usually an ardent proponant of increased plausibility in gaming, seeking out any avenues available to me for increasing the ability of the players to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the game. For the first time, I’m wondering if it’s possible to persue “realism in gaming” to such an extent that it becomes un-realistic, and whether or not that’s a good thing.
Sure, some elements are just annoying, or are easily resolved. A character gets a hangnail or an ingrown toenail? So what! Thar’s not adventure, it’s boring. But there’s a broad gulf between ignoring the petty annoyances that characters would endure because it’s not heroic, and taking all the minor difficulties out of their lives except when they relate directly to the plot.
Have you never lost something and spent hours searching for it? Have you never had an unexpected bill arrive, or a bill that is much larger than you expected? Have you never had your status quo disturbed because of some temporary work requirement, like having to relieve someone in another branch? Or encountered a meal that was improperly prepared and gave you indigestion, or simply couldn’t get to sleep for some reason and tossed and turned for hours? Burnt or scalded yourself in a minor household accident? Or had someone with whom you associate, like your doctor, move away or go on holidays, to be replaced by a stranger? Never pulled a muscle, or had a piece of furniture break?
The controlled release of some of these minor troubles and their like would be far more realistic than their absence. They might not be heroic – but they can create a climate of adversity that adds to the heroism of more serious matters.
The trap of lazyness
One of the other major causes of a Status Quo emerging in a campaign is lazyness. This comes in three forms: first, upsetting the applecart can be a lot of work, so we tend to avoid it; second, we all tend to fall in love with our own creations, and cling to them until we’ve squeezed all the life (and story potential) out of them before we’re willing to make a radical change; and third, we get comfortable in the status quo because it enables us to focus on preparing the more adventurous parts of the action.
None of these are good enough reasons. How many times has Homer Simpson been fired – or simply taken a second job instead of going in to work? Upsetting the status quo doesn’t have to mean reinventing the world, or discarding a beloved NPC with lots of story potential; it doesn’t even have to be a permanent change.
The trap of stability
Inevitably, as we game for year after year, we grow older, and it’s normal for people as they grow older to begin to favour security in their lives over other attributes. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to mistake stability and certainty for security; and we end up in a rut.
And sometimes, the desire for stability is reflected in the games that we play and the campaigns that we GM. When I look back, I can still remember the casual “anything is possible, anything goes, anything might happen” energy that my first campaigns had – and I can’t help contrasting that with the more restrained games that I am now running.
I may be a better GM now than I was – I have decades more experience and education – but that doesn’t mean that my campaigns are actually better now than the old ones in every way – they aren’t. More substantial, more intellectually interesting, even more creative in some respects – but not better. The carefree laissez faire has been muted by responsibility and logic and experience, and almost suppressed entirely.
Other forms of Status Quo
A status quo can also come to exist in other areas, like rules interpretation. Again, we don’t tend to change these on a whim – but how often do we take the time, years after a precedent was established, to review our rules interpretation and see if there is a better way? The answer is usually “never” – or at least, not until the interpretation stops working or is challenged.
Even the gaming group itself can get into a rut – the same players, maybe even all always playing the same type of characters. Introducing a new player, or forcing players to make new choices, can be stressful – but (if the change is not permanently being forced on the players) it can also be a holiday.
Take Stock Of Your Game
So the next time you sit down to game, take a moment to look at what you are doing and what parts of the activity have become a regimented status quo, and why.
Examine the characters, the game world, the campaign overall, the players, and the rules, and even your own habits as a GM. Then ask yourself whether or not it would be worthwhile to upset that status quo, just a little. And watch the ripples spead.