Mother May I (part II)

Hey, all, 🙂

What’s In A Session

I was talking to a friend, the other day, trying to understand what it is that he likes in RPGs, and he described the following situation:

“We were all trying to figure out how it was that we were going to off this high-powered sorceress. Taking her on directly was way above our means, so we needed to come up with an alternative plan. I decided to bank on her being a regular biological being and we booby-trapped her bathroom and waited. It could have failed in so many ways. We might have been caught. She might not have needed bathrooms at all. (We didn’t know if she wasn’t an undead being.) Or she might have noticed the booby-traps. As it was, it worked and we blew her to kingdom come. As a further point of coolness, these NPCs some times leave a specific type of loot, which one of the players needed. We got to console the player as the GM described said loot mixed in with the debris, destroyed and worthless.”

I’m listening to him, and I’m thinking two things:

  1. This story is Way Cool ™ and I wish I had been there
  2. I probably would have hated it

So, for these past few days, I’ve been trying to ask myself why it was that I’ve grown to hate the sort of RPG sessions that he described. Then, last Sunday, it hit me: these guys have been playing a giant, unending game of Mother May I:

  1. The GM was the one who decided the Sorcerer used bathrooms
  2. The GM was the one who decided not to get them caught booby-trapping one
  3. The GM was the one who decided the explosion would kill her
  4. The GM was even the one who decided to add that shredded piece of loot, which was optional to begin with, just for the sake of poking at one of the players
  5. Let’s not forget that the GM was the one who decided there was a Sorceress to begin with

But then, if the GM is the only one deciding the actually important stuff, what’s everyone else doing at the table?

One Player And Five Crayons

They’re there to add color.

Yep, that’s it. If you’ve been playing games without stakes negotiation, aggressive scene framing, shared narration rights, explicit conflict resolution, or some other sort of non-standard, non-mainstream rules (at least a few of these, but not necessarily all of them), all you’ve been doing is adding color. You’re a crayon. Now, that doesn’t feel so hot, does it?

And indeed, perhaps if you’re one of these players, you might feel a little bit (or a lot) insulted by me saying this. Don’t. I don’t want to change the way you play games. I don’t even want to change the way you think about games. I want to change the way you think about the way you play games.

There are several types of reactions I get when I tell this to people:

  1. You’re right. So what? It’s what I like.
  2. No, you’re wrong. We have a lot of freedom to decide, in our games. Our GM is really cool.
  3. What the hell are you talking about? Tell me more.
  4. I know. That’s why I don’t play those games any more.

If you’re in camp n. 3, that’s awesome! You can keep reading, but what follows is not for you. In a few posts, I’ll get to what you can do to learn more. Similarly, if you’re in camp n. 4, all this is old news to you.

If you’re in camp n. 1, that’s great. Really. That too is awesome. You have at your disposal a set of tools and techniques that makes for awesome RPG sessions, from illusionism to immersion to other quaint stuff. Plus, it’s easy! It’s real easy and familiar to show up at a game, figure out the setting and stuff, make up a character and dive in. You don’t really have to do anything but provide color, and come on, everyone can do that, right?

But here’s the thing. You’d better make damn sure that you are completely and unabashedly in camp n. 1, all the time, every time. Because the moment you put one little toe of one little foot over in camp n. 2, you’ve crossed over into what is commonly called The Nile. (From: Denial – It ain’t just a river In Egypt.)

And if you happen to be in camp n. 2, well, then, I got news for you, buddy. You’re wrong. Yep. You’re just plain ol’ wrong. It may look like you’re right. It may feel like you’re deciding stuff. But, all the content that provides context for any decision you might want to make is provided by the GM; and the content that derives from your decisions, which is the consequences, or in other words, the real meaning behind those decisions, that’s all GM-land too.

Content and Meaning

As it is, it may be that you enjoy RPG sessions where the content and the meaning comes from the GM and you’re there to explore what he puts in front of you. (Which, again, is a good way to play, so don’t get all defensive on me.) Along the same lines, as GM, you may prefer the type of game where you get to hunt for lots of cool stuff, organize it, throw it at the players, see what they come up with, and try to manage the whole thing into a nice satisfying game session. That’s cool.

Let’s say it’s not, though. Let’s say you want to input a little more into the game, or let’s say, as GM, you really, truly want to give your players freedom of action. What can you do?

Well, I don’t want to give it all away in one sitting, plus I’ve been writing for a long time already. I’ll leave that for my next post. 🙂


21 Responses to “Mother May I (part II)”

  1. Killing sorceresses in bathrooms lending itself to Way Cool ™ stories? Man, this time I believe you’ve gone boikers, eheh. 🙂

    Since we share the same influences in RPG thought, it goes without saying that, as usual, I’m with you. However, I wonder if the players providing just color isn’t a slight exageration. In this case, for instance, they decided where the next scene would happen (bathroom) and the agenda (getting inside unseen, planting booby-trap, escaping unseen, booby-trap going off)… that doesn’t change the fact that none of it would ever happen if Mother (the GM) hadn’t given her blessing, but still… color seems too weak a word for this. It’s not PTA’s power-to-the-player scene framing, but it’s still something that players ocasionally get to do in most of these games.

    Well, kKeep on rocking, brother!

  2. Rui Anselmo says:

    Hey João!

    Not trying to add fire or to stir some discussion, but I think you forgot about option #5, which is: I know, but I don’t care, which is for people that are coming out of option #3 with a sense of “Ah, so that’s what it’s all about, eh? I’ll pass.” 😉

    I think you’ll probably find more than one person that fits into #5. 😉

  3. Elora says:

    Vais ter que continuar a traduzir por mim, porque não me apetece preocupar com a ortografia.
    Eu não gosto quando o GM joga sozinho. Mas gosto quando o Gm vai fazendo a história e englobando nela as minhas decisões. Eu não quero inventar a história, quero vivê-la. Quero decidir as minhas acções, não as consequências dessas acções. Se isto faz de mim um lápis de cera, posso ser o azul?

  4. joao-mendes says:

    Hey, 🙂

    Ricardo: No, the players didn’t decide that the next scene would be in a bathroom, they decided to look for one. That’s a huge difference. As for what you call an agenda, you merely described what the players wanted to do. That’s not scene framing, any more than a player saying “I attack the orc” is scene framing, at least not on the part of the players. Nice try, though. 🙂

    Rui: Your option #5 is exactly the same as my camp n. 1. Also, people in camp n. 3 are the ones that recognize that there’s a problem, but have no idea how to solve it. Your suggestion that there’s people that used to be there, then decided to explore a bunch of options with a genuinely open mind, then switched back to camp n. 1, is virtually impossible. More likely, those people were actually in camp n. 2 and they concealed their defensiveness with pretense of interest.

    Elora says she likes it when the GM builds up the story and incorporates her decisions into it. She says she doesn’t want to make up story, she wants to live it. She wants to decide her actions, not their consequences. Also, as a crayon, she wants to be blue. 🙂
    Elora: I’ve watched you enjoy Shadow of Yesterday much more than you’ve ever seemd to enjoy L5R, and let us not forget that, as a player you simply shined with PtA. Both of these are games where you get to input meaning, although through different mechanisms. So, you are either not being honest with yourself here, or underestimating your play at the table.

    Everyone: what I’ve written is hard to swallow, I realize that. It was a shock to me too, when I realized it. Try it anyway. If you’re in camp n. 2, GET OUT NOW! Choose n. 1 or n. 3, as quickly as you can possibly can. It’ll make your sessions better almost immediately. 🙂


  5. Rui Anselmo says:

    Hey João!

    I’ve shown your text to two different gaming groups, and got the same response: I’ve got no willingness to discuss this. To what I say: to each his own, I guess.

    I’m coming to terms with the all “war” concept here, but approaching it from the angle of the “I won’t touch that with a 10 inch pole” approach, which kind of bugs me, as I really thought people would be willing to discuss their hobby.

    On a different subject, my girlfriend today came to me asking for a game that gave more creative power to the player, even after she refused to discuss rpg theory. Weird, yes, but should come as good news.

    And on to my previews point:

    I don’t think my option #5 is exactly as your option #1, because your’s implies recognition of said games and a willingness to keep playing them, while mine goes the other way around, recognizing them and leaving them alone, and there’s a huge difference there.

    I’m talking from my own example here: I had no idea what was being discussed (option #3), then I got interested (probably option #1), and right now I’m reaching a point where I don’t care if those games exist or not (as in option #5), as long as I have fun playing what I’m playing, be a traditional game or a non-traditional, a commercial or an indie, a forgite or a non-forgite. My main goal now is to have fun, and I don’t care where my fix comes from, or what I have to do to get it.

    Hopefully I’ve been able to get my poit across. 😉

  6. joao-mendes says:

    Hey, Rui, 🙂

    No surprises. The people with no willingness to discuss it, camp n. 2, all the way. Defensiveness on account of either not recognizing my credibility to talk about this stuff, or not recognizing that they’re not having any fun at what they consider to be their favorite hobby. Either way, their loss, or as you say, to each his own.

    No surprise on your girlfriend’s part, either. Yes, very good news, and no, not weird at all. Theory is not for everybody. For some people, talking theory is like going to see David Copperfield or Luis de Matos and someone next to you explains how they’re doing it, which is so not the point and just kills all the dazzle.

    As for your #5, I understood you, but still, no deal. I don’t care if you “don’t care what other people do and what other people think”. Every time you play a session of a traditional RPG, this is what you’re doing. Every time. If you recognize that, and you still have fun with it, that’s n. 1, even if you also play non-traditional and also have fun.

    If you’d like to discuss this point further, in a more familiar language, and with a wider audience, feel free to open up a topic on abreojogo. Or, we can continue here, if you prefer. 🙂


  7. Rui Anselmo says:

    No need, I’ve understood where your going to. 🙂

    I hadn’t realised option #1 covered so much ground. 😀

  8. eddie says:

    Hello, João. Sorry to comment on such an old post. John Kim discussed it on his LiveJournal here and I wanted to add my thoughts.

    I have to agree with Ricardo. In the example game you described, the players may not be setting stakes, framing scenes, or narrating consequences, but that doesn’t mean that either 1) there’s only one player and five crayons, or 2) they’re playing mother-may-I. In the typical game where the players play their characters and the GM controls everything else, the players are still playing their characters – and that is an important and significant creative contribution. Not only does it define the protagonists and their personalities (which you might say is merely color – I would disagree), but it also directly affects the course of the storyline (which is certainly not color).

    Imagine a game of mother-may-I that went like this:

    João: Mother, May I?

    Eddie: Yes you may.

    João: How many steps?

    Eddie: Five baby steps.

    João: No.

    Eddie: No?

    João: I’d rather take three big steps. And I want to take them sideways, not towards you.

    All RPGs are consensual. All players and the GM have to agree to everything that happens or there’s no game. Even in the most traditional game the players have just as much control over the game as the GM, even if most players don’t see it that way. The GM can’t control the actions of the characters because the social contract is very clear on this point: the players get to decide what their characters *do*. The GM only gets to decide what *happens*. If the GM wants something to happen that requires that the characters *do* something in particular, but the players don’t want their characters to do that, the GM is instantly powerless. He can have a cauldron of boiling oil fall on their heads if they don’t do what he wants them to, but the game is unlikely to last much longer if it comes to that. The game can only progress if the GM and the players (*all* of them) reach a consensus about what the characters do *and* what happens.

    I think you are discounting the importance of “merely” controlling what your character does instead of what happens. For a great many people, that is enough, and is neither simply holding a crayon nor simply asking the GM’s permission for everything.

  9. joao-mendes says:

    Hi, Eddie, 🙂

    First off, appologies on holding up your comment for moderation. The blog is set up to hold up posts that contain URLs and I’ve had a weird couple of weeks and didn’t notice. I’m back, now, though, and all is well. 🙂

    Also, it may be more fruitful if I address your comments over on John Kim’s blog than here, but I might as well take a stab at them here too.

    You mention some stuff at the social contract level, whereby the GM is limited in what he does by his perceptions of his fellow gamers’ enjoyment of the game. Yes, I’ll grant you that that exists. However, for most people playing Mother May I, that sort of stuff falls under the purview of “GM skill”, rather than gaming style.

    You also say I discount the importance of controlling what the character does. I do, somewhat. Like you said, for some people, that is enough. I do think I recognize that.

    However, what I do not recognize is that people playing in this manner have any sort of degree of control over the course of the storyline. In these games, the GM controls everything. If, as you say, the GM wants something to happen that requires that the characters “do” something, and the players choose not to have their characters “do” that something, the GM can still bring in some other NPCs to “do” that something. The players have no such recourse. If they want something to happen, they have to “ask” the GM for that something to happen, and the only way they can “ask”, their only language elements, so to speak, is the actions of their characters.

    I do think, however, that you’re the one who is discounting the importance I give to color. Let me say this in no uncertain terms: without color, there is no roleplaying. So, when I say that the players are “only” there to provide color, that “only” is quite essential.

    In the example game I gave, of course the players’ contribution was significant. Vital, even. But when push came to shove, the GM decided everything. Every. Single. Thing. Yes, he took the actions of the PCs as a data point. The most significant data point of all, even. But it was still just a data point.

    It’s important to note, however, that that, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. In my opinion, there are only two bad things:
    1) If you play like this but don’t know it and are convinced that you’re not
    2) If you play like this but don’t like it, and don’t know how to change things

    As long as you’re in neither of those two categories, you’re cool by me! 🙂


  10. Arref says:

    Hey, I posted on the John Kim site where you included more info.

    copied Here:
    I’d like to touch a point that I feel is missed so far.

    It may feel like you’re deciding stuff. But, all the content that provides context for any decision you might want to make is provided by the GM; and the content that derives from your decisions, which is the consequences, or in other words, the real meaning behind those decisions, that’s all GM-land too.

    The above seems to describe a traditional relationship between GM and Players except when we get to the term “real meaning”.

    In my experience, the ‘GM context’ is genre (or what everyone agreed to play in the first place). So the GM is the tool of the Players’ initial genre choice. Do GM choices provide context to PC decisions? Certainly. Does this negate “real meaning”? Only by semantical trickery. It’s “real” to the Players who chose the genre. It’s also real to the PCs who experience the setting/world/color/genre.

    The consequences to the PC decisions is GM feedback. Does this negate “real meaning” for the PCs? Not in any immersive sense.

    Does it negate “real meaning” for the Players? Well, here’s a thought for you: Where is the “real meaning” for Players? Is it the consequences or is it the decision? I would feel in my play that “real meaning” is the decision and not the GM consequences.

    What did I choose, easy or hard? Life or death? Did I stay in character or did I take a ‘meta stance’ that benefited the play group? Was I too tired to be clever? Did I have a brilliant response that my character inspired in me? Did I take GM context, twist it through genre and deliver a surprise to the group/setting/world?

    Did I change the game?

    ‘Mother, May I’ provides minimal analogous structure to what I see happen in rpgs.

    While a GM can try to negate my choices by delivering consequences that do not ever match my Player expectations, I think the truth is that this is a bad GM, or a GM that is “telling a story” with me as a prop.

    And that doesn’t fit my definition of rpg.

  11. joao-mendes says:

    Hi, Arref, 🙂

    First, an aside: GM context isn’t genre, it’s situation. Other than that, I follow what you’re saying.

    The gist of Mother May I, however, is recognizing tha, as a player, when you take action with a character, usually, there’s some sort of purpose in your mind behind that action. However, the link between that purpose in your mind and the actual consequences in the game world is tenuous at best, non-existant at worst.

    Yes, a “good” GM will get it right more often than a “bad” GM. Still, he has to decide whether to allow those consequences to come into being. In other words, he really is deciding everything that happens, other than the specific actions of the PCs, which, in the absence of any input regarding consequences, is really just color. “Good” or “bad”, he really has no choice but to make these decisions. If he didn’t, nothing would ever happen in the game. (Exceptions 1 & 2 notwithstanding.)

    It may not fit your definition of an RPG, but it’s what happens at many a table, nonetheless.


  12. Arref says:

    Let me cast your answer here in another light:

    When Players/GM pick a genre, they have purpose in mind, yet the consequence and result is hardly ever what they expect. That doesn’t destroy the “real meaning.”

    When GMs describe setting and opportunity, they have half or fully-formed purpose in mind, yet the consequence of PC decisions is often what they do not expect. That doesn’t destroy the “real meaning.”

    When the PCs/Players make decisions, they have some formed purpose in mind, yet the consequence is often most of what they expect with various flaws accounted to the Shared Imaginative Space or factors they do not know or the GM’s understanding of the setting (which is traditionally of a higher order than the Players.)

    That doesn’t destroy the “real meaning” of the decision.

    It has already been pointed out that in the Real World, we make decisions without fully expecting to understand every consequence of our action. We know that sometimes we will fail, or succeed beyond our expectations. Seldom does anyone suggest that the actual event is meaning while the decision that led to it is ‘color’.

    Certainly from an immersive stance, this is not tolerable. It’s broken.

    Or look at the Monarda Law of Nobilis. If the PC tries something, it works. Every time. The GM is not there to say “no” or subtract the “real meaning”. The GM is the instrument of the Players decisions.

    I still think your basic premise–that the GM is the only creative input with meaning–is only an example of the fact that you are tilting the entire rpg relationship to get that effect.

    If that happens at “many a table” it is because those particular GMs and Players do not fully understand the responsibilities they share for the game.

    I would hope that after 30 years of rpg, we could say that there were a minority of such tables, mostly due to inexperience.

  13. joao-mendes says:

    Ahey, 🙂

    Me like. You said some things here that made me think about this whole thing in a bit more detail. 🙂

    Let me begin by saying that picking a genre, or deciding which game to play, or even deciding whether to play, all that stuff is way beyond the scope of this discussion.

    That said, I like how you turn things around and place PC actions in the category of consequences to a GM-created purpose. Yes, the players deciding whether to have their characters engage the GM’s content also constitutes permission-based play, to some extent. One thing, though. It’s still the GM who decides what happens when the players don’t go there, and it’s still the GM’s job to generate the next piece of content for the players to engage or not. So, the GM is hardly limited by that. Still, it was an interesting point.

    The point that the GM’s understanding of the setting is of a higher order than that of the players is one facet of the problem I’m describing. For some people, that’s a good thing. For others, it isn’t. But mostly, it really doesn’t have to be that way.

    Also, I’m not familiar with Nobilis, but it is entirely possible that that particular law falls under one of the categories I list in part IV. If so, then Nobilis play shouldn’t really be considered Mother May I. It is also possible that it is yet another, unlisted way of getting out of Mother May I. It is also possible that it’s not. Just because whatever the PC does works, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the purpose behind what the PC does happens.

    Lastly, comparisons with Real Life don’t impress me, I conclude. Real Life is also largely an exercise in Mother May I, except that “Mother” is clearly of a higher order of existence than the “player”. “Mother” is the laws of physics, the inner workings of the human brain, and your deity of choice. When people sit at a role-playing table, one of them is emphatically not of a higher order of existence than all the others.

    Your final paragraphs lead me to conclude that you may be misinterpreting my usage of the word “meaning”, and that may well be my fault. I’d ask you to reread my original posts, only ignoring the word “meaning” and substituting the word “consequences” where ever it occurs.

    When I say “many a table”, I really do mean “most tables”, and most especially, “virtually all tables” where traditional RPGs are played.


  14. Arref says:

    Hello Again!

    If I do as you suggest, substitute ‘consequence’ for ‘meaning,’ then most of what you say is a given in traditional rpg play. The Players allow immersion in their characters by giving the responsibility for consequence to the GM. This creates the illusion of reality, suspense and drama.

    It does not create one Player and five crayons of color. As you pointed out, the GM is equally instrument of physics and setting than she is always god-like. (Setting aside the dreaded Railroad GM.)

    And I then have nothing to add.

    I also agree that the GMs understanding of setting being a higher order than the Players is merely convention and not required.

  15. joao-mendes says:

    Hey, Arref, 🙂

    It’s cool, you’re getting closer to my point. You may still not agree with it, but you are at least getting closer to it.

    “This creates the illusion of reality (for some), suspense and drama (for a subset of those some).”

    Yes. It also creates a game wherein the GM is responsible for deciding everything that happens. Every. Single. Thing. Nothing ever happens that the GM didn’t allow or even will into being. As such, the players are there to do nothing more than provide data points from which the GM can weave the in-game events.

    My point is that those data points are closer to being color than to being system, setting, situation or even character. (This presumes that you accept the division of role-playing into its five component elements, namely, system, setting, situation, character and color. If you don’t accept this division, then my usage of the word ‘color’ is meaningless for you and my crayon analogy is nothing less than silly.)

    For many people, that’s a cool thing; it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Others would prefer to have more input in their games, though, or are frustrated or unhappy with their games in some other way. Those are the people these posts were for.

    Now, what some people don’t realize is that color is a key component of role-playing. There can be no role-playing without color. At all. Thus, the crayons are an essential component of the game. The data points they provide are extremely important. So, what happens is that people protest at being “labelled as mere color”, when in reality, they should either agree that they don’t need to have more creative input into the game, or agree to look into other ways of providing input.

    Here’s hoping to have made more sense.


  16. Arref says:

    Hello again!

    I’d buy your “color is essential” notion much more if you hadn’t gone so far in your analogy to paint the crayons as “feeling bad”. Most of what you say below is slanted to make crayons feel lame.

    One Player And Five Crayons

    They’re there to add color.

    Yep, that’s it. If you’ve been playing games without stakes negotiation, aggressive scene framing, shared narration rights, explicit conflict resolution, or some other sort of non-standard, non-mainstream rules (at least a few of these, but not necessarily all of them), all you’ve been doing is adding color. You’re a crayon. Now, that doesn’t feel so hot, does it?

    Now if the analogy was:
    One box and five crayons

    I’d say you were being more fair.

  17. joao-mendes says:

    Hey, Arref, 🙂

    Duly noted and a fair point. 🙂

    I’m left wondering if you still disagree or now agree with my original posts and why.


  18. Arref says:

    Hi J

    I still disagree with your example and the five points you raise from the example. I agree that the scene sounds “pretty cool” and also understand your POV frustration with the ‘undetermined creativity’ of Players in such a mix. I don’t agree with that last bit. I think you’ve turned the telescope around and are looking through the wrong end.

    Try this idea:
    in play mechanics outside of the rpg system, GM and Players resolve issues based on what they believe to be reasonable.

    1. Sorcerers do use the bathroom
    2. booby-traps of everyday routines are effective strategy
    3. the guesswork involved in Players trying to kill an opponent almost always leads them to overkill methods, so explosion vs sorceror is not a difficult or unusual encounter to resolve
    4. what loot is shredded or not might be a percentage chance or it might be trivial, so this one really is hard to judge from the outside
    5. the Players and GM decided the genre, including sorceress

    What do I mean by outside the system? RPGs vary as to whether the system decides encounters, opposition, experience levels of npcs, etc. Most of the games I play—-the system insists the GM take on these tasks. In some games I’ve played, random chance determines some of these items. In other games, shared creative rights distribute these chores.

    I can’t get behind your idea that unless the chores are shared, the Players are merely color. It negates the social contract of putting the game together, and assumes that the GM is fiat powerful across the system, and assumes that nothing the Players add is better than ‘essential color’.

    Unlike, for example, the simple notion that a chart and a dice roll determines the next encounter. Is the chart color? Are the dice color?

    But your post makes for interesting controversy!

  19. Arref says:

    ps: I agree strongly with the idea that Players should understand their contribution before play starts!

  20. joao-mendes says:

    Hey, 🙂

    Well, sorcerers do use the bathroom unless either they are undead or they have practical needs for their bio-waste… ;>

    In any case, you are still making players escalate to the social contract level whenever either they want someting to happen or they dislike something that happened, which is kinda not where my original point was at.

    Nonetheless, your disagreement is kosher and your escalation is valid.

    I guess we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. 🙂

    This was cool. I’m gonna go mention this in John Kim’s site.


  21. Arref says:

    V cool to agree to disagree.

    I think the social contract is the umbrella that fills in for places that don’t have system. Every rpg out there that I’ve played has ‘holes in system’ (or makes certain assumptions about what is ‘trivially important’ and doesn’t require system resolution.)

    I’d like to play some where (as you suggest) the system allows players to cover items on the fly by creative rights.