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Balancing Player and GM Genre Preferences is Hard

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I spent this morning before work doing laundry and reading through Gnome Stew’s latest publication, Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep (which is quite excellent thusfar, by the way–you can pick up the PDF right now if you’re willing to commit to a print copy as well). I got to the section on culling the bad ideas from the good by taking yourself, your players, and the game into consideration, when the author asked me to first identify my strengths and preferences as a GM, which really left me at a loss:

What the hell do I really want to run, anyway, and do I prefer role-play, combat, or skill challenges?

This used to be fairly straightforward: I want my “Houses” and I want it now. I role-played in an all-Blood Elf guild in World of Warcraft that centered on noble houses and their intrigues, I gushed over the romance, revenge, and tragedy I read about in John Wick’s Houses of the Blooded RPG (which seemed the natural tabletop extension of my WoW exploits), and pored over Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series centering in courtly intrigue, international politics, spies and sex (sound anything like the Drow of the Underdark, anyone?). But finding an outlet for these “urges,” shall we say, has been nigh impossible in my gaming group. And even then, two out of the three Blooded games I have run (the intro module at the back of the Houses book and a Tale of the Heike-inspired one shot using Blood & Honor rules) turned out poorly at the table. Maybe it’s for want of practice, but it sucks to fail at GMing the games you think you want to run.

So I end up running D&D 4e, Elder Scrolls for Savage Worlds, Deadlands: Reloaded, and most recently, Lady Blackbird. I still haven’t gotten to use the Pathfinder books I bought two months ago, and somewhat stalled on running Second Darkness for my group because, well, it was going to take too long to get to the Drow Houses part of the game. And it’s a damn long adventure path for a girl who’s going back to school in August.

Let’s see: genre-wise, that’s a heaping dollop of action-adventure fantasy, wild west pulp and horror, and steampunk-ish Brittanica. More like noblesse oubliée.

And as for session itself, I’m notorious for getting bored and distracted during my own combats, and have found it hard to really step into the shoes of my NPC’s. I guess what I like most is layering clues into the game and watching players figure out the secrets hidden beneath the surface, then manipulate those secrets for their own ends, or having them try to escape a nightmarish dream sequence or traverse a gaping chasm and cliff face. But “skill challenge extraordinaire” hardly seems impressive in light of lame fight sequences and limp characterization.

I guess I’m running into the player vs gm quandary I wrote about last year, in which my idea of a good game seems at odds with my gaming group’s, thus when I do run such a game it usually is bumpy at best because it’s not something I do often and relies on more than seat-of-your-pants improvisation to be good. It probably doesn’t help that I haven’t been able to be a player more than once in the last year. For all that I like having control over the campaigns and story arcs, it really does feel sucky that nobody else will step up to the plate because it’s “too hard, too creative, etc.”

I’m not sure what to do, given the popular demand for my steampunk game in spite of my complete unfamiliarity with the genre and the airship/pirate themes I am not particularly fond of. If I can work more mystery in there, I suppose I’ll be a happier camper, but mystery requires some serious prep. Which pretty much sums up why I couldn’t wait for the Never Unprepared book. I need a better system so I can run a better session, and not constantly resort to pre-made adventures for lack of time and/or a more interesting alternative.

We’ll see how that goes.

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