Status: after several revisions, I think this is fairly accurate.
In an earlier version of an earlier post, I complained about Dungeon World’s writing, and stated some of my GMing goals, thus:
As with the art, the writing is sanitised, soft-edged, politically correct. It’s like the authors are very nice people who don’t want to offend or upset anyone, and so are watching their every step. I am not like that — I am not so nice, not so left-wing, not so keen that everyone has a good time.
As a writer and GM, my goal is to piss in your mind. I’m not here to make you happy — I’m here to fuck with your neurology in a way that might stimulate new impressions. I don’t aim to be nice — I aim to be raw, vital, and unique. I aim to fire up, not to sooth; to generate, not to heal.
I think the way that I expressed that has been an obstacle to understanding. Part of the problem was that I wasn’t clear; part was that I blurred two things that I fact approach very differently. I’ve now revised the previous post so that it’s clearer, but I think it will also be useful to explain in more detail what I mean.
I find most rpg books very dull, especially setting books. When I put my finite energy into reading, I want to be fucking stimulated. So invite you to piss in my mind 1 — I will open up my brain-doors so you can bring your messed-up subconcious in 2. I want to see your deep world model, intimations, and drives, all enacted on the printed page. I want to see you Jungian nightmares there; I want to see their horrid organs.
If I don’t feel that I could turn the page and be shocked, offended or horrified, then I’m probably bored and may stop reading soon.
When I’m writing, I aim for a strong authorial voice, with very definite views. I see little value in the reader being unclear how I instinctively value something. See these authors that I particularly like:
- Luke Crane in Burning Wheel
- Vincent Baker in Apocalypse World
- Ron Edwards in Sorcerer & Sword
My earlier text was an exagerration — I do care whether players are having a good time. But that is not the only consideration, and I am not obsessed by that. I have other considerations that I put on similar footing.
Put another way — I aim not to hurt you, especially if I already know you’re emotionally vulnerable in some way. But I don’t guarantee you won’t be uncomfortable, annoyed or offended.
For context, I run almost exclusively in open-table or short-term-group games with people I already know in some sense. So I don’t:
- Run con games, or similar public events where strangers can just walk up
- Run for a steady game group of just the right size, where we try to keep everyone happy and engaged all the time. I really don’t like the weird social dynamics this gives rise to.
One benefit of the above is that I can be take-it-or-leave-it — you can drop into Immergleich once, decide you don’t like it, and never play again 3. Socially, that’s not a problem. It’s barely a blip.
I do try to warn people what they’re getting into, although it could be more explicit. Roughly, players can expect that there will be:
- Gore, often quite graphic
- Body horror, unpredictably weird
- Strong sexual reference
- Sexual promiscuity and libertinism (though actual sex is generally offscreen, and never explicit)
- Recreational drug use
There are certain things I do not warn about, as socially I am not required to do so. For example, homosexuality is common in Immergleich, but I wouldn’t put that in a content warning — anyone who’s disturbed or offended by that is already a pariah in my social circles.
One reason I’m uncompromising is that when I GM, I make myself vulnerable. My games are largely improvised and involve bizarre, often grotesque fantasies. That’s what I like. There are weird images that people talk about months later. I can’t reliably do that while running many content filters — it would kill the energy. And if you really don’t like the images I pull from my deep brain, then quite likely you don’t like me. It’s probably better that we spend less time together.
I do manage to maintain certain content rules:
- I gender balance NPCs, both by raw numbers and by power level.
- There is no sexual violence, even implied 4
- I don’t use crude real-world racial stereotypes for game-world ethnicities 5
… but beyond that, I don’t run many filters. I save the mental attention for seeing the images in my head, so I can engage the players with them.
Returning to the top level structure of this post — I think it’s fair to say that I GM with a respect for player’s desires that I don’t want from the authors I read.
One last illustration. On reddit, someone said:
… Apocalypse World often suffers from the opposite problem, so considering it might help to soften your disapproval. Many people like the game itself, but hate that it’s apparently written by that one friend everyone has who talks about inappropriate topics in polite company.
My first thought in response was “I don’t run games in, or for, polite company.”
1. Metaphorically. If you do so for real I will go fucking apeshit.
2. I see everybody’s subconscious as pretty damn messed up, at least compared to the outward personas we present. One mental image I use is the creature from The Thing (amorphous, violent, fecund) inside a fragile mannikin-shell. The creature is the real person, the shell is the persona we present to the world in order be acceptable and predictable.
3. So far, most people have come back more than once.
4. If you could look over my game notes, and the (non-existent) recordings of play so far, I think you’d get the impression that it somehow doesn’t exist in the setting.
5. Although to be fair, this is basically free — I never learned to act those stereotypes well.