When players treat my world as real, it magnifies my creative payoffs

As I noted in a previous blog post, I think I enjoy GMing most when I think of it as running a simulation in my head that the players interact with.

There are lots of ways I can get a payoff from that. Running the model, seeing the fantasy world work, can feel very good. In running it I create it — most of the images I see come out of my unconscious, stirred from the depths by the game events. They’re as new to me as the are to the players. In this respect, it’s like a film or video game, except that it feels volitional — I am both audience and creator.

But why do I need players for that? Why don’t I just daydream, or write fiction?

  • Playing rpgs is a social activity. It gives you human connection through shared endeavour.
  • Players can stimulate my creation by providing the unexpected in their actions.
  • The players can express appreciation of my creativity, or of the quality of my imagined world. Often this is implicit — if they seem to enjoy the game, it suggests my world is good.

So far, so ordinary — that’s all widely talked about. But there’s one more thing I think is going on:

  • I think when the players treat my imaginary world as real, by acting as if it is in some sense real, in some sense consequential, they trigger some feature in my mind that marks my imaginary world as slightly more real. I.e. when players treat act as if it is real and consequential they make it seem less imaginary, less arbitrary, more permanent. And that makes it subjectively more important to me — it increases the magnitude of any properties that it has. Its good qualities — its interestingness, its excitement, its beauty — all become more so.

That phenomenon isn’t so ordinary. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone talk about this. At least, if they did I wasn’t listening.

Some examples of “acting as if it’s real”:

  • Players are excited when close to victory, sad when an NPC dies, angry that one NPC hurt another for fun.
  • Players talk about the game as if there are world dynamics underlying what they’ve directly seen — they talk about how the sorcerer’s winter will wreck trade, or how the Bird Queen’s advancing armies are likely to threaten towns where they have NPC friends. I.e. they talk about the world as if it exists when they’re not looking.
  • Players worry about in-game events e.g. about whether the Sahaugin spoor they keep finding is sign of a dangerous mass migration.

To be clear — when I say “real”, I don’t mean “realistic”. I don’t mean “is consistent in detail with the details of our world” or “has verisimilitude with respect to our common-sense expectations”. By “real” I mean “consequential, something that matters, something that is important to engage with, something that has its own independent reality, something that has its own internal dynamics that advance regardless of the whether the players are looking, something not infinitely malleable on a whim”. I think there is some relationship between “real” and “realistic”, but they are not the same thing.

Put another way — by “act as real”, I mean “act as if it matters”.

It is possible that there’s a better word I could use in place of “real”. But I don’t know one. And “real”, for me, feels right — it evokes the same kind of emotions that this experience does.


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