I had this frankly rather bizarre revelation the other night. I think I've mentioned on here before that the last couple of games I've run just haven't been fun. I couldn't figure out why, and it was bugging me, because I used to love running games and lately it's just been an exercise in frustration. I still haven't, really, but I have a pretty damn good suspicion, once I realized --
I'd stopped building my games around interesting NPCs and what they were up to.
The Traveller game? NPCs were all stock figures. Made up on the spot, didn't have much in the way of motivation. I thought that was how "sandbox" worked, for some reason. The players moved around too much for them to get interesting, anyway. The LotFP game was all dungeon crawl. There were a handful of NPCs but they were a side note, not driving the action. That wasn't where my design was coming from. Is This Foul? was all about PC interaction and scheming, which was great, but it meant there was almost nothing happening on my side of the screen.
This is weird. Back in the day, my games pretty much all started out with, "Okay, here's this dude and he's trying to..." and then somehow the players would get tangled up in whatever it was. Or not, but there was always something going on in the background like that. Basically what I did between games -- what kept my interest -- was explore various character issues and figuring out how they were going to change their plans in response to whatever dumb thing the players had done this time. A lot of the work I did between games never came up in game, and didn't need to. Figuring out how the long-lost prince felt about his brother who was probably never going to get involved with the game didn't make a difference one way or another to the PCs quest to get that prince to the ancient sacred volcano (long story), but it gave me something to do in between sessions, and it kept me tuned in to what was going on in the campaign.
One of the things I've come up against lately is that I do not think in dungeons. If I don't specifically sit down and think, "What this game needs is a good location-based adventure," I won't build them. Trollsmyth builds them naturally out of his campaign's situations. Somehow, sooner or later, a social or political problem will lead to a dungeon crawl because that's what he reaches for to solve particular kinds of problems. I don't. They're not in my blood. That's not how I was raised, as a gamer.
What I do think in is relationships. There's a lot of stuff that I struggle with coming up with, either on the fly or in prep. I can do it, and do it well, but it's exhausting. New monsters, interesting treasure, weird things for the critters to be doing, just events in general -- it takes time, it takes mental effort. Even personalities, histories, secrets, motivations can be difficult. But relationships -- ah, that's another thing entirely.
You put me on the spot, and I can tell you:
Five minutes, easy, and I've got myself a whole adventure.This wizard guild is run by a guy who loves evocations. He's straightforward, not particularly principled but he doesn't lie or manipulate. At least, not for business reasons -- He's got two lovers in the guild and they each know about each other but pretend not to, because both of them have other lovers as well -- one is in the guild, the other is a member of the town guard so she's really in the closet about it because all the other wizards would make fun of her for dating someone so mundane. He's in charge because most of the guild likes him; the guild hasn't exactly prospered under his leadership, but he's affable, and leads with a fairly light touch and lets them get on with their work.There's a significant minority who don't respect him, feel he isn't as skilled and subtle a magician as their leader should be, and that he hasn't done enough to advance their power in the world. They're led by a somewhat humorless man who's well-respected for his power within the guild by disliked and distrusted outside of it; the boyfriend of the leader's first lover is also a significant player in that faction, and he's probably more dangerous. He's not likely to lead any coup given his own precarious personal situation, but he's also much friendlier and personable than the leader of the faction, and not much worse of a wizard; he's likely to end up the de facto leader of the guild if it's significantly destabilized for some reason.
What I'm coming around to that this means that there are certain kinds of games that I basically can't run. Episodic? Out. Mission-based? Out. Picaresque? Sadly, out. Likewise, I can't run anything that's entirely player driven, even when I've got great players and they'd love that kind of thing. I probably can't run a megadungeon for any great length of time, at least not without doing some unusual things inside it and around it. I almost certainly can't run a true West Marches style game, and I might not be able to run that general sort of large, irregular player base game.
If I'm right, anyway. And I hope I'm right. I'd much rather think that there are certain kinds of games that I'm always going to have trouble with than that there's just some mysterious something that's keeping me from being able to enjoy running games anymore. I can run a pretty kick-ass game with a few good NPC schemes to play with. Or at least, I used to be able to.