I spent the weekend at Total Confusion 28 where, in addition to general merrymaking and running a Mutant Future duology called Out of the Fridge/Into the Freezer (I will post about that some day soon), I engaged in my third annual attempt to take the (regional) crown of Iron GM. For those not in the know (and too riveted to click the provided link) Iron GM is to tabletop role-playing games (primarily Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) what Iron Chef is to cooking: given a limited amount of time and a collection of disparate, secret-until-it’s-go-time ingredients, you are tasked with creating a convention scenario (you’ll note that the very idea of Iron GM breaks a lot of those rules) on the spot for real live gamers instead of a panel of professional judges.
The whole concept of Iron GM appeals to me. Much of my writing is performed similarly: when I feel the need to create but I can’t muster up any good ideas, I solicit my friends to throw random story elements (settings, protagonists, challenges and so on) at me and then I force myself to write with those elements, finishing a story of between 1000 and 2000 words in an hour or two. The result is always a little rough around the edges, but more often than not, I find that I usually really like at least the concept of the story, if not the particulars of the prose or pacing (two elements that I believe require real polish to get right). Iron GM scratches a similar itch for me, but with one spectacular addition: an audience. Sure, a flash fiction as previously described can garner some atta-boys and “Likes” from friends, but the people at the table in Iron GM are strangers by requirement — at least at the time of the game; some of those players turn out to be lifelong friends.
Gamermastering a tabletop role-playing game is one of the most rewarding, if ephemeral, creative undertakings I know. It comes in second to writing simply, I think, because the written word lives on after the act of creation and may even see a much larger than originally intended audience. It might even live forever (for varying definitions of “forever”; even Gilgamesh hasn’t been around forever, since we’re still going on). Bust, as stated, it beats writing on the “immediate gratification” metric, since it requires a group of people to appreciate it (these people happen to be co-authors in this undertaking, of course, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this post). Many game masters meticulously craft worlds, study rule books and prepare adventures before they actually sit down behind the screen and begin play. I have done that on occasion, but I have always preferred running by the seat of my pants. I prefer a relatively “light” rules set, one that is easy to bend to my will without getting bogged down in fiddly bits (which, of course, makes D&D 3.5 a terrible choice, thereby making it a brilliant choice for competition). That is not to say I don’t like rules. I think they are essential to provide a structure where the players feel like they have agency in the game and a way to measure how “fair” the game is. Having to look rules up in the middle of play brings everything grinding to a halt, so fewer rules with consistent implementation serve my purposes better.
This is in no small part due to a very important and, frankly, fun aspect of improvisational GMing: the players define the game as much as I. There’s an adage among game masters, paraphrased from improvisational theater: say, “Yes, but…” Players who have a toolset in their hands (i.e. the rules as they relate to their character) and a clear sense of agency (based on the choices you put before them, either implicit or explicit) enhance any game, especially an improvisational one since, well, I might not even know where I am going with this thing. Granted, this is slightly less true during the Iron GM competition, if only because there is a time limit and part of the grading is based on whether the adventure was completed to satisfaction. Two years in a row now, time has run out for me in the boss fight finale.
There is a dark side to the immediate gratification I get from improvisational creation, especially the flash writing that I described above. For me, the act of completion, of seeing a story through to its end, is the real joy. To have created such a thing fills me we a sense of accomplishment. But also as I stated above, the real work is in the polish, the cleaning up of the inevitable failures of such a speedy creation: inconsistencies of plot and character, clumsy prose, ideas only hinted at that need fleshing out, and so on. That stuff is hard and, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, I’ve already rolled over, smoked a cigarette and am ready to go to sleep. I have countless (I mean I have never counted them, out of fear of disappointing myself) first draft short stories desperately in need of revision that I have never gone back to simply because they are, emotionally for me anyway, “done.”