I want to talk about this comment on my last post:
"I like the elements you mention the players needing to earn in D&D - plot, personality, differentiation, cinematicness, meaning, destiny, and players having Narrative Control - to exist right from the start in my games so I as the GM feel like I'm playing with the players and not at them. I like the idea that the New School approach is often more collaborative."
So, leaving aside
Leaving. Aside. (got it?)...
Leaving. Aside. (got it?)...
...the question of whether any of this is true, and whether players want narrative control (Mandy just DMed her first game last night and I can tell you I was ecstatic not to have to be the DM) or meaning or personality or destiny or what-all, I want to simply talk about the concept of "collaborative creativity".
Case One (The Bad Kind of Collaborative Creativity)
Those of us who write books and draw pictures for a living have an association with the phrase "collaborative creativity" that maybe other people don't. That is: you write something or draw something, and then some Creative Director insists on bringing in 99 other people to give "input" and Jim shoots Fred down and Fred shoots Jack down and Tom shoots Dick down and the project suddenly becomes not the sum of its parts, but the lowest common denominator--the thing every creative head at the table can agree on. Or you're supposed to be in a big happy communal group art show and you come together and bitch at each other for 5 days and, at the last minute, grab a hammer and a paint roller, do what you can, and when people look at it and notice that, all together, it pretty much looks worse than anything any one participant could've done alone, you just shrug and sigh and smile like Fozzie Bear.
This is how sitcoms get written. This is how Hollywood movies with 9 screenwriting credits get written. This is how shitty murals get painted. This is how every single crappy mass-produced thing with any element of "design" in it--from cars to tv commercials to websites--gets produced. We hate this. We think we are good enough to make things, and we like what we make, or try to, and the process of hybridizing our ideas is essentially just chopping away things we like and other people don't. Or: making it less unique.
A brief look at the history of painting or writing will show you that too many cooks does seem to spoil the recipe. How many masterpieces in these fields have more than one author? Some, sure, maybe even the Oddyssey and the Iliad, but not most by a long shot. People posting their favorite exceptions in the comments will be mocked for being so eager to display their education that they've missed the point.
I don't think this is really how games--old or new school--get played. I only mention this example because it points up something that I often think when RPGs are presented as "essentially just collaborative storytelling" (not to say that Barking Alien is doing that, just that sometimes people say that). I think: If that were all there was to it, I wouldn't play the game. I got enough collaborative storytelling in art school and I'm pleased to be out of it. And if I wasn't, I'd call up some of my pals and we collaboratively create a goddamn story rather than order pizza and pretend to be gnomes.
Case Two (The Good Kind of Collaborative Creativity)
There are creative fields where collaborative creativity has a fantastic track record--especially in the last 100 years--and they're easy to talk about because they're very familiar to everybody: music and movies.
There's a very clear illustration of why this works in a documentary someone did about Metallica recording a terrible album called "Some Kind of Monster".
Before we go on, let's reiterate what all goodhearted people are born knowing: once upon a time, Metallica rocked, and now, sadly, they do not.
Anyway, the documentary shows us, in excruciating detail, why. Each member used to just come in with something, they'd throw lyrics on top, Lars would drum under it, and there was a song. They'd play it and change bits until it was right. Now, instead, they democratically focus group it--every lyric, solo, and riff goes up for a vote. Sucking occurs.
Bands and movies work (when they work) because it isn't just everybody being creative all over everyone else, they work because everybody has a domain and, within it, they have control, and then they unite in the center and shoot the robot-lion-heads and kill Robeasts. Hold on, mixed the metaphor, sorry, it's early--example is better:
-So you have the lead singer, the lead singer in a band is like the lead actor in a movie (I know you want to say the lead singer is like the director, but bear with me). Without a good lead singer, any band with a singer will suck. Without good acting (or at least interesting acting) in the lead role, a movie will suck. Neither good singing nor good acting guarantees good, but a lack of it guarantees bad.
The GM is the lead singer/actor. Not because s/he's the star, but because if s/he is bad the game will suck. Now, note I don't mean technically bad: Mandy last night was by far the worst DM, technically, that I've ever seen or heard of, largely due to it's her first time--but she was creative, conscientious, charismatic, and fair and so we all had a blast. (Seriously, I was doing all the thing I hate when players do like going "OhmygodOhmygodDowegetexperience now? How much?" So fun. Play report soon.) If a DM isn't those things, the people they're playing with, the players, even if they like each other and the game and are having fun, will realize they're having less fun than they could without the GM GMing.
A very important note about the singer (I was the singer in most bands I was in): the singer/lead actor/GM often asks for things from the other people in the band/on the set/at the table and gets them. The singer goes "Can we do this sort of like....?" and the rest of the guys go "Yeah, sure". This can easily delude the singer or actor or GM into thinking they are the true creative engine at the table. They are not. The others are not agreeing because they have no ideas of their own, they are agreeing because they are so busy doing their own job (the point of which is often obscure and arcane to the lead) that they are happy to let someone else make whatever decision this is that the lead thinks is so important. While Mick was saying "Hey, can we do a song inspired by The Master and Margarita where you guys just go 'Woo-woo' over and over?" Charlie Watts said "Sure, Mick, whatever you want." and went back to trying to get the high-hat to sound right. Likewise, I'm sure all you DMs have the experience of going "Well I have a sort of wilderness thing with Howardian overtones and also a sort of more political/swashbuckling adventure with a hint of Ashton Smith..." and your players just go "Whatever you want, man! Let's go!" and go back to figuring out whether they want their guy to have a halberd or a bec-de-corbin.
What happens when the Lead forgets that s/he's not the only one at the table with brains and thinks they can do it all themselves? Sting's solo career. Bridges of Madison County. That is to say: atrocities.
-The guitarist is the director and is also the player with the strongest personality.The guitarist is characterized by four characteristics:
-the guitarist is convinced that s/he's the one who's really in charge,
-the guitarist has poor communications skills,
-the guitarist is happy to let the Lead think they're in charge since communicating with other people is so exhausting.
-the guitarist has the goofiest ideas in the world.
The guitarist makes things rock. Without the guitarist, nobody is dueling with the lead, nobody is making sparks fly, nobody is ensuring that the conflicts created by the lead have any resonance for anyone else. When the DM goes to great lengths to establish the intimidating and fearsome Major NPCness of Duke of Horribilia, the guitarist is the player who slaps the Duke with a glove and calls him a coward and goes "Alright, we're taking this prick out.".
Without someone like that, the Singer really would be better off just writing their own story. The game or the film or the band is a unique art form because the lead is not left alone with his or her ideas, but has them challenged in an interesting way. The failure of the DMs vision to be just one thing is why a story produced alone and the exact same story produced by playing a game are completely different experiences in all important ways.
-The drummer is a lot of people on a movie set, and is the one at the game table who just wants to playyyyy. The drummer is the unconditionally enthusiastic one. Animal in the Electric Mayhem. In movies, the drummer is the producer or art director or director of photography or whatever anonymous person that the other guys thank during the Oscar ceremony because "We couldn't have done it without you." The drummer is unconcerned with the philosophical pretensions of the guitarist and lead singer but therefore rarely has those "artistic" moments where actually making it all happen seems just too complicated to bother. Let's play let's play, let's do it, let's go! I wanna kill owlbears! Come on you guys, get it together,get in the van, let's go!
Mayyyyybe the game would be fun without the drummer, but you'd probably never play it. In a game, the drummer is extremely happy to do whatever it is "playing the game" is supposed to do. Somebody needs to guard the door? No problem, guys, I'll guard the door!
The drummer is the most convinced that the whole endeavor is in itself worth it--they know playing a game is fun, being in a band is fun, making a movie is fun. Because the drummer has initiative and remembers the whole point is the fun, the drummer sets the pace. The drummer likes fun, and if its not fun, the drummer speeds things up. Everybody's interest can come and go, but when the drummer's interest fades, the project is dead.
-Ahh, the bass player. The bass player is the screenwriter is the player in the corner who boils away with dreams s/he dare not speak aloud. The bass player is sensitive and observant but lacks confidence. The bass player is the one who keeps saying "No, really, I really do like playing" because it's hard to tell. Like the screenwriter, the bass player is full of ideas, but doesn't necessarily want to throw them out there with their name on them. Especially with the singer and the guitarist prowling around growling at each other.
The bass player always shows up, though, and is reliable, and is invested and is paying attention. And the bass player is capable of surprising everyone because people forget the bass player is even there. And when there's a problem, the bass player generally knows exactly why because s/he can see stuff everybody else is too wrapped up in their own thing to be able to see.
Once in a while a bass player will get total control of a band (or become DM)(or direct a movie after years of screenwriting) and you get a kind of full-bore confident genre-defining creativity that singers and guitarists are too busy "experimenting" to put together and that only someone who's sat around thinking "Why am I even playing this game?" for years on end could've come up with. Motorhead, Late Floyd, Bootsy, etc.
Which is all a very roundabout way of saying that "collaborative creativity" doesn't necessarily mean the Lead singer or DM going "Hey you guys, what should we do today? Gimme input!" and then singing a quartet. It can mean letting people be creative in the way that they want to be creative, (or, more often, rotate around) and having the way a game is put together support that.
Just because everyone doesn't have the same job producing the game does not mean they aren't all being "collaboratively creative". And I don't think it's a coincidence that the two media--film and music--that have figured out how to give the creative people involved different jobs rather than giving them all the same job have managed to consistently produce good collaborative work, and the ones where nobody's sure which person in a collaboration is supposed to do what--art and writing--have not.
Only a DM would be dumb enough to think that just because the DM gets to make the kind of decisions DMs like making that the DM is in "control" of the game.