Playing and being played

The famous Dan Carver of the Beast and SpaceBass of Unfiction both commented on my last post about the need for puppetmasters to plan for and adapt to circumstance during your game. I of course agree, you should do as much planning as you can (within reason) but at the same time, no amount of planning can ever be enough to prepare for every contingency. Sooner or later, you have to throw the ball and hope somebody catches it.

This adaptive nature is precisely the thing a lot of people find so amazing about the genre, and one of the reasons I find it such a compelling medium, as a storyteller. In traditional storytelling (think around the campfire, here), you can read your audience and react to their response, changing your emphasis, your timing, and even the path of the story to suit the reaction you want to provoke. In immersive fiction, you can do one better -- you can visit the community of players and read what they have to tell each other on forums, or perhaps in a chat room, and if you are particularly clever you give them an in-game method to tell you directly. Suiting the story to the situation as it unfolds becomes its own game. This is the game the puppetmasters play.

I wonder, then, if this is the root of the profoundly adversarial relationship between the gamers and the puppetmasters; this perspective that the audience and the storyteller are on competing sides, both looking to "win." There's a precedent here in the often-tense interplay between the gamers and the gamemaster in a traditional paper RPG.

It's no secret that it's a combative relationship, though I personally feel it doesn't need to be. We've all seen it in action. When a tough puzzle is set, the players curse the PMs as they work through it; but so goes it if the puzzle is too hard, too easy, if the pace is too slow, too fast -- and with a diverse audience base with varying tastes and abilities, there simply is no such thing as just-right.

I'm not complaining, mind you. In any creative endeavor, there will be people who hate what you do. Your job as an artist is to accept that not everybody will like what you have to express. That's life. And being confronted with high expectations is perfectly natural. Indeed, with an audience as fiercely committed as you find in your average ARG, it's only fair to expect the PM team should be *at least* as committed to their craft. But it does give rise to some interesting implications; for example, if it's a game both sides are playing, then both sides should have rules.

It's been widely accepted that there are some basic rules players should follow in pursuit of an ARG. I'd say they go along the lines of: Don't break the law; don't harass the PMs or their families; try to follow the story the way it appears that it was meant to be played.

If the people running the game are also playing, though, they should probably have their own set of rules, too. I imagine it should go something like this: Don't require that your players do anything illegal; don't put anybody in harm's way; try to give the audience enough feedback that they can progress through the story. It bears noting that the player's side of that contract has been discussed as nauseum, but the PM end of the bargain hasn't been considered anywhere near as thoroughly.

I'm sure there's more to it, but like everything here, I'm just kind of working through some ideas with no real point. :) So... what other obligations do you have, as a puppetmaster? Providing a good time? Not calling at 3am? Making sure you have a pre-determined hint path for every puzzle you ever construct? All opinions welcome.