Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rusty Battle Axe Presents : Game Mastering In Second Position

Years ago I was taking guitar lessons with this amazing guitar instructor when this little life-changing episode happens:
We are playing the blues, with me taking the lead,  and he says, “Now switch to second position.” I stopped playing. I had no idea what he was talking about. And I had no idea that this would be the most pivotal moment in my guitar-playing life.
I had become very adept at playing the minor pentatonic scale—throwing in double stops, ghost notes, bends, etc. etc.—but all in the first position. I didn’t know there was a second position. Or a third. Or a fourth. Or a fifth.  And so he taught me these four new positions—same scale, different starting points, and told me to play those and NOT the first position. Not playing the first position was like losing my ability to speak and to express myself. I fumbled around on the guitar like I had been handed it for the first time. It was frustrating, aggravating, heart-breaking. I wanted to quit. And yet, after a few weeks, I found that I learned new ways to express myself and my playing made several huge leaps. But the initial move from first position to second position was like learning to play guitar all over again, frustrating and disorientating.
I had a similar experience as Game Master this past Monday. To be sure, it was not nearly as dramatic as frustrating as the guitar experience. Our Monday session was, in fact, a fair amount of fun. But I was definitely out of my comfort zone. First position game mastering for me is that approach to play that has come be called “sandbox.” I had never even used a module (not one) until two years ago…all I had was a big made up world with made up people, places and things.
So now I am GMing for Dwayne, Rob and Tim and I decided to try something very different for myself—to not only use modules—but a complete adventuring arc. We are using “Splinters of Faith” from Frog God Games. It’s good stuff, but very different stuff than I am used to. Second, nay, third position stuff for me.
I am probably more casual about my gaming than many who prowl the blogosphere. Gaming is less an obsession and more of an escape, one of the few activities when I completely lose myself and my cares and simply have fun. But I found it difficult to lose myself with a different approach to GMing, knowing that if the players miss the Thing A and Thing B and Thing C in Module 1, there is no point in even opening Module 2. And I am already losing sleep about them getting to Module 3. Trying to find ways to help the players achieve clarity while avoiding blatant and constant railroading is going to be an interesting—and new—challenge for me as GM. Despite the bit of anxiety, I am pumped about the challenge and even more so about the payoff that might come from gaming from a different angle. I don't try to be the best RPG player, GM, etc...I just play to relax, but I am thinking that once I get used to this, GMing in "second position" will be just as much fun and I'll be the better player for it.


  1. Hey Rusty. Great to see your guest blog post. Hope to see more from you.

  2. Hi Rusty. To continue the analogy, if sandbox is your position one and story-arc your position two, then position three is where you combine the two. By which I mean having a sandbox with multiple, sometimes interchangable story arcs.

    I love it when my players finally realise that the line of investigation they've been chasing for the last few months relates to an entirely different major plot alotogether. Then watch them panic as they try to work out which plot they should treat as a priority.

    "Crap, do we save Rusty's wife from the plague or chase down this guy that just assassinated the Kings heir?"

    "Stuff that, I still think that demonic cult we bumped into back in Citadel is running the whole show. We should stop him before it's too late."

    Total DM bliss.