Game Construction


I have previously presented the possibility of using roleplaying as an avenue for personal growth for the player. Now I would like to shift the attention to roleplaying as personal growth for the GM, addressing three different dimensions of the GMing experience: world creation as self improvement, running the game as a self improvement experience, and leading your players into using the game for self improvement.

I have already presented the possibility of using roleplaying as an avenue for personal growth for the player. Now I would like to shift the attention to roleplaying as personal growth for the GM. I will address three different dimensions of the GMing experience, world creation as a self improvement, running the game as a self improvement experience, and leading your players into using the game for self improvement.

As a GM, I have created a whole cloth campaign. This experience has been self improvement for me in several ways. First, from a spiritual perspective, I have explored my own ideas about theology, divinity, and god(s) in order to present a world that reflected my views. I have done this because I am trying to construct a world that will generate moral, religious, and existential conflicts of interest to me. This is not to say I have created a cosmology that is as "Catholic" as I am. I'm not using the game to proselytize. My pantheons are just as diverse as traditional D&D campaigns, one of the primary differences though is the gods in my worlds are not manifest very often. This reflects my personal view that divinity does not often interfere with the course of human events. The religions of my world are altered and created by individuals, prophets, avatars, sages, or movements just like those in our world. If you belong to a pagan religion you might place an emphasis on doctrines of "do no harm" or on the religious devotees' personal ability to work with natural energies in casting spells. I have intentionally made the distinction between clerical magic and arcane magic ambiguous in my worlds to add sense of mystery. To create a world that reflected my views, it was important to reflect upon my views; this in itself can be edifying.

Call it a voyeuristic benefit of being a GM. You make the maze and put the rats in...

What if you aren't interested in making such an exploration into your own views, or at least aren't interested in making a world to reflect them? You might alternately construct your world to steer the characters in your campaign towards questions you are interested in exploring. For example, in a gaming group I am in, the GM is very interested in pressure and change. How much will this character / player stand before he breaks or changes? In a previous article, I mentioned my character in this game was cursed by a god and had an arduous time relieving the curse. Another character was cursed by the same god at the same time but he choose to commit suicide by incautious action in battle rather than work to resolve the curse. The GM has admitted to me that what exactly makes one person continue and another fold is a primary theme of the game and of great interest to him. What his personal motives are I can't say, but it is clear he is using the game to learn more about human nature. I presume he is trying to learn something out about himself too. Call it a voyeuristic benefit of being a GM. You make the maze and put the rats... oh, I mean players, in and let them go. But like any good scientist you need to know what your question is before you start the experiment.

Other possible themes to explore through the construction of the game are things like: What kind of conflicts attract me as the GM? Do I want to see my players triumph against seemingly impossible odds? Do I want them to save the world? Do I want underdog characters or supreme heroes? The answers to the questions become the substance for reflection. Do I want underdog characters because I feel like an underdog? If so, how is this reflected in the rest of my life? Do I triumph against odds? What would it be like if I approached life like a supreme hero instead? If I only want supreme heroes, is that because I am afraid of being vulnerable or weak? If so, how does that play out in my life?

Like character creation, you can construct a world to draw out of your players actions that stretch your boundaries. If you are wanting to become a more moral person, give your players some moral challenges and see how they surmount them. Learn by watching them play out, in character, the themes you are trying to incorporate into your life. Once you begin reflecting upon the game the possibilities for growth are as rich and endless as every interaction in the rest of your life.

I hope readers can see goals in the game would necessarily lead to detailed world and adventure creation. Without complex and three dimensional plots it would be impossible to get the game to delve into such rich material. As a GM I am very concerned with the nature of free will, and with the boundaries between good and evil, where the difference between the two is blurry. In my whole cloth campaign I have created a world without manifest gods to ensure a similar degree of free will as in our own world. I am also very concerned with moral dilemmas that only become apparent as our American culture collides with other less heterogeneous cultures. So, I have created a world where my characters start in a pluralistic, legally and economically advanced but small culture. Their culture is bordered in the north by a religiously fundamentalist evangelical society modeled after ancient Sparta. They are bordered in the south by a culture that is permissive, tribal, and hedonistic. These border cultures contend with one another and for me this ends up generating character encounters that mirror in some ways both modern American collisions with some other cultures, and at once is a geographic mirror of the balance in our psyche between the superego (restrictive, fundamentalist, ascetic, self denying) and the id (impulses, drives, pleasure and death instincts). So, my players necessarily generate characters who will reflect some of the tensions I have set up in the game and am interested in observing as they play out. But they only do this because I have created a world with these themes in mind.


I won't write long about the use of NPCs as a medium for GMs to explore their personal growth. In essence NPC creation and play has the same dimension as PCs have with a few important differences. It is these differences I will address in this article.

... the moralist, athlete, aesthete, brain, competitor, underdog, hornball, psychotic.

For example, the GM, unlike most players, plays several NPCs each session. I have seen many GMs who have the same voice, demeanor and attitude for all NPCs. To create a significantly broad range of NPCs, and to facilitate making them tools for continued self exploration, sit down and describe as many different types of person you are. You have one personality with your family, another at work, another with this group of friends, and another personality when you are by yourself. In addition, you have different personalities for different moods, for different times in your life, or different cultural surroundings. Spend some time to write out descriptions of your personalities in these different contexts. Get each one as detailed as you can. Even as few as six is enough to have pool to generate a rich world of NPCs. Some of mine for example are the moralist, the athlete, the aesthete, the brain, the competitor, the underdog, the hornball, and the psychotic. Now with these eight clearly in mind I can make a new and yet rich NPC by combining any two of these personality tendencies into one person. The moralist athlete has incredible sportsmanship, loves the game, knows all the rules, and is generally an upstanding person. The moralist aesthete, finds beauty in society and civilization, he might be a lawyer with a love for well written law that covers all contingencies. The moralist brain is a scrupulous note taker and bean counter. Everything for him is black and white and he knows which side any possible action is on. If he doesn't he is sure if he can sit and think it through long enough, he will come to the right (and there is a right) conclusion. You get the idea.

Okay, sounds alright as an idea for good GMing but what does it have to do with self improvement? If you are still reading my articles you probably actually have some interest in the answer. All the while, you are switching among all these NPCs in the game, just like you do in the rest of your life, though probably switching at a faster pace in the game than normal. Now ask yourself these questions. If these are all the yous in different contexts, who is switching? Who are "you" that observes, documents, even plays so liberally with whole personalities? The answer to these questions is that it is what we mean by "I". It is the core of you, the dispassionate observer. First, you will notice though you thought you were, you are not these people, these personalities you play in life and in the game. They are clothes we put on and often we are so caught up in the role we forget we chose it in the first place. This is a liberating discovery. In itself, this discovery may enable you to have greater choice about how you will respond to life's circumstances. For example, I have often gotten frustrated my father-in-law. I find him to be a boisterous blowhard who thinks he knows everything. But during his last visit I was able to enjoy his presence much more. Instead of putting on "stubborn asshole" personality, I put on "trickster prankster" personality. I laughed more during his visit than I ever have before and we were able to get along because I made fun of the world around him, not of him directly. I felt much better, and my wife and I weren't ready to kill each other by the time he left.

In this instance, my work on trying to observe my personalities, helped me to see it wasn't my father in-law who made me feel anything. I was choosing to respond to his low level of social skill with frustration and anger which only threw him into more survival coping skill "annoying" actions. Once "I" could observe I was responding in a particular way, I could also choose to respond in a different way. So, being aware that, I am not my response, enabled me to have a different response.

Eventually this practice will acquaint you with something else. You will come to rest more and more often in the unknowable "I" throughout your daily life. When situations are going on around you that once evoked the panic-mode personality, you will simply be able to observe them with your deep inner knowing. This will not happen quickly, but using the practice of the game will help you gain faculty in resting in this place. From here, nothing your players throw at you will surprise you, or addle you. You will always be ready to respond to their actions and you will be able to weave the story together much more artfully than you could before.

You've posed several interesting questions that all GMs should ask of themselves, even some that a veteran GM might not remember. It's important to set a sort of theme for one's self when creating a game, or the essence of the game will get lost in the details and the players will lose interest as the focus of the GM wanes.

Personally, I do not usually have the player base that would allow me to explore such ethical questions; my players are often in it "just for fun" and have told me that I expect too much of a game when I want to create such scenarios. They're good players and they are interested in real role-playing at least some of the time, but too lofty or cosmological a discussion will leave them chomping at the bit to smash in some heads.

BUT, I do like the thought of working that particular energy out through my use of NPCs. Certainly, it is easier to get a variance of opinion when the persons engaged in the argument are not simply different masks on my face, but if my players aren't up for it, I can at least have some philosophy going behind the scenes.

Intriguing as always, thinkanalogous.

Nice article.

I don't know to what extent I've used GM'ing to improve my relations...but I do know that I've done it as a release of sorts. If I'm having a bad day...I tend to play-up the goofy dumb NPC to help blow off steam. And, more often than not, I tend to have a better day at work the next day. So, in a indirect way, I suppose you could say that I use GM'ing for self improvement.

I also use NPC's to explore different facets of my personality...and, I try to make each one as different from the others as I can. Different voice...demeanor...purpose -- they are typically more than just cannon fodder and sources of info.

My ability to change from one NPC to another when I'm the GM has more to do with my mental capacity at that point -- if I'm running a game and I'm out of steam, the NPC's tend to stay quiet. Of course, I've got a lot of theories on how NPC's should be handled...which will probably end up being the topic of a future article.

I also use NPC's to explore different facets of my personality...and, I try to make each one as different from the others as I can. Different voice...demeanor...purpose -- they are typically more than just cannon fodder and sources of info.
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