Over the last few weeks I've been struggling to articulate what I consider "functional campaign models" (recent posts: 1, 2, 3). That is: when your group sits down to play a game, how can the players and GM deliver the experience they want, without getting frustrated or incredibly burnt out. (sideline: While in many games the GM is indeed supposed to do a lot of work I consider GM burnout to be a symptom, rather than a feature. By this I'm not saying you can't get tired of being a GM. Anyway...). As it turns out, this is what I've been (intentionally or not) working towards all through my "theory" posts on this blog.
I think these campaign models can be (rather arbitrarily) summarized into several categories, containing descriptions of player and GM "jobs". If we want to achieve this, then what's the GM's job, what's the player's job? What's the way that leads there? The emphasis should be on the practical, functional, effective. Yes, you can get certain results a certain way, but if it's exhausting, I'm not counting it.
So the first question should be what kind of experience you want - this is (or should be, ideally) a group thing, a consensus. Building consensus can be painful, so in practice it's mostly glossed over. (That's for another day.)
I've talked about the "aim" of play before. Here's something I find myself repeating to the point of being annoying: roleplaying isn't a thing, but a medium (the way clay, paint or sound are a medium for an artist). We use roleplaying to achieve something beyond the activity of roleplaying as-such. If I just pretend to be an elf, I'm not achieving anything. The act of pretending to be an elf has to have a certain aim. These aims I find to be identified and categorized as: challenge, drama and mise en scene. All three of these have elements of a game, all three have elements of narrative, all three have elements of escapism, because such is the nature of roleplaying games. But in terms of what we do at the table, they are three distinct, discrete things.
Your techniques, what you're doing at the table, the rules you're using, how you're running the game, how you're playing the game, should be in concord with the group's aim. That what "system" is, the system of how we play in the sense of "whole compounded of several parts or members". If you understand system in the terms of (the entirety of) "how we play" including how the GM decides things, or how players run their characters, the principles that guide them, then you've understood "system matters".
When the aims of play aren't being met, this results in trudging through content to get to the "good bits". Like, if you go to see a movie for the action scenes and then there's just one 5 minute action scene, you're going to be perhaps content, but not satisfied for the other 85 minutes. The point of the whole "functional campaign models" idea is to maximize the time when the gamers are satisfied, instead of "hanging on". Of course, 90 minutes of action scenes is probably only a few people's idea of a good time, but with a functional gameplay model we have a sort of guarantee that the game is reliably oriented towards its aim.
So once you have identified your aim, you need to shoot your arrow at it. I've been talking to a friend recently about a game she ran for a couple other friends. If I'm not mistaken it was her first and only venture into GMing and from the players' reports lots of fun was had by all, even if the campaign didn't fly for long. It's so great and exciting see a new GM or player kick it out of the park! I asked her what her goals were with the game, and then we looked at what kinds of (if the game had continued) actual gameplay events could have blown her aims out of the water. That's the reality of running/playing a game: you've got this expectation of satisfaction and then something messes it up - how do you deal? (If the expectation has been misplaced from the start, return to square 1).
For example, she had a chain of adventures strung together that would eventually get the PCs from A to B. So of course I asked, what would you do if the players decided to go to C? Or perhaps, if your story relies on character X making the link between Y and Z, what would you do if character X died and was removed from the chain?
The point is: when you want to achieve something with this roleplaying game, instead of just pretending without aim - how do you get there? Or more specifically: how do you get there without beating yourself over the head?
That's part 2. Eventually.