People have asked me how I GM. People have asked me how to play in my games. By a kind of ontological fusion, this document answers the questions of both groups. It’s amazing.
There is no “plot”, and we are intense
The heart of my method is improvising — I am making this shit up as we go along. That’s my default position. My default model of “run a game session” is that I have no plan or knowledge of what will happen. The players could do anything and it might seem reasonable for anything to happen. That is where I start from, and any prep work I do to is to support that. This is probably the key to my success.
There is thus no “plot”, ever. You are free. But that comes with responsibility — as a player you must make the game work. Good drama has ongoing themes, good drama goes somewhere. So you need to have direction, to be going somewhere, and to stick with that at least some of the time. You need to try to change the world, or at least try to change your position in it.
Example If you start out looking for your brother, you should keep looking for him until you have good reason to give up.
Side-jaunts are not a problem, just so long as you get back on track eventually. But my runs are usually short — 10–12 sessions is typical — so “eventually” is quite soon.
That lack of rails also means you need to put your character energies into action, into doing, into consequential decisions. With no plot to carry you, just joking about means the game isn’t progressing. And just acting, showing your PC’s personality through dialog, isn’t the best use of time, either. Put your character energies mostly into action, into doing. The best characterisation, after all, is through the actions characters take that have real consequences.
My typical session is little over two hours, so we need to make those minutes count.
Example Don’t just joke about how degenerate the rebels are — scheme against them, build a network to spread rumours with intent to undermine their support, push hard for the Baron to put them to the sword.
Excessive joking, and joke characters, also dissipates any tension we may have. And sometimes we have tension.
Often, you need to work together
You’ll need to work out, each time I run a new game, what this particular game asks of you in terms of working with other players. And this is somewhere that my games vary. I roughly distinguish between my drama games (where there is limited mortal threat and you can play against each other) and my adventure games (where you must work together to survive). One clue that we’re playing drama is Burning Wheel -descended rules (like StarCruiser and Beyond the Forest); a clue that we’re playing adventure is D&D -descended ones (like Immergleich and A Broken Candle).
My adventure games require, in particular, that your PCs make up a coherent team — Immergleich requires a coherent party-for-this-session; A Broken Candle requires a mostly-persistent party.
Example The players have agreed to persuade Her Ladyship to let you burn down the Septic Chapel. In an adventure game, you should probably get right behind that. In a drama game, you might pretend to go along, but secretly curry favour with the Patrons of the Filth by warning them that their clubhouse is in danger. (Secretly, that is, in-character. I never run with secrets between players.)
(Speed of resolution and threat-to-PCs are major causes for this difference — my adventure games have extended fights and similar that make it clunky if you’re not all in one place, and have a model of mortal danger that requires a united response.)
None of this is absolute. You can certainly work together in drama games, and you can make your own trouble in adventure ones. Key words here are “mostly”, “generally”, and “when the hour is right”.
I think the adventure/drama dichotomy is actually a continuum, at least in terms of how the players engage with it, and that varies from time to time and (particularly) from group to group. E.g. in my two current A Broken Candle games, I think one group are playing more towards drama, one towards adventure. That’s something that’s emerging from the dynamics of each group and from decisions by the individual players, and it may well change over time.
In one-off or open-table sessions, we’ll need to negotiate out continuum position from scratch every time. Tho players who’ve played together before will of course have a read on what they each like.
I favour the interesting, respect realism, and may kill you
My basic model of GMing is that players try things and I make them interesting. I will naturally favour actions that are interesting, especially those with interesting dilemmas or consequence. But that is not absolute — I do not operate a “rule of cool”, like an animal. I am always balancing realism, plausibility, and respect-for-prep with against giving the most interesting reaction, and against making the best drama from player actions. These goals are frequently in conflict, forming one of thirty-five irresolvable tensions that I wrestle with.
Example It’s so much more interesting if you could get over that wall. There are ghouls on the other side, and they will bite your ass. But it’s twelve foot high, greased, and you are old. It’s not happening.
In my drama games, I do not set out to kill you. In my adventure games I do not set out to kill you, either, but often I intend for there to be unavoidable levels of mortal threat, including places you shouldn’t go and enemies you can’t defeat. I do try to signpost increasing or sudden-spike threat levels, but you will need to get wise at reading my signs.
Example Bones around the cave mouth, some fresh. A smell of sulphur, pear drops, and cheap aftershave. A prior warning to “stay away from the caves”. You sure about this?
It follows that you need to pick your battles. When you make an enemy, I make a note, and they (or their aggrieved heirs) are likely to reappear. Immergleich explicitly mechanises this. If you attack everything that draws your ire, you may soon be a hunted fugitive. That can be fun in its way, if all the other players are onboard. Experience suggests that other players’ views will be mixed.
If you want further reading, my current major style influences are Chris McDowall’s ICI Doctrine and A Procedure for Play. I’ve also been influenced by the mechanics of Dungeon World, and before that the rules and play culture of Burning Wheel were formative.
There will be meat
For content, you can expect violence, gore, and body horror — my aesthetic has been described as “meat and liquids”, which I think is fairly accurate. There will also be people doing some very bad things, and all kind of oppressive powers that you won’t be strong enough to fight. There will not be sexual violence, though, or real-world sexism, racism, homophobia, or transphobia.
I do not do pure essentialism (you will not find a spell that detects good or evil) and I do not require you to be heroic, or even basically ok. What I do require is that your characters have interests that they do pursue and that can be threatened. Characters who are comfortable, or completely resigned to defeat, are no good.
Example It’s really helpful, in drama games, if characters have an un-estranged family. In an adventure game, it’s really useful if the party find something vulnerable to defend and powerful enemy to defend it against.
I care about the high-level meaning of the rules
I never fudge dice or rules, at least not player-facing ones. I never fudge standard stats (like monster hit points). If I was to change a clear rule or roll, I’d do it openly, and get agreement from the players. I don’t have a clear position yet on random GM aids (like random encounter rules), but in general when I make such rules my policy is to stick to them.
Example You are first level. You took a wrong turn into the Rotten Woods (Threat Level 4). I randomly roll a troll (Threat Level 6, regenerates, bad teeth). A troll it is. Run?
In general, I don’t care about fine-grained rules, fiddly details, or exactly where you are on some strict grid. I care about actions that matter, that change the “plot”, that bifurcate our story between two possibilities that were both plausible and interesting. Wherever possible, I want players to be making irrevocable decisions and seeing them have consequences. I want die rolls, too, to irrevocably split us between two previously-possible tracks.
Example “Ok, Charisma, difficulty 8, take +1 for your background as a courtier. You succeed and the Queen of Dyle will give you leave to pursue Larcenous Paul Quickness throughout her kingdom. You fail, and she’ll banish you for a year and a day. Back down now, and you could take your chances with her Petty Court of Vagrancy.”
In summary, I want us to have dramatic events that none of us foresaw, emerging from characters who are driven to be somewhere and make interesting decisions. I’ll try to be clear about which of my game types we’re in, and give you the cues you need to play well in that form. And someone will grow an extra limb that talks to them and tells them bad secrets.