How I GM and how to play in my games

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.

Continue reading “How I GM and how to play in my games”

Three interesting things I have read, late October 2019

Paul Beakly on improvised game design:

Basically if you’re ever creating a system of resolutions that orbit an outcome, rather than directly resolving the outcome itself, that’s improvised game design.


Two interesting videos on medieval lighting technology:

  • A broad overview by Shad M Brook introduces the idea of “rush lights”, the pith from meadow rushes that’s been soaked in tallow. I’d never heard of these before, but apparently there were the best light source most peasants could get.
  • Jason Kingsley tries to make rush lights, and shows that it was harder than I assumed after the brief description in the other video.

James Introcaso says We Can Do Better Than Boxed Text. And he’s right.

 

Three interesting things I’ve read recently, mid-September 2019

An astute observation from Kyle Maxwell’s review of Dirge of Urazya:

A twenty-four page zine by an independent author will never provide as much detail as an encylopedic tome from a large corporate producer. But I’m not sure the additional detail in those larger books actually gets used in games. … Setting material like [Dirge of Urazya] leans into that idea and gives the players – all of them – both the encouragement and the tools to customize it, rather than present lots of “canon lore” and then a vague statement about feeling free to “change it if you want”.

Patrick Stuart has started a discussion on his blog with the question “What do you think of art in games?”. As you might expect from his circle, the quality of the replies is excellent, with lots of clever, creative people scrabbling around trying to make sense of their heads.

Paul Beakley has advice on how to use clocks in Blades in the Dark and descendants. He starts by talking about the problems he had before he knew how do that:

Every time they rolled anything less than a 6, I’d load ‘em up with consequences. I had no place to put consequences other than the characters or the fiction, and the whole thing ended up looking more like a game of Fiasco than smooth Ocean’s 11 style criming. The reason of course is that you need clocks as a place to put consequences other than the characters and the fiction.

I particularly like how he talks about “places[s] to put consequences” — consequences are, of course, a type of currency, and they need to be accounted for. If you’re generating too many (or too few) for the sinks available, you’re going to have problems. Put another way — I understood after reading this that there are, give-or-take, “consequence points”, and the Blades mechanics only work well if the maths for those points is right.

Optimising your idea machine — getting the possible ideas from your mind into play

The problem — too many ideas, and they scatter to the wind

The basic problem is that I generate lots of ideas and thoughts, for games I’m running and games I’m not. I’m fairly good at writing them down, somehow and somewhere, but I’m not so good at getting them to the point where they are actually used in play. I think I miss a lot of opportunities to put the fruits of my mind into a position where players can experience them.

a_raw_idea.jpg
I had an idea. Now what?

Now, sure, there are some irreducible constraints on this. Play can’t always provide good context to bring in all the ideas you have — you may well generate ideas that require too many entirely different games. And even if everything lines up, you might produce more ideas than can ever be fitted in the playing time you have. Some ideas will fall on stony ground because the world is just like that.

But some losses are accidental. Sometimes, you’ll get an opportunity to use an idea, but miss it. This might be because you forgot it entirely. Or it might because you remember the general idea but you forgot important details (and can’t find them fast enough to not break game flow). Such losses can be minimised if we’re clever about it.

What I want to do is to be as efficient as possible at getting the best ideas from the seething ferment of my mind to the actual world where players can suffer them. I want maximise my ratio of (effort put in) to (amount and quality of ideas that make it to play).

A general model — engineering your idea machine

Continue reading “Optimising your idea machine — getting the possible ideas from your mind into play”

Introduction to being an rpg player

A player in my games who is new to rpgs has asked for recommended reading for how to be a good player. This is hard, because I have been playing rpgs longer than almost anything else — I started when I was 8 or 9, and I’m 40 this Autumn.

I tried searching the web for articles, but many of them bored or annoyed me. Perhaps unsurprising, since I’m not their target audience. However they have other problems. One common tendency is to be patronising, to talk down to the newcomer. Another is to assume a very low baseline of ordinary social skills — in contrast, what most people need is for the article to assume that and to explicitly demarcate those challenges that are distinctive to rpgs (or to common rpg subcultures).

So, despite me being a bad choice to write something on this, I have done it anyway.

Key message

Every game is different, every group is different. Some groups override the rules completely with a local version, and sometimes that’s implicit (just local practice and custom). Some groups do that for some games but not others.

Continue reading “Introduction to being an rpg player”

Three interesting things to read, early September 2019

System matters, but it’s easy to not know that

Justin Alexander gives a succinct account of why rules matter but many players don’t get the experiences they need to realise this. Key quotes:

“…most RPG systems don’t actually carry a lot of weight, and are largely indistinguishable from each other in terms of the type of weight they carry.

In theory, as we’ve discussed, there’s really nothing an RPG system can do for you that you can’t do without it. There’s no reason that we can’t all sit around a table, talk about what our characters do, and, without any mechanics at all, produce the sort of improvised radio drama which any RPG basically boils down to.

The function of any RPG, therefore, is to provide mechanical structures that will support and enhance specific types of play.

… What I’m saying is that system matters. But when it comes to mainstream RPGs, this truth is obfuscated because their systems all matter in exactly the same way.”

There’s a robust simple procedure for running Into the Odd

As an example of the structure Alexander is calling for, have a look at Chris McDowall’s simple procedure for running Into the Odd.

“Diegetic” and “Non-diegetic” are useful terms for game design

Emmy Allen explained two useful terms for talking about rpgs. They weren’t new to all of us, but her explanation is clear and to the point. Next time someone asks, we can point them there.

Sean McCoy on Twitter then showed how those terms make explicit what he was implicitly trying to do while designing Mothership.

This is good theory — it gives us words for what expert practitioners do.