Friday, January 04, 2008

You May Never Game With Me Again

As I was wandering towards the Metro station this morning I was pondering some of the stuff that I have read recently on some message boards. Oh yes, what an amazingly exciting life I lead!

In this thread on Story Games, Judd is asking about examples of things that go on in roleplaying sessions alongside kickers and bangs. He calls them crosses, weavings, openings and bobs.

In this thread on Ian's blog he talks about putting some of the old 'indie games angst' aside in order to actually, you know, happily play.

And on this thread Ian points to a man who has a serious problem with some aspects of gamer theory and the way it can be represented.

These three all came to mind at once and I wondered what it must be like running a game where your mind is, in one small part, working on the theory side of things, whilst the rest is working on the imaginative side? Is it even possible to be doing that without being Deathstroke the Terminator (ok, DC reference, supervillain who 'uses 90% of his brain')? Does anyone actually sit down at a table and think "Hmmm... this is an intersitial scene between these two protaganists which will be followed by this bang, feeding off those three flags on the character sheet...'

(Warning - for those that find references to sex so cringeworthy that you feel the need to say things like 'Eww' and 'To much information!!' at the thought of basic human reproduction, best move on...)

It came to me that GMing is a bit like sex. When you start off, you know roughly what you have to do and you can do it, fumblingly. Sometimes it's good but most of the time it's too hard, too fast and rarely satisfying. As you become a little more experienced to realise that there's more to it than the actual act itself and that you can enhance things with a bit of technique. Later still you begin to learn just when to do one thing, then another and then another. You know when to speed up, slow down, move here, do that etc etc. It becomes ... instinctive. Later still, to carry on the analogy, some people like to add new things to spice it up a little, drift off from one partner to try something with another or eventually just find out they are doing it so intermittantly that they never bother again. (And of course to carry it to its furthest point, yes WoW is to roleplaying as online porn is to sex!)

My point being that rarely do people think 'Ok, time for a nipple tweak' or 'hmm, should I be changing angle here or waiting another minute or two?' - its just something that happens. So whilst I'm aware that being aware of these various GMing methods can help you understand what is happening when you play, I wonder whether they actually do HELP when it comes down to playing or whether, when the chips are down, we tend to resort to the instinctive practices that we are comfortable with and that have worked for us in the past? And is that necessarily a bad thing? I'm not sure it is.

I am now assured that should any of the games that I have detailed below happen, someone will be thinking ' .... he says its a fight, but is he really tweaking my nipple?!'



Anonymous said...

Of course...

...some people are having badwrongfun sex.

...some people are having enlightened sex.

...some people are having boring traditional sex because they know no better.

...while other people are having amazing tantric, hippy amazing sex. could possibly go on.

All I know is talking about gaming results in talking about gaming by and large, so while talking is great and self-improvement is fantastic, only actual gaming begets gaming.

Saturday Movie Matinee said...

I definitely don't over-think of every nipple tweak at the gaming table in jargon terms.

But in my post-game thoughts it helps to get better at the skills that make gaming fun to put names tot he techniques we use. Constant improvement is important to me.

But no, I'm not thinking like a Forge article when I play.

Vodkashok said...

(Is that Judd? - if so, hi and I hope everything is good for you and yours. If not, welcome to the blog!)

Thats kind of what I thought - post-game breakdown stuff. Reflective learning etc.

The reason I mentioned the entire thing (well, apart from the GMing is sex analogy which could well run and run) is that I'm coming back to the GMs chair soon after a long time out and I have at my disposal now a whole helluva lot of book-reading about different techniques and ideas re: gameplay. So I'm beginning to think about how I can use some of these in these upcoming games and I'm coming to the realisation that we sort of did use a lot of them anyway - we just weren't aware that they had names that people called them. So since we first gamed together we have pretty much dealt with flags, kickers, bangs, narration rights, player input into setting etc.

I guess its judging that sweet spot between knowing stuff and using stuff and having it seamless in the delivery and then analysing it post-game and as you say, improving.


Anonymous said...

Exactly, that's my view as well.

We may have a little lonely fun barrier to break down here and there, but otherwise we had it and have it.


Vodkashok said...

Just to add to this, there is an excellent (if in some parts a little spikey) thread on the Sons of Kryos boards regarding a similar topic

(Forgive me but I have totally forgotten how to code a basic HTML link.. I am so ashamed)


Anonymous said...

Interesting thread, normally I'd comment on it extensively, but I'm done with it and I'm going to stick to it. I've heard the debate before.

Simply, both are correct. You don't any 'story game stuff', assuming people are agreeing on what that is today, to do anything.

It all comes down to this: do the rules support you in what you are doing and enhance your experience or not? If no, then at least they shouldn't detract.

That could mean different things to different people, all that matters it it's true.

That's me done. This new way is much more efficient :)


Saturday Movie Matinee said...

"...I'm coming back to the GMs chair soon after a long time out..."

Wait, didn't you GM for your daughters?

If you aren't counting that, I think you'll be quite surprised how much technical proficiency it takes to GM for children and how much you've learned from the experience.

P.S. Yes, this is Judd, posting under the banner of a blog that never happened.

Vodkashok said...

You know, I completely forgot about the 'A Faeries Tale' games I played with the girls! Crikey...

You are correct though - certainly for the first few games I have with the gang I'll be putting a lot more preperation (ala the games with the kids) and thought into the process than I would normally do. I'm very mucha 'Sheet of A4 notes and GO!' guy.

Nice to have you here Judd.


Saturday Movie Matinee said...

Nice to be here, Neil.

When you say -preperation- what do you mean?

I'm fascinated by the topic.

What do you do to prepare for a game and how is it used at the table?

Vodkashok said...

How do I prepare? Well first off its usually how to 'we' prepare because we have quite a bit of post-game debrief and pre-game banter either player-to-GM in public, private or as a group in the pub. That acts as a learning moment and also a series of flags. A number of us also maintian blogs and there are some more detailed analysis in those as well.

In my last game I asked players for specific scenes that they would like to see worked into the game in an almost PTA format, which worked really well. That adds to the ammunition I am working with when I get there.

I also have a vague idea of what is going to happen during that episode. So it might be 'Rescue the ambassador from the zombie infested starliner before it falls through the hole in space'. I might even have a rough run through of the scenes and the order that I see them playing out. I'll have a number of crisis points plotted out that can be dropped in when needed to liven things up and to move things along.

And I do a lot of visualisation. I have a pre-game ritual (when I have the time) of spending the morning before a Sunday session watching a DVD relevant to the game - so if I am running Pulsars and Privateers (our SF Unisystem Game) it will be BSG or Serenity/Firefly. If its Duty & Honour it will be an episode of Sharpe.

I also spend time travelling running through imagery in my head - I think about NPCs, what they look like, what they act like, how they talk. I imagine scenery and SFX and vechiles and costumes. I put the game through a sort of mental movie production process and have those images racing in my head. That means that when I get to the game I'm in a very 'creative' state of mind and I can think far quicker than say, I am GMing after I have just come from work.

And then I just sort of go for it. Riff off the players a lot, do a lot of active listening, watch for body language and always try to maintain a decent pace.

Whether it works or not ... well, thats for the other guys to say!!


Vodkashok said...

Actually, when I put the entire process down on paper I really am NOT a 'sheet of A4 and go!' guy. Thats the end result but the stuff that goes before seems to have been brushed under the carpet.


Anonymous said...

I used to do all hat Neil does and then write a lot of stuff down - just scenes, the goals of each, the NPC's view, etc. Not the result.

Now I do all the stuff Neil does, even rehearsing mentally in my head, possibly even verbally if I'm the only one in then I put it down in a diagram on a page of A4, and I've moved to putting any additional info on index cards - we'll see if this sticks.

Again the info tends to be notes for that scene - the difference is written when it actually happens, of course.


redben said...

I think I'll join in on the 'how do you GM?' thread.

I'm a GM Nazi. I come up with an adventure and railroad my players through it mwuhahahaha

By which I mean I come up with a story first of all. I pretty much could write out my sessions as short stories when they're initially conceived. I then draw the essence of the plot out from it and plan it out in as few a number of plot points as possible.

I then try and give as much wiggle room as possible for the players to move between them, allowing myself to introduce some of them if necessary so the session doesn't stall.

I write out the player handouts and maybe a line or two of notes but this is all I usually commit to paper. The plot structure is stored in my head and I'm not one for stats.

Then I turn it loose at the gaming table and watch the players run with it in directions I never imagined. Riffing off this is amongst the most fun I have as a GM.

Though I'm more than happy to do collaborative world building, I generally do my adventures with little in the way of player input.

Vodkashok said...

Note that when Ben says 'player handouts' what he really means magnificently researched and written artifacts that make his game absolutely addictive. It's taking something that looks exceptionally 'railroady' and turning it into something that FIRES the table into action. Masterful stuff.


Anonymous said...

Always interested in handouts? So give us some examples?


redben said...

This is the one that started the first session -

If you go towards the bottom of this thread to the bit in italics, that was one of three handouts from the second session -

Anonymous said...

Okay, I am familiar with those.

Anonymous said...

I’ll throw my hat into the ring & give some comment on the “thinking GM”

With the Sunday group I’ve had the difficult experience of GM-ing for them twice. Neither of which I believe where exceptionally pleasant or enjoyable experiences; things went badly wrong.

First I played D&D with them. The concept was actually good and based on a previous, highly successful, campaign that I’d played with a different group. They where soldiers for an evil power, and I have them men to command, and they gave tactics etc. The group seemed to really enjoy this. Indeed the 1st session I ran went well, and the players actually seemed to really be enjoying the soldier style D&D.

I then committed a mortal sin.

Having given the party so much blackness and horribleness and death to start with. I decided that I wanted to lighten the mood. I was originally going to have the town beseiged and put the characters through a bit of a hellish experience to get them to understand the mentality of “evil” men fighting against those accursed Harpers & their allies. In retrospect Plan A was a dark, interesting tale about the nature of decision making.

Nope…. I decided on Plan B. I decided to change the mood entirely and take a comic turn. This was a disastrous mistake.

Having little skill for comedic writing, I plucked an old GenCon convention adventure from my collection, read it, it seemed mildly amusing and fantastical. I slightly modified it for my campaign world and then ran it. Now, If I’d ran a longer story with these guys and then dropped this in, I even seriously doubt then it would have worked.

Never before have I seen a gaming group so grim faced in front of attempted “humor”. Having attempted to create a dark setting in the 1st game, I shattered, very quickly, in the 2nd game; the game world premise, the setting imagery, and the gaming groups interest in the campaign & their trust in my as their GM. Good 1st session, disastrous 2nd session, NO third session.

In effect, I made a bad GM-ing call, I should have stuck with Plan A, and damn the torpedos running straight into the darkness. Having just watched Battlestar Galactica (all series) over Christmas & new year , I see the GM-ing mistake. I tried to give the players what I (wrongly) thought they might want and what might work, rather than staying true to the story I’d been trying to tell. Imagine BSG suddenly doing a comedy episode with Adama? Nope wouldn’t work, might actually shatter the characters image.

So, that small waste of a campaign storyline was my first GM-ing disaster.

My 2nd GM-ing disaster was running Shadowrun with them. To say they didn’t seem to like it is maybe being kind to myself. To try and ease the group into the game I decided to run a module adventure (Dark Angel) which is effectively a search then rescue adventure. The adventure itself though I (admittedly) ran without depth; NO character development, no character story.

I made the fatal mistake of, because the group had never played the system or the universe before, trying to play a very by the numbers game to try and ground them in…. Didn’t work, completely a bad GM-ing call.

They players ran through the scenes and even came up with inventive solutions to problems. But without character depth or advancement (and I mean story here, not statistics on a page) they never connected, and I’ll admit, my approach actually supported this.

Funny enough, that was the last game my group has let me run in years!

2 gaming disasters; 2 bad decisions.

Why, to get back to the point of Neil’s post? Was it because I wasn’t thinking and trying to “tweek nipples”

Well the D&D game was a disaster because I actually tried for the tweek. The 1st game session had been good. I had the knowledge that the other gaming group I’d ran the campaign with had really enjoyed it, so I decided to throw in a pre-gen con adventure to lighten the mood. WRONG. The story was dark, I should have kept it dark.

I was actually trying to tweek too much here, I wanted to give the players a fun time after giving them an enjoyable dark session, and I completely called wrong. They hated the 2nd session. I over thought the situation and should have stuck with the plan.

The 2nd disaster was all to do with my apprehension about them playing a new system. I concentrated so much on trying to ease them into the universe that I didn’t try and connect them with it. I took a very gamiest approach, reasoning that I could throw in the depth at a later date.

WRONG, wrong, wrong.

I should have known this wouldn’t work. Indeed, in hindsight (which is always 20/20) the decision was so staggeringly wrong, given the players, that I’m shocked I made it. I over thought the problem and went for a simple solution, when I should have from the outset concentrated on the interesting and engaging story, rather than a by the numbers basic adventure to familiarize players with the runs & universe. I should have started with character depth & character driven story, and certainly not used a pre-gen adventure which had worked well in the past.

Of course, given these two rather disastrous games, it should be of no surprise that our gaming group is rather lackluster in enthusiasm for letting me run a game again  I can’t really blame them I’ll be absolutely honest.

You see what Neil is missing from his philosophy article, is the bit about trust. Trust is actually at the heart of GM-ing. Mostly we trust our GM to give us that sweet spot, going back to that analogy and changing to chocolate (which I find a little easier) we want good chocolate.

However as a GM you make strategic decisions which effect the entire game itself. Strategic decisions which effect the entire nature of how the game is played. Does a player who wins the roll get narration rights? Is a huge decision in gamiest terms. You also (in more traditional games) propel the story, and can damn well screw it up badly (like I did; twice)

I suppose the point to what I’m saying is, Neil’s post is about GM thinking; GM consideration of the players, the story, & the game world.

About a GM trying to think through his game, consider his options and make a decision doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll make the right choices or decisions. Certainly I thought through both games I’ve described above and gotten practically all the decisions very, very wrong.

Consideration & thought though unfortunately doesn’t automatically lead to success.

Who would have thunk it 


Anonymous said...


I think you might be being too hard on yourself there. I'm not sure I was around for the D&D one, though the invasion of the Candy Cane dungeon was probably a bad idea :)

I don't think anyone has any problems with you DM'ing again. I know that some ideas you've posted on the forums haven't been littered with loads of responses but I think this is purely because they were linked to running at CottageCon II that had no date so there wasn't really much to immediately do or arrange (and anything that did need doing depending on a CottageCon II date).

I was intrigued by DotC W40K, for example.


Anonymous said...

I'm a bit perplexed by Dave's post - yes the Candy Dungeon was a mistake BUT concentrate on the one that worked! Shadowrun wasn't a disaster. We just did it differently and I would say we all enjoyed playing it (I do remember it as a good game). You are being waaay to harsh on yourself here. Also remember the initial Pendragon sessions took people awhile to settle into and I was seriously worried if it was the right game for the group.

Oh and if you want to run another game that is perfectly fine with me.