Best Practices?: Giving plot-starter options, then winnowing them down?

edited August 2013 in Story Games
Hey folks, I'm looking for a little mechanical/method help.

Here's what I'm trying to do
I want to put on a one-shot game, with a basic setting and vague situation, a well as a pool of lightly described characters.
I want it to be GM-less/GM-full, and there will be 3-5 players (including myself).
I want a far bit of pre-game control setting the thing up, but don't want any more input in the actual game as it develops than any other player.

Going along with all of that, I intend to make up more bits and bobs of characters, plot ideas, and events than anyone could possibly use, because I want the group to choose between those bits and bobs and expand on them based on our collective interests during play.

Right now, those bits-n-bobs aren't intended to have a huge amount of mechanical weight. They're meant more to act as an idea-bank. When it comes time for someone to set up a scene, the concept is that a player (or players) can call on that stuff for inspiration (hopefully avoiding some blank slate syndrome).

I'm not quite sure how to approach this.

Right now, my only real concept is to brainstorm stuff and write it up on index cards, perhaps categorized and color coded.

On game day, as a preliminary, I just shuffle and deal out the various types of cards to the players. Everyone will end up with a stack.

Then? Here it gets fuzzy conceptually.

I'm thinking each player has a pencil or whatever. They can choose any card as a Yes!, mark a smilie face on it and throw it in a Yes! pile. They can choose to add ideas to any card and pencil them on it ( It can be a different card from their Yes! card). They can also choose to put a frowny face on a card and throw it in a No! pile. They could also just leave it in their stack.

They can put up to 2 cards into any stacks, although it could be 2 Yesses or 2 Nos.

When everyone has had a chance to look at their cards, mark as desired and put cards in piles or not, they pass their current stack to the right.

When everyone has had a chance to look through each stack and mark cards and place cards in piles, we go through the Yes and No piles to see what we've come up with.

That's about as far as I've gotten.

Can anyone give me a hand refining this to something usable, or suggest a better mechanic or better format, or even just suggest possible problems with it ( and solutions)?

Again, whatever cards are left are an idea bank, there aren't requirements to use the stuff in game and I don't want people pre-playing too much, but I do want folks a bit on the same page for inspirations.



  • I think asking people to make up their own decks may be asking for analysis paralysis. Maybe give them some blank cards but mainly give them a pre-made deck. What you put in the deck can in a way pre-write the game because it setups up the paths for the players to connect.
  • edited August 2013
    If this is within the context of a given game, I'd say just compile its examples and color into your Idea Cards, and then let folks pick three or four (repeats encouraged!) and incorporate. It would kind of be like they have the choice of any number in Fiasco, to pick playset elements.

    Or, hell, make a Fiasco playset for the pick-up game and then only do Setup, switching to the real game system to generate characters and begin with the first scene. Yeah, I mean, this:
    ...a basic setting and vague situation, a well as a pool of lightly described characters. basically the definition of a Fiasco playset.
  • Take it like this: all cards are your setting. Things that aren't used on one session may be used on another, but the main thing is that all elements in the cards should share coherence If you achieve that, then player's won't have to pick specific sets of cards; they can draw it randomly and see the story unfold step by step. This will keep you all in the dark and twists will be more surprising.

    Of course, everything on the index cards should be written in a way that helps players connect it to any other card from the deck. And is the element in the card changes, the new state should be added to the card in case it's used again in the next session.

    So, your procedure could be more like: cards are distributed among the players, they each draw a card from their hand and all these are used to stablish the initial situation. Then everybody presents their character, they meet and set a course of action. Then each turn a different player adds one card to complicate the situation, solve it partially or solve it at the cost of generating another problem. Players may solve the situation without drawing cards by playing their characters as usual.

    On top of that, each player's hand represents his hitpoints, so the more they get hurt, the more cards they add to the problem and thus the further it complicates (these cards could be picked randomly by other players, so it should feel more like the situations is spiraling out of control.

    Game could be divided in acts so, for the second or third act, all cards that weren't used before (or a number of them) are discarded. This prevents story geting too full of diverse details and brings back things for the players to build upon.

    What would be the color code for? Type of input? Emotional tone of the content?
  • Same basic concept, slight refinements. Since you didn't specify a setting I'll use space/survival horror (ie: The Thing, Alien, et al, poor Al).

    Use cards with leading or multiple choice questions to stay in genre, establish setting and steer plot. In an open game, the questions would be vague; in a closed game, the questions would be specific:

    Open - "What is the old ship's first system to break down?" communications; engine; A.I.; other
    closed - after the engines break down and leave us adrift, what's the next critical system to malfunction? life support; A.I. security protocols; self-destruct; other

    open - "What is the A.I.'s primary (and secret) mission goal? first contact; military/counter-rebel mission; scientific investigation; other
    closed - An unknown manufactured object is detected on scanners; what is it? alien artifact/ship; previous lost mission team; W.M.D.; other

    open - some-one on board is working against the crew/sabatoged communications; who? Captain;
    corporate spy; doctor; other
    closed - the Captain has a dirty little secret regarding his last assighnment; what is it? crew mutinied; lost ship and all hands/sole survivor; imposter; other

    Each Player fills out several cards then passes them to the left. Each player then chooses one card that interests them and passes the others to the left again. Continue until you only have three to choose from. There are no "No" votes, only "Yes, I want this in the game". That way, at least two people will be happy with the choice; the one who wrote it and the one who chose it.

    As an intersting variation, each player keeps the cards they chose so that only they know that particular story element is in the game. They introduce the card during a scene as appropriate to provide plot twists/conflicts. These cards could be a seperate "character development" round using "secrets" cards. Imagine:

    - "You are a traitor to the crew; what is your motivation? money; political; savior/martr; other

    I can add this possibility when I fill out the card but I don't know if some-one will chose it.

    In these examples, it's easy to see how plot points could be connected between secret missions, sabotage, spies, traitors, malfunctioning A.I's, hidden agendas and discoveries without spelling out what the story will be.

    Just a thought.
  • [Quick clarification question for K-Bob: Is this a setup method or an in-play method? Should it work for any system, or are you prepping for a particular system?]
  • edited August 2013
    K-Bob, @jenskot did something similar and it worked fine. Marking Yes and No was good, but we found it helpful to (1) apply those judgments to a finite set -- in our case, broad movie genres, and (2) communicate why we chose our Yes answers -- "What about this excites you?"

    So instead of giving a Yes to dystopic sci-fi and a No to space opera sci-fi, we'd just give a Yes to sci-fi and then state "because I dig the dehumanization of technology!"
  • Guys you all are an amazing. Seriously, thank you all for the great suggestions so far!

    I'll try to answer some of the questions/points you've individually brought up, and give you a little more context to help you to help me.

    The real-world social/group context:
    Right now, I'm trying to put something together to start recruiting some players for at least semi-regular gaming meet ups of any kind. Not easy to do since I and all of my likely recruits work bizarre hours with changing schedules. The upshot is, one-shots are the most viable thing to plan. Campaign play is basically a non-starter. This needs to be the sort of thing where we need to get the whole game played to some kind of conclusion in around 4 hours.

    At least half of the potential recruits have theater experience, and all of them are people who work in jobs that require being outgoing and talking with other humans. Even the few that don't have that background are pretty creative bullshitters naturally.

    Around 2/3 have gaming experience. On the down side, none(?) of them have GM experience or any experience with GMless/GMfull game systems. They're used to more trad games where you play just your own character, you push for them to succeed, and the character going "out of play" means the player going out of play ( ew, ick!).

    The scenario, what I'm working with, and possible systems to draw from

    Something fishy at Halloween
    Kids, cats, carnies and Cthulhu!

    Old Innsmouth Beach, a quaint but down on its luck seaside community, is trying to draw in tourist dollars by hosting their first annual Halloween bash this year.

    The decorations are up all over town, the party areas laid out, and the costumed tourists are arriving with their families for some wholesome holiday fun, yet there's a hint of something sinister in the air, as if everything and everyone aren't quite what they appear.

    Dun- dun- dunh!

    Okay, I know y'all are geeky enough to be familiar with A Shadow over Innsmouth to see where this could potentially go, even if you only know the story from pop culture references.

    System-wise... I don't really know yet. Chances are good I'll draw mechanics and concepts from several different ones.

    Right now, the ones in the running are Mythic GM Emulator and Rafael Chandler's Grail Epoch variant of Archipelago or possibly one of several homebrews that draw inspiration from those.

    One key difference from Grail Epoch is that the map is already going to exist ( in the form of a miniature Halloween Holiday village of Old Innsmouth Beach). Locations in would take the place of islands, so things would be modified somewhat.

    As for characters and factions, players would be drawing from a pool of characters based on the little people miniatures that go along with the village. Part of the winnowing down process would be to decide which of those characters and factions are actually relevant and which are basically just scenery/color in human form.

    The map locations consist of (potentially): The old Marsh Mansion, several boarded up old houses on the same street as the Marsh mansion, the old Masonic Hall/Dagon hall, Mainstreet (with food booths/gamebooths/sideshow tents/fortunetellers/classic car display), a creepy old Church, the Beach party area and seawall/boardwalk and wharves, an abandoned factory/warehouse, a trailer park at the edge of town, and of course a mysteriously large Devil's Reef (small island really) across the harbor from the beach. The Manuxet river flows at the edge of town into the harbor, and there are boat slips with boats.

    Characters/factions numerous individual festival goers dressed in Halloween costumes or not, The Scooby Gang, Deep Ones/Hybrids/Cthulhu, Carnies running the entertainment and side show, cats. As it is Halloween, any of these might be costumes or they might really be the stuff being portrayed. Some folks might be costumed-but-hidden stuff like cops or spies or crooks.

    Winnowing down the basic set up
    My personal goal is to take a bunch of concepts and make them available, but not really know here the thing is going to go story-wise.

    Maybe it's a Scooby Doo mystery with Old man Smithers smuggling watches. Maybe there are real monsters and it turns into a horrible massacre to summon Cthulhu. Maybe Cthulhu is actually a giant inflatable toy, and the folks in Innsmouth think HPL's story set in their town is hilarious and are playing it up for laughs and tourist dollars. Maybe it's a rom-com about some poor Deep One who just can't find that special someone and has to deal with their hopelessly prying family. Maybe it's about carnies who are either the heroes or villains of the peace, or trailer trash kids who get into a survival horror movie situation. Maybe there are real monsters at the bash, but the whole Deep Ones/Cthulhu thing isn't the real monsters ( which are ghosts or vamps or werewolves).

    Or whatever, but it has to be 1) open enough that I'll be surprised during play and 2) likely that a different group of 3-5 players starting with the same stuff would come up with a different option.

  • Sorry for the wall of text in that last post.

    In response to some of the questions/advice you folks posted:

    The cards are meant as a big bank of ideas at first, meant to inspire, with some of them removed before play starts.

    Removed cards are the options not used.

    The remaining, possibly modified, cards form the core of the idea bank

    The smilies/frownies are meant to communicate interest/disinterest as they are passed around to each player. I'm afraid of info overload if all players have all cards accessible right away. Also, space is a consideration, so I can't simply spread them all out on the table.

    During play, they are meant as stuff to fall back on for ideas. When it's your turn to set up a scene, they're there to help you if you're stuck for ideas ( whether it's you setting the scene or you're trying to help that person).

    Color coding and what the cards are/ may be: Characters, events, plots are the main ones. Tone might be in there too, to help determine whether the group wants to go light and funny, serious, horrific, mysterious, or whatever. Whatever the categories end up being, I want folks to get some of each to look over and winnow down, then shuffle the yesses (however they're arrived at) and re-deal the surviving cards to act as general idea banks for each layer during play.

    Playing in Acts?
    That is a suggestion that appeals to me. I'd already been thinking of playing in 3 parts. The first part, real people are getting used to the play style and learning mechanics and poking at possible plot directions. Part 2 is when the thing develops and starts to come together. Part 3 is the big showdown/climax/wrap up and one big scene. Any ideas on how to use that framework with the cards.

    Open and closed and questions:
    I really very much like this suggestion, but I'm not quite sure how to fit it with the context I mentioned above. I'd like to hear more about it though.

  • I apologize in advance; this is going to be long. I hope you can find something useful in

    Open and closed basically refer to premise. An open question asks "what is the premise". A closed question says "this is the premise; now what happens"? A closed premise narrows the possibilities of the fiction and directs the story down a certain path - it effectively "collapses the time-line/quantum probability matrix" much quicker than an open premise.

    "The crew awakes from cryo-sleep early, why?" This is a closed premise and possible reasons
    could be: - alien ship detected; - computer/android malfunction; - secret Company agenda.
    Any of these could still lead to the events of "Alien".

    An open premise might be: "the crew awakes from cryo-sleep to find, what?" - they awoke
    early (leading to the above closed premise); - they awoke on time at the wrong destination;
    -they awoke at the right destination but the space station has "gone dark"/no signs of life;
    - they awoke very,VERY late.

    Is this "Alien", "Lost in Space", "Buck Rogers", "Dead Space"? The premise for our story is
    open until we choose/collapse a path.

    Please bear with me; this ties into the problem I had with your initial premise. One more
    example just to help clarify my own thoughts.

    An open premise for a character might be that he/she is working against the other characters
    in secret. But why? We would have to know more about the story to answer that. A closed
    premise would ask "What hold does the Company have over your character that forces them to
    betray the other characters?" Here, we know the Company is behind it and they are forcing
    you. We still don't know why but we have a much better grasp of the situation; it tells us a
    little bit of the story.

    This leads me to the problem I had with your concept of the game and premise of the story:
    "My personal goal is to take a bunch of concepts and make them available, but not really
    know where the thing is going to go story-wise.
    Maybe it's a Scooby Doo mystery with Old man Smithers smuggling watches. Maybe there are
    real monsters and it turns into a horrible massacre to summon Cthulhu." etc.

    Unless you establish right up front "this story is going to be a Scooby Doo mystery with a
    guy in a rubber suit", I can't imagine any story actually ending that way. At some point,
    someone is going to narrate a gruesome murder, bon-a-fide supernatural occurence, real
    monster, etc. But if you do establish the Scooby Doo premise up front and require people to
    stick to it, you've undermined your concept of "not really knowing where the thing is going
    to go story-wise." Every time you introduce a "Shaggy" I can almost guarantee he will end up
    mutilated. Without a stopper, you'll have escalation.

    The other (related) problem I fore-see is a mish-mash of genres that will leave you
    unsatisfied. You will have several people picking what they like and they won't always mesh.
    Sure, it might be fun to play Scooby Doo versus Cthulhu versus alien smugglers (or whatever)
    once or twice, but simply asking people to pick what they want to see in the game won't
    solve this unless you veto out the incongruous elements (which narrows the premise and
    tells you what story your going into, right of the bat).

    I have the germ of an idea, using the basic card method you outlined, but I'll post this
    now to see if you already have a solution (or if, indeed, it is an actually problem for you).
  • I'm mobile and don't have the book handy, so I apologize if this isn't super helpful, but this reminds me vaguely of the setup in Microscope. You might want to check that out, if you get a chance.

    - Alex
  • @Antisinecurist: Good call. I just read up on Microscope and I'm looking at some quickstart History Seeds right now. As a system for the game in question, it kinda disavows the whole notion of not knowing where the story ends up; Microscope seems to establish that right up front. But as inspiration, it's seems to hit the mark.

    I may be off-base myself, in which case I'll pursue my idle musings on my own time, but I like the idea of questions creating an emerging story rather than one with a definitive end state. The idea of loading a question with premise to give directions to the story without getting behind the wheel and driving it allows the participants the opportunity to take shortcuts or the scenic route or change destinations on-the-fly (car analogy was too spot-on to avoid).

    Basically, linear Microscope where effect must follow cause; ever-narrowing (or winnowing) down to it's logical but unpredictable conclusion.
  • biffboff:
    Thanks for the clarification.

    No, I really don't quite have a solution yet. I was hoping the cards themselves would provide that in the form of giving a limited range of tones, possible plot set ups, and choices between characters.

    I mean, maybe it's that simple: Come up with a limit on the number of X involved, which is a bit like Rafael's game ( there are three factions of N characters each) but do something similar with other elements ( comedy, rubber suit mystery, "real" horror, etc).

    Any suggestions for mechanics are appreciated.

    Antisinecurist: Actually, I have Microscope here. I like games with lots of set up, but I wanted to put some preliminary bounds in place. Also, I was hoping this game would be a fairly simple intro to stuff like Microscope for later get togethers.
  • BTW:
    I know I seem rather stuck on cards, but I'm willing to consider other options for doing something similar.

    Generally speaking, I just need something that is quick to use to get going, involves everyone having a bit of input, and leaves us with an easily accessible idea bank to help with potential "blank sheet syndrome" situations.
  • I'm heading out for the weekend very shortly but I wanted to put an idea out there before I go (just for my own peace of mind). Hopefully this doesn't come across as too abrupt or disjointed.

    So, 3 Act structure: Introduction phase, Escalation, Resolution (perhaps a quick denouement scene at the end, "after the credits roll", to tie up loose ends).

    Cards with idea-fodder: rubber mask, Deep Ones, freak show, Carnies, the"Innsmouth Look", meddlesome kids, True Love, etc.

    These may be colour co-ordinated by type: plot, character, prop, etc. but I'm not sure that's necessary.

    Here's the idea I borrowed from my own game: Tone. I kept it simple; Dark and Light. I think this game needs a third option. I'll call it Shady.

    Basically, Light is fun, funny, adventurous, cinematic, good or at least well-meaning.

    Shady is a little gritty, scary, threatening, mysterious.

    Dark, of course, denotes malevolent, death, murder, tragic, horrifying, despair/sorrow.

    I envision three shades of each card but tokens, smiley/neutral/sad faces may work, too.
    All cards start out as Light in play. This is the introduction phase. This character is Light; that prop is Light. The darker versions of the cards may have been tossed out. Maybe some-one is holding on to them. This is where the twists come into play. If some-one has a Shady version of the card in their hand they may wish to play it on top of the Light one and change the tone surrounding that story element. They, of course, narrate why/how this element is now darker. Perhaps one (or two) element(s) becoming Darker triggers the next Act.

    I can only envision play at the moment, not the hard mechanics, so I'll cut to the chase.

    Scooby Doo villains are Shady. In fact, there are no Dark elements. If no-one has (or wants to) play a Dark card on a character, then no-one is a murderer/victim. We have tacitly agreed during play that this is a fairly light story. Shaggy lives!

    The Mayor may be greedy for tourist dollars (a la "Jaws") but he's well-meaning. He's not Shady until some-one narrates him doing something sinister and plays a Shady card on him. When he becomes Dark, you're probably ready for the Third Act.

    The rubber mask becomes Shady when it seems to affect the wearer or when it's backstory involves a strange curio shop. The mask becomes Dark when some-one plays the Dark mask and narrates that it is actually human skin.

    True Love between Thelma and Henry Marsh is Light until Marsh (Shady) develops the Innsmouth Look. Dark might involve the Deep Ones' breeding pits on Devil's Reef. Is this a tragic Love story of crossed stars? (Creature from the Black Lagoon)? Can Henry save his Love from his immortal brethren? Does he succumb to his own nature? What does it mean if Thelma turns Dark? Is this Romeo and Juliet? Thelma and Louise? Sophie's Choice? If True Love is Dark but the characters are still Light or Shady, do they go their separate ways while sad Bruce Banner hitch-hiking music plays in the background?

    How Dark can we go? (Do we have the card in our hand?) How Dark do we want to go? (Do I actually want to take the story there and play the card?). I think it has to be made clear that just because you have a Darker card, you don't have to play it. Story first.

    I know it's not concrete but I hope it helps a little.
  • edited August 2013
    Man, I like the Light/Shady/Dark bit. Still mulling over how to work it into what I was thinking, but I do want it in there in some fashion.

    Also, I think I'm going to whittle the core concept down a bit, just from practicalities I'm running into as I put the physical stuff together for this game. The trailer park and the carnies, cool as they are, are gonna get the heave-ho, perhaps saved for a different game, and this is plain just going to be a Scooby game rather than optionally being a Scooby game.

    I think I may also ditch the cards and try to do a tri-fold with the mechanics and Idea bank stuff there, with a few differences on each trifold. People can just mark those up and trade them around instead during play. Not as nifty overall, but maybe more practical.

    Anyone who is still following along and fans of both Scooby Doo cartoons and Shadow over Innsmouth, feel free to hit me with stuff for the idea bank.

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