A basic question about escalation in narrative games with a GM

There's something I don't quite get about the narrative games I've GM'd. Let's see if I can put it into words.

First of all, games that I've played: through my teens D&D 3, with the usual mixture of GM-led story and princess play. Then in more recent years some story games: Intrepid, Lady Blackbird, Witch: JTL, Dungeon World, plus a couple of others. And I've also delved into OSR via the school of Eero.

The question I have is about the GM's role in escalating conflict. In OSR play, I understand how this works: my concern is to treat fictional positioning, at all levels, deadly seriously. If it has been established there are sleeping goblins around the corner, and the party's struggle with a carrion crawler makes too much noise ("too much" perhaps being established via a listen check), then the goblins will wake up and get involved. When things are less well established (for example, a more improvisational situation, with less dungeon prep) I make similar calls: Well, I know this is a lawless badlands area, and it fits with my aesthetic that these would have roaming bandits. So when the players light a fire on a hill at night, I make a judgement that it's likely they will be spotted - maybe I roll a 1 in 3 - and bandits show up.

But because my concern is fictional consequences, and a living breathing world, and this gamestyle is very much "Story Later" (as opposed to Story Now), sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes it's just dull. The players may quest through an easy dungeon, and my prep says that's all the challenge there is. Or they may be overwhelmed, and get the party wiped out.

Now what about narrative games with a strong GM role where player input is (formally, at least) limited to saying who their character is and what they do? For example, Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, or Lady Blackbird (at least at one end of the axis of ways to play Lady Blackbird). And let's consider Dungeon World, since it's a similar genre of fiction.

In Dungeon World, it won't be a simulationist concern that brings the sleeping goblins. It's more likely to be a "Show signs of approaching threat" move in response to a player missing a move. I probably haven't prepped the dungeon, so when I decide to make that move, and when I decide to bring goblins around the corner it's because my sense of story and drama, and my desire to fill the player's lives with adventure, suggests that's the best way. (Apparently goblins was the best thing I could think of!). Equally, if I decide not to escalate, so there's nothing between the players and their objective, that's for narrative concerns - so we don't get the "dull" problem of OSR play.

So here's the crux of it: If I keep bringing in more threats, and snowballing things, based on my sense of story (and it doesn't have to be just monsters, it can be the layout of the dungeon, how much further there is to go, how many obstacles are in their way) then aren't I back to illusionism? The players' moment by moment choices affect how well they deal with the current threat, but if I respond to make sure there's always a "satisfying" level of adventure and derring do, to make sure the characters' lives are filled with adventure, then ultimately their choices aren't having an effect on the story beyond colour.

What am I missing?

P.S. Because text on the Internet is a bad conveyor of emotions let me state clearly: I love the games I've listed. I'm not wanting anyone to "defend" these games. I'm just trying to get them better.


  • Or to put it another way: How can I "play to find out" without any fixed points, just a general sense of how to improvise things that might happen in the world of the game?
  • My understanding of how it’s “supposed” to work is that the in-fiction choices still make a big difference to the way the fiction plays out. Even if at the meta-level you are faking it in order to fill their lives with adventure, the exact nature of that adventure depends on the fictional decisions that the players take.

    If the adventurers take some hard decision (a Devil’s Bargain sort of thing) that causes a village to be wiped out, then that village has indeed disappeared and that will have in-fiction consequences (cannot resupply there; beloved innkeeper now dead; etc). Somehow, despite this, the party’s life is still filled with adventure, but the fiction is different.

    On the other hand, if the party views fiction as shalllow set-dressing then I can see them not buying into “fictional consequences”, and so the meta-level faking becomes more apparent.
  • So here's the crux of it: If I keep bringing in more threats, and snowballing things, based on my sense of story (and it doesn't have to be just monsters, it can be the layout of the dungeon, how much further there is to go, how many obstacles are in their way) then aren't I back to illusionism? The players' moment by moment choices affect how well they deal with the current threat, but if I respond to make sure there's always a "satisfying" level of adventure and derring do, to make sure the characters' lives are filled with adventure, then ultimately their choices aren't having an effect on the story beyond colour.
    I think using DW as an example is probably a big part of the problem. I'd question how exemplary it even is of "narrative" or "story now" gaming; my take on DW has largely been that, whether by intention or adoption, it's more an example of rendering "middle-school" D&D (the sort of archetypal, story-driven, heroic action type) in the PbtA framework. That's the gaming milieu out of which the "illusionist" style arose, of course. A lot of D&D play conceits that are suppressive of effective story now play (parties, the quest/adventure structure) are still present in the ways that lots of people use DW. It's less an issue of mechanics than it is the overall story framework.

    For me, ideal story now play should be the opposite of what you're describing (which I gather you also realize or you wouldn't be asking); the players are the ones whose choices escalate things, not the GM. I think that a lot of DW moves are designed to recreate things that D&D adventurers do, NOT to create the interesting circumstances that are in-particular conducive to story now play.
  • edited November 2018

    I think using DW as an example is probably a big part of the problem. I'd question how exemplary it even is of "narrative" or "story now" gaming
    I haven't played or run Dungeon World in years; I was pretty much done with it by the time I got my kickstarter book. I ran a fair amount of the Red Book, though, and I don't think the finished product itself is substantially different in outlook or tools (though there are more tools, obviously).

    That's a preface to say that, across my instances of Dungeon World play, I don't think I can look back and see much Story Now. Dungeon World as written is probably a really good candidate for fun Participationism. I should probably go back and read it.
  • This is a good foundational question, I think. The answers are out there, and I personally think that they are very powerful and definitive, so it's just a matter of finding the specific puzzle pieces you need for it to make sense.

    You might find the concept of "dramatic coordination" useful here. It's the name I've given to the type of GMing that dramatic narrativistic games most of then expect and require for good performance. (This is technically specific category, so it's not a given that this fits every game you might think of, but I think it's pretty close to the core of your question.)

    In your average GM-full dramatic game the GM is responsible for scene framing - that is to say, he has content authority in that he chooses moment-to-moment what subject matters will be dealt with in the game, in what order. Most of these games have rich systems like character creation and character agency moderating the GM's content authority, but even if the GM can't choose arbitrarily, they usually still have to make choices simply because having the GM frame is one of the few known power solutions to making a game like this work fluidly.

    So OK, we've established that the GM needs to choose what happens in the game - not in the sense of deciding how a scene develops, but in the most primal sense of deciding whether the next scene will have a dragon that wants to talk to the protagonist, or if now's the time to reveal the protagonist's long lost brother, or what. Usually the actual scene once underway will progress by simply "play to find out" logic, but that initial choice about how the scene begins - that's where the GM has a massive responsibility. As you very correctly say, some sort of neutral referee world simulation angle is rather counterproductive for a game like this, as we definitely want to avoid dead scenes. As I often explain it: when the protagonist of a movie gets lost in the woods, the scriptwriter does not have the option of them just... stumbling about for hours on end with nothing interesting happening. Yet this is precisely what a wargame referee might have happen.

    I call the type of creative heuristic the GM of this type of game uses "dramatic coordination" - it is the way you GM to achieve dramatically relevant content of play. Forgite drama game theory has produced a very satisfactory standard model for how to go about this, so I'll just do a quick write-up of that. Something like this:

    Thematic Premise: When you first set up a game, the initial choices about the subject matter, characters, setting and such define one or more thematic Premises. A "Premise" is basically an engaging philosophical question, though it is generally not discussed explicitly among the players; rather, it's the underlying reason for why a given literary conceit holds your curiousity and concern.

    Developing the Premise: As the GM of a game that benefits from dramatic coordination you should be aware of the thematic potential of your game. This then enables you to prepare or improvise content of play that develops the relevant themes. Using Bangs is a classical technique for thematic development, for instance, but any techniques that bring the theme forward in the on-going plot of the game fit this notion; not all GMing methodologies use Bangs.

    Thematic Climax: The goal in playing a meaningful story is essentially to clearly establish a thematic Premise (usually, several in tandem), then develop it into maturity (examine it in detail through plot events), and finally achieve a thematic climax by having the story provide its final conclusion on the Premise. The end outcome is a "Theme" in technical terms: an internal meaning in the story. Success in this endeavour means that the story you create via play is meaningful instead of trivial.

    The role of character players in this: Generally speaking this type of game leaves dramatic coordination primarily to the GM, which means that the other players are entirely insulated from having to worry about the "good of the story". Rather, their job is to play their characters as "protagonists", which term in this context means the character whose choices ultimately define the thematic climax of the story: the players create the story by playing the characters who make the crucial choices.

    The task of the dramatically coordinating GM: Given all of the above points, the GM's task is to make scene framing (content authority) choices that best facilitate having the other players introduce, develop and resolve thematic Premise. That's all there is to it.

    I'll note here that wrangling drama on this level of pure drama theory is an advanced gaming topic in the sense that we're relying on GM skill to perform most of the heavy lifting. Good games provide you a lot of supporting structure to do the dramatic coordination, but ultimately it's a skill that I expect a master of the art to learn to do essentially unaided. All the Bangs and Relationship Maps and Character Flags and such are useful tools, but you can do all this with just a notebook and a keen understanding of drama theory.

    An example of how the above mass of concepts translates into play:

    Let's say that the player character has been established as the heir to a kingdom. Their elder brother, the true heir, was disappeared 10 years ago by good-meaning yet morally compromised people who believed him to be a demon. There is also other stuff going on here, but to keep the example simple, let's just go with this amount of Situation.

    Let's furthermore say that the game's already been started, and in the last scene the player character Heir encountered some hostile knights intent on killing them, and responded to this by escaping to the woods. The PC is confused and fearful, as something politically drastic is clearly going on in the kingdom.

    Now, my question is: how does the GM best coordinate the development of the drama here? What is the fruitful scene framing decision to make next?

    As I already touched on earlier, I think that it is trivially clear that getting confused by some sort of realistic wilderness simulation procedure is a dramatic dead end; whatever we choose to do next at the game table cannot be anything that amounts to "nothing happens". This is not to say that we cannot talk about how the PC wanders about for hours or days, surviving by their wits in the woods; however, all this merely amounts to bridge narration for a dramatic story game, so however much we decide to do that for stylistic purposes, the question remains the same: what relevant thing occurs next?

    I expect that you already see that the answer, in terms of dramatic coordination, is necessarily in the thematic premise of the story: what is the red thread that this story is following? What unresolved premises does it have? Should new premise be introduced to bring meaning to the story?

    Answering these questions provides us with our essential three choices to make for what the next scene might be, but first we need to be capable of recognizing the Premise. So, what's the premise of this story? I'll note that I would expect any moderately skilled story game GM to be able to answer the question (even if they might word it very differently).
  • Here's the answer in my words:

    The protagonist is the beneficiary of an illegal act done out of pure motivation, but not necessarily with full knowledge of the facts. Is their kingship justified in the end?

    Given that we can recognize at least one Premise in the story, we can do dramatic coordination. Here are our options:

    Develop a Premise: Considering how this story has only barely started, we might do well to have the next scene introduce more plot that defines the circumstances of the Premise better, preparing it for resolution later. For example, the PC might stumble to a mysterious cottage in the forest, and they might meet an old family retainer there, one of the people who participated in the shameful coup 10 against the PC's brother 10 years back. This retainer will then tell the PC about the circumstances of their brother's disappearance. They might lie or leave stuff out or whatever, depending on how aggressive we want to be about the development scene.

    Frame a thematic climax: Admittedly this story hasn't been very long by rpg standards yet, but short stories definitely also have a purpose, so maybe we want to just resolve our Premise now. To resolve, we need to empower the PC to make decisions that answer the Premise, so something like this: the PC comes upon a strange knight, wounded in the woods. The knight admits that they are the PC's lost brother, who's become a highwayman after being separated from the royal family. He has done many crimes, but when he saw his sibling on the road, he refused to attack them; the other bandits struck him down and left him for dead, as they wanted to attack the prince. Now, what does the PC do about this immediate situation? (Probably going to be a couple of scenes, but might resolve everything immediately.)

    Introduce a new Premise: The story might be in a state where you feel that what it most needs is more content; in some games this is never the GM's task, but in others the GM is expected to maintain a "content quotient" that requires them to start up new storylines occasionally. Maybe this is one of those games and we decide that this whole lost prince thing can wait, and instead we need a new theme. Consequently, maybe the PC encounters a a magical spring in the woods, and the spring reveals to them that the knights who attacked him are fairy knights conjured into existence by the loss of True Love. In a later scene the prince will then discover the NPC whose Love was broken, and so on and so forth - it's essentially a side story about faeries and love.

    Now, you might notice an element that is common with all of those options: they are all very, very pacing-contextual: which one you do, and precisely how you do it, depends on the overall structural assumptions and dramatic pacing of the game. The same exact Premise will be handled completely differently by a oneshot game or a long campaign game, for example.

    And... that's pretty much the generic theory of dramatic coordination, isn't it? Any more detailed and we'll need to start talking about specific games.

    I'll also answer your explicit question about GM escalation and character player agency, in case the above treatment doesn't already answer it: the GM indeed has the power to ruin the game, but they can avoid this by treating concepts like "resistance" and "difficulties" and "danger" in terms of dramatic coordination: you set up scenes to enable opportunities for themes to develop and get resolved. Providing resistance to characters is technically speaking a mere side effect, or perhaps a specific means of providing exposure to a premise.

    The other players retain their agency because they're playing protagonists, by the way. Their being the protagonists of the story means that you are literally not allowed to frame a scene where their choices are insignificant; it's a technical framing error if you do. When the flow of the story demands deprotagonization, it's not a "scene", but merely a narrative bridge. The GM is responsible for holding themselves to the virtue of dramatic coordination, which ultimately means: any scene you frame must always do something productive towards enabling the player characters to resolve their thematic premises. That's how you avoid deprotagonization and GM tyranny.
  • I think using DW as an example is probably a big part of the problem.
    Yeah, I'm in accord on that: DW is not a very powerful game for narrativist "story now" play. I also see it more as an advanced Sim design for doing middle school D&D (AD&D 2nd edition) with better tools. Great for playing Dragonlance, not so good for some other things a theory-head might call "story gaming".
  • I agree with yukamichi and Eero about DW and the summary about dramatic coordination is great!

    I just want to reply to a smaller, completely different issue: Sometimes nothing happens in an OSR game. Sometimes it doesn't reach a climax in a narrativist game.

    But a lot of times the players still love it. Ive come to realize that around quarter to half of my frustration during GMing comes from failing my own very high expectations and not from the others. So its in my head and I should just let it go. I hope it helped :)
  • Thank you all for your answers - very kind of you to take the time to help out a newbie!
    Their being the protagonists of the story means that you are literally not allowed to frame a scene where their choices are insignificant; it's a technical framing error if you do
    That's a helpful thought. I do think that a lot of scenes in DW probably break this rule, which may support what people are saying about DW not being the best game for this thought experiment. I believe this is partly because the high fantasy, D&D inspired play tends towards a lot of violence, where the meaningful outcomes will most often be death for one side of the other, but that the high fantasy genre doesn't really allow for the players dying and failing all the time (unlike OSR). You really need to add other stakes (like stopping the portal opening in time) which, to be fair, a lot of the DW examples show.

    Also, even in games where the GM frames scenes, you can pass authority to the players by asking questions. "...only the bearer of the three shards can reverse the curse. Jason, in your wizardly training, did you read about the location of the blue shard? Where did the tome say it was?" But it's tricky in the "dungeon" situation, as the genre conventions are that it's an unknown and hostile place. It would be weird if the GM asked leading questions about the layout.
    Any more detailed and we'll need to start talking about specific games.
    Would Lady Blackbird be a game we could discuss in more detail, or are the rules too lightweight for them to have an opinion?
    But a lot of times the players still love it. Ive come to realize that around quarter to half of my frustration during GMing comes from failing my own very high expectations and not from the others. So its in my head and I should just let it go. I hope it helped
    Thanks for the encouragement! Yeah, I'm definitely relaxed about empty space in an OSR game. I should probably feel less pressure to make every moment of narrative games full and dramatic.
  • I am not very well-versed with Lady Blackbird, but from what I remember about it, it's essentially identical to the Shadow of Yesterday / Solar System in terms of GM methodology. The latter is a game that I know pretty well.

    In the Solar System the GM "escalates" by introducing situations that are relevant to the Keys of the player characters (and Key Elements of their scenario prep). The game has significant game balance measures that make it very difficult to unintentionally overwhelm the player characters as long as you perform even the most basic dramatic coordination. For example, it would be technically possible to overwhelm a player character by insisting that they fight one-on-one duels with a hundred orcs in a row, but this would be so mechanically boring and so dramatically pointless that the situation would never occur with even an entirely green GM as long as they are aware of the necessity of coordinating drama (instead of simulating orc-killing or something like that).

    The existence of mechanical securities like that means that the specific way the GM performs in this family of games differs from games that don't feature mechanical auto-balancing. When inventing resistance in these games you can just draw on your setting insight and your understanding of the character flags (the Keys), and put down something that is simultaneously true to the setting and relevant to the flags. Then you can just have the scene proceed into rolling dice to see what happens. Very simple, really, especially as the game also includes explicit flagging that, when properly performed, makes it trivial to recognize which Premises you're supposed to be developing.

    All in all, the TSoY family of games are rather easy to coordinate dramatically, as you generally know what the Premise of the story is supposed to be at any given time, and you don't need to worry about generating a scene idea that will accidentally kill a player character or something like that. The TSoY methodology also insists that the GM does not need to choose when the climax occurs; you just play on regarding any given Key until the player feels that it is time to do the buyoff, or their character Transcends (for those variants of the game that include Transcendence - Lady Blackbird doesn't have that, I think). I might say that TSoY provides specific mechanical tools to help out in everything except actually inventing scenes to match any given mechanical Premise; that you need to largely do yourself.
  • Eero's covering it nicely, but I'll add this:

    In just about any game of the sort we are discussing, there are techniques and methods, but there are also "principles", which lead to good or bad play.

    Just like the OSR GM doesn't arbitrarily create a dungeon which is impossible to explore, a monster with 100,000,000 hit points, or give every enemy an Armor Class of -157, the GM running a game with narrative interests should have a clear sense of how and why she makes decisions.

    As an OSR GM, how do you structure a random table for encounters? You operate from principles: what you're trying to emulate, what you're trying to create, and how it feels at the table. You don't arbitrarily throw down the most fearsome monsters at your disposal and then demand for a random encounter roll every 5 minutes of play, right?

    Something like Apocalypse World lays out the principles behind the GM's thinking fairly thoroughly. In other games, the mechanics help take care of some of these issues.

    When playing such a game, you must have some sense of what makes for good play and what makes for poor play, and then follow those guidelines and expectations. It's just as true for the players: good sportsmanship (e.g. don't cheat at the dice), concepts of spotlight and fair play, and principles of fair interpersonal interaction all apply.

    As an OSR GM, this typically means prepping something in a principled manner, and then sticking to that. Do Orcs in your campaign all get 1 HD? Then you don't break that rule without some clear, principled reason.

    It's not too different as a GM in a more free-flowing game with a narrative structure. When you set up some form of conflict or opposition, form, in your mind, a clear sense of its limits and then stick to those. Often, in the case of thematic conflicts, this means coming up with a clear idea of the level of opposition, and then sticking to those. For instance, you might say to yourself, "Ok, the police chief opposes the character, and he'll do anything to stop him, so long as it doesn't cost him his job. He has three assistants at his disposal, and one is a violent maniac."

    The reason you do this (and it will be different in every game, depending on what is significant mechanically) is to allow yourself to "play to find out". Just like in an OSR game, you intentionally limit the opposition and then stick to those limits, because what you want is to be surprised at the outcome (whether it's a question of "who wins" or a question of "how much does this cost the protagonist?" or some other question - that depends on the game).

    You cannot practically "play to find out" without some self-imposed limits on your opposition - it's not different from any other game where the GM is in charge of providing adversity and has no "hard limits" on how much adversity to present.

    You set up a well-defined conflict, the players all agree to it, and then you all conspire together to observe and honour the outcome of the conflict. Why? Because that's the whole point of playing. In the same way, in an OSR game, you don't lie about your character's hit points or change the, say, XP rules to keep a character from leveling up. You set up the proverbial bowling pins, and, once they're set, you've entered an unspoken agreement, as a group, to see whether they will stand or be knocked down.

    In some games, this is provided by other mechanics, of course. For example, in a game with a scene budget you might all work together to establish that in THIS scene, the conflict must be resolved - whatever happens, stands.

    In something like Apocalypse World, many of the moves and player choice similarly "force your hand": a certain fictional situation is presented, certain moves are rolled and/or triggered, and an outcome is presented by the game's rules. For a simple example, consider that the harm rules prevent you from creating "indestructible" NPCs. Similarly, a 12+ on an advanced "seduce/manipulate" roll locks you into changing the nature of an NPC. And so on - the game presents all kinds of ways to make these things binding.

    In a game like Lady Blackbird, more of these elements are negotiated in the moment, but they should still be binding and honoured by everyone. In other words, when Lady Blackbird meets Uriah, and you establish a conflict for her to win him over, you might say, "so, this conflict is about his repressed feelings for her, and whether she can bring them out." Then you roll the dice; once they hit the table, you're committed to the outcome - you've created a contract with the other players to honour a certain outcome, and once it happens, your role is to honour it fully. If she succeeds, he's in love with her (or whatever you agreed upon).

    It's helpful to recognize explicit conflicts for this, by the way. I'd recommend reading up on the "Let It Ride" rule from Burning Wheel; most modern "thematic conflict" games will fall flat if you don't use something like that to apply to conflict resolution.
  • edited November 2018
    Keys are perfect beacons, and a wonderful tool, but consider this : they need to be set up with some precision, yet lack precision during play.
    The big advantage of claims (Annalise) or goals (Capes) in term of storytelling is this : the themes, the high level conflicts, are written there for all to see. Coordinating is suddenly much easier. I wonder why anybody aiming at a nice closureful narrative experience wouldn't use this much satisfying tool.
  • Sure, sure - I'm quite aware of how difficult the theoretically simple act of flagging a campaign correctly can be in practice. "Players lie", as the good GM House is fond of saying, and this becomes very relevant when it comes to a game that asks the players to enumerate the themes they wish to explore in the game. I've actually found that it's often best to assume as the TSoY Story Guide that the initial Keys of the player characters are something you'll buy out and replace with the real Keys once you've tested the characters a bit and found out what the players are actually interested in. The second batch, created/chosen in the context of an on-going game, are often much more to the point.

    My explanation of the tools that TSoY uses wasn't intended as an argument for its inherent superiority. Although the art has progressed slower over the last decade, we could still probably improve upon the game a bit today if somebody took a hankering to do so.

    The disadvantage of Goals as a flagging device, by the way, is that although they are somewhat easier to be honest with, they also limit the story game thematically to blood opera and action drama: every theme has to be capable of being expressed as a character goal. It's not a wrong thing to do, but there are thematic subjects for which character goals are an awkward fit.
  • I don't see this limitation, but that will be food for my thinking, thank you.
  • Indeed. Each form has its limitations. Many PbtA "moves" are actually Keys in disguise.

    For example, take the Mortal in Monsterhearts.Here are two of the Mortal's best moves (in my opinion):

    Sympathy is My Weapon
    Every time you forgive someone for
    hurting you, and excuse their base
    nature, take a String on them.

    Excuses Are My Armour
    When you ignore some blatant
    problem with your lover or how they
    treat you, mark experience.
    Those are both wonderful, and are excellent "flags", not just for the GM but (even moreso) for the other players. They drive some excellent play.

    Either would be very difficult to recreate with a "Goal" mechanic.

    Mo Turkington used to write about "Push" vs. "Pull" mechanics; this is a good example of that. Capes's "Goals" are all Push, in her terms, whereas these are more like Pulls. Different dynamic at work.
  • edited November 2018
    I am quite aware Tony LB likes or liked to "push", but that's just a trait of personality showing in his game design, not something inherent to Goals. But let's not talk about Capes : you can easily make the Key mechanic a special case of the larger Goal mechanic, houseruling that under certain conditions (flashlight dropping or whatnot) "the bank" will pay part of the expenses.

    In any case, I found this analogy useful : to propel yourself in the fiction with some kind of direction, you have to "shoot some web" up and ahead, communicating (clearly and frequently) your expectations about the future. This you can do with crumbs, mission, flags, pre-structured arcs, goals mechanic, etc. all relying diversely on a GM or group intellect. To put it another way : you need this fixed points pretty badly, they are not contradictory with "play to find out". But you need to be ready to update them frequently according to the flow of information at the table. Not one big vector, many of them, coming from all around the table.
  • Really? How would you rewrite such Keys in a Goals framework? And, if you can, how are they distinct from the original Keys?

    Keys can also establish points of thematic interest or dynamics to explore, without indicating a particular direction or endpoint, in the way that Goals do. Those are interesting distinctions, in my opinion.

    Finally, Keys can also set characters at odds with themselves, in a way that would be bizarre and difficult to arrange with Goals (the Key buyoff being one example of that).
  • edited November 2018
    The details by MP.
    It looks like we have different meaning for Goals : for me it is this mechanic where a player proposes "what will be next" and they all bid resources to make their prefered outcome happen, or to narrate the particulars, or to win resources, or a bit of everything. Forget the particulars of Capes, focus on this central function : on the fly (1) flagging building up to the point (2) where the end seems impredictible (1) and yet necessary (2). Here's escalation for me.
    I make the players write what they think would be cool next, and lay it down for all to see, wielcoming everybody to state their position regarding these propositions. I don't do this out of pure hippiness but because it makes the table a good creative collective.
  • Ah, if we're talking about escalation, that's definitely a good way to do it (and also a good way to solve the problem being discussed in this thread).

    I was just responding to your confusion about what Keys can do that Goals don't.
  • I see now ! there's no need for endpoint with Keys, no "fixed point" ahead, they can take advantage of a particular, mobile context (like sails take advantage of the wind).
  • Thank you for your interesting replies. Having read those and thought about things more, and having spoken to a good friend I game with regularly, I've come to the conclusion that I've identified the wrong problem.

    My problem is not that the players' choices are inconsequential, or that I'm failing to commit to the results of conflict resulting, but that I feel like I am too unconstrained to get the full benefits of playing to find out - I'm lacking fixed points, to use DeReel's term.

    Let me give an example. In a recent DW game (which I sold as a oneshot which might be followed up if we enjoyed it) I chose as an initial situation that the PCs had just grabbed a magical orb from the highest room of a wizard's tower in a big, corrupt, skyscraper filled fantasy city. Other than some general vibes about fantasy metropolises, that was my total prep.

    The players jumped out the window as the tower began to deploy defences, engaged in a high-octane sky car chase, before ultimately crashing into the nether regions of the city, where they found themselves face to face with a tribe of warrior orcs who lived in the putrid shadows of the city.

    Now, I didn't plan that: If the players and the rules had spoken differently, their hijacked skycar might have made it out of the city and to some other destination. Or they might have been arrested. Or something else. But on the other hand, when they crashed below the city, I could have come up with anything else that fit with the aesthetic: a grimy dungeon ruin, populated by slug monsters; a secret government base; a peaceful pastoral people who worshipped them as gods from above.

    Nothing about the players goals at this point (since this is a game that lacks much thematic flagging) was able to inform that choice. (I had been asking the players questions about their characters, but none of it felt like it could be relevant here). And I had no plans or prep for this place. So I felt like it was a decision ex nihilo.

    And my feeling is that this has been normal for my narrative GMing. I keep coming up with new and fresh stuff in response to players' genuine choices, which is nevertheless mostly just free improv. Whereas the times when I feel constrained are the ones I enjoy much more - then I feel like I'm interacting with something alive, rather than just narrating.

    The conclusion I came to in my conversation with my friend is we just need to play longer games. At the beginning, the whole world and much of the situation is blank. So who knows what's below the city? But once the players have gone on a quest and they return to the city, that's an established detail. Now if they fall down we *know* what's there. And we know what kind of food the orc chief likes best. Plus with DW fronts, I can probably keep bringing back existing factions (the cops, the wizards from the tower, the orcs) and so focus on the interesting aspects that have been established, rather than keeping turning over blank tiles.

    Alternatively, judging by replies above, I could play a game that establishes a lot more Situation and Theme up front, and those would constrain my GMing faster.
  • Thank you for your reply, I think I understand your problem better now.

    Long term context building definitely helps. It is said about AW and it's hacks that they really kick in around the 6th session.

    I've experienced your problem but could never articulate it. My advise for myself would be to search for something which the players care about.

    To do that you could try the following principles:
    - Slow down play
    - Focus on relationships to NPCs, places and values (PC-PC-NPC triangles?)
    - Zoom in and out more
    - Ask about the PC's thoughts and emotions, not just about their action
    - Ask questions where the players have to choose between mutually exclusive but valuable things
    - Ask for visceral, IRL player imput (what they hate the most, etc) and use their 'bleed'

    I hope some of them helps

  • Thanks hamnacb. Yeah, it should be said that what I'm mostly trying to articulate here is a *feeling* - it's very subjective. When I'm happiest, I have this feeling that the story (or maybe the shared imagined space) is somehow "solid", a real thing with its own separate existence. And when I come away from a play session dissatisfied it's often because I had a feeling that there was no "resistance" -- the story feels like empty air to me.

    A high point was in our first OSR campaign, where players were able to apply knowledge gained about the undead from an arcane tome they had found in a crypt and deciphered to predict the behaviour of undead in another context. At that point the game world had sufficient independent reality that rather than turning to me and saying "could we...? what if...?" they were able to plan and formulate without me being involved at all. Then when I later responded in fiction with the zombies (confirming some theories, negating others) I felt like the world had real momentum and weight.

    Whereas our first game of Lady Blackbird, we all loved in the moment, and I know the players went away satisfied with it. But I came away feeling like I'd just been spinning a yarn - my choices at a higher level (i.e. scene framing) didn't feel much more constrained that if someone had just said, "Martin, tell us a story about these characters" and then occasionally interjected with "Ooh, wouldn't it be cool if they *didn't* succeed at that bit".

    I think what Eero has said above would inform how I would GM Lady Blackbird if I did it again - this isn't a criticism of that game. Rather, I'm just trying to put more fully into word and example this feeling, since it seems to have struck a chord with hamnacb, and perhaps will be useful to others.
  • You might also consider using an established game world of your own making or made by someone else, or even use the real world. Just playing for long tends to create one, of course, but maybe you have one available from previous play.

    It should help with the game reality feeling more solid and real, at least.
  • Perhaps you should play some story games that feature more concrete prep. It's not impossible to combine a relatively solid world with dramatic coordination gameplay. Arbitrarily improvised GM content is just one way to approach this whole subject.

    This might be an useful comparison: I would be fully willing to play an old school D&D sandbox as a narrativist story game content-wise if I was also allowed to replace all those random encounter dice rolls with dramatic coordination. The facts of the setting would still stand with no arbitrariness to it, it would just happen to be the case that wherever a character could encounter dramatically relevant content, that would happen, because instead of rolling for its odds I would simply decide that this would be so.

    I would also prefer to use an action resolution rules set that was more random and had more dramatic pacing than old school D&D, of course. Something like "my character's father is a lich and he's trying to find me to kill me" would be much more playable for a drama game if the rules system didn't practically guarantee that a 1st level character dies when a lich catches up with them. This is just like any adventure movie, really: we don't generally expect Darth Vader to not ever get to interact with Luke Skywalker just because the former is much more powerful than the latter. Rather, we expect the rules system to be so fair and dramatized that the underdog has a fair chance (and practically speaking more than that after you account for all sorts of heroic bonuses).

    (Or, if we insisted on using the D&D resolution rules, I would simply be forced to acknowledge the mechanical realities and ensure that all scenes between the boy and the lich had some equalizing factors that ensured that the boy would have a fair chance of getting away if that's what he wanted to try. Just like adventure stories, again - hobbits have been hiding from ringwraiths for several decades by this point.)
  • I think I need to play either story games that feature more concrete prep or play emergent games long enough that the established details of character, place, relationships, and so on begin to really have teeth. Plus, of course, not every game I play has to be completely "my jam" - it's just good to know how to achieve the thing I enjoy.

    I've tended to enjoy GM-less games regardless, as even if the game isn't making strong statements, the other players are, so again I feel less adrift.
  • Although having equivocated: by all means suggest story games that feature concrete prep. Ideally for my circumstances ones that can having a satisfying endpoint in 1 - 3 sessions, as time and commitment are in short supply in my gaming group!
  • Are familiar with the starters for DW?

    They are a set of bangs, kicks, questions and tones which can help you have a strong start!

  • You can also define character arcs independent of where they are, if you like burning one isolated place after another.
  • Sorry, @DeReel, I don't follow what you mean.

    The DW starters look really fun :) Thanks @hamnacb. I will take a more thorough look at them soon.
  • I agree that I would find the situation you've described fairly uninteresting to play. I prefer to have more established Situation before or as we start playing.

    In my experience, the way to make truly improvised GMing like you're describing work is to lean far more heavily on the players. Share out the feeling of "we don't know what's around the next corner", in other words.

    Otherwise you get a string of somewhat random action scenes with little to pull them together. That can be fun... but it doesn't really interest me anymore.

    But, also, your DW setup have you very little sense of what, thematically, is of interest here. Part of the problem is that DW doesn't give you much to go on - the game is pretty weak on that sense, and depends on the GM to provide the material, to a large extent.

  • edited November 2018
    You mentioned "Characters, places, factions" as things that could bring realism to the setting. This doesn't go well with the possibility of traveling far and totally changing environment, like bold adventurers, roving cowboys or space travelers do. If you want to keep the adventures moving, you can't expect the setting to build itself : it will not last long enough. But you can prepare landmarks for PC development : as far as they go, they will always find themselves there.
  • Great point, DeReel. That's what a lot of character drama games do (e.g. Lady Blackbird, at least when it's played right).


    I've done a fair bit of thinking about how minimal a setup has to be for successful and fun roleplaying in this style, and I'm quite happy with my "NPC Starter" for AW; I think it nails very effectively a very minimalist but very efficient way to start a game. I've used this kind of technique a lot, and it really works.

  • Although having equivocated: by all means suggest story games that feature concrete prep. Ideally for my circumstances ones that can having a satisfying endpoint in 1 - 3 sessions, as time and commitment are in short supply in my gaming group!
    I like games like Sorcerer, The Mountain Witch, Dust Devils, My Life with Master, Polaris, Legends of Alyria and other similar classic Forge style drama games for a "scenario slot" like that. It's actually pretty common for this class of games to prosper in the span of 2-3 sessions. Many of these struggle in a pure one-shot, but give them those two or three sessions, and you'll find yourself easily finishing a satisfyingly deep and dramatically complete storyline similar to a novel or a movie.
  • @DeReel: Thanks, yes, I was just trying to reel off some categories that concrete details, not trying to limit myself to those. But you raise a valid point.

    @Paul_T, @hamnacb: I've now taken a look at both Dungeon Starters and Paul's NPC starter (which both look excellent by the way). It does feel like those two games, and possibly many Powered by the Apocalypse games, build theme (and thus the potential for dramatic coordination, to use Eero's terminology) by relying heavily on the GM asking good questions. As someone new to narrative GMing, I've often struggled with this. And without good questions, my similarly inexperienced players tend to miss the point - giving answers that make their lives easier rather than the story more rich. I feel like AW and DW were both written by people who find asking the right questions easy, and natural, because they've been doing it for a while. These kind of "question kits" are helpful training wheels for me.

    @Eero_Tuovinen: Thank you for the suggestions. It will doubtless take me a while to digest these. I've looked into (but never played) Sorcerer, The Mountain Witch, and My Life with Master before. The others are all new to me. I had kind of got the impression that Sorcerer was longer format?

    Happy to other games recommended to me. Story Games is a great community; I feel lucky to be here. :)
  • Sorcerer doesn't make a big number of how tightly scenario-based it is, probably because it came out at a time when being scenario-based was distinctly weird and not considered particularly meritous. In practice, though, it's basically precisely as scenario-based as any drama game that ever scenario-ed: you make up some characters, give them dramatic starting situations, have the GM develop a tight situation around them, and then play to see what happens with all that. Then do that again if you want to do a campaign, but it's not like it's mandatory.

    Admittedly Sorcerer may be a smidgen slower in build-up than some other scenario-based games, but that just means that it might take 3-4 sessions instead of 2-3. Depends on how quick the group is in play.
  • [These games] relying heavily on the GM asking good questions. As someone new to narrative GMing, I've often struggled with this. And without good questions, my similarly inexperienced players tend to miss the point - giving answers that make their lives easier rather than the story more rich. I feel like AW and DW were both written by people who find asking the right questions easy, and natural, because they've been doing it for a while. These kind of "question kits" are helpful training wheels for me.
    Totally agree!

    1. As with fresh players who tend to give crazy-funny-stupid ideas when asked for imput, I think the key is treating their answer both seriously and producing something interesting and valuable from that. So they will feel safe and unjudged and start to relax and give a more honest and more personal aswer next time. It can foster a great improvement even under one session.

    2. Your observation about asking questions is also legit. I remember when AW came out and some people had debates about what constitutes a good provocative question.

    BitD offered more support in teaching to ask. Here it is:

    1. Ask establishing questions to set the stage for the action. Who’s leading the group? Is everyone rushing in to fight with Arcy, or is someone hanging back or doing something else? Do you want to focus on Bazso and win him over, or are you addressing the room at large to make your point?

    2. Ask provocative questions to make the players think and express their characters. What kind of person does he think you are now? Are you going to just let her get away with that? Can you bring yourself to hurt him?

    3. Ask leading questions to show the players what you’re thinking. Do you think she’s the type of person who will respond well to threats? Does anyone want to Survey the room or Study Lyssa? When you do that, the whole thing is gonna catch fire, though, right?

    4. Ask trivial questions when the mood strikes you and you’re curious. Where do you usually go for dinner? Do you have any little curios or personal items here in the lair?

    5. Ask the players for help when you’re uncertain or stuck. You don’t have to do it alone. I don’t know... should this be desperate or risky?What’s a good Devil’s Bargain here? Seems like fatal harm, I think, but maybe not? What do you think?
    Still, I think there are more to discuss here. An analytic essay on asking questions might be helpful for the whole community!!!

  • I'm jumping in a bit late here, but I feel like you are not playing Dungeon World as intended.

    The game features a number of things that are designed to address the very problems you are having, but you're not using them.

    One of the GM Principles is "draw maps, leave blanks" -- this means you're supposed to have an idea of what is where in your game. Yes, there is room for improvisation too, but you should probably KNOW that the underbelly of your corrupt city is inhabited by orcs and not slugs or whatever. You don't need to know all the places that are down there, but you're not supposed to be making up whole "tracts of land" on the fly -- if the party says "We go east" you're supposed to know that to the east is the ancient Forest of Dark Trees, not make something up on the fly.

    Similarly, there are fronts and steadings that you are supposed to use to help frame other parts of the game.

    I think one of the biggest problems people have with Dungeon World is that they don't use the whole game and wonder why it's not working the way they expect.

    I also agree that it's not really a very "storygame" game, but I think that's a different question.
  • Thanks @Airk! I know I still have lots to learn about Dungeon World. The session I was describing above was a first session. I'm aware that after that session I'm meant to prep fronts and other things. Should I have drawn a map (with blanks) before starting a first session?

    Something I'd be interested to see is an example of how much a DW GM knows at the point where the party is heading into, say, a dungeon. Maybe at the beginning of a session. e.g. How much have you decided (possibly with only a soft commitment) about factions, particular rooms, etc.? Or if dungeons aren't a feature of your play, some other kind of situation or space, like a negotiation, or a town.

    Feel free to just point me back at the text, if this something that's clearly set out all ready. But I think that the principles are there, and I could really do with a worked example! But I don't want to be lazy; I'm happy to keep working at this in practice with my group and see how I get on.
  • edited November 2018
    when they crashed below the city, I could have come up with anything else that fit with the aesthetic: a grimy dungeon ruin, populated by slug monsters; a secret government base; a peaceful pastoral people who worshipped them as gods from above . . . I felt like it was a decision ex nihilo . . . Whereas the times when I feel constrained are the ones I enjoy much more - then I feel like I'm interacting with something alive, rather than just narrating.
    I think I know exactly what you're talking about here. I like making stuff up out of nowhere, but at the same time, it feels insubstantial to me -- the fact that we're just players talking to each other is more obvious, and any sense that the imaginary place and events are "real" (or at least to some degree independent of our whims) disappears.

    Depending on what our overall system is for play, I've found all of the following to be useful at times, as GM:

    1A) Know your setting well enough that emergent questions indicate "correct" answers that feel like they're emerging from the setting rather than being invented. You don't need to place "tribe of warrior orcs" on a specific map hex, but you do need to know "the nether regions of cities tend to be controlled by tribes of demihuman warriors, with orcs being most common in the West" or some such.

    1B) Roll on a table that is specific to your setting and applies to your situation. In this case, an "urban wastes encounters" table with "warrior orc tribe" as one of the results.

    2A) Create either or both of the above yourself as prep.

    2B) Purchase either or both. You might be able to buy a setting you like from any game system and ignore the system bits.

    3) If "feeling real" is less important to you than simply not being the one responsively inventing the world, then rolling on any old content generator ought to fix that. :)

    4) Prep more. Prep the most important things you don't want to ad lib. Put that tribe on that map hex. (I assume that if this were fun for you you'd be doing it already, but I'm mentioning it for completeness' sake.)
  • Ah, I missed that it was first session. First sessions are weird. =/ The game says:

    "What you bring to the first session, ideas-wise, is up to you. At the very least bring your head full of ideas. That’s the bare minimum.

    If you like you can plan a little more. Maybe think of an evil plot and who’s behind it, or some monsters you’d like to use.

    If you’ve got some spare time on your hands you can even draw some maps (but remember, from your principles: leave blanks) and imagine specific locations."

    But honestly, I think the later stuff is pretty important. You CAN run a Dungeon World session #1 with functionally no prep, but you're going to need to make heavy use of "Ask questions, use the answers" in order to do so. You'd be better off with a "starter" along the lines of the stuff folks were talking about earlier.

    I think the game does itself a bit of disservice by saying, essentially, "It's okay if you show up with nothing but your brain." because I've never had good results with that. I always go in with a situation and its peripherals. So if the situation is a corrupt wizard city with crazy artifact that needs stealing, I also know who lives there, and what's outside and the broadstrokes details. I also encourage the PCs to add to this with heavy use of Ask Questions, Use the Answers, but I'm definitely not starting with nothing.

  • 3) If "feeling real" is less important to you than simply not being the one responsively inventing the world, then rolling on any old content generator ought to fix that. :)
    ...or ask the players!

    (And there are sneaky ways to ask that, so they don't feel as direct and on-the-nose. For example: there's a treasure chest, and you haven't decided what's in it. You could ask, "Hey, Bob, what's in the chest?" But that... will likely be to blatant for you. So, instead, you say to a different player: "Hey, Julia: where your character is from, what do you value? What's culturally important to you?"

    And then, when she tells you, roll a d6. On a 1-2, it's exactly that, and it's lovely! On a 3-4, it's that, but it's corrupt, torn, dirtied, soiled. On a 5-6, it's the very opposite (whatever that inspires in you!).

    If you separate the question to Julia from Bob opening the chest by a few minutes of dialogue, it's possible no one will ever notice.)

    Generally, though? My answer is:

    * Prep more where you want to. (Which can include random tables, of course!)

    * Ask more questions where you don't want to.

    (You can ask yourself questions, too, and flip a coin - Eero's 50/50 technique!)

    * Pick a game which gives you a better starting point, better hooks, or clearer Flags. (Seems to me DW is one of the worst culprits for this!)
  • Dungeon World IS a flag. It says "we want to play slightly zany D&D-esque adventurers doing adventurer things." ;)
  • edited November 2018
    @Airk comment made me realize that even if the standard PbtA ideal of prepping after the 1st session is better (less burdensome for GMs, less alienating for players) than the trad custom of frontloading players with a convoluted homebrew setting and plot ('Story Before'), the situation is still far from optimal.

    The ideal that you should have nearly nothing at the beginning, but a strong vision and a general sense of the setting before the 2nd session is still a high demand.

    I know that in AW the 1st session is different than standard sessions, but I think the radical difference in their nature is not stressed and highlighted enough. I mean they are like different planets.

    You need to stay away from in medias res adventuring, snowballing etc and execute super focused setting building otherwise your creation will be just a house of cards. Or do what Lady Blackbird and DW starters do, but that is definitely not 'Don't prep!' and you just broke one of the tenets of the game. Why dont use a published setting then?
  • I think AW and DW have very different ideas about the first session.
    Then I’d just say it outright to your players: "your setup’s easy and now you’ve already done it. Mine’s harder so I’m going to take this whole session to do it. So no high-tension kick off from me, let’s follow the characters around for a day and get to know them. Cool?
    Start the session with a group of player characters (maybe all of them) in a tense situation. Use anything that demands action: outside the entrance to a dungeon, ambushed in a fetid swamp, peeking through the crack in a door at the orc guards, or being sentenced before King Levus.
    Maybe Dungeon World doesn't push as much towards in medias res as I took it with my escape from a heist approach, but it seems to have more of an initial kick than AW.
  • edited November 2018
    It's not so much about the directives for how to play the first session... it's about what the game gives you to go on from the start.

    In DW, you have some colourful adventurers and some vague sense of "zany D&Dness". That's more or less it.

    In contrast:

    In AW, you start with strong themes of hope, humanity, community, and desperation. You have playbooks (not all, but many) that tie you to a community and its needs. There is a maelstrom that is both lure and enemy, and is a psychic echo of everything that's wrong with the world.

    It's a world where simply going to trade some food from your neighbour is a conflict worthy of meaningful thought and play.

    There are NPCs and people you are responsible for, and everpresent dangers to them within and without. There are start-of-session moves which get things rolling and establish problems and opportunities.

    It's a whole different thing.
  • You can absolutely start DW with an in medias res setup, and it works pretty well, but you need to be aggressive about backfilling AND you should have ideas BEYOND the situation... or players who are willing to provide them.

    "Alright Fistanstealthilus, this isn't your first heist; What's the escape plan and what's the biggest risk in it?" works. Assuming you have players who are willing to play that game. Which is not always a safe assumption.

    But to me, you've started that in medias res too far in medias. Start at the start of the heist, not at the escape. Or start when the first thing goes seriously wrong if you want, I suppose. But for all of these: you should understand the situation or have players who are willing to help you build it.

    Otherwise, yeah, you're just kinda BSing stuff up as you go along, and that's often not very satisfying.
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