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Posts Tagged ‘zero-prep game’

I don’t get enough gaming.

I listen to gaming podcasts during my commute.  Sometimes I’m really inspired by what I hear, or I pick up some great advice that I want to apply to my gaming.  But then I forget most of it.  What I really need to do is take notes, or blog afterwards about what inspired me.  But who has time for that?  When I’m listening, I’m driving.  When I stop listening, I’m at work, or I’m arriving home and it’s family time.

Narrative Control, the podcast, is my latest discovery (I’ll post a list of good RPGing podcasts one of these days).  In their episode about mysteries, they started out talking about how to give effective clues that engage players, and ended up coming to a really interesting conclusion: that setting establishment and clue revelation can look very much the same from the players’ point of view.  For example, in your first session, an advisor is seen arguing with the prince.  Is this setting establishment, i.e. this advisor is argumentative or the prince encourages open dialogue or the court is wrestling with a thorny problem; or is this a clue, i.e. this advisor is so desperate about something that he dares to argue with his prince in public?  If this is supposed to be a clue, but the social rules of the setting haven’t already been firmly established, then the players aren’t going to get it.

Another good point was that every clue revelation should also be, or be coincident with, a call to action.  The players’ reaction to a clue should never be allowed to be “oh well that’s interesting I guess.”  Either the clue directly drives them into action, or at least some kind of action should be coincident with them finding the clue.  Players want to DO stuff, and unraveling a mystery is rarely top of their list.  There’s a fine line between puzzlement and frustration.  Give the players opportunities to take action and be awesome, to keep it fun and to cement the clues in their minds.

I’m thinking back to the game that we most recently wrapped.  I wasn’t GMing this one.  It happened a few times that the GM revealed some fact and we all went “huh,” and then he had to follow up by saying something like: “just like the one you saw in the cave, remember?” or “that’s the name that the Earl’s daughter heard in her dream, remember?”  Clearly this was meant to be a big “ah-hah” moment for us, but we needed it to be spelled out.  I’m not criticizing the GM; I think he did it better than I did in my Elric campaign.  I remember having to do the same thing a lot, explaining the implications of new facts or reminding the players who key NPCs were and which noble house they belonged to.  I think I had just made my intrigues too sprawling and complex, and my clues too subtle, forgetting that I was fully immersed in this setting every night, whereas the players encountered it one night every two weeks.  Anyway, I think both of us could learn a few things from this podcast.

So, rules for running a mystery or intrigue effectively:

  • Strongly establish the setting first
  • Use the reactions of NPCs to show social rules, or show that a social rule has been broken
  • Keep intrigues relatively simple.  You can ramp up the complexity in subsequent scenarios in the same setting
  • Don’t be subtle with clues
  • Make every clue a call to action, or coincident with a reason to act
  • Make things personal for the PCs: have developments directly affect them or their loved ones or assets

There were a lot of other good points in the podcast that I’m already forgetting.  I need to listen to it again and make notes.

Tangent: Zero-Prep GMing

My group has been talking about moving to zero-prep GMing as a way to continue gaming when we’re all too busy to prep a game.  And I realized something this morning.  Zero-prep GMing doesn’t just entail a change of approach for the GM.  Zero prep entails a different style of play for the players, too.  The responsibility for creating and running the world can be more shared by everybody.  In an early episode of Narrative Control, they mention a technique from John Wick’s book Play Dirty, in which NPCs are farmed out to the players.  When you interact with the innkeeper, somebody besides the GM plays him.  When you’re called in to talk to your station chief, one of the other players takes up the role.  This gives the players greater agency to establish things in the setting, which ultimately makes the game better for everybody.  This could be expanded to other elements besides NPCs.

This is a train of thought that I want to explore some more.  Zero-prep GMing kind-of scares me.  But if we can figure out zero-prep playing, then we could end up supercharging our whole play experience.

-J

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How could one design an RPG that requires no (or minimal) GM prep, and that develops a screenplay-like or novel-like story through play, including interesting revelations and plot twists (things normally planned ahead by the author/GM)?

Perhaps a game could do in reverse what authors do: instead of planning plot twists and then revealing them, the players could invent plot twists during play and then fill in the backstory to explain them.  The backstory develops in parallel with game events.  Startling revelations don’t have to be surprises that someone prepares ahead of time; they can be realizations that occur during play.

I’m thinking of an Indie game: “system matters.”  In other words, the game mechanics should be designed to achieve that specific goal.  What would those mechanics look like?

Maybe all that’s needed is a critical mass of mysteries and characters.  During play, elements of the story evolve or appear randomly.  The players seize on the ambient and emergent elements, and make connections cooperatively.

Example:  The PCs question an NPC regarding one of the mysteries.  The GM rolls to determine whether the NPC was involved or not, was a perpetrator or a victim, is helpful or evasive.  Perhaps there could be a pile of cards instead, with suggestive 8-ball-like prompts for the GM (or the whole group), like “is keeping a secret,” “is desperate to tell their story,” “is in danger,” “is taking orders from someone else,” etc.  After the scene, the GM (or all the players) decide what that NPC’s backstory really is, and how it fits (or doesn’t fit) into the mystery and other ambient story elements.

Similarly, when PCs visit a location, randomly determine what they’ll find there: a trap, foes, an event in progress, a stash, evidence.  Relate it to an extant story element or two.

The sweet spot of this game is after a few scenes, when the players start riffing organically: “Oh!  Maybe the old lady is Orville’s grandmother, and she’s protecting him, and that’s why the bloody clothes were in her shed!”  “Yeah, and that makes Orville the werewolf!”  “Or he just thinks he’s a werewolf!  Maybe the anti-psychotics we found at Jennifer’s house were his!”  “Oh!  A secret romance between Orville and Jennifer!  It all makes sense now!”  “So, we need to find out how the deputy is involved, and where Jennifer is now.  I still think the weird lights on the hill have something to do with all this…”

Caveat: not all initial story elements will end up getting tied into the resulting narrative by the end of the game.  That’s okay.

Is there a game that already does this?

-J

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