The Same Page Tool

March 27, 2010

Functional play depends on everyone playing the same game. Sadly, many people don’t even know or negotiate what that means, and a lot of game texts leave crucial things out. Too often, people come with different ideas and don’t realize it, and it turns into a mess during play.

So, this tool is designed to clear that all up before you start playing.

Choose the Ideal Options for Play

Before you start a campaign, either the GM or the group as a whole should sit down and look at this list, and pick the ideal options for this game – for this specific rpg, this specific campaign you’ll be playing, and this particular group of people.

Talk about which choices fit and which ones do not and why. If you are playing a game that already sets these options, simply circle them accordingly.

Yes, some of you might say, “I can do 2 or 3 of those choices” – pick the one that best fits the game you’re trying to run.

There’s room for negotiation, but remember- the group needs to pick ONE of each category.

Coming together, not coming apart

DO NOT have people fill these out separately then compare. DO NOT use this as a survey to try to meet in the middle.

The point is to create a clear picture of what this game is, NOT attempt to mash together different playstyles – this has not worked very well over 30 years of the hobby.

The reason you even list the multiple options is this: most gamers assume the one or two ways they’ve played is how you play ALL games. Seeing the assumed default next to many other ways serves to highlight that it is not the ONLY way to play, but one option of many, to help people re-orient themselves, especially if they’re going into new territory.

Be aware that different games will have different answers. Different campaigns will have different answers. For example, I’ve personally played D&D with all but one of the answers below.

Same Page Tool – Checklist

Do you play to win?

a) Yes, you totally play to win! The win conditions are…
b) Good play isn’t a win/lose kind of thing

Player characters are:

a) expected to work together; conflicts between them are mostly for show
b) expected to work together; but major conflicts might erupt but you’ll patch them up given some time
c) expected to work together; major conflicts might erupt and never see reconciliation
d) pursuing their own agendas – they might work together, they might work against each other
e) expected to work against each other, alliances are temporary at best

The GM’s role is:

a) The GM preps a set of events – linear or branching; players run their characters through these events. The GM gives hints to provide direction.
b) The GM preps a map with NPCs and/or monsters. The players have their characters travel anywhere they can reach on the map, according to their own goals.
c) The GM has no plan – the GM simply plays the NPCs and has them act or react based on their motivations
d) There’s no GM. Everyone works together to make the story through freeform.
e) There’s no GM. The rules and the system coordinate it all.

The players’ roles are…

(ETA: Very much worth seeing this post by Vincent for a more in-depth set of possibilities)

a) …to follow the GM’s lead to fit the story
b) …to set goals for their characters, and pursue them proactively
c) …to fling their characters into tough situations and make hard, sometimes, unwise choices

Doing the smartest thing for your character’s survival…

a) …is what a good player does.
b) …sometimes isn’t as important as other choices
c) …isn’t even a concern or focus for this game.

The GM’s role to the rules is…

a) …follow them, come what may. (including following house rules)
b) …ignore them when they conflict with what would be good for the story
c) …ignore them when they conflict with what “should” happen, based either on realism, the setting, or the genre

After many sessions of play, during one session, a player decides to have her character side with an enemy. This is…

a) …something that shouldn’t even happen. This is someone being a jerk.
b) …where the character becomes an NPC, right away or fairly soon.
c) …something the player and the GM should have set up ahead of time.
d) …only going to last until the other player characters find out and do something about it.
e) …a meaningful moment, powerful and an example of excellent play.

A fistfight breaks out in a bar! The details of where everything is – tables, chairs, where everyone is standing is something that…

a) …is important and will be displayed on a map or grid, perhaps using miniature figures.
b) …is something the GM will describe and you should ask questions to get more information.
c) …you can decide on the spot using specific game rules (rolling dice, spending points, whatever)
d) …isn’t really that important other than it makes for an interesting scene- pretty much anyone can come up with details.

In order to really have fun with this game, the rulebook is something that…

a) …everyone playing needs to have read and understood before play, because the rules and setting are both very important.
b) …everyone should know the rules very well.
c) …everyone should know the setting very well.
d) …everyone at least should know the basics of the rules.
e) …everyone at least should know the genre the game pulls from
f) …Only one person needs to really know the rules and it can be explained in 10 minutes or less to everyone else.

Instead of “choose one” think of this as a checklist – pick which options apply, leave the ones that don’t.

This game runs best when the players take time to create characters that are…

a) …built to face challenges using the mechanics and stats.
b) …written with extensive backstories or histories
c) …given strong motivations and an immediate problem or crisis
d) …tied into the other characters as (allies) (enemies) (as either)
e) …written with some knowledge, research or reading up on the game setting, real history or an actual culture

Fiction Hurdle Questions

Does everyone know the answers to these questions for this game?  Hopefully between the game text and making choices above, the group can also be on the same page for the following points.  If not, clarify!

What kind of conflicts make sense for this game?

What kind of protagonists make sense for this game?

What kind of outcomes make sense for this game?


A couple of examples of answers from the last 3 campaigns I’ve played


Between a really useful conversation I had with Avalon’s Willow, listening to an old interview of Vincent Baker, and reading the Darths & Droids, I figured it might make sense to put together a tool for talking about “how we play what we’re playing”.

A lot of this is put together from playing in a lot of different games and seeing stuff go wrong and places where one or more folks showed up with different expectations.

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  1. This is really cool. The format lends itself to actually making a random generator, which would be rather interesting if you want to stretch your our play habits out of their comfort zone.

    This tool would also be interesting for game designers to know the kind of the game they *intend* to design. Whether that intent persists in actual play is another matter, but it’s useful for a designer to articulate for themself what it is they want to design.

    • Well, part of the reason for making this is that most games leave this unstated and “assumed”, which is how you get people together to play a game, except all of them want to play different games. I’ve been running into a lot of cases with folks looking for “GM prompts” from me, when there’s no preplanned story. Having this info included as a quicksheet is something I’m thinking is necessary in many cases.

  2. That’s a very interesting idea. The big question is how to make sure people are being honest with their answers.

    There are a few places I might like to see some additional choices, on the other hand, I don’t want wishy washy choices because that’s going to keep people from being honest.

    On the GM’s role to the rules, it feels like there needs to be a spot for “we try our best to follow the rules all the time, but sometimes we may let something slide.” But I can also see how that can easily become a wishy washy answer which lets someone who SHOULD be answering (b) or (c) there say they follow the rules, when in fact, they are always letting things slide for good story, or genre, or whatever.

    A PC siding with the enemy strikes me as having another solid option where it’s not so much a powerful, meaningful moment, but more a pragmatic type of thing. But maybe that really still is choice (e), and it just highlights that this list is only a start, a prospective group of players that are using this list to get on the same page need to have a serious conversation about each of these points.

    A guide to use of this should point out that the “following the rules” question is a good place to talk about certain aspects of the rules (such as deadliness of combat) that commonly cause strife.


    • The big question is how to make sure people are being honest with their answers.

      I’m assuming you mean folks who just aren’t aware of how they actually play, right? Odds are, those folks will look at this list, and see stuff they didn’t even know was possible. The point of the list is to get the group discussing -how- they want to play and to be cognizant that there are, in fact, different ways than the unspoken assumption everyone is coming to the table with. And, of course, to agree to it before play.

      If members of the group are knowingly dishonest about this (“You can do anything you want!/but really I’m going to railroad you”), there’s not much of a workable social contract there anyway, and they would also likely avoid such tools that bring up frank discussion in the first place.

  3. Sure agreed. And your quoting of my statement shows how it’s a bit ridiculous… Obviously a questionnaire has little hope of “making sure people are being honest.” What can be done is present options that might get people thinking as you say.


  4. Good post.

    Here’s one issue that might be relevant to add (or simply add bloat): Are player characters supposed or almost guaranteed to win or succeed, or is it up to the players or dice, or maybe the game will probably end up being a tragedy.

    • That’s a good point.

      Figuring out how to apply that as a tool will take some time, though. Tools like this, work only because they stick within a common restriction of the culture: it doesn’t ask people to connect actions in play (System) to outcomes. What other gaming communities consider a basic understanding of a game and general strategy, roleplaying culture considers “theory”.

      I’ll have to use this for a few games and see what comes of it.

    • mmm… problem is, in traditional rpg culture the answer is always the same “of course out characters are NOT guaranteed to win, that’s not how reality works!” :P
      And this stands even if they are playing high-powered super heroes in a fantasy-manga setting (menaing: characters that players EXPECT to win in most circumstances)

      more often than not the problem is not honesty, but the simple inability of KNOWING how your game truly works behind the illusion you are used to accept as THE way rpg are supposed to work :P

      • That’s actually part of the reason I put this together – when you have a bunch of people come together with differing ideas of what “The Way” is, you have problems. Pointing out that there may, in fact be MORE than the way they’re thinking of, is crucial for getting on the same page.

  5. Very, very nice! I might try this sometime.

    There are two other things I would want to discuss that may belong here:

    1. A player’s right to play a character.

    Like how in In a Wicked Age…, you may not get to play a character again if you don’t make the Owe List. Or how in some games another player can end up playing the character you created. Goes along with “can my character die/be removed from play without my consent?”

    It’s also kind of like your first category of “how do I win?”, but more like, “how does my character win?” Those can be separate issues, but maybe too detailed for this questionnaire.

    2. Adhering to Rules/Fudging

    Maybe this could go in the “GM relationship to rules” section?

    “Will the rules be a) adhered to strictly, b) adhered to strictly and always out in the open, c) kept secret and adhered to strictly, or d) kept secret and open to modification by the player handling those rules as they think is best for the game?”

    I’m thinking of Red Box D&D vs. say, Paranoia.

    Anyway, great stuff, keep it up!

  6. There are so many axes on which you can rank a gamer – we’re probably each unique as a fingerprint – getting on the same page usually means you’re willing to compromise on your preferred ideal mode of play.

    How about:

    * What can Players contribute to the story/setting?
    a) The thoughts and actions of their characters; everything else is owned by the GM.
    b) The above plus their character’s backstory; everything else is owend by the GM.
    c) The above plus occasional story bits when they spend a resource (such as whimsy cards or hero points) or make certain kinds of rolls, subject to GM’s approval.
    d) Whatever they want, subject to GM’s approval, which should be as forgiving as possible.
    e) Anything.

    * How much comedy/wacky/silliness do you like?
    a) All the time! We’re here to have fun, after all. Bring on the Muscle Cars From Space.
    b) Lots! “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” should come true all the time. On a critical fumble do a pratfall.
    c) Some. When comedy emerges from situations in play that’s great, but let’s not turn our epic fantasy into an episode of Xena.
    d) None – let’s push to avoid our natural tendency to be silly.

    * What about Acting?
    a) Yes! Everybody should be speaking in different voices and fake accents.
    b) I’ll do it, I don’t care if others do.
    c) If others are doing it, I’ll do it.
    d) No, that’s silly. This is a game, not drama club.

    * How brutal should the game be?
    a) If we do dumb things we should get a TPK. [1st ed. D&D]
    b) Combat is only interesting if at least one PC falls unconscious or is killed. [3rd ed. D&D]
    c) Whenever I miss a roll – and sometimes even when I make it – I want the situation to escalate. [Apocalypse World]
    d) Don’t hurt my character without warning. Tell me what the consequences of missing a roll could be and let me back out if I don’t like it. [Mouse Guard]

    • getting on the same page usually means you’re willing to compromise on your preferred ideal mode of play.

      I often point out the fact that negotiating to play an rpg shouldn’t be more difficult than deciding what movie to see or what food to eat as a group. Roleplaying culture suffers greatly from the need to hit “ideal” modes of play rather than what most other gamers in other gaming arenas have- a few favorite games, and several preferred games- having a decent cluster of options means most people can find common ground.

      On the other hand, folks who internalize the idea that there’s only One-True-Way to play, and that games must run for years on end, they end up having to fight for their “idealized” choice of play because their commitment expectations are ridiculously high. (think, how many bands stay together for years? How many relationships? It happens, but geez, it’s a lot to expect from a game…)

      This is why I emphasize repeatedly in this post that it’s not a quiz – don’t hand these to everyone to vote- because you WON’T get on the same page that way. Either lay it out as a GM and people can buy in or refuse, or, talk as a group and negotiate it there- compromises for good play win out over idealized play that never works, every time.

  7. Hi,

    I’d like to translate this blog entry into German and put it on my blog. Are you ok with it?

    Thanks for creating this very neat tool!

    • Hi,

      Given recent events of my work being used for profit without my permission, I’m going to have to decline. Which isn’t to say I imagine you have any ill intentions, the problem is everyone else who ends up reading your translation may not care as much about my copyright or permission. As always, though, you can quote and translate a portion of the post and link back here as per Fair Use.

      Thanks for asking, and I hope it helps you and your readers in coordinating games!

  8. Player characters are:
    f) expected to work together, but somebody is a traitor.

    What’s a good game for that?

    • Is this understood by the players at the start of the game? (like Mafia, Werewolf, the BSG boardgame, etc?) Or is this one of those GM + one player, “This will be soooo good gotcha!” type things?

      One thing I don’t address in this tool is the idea of games where one or more of the people playing are being deceived about the core activity of play. Over the 30+ years of roleplaying, failure to agree on the common activity of play hasn’t led to good results and, a majority of discussions around bad play experiences revolve around failing to coordinate these things.

      • The former, of course. Yeah, I haven’t had any good experiences with gotcha games either.

        • Some games that would easily lend themselves to that: Spione, Burning Empires, Lacuna, The Mountain Witch. But really, the “one person is a traitor” thing works with a lot of games, mostly depending on the situation you want to paint around it.

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