Provoking GM Creativity Via Rules

April 4, 2020

I’m running a game of Apocalypse World and one thing I’m noticing this go around is a way in which the rules do this slick shifting of traditional GM narration framing.

GM as fact creator

When you’re running any game where the GM is expected to create/assign aspects to the world and narrate it, you’re always having to decide “HOW do I decide what is true?”  That may be information you’ve prepared ahead of time (“This character is this strong and has a Strength score of 17”) or it might be something you assign in the moment.

Going from facts to facts

In traditional games, the usual mental framing for the GM when you DO assign something in the moment is what is the most logical thing or really to think of it as if you were looking in on an existing world and what would fit there.  Of course, it’s just you assigning it, but these mental framings are important in terms of how you approach and do things because they shape what you end up doing.

So you’re running a game and there’s a fight and you’ve “assigned” in your head where the enemy is (“Over there, behind the table, taking cover”) and antics happen and the player decides to have their character take a quick look and trying to figure out where the enemy is now.

In this traditional framing, you run through the usual factors “Where would they want to go? How fast could they get there?” or maybe the game assigns a speed stat and you can use that to figure out the positioning and go from there.  (Obviously, all these facts and what ‘makes sense’ is genre context dependent – a superhero game works on different expectations than a gritty street crime game).

Most traditional GMing, the established facts are the PRIME thing to consider, the priority in deciding what new facts and events to create.

Sometimes go to the edge cases

Continuing from the prior example “Where is the enemy?” has a range of possible answers – and you can think of that range as a bell curve – the thing that makes the most sense given established facts is the largest, mostly likely distribution, while the edges are less likely.  If you always pick the middle, things get less interesting, and, as a GM, you’re likely to always go for it because it’s the path of least effort.

Apocalypse World shoves your focus as a GM to the edges, with one simple phrase in many of the moves: “…but expect the worst.”

If we were simply using the facts for new facts and sticking with the most likely answer, then “Where is the enemy?” has the same answer whether you rolled well or rolled poorly and got “…but expect the worst”.

This is only triggered in Apocalypse World when players have a Miss on a roll, this means the answer, the outcome or fact you create as a GM should be substantially different – that fact exists as a Schrodinger’s Cat – an undefined quantum state – until the dice are rolled and you narrate it.

Often times when these rolls come up and I don’t think I have a good answer, I am pushed to improvise a situation that I never would have thought of, had not prepped, and makes the game much more interesting.

Example of Expect the Worst

A couple of sessions ago, a player character was hiding in the husk of a burnt out car while two gangs were fighting in the street.  She made a Read a Situation Roll and asked “Who’s in control here?” and, by the facts, kinda no one was, in the chaos.  But “expect the worst” made me consider “What would be the worst situation? I mean, being caught in this situation is already… bad.”

Oh, wait, of course.

“You just know to look over your shoulder, and you see the ripple in the sky is opened and the psychic maelstrom is looking down on this.  It’s watching, THIS fight, specifically.  The maelstrom is in control here.”

What does that mean? Fuck if I know.  I just know the situation immediately is made worse, if not in a obvious fashion, in a “well, whatever the big picture is, this is extra, especially, not great.”

It encourages you to create twists that you, yourself, as a GM don’t see coming at all, while still retaining a moderately traditional GM role.  As I often say, the simplest rule is “I say a thing and it happens” so every other kind of rule should provide something more interesting than that – having outcomes force the GM to look at the edge cases, “plausible if not immediately obvious” is a pretty great rule to work with.

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Customizing your Genre Rules

March 25, 2020

I’m looking at running Apocalypse World in the near future, and the game has a very good way of giving the GM high level Directive Rules – Agenda, Principles, etc.

Anyway, for Apocalypse World, one of the directions is “Barf Apocalyptica” – basically infuse the world with all the things that make it post-apocalyptic – the weird mesh of our current world, ruined, with weird and strange and broken things.  It serves to remind the GM to constantly push the agenda of the game’s genre.

A bit more focused, for you

So, as I’m prepping, I’m writing down some inspiration ideas that I can refer to for my game to make sure I have the kind of apocalyptica I want:

  • The verge of falling apart
  • Junk survives
  • Danger is around the corner
  • A junkyard solution, but once in a while something pristine
  • Critters are dangerous but never quiet

Mind you, these are basically cues to myself that I know I can use to inspire immediate ideas in narration and description – a different game, different group of players, and of course, each GM would come up with their own.

Any Genre

However, there’s no reason you couldn’t make a short list like this for a superhero game, or Star Wars, or whatever kind of game you’re looking to play.  Whether they need to be something the players share in or just as reminders for you as a GM, that’s up to you.

Sometimes as GM’s we end up with a lot to juggle and the genre description can suffer a bit – between math, many NPCs, and players with lots of questions or actions all happening at once, it can be useful to have a reminder for yourself.

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Low Prep Games

March 17, 2020

Welp. My whole area is on lockdown due to the pandemic.  So I’ve been reaching out to friends to see who wants to do some more gaming online.

This is one of those times where low prep games are a great option. It’s a good time to talk a bit about low/no prep games especially for folks who might only be familiar with the mainstream big campaign style games.

Getting around Content Prep

Mostly when people think of prep, they’re thinking of content – writing up an adventure, generating encounters, maps, NPCs, etc.  I have often called “one use” content “ammo” – you shoot it and it’s done.  It’s the most inefficient part of content prep, since you have to keep making it.  However, low prep games get around this in a few smart ways that might help you decide what kind of game you might want to jump into.

Tight Scope

Many of the games narrow the kind of story or game that they’re focusing on.  If the game is built around “What are the first 3 dates like for this potential couple?” you now have more clear idea of what kinds of problems to present and it’s easier to come up with content on the fly.   Part of the reason many people love Lady Blackbird is that it gets the situation together very fast – you have a situation that makes it easy for the GM to spin up specific problems on the spot, the pregen characters are all pre-loaded with issues and direction so you don’t have to do much to work with it.

Group Content Generation

Another trick is to hand off the trouble of coming up with material to the group itself.

Flag Mechanics that allow players to define the scope for themselves, and the GM can use that to riff off with.  Primetime Adventures is my go-to in this, though much more crunchy games like Burning Wheel or the out of print Riddle of Steel both do this as well (albeit, they end up having longer prep time usually due to groups getting used to mechanics and system mastery).

Narration trading mechanics allow players create problems for each other such as distributed GMing like in 1001 Nights or Polaris.

Some games use a random generation method to create situations that are also inspiring to generate ideas in the middle of play.  This usually means the ideas have to have to be more than a “randomly filled dungeon” but something that ends up having potential other issues or problems that a GM can pull inspiration from.  In A Wicked Age used a card draw “oracle” for this, while The Drifter’s Escape is one of the better examples using all three options- flags, trading narration and an oracle.

Familiarity Prep

The second issue is getting your playgroup up to speed to play the game.  Some of that is setting, some of that is mechanics.

For mechanics, games with less complexity (such as most I’ve recommended above), or games the group is already familiar with can help.  It can also help to have a 1-2 page quicksheet with basic rules and best practices ready.

On note of setting, asking people to read a lot ahead will rarely work out.  Better to also have a 1-2 page quicksheet, or pick something everyone is already familiar with (“Let’s play as the Avengers from the movies”).

Interface Prep

Finally, playing online means a new layer of learning how the interface works.

If it is a game with content prep ahead, you might lose time trying to upload maps or get images for characters and monsters together.  Even if you’ve bought an existing adventure for something like Roll20, you might still need to figure out where all the tabs and settings are for what you might need as a GM.

Beyond that, your players will also need to learn how to navigate the character sheet system, dice rolling/card drawing/whatever the game may use.  And, there may be issues with how any player’s computer or device can hang with the service you’re using as well.

I usually recommend the closer you can get to no maps, no minis, and basic dice rolling, makes things easier.  We do use Roll For Your Party for games that involve matching/assigning dice or counting successes with mixed dice, and PlayingCards.io for anything using standard card decks and/or chips/tokens.

Anyway please be safe, wash your hands, listen to medical professionals and let’s imagine better worlds and get to making some of that real when things get safer.

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Lancer: Comp/Con character builder

January 12, 2020

This.  This is what I’ve been wanting TTRPGs to start doing more often:

Lancer RPG Comp/Con Character Builder

Even if you’re not interested in playing or buying the Lancer game, you should check out the free program for this.  It’s a great example of what we should have for more games that have character builds to track.

  • Easy and clean interface.  Short comments let you know what skills/powers do.
  • Free. Available for Apple, Windows and Linux.
  • Local data.  You don’t need to be online for the app to function.  You don’t need to hope the company will be still running servers 2 years from now, or that someone isn’t funneling malware through it later on.

Now, I also understand that building software isn’t a snap, but for the publishers with more money and resources, this sort of thing is basically the future for mid-to-high build complexity games.

I know a couple of years back people were really excited about D&D’s character builder, but it premium locks most of the options until you pay for that specific book, and whatever point WOTC decides to move on and shut down the servers – you basically have nothing for it.

This is such a contrasting difference in approach to Lancer’s putting the player base first – the people who buy your game and want to play your game need good design tools – money locking it just makes it harder to play your game.

(It’s a far lesser scale, but does remind me of the problem with the D20 attempt at open source design – the way in which it was set up encouraged everyone to only put their LEAST interesting stuff as free, and everything else was held behind a premium barrier – so you got a glut of material, but nothing to encourage increasing quality of design.)


Constructing Situation – process

January 10, 2020

I’ve been reading up on the Lancer mecha RPG beta, and got some ideas for a game I want to run later on.  The rules give you a broad setting, but you end up having to nail down much more specifics if you actually want to run a game.

The process of putting together notes ended up being a good chance to highlight some of the process and steps I use when constructing Situation for play.  (The broader process is the Flag Framing setup I’ve written about before.)  I’m skipping specific names of things or a lot of details, because they’re not as relevant as highlighting what this means structurally for running the game.

Setting vs. Situation

Setting is the broad background while situation is the specific scenario for the game/campaign you are going to play.   For many games, Situation is actually a key point in narrowing down what kind of characters fit for this particular run of the game you are going to do.

It’s not super important, but I do keep in the back of my head the fact there is “broad Situation” and “tight Situation” – the former is what I put together for this future game, while tight Situation would require actual player characters and their specific backgrounds, goals, relationships, etc.

So, you can have “The knights are defending a city under siege” as part of a broad Situation, but “Sir Morris’s cousin is a mercenary captain for the enemy troops” and “The Bishop is blackmailing Andrew to keep skimming supplies for himself despite the city in need.” etc.

However, you’ll see the steps I use for broad Situation basically tie into the tight Situation once you get to playing.

The Focus

Well, the Lancer RPG is primarily about mecha combat – so that’s obviously going to be a focal point for play.  I want to set up a “the crew is centered around a ship that travels” along the the lines of The Expanse, Firefly, Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop etc.

A star system being invaded, and, a military ship trying to take part in defending it.

What this does is facilitate certain things around the focus of play that I’m aiming for:

  • War obviously gets us lots of fighting mecha situations for the core focus of the game system.
  • Defenders vs. Invaders sets up clear broad sides to the conflict, and, defending your home is an easy moral high ground.  (Obviously, in actual play there will probably be a few grey areas that appear, but it’s not the same as “we’re the bastards, everyone’s bastards” kind of war story either).
  • A military unit has goals and objectives and it’s easy to keep the group momentum in a direction with in-fiction reasons.  (Also, while the player characters may not have the final say all the time, they certainly would have SOME input their commander has to take into account, so not a steamroll of their choices either.)

So this is how I tend to approach Setting and Situation- it either helps facilitate the focus for the game, or it can work against it.  Crafting carefully ahead of time lets you just get to the good stuff quicker and avoid misunderstandings.

The Groundwork

Now more specific ideas.  I was initially inspired reading the over the setting bit that the Lancer universe has FTL in the form of Blinkgates, but not every system has one – then it’s a journey of near-light, over several years, to get to the neighboring systems.

A question came to mind: “Huh, I wonder what kind of systems get accepted for new Blinkgates?”

The star system is rich in resources, but isolated by basically being sandwiched between an electromagnetically charged and dangerous nebula and a radiation jet firing off a quasar – they are stuck doing trade by having to go the long way around and sometimes lose ships from space hazards.

After several years of negotiation, they’ve gotten the Union to agree to build a Blinkgate there – the assessment delegation just left and it’ll probably be 7-8 years before the construction armada returns.

What this sets up:

  • The system is worth something, but is about to become worth a LOT more once the Blinkgate is installed.  A desperate warlord might hope to take over and basically retain control after.
  • It’s isolated, which means it’s not easy to call for reinforcements and the war is effectively a holding action until the Union construction fleet returns.
  • Being isolated in this way also makes larger scale piracy a rare issue for them, and in turn, the need for too much system defenses. (Pirates might want to try going for the goods on the other side of the Nebula rather than risk losing your ship inside).  The small military also means the PCs and their ship hold greater sway/value.

I’m also inspired by the Honor Harrington books, where a lot of their war issues involve considering that messages might take months to get back to central command, and this is effectively a similar problem.

The Night of War

So, if the star system is already outgunned by the invaders, what chance does the small ship have and why should it matter?

The ship is running through drills and exercise for anti-piracy operations – including laying low in the asteroid belt – which is when the attack comes.  The ship is off everyone’s radar, and by the time they receive the emergency messages – the attacks had already happened 40 minutes to an hour prior, due to time lag.

  • The ship has the one thing that has always served the outgunned – stealth.
  • The training exercises also make sense if the party is all going to be 0 level newbie characters – you take your new troops and run them through the paces and train, train, train.
  • The nature of being outgunned and possibly without back up for some time, means there’s room for discussion/argument about what to prioritize and where a small interceptor ship and it’s few Lancer mechs can make the biggest difference.
  • While everyone is talking strategy, it’s a good chance to give GM exposition about the star system and where everything is and why anything matters or what it’s history is.

Mind you, I have also written up a bit on the specific planets, major places in this system, culture, values, etc.  The players need stuff like this to make characters to begin with, but this opening situation allows me to either re-emphasize things as strategically valuable (“The research stations were used to figure out optimal Blink gate placement but also have a powerful sensor array – that could get intel on the invaders…”) or tie in the player character specifics (“Your mother and 2 brothers live on the orbital station above New Pacific.  They might be in danger… they might… you don’t want to think about it.”)

I generally try to find “opener scenes” like this that allow players a chance to ask questions, talk but also under urgency.   The first game I saw do this was Vincent Baker’s Poison’d, where the crew of pirates just found the cook poisoned the captain – and now they need to decide who the new captain is, before the British Navy catches up to them.

Thought Process

As you can see, what I’m trying to do when I set this up, is create a situation that funnels to the focus of play.  Once play begins, all the usual improv techniques apply, but the initial set up helps avoid problems and reduces the usual rough points early in a campaign.

Although we have a clear large scale conflict goal (“Repel the invaders”), I have no idea how the players will want to do that over the course of the campaign.  I figure I’d need to hash out some strategically valuable places, let the players basically argue for which they think is the highest priority and play it out as it goes.  Compelling and reasonable problems gets players thinking about solutions and directions, and allows you to also be surprised at the answers they come up with.

Unfortunately I don’t have a clear set of steps/process formula for this, but I felt talking about what I’m considering as I build Situation might help other people consider some things when they set up their games as well.

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Signalboosting I Need Diverse Games

December 18, 2019

I Need Diverse Games is doing a fundraising push to stay afloat.

If you’ve followed my writings online (…since…what, 2002-3? and the relaunch from Blogspot to here…) it’s not hard to see my posting quantity has gone down drastically.

Some of that is lowered energy levels, post chemotherapy in 2012-2013.  Some of that is the fact that I generally try to post things that are lasting in value and cover the topic well, so I don’t have to repeat myself.

But, a fair portion is the way in which the TTRPG space wallowed in toxicity and allowed Hatebros to run through everything while telling everyone they targeted that we were “too sensitive”, only to… you know, declare later that the scene wasn’t “toxic like videogames” (infinite eyeroll).

Anyway, to the point – I Need Diverse Games and Tanya DePass has been DOING the work and outreach that is the only reason I have even kept a hand in the larger RPG space rather than just write it all off.

I understand I produce little enough here for most people to want to subscribe on Patreon, however what Tanya does supports a lot more people than just me, and if you have a few extra bucks you can send as a one time, or a dollar or two a month, it would go a long way.

Until gaming can be a place fun for everyone.



RPG Podcast Industry survey

December 10, 2019

The linked post also has further links to the full report if you’d like to look closer.

The RPG Podcast Industry

I think this is pretty interesting to see both where it is better than my usual dismal expectations but still worse than where we should be as we come up on 2020.

One thing I think contributes a lot to the RPG representation in online media is the two hurdles of hypervisibility resulting in violent harassment and the other hurdle of time/money cost.

Obviously, suffering LESS harassment makes online media work (well, any work) drastically easier, as I’ve spoken about many times.

It also takes some amount of time and money to improve the presentation of your gaming content – audio, website, or for a videostream all the screen overlays, etc.  Fan support is always stronger for cishet white men, which then gives them more signal boosting and resources to make it sound/look even better so it becomes a vicious circle of an old boy’s network, effectively.

That aside, I also am guessing that games that run long form, such as D&D, probably do better for podcasting and video streaming, since for the listeners, if they are not gamers themselves, are probably more invested in the characters and plot – the fiction, than the actual game rules.  Short run games don’t allow people to tie into that, the same way they would for long run games.

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