Archive for April, 2020


Yoon Ha Lee’s Six Slots

April 30, 2020

Yoon Ha Lee has released a neat little game – Six Slots – players create a set of locations, secrets/objects/feelings at the places, and your characters go along, with 6 inventory slots, having to choose what they take and leave behind.

Although the gamey concept seems a bit weird at first, when you look at a lot of hero’s journey, magical portal, and fairytale stories, it models it pretty well!  Dropping “Childhood innocence” for “Bitterness” and finally picking up “Mature Hopefulness” is totally the themes of many stories.

PDF game, pay what you want.


Talking About It

April 26, 2020

A general thing I realize isn’t as common of a practice as maybe it should be; you should be talking as a group, during and after games, keeping everyone’s safety in mind.

RPGs are a group effort – collaborative creation whether it’s a GM-led or GM-less game, and it only makes sense to check in and coordinate with your fellow creator/participants.  (Not to mention… your friends, I would hope).

I’m running an Apocalypse World game right now, and by default, it’s a violent and disturbing setting with violent and disturbing characters.  I let my group know going in to think “Post Apocalyptic via Robert Rodriguez” and we set some initial content boundaries.  My general goal is “weird and fucked up” but not “Silent Hill” levels of fucked up, and it’s important to make sure the line between “creepy fun” and “not fun” doesn’t get crossed.

But last night I wanted one of the NPCs to push boundaries on a PC, and I asked the players, “Is it ok to include a scene with animal harm? It won’t be graphic, but let me know and I’ll figure something else out.” – they were good with it and we got one of the riveting scenes in our campaign, but at the same time, I’m wasn’t “stuck” or set on having it happen.

There’s been a few nights where I check in afterwards, if only because since we’re playing by audio without cameras, I need to see if the silence is the “wow that was cool and messed up” like a good TV show cliff hanger or if that was “wow that not what I needed now” (so far, that’s never been the case, but checking in and re-aligning consistently allows you to make sure it NEVER happens).

As I’ve said in the past, if you can’t talk about how the game is working and how you feel about it, something is wrong.   And by doing so, you can make sure that your safety tools, like first-aid kits, rarely need to be used.  (Not to mention, you practice communication tools for being able to figure out how to navigate and better deal with situations if you DO end up having to use them).

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GM Prep: Prompts vs. Accounting

April 11, 2020

I realize that all the notes I end up using when I GM a game tend to serve one of two purposes – either they are creative prompts, or they are accounting of things to be tracked.

Obviously, many games can use both, but it’s worth considering if a game is asking you to prep notes and stuff that isn’t helpful so you can cut past that to more useful prep.


Prompts are things that make it easy to improvise “what happens next” – where should I place the next scene, who should we focus on, and what do the NPCs want or attempt to do?  Flag mechanics in games like Prime Time Adventures or Tenra Bansho Zero work, as much as things like Threats in Apocalypse World.

The trick to a prompt is that it doesn’t need to be 2 pages of detailed back story, it’s like 2-3 sentences or a short list of bullet points I can reference and work from in the moment.

Character portraits can also be prompts – I will sketch characters and then I “know” their attitude and just looking at the sketch lets me figure out how I want to play them.  If a visual prompt works for you, use it.


Accounting notes are anything I need to reference because it tracks things that will have mechanical effects – that could be character stats, or how much food the party has in their packs, or whatever.  It might also be notes on how specific rules work, in case there’s complicated or easy-to-forget exceptions.

The two basic rules for Accounting style notes are:

Most Used Info

Most used info goes in one place you can scan easily with your eyes and jump to what you need quickly.  For physical notes, using a reference sheet, or a home made quicksheet, or sticky tabs in a book can help.  For PDFs or files, having a quick jump tab or bookmark system to hop back and forth can help, or even having two copies open set to different parts of the file.

Consistent Navigation

You want to know WHERE to look quickly for a TYPE of note.  So if you put all the NPCs in a spiral note book but all the spell list is on a file at least you know where to look.  If things are in the same kind of place/medium, then you spend time having to jump around looking within that, to find the thing you want.  Standardize the type of information for your campaign – “X goes here, Y goes there, this is the format for this information”.

Also consider that while many computer files allow you to have several things available, they might not all be visible at the same time, which can cause problems.  For example, let’s say you make a spreadsheet and put each NPC on a different page.  Maybe something comes up where you have to use 3 NPCs stats at the same time – now you have to click back and forth to find them and reference it.    This sounds so small easy, but if you have to do it once or twice a combat round for a game where you have 5 combat rounds… it becomes tiring and annoying.

Overcoming Counterproductive Note Advice

Unfortunately, many games will give you counter productive ways to track notes.  It might be overly detailed character sheets for NPCs or having you prep things that never show up in play.   This means you have to work around the default or the instructions given to you – and RPGs can be hard enough as it is.

Now, I have a background in graphic design, so I have some experience with forms layout, which helps me identify quickly into a game how well the layout of sheets or information is, or isn’t working.  But there’s some general rules and tricks that can help you simplify quicker.

  • Quick reference info goes to corners on physical documents.  Top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right.  This applies both for prompts and accounting notes.
  • Quick reference info for computer documents depends on what you can reasonably have visible on a window or hot key over to easily.
  • Different sections can be made easier to navigate with color or shapes/symbols – think like bullet points or “Information boxes” but used to differentiate one section from the other.
  • If you can’t remember ever needing something in a session, it probably isn’t that important and can be either left out or placed somewhere that’s a little harder to access (another page, etc.)
  • If you find that some character sheets/info trackers work better for you than others, try to see what adds to the readability and organization – you can steal that layout idea for different games if the info needs turn out similar.

Hardcore Note Optimizing

And… if you’re playing a very accounting-notes heavy game and plan on playing a lot of it and want to go all out in optimizing your physical notes, you can take 3 highlighters or color pencils to track what info you use…

  1. With Marker 1, put a dot next to a general area of info every time you look it up in play.  Marker 2 is used the same way for the second session.
  2. Whenever you’re looking for something and have a hard time finding it, when you DO find it, use Marker 3 instead.

After two sessions you’ll see what you look up the most, vs. barely/not at all, and you’ll also see what info is poorly placed, since it’ll be dotted with Marker 3.

I would only do this if you plan on doing big campaign play with a complex game to make the effort worthwhile, otherwise, it’s just plain overboard.

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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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