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Game update and GMing musings

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Third session of my roleplaying game (out of a planned total of four) was on Sunday.

It didn't go as well as the second session, and I spent a while with Kam afterward talking about what did and didn't work as well as I'd hoped. Then I wrote up some of those thoughts, but didn't get around to posting them 'til now.

(Note to the players, even those who weren't present: I don't think there are any spoilers here. I'm talking about stuff in general terms.)

I don't think it went badly; but it was slow and there was a lot of stop-and-start kind of lurching progress, and it just didn't have the energy that the previous session had. Some assorted miscellaneous thoughts follow, but first the usual disclaimer: games are different; GMs are different; players are different; these thoughts may not be at all relevant to any other GM. Most of this entry is intended more as musings for my own future benefit than anything else.

I'll start with a couple of good things: (1) we did cover the part of the plot I'd wanted to cover, and reached the point I wanted to reach, and things went largely as planned; and (2) the NPCs went fairly well, I thought. Especially considering that I came up with about ten of them in the last half-hour before we started, and was making up new details about them on the fly as they walked onstage.

Which leads to part of the problem with the session as a whole: that I hadn't done enough preparation. The preceding week, I kept doing other stuff during time I'd set aside for prep. One specific aspect was that I hadn't prepared enough plot--I kept waffling between thinking I had way too much and thinking I had way too little, but in the end I had too little. Another angle on this is that I think running a session every two weeks is probably a little too frequent for me to keep up with at this point; spacing sessions three weeks apart would probably work better. (Or, of course, doing much more development upfront so that I don't need much prep time for each episode.)

Another part of the plot problem is that, in movie terms, I realized afterward that this was the traditional slow act 2. In the opening scenes and act 1 (which spanned episodes 1 and 2), I presented the problem and introduced the PCs to their new abilities. But episode 3 was essentially one long infodump, punctuated by walking from one place to another to meet someone new to give them more info. Right at the end of this episode, I managed a reversal, which I hope will lead into a stronger act 3. (That's a link to archive.org, 'cause David Siegel's old Two-Goal Structure page is no longer online. Too bad--I've found it a very useful paradigm and used to point people there regularly.) But still, act 2 didn't need to be this slow.

Yet another part of the problem is that I didn't throw any bad guys at them. Some of the PCs were less inclined to trust the NPCs than the other PCs were, but all of the NPCs I gave them were, at least as far as the PCs could tell, more or less good guys. There are villains in this story, but all the villainy was offstage in this episode.

Another aspect is that I was expecting the amount of plot I had to take longer than it did because I've gotten used to the PCs throwing wrenches in the works by experimenting with their newfound magical abilities. That not only takes time (in a good way) ands adds some unpredictability (also in a good way), but also means they're actually doing something, which gets the players excited and energized.

I should also note that two of the players weren't there on Sunday (I knew ahead of time they'd be gone); as I noted to the group last time, one nice thing about having six players is that at any given time there's bound to be someone who's willing to try something crazy. One of the players who in the past couple episodes has been particularly willing to charge ahead into the unknown wasn't there on Sunday, so I think that contributed to the group being more cautious and having fewer exciting accidents that they needed to recover from.

I think there's another piece to all this that, despite all my GMing experience, I've never really figured out. It has something to do with goals. There've been past games in which I haven't given the PCs a goal at all, just dropped them in the middle of a new world and left them alone to flail; that hasn't gone well. So in these four-episode tightly plotted games I run sometimes, I do usually give them a specific and fairly well-defined goal. But if they have a goal in mind, they're less likely to be willing to sit still and chat for a while, or take a side trip through some interesting scenery or an interesting subplot; they want, quite understandably, to be making progress toward the goal. And feeding the PCs sufficient intermediate successes to keep them feeling like they're making progress has always been one of my weak points wrt plotting. I know where they start; I know where they'll end up; I know what most of the decision points will be along the way; I prepare for a variety of contingencies at each of those decision points, and prepare subplots that I can throw away if they'll be too much of a distraction. But usually think about this in terms of what the PCs are likely to do at any given point; I too rarely remember to think in terms of breaking their goal down into manageable steps that they'll be able to accomplish one at a time. (I have this problem with my own to-do lists in real life, too.) Of course, intermediate steps toward a goal can turn into a plot-coupon thing, but I think plot coupons aren't necessarily a bad thing in this kind of game.

I also traditionally have trouble with obstacles. In a couple of games I've run, there've been times when the PCs were traveling from one place to another, and it's traditional in games for travel to be interrupted by random combat encounters. Fine--except that I'm not gonna kill off any of the characters while they're traveling toward their goal, and I don't really enjoy (and am not good at) running combat anyway. So the random combat encounter ends up feeling to me like an artificial obstacle, put in the way for form's sake. Part of the traditional role such an encounter plays is to wear down the party--get them tired, injure them a little, get them to use up some of their spells--so that by the time they get where they're going, they're not in peak form. But--I dunno, it works fine when other GMs do it, but when I do it it feels artificial to me, which I suspect makes it feel artificial to the players.

(And yet, one of the moments my players liked best in a game I ran some years back was basically that kind of random encounter, only not combat. They were traveling with a street theatre troupe, and the troupe stopped to do a performance, and the PCs joined in. And I had thought of it as a minor sidelight on the way to something much bigger and more interesting, but iIrc, the players considered it to be the high point of the game.)

There was another pacing issue on Sunday. My usual GMing style (especially for looser-plotted ongoing games) involves sitting back and watching the PCs interact, and then throwing in an NPC or an event of some kind when things get slow. But I was so intent on letting the PCs interact on Sunday that I kept waiting until they were really done with whatever it was they were talking about before I threw the next interesting event at them. Which meant that we kept kind of coasting to a stop before pressing the accelerator again. I think I'll chalk this one up to my GMing skills being rusty; I used to be pretty good at handling this kind of thing. Well, and also in this case I didn't have enough plot prepared, so if I had kept things moving faster we would've run out of story early. But in retrospect I think that would've been preferable to losing momentum.

One other interesting thing happened on Sunday, and it's related to the lack of villains. Half of the PCs were a little unwilling to give any information about themselves to NPCs. I think the fear was that if they asked the wrong questions, they would make clear that they weren't from the world they were in, and that would draw too much attention to them. A perfectly reasonable fear (and it led to the running joke in which every NPC they met asked them, "Where are you from?" and they generally replied "From the coast"); but it made for difficulty in carrying on conversations with some of the NPCs. Whereas the other half of the PCs tended to trust the NPCs and were willing to give a little more information and to ask for what they wanted; which worked beautifully, but somehow I wasn't quite expecting it. So they would ask an NPC for the info they needed, and if the NPC had known that info then the PCs could've jumped straight to the planned end of the episode, so the NPC needed to not know; so then the PCs would, again quite reasonably, ask "Who else should I ask about this?" and the NPCs would point them to someone more likely to know. And after a chain of about four such steps, they ended up right where they wanted to be.

So I think another thing I need to work on is information flow. (Yeah, plot is revelation management, but there's more to that than just parceling out infodumps.) This, too, ties back into the lack of villains in this episode; none of the onstage NPCs had a good reason to withhold information or otherwise impede the PCs' progress. As a reader, I get very frustrated with stories in which characters intentionally withhold information from the protagonist(s), so I don't want to take this too far. But I think in general there probably needs to be more of an obstacle to free flow of information than the people the PCs ask just happening to not know the answer. Because the solution to that problem is for the PCs to ask more people, and that quickly turns repetitious.

I'm vaguely reminded of the episode of my telepath game several years back (set in the Babylon 5 universe a hundred years before the series), when the PC telepaths had signed up to help stop terrorists. And they were sent to Las Vegas to foil a terrorist threat there, and it wasn't until the session started that I realized that it was going to be really boring for all of us if the whole session was "I mindscan the next person who comes through the door." "He's not a terrorist." "Okay, I mindscan the next one." And so on.

I think part of the key here is that there are some tasks in real life that really are just a lot of repetition, with some variation; but that those tasks often don't lend themselves to good realtime roleplaying. As a GM, it's up to me to find better ways of dealing with those tasks, such as:

  • Avoid them entirely in favor of other tasks.
  • Summarize them rather than playing through them. ("You stand there for three hours, and not a single terrorist goes by.")
  • Provide enough interesting variation that they don't get boring. (Unlikely to work for very long.)
  • Interrupt it partway through with some unrelated but dramatic action. ("This guy's not a terrorist--oops, he notices you reading his mind. He pulls out a gun and points it at you!")
  • Interrupt it partway through with the goal being attained, and move on to the more interesting stuff that comes afterward. ("Hey, look! It's a terrorist! Go get 'im!")

I have no conclusion to this entry, so I'll take Jay S's advice from long ago: End abruptly.

2 Comments

Wow, that page on plot-structure is fantastic! When I've got a moment I'll make a local copy for reference (who knows if Wayback will actually keep it forever). I particularly enjoyed how, reading through the nine-act composition pages, I remarked to myself on a couple occasions "huh, film X doesn't do that" and two paragraphs later he says "a notable exception is film X", or likewise "hey, film Y does that beautifully at point Z" and he points that out two paragraphs later :-)

Perhaps some of his theories seem more obvious in 2007 than they did in ~1995, but it's still really good information IMO.

I'd love to hear more detail about your game concepts when this game is finished and you have time to write from that perspective. The idea of a heavily plot-structured game with sessions two or three weeks apart is completely foreign to my "meet once or several times a week during high school, with predominantly linear plots which eventually reverse when the GM has some new idea rather than as a planned-out concept" RPG experiences. I haven't really RPG'd since high school--everyone here (including me, I guess) prefers strategic board games. Maybe if we had a railroad economics-themed RPG....


Siegel's old website was fascinating--smart and interesting, but one of the most arrogant sites I'd encountered at the time. He was very certain that he knew The Truth, and he was going to impart it to us.

I was always pretty dubious about the details of the nine-act structure. But I loved the paradigm of the reversal; it made all sorts of things about plot and structure that I had never understood before make sense to me. I was particularly intrigued to see it at work in Heinlein's books--IIrc, there are several of his books (Job is the only one that springs to mind at the moment) in which something big happens at almost exactly the halfway point of the book (by page count) that completely transforms the story, sends it off in an entirely different direction. My feeling at the time was that it was so common in various of his books, and so close to the exact middle, that it must have been intentional, but I'd never heard anyone talk about it.

Re gaming and plotting: I think there's a wide spectrum of approaches to plot.

My friend Clive ran a game in the early '90s that was essentially him telling us a story; he didn't present it that way, but in effect we had very little control over, or even input into, the storyline. Our characters were there to add color to key moments. And it worked! It was a good story, and he told it well, and it was fun.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rob S's brother Jamie didn't believe in plot. I think he once said something like "Plot is whatever happens." We would start out with some Big Important Mission, like "gain the help of a neighboring king to restore the Prince (Jed's character) to the throne." And we would set out into the wilderness, and run into a dragon, and fight it, and find its eggs, and then a mysterious figure would tell us we had a Big Important Mission: to take the dragon eggs across the continent and deliver them to someone. So we would take the dragon eggs and set out into the wilderness, and then we would run into.... And so on.

Although every piece of the game was fun, the lack of plot resolution drove me crazy. I'm a closure junkie; I like me a good dramatically satisfying resolution. And I think that, more than anything else, was what led me to start doing these four-session tightly plotted games. I'd been in way too many RPGs where we created characters, learned about the world, started off on an adventure, and then gave up on the game.

I suppose published adventures/modules are essentially the same thing: a relatively short adventure with a fairly coherent plot, and a beginning, middle, and end.

This is also all influenced by what your paradigm for an RPG is. For me, gaming is essentially group interactive improvisational storytelling, with some random elements thrown in, and I like stories to have closure. For others, games have a variety of other purposes, and plot structures (or lack thereof) to match.

I should also note that I do like open-ended campaigns. My four-episode games have some pretty artificial constraints on them; among other things, they require the characters to get up to speed quickly, they don't allow time for leisurely exploration of (or practice with) the characters' newfound abilities, and they require the players to not let attempts at character realism get in the way of the story. At times when I have time and energy for it, I'm happier running a more open-ended game in which there are big overarching goals but any individual episode can consist mostly of the characters sitting around and chatting.

The B5 game that was the last one I ran made me think about all this in TV terms. That game had an overarching plot that the players were unaware of at first; I knew where it was going to end up. But it took place over the course of three "seasons," each consisting of something like 3 to 6 "episodes," plus a bunch of intercalary sessions online and via email (since I lived in CA and the players lived in Portland). The structural idea was to roughly mimic the shape of the B5 show, with the big plot unfolding over time but any individual session mostly focused on the small stuff. I don't think the PCs even figured out that there were a group of secret powerful villains controlling things from behind the scenes 'til the last few episodes.

So if that was a three-season series, then my current game is a miniseries. A little too long to fit in one session, but too short to have the depth and richness and flexibility that I'd ideally like.

Okay, enough. I could talk about this stuff all day, but I need to get some submission reading done. More to follow in a month or so, after the final session.

(All this makes me want to get back to working on the book about GMing that I wrote an outline for years ago. It'll never happen--to do it well would require too much research--but entries like this one will serve as partial approximations. "Notes toward a theory of GMing" or something.)


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