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Old group, new Creative Agenda?

Started by Frank T, November 03, 2005, 04:15:50 PM

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Frank T

This is a "help me cure my actual play" post. So I'm playing Pool and PtA and DitV and MLwM and (soon) Polaris with cool folks I know from the internet. Folks who are freaks like me, dedicating a lot of their leisure time to roleplaying. Folks who have read and GM'ed scores of RPGs over the years. I am reading and posting at the Forge. Hell, on GroFaFo I'm the guy they ask about the Forge (along with Nicolas). In the past two years or so, I have shifted my expectations massively. I'm fine with all that.

But there is my "old group". Know what I mean? The people I used to play good ole Star Wars d6 with before things started to change for me. There are three girls left from formerly five players that started to play Star Wars d6 with me back at school, a decade ago. They have never been in touch with any RPG except through me. None of them has ever read an RPG, let alone considered GM'ing one. They played. With me. That's all.

Now, I GM'ed Star Wars d6 just as it is suggested by Greg Costykian's wonderful instructions. Good solid Illusionism. At the time, I was writing a lot of short stories and had huge amounts of creativity to share, so I enjoyed scripting the stories of each and every PC to my liking. I also came up with some pretty good stuff which the players really enjoyed. Of course, you can't do Illusionism for 10 years without anyone noticing. So the Illusion became an open secret, but the players went along with it. (Would that be Participationism? Whatever.) Until it blew.

I now understand what happened. We had some mostly coherent Sim play, interrupted but not really disturbed by people occasionally trying to Step On Up. It was functional, too. Some of the adventures I ran really rocked. But then... I changed. I didn't want to do everything by myself anymore. As my ideas (especially with relation to Star Wars) waned, and my need to impress the girls ceased, I got tired of it.

We fixed it for a while through another player GM'ing. As a player, I could still play the way we did and have fun, at least for a while. But that player is no longer with us, it's just me and the girls. I tried different stuff. Changed backgrounds and rules. The girls don't like learning new backgrounds and rules. But the real problem was that I changed the way I GM'ed. I tried different styles I had experienced in other groups, and our shared Creative Agenda evaporated. The more so since two of the girls started trying to Step On Up as I took away the GM force that had formerly prevented them, whereas the other one and one other player tried to keep up the Dream. And me, I didn't know what I was doing at all.

So play has been dysfunctional for the better part of three years now, and I'm the one who brought it about. We didn't play very often and we are very close friends, so it was still nice to come together, but play wasn't satisfying any more. The result was that we simply played less and socialized more. Occasionally, I forced myself back to the old participationist railroading Techniques, and the result was instant fun for the girls. Little fun for me, though, especially because I am now loathing the preparation it takes me to run a good dramatic GM-forced session.

Also, I would really like some more input from the girls, but they don't seem to know how. I explicitly asked them to make up some character motivations and relationships and such, but they will come up with the same Teflon-coated characters and "my guy" stuff. And why would't they? It's all they know, and it's fun to them.

So we've talked about this. And they have agreed to try to play "my way" for a bit, to see if they like it and if they want some more of it. If they don't, that probably means we won't be playing RPGs together any more, which would be a sad thing. So I have one shot, and I want to make it a good one. If they don't like it because they just don't like it, that's bad luck. But I wouldn't forgive myself if they don't like it because I mess it.

I want to do some Forge-style pervy Narrativism with them. The two games I know well and trust myself to run well are PtA and DitV. But I refrain from both. Here's why:

PtA is wonderful if you have a group of people who have GM'ed half their life. It's somewhat clumsier for people who've never done it, because they aren't used to the Techniques they will be using. Plus, it's hard. It requires some serious effort by all participants to come up with good scenes and narrations, one by another. I would prefer a game that doesn't put just as much pressure on the players.

DitV would be perfect, of course. Perfect but for the fact that we have a Social Contract issue that could really mess up play. See, one of the girls is a cop. Her boyfriend who recently joined the group is a cop, too. Both of them have what I would term, in all due respect, inconsiderate and generalized views on justice. If you know any cops, you probably know what I mean. There is this whole big engine "police" behind this, requiring cops to think that way in order to function. I can accept that. But I cannot discuss issues like justice and law and jurisdiction and politics with them. Neither can the other two girls. We avoid such themes or sit them out.

I do realize that it'd be an intriguing experiment to test our two cops' resolution with some mean Dogs scenarios. I'd actually love to see it done, some day. But I don't want this issue between us players to blow my one and only chance to make the group dig Forge-style Narrativist games.

So, I've ordered the whole load of Sorcerer, plus TSoY, to see if that could be something to start with. What do you think about that? Is there any useful advice you can give me as to how to approach this? Especially, how much talk in advance versus starting to play straight away? Any similar experiences anyone wants to share?

- Frank

Eero Tuovinen

I've done this a lot, you know. To the extent of having exactly this kind of group of players waiting on the sidelines for us to play something again. So I should have something to say...

First: think again if you can't figure out a game that would fit their agenda and be fun for you. The chances are that such a game can be designed if there isn't one already. I did exactly this with my trad group when I finally realized that they like SIS-exploration gamism (a fucking bitch! just try to differentiate between that and sim through observation), and the gaming has been quite enjoyable.

Well, let's assume that that's not the strategy for now. Talking nar games, I suggest NOT using Sorcerer. In my experience it's not a very good choice when time and patience are scarce. The game can't be forced to click when the players are not open and in optimistic mood. Sorcerer is fine if the players have trust in the GM and the game, but if there's any hostility it's ridiculously easy to sink during the 1-2 sessions it takes to get going.

Instead, what would I suggest? My first suggestion is any game you know absolutely and without hesitation. If there is some game that's even half suitable, use that. The benefit of knowing exactly how the game works and what it does best outweights any non-optimal features the game might have. Even PTA is a better choice than something you don't know, assuming your grasp of PTA is absolute enough. This is pretty much a reflection of my experiences with Dust Devils; I know the game so well that there isn't a roleplayer I can't run it with.

Speaking of Dust Devils, it might be what you want for the job (or I'm just confusing the game with my own expertise with it). The thing is, DD has a very wide range of possible play behavior from the players. It's nar priorities contour nicely over trad behavior and instruct players naturally in curtailing their gamist spirit. It's also very robust against hostile play: a player practically has to know how the game ticks to sabotage it in any way. A skillful Dealer can take anything a player dishes out from passivity to mindless violence and turn it into surprisingly good drama. That's something that turns even a skeptical player really quick. To top it all off, DD is fast; you get to meaningful play in ten minutes if you want to. (If genre is your limitation, worry not: DD does anything with violence from fantasy to scifi.)

Another thing I've noticed: during the last year or so I've played MLwM with very different people. This will sound ridiculous, but for some reason the game seems to be a great gateway game for teenage girls and young women. You need a GM who can figure out the dice to roll and so on, but otherwise the game seems designed for girls. So if your players are the kind that digs melodrama, romance and gothic stuff, that's the game for you. Just throw in a romantically dark Master, lots of veiled language and roses, and that's it.

TSoY: a much better bet than Sorcerer. If you go with it, consider porting to Star Wars setting to keep the players comfortable. Make a point of the gift of dice rules when playing. Play towards the Keys. Be patient, don't try to force weird Forge techniques. They will come when the players learn the rules, not before.

Talking vs. playing: My experience is that you should definitely go direct for play. If you have to talk, talk about concrete techniques of play. Remember that the majority of terminology used to talk about roleplaying is hampered and crippledly confused, so nobody will actually communicate if you try to talk about play in general terms without common referents in experience. Choose a game you can play, and talk about play behavior during the game. That's how I run Dust Devils: I don't even explain the rules before play, I just instruct the players until the get it. TSoY is not as good for that, so there you probably should spend a little while in chargen. But that's apparently not a problem for your players.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Andrew Cooper

I certainly don't disagree with anything Eero has said.  In fact, it seems right on the money.  Especially the part about running a game that you know.  Taking that advice to heart, my suggestion is to use The Pool (or some derivative thereof) with the Star Wars universe.  You mentioned in your initial post that you knew The Pool and let's be frank, it takes all of 5 minutes to explain the game to someone.  It still has a strong GM presence in the game but it does allow for all sorts of cool Nar techniques to be used.  The MoV's allow the players to provide som input into the game without forcing them to do so when it is uncomfortable.  Prep time is as minimal as it gets for the GM.  You need a setting (Star Wars), some characters, and a Relationship Map.  I'd think about The Pool.

Frank T

Thanks you two,

wow, so you think Sorcerer isn't it? Damn. Any other opinions on that?

I have thought about the Pool, but I would prefer a game that provides a little more structure, especially at character generation, to drive the players toward interesting relationships and conflicts. MLwM, I don't know very well, and I don't think that the girls would like theme and atmosphere of the game all that much. Also, I don't want to run something in the Star Wars Universe. As much as I love it, I'm tired of running games in the setting, and I also fear to carry over too many assumptions from our "other" games.

- Frank

Eero Tuovinen

That's a problem with the Pool, alright. It's a great game if you have boundless enthusiasm, but there's not enough GM tools to force players to react in interesting ways. So the game will just sit in a pit if somebody doesn't push it out, and the GM is in a singularly awful position to do the pushing.

Hey, I intented to recommend Polaris, but forgot. That's one of the games you're familiar with, right? What's wrong with that? The biggest hurdle is the necessity of being the GM for another player, but that's not a problem as long as you're creative with scene framing. The Heart can frame scenes for himself, so in theory the players need only know what they themselves want for their own characters... well, OK, it probably won't work without player commitment to the idea of the game. Bad idea.

I just keep going back to your mention that the players are tired of new settings and rules. That seems to indicate to me that you should start with a game that doesn't require setting knowledge or rules analysis at the beginning. (The tiredness, by the way, is a singularly clear signal that whatever the players have played up to now, system and setting have had no impact on their enjoyment whatsoever.)

InSpectres: Easy, fast, easy, funny and easy. Consider that. Or if not InSpectres, then Orx.

Ultimately, there's no point in recommending games, though. You should pick something you're comfortable and excited about and believe the players can get into as well. Perhaps start with premade characters and scenario? I've found that a powerful technique with character-centered players, because that takes away some of their pedestal and makes them work, which tends to reflect as more interest in the situation. Strange but true. If you want to try Sorcerer, I recommend the fetus-demon scenario from &Sex.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Andrew Cooper

Without trying to press the point too much, there are a couple of things that I've done to cause The Pool to work when playing with the type of players you are describing.  Here's what I've done:

1.)  Add Kickers to the character creation process.  I pretty much used the concept straight from Sorcerer.  It forces the players into action immediately.

2.) I think it is DitV that has the rule for the GM to either "Say yes or roll the dice."  I take the opposite stance with The Pool.  I want the players to be engaged and decide when there's a Conflict and to grap the dice for themselves, so I always say "No..." or "Yes, but this complication happens." unless the players grab the dice and force me through the mechanics to rule in their favor.

Still, The Pool might not be what you're looking for.  FATE is a game that I like.  It's close enough to a "standard" RPG that it won't intimidate the players with really strange rules.  That might not be different enough for you though.  If you want really different, try Universalis or Capes.  I've found that introducing Capes to new players to be really, really easy.  Others might argue but that's been my experience.


Eero's suggestion for Shadows of Yesterday is a great one, I think. Clinton hit a very sweet spot between traditional rpg's and some fairly stealthy narr techniques. Think Unisystem meets HeroQuest. I'd recommend the version with the Fudge dice. I haven't had a chance to play the revised version yet but the Fudge dice (in my opinion) would simplify the system a bit and I've heard nothing but really, really stellar things about it from people I know who have played the revision. Setting can really be anything you want.

Another possibility, based on my own experience, is trying something like Donjon. Engaging groups that aren't necessarily used to having that level of say in a game can be problematic (again from my experience). I tried over and over to morph a long standing Sim group to a more Narr playstyle. Most of the time they just sat there blinking and waiting for me to tell them what to do, what to see, what to think. It's just how they'd always played.

When we did crossover it was with Donjon. For some reason, the players had a ball of a time with that. Note also that what they came up with was extremely silly. That might be something else to be aware of. For some reason, when I was successful at shifting the group into player-driven play, the results from the players were comedic, even goofy. It might have just been those groups but I'm thinking that unless a group is predisposed to dramatic or heroic play they'll default to abject silliness when spreading their wings for the first few times.

It's safer, socially speaking.

So, you might have some success with a Sci-Fi flavored version of Donjon, with the caveat (even intent) of making light of the Star Wars universe. Hope for Hitchhikers' Guide but tacitly expect Spaceballs. After a brief stint with that game, the group may click on to driving the story (even the setting) through their characters and then you can move forward with a longer SoY or Pool campaign.

I brought Donjon into a dyed-in-the-wool D&D group and they had a blast. Mind you, they had black holes opening up and gnomes getting caught in time loops and giant hallucinogenic mushrooms eating goblins that were farmed for populating dungeons but they had a great time.

It wasn't my intent for the game to go silly. But I went with the flow and it was the players' favorite Forge game I ever ran and the only one other group members actually bought. Again, that could've just been that group, though. Everything they played eventually devolved into a genre-mash with Paranoia or Call of Cthulhu..

I love the game. And would dearly relish the opportunity to play/run/lurk it. But I'd stay away from Sorcerer.

It could give your newbies the impression that Forge games (a.k.a. games that you want them to play) are all uber-serious and angsty. Considering that Sorcerer could easily make Mage or Vampire look like Toon in even the most innocuous of environments, I wouldn't want to intro a group into a CA shift using it. Unless, of course, they're looking for something that will seriously push their buttons.

If you're intent on using it, though, I'd consider Paka's schoolkids-as-sorcerers, evil Pokemon setting. Lighter would be better, to my thinking.


Sydney Freedberg

Quote from: Gaerik on November 03, 2005, 06:14:16 PM
If you want really different, try Universalis or Capes.  I've found that introducing Capes to new players to be really, really easy...

Capes can get really silly, really fast (look at any number of Actual Play threads), precisely because silliness is the natural, safe reaction to such wide-open GM-style "Director Power" for every player. On the upside, it really encourages, even forces , players to use that director power in a big way. I think all you'd need is one player (that'd be you) who's sufficiently comfortable with the Capes rules and Forge technique in general, and who has sufficient status in the group, who can authoritatively answer every question of the form "So, can I do..." with a resounding "yes!"

Plus the rules are pretty straightforward, the superhero genre's familiar but not intimidating (and makes it easier to shed concerns about "realism"), and I've seen Tony kickstart a game with total newbies in minutes -- you just

1) Give everyone about 60 seconds to combine two click-and-locks they find appealing into a character.
2) Assign everyone either Heroic or Villainous drives, instantly creating (at least) two sides.
3) Take the first turn and throw out some kind of big, glaring conflict (Tony's was "Goal: Kill the President on live TV").

Oh, and, especially if you take a little more time to create Exemplar NPCs (easy enough: Player A chooses one half of a click-and-lock, Player B chooses the other, fit them together, BAM! Shared exemplar for them to fight over), Capes does superhero soap opera very well, because petty interpersonal conflicts are mechanically as significant as giant planet-smashing conflicts: As the instigator, look for opportunities to toss these in (e.g. if the good guys are collaborating too well, create "Event: The media gives all the credit to one hero" or "Goal: win the love interest's gratitude.")

So I'd consider Capes as, at least, an "icebreaker" to expose people to a radically different style of playing. Of course, if they like it enough, all the better, play again, since the game really deepens after a couple of sessions as the players establish the world together.


I've recently gone through the same sort of issues with my gaming group.  A year and a half ago, edgy role-playing for me was making house rules for D&D.  Now I'm playing stuff like Universalis and The Puddle and Pace and these other really light games that have a great deal of player involvement in the narrative.

Messed up my gaming group but good, it did.  *whistles*  Most of them had commitments to traditional styles of play stressing massive illusionism, GM force and a slew of gamist elements.  A lot of them simply had no desire to learn new rules, even if they were much, much simpler than the games they had been playing.  A lot of them had a lot of problem getting their brains around a lot of the concepts.  I was able to bring some of them over to this side of things, but it was touch and go.

Anyway, the biggest problem I had was that most players of traditional RPGs are neither encouraged, expected or really know how to take control of the narrative on any level.  So when you drop narrative control in their laps they freeze.  Even if, given encouragement and practice, they'd improve there is this huge problem that from the get-go they'll associate taking control of the narrative as a confusing, embarrassing experience.  They'll feel like you're putting them on the spot.  Which is fair.  You will be, after all, putting them on the spot.  Which happens to GMs all the time, but is something that players will be very unfamiliar with.

My solution to this is to introduce narrative control pretty slowly.  One of the techniques that really can get players involved is creating the game world.  I don't suggest starting from nothing, but starting with a very rough map and letting the players fill in the blanks.  This makes them feel involved in the setting, while the GM steers things so everything is still "fair".  Then, when they fill in the blanks, you make notes of who put in what elements.  During the game if that element comes up you can turn to the player who put that element there and ask them what they had in mind, to flesh things out.  Do this while doing a pretty traditional game -- d6 Star Wars would be fine.  Then, once they're used to adding to the narrative, ease them into a game with more narrative control, like The Shadow of Yesterday or HeroQuest or Dogs in the Vineyard.  Then, y'know, try The Pool and work your way up to Universalis or Capes if that's your thing.  ;)

The second biggest problem is that they have been trained to do strategic thinking at all times.  Traditional RPGs are very goal oriented.  The destination is way more important than the journey.  So when faced with kickers or bangs, often they'll make real tactical choices -- choices that leave things still up in the air to the greatest extent possible so that they will be able to achieve the goal of the game without having any additional baggage from the choices they make.  So, in a SW sort of game, if they discover that their lover is having an affair with the captain of the ship that carts them around they won't shoot the captain in the head, thus depriving them of a valuable in game resource.  They'll have a resolution to the kicker or bang that leaves them in possession of that resource (perhaps a stern talking to), because they think that the goal of the game is to destroy the Imperial base not resolve the emotional issues of the characters.

This is an almost insurmountable barrier, IME.  Either the players will want to RP out the drama or they won't.  That said, you can still put in kickers and bangs and other such techniques (which are really system independent) and maybe some of them will dig on making solid choices and RPing the consequences of those choices (though the other players might put pressure on them not to rock the boat and to make "sensible" decisions about kickers and bangs).  To the extent that I can give specific advice, I'd advise making the initial kickers and bangs things that don't have a lot of negative consequences on the "point" of the game or make the bangs and such choices between two benevolent situations ("Will the charming rogue pilot seduce the princess or the priestess?" -- either way, the character gains a valuable social contact and even if he seduces neither then no harm will be done).  Then, when they're used to the concept of these in-game decisions and RPing the consequences of them being as legitimate form of RP as just resolving the "adventure" you can start hitting them with bangs where they chose between more complex situations.

This is all in my experience, of course.
-- Chris!

Frank T

Thanks everybody! Please don't stop suggesting games—that's great! I'll see if I can use any of those. Unfortunately, I don't have nearly as much time as I'd like for preparation, so I can't read 'em all. And if I take the effort to learn one, it should be something that I myself am interested in for running more than one or two times. That's a concern regarding Donjon and Capes, but I'm not ruling them out yet.

Silliness is exactly my experience with InSpectres. And the "putting on the spot" thing is just how my players will probably be feeling. They have explicitly voiced that they don't like having to narrate that much. Also, I do fear their habitual behavior. Here's an idea I had:

For the first session of [game], I bring three big sheets of paper and put them on the table. On the first one is written, in big black letters: "Teflon-coated characters". And I tell them how this is not going to work and how characters are going to change through the events to come and how what is going to happen in play is going to be real important to the character's life and personality. And I tear the sheet apart.

The second sheet has written "GM plot" on it. And I tell them not to second-guess me. I tell them that my plans for the game are not like a straight line, but like a fractal, an nobody knows where we will end up. And I tear the second sheet apart.

The third sheet has written on it "The Right Thing To Do". And I tell them about how choices are going to be tough and they'll have to make choices and there's no need to go look for the puzzle's solution for there will be none. And I tear the third sheet apart.

I think that'll do a good job. But I'd like a game with a strong structure to support the style of play I want to invoke.

- Frank


My group switched over to more narrativist play earlier this year with Burning Wheel and overall, it's gone well.  There are little mechanics, like Circles, in there that will sneak narrativist play in on them and most likely have them liking it for its tactical value, then really having fun with it later.  It sounds like Shadow of Yesterday may be similar.  Maybe someone familiar with both games could give a critique as to which one might work best for your situation.
"If you've ever told someone how your day went, you can narrate." - Andrew Norris at the Forge on player narration

My name is also Andrew and I have a  blog

Sydney Freedberg

Inspectres may be the ideal mental icebreaker for veteran roleplayers: You have a GM, you have stats, you roll to succeed, etc. etc., and the wide-open Director Power sneaks in there as a special bonus for good rolls, which looks comfortably similar to "plot points" or whatever rare, hard-to-get metagame privilege a lot of traditional RPGs dole out.

As for Chris's advice on going slowly:

This approach sounds completely logical in the abstract, but it's also what's warned against in every concrete Actual Play-based discussion I've seen here whose moral is "you can't sneak up on Creative Agenda." I suspect it may be harder to make subtle changes in a relatively familiar system than to make drastic, obvious changes in a blatantly different system. It's like the difference between (a) trying to quit smoking by smoking one less cigarette a day until you're down to nothing -- easier to start, hard to finish -- and (b) trying to quit smoking by throwing out every pack in the house. It can be helpful to put a big, glaring barrier up that says "We are doing something different now!" It's possible to interpret Sorcerer as just another traditional RPG (hey, I did, the first time I read it); it's impossible to make that mistake with Capes or Universalis.

Of course, you can try both the slow-and-gentle and hard-and-fast approaches together: Do a one-shot or a back-up game (e.g. alternating weeks) of Capes or Universalis or whatever to shake people up, do something less weird but still different as your regular thrust.

Josh Roby

Capes.  Fast, flashy, easy, and it goes bang bang bang.  I'd advise using anything with an explicit reward cycle that tells players to declare what their characters care about and then rewards them for addressing it.
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Andrew Norris

I think you've got the right idea, Frank. Getting those traditional preconceptions off the table is at least as important as your choice of systems. (I'd lean towards something with a little crunch but that uses conflict resolution and rewards player proactivity, and that suggests TSOY to me.)

The fear of narration is an interesting thing, isn't it? It comes up all the time among veteran players. I wonder how much of that comes from a sense that they have to be as good at narration as your average Illusionist GM, which, hey, would stress me out as well.

I have a few players in my group that had never previously roleplayed. For the most part, they had a lot less "stage fright" than the vets. I try to stress to people, "If you've ever told someone how your day went, you can narrate." I really do believe that.


Quote from: Andrew Norris on November 03, 2005, 08:36:31 PM
"If you've ever told someone how your day went, you can narrate."

Ooh, mind if I use that quote in my sig and at the game table?
"If you've ever told someone how your day went, you can narrate." - Andrew Norris at the Forge on player narration

My name is also Andrew and I have a  blog