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Experiments with one-shots

I’ve begun fooling around with one-shots over hangouts again. This time around I’ve been asking for feedback on my GM’ing, and boy, people don’t hold punches, do they?

After having my selfesteem destroyed a few times over (yes, I’m overly dramatizing), I have learned a lot of things, about what mistakes I make when GM’ing.

There’s a very fine line, I’ve noticed, about how much improvisation is good improvisation. Yes, that’s right; there actually seems to be an upper limit! For me when I run one-shots at least.

The thing is, when I GM a totally improvised session, I get exhausted near the end. Like really exhausted. Not because we’ve played for around four hours straight with only two or three very short brakes, but because it is hard work to run a session with zero framework before play begins.

I’ve tried a lot of different things out the last few days, and here are some of my intermediary conclusions.

Pitch the game with a strong premise

When you sit down to play, people want to make characters and then find out how these characters fit together and “what they do” to get by. Basically why they are adventuring together.

While that isn’t wrong, it can cause some very unfocused play and characters that don’t really fit well with each other. It doesn’t necessarily force this to happen, but it easily can. You might argue that the GM has great control over this, but the more you rely on the GM to have the skill to resolve these issues, well, the more mistakes that GM will eventually make. It’s simply better to remove the need, especially for a novice GM.

If you start out with a premise, like “adventuring band for hire”, then we have established two things; the party is already a coherent group of adventurers, and they are getting paid to do what they do. It doesn’t take much effort to make the characters have some history together.

The premise can be worked out in the beginning of the session, but you can save a lot of time doing it in advance.

Have a clear objective

In a one-shot, we don’t have a lot of time for mystery. We don’t have time to start from scratch. It’s much easier to start in medias res, with some basic information and a very solid lead on how to get more.

The players literally have to have an immediate goal when play begins, otherwise they’ll just poke around doing next to nothing for around an hour of game time.

These goals can even be a part of your premise! “Band of adventurers hired to delve into the Pyramid of Sorrow to fetch the Hellslayer sword”. Now the players will be aware that it’s going to be a Dungeon Crawl, which means that they can choose options and classes that makes them better at that.

Everybody likes to have cool stuff to do, right?

Finishing thoughts

There’s a lot more to this, but I still need to gather my thoughts on the matter. I’m experimenting a lot at the moment to make these things work, and there’s a lot of do’s and don’ts.

I’m going to focus on the do’s that minimizes the need for skill on the GM part. Dungeon World already helps a lot here with the Principles, but you still need to think a lot when improvising. Mostly the rule book focuses on how to start campaigns, not one-shots, and having a “first session” as a one-shot often mean we spend a lot of time establishing facts that we don’t have time to use.

One-shots needs to be focused, because we don’t have time to deal with all the details of a full campaign, so I’m trying to set up a few guidelines on how to do that.

More to follow!

Why improv is so damn fun!

I knew improv was fun before I began playing Dungeon World, but this game has been a key factor in enabling me to actually play improv-based games, because the system feel so natural to me. It is without a doubt the easiest game I’ve ever tried to GM. Sure, it has a learning curve, but once you get the paradigm shift wrapped around your brain, this game almost plays itself.

But that’s not what this lesson learned is about; it’s about why I think improvising everything is fun, and why I think you should try it out. This lesson learned is mainly inspired by my session with Misha and James, as well as my three session with Eric and Bastien. The adventures we’ve played have been major milestones in my effort to perfect my GM’ing skills.

GM’ing is a load of work in some games, it’s tedious sometimes, and most GM’s I know would really just rather be a player for the same reasons. Ever since I moved to Aarhus, I’ve sat on the GM’s side of the table, with few exceptions.

Previously, I thought that the core premise for roleplaying games was player agency. Player agency is on every one’s lips at the moment it seems, and I’ll borrow a handy definition from Papers and Pencils:

A player with agency is one who is able to make meaningful decisions about their actions, with regards to the game world.

I no longer believe player agency to be the core premise of a satisfying roleplaying session. It’s still important, tremendously so I’d even suggest, but it’s only a core premise. The other is play to find out what happens. I think the first is what makes it fun to be a player, while the latter is what makes it fun to GM.

The thing is though, that these two premises are inseparable. You cannot play to find out what happens if the players doesn’t have any meaningful choices. You cannot have player agency if the GM has planned everything from the beginning of the game, and will apply force to make sure it happens the way he planned.

So, why is improv so damn fun? Because it forces the GM to play to find out what happens, and in turn enforces player agency. You have to build upon the foundation laid out by you players, and in turn, they will take the story in wonderful directions, ones you’d never have taken on your own!

I’m at a point where I’ve become confident that all games I’ll ever GM will be better off if I plan just about nothing. I simply love to ask questions about the PC’s and the world, until I know what both the players and myself want to play! I have GM’ed, almost consistently, for the past 5 to 6 years, but I’ve never had so much fun since I stopped planning ahead.

If you don’t believe me, then I’ll encourage you not to take my word for it; try it yourself! Pick up that game you always wanted to try, and call your friends. Tell them the deal; no prep, only improv. And then just try it out. You’ll be amazed how different the experience is, and how easy improvising actually is once you get the game rolling.

Deal with it

This sounds like an odd name for a lesson learned, but it is in fact very fitting. I’m unsure as to how many people this will apply to, but it sure is something I have learned.

Even though I mostly GM, it is only recently that I’ve started playing Dungeon World. When you ask questions, then never expect the players to give you answers that you want to hear. Deal with it. Not all answers sound great when you get them, but lets face it; not everything you say as a GM is awesome either.

The really strange thing is that no matter what answer you get, it always seem like an awesome answer after the session. Falafael, the Fighter from my recently ended three-shot, had to explain where he had learned to cast spells. He answered in a mildly jesting tone that he had learned it in “elf high school”.

I knew that the game was not meant to be very seriously toned, we had discussed that prior to the game. Yet somehow this answer just seemed dumb when he gave it. After the session though, I realized I was just being elitist about the game, and I actually felt bad just for thinking it. It was a pretty fun answer, and it actually spoke volumes about his past. His character had formal education.

So when you feel that a player gives you a “dumb” answer, then deal with it. The player wouldn’t give it to you if he didn’t like it himself, and it isn’t just your game anyway; it belongs to the group.

Don’t hold back!

It’s a lot more fun to win despite adversity than through the sheer lack of it. That’s a very important lesson learned from playing with Eric and Bastien.

I see this question a lot of times on the net: “How much can I throw at my players in Dungeon World?” Short answer: All you’ve got!

Dungeon World really empowers the players, sometimes to a scale where the GM can feel a bit powerless. If they continue to roll well, they can more or less do whatever they want, as long as it does not contradict the fiction.

As the principles goes, we are supposed to be a fan of the characters. We are doing that by letting them be awesome. They are awesome when they win despite the odds, not because of them. Also, we should think dangerous but we shouldn’t limit it to thought.

Keeping a hand over the character only blocks their limelight. Think about your own campaigns; which moments were the most exiting? The ones where the players leveled armies without breaking a sweat? I’m guessing the answer to this question is a big resounding “no”.

In my last game I actually had a player roll Last Breath. Just telling a player to roll that made me shiver. I really wanted to make the roll meaningful, and if he had rolled a miss instead of a hit, I’d probably had let him be the one that toppled the tower over, sacrificing himself to save his reality. That would have been an epic ending, but I’m still glad both characters survived.

Without danger, adventure is meaningless. Don’t hold back, and give them all you’ve got! If you know that the characters will survive, then they are not really in danger.

You can never ask too many questions!

I was tempted to word this lesson learned as “you can never ask enough questions”, but that might be stretching it a little. Some of my biggest “regrets” as a GM is that I don’t ask enough questions, as asking questions is to ask for player input.

There’s a principle called “ask questions and use the answers”, and I should really get better at following it.

During the second session in “The Rise of Ri’leth” adventure, Eric wanted his Fighter to multiclass for wizard spell casting. I figured that I would find a way for him to loot a spell book or something, as it is required for spell casting. This was a big mistake, one that I felt required retconning in the third session.

I failed to let him find a spell book, which I’m almost embarrassed about. I wasn’t a fan of his character when I didn’t give one to him. He bought the advanced move fair and square.

This could easily have been resolved in the beginning of the second session with one simple question: “How did you find that brand new spell book under your arm?” If I had done this, then I’d been a lot more proud of that session. Don’t get me wrong, the session was great, but it would really have made that session even better.

Another reason why asking questions might be important is that you sometime have an awesome idea for a hard move, but you are unsure whether or not your player will think it as awesome as you do. In the third session of the three-shot, Falafael the Fighter wanted to trip a cultist leader to prevent his escape. He rolled a miss of course, which he always does, and I got an idea; why not let the cultist leader fall onto his own blade, atop the alter, making him the last sacrifice in the ritual?

In my head, it just sounded so funny and so obvious, but I was afraid to do it since it might seem a little “railroady”. So I just said to Eric that I was tempted to do it, looking for confirmation that he thought it would be cool. He just told me to do it.

No matter what he answered, I would have learned something about what Eric wanted in the game, which really just made it a win-win question.

Asking questions is one of those things that just make this question so damn great. In more traditional games, I wouldn’t feel it was appropriate to do it. And even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to improvise so heavily as I do in DW. I’m not that confident in my ability to improvise entire encounters in D&D, or even World of Darkness, but in Dungeon World it’s a breeze for me.

So, lesson learned: Ask more questions! About everything!

Lessons learned, chances burned.

If you have tried Dungeon World, You will know that the gaming paradigm is slightly different from more traditional games. After GMing it six times, there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve learned and I want to share that.

In the future, these “lessons learned” will be posted under the category of the same name. It will make it easier for both you and myself to browse for them in the future.