Tag Archive | gaming

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!


The CMC-model

Long time since last post. This is becoming a bad habit… Sorry about that.

This will be a bit theoretical, but it is about a model for improvising sessions that I have been thinking about for the last two to three days. But first some background!

After a great one-shot of Dungeon World, the first ever to actually be a proper one-shot, concluding in a single session, I was thinking about how I actually managed to keep this game to a single session.

The game started as usual, we spent a little less than an hour making characters and asking questions about them, thus rounding them out and creating an interesting, yet totally improvised setting. As a GM, I made up an initial situation, one that gave them a clear goal and demanded action. After that, the game had three dramatic situation, or dramatic scenes, whatever, which could roughly be laid out as the following

  • Initial encounter with enemy.
  • Bargaining situation with pseudo-enemy to get means to complete quest.
  • Final situation that completes the quest.

This led me to think about if there was some sort of structure to it, something really basic that gave a good outline for running totally improvised one-shot sessions.

The result was the CMC-model.

This will need some explanation…

OK, the basic assumptions for the CMC-model are as follows:

  • Character creation will be done in the beginning of the session.
  • Making characters, introducing them and building a short but sufficient background for them and the setting will take roughly 1 hour.
  • A scene important to the story, henceforth Dramatic Scene or DS, takes 1 hour to complete, counting the game-time needed to “get to it”.

This might sound like some pretty wild assumptions for some games, but they fit pretty well with Dungeon World, at least in my experience.

Gotcha, so what is the CMC-model?

So far, it’s only theoretical, and it needs some serious feedback, but here’s the deal. Assuming that the average play session is roughly four hours long, we have a time for 3 Dramatic Scenes plus character and world creation, by assumption.

CMC is an abbreviation for Clue-Means-Conclusion. The GM starts the game by describing a situation that demands immediate action, while also giving the players a straight forward goal. For example, as I did, the GM tells the players they are standing at a ruined temple, seeking the Eye of Ogden, a fabled ruby the size of an ogre’s fist. From then the GM works to do the following:

  • Clue DS: Present a DS that gives the player a clue about how they can achieve their goals.
  • Means DS: The Clue DS should lead them directly to a new DS that, if they overcome the challenges, gives them a means to actually complete their goal.
  • Conclusion DS: Now we have a way of resolving our quest, which leads to this third, conclusive DS. This is where the adventure will end.

So basically, there are four steps to the CMC-model:
1. Set the players off on an adventure.
2. Lead them to a situation where they can find the means to complete the adventure.
3. Give them a way to obtain the means to complete the adventure.
4. Let them use these means to complete the adventure.

Obviously, more than one clue in step 2 is preferable, as it’ll give the players a choice about which kinds of situations they might wish to deal with. Or it might just give them alternatives when they fail to pursue one option.

This yields a pretty satisfying story-line structure:
“We have problem X,” which leads to “we find clues about how to handle X,” which leads to “we find a means to handle X”, which leads to “we use this to handle X.”

This is somewhat similar to The Three-Act Structure of plays (which can be found here), and maybe this is not a total coincidence.

In conclusion…

These a just some thoughts on how you can run an improvised one-shot. It gives the GM some clear goals, something to think about, which will eventually lead to a conclusion. Basically it tells the GM which kind of situations he should present to the players next, at every moment in the game.

It might seem very structured, but I don’t think it’s much different from what most people already do: Present situation, react to the players’ actions, present new situation, react, etc. The thing is, this is a method of thought, a way of consciously recognizing what makes the story interesting, and what gives the player both incentive to press on, as well as a direction.

I’m going to work a bit with this, figuring out how to make this method work properly. Currently, it’s a bit up in the air and very theoretical, but I think there’s some value to be found in this.

I’d greatly value some feedback on it, what other people think, as I’ve only tried it for about two sessions, one where it was used almost only subconsciously.

I’ll probably write some more about this, once I’ve tried it out a few times.

Perhaps my best “hard choice” to date

Eric and Bastien asked me if we could play again. Naturally I said yes, as I wanted to see what would become of Falafael the Fighter and Sinathel the Druid.

I’m not going to make a long breakdown of that session. Instead I’ll share the results of a miss that really changed how the session went about.

They were undertaking a perilous journey through the Blue Mountains, and Falafael had only just enough rations for the 5 day trip. Sinathel was the Scout, as per the move, and Falafael was the Trailblazer. Falafael rolled a miss on his roll+WIS, and for once I decided not to externalize the trouble, since Eric is pretty happy with having a pretty stupid elf with a wisdom of 8. So, they got lost.

Sinathel shapeshifted into bird form, scouting the area for a way to Khaz-Nog-Drach, the dwarven city they were heading to. He rolled a partial, so I gave him an ugly choice; they could backtrack, adding two days to their travel total, or they could get there within a day by taking a shortcut through a mountain pass just ahead. The catch was that there was a 10 meter tall Mountain Giant slumbering there.

The decided that adding two days to their journey was too risky, as they would be relying on finding food along the way for Falafael. Besides, the Giant only really posed a threat for Falafael, since Sinathel could just fly over.

All in all, getting lost was a problem almost exclusively to Falafael, which wasn’t that bad considering he was the one rolling the miss. So the rest of the session was more or less about how to avoid a confrontation with a Mountain Giant, which they of course did not succeed at. The did take the fellow down though in a pretty awesome fight.

My journey as a GM

I had played a lot of different RPG’s before I encountered Dungeon World, and I really mean a lot. The reason I picked up Dungeon World in the first place was that it was mentioned some random place on the internet, a place I found because I was looking for a new group. I looked it up and saw that it had won the 2012 Golden Geek award, and then decided to buy it, just to see what the fuzz was all about.

I hadn’t played regularly for almost a year, so I bought it with no actual intent of ever playing it, but when I read it, I was hooked. I couldn’t say what it actually was that made this game seem like the holy grail to me at the time, but I can now.

In fact, it has nothing to do with the game itself, even though it is an excellent game in its own right. It was the spirit of the game, the endless enthusiasm it inspired, and the wonders it promised. It was the new paradigm. Well, new to me at least. I’ll get back to the paradigm later…

I have learned more about the art of GM’ing in the year I’ve known about Dungeon World than in my 9 other years of gaming combined. More precisely, I’ve learned what I think makes for a great game, one you will remember and hold dear forever.

What makes a game great?

So, I read through Dungeon World, paying close attention to the Move mechanics, because mechanics is what makes a game, right? Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong! Well, that was my first lesson; a game is so much more than its rules. And setting for that matter; the setting is just another set of rules, a kind of a context for rules, the assumptions about what the game tries to make work.

I learned that for me, the most important part of a game is how it enables and amplifies the social aspects of gaming; how it handles player input, how it lets the group tell a story that no member could tell on their own, and how it allows people to utilize the rules for the enjoyment of the group, instead of assuming that we should “ignore them when they get in the way”. Dungeon World was very upfront about this; if you don’t play by our rules, the game will probably not work as intended. It’s cool and all, but all warranties expire immediately.

Moves are central here. A player’s moves are a kind of leverage. They can be used to make an irreversible impact on the game, and there’s no fail-safes; the GM doesn’t have the authority that other games assume, he can’t veto something just because he doesn’t like it. For example, when a player discerns realities, then the answers the GM gives them is true and cannot later be altered, only added upon. This makes it really hard to keep the players in the dark about things, since they cannot be denied the roll to discover the information. If a move is triggered, it happens, no matter how many tears that are shed by the GM.

What I’ve learned from actual play is that the GM is just as much along for the ride as everyone else. Sure, the GM Moves are a lot more ambiguous and open-ended, but he has no authority over anything except “narrating in the moment”, telling players what they experience now. He is not allowed to actually decide anything else about the characters, unless a move explicitly says so.

The new gaming paradigm…

… is called “inclusion”. I always hated prepping, and Dungeon World gave me a very easy way to avoid making the prep that I didn’t want to do; it gave me a list of principles to follow, two of them being ask and build on the answers and draw maps, leave blanks. The game actually tells me to prepare less and ask questions whenever you are out of ideas! It tells me to say “yes, and…” to everything the players give me.

This makes games a lot more improvised, pushing it in the direction of “play” in contrast to “work”, as I felt Dungeons & Dragons always did. I GM’ed a game of D&D 4th Edition for one and a half year, I think, and the burden of being GM was tremendous for me. I couldn’t make up monsters on the fly, there were too many stats for that. I had to work out encounters prior to the game, which meant that I either forced encounters upon players, or made an enormous amount of prep that would never be used. In other words; work, work, work. And it was a mediocre experience, it wasn’t personal.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think D&D is bad, I just never ‘got’ how to GM it properly. Sadly though, I did it exactly the same way everyone else in my local gaming community did it; heavy railroading.

So the new gaming paradigm is all about “sharing the load” and letting everyone be equal participants. This was a huge, new thing to me. I always wanted it, but I never had the ability to formulate the wish. So, this is a thing that Dungeon World actually taught me; to go along with what everyone else did, even if it wasn’t what I would have done. They make something up, I build upon it. Yeah, it sounds bad saying it like that, but it’s successful GM’ing in a nutshell; let everyone contribute equally.

Where I went from there

I picked up a lot of really nontraditional games like Microscope, Fate Core, Fate Accelerated Edition, and recently I bought Fiasco, though I haven’t finished reading it yet. I also backed Kingdom because I thought Microscope was brilliant, and the elevator pitch for Kingdom was great.

All these games has one thing in common; they rely on building upon what other players give you, making something together that you couldn’t have made yourself. Fate might be the more traditional of the above, but it’s still not exactly a traditional game. It is very discussion based, the GM hasn’t really got any authority about the characters, and he hasn’t got any more authority about the setting than the players do, which is very nontraditional.

I also read a book about improvised roleplaying called play unsafe, and it taught me a lot about how to deal with this very upon-ended kind of play; how to start the game out, how to build on other people’s ideas and how to work together to make something truly great.

Where I am now

I’ve gotten to the point, where I’m comfortable running games without preparing anything, and I feel that the feedback from the games I’ve run have been a lot more positive for it. I’ve also become aware of what I like about roleplaying in general, and the mindsets that I’m looking for in other players.

I’ve also learned that making bad calls is okay, and everything can be taking back or mended. It’s not about making a masterpiece after all, it’s about having fun. And screwing with the players (and the GM) is as fun as it gets. Oh, how I love when a player totally screws with me, when he throws me a curve ball…

Where I’m heading

I don’t actually know where I’m going. Hopefully, I’ll get a real world group going and play some more Dungeon World. In person games are a lot more personal, and I’ve been going too long without that weekly game. Hopefully, I can find a group that wants the same things that I do, but alas, most gamers I know are of a very traditional breed. I’ll just have to sell it to them!

All I know is that I’ve become a much better GM over the last year, and I’d even dare to say that I’ve come very close to the GM I want to be; the one that rolls with whatever the players do, the one that tries to give everyone a chance to have an awesome character, one that actively work to include everyone equally. I’m not perfect, but I do try. At least I know what I would want in a GM, and I know how to do be that kind of GM.

The last year has been a journey in gaming for me, and I’ve learned a lot. I hope you have learned something from this as well. Thanks for reading!

Corruption and Carnage: The tale of a dramatic one-shot…

and improv. Lots and lots of improv. Three days ago, I read Play Unsafe for the first time, which I wrote a review for yesterday. You can read it here.

By dumb luck, I actually managed to find two players, who wanted to play some Dungeon World. The premise for that game was that it would be totally improvised, which the players found interesting.

Before the game, I spoke with the players, Misha and James, about the book and some of the advice found in it. They seemed to like the idea about “being obvious and boring”, and I told them they were welcome to screw around with me, whenever they wanted.

We also spoke about putting spotlight on other players’ characters, making an effort to set another player up for success. They seemed to like the idea of spreading out the responsibility for making the game great for everyone.

Mind you that the following report is extremely long. You’ll notice that it’s much more detailed, which is primarily due to the “obvious and boring” approach. It really worked wonders on the amount of details. I even left out some detail in the write up. To keep it from becoming too long…

Humble beginnings

James and Misha made their characters. James played the human Bard, Dunwich, while Misha played Cadeus, the elven Fighter. We spent about twenty minutes or so asking questions about the characters and the setting, and after that we had a world filled with problematic political struggles.

We had the capital city Davenport of a so far undisclosed country, a place ripe with corruption. The city guard is easily bribed, they care nothing for the citizens, and generally they are more concerned about safeguarding the noble district, which is under a lockdown because the rest of the city is currently suffering an epidemic.

Dunwich lives here, and was born here. The situation neither pleases him, nor the common populace. The city is on the verge of riots, and should the conditions not change, riots will come. To make matters worse, the slums around the city is expanding at a near catastrophic rate, which renders the city guard completely powerless in the area, as slumlords and bandits have assumed control of large parts of this ghetto.

Davenport is currently expanding so rapidly that the Council of Lords have deemed it necessary to break an old treaty with the the Elves to the north, by starting a deforestation of the vast woods of Evereth. Naturally, the elven lords will have none of this, but they are intent on resuming negotiations with the lords of Davenport, rather than attacking the city outright.

The forest of Evereth is divided into territories, or forest states (yes, it’s that big), each occupied by a village under the leadership of an elven lord. The decree to divide the forest between the lords was enacted, because the forest have grown increasingly dangerous and overrun with monsters during the last few hundred years. Dividing the forest between the lords was a desperate act, meant to delegate the responsibility of keeping the forest safe unto the individual lords, by in a way granting them the land. The elven village closest to Davenport is Ilathia, where Cadeus was born.

A lot of this background material was generated during the game, not just up front, but it’s hard to distinguish between what came when. Everything was improvised, even as the game began everything was improvised. Most of it by the players, I might add, I merely asked questions about the stuff I found interesting.

And so we began…

Cadeus and Dunwich enters the tavern, looking for their contact. They see a cloaked figure in the corner, and know it to be her, the disguised elven diplomat Vendethiel. Dunwich goes up to the barkeep and orders to tankards of ale. They go down to talk to her.

“Do you have the information?” she asks. “What have you learned?” Dunwich tells her that it’s worse than they thought. “Fill her in, Cadeus”. And so he does. Lord Darius has commanded a small contingent of between 15 to 30 elite soldiers to go into Evereth, without the consent of the Council.

Vendethiel could hardly believe what she heard. “But what of the king? What role does he play in this?” she asks. Apparently, the other council members were bribed to ignore it, Lord Darius has very deep pockets. As for the king, what role he played in this is unknown, but Darius certainly has some sort of sway over him.

They hardly get to say anything else, before the tavern door is kicked in, five guards entering the establishment, weapons drawn. “Where is she?” they commanded. Knowing they’re in trouble, Dunwich stands up and shouts “Drinks on me!” A few drunkards stands up, cheering, while the rest of the clientele just looks at him. “You ain’t got that kind of money, Dunwich. How stupid do you think we are?”

The guards attention are attracted by this display. Disgruntled that they are being ignored, they proceed down to the table where Vendethiel, Cadeus and Dunwich are seated. “There she is” a guard shouts. Cadeus stands up, spear at the ready. “We are hear to seize the diplomat! Out of our way!” They look wary, they didn’t expect people to put up a fight. They exchange some nervous glances.

“I’m afraid you are mistaken. That woman is my sister. We know of no ‘diplomat’ here.” They looked at them, puzzled. Were their information wrong? They were suspicious, but she was wearing the clothes of a commoner. They decided to leave before the scene got embarrassing. “OK, lets move boys! She can’t be far!”

A scrawly man named Lath decides to join them. “I know she ain’t your sister Cadeus. What’ll you pay me not to go out there and fetch the guards again?” Cadeus was displeased with this. “How about letting you keep your life?” Lath just laughed; “You wouldn’t kill me here, that’d attract too much attention… But as you wish, I’ll fetch the guard…” He began to walk slowly towards the tavern door.

Dunwich snuck up behind him, and stuck his foot in between his legs, causing Lath to fall over hard. “Ouw! You son of a bitch!” he yelled. Dunwich and Cadeus picked him up, holding him so he couldn’t run. His nose was obviously broken as blood flowed from his nose. “Looks like someone had a little too much to drink!” Dunwich shouted. “Lets get you home!” And so they left.

Vendethiel was quivering. They decided to try and leave town and get Vendethiel to safety in Ilathia. Dunwich knew just the guy to help them, Aiden, a guard posted at a sewer grate to prevent people from sneaking down there and into the Nobles District.

“Hey Dunwich. What’re you doing here. And who are they?” Dunwich looked at him and slipped him a few coins. “Do you even care?” The guard shrugged. “Not really… So, you want to go down into the sewers again?” Dunwich nodded, and Aiden opened the grate. “See ya around…”

Rounding off

This was far from everything that transpired, but I’ll save the rest for my next update. Until then, happy gaming!

Unsafe and scary: A review of Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley

Yesterday I bought a book called Play Unsafe, written by Graham Walmsley. It was a pretty inspiring read, and as fate would have it, I actually got to apply some of the theory in a one-shot game of Dungeon World the same day.

The premise of the book is that if we plan less, we play more. Planning is hard work, and it can get pretty boring sometimes, as it quickly becomes a chore. This may not apply to everyone, but it does apply to me. If you buy into this premise, this book can be a real treat.

The book is divided into five chapters: Play, Build, Status, Tell Stories and Work Together. Each of these chapters offer some great advice for improvisation based play, including how to start games, and how to tell interesting stories by not working.

Often, we treat gaming like a job. We study rulebooks, we try to gain an advantage, we care more about experience points than enjoying ourselves.

While I could go in-depth with what the individual chapters are all about, I won’t. It would just be a summary, and I’d much rather share some of the advice from the book.

My favorite piece of advice is “be boring”. It sounds odd, but there’s a really simple trick to it. It’s not about going out of your way to make the other players yawn or anything like that, it’s about not trying to be clever. Instead of spending a great deal of time impressing your fellow players with your wit, which will mostly not work, then instead try to be obvious.

When describing something by being obvious, maybe the effects of an action or your intended action, you can add a great layer of descriptive details, because you already have a clear picture of the scene in your mind. It is after all exactly what you would expect would happen. It might seem brilliant to others however, simply because they haven’t got the same set of expectations as you do.

It is one of those techniques that are so incredibly simple, yet so powerful. I urge you to try it out sometime. In my game yesterday, it was consistently the “obvious” consequences that were more interesting and made the players more enthusiastic.

Another great piece of advice, one that is rare to find in any game mastering guide, is the advice given on starting a game. People make characters, we discuss them a bit, but since we haven’t planned anything, we don’t know what is going to happen. This might sound a little scary, but there’s a really good solution to this, one that goes pretty hand-in-hand with being “boring”; try and start without drama!

Start with a quite undramatic scene, like the heroes entering a tavern. Talk back and forth, describing the seemingly innocent and “boring” stuff in this scene, just to create a mood. Then introduce a tilt! A good example of this is given in the book, where the scene starts with a character walking into the tavern:

Player: “I sit down. ‘Evening, Dave.'”
GM: “The barman looks at you. he flicks his eyes to a tankard of ale he’d poured as you came in. ‘You’ll be wanting that.'”
Player: “‘Yeah,’ I say, drinking it. ‘Quiet in here, isn’t it?'”

Then the tilt is added:

Player: I draw my sword and aim the point at his throat. ‘It’s too quiet, Dave. What have you done with everybody?'”

The tilt creates a sudden situation with a huge potential for drama. It’s great because it also created a mystery; what have Dave done with everybody? The player monkey wrenched the game here, making it interesting. I love that.

The last advice I’d like to highlight is about the cooperative nature of roleplaying games. Walmsley suggests that to have a good game, it is everyone’s responsibility to make everyone else’s character shine. Be a fan of every character! Set the other characters up for success instead of focusing on your own! It’s quite profound in its own way, because it really shows how it’s everyone’s job to make it fun for everyone.

It is an enlightening read, especially if you covet improv like I do. This book will give you advice on how you can improve your game in amazing ways, without having to do any work. The book is only 82 pages long, and is a very light read. I bought it at the low price of 8$ and I would gladly have paid twice that amount.

Sexism and guilt

I started a discussion about sexism in gaming yesterday on G+. People were generally polite, but it was on fire. I think it is a pretty hot topic at the moment, considering the #1reasonwhy trend and the fact that there’s a kickstarter for a documentary about the harassment of women in gaming.

After discussing it with other people, hearing them out, and actually changing my view on things, I came to an important realization; when I GM, I rarely have female NPC’s, and if they are there, they’re peripheral. This thought came to me after reading We have always fought, an article about how women are portrayed in the media, by Aidan Moher. It’s a really interesting read, I can highly recommend it.

In my “The Rise of Ri’leth” adventure, I had exactly one female NPC; Olive, the murdered girl. She was the only woman in the story. It’s strange, because it wasn’t even a choice I made, it wasn’t a conscious decision. Also, it’s maybe a bit much to even classify her as an NPC…

I feel guilty about this in a way. When women appear in my sessions, I victimize them. And I don’t even notice. It’s not something I do on purpose, but somehow that just makes it feel worse. I’ll have to think more about this when GM’ing.