Tag Archive | improv

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.

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!

Proper evocative questions

Based on my former post, I’ve been thinking of how to ask proper “evocative” questions. I’ve been thinking about which criteria they should satisfy, in order for them to be “just right”. Dungeon World is all about discovery after all, and asking questions prior to the game can reveal too much. As such, I think it is more proper to ask a lot of the questions during the start of the game, instead of just before. That’s just my perception though, it’s not written in stone.

The criteria I’ve come up with so far is that the questions, and their answers, should…

  • … set the scene.
  • … establish character motivations.
  • … demand action.
  • … be “evocative”.
  • … raise more questions.
  • … be open-ended.

Set the scene

This one is pretty much a no-brainer. Until the scene is set, the players can’t actually do anything, because there’s no context to act in. At least one of the questions, or answers, should create some context. “What was the first thing you saw in these caverns?” does both sets the scene, and gives the players a means to say something about the environment.

Establish character motivations

The great big question of “why are you here?”. If the characters are not motivated to explore the cavern you suggested they start out in, then the players probably aren’t either. The only thing preventing them from leaving is bad die rolls anyway. “You are looking for an artifact here. What is it called?” The character obviously want this, but we do not yet know why.

Be evocative

The questions and answers should fuel the imagination of the players and the GM. “Why are you seeking out the Sapphire Tower?” is a question that does that. The neither players nor GM knows what the Sapphire Tower is, but the name itself gets the imagination flowing, without front-loading the game much except for saying “your characters want something here”.

Demand action

So, assuming we know where the character’s are, we should want to give the characters something to do. If there’s nothing to do, the game will grow boring pretty fast. “From what are you fleeing?” pretty much demands action; they must get away.

Raise more questions

The questions asked should lead to more questions, questions we want answered. Otherwise there’s no real point in playing the game anymore. If we go back to the question under *Demand action*, the character are fleeing from something, but there’s a big “why?” to be answered here.

Be open-ended

The point of asking questions is to get input. The question should be narrow enough to promote a kind of focus, but open-ended enough that the question is meaningful. “How does it feel to be locked up in a basement, stripped of all of your belongings?” is a pretty bad way to formulate the question, because the answer only elaborates on something internal to the characters. Instead, asking “How did you get locked up?” is much better, because it gives the players a chance to influence the external environment. It is pretty hard to answer this question without setting a theme to the game…

Rounding off

These were the thoughts I had on the matter. I suspect that it’s helpful to have theme associated with the questions, but I’m unsure whether its practical. The players will probably derail it anyway.

I’ve been doing it “wrong”…

Not as in BadWrongFun, but I think I might have had a skewed view on the collaborative world creation part of Dungeon World. I figured it out, because Marshall Miller posted a link to some of his work on his homepage. Click here to see the stuff. It’s pretty awesome.

Of note, look at the “Dungeon Starters” link, and read a few of them. They’re a good example of how open-ended play can be done in an elegant format. To quote Marshall Millers site:

What is a Dungeon Starter?
Dungeon Starters are a form of GM prep for running the first session of a Dungeon World game. Dungeon Starters don’t dictate plot, they’re not Fronts (you write those after the first session), and they don’t replace the GM playbook. They are for those times when you want to just sit down and start a game right then. Dungeon Starters provide a unified flavor to your prep but, when you get down to it, they are really just an unordered cloud of blanks and hooks with some appropriate moving parts to make sure the players don’t catch you with nothing interesting to say. Dungeon Starters are made up of questions, impressions, custom moves, items and services, spells, and monsters (among other things).

The most important part about Dungeon Starters is that they contain questions, more specifically; loaded questions. Loaded questions are great, because they set a theme for the game without dictating what will happen. An example from “The Goblin Hole”:

This far from civilization, what was the last thing you saw as you entered the cavern?

This question establishes that the players are descending into a cavern or other dungeon-like environment, and that the players are a long way from the nearest town. It also gives the players a chance to make something up from their characters’ point of view that can (and probably will) impact the story. It gets trickier with the next question:

What have you sworn to do here?

So, the GM doesn’t even have an idea about why the characters are there, he’s leaving that open to the players. In this way, the narrative is shared between the players and the GM, leaving wiggle-room for making the story about the characters and not their opposition.

What I did “wrong”

In all sessions of Dungeon World, I have done something different. I asked questions about the characters and then about the setting, until I had a fairly clear picture about what the characters were doing, and where they were. Most often though, I also learned who the bad guy would be, which is bad because that implies that I’m not learning this through delightful discovery.

What the game was about, what the setting was like, and who the characters were deep down, all these things were answered before play actually began. I believe such things would be much more fun to learn through play. Next time I GM a one-shot, I’ll try to ask some evocative and loaded questions, and see if I enjoy that game more.

My problem now is that the exams are pretty tough this semester, mainly because I have to take care of my child all day next week. My wife has a course that spans 9 days, with lectures from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., leaving me little time to work on my own exams in that period. I’ll try to find some time to play anyway.