Alchemy, agency, and surprises

I was struggling to articulate my play style preferences last night, during a session debrief, and I kept thinking, “Didn’t I write about this on G+ like a year ago? I wish I could find that — and all those great posts that helped me figure out what I wanted in gaming, too!” What I was trying to find took some digging, G+ searching not — ironically — being all that robust, so I decided to collect it all here for easy reference.

Putting it all together turned out to be a useful exercise in its own right, too. I reread some of the posts mentioned below, many of them quite long, and tried to distill my thoughts into points that could be expressed succinctly.

Play style preferences

Here are the results of that unpacking and distillation, the core of what I want out of gaming:

  • Plot is what happens at the table. If the GM preps a bunch of stuff that will happen, and the PCs are supposed to follow along, I’m out. I played and GMed that way for years, and I’m not willing to play or GM that way anymore. I make an exception for small doses of plot — convention one-shots, a session or two to try out a system, that sort of thing.
  • No prep, or at least very little. I figured out that I don’t enjoy prep back in 2005, and that hasn’t changed. I’ll read a book (the shorter the better), and I’ll putter at some stuff before the first session if it’s useful for the whole campaign, but that’s about it. On the flipside, if I’m a player and the GM has done a lot of prep (excluding things like making a sandbox or prepping situations), that’s a pretty good indicator that the game might not be for me.
  • Roughly equal distribution of surprise. Whether I’m GMing or playing, I want to come to the table and be as surprised as everyone else by what happens. In my experience, the more prep there is, the more likely it is that the GM will steer the game to employ that prep and the players will feel pressure to follow along because they feel bad about all the work the GM has done. If the GM doesn’t have to do any work away from the table, those problems vanish.
  • Player agency and emergent play. The only plot that interests me is the one that emerges from play, based on meaningful player choices with meaningful consequences. The more player agency in a game, the better.
  • No railroading and no fudging. This might be redundant, but it’s worth calling out. If my choices as a player are being negated, or, as a GM, if I feel compelled to negate a player’s choices, we’re doing it wrong.
  • Alchemy. The magic of gaming, the thing I can’t get from a video game (as compared to a tight, scripted experience, which video games generally do much better than tabletop RPGs), is the alchemy the comes from meaningful player choices, random die rolls, and playing to find out what happens.

My thinking on these topics, and on play style in general, has been heavily informed by these excellent pieces of writing:

The Czege Principle

Paul Czege has a principle named after him, although the references to it that I found (one, two) are both followed by Paul saying that the Czege Principle isn’t the Czege Principle. In any case, the principle is both splendid and concise:

when one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun

Lots of awesome stuff flows from understanding this principle and applying it to games, and it neatly encapsulates a lot of what I wrote up top — no railroading, no fudging, emergent play, and more.

Play Unsafe

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe (affiliate link) changed my gaming life. It’s full of so many touchstones of my play style that it’s tough to start quoting it without just wanting to paste in the entire book, but here two bits I learned from it that I think of almost literally every time I sit down to play.

The first is about holding your ideas lightly.

Do think of things you’d like to happen in games. Hold the idea lightly: don’t force it, don’t push for it and, if it’s not happening, drop it. But, if it makes sense, take it.

And the second is about being obvious, and why it works so well.

Do the obvious thing: the thing that obviously happens next in the story; the thing that you think everyone expects to happen. Paradoxically, that obvious thing may, to everyone else, seem original and brilliant.

Brain damage

This excellent summary of “the brain damage posts” hit my radar about a year ago, and it changed the way I think about gaming — and about Ron Edwards. I might have chosen a different term than “brain damage,” but Ron’s observations are spot-on.

That summary thread, which includes links and nested threads, offers up a huge amount of content to digest. But it’s worth reading all of it, especially if your only prior contact with it is hearing that “Ron Edwards says gamers have brain damage.”

Here’s one bit that stands out for me:

To engage in a social, creative activity, three things are absolutely required. Think of music, theater, quilting, whatever you’d like. These principles also apply to competitive games and sports, but that is not to the present point.

1. You have to trust that the procedures work – look, these instruments make different noises, so we can make music; look, this ball is bouncey, so we can toss and dribble it

2. You have to want to do it, now, here, with these people – important! (a) as opposed to other activities, (b) as opposed to “with anybody who’ll let me”

3. You have to try it out, to reflect meaningfully on the results, and to try again – if it’s worth doing, it’s worth learning to do better; failure is not disaster, improvement is a virtue

I refer back to these principles often, and they help me look critically at whether I’m doing the kind of gaming I actually want to be doing, rather than making excuses for why unsatisfying gaming is okay.

Railroading and not prepping plots

Taken together, these seven posts by The Alexandrian comprise one of the biggest influences on why I want what I want out of gaming. Here they are in order:

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from these posts.

From Part 1, a clear and useful definition of railroading:

Railroads happen when the GM negates a player’s choice in order to enforce a preconceived outcome.

Note, however, that both parts of this equation are important: The choice must be negated and the reason it’s being negated is because the GM is trying to create a specific outcome. The players must try to get off the train and the GM has to lock the doors.

From Part 2, why railroading gargles dicks and makes GMing feel like work:

When a GM predetermines what’s going to happen in the game, they become solely responsible for the entire experience. And that’s a ridiculously heavy burden to bear. Are your encounters balanced? Did you include enough “cool stuff” for every player to participate in? Did you incorporate enough elements from each PC’s back story? The list goes on and on.

This is how you end up with GMs stringing together precariously balanced My Precious Encounters™ in a desperate juggling act as they try to keep all of their players happy.

When you allow the players to make their own decisions, all of the pressure and responsibility melts away: They’ll choose the fights they can win. They’ll approach situations in ways that let them do cool stuff. If there’s not enough stuff from their back story seeking them out, then they’ll go looking for it.

From Part 3, about playing to see what happens:

What tabletop RPGs have going for them is the alchemy of player agency. Of presenting a situation and seeing what happens when a unique set of players make a unique set of decisions and produce a unique set of outcomes. When you railroad your players, you specifically set yourself at odds with the very thing that makes playing an RPG worthwhile in the first place.

And, lastly, one from Don’t Prep Plots:

For me, the entire reason to play a roleplaying game is to see what happens when the players make meaningful choices. In my experience, the result is almost always different than anything I could have anticipated or planned for.

If I wanted to tell my players a story (which is what plot-based design really boils down to), then it’s far more efficient and effective to simply write a story. In my opinion, if you’re playing a roleplaying game then you should play to the strengths of the medium: The magical creativity which only happens when people get together.

The whole series of posts is fantastic. They’re long, but not long-winded — rather, they’re packed with examples, special cases, and dissections of common arguments in favor of railroading.

Fudging, emergent play, and systems

I often feel like Bryan R. Shipp of Room 209 Gaming is living inside my brain. He has a knack for putting things succinctly, well, and in such a way that I can feel the gears in my brain clicking into a new configuration as I read them.

Fudging can die in a fucking fire. Here’s a handy summary of exactly why, from Fudging is Bad Form:

Even in situations where the GM only fudges “once in a while,” or fudges only to the players’ benefit, the fact remains that the GM, once fudging is introduced, could fudge at any time. The inevitable result of this is that all rolls are irrelevant because they can be overruled by GM fiat.

Deciding to stop fudging has been one of the best gaming-related decisions I’ve ever made. Few things make me less happy at the gaming table, as a player or the GM, than fudging.

Here’s Bryan at his succinct best, from Emergent Play is the Only Way:

When you’re playing a game, you shouldn’t know how it’s going to end. No one should. That’s the benefit of gaming over watching TV or reading a book – your participation means you can affect change.

Lastly, here’s a quote from Game Systems That Get Out Of The Way:

If you’re looking for a game system that gets out of the way when you want it to, you’re looking for the wrong kind of game. You’re looking for D&D without the specific fiddly bits you don’t like. But I have a different proposition: look for a game system that doesn’t get out of the way when you want it to. Look for a game system that, instead, reinforces what you’re trying to do.

For me, wanting to ignore a portion of a game’s rules — or seeing a GM ignoring rules — is a canary in the coal mine, a signal that I’m probably playing the wrong game.

To choose just one example, a few years ago I GMed a long-running game where I removed possibility of PC death because it fit the genre (without telling my players, because I assumed the illusion of danger was important). As well-intentioned as that choice was, in hindsight it meant that much of the system didn’t actually matter, and the parts that did matter were working less efficiently in support of the group’s play than would a system designed to do what we wanted in the first place.

Looking back on a lifetime of gaming, my tastes have changed over the years. I’m sure they’ll change again, but for now this is a good snapshot of where my head has been at for the past year or two, and where it’s at now.

4 thoughts on “Alchemy, agency, and surprises”

  1. Whether I’m GMing or playing, I want to come to the table and be as surprised as everyone else by what happens. In my experience, the more prep there is, the more likely it is that the GM will steer the game to employ that prep

    My own experience is opposite to that. I went from rules-light, improv-heavy to rules-heavy, prep-heavy.

    I never prep plot though, or a sequence of “set pieces” or a particular BBEG fight that needs to be epic or whatever. I just have a game world where things happen and the player characters can do things.

    When I was improvising I was often nudging and pushing the players on a railroad “in the back of my mind”, that I wasn’t even aware I was that attached to until I analyzed the games afterwards.

    For a while I enjoyed “story games” style games that depended on player contributions to break that GM-steered, low-agency style I had fallen into.

    Because I had never played simple dungeon crawl games growing up. I came in on the second wave of RPGs where it was all drama and vampires.

    The first time I played a simple dungeon crawl game (B4 The Lost City) I was like “lol this is just a fun story like all the other games”. I borrowed the module and went home and read it and was like “Wait a minute… the traps were really there? We could’ve avoided them? The DM didn’t pull them out of his hat on the fly or force them to happen no matter what we did?”

    And then the second time I played a simple dungeon crawl game, a few weeks later (Barrowmaze), my mind was absolutely blown. What I did and said mattered because my character would die otherwise. It was a complete Dark Dungeons, Mazes & Monsters style mind-meltdown for me and I absolutely loved it.

    The OSR generally loves the rules-light, but I’m heaping rules not so much on the character end (although… some… OK, i admit it, kind of a lot there too) but on the DM end. Rules for me as DM to follow. Systems help me create emergent play and help me from falling into my very deep-seated, impro-heavy habits.

    1. Martin Ralya

      That makes sense to me. When I run an old-school game, I like to have modules and other resources on hand — stuff that required a lot of prep, just not prep done by me — so that I can take advantage of it as needed.

  2. Sean Hess

    Great article. I also struggle with prep, and find reconciling prep with improv that hardest thing about MCing. I would love to be zero-prep always, but I struggle with it:

    I find that after a lot of improv I paint myself in a corner. I know what would feel right to happen next, but I don’t know “what’s going on” behind the scenes. Eventually, we get to a player decision, or a miss, and I don’t have any idea what should happen because I’m not clearly imagining what’s happening.

    If you don’t do any prep, how do you know WHY there are wet footprints leading out of the house, and mysterious lights on the hill at night?

    1. Martin Ralya


      In answer to your question (to which there definitely isn’t One True Answer), it depends.

      Take tremulus, for example. Two hours of campaign prep, guided by the book’s excellent GM tools, is all I need to run a satisfying 12-session mystery sandbox. I know a bit about what’s going on, and what motivates the NPCs, and what might happen if the PCs ignore it all, and we figure out the rest in play.

      For true zero prep, I might just ask why those wet footprints are there. I’m open about how I run games; no one’s surprised if I don’t have a canned answer for anything.

      For something like a hexcrawl with Dungeon World, I’ll sometimes make up weird bullshit that sounds fun and have no real idea why it’s there. Then one of the other players will make a move that dovetails perfectly with one way to interpret the weird bullshit, and I’ll jot down what it means.

      In your example, I might have said there were lights on the hill at night and not known why. Funnily enough, my DW game DID involve that exact scenario! Then a player missed a roll and revealed a threat they hadn’t known about before; those lights became the threat. In my game, the lights became a spying spell cast by a wizard who was curious why they were there.

      Sometimes I’ll roll some Rory’s Story Cubes, or pull three Tarot cards, to get my creative juices flowing again. Although since I mostly run games where minimal prep is the default (PbtA, etc.), I haven’t needed those tools in a few years.

      I’m also a big fan of breaks. If my improv well has run dry, we take five. Or we pause while I think for a couple of minutes. The other players run into the same problem sometimes, and breaks for them work just as well.

      It’s hard to bring your improv A game for 100% of a full session. Having some tools on hand, players who like sharing narrative control, and a system designed for minimal prep all help.

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