There is no curtain

This morning, out of the blue, it hit me that I can summarize my approach to GMing tabletop RPGs in a single, concise principle: There is no curtain.

Frame from The Wizard of Oz

The curtain is, of course, a reference to The Wizard of Oz — in which a curtain conceals what the titular Wizard is actually up to in his chamber. When his deception is laid bare, Dorothy and her companions see the Wizard, his power, and his machinations in an entirely different light.

That accurs’d drape

So what does “There is no curtain” actually mean?

It means that when I GM, I don’t hide what I’m doing from the other players. That means no fudging die rolls, of course, and no literal curtain-analog in the form of a GM screen, but it’s bigger than that. I’m upfront about not doing any session prep beyond thinking about the game and perhaps looking over my notes from the last session. Likewise, if something is decided on the spur of the moment — my favorite way to make decisions as a GM, because I want there to be a roughly equal distribution of surprise around the table — I don’t try to conceal that.

“There is no curtain” is shorthand, encompassing a lot of what’s in my lengthy, comprehensive 2016 Yore post “Alchemy, agency, and surprises.” Play is what happens at the table, not what I’ve plotted out in advance behind my curtain; that in turn means that what makes the game fun is player agency, and the attendant consequences thereof. It also emphasizes that we’re all players, I’m just a player who (probably, depending on the game) has a few different responsibilities — and not, say, an all-powerful wizard who knows all and sees all…or at least deceives the other players into thinking that.

“Deceive” is kind of a strong word in this context, isn’t it? There’s nothing inherently wrong with GMing “behind a curtain” — it’s just not a GMing style that interests me in any way. (Though if a group isn’t on the same page about how the game is being played, that can lead to serious problems.) But it’s the correct word for me because of the Czege Principle: “when one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.” The curtain is a metaphor for the deception required to pretend that it’s interesting when the GM is in charge of challenges and their resolution.

This has nothing to do with, say, hiding the dungeon map from the other players, or keeping monster stat blocks to yourself during play, or even running a prepared module — provided you don’t force the other players to stick to it, or bend the game to ensure that the module works as written. There’s no deception there; everyone at the table wants that dungeon to be full of surprises. But if, say, I’m planning to use a randomly generated dungeon during a session, I’d share that — because I don’t want it to be a secret. The randomness is a feature, not a bug.

What’s interesting is what comes next, and that’s up to the other players. And, as a massive added benefit, when everyone at the table has the same set of expectations about how the game is going to work, all of the players — GM included — can much more easily support each other in making it fun for everyone. If there’s a curtain then that responsibility falls largely to the GM, and I can’t abide that model of play.

I learned this from watching you, tremulus

Lots of stuff in my gaming past has contributed to my current perspective, but one of the biggest influences on this principle was tremulus.

tremulus is PbtA Call of Cthulhu, more or less, and right up front that premise begs a question: How can you play a satisfying mystery when the GM doesn’t plot out the mystery in advance for the other players to solve? The answer is twofold.

Firstly, instead of plotting out the mystery, the GM comes up with some story threads and how they might resolve themselves if the PCs never showed up. And secondly, everyone at the table knows the mystery isn’t prewritten. There are mechanics enabling players to contribute elements to the mystery; there are moves that ensure that core bits of the unfolding game don’t exist until the moment they unfold. There’s no curtain in tremulus, and seeing that in action was a powerful experience for me.

So there it is: There is no curtain. I enjoy thinking about, and coming up with, GMing principles[1] — and I hope this one has some utility for other gamers, too.

[1] Set the time machine to 2008: this post from the salad days of Gnome Stew collects seven of my maxims for GMs. The aphorism in this vein that I’m most proud of, though, comes from even earlier — 2006, when I was writing Treasure Tables: Being a GM is like using a 150-watt bulb.

12 thoughts on “There is no curtain”

  1. That’s my favorite way to play too. It fights so many assumptions that it can be hard to sell — and falling short it’s clear that it’s you as a GM — your notes or the module aren’t to blame.

    Even at my best, I tend to have a bit more prep than just thinking between sessions — but Scum & Villainy was about perfect. It asked for light work updating factions, then “daydreaming” about how those changes come together into a proffered job or two, with some random table to help out if you needed more inspiration.

    1. Martin Ralya

      Your S&V experience sounds a lot like my Urban Shadows experience. That game is set up extremely well for this mode of play, and it feels like a FitD game would be as well.

      I want to gently push back on your point about falling short. While I 100% FEEL like it’s on me when something doesn’t work out well, it’s a shared/table experience and I’m not entirely responsible for everyone’s fun.

      I also find that failures are part of the alchemy that makes gaming so great; without them, the successes are cheapened a bit. (I think I’m paraphrasing Maliszewski there.) My feeling these days is that I only want to game with loving, supportive groups that encourage experimentation in a friendly atmosphere — and embrace the possibility that things will go splat from time to time.

    1. Martin Ralya

      I literally said, “S. John, nooooo!” after reading your comment. I adore your work and I have no doubt that we could find common ground, and joy, at the gaming table, and I’ve always wanted to meet you in person. But I do know what you mean! We have quite different approaches — which is probably part of why Risus taught me so much.

      That said, I love high-trust trad gaming when I’m running/playing, say, an old-school D&D or DCC RPG module — and maybe it’s just early (or I’m not sharp enough), but I don’t see any inherent conflict between running a module in high-trust mode and the way I generally run games (no-curtain mode). I’m going to pick one of your modules to read and see if I’m off-base here.

      (For other folks reading S. John’s comment and wondering about the underpinnings, this excellent Q&A covers high-trust trad gaming rather nicely.)

      1. S. John Ross

        The thing that piques my curiosity is the idea that a DCC RPG module could be adapted to high-trust trad. It seems to me that you’d have to gut 95% of it, based on the handful I’ve read.

        Anyway I have no doubt we could have a good time hanging out and talking. And I love boardgames and cardgames and wargames and things, too, so we could totally rock some of those.

        But what you’re describing, unless I’ve completely misunderstood, is what I call Zero-Trust Gaming, quite the opposite of what I want as a player or what I work to provide as a GM.

        If you ever want to explore it beyond what we can do in text messages, let’s hang on Discord audio sometime and talk it through. We can record it and call it a one-off podcast or something!

        1. Martin Ralya

          Ooh, now I’m intrigued! I’ve started in on Slimes of Blossom Grove already; now I’m going to reread the DCC adventure that sprang to mind, Sailors on the Starless Sea, and contrast the two.

          Fully agreed on hanging out sometime. No idea when that could happen — maybe a future Gen Con? — but that would be a blast.

          I’ll see what my reading surfaces, but thank you for the offer re: a Discord chat. That also sounds like fun.

          1. S. John Ross

            Slimes won’t take you long; it’s a quick one. Peter Schweighofer also did a blog post about it recently that may be of interest; he’s an old-school medium-trust-trad guy that has kind of gone over to the OSR/D&D side lately. His perspective on it is interesting. I don’t think he groks it just yet but he’s circling the target =) Post at:

            Sailors on the Starless Sea: That’s not one I’ve read (yet), but I note it’s for zero-level characters, so that’s a hopeful sign! With D&D-style design, modules are often more adaptable to Trad (high-trust or otherwise) when they’re designed for low-levels, since at low levels the designer can’t lean on mechanistic slog / loop-based play just yet.

  2. Interesting read. I’m glad you blogged about rpgs again.

    I must say that I’m a very different GM : I *need* to prep stuff to have maximum fun. I can’t have fun if I fell the world and my rulings as a GM are inconsistent.

    One thing I love about RPGs is the exploration : players discovering stuff, but also uncovering mysteries, realizing that lots of things they though mere window dressing are meaningful and significant. To accomplish this, I need to seed it beforehand. For me, there is no pleasure in seing players solve a murder if the culprit was decided in reaction to their investigation. There is no consistency : the answer was X because they did A, but the answer would have been Y if they did B.

    Another thing that I love is to make the consequences of the actions of the PCs manifest, both on the short and long term. In my opinion, that reinforces consistency big time. So I have to track what they did, and then decide how the world will react, which let me seed new stuff for the players to dicover. With the sheer number of decisions the players make, I can’t remember everything, so I need to keep track.

    But my prep is nothing like what is often associated with that word. I’m very much with you when you say that play “is what happens at the table, not what I’ve plotted out in advance behind my curtain; that in turn means that what makes the game fun is player agency, and the attendant consequences thereof.” Justin Alexander explains it very well : prep situations, not plot.

    A lot of my prep is actually reactive to what the players do, and happens after the game, not before. What happened? How will that affect the world? How will the wrld react? How can I make that manifest? Call that reactive prep. Mostly, it’s updating my “books”; I use tiddlywiki to keep track.

    I still do plenty of prep beforehand. Wordbuiding, as I said, but also things to help me improv at the table. Name lists and random tables are obviously important. But more generally, to be able to improv at the table while maintaining coherence, I need to have an understanding of the broad strokes of what’s the world like. Then, I can make snap decisions in the moment when players do something unexpected (which is itself expected).

    tl;dr I prep in advance to react to what my players do at the table, not for them to react at the table to what I prepped in advance.

    1. Martin Ralya

      Well said! When I hit Post I could tell that I hadn’t fully wrapped my brain around what I was saying in this post, but I don’t mind a bit of rawness in a blog post — so I let it fly. The boundary you’re highlighting is one of the areas I’m still thinking about.

      But from the sound of it a lot of the prep you’re describing would be campaign prep for me — What’s over there? Who are the movers and shakers? What’s on top of that mountain? That makes exploration genuine in a different way than “improvised exploration,” if that makes sense, but I don’t need to do much/any of it between sessions.

      The longer tremulus post I linked to in this one explains the mystery bit more clearly. The game isn’t designed to run whodunnits; it’s very much in line with “prep situations, not plot.” The difference is that when, say, I’ve written a paragraph about what the [sinister entity] is up to and what it wants, I’ve left open why it wants those things, how it’s going to get them, and a host of other details — that’s the mystery.

  3. Pingback: Prep : a comment on Martin Ralya’s « There is no curtain » – Monstres et aventures

  4. Martin Ralya

    @S. John Ross: I think we hit the limit of my software’s nested reply function. ;-) Thanks for the link!

    I’ve only run and played 0-level and 1st-level DCC modules, which may be what’s influencing my perception that they feel pretty high-trust (as I understand it). Funnel PCs in particular have so few abilities and HP that everything becomes a problem to solve creatively…or they all die.

    1. S. John Ross

      To the extent that Trad, or Trust, can happen in D&D (and of course they both can; D&D players _invented_ Trad), low-levels are where it’s most likely, for pretty much that reason =)

      Happy to continue by email or (better yet) by Discord audio sometime. I think a recording of our convo might be useful to others, too.

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