Categories
Tabletop RPGs

The Flash on game prep

Wally West in The Flash (paid link) #82, summing up my approach to GMing.[1]

maximum enthusiasm combined with zero prep

If you celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope yours is a good one. I’ll be back in a few days!

[1] It doesn’t usually go like the next narration box . . .

Categories
D&D Tabletop RPGs

Gary Gygax on game prep, 1979

Thanks to Bryan Shipp over on G+, I just checked out this Gary Gygax interview from 1979 on Jon Peterson’s site — and it blew my mind.

Here’s Gary on game prep:

“Two to three hours per hour of play is generally what the dungeon master has to prepare with. He sits down and draws out the dungeon maps or, it could be a village that he is going through, trying to find someone. There’s no question that one of the reasons, as I was mentioning earlier, the young people play more than older people do, is because they have more time.”

That’s right: “Two to three hours per hour of play.” This level of game prep is unfathomable to me. For a four-hour session, that’s 8-12 hours of prep, a 2:1 or 3:1 prep:play ratio!

Looking back at a recent tremulus campaign I ran, I did a couple hours of campaign prep — not session prep! — and that lasted me for around a dozen two-hour sessions, for a ratio of 1:12 prep:play. For the Urban Shadows game I’m running right now, I think I did about three hours of prep — including making my own reference sheets for the game — and we’ve had 12 sessions of about 2.5 hours each, a ratio of 1:10.

But in terms of session prep, my preferred ratio is 0:1 prep:play. I was in the 1:1 range for a long time, when I thought I had to do that; I eventually moved to 1:6, which was a big step for me — but still not enough. For the past several years, my preference has been to sit down and see where the game takes us, just like the other players.

The voice

There’s more gold in them that hills, too, like this excerpt:

The dungeon master’s voice usually gives out before everybody’s ready to quit. That’s the end of an adventure.

What a marvelous image — and a great example of the spirit and enthusiasm of play!

Tests

I like this quote as well:

This is a – people like take to tests. We’re trained to in school. So it’s a testing type of a game and a fun game where you compete – but not against each other, as a group, so a group can work together and find a lot of enjoyment rather than making enemies, saying, “Hey I won the game.” Because you all play and you win as a group.

The whole interview is a spicy meatball, and there’s even a transcript if (like me) you prefer to read than listen to audio.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

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.

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.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Prep is dead

One of the fun things about having blogged for a long time is that I sometimes remember writing something years ago and, when I do, I can just go read it again. And man has this article from my Treasure Tables days back in 2005 come full fucking circle 10 years later: I’d rather rake leaves than do prep.

I’ve reached the point with prep where I’m entirely unwilling to do more than a few minutes of it, if that. Games that require prep are basically off my radar as a GM. I’ll read a book, I’ll noodle about a couple of things, but that’s my limit.

Game prep, you’re pretty much dead to me.