Tabletop RPGs

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 “playing 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 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.

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 . . .

Dice Tabletop RPGs

Rory’s Story Cubes are one of my favorite improv GMing tools

This Adventure Time dice bag rides in my gaming bag every day, just in case. What’s inside?

Why, it’s a big ol’ pile of Rory’s Story Cubes (paid link)!

I carry these to every game because they’re one of the most useful improv tools in my GMing toolkit.

Here’s my full assortment:

That spread includes the following Story Cubes sets (also noted is where they appear in the above photo; all are paid links):

I don’t find every Story Cubes set to be perfect for improv GMing — Actions (paid link), for example, doesn’t really meet my needs (but it might meet yours; YMMV, and all that). There are also newer sets I haven’t considered, but I worry that having too many dice in this bag would dilute some of its potency; this amount is a good fit for me.

What I love about Story Cubes

These dice are well-made: a nice size, tumbled, etched, and well-inked. They’re easy to read, even for my aging eyes.

The symbols are whimsical, but also tuned for what I find to be an interpretive sweet spot: It’s a dinosaur, but that can mean a literal dino, an old person, someone with antiquated habits, a museum, an archaeological dig site — and so on.

That interpretive sweet spot applies just as well when rolled together — better, even. The instant context provided by the rest of the roll, and my imagination, makes different meanings pop out at me.

Three examples

The most common thing I do with my Story Cubes is reach into the bag, grab a handful (no specific amount) of dice, roll them, and just look at the results for a moment. I generally do this when I need a jolt — perhaps I’m feeling stuck, or I’m considering an element of the game that I hadn’t considered before, and some random inspiration seems like it would help.

That’s totally unscientific! But it works for me.

But I sometimes use them for more specific things — like coming up with NPCs (which I wrote about on Gnome Stew three years ago).

I usually use three dice for NPCs, drawn at random from my full mixed set. Here’s a sample throw:

That could be: a planar traveler who uses a magic gemstone to slip into other worlds, a globetrotting hypnotist, someone under the influence of a cursed jewel (ignoring the globe; I often do this if I can’t use every die in a throw), and so on.

Three dice gives me enough to work with, but doesn’t overwhelm me with details to think about. (An especially important NPC might merit more than three dice.)

I also like to use them to think about what’s going on with [X], whatever X might be at the moment — a conspiracy, a faction’s agenda, a mystery, etc. For those throws, I generally use at least five dice, and occasionally more than five. Here’s a five-die throw:

The first thing I thought of was an adventure hook: giants are using enchanted bees to put people to sleep so they can steal their treasure. I read the dinosaur eggs as sleeping babies when I first saw that die, and interpreted the heart to mean that this was a charming, Disney-esque plot rather than a more serious one.

If you looked at those throws and started getting ideas for an NPC or other game element, then you’ll probably like Story Cubes.

A security blanket

Lastly, I like just having Story Cubes nearby when I’m GMing, because I know they’re there if I need them. Zero-prep GMing still makes me nervous sometimes (and I suspect it always will), so knowing I’ve got a proven, useful tool for getting back into the groove — or finding the groove, or unsticking my brain — in my gaming bag is comforting.

And that’s one of the coolest things about Rory’s Story Cubes (paid link): They have a million gaming applicatons. Throw in being inexpensive and well-made, and they’re incredibly easy to recommend.

Tabletop RPGs

Excisions: “lazy GM” and “it’s like herding cats”

I’ve excised these two phrases from my gaming lexicon: “lazy GM,” in any form (“lazy game mastering,” etc.), and “it’s like herding cats,” when used to refer to players.

I don’t care how anyone else games unless it negatively impacts others, including me, but I submit that these two phrases need to go the way of the dodo.

Fuck this noise

There’s no such this as a lazy GM.

GMing is as much art as craft as science as performance, and some approaches to it require work. But for fuck’s sake, no one is a “lazy GM” because they don’t enjoy, and/or don’t do, the parts that feel like work to them.

I’m not lazy because I don’t like spending hours doing game prep, and neither are you. Conversely, if doing hours of prep isn’t work for you, that’s awesome. Do what you love!

When GMing feels like work, I don’t enjoy it. When I take out the work, I love every minute of it. There’s no work I “should” be doing that I’m not doing, so “laziness” doesn’t apply.

Fuck that noise, too

I love the phrase “it’s like herding cats.” It’s fun to use; the visual is fantastic. But I loathe when it’s applied to players.

Translated, it sounds like this: “It’s hard to get my players to what I want.”

Well, duh. Maybe talk about what everyone wants, and do that instead? Or find a group that wants the same things you do?

Gaming is alchemy. It’s magic and science and hokum all in a big ball, and sometimes you turn lead into, well . . . other lead. But when you turn lead into gold, through play, it’s fucking magical.

In my experience, “herding” players toward that goal has a much lower success rate than putting down the fucking lasso, getting off the fucking horse, and joining the cats.


As concepts, these phrases are insulting and counterproductive. They send a bad signal to new gamers: that you have to do a bunch of work to be a GM, and that players need herding — neither of which is true.

Adios, “lazy GM” and “it’s like herding cats.” You won’t be missed.

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.