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.

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!


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.

PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

tremulus after two campaigns

I wrapped up a second campaign of tremulus, a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG of Lovecraftian horror by Sean Preston, this past Tuesday night. I’ve been meaning to write about tremulus for some time, because it’s a great game, it’s underrated, and I initially underrated it myself.

It’s basically “Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World,” which sounded like chocolate meets peanut butter to me when it popped up on Kickstarter back in 2012. After 19 sessions across two campaigns (one playing, one GMing), I’m ready to talk about it here on Yore.

First impression

My initial impression wasn’t favorable.

One of the things I love about being an avid RPGGeek[1] user is that when I want to know what I thought about a game four years ago, it’s easy to find out. Here’s what I said about it after one session:

I’ve played one session of tremulus, character creation plus an hour or so of play that was purely introductory. I can’t shake the sense that this isn’t a great implementation of Apocalypse World, but I’ll give it a more thorough shakedown as the campaign progresses.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement! My initial rating was a 7 out of 10, which was giving it the benefit of the doubt.

(Quoting myself seems insufferably pretentious, but I want to show how my thinking on tremulus changed over time, and it’s the easiest and most direct way to do that.)

Second impression

I stuck to my guns and gave it more thought as that campaign progressed, and things changed:

Several sessions in, I’m enjoying the game largely despite the system. It’s just not a particularly deft or interesting AW hack. There are some good bits, to be sure, but not as many as I’d like. The playbooks are mostly pretty boring and same-y, and I’d likely be having just as much fun with the same good group and a different system.

I enjoy PbtA games enough to like the core of what I’m getting here despite the fact that it’s surrounded with a fair amount of blah. The non-blah, for me, remains the Ebon Eaves playset aspect — that’s quite cool.

When I wrote that, I revised my rating downwards from a 7 to a 6.

It kept gnawing at me

But I couldn’t get that campaign out of my head, and it started to become clear to me that there was more there than I’d thought.

Months later, looking back on one of my favorite campaigns, I see that I’m conflicted about this game. Humdrum rules, but it’s fun to play. Do I wish the rules were more interesting? Yep. But Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World is pretty awesome.

New rating: 8.

Running tremulus

My online group enjoyed our first campaign, and I was itching to run an extended PbtA game, so we circled back to it with me in the GM’s chair. This showed me a whole different side of the game.

Yeah, there’s more in here that I love — the framework/thread/hazard tech is EXCELLENT. Doesn’t take long to pull together, dovetails beautifully with the playsets, and balances inspiration with prescriptive elements beautifully.

There are a lot more playbooks now, too, including many more with interesting features/rules — which were lacking in the core rules. The “tremulus ecosystem” has expanded into something very cool.

I love the “structured takeoff” provided by a playset + framework + playbooks. Lots of guidance, but no railroading or plotting things out. I see how the rules connect with that now, too, and overall I like the game a lot.

New rating: 9 out of 10. I’ve played 104 different RPGs as of this writing, and I rate 19 of them a 9 (and zero of them a 10).[2]

For me, this is a good example of how hard it is to assess an RPG without playing it. Which, you know, duh — but short of buying every book you ever see, you have to assess games you haven’t played.

My initial assessment of tremulus might have kept me from playing it, and I’d have missed out on a great game.

What I love about tremulus

The main thing I love is how it plays. I don’t do session prep, and when I GM I love sitting down at every session just like I was a player: not knowing what’s going to happen, and not having done any work between sessions. tremulus is fantastic for that.

It also delivers on what it promises: Lovecraftian horror with the trappings you expect from Call of Cthulhu, but all of the player agency, surprises, and not-plotting-things-out-in-advance you expect from a PbtA game.

tremulus also makes the clever choice to leave the amount of Lovecraft in your game up to you. By default, it assumes your group will be creating its own entities, cults, mysteries, and other setting elements in a Lovecraftian vein, rather than using deep ones, Yog-Sothoth, and all the rest. But if you’d prefer to play “straight CoC,” it supports that option as well.

The fourth biggie is the tremulus ecosystem. If you got into the game now, you’d have access to a wealth of playbooks, playsets, and other content that didn’t exist back when I first picked up the core book. The supplemental playbooks in particular are more interesting than the initial ones.

My group has played two playsets: Ebon Eaves, the peculiar town featured in the core book, and Frozen Wasteland, which is in the vein of At the Mountains of Madness (paid link). Both are excellent, and playsets are a huge part of what I love about tremulus.

Before you start in-character play, the players choose three options from the “What you think to be real” list and three from the “What weirdness you’ve heard” list about Ebon Eaves (or about whatever playset you’re using). Here’s the second list:

Those six choices (three from each list) produce two letter codes, like “ACG” or “BDE,” and those codes all have brief write-ups in the book. Every combination is unique, and quite different — two groups playing a tremulus game set in Ebon Eaves won’t play the same game unless they choose the exact same codes.

As a player, this approach produced the seeds of a town with several mysteries that were all spooky and creepy and interesting to poke at. As a GM, it gave me more than enough to chew on when setting up the game — which ties into another thing I love about tremulus.

To create the default setup (e.g., Ebon Eaves, an antarctic expedition), you prep only the questions that pop out at you — the starting point for the mysteries and weirdness, but no further. For example, in our Frozen Wastes game, one question was “Why is Professor Crawford so desperate to rediscover Hyperborea?” I didn’t know the answer until, through actual play, my players’ choices combined with my improvisation produced one.

All of that combines to facilitate Lovecraftian horror so well that as much as I love Call of Cthulhu, I’m pretty sure I’d reach for tremulus first.

Ia! Ia! tremulus fhtagn!

tremulus is a superb game.

It’s underrated, and it doesn’t get the attention I think it deserves. If “Call of Cthulhu + Apocalypse World” sounds appealing, I suspect you’ll like it.

[1] AKA the most useful RPG tool you’re not using.

[2] It’s also one of an even smaller number of games of which I own multiple copies. It’s got enough moving parts that I found it helpful to have two books on hand when running it.