This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Like most creative endeavors, the GMing craft comes with its share of eternal conundrums. One classic example is the question of whether you carefully prepare adventures, or improvise them in response to player choices.

Carefully prepared adventures risk the accusation of railroading. In this particular application of a term I find annoyingly broad, the GM must be careful not to create the impression that anything that happens is predetermined, or that the players have anything less than absolute freedom of choice at all times. By its very nature, a prepared scenario can’t anticipate every possible branching action leading from a single plot premise. Otherwise even the simplest adventure would hit the table at the approximate weight of a telephone directory, and would consist almost entirely of carefully written responses to choices the players never wind up making. The more creative and surprising the choices made by the players, the more a prepared scenario becomes an improvised one during play.

On the other hand, if you’re completely making it up as you go along, some players (not, one hopes, the same ones who complain about railroading) find it more difficult to engage in the willing suspension of disbelief necessary to the enjoyment of any fictional presentation. If they can see you making it up on the spot, the game becomes less “real” to them. For players of this school, the game world is only genuine to them if they can believe that you’ve made certain immutable decisions and that certain of their choices will always produce the same results. Their desire for a sense of a bedrock reality behind the scenario persists regardless of your immediate need to adjust such factors as pacing, dramatic contrast, or degree of challenge.

In an investigative scenario, like one for any of the GUMSHOE games, you’ll generally need to designate certain facts as immutable from the outset. You’ll want to start the game already knowing a good deal of backstory, specifically who committed the act under investigation, how they did it, and why. (This is assuming that you’re not playing in a more avant garde mode, in which the players, acting as collective co-storytellers, help to collaboratively determine all these facts as they go along.) You can’t work out which clues might be available, even in improv fashion, if you don’t already know what facts the clues will eventually point toward.

For groups especially sensitive to the thought that you’re making it up before their eyes, a number of techniques allow you to convincingly fake it.

(Yep, I’m once again advocating a series of GM techniques which to a small extent deceive the players. If you find the entire idea of this scandalous, you may also be shocked to learn that there is gambling going on in the casino. Any author or screenwriter at all interested in the basic pleasures of narrative is to some degree a magician, relying on misdirection to eventually surprise and delight the audience. Just because players in an RPG take on pivotal duties that in other story forms are the sole province of the author doesn’t mean that the GM shouldn’t occasionally trick them into greater enjoyment.)

Several “tells” reveal to any halfway savvy group of players that you’re relying on a heavily prepared adventure. Disguise your improvisations by displaying these same tells.

Most notably, a prepared adventure takes an obvious physical form, as a sheaf of notes. To appease improv-averse players, create a fakebook. Use old notes from another adventure, perhaps with a new title page to keep it looking fresh and free of dog ears. Write a new title for the scenario, set to a high point size, so your players can read it from across the room if they “just happen” to glance at it. (For additional misdirection points, use your title for foreshadowing purposes. Choose an adventure title that creates a set of expectations, and then fulfill those expectations in a surprising way. A scenario called Darkness At the Bottom Of the Well might encourage your players to investigate an actual (and dangerous) well, when your real reference point for the title might refer to a book title, the name of an Internet forum, or your tale’s (entirely metaphorical) theme.

Refer to your fakebook throughout the adventure, especially when new scenes arise. This gives you something to do when forced to improvise your way through a situation that has you momentarily stumped. Don’t take as much time as the proverbial bad GM who’s constantly referring to his notes for interminable stretches—just enough to maintain your illusion of preparation. Even if you’re on a roll and don’t need the creative breathing room, make sure to take the occasional glance at it, to maintain the illusion of limited immutability.

Other fakebook techniques require some advance work—though not nearly so much as fully writing up a scenario in quasi-publishable format. Make sure, for example, to have not only the names of the characters you’ll need to use, but also a list of other unassigned names ready to go. A list of street names and business establishments may also prove invaluable Realistic sounding names are tough to generate on the fly, and are the deadest giveaway of an improvising GM.

Conversely, the most notable tell of the GM running a prepared adventure is the periodic break to read aloud sections of text. Personally, especially when running a published scenario, I find this technique way more disruptive to the fictional illusion than the notion that the GM is improvising. However, the same folks who get restless when they sense the GM is making it up may derive comfort from these canned textual signposts, which indicate that everything is still safely on track.

Ready yourself for this additional level of trickery by writing free-floating passages of text which can be dropped into any scenario. Descriptions of people are the most versatile, because you can assign them to characters who might pop up in any adventure. If you don’t wind up using a bored security guard, old coot watchman, or foxy librarian in the present improvised adventure, you can hold them in abeyance for a future installment. Because, like any improv whiz, you’re trying to minimize your prep time, you can keep these suitably short and sweet, avoiding the trap of the overlong text block.

Misdirection requires you to know your own habits regarding prepared text, and to duplicate them when improvising. Though I always try to paraphrase any prepared text, I often find myself at least half-reading passages from scenarios I’ve prepared. If you read lengthy passages as is, do the same when faking it with a free-floating text block. If you’d paraphrase all text snippets in fully prepped adventure, replicate that habit.

Ambitious fake improvisers can find further ways to mimic the behavior of a well-prepped GM. If your pre-written scenarios include hand-outs, create some free-floating maps, notes, and diagrams to fold into your plotline as you develop it. If you borrow images to represent people and places, keep a pile on hand for the same purpose, and so on.

Keep at it, and eventually you might convince even yourself that you’ve prepared!

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A few columns back, I mentioned the iron rule of theatrical improv: never negate. The idea is this: when you’re working together to create a scene on the fly, you have to accept, and build

on, any contribution made by another actor. You can’t deny it or rule it out; that takes the scene backwards and wastes time. The results are, in other words, boring. The rule requires the performers to relinquish a degree of personal control over the storyline, embracing spontaneity and forward movement.

In almost any typical roleplaying setting, however, there’s a force at work that regularly negates the storyline’s forward movement, and does so way more often than any GM or player: the dice and the rules set. Those polyhedral control freaks in your dice bag, in conjunction with your resolution system of choice, are constantly saying no to the PCs as they attempt to take action in the world.

Failure is usually boring. It is the credible but unrealized threat of failure that is interesting.

In other forms of adventure storytelling, failures by the protagonist and rare and remarkable events. They are dealt out sparingly, if at all. When they do occur, they are pivotal events marking an important and dramatic turn in the storyline. They mean something profound, about the hero and his role in the world.

(Reversals, in which the hero is put in a bad position by successful action on the part of an antagonist, work differently. Here we’re talking about flat-out failures, in which the protagonist has only himself to blame for his poor fortune. Another separate phenomenon is the instance where the heroes find out that a given course of action is for some reason impossible— the fortress is impregnable, or atmospheric conditions on the planet prevent a proper sensor scan. These narrow character choices to make the situation more challenging; they are not failures per se.)

Routine failures are just about unknown in non-rpg adventure fiction. They make the protagonists seem incompetent, and unworthy of our sense of escapist identification. More importantly, they bog down the story. When was the last time you saw:

  • A featured lab tech character on CSI accidentally contaminate a sample, ruining its value
    as evidence — in an episode that does not specifically revolve around that failure?
  • A Star Trek character failing to accurately read a tricorder?
  • A superhero’s danger-detection sense reading a false positive or negative — in a story where this was not itself a clue that something strange was going on?

A hero’s failure to accomplish routine actions contributes nothing of interest to a story. They’re just a drag. First the character must cope with any untoward consequences of the failure. That’s X amount of time expended merely to get back to square one. Then the GM has to find a workaround to deliver needed information, resources, or other plot-forwarding material via some alternate means. This requires the insertion of further scenes, dialogue, plot points, and setting descriptions that add nothing and advance nothing. Given the unpredictable nature of RPG narrative, it’s possible that any of these new scenes could spark an interesting and unexpected new direction for the story. But then that’s equally true of the sequences that would otherwise be moving the story forward, had the gratuitous failure not occurred.

The believable potential for failure must exist, on the other hand, when the stakes are high. Then it generates suspense, one of the key emotions that keeps us coming back to the gaming table.

Most rules systems ask how hard an action is to accomplish in the fictional world of the game, compare that difficulty in some way to the character’s abilities, then call for a die roll. I’d argue that, if you’re trying to create anything resembling a storyline, your GM needs to stop and insert a couple of other questions before the dice crawl out of their bag:

1) Will this die roll generate suspense? Do the players really care all that much?

a) If yes: proceed to die roll

b) If no: proceed to next question

2) Will failure be at least as interesting, introducing as much forward plot movement, as success?

a) If yes: proceed to die roll

b) If no: success is a “gimme.” The character automatically succeeds

Calling for die rolls is a hard habit to break. The tool is there, so we’re tempted to use it. However, just because you have a bag of uncooked macaroni and some gold spray paint, there’s no reason to go and make it into a Christmas ornament.

Many players want to make lots of die rolls. It’s fun to interact with the rules. The players spent all that time selecting and pumping up their abilities, and want to use them. Sometimes die rolls make successes at difficult tasks easier to believe.

It is still possible to tie character abilities to gimmes and allow those all-important die rolls to proceed. When a character wants to attempt an action the GM decides to treat as a gimme, the player may still roll — to garnish his guaranteed success with a minor, additional benefit. Generally this secondary success will be that the task is accomplished in a particularly cool and impressive manner, validating the player’s sense of escapist power fantasy.

  • The DNA expert not only identifies the sample as belonging to the chief suspect, but beats
    the speed record established by the lab’s resident arrogant jerk.
  • The character scales the wall, landing on top of it with a graceful flourish. Behind him, his
    cape flaps in the wind, forming a dramatic silhouette against the full moon.
  • The bard’s performance not only distracts the guards, but attracts the attentions of a
    ravishingly beautiful courtesan.

A sample GM-player negotiation might go like this:

Jack, a player: I want to sneak into the guard post, overpower the sentinels, and take their uniforms, so we can sneak into the palace.

[The GM thinks: Finally! A credible, genre-appropriate way to get into the palace after half an hour of dithering! Will this generate suspense? Maybe for Jack, but if this is a solo mission, the other players will be only mildly interested — especially since they have to wait for him to succeed before they get to do anything. Overall, not enough suspense to be worth it. Will failure be as interesting as success? Definitely not: Jack’s PC will get captured and hauled off to the guardhouse, forcing them to rescue him — they’ll be even further from the real goal of getting into the palace, and we had a capture/rescue scenario just last week.]

GM: Okay, this is a gimme.

Jack: Can I still roll?

GM: Um. [Thinking of a possible secondary benefit.] Sure.

[The player rolls and, sure enough, scores a win.]

GM: You get in and out in a flash. You’re back to the others with the uniforms before they
even realize you’re gone.

Voila! With a simple meta-rule you can impose on any rules system, you’ve got a way to make the successes feel chancy and rewarding. You’ve eliminated pointless failures, preventing them from gumming up the storyline or turning it into a non-stop comedy of errors.

Preserve momentum. Keep the characters cool and competent. It’s a gimme.

This article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com, between 2004 and 2007. You can find part one here.

A column about roleplaying

By Robin D. Laws

Last month we plundered the gilded halls of improv theory, appropriating for our own roleplaying purposes the “Yes, but” technique. GMs using this technique avoid answering player requests with a categorical no. Instead they look for ways to say yes, but with complications that preserve the coherence of the setting, add additional challenge, or both.

This time we’re going to take the concept to its funky extreme by using it as the basis for an impromptu scenario. Try it next time you’re forced for whatever reason to slot in a fill-in event for your ongoing game, or as a convention brain-teaser.

“Yes, but: The Scenario” works best with a freeform resolution system that allows character creation on the fly, preferably with simple or self-defined abilities. I’ve also run it using just a deck of cards as a resolution system, with a high draw meaning a good result, a low card indicating failure, and an ace indicating that the player gets to dictate the ideal result of his action attempt. However, if you’re the kind of GM who can spreadsheet an exquisitely balanced Champions character in your head, you might prefer to rely on a crunchier rules set.

This scenario is more fun and unpredictable if the rules system you choose triggers comparatively few assumptions about world and expected game play. If you haul out the D&D rules books, your players will likely plug themselves into a well-worn pattern and set about performing that game’s default activity, relying less on their own improvisatory creativity than on an off-the-rack set of roleplaying assumptions.

You can start a “Yes, but” game mere moments after your players get settled in. Game play is character creation.

Inform your players that this game depends on their ability to interrogate you. All communications with you must be phrased in the form of a yes or no question. When given a yes or no question, you may elect to supply more information than the query calls for. If given a question which cannot be answered with a yes or no, or a statement which isn’t in the form of a question at all, you will ask the player to rephrase.

Play goes around the table in a round-robin fashion. Players ask questions in turn sequence, one question per turn.

When you’re satisfied that the group understands the method of play (well, sort of understands — expect a certain degree of hesitant bafflement at this point), start play by pointing to the first player.

Expect even more bafflement. Prompt the player to ask a question. If the player can’t think of one, try the next one in the turn order. If everyone seems utterly stumped, start off with:

“You all wake up at about the same time. You’re in a room together.”

Then, once again, prompt for questions.

Soon, if not instantly, the players will see the open-ended game you’re playing. They’ll ask you questions like:

1. “Is it dark?”
2. “Does the room have a door?”
3. “Am I injured?”
4. “Is there anyone else in the room other than us?”
5. “Am I male or female?”

What you’re doing is allowing the players to define their characters, the nature of the scenario, and even the genre, by the questions they ask. The answer to all of their questions is either a simple “yes” or a “yes, but…” followed by a line or two of explanation that mitigates, modifies, or limits the facts their question has put into play. “Yes but” is almost always the most fruitful answer.

So your replies to the above questions might be:

1. “Yes, but there’s light coming from under the door, enough so you can faintly make out a light switch off to one side of it.”
2. “Yes, but it’s behind a barricade of broken furniture. Someone went to a huge effort to keep something outside from coming in.”
3. “Yes, but not seriously. Just a few scratches.”
4. “Yes, there’s a man in a trench coat. But he seems to be dead.”
5. “Rephrase the question.”

As you continue, the Q&A format will define characters, flesh out a setting, and define a goal for the PCs to achieve.

As players ask questions about their characters, you assign abilities and game statistics to them. Whenever an answer defines a character’s abilities, make a note of them, giving them game statistics as necessary. The first-mentioned abilities get the best game stats. Though courtesy or lack of devious imagination may prevent them from trying it, there’s nothing to stop players from asking questions that define other players’ characters.

Clever players will catch onto what you’re doing and tailor questions to their benefit. The “yes, but” format makes this, challenging, though:

“Do I have a shotgun?”
Yes, but no ammo.

“Am I super strong?”
Yes, but only for a few moments a day.

“Do I have the key to that door?”
Yes, but you know there’s a bomb on the other side of the door, wired to go off when a key is inserted into the lock.

Certain questions tend to foster weird or freakish results if you apply “Yes, but” to them. Unless you want a cast of hermaphrodites and mutant halfbreeds (not that there’s anything wrong with that), questions like “Am I male?” or “Am I human?” should be answered with a simple “Yes.” You control the freakiness level of the scenario both with your modifying descriptions, and by which questions you choose to answer with a plain “Yes.”

The default outcome is a scenario about people who wake up trapped in an environment without their memories. The amnesia option can be fun, as it mirrors the player’s attempts to piece together their characters by asking you questions. You can forestall it, though, by simply answering “yes” to the question “Do we remember how we got here?”

Likewise, the PCs generally wind up trapped by asking “Is there a way out?” Starting out trapped is a good way to foster cooperation between the developing PCs, but again you can vary the standard pattern just by saying, “Yes.”

If the players think they’re playing in a given setting, their questions will be tailored to it. They may invoke existing media properties anyway: “Am I a Brujah?” “Can I perform the Vulcan nerve pinch?” The “yes, but” protocol limits your ability to fight this, but so what? It’s not like anybody’s going to sue you for infringing their intellectual property. Expect the resulting adventure to surrealistically blend various genres.

At some point during the game, the Q&A will prove difficult to sustain as your improvised narrative gathers steam. Depending on how quickly your players catch on and how adroitly they manipulate the format, this may happen as early as an hour into the session, or very near to its natural conclusion. Usually it’ll happen at about the halfway point.

When this occurs, tell the players that you’re switching to a regular RPG protocol. Then play out the game as you would any improvised scenario, placing challenges in front of the players as they head toward an exciting climax that resolves the central problem they’ve established for themselves during the Q&A phase. This sounds like a tall order, but, assuming you can improv a scenario at all, you’ll find that the momentum you’ve established in the Q&A carries you along naturally.

Will next month’s column expand this concept into a screenplay suitable for a major motion picture? Yes, but those not equipped with alien senses will instead perceive a column on another subject, germane to roleplaying.