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Author Topic: Creating the Scenario with the Character Sheets in Front of Me  (Read 21831 times)
Judd
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« on: December 19, 2005, 05:40:44 PM »

When I first started GMing I had no idea what I had to have prepared in order to have a successful game.  It drove me nuts.  Sometimes I would have pages and pages of stuff written, names, places and ideas but the game would fall flat and I wouldn't know why.

Other times friends would gather and I'd run soemthing off the fly, entirely improv, making it up as I go and the game would rock.

Usually, during those improv-off-the-fly games I would write down a notebook page's worth of notes.

One of those off-the-fly games was set on the under-side of the Spelljammer setting's Rock of Bral, a place I was enamored with.  I decided it was a prison and the game would be set there.  The only guidance I gave the players during chargen was that they were in the Rock for a crime and they weren't framed.  Whatever it was, they did it.

I filled a notebook page with the guards' names, the warden and other prisoners.  Of course these other prisoners, all Drow, Yuan-ti, a Ronin Space Captain from the Imperial Navy were all bangs.  I didn't realize what I had to have down until years later but I had to have bangs, situations the players felt compelled to react to and deal with.

I think I capitalized on the real positive energy of those one-shots when people didn' t expect to game but were really excited to do so, a happy surprise and the chatter during character generation was how that notebook paper's worth of notes was compiled.

Fast forward.

Now I don't have to read minds.  I've got Kickers, Descriptors, Spiritual Attributes, Beliefs, Instincts, Keys, Secrets, Drives, Passions, Traits, Relationships and such.  What excites the players about the game is written on the character sheet.  I can take everyone's sheets and come up with the game right there and then.

My first really successful use of this was The Riddle of Steel.

When you first play TRoS there is a tendency to keep your eye on the combat mechanics.  They are filled with charts and seem daunting but for the GM, that isn't what is really important at all.  What is important are the Spiritual Attributes.

More worried about the combat, I set up a series of judicial duels with pre-made NPC's so that the players could take these NPC's and whack on each other without risking their PC's lives in the brutal combat.  Two farmers broke each other's collar bones with staves.  Two ship captains whacked on each other in heavily armored maul vs maul combat until one got his hip broken from a good shot.

Two excellent swordsman, professional judicial duelists dueled to the first blood, a brillian back and forth ending with one taking a gash on the leg.  Nice stuff.

Then, for whatever reason, I threw in this odd duel at the end to show how combat worked two-on-one.  I put in a shit-hot duelist who was hired to duel two men who had raped a young girl who was well loved in her community.  These two men were sons of prominent nobles.  The duelist did well but then flubbed a roll and got stabbed in the face.

The PC's were watching these duels too, we had decided.  They looked at their SA's concerning justice and such and could not let this duel stand.  They stepped up and challenged the young men again.  The young man accepted.

The PC's, with their SA's firing, mopped the floor with them.  One was killed and the other was given the option to jump off of the bridge after his sword hand was maimed.  This encounter set off the entire adventuer, a long conflict with the noble house they so offended.

Accidentally, I had tripped over the players' SA's.  They looked at me like I was a mad genius for planning it that way but I hadn't.  I didn't know that the lone swordsman would die and I didn' t at all realize that the players would look at hteir SA's and step up to right the wrongs with their swords.

Neat.

Another story about the Riddle, I was remaking a D&D character for a Midnight solo game.  The player was struggling over Spiritual Attributes.  We had been playing for a few months and he had around ten so far.  He was talking about how his character found X importand but Y to be more important.

I was watching this one SA, "I hunt creatures of shadow," fall lower and lower on the list, even though I knew that JJ loves hunting things in-game.  He and his whole family are hunters and his house, during the deer season, is a hunting lodge where all of his dad's buddies hang out.  I had my epiphany about SA's right there and then.  "JJ, this isn't about what is important to your character.  This is about what is important to JJ about this character."  The list of SA's was trimmed down right there and then to an easy five that made for good game because JJ was into 'em.

This brings us to Sorcerer.  When you hand the players a list of descriptors, you are, in fact, handing them a list of things from the setting.  The players get to look at the parts of the setting and tell you right there, what parts interest them by writing them down on their character sheet.

No shit.

I don't have to write a long history of the world beginning with some hackneyed world creation myth.  I don't have to write much at all.

When I ran Sorcerer a few years ago, the Sorcerous Month, I saw the process go again and again.  I would go to the group with 2 or 3 ideas.  They would pick the one they were excited about.  We would meet to make up characters and there would be this lovely silence as I handed out the descriptors and everyone read them over.  Often someone would mention how there should be an extra one and we'd add it.

They would begin to choose their descriptors.  If there were people who choose the same ones, it often was an excuse for their characters to know each other.

But then, the players get to set the tone for the whole shebang via their Kicker.  "Here are your toys, Mr. GM, but here's how I want to use them."

This brings me to Burning Wheel.

The Beliefs are your sign-posts.  I go into the game with one or two bangs per PC's belief.  Usually I only use one or two and the rest of the players riff and get into the conflict caused by one player's reaction.

Example:

Kolja's character has an Instinct: When I am someone I am not supposed to be, I sneak.

This says to me, he wants to be in places where he isn't supposed to be.  He had set up a meeting with a Baron's nephew but the kid was standing him up, not giving the information like he said he would when threatened at knife-point.  So Kolja's sneaky sorcerer stalked him.  He failed his Stealth roll.  It became a cat and mouse game through the back-alleys as the sorcerer set his trap for the evil knights of the baron.

The nephew's bodyguards began stalking him and after a brutal struggle they captured him.  The rest of the group spent a few good hours of solid dramatic gaming getting Kolja's PC back from the Baron's dungeon.  Fun stuff.  Hours of gaming from one off-the-cuff bang written next to an Instinct.

This brings me to The Shadow of Yesterday.

The players were very much inspired by Fafrd and the Grey Mouser.  Hell, one of them was even a ratkin hired knife and the other was this S&M barbarian with the Key of Unrequited Love for this cute ratkin barmaid.

When the S&M barbarian was captured by the Church of the Leviathan, the ratkin knife took, The Key of Vengeance, swearing to get back at the church that stole his friend.  And the adventure was ON as the ratkin sneaked in and the barbarian broke out.

What is neat about keys is players get to tell you which NPC's excite them right then and there.  "Damn, those pirate worshippers of the Leviathan are bastards; I'm taking Key of Vengeance on them!"  And the GM has his road-map for the game.

TSoY's GMing advice is pretty neat too.  It also asks the GM to throw in some stuff the GM digs too, just because.  I dig that.

I was also shocked to find that when I was writing up a Planescape mod for TSoY, alignment worked really well for me.  It was always a kind of proto-SA, a strange way to tell the GM what kind of moral conflicts you were interested in but with Keys they just shined.

Life is easier since these parts of the character sheet have been around.  I don't have to write up a world, just enough so the players can tell me what excites them.  All of my GM muscle goes into chargen, making solid bangs, setting cool stakes, setting up fun conflicts, and making sure the players are having fun.

Those notebook papers with ideas and places and names were my bangs but I had no real way to say how I used them or what they did.  I only know I needed them and a few of each were aimed at each player.  I didn't understand why some would get thrown out onto the table and ignored but it was simply because the players didn't care.  The players didn't care and I had nothing on their character sheets, or very little, to tell me what they cared about.

And to conclude with a BW game I am setting up now, kind of a medieval A-Team type of deal.  One of the players was saying that he wasn't sure what kind of skills to take because he ewasn't sure what kind of mission it would be.  "I won't know either, until I take a look at everyone's Beliefs and Instincts and Traits."

I won't know where the adventure is going to go until I know what you give a shit about.

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Judd
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Please call me Judd.


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« Reply #1 on: December 19, 2005, 05:44:01 PM »

I had been thinking about this for a while but a few recent blog entries forced my hand:

Deep in the Game:In Plain Words

Heads or Tales: Mother Head Scratchers
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Bankuei
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« Reply #2 on: December 20, 2005, 12:20:34 AM »

Hi Judd,

Yep, I'd been doing this for some time, calling the various things "Flags" or "Markers".  My recent post was pretty much the realization that the GM should not have the option to NOT hit on one of those- it might as well be a menu and you can only pick the items there for setting up scenes.

Chris
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Judd
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Please call me Judd.


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« Reply #3 on: December 20, 2005, 12:24:56 AM »

Hi Judd,

Yep, I'd been doing this for some time, calling the various things "Flags" or "Markers".  My recent post was pretty much the realization that the GM should not have the option to NOT hit on one of those- it might as well be a menu and you can only pick the items there for setting up scenes.

Chris

I am uncomfortable with that kind of limitation, Chris but I hear ya..

I feel like players also set up markers and flags in game through their actions.  Sometimes they beg for a scene or a conflict through the game and a scene is inspired by their action and a bang on your sheet becomes tweaked or twisted or entirely changed to accomodate this change in the game's setting via the players' choices.

Flags and Markers are great terms for them.  Thanks.
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Bankuei
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« Reply #4 on: December 20, 2005, 03:37:21 AM »

Hi Judd,

I can understand the "uncomfortableness", but if you look at actual play, I bet it's not a restriction at all.  I mean, few people consider it "limiting" to play a single character- as a GM, you're probably going to get at least 3 or 4 ways to push thematic buttons for each player- which means we're talking 9 or more options for every scene, and assuming you have normal rights to frame scenes and conflicts- that's not very limiting at all.

In a way, its a reversal of traditional play- instead of players looking to the GM for signals on where to go next, the GM is looking to the players for signals of what to frame next.  It makes your job easier, not harder.

Chris
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johnmarron
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Posts: 53


« Reply #5 on: December 20, 2005, 09:02:28 AM »

I'm a complete convert to the need for flags and markers as overt signals to the GM that "this, THIS is what I, the real person playing the game, want the story of my character to be about.  This is what I come to the table for and would enjoy."

That said, I'm wondering if Flags need to be mechanical components of the system, or part of the reward mechanism, as in TROS SAs?  I think I'd be more comfortable as a GM with devevloping a set of techniques, dialogues, or questions to be used in pre-game prep to tease out or get the player to decide on and clearly express their goals for play, than having to hardwire this into game mechanics (but I realize that I'm going against the tide of Forge design ideals in this preference).

Anyone seen or given any thought to ways to get this info out of the players without making it part of the game rules?  I'd like to see a process or technique that could be applied regardless of what system was being prepped for.

John
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Judd
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Please call me Judd.


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« Reply #6 on: December 20, 2005, 09:15:31 AM »

I'm a complete convert to the need for flags and markers as overt signals to the GM that "this, THIS is what I, the real person playing the game, want the story of my character to be about.  This is what I come to the table for and would enjoy."

That said, I'm wondering if Flags need to be mechanical components of the system, or part of the reward mechanism, as in TROS SAs?  I think I'd be more comfortable as a GM with devevloping a set of techniques, dialogues, or questions to be used in pre-game prep to tease out or get the player to decide on and clearly express their goals for play, than having to hardwire this into game mechanics (but I realize that I'm going against the tide of Forge design ideals in this preference).

Anyone seen or given any thought to ways to get this info out of the players without making it part of the game rules?  I'd like to see a process or technique that could be applied regardless of what system was being prepped for.

John

In my experience they have more punch behind them when they are tied into the system with a reward mechanic attached.  Otherwise they are just a questionaire that isn't a part of the game's economy.

If you want a technique, make up five loaded questions the players have to answer about their characters during the chargen process.  Loaded, in that by answering them they are creating characters who are tied to the game's concept.  It wouldn't have much punch but it'd probably work.

But why not just have it tied to the system?

I say the following with a smile on my face and I'm not meaning any condescension: John, man, I don't getcha, really I don't.
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jburneko
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Posts: 1351


« Reply #7 on: December 20, 2005, 09:44:55 AM »

I think something that people who dislike this kind of information embeded in the game mechanics miss is the fact that the majority of these games also include real-time update rules for that information.  Just because you ask pointed questions at the start of your campaign about a player's character doesn't mean it's going to stay that way.

In The Riddle of Steel the players can change their spiritual atributes and indeed when I run it I let them do it anytime they want, mid-session if they like.  I've introduced stuff in play that caused a player to rewrite two or even three of their spiritual attributes.  Add to that the fact that SAs are meta-game values, so,  just because a player removes "Passion: Love For My Wife" doesn't mean that character doesn't love his wife or that his love for his wife is somehow deminished it just means the player isn't interested in having his love for his wife be an issue at the moment.

So the SAs act as a real-time vector of what the player wants the game to be about right here, right now.  And if something catches their interest they have the ability to update that vector to say, "more please" or "less of that" as they see fit.

Jesse
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Michael S. Miller
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« Reply #8 on: December 20, 2005, 09:46:03 AM »

Anyone seen or given any thought to ways to get this info out of the players without making it part of the game rules?  I'd like to see a process or technique that could be applied regardless of what system was being prepped for.

IIRC, Wick's 7th Sea has a multi-page questionaire that will bring these things to the light--if you know what to look for. That's one of the problem with non-systematized "flag-gathering" systems. They're hard to read. Players don't know how to give the information of "What I want my character's story to be about," so they often bury it in a dozen pages of character background. And GMs, in general, don't know how to read it. If they already know what to look for, they claim that they don't need the questionnaire, and if they don't know what to look for, all the answers on the questionnaire look like that dozen-page character background.

The other problem, of course, is that many, many gamers are trained to ignore any and all "GM advice" as unhelpful filler text. Nonsystematized flag-gathering questionnaires--along with anything else without a number next to it--fall into that category of stuff to skip.

I'd like to point out that just gathering the Flags, just having the player write it on the character sheet, is not enough. The GM also needs to know how to turn those Flags into engaging Bangs. I put a lot of thought into this when writing With Great Power... It's not enough to simply have the players choose which Aspect of their hero is most important to them--the GM must know how to follow those choices toward an engaging story. In WGP...'s case, I coach GMs on how to turn those Strife Aspects into the objects of the villains' nefarious Plans, and give instructions to always set Stakes that furthers those Plans.
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #9 on: December 20, 2005, 10:02:28 AM »

Anyone seen or given any thought to ways to get this info out of the players without making it part of the game rules?  I'd like to see a process or technique that could be applied regardless of what system was being prepped for.

If it's a process that is applied to the game, doesn't that make it part of the game's system?  I stoop to rhetorical questions; I shame me.

I think what you're asking for is something that doesn't hit the character sheet and have a specific place where it goes on the sheet.  Dogs does this, technically speaking.  But I can't tell you how useful having this information written down in front of the character's faces is.  First of all, having the characters write it down as part of their character makes them invest in the statement "this is what I want."  Afterwards, it's right there in front of them as a constant reminder as what they wanted the game to be and what direction their characters should be going in.  And finally, putting it down on paper as a mechanical element means that it can be referenced in the reward system, and on-target play can then be reinforced.

Jesse's also got an important point -- these aren't set in stone.  There should always be mechanisms to change them.
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Brendan
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« Reply #10 on: December 20, 2005, 11:02:25 AM »

Hi Judd,

I can understand the "uncomfortableness", but if you look at actual play, I bet it's not a restriction at all.  I mean, few people consider it "limiting" to play a single character- as a GM, you're probably going to get at least 3 or 4 ways to push thematic buttons for each player- which means we're talking 9 or more options for every scene, and assuming you have normal rights to frame scenes and conflicts- that's not very limiting at all.

In a way, its a reversal of traditional play- instead of players looking to the GM for signals on where to go next, the GM is looking to the players for signals of what to frame next.  It makes your job easier, not harder.

Chris

Holy crap, Chris.  I read DitG too, but for some reason your post here was a huge "light on" moment for me, to the point where I need to write this down and stick it in every game I write from now on:

Narrative role-playing is a form of constrained creativity.  Players are constrained to a single character, with whom they select multiple points of thematic interest.  GMs are constrained to a given set of points of thematic interest, from which they draw multiple characters and situations.
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Bankuei
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« Reply #11 on: December 20, 2005, 11:44:59 AM »

Hi Brendan,

(Smile)- right.  My breakthrough wasn't in recognizing we ought to be using flags, that I figured out a few years back.  It was that I asked the question, "Why the hell would you want to NOT use flags?" and I was left without an answer.  I mean, if Flags = what people find interesting, then veering from that means you are openly ignoring what everyone is telling you to make the game about.

"Well, Joan and I are voting we go see Harry Potter, John and Louis want to see Narnia, what do you think?"
"We're watching Pride And Prejudice!"
Everyone: "Um, well, if you -really- want to see it, I guess we'll go along..."

Chris
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Emily Care
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« Reply #12 on: December 20, 2005, 01:05:05 PM »

Hey Judd,

That's the best description of why system matters I've seen in a while.

: )

For John,  I can deeply empathize with liking your flags & markers to be narrative in form.  Looking at #'s on a sheet can completely break my creativity.  But another nice thing about all this new-fangled innovation is that making the mechanics mattter doesn't have to come in one form.  Narrative based free-form flags work as well as any stat. Better even at times.  The thing about having the markers not be anywhere on the char/resource sheet is that then, what goes there? The stuff that doesn't matter to anyone, and that's the mess we're trying to get out of. That we are now out of, as Judd's chronology exemplifies.  Hope I got the jist of your question, anyway. 

Quote
"Well, Joan and I are voting we go see Harry Potter, John and Louis want to see Narnia, what do you think?"
"We're watching Pride And Prejudice!"
Everyone: "Um, well, if you -really- want to see it, I guess we'll go along..."

Just a little earlier today, I read on 20by20 a comment by someone saying that the trad GM-is-god play is far less common than folk here seem to imply, but this thread really puts a finger on the real problem.  Not that GM's have too much authority over what the players choose to do, but that the GM (herstorically) has to flail around trying to figure out what would make people happy.  And the players were not put in a position to say.  It's really just a matter of better sharing the toys, and communicating about what to play. 

best,
Em
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Danny_K
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« Reply #13 on: December 20, 2005, 02:13:56 PM »

Judd -- pure gold.  Your post helped me put my finger on something that's been bugging me about Nobilis for a while now:  Chargen forces you to think about your character's Estate, and you have to define your characters moral Code, strengths and weaknesses, and even some important NPC's (Anchors). 

The problem is, the GM is then faced with a group of identically-formatted laundry list of potential Markers.  But then you have to play mind-reading games to figure out which of these Markers is live and wired in to the player's interests, and which is just sitting there, spun out by the player out of Simmish interest or, worse, dredged up in order to have a filled-out character sheet. 

To expand on my already long post: there's a houserule I like that allows PC's to get more magical energy from their bonds to the things they love, and which also encourages them to take strong bonds to a limited number of things.  Now it seems that the best thing about this house rule is that it makes it a lot easier for players and GM to identify which are the real Markers!  (There should be a good term for false Flags, BTW.  "I thought his wife was a Flag, but she was just a Dud.")
I
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Judd
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Please call me Judd.


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« Reply #14 on: December 20, 2005, 02:17:23 PM »

Dan,

I'm glad I helped with something that's been rattling around in your head.  That is a great feeling.

Do you want to take that idea of the flag vs. the dud and make it its own thread?

It seems important enough to be.

Just a thought,

Judd
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