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General Forge Forums => Actual Play => Topic started by: Lance D. Allen on January 01, 2009, 02:43:42 PM

Title: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Lance D. Allen on January 01, 2009, 02:43:42 PM
This thread is continuing a discussion from here (http://";topicseen#msg258833")

First, I'd like to provide a basis for where I'm coming from. My preferred playstyle is long-form closed-form gaming. I want the long campaign with a foreseeable ending a climax to strive toward. That is my ideal for gaming. However, my experience has never, ever borne that out. The longest games have fallen apart due to personal and life issues among the players, anything from having a baby to getting out of the military and moving home. So I've had some games that follow the long-form, but I've never managed the closed-form with those longer running games. Mostly it's been abortive attempts in that direction, or shorter-form games.

So take that legacy of disappointment into consideration when I talk further.

First, I'll talk about my experiences with 3:16. Originally, I sort of bullied John Harper into running it for me. It was the only game I bought at GenCon that I hadn't played at least a 5 minute demo of before purchasing. I didn't regret it. John ran two missions in one sitting. A few things were different; His planets were named for flowers. But he sat down and did mission generation right there at the table. It was awesome. I was less than pleased with the character I chose to play, though he'd have been more interesting in a longer run. As it was, he was somewhat boring for a oneshot. The game itself was a lot of fun. The other players were immediately invested into conflicts with each other, and while there wasn't anything game mechanical, it would have happened eventually, had it gone another mission or two.

So I take it home. My group has been playing D&D, but we've got a matter of weeks left before I deploy, not enough to start another adventure arc. So I suggest 3:16. I promise, and deliver, explanation of the rules, character creation and a full mission in under three hours. They enjoy the game a lot. At least one or two of them ask where they can buy the game.

We played two sessions before army life gets in the way. Fastforward to Kuwait. A whole, entirely new group of players, this one entirely military (the last one included my wife), and currently in the middle of a deployment. We played one session with three players, then added a fourth (female, if it matters) for the second and third. Once again, I did no prep before the first, promising and delivering explanation, character generation and a full mission in under three hours. The second and third sessions had very little prep.

We had consistently good play. It was hardly earth-moving play, but it was very good, sometimes very intense (we had at least two stand-offs when one player character was one step away from being killed by another; different players each time). Both groups were relatively new groups. We hadn't known each other for more than a few months, and didn't have that established routine. We weren't exactly friends yet (and rank adds new, interesting complications), so socializing purely for the sake of socializing isn't something we do. As a matter of fact, with the group consisting (currently) of 1 Staff-Sergeant, 2 Sergeants and 3 Privates-First-Class, pure socializing has some inherent risks.

I'll leave discussion of other games for later, if we feel it's pertinent. Now I want to address a few of the points made in that previous thread.

Re: The Session is Important. This is very much true for me. I'd rather roleplay than do most other activities, to include boardgames or watching movies. Finding time to do that is difficult. When shit has fallen through in the past, a lot of the time, people just went home. So having a roleplaying game that I can pull out is a good way to preserve that session. People didn't want to play a card game, or even just shoot the shit. When I make the (to them) preposterous claim that there's this awesome-fun game that can deliver a full session to include basic explanation of the game and character creation without any preparation, then it's a far better prospect than being disappointed and not getting another shot to game for another week.

Re: GM Ownership and Preparation. I was in no way making that point. But I think you should Callan, because I think there's a lot of interesting things left unsaid in that paragraph.

Re: Why not just play a board game? Answer: Because I want to play an RPG. Why should I be restricted from playing an RPG if I've not done prep beforehand? The one thing worse than doing lots of prep and having the session suck is doing lots of prep and it never, ever being used. This extends into traditional gaming, too. I used to do a lot of story prep in my games. Then the players would do something totally out of my expectations, and half of my plans would come to naught. Now, I'm sure that I could have learned how to get them back on track, but the concept of railroading or even all roads lead to Rome isn't something I was in to then, or now. Finally, I've been frustrated because I wanted to game, but because the players didn't have adequate time to do their own preparations. So I submit that requisite preparation can actually be a bar to having fun. I'm not saying it always is, because obviously that's completely untrue. I'm simply saying that it can be, and has been for me in the past.

Re: Boardgames (a different point) What keeps a boardgame from sucking? It can be a tried and true game that your group has played before, but on a given night, it just doesn't work. I think this shares the exact same virtue as low-prep gaming. If you play a boardgame and watch a movie instead of gaming, and it sucks.. Well, it's a loss. Maybe everyone will question why it was done in the first place. But in the end, at least you didn't invest lots of time before you played the game or watched the movie, so that it's even more wasted time.

Re: Low/No-Prep equates to "a fairly good chance of it sucking". If I gave this impression, then my apologies. This statement is completely untrue. Half-ass or no prep for a game that needs it (D&D, Shadowrun, etc), it may be true. But it's not universally true. In 3:16 it's not true. In Zombie Cinema, it's not true. In several of my own unfinished efforts, it's not true. Preparation doesn't, as an immutable law of gaming, increase your chances of having a good time. See my paragraph above where I make the claim that prep can actually be detrimental to fun.

Sorry it took so long, but work is work.

So, let's discuss this.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: manatic on January 01, 2009, 04:55:23 PM
Whoa, a hefty opening post! A lot of interesting things there comment on.

I'll also start off with my gaming history, since it helps to understand where I'm coming from. I don't have any real preference when it comes to game form. Thus, our group has gone through it all: oneshots, long campaigns, short campaigns, twoshots, threeshots...Some campaigns have been completed, most haven't. And yet, new campaigns steadily keep popping up. We have a pool of 10+ players, most of who have been playing with the same group for at least 10 years. We share a similar gaming culture, we know what to expect and hold certain fairly similar - but unspoken - quality standards for game sessions.

A campaign is usually associated with the GM running it. We have x's D&D, y's Vampire and z's 3:16. There is active discussion regarding these different games, good ideas get borrowed a lot, bad ideas get tried and scrapped. Usually it is the story that matters and the system chosen is simply the mechanic deemed most suitable for the task at hand.
One thing in common with all the three GMs (myself included) is the tendency for prepping. We have different ways of prepping, but we still do it. Occasionally you're forced to run a game without prepping. It happens, we're fairly good at it, but we rarely make a note of it to players.

Scheduling games is fairly hard, and we have a private forum for that as well as the discussion of current, past and upcoming games. The group actively reads the forum and expresses interest for the different gaming projects. This means that when people come to a game, they have a fairly good idea of what to expect and they hold a notion that what they expect has been prepared for them. So, it's not "a night of playing rpg's", but "a night of x's Vampire".

I'm a fairly low-prep GM. My normal preparation consists of jotting down a few names and sketching a few scenes on a sheet of paper, and then making a rough mental image of the upcoming session. I like to improvise a lot and fill in the blanks as I roll with the game. Occasionally there are scenes which I have completely failed to take into account beforehand, and I consider it a small failure on my part if for this reason I can't keep the game rolling or I have to fudge a scene or something similar. My highest priority is that even if I AM pulling the whole session out of my hat, that shouldn't be the feeling conveyed to the players. As a player I hate that feeling of being completely dependant on the whims of the GM.

I've long been a fan of scifi-action as well as war movies, so I was excited to pick up 3:16. The game's simple mechanics were instantly likeable. For a low-prep GM the system pretty much does all the boring work for you. You can randomize the planet conditions, the alien type etc, and concentrate on the fun part e.g. fleshing up and detailing the scenario. I pretty much pitched the game to the group as "something a bit lighter than usual." The sessions are quick, dramatic and light on system mechanics and preparation, and yet allowing for a lot of growth story-wise. Optimal for my style of GMing, I might say.

Those are the premises from which I enter the discussion. Now for the specific issues:

Re: Session importance & Why not play a board game? As mentioned above, for our group the evening's session is specifically about one campaign/oneshot of the other. There's usually not really a call for roleplaying in general, so we're mostly just content to chat away for an hour or three and/or play a board or a card game, if the evening's scheduled rpg session happens to fall through. This is somewhat interesting, I don't think the idea of an impromptu stand-in game has even been thrown around in years.

Re: Frustration because of "useless" preparation. I see your point there. This is why I like to avoid heavy prepping. Even when I pay a little more attention to prep, it's mostly scenes and npc's that can be used no matter what the players do. And I'm not talking about a type of railroading either. Even if it happens that I don't get to utilize all that prepped material, I can always use it somewhere else or integrate it into something else. I agree with you on requisite preparation being a possible bar on having fun. In our group we're starting to move into a culture where we are very upfront regarding the expected level of preparation from both the GM and the players, for exactly the reason you brought up.

Re: Boardgames vs. low/no-prep games. Here I beg to differ. With a tried and true boardgame you always have a pretty clear idea of what it will be like even if it's not as fun as usual. "Yeah, it wasn't the best session of Zombies!!! but hey, it was still Zombies!!! and the game's always pretty good fun." As such, it doesn't have the potential to completely crash, making it a safer option while still retaining the potential to be a lot of fun. Of course this thing only applies if it's just important to play something.

Re: Role of preparation. I'd like to dispute the sentence "Preparation doesn't, as an immutable law of gaming, increase your chances of having a good time." That sentence is correct, of course, because of the words "immutable law of gaming", meaning that even one differing example wrecks the idea of preparation always being helpful. Still I contend that preparation, no matter how minimal, will usually increase your chances of having a good time even if the game you're running doesn't require it to work. It's not guaranteed, but it will increase the odds in your favour.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: gsoylent on January 03, 2009, 04:43:32 AM

When I run games I tend to enjoy it a lot more if I have no idea where things are going. And I think my GMing is more vibrant and responsive as a result. However the problem I find with low/no prep, and therefore largely improvised, games is that, unless you put some other mechanic, there is no way for the party to mark progress.

Crudely put, with a detailed pre-written scenario progress can be measured against how much of the scenario content has been covered. As there is a predefined end game point, a smart, efficient or plain lucky party will probably get to end game faster or in better shape than a sloppy, clueless or unlucky one. Whether it is an murder investigation, a dungeon crawl, a political conspiracy or epic journey there are good and not so good choices for the party to make.

The more the content is improvised, the fuzzier this becomes. Essentially the party cannot progress to the next chunk of story on their own efforts and the choices they make actually don't matter a whole lot. The story unfolds at whatever rate the GM deems dramatically appropriate and that is that.

What I like a lot of 3:16 is that the Alien Tokens provide the way to measure progress. Even if all the scenes are totally improvised, the Token are there to measure progress. Once they all been used up, the adventure is done.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Lance D. Allen on January 03, 2009, 04:39:11 PM
That's interesting. I don't know that I've ever considered prepared story to be a measure of pacing.

Here's the thing, though.. Why is measuring progress important? So long as the group is playing, having fun and what they're doing is meaningful to them, why does progressing matter at all?

Let me back up and respecify that comment. Why does progression toward a predetermined ending matter? I get progress being important. Feeling like you're not moving forward is frustrating.

My play, for most of my gaming career, has been as a GM.. and I basically never plan whole story lines. Like Mikko, I prefer low-prep. My reasons may be different; he didn't specify. My reasons are the aforementioned prep going to crap deal, in addition to the fact that a lot of the time, the players can come up with better stuff together than I can alone. And anything they come up with they're likely to be more interested in than my little story. I figure my job as the GM isn't to lay the story out for them to progress through. My job is to find their buttons, and push them. Keep them moving forward, and let them decide which way forward is. All the while, I'll keep laying stuff out in front of 'em that hopefully will keep pushing those buttons.

Marking progress? I usually haven't any idea how far along my players are... and I like that. Just like you said in your first line, my GMing is more vibrant and responsive when I'm guessing where things are going.


to address two of your points that I feel are pertinent: I have no contention with the claim that preparation *usually* increases your chances. My contention is simply that preparation is in no way necessary. Completely no prep play can have a very high chance of fun, if the game being played is designed with that in mind. D&D? Not so much. 3:16? Absolutely. My own design efforts are largely low-prep/no-prep games.

In reply to boardgames being reliable fun.. I contend that a no-prep RPG can be equally reliable. I also want to clarify that the sucky session chances have little to do with the game itself, and more to do with the player dynamic on a given night, and the player interactions with that particular game. If the game is brand new to the group, then obviously the chances for suck are a bit greater.. But no greater than if you pick up a new boardgame, or a new movie.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: gsoylent on January 03, 2009, 05:54:23 PM

Why does this sense of progress within the plot matter? Maybe "progress" isn't the right word, but I'll try and make an example. I was going to pick some real actual play examples to stick to the aims of this forum, but I  ended up getting so bogged down in the detail that my point got lost. So I'll try a crude, generic example.

Say I play a hobbit in a game. My mission is to ditch this ring into Mount Doom. How long does it take me to get to Mount Doom? If the whole area is mapped that gives me a pretty good indication of how long it might take if I take a direct route. If I take the long way round, it might take longer, but it's me the player who is deciding this, it's my choice. Also the choice between going over the mountain or through the mine might make a whole lot of difference on the assumption that the GM has prepared different challenges for the different routes.

Now say the GM is just improvising. There is no map, nothing pre-planned. So when do I get to Mount Doom? Pretty much when the GM thinks I've done enough. I can't really make it go any faster or any slower.  Nor does it matter if I go through the mine or over the mountain because I'll only encounter exactly what the GM wants me to encounter exactly when he wants me to. 

Like I said, crude example. In theory the GM is reading the player and interpreting his desires. If the party act cautious, they probably want to avoid dangers, if they look bored, maybe it's time to cut to the chase. But in the end the decision of whether the party is getting closer or further from the their objective is entirely up to the GM's discretion. And I find this to be demotivating as a player.

Which is not to say I am against improvised, low-prep adventures - in many ways they are superior to highly prepped games - just pointing out that it presents a different set of problems.

Truth be told, I really don't know what works. Every style of play I know of seems to have problems and I don't seem to be getting any closer to a style I am happy and confident with.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Lance D. Allen on January 03, 2009, 08:09:27 PM
Hm. We're wandering a little bit into another topic, but I think it might be fruitful to go there, so let's see.

You are working under an assumption that is different from my own.. and that is that the prepared content has some reality of its own. It really doesn't, though. Until it appears in play, it doesn't exist. If I, as the GM, am the sole arbiter of what happens if you go through the mines, or if you go over the mountain, then when you get to your destination is still 100% within my control. To think otherwise simply because I've got reams of notes where I've prepared possible encounters if you follow this route or that is deceiving yourself.

To keep to your LotR example, what say I decide that when you go through the Mines of Moria that the Cave Troll encounter will take too long, and I'm really looking forward to the encounter with the elves on the other side. So, you go through the Mines, and fight a few piddly goblins. I'd planned for a Cave Troll, but in the moment, I decided against it. What happens in this circumstance isn't any more or less under my control than if I'd not done a jot of preparation, and was winging it. Nothing exists in the game until it happens at the table.

Now, sure. I'm less likely to ditch the Cave Troll encounter if I've prepped it, but it's still entirely my choice.

So, next question: Unless you as the player notice, does it even matter? If you maintain the illusion that what's in the caves exists before you get there, does it matter if I'm making it up, or if I've planned it all along? (Note that the key here is whether or not you notice; If I wing it and it's obvious that I'm pulling it outta my ass, it can definitely make a difference. That's not what I'm talking about.)

Here's another thought: I present the option for you to go over the mountains or through the mines.. And you decide to go back down the mountain and find another route. Here's where the possibility of railroading comes in. I can tell you, "Nope, the way back is blocked. These are your only choices." This option sucks, in my opinion. The only other option is to let you do what you want to, and improvise. Maybe you find another cave, and I can reuse the cave troll.. But if it's established that the new caves are currently the holdings of a thriving dwarven community, I may not have that option. I may simply have to pull it out of nowhere. So, what now? How do I know how much longer it should take you to get to Doom? You're completely off the beaten path my friend, in trackless wastes!

Now, okay, sure. Most established fantasy settings and games have pacing mechanics built into their physical geography and traveling rules.. But that doesn't actually have anything to do with the story. You can cross 1000 miles in a single session, or spend three sessions fighting to get through a single mountain range, and both ways have potential to be equally interesting.

What if, once more, you decide that the world can burn. You toss the ring into a river, and decide you're going to go be adventuring hobbits, join a mercenary band and fight in wars. Some other hapless hero can take the ring to Doom, or it can fall into the hands of the evil overlord, and you'll find yourself rallying the remnants of humanity to fight an epic, losing battle against overwhelming odds. Sauron is back, leading his army, and you and your plucky hobbit friends are leading the civilized races of Middle Earth against him? Fuck, now that sounds cool!

Basically, my point is this: If you're not overly invested in what happens because you didn't spend hours of prep that will go to waste if you let the players grab the story reins and run, then amazing, unexpected things can happen.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Callan S. on January 04, 2009, 01:14:45 AM
Now Lance, gsoylents original example refered to something that does exist. The alien tokens. These are physical objects at the table (okay, perhaps pencil marks on a scrap of paper, but still very real). There are only so many of them physically present - when all are gone, that's it.

I think gsoylent's map reference is again to something real - a drawn map. I can see what you mean by the GM's in control, but at the same time when your one hex away from leaving the misty mountains, it is not the same as the GM entirely deciding when your done with MM. A drawn map is sort of a watered down version of the alien tokens - I think it has holes that you rightly identified, but I think that's looking past what he was getting at - the physical tokens (And gsoylent, correct me if I'm wrong...though can we get a real name to work with? If you've said it in the past and I've forgotten, I'm sorry! Please say it again :( )

I seem to have a similar need to gsoylent. And he made me realise one reason why I feel iffy about on the fly prepping - it doesn't go anywhere (unless you also on the fly prep it going somewhere).

Now as you ask, Lance, does it have to go somewhere? I would say no - this is a play preference I have and I think gsoylent has as well (what do you think, g?). BUT I wouldn't just call it a preference, like I wouldn't call breathing a 'preference' for myself. It's something I HAVE to do. As in, yes it does very much have to go somewhere - progression is a preference for the basic story structure of begining, middle and end. Those alien tokens set that up rather simply, by a basic mechanical countdown to an end.

So while progress might be a 'preference', I would ask, how the heck do you play without breathing?? :p In the other thread I totally dug your focus on plays center being about unearthing player feelings on events. You've advocated the exploration of the groups feelings and thoughts, but now your also advocating what is to me, not breathing! I'm boggled! What's even more confusing is that from gsoylents account, it sounds like the games alien token system means players of the game 'breath'/engage a progression mechanic, even as you ask 'do you have to breath?/do you have to have progression?'. Whether you have to, you actually did engage in a progression mechanic, and enjoyed the game. That enjoyment may have been connected - that's a hard question, though.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: gsoylent on January 04, 2009, 02:44:05 AM

I am comfortable with the notion that nothing is "real" until it comes into playand I don't think the GM should religiously stick to his prep notes because they are "real" to the GM. What I am saying is that a largely improvised framework has it's problems too in that it reduces the player's ability to make good or bad choices with regards to progressing the plot unless like 3:16 or InSpecters you have some other mechanism measure the party's progress.

If you've prepped an ambush on the road, and the players decide to go by boat, if you move the ambush to the river, you've pretty much negated  the player's choice of going by river. Of course if you stick to your notes and you don't move the encounter, the players miss out on fun content. Sort of damned if you do,damned if you don't. 

I agree perception plays a big part in all this. If the players do not notice it won't matter to them. That is not really an option for me. For whatever reason, possably because we are all experienced GMs, we do notice or at the very least we aware that this part of the GM toolset.

But even so, I am suspiscious of a model of gaming in which the GM is working one set of assumptions "the pacing of the adventure is driven by what I deem dramatic appropriate" and players working on a different set "the pace of the adventures is driven my character's actions and choices".

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: manatic on January 04, 2009, 04:28:57 AM
Like gsoylent, my group has a collection of experienced players & GMs. For one reason or another, we're not really fond of games with no apparent direction, and we're fairly apt at noticing when the GM is simply making the story up as he goes (we actually used to have a nasty habit of calling the GM on this and intentionally poking holes in the logic of the game, sheesh). Perhaps in some way it makes the game feel trivial, since we're not really solving problems and overcoming challenges in the story. Maybe it's about the idea that the game has to be played with the same rules by everyone, the GM included.

As an actual play example, in a recent game of 3:16 my players questioned the use of several damage-causing NFA tests in the form of traps etc. Their core argument was that I could pretty much throw any number of such tests at them to wear them down or possibly even kill off their characters. In a game where progress is monitored using something very concrete (the threat tokens), it seemed unfair to them to be completely at the mercy of GM discretion.

Re: prepped material having a reality of their own. I agree that nothing is real before it is brought into the game. Even so, having some sort of coherent and logical big picture helps the GM keep the improvised story coherent. I've been running improvised games a lot, and I still make the occasional bad call which then proceeds to wreck some future element of the story.

Now Lance, when you said "If you're not overly invested in what happens because you didn't spend hours of prep that will go to waste if you let the players grab the story reins and run, then amazing, unexpected things can happen." I'm quite interested in where this leaves the GM. Is there any need for him anyway? The players will probably realize that you don't have an entire sandbox world prepped for them to play in. So, if the GM is improvising anyway, then what need is there for a GM, apart from the traditional need for a gaming group to have a GM? The GM can't be the somewhat objective describer of reality, since no reality exists. In my view this would lead to completely shared narrative, which of course is not a bad thing, but if we go there, we're delving into the core of roleplaying and narration and I don't know if that's what this discussion is - or should be - about.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Lance D. Allen on January 04, 2009, 03:07:57 PM
::rubs hands together:: A'right. Three at once. Let's see if I can handle this without completely losing my thread of thoughts.


You seem to have misunderstood me. You claim I asked "Does it have to go somewhere?" Which isn't quite what I asked. What I asked is "Does it have to go somewhere that has already been planned?"

Progress as a necessity for any worthwhile story is a given, for me. Moving forward, accomplishing tasks, defeating foes, covering ground, all staples of a good adventure story.

The tokens in 3:16 don't mean anything must be pre-created. They place mechanical boundaries on a scenario, that is all. So you get to move forward and have that tangible, visible indicator of progress without having an end-game in mind. You can be given the mission to destroy the alien capitol and deplete your tokens that way, or you can go off the reservation and attack an industrial plant instead. That is what I'm getting at. Progress = Good. Pre-planned Progress = Not So Good.

G (you mind if I call you G?),

I posit that damned if you do, damned if you don't isn't true. Making player choice matter is definitely important, IMO, though traditional gaming texts give tons of advice for how to get your players back on track, or keep them on the same track. This advice is called by various names these days, railroading, illusionism, participationism. Whatever. All of it comes down to negation of player choice. Another option is simply to do your best to make it interesting, no matter what they choose. The impact of their choice should never come down to "Well, you chose to go the way that negated the interesting stuff. Sorry.) You absolutely cannot do this by pre-planning. There will always be a possibility you didn't account for.

Urk. Rambling. Let's try to get this back on track by addressing a specific line. "What I am saying is that a largely improvised framework has it's problems too in that it reduces the player's ability to make good or bad choices with regards to progressing the plot" If by plot you mean GM's pre-written story, then it complete negates the player's ability to advance the plot, because there isn't one. But if you mean plot as the ongoing narrative of the player's characters, then it absolutely does not. Anything the players choose to do is an important choice in the story of their characters (within reason; if they choose to have the mutton instead of the beef, that's probably not important).


No-prep doesn't mean no direction, especially in games which work well with no-prep. Direction is often purpose-built into the game. In 3:16, you kill bugs, and you deal with the military machine. In InSpectres, you get hired to deal with supernatural threats. In Dogs in the Vineyard (low-prep rather than no-prep) you come to a town, and pass judgement upon whatever sins you find there. And you deliver mail. In ReCoil, you track down threats to reality, and destroy them.

It's also not entirely the GM's job to make up the story. The entire group shares that role. The players' actions matter. They make decisions, you present consequences and obstacles based on those decisions. They make more decisions. It's an organic thing.

(Aside: Your 3:16 example is one I completely understand. There are specific rules about when you can recover from harm, and they deal with the built in pacing mechanic; My ruling after going through a similar situation in which one of my player characters actually *died* as a result of NFA actions, is that NFA actions outside of combat give bonuses and penalties, but do not cause kills)

Re: wrecking future elements of the story. This is only possible if that future element exists. Which it doesn't. What it does is wreck the plan you've got. If you decide that your plans take second fiddle to what actually happens in play, that becomes a pretty unimportant thing.

Re: What need is there for a GM? ::grins:: Absolutely none, at least as far as gaming as an activity is concerned. My most recent game design, part of a collaborative effort for a contest over on Story Games, has no GM at all. Several other successful games also have no GM. But that's going completely outside the bounds of this discussion. What need? Because we like GM'd play, pure and simple. Because it's absolutely necessary for the type of play you're advocating. Because it's equally vital for the type of play I'm advocating. Lemme 'splain.

When the GM is no longer the sole authority on the story, he finds himself in a much more challenging role. It's more difficult (and in my opinion more rewarding) to have to roll with the punches. My most ambitious RPG design project places the GM into a purely reactionary role in terms of the story (he still acts as the rules authority and arbiter for the game play) where his job is to take the goals set by the players, and create the obstacles for them to overcome in pursuit of those goals. He never sits down and decides what course the story is going to take. The extent of his session prep is to examine what happened before, and to look at existing player goals, then decide which ones to highlight for this session, and consider rough ideas for what stands in the way of the player accomplishing their goal. Many of those obstacles will be inherent in the goal.. For instance, if the goal is to defeat someone, then obviously that person is an obstacle. In this way, the GM is merely a participant in the creation of the story. He's an important participant, as he does everything that the players do not, leaving them free to play their characters and make decisions for their characters without having to make decisions for other aspects of the situation, which they must do in GMless play.

I think we're all getting a little muddled. I would request that each of us clearly state the position he's arguing.

I am arguing this: Low-Prep/No-Prep play is a completely valid and valuable form of play that can, and frequently does, result in play that is as deep as heavily prepped play. I am also arguing that it has the potential to result in even deeper play than heavily prepped play.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: gsoylent on January 04, 2009, 03:54:19 PM
"Progressing the plot" might not have been the best choice of words. I'll give it another go. My point relates to adventure in which the party have a goal, a stated objective like unmask the murder or ditch the ring in Mount Doom.  In as far as the parameters relating to this problem have been set in advance, the party have an opportunity to make meaningful decisions on how to approach this problem. Some decision they make will be "good" in the sense that it brings them closer to their objective, some decision will be bad and take them further away from their goal.

If the adventure is mostly improvised (and the players are aware of this) what the players do and make the decisions they make does not actually bring them any closer or further from their objective which is why I think you need something else like Threat Tokens or InSpectres Franchise points to measure this progress.

Try imagine how InSpectres might play without Franchise Points? And what point do that investigators "solve" the mystery in that instance? 

Anyway, as requested is: My position is that I am drawn to low-prep/no-prep I have found in many instances it makes for a more vivid game but I have not really figured out how to make it work properly for me because of the issue I illustrate above.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Lance D. Allen on January 04, 2009, 04:48:46 PM
Alright, I begin to see your point. I'd actually forgotten about Franchise Dice. Considering my own low/no-prep game attempts, ReCoil has a sort of built in pacing mechanic; Oblivion points. Mage Blade definitely does. Rats in the Walls doesn't, really, but character burn-out is built into the game. My Life with Master has endgame mechanics built into it mechanically, too. It's looking like, to resolve your contention, we could say that low/no-prep games need some sort of mechanical pacing.

But what about Dogs in the Vineyard? It is a low-prep game, but I can't think of anything like a pacing mechanic. The town ends when the players decide what needs to be done, and do it. Sometimes, that means they have an epic showdown with the "sorcerer". Sometimes, they simply pass some judgments, give some orders, and that's it. Maybe it's different, because play centers almost purely on the player decisions. They decide when they're done.

What about other games like that? Low/No-Prep games where the players decide the "pacing"? Nothing mechanical, but not based on GM whim, either.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Callan S. on January 04, 2009, 05:02:35 PM
I thought that was one of the main features of conflict resolution? That it is a pacing mechanic - there are only so many conflicts you can make up, unless you've started making them up for the sake of making them up so as to 'keep the game going 4eva!', you run out of conflicts, and thus have come to an end.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Lance D. Allen on January 04, 2009, 09:03:54 PM
No.. Conflict resolution is just a different form of resolution. Instead of describing what you do and rolling dice to see if you succeed at your task, you decide what the conflict is actually about, and roll dice to see whether you win or lose that.

Task resolution: The idea is to get into the cave. The tasks involved may be talking your way past the guards, fighting them whatever. So you roll social skills, or you start up a fight, and you roll the blow-by-blow.

Conflict resolution: The idea is to get into the cave. You roll to see if you get into the cave. If you do, you narrate as appropriate. If you don't, you again narrate as appropriate.

Every game has conflicts, it's just a matter of how they're addressed by the mechanics. This doesn't really have anything to do with prep one way or the other, though.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Callan S. on January 04, 2009, 10:52:36 PM
Be assured I had that definition in mind - and it has ramifications I'm trying to illustrate. In regard to prep and pacing, you asked 'What about dogs in the vineyard', and said players decide when their done. I would say that's incorrect, they do not decide when they are done. They don't decide how many conflicts there are, they find out how many there are - typically the details of these conflicts reflexively boil up from within their (the players) own hearts and minds, upon contact with the material/the SIS. When no more conflicts boil up, they are done - their hearts have emptied themselves, if I may speak poetically (I can switch to technical if needed).

There are only so many conflicts, the conflict mechanics resolve/use them up. You'll get to an end, once they run out. It's a pacing mechanic.

Okay, if you don't agree, then I'll leave it there just to note a suggestion that dogs hasn't slipped out of having a pacing mechanism, and whatever ramifications that has for low prep designs. So as its just a note, cool, roll on with the other participants posts :)

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Lance D. Allen on January 04, 2009, 11:32:30 PM
I think it's a stretch to call that a pacing mechanic. It is, at best, dramatic pacing. There is nothing mechanical that says "the game/session/town will end when these trackable conditions are met". Even talking to everyone in town and getting the whole story doesn't mean that the town is over. Only once the players have decided it is done, whether it be because their hearts have emptied themselves or because they have figured out what they feel is the best judgment for all concerned, or simply because they've decided the whole branch must be burned (this has happened...) and there's no one left to judge or deliver mail to, is it finally over.

Evidence of this: Supposedly this game is supposed to run reliably as a single town in a single session. In a respectable length campaign, we only managed to run an entire town in a single session once. Every other time, it took 2-3 sessions to finish off a town. The pacing wasn't mechanical, it couldn't be manipulated via the rules.

Damnit. I let myself be side-tracked. I think this may have merit as its own discussion, and it may not. Suffice to say, the number of conflicts in DitV doesn't constitute preparation or lack of preparation. A simple situation thrown together in 5 minutes may take a lot of conflicts, or a session built up over hours may be resolved quickly (also based in AP; I threw together a town once, and it took two sessions to resolve, and spent hours putting together a complex two-tined situation with two distinct but intertwined progressions of sin, and they killed it off in one session; this was not, by the way, part of the aforementioned campaign)

Is this topic (low-prep/no-prep play) coming to a close? I feel as though maybe we're only scratching the surface, but the discussion is starting to fragment.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: manatic on January 05, 2009, 06:44:26 AM
I don't think the topic is or should be coming to a close. The discussion just got sidetracked for a while into the whole pacing issue. I believe there are other aspects to low/no-prep than simply pacing mechanics. A few things that spring to mind are

  • The GMs role/shared narrative. As noted before, though, this is a huge topic and should be discussed in a topic of its own. It probably is, in a few thousand or so.
  • The "meaningfulness" of high-prep/low-prep/no-prep games. In my view, games that are completely improvised by the GM and the players can be a lot of fun, but they lack the feeling of accomplishment. You can create and set goals, but it somehow feels trivial, since it's being made up on the spot. Here I assume that the players are/become aware of the fact that the game is being improvised.
  • The peaceful coexistence of high-prep and low-/no-prep methods. People often start polarizing these issues. No-prep becomes a completely directionless meaningless sandbox game, where the players do what they feel like and the GM throws what he feels like at them, and this is repeated ad nauseam. High-prep becomes a strict 80s-D&D-module, where the GM mercilessly railroads the group into completing the quest he came up with, regardless of character motivation and the like. Of course this is not the reality and we are slightly going after straw men here.

To state my position: I like the liberty of low-/no-prep, and the coherence that high-prep brings. I think the optimum game is a high- (why is there not a regular-prep, btw?)prep game played with a low-/no-prep mentality. I find it easy to completely improvise a coherent, solid scenario when I have some prepped material to draw from. The material doesn't really constrict my choices, as I can choose what to use. Instead, if I suddenly seem to be at a loss for ideas for whatever reason, I have a chance of snatching up something from the prepped material. An interesting NPC, a convenient scene or something like that to spice things up and to provide new directions for the story to possibly move into. I do not feel that this detracts from the possibilities of deep gaming - quite the opposite - as it provides players with a feeling that their characters are functioning in a pre-existing coherent reality, even if it is only vaguely explicitly detailed. Even games very suitable for total no-prep such as 3:16 will in my view benefit from such an approach, even if it is only a couple of small details such as names for NPC troopers or the company's starship.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Lance D. Allen on January 06, 2009, 06:43:50 PM
Oops. This dropped off my radar for a time. I read your response, then decided to step away to let it percolate.

I would like to provide a contrasting viewpoint to your second bullet. You say "In my view, games that are completely improvised by the GM and the players can be a lot of fun, but they lack the feeling of accomplishment. You can create and set goals, but it somehow feels trivial, since it's being made up on the spot."

I offer this: Games that are pre-planned negate much of the accomplishment of the players, because the GM is pressured to make sure that the players can continue to advance. It's hardly possible to continue to advance if you fail to beat the challenges placed before you, is it? If there is no set direction to advance in, when you succeed, your successes count, and if you fail, your direction shifts.

I don't think I expressed that well. You tell me if it's clear enough.

When we're talking methods, then obviously methods from both sides can coexist. As a matter of fact, I don't think play is possible that doesn't include some level of no/low-prep techniques. What I perceive more as the point of discussion is play where the preparation is a matter of minutes rather than hours, or where there is no preparation required before sitting down at the table.

It's the dichotomy between taking a few minutes to roll and record the results from the planet generation before your players show up (or just doing it right there at the table with 'em) and rolling it all up, sketching out some of the encounters, preparing the briefing, making personnel write-ups on the NPCs, etc. (admittedly, this second wouldn't have to take hours for 3:16... but I'm using it as a common ground example)

Some games require you to come to the table and create the session right there. In a Wicked Age, I believe, is one such example. You're really not even supposed to, as I understand it. I've only played it once though, so I could be wrong. My recent design work on Sexy Deadly is another such game; The only thing you can really do before sitting down with the group is create your character, but really, you're not actually supposed to do that, either. Sure, you *could* prepare the entire scenario beforehand, but you're not supposed to.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Callan S. on January 06, 2009, 08:35:35 PM
Hi Lance,

A town is supposed to be run in one session, in dogs? How long is a session? Does the book offer a definition? Further, if it went outside the books stated time, perhaps rather than it not being a pacing mechanism, the author stuffed up in writing a pacing mechanism that'd fit it in that time.

I hate to be pedantic, because without definition of how long a 'session' is, this isn't evidence at all. But bringing this sort of thing up makes me look the wet blanket while everyone else gets to feel all socially linked, even when, perhaps, there are no grounds to be certain at all. I think sometimes these things aren't examined, because its a bummer to play this part.

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: Callan S. on January 06, 2009, 08:41:59 PM
And while I was gloomy, I forgot to ask what you meant by direction shift? I can see a use in examining a character who upon failing, decides on a new path in life. That's interesting! But in terms of the player, they have entered into an activity in order to forfil that activity, I would usually expect. If a character flip flops about and ignores any overall goal, they never get anywhere and thus the activity is never completed (unless you prep it). From the sound of it in 3:16, they can flip flop about, but those alien counters keep ticking down. So you will get somewhere, even if your character decides on a new direction in life every five minutes. Which sounds good! That might tie in the differing views, here?

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: manatic on January 07, 2009, 02:06:44 PM
I was pretty much about to type what Callan did. 3:16 has a kind of regulated freedom (oxymoronic, maybe..) that I enjoy. It works with no preparation, provides a solid goal and yet gives the players a lot of freedom.

I believe the whole concept of advancement has some kind of goal as a prequisite. Can you have just generic advancement, or is the ideal simply to make up your own goals and then head for them?

On another note, what about no-prep and inexperienced GMs? Is it possible? Or rather, does it make for a deep, exciting game? I'm highly skeptical on this. While apparently everyone in this discussion has a lot of gaming experience, what about a first-time GM running 3:16, what kind of a game will he be able to run?

Title: Re: Low-Prep/No-Prep Play
Post by: contracycle on January 08, 2009, 04:52:25 AM
I offer this: Games that are pre-planned negate much of the accomplishment of the players, because the GM is pressured to make sure that the players can continue to advance. It's hardly possible to continue to advance if you fail to beat the challenges placed before you, is it?

That may be true, but if everyone is willing to accept that illusion then it can be perfectly satisfying.  I mean much of the point of this challenge can be the demonstration of your own abilities to the other players.  It may be true that the GM would have had to let you through the gate eventually, but it matters if you were the one who singlehandedly scaled the wall, killed the guards and opened it from the other side.  Similalry,m if your main interest is to see the world as it is, then the architecture of said gate and the styles of the guards may be more the point of play then the problem it imposes itself.