Advice for new "story now" GMs

pemerton

Legend
A conversation with a couple of friends about "tips for new GMs" blogs/Q+As led to someone suggesting a thread along these lines. So here it is.

At the heart of "story now" RPGing is the players bring the protagonism. The players decide what it is that their PCs care about, what their motivations are, what their projects will be. I'll bundle all these up as the players' concerns for their PCs.

This gives the GM three important, and related, jobs during play: to facilitate; to respond; to oppose. A fourth job happens outside play: to prep.

Prep: there's a lot that can be said about the role of prep in "story now" play, but some simple ideas are enough to start. You need to learn what your players' concerns are for their PCs. The easiest way to learn this is to ask them. This can be part of PC gen. (Burning Wheel and Torchbearer are both good systems for this approach.) It can also be part of a first session where the players and GM bounce off one another to build up the initial situation for the game. (Apocalypse Word uses this approach.)

Once you've learned what your players' concerns are for their PCs, think up - and if it makes sense for your game system, stat out - a few situations and a few NPCs that speak to those concerns. Think up some links between them - use ideas the players have given you, and add your own. Soap operas and Marvel Comics can be your guide here - making everything interconnected (my family nemesis is also a cultist of the demon you're sworn to defeat) will make it easier to do your other jobs.

Facilitation: it's your job to "set the stage" so that the players can pursue their PCs' concerns. This means presenting situations that speak to those concerns, and thus prompt the players to declare actions for their PCs. This is where your prep can be helpful. But if you need to take a 5 minute break to think up something new and appropriate, don't be afraid to tell the players that. Let them talk among themselves for a little bit while you exercise your imagination!

It's helpful, here, to know how your game's action resolution system works, because if you prompt your players to declare actions that your system can't handle, that can be a problem. It pushes play away from the player protagonism you're aiming for, and into either rules debates, or rules-free storytime.

Also, different game systems express different attitudes towards "rigidity" of prep. As a general rule, though, I suggest it can be better to be flexible with your prep - adapt your situations and your NPCs that you've worked up, in order to do the job of facilitating - rather than sticking to it rigidly and risking things becoming boring or aimless. (There's a skill in sticking to your prep and keeping things interesting and focused on the players' concerns for their PCs. The Apocalypse World rulebook is excellent, maybe essential, reading for anyone who wants to develop this skill.)

Responding: when your players declare actions, you have to respond. Your game should (if it's got a good rulebook) tell you how to do this. Maybe your response is to call for some appropriate dice roll. Maybe it's to say something more that develops the situation. Maybe both: first dice are rolled, and then you say something that honours the outcome of the dice role and develops the situation appropriately.

The big pitfall here is prejudgement. If your responses impose your own prejudgement of how things "should" go, then you've lost that player protagonism you were aspiring to. It's fine to inject your own ideas - you're a creative individual, just like your players! - but your ideas should complement and build on what the players have contributed, in accordance with whatever the rules of your game say. They shouldn't contradict or override them.

A useful technique here is to follow the lead of your players' response to your responses. If the players pick up your responses and run with them, then great! Build on that positive feedback cycle. On the other hand, if the players push back on your response, don't ignore that. Sometimes it might make sense to overtly retcon in response to such pushback, but I think a better first step is to use your game's own rules and procedures to invite the players to reorient back to their concerns. Maybe you can ask them questions that invite them, as their characters, to think about how they want to respond to the situation that is dissatisfying to them as players: that might prompt some new action declarations which allow the players and you to steer things away from the dissatisfying towards the satisfying.

Opposition: protagonism needs antagonism. It's your job, as GM, to bring that. It's something to keep in mind both when you're facilitating, and when you're responding. Not every bit of facilitation needs to involve opposition - sometimes it's fun and interesting to offer a player (and their PC) an opportunity, rather than presenting them with a challenge or a conflict - but sometimes it needs to. By presenting situations that oppose the players' concerns for their PCs - whether that is NPCs acting against the PCs' interests, or impersonal obstacles - you not only prompt the players to declare actions, but you give the players a chance to really show that their PCs mean it! (Or, perhaps, that they don't. That's interesting too.)

Not every response needs to involve opposition or confrontation. Sometimes a success takes a PC to a nice place for a while. Sometimes a failure just brings pain. But opposition is a nice way of responding. And it can be both a reward for success - the PC gets to confront the antagonist, or the impersonal force, the player was hoping for - or a consequence for failure - the PC has to confront some new obstacle or antagonism that they weren't anticipating. But when using opposition as a consequence for failure, still keep in mind that the game is focused on the players' concerns for their PCs. You'll need to find your balance here - most players will probably accept that a failure entitles the GM to put their imprint on the situation, but don't use it as an excuse to reorient play towards something completely different. Good standbys are old enemies turning up again, or new opponents who really care (but in the wrong way) about a PC's ideology or beliefs, or a NPC or situation that will let a player deploy their PC's central skill or method or approach.

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I hope that it's clear that facilitation, response and opposition are not mutually exclusive. They're not steps in a cycle of play. (The rulebook for your game should tell you what the cycle of play is, and what its steps are.)

Rather, facilitation, response and opposition are interrelated jobs. Good responses facilitate. One way to facilitate is to oppose, and one sort of response is opposition. But some facilitation should provide the PCs (and thereby the players) with opportunities other than just confronting challenges. Getting the hang of this - how to pace things, how hard to push - is a skill that takes time. But if in doubt, follow the signs your players are sending, as described above under Responding.

And remember: the reason for presenting the jobs in this way is to orient your thinking, as a "story now" GM, towards the players' concerns for their PCs. Or in other words, to orient your GMing towards player protagonism. That's the heart of "story now" RPGing.

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Anyway, the above is a starting point. There's a lot more that could be said about "story now" GMing. One big topic is how setting factors into "story now" RPGing, and related ideas like "no myth"/"low myth" RPGing. And if you're already familiar with some other approaches to RPGing, there are also things to be said about how the "story now" approach is different. (Eg why is the idea of a "plot hook" unhelpful for "story now" GMs?)

But hopefully what I've written above is enough to get some discussion going!
 

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Arilyn

Hero
This is really useful advice, especially since "story now" can be misunderstood.

I'd just like to add that it can feel like you are diving in without a safety net. It might also feel like a loosey goosey style that can't work well. Try it. Try it a few times because it takes practice. Remember, players are expected to take an active role in shaping events, so it's not all on the GM's shoulders.

Having said all this, it might not be to your table's liking, or maybe you will all love it. It's worth exploring a wide variety of rpg styles. Ignoring all the "it'll make you a better GM and player", it's just fun and interesting.
 

pemerton

Legend
I'd just like to add that it can feel like you are diving in without a safety net

<snip>

Remember, players are expected to take an active role in shaping events, so it's not all on the GM's shoulders.
Right. Your players are your safety net!

If you're not sure what would count as good facilitation, ask them! They might say, "It would make sense for <so and so> to come looking for us." OK, cool - frame a scene in which <so and so> comes looking for them! The rules of whatever game you're using should tell you how to do this in technical terms, and having regard to what <so and so>'s motivations are (in most RPGs, framing a scene in which someone turns up to share a plate of scones is going to be different from framing a scene in which someone turns up to try and murder a PC).
 

aco175

Legend
Initially, this does not should like me or my games, but I want to learn more. Thank you.

Maybe an example for some of us? As the DM, I do not throw out the hooks for going to the old temple, or offer the innkeeper needing to clear rats out of his cellar? The players would come up with an idea that there is an old temple that needs going to and then I have a few minutes to come up with what is going on and design the location and monsters, or do the players help with the reason and monsters therein?

A player has a PC that he wants to explore more about. He comes up with an idea that an old rival is trying to set him up. I then just throw back questions about who is that? What is his name? where does he live? Etc... Do/Can the other players help contribute to this players story?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
At the heart of "story now" RPGing is the players bring the protagonism. The players decide what it is that their PCs care about, what their motivations are, what their projects will be. I'll bundle all these up as the players' concerns for their PCs.
...

But hopefully what I've written above is enough to get some discussion going!

One thing that can be a speedbump for GMs and players alike calls for us to unroll that "concerns" definition again to look at what the PCs "projects" will be.

In a lot of heroic narratives and modern fiction, the protagonist is reactive. They are going about living their lives when there is a call to action. Bilbo Baggins' next project was "lunch, maybe some tea and cakes", when a wizard came by his door for a chat, and then a dozen dwarves came knocking for supper.

Similarly, in a lot of traditional RPGs, the players are expecting the GM to present some major issues or "plot hooks" for the players to grab hold of. The players are used to controlling who their characters are, but not so much on where they are going. Story Now more expects the PCs to be proactive, and have narratively interesting/relevant goals of their own.

This bears a lot of Session Zero discussion, to make the players comfortable with suggesting or generating their own narrative direction, when the media they are exposed to, and prior games they have played, don't typically look like that.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
Maybe an example for some of us? As the DM, I do not throw out the hooks for going to the old temple, or offer the innkeeper needing to clear rats out of his cellar? The players would come up with an idea that there is an old temple that needs going to and then I have a few minutes to come up with what is going on and design the location and monsters, or do the players help with the reason and monsters therein?

My experience with Story Now would be more like: A PC has a grudge with a necromancer. You, as GM, throw out the hook that the old temple would be a good place to find them. The player might have a goal of getting really spiffy armor, and you'd toss out the innkeeper as a source of jobs to get funds...
 

pemerton

Legend
My experience with Story Now would be more like: A PC has a grudge with a necromancer. You, as GM, throw out the hook that the old temple would be a good place to find them. The player might have a goal of getting really spiffy armor, and you'd toss out the innkeeper as a source of jobs to get funds...
At least as I've experienced it - both in play and in rules text - facilitation is more tightly connected to player's concerns for their PCs than these examples.

Say as part of PC build the player has established that their PC's rival and enemy is a necromancer. Then facilitation might be a zombie turns up. Or more complex: As you enter town, you see a body heading from a gibbet. Night will fall soon, and you know the old temple is not that far away . . . - the player is invited to choose between having their PC disturbing the body themself, or leaving it for the necromancer to harvest.

A goal of getting spiffy armour on its face seems a bit less interesting than a rivalry with a master of the dark arts, but maybe with the right context. Anyway, the simple is to frame a situation in which some spiffy armour figures - on a NPC, in a smithy's shop, etc. Or perhaps its a prize for a competition that speaks to that PC's skills, or another one of their concerns, or maybe a different PC's concern so as to generate some intra-PC and hence intra-player dynamics.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
With only a very few tweaks the OP would be generally good advice for a D&D DM as well. Nicely done.
Right. Your players are your safety net!

If you're not sure what would count as good facilitation, ask them! They might say, "It would make sense for <so and so> to come looking for us."
Question: is it possible for this sort of meta-level discussion to never happen, and if so, how?

I ask because while some players might be the safety net, others often carry metaphorical knives with specific intent of cutting through said net. I speak of players - and there's a whole lot of 'em out there - whose main or even only goal in play is to "beat the game"; and who would quickly find ways to exploit meta-level discussions like these to game the game, as it were, and in so doing stumble on to (and with open arms embrace!) the Czege principle.

The other time when the players-as-safety-net idea fails is when the players simply aren't proactive enough. There's a lot of these out there as well, and while it's possible to get some to become more proactive it sure don't work on all of 'em. These players will at best react when they have to and at worst will happily do nothing other than watch as the story unfolds.

And unless the intent is to trim the potential player base by a lot, maybe to near zero in some communities, story now has to be able to seamlessly integrate and deal with these approaches to play; and further, do so without overtly trying to change who-what these players inherently are, as that never ends well. So, how can this be done? Or do you think it's even possible?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
And unless the intent is to trim the potential player base by a lot, maybe to near zero in some communities, story now has to be able to seamlessly integrate and deal with these approaches to play

I don't agree. Specifically, you call it "intent" when it may instead be the "practical effect".

Not all styles of game are good for all players. Not all players fit in all groups. That's okay. Story Now doesn't "have to" do anything in particular. It is what it is, if it works for someone, that's awesome. If it doesn't, the onus is not on Story Now to bridge the gap.
 


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