Advice for new "story now" GMs

I read it that way, too, albeit with the possible framing of

setting [decided by player]
situation [decided by GM]
trapped cake [GM soft move]
explodes [GM hard move]

I think you see that differently, right? Is it possible to say more about the how and why?

(I don't think that the above sequence is necessarily yielding story now. And the reasons why might underpin your answer.)
OK, but I want to know what those moves were in response to and who really supplied the various pieces of fiction, and in response to what. So, a more detailed analysis of @FrozenNorth's post:

Player established family structure and wedding as an event. (This is 5e, we don't know what that looked like procedurally, but it is player directed/authored situation).

GM 'sets his adventure at the wedding', so there's SOME kind of GM story line that is established as part of the situation/framing. It sounds like the upshot of that is that an assassination attempt is established as a threat, and the PC is charged with acting, and this plot is the GM's.

After some extensive action which appears to have resulted in the capture of the assassin it is revealed that there's still danger. The PC's fail to thwart the danger, a cake explodes and lots of people are killed.

Now, we can see that the plot itself is GM formulated, though on the basis of a setting devised by one of the players. It seems like the stakes are apparent, but the outcome, the player is upset at the death of many of the PC's family, indicates that there's a mismatch of agendas. Clearly in Story Now/Narrativist sense there is probably less plot, BUT actually I don't think the GM introducing a plot which addresses PCs backstory and issues is necessarily out of line with narrativist play. Clearly the stakes were not adequately resolved before the cake blew up, which is something of an issue, but probably stems more from a lack of clear agreement when the game was started, or lack of existence within the process of play, of stakes setting processes.

You've talked about soft and hard moves above, but I don't think we can really discern specifically from the narrative presented here a sequence of moves that could be posited. I think a similar narrative could arise in a PbtA like DW or AW. There would be more definite constraints on the GM in terms of how they would frame things, but none of the framing seems to obviously violate, say, DW's principles. I think what is problematic is the degree of transparency and stakes negotiation present. That can be done in very explicit or more subtle ways, but I would think there would be opportunities, for example, to use Discern Realities in order to make choices. Those might involve things like whom to save, whether to disperse the targets and insure small losses vs crowd them all together and have a lower risk of a catastrophic outcome, etc. etc. etc. Certainly I think there aught to be that moment when one or more of the PCs sees the cake coming, literally, and those final split-second choices happen.

Maybe the stance of the GM running the game, not being really narrativist, is a bit too literal and some possible dramatic and thematic opportunities were maybe lost? This is one of the ways where simulationist/trad can diverge strongly from narrativist/SN. I don't want to rehash all the contrasts made in other places on that score though. I would just say that in the final 'cakesplosion' a narrativist approach would probably allow for some more dramatic 'moves'; ones that might be rejected as unrealistic or contrived in many sim/trad commentator's opinions (if I can venture to voice them here).

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Exactly this! The game was explicitly not a Story Now game, it was a 5e game. It was used as an example to illustrate my question.

“Given that drama in a Story Now game is generated by putting in peril things that matter to the characters (and the players), how do you identify when putting something in peril goes beyond what the player is comfortable with?”
I think, to address this point directly, if you veer too much on the side of giving in to player comfort you may find yourself in 'neo-trad land' at some point; where the action is mostly dictated by the players and is used to express the nature of their character(s) but not really to TEST it, except in specific ways that form part of the player's ideas of how the character will evolve. This is exemplified in 'OC' play. While play of that sort need not be low myth, it will otherwise need a mechanism or table agreement as to how the players establish the plot and exactly what the GM's role is.

In any case, OC/Neo-trad would be one answer to 'what is the player comfortable with' and I think @TheMagicSword had a pretty good thread on that topic. In SN/narrativist play? Its no different from old school Classic D&D, you plays your character and you takes your chances! If you can't do the time, don't do the crime! It's not really an ANSWER, but beyond that, be very up front about what the stakes are. If a PC uses DR and asks what is about to happen, don't be shy! "Your family is about to get blown up by an explosive cake!" OK, now the player can set stakes, lets get people out of the room, jump on the cake, whatever. The choices will be tough, but there's at least one path that says "all but <some tragic figure> is saved" or "your death is glorious, you saved your family" or whatever.

It's context for a question: "What if something that the player doesn't want to happen happens and now they are upset?". And it is a good question! This can happen in a Story Now game!

Possibly, but it should be far, far less likely than in trad play.

So firstly, the only reason to be assassinating a characters’s family in Story Now is if the player has made that a central premise for their PC. So they’re not going to cry about it, because they put it on the table. Unlike trad railroad play. This should be obvious to anyone claiming to understand the difference.

Second, the stakes of rolls - certainly something as defining as the assassination of family - should be known by the participants, even if the characters are unaware. The idea that the players emotional state should match the character is tedious trad bs which certainly doesn’t carry over into Story Now.

So ‘boom, your family are dead’ being a surprise and upset for a player is, in practical terms, not a viable scenario for anything but utterly incompetent Story Now Gming, and doesn‘t even make sense as a hypothetical.


(He, Him)
Who puts it into peril, and how?
The who is reasonably straightforward, right? GM brings adversity. Which can even be from initial situation. The how is more complicated.

In Story Now, the players bring the protagonism.
One way things get more complicated is how GM and players together develop conflicts. Players decide what they care about. They clearly get to choose which side they're on, and what they do. In a strong sense they decide escalation, but their escalation can produce escalation in adversity in response. (For example, when things go off-track from pushing or missteps that cascade into disastrous rolls.) I feel like there might be open questions as to the why of assassin #2 here.

You could be implying that it is also only players who get to put what they care about into peril, which goes against what I've experienced so I wonder if you mean something else? It's not that I think they couldn't session 0 some issues off the table, but in the absence of that... ?
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The who is reasonably straightforward, right? GM brings adversity. Which can even be from initial situation. The how is more complicated.
GMs describe the actual fiction and thus situation which embodies the conflict, yes. They may generally do something like decide which conflicts to bring into the spotlight at any given moment, etc. GM is not the author of the conflict overall though, in many cases. Honestly, its a mix of GM, player, and setting/genre factors that may decide that. Basically every game has its themes, some drawn from the genre, some from player interest, some from GM interest as well. There will also be common modes of expression. Super hero genre has specific ways of expressing conflict, as does post apocalypse, and various flavors of fantasy, etc.

What is common in narrativist play is player character protagonism. PCs take the role of protagonists in some sense. They make decisions which set the stakes and parameters of conflict, and actively resolve it. 'Pro' meaning 'towards', 'agon' conflict, as you know. In effect this means "where the PCs go, there is conflict" because the game is ALWAYS ABOUT THAT. This is why setting and external plots and such are not the focus of narrativist play. There may be some overriding thematic story arc built into the premise of play, but in that case it will still be secondary to the drama surrounding the PCs, either as a driver or mere backdrop.


Prophet of the profane (She/Her)
“Creating the family as a counterpoint” was the player’s term, though from their reaction, I think it was clearly something more to them.
I understand it came from the player. What I mean is, anyone, including players, having narrative "plans" isn't really in the spirit of Story Now.

“Given that drama in a Story Now game is generated by putting in peril things that matter to the characters (and the players), how do you identify when putting something in peril goes beyond what the player is comfortable with?”
I think there are two ways to define "comfortable" (or, rather, not comfortable):

  • A) Frustrating, producing anger at the outcome: "I wanted my character to have a healthy family life, and now I'm mad the story didn't go the way I wanted it to."

    In this case, well, happens. Sometimes plans just don't work and the story develops in a way you didn't intend it to. It's a part of the game. It's called Story Now, not Story Before, after all.

    Git gud (or stop being too attached, either works). To use a vidyagame example: I'm not particularly elated to see GAME OVER screen, but I just accept that it's part of the fun.

  • B) Distressing, producing unpleasant emotions that are separate from the game itself: "My character having a healthy family life is important to me because otherwise it would cut wounds I'd rather not touch"

    In this case, the answer to the question "how you identify it" is: you can't. The only person who can judge is the person being distressed!

    That's what safety tools are for. Lines and veils for calm and prepared groundwork for things you already know, and revising them if your state changes; X-Card as a last-resort option when you are overwhelmed by something you never even considered.
When safety tools are invoked, it's not GM's place to judge whether it's A or B. If they are invoked, you honour it, very simple.

But, outside of safety tools, you can, like, just talk. "Hey, I kinda had narrative plans for my family, how about instead of blowing them up, [X] happens?", but if MC disagrees, well, too bad. The same goes the other way round: "Hey, I think this NPC can be interesting to keep in the picture, is it really that big of a deal for you that you kill him here?" is a request that the players can deny.

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