Advice for new "story now" GMs

Darth Solo

Explorer
describing the setting as backdrop/context is not dismissing it as a source of colour and an element of the action, but rather pointing out that it is not the source of opposition, player-established concerns for their PCs, etc - it is introduced subsequently, to facilitate and develop those things.
So setting is never a source of opposition? How would you define your use of the term "setting" here? Many words have multiple meanings and I want to have a clear understanding of what you're posting.

What do you mean by "generic concerns" for PCs here? What would be examples of "specific concerns" for PCs? Generic or Specific to whom based on what? I'm just trying to get a better grasp of the conceptual language you're using here.

Could you also define "de-protagonisation" as you're using the term here? There is no current definition of this word at Dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster.com.

I like where you're going with Story Now I'm just not completely convinced it's necessary to bring along the construct of the Gamemaster. When we're discussing the evolution of TTRPGs, the GM appears to me as that runaway dog with its leash attached to a trash can: the owner thought tying the dog to a trash can would keep the animal in place. But, the dog runs, starts dragging the can, and runs even more because it's now terrified by this loud can chasing it everywhere. Maybe the trash can is the concept of Campaign, and maybe if players are grasping more control of the campaign, we can unleash the GM from it?
 
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Had an interesting last few sessions of Thousand Arrows (Warring States Japan PBtA) that illustrates some of the best dynamics of the fiction and gamestate going pear-shaped for Story Now games where the characters and situation unravel but the game itself is made significantly more interesting for it.

While the Yagyu Clan (Allegiance) Farmer (Playbook) was away from the terrace farming valley where he is landed gentry (securing muskets for the defense against Hojo Clan attack), another PC (Kukami Clan Samurai Knight) was at the farmstead with his Section of marines overseeing security for his absent friend. During one series of morning ablutions and martial practice, three young farming boys from Yagyu (a clan renowned for their duelist capabilities) were overtly mocking a pair of lower rank Kukami halberdiers who were sparring to improve their skill and offense and this was quickly turning into notice and offense taken (soft move).

A series of fiction + GM and player moves and results later and things had unraveled. I want to say it went something like this:

* Reconnoiter to "Read a Sitch/Person" which got a 6- when the player read the situation; the pair of halberdiers were noticing and their instructor, 1st Halberdier, has walked over and is now in a full-fledged confrontation with the trio of boys (who all have farm implements and are both (a) capable duelists and (b) of the age that they're apt to do dumb young male stuff).

* Single Combat (duel conflict mechanics for the game) for the Samurai to quickly dispatch his grappling training partner to enable him to intercede immediately. Needs to win this outright on first pass. This was successful (mooks only get 1 point to spend and player got a 7-9 which equals 2 points to spend which allowed him to defend the attack and disengage).

* Samurai Order the Troops to get his men to stand down and he'll handle it. Got a 7-9. His men stand down but I choose a complication; an officer (1st Halberdier) is wounded. The most belligerent of the boys (Kido) doesn't take the admonishing well and cheap shots the 1st Halberdier in the thigh. Exsanguination is a serious threat.

* A series of fiction and moves later and the final resolution to the scene is (i) 1st Halberdier is saved but is out of commission for a stretch while he recovers and (ii) the Kukami clan marines want something between Kido's head on a pike and serious corporal punishment. The Kukami Samurai decides to not enact punishment, but to wait on the return of the Yagyu farmer for him to resolve the situation.




* The next session has first scenes with the Farmer and the Samurai together and handling the situation. This is a few weeks later after the return voyage from the south and purchase of arms for defense of the valley.

* The steward brings Kido forward. Here is (imo) the most interesting part of this whole thing and where things pivot wildly. This game is mostly about relationships (Drive, Self, Bonds) and the gamestate : fiction intersection of these as they move down their track, recover, or spiral into obsession (and that impact upon play or PC retirement; whatever that means). What is set up by the player of the Farmer is a "training session" with Kido where the boy is going to spar with the standing 1st Halberdier (the actual 2nd, but 1st while the other reccovers) while the Farmer sternly "corrects the boy." So the contrition is imposed humility + indirect flogging. Here is the thing though. The Yagyu Farmer has a Bond with the Kukami Samurai Knight:

Kukami Noritaka wants access to my duelists and the martial prowess my school unlocks.

So this Bond is definitely in play here. Will the farmer fall prey to his inclination to teach and show off the prowess of his school to the Samurai Knight in such a way that does a runaround on what is supposed to be an act of correction and serious punishment for the boy? The interesting thing about this game is they have inverted the normal paradigm when you Resist the Temptation to Indulge Your Attachment; On a 6- you mark xp and act as normal...but on a 10+...you indulge your Attachment but you get a boon (if it applies to the fiction...didn't in this situation)...on a 7-9 you act as normal but you increase your Attachment by 1.

So the farmer finds himself "getting in his own way" as he ends up turning what is supposed to be corporal punishment/public humiliation and contrition (not just for the boy but for the Yagyu Clan to the Kukami Clan) into an actual teaching session in front of the assembled Kukami marines. The farmer continuously gets in the way of the way of the new 1st Halberdier's forceful reprisals to the boy's failures in sparring.

All hell breaks loose as massive offense is taken. The marines are incensed. Just going to copy and paste what the Samurai player wrote about the sitaution (with a few amendments!):


This escalated to my 1st deciding to take matters into his own hands and beat the kid mercilessly, and a fight with the Farmer who successfully protected the boy from being beaten to death (first pass of Single Combat) but got the worst of it on the 2nd pass (of Single Combat). This "worst of it" led to his eldest daughter (an adult, barely) charging in to save dad and jumping on my 1st's back. The pair go tumbling down the valley slope with her trying to gouge his eyes out and my 1st threatening her life physically. That ended with the 3rd PC (a Samura Courtier from Clan Shimazu; gunsmiths and tech-savvies from the southern isles) shooting my 1st halberdier in the head as he was about to beat the life out of the Farmer's daughter. Earlier, I (the Samurai Knight) failed my move to stop this before it started, and then had to deal with that escalation of my section being about to riot as another of my marines decided to get involved in the beating, going to the river to grab a reed for a switch. The Samurai Courtier (who had just crossed the river on his horse as the commotion in the valley was apparent from his Shimazu encampment across the river) tried to intervene, my man unhorsed him, they fought, and the Samurai Courtier beat my marine badly (shattering his wrist in Single Combat). That all happened in parallel to my 1st going off the rails and the calimtous tussle with the Farmer's daughter so after the Samurai Courtier beat my marine he then did the shooting. I managed to get my men in line before a general riot (which would have been bad), had the marine that unhorsed the Samurai Courtier arrested for daring to attack a noble, and pinned the entirety of the discipline problem with my men on the clear undermining of my trust by my new 1st who had hidden his perfidy from me; the situation skinned as the new 1st Halberdier effectively conspiring to beat the at-fault boy to death and escalate the situation. One of my playbook moves is about pinning the blame on others, and I nailed it.

Anyway, good last few sessions and this last one in particularly well-illustrates how internal PC struggle going wrong (in the way that it does in life...you don't get to opt out of your own "blind spots" or "limbic system hijacks"....they just happen...to you and to the people around you and to the deterioration of situation sometimes) in these games can lead to really dynamic and explosive play.
 

So setting is never a source of opposition? How would you define your use of the term "setting" here? Many words have multiple meanings and I want to have a clear understanding of what you're posting.

If you mean Threats (capital T as in Apocalypse World) like Treacherous Badlands or Burn Pit or Psychic Maelstrom or Pestilential Junkyard, then setting definitely gets used as a source of opposition in these games. Its just that preauthored setting that is detached from PC goals and needs doesn't exist. Preauthored setting that informs PC goals/needs and therefore directs play is anathema to Story Now play.

More on that below.

What do you mean by "generic concerns" for PCs here? What would be examples of "specific concerns" for PCs? Generic or Specific to whom based on what? I'm just trying to get a better grasp of the conceptual language you're using here.

Preauthored setting that informs PC goals/needs and therefore directs play would be an example of "generic" rather than "specific." Remember the above. Setting and situation that sees play should be authored such that it indexes system directives/premise and PC goals/needs. Continual fidelity to those constraints and processes should direct play. Not the other way around.

The game's premise, the system's content generation process, and the players will give you the boundaries on "specific." Go outside of those boundaries and you're now in the "general" rather than "specific."

EDIT: Quick example would be in a Stonetop game you've got a Judge (Paladin of knowledge and order) and a Lightbearer (priest of light, radiance, hope, purity, etc). Setting Threats better (a) attack Stonetop or (b) subvert knowledge and/or be sow chaos or (c) be an avatar of darkness and/or spoilation of spirit while indexing the rough maps of Stonetop and surrounds.

So a dark spirit that corrupts a Stonetop denizen to tear down an important custom or union or disrupts/defiles the imparting of knowledge (most everyone is illiterate and one of the few literate people start a "reading circle" that turns out to be a liturgical seance to The Darkness Below, inviting the malevolent spirit into the home and hearth of those there)? Good.

Trying to turn the game into courtly intrigue in Marshedge (a faraway settlement) with no Opportunity for or Threat to Stonetop? Bad.

Could you also define "de-protagonisation" as you're using the term here? There is no current definition of this word at Dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster.com.

Protagonisation in these games means players + system direct play via their nonvetoable input which dictate what this game is about whether that is "on-premise" content generation by system or "on-premise" flagging of dramatic needs/goals for a PC by a player. These things generate situation-framing constraints (and therefore both consequence-framing constraints and follow-on conflict constraints) upon the GM.

An example of a deprotagonizing rug-pull would be a GM subverting that stuff in the paragraph above. While its possible in some games to do that by any of (a) up front ("I, the GM, say the game is about this!") or (b) covertly (covert GM Force, Illusionism, being deployed to subvert system/player input and steer the game toward GM desired outcomes/content) or (c) unilaterally ("oh, the game was about this...but now I, the GM, want the game to be about this! We're in another dimension and ZOMBIES!"), those means of deprotagonizing rug-pulls aren't really on the table for GMs in Story Now games. So typically, deprotagonizing rug-pulls in Story Now games are downstream of plain old GM mistake. They screw up and its obvious to the table (and it better be to the GM themselves if they're going to improve their craft) that they screwed up. It happens sometimes. Fix it and update the fiction : gamestate and play on!




Hopefully that helps!
 
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pemerton

Legend
So setting is never a source of opposition? How would you define your use of the term "setting" here? Many words have multiple meanings and I want to have a clear understanding of what you're posting.
From the post you quoted:
There is no single best way to use the setting in "story now" play. In some games, it is likely to be mere backdrop or context - after all, the imaginary events of play have to happen somewhere, and the setting provides those places.

<snip>

In saying that setting is backdrop or context, that doesn't make it uninteresting - upthread I posted an account of some BW play, which included a bazaar scene and a wizard's tower. When we were playing, I think these were quite colourful and engaging. What I'm trying to get at, in describing them as backdrop/context, is that they did not, in themselves, really generate the opposition or contain the players' concerns for their PCs.

<snip>

Just to be clear, setting that is introduced as backdrop and context might still figure significantly in particular moments of action resolution: for instance, in the BW episode I described, at a certain point the players decided to have their PCs infiltrate the wizard's tower, and so appropriate actions were declared and resolved. In the MHRP game, Rhodes called in his armour via remote control, and then grabbed one of the villains and flew up to the top of the Washington Monument and left her dangling from it. To reiterate: describing the setting as backdrop/context is not dismissing it as a source of colour and an element of the action, but rather pointing out that it is not the source of opposition, player-established concerns for their PCs, etc - it is introduced subsequently, to facilitate and develop those things.

<snip>

The contrast with this is provided by RPGs where setting is more than just backdrop, and is reasonably tightly integrated with the PCs and so more fundamental to players' concerns for their PCs and a source of opposition in itself. In this sort of "story now" RPGing, the players need to have a handle on the setting from the outset, so that they can position their PCs in relation to it. An example of this approach is 4e D&D played with the default setting/cosmology: 4e D&D presents the setting to the players in the race and class write-ups, and in the descriptions of gods and alignments); and it invites the players to build PCs with concerns directly connected to that setting
As you can see, the post contrasts two possibilities - setting as backdrop/context vs setting as a source of opposition. The first possibility is "no myth" or at least very low myth. The second is not. I mention 4e D&D, but probably the most paradigmatic (if less widely known) example of the second is HeroWars (the setting, in this case, is Glorantha).

What do you mean by "generic concerns" for PCs here? What would be examples of "specific concerns" for PCs?
From the post you quoted:
Prince Valiant and MHRP are two RPGs that (in my experience) exemplify (ii): the PCs have somewhat "generic" concerns, to do knightly things (Prince Valiant) or to do superheroic things (MHRP), and as a GM my job is to present situations that speak to these concerns
In the post I also pointed to the post upthread about Burning Wheel, which illustrated specific concerns:
In a Burning Wheel campaign, one of the players built a sorcerer PC who had some key features that linked him into the broader setting/situation:

*A Reputation as a minor illusionist;
*An Affiliation with a sorcerous cabal;
*A hostile Relationship with his older brother, who had been his teacher but is now possess by a balrog (a type of demon);
*a Belief (=, in this context, a PC goal) that he will find a magic item to help end his brother's possession;
*an Instinct (= a type of character-specific free action) to use Falconskin (a spell that turns him into a falcon) if he falls.​
I also gave some examples in the post you quoted:
they are devotees of the Raven Queen, or trying to restore the glory of lost Nerath
As a GM, facilitation of the generic concern to do knightly things, or superheroic things, puts fewer constraints on the sort of fiction you introduce than facilitating those more specific concerns. This is why the Prince Valiant RPG has terrific little scenarios (or "episodes", as it calls them) in the rulebook and the supplementary episode book; whereas BW doesn't (there are example scenarios for BW, but they come with pregens already authored with the appropriate specific concerns).

Part of the point of the post you quoted was to say a bit more about prep, and no/low myth, as flagged in the OP. It's not true that "story now" = "no myth", nor that "story now" = no prep. Some "story now" tends towards both - eg BW. Some is no/low myth but can use prepped situations/scenarios/episodes - eg Prince Valiant. Some starts from shared myth - eg 4e D&D, HeroWars.

I think it's fair to say that none uses secret, GM-controlled backstory/setting in the manner of (say) the DL modules, or a typical WotC module.

Ron Edwards makes the following observation about "story now" RPGing that uses what I am calling "generic" PC concerns:

Situation-based Premise is perhaps the easiest to manage as GM, as player-characters are well-defined and shallow, and the setting is vague although potentially quite colorful. The Premise has little to do with either in the long-term; it's localized to a given moment of conflict. Play often proceeds from one small-scale conflict to another, episodically. Good examples of games based on this idea include Prince Valiant, The Dying Earth, and InSpectres. . . .

The point is that the Situation doesn't have any particular role or importance to the Setting, either in terms of where it comes from or what happens later. The setting can be quite vague and might even just be a gray haze that characters are presumed to have travelled through in order to have encountered this new Situation.

This type of Premise does carry some risks: (1) the possibility of a certain repetition from event to event, but probably nothing that you wouldn't find in other situation-first narrative media, which is to say serial fiction of any kind; (2) the heightened possibility of producing pastiche; and (3) the heightened possibility of shifting to Gamist play.​

I haven't found (3) or even really (2) to be a problem in Prince Valiant play. (I can easily imagine both being a big problem for a certain sort of superhero RPGing - the risks are obvious even just in reading the modest number of MHRP books that got published while MWP still enjoyed the licence.)

The way we have dealt with (1) is (i) to change the backdrop of play over time, and (ii) to shift, over the course of play, towards some more specific PC concerns, for two PCs mostly focused around the building up of their warband and using it to wage a crusade, and for the third PC mostly focused around his relationship with his wife. In Edwards's terminology, this is moving away from purely situation-based premise (=, or ~=, theme) towards character-based premise. In the post you quoted, in my example of Classic Traveller play, I gave an example of moving away from reasonably generic PC concerns to setting-inspired ones, which in Edwards's terminology means moving from situation-based premise to setting-based premise.

Could you also define "de-protagonisation" as you're using the term here?
As per the OP,
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.

<snip>

when your players declare actions, you have to respond.

<snip>

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.
De-protagonisation occurs when the GM makes decisions - in responding, or otherwise in presenting the fiction - which undercut or contradict or override the players' endeavours to bring the protagonism by deciding what it is their PCs care about, what their motivations are, what their projects will be.

In the post you quoted, I gave this example of de-protagonisation:
if a player chooses to build their PC as a Raven Queen devotee, hostile to Orcus, an interesting situation is one in which the player has to choose how hard they will push, and how much they will risk themselves and others, to pursue some undead. But it would be de-protagonising to present a situation, early in play, which reveals that the Raven Queen and Orcus are really collaborators, with their supposed rivalry just a ruse: because that undercuts the whole logic and orientation of the player's concerns for their PC.
As another example, consider my BW actual play from upthread and quoted just above: suppose the GM just declares that the balrog has stopped possessing the PC's brother; or suppose the GM just declares a magical effect occurs which teleports the PC to another plane, where he can no longer interact with his sorcerous cabal, no longer trade on his reputation as a minor illusionist, and no longer meaningfully pursue the project of redeeming his brother: those would all be de-protagonising decisions.

Here is a quote from Ron Edwards (same source as above) that sets out the issue in more abstract terms:

the other issue regarding protagonism is the problem of de-protagonizing, a term coined by Paul Czege. . . . Nearly all of the dysfunctional issues described later in the essay concern deprotagonizing in the context of Narrativist [= “story now”] play, which is best defined as Force: the final authority that any person who is not playing a particular player-character has over decisions and actions made by that player-character. This is distinct from information that the GM imparts or chooses not to impart to play; I'm talking about the protagonists' decisions and actions. In Narrativist play, using Force by definition disrupts​

The key thing to recognise, in my view, is that there are many ways to exercise authority over a characters decisions and actions besides declaring them (which is what players typically do) or vetoing them (which is a standard image of a "viking hat" GM). In the examples I've given just above, the GM exercises authority over a character's decisions and actions by completely changing or removing the fictional context in which the player's decisions about those things - that is to say, the player's decision about their PC's concerns - made sense. In my imagined BW case, of the PC being teleported elsewhere, nothing stops the player imagining that their PC still cares about his brother and remembers his time with the cabal, but the player is precluded from declaring actions that engage those things, because the GM has established a framing (ie the PC is trapped on some other plane) in which such action declarations aren't feasible. That's an exercise of what Edwards calls "Force", it is de-protagonising and hence, as Edwards says, it disrupts "story now" RPGing.

I like where you're going with Story Now I'm just not completely convinced it's necessary to bring along the construct of the Gamemaster. When we're discussing the evolution of TTRPGs, the GM appears to me as that runaway dog with its leash attached to a trash can: the owner thought tying the dog to a trash can would keep the animal in place. But, the dog runs, starts dragging the can, and runs even more because it's now terrified by this loud can chasing it everywhere. Maybe the trash can is the concept of Campaign, and maybe if players are grasping more control of the campaign, we can unleash the GM from it?
I'm not 100% sure what you've got in mind, but in writing the OP and in my thinking more generally I'm heavily influenced not only by Edwards but also by Vincent Baker, who said this about the GM (around 20 years ago, the same time Edwards was writing what I've quoted):

Doing Away with the GM
You need to have a system by which scenes start and stop. The rawest solution is to do it by group consensus: anybody moved to can suggest a scene or suggest that a scene be over, and it's up to the group to act on the suggestion or not. You don't need a final authority beyond the players' collective will.

You need to have a system whereby narration becomes in-game truth. That is, when somebody suggests something to happen or something to be so, does it or doesn't it? Is it or isn't it? Again the rawest solution is group consensus, with suggestions made by whoever's moved and then taken up or let fall according to the group's interest.

You need to have orchestrated conflict, and there's the tricky bit. GMs are very good at orchestrating conflict, and it's hard to see a rawer solution. My game Before the Flood handles the first two needs ably but makes no provision at all for this third. What you get is listless, aimless, dull play with no sustained conflict and no meaning.

In our co-GMed Ars Magica game, each of us is responsible for orchestrating conflict for the others, which works but isn't radical wrt GM doage-away-with. It amounts to when Emily's character's conflicts climax explosively and set off Meg's character's conflicts, which also climax explosively, in a great kickin' season finale last autumn, I'm the GM. GM-swapping, in other words, isn't the same as GM-sharing.​

I hope the influence of these thoughts on my OP is obvious.

I have a currently active BW game in which there are two of us playing, each with a player character, and we use the sort of approach that Baker describes to handle GM duties - I frame the adversity for my friend's PC, and narrate the consequences of his failed action declarations, and he does the same for me. (You can see actual play posts here and here.) It produces very "local", "intimate" situations and stakes, because there is no "external" GM who is drawing on a bigger picture to bring in grander or more sweeping backstory. I think this works in Burning Wheel because the game's action resolution system easily handles those sorts of stakes (contrast, say, 4e D&D which probably doesn't) and the system more generally copes with very low myth and has robust mechanisms for players to send signals about what scenes they want framed (or even to trigger the framing of scenes - eg via Circles checks).

As far as "the campaign" is concerned, I don't think that's a terribly useful notion once it's taken outside the Gygaxian framework, except in the most basic sense of "a series of sessions broadly concerned with the same characters". My two-person BW game is set in Hardby, and notionally takes place at the same time as the BW game involving the sorcerer with the demon-possessed brother - the reference in my actual play report of the two-person game to "the bottom has fallen out of the market in soft cheese" was a joke between us, based on the fact that in the other game the wedding of the Gynarch of Hardby had been called off (and hence there would be no need for soft cheese as part of the wedding celebration). But I don't think it helps us make sense of the play of either game, or the techniques being used by the participants, to posit that they are both elements of a common "campaign" or "campaign world". Each game is its own thing, with its distinct protagonists and its distinct established fiction and its distinct trajectory.

The idea of "canon", as something distinct from what we've all agreed on as participants in this game, being a constraint on play, is antithetical to "story now" play. (That's why, for setting-based "story now" play, the players need to have a handle on the setting from the outset - the deployment of "external" canon by the GM will be as de-protagonising in that context of any other instance of GM Force.)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This post and the next have some further bits of advice, prompted by a couple of posts upthread. This one is about setting.

There is no single best way to use the setting in "story now" play. In some games, it is likely to be mere backdrop or context - after all, the imaginary events of play have to happen somewhere, and the setting provides those places. Some RPGs I've played where this is the case are Burning Wheel, Prince Valiant, Cthulhu Dark, Marvel Heroic RP, Wuthering Heights and In A Wicked Age. In this sort of RPGing, the opposition is likely to be introduced into play either (i) by decisions that the players make during PC build or during play - NPCs or situations that they are dealing with, for instance - or (ii) by the GM presenting the players (via their PCs) with a situation that speaks to somewhat "generic" player concerns for their PCs.

In saying that setting is backdrop or context, that doesn't make it uninteresting - upthread I posted an account of some BW play, which included a bazaar scene and a wizard's tower. When we were playing, I think these were quite colourful and engaging. What I'm trying to get at, in describing them as backdrop/context, is that they did not, in themselves, really generate the opposition or contain the players' concerns for their PCs. The BW episode I described illustrates (i): during PC build and during play, the player of the sorcerer PC had made demons, sorcerous cabals, and the like salient sources of opposition; and my facilitation and my narration of opposition introduced appropriate setting elements.

Prince Valiant and MHRP are two RPGs that (in my experience) exemplify (ii): the PCs have somewhat "generic" concerns, to do knightly things (Prince Valiant) or to do superheroic things (MHRP), and as a GM my job is to present situations that speak to these concerns, including appropriate setting elements. For instance, in a MHRP session where one player was playing War Machine, we began the session in Washington DC (because that was where our last session had finished) with the PCs going out to a bar in their civvies. Naturally, the women they met and were chatting up were supervillains (the "B.A.D. Girls"), hoping to target an exhibition of Stark tech at the Smithsonian and looking to get help (either inadvertent, or by way of manipulation or seduction) from Rhodes. The bar, the presence there of the villains, the exhibition at the Smithsonian: these were all made up by me as GM as part of the early back-and-forth of the session, framing the situation and setting the scene for (ie facilitating) the action. What makes it "story now" is that the way the scene is framed, and the subsequent action adjudicated, doesn't prejudge what is the "proper" thing for War Machine's player, and the other players, to have their PCs do.

Just to be clear, setting that is introduced as backdrop and context might still figure significantly in particular moments of action resolution: for instance, in the BW episode I described, at a certain point the players decided to have their PCs infiltrate the wizard's tower, and so appropriate actions were declared and resolved. In the MHRP game, Rhodes called in his armour via remote control, and then grabbed one of the villains and flew up to the top of the Washington Monument and left her dangling from it. To reiterate: describing the setting as backdrop/context is not dismissing it as a source of colour and an element of the action, but rather pointing out that it is not the source of opposition, player-established concerns for their PCs, etc - it is introduced subsequently, to facilitate and develop those things.

The contrast with this is provided by RPGs where setting is more than just backdrop, and is reasonably tightly integrated with the PCs and so more fundamental to players' concerns for their PCs and a source of opposition in itself. In this sort of "story now" RPGing, the players need to have a handle on the setting from the outset, so that they can position their PCs in relation to it. An example of this approach is 4e D&D played with the default setting/cosmology: 4e D&D presents the setting to the players in the race and class write-ups, and in the descriptions of gods and alignments); and it invites the players to build PCs with concerns directly connected to that setting - they are devotees of the Raven Queen, or trying to restore the glory of lost Nerath, or whatever else.

When GMing this sort of game, you will still need to introduce particular setting elements (eg places, people) off-the-cuff, but you need to make sure that when you do this you respect the established elements of the setting that the players have been building and playing their PCs around - otherwise, there is a serious risk of de-protagonisation, and pulling the rug out from under a player. At the same time, you still need to provide opposition as one aspect of facilitation, and to push the players to declare actions for their PCs. So judgement is necessary, and over the course of play hopefully you'll be able to build up a sense of how hard you can push.

To give an example: if a player chooses to build their PC as a Raven Queen devotee, hostile to Orcus, an interesting situation is one in which the player has to choose how hard they will push, and how much they will risk themselves and others, to pursue some undead. But it would be de-protagonising to present a situation, early in play, which reveals that the Raven Queen and Orcus are really collaborators, with their supposed rivalry just a ruse: because that undercuts the whole logic and orientation of the player's concerns for their PC. However, if over the course of play situations recur in which - as those situations play out - the relationship between Raven Queen, undead and Orcus seems to become more and more uncertain, then the idea that their hostility is manufactured or even pretence might be something that is put on the table. (When in doubt, follow the lead of the players.)

A given game might change its character over the course of play. An example is my Classic Traveller game, which began in a way fairly similar to what I described above for Prince Valiant or MHRP: the PCs had reasonably generic motivations coming out of the process of random PC gen that Traveller is famous for, and the earlier sessions of play focused on various situations that engaged those motivations, with setting being introduced by me as GM as it was needed. But as setting elements accreted, a sort of "deep history" started to emerge, involving psionic-using aliens, the opposition between psionics and the Imperium, etc. And some of the players have developed concerns for their PCs that are oriented towards this setting backstory and the associated elements that have figured in play. This puts an onus on me, as GM, to take care with those setting elements and not introduce new revelations or elements that would prejudge or undercut those player-established concerns, and hence de-protagonise those players.

I wonder if anyone who is familiar with the role of Duskvol in BitD could comment on whether it can manifest a comparable sort of trajectory, in the role the setting plays in the play of the game?
A well-thought-out post.

One observation/question comes to mind, however:

The examples you give of settings are all, coincidentally or otherwise, quite likely previously known to the players at least in their generalities, as they are either riffs on real-world places or well-known published RPG settings. Unless I missed any, you note Washington DC and Nerath and (I can cheat here and use info from other posts :) ) have also used Greyhawk (for BW) and medieval England (for Prince Valiant).

So my question is, how do the above ideas square with a GM who wants to design and-or use a completely homebrew setting and thus has to introduce it in both generalities and specifics to the players as play goes along? Or is homebrewing one's own setting discouraged in this style of play?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This post is about stakes. It will be shorter than the previous one.

As a "story now" GM, remember that what is at stake - that is to say, the way the opposition that you've presented speaks to the players' concerns for their PCs - does not have to be grand, let alone grandiose. It just has to matter.

Think about things that matter to people in real life: Who will look after my pets while I'm on holiday? How am I going to pay my rent? even How are we going to split this restaurant bill?

In RPGing where the players establish the concerns for their PCs', and where your job as GM is to facilitate the expression of and engagement with those concerns, including by providing opposition, you can go small just as much and just as easily as you can go big. The main constraint, I think, is not the scope of the fiction but rather what can your chosen system's action resolution rules handle.

It is because many systems oriented towards "story now" RPGing can handle small stakes as well as more grand ones that they can tend to produce play that feels more "intimate" or inward-focused.
I'm not sure there's much if any difference here between story now and, say, D&D. In fact, one of the sometimes-criticisms against D&D is that the stakes are often too small and-or the system is too granular; yet here you seem to be advocating for just this. And I agree with you.

And in both systems the small things can feed off the large; for example, who's going to look after my farm animals while I'm out on crusade? The crusade represents the larger stakes, and all the smaller-stake items arise en route to getting at the larger one...if that makes any sense (I have a cold right now so clear thought is a somewhat foreign concept :) ).
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
If you mean Threats (capital T as in Apocalypse World) like Treacherous Badlands or Burn Pit or Psychic Maelstrom or Pestilential Junkyard, then setting definitely gets used as a source of opposition in these games. Its just that preauthored setting that is detached from PC goals and needs doesn't exist. Preauthored setting that informs PC goals/needs and therefore directs play is anathema to Story Now play.
So the idea of setting a story now game against a backdrop of a rapidly-escalating ice age with an underlying but constantly-increasing challenge of finding long-term ways to stay warm and grow food (or migrate) would be off the table, then?
 

So the idea of setting a story now game against a backdrop of a rapidly-escalating ice age with an underlying but constantly-increasing challenge of finding long-term ways to stay warm and grow food (or migrate) would be off the table, then?

Oh no not off the table. There are tons of Story Now games where the setting backdrop/context is Post Apoc; Shadows of Yesterday, Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark.

But “the work” that Post Apoc does in those games isn’t “the juice” in the same way that McCarthy’s The Road isn’t about exploration of a Post Apoc American landscape and collapse of humanity. Its about paternal love, duty, and “carrying the fire” when the rest of the world no longer gives an eff about any of those things. The setting juxtaposes and crystallizes the premise rather than exploration of setting being the premise itself.
 

prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
Supporter
So my question is, how do the above ideas square with a GM who wants to design and-or use a completely homebrew setting and thus has to introduce it in both generalities and specifics to the players as play goes along? Or is homebrewing one's own setting discouraged in this style of play?
There's really no great mystery. The players have a hand in the creation of the setting and/or if there's something about the setting that the PCs should know the GM tells the players. Story Now gaming is, best I can tell, wildly incompatible with PCs not knowing the setting they're in.
 

pemerton

Legend
So my question is, how do the above ideas square with a GM who wants to design and-or use a completely homebrew setting and thus has to introduce it in both generalities and specifics to the players as play goes along? Or is homebrewing one's own setting discouraged in this style of play?
There's really no great mystery. The players have a hand in the creation of the setting and/or if there's something about the setting that the PCs should know the GM tells the players. Story Now gaming is, best I can tell, wildly incompatible with PCs not knowing the setting they're in.
What prabe says here pretty much sums it up. If the setting is supposed to be a source of opposition, as opposed to mere backdrop - or to use Edwards's terminology as per my post just upthread, if the game is to involve setting-based premise as opposed to character or situation-based premise - then as I wrote in the post you quoted, the players have to have a handle on the setting. Helping to create it is one obvious way to achieve that. The GM sharing with the players is another.

Here is some of what Edwards has to say about setting and "story now" (= narrativist, as he uses that term) RPGing:

First, quoting from, and agreeing with, an email he received:

themes in Nar play are created by the participants and that's the point; themes in Sim play are already present in the Dream, reinforced by the play​

Then quoting his own earlier writing:

Premises focus on producing Theme via events during play. Theme is defined as a value-judgment or point that may be inferred from the in-game events. . . . Premises vary regarding their origins: character-driven Premise vs. setting-driven Premise, for instance. . . . The key to Narrativist Premises is that they are moral or ethical questions that engage the players' interest. The "answer" to this Premise (Theme) is produced via play and the decisions of the participants, not by pre-planning.

*A possible Narrativist development of the "vampire" initial Premise, with a strong character emphasis, might be,Is it right to sustain one's immortality by killing others? When might the justification break down?

*Another, with a strong setting emphasis, might be, Vampires are divided between ruthlessly exploiting and lovingly nurturing living people, and which side are you on?

He adds this explanatory gloss:

That bit about moral and ethical content is merely one of those personalized clincher-phrasings that some people find helpful. It helps to distinguish a Premise from "my guy fought a dragon, so that's a conflict, so that's a Premise" thinking. However, if these terms bug you, then say, "problematic human issue" instead.​

In my OP in this thread, I've talked about player-authored concerns for their PCs, with the understanding that the GM will both engage and oppose these.

And here's a bit more from Edwards, elaborating further on how setting can figure in "story now" RPGing:

*Character-based Premise: Characters begin play with at least one significant Premise-based decision in their backgrounds.

*Setting-based Premise: External adversity swarms upon the characters based on unavoidable, often large-scale elements of the overall setting.

I suggest that it's useful to reduce the pre-play effort on the other elements involved. Loading too many of them with Premise prior to play yields a messy and unworkable play-situation in Narrativist terms, in which characters' drives and external adversity are too full to develop off of or to reinforce one another. . . .

neither Setting-based Premise nor a complex Setting history necessarily entails metaplot, as I'm using the term anyway. The best example is afforded by Glorantha: an extremely rich setting with history in place not only for the past, but for the future of play. The magical world of Glorantha will be destroyed and reborn into a relatively mundane new existence, because of the Hero Wars. Many key events during the process are fixed, such as the Dragonrise of 1625. Why isn't this metaplot?

Because none of the above represent decisions made by player-characters; they only provide context for them. The players know all about the upcoming events prior to play. The key issue is this: in playing in (say) a Werewolf game following the published metaplot, the players are intended to be ignorant of the changes in the setting, and to encounter them only through play. The more they participate in these changes (e.g. ferrying a crucial message from one NPC to another), the less they provide theme-based resolution to Premise, not more. Whereas in playing HeroQuest [a subsequent edition of HeroWars, the Glorantha RPG I mentioned upthread], there's no secret: the Hero Wars are here, and the more everyone enjoys and knows the canonical future events, the more they can provide theme through their characters' decisions during those events.

In designing a Setting-heavy Narrativist rules-set, I strongly suggest following the full-disclosure lead of *HeroQues*t and abandoning the metaplot "revelation" approach immediately.​

These remarks from Edwards also provide the answer to this question:
So the idea of setting a story now game against a backdrop of a rapidly-escalating ice age with an underlying but constantly-increasing challenge of finding long-term ways to stay warm and grow food (or migrate) would be off the table, then?
Not remotely. This would be a non-supernatural variant of the Hero Wars that are coming in Glorantha. @AbdulAlhazred has from time to time posted about a sci-fi scenario that he ran in which the characters are trapped in a doomed space station.

But this needs to be shared with the players. Otherwise, as Edwards says, they are not establishing the meaning of the actions they declare for their PCs, and hence are de-protagonised rather than bringing the protagonism.

An alternative approach, which I've used in Rolemaster, 4e D&D and Cortex+ Heroic Fantasy (a FRPG hack of MHRP), is to put a possible end of the world on the table (the return of an ancient cosmological evil in RM; the Dusk War in 4e; the Ragnarok in Cortex+ Heroic), but to make the question of whether or not it comes to pass something that is up for grabs in play. The players then orient their PCs towards it, and based on the actions they declare and whether or not those action succeed, the event may occur or it may be staved off, or it may even turn out that the portents of it were (in the fiction) being misinterpreted.

To be clear: the idea of setting revelations that come unilaterally from the GM more or less independently of what the players take to be at stake in their action declarations is not compatible with "story now" play. And at this point the reason should be obvious: because it de-protagonises the players.
 
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