Approaches to prep in RPGing - GMs, players, and what play is *about*

hawkeyefan

Legend
And yet in Stonetop all this is coming from Setting first. Or rather, a template of Setting...and templates of Character. We are asked to define our characters' positions in town, and a few key relationships with other PCs and with NPCs. So there is some muddiness here about what comes first. Again it's a matter of degrees, but I know I didn't start character creation by thinking about personal goals or ideals: I looked over the available playbooks and picked one first, and then it presented prompts for what my character is supposed to be concerned with, and that's all in relation to the setting. And all we have on the playbook in a single Instinct, which might come into conflict with...something. But there's no formalized other character attribute for it to come into conflict with.

In other words, I am finding it hard to be relentlessly positive about Stonetop, from the perspective of Character => Situation => Setting. But at least it means I'll be able to understand it! (And I am looking forward to it; I just wanted to point out this seeming discrepancy.)

What I think makes Stonetop work is that the town largely IS the the thing the characters care about. Each of them has an Instinct, and that will be put to the test for sure, but the town itself is the core that everything revolves around. The people of the town and its overall well-being will always be the backdrop to everything you do.

It is a bit different in that regard to some of the other games I've mentioned, but the results are similar. There's shared goals among the players and their characters, and investment in these elements. The fact that each player will contribute to the town will only enhance that.
 

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What I think makes Stonetop work is that the town largely IS the the thing the characters care about. Each of them has an Instinct, and that will be put to the test for sure, but the town itself is the core that everything revolves around. The people of the town and its overall well-being will always be the backdrop to everything you do.

It is a bit different in that regard to some of the other games I've mentioned, but the results are similar. There's shared goals among the players and their characters, and investment in these elements. The fact that each player will contribute to the town will only enhance that.
Yeah, I think of it as more like the BitD crew, something all the PCs belong to that they, presumably, want to preserve and identify with. I mean, I guess you could be a traitor to Stonetop, but that would definitely say a LOT about your character!
 

niklinna

satisfied?
Ron Edwards wrote a good essay about how this works, but I don't think it's online anymore. This might work: Wayback Machine
Yep, this is reading like the design manual for Stonetop as I know it so far! (And you know I already had it downloaded but it's good you reminded me of it, and shared it for others to digest. It isn't a particularly smooth read but it's chock-full of good stuff.)
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
Yeah, I think of it as more like the BitD crew, something all the PCs belong to that they, presumably, want to preserve and identify with. I mean, I guess you could be a traitor to Stonetop, but that would definitely say a LOT about your character!

Yeah, they're similar in that way. The one difference is that in Blades, the PCs ARE the crew. Sure, they may have cohorts and contacts who are also part of the crew, and they may even be very attached to them (or occasionally they may sacrifice them to bizarre entities in displays of cold-blooded efficiency), but it's not a certainty. There's always some level of subservience to cohorts and the like in Blades.

The relationships in Stonetop are less transactional, generally speaking. The PCs aren't really the boss in the same sense as Blades. And most NPCs aren't as likely to be as shady as those in Doskvol.
 

pemerton

Legend
Yep, this is reading like the design manual for Stonetop as I know it so far! (And you know I already had it downloaded but it's good you reminded me of it, and shared it for others to digest. It isn't a particularly smooth read but it's chock-full of good stuff.)
From my OP:

A lot of discussion of RPGing - especially when framed through ideas like "the dungeon" or "the adventure" - makes some assumptions about this stuff that aren't always brought to the surface.

It's often assumed that setting is primary - the place that the characters will be exploring and acting in. (In D&D and kindred systems this leads to very precise rule about searching for hidden things, opening doors, etc.) With setting taken as primary, it is then often assumed that situation will flow from setting - eg the players will have their PCs go somewhere, or open a door, or confront a NPC, and that will trigger/enliven the situation.

These assumptions then feed a further one: that setting needs to be prepared by the GM, so that (i) players have a relatively "concrete" thing to explore via their PCs, and so that (ii) the situations that are latent in it arise "fairly" for the players (ie based on how they go about exploring the setting) rather than in an arbitrary fashion, at the GM's whim.
I've neither read nor played Stonetop, but I'm going to conjecture that it does not follow this model, in several ways:

*The background information about the village, that will inform PC creation, framing and even consequence, is shared knowledge among all participants from the start;

*Thus, it's not the case that an important element of play is the players learning the setting by declaring actions that have their PCs moving about and through it;

*Thus, situation does not flow from setting in the sense of the PCs going somewhere or confronting a NPC which then triggers a latent situation.​

I would further conjecture that the most basic way of establishing situation in Stonetop is this:

*The GM considers the PCs and their relationships to the village (whether a NPC, or something like "the foodstores" or "the shrine");

*The GM thinks of a way that will put the element of the village that a PC is related to under pressure (and even better, in a way that also creates pressure for another player's character, either via dual threats or conflicting priorities);

*The GM makes the threat they've thought of very overt to the players, via some sort of framing narration;

*Play begins in earnest.​

We could summarise this as Setting (shared) => Character => Situation. Resolution of the situation will ramify back on the setting in ways that everyone knows about (no secret or offscreen consequences of the sort that are favoured in "living, breathing world" play), which prompts changes in the characters too and also more situation.
 
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From my OP:

I've neither read nor played Stonetop, but I'm going to conjecture that it does not follow this model, in several ways:

*The background information about the village, that will inform PC creation, framing and even consequence, is shared knowledge among all participants from the start;​
*Thus, it's not the case that an important element of play is the players learning the setting by declaring actions that have their PCs moving about and through it;​
*Thus, situation does not flow from setting in the sense of the PCs going somewhere or confronting a NPC which then triggers a latent situation.​

I would further conjecture that the most basic way of establishing situation in Stonetop is this:

*The GM considers the PCs and their relationships to the village (whether a NPC, or something like "the foodstores" or "the shrine");​
*The GM thinks of a way that will put the element of the village that a PC is related to under pressure (and even better, in a way that also creates pressure for another player's character, either via dual threats or conflicting priorities);​
*The GM makes the threat they've thought of very over to the players, via some sort of framing narration;​
*Play begins in earnest.​

We could summarise this as Setting (shared) => Character => Situation. Resolution of the situation will ramify back on the setting in ways that everyone knows about (no secret or offscreen consequences of the sort that are favoured in "living, breathing world" play), which prompts changes in the characters too and also more situation.
I would think that in many cases the character itself is considered, a situation is developed and then some supporting aspect of Stonetop or its environs are brought in or defined to stage or support the ensuing action. But, yes the GM could start with a feature of the town.
 

An example in our Stonetop game is Meda, the Seeker. I drew an item as a starting arcana that's related to lightning, and the town is built around a weird stone which attracts lightning. So of course Meda unlocked the power of the Azure Hand by messing with the stone! This was all part of the character backstory, but we can imagine it happening in play. But in play something would motivate the scene, like a threat or need.
 

I would further conjecture that the most basic way of establishing situation in Stonetop is this:

*The GM considers the PCs and their relationships to the village (whether a NPC, or something like "the foodstores" or "the shrine");​
*The GM thinks of a way that will put the element of the village that a PC is related to under pressure (and even better, in a way that also creates pressure for another player's character, either via dual threats or conflicting priorities);​
*The GM makes the threat they've thought of very overt to the players, via some sort of framing narration;​
*Play begins in earnest.​

We could summarise this as Setting (shared) => Character => Situation. Resolution of the situation will ramify back on the setting in ways that everyone knows about (no secret or offscreen consequences of the sort that are favoured in "living, breathing world" play), which prompts changes in the characters too and also more situation.

I've neither read nor played Stonetop either, but since it's built on the PbtA engine - and I've played a lot of Apocalypse World - I thought I'd chip in here to say that this process is the critical function of the 'ask questions and build on the answers' MC move.

So the point is that when then MC 'considers the PCs and their relationship to the village / hardhold' they do it by asking provocative and prompting questions:
  • So, where exactly does the hardhold's fresh water come from?
  • What you've got some kind of pump and filter next to the river - I mean who works that?
  • So that's the only guy who knows how it works?
  • Do you ever remember it breaking down?
  • How does the water get from there to the hardhold?

This does two things at the table - it does exactly what you say about there being no secret setting, no hidden elements of play, which are the building blocks of railroading and illusionism.

And secondly, it makes this part of the process -
The GM makes the threat they've thought of very overt to the players
- almost automatic because we've been discussing the water supply and now there's a plume of smoke down near the river.

The questions and answers are understood by everone to be an implicit part of the framing when I announce my future badness, and we all know what the pressure is and what kind of stakes are likely to come into play.
 

niklinna

satisfied?
I've neither read nor played Stonetop either, but since it's built on the PbtA engine - and I've played a lot of Apocalypse World - I thought I'd chip in here to say that this process is the critical function of the 'ask questions and build on the answers' MC move.

So the point is that when then MC 'considers the PCs and their relationship to the village / hardhold' they do it by asking provocative and prompting questions:
  • So, where exactly does the hardhold's fresh water come from?
  • What you've got some kind of pump and filter next to the river - I mean who works that?
  • So that's the only guy who knows how it works?
  • Do you ever remember it breaking down?
  • How does the water get from there to the hardhold?

This does two things at the table - it does exactly what you say about there being no secret setting, no hidden elements of play, which are the building blocks of railroading and illusionism.

And secondly, it makes this part of the process -
The GM makes the threat they've thought of very overt to the players
- almost automatic because we've been discussing the water supply and now there's a plume of smoke down near the river.

The questions and answers are understood by everone to be an implicit part of the framing when I announce my future badness, and we all know what the pressure is and what kind of stakes are likely to come into play.
See, now you've just UTTERLY RUINED all PbtA play for me because you've basically boiled it down to, "Nice restaurant you've got here. It would be a shame if something happened to it." 😉
 

See, now you've just UTTERLY RUINED all PbtA play for me because you've basically boiled it down to, "Nice restaurant you've got here. It would be a shame if something happened to it." 😉
There's actually a fairly subtle but important point there. I don't put stuff at direct risk which a player hasn't made stakes. At least not when the player has 'won' it. This is not a real clear line though, you could make a thing in play simply by ignoring an implied threat for example, but I would never fail to make that explicit.

Now, the hardhold in AW I think would be fair game, as it is preexisting and clearly meant to be at risk by the terms of the game's assumptions.
 

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