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

Seems as though this is something of a false dichotomy. There's no reason a GM cannot prep a setting in which situations arise that directly engage the characters' backstories and motivations and whatnot. The players can provide elements the GM can grab and the GM can determine what those elements look like in their setting and how they emerge for the characters to address. All the players need to do is play their characters and the story happens.
IMHO that is pretty much what a lot of common narrative type games are doing. Blades is just a whole ton of stuff that is BOUND to relate to the type of characters and situations that arise within its specific milieu. Dungeon World requires the GM to construct fronts which are intended to generate forward motion within the setting, so that the PCs do something, consequences are produced, and it all pulls at the characters. The GM frames all the scenes in both of these games, and the players interact PURELY via fiction in Dungeon World, except to answer GM questions. Players have a bit more mechanical work in BitD as they are involved in determining position and effect (though a player could simply leave that all on the GM, you could pretty much remain in character all the way through a score).

This is where discussions here often get a bit off. While not all games are made equal, the ones I play at least DO NOT have the players making up scenes, that's the GM's purview. Torchbearer works this way as well, the GM paints each scene. That being said, the scenes are not planned out by the GM, the GM is not 'grabbing elements' and mapping out some way to weave them in. Those elements are ALL of the story, any preexisting background, or GM prep is just stirring the pot or providing a palette of elements to draw from when needed.

To relate this closely to the subject of the thread, these two extremes, an entirely GM/pre written adventure and a fully narrative low myth game ala most PbtAs use prep for very different purposes. A D&D module is an environment, fully realized, where the player's job is navigation and some degree of extrapolation/embellishment and then seeing how the specific characters will work through that. PbtAs use prep (fronts basically) as a way to just 'stir things up', and provide a bit of a sense that stuff is going on in the world beyond what the characters see. Critically, it never pushes play in a specific planned direction.
 

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At the risk of being gauche, I'll repost a bit from the OP:
For instance, in the first Burning Wheel game that I GMed, one of the players, as part of the build of his wizard PC, gave him a 1D affiliation with a sorcerous cabal. That established the existence of the cabal within the setting.

The same player also (i) chose the Rogue Wizard lifepath - which sits within the Outcast "subsetting" for Lifepath selection - and (ii) gave his PC a relationship with his older brother and (iii) wrote up, as part of his PC's backstory, the circumstances in which he and his brother fell out while living together in his brother's wizardly tower in the wild hills. This established the existence, within the setting, of his brother, the tower in the hills, and the events of the falling out.

The setting is a byproduct of this creation of character. And is further developed in subsequent framing into situations - eg the player declares as an action a Circle check to connect with Jabal, a wizard of his cabal. I introduced Jabal's tower into play, and the henchman that he sent when the Circles check was a failure.

Characters (predominantly player-authored), then situation (GM-authored based around the player-authored hooks), then setting as a tertiary elements (generated by player decisions about character, GM decisions about situation, player contributions to action declarations, GM narration of consequences, etc).
I haven't yet played Burning Wheel, but it seems like a game that zeroes in more on who a character is than, say, Blades in the Dark. I've found the latter to be more concerned with what a character does, or wants to do, and the gm can pull on character relationships and so forth as things that might impede or facilitate those goals.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
Well, I don't know anything about the games....so what can I say. From what gets posted it's just like "well the game is great always and we have no problems and it's amazingly great with no effort at all". So, ok, if that is true....I still don't know anything about the game. So no comment.

You could ask about the games. I mean, I feel like a decent amount has been explained to you about some of them. Certainly not everything, but enough to give you an idea that there’s something to them.

To just say “Well I don’t know about them, so no comment” and then go right back to the same assertions as if no one has explained anything at all to you about them… it seems odd.

And I don't see anything new? The statement is the player can make a paragraph or two of stuff....the DM makes hundreds of paragraphs, and oh, for more work the GM can add the players paragaphs into the game too. That is how many have played RPGs for decides. It's nothing new.

No one is saying the GM makes hundreds of paragraphs. I’m saying hundreds of paragraphs are not necessary. There are ways that hundreds of paragraphs can be avoided.

As for nothing new, I just told you that the GM for my Blades in the Dark game did literally no prep besides knowing the game and looking at the choices we made as players. That’s not new to you? No prep before play. Not one paragraph did he write, let alone hundreds.

That doesn’t interest you in any way?

And sure it's great in a game when a player adds things like the classic LOTR one of "oh my character is a secret king" and the player just sits there, does nothing, and then tells the GM "king me, as I wrote it down".

I don’t know what this means.

If a player wants their character to be a kind in exile, then you discuss it with them and the other players and you find a way to make it work. If you truly can’t, then you and the player come up with something that would suit and which interests them.

No one’s going to spring anything on anyone.
 

Characters (predominantly player-authored), then situation (GM-authored based around the player-authored hooks), then setting as a tertiary elements (generated by player decisions about character, GM decisions about situation, player contributions to action declarations, GM narration of consequences, etc).
I guess I would ask what about the poor GM?

I get there are plenty of GMs that love this idea of just sitting there and doing what the players say. Some GM like to just follow the lead of the players, like they are some lesser part of the game.

I see the other side here though? What is in the game for me as a GM? Nothing? I get to serve the game up for the players?

And it's worse with that "move" idea from them other games: The GM can only make a move in response to a player move.

But it's just two different, incomprehensible, ways to play a RPG. Some games like D&D let everyone have the free choice on how to play the game. Many other games have set game rules to force the game play in a single direction. To each their own game....
 

I am approximately 100% certain the OP does not "show up casually."

It's not my preferred style but running a game like Blades in the Dark or Apocalypse World requires a lot of engagement from the GM. GMing those games isn't from that I can tell particularly prep-intensive but neither is play. IME players don't need to do any more work in either of those games than they do in D&D.
Yeah, there's a fairly modest amount involved at the start getting everyone organized, figure out what the crew is, where they're situated, and just coming up with the initial start, but none of it is the job of the GM exclusively. Beyond that maybe some record keeping, which the players can mostly handle, but you will need to go through your clocks and notes a bit from what I've seen. I don't think I'd need more than 20 or 30 minutes a week between sessions, generally. These sorts of games are MUCH lighter prep in general than standard D&D, where even at the very least you have to read a module before you can run it. TB2 does require the GM to come up with the obstacles for each adventure, though there are some prewritten ones. Still, an adventure is maybe at most something like a dozen obstacles. I think you can expect a group to navigate more like 3-6 in a single session.
 

You could ask about the games. I mean, I feel like a decent amount has been explained to you about some of them. Certainly not everything, but enough to give you an idea that there’s something to them.

To just say “Well I don’t know about them, so no comment” and then go right back to the same assertions as if no one has explained anything at all to you about them… it seems odd.
The problem is the overwhelming positive view point that makes the games hard to understand.


No one is saying the GM makes hundreds of paragraphs. I’m saying hundreds of paragraphs are not necessary. There are ways that hundreds of paragraphs can be avoided.
So here your talking about a simple improv game right? The GM just makes up random stuff depending on what random stuff the players do?

As for nothing new, I just told you that the GM for my Blades in the Dark game did literally no prep besides knowing the game and looking at the choices we made as players. That’s not new to you? No prep before play. Not one paragraph did he write, let alone hundreds.

That doesn’t interest you in any way?
People were doing random hexcrawls back in the 80's, so it's nothing new.
If a player wants their character to be a kind in exile, then you discuss it with them and the other players and you find a way to make it work. If you truly can’t, then you and the player come up with something that would suit and which interests them.
One of the big flaws with players making up stuff that must be part of the game is so many players will cheat. They will exploit that house rule to make thier characters rich, or powerful or whatever they want.

What good is it to do the group of players vs the GM? If you vote, the players will just outvote the GM, so what is the point?
 

It's hard to completely extricate character from setting; that backstory, those commitments and relationships don't exist independent from setting. BitD is a good example of this, in the sense that PCs start out with mostly nominal connections to the world, and as the GM pulls on those they bring elements of the setting forward ("paint doskvol with a haunted brush").
Sure, PCs must be connected to something in narrative play, or it will be impossible to really engage them. Dungeon World is pretty close to No Myth, no setting exists at all until session 0 starts, at which point probably a steading will be created, and maybe one or two locations of some sort. However the PCs will have bonds with each other, and alignment, and the GM will probably ask them where they're from, etc. That and the implications of their playbooks, remembering that as far as DW is concerned you are THE wizard, THE fighter, etc. not one of many!
That said, there is a certain tradition within dnd/trad gaming that is more about comprehensive world building either as its own fun or because it's what someone needs to feel confident or on the off chance that it will affect the PCs. Personally I don't have time for that kind of setting density anymore.
Well, in classic trad D&D the GM makes a lot of setting (at least a base of operations, some dungeon levels, and a bit of connecting terrain), a bunch of NPCs, etc. However, traditionally NOTHING is said about the PCs at all! They aren't locals, they have no background/backstory, their class is just a generic template, and literally all you have is an alignment, and the purely gamist conceit that the PCs will band together and cooperate (even though there's absolutely nothing driving that). Thus the appellation 'murder hobos'. WotC D&D has tacked some background and whatnot onto that, but its a pretty thin thing. I don't know of any version of D&D, not even 4e, that attempts to actively encourage things like any relationship or history between the PCs. 5e BIFTs certainly don't do that. In effect players do no prep at all in this sort of game. It isn't even just D&D, Call of Cthulhu for instance, there are no ties between PCs, generally. Traveller, you just somehow showed up on the same ship/planet/bar/TAS etc.
 

However, traditionally NOTHING is said about the PCs at all!
I don't know if this is an OSR thing, but I think there's a lot implied about the PCs in classic dnd, i.e. as treasure hunters in a quasi-colonial/frontier environment ostensibly on Team Law.

I don't know of any version of D&D, not even 4e, that attempts to actively encourage things like any relationship or history between the PCs.
It does seem that this is one of the dominant play cultures now, however, perhaps inspired by critical role and other actual plays that demand strong characterization

I would go as far as saying both of the above along with many other ttrpgs make use of explicit reference to fiction in other media to ground gameplay (eg OD&D makes more sense not just in the context of wargaming but also when assuming players are familiar with appendix n)
 

I guess I would ask what about the poor GM?

I get there are plenty of GMs that love this idea of just sitting there and doing what the players say. Some GM like to just follow the lead of the players, like they are some lesser part of the game.

I see the other side here though? What is in the game for me as a GM? Nothing? I get to serve the game up for the players?

And it's worse with that "move" idea from them other games: The GM can only make a move in response to a player move.

But it's just two different, incomprehensible, ways to play a RPG. Some games like D&D let everyone have the free choice on how to play the game. Many other games have set game rules to force the game play in a single direction. To each their own game....

The GMs in these games don't consider themself poor-off.

They GM's don't indulge player's power fantasies. There is no "serve the game up for the players." Quite the opposite in fact. GMing these games is about putting rules/structure-constrained pressure on what the players (through their PCs) care about. You aren't a passenger on some kind of "player-side railroad."

GMing these games is mental bandwidth-intensive. Its cognitive load-intensive. Its creativity reservoir-challenging.

At every moment of play, you're integrating several different axes of thought:

* What do the rules demand of me here and how am I constrained by them?

* How does the fiction to this point inform and constrain the obstacle/situation I'm framing or the consequence I'm meting out as a result of some kind of failure or complication of action resolution?

* What is the intersection of drives and relationships and entanglements that make this PC's life interesting and how can I use that right now (if I can)?

* How can I build out as interesting a decision-space (thematically, tactically, strategically) for the player(s) right now (either via framing or via consequences/complications)?

* What might be going on offscreen that can be in play here (or might be in play within the potential constellation of consequences should things go haywire)?




I've said it before and I'll say it again. These games are Not Writer's Rooms. These games are not Player-Side Railroads.

I feel more than a little confident that the players I GM these games for don't feel like I'm their "friend" or "conspirator." But, likewise, they certainly don't feel like I'm their antagonist. I just give expression to their opposition and it doesn't matter that my "opposition-throttle" is to the floor because they know there is no shenanigans going on (because the games are table-facing).

So no "poor GM." The say that I have over the creative trajectory of play is not small and the stimulation involved in my role in running the game is considerable.

There are tons and tons of play excerpts of these games that I (and others in this thread) have posted. Here is a Stonetop game you can take a look at if you're interested with @hawkeyefan (he plays The Judge in that game so he carries out The Chronicling). Post 20 is his Chronicling of Session 1. Post 22 is my breaking down of the machinery of the session (including my GMing). There are other such entries in that thread. Its just north of a year of that game and we stopped adding to it awhile ago, but there should be plenty in there to wrap your brain around the concepts and execution.

There should be lots of post-mortems of the Blades game that hawkeyefan mentions above. There are post-mortems of the current Blades game I run around here (just keyword search if you're interested). There are post-mortems of Torchbearer of Dogs in the Vineyard of Dungeon World of Lazers & Feelings of D&D 4e and other games. @pemerton has vast swathes of post-mortems of Burning Wheel, Torchbearer, Aegon, In A Wicked Age, Prince Valiant, etc. All of these games are different in their particulars but the general GMing load is roughly the same (as I've bulleted above). And there is no "poor GM" factor going on there. They're quite challenging and quite rewarding to run. The challenge and reward is just different than that of a prep-heavy traditional game.
 

Going to use this thread to plug one of the games that it appears like I'm going to be running next after a current Dogs in the Vineyard game ends. Its a PBtA game about Japan's Warring States called Thousand Arrows. Here are my thoughts after my read-through (I'll get to how I see Prep after this initial review):




* Gameplay references the map of Japan and focuses on a region and probably 2 or 3 Factions (to start) pending how spread out the PCs are with respect to Allegiance. We reference this map together, use it to build out conflicts during play...and what we index when we do that is...

* Political, Strategic, Tactical, and Self. These are levels of zoom for the framing, handling, and resolution of conflicts. The expectation is surely an aggressive cut and hard framing of scenes back and forth between these layers. It seems fairly Apocalypse World in this way where we discuss where we're going (level of zoom, location, situation-specifics) and then I frame a scene > we resolve > fallout changes the fiction. The "wargame" component of play will likely see a lot of hard framed Strategic/Tactical > move > likely zoom in on next inward most layer on a 7-9 or 6- result (perhaps even on a 10+ depending upon the move and a situation).

* Given the Attachments statistic is so paramount for theme and consequence, Tactical and Self are apt to be the significant majority of conflicts (my guess is something like 2 in 3 upwards to 3 and 4 conflicts will be Tactical or Self zoom).

* Fronts are handled just like typical AW (see Allegiances and Factions) while NPCs are handled somewhat differently than typical. You've got a martial prowess stat and weapon stats for duels. But this game is so much about social aspects (passion, art, drive, connections). The equivalent of Instinct clearly comes from (a) the Allegiance/Station and (b) View NPCs As Though They're Dead/Show PCs Their Extremes & Opposites.

* This is clearly a "High N, Low G" (Forge Agendas N for Narrativism - play that aggressively addresses a core premise, or an admixture, by relentlessly putting dramatic-need-laden protagonists in a crucible of provocative and demanding situations which ultimately distills who they are - and Gamism - play that is challenge-centered; platers better execute, play well, or git gud) game. There is some interesting Gamism here, but the abundance of play is about serious Story Now imperatives and the movement of the fiction and the characters as a result. The clear emphasis on hard framing + zoom shifting + Low G will make this game not desirable to most Traditional players and even High N players that expect a coinciding High G (like Torchbearer or Blades in the Dark).




So the prep I will be doing in this game is basically:

* Sort out who these players are during communal character creation and session 0. What drives them? Who is important to them? Who is their liege or primary affiliation? How are the players (3 of them) allied or opposed (the game could end up being 3 PCs in opposition to each other)? How do they get things done (via their playbook and the choices therein including stats, moves, gear, and the type of Section they lead into war, guerilla or symmetrical)?

* Where is this at on the historical map of Japan (comes with the game)? What is the broad topographical brushstrokes, cultures, logistics (routes, trade, food, danger), and factions/warlords of the immediate region that our game will be taking place in?

* On to those Factions. What 2 to 4 (if the PCs are all in opposition it will be 4...otherwise it will shrink) of those are in play? What are their goals, their means, bastion and redoubts?


These questions, their answers, and their attendant mechanical widgets/rules (this is the extend of my prep for this upcoming game...along with my uptake and operationalizing of the themes and broad, historical shape of the milieu of that period) will inform my situation framing, consequences, and the level of zoom (Political, Strategic, Tactical, Self) of the scenes that I'll improvise during play and we'll use to follow the sequence of framing > player action declaration > action resolution > fallout > new situations/levels of zoom.
 


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