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GMing: A D4 of Design-Run-Discuss-Reshape to Kick Off a Campaign

In science and business processes go through planning, doing, checking, and adjusting which is in a turn a version of the scientific method. Use an RPG version of this method to improve your game and resolve problems. Work hand in hand with your players to create a campaign and adventures designed specifically for their characters and the goals they are pursuing. Use Design-Run-Discuss-Reshape (DRDR) to kick off a new campaign.

campaignstart.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay

D&D and Pathfinder have books that cover adventure paths: connected adventures for a GM to run for her players. The challenge is if the group can make it through the whole thing and hopefully have lots of fun doing so. RPGs can be run other ways however.

Imagine pitching a game and setting to your players and working in their suggestions for additions and changes. Having those players make characters based on the world and setting the group came up with. The GM then discussing how character creation went and how well the PCs fit in to the concept the group came up with. The GM and players then doing any needed tweaks to finalize the setting and PCs. Then the GM creates an adventures tailor made to those PCs and the goals and interests they want to pursue. And as the game progresses, both GM and players continue to play, review, and adjust as the story unfolds cooperatively.

The goal is no longer to complete the adventures. The goal as players is to see what happens next. Can the players’ characters achieve their goals and dreams? Not even the GM knows. Everyone keeps playing to find out.

Consider using the big hardcover or six softcovers only as reference and not to kick off your next campaign. Try DRDR and see the machinations and scheming of your PCs come to life.

1. Design

The GM decides on a system and genre and the basics of setting. No adventure building yet. The other players discuss this broad pitch and narrow it down. They come up with NPCs their PCs might interact with and jobs they might want to take. They consider what characters to create.

Example: I’d like to run the Alien RPG for you. You can be space truckers or frontier colonists either freelance or working for the man. You’ll have a ship and be based out of Novgorod Station. The players discuss. They want to play frontier colonists doing salvage, survey, and courier work using a deep space salvage starship freelance. We come up with named NPCs including a dock master, colonial admin, street rat informant, tech company liaison, a scientist with backers, and a ship inspector. They will make a company agent, pilot, roughneck, and scientist. The roughneck player really wants to use the starship crane.

2. Run

The PCs run through character creation. The GM answers any questions they have. When finished, each player sends the GM a copy of their character. They include goals for their characters, some secret.

Example: The company agent has the following personal agenda: The Company is holding back information from you. What? And why? The GM decides to dangle information pertaining to this agenda on this for the opening scene of the campaign. Along with some possible crane work.

3. Discuss

During character creation, the players may want some changes made. The GM may also make suggestions.

Example: The GM knew the player of the scientist was torn between that and the profession of medic. The GM tells the player that a medic would fit really well with the personal agenda of: You have some unusual (but classified) medical reports that the Company is looking for. Find out why they are so important. The player says he’d like to see a medlab added to the ship as soon as possible if he decides to play a medic.

4. Reshape

Any suggested changes are implemented if desired. The GM will then be ready to design the opening scene.

Example: The player liked the medic idea and also wants the agenda of: You are addicted to a strong painkiller. Protect your stash—and your secret. The GM agrees and can tie this agenda into the first scene. An offer of a medlab from the Company is extremely likely. Hooks firmly attached and dangling. And the GM has some leverage for the Company to use if they find out the PCs secret which in turn will generate more experience points for that player.

DRDR is a cycle. Once the GM and players run through one cycle it circles back around to design. The GM can now design the opening scene and possible adventure using the Company and the secrets swirling around the PCs as a springboard. Plus the crane. Using DRDR for adventure design will be covered in a future article.
 
Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody


I'm all for this approach to a new game. I like when a game makes this kind of process a part of the character creation process, but I think even games that don't definitely benefit from using a method like that recommended here by Mr. Dunwoody. It just helps the PCs seem like they're a part of the world, and that the game will be more about their exploits, rather than being a story featuring the PCs.
 

I'm all for this approach to a new game. I like when a game makes this kind of process a part of the character creation process, but I think even games that don't definitely benefit from using a method like that recommended here by Mr. Dunwoody. It just helps the PCs seem like they're a part of the world, and that the game will be more about their exploits, rather than being a story featuring the PCs.

I agree with you. Even if you go right into a prepped campaign path after this creation session the PCs are more invested. I believe Paizo has the free campaign player's guide for just this type of thing. And Wizards likely uses custom made backgrounds in some cases.

I am running my current Alien game using this method. My players do like it but sometimes they slip back into old habits. Even trying to address characters by character name instead of player name is challenging to remember to do. However, they really do feel in charge of their own destinies and even when things go poorly they simply chalk it up to it being what the world throws at them and they find a way to go around. It has been fascinating to watch. So far, also a bit more work for me but it has been worth it.
 

Stacie GmrGrl

Adventurer
This premise is the fundamental cornerstone of both PbtA games (like Apocalypse World) and FitD games (like Blades in the Dark). It's probably most designed into Blades for its task resolution system, where action is this little back and forth between Player describing and picking their action with GM then telling the player how risky and possible consequences should player still want to peruse, followed by who gets to narrate result based on success or failure of the die roll.
 

This premise is the fundamental cornerstone of both PbtA games (like Apocalypse World) and FitD games (like Blades in the Dark). It's probably most designed into Blades for its task resolution system, where action is this little back and forth between Player describing and picking their action with GM then telling the player how risky and possible consequences should player still want to peruse, followed by who gets to narrate result based on success or failure of the die roll.

I like having the GM describe failure and the player describe success. I have had players decline an offer to describe what happens. Some players like having the GM describe not only the world but also the outcomes of rolls win or lose.
 

pemerton

Legend
I don't fuss too much over who gets to do the actual narration. For me, it's about what happens once the action resolution mechanics are invoked?

My own gold standard here - not to say it's unique, just that of the systems I know it perhaps states the idea most clearly - is Burning Wheel: on a successful check the PC achieves both task and intent, while on a failed check at least one of those is not achieved and the GM - by drawing both on established fiction and on other relevant considerations (eg PC Beliefs) decides which, why and how.

In BW it is still assumed that the GM will actually narrate successes, but that narration must incorporate success in respect of intent and task.
 

Schmoe

Adventurer
Great, thought-provoking article. Thanks! That general decision loop is embedded in many things. In the US military I've seen it as the OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.
 

pemerton

Legend
The GM and players then doing any needed tweaks to finalize the setting and PCs. Then the GM creates an adventures tailor made to those PCs and the goals and interests they want to pursue. And as the game progresses, both GM and players continue to play, review, and adjust as the story unfolds cooperatively.

The goal is no longer to complete the adventures. The goal as players is to see what happens next. Can the players’ characters achieve their goals and dreams? Not even the GM knows. Everyone keeps playing to find out.

<snip>

DRDR is a cycle. Once the GM and players run through one cycle it circles back around to design. The GM can now design the opening scene and possible adventure using the Company and the secrets swirling around the PCs as a springboard.
I'm not sure how you envisage reconciling the GM creates an adventure with everyone keeps playing to find out.

In the game that made that second phrase popular (ie Apocalpyse World) there is no adventure (possible or otherwise) that the GM creates.

One of the best treatments of play to find out based on character development is Christopher Kubaski's Interactive Toolkit from the early/mid-90s. From part four:

unlike a gamemaster [in the traditional sense], you does not come up with “adventures.”‘ You don’t arrive with a scenario to “run” because the Leads have created goals for their characters. What you do is provide opportunities for the Lead characters to achieve those Goals and obstacles to prevent the attainment of those goals.​

I think good advice for GMing "play to find out" RPGs needs to focus on (i) how to establish opportunities and obstacles, and (ii) how to establish consequences for actions, especially failed actions. (i) and (ii) are interrelated, as consequences include opportunities and obstacles. I think that the difficulty of doing (i) and (ii) well is one of the things that encourages RPGers to rely on pre-authored adventures (whether their own, or purchased modules). But once we have a pre-authored adventure, the idea of playing to find out is largely gone, as what will happen has already been established - it's there in the adventure's pages!
 

I'm not sure how you envisage reconciling the GM creates an adventure with everyone keeps playing to find out.

In the game that made that second phrase popular (ie Apocalpyse World) there is no adventure (possible or otherwise) that the GM creates.

One of the best treatments of play to find out based on character development is Christopher Kubaski's Interactive Toolkit from the early/mid-90s. From part four:

unlike a gamemaster [in the traditional sense], you does not come up with “adventures.”‘ You don’t arrive with a scenario to “run” because the Leads have created goals for their characters. What you do is provide opportunities for the Lead characters to achieve those Goals and obstacles to prevent the attainment of those goals.​

I think good advice for GMing "play to find out" RPGs needs to focus on (i) how to establish opportunities and obstacles, and (ii) how to establish consequences for actions, especially failed actions. (i) and (ii) are interrelated, as consequences include opportunities and obstacles. I think that the difficulty of doing (i) and (ii) well is one of the things that encourages RPGers to rely on pre-authored adventures (whether their own, or purchased modules). But once we have a pre-authored adventure, the idea of playing to find out is largely gone, as what will happen has already been established - it's there in the adventure's pages!

The whole article explains how I envision doing this. The GM creates the adventure the players through their characters want to go on. It isn't complicated. Design happens then run. The design part includes the player input.

You could just wing it at the table but in a game like Alien I'd spend too much time writing the adventure as we play and not enough time running the game. So, you get player input. You write an adventure based on that input. You run it. The players discuss how it went. The GM takes the feedback. Design happens again on both the GM and player side. And more running.

Sometimes you have to wing it. That's why you have all those NPCs, locations, and PC interests to fall back on. But I would never try to wing an entire four hour session. That would be a tremendous amount of effort and stress.

If you think an adventure is a script that that the GM runs the players through then your definition varies wildly from mine. The adventure has challenges listed, NPC and xeno stats, rewards, etc. Trying to come up with all that on the fly would take a lot of time away from actually playing to see what the PCs do, where they go, who they talk to, who they fight, and what rewards they might earn.
 

Magean

Explorer
The whole article explains how I envision doing this. The GM creates the adventure the players through their characters want to go on. It isn't complicated. Design happens then run. The design part includes the player input.

You could just wing it at the table but in a game like Alien I'd spend too much time writing the adventure as we play and not enough time running the game. So, you get player input. You write an adventure based on that input. You run it. The players discuss how it went. The GM takes the feedback. Design happens again on both the GM and player side. And more running.

Sometimes you have to wing it. That's why you have all those NPCs, locations, and PC interests to fall back on. But I would never try to wing an entire four hour session. That would be a tremendous amount of effort and stress.

If you think an adventure is a script that that the GM runs the players through then your definition varies wildly from mine. The adventure has challenges listed, NPC and xeno stats, rewards, etc. Trying to come up with all that on the fly would take a lot of time away from actually playing to see what the PCs do, where they go, who they talk to, who they fight, and what rewards they might earn.

The way PbtA games do it, the GM is supposed to devise a collection of "Fronts" or "Threats", whatever they're called in each particular game. Essentially, a Front is a chain of events that would take place in the world in the absence of player interference. They involve a cast of NPCs, factions, locations, or various MacGuffins. Of course, there should be reasons for PCs to interfere, and these reasons derive from collaborative setting and character creation: for example, some PC may be a friend or a rival of an NPC who's part of the Front's casting.

It is then up to the GM to improvise the reaction of the world to PCs' meddling, based on what he's prepped as regards NPCs' ends and means, or locations, or magical features of the MacGuffin, and so on.

So, the GM does some prep work, but this work is not meant to design a more or less linear path or set of paths ("if PCs do A then B occurs, else C occurs, and then I'd like to funnel them through D..."). It is meant to yield flexible tools for the GM to react to PCs disturbing events in the game world.

This sounds like what you're describing yourself, in many ways.
 

I think certain games are going to lend themselves to a more structured(?) approach. Many games have a very broad take on setting or theme.

Alien, I think, is going to have a more specific focus than other games. All you really need is the kind of info they include in their cinematic scenarios; a location, some goals for the PCs that will inform play, and then an inciting event.

So a crew of shippers whose last job fell apart and so they did not get paid come across a derelict ship.

I think that fits the general description of an “adventure” but can still fit the mold of “playing to find out”. Of the two published scenarios I know of for the game, I wouldn’t view either one as being too heavily GM determined. Each of them very much relies on the players to play their characters with their goals in mind.

Neither has a specified victory condition or a set sequence in which the action must take place.

But the players do tend to want to engage with the central premise, and their goals are likely related to that.
 

Magean

Explorer
On a related note, there's this piece from The Alexandrian: Don’t Prep Plots – Tools, Not Contingencies .

Also, for a discussion of the Front concept and a practical example, one might want to check out the Dungeon World Guide , page 34 and onward. Although, in this instance, the setting has been mostly determined before character creation, so that looks more a like a non-linear take on a classical module, than something which evolved organically from character creation. That's half-way between "pure" PbtA and traditional D&D.

Then, FATE Core (freely available SRD) also proceeds in a similar fashion. The GM and players are encouraged to define together the broad strokes of their setting (Setting Aspects), which should then help defining Character Aspects, which in turn should spring up Problems, Story Questions, and Opposition that will develop into a scenario. During play, players and GM alike may use Fate Points to drive the fiction forward and create drama, in a way consistent with established Aspects.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I think good advice for GMing "play to find out" RPGs needs to focus on (i) how to establish opportunities and obstacles, and (ii) how to establish consequences for actions, especially failed actions. (i) and (ii) are interrelated, as consequences include opportunities and obstacles. I think that the difficulty of doing (i) and (ii) well is one of the things that encourages RPGers to rely on pre-authored adventures (whether their own, or purchased modules).
Until, inevitably, the published module doesn't suggest or provide consequences for PC actions that in the situation would be fairly obvious; never mind that published modules don't (and, mostly, can't) anticipate all the many various unconventional ways in which creative players/PCs might tackle a given problem or situation or scene. Hence, while the modules are generally pretty good at (i) the GM is still often left largely on her own when it comes to (ii).

But once we have a pre-authored adventure, the idea of playing to find out is largely gone, as what will happen has already been established - it's there in the adventure's pages!
The GM knows what will (likely) happen, assuming the players/PCs do vaguely predictable things. The players, however, don't know what will happen even if their actions are completely done by rote; in part due to the randomness of dice and in part due to their not knowing what lies ahead. They still get to play to find out.

Which leads me to my overriding issue with the OP's article: when the players a) have more specific input into the setting and b) are asked to give character-based hooks to the GM who is then expected to factor those hooks into the story, then - much like a vague plot spoiler for a movie - the players to some extent do know what lies ahead. This to me reduces the sense of mystery and exploration and discovery in the game, and thus correspondingly reduces the fun and enjoyment of the whole thing.

To explain: in step one of the OP's example the GM and players together come up with various named NPCs. As the players thus already know these NPCs the opportunity for authentically roleplaying their introduction to the PCs is gone (and-or for the PCs to entirely fail to meet them or know of their existence). Now if the campaign is intended as a very short episode or a one-off then this sort of in-media-res idea might make sense, but for a longer campaign where exploration and discovery are key elements it seems counterproductive.
 

pemerton

Legend
I think good advice for GMing "play to find out" RPGs needs to focus on (i) how to establish opportunities and obstacles, and (ii) how to establish consequences for actions, especially failed actions. (i) and (ii) are interrelated, as consequences include opportunities and obstacles. I think that the difficulty of doing (i) and (ii) well is one of the things that encourages RPGers to rely on pre-authored adventures (whether their own, or purchased modules).
Until, inevitably, the published module doesn't suggest or provide consequences for PC actions that in the situation would be fairly obvious; never mind that published modules don't (and, mostly, can't) anticipate all the many various unconventional ways in which creative players/PCs might tackle a given problem or situation or scene. Hence, while the modules are generally pretty good at (i) the GM is still often left largely on her own when it comes to (ii).
I'm not sure what your point it.

I'll reiterate mine: Doing (i) and (ii) well is a skill, that can be learned and practised. Advice can help: some of the best I know is found in Luke Crane's Adventure Burner, republished as (part of) the Burning Wheel Codex.

The GM knows what will (likely) happen, assuming the players/PCs do vaguely predictable things. The players, however, don't know what will happen even if their actions are completely done by rote; in part due to the randomness of dice and in part due to their not knowing what lies ahead. They still get to play to find out.

Which leads me to my overriding issue with the OP's article: when the players a) have more specific input into the setting and b) are asked to give character-based hooks to the GM who is then expected to factor those hooks into the story, then - much like a vague plot spoiler for a movie - the players to some extent do know what lies ahead.
I'm not sure why your response to the OP is to post two paragraphs the first of which is about something quite different from what the OP is talking about, and the second of which is (in general) false and is pure conjecture, rather than based in any experience or evidence of how a "play to find out" game might work.

in step one of the OP's example the GM and players together come up with various named NPCs. As the players thus already know these NPCs the opportunity for authentically roleplaying their introduction to the PCs is gone (and-or for the PCs to entirely fail to meet them or know of their existence).
This would be similar to a game in which the PC starts as (say) a teenager or an adult, who is not a wolf-child, and hence already knows some fellow humans. In the real world not every encounter with another person is an encounter with them for the first time.

I think everyone who has read your posts on these boards know that your approach to RPGing involves PCs who have no connection to the setting, the events of play, the NPCs etc beyond "man with no name"-type strangers and wanderers. But that is not the typical premise for a "play to find out" game.
 

pemerton

Legend
Alien, I think, is going to have a more specific focus than other games. All you really need is the kind of info they include in their cinematic scenarios; a location, some goals for the PCs that will inform play, and then an inciting event.

So a crew of shippers whose last job fell apart and so they did not get paid come across a derelict ship.

I think that fits the general description of an “adventure” but can still fit the mold of “playing to find out”. Of the two published scenarios I know of for the game, I wouldn’t view either one as being too heavily GM determined. Each of them very much relies on the players to play their characters with their goals in mind.

Neither has a specified victory condition or a set sequence in which the action must take place.
If we are talking about techniques that are different from, say, those that are advocated or presupposed by the 1980s Dragonlance modules, or the 2000s Expedition to the Demonweb Pit module, then I think it is probably not helpful to use the overarching term "adventure" as if this was a self-evident category of thing to prepare.

Those modules I've mentioned absolutely do involve a set sequence of events in which the action is to take place, and they contain advice to the GM on how to bring this about. So do many other modules. Generally that advice amounts to various ways of manipulating or establishing unrevealed backstory so as to ensure that actions taken by the players (via their PCs) don't change the underlying fiction in any fundamental ways.

That is anathema to "playing to find out".

A variant of the set sequence of events is the "node based design" where the events are set but the sequence is determined by player choices. Mystery-type adventures often feature this sort of thing. It likewise does not involve any serious "playing to find out".

If what the "adventure" consists in is just an opening situation, plus a list of possible consequences, then I agree it can support "playing to find out" but at that point we're talking about something quite different from a D&D module. I don't know the Alien scenarios you mention (other than by reputation) but Robin Laws has some examples of this in his Narrator's Book for Hero Wars. I've adapted one to 4e D&D - The Demon of the Red Grove. And many Prince Valiant episodes are like this also.

As I posted just above, the skills needed to establish and then adjudicate this sort of thing are very different from those needed to run Dragonlance or a traditional CoC scenario or Against the Giants. And working on your prep isn't the place that I would advise a new GM to focus on, if s/he wants to run this sort of game.
 

Which leads me to my overriding issue with the OP's article: when the players a) have more specific input into the setting and b) are asked to give character-based hooks to the GM who is then expected to factor those hooks into the story, then - much like a vague plot spoiler for a movie - the players to some extent do know what lies ahead. This to me reduces the sense of mystery and exploration and discovery in the game, and thus correspondingly reduces the fun and enjoyment of the whole thing.

To explain: in step one of the OP's example the GM and players together come up with various named NPCs. As the players thus already know these NPCs the opportunity for authentically roleplaying their introduction to the PCs is gone (and-or for the PCs to entirely fail to meet them or know of their existence). Now if the campaign is intended as a very short episode or a one-off then this sort of in-media-res idea might make sense, but for a longer campaign where exploration and discovery are key elements it seems counterproductive.

No human exists in a vacuum. Everyone knows someone, everyone works for someone, everyone has friends and enemies and places to hang out. Having the players help design these details for their characters helps connect them to the setting.
 

If we are talking about techniques that are different from, say, those that are advocated or presupposed by the 1980s Dragonlance modules, or the 2000s Expedition to the Demonweb Pit module, then I think it is probably not helpful to use the overarching term "adventure" as if this was a self-evident category of thing to prepare.

Those modules I've mentioned absolutely do involve a set sequence of events in which the action is to take place, and they contain advice to the GM on how to bring this about. So do many other modules. Generally that advice amounts to various ways of manipulating or establishing unrevealed backstory so as to ensure that actions taken by the players (via their PCs) don't change the underlying fiction in any fundamental ways.

That is anathema to "playing to find out".

A variant of the set sequence of events is the "node based design" where the events are set but the sequence is determined by player choices. Mystery-type adventures often feature this sort of thing. It likewise does not involve any serious "playing to find out".

If what the "adventure" consists in is just an opening situation, plus a list of possible consequences, then I agree it can support "playing to find out" but at that point we're talking about something quite different from a D&D module. I don't know the Alien scenarios you mention (other than by reputation) but Robin Laws has some examples of this in his Narrator's Book for Hero Wars. I've adapted one to 4e D&D - The Demon of the Red Grove. And many Prince Valiant episodes are like this also.

As I posted just above, the skills needed to establish and then adjudicate this sort of thing are very different from those needed to run Dragonlance or a traditional CoC scenario or Against the Giants. And working on your prep isn't the place that I would advise a new GM to focus on, if s/he wants to run this sort of game.

An adventure is an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity. That is what the characters are experiencing. If you don't run adventures and play adventures what do you call it when you get together and play a table top RPG with a GM and players?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'm not sure what your point it.

I'll reiterate mine: Doing (i) and (ii) well is a skill, that can be learned and practised.
You said that lack of these skills, or lack of confidence with them, is why RPGers turn to published modules. My point is simply that doing so doesn't always help very much; that even in a pre-made module the GM is still going to run up against (i) having to establish opportunities and obstacles (not often, but also not never) and (ii) having to establish consequences for actions (often to very often); because even the best of pre-made modules don't always cover all the bases for (i) and never cover all the bases for (ii) simply due to the unpredictability of player/PC actions and the near-infinite variety thereof.

Put another way, a GM who runs nothing but pre-made modules is still (almost certainly) going to develop these skills over time without realizing it or consciously trying to.

I'm not sure why your response to the OP is to post two paragraphs the first of which is about something quite different from what the OP is talking about, and the second of which is (in general) false and is pure conjecture, rather than based in any experience or evidence of how a "play to find out" game might work.
You define 'a play to find out game' as something very specific. When I see the words 'play to find out' what I think of is mystery solving and (in 5e D&D terms) the exploration pillar - find out what's around the next corner, find out what the vizier is really up to, find out what this magic teacup does, find out who is capturing the slaves and where they're being taken, etc., etc.

This would be similar to a game in which the PC starts as (say) a teenager or an adult, who is not a wolf-child, and hence already knows some fellow humans. In the real world not every encounter with another person is an encounter with them for the first time.
Perhaps, and I see your point there; if the PCs are locals then having these NPCs known and in place at the party's starting-off point makes sense.

The question then becomes one of whether these PCs will stay at and-or ever return to said starting-off point; which - in a space-based game (as per the example) that likely involves loads of travel and discovery of other places that might make better home bases - is an open question. Knowing some street rats on planet Zimba where you started out isn't likely to be of much help if through the evolution of play your home base has become planet Aknet where, on first arrival, you didn't really know anyone.
 

Campbell

Legend
It's play to find out what happens. As in the purpose of playing is to play out high pressure scenarios and see how things shake out. One way of doing that is to place the game in a pressure cooker like Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark where you have all these different factions or individual NPCs with interlocking relationships with each other where any move the player characters make will shift the status quo and effect the way the world sees them. The scope does not necessarily have to be tightly geographically constrained, but it definitely helps to keep things simmering.
 

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