GNS Theorists wanted: Making my 13thAge and Sentinel Comics games better

Eric V

Hero
Full disclosure: I have not fully read up on what all the various terms mean in GNS Theory, but I am doing so (and interested in doing so, starting with the thread on if 5e is gamist, to the so-called (+) thread about jargon).

I have been running a 13th Age game for over a year now, and it's running into some trouble...but damn if I can't put a finger on exactly why. So rather than blather on with session-by-session reports to look for clues, I thought I might ask some GNS experts who are familiar with the game to give some advice on what kind of game 13th Age is according to the theory, and therefore how it might best be approached by my group. I know that @hawkeyefan , @pemerton , @Campbell and others have said that their games improved by getting a better understanding of what kind of game something was trying to be (sorry if that's phrased clumsily).

Similarly, I really want to run a Sentinel Comics RPG mini-campaign this year. The rulebook reads pretty differently from, say, the 5e PHB, with players deciding a lot of things GMs normally do...and it sounds great! So...same question as above for 13th Age: What kind of game is Sentinel Comics RPG in GNS theory, and what would be the subsequent best way to run it?

Thanks in advance for any insight.
 

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pemerton

Legend
I've read the 13th Age rulebook. I've not played it. There are a few reasons for that. The biggest is probably time. The biggest one that is relevant to 13th Age is that, from my point of view, it doesn't have a proper framework for resolving non-combat action declarations.

I've read your OP twice and I don't think you say exactly what the issues are you've encountered. I'll have a stab in this post at conjecturing some issues and saying a little bit about them. Apologies if my conjectures go astray and the thoughts are unhelpful!

I think 13th Age creates pretty colourful PCs. The "skill"/"background" system (I can't remember it's proper label, sorry) is especially good for this. There is also the colour of the Icons, and each PC's one unique thing.

But to make play "go" it seems to rely quite heavily on the GM. Which has the potential to cause collisions between the players trying to bring out their colourful PCs, and the GM's ideas about what is going on. Any heavy reliance on pre-authored dungeons or NPC cabals/conspiracies might only reinforce this.

One possible way in: how are you using the Icon rolls? It seem like the GM can use them to leverage the players play of their PCs, or the players can use them to leverage the GM in framing scenes and establishing consequences. If there's a mismatch there - in expectations, in methods - then I can see that might cause problems. And trying to fix that mismatch - by talking as a group, and/or by changing techniques - might help.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I'd have to dig in deeper, but from what I have seen you should pretty much just follow the instructions provided. Both seem to be very grounded in helping players feel the fantasy of playing a particular type of character and reinforcing who we know them to be. In both cases the games seem to be encouraging GMs and players to be in cahoots for what they think would lead to the best story. Both seem to have pretty decent instructions on how to go about that.

I'll have some more thoughts once I'm able to dig in deeper.
 

pemerton

Legend
One possible way in: how are you using the Icon rolls? It seem like the GM can use them to leverage the players play of their PCs, or the players can use them to leverage the GM in framing scenes and establishing consequences. If there's a mismatch there - in expectations, in methods - then I can see that might cause problems. And trying to fix that mismatch - by talking as a group, and/or by changing techniques - might help.
In both cases the games seem to be encouraging GMs and players to be in cahoots for what they think would lead to the best story. Both seem to have pretty decent instructions on how to go about that.
@Eric V - there might be some synergy between the two things I've quoted. (Or not . . .)
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
Full disclosure: I have not fully read up on what all the various terms mean in GNS Theory, but I am doing so (and interested in doing so, starting with the thread on if 5e is gamist, to the so-called (+) thread about jargon).

I have been running a 13th Age game for over a year now, and it's running into some trouble...but damn if I can't put a finger on exactly why. So rather than blather on with session-by-session reports to look for clues, I thought I might ask some GNS experts who are familiar with the game to give some advice on what kind of game 13th Age is according to the theory, and therefore how it might best be approached by my group. I know that @hawkeyefan , @pemerton , @Campbell and others have said that their games improved by getting a better understanding of what kind of game something was trying to be (sorry if that's phrased clumsily).

Similarly, I really want to run a Sentinel Comics RPG mini-campaign this year. The rulebook reads pretty differently from, say, the 5e PHB, with players deciding a lot of things GMs normally do...and it sounds great! So...same question as above for 13th Age: What kind of game is Sentinel Comics RPG in GNS theory, and what would be the subsequent best way to run it?

Thanks in advance for any insight.

I'm unfortunately not really familiar with either of those games, and I'm not sure which other posters may be.

If you have some specific examples you'd like to discuss or questions about games that lean more narrative in general, I'd be happy to offer whatever take on it I can. The little I know about these two particular games, I think they both have narrative elements.

Fire some questions or pain points out and I can try and offer some answers. Though I think the others you tagged may have more useful insight.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Full disclosure: I have not fully read up on what all the various terms mean in GNS Theory, but I am doing so (and interested in doing so, starting with the thread on if 5e is gamist, to the so-called (+) thread about jargon).

I have been running a 13th Age game for over a year now, and it's running into some trouble...but damn if I can't put a finger on exactly why. So rather than blather on with session-by-session reports to look for clues, I thought I might ask some GNS experts who are familiar with the game to give some advice on what kind of game 13th Age is according to the theory, and therefore how it might best be approached by my group. I know that @hawkeyefan , @pemerton , @Campbell and others have said that their games improved by getting a better understanding of what kind of game something was trying to be (sorry if that's phrased clumsily).

Similarly, I really want to run a Sentinel Comics RPG mini-campaign this year. The rulebook reads pretty differently from, say, the 5e PHB, with players deciding a lot of things GMs normally do...and it sounds great! So...same question as above for 13th Age: What kind of game is Sentinel Comics RPG in GNS theory, and what would be the subsequent best way to run it?

Thanks in advance for any insight.
Not really how it works. Being able to honestly identify your creative agenda and then apply your own analysis to get to your own solution is how it works. Advice from outside that you haven't done your own work on and internalized isn't going to magically solve problems.

At best, given some examples of play and honest back and forth, you could be pointed at ideas that could help, but it's still your journey.
 

aramis erak

Legend
I can only speak to Sentinel Comics. The mechanics are indeed combat focused. Outside of combat, pretty much, it's almost all help moves or overcome moves, maybe a heal move or a spawn move (both of which are not basic moves).

So it's a matter of not calling for excessive complication strengths nor too many overcomes.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I ran 13th Age for a four and a half year campaign that ended fairly successfully. I ran it similar to how I run 5e, but that's not particular close to how others run 5e.

Talking GNS (which is not my strong point) and related theory, it's more of a high concept sim than anything else - it was written as a "love letter" to D&D by two of the lead designers of previous editions, so that's a good starting point.

But the default amount of player authorial voice seems a lot higher than what I see in traditional D&D. Between the background system and OUT (One Unique Thing), we already have a level of definition that defies a simulation-first view at all times. Especially as the examples show that it is expected that these not only define the character but add into the world. And the rules explicitly give permission to hack the rules in order to match the character concept wanted, things like "sure, trade out a feature from another class".

The default setting also only being defined in broad strokes, designed to evoke the imagination and give ideas about adventures - "full of hooks and awesome!" as I've said before give a fertile ground for the players to flesh out around their characters without contradiction, and when I ran I embraced that. Following the "This is true AND...", I also took the PCs as subject matter experts for whatever they were focused on. While I hadn't come across the phrase yet in my DM journey, what I practiced a lot of was "ask pointed questions and act on the results". (Thank you Masks, a PbtA, for so succinctly summing up what I do.)

Rituals are another example - magic can literally do anything you can convince the DM is appropriate for the level and type of magic you are converting. The only place magic needs to be rigerously defined is combat, harking back to those D&D simulation combat roots.

Even the characters are left with room to flesh out that a full simultation game would cover. At a point in a Living Dungeon one of my players asked if any of the races had darkvision or the equivalent. So I turned it around and asked it right back to each representitive of a race. Turns out of the races we had, the only one that could see in the dark was the Dwarfforged, but that was because they literally had lamps built into their eyes, so it also made them poor at hiding in the dark. Beautiful, that's true. (And later got fleshed out that dwarforged could communicate via lamp semaphore (cough*binary).

The next step is more in-world, with the Icon relationships. As the icons are the movers and shakers in the campaign world (or should be - if you keep asking "why" enough times it should always lead back to action between two or more), and the players have connections and contacts with them - even if indirectly or nebulously - it makes the characters important well before they would be in a D&D game due to level and tales of heroics. They are very much the heroes of the story, and the mechanics supports that at even low character levels.

Icons in some ways are like fronts in a PbtA game. They are out there, all of the characters have connections and relationships to them, and most everything can be eventually tracked back to them. Some DMs would just run with the icon relation rolls to direct the action of the whole session while at the time I was running I was in more of a D&D mode and had more traditional adventure prep going. If I ran it now, having run more systems, that would likely ease up.

Talking about prep, my first page of my session prep document had each character, their backgrounds, a list of important features they took so I could make sure they showed up, and a list of the icons broken down by the charactrer relationships with them. The icons with no relationships never really made any more than background entries in the campaign, while the heavily featured ones were recurrent and behind most of the plot at some degree of separation (or not in the higher levels).

(Icon related aside: One of the characters sold his name in a goblin market to recover soemthing quite important to his Koru Behemoth-dwelling clan. The High Druid, whom he had a strong positive relationship with, ended up killing herself onscreen in the creation of what will be a new Axis Mundi/World Tree that will shepherd in the 14th Age. He was very tied to that event, and his OUT was "Emissary of the Koru". At the end of the campaign, we realized that he was perfectly set up be step into becoming an icon in the new age, down to finding the mantle/archetype of what he does more important that his name. Okay, tangent done.)

Trying to steer this back to GNS theory. While often simulationist (in combat) and narrativist (elsewhere) to play to the respective strengths and game expectations of each, there are gamist underpinings to just make it work smoothly and in a streamlined way. Take a look at the feature/spell recovery model. While there's some fun variations, it's basically at-will, per-encounter, or per full-heal-up. But the full-heal-up isn't under character control, it's based on four good battles. Could be a three week trek across a hostile jungle, or a morning in a dungeon. There's no five minute workdays, and resource attrition in built-in in a way that supports a wide range of how a DM runs automatically.

Oh, and that reminds me about if the players do agree they really need a full heal up early. They can do so, but at the cost of a campaign setback. Bam, there's no mincing here. As a DM I personally would work out stakes with them before they decide yes or no. And campaign setbacks are also the currency for a full and successful retreat, including dead bodies. So a retreat is always possible, it just that campaign-wise there will be repercussions for it.

I hope this is helpful in some small way, even if it's just seeing places I acknowledge I'd run differently now that I have a wider experience. Since you asked specifically about GNS I have to say that what little advice in that scope I could give is that the game can play in different S vs N ascendant modes depending if it's in or out of combat, with some gamist rules to keep everything on track and working.

And the only thing I can say about Sentinel Comics RPG is that I want to play it as well.

Best of luck and good gaming.

EDIT: wurds hard.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I have been running a 13th Age game for over a year now, and it's running into some trouble...but damn if I can't put a finger on exactly why.

So, even a magnificent theorist cannot diagnose your problems without any information on the symptoms.

Don't put a finger on why - start with pointing at what. What leads you to say the game is running into trouble?

Similarly, I really want to run a Sentinel Comics RPG mini-campaign this year. The rulebook reads pretty differently from, say, the 5e PHB, with players deciding a lot of things GMs normally do...and it sounds great! So...same question as above for 13th Age: What kind of game is Sentinel Comics RPG in GNS theory, and what would be the subsequent best way to run it?

Having run SCRPG, while I am sure that a person steeped in GNS theory would be able to analyze it, I don't think it was created from a very GNS-centered point of view. It is a post-GNS game, so GNS is perhaps not the best tool to figure out how to run the thing.

Edit to add: Someone has suggested I was throwing shade with this last bit. Not at all. But no single model is the end-all, be-all of analysis, though. Each model has places where it is convenient to use, and places where it becomes awkward. It is pretty easy to analyze solar system orbits in spherical coordinates centered on the Sun. You can do it using rectangular coordinates centered on Earth, but it is much harder.
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
So, even a magnificent theorist cannot diagnose your problems without any information on the symptoms.

Don't put a finger on why - start with pointing at what. What leads you to say the game is running into trouble?



Having run SCRPG, while I am sure that a person steeped in GNS theory would be able to analyze it, I don't think it was created from a very GNS-centered point of view. It is a post-GNS game, so GNS is perhaps not the best tool to figure out how to run the thing.
Can you expound on what changed post-GNS that has invalidated GNS so completely?
 




Eric V

Hero
So, first of all, thanks to everyone who has answered. [TedLasso]Appreciate y'all.[/TedLasso]

I hate being vague, but one of the reasons I was interested in a GNS-type description of the game is because I otherwise can't quite put my finger on why it doesn't seem to be working (or working at 75%, let's say); it's why I wondered if it was a matter of approach vis-a-vis the game design that I might be missing.

So, I have been playing RPGs since 1e, and mostly DMing. Very traditional stuff (buy a mod, players run characters through it, etc.); fun, for what it's worth, for sure. Our group got a little disillusioned with 5e, and was looking to try something else (or at least, I was looking to GM something else). It's very difficult to get them to learn another game, even one as similar as 13th Age. Eventually, we did though.

It went well at first, as new games tend to do, and then...I don't know. It started to feel like the "traditional way" of doing things wasn't the best "fit." A lot of what @Blue mentions above rings true to me; the idea of unique backgrounds, One Unique Things, and use of Icon dice seem to lend themselves to what (I believe) @pemerton refers to as "player-authored quests." I expected a more shared worldbuilding type of experience...but it may be that decades of playing a particular way have left my players less than able to do this sort of thing (is this what Edwards meant when he referred to "brain damage?"), and I was hoping the GNS theory also had some applications to make each of the G, N, and S really "pop" when playing...and maybe that would help me out which elements I should lean into in a game of 13thAge.

I do know that I feel like running it like "standard" D&D doesn't feel quite right...but I am also not sure what the alternative is. The mechanics behind freeform backgrounds, OUTs, and Icon Relationships seem to have few limits, which is good in theory, but, sort of like how companies that give unlimited vacation tend to have employees actually take less vacation time, the open-ness of things may end up being constraining somehow?

I mean, it could just be my players. I just want to know that I gave it my best go, and am open to the idea that GNS theory might open my mind to a different approach if my current one isn't a best fit for the way the game is designed.
 

pemerton

Legend
I have been playing RPGs since 1e, and mostly DMing. Very traditional stuff (buy a mod, players run characters through it, etc.); fun, for what it's worth, for sure. Our group got a little disillusioned with 5e, and was looking to try something else (or at least, I was looking to GM something else). It's very difficult to get them to learn another game, even one as similar as 13th Age. Eventually, we did though.

It went well at first, as new games tend to do, and then...I don't know. It started to feel like the "traditional way" of doing things wasn't the best "fit."

<snip>

I expected a more shared worldbuilding type of experience...but it may be that decades of playing a particular way have left my players less than able to do this sort of thing

<snip>

I do know that I feel like running it like "standard" D&D doesn't feel quite right...but I am also not sure what the alternative is. The mechanics behind freeform backgrounds, OUTs, and Icon Relationships seem to have few limits, which is good in theory, but, sort of like how companies that give unlimited vacation tend to have employees actually take less vacation time, the open-ness of things may end up being constraining somehow?

I mean, it could just be my players. I just want to know that I gave it my best go, and am open to the idea that GNS theory might open my mind to a different approach if my current one isn't a best fit for the way the game is designed.
I'm getting the impression that your players aren't quite bringing the creativity you would like to the game. Is that fair?

One possibility: they're just tired. It happens to all of us!

But another possibility: they're not quite sure what they're being invited to do, or how to do it. That happens to all of us too!

So I'd probably focus on one thing for each player (and maybe the same thing for each player if that makes it easier): backgrounds, OUT, or Icons. And then get them to tell you one thing that their PC wanted from that, and has never yet got. Make a list. Then think about how to put those things at stake, in an immediate sort of way. And lead with that. (I don't know how friendly 13th Age is to improvising, and how comfortable you are with that - which will affect details of implementation.)

If the players lean into that, then you can try and build on it. If they don't seem excited by it, well . . . nothing venture, nothing gained!
 

niklinna

the old standard boots
So I'd probably focus on one thing for each player (and maybe the same thing for each player if that makes it easier): backgrounds, OUT, or Icons. And then get them to tell you one thing that their PC wanted from that, and has never yet got. Make a list. Then think about how to put those things at stake, in an immediate sort of way. And lead with that. (I don't know how friendly 13th Age is to improvising, and how comfortable you are with that - which will affect details of implementation.)

If the players lean into that, then you can try and build on it. If they don't seem excited by it, well . . . nothing venture, nothing gained!
And, relative to what @Blue said, when you prompt your players for such things, or for things that might normally be established by the GM in more traditional play, they might not believe you're giving them that authority, or they might need a little time to come up with something like that on the spot, so be sure to give them that time (at first; they'll get faster with practice).

If, on the other hand, they clearly don't want to be contributing in that particular way, you can let it slide.

Edit: Fixed a typo.
 
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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
To echo @pemerton and @niklinna , it's a big mental change for players used to traditional games like D&D to even think in this manner. I know using some of these techniques in a 5e game I ran afoul of a player who was "follow the adventure the DM puts in front of us". And genuinely was attempting to be helpful - when he DMs he usually does from modules (vs. my homebrew) and players going far off-track with those can be a real issue. But it's hard to do even a more tranditional snadbox, much less more player-directed toward their goals, with that focus.

The flip side is during session 0 of a current 5e game I'm running I had let them know this and not sure how much of a mental change it had made. But I had a player from that 13th Age game, and the first request was "hey, I want to play a druid but have something concrete to connect to. Can the world be the body of a dead god and the moon her skull?" None of this impacted any of my (lightly planned, broad strokes only) plans so I was like "sure". That shocked the other players out of their complacence. Suddenly it came up that the Dwarves were genocided, that halflings and drow were created races for by the Imperium, elves live on reservations (but have actual control over them) and lots of other changes to the world. It made the characters richer, but also has drastically affected the direction the campaign has grown.

But even with that start it was a continual push to get them to continue to think they had the authority just to say "I think we should go do this" if it wasn't something I as DM had fed them. Made harder I think in that there's another 5e game with a good amount of overlap with one of the my players as DM who is running a module and it's often "oh, and here's your adventure of the episode".
 



Jay Murphy1

Meterion, Mastermind of Time !
" While often simulationist (in combat) and narrativist (elsewhere) to play to the respective strengths and game expectations of each, there are gamist underpinings to just make it work smoothly and in a streamlined way. Take a look at the feature/spell recovery model. " This does not look like any theory to me, just labels as stand-ins for actual meaning. But this statement nears closer to an explanation to what GNS Theory actually means then the many pages written on trying to explain what these labels mean and how they constitute an actual theory. When you speak of simulation you mean combat in the game and narrativist just means everything else you do in the game. Gamist is just a label for "the rules". Not really a theory, more of a color code for what kind of game you prefer. "Is their much combat, I don't like games with a lot of combat?" "Do I have to do all that silly voice acting? I just want to roll some dice." "Are the rules easy to learn? I don't want to learn something new, can't we just play DnD?"

So to answer the OP. Figure out what kind of game you like to play and play that. How to play better? Really just play as much as you can and think about it as much as you can. Roleplaying games are just thought experiments writ large, and thinking about your play, what makes it good, what makes it bad, can be done anytime you want. Action, reflection, action, reflection, rinse and repeat.
 

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