Tone, theme and trust in players

pemerton

Legend
Here's a recent series of RPGing experiences I've had, GMing Torchbearer:

Each Torchbearer player needs to choose an item of "raiment" (clothing) for their PC. The PC's raiment does not occupy an inventory slot; and when adjudicating the costs and consequences of travel - a big deal in the game, measured in "toll" - the PC's raiment can absorb one point of "toll" for free.

In our game, the player of the Dwarven Outcast Golin chose galoshes as his raiment. Given that he also started with shoes, and given that Torchbearer doesn't really have rubber, in my mind at least his "galoshes" are more like gaiters.

Each player also needs to choose a Belief for their PC. Golin's Belief is An explosive solution is a good solution; and in a departure from standard PC build rules I let him start with some alchemical explosive powders. Each player also chooses their PC's "Wise", a field of specialised knowledge: Golin is Explosives-wise.

These two choices - galoshes, and an obsession with explosives - are obviously not that serious; comical, even. If I'd been in charge of building the PC, the character would definitely have been more serious.

A few sessions into the campaign, though, and Golin's explosions drive a few key moments of play: he uses his flashbangs and smoke bombs to defeat stirges; and his obsession with explosives also causes one, nearly killing his fellow adventurer (who is permanently changed as a result).

And in the following session, the weather roll for the PCs' journey indicated a storm, and we were calculating the toll, and the PCs had already worn out their shoes to avoid past toll; and then Golin's player calls out "Galoshes!" - and so this barefoot Dwarf, trudging through the pounding rain, has really dry ankles, and is less worn out than he otherwise would have been. That's an image, and it's actually not much more absurd than some parts of The Hobbit.

It's not what the fiction would have looked like if I was playing solitaire, but that's not the point. The point is that it's the players' fiction too. They can create vivid, memorable moments. In my view a good RPG system - in its PCs build rules and its action resolution rules - is one that makes this happen reliably and often.
 

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I was running Apocalypse World and one of the characters (the Battlebabe) had gone into a dark underground tunnel, failed a roll to navigate through and ended up in a pitch-black confrontation with something trying to stab her through the tunnel walls with it's spiky mutated roots.

She announced that she was going to focus totally on her memory of the hardhold, open her brain and step through the psychic maelstrom back there.

I'd never envisaged the psychic maelstrom behaving or acting like that, or of a character being capable of using it in that way. but it wasn't outside the bounds of barfing forth apocalyptica, everyone thought it was super cool and so we hit the resolution mechanics - I called for an 'Open your Brain' move and the player rolled the dice.

And yes, they hit the roll and made it back, and we'd learned something new and amazing about the psychic maelstrom in that place and time, which we wouldn't have learned if I had sole authority for curating the fiction.
 

payn

Legend
I dont mind these things in a bespoke and/or particular experience. I think it can really gravitate the group towards the source material well. However, anything over a one shot to 5 session type of game and it starts to feel a bit one dimensional. Like watching an episodic television program that is overly formulaic. Waiting for that point in the session one of the players screams out, "DYNO-MITE" is just a bit killer to my immersion and enthusiasm to keep playing.

I think BIFTs in 5E was sort of like this. Folks who really lean into it get the "DYNO-MITE" experience in a long running campaign. Other folks just quickly forget about BIFTs because its foreign to D&D play, and there are no mechanical teeth so to speak. In a long term game I much prefer a general short hand, like alignment, then something so specific. I like the freedom to take the RP in any direction the players choose organically for their character. Let the setting and ruleset ground the tone and theme of the game in a general sense. YMMV.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
It's not what the fiction would have looked like if I was playing solitaire, but that's not the point. The point is that it's the players' fiction too. They can create vivid, memorable moments. In my view a good RPG system - in its PCs build rules and its action resolution rules - is one that makes this happen reliably and often.
Honestly, none of the games I've GMed have looked exactly the way they would have if I were playing solitaire (or writing a novel, which seems close to your intended meaning). Even the ones where I wouldn't say now I was GMing well reflected the choices, preferences, and input of the players, and have--in a gradually increasing way, as I've gotten better at GMing--led reliably to vivid, memorable moments.
 
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hawkeyefan

Legend
I’ve been in enough games (and seen many discussions) where player ideas were shot down out of hand to know I don’t like it. “That doesn’t fit the setting” or “that’s silly, this is a gritty game” and so on.

I think if you’re really embracing what RPGs have to offer, then you’ll be less likely to shoot down a player’s idea in favor of your own. I’m not saying it should never be done, but the default approach should be “how can we make this work”.

Because the result… the meshing of ideas between participants… that could be argued to be the whole point of RPGs.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I dont mind these things in a bespoke and/or particular experience. I think it can really gravitate the group towards the source material well. However, anything over a one shot to 5 session type of game and it starts to feel a bit one dimensional. Like watching an episodic television program that is overly formulaic.
In some cases, yes. In others, one dimension might be all you need. :)

More seriously, having those hooks to draw on when starting out can serve to get the character going nicely, allowing time for other hooks and quirks etc. to arise as play goes on and the character develops. And, as @pemerton notes, can also occasionally provide amusing and entertaining moments later. Love it!
Waiting for that point in the session one of the players screams out, "DYNO-MITE" is just a bit killer to my immersion and enthusiasm to keep playing.
Again, it depends. I've seen many a character where the players cheer and-or laugh when its "DYNO-MIIIITE"-equivalent moment arrives. But yes, there's been others where all we do is groan every time...not everything works out as planned. :)
I think BIFTs in 5E was sort of like this. Folks who really lean into it get the "DYNO-MITE" experience in a long running campaign. Other folks just quickly forget about BIFTs because its foreign to D&D play, and there are no mechanical teeth so to speak. In a long term game I much prefer a general short hand, like alignment, then something so specific. I like the freedom to take the RP in any direction the players choose organically for their character. Let the setting and ruleset [***] ground the tone and theme of the game in a general sense. YMMV.
Agreed, though I'd add in "and, to some extent, the other characters" where I put the "[***]". The characters in the group can and IME do go a long way toward setting the tone of play.

That said, the 'specific' pieces can be very useful for getting started. I just don't want to be bound to them for the character's whole career.
 

pemerton

Legend
I’ve been in enough games (and seen many discussions) where player ideas were shot down out of hand to know I don’t like it. “That doesn’t fit the setting” or “that’s silly, this is a gritty game” and so on.

I think if you’re really embracing what RPGs have to offer, then you’ll be less likely to shoot down a player’s idea in favor of your own. I’m not saying it should never be done, but the default approach should be “how can we make this work”.

Because the result… the meshing of ideas between participants… that could be argued to be the whole point of RPGs.
Yeah, pretty much this.
 

jdrakeh

Front Range Warlock
I am currently editing/proofreading a project that deals with these things in great detail. It's shaping up to be very useful (for me, anyhow). If you're a fan of GM advice books, this is definitely one that should be on your shelf (and I'm not just saying that because I'm working on it).
 

pemerton

Legend
I am currently editing/proofreading a project that deals with these things in great detail. It's shaping up to be very useful (for me, anyhow). If you're a fan of GM advice books, this is definitely one that should be on your shelf (and I'm not just saying that because I'm working on it).
Are you able to say anything more about this without violating contractual and professional obligations? Would the book appeal to someone with a more-or-less Forge-y outlook?
 

jdrakeh

Front Range Warlock
Are you able to say anything more about this without violating contractual and professional obligations? Would the book appeal to someone with a more-or-less Forge-y outlook?

I can confidently say that it covers both "traditional" games and "story" games. The author (jim pinto) is, perhaps, best known for his GMless Protocol games. He was also the lead developer on World's Largest Dungeon for AEG, though. I can think of few people better qualified to write a book like this.
 

MGibster

Legend
I’ve been in enough games (and seen many discussions) where player ideas were shot down out of hand to know I don’t like it. “That doesn’t fit the setting” or “that’s silly, this is a gritty game” and so on.
I think it's best practice to work with a player to incorporate their ideas into the game where possible. If a player is willing to work with their character concept to fit the game I'm happy to work with them to help make that happen.
 

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