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What is the point of GM's notes?

pemerton

Legend
Like the thread title asks: what is the point of GM's notes?

GM's notes can be pretty varied in their content - descriptions of imaginary places; mechanical labels and categories applied to imaginary people or imaginary phenomena; descriptions or lists of imaginary events, some of which are imagined to have already happened relative to the fiction of play and some of which are imagined as yet to happen relative that fiction.

So there may be more than one answer to this question.

Also, it's obvious that GM's notes are not essential to play a RPG. So any answer has to be more precise than just to facilitate RPG play.

(This thread was provoked by some of what I read here: D&D 5E - Do You Prefer Sandbox or Party Level Areas In Your Game World?. But I thought a new thread seemed warranted.)
 

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Four possibilities immediately spring to life.

1) To set the scaffolding for GM Force to propel or constrain play toward a GM-desired course.

2) For GMs portraying a beloved setting as connected (or disconnected) nodes are uncovered (or funneled to/signposted), as backstory is revealed, and as metaplot churns.

3) To help kindle the GM’s imagination during play so they can provoke/prod players (through their PCs) with premise-addressing, thematically coherent obstacles and inciting situations.

4) To ensure that play is skillful (in the Classic D&D sense) as constrained/mapped adventuring site is explored and “solved” (or not) as a 3D, hazardous puzzle or obstacle course might be.

++++++++

1 is the primordial ooze and constituent parts of Railroading.

2 is either the recipe for neutral sandbox/hexcrawl play or Setting Tourism which typically rides right alongside passive players taking in metaplot imposition (Railroading).

3 is Story Now generation of content to oppose PC goals and find out what the crucible of the opposition turns out.

4 is required for Dungeon Crawling to test Skilled Play.
 

Aldarc

Legend
2 is either the recipe for neutral sandbox/hexcrawl play or Setting Tourism which typically rides right alongside passive players taking in metaplot imposition (Railroading).
While I agree that "metaplot imposition" is often part of Setting Tourism, I'm not necessarily sure if I would call that "railroading." If we were playing, for example, in Middle Earth, then the metaplot of Sauron and the One Ring would likely inform play in the world, if only in the background, but that need not necessarily railroad the players. If we were playing in Eberron, a game setting with lots of various metaplots, then are the players being railroaded if they engage those metaplot threads that are in the GM's Notes or Setting Guides?
 

While I agree that "metaplot imposition" is often part of Setting Tourism, I'm not necessarily sure if I would call that "railroading." If we were playing, for example, in Middle Earth, then the metaplot of Sauron and the One Ring would likely inform play in the world, if only in the background, but that need not necessarily railroad the players. If we were playing in Eberron, a game setting with lots of various metaplots, then are the players being railroaded if they engage those metaplot threads that are in the GM's Notes or Setting Guides?
Let me clarify.

Whenever I say "metaplot imposition" I mean both inputs and outputs. Not just inputs.

So the GM isn't just framing situations around setting-derived conflicts, they're also imposing (or at least deeply curating/constraining) outcomes such that player input becomes muted. Put another way:

Instantiating this setting/metaplot's initiating conditions 100 times with varying groups (but the same GM) is going to arrive at significant homogeneity with respect to either/or/all (a) the endpoint of play or (b) the nature of node resolution or (c) the nature of node resolution is ultimately irrelevant to (a) (its just set-dressing/color). The distribution just don't show sufficient variance to conclude "this emerged organically rather than being imposed."


It doesn't have to be imposed (and when its not, its a legitimate sandbox/hexcrawl)...but when it is, you know it.
 



John Dallman

Explorer
The notes I was using last night were about the mission that the PCs (a spaceship crew) had been assigned by their superiors in the Royal Navy, the vessel they would be escorting to Vesta, who'd be travelling on said vessel, and names of people at the destination. I work these things up beforehand because it's easier than improvisation, especially for the names. I also had a list of groups that they'd be likely to run into.

Some of what happened was what I had anticipated, because it was the sensible thing to do in the circumstances. I really had not expected that they'd want to improvise a ship to recover people from Io, the innermost of Jupiter's large moons, too deep inside Jupiter's radiation belts for their own ship. Said people are actually fairly safe where they are, they're just going to be stuck there for several months until the ship that put them there can get back to pick them up.

Once they decided to stage their own rescue, I had to come up with places they could get the necessary resources (a suitable small asteroid, engines, fuel, etc.). This definitely had me on the hop, but it was all actually practical. Next session, they'll try to actually do it.
 

Okay. I appreciate your clarification. Would you mind providing some concrete examples of what you have in mind here in terms of "setting tourism railroading" with actual settings, metaplots, inputs/outputs, etc.?
You're welcome.

Sure.

Going to make this pithy (time-limited and hopefully there is better explanatory power).

A big published setting like FR has all of the following:

  • High resolution NPCs, organizations, deities
  • High resolution geography/backstory/continuity
  • Conflicts (deeply cosmological but plenty mundane) that intersects with all of that high resolution stuff

A GM buys an Adventuring Path or they come up with their own. Almost invariably there will be the classic "node-based design" as the architecture for play. These nodes will be signposted via exposition dumps or not-so-gentle prodding. There will be an overarching (sometimes 2) metaplot as a byproduct of Conflicts above. This metaplot will have a track with a through-line related to some or all of those nodes, with participant NPCs playing their roles, with contingencies to "re-rail" if the track is perturbed, and a few inescapable endstates and their attendant fallout in mind.

The players role is overwhelmingly passive. They take in the signposts. They take in the well-rendered exposition dumps. They willingly go along when prodded (or push back only marginally or superficially). They game progresses in such a way that (again), if you instantiated it 100 times with different groups, there would be extreme homogeneity.

Yes, things might happen in different order. Some GMs may be better tour-guides (they signpost better, their exposition dumps are better rendered or more theatrical, their NPCs are more vigorously characterized) for the setting than others. Some GMs may deploy their Illusionism better than others. But broadly, the priority of play (to experience the setting and metaplot) and the execution of play yields recognizably homogenous results (in terms of the (a), (b), and (c) in my post above).
 

Let me say 2 other things about "Metaplot Imposition."

1) There is a case where Metaplot Imposition actually doesn't have to be about inputs and outputs. It can be exclusively about the inputs. This case is when two things converge:

a) The table expectation by the players is that play will be driven by their PC's individual dramatic needs and whatever through-line emerges in the way of collective dramatic need. They expect to be the protagonists (not to win...but for play to be centered around their dramatic need(s) ).

b) The GM instead imposes their own metaplot as the relevant arc of play that isn't driven by PC dramatic need(s). This metaplot will have its own NPCs with dramatic needs that are the focal point of play. This subverts PCs as protagonists and, in their place, puts an NPC villain (or villain) as the protagonist(s). The players are deprotagonized.

2) There is a Metaplot Imposition that actually dovetails with my # 4 in my lead post above. In this case, play should be looked at more like a CRPG game where the table is "keeping score" about how well the players "solve" the imposed metaplot. So its basically a form of Skilled Play.
 


Emerikol

Adventurer
Well I create a pretty high resolution campaign setting myself when I create one. That level of detail though is just to provide what I call world level background. When the PCs ask questions, the DM can give sensible consistent answers about rulers, trade routes, wars fought in the past, legends, etc... There is a method to the madness as they say.

Then I create a sandbox somewhere in the world. I often create new sandboxes but keep a campaign setting for a while. Perusing old maps of my old settings is a great nostalgia trip for me. I remember all the fun had in that world and it has a distinct flavor.

The sandbox is a deep dive. I write everything out in great detail. I make a lot of maps. I have many possible adventures. I have villains up to no good that are operating on a calendar. So there are what I call plot threads running through this sandbox. Lots of them. There are also usually a few long buried fairly static tomb like dungeons. There are some enemy tribes like goblins etc.. operating in the area so I detail out their lairs. Sometimes they may be led by some exceptional leader and as such they become a villainous plot thread. Sometimes they are there just to be encountered during wandering monster patrols.

So my PCs can do anything they want. They can stop or start and adventure. They are bound by nothing BUT the reality of the existing sandbox/world. So they can't decide a village isn't there when there is a village there. But they can burn the village down if they want. The group then has a lot of freedom AS THEIR CHARACTERS which is the style of play I prefer. I want my players to be a fusion of themselves and some fantasy archetype they think is cool. So yes player skill matters.
 

The point of GM notes:

You are not as good at improvising as you think you are. It's good to have prep notes and lists to fall back on when caught off guard.

Your memory will fail you. GM notes should also be written after the game to keep a record of important stuff that happened.

I'd say the answer to this is 3-fold (one part topical!):

1) Develop efficient, thematically-provocative notes that can be used for improvisation. For instance:

The Paladin's Alignment statement says "I'll protect innocents from the inequities that beset them."

The Wizard has a Bond that says "I can't resist a magic trinket!"

So...come up with a couple of situations that will test the Wizard, endanger innocents, and hopefully some that intertwine those two (eg the Wizard failing to resist a magic trinket will endanger an innocent...or endanger an innocent in a way that the Wizard will be able to resolve by ignoring or sacrificing a magical trinket...or create an inequity besetting an innocent that is related to magic).

Frame a situation around that or use that as a complication generated by action resolution.

2) Offload overhead onto system or players. Players can help with continuity and keeping track of logistical stuff. Some systems are better than others with integrating and simplifying book-keeping into play (use those systems!).

3) Don't bother thinking "how good am I at improvising." Its irrelevant. Get better! How? Practice (like anything else)!
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
I'd say the answer to this is 3-fold (one part topical!):
I didn't realize he was asking a question.

1) Develop efficient, thematically-provocative notes that can be used for improvisation. For instance:

The Paladin's Alignment statement says "I'll protect innocents from the inequities that beset them."

The Wizard has a Bond that says "I can't resist a magic trinket!"

So...come up with a couple of situations that will test the Wizard, endanger innocents, and hopefully some that intertwine those two (eg the Wizard failing to resist a magic trinket will endanger an innocent...or endanger an innocent in a way that the Wizard will be able to resolve by ignoring or sacrificing a magical trinket...or create an inequity besetting an innocent that is related to magic).

Frame a situation around that or use that as a complication generated by action resolution.
These a good ideas for adding flavor to an NPC whether you prep or improv.

2) Offload overhead onto system or players. Players can help with continuity and keeping track of logistical stuff. Some systems are better than others with integrating and simplifying book-keeping into play (use those systems!).
Or just take a few notes. It's not a big deal.

3) Don't bother thinking "how good am I at improvising." Its irrelevant. Get better! How? Practice (like anything else)!
Well even in a well prepped campaign, there will always be moments where you have to improv something but hopefully the well laid out campaign world and sandbox will inform your decisions and make life easier. You know the answer to a lot more questions and can answer as opposed to just make it up. The improv might add that NPC's opinion about that information.

I agree that whatever style of play you choose that practice will make you better.
 

pemerton

Legend
The notes I was using last night were about the mission that the PCs (a spaceship crew) had been assigned by their superiors in the Royal Navy, the vessel they would be escorting to Vesta, who'd be travelling on said vessel, and names of people at the destination. I work these things up beforehand because it's easier than improvisation, especially for the names. I also had a list of groups that they'd be likely to run into.
Are you able to elaborate what the point of the notes was? Were you describing some events in advance, or the outcomes of some action declarations?

Or something else?

(For clarity: I understand the point of a list of names. It's the other stuff I'm curious about.)

The point of GM notes:

You are not as good at improvising as you think you are. It's good to have prep notes and lists to fall back on when caught off guard.
What do you mean by falling back on prep notes? What does this look like? What work do the notes do, in play, when a GM falls back on them?
 

pemerton

Legend
There is a Metaplot Imposition that actually dovetails with my # 4 in my lead post above. In this case, play should be looked at more like a CRPG game where the table is "keeping score" about how well the players "solve" the imposed metaplot. So its basically a form of Skilled Play.
Is there a RPG system you can point to that exemplifies this? Should I be thinking about the escape from Averoigne in X2 Castle Amber as an example?
 

I didn't realize he was asking a question.

"You're not as good at improvising as you think you are" and "your memory will fail you."

My post = solutions for this.

These a good ideas for adding flavor to an NPC whether you prep or improv.

Agreed.

Or just take a few notes. It's not a big deal.

Orrrrrrrrrrrrrrr...one might do the things I wrote if they want to reduce their preparation overhead (only one of the benefits).

Well even in a well prepped campaign, there will always be moments where you have to improv something but hopefully the well laid out campaign world and sandbox will inform your decisions and make life easier. You know the answer to a lot more questions and can answer as opposed to just make it up. The improv might add that NPC's opinion about that information.

I agree that whatever style of play you choose that practice will make you better.

Quite true!
 

Is there a RPG system you can point to that exemplifies this? Should I be thinking about the escape from Averoigne in X2 Castle Amber as an example?

I think that is absolutely the right place to start.

But taken further, I'd say when you look at the subculture that has accreted around Pathfinder Adventure Paths (and now 5e), and you see people recount their play, there is a clear element of (a) championing the efficacy of achieving the Win Con or (b) lamenting it I (if the GM thought the AP was poorly conceived/executed in terms of testing Skilled Play) or (c) lamenting it II (if the GM thought their players did a crap job of executing their Ops to achieve the AP Win Con...which...I'll note, often doesn't involve the GM reflecting on their own potential fault at executing their job in presenting the AP!).

There is a sort of "Abstract High Score" culture around this (akin to the 80s culture of Arcades and, of course, D&D dungeon crawling). I'm sure you're not familiar with it, but there is a "Speed Run" culture in modern Video Games that is another good analog.

The fact that play is a complete Railroad is irrelevant. What is relevant is "who can achieve the Win Con of the AP the best/quickest/with least resource expenditure or resource loss."
 

Marc_C

Solo Role Playing
I think that is absolutely the right place to start.

But taken further, I'd say when you look at the subculture that has accreted around Pathfinder Adventure Paths (and now 5e), and you see people recount their play, there is a clear element of (a) championing the efficacy of achieving the Win Con or (b) lamenting it I (if the GM thought the AP was poorly conceived/executed in terms of testing Skilled Play) or (c) lamenting it II (if the GM thought their players did a crap job of executing their Ops to achieve the AP Win Con...which...I'll note, often doesn't involve the GM reflecting on their own potential fault at executing their job in presenting the AP!).

There is a sort of "Abstract High Score" culture around this (akin to the 80s culture of Arcades and, of course, D&D dungeon crawling).

The fact that play is a complete Railroad is irrelevant. What is relevant is "who can achieve the Win Con of the AP the best/quickest/with least resource expenditure or resource loss."
Reminds me of the behaviour during RPGA AD&D with tournament modules (scoring points at the end to evaluate the performance of the party).
 

Marc_C

Solo Role Playing
What do you mean by falling back on prep notes? What does this look like? What work do the notes do, in play, when a GM falls back on them?
I don't have a method. I just read my notes, when stuck, and they trigger something not written in them. They act as conduit. It's intuitive.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
The fact that play is a complete Railroad is irrelevant. What is relevant is "who can achieve the Win Con of the AP the best/quickest/with least resource expenditure or resource loss."
It's definitely a railroad but the AP is not necessarily at fault. It's perfectly fine to have linked scenarios. If that is all you have and the expectation is strong you go on to the next one then that is very railroady. If I took an AP and put it into a sandbox then the AP would no longer be a railroad. You could continue the AP or go do something else.

Also even in a railroad, there is some character decision making. Choosing to fight or run. Exploring one area before another. What you do between AP's in terms of stocking supplies and making preparations.

I see the AP approach as something popular with beginners. It takes very little DM work and the players can learn the basics of skilled play. It's just best if they can eventually go on to a sandbox as they'll enjoy it even more I think. I probably did the equivalent of an AP when I was really you. I'd do B2, then the Slavers A1-A4 and then the G1-3 Giants/D1-3 Drow/Q1 Demonweb series. Somewhere in there I might squeeze in White Plume mountain or at the end Tomb of Horrors. It's not what I like now but for beginners it's not a terrible way to learn the game.
 

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