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What is the point of GM's notes?

kenada

Legend
Supporter
The "protagonist" style play is really hard to explain on paper, which I think is what is triggering a lot of posters dismissing it, or not fully grasping it, or assuming it won't work for them. While I think it's true that this style won't appeal to all players, it does have to be tried to be fully understood. A common complaint is that protagonist play will break immersion and can't create the sense of a living breathing world.

This was a concern I had as well, but the opposite occured. This style makes the world come sharply into focus. The GM not having notes or a created world somehow brings a heightened sense of reality. I'm really not sure why this occurs, as it seems counter-intuitive. Because of the collaborative approach, no one can coast and all participants must stay alert and fully engaged. This is also the downside. Creative juices have to keep flowing.
I think a concrete example would be helpful. I’m going to take a shot at that using my game and our Scum and Villainy game.

In my OSE game, the PCs started the session by having a planning meeting. Because they know that picking fights imprudently is a surefire way to get killed, they don’t want to engage the ghouls directly. Instead, they’ve decided to do two things: procure a lot of oil that they can use to light and burn the ghouls after luring them into their trap, and hire retainers to beef up their numbers.

After deciding on that course of action, the PCs headed to town to see who they could hire. Knowing they were planning to do this, I had prepared some potential candidates. If they had just sprung it on me, I could have improvised it, but the effect would have been the same (the referee authored the NPCs). I narrated the travel montage, and they found themselves at the market square.

Some of the PCs decided to go shopping for supplies while others went over to check the notice board to see what had been posted. They found a couple of notices that looked interesting. One was for a ranger, and another was a fighter. I improvised that the ranger notice said that the ranger would contact you if you took the note, and he did, stepping out behind someone. The ranger is a particular, foxlike person who stood about two feet tall. That scene played out, and we moved on to the scene with the fighter.

The scene with the fighter is the one I mentioned in my previous post. I rolled randomly and picked out a couple of NPCs to join him. In addition to Jean (the fighter), there was Marie (the acrobat) and Sin Sū Ten Bren (the illusionist). Here, I used my prep to set the scene. Jean is Lawful while the others are Chaotic. Sin is straightforward and friendly while Jean is stern. Marie had just showed up for a drink and sat there because it was the only place she could sit and see the exits while keeping her back to the wall.

The PCs decided to join them, and they chatted with the NPCs. Sin proffered their services, and noted (much to the consternation of the barbarian) that she was an illusionist. The PCs and the NPCs chatted about various things. The bard was quite surprised that Marie was even taller than he is, and he’s pretty tall. Eventually, after chatting a while (I’d say real time this played out between 30–60 minutes), the party decided to hire Jean and Marie but not Sin. We stopped there, just after the bard gave Marie some money to buy better gear, and she left through the window.

In our Scum and Villainy game, we had a mission to retrieve a crystal. I (as a player in this game) proposed we infiltrate a party. I would seduce the person who owned the crystal while the rest of the crew would sneak inside and steal it. I would be responsible for sabotaging the network and getting any intel we needed. And that’s what happened. The GM hadn’t planned this. The players said this is what happens, and then it happened.

At the party, I bailed on the plan and ended up with someone else instead. While I was having fun, I got a call from my crew: they need the passcode to the vault. I’m supposed to have gotten it. Whoops. We’re in trouble, right? Nope. Scum and Villainy (being Forged in the Dark) has a mechanic that lets me (the player) say how things are — the flashback. It turns out I had met with a disgruntled guard prior to the party and paid him off to get the codes. I gave the code to the crew, who could continue their part of the job.

Some more stuff happens, and we have another situation. They got the crystal, but they’re worried about making too much noise getting it out. It’s pretty bulky, and it’s occasionally clanging off the sides of the ducts as they crawl through them. Doing my best Han Solo impersonation, I go over to the intercom and send out a compound-wide request for sexy maids to come up to the roof. Also, psht psht, there’s some interference (shoots intercom).

It’s not long after the guards come up to see what is happening on the roof. I’m there in just my coat with my companion. How do I escape? That’s right, during my meeting with the guard (in the flashback), I gave him a bundle and asked him to stash it on the roof. I ran over to that, but I was taking fire and accidentally knocked it off the roof (due to rolling badly). Whoops. So I jump off the roof anyway.

That drew a perplexed response from the GM. I explained that we had set up a tent, and I would be using it to break my fall. We took care of that in a flashback, and I landed successfully. I had some stun from getting shot, but I made my resist roll to avoid breaking anything in the landing. After that, I just had to concoct a scheme to get off the planet (which I did thanks to my disguise and fake papers). Fortunately, the crew was able to get the crystal out, and we got paid.

What I am doing in OSE is providing the players with a sandbox. They can make decisions about what to do, but the framework is oriented towards creating a particular style of immersive play. Even though I’m not invested in an outcome and reacting to the PCs’ decisions, I’m still the one framing the scenes and deciding who is there. Their authorial voices are limited to what the PCs do. The players have little to no say on the framework itself (beyond taking actions as their PCs to effect certain situations).

This is in contrast with Scum and Villainy where the system gives players tools to say that this is what’s there. If my plan needs a tent for a safe landing, then it’s going to be there. I don’t have to plan that out, we of course did it (i.e., flashback). You pay some stress, so there is a limit, but the idea is to remove the need to spend time planning and jump straight to the action.

You can’t really jump straight to the action in OSE because the PCs will die. I think that’s the skillful play in the context of a sandbox that was discussed earlier in this thread. In a sense, jumping straight to the action is a failure state. What happens is a consequence of how well you planned or took steps to rig things in your favor (you never want a fair fight in OSE). And in my campaign, it’s something I use to effect an immersive style.

If it’s not clear, I would not consider what I am doing in OSE to a protagonistic style of play. That’s neither good nor bad. It’s just different. I do pull in some ideas from Apocalypse World and Dungeon World. I don’t use fronts or threat maps (I find them too clunky in practice), but I love the principles and the way AW handles NPCs and relationships. It’s the primary reason I disclaim running a West Marches campaign even though there is some influence: town is not safe. I may look through crosshairs: the kobold mafia shows up in Orctown for business, and Marie is no where to be found. Whether the PCs care will depend on their relationship with her (and if I’m doing it right, I’ve got some PC-NPC-PC triangles going). But I digress.

Hopefully that makes some kind of sense and that I’ve understood protagonism correctly.
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
First off, thanks for the detailed answer, even if I'm about to debate some of it. :)
Finding out what happens in RPGing is fun for me.
Me too, which is why I play.

But note that I specifically say "play" here; as a distinct and separate activity from GMing. IMO the GM is there in part to facilitate the players being able to find out what happens - or, in many cases, through the actions of their PCs cause what happens.
There is the action and colour; in more dramatic games, there is that too; sometimes there is comedy; there is mystery and revelation.

There is an obvious resemblance between these pleasurable parts of the activity, and watching a film or (less so, I think) reading a book. Compared to a film it is slower-paced and (related but not identical) less well edited. But compared to watching a film it is creative. And compared to writing a story on one's own it has all the fun and surprise and sociality of doing something with one's friends.

The preceding few sentences aren't any sort of attempt to explain everything about what is fun for me in RPGing, but try to point to some of it.

(When I play rather than GM the creative aspect is a bit less evident, but the intimate inhabitation of my character, and the emotional experiences that flow from that, are present in the way that they are not when GMing.)
I think there can be the same general amount of creativity for both player and GM, just on different scales (setting-scale vs character-scale, for example) and often with different intentions (a GM sometimes has to create with a view to the long-term future of the game she's running while a player generally can stay more in the moment).
These claims are not true. What I mean by that is that they are claims about what is possible when adopting a certain approach to RPGing, and I know from my own experience of RPGing using that approach that the things you say can't be done, can be done; and that the things you say are necessary, are not.

Presenting mysteries, secrets, puzzles
The way that I do this, when I GM, is to introduce a situation - an event, a NPC, an object, etc - which does not yet have an explanation (in the fiction) known to anyone at the table. (This is just what @Ovinomancer said upthread.)

For instance, in a reasonably recent session of my Classic Traveller game the PCs found an ancient alien pyramid complex with a pendulum apparatus in it. What is the pendulum for?, they wondered. Good question!

In the Burning Wheel game I GM, the players learned that the sorcerer Jabal - the nemesis of at least one PC, the employer of two others - was going to marry the Gynarch of Hardby, heself a powerfl mage. What is the reason for this wedding? Good question!
Good questions perhaps, but without pre-set answers for the players to work toward they're also IMO not as satisfying to solve. Were I the GM introducing the pendulum I'd already know what it was for. Were I a player finding that pendulum I'd be wanting to find out more about it, what it's for, and what it does; all in full awareness in-character that while it might be of vital importance it might also be nothing more than a distraction or delay element to slow us down, make us think, and-or keep us from looking elsewhere until it's too late.

From what I remember of this Jabal guy, I think as a player I'd have long ago had my PC do the setting a favour and just shoot him. :) I run a few high-placed less-than-nice NPCs like him in my game - sooner or later I rather hope one of them will annoy one or more PCs to the point where said PCs try to take drastic action. And who knows, they might even succeed. :)
Presenting a living setting that has things happen independent of the PCs or their actions
The wedding above would be an example of this. Another example would be our Classic Traveller game, where the PCs encounter various vessels that are travelling for reasons that are not caused by the PCs: eg an Imperial armada attacking the world the PCs were on.

It's true that the GM is not doing much imagining of events in the fiction that are not narrated, in some fashion, at the table but that sort of imagining is not presenting a living setting.
This is good. It's also something that the post I was replying to seemed to suggest was somehow undesirable.

And for this sort of thing, GM notes are invaluable; the sort of notes that say "Barring changes brought on by the PCs, event x will happen on date y". In the Traveller example, it might go "Barring PC changes or interruptions, an Imperial armada will attack the world of Quohiry on Stardate 1103.65". This sort of note is ideally made before play even starts, in order to be agnostic regarding the PCs' actual location at the time. If they happen to be on or near Quohiry on that date then maybe they get caught up in the action. If not, they'll certainly hear about it later as news spreads through the galaxy.

But if the PCs somehow manage to mess up that armada before it leaves spaceport, or pre-learn of the impending attack and warn Quohiry and-or get the Quohirians to launch a pre-emptive attack of their own, then maybe those notes become redundant. Doesn't bother me in the least. I'd far rather have notes made redundant than no notes at all and via winging it end up finding I've put the same armada in three places at once. (which is just the sort of screw-up I'm more than capable of!)
Presenting naturalistic consequences
In my Burning Wheel game, the players failed some sort of check as their PCs were fleeing a tower carrying the blood and head of a decapitated sorcerer. I narrated an encounter with some guards. The PCs failed to persuade the guards that they were just innocently out for a night-time stroll. The guards took them into custody.

That sequence of events is completely naturalistic. And is established via the narration of consequences of failed checks: had the players' checks succeeded, they would have naturalistically escaped observation (first check succeeds), or duped the guards (second check succeeds) and then events would have headed into a different direction instead of the imprisonment that the PCs suffered.
Yet naturalistic [consequences*] are something else that was strongly frowned on upthread.

* - a different word was used but I'm too lazy right now to look for it. :)
In my Classic Traveller game, the a PC used psionic power in front of a NPC who had the conventional Imperial hostility to psionics. The reaction roll indicated that she was hostile; then a player succeeded on a check made to see if his PC was able to calm her down for the moment, and so she was calmed. Then the psionic PC ended up being placed in charge of the overall situation (as Imperial Overseer), which the NPC reluctantly accepted (I can't remember if there was a check made for this or not). Then when that same PC ended up temporarily incapacitated due to an attack by an alien creature, the hostile NPC (being a noble of the same rank as the PC) asserted her authority over the situation (this was a GM decision to establish a complication that followed from the incapacitation).

That sequence of events is also completely naturalistic.

The GM approach of first make a soft move that signals a risk, threat or danger and then make a hard move that follows through with some irrevocable consequence is formalised in PbtA games but is easy to use even without that formalisation. The PCs are out at night doing unlawful things: on the first failure signal the risk (they meet guards) then on the second failure follow through (they are taken into custody). A PC uses psionics in circumstances where this might cause ire, and the reaction roll indicates as much: that's the threat. A series of events ameliorate the threat for the moment (the NPC is calmed down; the PC is put into a position of authority over her). But then when the PC (and thus his player) comes unstuck, I as GM follow through: the hostile NPC takes charge of the situation.

The upshot (as I've posted in another recent thread) was an attempt by some PCs to break into the NPC's base, which failed; and a consequent trial, which was brought to an end by the PC blowing everyone and everything up, and the PCs then abandoning their position.
This all sounds good. I'm not as formal about the soft-move hard-move sequence, in that there'll be times when danger hits without warning and other times there'll be what looks and acts like a warning but it's unfounded. An example of the latter might be Indiana Jones noticing a skeleton impaled on a spike in a passage; he takes it as a warning there's traps here and behaves accordingly, not realizing until much later the trap was a one-shot thing and the passage is in fact now quite safe.

Thing is, all of the consequences in your examples could just as easily have been based on pre-made notes as on on-the-fly adjudication.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't even understand what this question has to do with anything. Are you asking do I write fan fiction about the setting of my RPGs? Then the answer is no.
Interesting point.

To me the key question is not "do you write fan fiction about and-or based in your RPG setting?" but "could you use the setting for such an endeavour if you wanted?" Put another way, this asks whether you-as-its-designer feel the setting is robust enough and complete enough to support such writing; which really might not be a bad benchmark to use when designing a setting, as a signal that you've probably done enough and can get on with the game. :)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Modules like S2 White Plume Mountain and C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness and C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and X2 Castle Amber are all examples of this style. The events and setting are essentially self-contained and self-referential. Any allusions to anything beyond the dungeon has no bearing on how the dungeon is engaged with and beaten.
Both C2 and X2 are modules designed such that once you get into them you can't escape without beating them. That said, the Averoigne part of X2 is the exact opposite: once they've passed the various tests (and in the process possibly become minor local heroes) it's not inconceivable that the PCs might end up wanting to just stay there and never go back to their home world.

With S2, though, while it's written as self-referential and self-contained there's nothing at all stopping a DM from connecting it to her world and-or somehow breaking the self-containment. (I can't speak to C1 as I've yet to either play or DM it...one day...)
(Eg in S2 the stolen weapons have owners in the City of Greyhawk; but nothing in the module depends upon, or is changed by, those facts of ownership. It's just set-dressing and backstory.)
The living-world piece here happens before and-or after the adventure itself (and this is generally true in many cases beyond just this; most engagement with the greater world comes during downtime). If the PCs take too long retrieving the weapons, or if the PCs decide to just walk off with the weapons rather than returning them to their owners, or if one of the owners has died while the PCs were in the dungeon, then there's going to be consequences. Or perhaps the owner of Black Razor "forgot" to mention to the PCs that the mere act of bringing that weapon into town carries a death sentence.
My first question is, how do you know all these things?

Why would the attack have serious implications? And why would news spread? Perhaps the attack is kept secret.
In a galaxy with hyper-lightspeed communications, keeping something major like that a secret would be nigh impossible unless the armada one-shotted the planet (see: Death Star vs Alderaan) before any of the residents knew what hit them. :)
 

That would be an example of what I tried to get at upthread referring to your notes as establishing the "solution space". Not to say that they dictate the solution, but they establish very meaningful parameters around what would count as a viable solution.
OK, now I have a clearer idea of what you mean by "solution space." To me, for the scenario I'm preparing for, the premise and setting of the game impose the limitations on PC actions, and my notes about them are about being able to respond to the players rapidly and consistently during play. The PC's only opponents in this scenario are the laws of nature within the setting, and the limits of the available resources and equipment. If they have thinking, planning opponents, then preparation is a bit different.

Some examples: It's a somewhat realistic space game. The PCs can't just stop participating, get out of the ship and walk home. That's part of the premise.

The PCs need to go into an area of very high radiation to do the mission. They set themselves that mission - it was a surprise to me when they decided to take it on - but since they are competent astronauts, I need to let them know what the risks are and how to minimise them. That's setting.

I can imagine all sorts of sequences of events that might happen, in terms of who might do what, and what might go wrong. But doing detailed planning for those would be mistaken, in my view. I'd be tempted to steer the PCs down one of those routes, infringing the players' freedom of action. Instead, I need to understand the situation as well as I can, so that I can "play the world" in response to whatever the players do.
 

To me the key question is not "do you write fan fiction about and-or based in your RPG setting?" but "could you use the setting for such an endeavour if you wanted?"
That's not really an answerable question. Writing fiction in a setting inevitably involves fleshing it out in different ways from running a game in it. One notable example of that is the "voices" of characters, the individual ways they express themselves in language. That's really important in prose fiction, but not usually in a game.
 

pemerton

Legend
OK, now I have a clearer idea of what you mean by "solution space." To me, for the scenario I'm preparing for, the premise and setting of the game impose the limitations on PC actions, and my notes about them are about being able to respond to the players rapidly and consistently during play. The PC's only opponents in this scenario are the laws of nature within the setting, and the limits of the available resources and equipment.

<snip>

It's a somewhat realistic space game. The PCs can't just stop participating, get out of the ship and walk home. That's part of the premise.

The PCs need to go into an area of very high radiation to do the mission. They set themselves that mission - it was a surprise to me when they decided to take it on - but since they are competent astronauts, I need to let them know what the risks are and how to minimise them. That's setting.
What you say here reminds me of a session in my group's Traveller game where the PCs wanted to blast and drill through a thick layer of ice to get to a buried alien pyramid complex:

With the (fictional) context now fully clear, it was time to start the excavation. We did some Googling (of ice-melting with lasers) and decided that it would take 4 days to cut through 3 km of ice with a triple beam laser.

<snip>

After blasting to 3 km depth, it took another two weeks (calculated after doing some more Googling, this time ice-drilling) to carefully drill and blast through the last 1 km using more conventional methods (led by the NPC Zef, a former Belter with Prospecting-1, Mechanical-1 and Demolitions-1, as well as the PC Tony with his Mechanical-1 and Jack-o-T-4). I called for a check to make sure nothing went wrong with the drilling, which was successful. As the drilling approached the much-anticipated 4 km depth, the PCs established an armed watch (Xander in his powered armour) to make sure nothing unexpected came out of the alien structure to attack them.
 

pemerton

Legend
In a galaxy with hyper-lightspeed communications, keeping something major like that a secret would be nigh impossible unless the armada one-shotted the planet (see: Death Star vs Alderaan) before any of the residents knew what hit them.
Classic Traveller does not have any hyper-lightspeed communications beyond the travel of starships. If a world is under interdiction, and the interdiction is successful, news will not travel.
 

pemerton

Legend
Were I a player finding that pendulum I'd be wanting to find out more about it, what it's for, and what it does; all in full awareness in-character that while it might be of vital importance it might also be nothing more than a distraction or delay element to slow us down, make us think, and-or keep us from looking elsewhere until it's too late.
OK.

The players in my game, as their PCs, were curious to learn more about the pendulum. It was clearly part of the apparatus of a technically complex establishment. There was no sense in which it would be a "distraction" - when the goal is to find out what the establishment is for and how it works, learning what a part of it is for and how it works is not a distraction. It's the point.

pemerton said:
Presenting a living setting that has things happen independent of the PCs or their actions
The wedding above would be an example of this. Another example would be our Classic Traveller game, where the PCs encounter various vessels that are travelling for reasons that are not caused by the PCs: eg an Imperial armada attacking the world the PCs were on.

It's true that the GM is not doing much imagining of events in the fiction that are not narrated, in some fashion, at the table but that sort of imagining is not presenting a living setting.
This is good. It's also something that the post I was replying to seemed to suggest was somehow undesirable.

And for this sort of thing, GM notes are invaluable; the sort of notes that say "Barring changes brought on by the PCs, event x will happen on date y". In the Traveller example, it might go "Barring PC changes or interruptions, an Imperial armada will attack the world of Quohiry on Stardate 1103.65". This sort of note is ideally made before play even starts, in order to be agnostic regarding the PCs' actual location at the time. If they happen to be on or near Quohiry on that date then maybe they get caught up in the action. If not, they'll certainly hear about it later as news spreads through the galaxy.

<snip>

Yet naturalistic [consequences*] are something else that was strongly frowned on upthread.

* - a different word was used but I'm too lazy right now to look for it.

<snip>

all of the consequences in your examples could just as easily have been based on pre-made notes as on on-the-fly adjudication.
Here is what @Manbearcat actually posted upthread, that you (@Lanefan) quoted:
You are NOT THE LEAD STORYTELLER

You do NOT GET TO BREAK/CHANGE RULES

You do NOT USE YOUR PIECES TO CONVEY A THEMATICALLY NEUTRAL, PC-DISINTERESTED WORLD

You do NOT USE SECRET BACKSTORY (it doesn't exist) OR NATURALISTIC EXTRAPOLATION TO OPPOSE PC
There is nothing at all there about consequences, naturalistic or otherwise. There is something about not using secret backstory to oppose PCs. Which is something that I do not do (with one prominent exception in our Traveller game: the game calls for a secret roll to determine if a branch of the Psionics Institute exists on a world, and I have used that mechanic).

Saying all of the consequences could as easily have been based on pre-made notes is like saying instead of rolling the dice in a D&D combat, the GM might have just narrated all the outcomes of all the declared attacks. That's true, but it doesn't entail that there is no difference between using the combat mechanics to find out what happens in combat, and having the GM just tell you.

There is also nothing in @Manbearcat's post hostile to "thinking offscreen", which is one of the principles of Apocalypse World, the original PbtA game. What he does say is you do not use your pieces to convey a thematically neutral, PC-disinterested world. The wedding I described was not thematically neutral. Nor was it PC-disinterested. It involved a powerful wizard who leads a cabal to which the main PC wizard belongs. The attack of the Imperial armada I described was not thematically neutral. Nor was it PC-disinterested. The PCs were on the world in pursuit of religious and psionic secrets; and the armada was there - it seemed - to enforce the Imperium's anti-psionic policies.

There are a million possible things I could tell my players about what is happening in the galaxy, and what they encounter. I choose to tell them about things that engage the dramatic needs of their PCs. That's why I have no use for the technique of setting up "agnostic" rosters of events. These do not enhance the game I want to play. Somewhat similarly, in REH's Conan we don't hear random news of things that don't matter to Conan; in Raiders of the Lost Ark we don't hear about random German military operations, but only the ones that implicate the ruins that Indiana Jones wants to explore; in an X-Man film or comic we don't hear about changes in interest rates, and the only hearing of the "World Court" we ever learn about is the one where Magneto is on trial for crimes against humanity.
 

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