How I run investigation games (part 2: in-session)

Last time I wrote about how I prep investigation games. I’ll talk a bit more about that here, but I also want to move on to talk about what I do during sessions.

My aim in running an investigative game is twofold:

  • Make the players feel smart
  • Make the investigation challenging

Those two aims seem kind of contradictory, but in a way they support each other. You cannot feel smart if the game hands you everything on a plate. You cannot feel challenged if the game is simplistic or handled entirely through dice rolls.

As discussed in a previous article, you can break investigation down into various components:

  • Leads (where should I look next?)
  • Imprints (what clues are there?)
  • Patterns (how do the clues fit together?)
  • Conclusions (what is my theory of the case?)

I want as much as possible of the above to feel like they were investigated by the players themselves, using their own brainpower, without running up against the perennial problems of analysis paralysis and the thing that seems obvious to the GM not being at all obvious to the players. I’m not going to pretend those problems aren’t real – and more on how I tackle them below. But for now, let’s talk about how I handle the components above.

My initial lead is always given away for free. That’s a given: the game will be no fun if you can’t get started.

From that point on, I follow a simple set of rules:

  • If a clue is obvious, you don’t have to roll to find it
  • If a clue is hidden but you look in the place it’s hidden, you find it without rolling
  • You can find any clue with an appropriate roll
  • Once you’ve got the clues, it’s mostly down to you to figure out the logical leads, patterns, and conclusions

You can probably see for yourself how the above could easily lead to an investigation stalling. If the players don’t look in the right place, or roll badly, or can’t figure out the next lead, then everything grinds to a halt. There are three principal ways that I solve this:

  • Critical mass. I make sure there are enough clues available that it’s unlikely they’ll fail to find anything.
  • Keep some leads obvious. Signposting specific characters or locations as being of interest will ensure there’s always a next step to follow (but there’s always the potential to discover more)
  • Move the clock on. If the players are taking too long, then I look to the next event on my timeline and make it happen – so even if they get stuck, the story doesn’t

The aim here isn’t to make it impossible to fail the investigation. That wouldn’t be challenging, and it wouldn’t make the players feel smart. The aim, instead, is to make sure that they never get completely stuck – even if they’re failing, they’re moving forwards. So there’s always enough clues to find something out, and there’s always enough obvious leads that you have somewhere to look next.

Equally, my aim is to create a potential dividend from being smart, from being lucky, and from being quick. Players who get lucky on the dice find more clues; players who think their way around those clues and ask good questions discover patterns and start to reach conclusions; and those clues and conclusions can enable them to get ahead of my timeline. Those who move at the minimum pace enabled by following the obvious links, probably find themselves fighting for their lives at the finalé, having left a trail of murders in their wake. Those who leverage luck and judgement may be able to save some lives and catch the perpetrator unawares.

What this means is: being open to the players failing – so that another person is killed (or whatever consequences I established in my timeline happen); but also being open to them wildly succeeding, so that my villains fail and their plans are completely foiled. The critical mass of clues and obvious leads means that I’m hopefully leaning towards success over the medium-term, with occasional frustrating blocks that make that success more satisfying when it comes.

I cannot overemphasise how important it is for failure to come with consequences. If they get stuck, then those consequences mean that the game doesn’t get stuck; instead of their next lead being a witness they want to investigate or a place they want to investigate, the next lead comes in a body bag. And of course, this also means that when they succeed, they’ll know that it was earned, because they know what happens when they fail.

Very occasionally this means the players fail utterly. The villains complete their plan entirely, and escape. That’s great. It means there’s now a future recurring villain, who the players really want to take down, because they feel responsible for not catching them the first time. As long as things didn’t grind to a halt during the session, so there were always fresh leads to follow and tense pacing created by my timeline events, then failure is ok.

One last thing: do not let things drift towards out of character discussion of clues. To a degree all theorising is out of character, since you don’t actually have the skills, knowledge and brainpower of your characters. But try to keep people talking as their characters, because that will help to reinforce the sense that any frustration they may be feeling is fictional, it’s part of the story. They’re not sat on your couch feeling worn down by the investigation, they’re stood in a dark alley looking at a corpse and wondering when the next one will show up.

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Breaking down hard moves

Apocalypse World introduced the concept of Hard Moves, i.e. the individual interventions the GM makes in response to players’ actions and rolls. Subsequent PBTA games have tended to distinguish between “hard” and “soft” moves. But they vary wildly in how much time they put into explaining the distinction. Here I’m going to talk about the different ways in which a move can be “harder” or “softer”.

Before I get started I should pause to acknowledge that Magpie Games have done a pretty great job of talking about this in the past. Check out Urban Shadows and Masks: A New Generation for a particularly good treatment of the topic. What I’m trying to do here, building on that, is to break down and codify the different types of move “hardness”.

My thinking about moves is informed by my professional life, where I have some experience of risk management. Risk management is the discipline of recording and managing all the bad stuff that might happen to your business. Sometimes people use similar techniques to manage potential good stuff too (opportunities); and you can also manage “issues” which is essentially a risk or opportunity that has already come to fruition.

In risk management, we think about the probability of a risk coming to pass, and the impact if it comes to pass. You can have an absolutely terrible risk that would devastate your business, but which isn’t very likely to happen, or a fairly mild risk that would cause you problems, but is highly likely to occur. You’ll treat those two very differently, and its debatable which you ought to focus on. But for our purposes, you can apply a similar(ish) approach to thinking about moves.

Start with probability and a related concept, proximity. Let’s compare some scenarios where the GM is making a move:

  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher, and she’s fired it at you. It’s going to explode at your feet in a few seconds’ time. What do you do?
  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher, and she’s aiming it at you. What do you do?
  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher, and she’s aiming it at your party. What do you do?
  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher, a few metres away. She hasn’t seen you yet, but she’s about to. What do you do?
  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher a few blocks away. She’s heading in your general direction. What do you do?
  • You get a message warning you about this bounty hunter, Screwball. Her favoured weapon is a grenade launcher. Apparently she’s taken a contract to take you out. What do you do?

Obviously, all these scenarios vary in hardness. In all cases, there’s a potential threat – a woman with a grenade launcher. What’s different between the scenarios is how definite that threat is (how likely it is that the threat will come to pass) and/or how immediate that threat is (how close the threat is in time or space). In all cases the basic worry is “I might get blown up with a grenade”, but the hardness of the move is hugely different depending on the probability and the proximity of the threat.

A caveat to the above is that in most PBTA games, if the GM has mentioned something as a threat then we kind of know that, if we do nothing, the threat will come to pass. There’s not really any such thing as probability – the GM decides what happens. Of course other games are different; in OSR games, for instance, the GM might well roll to decide if an extant threat heads your way or not. In that case probability can be a genuine factor. Either way, a move that is currently low-probability and/or low-proximity at the very least gives me longer to react, so it’s a softer move.

Now let’s think about impact. In risk management this is broken down simply by severity, i.e. where does this sit between being an existential threat down to simply a minor inconvenience. That applies to GM moves as well. But in roleplaying we can also think about significance, i.e. how much do we care about the outcome. Some examples may help to illustrate:

  • A gang has hired an assassin to kill you. What do you do?
  • A gang his hired a local leg-breaker to rough you up. What do you do?
  • A gang has decided to burn your house down. What do you do?
  • A gang has hired a local leg-breaker to rough up your nephew. What do you do?

Now obviously in the examples above, you’re more worried about an assassin than a leg-breaker, because the severity of the threat is lower in the second case. But which is more of a threat – having your own legs broken, or those of your beloved nephew? We don’t know the answer to that unless we know how significant your nephew is. If they’re your beloved nephew, you might put their wellbeing above your own. Similarly, what about your house? Losing your house is probably less severe than losing your life, but the significance is unknown.

Moves that are significant are often much more of a body-blow than a far more severe move that’s of lower significance. Here’s some fun examples:

  • Your hated mother has hired a local assassin to kill you. What do you do?
  • Your beloved mother has hired a local assassin to kill you. What do you do?
  • Your beloved mother has tears in her eyes. Her lip trembles but she hardens her face and says “Get out. I never want to see you again.”

It seems like having your mother target you with a move is probably more significant than when it’s some gang. But it’s a big difference if your mother is beloved or not. How terrible, that your mother – who you love – has gone so far as to have you killed! But the final example is perhaps the most significant: even though the severity is lower (we aren’t talking about life and death anymore, after all) having your beloved mother cut you out of her life might be seen as a “harder” move than the other two.

In my view, significance is the key to really effective hard moves, because they hit you in your emotions. It is worth reflecting, though, that a really significant threat requires some ground-work. My nephew is going to seem more significant to me, the player, if we’ve spent some time establishing who he is and building him up as beloved, than if he’s simply introduced as “your beloved nephew, who is now under threat from a local leg-breaker”.

Related to the above is target. We tend to assume that a move that targets you is harder than one which targets someone else. But that isn’t necessarily the case – after all, people will risk their own life to save that of someone they love. Similarly, we can ask which is a harder move: your beloved mother cuts you out of her life, or your beloved mother cuts your dying father out of her life? The answer, of course, goes back to significance, but I mention target as a separate issue simply because it’s easy to forget that you have the option to target someone other than the players.

Another layer you can add on top of all this is choice, because forcing people to make decisions automatically makes a move harder, and because a choice between two bad outcomes means it might be literally impossible to avoid both. The mere fact that you had to choose the bad outcome can make the resulting badness seem more significant, too.

The final variable I want to mention is sign, as in positive or negative. That is, we can distinguish between moves that have consequences that a character perceives as bad, versus those which have consequences that the character perceives as good. I mention this mostly because – just as most risk managers focus on bad stuff over opportunities – most GMs focus on escalating bad situations over offering potential rewards. It’s a totally valid move, even in response to a bad roll, to offer an opportunity. A “positive” move might even be seen as a fairly hard move in the right circumstances, if it’s an opportunity that comes with risks.

So that’s the seven ways you can vary the hardness of a move:

  • Probability
  • Proximity (in time and space)
  • Severity
  • Significance
  • Target
  • Choice
  • Sign

What techniques do you use to keep your moves interesting? Let me know in comments!

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How I run investigation games (part 1: prep)

A really juicy mystery, with the cool feeling of piecing together clues and coming to the correct conclusion, is one of my favourite things in roleplaying. It’s also something that I feel isn’t well delivered by existing RPG systems. Here I’m going to talk about my approach to building a mystery and enabling real investigation.

This isn’t the first time I’ve explored this terrain. Back in 2013 I talked about how mysteries are like stones falling into a pool, creating ripples. And I went on to talk about how investigation isn’t just about clue detection, but about deduction and reaching conclusions. But I stopped short of talking about how to construct a satisfying mystery, which is what I want to do now.

Just for the moment, let’s assume I have an ok system that will cover the business of discovering clues, and an ok premise that make sure the players want to investigate this mystery. I may come back to these later, but let’s imagine they’re solved problems for the purposes of this article. Let’s also assume I’m running something that has a substantial investigative focus, so there’s more than just one simple mystery to solve.

I then create my mystery in a number of fairly discrete steps:

  • Decide what the fundamental driver of the mystery is. Something like “There’s a cult trying to summon a demon through a series of ceremonial sacrifices”, or “House Rukh are planning to assassinate the governor and take over the planetary government”
  • Generate from this driver a series of events. These can be past events which the players are (presumably) going to be investigating, or future events which the players are (presumably) going to be trying to avert.
  • For each past event, I generate a footprint, that is, a set of clues which are out there waiting to be discovered by the players.
  • The footprint breaks down into physical clues and witnesses, which are obviously investigated in different ways. Each of these is amenable to assigning a location and/or time. I’m also thinking about the ways in which the players might discover the clues, though I’m leaving myself open to other ways as well.
  • For future events, I generate a timing and/or trigger, some consequences, and (in case the players don’t find out about it until after it happens) a footprint, exactly as for a past event.

For instance, let’s look at the cult example:

  • For events, I decide that the cult has already sacrificed two victims. One of them was pursued through a particular district in the city in the night, and then murdered in a junkyard. The other was killed previously and more quietly, in their apartment.
  • The pursuit generated some witnesses along the route it followed – people who heard screams for help and some who looked out of their windows to see a group of figures pursuing the victim.
  • Both the murders generate a corpse, some messy bloodstains, perhaps a footprint. They also include the identity of the corpse – for the junkyard murder that may not be obvious, while the apartment victim (if the players discover it) is in their apartment so probably can easily be ID’d.
  • The junkyard murder will be reported, which is the trigger for the players’ investigation. The apartment murder will likely lie fallow for a while, but might show up later.
  • I also create three future events: a near miss where someone is cornered by the cult and nearly killed, but escapes by jumping out of a window; and a murder that involves an initial kidnapping and the victim being brought to a specific site for the final sacrifice. Perhaps the near-miss will report in to the authorities and the players can find out about it that way. Perhaps the kidnapping will be reported, perhaps not.
  • At this stage I might also add in some kind of link between the various murders, be it geographical (the locations form a shape on the map, with the final sacrifice in the middle) or social (the victims are all highly religious people, say), or whatever.
  • If the final sacrifice is completed then the demon will be summoned and a whole new set of events will be generated after that (but I don’t bother thinking about that right now, because I’m expecting that the players will stop the sacrifice happening and/or kill the demon after it’s summoned.

Once I’ve planned all this out, I’ll review what I’ve got to make sure there’s enough there to give the players a fighting chance of cracking the mystery, but not so much that they’ll solve it in five seconds flat. I can add or remove witnesses and clues until I think I have got that right. Of course, my future events ensure that, no matter what happens, the players will have something to do. If time passes and they haven’t made progress, the next event happens.

I’ll then break the information down into a number of components I can use:

  • A timeline of events
  • A list of locations with clues that can be found there
  • A list of characters with motivations, information they might have and any key abilities

Once I’ve got all that in place, the game more-or-less runs itself. The players move from location to location as prompted by clues and/or a future event becoming a present event. Perhaps they discover clues which help them to get ahead of the timeline, perhaps the timeline runs ahead of them and they’re forced to confront a scary situation unprepared.

I’ll talk in a future article about how I use this prep in practice.

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Is it ok to fudge rolls?

I was bodding about on Twitter recently and I came across this:

Reading through the comments I saw a lot of pushback against point 2. People saying “But it sucks if some random roll means I get killed by an orc in the first encounter.” “Some players don’t like it when they die, it isn’t fun.” “It’s ok if I got the threat level wrong, so I’m just correcting my mistake.” “You shouldn’t have rolled the dice if you weren’t ready for that outcome.” And so on. This got me thinking about why people fudge dice rolls at all.

Now as I see it, the answer is pretty straightforward. People fudge dice rolls because their chosen game isn’t giving them sufficient discretion in decision-making. They rolled the dice, and what they rolled means they are forced to either implement a fictional outcome they didn’t want, or fudge the roll.

When this happens, it is probably because the game is premised on a simple linear process:

Someone makes an attack -> roll dice -> inflict damage (or not)

See how that works? As soon as the GM picks up the dice, they’re committing to possibly inflicting damage on you. Maybe it will kill you. But that’s all that can happen. They can’t knock you out, they can’t take your stuff and leave you tied up. They can’t leave you beaten but humiliated. And that’s just thinking about possibilities relating to us fighting. We haven’t even got started on how they can’t reveal a terrible secret that will leave you crushed and sobbing, or have a totally different threat raise its head.

My point is, I think a lot of people are playing games with what you might call ballistic mechanics. You get to choose whether to pull the trigger (i.e. roll the dice) but once you’ve done that, you have no choice in where the bullet hits (i.e. what the outcome of the dice roll is). You can solve the problem by cheating – by ignoring the die roll – or by using a system that fires smart missiles instead of dumb bullets.

There’s plenty of games out there which continue to give you choices after you’ve rolled the dice. A failure doesn’t have to imply a mechanically fixed outcome. If you’re reading this and wondering what games I mean, one good avenue to google is Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark, both of which give real, hard consequences to dice rolls – but in a way that gives you interesting choices rather than automatic pre-defined outcomes.

Even D&D (which I assume is what we’re all thinking about here) doesn’t need to be implemented like that. I mean, come on. It isn’t like you haven’t used house rules or not-technically-RAW “roll a d20 and I’ll tell you what happens” for umpteen other things. So why be a stickler about the attack roll? Why not say that on a hit, the orc disarms you, then headbutts you into unconsciousness. You wake up in chains. Hard consequences that generate more fun, instead of snuffing out interesting possibilities.

So if I’m so keen on interesting outcomes, why not just fudge the roll and do it that way? Well, like the Tweet said, this is about social contract. If you’re playing in a group where the expectation is that successful attack rolls lead to hit point loss and hit point loss leads to death, then you’re playing with fire if you don’t enforce that. You’re essentially saying “your choices were meaningless; you thought you were risking death to achieve your goals; you thought there was a point to me rolling these dice; but you weren’t and there isn’t. You might as well stop recording your hit points and stop rolling the dice because the real decision-maker is me, the GM, and I’ll ignore the dice when it suits me.” The whole point of systems with dice rolls is to create risk and drama and make choices meaningful.

The same applies to games where hit point loss and death aren’t automatic consequences of a roll, by the way. Just because I can opt to have you KO’d and captured by the orc instead of killed, doesn’t mean its all just arbitrary GM fiat. I have to abide by the fact that the dice were rolled, so something bad happens. I can’t just shrug my shoulders and say “nothing happens”. If I do that, I’m equally guilty of denying you the fruits of your decisions as the GM who refuses to inflict those hit points because they think it wouldn’t be fun.

But I think that a lot of groups in their heart of hearts don’t want a social contract like the one we see in D&D, RAW. Dying at an arbitrary moment because of bad dice rolls is not everyone’s idea of fun. I think that’s why we see so much fudging going on – because people don’t actually like what the rules tell them they must do. The point is, you’re breaking the social contract if people thought hit point loss and death was a possibility but it actually never was; but you can have a different social contract if you want. You have to ask yourself in advance whether you want arbitrary death or not. You have to talk to your group about how you play the game, and get their consent.

“Hey, I’d like to play some D&D, but I’m not really into the whole ‘one bad roll and you die’ thing, so I’m using a different set of rules. Ok?”

If you do that, then you’ll get the outcome you wanted – you remove arbitrary “un-fun” death from your game. But you get it without having to cheat people out of meaningful choice, and waste time rolling dice when you have no intention of enforcing the results of your rolls. Everyone can engage with the encounters you present, knowing what’s on the table and what isn’t.

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective (part 4)

This is part 4 in a multi-part series looking back on our RPG kickstarter, what went well, what we’d change, and so on. Part 1 is herePart 2 is here. Part 3 is here. This time, we’re talking about the quality of the product and the post-kickstarter phase.

Delivery phase – quality

Quality-wise, I couldn’t be prouder by what we achieved. The game has met with a very positive reception, including several award nominations. I continue to get a massive buzz every time I hear about people playing it. I believe it stands up in comparison to any other horror game out there.

The production values met our very high standards. The book is beautiful, filled with gorgeous art and an evocative yet readable layout, both of which mirror and reinforce the structure and themes of the game. The physical product looks and feels great.

Image of a library. A woman in a wheelchair looks over her shoulder, holding a gun at the ready. Behind her, a monstrous praying mantis lurks amongst the bookshelves.
One of the illustrations from Lovecraftesque

I also want to say here that our stretch goals massively enhanced the game. The finished stretch goal material was high quality, incredibly evocative, and provided a powerful set of diverse support materials for the game. We had one review whinge that the game itself was just a third of the book: but that really fails to recognise the benefits of these extra materials. The book has a massive 17 scenarios – you have so much choice, and they’re all so good; many people have commented that the quick-start scenarios are their favourite way to play. Plus the essays, which offer a really in-depth analysis of how to handle race and mental health in Lovecraftian games – issues which were a major focus of the campaign, and very dear to our heart. So the stretch goals were a major success for this project.

Post-kickstarter phase

Honestly, we didn’t really plan for what would happen after the kickstarter. That might seem funny given all the detailed planning described so far, but we really were focused on the campaign.

After the dust settled, we set ourselves up on Payhip, on DrivethruRPG, and (using Paypal buttons) on our own website to directly sell the game to customers. We reached out to Indie Press Revolution in the US and Esdevium in the UK, to get the books out to retailers.

All this basically worked ok. However, one thing new game designers should know is that retail distributors ask for a very hefty discount in the region of 50-55% on your product. This is because retailers ask for a 30-35% discount. I’m not being critical – retailers and distributors have costs to meet and presumably try to make a profit too. It can be pretty tricky to make any money on sales to retailers if you haven’t factored this into your planning – which we hadn’t. At one point we realised that we would make a loss on US retail sales, and had to make some changes to keep this viable. It would have been better if we’d planned that in advance – and it’s another reason why a print run would probably have been a better choice for us, since we’ve sold hundreds of books this way, many at a negligible profit margin. We’re glad to support retailers, and have the books out there, but next time we’ll do better out of it too.

I’ll also mention accounting. Once you make money, you’re going to have to report it to the authorities. In the UK that means submitting accounts and a self-assessment tax return to HM Revenue and Customs. This is a faff. Even if you pay someone to do it, in practice you will do a lot of work. If you pay someone, it will cost you, and probably more than you think. Just, you know. Think about that, and plan time and money around it.

Just for fun, here’s a graph of our sales during and after the kickstarter. It includes PDFs, but is I estimate over 80% physical copies. You can see that retailer sales are a large share of post-kickstarter sales, which makes my earlier remarks about planning for those even more salient.

Graph of our sales during and after the kickstarter

 

How to be a great RPG player

I’d like to talk a bit about how players can contribute to making a roleplaying game as much fun as possible for everyone. The headline is: Don’t expect your GM to make all the effort, or to make the game fun for you. Roleplaying isn’t like going to a movie – your contributions are as important to making the game fun as the GM’s contributions. Don’t show up expecting to sit back and watch. Get stuck in!

I’ve observed that people often like to talk about how to achieve GM mastery, or how you (the GM) can best entertain your players and meet their needs. Such things are the fodder for countless articles. And that’s completely valid! In a GM’d game, the GM is often a really key person, and it’s important that they do everything they can to make the experience great for everyone. But guess what? It’s not only the GM’s job to do that. You can and should do things to help to make the game enjoyable for everyone (including the GM, and including yourself).

What things can you do to make the game better?

1. Look out for what the GM is offering you, and SAY YES. Come up with a reason why your character is interested in what’s on the table. And I don’t mean sarcastically saying “oh, I guess we’re meant to go to the dark dungeon, I bet that will be fun”. I mean genuinely looking for reasons to engage with what the GM puts on the table. That doesn’t have to mean doing exactly what the GM expected you to: engaging with the game could mean finding a clever way around a problem or turning an expected enemy into an ally. What it definitely doesn’t mean is turning around and walking away from a situation.

2. Look out for what the other players are interested in and engage with that too. Look to make connections with them. Take an interest in what they’re doing. In some games that might mean reacting strongly, creating intra-character drama. In others it might mean being a supportive team player. Still others might be adversarial in nature. You can probably tell what kind of game you’re in, but if in doubt, ask – discuss it with your group, and then engage in a way that works for the game. Bankuei’s same page tool could be handy here.

3. If you find the above hard, then it might mean you need to talk to the group about it. A roleplaying game should ideally get you excited, and make you want to leap in and engage with the story and with the other players’ characters. If that’s not how you’re feeling then maybe you’re in the wrong game, or maybe there’s something you want from the game you’re not getting right now. But be prepared to listen and think about what you could do, before you start making demands on others. It’s your game too.

4. Look for opportunities to involve the other players in whatever you’re doing. It’s fun to have the spotlight – share it with your friends! Ask another player’s character to help you. Ask their advice. You’ll be helping to enthuse another player and improving the game too.

5. Get comfortable improvising, and throw yourself at the story. Don’t worry about what might go wrong, get stuck in! The GM is constantly making stuff up to make your game feel real and cool. You should do this too. If everyone has to wait while you think or debate the exact right thing to do or say, that’s… sorry, but a bit boring. Your first thought is probably good enough. And you know, if you realise a couple of seconds later you said the wrong thing, you can always ask for a do-over (but only do it if you really need to). GMs, be nice – if you jump on the first thing a player says and use it to hurt them, you are hurting your game. Everyone will want to spend hours thinking and discussing the best action to take, to avoid getting kicked. Don’t make them feel like every moment is a trap waiting to spring on them.

6. Pay attention. Listen. Focus on what’s happening at the table. Chatting to someone outside the game, checking your phone, zoning out – they all kill the energy at the table. Learn to enjoy watching the other players. You’ll get more from the game if you know what they’re doing anyway, because you’ll know how to engage with what they’re doing, and how to push their buttons in fun and interesting ways.

7. Cut down on the funny remarks. Ok, take this one with a pinch of salt, because after all we’re here to have fun, and table banter can be fun. But unless it’s in character, table banter isn’t the game, and ultimately is a distraction from the game. So by all means make jokes, but don’t overdo it. Especially don’t make fun of other people’s characters or ideas – you’ll kill their enthusiasm.

8. Tell the other players what you’re enjoying. Tell them their plan was awesome. Tell them you enjoyed their characterisation. Pump up their enthusiasm! And do the same for the GM, it makes a big difference. Plus all of this helps the group to learn what each other like – and supply it. It will make your game better. The other half of the coin is talking about what you’re not enjoying: but keep this to a minimum, because it’s better to encourage than criticise. Major on what’s good, because if the game focuses on that then the bad stuff gets edged out anyway.

I’m sure there’s more I could write here. The bottom line is, GMs don’t turn up to run a game, to spoon-feed entertainment to you. They turn up to have a fun experience with the other players. Just one attentive, giving, engaged player makes a HUGE difference to the fun the GM has – a whole group is basically GM heaven. And great players improve the game for the other players too. Be that player.

By the way, if you’re still thirsty for more, I cannot recommend these two articles enough: Play to lift up, 11 ways to be a better roleplayer.

 

 

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective (part 3)

This is part 3 in a multi-part series looking back on our RPG kickstarter, what went well, what we’d change, and so on. Part 1 is herePart 2 is here. Part 4 is here. This time, we’re talking about how we delivered the product, particularly how we managed the delivery timetable and our costs.

Delivery phase – time

We did ok with keeping to our timetable. We delivered it late, but only by about 1.5 months. In the end this came down to a single delayed workstream which we couldn’t have known in advance would hit problems, and which was too critical to the project to work around. Seen in that context, 1.5 months delay is not too bad – though we would aim to get that down to zero next time.

We did several things to keep the project on track, and they largely worked. First, we calculated that there might be delays, and included that in our project timetable. We’d seen so many Kickstarters delivering many months or even years late that we were trying very hard to be realistic or even pessimistic about our timetable. We actually doubled the time estimate we’d been given by one of our contributors, because we felt it was too optimistic.

Second, we ensured that everything that could be done early was. So we wrote the game in advance of kickstarter launch. We had planned all of the art and layout in advance, and initiated work on them as soon as it was apparent we were going to fund. We had the layout completed for everything we could, even while waiting for some material to come through. In short, we ensured that we could concentrate on delivering the difficult stuff, by getting the easier stuff out of the way fast.

Now before I mention the next factor, this is a good point to recognise that people – and you should include you, the designer, in this category – are a major risk factor for any project. Everyone has a real life that can distract and delay you or even take you out of commission. Health issues can spring up, family tragedies… these are realities in an industry where almost nobody does this as their day job, so we’re all trying to squeeze out work in our spare time. (In fact, our second child was born right in the middle of fulfilment – though we did at least get 9 months notice of that!) I hope it’s clear that I don’t regard this as something to blame or shame people over: it’s something that you as the project manager have to do your best to mitigate. It turned out to be a significant factor for Lovecraftesque.

So, third, we had said up front that we weren’t guaranteeing any of our stretch goals. We would drop a stretch goal or deliver it electronically rather than let its non-delivery delay the project as a whole. I think that was a good thing to do. We didn’t have to drop any, but because we’d said we might, we didn’t need to feel too bad about having to take on authorship of one stretch goal ourselves, supported by a couple of additional consultants that we took on at short notice. We didn’t get any complaints about this, and we think the resulting product was high quality and – crucially – didn’t delay publication.

Fourth, we were very active in managing our contributors. We set deadlines, we reminded people about them, we nagged them if they were late, we negotiated additional time for those who needed it. We worked with contributors to make sure their work meshed with the vision for Lovecraftesque, giving comments and drafting assistance. I hope and believe that this was done in a supportive way, to get the very best finished product.

There is a final thing to recognise in our delivery timetable. While the books were ready and delivered to many backers in October, some of them went missing for about 7 weeks. We don’t know exactly what happened. The records suggest that books destined for the US were shipped from Britain to continental Europe, and then – for some reason – send to Budapest, where they sat for a long time. They were eventually (most of them) sent on to their US recipients. But this caused us a lot of stress and worry, since for a long while we thought they’d simply vanished. And it meant that some of our customers received the product 3 months late rather than 1.5 months. My guess is that this could happen to any project (it certainly seems to be a common problem, watching other projects). In future we would consider paying out on more expensive shipping to allow us to have greater confidence about this.

We’d originally chosen Lightning Source as our printer because they had branches in the UK and US. We planned to ship our US backers from the US branch, which would probably not have been subject to delay in this way. It was a great plan – but one which we had to abandon because of cost. Fluctuating currency values, which we’ll return to later, made the US print branch unviable for us. Post-kickstarter, we’ve offered our US customers the option to pay a (small) premium to get the product printed in the US and therefore delivered faster. Perhaps we could offer that as an option in future kickstarters – though as against that, this strikes me as potentially confusing for customers.

Image of a sleeping person in bed. Behind their back we see luminous creepy-crawlies coming out of their phone and climbing into their ear.
One of the illustrations from Lovecraftesque

Delivery phase – cost

Next, let’s talk about cost. Our carefully costed project was almost exactly on-budget. Our costings – which all included error margins for inflation, currency conversion and suchlike – came in literally on the money, pretty much every time. And yes, that includes shipping: as mentioned earlier, we shipped directly from the printer at very reasonable cost. Runaway shipping costs were my biggest fear throughout the project, and we dodged that bullet thanks to a forensic examination of the costs in advance.

And yet, as I mentioned earlier, we spent our entire 10% contingency fund. Why? Well, the single biggest factor was: Brexit. The value of the pound dropped by a total of 20% between the launch of our project and delivery. 10% of that was pre-referendum, but in retrospect was probably reflecting uncertainty about the referendum result. The rest came after. Most of our stretch goal writers, plus both our artists, were paid in dollars. The resulting exchange costs came to about £600.

The other major factor was to do with the Special Cards. Basically, we underpriced them. Or to look at it another way, we underestimated demand for them. Let me unpack that. From examining previous RPG kickstarters, we thought about half of people who purchased the physical book would want cards as well. In reality, well over 80% did – and in response to backer demand we created a “PDF + cards” tier that we hadn’t planned on. Now, the cards had a very low profit margin on them, which we’d taken into account in our planning – but when we sold a lot more of them than we anticipated, that cost us a bit. Plus they were priced in dollars, so this came together with the Brexit factor in a bad way. After the kickstarter we raised the price of the cards from £5 to £8, because of this.

The cards also added complications to delivery. They were printed and shipped separately to the books (Drivethru Cards is a separate printer from DrivethruRPG). They were an extra bit of admin, an extra delivery risk, one more thing to track and worry about. So, with the above… I’d dearly like to avoid using cards in future. Or rather, I’d like to try and stick to one physical product: cards or a book, probably not both.

So with all this, plus a handful of much smaller things, our contingency fund was spent in full – plus £5 over, to be precise. Sigh. At least we had one. But despite this, we did not make a loss. We included payment for ourselves in our funding goal, and increased it with each stretch goal – something I would always urge you to do, if you’re planning to kickstart something – and so we actually made a very respectable amount of money from the kickstarter itself. And of course, we never had any money-related problems delivering the product.

By the way, I should also mention that we used Backerkit to do our customer survey. This allowed non-Kickstarter backers to purchase books after the campaign ended and enabled existing backers to upgrade their initial pledges. True to what Backerkit estimate, we sold a sizeable additional chunk of books through them. A good choice, which I’d recommend to others.

The next article in this series is here.

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective (pt 2)

This is part 2 in a multi-part series looking back on our RPG kickstarter, what went well, what we’d change, and so on. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. This time, we’re talking about how we worked to support diversity and inclusion, and tackle Lovecraft’s bigotry; and how we ran the Kickstarter campaign itself.

Diversity and inclusion

One of our goals for Lovecraftesque was to be an exemplar on diversity and inclusion, in as many ways as we could. Aside from this aligning with our politics generally, we specifically wanted to punch Lovecraft’s bigotry in the face – to make the kind of game he would have thoroughly disapproved of.

We did this in a number of different ways:

  • We directly addressed Lovecraft’s racism and the attitudes towards mental illness that are embodied in his writing and (to a much greater extent) Lovecraftian roleplaying games. We had written some basic guidance on this ourselves, but included as stretch goals more detailed work on this, which (once funded) we included in the game book.
  • We included in the art specification a requirement that the art be diverse, showcasing characters who are female, ethnically diverse, LGBTQ and disabled. We specified ratios for these characters to deliberately put white dudes in a minority in the book’s art. We also asked our artist to avoid casting these characters as weak, submissive or sex objects – although the nature of the game meant none of the characters were kicking ass, as all were potentially going to be victims of something nasty.
  • When advertising for artists we specifically asked PoC and LGBTQ folks to put themselves forward. When approaching individual artists and writers, we aimed to draw on a diverse pool, again keeping white dudes in a minority. We weren’t sacrificing quality to do this – there is a great pool of diverse talent out there.
  • We paid all of our contributors the same highly competitive rates – well above what we understand to be the industry average – because we’d like roleplaying design and writing to be something people get properly rewarded for, especially for people who don’t have the privilege of a rockstar reputation (i.e. most of us).
  • Although we didn’t exactly set out to do this, the diverse team we’d recruited was probably directly responsible for the very diverse set of scenarios that came with the game – from those with a fairly traditional Lovecraft-ey setup to stuff HPL would never have dreamed of.

To judge by the enraged response of some less reconstructed gamers, and those who affect to be tired of political correctness, we succeeded in branding the product as diverse, inclusive and tackling bigotry. I believe we did more than that – we embedded those values in the game itself.

One of the illustrations for Lovecraftesque: a priest stands amongst the pews of a church, comforting a visibly stressed man, in whose lap is a notebook filled with drawings of a scary figure. In the background, the same scary figure is just visible pressed up against a stained glass window.
Did I mention I love our art?

The Kickstarter

Thanks to Kickstarter preserving everything in aspic, you can go and look at our campaign page now if you like. We tried to hit all the information someone might want to understand the product, get enthused and feel confident in us. So: a clear pitch that highlights what the game feels like to play, what makes it different, and what makes it fun; a clear explanation of what you’ll get if you back; a simplified version of the game for free download, to try-before-you-buy; samples of art and layout work; a detailed explanation of how we planned to spend the money; and an explanation of the risks including how we planned to mitigate them. Plus a video, because apparently that’s a good thing to have (I personally am not at all motivated by videos, but statistically I’m in a minority apparently). We got feedback from friends and more experienced people on the page prior to the launch and made changes in response. You know, this stuff isn’t really rocket science, but you do need to check these boxes to maximise chance of success, and we did.

We worked hard to publicise the game from a relatively weak starting position. We had established a presence in Indie G+ circles, over a period of 2-3 years, so we weren’t exactly invisible. Even so, as far as I can tell, we weren’t well known, nor did we have (much of) a following. So we wanted to counteract the newcomer disadvantage.

One way that we did that was by approaching people who were better known than us for stretch goals. This conflicted a bit with another goal of ours, which was to have a very diverse stretch goal team. Early on we deliberately went for an approximately 50/50 split between people with star power and other designers – all of whom, to be clear, we had chosen primarily for their talent and the fact we admired them. We also leaned towards people who seemed interested in horror gaming. I think the presence of both of these groups will probably have helped to generate interest from a broader community than we could have reached ourselves. The “star” writers will have reassured people who like reliable industry quantities. In addition to helping fulfill our mission to create a diverse and inclusive Lovecraft game (see above), the broader set of writers probably attracted backers who like to see a diverse team and who were fans of the somewhat more niche indie game design community.

Another thing we did was to approach a wide range of podcasts and blogs. In retrospect, I wonder if we actually undersold ourselves here. Having seen a friend’s recent media engagement plan, it was significantly more wide-ranging than ours. Possibly we didn’t reach as broad a roleplaying audience as we might have. But that’s not to underplay the level of activity – and quite frankly it’s hard to imagine how we could have done much more than we did, given the stage of life we were at (tiny children limited what we could realistically do). We are enormously grateful to people who hosted us on their shows or interviewed us for their blog, and I strongly suspect that this had an impact on our support – though I can’t prove it. Also, talking to people about our game was fun!

On top of that, we managed to attract interest from some big-name websites including the Mary Sue, Boing Boing and (after the campaign) Geek & Sundry. It’s still a bit of a mystery how we did this, other than having the bare-faced cheek to ask. I suspect the concept of a Lovecraft game that tackles diversity and inclusivity head-on helped. With that said, I saw precious little evidence in our referral data that these websites had an impact on our sales. We had google analytics set up on our kickstarter page, showing where people viewing the page had come from, together with kickstarter’s own analytics saying where our actual backers came from. So for example, Boing Boing got us a whopping 600 website referrals over the course of the campaign – but to judge from Kickstarter’s analytics, zero backers. On the other hand, the Mary Sue got us 160 views and 17 backers. These media splashes widened our reach beyond our wildest dreams, and probably did get us some backers (after all, some may have come back to the page later on, rather than being directly referred by an article). But it didn’t generate the deluge you might imagine, perhaps because they mainly extended our reach to people who weren’t that interested in roleplaying games – and so less likely to actually buy a copy.

While we’re on the subject of where backers came from… where did they come from, anyway? About 250 of our backers had got there from Kickstarter itself: the search page, the “discovery” pages, other campaigns, and so on. That’s nearly half our backers. We also got a lot from G+ and Facebook; some of these will have been friends, but not all. Again, not knowing if people were coming back having seen the campaign through a link but then looked it up later on, means we can’t be confident how they originally found out about the project.

We aimed for a steady flow of activity during the campaign, including stretch goal announcements, interviews and so on. We tried to strike a balance between regular updates, keeping things ticking over, and not overloading our backers (and social media feeds) with constant Lovecraftesque stuff. Again, this didn’t really have a visible impact on our stats, which conformed closely to the standard pattern, i.e. a big rush at the start, a lot of people jumping on at the end, and a pretty steady (low) rate of uptake in between. Again, we’re enormously grateful to everyone to shared our campaign and contributed to the buzz by talking about it, and I assume it had some impact. But nothing we did showed up in our stats particularly.

So… did any of this publicity work help? I mean, in a way it must have. Clearly, if you don’t talk about your game, nobody will know about it, so nobody will buy it. But despite collecting lots of data, there is very little evidence on which of this activity had an impact, and which didn’t. So I can’t say we really learned much, other than that the campaign obviously succeeded, so we got something right.

One thing we did not do is advertise. I’ve noticed recently some Kickstarters showing up as adverts in my Facebook feed. And I know at least one designer who has had some pretty good sales figures (not on Kickstarter) from advertising their RPG that way. We did consider doing this, but decided that spending a non-existent budget on advertising probably wasn’t the best plan. But I do wonder, having seen other people’s success, whether this was a mistake. It’s certainly something we’ll consider for the future.

One final interesting thing to ponder is the grabbiness of the game. People say that you can sell roleplayers anything with Cthulhu on it. We were in the weird position of effectively saying “Come and buy our Cthulhu game! Surprise, it doesn’t have Cthulhu in it, and it doesn’t work like a normal Cthulhu RPG, and we spend a big chunk of the text criticising and addressing HPL’s bigotry.” We know that at least a few people bought the game having not looked beyond the Lovecraftian brand (though we were excruciatingly clear on the campaign page what we were selling) and were then disappointed when they got the product. We could equally conjecture that some people were put off by the Lovecraftian brand, not having registered the ways that the game addressed the things that give Lovecraft a bad name. Still other people may have been drawn in by Cthulhu and not backed us when they saw what the game was really about.

In the end, we just don’t know how these things interacted. We had a very successful first Kickstarter, and we’re delighted by that.

In part 3, we’ll look at how we delivered our successfully funded kickstarter. Click here to read it.

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective

Just over 2 years ago, we launched the Lovecraftesque kickstarter. If you didn’t follow it at the time, it was a success – we raised £15000, over triple our funding goal. As we’re slowly moving towards a position where we might kickstart some more games[*], it seems timely to talk a bit about what went well, and what went less well.

It turns out there’s quite a lot to say, so this is part one in a multi-part series. Part two is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. This part looks at the planning we did ahead of the kickstarter.

Design phase

We started writing the game a good year before the kickstarter. We had a clear concept, and clear design goals.

We were very fortunate to get a lot of interest from potential playtesters, many of whom actually playtested the game. We asked clear, focused playtest questions. As a result, we got great feedback which allowed us to refine and streamline the game. I think this is visible in the quality of the design.

We already had a completed draft ready when we launched the kickstarter. I suspect that knowing the game was written was a selling point, for a debut project. It also meant that we had one less thing to worry about in the delivery phase.

Planning phase – printing and shipping costs

We put a great deal of thought into planning the kickstarter.

We identified potential printers, and took quotes from a few.  We plumped for delivery through Drivethru‘s printer, Lightning Source aka Ingram Spark. (We went direct to the printer rather than through Drivethru because the prices were slightly lower.) We’ve been delighted by the quality of the books they produced, and the price was reasonable – albeit a lot higher than if we had done a print run. They ship directly to customers, which is keeps things simple for us logistically.

In retrospect, however, we may have got this wrong. We now know that we could have got a significantly lower price per unit than we actually got if we had gone with a print run instead of POD. The sample of non-POD printers we looked at didn’t appear competitive, but perhaps our sample was too small, or maybe we should have asked for recommendations. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea; for smaller numbers, which is what we had anticipated, Print On Demand makes a lot of sense. It reduced our exposure to the risks entailed by up-front expenditure. It allowed us to produce as many copies as we wanted after the Kickstarter, because we didn’t have to decide on a number of copies in advance. However, knowing what we know now, we probably could have saved £1000s with a print run. This would be particularly true if we had gone for a single format rather than offering both softcover and hardcover.

Specifically: we priced our initial funding goal for just over 100 physical copies. In practice, we funded at triple our goal, including 400 physical copies. But perhaps more importantly, we underestimated the number of copies we might sell after the campaign. As of now, we’ve sold 1100 copies, and are still selling a steady stream. That’s easily enough for a print run. This would have entailed an up-front cost. But the cost reduction per unit (excluding shipping) would have been huge, at around a £5 saving per unit. A print run of 1500 would not have been much more expensive than producing 400 copies by POD. This excludes shipping, so may overestimate the benefits of a print run: but the lesson is that you should think ahead and at least consider whether a print run might work out better for you.

On which subject: the huge plus of using Lightning Source was that their shipping costs were very, very low. We had done our research and got the message: shipping can be expensive, especially international shipping. Lightning Source delivered to anywhere in the world (with a very small number of exceptions) for about £2-3. If we had a comparably successful product in future, this would be the one factor that might decide in favour of POD over a print run.

Planning phase – art and layout costs

For both art and layout, we researched and selected a shortlist of 3-4 individuals to approach for a quote, based on work they’d done before. We actively solicited a diverse pool of artists to shortlist from – something I’ll cover in more detail later on. For layout artists, this was based on looking at games we owned; for illustrators, we looked at the artist’s online portfolio. We selected partly based on price, and partly based on how much we liked the artist’s work. They were all great, or we wouldn’t have looked at them. We are really happy with the work our artists did.

One of the illustrations for Lovecraftesque: three children and their dog swim in a deep blue waterhole. A massive alien eye lurks at the very bottom of the picture.
I love commissioning art SO MUCH.

We set specific goals for book length, and number of illustrations, for our basic funding goal and each of our stretch goals. took into account the extra printing costs that this would mean, and got specific quotes for each goal, including for extra illustrations, scenarios and so on, from our artists, so that we knew in advance exactly how much we would be paying, even for stretch goals that we hadn’t set at the start of the project.

Planning phase – other stuff

We had looked at a dozen other (completed) RPG kickstarters of a range of types, to get an idea of what the likely distribution of rewards chosen would be. We had a good idea of what percentage would be PDF-only, softcover, hardcover and so on: and these predictions were largely right. This helped us to ensure we were setting the correct funding goal, because the amount of money you keep varies by reward level (simply put, PDF has no print or shipping costs, so you keep 100% of the money, while physical copies vary in their costs).

We sought advice and views from lots of people in the run-up to the campaign. The biggest source of advice was Google Plus, where people generously gave their views on a wide range of issues we were worrying about – including many experienced people sharing their knowledge of how to run a kickstarter. We were super-grateful for all the advice we got, which hugely enhanced the research we ourselves had done.

We approached a handful of designers we knew and admired to write scenarios and essays for our stretch goals. We were gratified by the response – almost all said yes. We had set ourselves a goal to offer rates that would be significantly above the market rate for RPG writing, which may have been a factor in people accepting work from a couple of randos they’d never heard of. We set a word limit for our stretch goal materials, and stuck very closely to it, which meant that again, we knew in advance how much we would be paying for this work.

Finally, we had a contingency fund of 10% of our total funds raised, to cover stuff that might go wrong. This was a very good decision that we took early on, and – by fluke – we spent it almost exactly. (I’ll mention here that we’d planned to give an equal share of any remaining contingency money to ourselves and our artists. It didn’t happen, because there was nothing left, but we still think it was a pretty good idea, and will likely take the same approach in future campaigns.)

The next part covers how we ran the campaign itself – and how we supported diversity and inclusion. Click here to read it.

[*] Yes, plural.

Some thoughts about GMless gaming

I’m a big fan of what is sometimes called GMless[1][2] gaming. I get things from it that I don’t get from GM’d gaming (whether I’m GMing or not). But there are also problems I or others in my group have experienced with GMless games, sometimes bad enough that it makes the experience unenjoyable. I’m going to use this post to talk about the good stuff and the bad stuff, and some things I like to do in my GMless design to mitigate the bad stuff.

This is the good shit

So why do I like GMless gaming? The main reason is simply that I love focusing in on one character, creating and developing them, advocating for them and pushing them along whatever journey they turn out to be on; but I also love getting my hands dirty creating and developing a world and situations, using those situations to create problems and opportunities for others and portraying more than one character. Some GM’d games allow me a bit of both[3], but it’s unusual for a GM’d game to scratch both itches at once. By contrast my best GMless experiences have given me both in spades. It’s a particular issue for campaign play, where I’m effectively committing to stay in one role for a long time – this nearly always leads to frustration that I can’t switch roles.[4]

There’s more, though! A big part of the fun of roleplaying, for me, is when I create something or do something and then others input to that in unexpected ways, and my own creation ends up going somewhere I couldn’t have planned or better yet boomeranging back and hitting me in the face. And while this does happen in GM’d games – everything the GM says or does can prompt unexpected action by a player, and vice versa – with GMless games I can literally create something and have someone else run off with it and make it part of something I had nothing to do with. A character I created could end up played by someone else, could literally hit my character in the face. The potential for creative interaction in a GMless game is particularly rich.[5]

Issues with GM’d play

There’s also an issue that can arise with GM’d play where the fact of one person having a superior position in terms of information and mechanical power leads to the rest of the players becoming kind of passive. At the extreme, it can lead to a sort of spoon feeding, where the GM is responsible for all the fun, and the players are only there to react to what they create. Many GM’d games have tried to break out of this in various ways (see footnote 3 below for examples) but it is devilishly difficult to create the mindset of active contribution once it sets in. In fact, it can be extremely difficult to get a group into GMless gaming, once they’ve got into this mindset – something I’ll discuss later.

Indeed, GM’d play can create a lot of pressure for the Chosen One who must turn up every week with ideas and energy. There’s no rest for them. A player can sit back and be a bit passive on a given session (or even over a whole campaign, if they’re so inclined). As long as they haven’t ended up in the role of group leader (which has some similar issues), they can engage or coast and the game mostly copes. This can be a plus for the individual and for the group, since the game doesn’t fall over if one person is wiped out. But by contrast if the GM is exhausted or not in the mood (or worse, burned out), the game cannot proceed. It dies. So many games have met this fate – I can’t imagine anyone who has played a GM’d game hasn’t experienced it. GMless play carries risks of its own in this regard (see below) but it doesn’t rely on one person to be awesome all the time.

Problems with GMless play

Alright, that’s my two big positives for GMless gaming, and my two big negatives for GM’d gaming. But I’ve said that I have had problems with GMless too – let’s talk about those. Let me say right now that some of these issues aren’t exactly new blinding insights, and there’s lots of tools out there for dealing with them, which I’ll talk about as we go.

Direction, energy and structure

There’s a big one around direction, energy and structure. Sometimes in the absence of a GM there’s nothing to stop the game kind of meandering or stalling. There’s several ways this can happen. One is on a scene-by-scene basis, where nobody really has an idea for what a scene should be “about” or where it’s going, and so it just fizzles. But then, on a story level, a bunch of energetic scenes may not really add up to much, and the overall arc of the game becomes frustrating or boring. This is I think a particular problem if a group includes players who aren’t used to being in a GM-like role, who tend to play passively and not want to push things in any given direction.

On the other hand, the opposite can happen. One person might be so pushy or definite in their ideas that they take over every scene and become de facto GM. Or two or more people may be trying to do stuff at the same time, creating a different type of lack of direction. And one way that this can spill over in the opposite direction is where people feel the only way to effectively contribute to the game is to fire exciting things at each other, in an escalating pattern that is sometimes called Going Gonzo.

Direction, energy and structure problems generally come from two things: a lack of common creative ideas, and a lack of structure in the game design itself. This can easily lead to meandering or chaotic play, and if players aren’t listening to each other and simply pushing their own ideas, it can also lead down the path of Gonzo. Fortunately there’s lots of approaches to help deal with this:

  • For the group, discussing and agreeing what the game might be about before the game, and perhaps during as well. Things like Microscope’s palette are simple tools to get yourselves on the same page.[6] Caerllion introduces the neat idea of a Lodestone which tells everyone broadly what the story is going to focus on.
  • For the individual, actively listening to others’ contributions and responding to them, as opposed to waiting for them to guide the scene to wherever they might be headed or trying to jump in and provide some impetus of your own.
  • For the designer, avoiding an entirely freeform approach to the game’s design, but helping to provide nudges towards the particular kind of play you want to see in your game. This can take many forms: you can create specific types of scene which help the players to focus on a particular kind of action; you can structure the overall arc of the game; you can provide prompt lists so people don’t draw a blank; you can mechanise the way that players contribute, constraining what they can do; and more besides. What you’re trying to do here is make sure that nobody comes to a scene without a clear focus, and perhaps give them a menu of approaches to reduce the risk of drawing a blank and reinforce the tone of the game.
  • (When it comes to introducing structure you have to be careful, of course, that you don’t remove all the interest from the game. There has to be player input to the action, else why play at all? The best structured games exert a light touch and leave a lot of undefined space where player creativity steps in.)
  • A particular approach I’m fond of is to explicitly call out who is responsible for the direction of a particular scene. I’m not saying someone has an idea and then railroads everyone else into following it (though you could do that). But in every scene someone – mandated by the rules – is responsible for framing a difficult situation, or introducing adversity, or preceding the scene with a question which everyone is trying to answer, or similar. This avoids diffusion of responsibility and reduces the risk of meandering; and as long as this responsibility rotates, it can help prevent one person taking over.

Mysteries, secrecy and black boxes

By the way, a particular subset of direction issues arises from the Black Hole problem, where someone creates a mystery or black box of some sort and then neglects to resolve it. For example, I introduce a character who is clearly up to something, but I refuse to make it clear what that something is and seem to be hoping someone else will make the decision for me. The bottom line here is that you shouldn’t do this, and not doing it needs to be a part of every GMless game’s guidance. It can be ok to introduce something and ask someone else to define it for you, but this does generally require you to explicitly ask them to do so, not simply expect them to guess that you’re hoping they’ll do it. So, it’s ok to have a mysterious stranger carrying a black box – but then you either need to decide what’s in it and make that true, or ask someone else what’s in it and be guided by what they say.

Related to the above is the general problem of secrecy. If I want to play a game with a mystery in it, one that is genuinely mysterious, it necessary to have a person who owns that mystery and secretly knows what’s really going on? You might think so, because otherwise two people with conflicting ideas might unknowingly undermine each other, and anyway how can something be really mysterious unless I have no part in defining that mystery? Having ownership of mysteries is not a bad idea – and it doesn’t necessarily require a GM, you could just make it clear when you introduce your black box that it’s yours, you know what’s in it, and everyone else should defer to you in matters black box-related. But it is possible to have a mystery that nobody owns without it not being mysterious. Lovecraftesque does this – at the end of every scene, the players individually and secretly “leap to conclusions” about what happened in the scene, so that everyone has their own pet theory about what’s in any black boxes that may have been introduced. And because only one person is Narrator at one time in Lovecraftesque, there will always be moment-to-moment consistency about what the black box seems to be. This does require you to pay attention in every scene, so that your pet theory remains consistent with everything that has happened! But I would argue that’s a good thing.

Role hopping

Another problem which seems to be more major for some people than for others is the issue of hopping between roles, so that you feel a lack of connection or commitment to any one of them. A particularly important subset of this is a feeling of not being able to “immerse” in a character, because you’re too busy trying to think about things outside of them. It seems as though there can be a conflict of interest – and a difference of mental attitude – between advocating for one character and guiding the “story”[7] or the broader elements of the game world, which can prevent people from really getting into either one.

This, it seems to me, is a challenge that hasn’t quite been answered by any one game as yet. However the approach we took with Lovecraftesque, and which I’m taking with my game Flotsam, is to avoid it by making role changes much more structured and well delineated. In other words, I don’t ask you to play your character and be the GM at the same time – I ask you to do both roles, but at different times. In this way you can dedicate yourself to one job at a time. Flotsam attempts to make this flexible, by giving you permission to step outside your character and make GM-like contributions, but also making sure there’s nearly always at least one person who is on point as GM, who will deal with any GM-like contributions when they’re needed, so that you have permission not to do it when you’re focusing on your character. Flotsam is being playtested at the moment, so it remains to be seen how successful I’ve been there. Another possible approach to mitigate the problem is to make parts of the game off-limits to GMly intervention, safe spaces for “pure” in character interaction where you can focus on being your character. Indeed, When the Dark is Gone applies such an approach to an entire game (I suspect it may also be a common approach in LARP, where GM interventions pose other problems).

Too much like hard work

A final problem to mention is the “everyone awesome, all the time” problem. The problem with everyone being GM is that the issue I identified earlier on, of constant pressure on the GM, applies to everyone. I’m expected to contribute to every scene, I have to be always creatively ready to pick up what others create and build on it. This can be exhilarating! It can also be exhausting. And it means if anyone comes to the game not really ready to contribute, then the game may stall. If a lot of the group are tired or feeling passive, then it can start to feel like a GM’d game where one person ends up taking the reins. It also can be off-putting for many groups who aren’t used to the pressure of being switched on for a whole session, or simply don’t want to have to be. This may explain why a lot of GMless games are designed for one-shot play: short, intense, and over before you get too tired.

I think this last is chiefly a problem for us game designers. We need to find ways to design our games that allow people to step back and take a break. Don’t create a setup where everyone is always on. (Or maybe do, but then make it a one-shot and/or encourage breaks.) You can do this by not having a fixed requirement on who is involved in a scene, so that those with the energy pick it up and get involved, while those who are tired spectate; or you can do it by having a fixed requirement by making sure that it rotates around, leaving everyone with quiet periods they can just watch and listen. Again, in Flotsam I’m trying to design a system that lets people switch in and out in a fairly flexible way, choosing how actively they want to be involved – we’ll see how well it works in practice.

Final thoughts

I’ll just finish off by saying that a lot of these problems can be solved on a group-by-group basis through a culture of listening, give and take, common ideas about what’s fun and so forth. Some groups may be so good at this that these problems don’t even arise. That’s great – but not every group has this, and it can be challenging to develop such a culture. As a game designer I want to help everyone to get a good experience from my games by providing tools which reduce these problems regardless of what group they’re in.

Ok! That was long. I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences or approaches to cracking some of these problems. Please do give your views in comments.

 

[1] “GMless” is sometimes replaced by the word “GMful”, which I believe to be interchangeable with “GMless”, and merely a way of emphasising that in a GMless game, everyone gets to be GM. I have also seen “GMful” used to mean a game where the GM role exists but different people occupy it at different times.

[2] As far as I’m concerned, any game that doesn’t have a single person who has primary responsibility for describing the world, playing the bulk of the characters (except for the “player characters”) and generating any adversity required for the game, is at least partly GMless. Sometimes that’s because the role exists but rotates, sometimes it’s broken down or structured and handed out amongst the group, sometimes it simply doesn’t exist.

[3] Games like FATE have mechanics that give me temporary ability to narrate stuff outside my character, PBTA games usually include a bit of co-authorship for the world in the form of question-asking, and arguably most GM’d games at least give you some creative input on stuff outside your character such as key NPCs connected to them.

[4] GM burnout being a good example – though that is also caused by the pressure that a highly GM-led gaming approach tends to heap on the GM.

[5] There’s a whole set of ways in GM’d gaming where you can create stuff that literally never interacts with anyone else. The secret backstory nobody ever finds out about. The mega-plot that nobody knew was happening. Even the notorious cases where the plot is a railroad, with the players forming a passive audience to it. I’m not going to say this can’t happen in GMless gaming, but the whole setup makes it pretty obvious to all concerned that if you didn’t say it out loud, it hasn’t happened yet, so secret plot and backstories could get nixed by someone else any time; and railroading is essentially impossible. Good!

[6] These same tools are useful for ensuring a consistent genre and tone as well – which can potentially be a problem, but in my experience much easier to solve.

[7] I put “story” in quotes there because I don’t buy into the often-promulgated idea that GMless games mean everyone just focuses on the story and everything else is secondary. This is not how I play GMless games at all! It is true that I sometimes take individual decisions differently “for the good of the story” but it’s very much not the main approach. I dedicate myself to the fictional situation and push it forward, while actively trying to get my contributions to engage with what others are doing, and I don’t particularly worry about “is this making a good story”. For me, story is something that doesn’t happen in any given decision or moment, and it’s something that one only really needs to pay attention to when things are going wrong.