Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Random Thoughts About GM-less Play

If you're interested in playing adventures on the fly or without a GM, there's a requirement to kind of just dive in and trust what's coming at you much like improv. Saying yes, setting up the player, trust - these are words you'll hear in a improv class and while I haven't played any group gmless play, I've tried playing solo on the fly and I'm sure that these improv "rules" are essential to making a gm-less/ on the fly (with a gm as well) group session successful.

But is it practical to just wing it? I'm looking for some sort of structure that can prompt or help details to emerge without it being forced. Without structure there's just too much chance for it all to fall apart especially if the players are not 100% committed. I do love random tables and I think that they can work well but sometimes it just - yes - feels random and the success of a story evolving in a engaging way must depend entirely on the luck of the roll for successful elements to emerge. I prefer more creative control. What if you could design adventures and have them still be entirely surprising and unpredictable?

What I like most about WOTC's Castle Ravenloft(board game) is the dungeon tile deck. Essentially an entire adventure is programmed/ prepared by what tiles are in the deck. Shuffling the deck, obviously keeps the players from guessing what's around the corner and when the big boss fight happens. While I really love this mechanic about the game, I think WOTC kind of missed the boat on this one though - there's so much more possibilities. Essentially you shuffle a bunch of the random dungeon tiles (which can only affect game play by either prompting 1 monster to appear or 1 monster and a trap to appear) with a end tile (for the boss or ending of the adventure) shuffled into the last 3-5 random tiles.

This could be better:
A) toss some "story" tiles in there where where some kind of event connected with the plot occurs to build dramatic tension or create difficulty for the characters. By appropriately placing story tiles you could create some sort of narrative arc.

B) If the characters have to make a choice on a certain tile maybe that requires placing another "story tile" later in the deck that is connected with the choice made. Or maybe the deck forks into two separate decks. Maybe even the party splits up.

Recently, I stumbled across the adventure funnel: a brilliant simple adventure design template

Check it out:

The reason this works well, is exactly why all modern drama works well. Characters face obstacles - bumping up against problems and forces that are trying to stop them. This is what helps make a story engaging.

So what does all this have to do with gm-less play?

Here's some thought's I've been messing around with inspired by the adventure funnel and Castle Ravenloft:

1) Come up with an adventure hook.
2) Character defines their objective/goal
3) players ask themselves "what could get in my way"? "what obstacles will I face" or "what am I afraid of happening"?
4) Very quickly and without much thought, write out a bunch of answers on note cards or small pieces of paper. Maybe 20 or 30. Get a good variety of different things. The differences can be subtle too. This will be your adventure deck.
5) shuffle them together and then remove half of them.
6) Add 3-5 cards into the mix with "random" written on them.
7) Add a boss/climax of narrative card in
8) Maybe a few cards that give you some rest of a break from all the conflict (positive random cards)
9) Begin the narrative and try to achieve your characters goals.
10) draw a card. This is your first encounter/obstacle/problem that you have to deal with. How do you deal with it?
11) Whenever you draw a random card, create an obstacle using the mythic rpg event meaning table


A rescue adventure. A PC's village has been over run by trolls. Most of the villagers are enslaved and taken to a cavern deep in the hills south of the village.

Find and help the villagers safely escape the troll lair.


Troll guard, Spotted!, they know they are being followed, dark cavern, lost, can't find tracks, storm outside, troll beast dogs, trolls are outrunning you, villager/villagers are beginning to be massacred/eaten, no food, wolves at night, bandits, cave snakes, cave gate, large gap - no bridge, startled, giant bats, giant rats, giant troll pet

end/boss/climax cards: troll lord, escape

Some obstacle random cards I might draw based on my mythic results (I roll this when I draw them so it is indeed random and in line with the logic of wherever the story might be at that time): Oppress/Military (Troll sentry's are everywhere!), Triumph/Weapons (A troll flame thrower blasts down the tunnel directly at me!), Starting/ Pain (poisonous gas chamber)

some positive random cards I draw: Release/Dreams (here is my chance to silently wake the villagers while not getting any attention), arrive/ dispute (the trolls are arguing and distracted, I can sneak by).

Obviously you don't want too many randomly good cards because the whole point is to creatively find solutions to the obstacles.

The narrative is about connecting dots. But for gm-less play, you're at least not entirely winging it. You have a structure and there are elements that you respond to in order to move the story forward.

I've tried this a few times solo and have found that I really get caught up in the story. Having half the deck disappear of what you'll expect to confront and then adding some random obstacles feels right and similar to life. I know when I'm dealing with something I dread, there are obstacles I can predict (but not entirely sure what) and then of course there's random shit that I never would have expected both positive and negative.

What I'm still thinking through:

a way that choices affect the deck later on, determining balanced ability checks/ encounters without "cheating". I also think you could divide an adventure up into two parts and creating two different decks for each part. For example.
Chapter 1: Finding the troll lair.
Chapter 2: Rescue!

I've also thought about a details/location deck that you draw simultaneously from.

For example:

I know I'm going to the troll cave so I write (in stream of conscious) a bunch of cave elements or details in the adventure:

Damp, dark, underground river, vines, old skeletons, rotting flesh, troll shit, howling wind in tunnel, troll grunts, trolls sniffing, child crying, slimy rock, tight space, bon fire, troll drums, crazy troll ritual,
ancient ruins, captured wizard (can he help?), broken club, rocky ledge, light up ahead, pitch black, jeweled necklace, sacrifice, torture, trolls having sex...etc

Obstacle "giant bat" gets drawn with "tight space"
or "lost" and "child crying"
or "troll beast dog" and "rocky ledge"
or "trolls sniffing" with "troll lord"

its up to you to justify this in the narrative, connect the dots and make a story. This took me about 4 minutes to write out all the elements and "plan" my adventure.

I may try to detail a solo session soon.

any thoughts...?


Dreamer said...

Hi lj,

I found your blog through JF's solonexus blog.

I've been partial to the use of cards as opposed to random tables. Before settling on using tarot-like cards, I had thought of creating story cards. I opted for the tarot-like cards out of laziness, but also because I thought that the vagueness would keep the story more unpredictable and surprising.

I think that your suggestion of removing half of your adventure cards is a cool alternative to that, though. And you proved that with your solo play through. :)

lj said...

Hey Dreamer

Thanks for stopping by. I've never tried tarot-like cards but may give it a shot. I like the idea of combining my preconceived plot/obstacle cards with cards that are more open to interpretation like a rolling on the mythic event chart. I may try adding tarot cards or "story cubes" into the mix and see what happens.

After testing this again today, I actually think that creating a second detail deck that I draw from whenever I draw a new obstacle/event, actually keeps the story very unpredictable and many details I could have never preconceived emerge. It's interesting to see what is evoked from drawing something like "troll lord" and "pitch black".

I plan on writing more in the next few days. Maybe a way to combine this into a dungeon crawl where the story deck is combined with dungeon tiles themselves (room description on one side, and obstacle/event on other).

I glanced at your blog too - lots of interesting of stuff. Hope to read some of your session reports soon.

Dreamer said...

Cool, I actually like that idea too. On the Mythic side, Tom Pigeon released a free description table with the same structure as the action/subject table. Mixing the results from the description table with the action/subject one has that effect of adding "mood" and "feel" to the interpretation.

However, what you are has other advantages that the Mythic tables and tarot cards don't have:

1) you can cut down on interpretation (or make it easier). Sometimes I get stuck trying to interpret something, and I'm too stubborn to re-roll or draw another tarot card. :)

2) you can control ahead of time the kind of mood/feel a session is going to have because the results are more focused. In that way, it's a bit like the custom Event Tables from Mythic Variations, but much more fleshed out.

I hope you find something useful in my play reports, but I warn you they're kind of scatter brained, lol. I too look forward to seeing some of your actual play reports using this system!

Dreamer said...

Correction: "However, what you are has other advantages that the Mythic tables and tarot cards don't have:"

should read "However, what you are doing has other advantages that the Mythic tables and tarot cards don't have:"

Dreamer said...

Got here again from your comment on the "Challenging the player" post on my blog. Good to read this post again as it was pretty awesome.

I've been meaning to reply to your comment back on my blog, but every time I got ready to write a reply something came up at work.

I finally wrote a semi-coherent reply here: