Monday, September 30, 2013

GM's Water Cooler: Choosing Your Own Adventure

I think it all started with Choose Your Own Adventure books. As a kid, reading was fun, but there was nothing like this! I could make the decisions, and see how they would play out! By crafting the stories with a point of view perspective, not only was I making choices about narrative, but I was making choices about myself. At first I’d simply decide which of the two possibilities seemed the most interesting, but eventually I began to try and imagine what choice the person whose eyes I was peering out from would do, and choose appropriately.

That, I think, is what led me to role-playing.

It wasn't long thereafter that I was recruited into a D&D game with my friend’s older brother, and then played in other role-playing games. While I did get to pretend to be someone else, I still could not fully choose my own adventure, as the game master ultimately decided what choices I had. Naturally, this led to running my own games, ostensibly with the idea that I’d run the game I wanted to play.

After getting some experience as a dungeon master, I finally gave my play group the Holy Grail choice I always wanted as a player. I was nervous, and excited. It went something like this:

Me: “OK, you all are in a bar. You have all of the gear on your character sheet, the you grew up in this small town and have heard all the tales of lost treasures, abandoned towers, haunted forests, etc. So – what do you want to do?”

The players: “Ummmm…”

As a player in a role playing game, we accept certain constraints. The world our characters are in is this way.  My character sheet says I can do these things well, and I’m not too good at doing these other things. The dungeon has an entrance, an exit, and numbered rooms with 3 goblins, a table, and a chest containing a 20 silver and 34 copper pieces. The module states that defeating Lareth nets the party 2500xp. In a lot of ways, many of us were taught that a roleplaying game was one in which you were free to act as you (or your character) choose, but only within certain limitations.

Interestingly, early editions of D&D rejected this philosophy to some extent, by virtue of both characters that are defined only by a very limited set of mechanics, and Gygax’s seemingly contradictory approach of defining lots of highly-detailed rules and tables, while simultaneously advising to use some of it, none of it, or all of it as you see fit. Player-generated adventuring was embraced to some degree via the hexcrawl. A hexcrawl game gave the players a wide-open sandbox to work with, much of it unknown at the start to both the player and the GM. I’d love to revisit this at some point now, using the fantastic rule set over at The Alexandrian.

In recent years, that paradigm has changed, both in roleplaying games and games in general. Savage Worlds and the D20 system are the first games I played that introduced a mechanic allowing you to spend a disassociated resource to influence your rolls and, sometimes, narratively state what is true (thought I’ll bet many of you can point to other systems that did it first). Fiasco forces the players to create their own preferred fiction* at the start, and then sand-box it from there. FATE does this quite well, abstracting things and boiling them down to simple aspects to be tagged. Diaspora does both, with its fantastic cluster creation minigame.

The latest Star Wars system, Edge of the Empire, requires players to narrate their dice rolls, forcing the players to declare what is actually happening, or negotiate it with the game master.

I’ve been running an EtoE game intermittently for the last several months, and after seeing it in action, began to think this system might have what it takes. Part of what made me think it was possible was not entirely the system, but rather the setting. I try to run my Star Wars game as if it were a film, calling out the actor playing a PC and setting up a scene in cinema terms (things entering from frame-right, lighting direction, narrating screenwipes, etc).

As Star Wars, as originally espoused, was a modern take on old Flash Gordon serials, each adventure can be disassociated from the campaign as a whole. This is quite helpful. As a serial, each session is self-contained to some extent, allowing it to be ‘reset’ in the same way that each episode of the A-Team begins at the same point, independent of the previous adventure. 

This setting/system combination seemed spot on to try my Holy Grail experiment again. I came into the session with nothing planned, a book full of pre-generated NPCs, and grabbed a Rolling Stone magazine as a reference to pull ideas from if needed.

Again, I was nervous, this time that 1) the players would not realize how to create their own narrative, and 2) that I would not be able to ‘keep up’ with them, and follow through on their choices in a way that was both easy and exciting. Of course, all such fears were instantly dismissed, as it was an absolute blast. The players took to it like a Dianoga to trash.

Going forward I’m not so sure I want to sit down with absolutely nothing planned going into a session, but I might! Its also good to know that if someone didn’t show up for some other game we had scheduled to play, I could break out EtoE at a moment’s notice and collectively create a satisfying session.

Now I just have to figure how to use my finger to bookmark the page so that if I don’t like the outcome generated by the player’s choice, I can go back and choose a different page.

*blog tagline reference entirely intentional


  1. I have yet to go into a GM session with 0% prep: I probably could, but it's not my style. My style is:

    - Go in with 3-7 'unsinkable objects'; these are the things essential to the session. Four to five of these is probably the magic number.

    - Bring toys! You shouldn't be introducing any more than 1-2 new characters per scene (so that makes 1-2 per unsinkable). More characters than that is fine, but they should be well-known by your group already. Any more than this and things get muddy.

    - Be reactive. Your players, oddly enough, are your BEST FRIENDS as GM. They will come up with things you had not thought of in prep. Reward their expectations- or dash them- but always keep them in mind. Whatever you have planned will become more interesting when you hit the gaming table. And with that in mind:

    - The dice are your absolute best friends! Whatever you thought might or might not happen, the dice have the final say. The dice can make thing happen that neither you or the table planned for...and that is extra awesome. Submit to the power of the dice, and they will lead you to unexpected treasures.

    And that is all I have to say on this matter, apart from this: if you 100% know what is going to happen in each session as either player or GM, someone is doing it wrong. The beauty of the genre is a degree of unpredictability..otherwise you are better off playing tic-tac-toe.

  2. I agree in regards to unpredictability - this is, in fact, why you are playing with other people, right? For me there's something very alluring about the possibility of, as a player, having a wide-open world in front of you. Its then a true sandbox, and the whole process functions like a great improv comedy session with dice.

    One thing most games offer to the player is the illusion of choice. Sure, they can do whatever they want, but I'm going to strongly hint what path I want them to take, or offer some token to get them to choose that path (implied xp rewards, advancement of the plot, resolving a multi-session issue, etc). Hell, as a young Dungeon Master, keeping my rolls hidden from the players so I could change them when I wanted, 'Illusion of Choice' was my gaming mantra, so that sessions stayed on track, and flowed the way I wanted them to. The older I get, the more I want to simply be an instrument of reactivitiy, or, even more so, a facilitator for players to tell whatever story is in their head. It was a big moment for me when I started rolling in front of my players!

    This wide-open style is not an end-all goal to supersede any other method of playing, just a different style of play, no more or less valid than the paradigms you outlined above. As a player (and a GM), I find this method quite intriguing, and full of a whole other set of gameplay possibilities.