Our Ground is Level and Our Table is Round

A lot of people have asked me to talk about how we do things at Story Games Seattle. We’ve had a lot of luck getting hordes of people to sit down, play games and have fun. What’s our recipe?

If you’re bringing new people into gaming you could say there are actually two phases. The first is the Invite, persuading them to actually sit down and try it. The second is the Experience, playing in a way that they enjoy and would want to do again. I’ve touched on the Invite in other places so this article is about the second part, the Experience.

The Kind of Games We Play

We get new people coming in nearly every week. Most of them have never played story games. Some have played “traditional” role-playing games like D&D or World of Darkness, but we get a lot of people who’ve never played any role-playing games. At all. Ever.

We also get an entirely different mix of people every week. All our games are one-shots, so people can come one week, miss a week or two if they’re busy, and come back later with no problem. In the last two years I don’t think we’ve ever gotten the exact same crew two weeks in a row.

At each session we welcome everybody, make introductions, explain a few things about how we’re going to play, and then ask people to pitch games so we can break into groups and play.

What kind of games do we play? There are two main guidelines:

1) No GM

2) No prepared games (meaning, no one comes to the table having already prepared what’s going to happen in the game — learning rules or printing stuff does not count)

These aren’t just personal preference. I made these rules to put everyone on an equal footing as soon as humanly possible. Our goal is not to provide entertainment. Our goal is to get everyone to recognize that their creative contribution–the crazy stuff that comes out of their mouth–is an essential ingredient to making the game awesome.

Why no GM? Our table is round.

If you’re reading this you’re probably an experienced gamer. But forget everything you know about role-playing games. Imagine you show up somewhere to try something new, to play a game with total strangers. Be creative, they say. But one person seems to be in charge and have final authority over what everyone else is allowed to do or make up.

Weird, right? That’s not a very normal social situation and it certainly isn’t going to make you feel like an equal participant. Because you’re not. But that’s what GMing looks like if you take a step back and squint.

But in a GMless game, no one’s sitting at the head of the table. We’re all equal. The table is round.

Even the perception of inequality can sabotage participation. Because we have lots of new people and lots of new games, we usually have facilitators, someone who has volunteered to teach everyone else the rules. And there is a danger of mistaking the facilitator for a GM (particularly among players accustomed to GM’ed games). We go out of our way to make it clear that this is not the case, that while they are there to teach and remind us of the rules the facilitator has no special authority beyond that. They’re playing the game like everyone else.

Why no Prep? Our ground is level.

People are generally pretty respectful of each other (and hey, would you want to game with anyone who wasn’t?). For example, we respect the time someone puts into something. And we should.

If you know someone at the table already spent X hours preparing material for the game (like writing an adventure) before you even sat down, by definition they have more stake in the game than you do. They put X hours into it and you’ve put in zero so far. You are likely to recognize (consciously or not) that in fairness they should have more say in what happens than you do. You know they have more investment and therefore more ownership. It’s “their” thing not “our” thing.

Again, baked-in inequality. Instead we play games that are designed so that decisions are made together by the people sitting at the table. Everyone starts off with equal creative contribution. We all start on level ground.

When we say “prep” we specifically mean decisions about the fiction, the creative stuff in the game. Reading the rules and and printing out blank character sheets is tremendously useful (and someone’s got to do it) but that doesn’t influence what we’ll make up when we play, so it isn’t an issue.

A lot of the games we play start off with a very blank slate (Shock, Microscope, Fiasco) but even if a game starts to create the world or framework for us (Mars Colony, A Penny for My Thoughts, Polaris) that’s okay because we players at the table are still equal contributors. It works even if the game builds a whole world and scenario for us brick-by-brick (Montsegur 1244).

Spoiler: We Have Lots of Fun

So our ground is level and our table is round. Does it work? Do people jump in and embrace their unexpected creative power?

I could tell you I fired up the UNIVAC-9000 and fed it punch cards to collate all the data and spit out a multivariate analysis of gamer satisfaction but I’d be lying. Can you even buy punch cards anymore? The only science I have is attendance, which has gone progressively through the roof in the two years since I took over the group and started doing things this way. Our biggest problem? Not enough chairs.

Anecdotally I can say that I’ve seen people’s faces light up in glee when they realize they are the creative engine that is making the bus go. There’s this “a ha!” moment when it dawns on them that everyone else at the table really, really wants to hear what they have to say.

People get to be creative (to some degree) in any role-playing game. With this recipe they get to be the ones making the magic, now. And that’s pretty cool.

    Ben Robbins | May 1st, 2012 | , , | hide comments
  1. […] lot about why I set up Story Games Seattle the way I did. Why I intentionally focused on games with no GM and no prep, games that give each player the same creative authority. Games that might even require each person […]

  2. #4 ben robbins says:

    Thanks Lachlan.

    There’s a huge difference between maliciously trying to cause trouble and just having ideas that aren’t popular. Different games have different rules to deal with disagreement. Resolving creative disagreement is a normal part of any role-playing game. You could even say it’s the primary ingredient.

    But if someone is actually trying to sabotage the game or make it less fun for others… that’s a whole different ball of wax. As an organizer I’m very tolerant of “social jitters” people have as they come into a new environment and are trying to simultaneously find their place and prove themselves. A little bit of social collision is normal. And lots of times hostility is just a reaction to what the person perceives as an attack against them (Walk a Mile in Their Dice: The practical limitations of “Don’t be a dick”). But if it seems clear to me that a person is intentionally trying to make the game less fun for others, I have zero tolerance. As the organizer it’s my responsibility to boot them.

    But say there’s no GM or event organizer and you’re just a bunch of people sitting around the table. What do you do? Well what would you do in any other social situation where someone was being a jerk? It totally depends on what’s happening, but all the reactions that would apply to any other social situation apply to gaming too, from confronting them and talking about it to just getting up and walking away. Just because we sit down together to play doesn’t mean we give up our social rights or agree to put up with abusive behavior.

    Having a GM (or organizer) vested with “make people behave” authority is actually the odd case. In day-to-day life we don’t have a GM around. We work things out ourselves.

  3. #3 Lachlan says:

    Hi Ben,

    Great article. Some interesting points on making the games easily accessible for beginners.

    Maybe you don’t get this sort of problem in your groups, but I was wondering how you deal with griefers? Do you ever get people who are either actively trying to throw a spanner in the works or whose choices just generally seem very unpopular with the other players? Maybe they’ve just had a bad day/week and decide that going contrary to everyone else’s plans/constructions would be fun?

    Anyway, given the GM-less structure, what do you generally do in these situations? Does the group just get to vote to veto stuff the player did?

  4. #2 ben robbins says:

    @ Chris: Linking to articles is fine of course. Short quotes with links is fine by fair use, but really no more than a few sentences — if people want to read more they can just follow the link. Copying and reposting articles or anything more than short excerpts is never okay without my explicit permission.

    In other words: fair use.

  5. #1 Chris says:

    Ben Robbins, sorry for off topic comment to your post, I couldn’t find your email. Call this ‘how we share our writing’? What is your feeling about cited reuse of your content on another website. I envision three scenarios:

    1.) a link to one of your articles
    2.) actual posting of entire article w/author and site of origin info as a forum thread conversation starter.

    3.) mining for nuggets for inclusion in a larger separate piece. Here’s an example of this one: http://necromancergames.yuku.com/topic/12494

    I’m writing with a heads up that I want to use your work in one or all of the ways just listed and would like to know how you handle this sort of thing.

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