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if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

“If you like role-playing games, you have to like people” (GMless RPGs, PAX 2015)

PAX GMless RPGs Talk

When I saw the slot for my talk about GMless RPGs at PAX, I was pretty skeptical whether anyone would be there. Friday morning, an hour after the doors opened? Would the crickets even show up?

I think the first few seconds of the audio should answer that question…

(or download the MP3 if you’d rather)

It’s hard to hear some of the questions from the audience, but you can usually get the gist from my answers. I also cut out a minute or two where I drew a diagram of a Shock conflict, because it totally does not translate to radio.

Given the mob of people from the talk who showed up at the indie RPG area demanding to play all the games — and all the great Microscope games I got to play as a result — I declare the talk a success!

related links:

GMless RPG talk (Norwescon 2013)

“Imagine a third kid there who’s very quiet, who never says anything”

Now imagine me standing in front of a room full of people, talking about GMless role-playing games for an hour. Too hard? No problem! Like magic you can just listen in as though you were there…

Fifty-four minutes of anecdotes of human awesomeness peppered with outbursts of laughter. You can also download the MP3 if you prefer.

Related links:

Stay tuned, more Norwescon panels are on the way.

Defining Story Games

But first a caveat. Nailing down definitions can turn into a horrible quagmire, particularly when we’re tackling words that lots of people already use but define differently, or use without an actual definition just a case-by-case “I can’t explain it but I know it when I see it”.

But without definitions words can be treacherous. The worst case scenario isn’t that we disagree about a definition and argue about it for hours on end, it’s that we don’t even realize we disagree. We both use the same word and think we’re on the same page but really we mean entirely different things. That’s a communication nightmare that can sabotage the best of intentions in discussion or at the gaming table.

Language is organic, mutable and constantly evolving. I don’t harbor any illusions that I get to decide what words mean. But at least if you’re talking to me you’ll know what I mean when I say “story games.”

How Story Games were described to me

When I started playing story games here’s how they were described to me: A story game is a role-playing game where the participants focus on making a story together instead of just playing “their guy.” The alternative–which I played 100% of the time for more than two decades–would be adventure games like D&D, where your character is your turf.

Yep, I said adventure games. I’ve used the term “traditional games” a lot but in hindsight it’s a terrible term for the games we’ve loved for decades. Back in the 70s and 80s these same “traditional” games were frickin’ radical. I think “adventure game” is a better term. In an adventure game it’s the job of the players to beat the adventure the GM presents. Again, not my invention: “adventure game” was a common term for D&D etc. back in the day. Shippensburg was officially the Shippensburg Adventure Game Camp.

In adventure games your job is to play your character and make good decisions for them. If you mess up (or roll badly) your character can die and be removed from the game. In a story game any character you play is a facet of the shared story. You may even sabotage your own character or spin them into tragedy because it makes the story more interesting. It’s a shift from “what would my character try to do” to “what do I want to have happen to my character” and in the story at large.

How I define Story Games: the Acid Test

That was several years ago. I’ve played a lot of different story games since then. Some good, some great and yes some terrible games too.

After playing all those games and explaining story games to lots and lots of people, I find that “a game that focuses on making a story” is a good description but not a very useful definition. It doesn’t identify specific differences. You could look at almost any role-playing game and say “hey, we were all about making a great story in our D&D game!” and you wouldn’t be wrong. If you’d only ever played games like D&D (like I had for decades) you might wonder what the big deal was.

Can we isolate a mechanical difference? An acid test that separates story games from adventure games? I think there’s one very quantifiable difference:

In a story game, a player’s ability to affect what happens in the game is not dependent on their character’s fictional ability to do those things.

I’d argue that’s the defining trait. The degree to which the rules give you authority that isn’t based on your character’s abilities is the degree to which it is a story game.

Think about that. In an adventure role-playing game you can only accomplish something because your character can do it. In a story role-playing game you can make something happen because as a player you want it, not just because your character can make it happen.

In an adventure game like D&D you decide what your character does, but your ability to succeed is a reflection of your character’s traits. If your character is stealthy you can sneak into the necromancer’s tower. If you’re clumsy you probably can’t. It doesn’t matter how much the player wants to sneak into the tower or thinks it would be interesting to sneak into the tower. The likelihood of success is only based on what the character can do in the fictional world.

In a story game (by my definition) the character isn’t the limit of your power in the game. The rules give the players authority over things that are outside their characters’ control. How, you ask? There are a lot of different ways. Take sneaking into the necromancer’s tower. In some story games players might have the power to frame scenes, letting them simply declare where the next action takes place: “this scene is inside the necromancer’s tower after my character snuck in…” In other story games disagreement might be resolved through conflict resolution: one player might say “I sneak into the tower!” and another player might think that shouldn’t work or should lead to trouble so it becomes a conflict they resolve with the rules (which might involve dice, voting, story points, etc. depending on the system). A player might oppose success because they don’t think it makes sense for the clumsy character to sneak into the tower, or they might be all for it because they think it would be awesome to have a big climactic scene in the tower: that’s up to them. Either way, the character’s fictional abilities are not the deciding factor. It’s the players that decide the result, as moderated by their authority in the rules.

Scene framing and conflict resolution are two common ways to give players say in what happens in the larger game, but there are a zillion other ways, large and small. The tiniest atomic particle of story game rules may be the humble action point or hero point: any case where a player has a pool of points they can spend to reroll dice. You don’t want your character to blow your riding check and lose the race (and look like an idiot in front of the king) so you spend a point to reroll. That’s the player influencing the fiction outside of the character (unless the reroll is something the character is doing to correct a mistake, not a replacement for the original outcome).

Laugh in the Face of Death

If you’ve played adventure role-playing games, you know that if something bad happens to your character it can take away your ability to play. A tactical mistake or a bad roll can take you out of the game.

We’ve all dealt with it. If your character falls in a pit and dies you are out of the game until you make a new character and the GM lets you bring them in. If your character is paralyzed by a necromancer in the middle of a fight (again with the necromancers!) you sit tight and wait while everyone else at the table plays without you. What did you do wrong? You rolled badly or you opened the wrong door or the GM decided the monster attacked you instead of someone else. Suck it up.

Story games don’t work that way. An outgrowth of the “your character is not the limit of your authority” bedrock is that in a story game what happens to your character does not reduce (or increase) your ability to participate in the game. Nothing that happens to the character can put the player in time-out. In a lot of story games character death is not even a possibility unless the player decides it’s a good idea, and if your character dies you can continue to play influencing what happens in the story of the characters that remain.

If what happens to your character can reduce your authority to contribute, you are probably not playing a story game. It’s critical because it gives you the freedom to make interesting, dramatic things happen. You don’t have to protect your character to stay in the game. You can focus on creativity instead of playing to survive. It’s a fundamental shift in the whole dynamic of play.

You got Story in my Adventure game!

So now we’ve got a nice neat yard stick to tell where a system falls on the continuum between adventure game and story game. Done! But a big source of confusion is that even if the rules are 100% traditional adventure game you can still play it in a story games style if you want to. Sort of. Up to a point.

Take D&D, old school D&D even. The players control their characters and the GM controls everything else. The characters’ chance of success is based on their character’s fictional abilities (good fighters win fights, poor fighters lose fights, etc.). But the GM could say to a player “Hey, tell me about the monastery your character came from.” Suddenly the player has some story game-style input into the fiction: their character didn’t create the monastery they were trained in, that’s the player making up things they want in the game. Or the GM could ask the group whether they want the next adventure to be more wilderness or dungeon crawling or political intrigue. Again, now the players are making contributions outside their characters.

Those examples are not that uncommon in adventure games. So hey, that makes them story games, right?

Not really. The important difference is that those contributions are arbitrary and non-binding. The GM is deciding when to ask the players for world input (if ever) and if the GM doesn’t like what they propose she can decide not to use it. The GM holds the veto. In an adventure games rules system, story game-style participation is an ad hoc privilege, not a right, and it can be rescinded at any time or never extended at all. It’s not a system.

On the other hand, if you’re a player in an adventure game and you can always decide to make “bad but interesting” decisions for your character but the penalties can be pretty brutal. Yep, it was awesome and dramatically moving to have your paladin take off his armor before the big battle to show his unshakeable faith in his god’s prophecy, but in game terms it meant you had a terrible AC and got cut down in a few rounds. Oops. Now sit and wait while everyone else finishes the fight. The adventure game doesn’t have a method to reward your decision because that’s not what it’s built to do. It doesn’t expect you to play that way.

Know which game you’re in

It goes the other way too. If you think you’re in an adventure game it can suck to discover you’re in a story game. You sit down ready to play your character and have the GM weave a believable and fantastic world full of challenges where you can get your suspension of disbelief on. Then the GM says he can’t decide whether there should elves or dwarves in the city you’re approaching and wants to know which you guys would prefer. Bubble, burst.

And that’s kind of the point of all this discussing and defining: if everyone at the table doesn’t agree about what kind of game they’re in then someone is likely to play the wrong way and have a very bad time. You may never understand why it all fell apart, just “that game sucked!” And without clear terminology and an understanding of the different kinds of role-playing games those conversations are a steep uphill slog. In the dark. With wolves.

(Here’s the part where I say something controversial that derails the whole discussion)

If you think about it, since the very dawn of RPGs players have been playing adventure games but GMs have been playing story games. GMs have always had the power to affect the game outside of any particular characters they control. It’s what GMs do.

next up: Part 2, How story games rules impact play. Spoiler: it’s awesome.

“How is this possible? How can I enjoy role-playing games without a GM?!?” (ECCC 2012)

The GMless RPG workshop at last year’s PAX was so much fun that when Emerald City Comic Con was looking for gaming panels, I decided to pitch it again.

I expected a handful of people to show up, maybe five or six at most. After all, this was a comic convention with almost no previous RPG presence. Instead the house was packed.

“How many of you play tabletop role-playing games?” Forty-eight hands go up. “How many of you have played an RPG without a GM?” Two hands go up. Yep, that’s an entire room full of people who have never tried GMless RPGs but want to know more, so I took a fairly different angle from the PAX workshop which was loaded with veterans.

How’d it go? Listen for yourself:

(Fifty minutes long. You can also download the MP3 if you prefer.)

The attendance question at the beginning is about how we run Story Games Seattle. We were chatting, waiting for the clock to strike 5 so the talk could officially begin.

As you can probably tell, it was a great crowd and a really fun time. For a lot of the recording it sounds like I’m alone in a broom closet, then suddenly everyone erupts in laughter and you can hear how packed the place really was. But the real indicator is that mobs of people from the talk showed up downstairs to play GMless games. Which also meant I got to meet and game with a lot of the people from the talk, which made for an awesome weekend of gaming.

Walk a Mile in Their Dice: The practical limitations of “Don’t be a dick”

“Don’t be a dick” has become something of go-to gaming advice, like a social Rule Zero.

As a general truth, it’s great. I mean yeah, don’t be a dick. As advice or a rule, it’s useless. Why? There are two cases where someone is being a dick in a game:

1) Malice: The person is intentionally being a dick. Will giving them advice help? No. Someone who is knowingly being a dick is pretty unlikely to say “oh, gee, you’re right, I should stop.” That’s part of the definition of being a dick. If you could just tell jerks to stop being jerks and they listened, the world would be a far simpler place. q.v. Trolls.

Fortunately, real malice is a vanishingly small subset of the gaming world, at least where I game. You may be gaming with a lot more jerks than me, in which case my best advice is to go hang out with a better class of people.

Far, far, far more common is the second case:

2) Misunderstanding: The person being a dick actually thinks they’re the victim, that other people are being dicks to them. They’re just defending themselves. Reflecting “ah, right ‘Don’t be a dick’” doesn’t help, because they don’t think they’re the problem: those other guys are being dicks, not me!

Before you know it the dick-spiral feeds back upon itself, rapidly becoming a nigh unstoppable dick-juggernaut: you feel the sting of an unintentional insult, behave like a dick to defend yourself (all while thinking the other person is the dick, not you), so others dickishly respond to your (seemingly spontaneous) dickishness thinking they’re defending themselves… Dick dick dick dick dick dick. Where does it all end?

This is the great quagmire, the root of most hostility at the table. It can happen to anyone, even the nicest, most perceptive person. Parroting “don’t be a dick” doesn’t untie this knot, because it ignores the cause. It winds up being smug criticism instead of helping you do the right thing.

My advice: stop saying “don’t be a dick.” Start thinking about why people are being dicks (or seem to be dicks). Start with the extremely magnanimous assumption that someone being a dick doesn’t intend to be one. Assume there’s a misunderstanding. Walk a mile in their dice.

GMless Role-playing Games (PAX 2011, part 6)

The big finale! You thought we’d never make it. We’re continuing from part 5, but if you’re just arriving (because you’re seeing the last post first) you probably want to jump straight to part 1 and start there.

Indie 306

So… we’re just about done, unless people have questions?

One thing I want to point out before I say anything further is that: this is just a bunch of talk. And this is not how to learn about these games. The way to learn is to play them. Play them constantly. And in fact, if we were to drill a hole through this wall, and then another wall…

(unknown): There is a door there, you know?

Yeah but I want to drill. Can you imagine the look on their faces when we come in with our giant mole machine? In 306, four rooms down, is the room where these games are being played. And that is probably far more useful than being here listening to me. It’s crazy! 306. [sponsored by our beloved Gamma Ray Games] There’s a big sign outside and there are people sitting there Vanna White-style.

So my strategy (and in fact I argued to put this at the beginning of the weekend so people who heard about these games wouldn’t hear about them Sunday and then go home), if you want to learn about them you have to sit down and play them. That’s the only way to get your hand in. I highly recommend it.

Being A Good Antagonist

Morgan, you have a question?

Morgan: So in GMless games, how do I be a good antagonist?

Whole ‘nother topic. Whole ‘nother topic. But I’ll tell you what it is: Listen. Don’t do anything.

(unknown): Not like that Xander guy…

Xander: He’s a dick!

The best way to be an antagonist is to be a very sympathetic and caring person, as a player. Don’t do anything. Don’t steal the show. Listen. Listen to Xander talk. And wait. Wait until you know what he wants. You have to know what he wants.

Reid: Then deny it!

No! No. Let him have it… for a price. Attach a nice price tag on there! Like “hey, yeah, yeah, you can overthrow the government… if your wife dies.” Or “you can overthrow the government… if your best friend thinks you’re a hypocrite.” Or “you can overthrow the government… if the government you set up instead becomes a terrible jihad that is just as bad as the previous…” And he’s like “NOOOO! But I still want to overthrow the government…” Yeah, so that’s good antagonism. Never stop them. Always give them what they want and then just… yeah, we’ll avoid the profanity. But yeah, big price tag. But it’s about patience. You have to wait long enough to find out what it is they really want. You don’t rush in and try to make them want something.

What We Played

Any questions? I think we’re… we’re beyond good. Any last thoughts? [silence]

(unknown): Do you document the games?

Actually that’s a good question. Back to the document the games thing, think about it right, when you document the games as GM it’s because the players don’t care enough to do it. West Marches experiment, motivating players, one of the rules was I wouldn’t document anything. They had to. If they wanted documentation they had to do it. If you take that away from them you’re effectively just doing more of a “I’m running the game you’re just a .” In a GMless game there’s often someone at the table who is interested enough to write up something. Or not. If no one’s interested to write something up…

(unknown): I meant you personally.

I do sometimes. If there’s four players, I probably do it a quarter of the time. Other times I don’t want to. Other times I’m like “well that game was fine, but I don’t feel like writing anything about it.” And there are different motivations. Because it’s a one-shot game you don’t need documentation in the long-term, it’s more of a “let us share this experience with the internets” or so that other people who haven’t played this game will know whether they will like it. When we do Story Game Seattle, that’s our motivation for documenting games: to teach other people what game they could have played had they been there. And they can look at it and say “Oh, yeah. Pickets & Fences. That game… I don’t know if I’d play that. Didn’t feel like they had a great time.” We try to be [honest]… we try to make it a learning experience, not just about the fiction, but about how the rules of the game created the fiction. So it’s a little bit of a tutorial of what kind of game you’d get if you played it.

Bad Rewards vs Gaming As Art

Ben M: Just something I would like to throw out for everyone. Use it or not as you please. Something I’ve done coming from a very old school GMing background and trying to get people more creative. If you’re playing a game like Pathfinder / D&D / GURPS, whatever, give people mechanical bonuses to encourage their own creativity. Such as, if your character is a swordsman. Okay do you sell your swordsmen ship academy? Yes. Okay, make you a deal. I’m GM, I will give you an extra 500 EP (or whatever your system uses) if you write me up a usable to the other players description of the swordsmanship academy and some interesting NPCs there, that they can go muck around with.

Morgan: Kind of like spread out narrative control a little bit that way?

Ben M: Yeah

It is kind of late in the day, but I will point out one thing. This isn’t exactly what you’re talking about, but there are some games that reward you for playing the character you said you were going to play. Like you say “My character’s a joker!” Every time you make a joke, you check a checkbox, and that’s progress.

Think about that for a second. Think about how stupid that is.

Morgan: Waaah, I love that.

Think about it. Morgan said, “hey I wanted to play this certain guy.” But I don’t really trust Morgan, that he would just do that on his own. I feel Morgan needs a donut every time he plays his character correctly. I feel in some ways that might possibly be the most insulting thing to say to a player…

Morgan: But I need it…

It’s not quite exactly what you’re talking about… But, we’re playing because we enjoy the game. You picked that character because that’s the character you wanted to play. I trust that that’s what you want. You’re an adult. Why don’t you want to play the guy you made? WHYYYY? Why am I giving you donuts?!?

Morgan: I’m going to have to disagree with you. Morgan is not an upstanding knight. Morgan is a power gamer. [laughter] That’s why he plays role-playing games. But if you give Morgan a carrot, an advancement power gaming carrot…

I’m teaching you the wrong thing. I’m teaching you to want the carrot. In fact there are psychological studies…

Morgan: No, no, no, it’s like eventually… If you have a treat in your hand when you tell the dog to sit, it will sit, and then eventually it will sit on its own. [laughter]

And that’s the thing. I feel very strongly against the idea of treating the players like dogs. But more seriously, psych studies have been done (you can look them up) that say that basically if you have a pleasurable activity and you associate a reward with it and then you take away the reward the pleasurable activity stops being pleasurable. You can actually de-pleasurize things that initially the person liked, because their desire switches focus and becomes focused on the reward. In other words, you stop playing the joker character because you want to play the joker character, you start doing it because you want the “dings!” And that, I feel, subverts… it takes you down exactly the wrong path. Instead of teaching you to be a happy role-player, doing what you want to do, it teaches you to…

Morgan: I’d be interested in seeing the psychological studies and seeing if the reward is tangible or if it literally is checkboxes.

Checkboxes are very tangible.

Xander: Yeah, checkboxes are actually used in my job, which is Skinnerian psychology all the time because it’s a great to reinforce people without giving them a million cookies or something. But, the point is, you get to choose what your own rewards are, like FATE which is an example and in Shadow of Yesterday, or in AW [Apocalypse World] which also does that. You get some control over you want to have the focus on. I have a joker aspect. Every time I make a joke and it’s inappropriate, I get rewarded for it. But you can always be like…

Morgan: I’m sorry, you get rewarded with narrative control…

Xander: No, you receive a ding. The ding in some of these allows you to get more narrative control.

Eventually, you might get narrative control…

Xander: But the ding that you’re getting, you get to choose it. And you can always say, “Five games later, I haven’t used this joker aspect in a while, I’m clearly not feeling it, I’m going to switch it.”

If you look at it like two continuums… two roads you can go down. One… you said you were a power gamer and you wanted to stop, I don’t think this is going to help.

Morgan: I didn’t say I wanted to stop… [laughter]

There are two options. One where I’m going to engage your reward cycle. Like WoW [World of Warcraft], which is a great, carefully, carefully sculpted reward cycle. All those video games. Carefully, carefully designed by psychologists. Perfectly designed. That’s great. And that keeps you chasing it. And then there’s a different way to do this. To say “Hey, let’s use our brains. Let’s engage in artistic activity, in which we are being creative people and making something cerebral that is touching… we’re artists.” And you say “I don’t need a ding if I’m trying to be like Mozart…”

Morgan: Okay. But on the other hand though, maybe Mozart needed to be bribed with a couple of cookies to pick up the violin the first time. That’s all I’m saying. Maybe if you gathered a bunch of artists together and just handed them paint, it might not go that well no matter how creative they are. The training wheels… [more and more laughter]

From play what I see… the reason I’m really against this is when I see it in play, the worst thing that happens is the people who are focused on the reward cycle (because they know they’re going to get a long-term benefit), they don’t play heads-up. They go “oh I made a joke! -check-check-”. Their brains — character sheets are the devil — they get back down here, because now they’re tracking an inward thing. They’re not sharing their character anymore. They’re not out here [with the rest of us]. They’re not paying attention to your character. They’re tracking their own little progress. They’re playing a solo video game at that point.

Reid: That’s the first thing that happened to me when I started playing Burning Wheel.

Heads down?

Reid: “I get things every time I do something! I’m gonna do something now, and then now…”

You remember Pendragon, from back in the day? If you go basket weave, you’re going to get a level-up. And this isn’t really true but it’s an old joke we used to make in the dawn of time. So people would be like “I’m hiding in my room and basket weaving for three days! -check-check-check-check-! Best basket weaver ever!” “You are a knight.” “Best basket weaver!” And mechanically it’s accurate, and mechanically it’s realistic, but…

(unknown): There’s a guy, I think he’s a game designer from Seattle, he wrote an essay on ethical game design. And a lot of it’s about the reward cycle in WoW… like you can make bad, unethical and addicting rewards…

Or it might even feel fun, it just might not be something that human beings should be doing.

(unknown): The guy from Spiderweb Software

Oh, Jeff Vogel. Jeff Vogel’s awesome. Love Jeff Vogel.

This is just me. I feel that as gamers and game designers I’d rather go up here (see me raising my hand). I’d rather go up to this higher level where we talk about… even abortion. We talk about real issues. We talk about deep stuff and we go away saying “I felt touched by that.” I’d rather go away saying “That was a moving, touching scene. That part where I made the king sleep with his daughter and we all freaked out. It was crazy!” But if I did that to get a ding… would that have happened?

(unknown): You would have leveled up!

I would have leveled up! It would have been awesome! [laughter] In a way I think it’s almost magically convenient that if you’re playing a one-shot game, a “story now” game, since there isn’t really a “later,” leveling up doesn’t exist. Most of these games have no character progression at all, because where would you have it? So you’re kind of saved from the reward cycle that would be incumbent in a lot of traditional long-term play games.

We’re really almost done, so whaddya got?

Xander: Well my response to that is, that the problem is that’s great to be on that level, but not necessarily everyone is there.

Not everyone even wants that! That’s cool!

Xander: I’m there on Thursdays [at Story Games Seattle] because I’m doing this on Saturdays. I’ve been doing this for years.

They’re different activities.

Xander: I have four people at the table with me, not necessarily all of them on the same page and if I can say “Look, you get a carrot…”

Sure. And it’s very important to not think they [role-playing games] are all the same. When I sit down to play fourth edition D&D, I know I’m not playing Shock. I don’t say “we should make this more Shock-like!” That would be… kind of rude. Like going to a movie, but saying “y’know I think I should LARP some of this movie! Wooo! Rocky Horror!” [laughter] I mean, it would be inappropriate and rude. But because we call them all role-playing games, we think it’s all the same thing, but in fact they’re a very broad… Be respectful.

Reid: I disagree [laughter]

And I respect your right to disagree!

Reid: Some RPGs are just better than other ones!

And I think with that… we’re done!

[applause, rioting, collapse]

Huge thanks to everyone who came and participated. It would have been a lot less fun without you. No really, a lot less fun. And thanks again to Jobe for thinking to record the workshop. Now stop listening to me and go play some games!