“Great men are forged in fire - it is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame”
- The War Doctor
I have come to realise over many years that players are really creative. Often some of the best ideas come from players at the table and I get to flesh them out alongside them to create much more inclusive stories. Co-Creation is for winners!
Yet there is this persistent fallacy that creation, the writing of adventures or settings is hard. Or, more worrying to me, it is a demiurgic power of a GM to create and the player to respond. I dislike any prevailing notion that GMing is ‘hard’ and that there is some journeyman career you must go on before you are worthy to run games.
I want to share some techniques and worked examples I use regularly to help games be more collaborative through the art of asking questions.
Co-Creation is the AimI have been, in the past, the GM that has written massive world backgrounds consumed the multi book lore of settings such as World of Darkness. I have been the player that has written a mini novella of a character's history that somehow I expected the GM to know and all my other players to care about as well.
Don’t worry, dear reader, I am quite recovered now.
If we’re honest, the sort of behaviour in the approach outlined above is not good. No one is going to get what they want. The cool background will gather dust, the encyclopaedic lore on the machinations of 100 year old Vampires will never demonstrably impact the night to night survival of a New York Coterie.
Lore is great, but lore builds. When someone comes to Marvel’s cinematic universe the price of entry is not reading 40 years of Spiderman back issues to feel like you deserve to be there.
Game worlds, characters and adventures matter much more when we all contribute. We can do this relatively easily if we learn to ask great questions
Questions can start to share the narrative responsibilities, the cognitive load and make richer worlds and characters that make the world come to life.
I am going to share with you some of the techniques I use to help share creative responsibility - it really helps me to give myself and my players the best experience possible.
It is Good to set the Boundaries of the SandboxYou need to understand how much you want to share - sometimes it is really fun to come to the table with nothing prepared at all. Build everything together and tell a great story.
I totally understand how that might be really scary, or sometimes even deliver outcomes you do not want. Being a co-creative GM does not mean you stop having a say or get to have your own fun.
So setting the boundaries of the game you want to run is totally legit and there are some tools and techniques we can use to share the load. We need to get people on the same page. I like to use Patrick O'Leary’s CATS tool to help with this. It is a great way of setting the boundaries of the sandbox in less than a page. This is an example from a twelve part Hearts of Wulin game I ran as part of the Gauntlet RPG community.
Hearts of Wulin - The Four Masters
A Hearts of Wulin game with big eyes towards the Water Margin with a tinge of Seven Samurai for theme and style. Strange bedfellows against a powerful evil. Outlaws skilled in forbidden martial arts fighting to survive.
To tell the episodic story of wandering rebels fighting against the forces of corruption and oppression. Between each session - time will pass. This will allow the world to change around us and for the 'heroes' to shine in moments of high drama
Struggle against oppression, and Imperial tyranny. - but players are free to inject humour when appropriate. Themes of imperialism, corruption, loss and hardship will be explored - increasing touches of Chinese mysticism are likely to occur
A Wuxia drama that is set in a dark time. We will explore authoritarian oppression, heroism, the hero's journey (and failure) and the effect of tyranny on those you love and hate.
What I am achieving here is letting the players know my expectations in this game. The sort of story I want to tell with them, the tones and themes to expect. It forms a contract of sorts between myself and anyone who wants to sign up to the game.
I used CATS to great effect last year when I ran four different games of Masks: A New Generation - each set in a different genre of comics. When I ran my Cosmic setting it was clear we were going to riff off Guardians of the Galaxy. Arcane was my Vertigo inspired magic heavy setting. For that one I made the CATS document editable by the players and we refined the game into a dark southern gothic adventure.
The CATS frames the sandbox, you take those fuzzy edges and give them more definition by asking framing, or world building questions. I tend to run a ‘session 0’ where we build the characters and the world with some world building questions. I aim for about two per player - and choose the most relevant ones for the group at that time. These were some of the ones I used for The Four Masters
Episode 1 - The Broken Blade
- What is the name of this province?
- What do we see that reminds us this place is under the cruel tyranny of the fourth master?
- What is the punishment for wielding weapons and using the forbidden martial arts?
- When Green Sabre Master Jaiqi (the first master) fell near here in battle, you were among his army. Paint the scene and tell us what happened?
- Custodian Tian, keeper of the red dragon mask, killed someone important to you in the pogrom. Who? What revenge have you promised?
Custodian Tian, someone I expected to be a one shot villain, became the recurring villain of the series and had a daughter that became the rival and lover of one of the characters.
That arc and character was way more epic than anything I would ever have come up with on my own.
You can see the whole Four Masters Saga as one of my earliest Actual plays here. https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKaVqoVBo79hHFl6USAmhnAr4LO7YIViA
Build your Story with the Players
This leads into the benefit of building with players and helping them to be creative with you as a GM. Increasingly I am seeing this built into games - Becky Anison’s Bite Marks has a great example of this in how you build the Werewolf pack’s traditions, duties and taboo’s. Co-created with the players this provides the drama and aligns players from their own disparate ideas of what a werewolf is to a common theme.
I like to ask questions at the start of a session. I am signposting some of the things we were likely to encounter in this session and allowing the players to incorporate their ideas into the story.
Back to Hearts of Wulin - a number of NPCs came to the fore in the first session and I wanted these tensions at the heart of the next session - so the following establishes questions I asked in the first 20 mins of play.
Episode 2 - Honour Amongst Thieves
- Magister Willow has risen to Governor of the province - which act of brutality did he order against your faction?
- Higher taxes have caused great suffering - which of the people you protect have suffered most?
- As she has fallen into the Forth Master's sway Huo has taken a dark name - what is it?
- Which of the PC's has Moonlit Raven marked for death?
Whilst, in contrast, the B-Plot introduced the Assassin Moonlit Raven as a recurring villain of the story.
Both players who answered those questions were really engaged and drove the story in this session.
That, dear reader, was my entire game prep.
The players did the rest of the work for me and all I had to do was reincorporate the answers into the half a dozen bullet point set pieces and situations I had considered might occur.
Part Two Later This Week