Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Taking a Page from a Story Game

In popular SGs, the current trend is for the GM to be less a dictator, and more a facilitator. Questions serve to forward plot and setting through the collaborative. When an unknown happens, players ask the GM what happens next. The prevailing no-prep advice offered to GMs is to throw that question right back in the players’ faces.

“Who do you think the Dread Pirate Roberts really is?”
“What do you think you encounter behind the curtain?”
“What do you think you might come out of that cave littered with bones?”

Of course, GMs are free to modify, twist, or reject the players’ suggestions. But for the sake of the collaborative activity and ease of prep, this is a fun and common occurrence in games like PbtA, Fate, and Lady Blackbird.

Few other game designers so frequently stress this concept as much as John Harper, creator of Agon, Lady Blackbird, and Ghost/Echo (among others). In his celebrated LB, he writes, When you’re the GM, don’t try to plan what will happen. Instead, ask questions—lots and lots ...”

Often these questions are directed to things about a player’s character. However, it is becoming increasingly common to apply the same principle to elements of setting design and plot — in other words, normally off-limits areas of GM domain in traditional RPGs. GMs are encouraged not to railroad, and often player suggestions can rival what any one GM might have proposed. Player input is encouraged and rarely rejected. Saying “yes” to players goes back to some old traditional RPGs too.

In solo games, the player most frequently goes to the oracle when it comes to answering questions outside PC domain. How could we even think any other way than this? This would be one step closer to, “why don’t you just write a novel?” wouldn’t it? It certainly wouldn’t be a game any longer...

However, this fundamental game rule is an unquestionable given in SG’s. Why can’t it work for us soloists, really?

Well, for one, we aren’t really collaborating with anyone else. That’s okay; I give a pass. In the SG model, everyone can participate with equal power. If I am playing Dungeon World, and I make up that the town’s history suggests it is regularly ransacked by hairy ogres each spring, it can be a thing. If I am playing Fate, and I suggest a self-compel that my climb up Rapunzel’s tower is thwarted by a coating of oil from her hair, I can do that (with table consensus). Making up shit is as much the point as rolling dice and playing by the rules.

I can do the same in a solo game too.

I can answer any question spontaneously without consulting an external oracle. Of course, I will still follow “rules”. However, I will reject the notion that I am somehow cheating, or undertaking the exercise of writing a novel.

The timing of these questions is prompted primarily from successful or proactive actions by the PC. However, failure will frequently prompt them too! Any time a player might turn to the GM to find out what happens next in a collaborative game, this cues my prompt. When the PC infiltrates the enemy training camp and I’m trying to find out who the kingpin is, as long as I have succeeded in my stealth task, or convinced my captors to take me to the leader, I stand to know, “Who is the bad guy?” or “What’s really going on here?”

I should have enough chaos applied through the dice and the rules of my chosen game. That alone should knock me off my trajectory enough to provide the thrill of unpredictability and drama. After all, I have decided to play a tabletop game. I want to play D&D, for example, and not the Mythic GM Emulator*.

As long as I am fulfilling at least one (but hopefully all) of these criteria, I should be satisfied:

1. The idea I generate must be interesting. (Really, goes without saying.)
2. The idea I generate must increase the stakes and danger to the PC or her interests, requiring further action.
3. The idea I generate must represent a complication to the PC’s life, requiring further action.

I need no more than this. It allows me expediency, because often coming up with an idea stemming from these criteria is often quicker than interpreting an external random idea. It gives me portability, because I don’t need to take any tools with me (don’t get me wrong...I love my Story Cubes!). It satisfies me, because all too often, when I want my game to be about something specific, my random oracle throws it off (with equal parts of for better or ill).

Where I may use an oracle or idea generator are for three reasons:

1. I use an oracle to provide mundane detail in which I have no interest.
2. I use an oracle to provide push against my declared idea.
3. I use an oracle to provide a threat when I have no idea what will happen next.

The purpose for #1 is that I have no interest in providing that level of detail and don’t want to get bogged down in minutiae. However, some of those details may reappear later as important elements if the action so dictates. The purpose of #2 is to simulate player collaboration, and, if possible, make an idea I came up with more awesome. #3 is hopefully used the least, and is only there to get myself un-stuck.

I challenge you — have the plums to play solo, well, SOLO!

full disclosure: I have nothing against MGME. On the contrary, I owe all my solo rpg endeavors to the inspiration from Ms. Pigeon’s brilliant contribution.


  1. For me your No 3 is the most important part.
    I rarely use oracle to ask yes no question, but i heavily depend on RSC (especially when playing FATE) or random tables (from GM book when playing 5th edition or Scarlet Heroes dungeon delve) to GM for me.
    So, I send my character into unknown, I ask GM "what do I see/what do the locals tell me/what will the NPC do/etc?", roll 2 RSC or D20/D100 and go from there.
    For me, this randomness in next fate zone or dungeon room brings the most fun in solo game.

    1. For me, when referencing #3, I am thinking to reserve it for one of those times when there is a lull in the story arc, or when things seem to be dying down and I need to stoke the flames...probably with a new, unexpected element. This is all in theory...I have to try it to really know what I'm talking about.