Just winging it: Trying to reduce prep sunk cost anxiety

What’s funny about “prep sunk cost anxiety” as a phrase is that I’m not sure it’s well constructed in English grammar, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to think it in Spanish. Go tell Sapir-Worf I have a clear concept on my mind that I’m not sure how to represent in words.

I’ll quote myself from the chain of comments found at http://adeptplay.com/comment/338#comment-338. In it, I said:

Regarding “fraught”: Yes. So much yes. That’s pretty much the angle I was thinking on, for my next and last post. As you say about painters, who knows what I’ll actually do when I get to that piece of blank canvas. But I’m thinking of ending on a note of “Well… Now what the hell am I supposed to do, world? I’d like to have available simple principles to prepare a game and play with some friends, avoiding all of that shit, thank you very much.” The hobby has come so far, but it still seems to me like a sunk cost nightmare. I bet it takes an effort not to try to “force fun” at the table, under the weight of all the prep that’s been done and all the previous experiencies of failure.

What I’m talking about is the anxiety you feel towards real play, after you’ve taken so much effort into prepping, and even into playing RPGs many times before and not being able to have fun. Perhaps, as Ron many times has pointed out, you’ve put effort into buying a ton shit of stuff that didn’t really work, and you don’t wanna admit to yourself you’ve wasted your time and money. That to me sounds more like an American, I-as-a-citizen-am-a-consumer problem, but, fine. Doesn’t make it less real. So let me tell you what I subconsciously did, the times I tried to roleplay at home, for many many years: aimed for a prep time as close to zero as possible, so I wouldn’t have the bulk of that effort weighing over me as I tried to play, pressuring me to try to “force fun”.

It didn’t work either.

Conrado’s Zombie Improvised Game With Friends: You might remember my friend Conrado (of course you don’t) from my sole failed Cthulhu game, which I told about here: Cthulhu, again (and again): The RPG that never let me down. This time, he invited me to roleplay at his house, with his regular group of roleplaying friends. I knew them all from high school, as I did Conrado. Except for one guy, who they’d met playing, and I suspected was sort of the unspoken leader of the group.

They were all excited to play without their usual gamemaster, another guy from school that had tired them by his over-adherence to rules and fairness, both as a GM and as a player. I think Adherence Guy also used to play his own PC among the other ones. Though, from what they told me, he hadn’t abused his power one bit, I suspect he really didn’t want to GM, and had been put into that role for being the most obsessive one of the group, back since the days of highschool. It’s a shame then, that they hadn’t invited him for this session, where the GM role was supposed to be taken by me.

I brought a copy of The Same Page Tool, translating it to Spanish on the fly as I read. It’s a multiple choice list, made by one of the main Forge participants back in the day, where the players decide on every choice together as a group. I didn’t bring it as a surprise, I had spoken with Conrado about it before, and had talked it up as a tool that would help him and his suffering friends to have fun together. They chose to have only one GM, to have game events unscripted, that strategizing resources was an important part of play, that player characters were part of a cooperative group and didn’t compete against each other, and so on. They wanted to play a zombie apocalypse, so I set up on our minds a map of La Plata, the city we all knew well, and we started deciding what they had done in order to survive, which in this case was to take refuge in the Vea supermarket, a few real-life blocks from where we were playing.

This photo I found online is from another Argentine Vea supermarket that is as close to La Plata as Madrid is from Paris, but you guys wouldn’t know the difference anyways.

I don’t remember what I had set up as a resolution system. Perhaps SLUG, the simplest thing you could find; I seem to remember a few rolls in which I asked them what they thought the probabilities of finding working ammunitions were, and followed suit with the dice. But the truth is we didn’t get to do much resoluting, because the whole session was more akin to a big, gigantic game prep than anything else.

They spent hours, or should I say we spent hours, deciding where they would get guns, what vehicles they had, how they would protect the supermarket from zombies and other survivors (like, patrol shifts and whatnot), how much edible food was left in the supermarket, and so on. I’m not sure they ever got to confront a zombie horde, but I wish to believe so. I think there were a few zombies in some other place they went to loot.

HOURS of this, guys. It was so boring… to me. They, actually, were delighted! Weirdest thing I’ve ever encountered in roleplaying. It was monotonous work to me, coordinating them, rolling dice, and not much more. When it was morning and we left (all of this was, of course, the standard roleplaying session that starts with pizza at 10pm and ends with everyone going home to have breakfast), they all congratulated me on how good a GM I was. I haven’t played with them since.

Cray Canyon Cold Snap, plus Fate On The Fly, with non-gamers: I had brought the printed PDF of a module, and self-made Fudge dice, to a dinner with another two high school friends. One of them is now a lawyer – his father was my starting point for the character in Cold Soldier in La Plata, which I turned into a far, far nastier version. I said I’d show them what roleplaying was, that it would be so fun. Chronologically, I think this was way before Conrado, maybe even before my convention games – was I still in high school, even?! If not, it surely was on the first few years afterwards, around the time of my first con games. Anyway, I was a big fan of S. John Ross’ site, at the time. The creator of Risus. I had heard about Risus, and read it, but was never interested in playing it: to me it seemed it had been surpassed by Fate RPG. Ross’s site included quite a bit of “systemless” play material, the most important one being The Big List Of Rpg Plots. He had been a big GURPS contributor.

(Come to think of it, I think I did use the List with Conrado and friends, making them choose a plot before beginning to play. They chose to have a holdout to protect, a place that wasn’t supposed to be trespassed.)

Cray Canyon Cold Snap was an “all-systems” module, which looked like something out of Call Of Cthulhu to me. The characters started as passengers on a train in the Old West. The moment I started playing, I realized I had no idea how to proceed. The first part of the module, where the player characters were supposed to interact with other passengers, left my friends baffled and bored. I declared that the bad guy was there, and my friends declared they would stay in the safety of the wagon with the other passengers, instead of chasing the bad guy on the train’s rooftop as I had expected. I don’t know how I got one of them to face the guy, but when she declared she kicked the bad guy to make him lose his rifle, I realized I had no proper combat system in place. Particularly, I had forgotten to come up with a health system, which Fate on the fly doesn’t talk about, and I didn’t remember the system of the proper Fate game. We folded the game pretty much there, and moved on to other endeavors.

Improvised roleplaying scenes with various people: I sometimes like to fiddle with simply improvising a little bit of play, with non-gamers, when they ask me what roleplaying is. I told my uncle “Imagine someone broke into your house right now, what would you do”, and my mother in law “Imagine someone is knocking at your door, and you don’t know how but you’re sure it’s a vampire, what do you do”. (Me and my girlfriend had to explain her a vampire is a human-looking fellow, not a giant, human-sized bat.) I’ve never done it for more than a couple minutes, but I find it pretty fun, and liberating, to just start with the person itself, not a character, and an immediate-danger, low-fantasy, horror situation.

I did something a bit more extended with two of my nephews, Elías (the Spanish form of the name Elijah) and Paloma (her name means “dove” – all doves are female in Spanish). They’re actually my nephews in second degree, son and daughter of two of my cousins, and they’re first cousins between each other. I was visiting their city one day; I was, say, 29, and they were around 20. Unlike other examples, they actually are interested in roleplaying. I narrated a simple scene involving a stuck elevator and a ghost. They liked it, but I told them since I had no system to back it up, those 15-20 minutes of back-and-forth narration would be it, and we wrapped it up without closure.

If you’ve read my first Cthulhu post, you’ll notice how these last few efforts were attempts to recreate my first Situation roleplaying: you’re a regular person, inside a closed space, and something starts to go really wrong. Will you survive?

A few years later, like a year ago, I played again with Elías and one of his younger brothers, Simón, who was, say, 13. I tried to whip up a dungeon crawl with no system. Made them make a drawing and a short blurb of their characters, explore a temple on different days. The blurb had to include a reason to explore the temple, like “searching for the lost orb of” whatever. That gave me an idea of what to put in the temple. I more-or-less invented the rules, using 2d6 as in Toon, and had them do a bit of choosing when creating characters – whether to make them stronger or have more weapons, something like that, I don’t remember. We were all more familiar with the conventions of videogames than with actual RPGs, so they had Inventory, and this time I made sure to have them have hit points. I made up a nasty giant spider, which sadly killed Simón on what was his first encounter. I thought about it and decided against changing what had happened; instead I apologized for making the spider perhaps too powerful on the first try, and urged him to make another character. I narrated Elias’ character finding Simon’s character’s remains.

A couple hours had passed, but I could tell the three of us were bored. Without saying it out loud, we just put away the dice and paper and went to sleep. Simón did give me his sheet for the new character – I saved it and showed it to my girlfriend when I got back home, and we both thought it was so cute. I still have it: it’s a cartoony good witch that learned magic to protect her home town from a menacing spirit, and wanted to explore the ruins to look for an amulet. I tell you, it’s a crime the few tools we have at our disposal to make justice to the amount of material people bring to the table. Or, well, maybe not we, me. But still.

The last game along these lines, and probably the last time I roleplayed in person, was at a dinner barbecue with the guys from college. This was after Cold Soldier in La Plata but before Gold, dragon, golden dragon. (Who would’ve thought so, I just realized Tales of Entropy will be my first multiple-session game in my life. Yay!) We were talking about how, even though none of us knew each other before college, so many of us have either roleplayed, or been part of a form of Christian Scouts, or both. (Alejo and Marcela from my Toon game being the Venn diagram overlap.) Carolina, who had done neither, asked what was this roleplaying thing about. I told everyone else to think of a city in the world, and a year, at random, and made two of them declare a year and city at once: the result was Chile’s Valparaiso, in the 1800s. I asked Carolina who she saw herself as, in that time and place. She chose to be a maid that worked at a public library – we’re all studying to become librarians and we had just finished the exam season, precisely answering questions about the history of libraries –  that’s why we were having a celebratory nocturnal barbecue. I made up she found a human hand while cleaning the bathroom. She told me she called the police, and Marcela, who was listening in to the conversation, beer in hand, asked to play the chief of police.

(Marcela’s always saying she doesn’t understand why would roleplaying games need rules. I tell her the written, multilayered social contract she has with her fellow WhatsApp messaging roleplaying friends, which includes the explicit separation of their interactions as friends, as characters, and as “users”, whatever that means – just joking: I know “users” means them as players, that can use multiple characters, and also can wish each other to fail – that all of that, well, amounts to a pretty sturdy System.)

As it often happens with my dear Marcela, she brought a lot of charisma and content to the conversation, but also competed a bit with Carolina for attention and with me for narration rights. It all worked out right in the end, though: I wrapped it up as soon as I noticed Carolina was starting to multitask, paying attention to other conversations near the fire, and we ended it with Carolina’s character trying to cover for his boss, believing him to be a murderer, and me introducing a character missing one hand, accusing a magical book of severing it out. Or something like that. All in all, good game, I tell ya! By which of course I mean it wasn’t a complete bore for everyone involved, while lasting 20 to 30 minutes.

* * * * *

That’s it, then! I’ve managed to have actual plays about every time I’ve roleplayed. Here’s the list:

Cold Soldier in La Plata (Ron’s)

Cthulhu: My first time roleplaying

Toon: All the times I couldn’t get it to work

Cthulhu, again (and again): The RPG that never let me down

Paranoia, Aquelarre, WEG Star Wars, Legend Of The Five Rings: Getting conned at con games

Gold, dragon, golden dragon (Ron’s, video)

And here are all the links to the tools I talked about, now in one place:

The Same Page Tool (old version; what I used at the time – it must’ve been 2010 or 2011, then)

The Same Page Tool (current version)

The Big List Of Rpg Plots

SLUG, by the creator of FUDGE

Fudge on the fly, by the creators of FATE; includes a “Fate on the fly” option at the end

Thanks to anyone who’s read. I’m off to comment one of Ron’s Cold Soldier posts, asking him what his prep is like for that game. I think I have a couple people I could play it with, and I’d like to GM, it’s only that I’m not sure how to come up with a decent opposition.

My final thoughts are: I bet all those available tools and games are partly a reaction to the very same kind of anxiety I’m talking about. The eagerness to reduce prep. Also, I’d like to read more about this… ideal of play, which I’m sure exists… You know, how Ron’s talking about lately about the “GMless, story-driven, let’s all agree” ideal? There must be many other, different ones, right? Game design ideals unrealized in play? I bet a lot of people have dreamed about reliable RPGs, that you can just get out of a box and play with your friends, like you do with Monopoly. I also think there has been much confusion, historically, between “reliably fun” with “reliably produces the same set of fictional events”. I don’t envy the efforts Ron must go through when he states Story Now doesn’t guarantee that a story will take place, and how that’s a good thing.

I wonder, is the problem reliability? Is it a difficulty, whether in Western culture or this subculture, to differentiate between reliable tools and canned, consummable experiences? I can tell you I trust Dogs In The VIneyard and My Life With Master to be pretty fucking reliable, but I still worry about what work I’d have to do to get to GM them, especially if it can still go awry. Is it a problem of pedagogy? I’m thrilled that during the last few years Ron’s been talking more and more about the nature of modules and their publishing practices, nailing it. And what about other kinds of modules? Here, let me end this with a wishlist. Any suggestions will be welcome, but at the very least it’ll work for myself, to have signposts to look towards.

  • I want to read non-railroady modules. Especially if they’re Story Now. Like the Runequest ones Ron mentioned once – one written by him, and another, much older one, by Greg Stafford. But Step On Up would be fine as well.
  • I want to know about comedy RPGs that work – to read actual plays on them would be capital-A awesome. If you’re reading this and consider yourself to have played a succesful comedic RPG session, I urge you to create an Actual Play post. You don’t have to do it, of course – but I’m not afraid to beg!
  • I want to know a lot more about prep as a concept. Actually, I don’t know how to go about this – the Forge invented the concept of actual play, but apparently there’s been no reason to invent Actual Prep. I can find articles on worldbuilding (my favorite is this series that begin here), but – wouldn’t it be interesting to read about what people actually do, before a play session? Perhaps there’s an old Forge thread, or prep-heavy actual play series of posts, than Ron or Moreno have dug out and can remember. All I know is I don’t want to be the 10-year-old me again, filling up notebooks with session ideas I’ll never finish and use.

I want to play tabletop RPGs and have fun!


6 responses to “Just winging it: Trying to reduce prep sunk cost anxiety”

  1. Overly simple possible answer

    … that you're going about this all backwards. Instead of being someone who's comfortable both in and with play, who's simply going to do it, share it by using one procedural option out of many, and let the learning curve for others take care of itself, you're looking both to "find it" yourself and to deliver "it" to others, at the same time.

    In a perfect world, I suppose there would exist a product – a box, as you put it, with "it" inside, ready to do. But Monopoly did not teach people that this is a board game, and you play a board game like this, for this purpose … people knew what a fucking board game was, and they bought Monopoly because it looked like one, and played Monopoly as if it were one. [cue and ignore the standard discussion about what Monopoly was or wasn't supposed to be for, which is irrelevant to what we're talking about]

    In other words, practice and procedures – and above all, social purpose (which in this case is also directly creative) – must be in place, culturally, before a product can provide any damn thing at all. If someone is learning about those things for the first time while trying out a product, then he or she must learn them from someone else who is more familiar with them, because the product won't do it.

    Not even *America!* can do that, not with anything that someone is telling you about in an advertisement or giving you inside a box.

    • Oooooooh, I get it now!
      Oooooooh, I get it now! Monopoly doesn’t have to teach what is a board game, that’s it! Thank you.

      I suppose I better get going with playing, then! Your words really help. I was really going in an angle of “I’ll demo you what an RPG is”, instead of “I like this cool game, let’s try it, see if we enjoy it”.

      This whole thing gets me really anxious. Like imagining oneself lending a friend a Batman comic, fearing that if the friend doesn’t like it, he/she will judge the entire field of comics from that, and oneself for reading them.

      Your words serve me to get out of that frame of mind (not that I 100% have – I’m struggling), and also your recent videos about D&D as religion.

  2. “Actual Prep”


    There are, in fact, now some people who are openly doing their "prep" for games, and, with the miracle of the internet, you can watch the games and the prep involved, too.

    The videos may be tedious to watch in some respects, but still a good way to study and learn if it appeals to you. I'd recommend looking for "people's prep" online.

    For instance, you say?

    One person that comes to mind is Adam Koebel, who runs and records online games for the Roll20 YouTube channel, and simultaneously makes videos of his prep for the games, too.

    Here's an example:

    The first link is Adam prepping for a game of Dogs in the Vineyard.


    The second is the beginning of the game itself.


    Although the game doesn't ever show escalation (!!!) and the actual play of the Town gets sped through somewhat summarily, in every other sense it's a really fine example of play, and even enjoyable to watch.

    If it's something you're interested in, you might enjoy seeing the game FIRST and then the prep. He has run all kinds of other games on YouTube, as well, and all (or almost all) show videos of his prep, which is pretty cool.

    Remember, though, that in the end (as you will see if you watch that video) the input of the other players is just as important as your prep: their contributions will make the game great (or not so great) – your part to play as the GM is just a part of the whole. This should be taken as a reminder to relax and not worry too much – in particular you may wish to note how little of Adam's prep even gets used during the game! It will likely be the same for you.

    • Perhaps Ron – or anyone

      Perhaps Ron – or anyone engaged in Actual Play here, on this site – might consider doing some "open" prep for their games, as well. I think that would be a fun exercise.

      It's not applicable to our game, but I'd happily do that if I were running a game here. I love seeing how differently people approach prep, and how efficient, creative, or experimental you can be in the process.

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