Monday Lab 3: Boiling Pitch

The topic is group preparation, when you spend some time together creating and customizing the setting and situation. Whether it’s a pitch, a series of rules steps,a suggestion-and-approval process, or anything like that – we hit it from a lot of angles and a lot of examples.

Joining me are Ray, Herman, Ángel, Santiago, and Moreno, for what appears to be my first real success at production for a group activity. At last, no tiny head.

00:10 Distinguishing among medium, idiom, genre, setting, and situation, with Primetime Adventures as a case study

2:30 Applying those to the other games we’ve brought: in a wicked age …, Microscope, Cold Soldier, Spark, and My Life with Master, with mention of a couple others

22:10 Considering imagery as inspiration, drawing upon experience with Everway and The Pool; applying the idea using artwork generously supplied by Ray

40:16 Examining suggestion, negotiation, and partition of responsibilities during a group creation-preparation process, using the games we brought; especially in light of what value added is involved

  • at 51:40, the corollary of the value added by not doing any such thing
  • at 55:30, the question of when suggestion/negotiation needs to stop, in order to work; and when it’s kept to an absolute minimum, e.g. Swords Without Master

1:00:10 Transitioning from group preparation into play, especially the shift into a functioning profile for responsibilities (“authorities”) that may or may not match how it worked during play, with reference to Spark and Universalis

1:15:02 Carrying the prep/improv techniques into the play process, e.g. Sign In Stranger, Dialect, InSpectres, A Taste for Murder, and Dirty Secrets

I really enjoyed this discussion and there’s lots of room to continue it in the comments. Please do!

* The cartoon I used above was originally a baseball joke, so nothing to do with “pitch” as a proposed concept, but I think it repurposes nicely.


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18 responses to “Monday Lab 3: Boiling Pitch”

  1. Images & Rituals

    In German, there is a saying: "a picture tells more than 1000 words". So, for me this was the main take-away and inspiration of this podcast: to make more use of evocative images when pitching a new game or setting.

    I believe *rituals* – much more than written  rules – are the key to a lot of authority and negotiation issues.
    Just imagine that at work you start of with a new company and attend your first meeting. There are a lot of subtle or clear-cut rituals going on at the table. By observing, you eventually pick them up.
    At the RPG table, just simple things as taking turns, scope of description authority, GM's position, use of dice mechanics, in-character vs ooc interaction… all these things can be established as rituals at the table.

    In general, the pitch discussion in this podcast was focused on the *content* of establishing a  game/setting, i.e. medium, idiom, genre, setting, situation.
    I believe that the dimension of *context* for the pitch or inital gameplay is equally important.
    For example, just consider character creation:
    If you write an index card with name + two adjectives, the context of the game is different than with a 5-page character sheet. If you take time for elaborate character relationships, you create a context that emphasizes social relationships. If you play an OSR  game and roll 3d6 without re-rolls for each stat, players can already anticipate a gameplay context with dire consequences.
    Aside from explicitly stating "this is the medium/idom", a lot is happening in initial play to establish the context of how we play with each other.

    • I agree completely.

      I agree completely.

      Regarding rituals, I think that's a crucial concept, although I tend to use the more neutral term "procedures" for whatever it is the group is doing, influenced by textual rules or not.

  2. Improv and discovery during play

    I can’t believe I kept saying “the only one I can think of,” for games which use, or continue to use, improv and discover/create as techniques in play. There’re tons of them, and I welcome as many as you can think of here in the comments.

    I know that I was wary of accidentally including games of this kind:

    • in which much is hidden from the players as deliberate mystery, to the extent that the characters are amnesiac or otherwise initially unable to understand their situation
    • for which the answers are not provided as canon in the game text
    • but for which the answers are decided solely by the GM as canon for this instance of play, as a necessary technique

    Good examples are Ocean, Noumenon, and Zero, all excellent games, but not the technique I was driving at in that part of the discussion.

  3. It occurs to me that this is

    It occurs to me that this is one key function of "Yes and" in the improv community. How do you get people to agree quickly on setting and situation without a bunch of onstage negotiation? You have it be culturally ingrained to accept and build on whatever suggestion the others around you make.

    • To be fair, in improv theatre

      To be fair, in improv theatre, your "yes and …" is just played out for a session of a few minutes usually.
      In an RPG, you might end up with a setting e.g. played out weekly for a year. So, you kind of want to make sure you invest into something that you really want to play.

    • sure, BPG (i don’t seem to be

      sure, BPG (i don't seem to be able to directly reply to you)

      i suspect (because you say "to be fair") you're responding to a claim i haven't made, something like ' "Yes and" from improv is all you really need to get consensus in your roleplaying game', a sentiment i've heard intimated from time to time, and which i wholly disagree with.

      in fact, where i'm heading in my mind is much the opposite. i think that the reason you put forth is one reason that "yes and" is a little bit of fools' gold for rpg design.

    • Quick technical note: to

      Quick technical note: to continue a conversation, keep replying to the leading post. It may seem strange to "reply to yourself" sometimes, but the ultimate effect is very sensible and easy to read.

      I'd like to step into this one for a moment because I see more agreement than disagreement, and am trying to corral that a little bit. I see it in these:

      • "Yes and" makes a lot of sense in improv, especially since whoever is saying that, isn't saying it but instead is doing it, with whatever hijinks they're obviously getting up to next in the show. It's more of an evident response-and-action than it is a statement or agreement.
      • The analogy in role-playing is more delicate, due to (i) what I just implied, that we're talking about verbal commitment and acknowledgment rather than simply moving ahead into the next events, and also (ii) the shared task of "put on a show" to an audience isn't there, and finally (iii) the baseline agreement to do it, or cultural grain maybe as it was stated above, isn't necessarily there.

      So (and I'm still paraphrasing or summarizing), there's a tricky path in this comparison. First not to over-identify role-playing with "just do improv," and second to examine certain things that make improv reliably more fun to do (I'm not talking about watching it), to see if they can be imported or put into a usable form for role-playing.

      I'm all for disagreements but it seemed to me like there wasn't one or enough of one to start defending.


    • (I feel bad, because this may

      (I feel bad, because this may just be nitpicky as hell, but since you're lately hammering the point that roleplaying makes audience and authors one and the same, Ron, I wonder – aren't we putting a show, to some extent? Of course, maybe precisely the big difference between improv and RPGing is that in improv authors and audience are separated.)

    • That’s not a nitpick, it’s

      That's not a nitpick, it's important! Audience and author(s) are definitely present, but they're the same people. Improv is a show delivered by performers to an audience; it's transitive. The processes of getting audience members to shout out material or otherwise feed into the performers' skills are great things, and well-developed, but as I see it, they do not blur that line.

      Going by the improv I observed over many years in Chicago, including famous long-running shows like Second City and Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind as well as more guerrilla or purposeful events, the performers were very skilled at putting the brakes on audience members who overstepped that line, sometimes friendly, sometimes quite harsh.

      But in this other medium, this thing we strangely do, the terms "write" (create is maybe better), "be in the show," and "put on the show" don't really apply in the way we're otherwise accustomed to.

      I'm reminded of an account from the early days of Primetime Adventures, when a friend in the TV/film industry brought the game to professional peers. He thought they'd love it – and encountered rejection and refusal to play as soon as they entered the pitch process. "We do this for a living, we don't want to do it now."

      The difference, I realized, is that they didn't realize that for the game, there is no audience to please, or for that matter, funding/executives to please either. It's about making the show you want, for yourselves, not the one that has to go out there into the industry and market and convince sources of production-and-finance or satisfy slightly-scary, unpredictable viewers ("the viewers," with "the" very much in place).

  4. A peculiar pitch: the jeepform DOUBT

    Ron asked me to repost this here, it's comment I made on the Patreon pre-discussion:

    A peculiar case, that is in some ways the opposite of what a lot of "story games" do: the Jeepform "Doubt" (the game can be downloaded in English, Danish, Finnish and Swedish at the old jeepen site here: )
    The characters are fixed (Tom and Julia), even the supporting cast is (everyone is described with a name, occupation, age, job and even mannerisms), the location are fixed (the game uses a fixed list of locations). The themes are front-loaded (sex, love, betrayal, temptation) and "what we play to discover" is the answer to always the same question, "will Tom or Julia betray the other?"
    But there is a moment where everybody debate as a group to decide in advance something: where the seven scenes will happen (choosing among the listed locations) and who will be present. To make it a group decision and not a "everyone pick a scene", there are 7 scenes for 4 players (this is the stated reason for the number 7 right in the rules), it's made before the players even know who will play Tom and who will play Julia. They simply choose, among the list of characters, the ones they would like to play, or (if they are chosen to play Tom or Julia) who they consider, at as glance, a more dangerous temptation.
    It's not a "free for all" because the players have to choose from fixed lists and they can't chose anything else (they can't decide beforehand what a scene will be about), but still they often have to be reigned in because they start to make plans about "what will happen", and this part can take a long time needlessly. The wasted time is usually the only problem this cause, though, because by the time a scene happen usually the story has already deviated from what the players imagined beforehand
    • Thanks Moreno! I wasn’t sure

      Thanks Moreno! I wasn’t sure whether the game counts as a special/edge case or as a counter-example, and decided it was better to save for later instead of distracting from the main discussion.

      I haven't played Doubt, but I've played its close cousin Under My Skin, so my next points are based on that. If there are significant differences that affect my points, let me know.

      The question is, what sort of group creative preparation is involved? I recall that a pretty blunt private conversation was involved, concerning our real-life romantic situations and personal experience with fidelity and lack thereof. It didn’t have any specific numerical effects, or I don’t think so, but it probably served as an unspoken (un-)ethical foundation for who was selected to play the parts, or perhaps for a group-level understanding of the characters’ potential moral range. A bit like casting a certain actor for a given part, if that actor has played a well-known role as a cheating spouse, or more than once.

      The structural part that you mentioned is important too, because it’s a strong way to set up Situation (in my taxonomy), but letting the specifics take care of themselves based on what has been played so far – currently unknown, when setting up the pre-play features. It’s a lot like the whole-group, whole-season Screen Presence profile in PrimeTime Adventures, except condensed into a single plotline rather than a series of episodes.

    • Hi!


      "Under my skin" was written by Emily Care Boss after playing "Doubt" and other jeepforms, but she did really crank up the intensity up "to the pain".  That larp is an unholy union of jeep and forgite tecniques to make the players bleed. A lot. I have seen the faces of people after they played it and they had the same expression of the survivors from a shipwreck.  I was always too scared to play it. (and I have played Doubt multiple times). Probably it needs a careful preparation both by and for the players to prepare them to that ordeal

      By contrast,  "Doubt" is subtle. It doesn't present it self as profund, at all. On the surface it's a game about two characters (that are not youself, really, at all….  <evil grin…> tempted to betray their partner. No question is asked to the players before playing, the game doesn't care about their background or experiences, the parts are given  by the director on a whim (I have learned some things playing it, for example that the male partner in a male-female couple is never a credible temptation for her parner, at all. The women always prefere to stay with the other player.  And the most important parts should be given to the more inexperienced players. But these are things I have observed, they are not in the manual). The character are even flimsy, but it's a trap.

      The trap is that, by making the players change character a lot during the game, making them act against their habits (in the theater scenes), you strip away these characters, and by the end of the geme they are playing themselves. (It doesn't work on people with experience in playing multiple characters, in impro theater for example. They are trained to never drop the mask, so they should not play the principal characters)

      What the game do, at the end, is to tell you something about yourself and the way you see your relationships. Something that maybe you didn't know, or maybe you did know it by you never admitted it even to yourself. So it's really very important that the director at the beginning should not scare the players, make them put on a social mask, to defend themselves from questions. They will give the answers freely, you simply let them play

      (most people are in a mild state of shock after playing it the first time… or even the second. I had a player crying at the end a couple of times, and the first time it scared me but talking with them afterwards, it seems that it did help them coming to grip with what caused them to cry. Nothing even comparable to the gaze of the people who had just played "under my skin")

      When people choose the temptations and the places at the beginning of the game, they are not jet the characters. The characters are not even assigned yet.  So they, naively (<evil grin again…>) consider what they would consider hot, or desiderable, or an effective temptation for themselves. Some people look at the description of the social young barista and quickly chose her, other don't ever consider her and go for the sophisticate older woman (and it's fun to see what people choose). Without thinking about it, they are saying directly to the game (not to me) "look, this is what would tempt me". It's a choice similar to the one in MLWM, but without telling them what it is.

      The nordic scene consider Doubt and other games like it more akin to tabletop roleplaying games that to a larp  (it has scenes cuts, "thought voices", GM's description of unseen things, etc , and I add that I consider it a story now game. The story cannot be pre-written (I mean, everybody try to do it, but they can't), the premise is takled both viscerally and personally, and the resulting "stories" are among the most strong I have ever seen playing rpgs


    • Trying to look at it to see

      Trying to look at it to see what is fixed and what is decided and by who of the things you listed (medium, idiom, genre, setting, and situation), it's tricky.  The seem fixed and the same in every game!

      I am not sure I get the differences between medium, idiom and genre, so correct me if I misuse them, but let's try to look at each one.

      Medium:  weeell…. let's look at it this way: two of the players will play the self-aware and indipendently active erotic/romantic dreams of two characters in a theatre productions played by two actors that are really four roleplayers in a jeepform. (at each change in medium in that list there is a chance of the player who play each character. So when the actor goes from "playing an actor in normal life" to "play a character in a theatre" the player who play it changes, and their dreams are played by the players who played the actors in normal life).

      So, what is the medium? I don't know. For half of the game is "real people talking to real people in real life", the other half is over the top, exaggerated, with the director that make the players repeat the parts that he didn't like (I had to make the same player repeat a scene five times once)

      The idiom realistic in the real life scenes, overdramatic in the theatre sequences, with the dreams that at the end take a malignant (demonic?) presence… or not, sometimes they are angels that try to save the characters from themselves. But they are explained as actors in a play, it's not "real" (even inside the fictional reality of a rpg), so it's fantastic or not?

      The genre can go from comedy to tragedy, maybe it's this at the end that the people playing leave open: you will know only at the end if you played a romantic comedy/drama or a cinical deconstruction of what at the end was only lust and betrayal.

      The situation seems fixed, but it's not. At the end the scene you thought was about one thing becomes about a totally different things.

      I think I can give an answer only to the "setting" question. it's wide open (but in the contemporary world). It's true that the characters have english names, but they common in all Europe, they could be stage names, or they could live in another country. The players are free to decide where the  characters are. Usually the setting is not really defined, it's "a place like this one but not the same one"

  5. (and I should add that I

    (and I should add that I suspect that the original authors intended/played/wrote a different game, one much less intense. They were experenced larpers, after all, the kind of people that don't get disoriented in "Doubt". I have seen them play Doubt once and they were always in control of their character. One of them remarked once that he was surprised by the way a light "easy" jeepform as "Previous occupants" was played in Italy, taking religious-moral overtones (he did put in the game two characters described a "christians" girlfriends and boyfriend in the same hotel room after all). I think that the same think happened with "Doubt". I realized after a while for example that running it time after time I began to form habits that go directly counter to the advices given by them in the manual…)

  6. Burning wheel commentary books

    This is from Adventure burner and Codex:

    At Burning Wheel headquarters, we’re fans of sketching and brainstorming.
    We think those are vital parts of the creative process, so the chapter starts with
    an exhortation to brainstorm. Then we walk through setting up a situation and
    setting. I feel that only after you have a stuation and setting can you develop char-
    acters. You might feel differently and want to start with characters first and then
    plug them into a setting. That’s perfectly acceptable. This isn’t a process per se. It’s
    more like a punch list.

    This part of the books takes about 15 pages and has advice on creating the world, the situation and the character, as well as adjusting the rules around these.

    • Tommi, what part of the post

      Tommi, what part of the post or video are you are responding to and what is your specific point? This is opaque as a stand-alone comment, especially after all this time.

    • Sorry,


      I understood it was desired to post other examples of how games deal with the setting/situation/etc. creation. BW method books make a very clear case for fairly unstructured brainstorming; something that is argued against in the videos. So I figured it would be nice to have this example explicit, too.

      The core books (from revised on) are far less explicit about this stuff.

    • You have understood the

      You have understood the content requirements perfectly. That is not an issue. What I, at least, need as a reader is some orienting statement so I know what you're talking about and why.

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