How to play, not explaining play away

I'm boosting this comment from a prior post into its own post, because some collective feedback is just what this needs about now. BPG has put together the Directions Storyplaying – Experience Guide.
For more details,  click on the Slide settings  > "Open speaker notes" or download the Experience Guide PDF here.

BPG wrote about the specific changes he made in that comment, but for here, let's look at what's here rather than what was. Note that there is now one core resolution mechanic: Random Tables on the Fly, in which the group can set up either a single or cross-reference dice outcome track at the moment of resolution.

As I see it, this is a brilliant solution to the ongoing problem – long plaguing Primetime Adventures play – of asking/saying, "what is this scene about." Here, it's split explicitly between starting a scene simply with a number of elements in place, and discovering what the most plausible/enjoyable crisis-items are given whatever immediate conflicts pop up. It gets away from the tedious Lit 101 topic of "what is the conflict in this scene" and into the completely doable, transparent procedure of "oh shit what could happen now."

You've probably noticed the four-game inquiry that's been inadvertently created here in consulting – House of Spiders, Tales of Entropy, Be-Movie, and Directions Storyplaying – all of which aim toward shared/traded GMing, toward scene mechanics, and toward structural rather than fine-grained immediate variables. It's a great look at the applied logic that goes all the way back to Amber and Theatrix, through Universalis and Primetime Adventures.

If you're interested in the questions associated with this design "family," please take a look at this slideshow and see if you can try it out with some people – this is where we're seeing how it works as a teaching tool.


12 responses to “How to play, not explaining play away”

  1. How do the Random Tables Work?

    I've reviewed the material on the website for this game. I am interested by what I see, but confused about how player contribution relate to conflict resolution.

    How do the random tabls relate to player conttributions to the fiction? Do the character efforts. If so, how?

    – Alan


    • Good heavens! How did that

      Good heavens! How did that get so garbled?

      I meant: "How do the random tables relate to player contributions? Do the character efforts define what goes into the tables, or do the table dictate the outcome regardless of character action?

    • H’m, I’m not sure if I’m

      H'm, I'm not sure if I'm answering what you're asking, but I'll try …

      The random tables are created on the fly, right there at the table. Therefore what everyone has said about what's happening, including what their characters are doing, are factored into the tables.

      On the one hand, that excludes things that no one thinks is very interesting or important to resolve randomly, and on the other, it privileges things that people think deserve special note, and it seems to me that having stated that your character is passionately and furiously pursuing some line of action would go a long way toward getting the appropriate result into a better/more-likely outcome zone on the table.

    • Aha!

      I think that helps. Let me unpack my thinking a bit.

      In most RPGs, players negotiate for conflict outcomes using skill rolls and the like — representing how the character's fictional qualities affect the fictional outcome. If I understand your explanation correctly: during the play of a scene, the players in Storyplay contribute outcomes that seem appropriate and interesting to the random table. This would include any players desiere to have outcomes that reflect their character's compitence. 

      On the other hand, I suppose it might be interesting play to include outcomes that seem to defy character compitencies — then you have the option of portraying how the character remains compitent, but circumstances or a plot twist get in the way.

    • That’s right, in reference to

      That's right, in reference to two points.

      1. This discussion is right in line with what we discussed in the latest posted Monday Lab, [AA]IIEE[EE]!, specifically the large "schools" of how actions and events are ordered in play. One of the schools basically rolls "big," to find out how things turn out in general or regarding one specific outcome, in the context of many actions at once. This differs greatly from the other "school," which builds a sequence of actions linearly in in-fiction time until enough has occurred to consider certain issues resolved. Both have been around since the start of the hobby, e.g. in the contrast between Tunnels & Trolls and TFT: Melee. Directions Storyplay is an example of the former.
      2. Directions Storyplay does some neat things to avoid many of the associated pitfalls for this zone of design/play. One of the main things is to identify and address only the variables that seem important and stochastic, but also, it's able to address all of them. That might be opaque if you're not familiar with this zone, but if you are, you'll see that it's a big deal. The other main thing is that designing the table and rolling the dice doesn't happen until considerable play has already occurred in the situation; in other words, you don't make the table and then play to squeeze the characters into its variables, which is very annoying and shows up way too often in similar designs. So when the group makes the table, everyone will know quite a bit about the immediate location, extenuating circumstances, what every character is doing, what short-term consequences are looming, et cetera.
    • I must have overlooked this

      I must have overlooked this boosted post, sorry. Hence the waay late response…

      AlanRB's question is very important and points to the characteristic way of playing Directions.
      As Ron pointed out, Random-Tables-on-the-Fly take into account various parameters related to situation, all characters' intentions etc.

      That being said, the scene dynamic is pulled by two powers:
      1. The initial momentum of the scene framed with a specific intention.
      2. Spontaneous storyplaying unfolding as the characters act & interact during the scene.

      So while you may frame a scene with a specific intention and questions in mind, a character during roleplaying can whimsically pull the scene into a completely unexpected direction.
      Then, you may have to drop your previously phrased scene question and come up with a new random table on the fly for the new, unexpected situation.

  2. A larger question

    Directions has not left my mind since our discussions. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the initial preparation is both too generalized and too detailed. How is that possible? Consider the possibility of these (both):

    • Locking down the textual setting in nearly classic role-playing form, at least in terms of a wide potential setting with certain detailed locations [as it stands, open-setting, play-anything games lead people to enact moves like Sixty Seconds and shows like Game of Thrones, rather than arriving at characters or plots they find compelling on their own in a setting they find provocative/productive]
    • Reducing the before-play details about characters and situations, not much, but so that planning "what we'll do" and perceiving "what this will be like" is clearly not possible [as it stands, play can be perceived as more thespian or simply celebratory of movies and memes, and when that perception holds sway, actual play will be far less proactive]
    • You bring up excellent

      You bring up excellent questions, Ron.


      I'm currently reflecting (again) game development on Directions Storyplaying and have been returning to my inspiration of Jeepform games.

      I wanted to merge Jeepform-style play with the approach of universal RPG systems like i.e. Fate or Cortex Plus.


      At the center of Directions are scenes with a focus on characters' emotions, dramatic tension and character development, much like Jeepform and similar Freeform games. This is where the in-character roleplaying and intense experience takes place.

      At the same time, there is an outer structure that much resembles traditional RPGs with a group of protagonists experiencing adventures. However, this outer structure of the story is developed out-of-character by players on the plot level, much like i.e. playing Microscope.


      So, Directions Storyplaying takes place on two levels:

      1. Outer structure: plot-based OOC story development (Microscope style)

      2. Inner structure: scene-based in-character experience (Jeepform style)


      There is no roleplaying going on in the traditional RPG sense. The story doesn't emerge through the immersive first-person actions of PCs in a (seemingly) open world. The story is determined along the way by the players with the help of plots.


      I feel that I need to clarify this distinction and set the right expectations for the game.

      Also, I need to explain more the process of playing scenes: Within a compelling story, putting characters in a pressure chamber with a monkey wrench and letting players experience what happens with the characters.

    • Sometimes I see concepts

      Sometimes I see concepts appear to wrestle with one another in a creator’s statements. These two sentences are very close to one another in your post, and yet they may mean entirely opposite things.

      There is no roleplaying going on in the traditional RPG sense. The story doesn't emerge through the immersive first-person actions of PCs in a (seemingly) open world. The story is determined along the way by the players with the help of plots.


      … [regarding scenes, i.e., while playing] Within a compelling story, putting characters in a pressure chamber with a monkey wrench and letting players experience what happens with the characters.

      These statements do not seem compatible to an outside viewer like me. I understand that a scene (I would call it “situation”) and its opening question are invented in an out-of-character, Microscope-like way, but that is not relevant. What is relevant is what play is like once we are indeed inside it, playing my character.

      The question is whether I say “what he does!” in a spirit of engagement. (I do not care whether this is “immersive” or “playing a role” or any other buzzword, only that it is enjoyable and performed in the moment.)

      If that is true, then play requires a significant switch from determining the setting, scene/situtation, and evident or initial question at the scene’s beginning. This switch puts us into playing our characters in a relatively ordinary way – perhaps mindful, as I like to say about playing Sorcerer and similar games, i.e., you know you are an author as well as audience, but regardless, fully enjoying the medium as audience too.

      If that is not true, because the events and actions inside the scene are manufactured and negotiated much as the setting was, then there is no genuine “pressure chamber play” at all – merely story by committee, or workshop negotiation.

      I would prefer not to debate this topic in terms of abstractions or intentions. Instead, I suggest thinking back upon a group of people playing, and reflecting upon what they were actually and exactly doing while inside the scene.

    • As you can see, I’m

      As you can see, I'm struggling to put my thumb on how things really work.


      I can definitely see that cutting down pre-negotiated setting & characters makes sense. A lot of this can emerge naturally during play.


      As to the "free will" vs deterministic nature of characters, it is kind of both:

      Yes, characters move and breath freely during in-character roleplaying, mostly like in ordinary RPGs. Unexpected things in the story can emerge from this.

      At the same time, there is no GM and no real NPC/PC distinction. So, besides roleplaying how they want, players also carry the responsibility of steering characters towards some pre-meditated situations.


      In my understanding, this is a more "adult" & responsible way of playing:

      You cannot just whimsically roleplay "whatever you want" with a character and expect "daddy/mommy" GM to take care of the rest of the world & story.

      You have both in-character freedom and meta game responsibility at the same time.


      So, there is no "switch" between OOC planning and total IC immersion.

      In practice, the process of playing a scene is more like this:

      1. Build-up: players steer the characters towards the "pressure chamber" (as pre-defined by the two scene questions).

      2. Climax: at the moment of "maximum pressure", significant events unfold (determined by dice roll based on the random-tables-on-the-fly for the two scene questions).

      3. Resolution: now, characters truly do what they want and possibly unexpected results emerge from the characters' actions (until the current host ends the scene).


      So, only step 3 gives characters the full freedom to influence the outer structure of the story. However throughout all steps 1-3, players experience the scene through the characters' eyes, emotions & interactions.

    • Agreed! Your phrasing is

      Agreed! Your phrasing is compatible with the "mindfulness" I mentioned, that the players may integrate relatively spontaneous or "play my character" cognition with their considerations or desires concerning "how things may go."

      This is far easier, across a wide range of design, than role-playing hobby culture tends to admit. As we've discussed before, self-designated gamers tend to talk themselves into narrower limitations than the activity actually demands.

      I suggest that this concept is more distinct from the Microscope/prep processes than you are saying, but that's not really necessary to debate or resolve between us. Again, the best method is probably to examine what real people did, and then to describe that accurately to the people you're about to play with, in full confidence that (i) they can do that and (ii) the system will facilitate it.

    • OK, then your “mindful player

      OK, then your "mindful player" and my "adult responsible player" are not so far away from each other after all.

      I have no problem communicating to non-RPG players any expectations, they do fine 100% playing Directions. But 40% of traditional RPG players are either confused or revolt. I don't know how to communicate with them at the beginning to either repel them or get them on board.

      One thing I want to experiment with is replacing most of OOC pre-negotiation at the beginning of the game and in scenes. I want to have an in-character introduction scene at the beginning of the game. Also, frame little pre-scene intro/post-scene outro situations that allow players to chat in-character without any action instead of using OOC reflection.

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