Autopsy of a situation

This post is really a follow up of this one about situations and reincorporation. I wanted it to be a comment in that post, but it became too long. It’s about “playing the situation” vs “preparing it”. So please check it and see it’s more about general skills of play than about The Clay That Woke itself.

So here is something I’ve stopped to do : Prep behavior #A

Thinking about prep as an intricated situation, sometimes with a complex relationship map. Then, this backdrop serves so I, as a GM, have always something to “activate”, a NPC that will have to act, take decision.

Buried deep into this apparent non railroad prep, lies the anxiety that “I need to provide something to the player”. Or “what if my preparation is not sufficient”.  Deeper, another unconscious anxiety “The players will not play”.

Example [copy/paste from my preparation notes] :

Situation 3 : The Gardener

Visindharah Empyreus owns a wondrous Garden of beautiful flowers that grows into the bodies of dead iguanas and victims from the Everwar in the jungle. The bees flying in those flowers creates movements that plays memories from the Everwar. Then those movements are scripted and replayed by dueling champions in the amphitheater with an audience or sold to the mansion of Saemauug Empyreus.

The story of the Loving Princess

A lieutenant in the Everwar framed his commander for the theft of a beautiful necklace owned by his lover, the daughter of an important general. The general asked her to show the necklace he offered her as gift, but she couldn’t. She was outcasted and the commander was imprisoned with his best officers, accused of being accomplices. The lieutenant then left the war and married the girl, but she was so sad that he lost interest in her.

The lieutenant confessed everything to one of his lovers, a boy, in a moment of weakness, then he killed him and buried him in the Garden. The lieutenant is Omashpu, Visindharah’s husband.

She doesn’t know anything, but she recognized the necklace – because Omashpu offered it to her as a wedding gift .

Visindharah received the necklace from Omashpu as a wedding gift. She thinks that the Commander from this vision is her True Love and that she can take the place of the girl, using the necklace.

Minotaur occupations
  • Part of a hunting group against iguanas needed for the soil (Leader)
  • Butcher (Philosopher).
Status quo
  • Hunting iguanas around the municipality and bringing their bodies to the butcher.
  • Making fertilizer for the flowers.
  • Visindharah wants to find out if the girl is still alive, so she can steal her personality and behave like her. She wants to organize big ceremonies with her walking on the streets wearing the jewel, until someone recognize the necklace.

This is not bad prep in itself. I was able to not fall too much in the trap of delivering content to consume. Not because “I was good”, but because I was helped: the players at the table were able to orient me and help me with my GM job.

I know I have to work on my “crossing” skills, as my last sorcerer game as a GM showed me, and sometimes a player would help me “maybe we could coincidentally be in the same place now”. Or they took their own spaces and I was able to spot it, and allow them to take it.

After the end of the Minotaur situations, I could feel that I had to do differently. I felt that GMing was not fully about an elaborated prepared situation, but having just the minimum and knowing how to follow up with what’s happening during play. Of course, you could have complex situation (as stated in Sorcerer & Soul) – but I’m not ready for that. One have to know what to do with the minimum before going for intricated stuffs. No revelation here, everybody knows that. But this knowledge kind of distilled itself into my own feelings – as an almost biological experience, because I could feel a bit of fear and excitation together. Like I know I the elastic cord won’t fail and that the only thing I have to do is to jump, me but still – I have to jump.

Now : Prep behaviour #B

Knowing that I need just enough so play can proceed. A ball to throw to someone. I can’t think of another name than “kicker” – exactly that, something kicking so the game can start.

The difference with Prep #A is very subtle. It’s not like Prep#A is bad railroading and Prep#B is emergent. The two could serve the same purpose. What changes is my own conception of prep and my cognitive process of it. The cognitive approach is different.

The focus of Prep #A is to be sure that something, anything will happen. It’s to have prep as a backup, as a schematic that I can consult during the game if it’s not bouncing enough. It relies on the unrooted assumption that “maybe players won’t have anything to do”. In my mind, it looks like being anxious about Paul looking at me saying “so what’s happening”, and I would look at Situation 3 and say “well ok Visindhara sends you to hunt some Iguanas !! à Jungle encounters. Fight!”. This kind of things.

Here a thing that clicked: to shift my expectations from “What should I do if the ball doesn’t bounce” to “Players will do things, it will bounce as hell once I kick in”. Once I interiorized this, I opened some space to the players. They won’t be in my complex and intricated maze of relationships, listening to me providing content and content, constantly hardframing scene so “something happens” and asking them to react, expecting them to take the lead. I won’t be always playing hot and push them so they are in situation where they have to react. It’s not a problem in itself, but it can create this social dynamic in which the players knows something will happen and wait to react. GM acts à players reacts. Like the ball bouncing throwed in only one way.

The focus of Prep #B is what will happen in play. I don’t have any schematic to rely on. My backup is not prepared: it’s my own trust in my capacity to check how the involved NPC will react. This is the Bungee jump: I’m not going in the game full of my ideas of what to do “if”. After 30 years of doing that – well it feels like a Bungee jump, like you never really jumped.  In the same time, it felt very clear that there is nothing difficult or problematic. So my cognitive process is just: I’ll throw this things, and players will want to do stuffs. And I’ll react. Stop focusing on this “GM acts à player reacts” that is filling all the space to the point of being stifling.

 And once I accepted that, this is the prep that came out [copy/past from my notes]:

Contracts are made so the Mercenary Band can live. This contract is about finding Bahir Buna, who is in hiding, possibly in the body of a child, in the Municipality of Rohmoon. Bahir Buna is an important leader in the Everwar and has been seen injured near the city. He grew up here and knows people.

He is hiding in the cave and is helped by Seyhadra, Lapus Lazuli’s sister. She loves her sister who is getting wed to Saemauug Empyreus, if not against her will she made it clear she is not happy about that.

Situation 5 : The contract
  • The contractor: _____________
  • Find him and bring him for trial to a Judge. Then chain him as an example or bring him in the Cheziod prison. Use whatever means necessary.
  • Loot and sack poor families’ homes and find some clues about betrayer or the Everwar.
  • Clue: Some of his lieutenants have been arrested and are jailed in the Cheziod Prison. They know how to find him.
Minotaur occupations
  • Kown Mercenary Leader (Soldier)
Truth and possible truth
  • Seyhadra knows where Bahir Buna is, she found him injured, with fever, in her home’s cellar and feeds him until he can leave quietly.
  • The people chained at the entrance of the Municipality are innocents.
  • There is an old woman who has a son involved in the Everwar. He comes to see her sometimes and help her, bringing food. He is a Minotaur. She is Essin’s mother.
  • Bahir Buna is hidden under the disguise of Seyhadra.

See that the situation is not complete. I didn’t define who the contractor is because I think it’s not important. I have an idea, but I’m not settled on this.

Where is the subtle difference with Prep#A?

Consider this question: what happens if Bahir Buna is found during the first hour of play? Is the end of the situation? What content will I provide? Will I have to stop the session and prep for the next time? Will I have to design a new contract? A new contractor? Isn’t it boring?

I must admit, all those questions came in my mind. You can see me struggle as hell with those kind of question in my Sorcerer game from years ago. I could feel at that time that I was caught in a swamp, and I could get out at the third or fourth session, not knowing how I did.

I get it now. Every one of these questions, no  is nonsense. I was able here to ignore those distractions and focus on what needs focus: how will I rely on the skills I need to do my job during play.  Here is what happened :

We played two hours. Nassim’s Minotaur organized his mercenary band so they would check every suspicious behavior. The “clue” described was provided in the framing of the first scene, not delivered through play as pacing. Nassim choose to not follow that path. His guys spotted Seyhadra, anxious, running to get food in the cave where Bahir Buna rests. There, he found the guy, injured, captured him and brought him back to custody. That’s where it ended during this 2 hours session of 4 players – including me.

The whole thing happened without triggering an inflexion. I didn’t think about what would trigger an inflexion during my prep. Just something to kick in. So I wasn’t expect to actually not use the stochastic instrumentation – which I generally consider as the main venue for bounce.

I had to prepare for the next session – and it was easy and fast. The question is not “what is the next contract” or “situation”. It’s “okay, who are involved in this and could react”. Seyhadra, clearly. Some of Bahir Buna’s guy who are not captured. Something like “hey the guy is now freed and you have to catch him again” felt silly and ignoring the established fiction.

I realize there that there are some spots in the situation that needs to be defined. This definition is directly drawn from what is need from play. It’s not “what I find cool”, it’s “what I need so I know what to do”. Sometimes everything is there. Sometimes things have to be defined.

Here are my current notes:

Bahir Buna has been captured by Nassim’s Minotaur.

  • Seyhadra is terribly sad about what happened – she is Bahir Buna’s cousin.
    • She wants her cousin free. She will need help She wants him to stop his involvement in the Everwar (and she thinks is able to convince him).
    • If she doesn’t get any help, she may try to help him herself, she will do some criminal stuffs so she can be jailed in Cheziod.
    • There is a minotaur working for this family. He wants to help the girl, but he doesn’t know what to do, help her with the prison or with her sister (à will look for an Advocate to get advices).
  • The Contractor’s faction of the Everwar has come back and is harassing people. They don’t have any way to protect themselves. Only specific families are targeted (the one from Bahir Buna’s faction, which includes Seyhadra’s family).
  • Essin is still looking for her half-brother.
    • She will ask for advice to Pra’Nha. She may ask for help to Nassim’s Mercenaries.

But this is all providential. Nassim was missing so I started with Laura.

I checked my notes and saw this thing about the Minotaur asking her for help (a cross between Nassim and Laura’s stories). But I went for “Laura, a few day passed since the last session, is there anything you want to do ?”

“Actually yes, I want to meet with Essin”.

Essin? Right, she’s part of my prep, I know what Essin wants and what she was going to do “in the backroom” of this session if she didn’t appear. So the first scene starts with Laura talking to Essin about the half-brother.

This post is not really well structured, and I don’t have a smart conclusion.

I just wanted to dissect a bit my thought about this subtle change in which my mind focuses now more on “how to play in the situation” vs “how to prep a situation”, and how it affected me emotionally, definitely drawing a cross on any notion of anxiety, and taking pleasure and confidence to just come into the session.

Also how I think that my previous behavior could shape a social space that would not allow people to take their own space. I struggled a lot to analyze this answer on my lamentations of the flame princess’s post :

Ron : “Something about that description, or about many interrelated aspects of starting to play which culminates in that description, is going wrong. From GM-side, not player-side, what could that be?”

I knew I was mentally digesting it this and that it could take some time before I formulate something. Wish it would not take so long.

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5 responses to “Autopsy of a situation”

  1. I’m not quite sure what this means, do you think you could expand?

    The general point, that you shouldn’t view yourself as creating “content” for the players to interact with, that you shouldn’t always play hot, is so real. It’s something I struggle with, a lot.

    I ran a not-very-good Monsterhearts game two or three years ago where every time the play slowed down, I would just hard-cut to another scene, trying to stay with whatever was interesting. It was exhausting, and shallow — no individual situation was very developed. It was as if I thought the responsibility all on me, to keep kicking the ball to the other players. And if they didn’t kick it around enough themselves, I just needed to kick more, and harder.

    • I’ll try with the music band metaphor.

      Imagine we organized a session where everyone comes with his instrument. We all know how to play, we have a shared culture of songs a specific style – let’s say Jazz.

      Previously, I was learning some songs by hurt, writing them on sheets, and repeat those 2 or 3 songs 10 times. Then when I come and we play, we choose to play something different. No big deal, I would play by looking at my prepared sheets, double checking if I’m doing this right, trying to rewrite mentally the sheets because I can’t just read them – we are playing something else. Sure, some of the notes are the same, but it’s not the same song.

      Today what I do is check if I can play a song or two, listen to some tunes I would enjoyed, and double check if my instrument is well tuned. I don’t need … 3 sheets of different songs when I don’t know what we’ll play. I just need to feel confident that I can find the right rhythm, create a riff that responds to the other.

      It’s not just about not bringing new content at all at the session. It’s mainly about being able to recognize how much is necessary so play can proceed.

      Previously, I used to produce to much, like the whole mapping of all the details of the situation. It would be like coming at a tennis game with 50 tennis ball, all perfectly painted, sorted and tagged just to play 1 hour of an amical entertaining exchanges with you. And I would prep for this game by thinking what would happen if someone miss one ball? Which one should I throw? How many colours so the game is not boring? Should I take different size? Decide of a specific order?

      This is all superfluitous. I would enjoy far more the game without being anxious about all that before joining you. But I think this was the mindset I was into. It’s not necessary a problem – because I can join the game, use only the first ball, and we’ll do those exchanges without caring about the rest, everything will go well. So it doesn’t specially need to a dysfunctional game. But it could.

      My own realization today is that I only need one ball – or maybe two to get things smoother. And my mind should not be worry before the game. The focus of my mind should be on how to play so we have beautiful exchanges together during this entertaining friendly game of tennis we’re trying to play. In other words, less anxiety about organization things to rely on during the game, and putting more focus on playing a “nice gesture” during play.

  2. My apologies, there was supposed to be a quotation in my comment! It was a specific few sentences I didn’t understand. If I can’t find the quotation I’ll add it in

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