Hopelessly confused: a request for PBTA MC campaign advice

Hi Everyone!

I hope you don’t mind my first post being a cry for help, but I’m in need of some assistance.

A little background about my situation. I’m currently beginning what will presumably be a campaign of Impulse Drive with some friends. I have some PBTA experience having run approximately 7 or 8 sessions of The Sprawl and several months worth of a Dungeon World campaign. I felt The Sprawl was a great fit and I felt I had a pretty good grasp on the system and its intended flow and how it wanted to be played, but my results with Dungeon World never quite felt like I was doing it correctly. Full disclosure: I come from a pretty trad background with plenty of D&D, some Vampire, Shadowrun, etc., and I admittedly struggled with DW. Not in the mechanics, but in the collaborative nature of PBTA games in general. I feel like I have a hard time letting go as a GM and the lack of prep with these games makes me anxious.

With The Sprawl, I tried to play it to the letter, with plenty of world building and player input regarding the corps and leading, player focused questions, etc, but I feel like Impulse Drive is a different beast. I admittedly have a bad tendency to trad DM my way through formulating out an elaborate plot (a mistake I unfortunately committed with DW), and I’m trying to avoid doing that with Impulse Drive.

So my question to you all is, how much plot prep do you allow yourselves to indulge in when it comes to designing a campaign for a PBTA game. In true PBTA fashion, I have had a sort of session zero with my players, asked a bunch of leading question, and I intend to use everything they’ve given me to some degree or another, but I’m worried that I’m already connecting all the dots with the NPCs and character hooks they’ve given me and I’m having a hard time resisting the urge to run with it. If I’m to understand correctly, I should be playing to find out what happens and drawing maps and leaving blanks. I get all of that, and I’m not assuming what the players will be doing, and I feel my notes reflect that, but I have already begun jotting down some fairly elaborate notes with big picture, end game plot stuff and something about that feels like I’m doing something very wrong.

Please bestow your guidance, Gauntlet Community!

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My strategy is to focus on brainstorming general things that are left somewhat vague and able to be slotted in (e.g. location names, themes, various character names, titles, appearances, phrases/verbal ticks, images, objects, etc.) and then sort of combine them and slot them in as I need things. It’s a modular approach. So for example I might have a piece of paper with a list like:

  • An old apple orchard, gone to seed
  • A small, well-tended cottage with a bright blue door
  • Three squat cement buildings
  • An old hot rodder selling car parts off of tarps on the roadside
  • …and so on…

Basically, I stay far away from any kind of plot, but I might think about stuff I’m often asked to come up with on the fly (the weather, a particular store, a minor official, etc.) and plan enough of those things that I don’t freeze up or fall into cliches. This is also a great way to come up with a wider range of characters (in terms of names, backgrounds, appearances, etc.)

Hope this helps!

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What a lovely “call for help”. I think we’ve all had these GM/MC-struggle moments (and will continue to!), and it’s great when we can turn to each other for help. I find that these moments in my gaming life/history are when I learn the most about how to play and run games - wonderful moments!

My advice will be brief, and keep in mind that there is no “set” advice that can help you; whatever any single person says is just a tool to try and discard.

  1. Do spend time prepping, but limit yourself in your prep. The first rule is: “I am not allowed to prep anything that doesn’t hinge upon or come from something a player brought into the game.” If you start prepping things other than what the player characters and players call for, stop. (I can describe this in some more detail, if you can’t read my mind from a terse description like this - just ask!)
  2. The second rule is, “Do not prep future events.” Look at each piece of prep you’re working on, and ask yourself, “Does this thing I’m prepping rely on/depend on/call for me to bring something into play at a later time?” If the answer is, “yes,” stop and throw it away, or modify it so that it doesn’t come into play until and unless a player chooses to interact with it.
  3. In play, leave room for the players to come up with things. Leave blanks and let them fill them in. Each time you do this, you allow them to steer the game in a different direction, and likely invalidate some of your prep or personal ideas and plans. Over time, the game will start to evolve beyond the wildest dreams of your own prep, and you’ll be forced to discard it - and, as that’s happening, you learn to trust that emergent fun you discover together more and more.
  4. When you do need to prep, add randomness into your prep - anything that throws you off your usual track. Randomizing the gender of NPCs is fantastic, for instance. Or, anytime you have a “cool idea!”, roll 2d6, and interpret the results like a PbtA move: on a 10+, that’s exactly it! Use it! On a 7-9, take some part of that, but invert it, twist it inside-out, change it from what you want it to be, and/or leave some space for the players to do so for you. On a miss, throw it away and don’t prep anything, or, if you feel you absolutely must, prep the polar opposite of what you were originally thinking.

Here’s a really sneaky and simple scene framing technique, if you want it to be subtle:

Ask a player, “Hey, what does your character do next?” Then, keep prompting them with questions until they give you a scene. More or less “say yes” to everything they suggest. They won’t know it, but they’ll be framing their own scene.

Example:

Player: “Oh, my character wants to go talk to the General.”
You: “Cool, where do you think you could find the General on a day like this?”
Player: “Oh, I assume the General spends a lot of his time in Security Council meetings, but maybe there’s a chance to have a word with him during a lunch break?”
You: “Where do these meetings take place, do you think?”
Player: “Probably in the Pentagon building, right? The one we drove by last session, with the high wire fences.”
You: “Great. How are you going to get his attention?”
Player: “You said the General loves sushi, right? I’ll pose as a sushi delivery man from the Capitol - we got those Security Clearance badges last week, so it should be easy.”
You: “Super.” [Frame a scene just outside the Security Council meeting, during the lunch break, with the PC in delivery uniform, and start it as the General is taking the sushi tray from him.]

Not the best example, but here’s my point:

If you reread it, you’ll see that, although it looks and feels very traditional… the GM/MC did NOT come up with any of that material. Every single element - the time, the place, the action, the people involved - was actually thought up by the player!

Do this often enough and a session can feel like it “runs itself” - you hardly have to do anything.

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So kind of a Dungeon Starter approach to GM prep?

I think one of the things I’m butting heads with regarding Impulse Drive specifically, is that it feels like a mix of two things. On one hand, it’s got this kind of open, DW-esque approach to questing and adventure, and I feel like space opera stories tend to go that way. On the other hand, it encourages the Space Master to set up missions and gives some very specific varieties to do so, which is more along the lines of The Sprawl, which I’m fine with too. I realize this observation might be beyond the scope of this thread, but just something that’s adding to the confusion.

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Yes, I had forgotten the dungeon starter terminology but that’s basically what I mean.

Awhile ago I ran a Diaspora game where I brainstormed like 20 one sentence job/mission prompts, and then at various points would give players access to some kind of “Space Classifieds” listing to choose different jobs to do. It’s a similar idea, and related to the advice @Paul_T gave, my advice is: Don’t ever do so much planning for any particular thing that you’ll be unhappy if you don’t end up using it.

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Fantastic advice! Thank you for taking the time to write that out.

While I had this big plot idea for Impulse Drive with a couple of factions that were established during our session zero, I’m going to try and avoid using the structure of it and just mine it for flavor details and do my best to let it unfold in play. Impulse Drive basically just suggests opening session one with some in medias res action, let that play out organically, then prep session two and beyond by formulating some missions outlines, since the players are intended to be working as smugglers and bounty hunters, etc. I suppose there’s no harm in working some of those together so long as I don’t lose myself in trying to chain a bunch of them together with a through line, as though it were an entire season of a show I was writing.

Again, thank you guys for the insight!

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I suggest revisiting fronts from Dungeon World! These can absolutely be commuted to other games (they came from threats from Apocalypse World, after all) and they are explicitly made for plot arc prep. Importantly, you’re not writing out a plot beat-by-beat, but you do identity the main threat and a series of “portents” that are, essentially, a quick note for you to hit (especially) on your hard hard moves.
The important facet of fronts/threats to remember is that this is how you show the world around and behind the characters is alive and moving. I think it’s the absolute best way to frame your prep — you have the session zero material, which will allow you to make probably one or two campaign fronts, and your session one will let you refine that.

I also recommend reading @jasoncordova ‘s 7-3-1 technique and see what resonates with you there :slight_smile:

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I’m not familiar with the prep procedures in Impulse Drive, but in Apocalypse World, you instructed (not encouraged, instructed) to prep threats in a fair amount of detail:

Creating them as threats means making decisions about their backstory and motivations. Real decisions, binding ones, that call for creativity, attention and care. You do it outside of play, between sessions, so that you have the time and space to think. (p. 106)

That prep includes countdown clocks, which is what inspired the grim portents/impending dooms of Fronts & Dangers in Dungeon World. Real, actual plans for where this thing is going.

So if that sort of prep is what makes you feel better about running the game, by all means, do it.

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Honestly, you sound fine to me! You’re building up the ways that NPCs are connected to one another, the ways that things are hooked into each other, and maybe working on some of the stuff that’s progressing in the background.

I think the rule of thumb for me would be this: when the players jump into action, does it feel like there will be options on your end? Like, multiple options? Also like, do you know what’s going to happen? Are there ways for players to engage and interact with the big picture? Like, jot down ideas of what things might happen, but prepare yourself to discard and change them as the players bring their own material to the table! Write up your fronts, then rewrite them as player actions change them.

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Somewhat related, here’s a snippet I wrote for the GM chapter in Stonetop. I think it applies to just about any game, really.

Why prep? A few reasons:

  • To give you interesting stuff to say when it’s your turn to talk.
  • To speed up play, and not make everyone wait while you decide what happens, or stat up a monster, or draw a map.
  • To shore up your weaknesses or your blind spots. If you, like, always forget about the PCs’ followers and let them fade into the background, prep some interesting things for those followers to say or do.
  • To hone your craft. Some stuff is just better when you have time to think about it—it’s more consistent or thematic, it flows better, it builds on stuff that came up earlier, etc.
  • To give yourself permission to play hard and visit badness on the PCs. If you’ve got a tendency to pull punches (and don’t we all?), it can really help to have an impending doom established or to give your bad guys a move like “tear an arm off.”

Prep only as much as you find useful and valuable. Unless you’re making something for other GMs to use, there’s no point in writing down details that are self-evident to you. Don’t write down what Nia looks like unless you think you’ll forget or it’s something you specifically want to call attention to in play.

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A few pieces of advice:

  • Don’t prep more than you need for the next session.
  • Kill your darlings: if things organically go in a direction that completely invalidates your prep - throw it out. Do not push the characters into what you have prepped just because you spent time on it.
  • Fronts/Threats/etc. are all things that will happen if the PCs don’t do anything about them. Don’t force them to do anything about them but make sure there are signs showing them that their not doing so has consequences.
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Hi! Designer of Impulse Drive here!

First of all, your excitement & enthusiasm for the game after your groups session zero is fantastic! I talk a few times in the book how humans are pattern finding computers that weave narrative out of disparate threads, so I totally understand your instinct for that. If you’re worried or being too railroady (or overloading the game with dense plot interconnectivity) take all of those ideas that’re swirling around, & write questions about them.

“Is the Tempest’s shadowy organization & the Smuggler crew’s creditor the same group?” Feel free to stew on these ideas, imagine what they might look or feel like, but until you utter them at the table, they’re potential directions the game could go in not concrete realities. I call this kind of GM speculation Insider Theorycrafting, & it’s a part of being a fan of the characters! Consider yourself like a lively theorycrafting reddit thread or forum about a favourite show, guessing at what links might exist, but you’re still playing to find out if these theories are true, or if the other players & the game surprise you!

How much you plot out for Impulse Drive is a dial. The tools I provide are mostly for setting up the dominoes. You can create Strains (Similar to AW Threats or DW Fronts with countdowns) or merely describe the various factions, & their desires, & how they might clash setting up the dominoes & then watching the PCs knock them over & cause chaos. I personally am a chaos-heavy improvisational GM/SM/MC, but that’s because I spend a lot of time with informal prep, doing Insider Theorycrafting, preparing to be surprised & react organically.

Find the right balance for yourself & your group by playing & talking with each other about your experiences. Making sure you have fun as the Space Master is just as important as making sure the rest of the group is having fun!

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Straight from the source! Thanks for taking the time to respond! You’ve got a great game here from the look of things and I’m really excited to play it.

Thanks to everyone for the advice and recommendations. I’ve got some good info to focus my efforts, so I greatly appreciate that. I’ll be sure to let you guys know how the first official session goes after we play it (hopefully) this weekend.

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I’ll generally set the first scene of the session. That first scene I have a high degree of control over since the GM generally begins the session. I prep the inciting incident of that scene, then hand the session over to the players.

But that’s a scene, not a campaign. As for big plots and campaigns arc - I prep nothing. When I have prepped some possible finales, the game quickly deviated so wildly from them that I’ve come to realize that I was just wasting my time. I can’t turn over the session to the players and simultaneously make accurate predictions on where things will go. If there’s a certain conclusion you think would be great and want to make it happen, then you also need events that lead to it, and events that lead to those. After all, the Count can’t betray the PCs if they don’t trust him to begin with, so that trust has be established, but they first they need to meet the Count and you can’t just have dinner with the Count, so they need to meet one of his underlings, but the PCs need to first impress the underling…, etc. And this is a very different kind of game.

I think it comes down to choice. If you give the players sincere choices (i.e. not quantum choices), then you can’t know where the story will go. What you can do is, as others have suggested, try Threats/Fronts. These are things that factions will do if the PCs do nothing. Set those in motion and foreshadow them, then let the PCs wonderfully ruin everyones’ plans, as PCs are wont to do.

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Connecting the dots is fine. But keep thinking of it as “here are some ideas of how these things could connect” rather than “this is the truth.”

Also, making some truths ahead is fine. In most PBTA games, you need Fronts/Threats/etc.

Your fronts are designed to be maps with blanks. But they’re still maps.

Some people run PBTA super low-myth (i.e. entirely or almost entirely improvised), but most PBTA games don’t actually ask you to do that.

But keep in mind the difference between “writing threats I might use this session” and “writing what’s supposed to happen this session.”

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That’s a great distinction, and timely as I will be playing in about an hour!

So far I’ve decided on setting up an opening scene that puts the crew in an airlock of a derelict ship with an idea for some questions that imply the security system is screwy and may have been intended to keep something in and not out (prisoners? monstrous aliens? play to find out what happens…). I also had the idea that the crew may meet a rival faction of some sort if the dice start rolling poorly, that will of course arrive at the worst possible time. We’ve already established in session zero where the sort of Deep Space Nine-esque city-sized space station the party tends to operate out of is and they’ve given me some NPCs that they tend to get work from/are indebted to, so I think I’m set to improve any sort of encounters that might pop up there.

Again, thanks to everyone who responded here with your excellent advice!

EDIT: The session went great! The crew did a little exploration of the derelict ship, triggered some Hooks, discovered the mystery of the ship (turns out it was a science vessel that was sent out into deep space to work on bioweapons), fought the results of said bioweapon project (which we collectively decided was like an inky black quadrupedal beast with long dog-like legs, powerful jaws like a crocodile, and talons that allowed them to climb walls), and managed to make a copy of the research info the ship was working on.

They also managed to roll a lot of hilariously poor rolls that I enjoyed making them pay for with lots of fictionally juicy complications, in particular, a crew of space pirates who also came across this science ship. I kept alluding to offscreen threats of this ship and its crew showing up, trying to contact the crew ship, getting into the science vessel, and becoming a major threat when the crew was pinned down between a tidal wave of bioweapon monsters and these well armed space pirates. As the monster threat was bearing down on the crew, the Captain of the ship decided that he wanted to try and manipulate these guys as they were running from the monsters (which they couldn’t see because they were right around the corner), so we decided he’d roll Manipulate and did so well that they let the crew just waltz right past and into the tunnel leading to their own ship. I asked him to tell me what was promised as the rule dictates, and he said he’d promise them the ship, but that they had to deal with the pest problem. The crew sprinted right past them and into their own ship just in time for the bioweapon creatures to annihilate the pirate crew.

So now my players have decided they want to sell this bioweapon info, that just so happens to implicate a sort of galactic alliance peacekeeper organization, to the highest bidder. The Captain of the crew decided that the only guy capable of handling this situation was an NPC he had established during session zero who is a Jabba The Hutt type of character who he has screwed over repeatedly in the past, so I can’t wait for us to meet this guy.

So for any interested parties, from here I’ll decide what this big shot NPC crime boss wants in return for buying/fencing this hot info. I’m thinking they’ll need to do something to “make amends” for all of the scamming in the past before he’ll even agree to entertain the idea. From there maybe this is even too big for him and I’ll get to introduce an even bigger hot shot. Time will tell.

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