I Need help getting closer to a distributed GM game system

Hi DeReel! heh, I saw what you did there, the Resourceful Deck is still under revision, I think it’s fifth version now :stuck_out_tongue: I gotta finish that thing sometime, as it currently works as a nice complement for this game.

Hmm, you’re partially right. I do want to keep my role as facilitator/ordinay GM but share it with players whenever their imagination sparks better ideas than mine. However, yes, I do need to write down a limited form of the procedures I use for players to add their input.

I adressed number 1 by ditching the agenda of principles (I agree, It’s too vage) and focusing on techniques, ritual phrases and procedures, a sort of GM moves triggered when either the GM has no idea what lies ahead or when players directly mention interesting ideas or make a question that infers they have an objective expectation of what lies ahead. (I probably should formalize this move, as I believe now that I have internalized it so much I actually didn’t include it in the written manual). About 2 and 3, see my answer above to Paul-T.

Congrats on Capes, great design there! I’d totally steal the Goals mechanic but besides being illegal :stuck_out_tongue: it breaks on my design which is honed for princess play (I still hate Eero for coining that term and long for the old days when it was called Power Fantasy :smiley: ), low impact Tactical Simulation and some loose fictional resources management.

I can’t take credit for Capes, it’s by Tony Lower-Basch. I only meant that I was inspired by the concept of having conflicts carry over until their resolution, which was different from the declare-roll-resolve sequence I was used to. (Dogs in the Vineyard also stretched out resolution but I discovered it after.)

To me, the mystery plot can be done with universal RPG Tools, but it doesn’t really shine treated this way. Sure, you can have a Revelation or Connect-the-dots move, but that’s not the same thing. I read about Okult and think Whilhelm has got the thing you want : it’s all about asking the good questions.

I believe asymetric information in a conversation is a huge thing that needs specific tools and rules. Tools that are cumbersome in a collaborative environment, and (social) table rules going at cross-purpose.

I’ve been designing a deck of cards close to the universal RPG Tools, but have been switching the approach from one way to another. The previous version looks like all Chronicle cards decks smashed into one, with each card holding several words, icons or images, one for each random table distributed through the deck. The list of things it provides is similar to the whole chronicle decks combined and perhaps a bit more. On the last version though I’m trying to simplify things a bit more and take a Tarot-like approach, minus having to memorize a list of intrepretations for each image. I’m drawing images that directly depict archetypes of characters and events, while also working on more organic ways to show additional information on those cards, so things don’t get chaotic. Drawing everything is what it makes the progress so slow, since I have little time to put on that project now.

Anyway, the idea behind such tools is to use it to spark ideas and add elements instead of having it come up with everything. Having a person look at the information and interpretate it is what makes the result a living, breathing thing instead of a bunch of random stuff that may or may not make sense together, or might get hard to fit into the fiction. So the less precise the random table, the better.

I’m giving a thought on the Okult take on questions, as well as how the mystery is discovered in The Murder of Mr. Crow, somethig about mixing those two seems to be the right thing to do.

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Now we’re getting into fruitful territory. Great answers!

And I agree that Okult will be a good thing to look at.

It seems that you have a specific way of playing already in mind (or already at the table), and you’re just looking for ways to streamline or improve it. For that, perhaps an example of a “problem” (or something you want to improve) for an actual game might serve as illustration. Where do you wish things would flow differently?


Well, right now I don’t feel prepared to impro a mystery/crime confidently with the tools I’ve got at hand. A simple random table isn’t enough to get a good starting kick for my tastes, nor for adding clues that make sense always. Leaving that to the players puts too much pressure on them, specially without a proper procedure to limit their input enough so they don’t feel the pressure nor the need to wrap things up with the next big reveal. I’m ok if the players propose a solution to the mystery/crime based on all/some of the clues they already have and then roleplay/roll to find evidence that confirms their theory. Everything else not used becomes red herrings and is discarded as coincidence or the felons covering up their tracks.

Seems that part of the answer takes me back to my Resourcefull Deck project, so I’m back working on this right now. I’ll put a link to a new thread on that later.

I think the key might be for you to tell us about a specific kind of failure in this sense - tell us about an actual session that didn’t go as well as you’d hoped - and then we can start thinking about how you wish it had gone, instead. And then we can brainstorm solutions and tools.

It also depends on the genre of mystery : hardboiled gets away with holed plots, while supernatural / madness can cover up fantastic plot holes. If you want a Conan Doyle perfect plot, you’ve got to start by the end, which requires specific tools.

You’re right. It also depends on player expectations. If the game is clear about the whole case being improvised and the fun not being about “guessing right as a player” but about gaming the system so “your character guesses things right” then there can be a viable path to get a different fun.

Not exactly a failure but…
We had a great cyberpunk campaign with my players. Once that finished we started a new one set a 1000 years after an apocaliptic event that destroyed the setting from the previous. The PCs in the new campaign are discovering that their old PCs were involved. None are directly related to their old PCs but each of the old ones has left their mark in the new world.
That got solved in the branstorm for the worldbuilding session we did.
However there’s the unsolved mystery of what was the event that destroyed everything and how exactly were their old PCs involved. I’ve got some ideas but for me it calls for a heavy effort in writing details about how each character died trying to save the world, and coming up with a way to explain it to the players through the ruins, remains and old recordings. On top of that all this information needs to be discovered by the players in the right order so the mystery isn’t spoiled.

All this means for me that I’ve got to do the heavy lifting as a GM and can’t rely too much on the players. And that at least for the mystery part I’ve got to build a theme-park railroad, a practice I’m not so fond of today. I’ll have to do it anyway and already have guidelines on how, but I wish I had better procedures to get help from the players to create that stuff when the time comes and not before… because I’d like to be surprised too.

One of the things that convinced me it was possible to involve the players in solving mysteries by creating them was when some years ago, with a different group of players on another campaign, we played a session with a hacked version of Microscope to brainstorm a flashback explaining a similar mystery. It worked wonderfully.

That time we were all aware of the constraints of the setting: that the people from the distant past had very advanced technology, that they had to fight something far superior to their possibilities and were defeated, but somehow left something for their descendants, something to hope on. I told all players they would roleplay each a King of the old civilization and that they could create five of any technologycal device they could think of.

Next, interdimensional aliens attack and they roleplay separately how they barely fend off the first wave of the invasion using those devices. They get an ultimatum from the aliens, so they set a holo meeting. Then we randomly get one card each where a constraint is added for each of the Kings: every one has an agenda or a condition they need to fullfill to give their aid and form a united front, so now the scene is about negotiating those conditions. As it turns out, its these cards that make them incompatible and end up explaining what did each one and why humanity lost. Like, I played a king that would do anything to get a truce. Another one wanted to ensure their people would be safe. There was one would help but only if they gpt anything from it, and so on. In the end, each got to describe what did they do before the final colapse and how each king died. So at the end of that session I narrated how the regular PCs saw this as a holovideo recorded by the last surviving inmortal king, who had been the villain of the whole campaign and only was trying to either stop humanity from becoming a threat again for the aliens and calling their attention but at the same time testing them and pushing them to evolve so they could defeat the aliens one day.

Anyway, I got amazed by this as a GM and definitely wouldn’t be able to come up with something so good on my own. It didn’t felt like we were writing anything, we just roleplayed through the whole thing and the constraints did the rest of the work. Zero blank page syndrome, zero creative pressure. I wasn’t too sure at the start but now I’m glad we went this way.

Very interesting!

I see two things, from an initial read:

First, in the mystery that failed, you are trying to combine two things - the players coming up with/inventing the details of the mystery, and the players acting to solve/discover the mystery. Those two things are quite at odds, as I hope you can see.

So, what you need is some kind of clever framework.

In the second, successful example, you’ve got a clever framework: the setup and the cards (which are designed to be incompatible) are creating clear goals for the players, and enough constraints that them simply playing those characters is enough to flesh out the mystery. No one is at cross-purposes; the point of play at any given moment is crystal clear.

So, the immediate and obvious lesson we might draw from this is that a) when you have a mystery in place, and you want to answer it without answering it yourself, b) you build a framework (a scenario, basically, or even a mini-game) that the players can play through to flesh out the details of the mystery. In this case, the fictional frame (providing constraints) and the secret cards which set them at odds with each other are what is doing the heavy lifting. I don’t know how generalizable this is, but it seems to me that this is what happened and how it worked in your example. Do you agree or disagree?

I agree. Though I’ve got a particular point of view about having the players coming up with details of the mystery and acting to solve the mystery. They are definitely at odds if you try to use both at the same time, but can’t they work together if used in separate moments of the game?

Like, when you see a movie or any fictional material with a mystery and you figure out it before its revealed… but better. Let’s say that as a GM you use cards or another randomizer to give the players a starting point and use some questions to help them create further detail for each clue. Then with the third clue, in the middle of the game you decide “Ah, this would be the mystery then”, announce to the players that you know the solution and then the players try to solve it. No further input can be added in the form of clues by the players, now they have to connect the dots and find out evidence that the GM can now easily decide if it exists or not. Thus you probaly only need the framework for the first half of the session, maybe a bit more. Does it make sense?

It’s as if there were two systems, like those campaigns you worldbulid with a worlbuilding game, then play with an adventure game. It has to be stated clearly but it sure works.

An idea I had for a hunters / hunted VtM scenario was to alternate play of one set of characters with another set of characters. The hunted would leave tracks for the hunters to follow. In your case, this would go : GM sets clues, newbies find clues, players propose theories for them, flashbacks on the ancients validate them, leaving more clues. You need one rule to limit what the ancients can assert. I’d prefer if there was a mechanism for newbies to “find” (in fact, produce) clues independent of the GM. I would also enjoy a system where a player would be rewarded for having their character believe false theories. Affording “playing to lose” would free up mental space to focus on the workings of mystery-discovery.

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The things I have fooled around with in the past are:

  1. Have the players suggest clues and theories, and then have a procedure for secretly determining which are true and/or which are valid clues. Basically, the players suggest “rumours” (“we heard there is treasure in the sunken ship”/“we heard the mayor is actually a werewolf”), and the GM secretly rolls for what’s actually true - it’s true, it’s false, it’s true but misleading somehow, or it’s far more true than the rumour suggests. This can be fun, but I haven’t run with this quite enough to feel I’ve explored these techniques.

  2. The players are given prompts to create material, and then I, as the GM, have tools for drawing connections between those things. Here’s a really obvious example:

  • Player one says that they have a mentor who holds some important secrets.
  • Player two says that they are searching for their ex-lover.
  • The GM rolls some dice and determines that the mentor and the ex-lover must be linked somehow. Perhaps you decide that they are one and the same person.

Instant character-relevant secrets/drama. If you do this a lot, you start to get the implications of further mysteries “behind the scenes” which you then have to detail and reveal. (For me, that’s part of the fun of this playstyle, but I get the impression that you want to be able to get all the details upfront, more like the first example.)

Generally speaking, though, I’ve yet to see anything which generates great mysteries “on the spot”. Usually, something carefully crafted by one person in their off time tends to be of much better and more satisfying quality. It all depends what you value most in your game!

Fun fact: I’ve done this too! :smiley:
I used #1 and #2 to start a D&D campaign. After we brainstormed the setting and a rough map I told the players: “you come together at the Inn, as usual. Drinks come and go and each of you hears a different rumour around that picks your interest. What is it?”. Each one said something simple that was related to their character, each one a nice simple thing I could have spun into a good adventure, but the last one just asked the barman for adventure and got me suggesting they could go into an ancient battleground to try and find magical weapons. Except that later in the campaign I took all their suggestions and built on what could have happened in all these places that they didn’t go. On one of them a small demonic posession became a demon stronghold that blocked the capital and was about to open a portal to bring reinforcements from hell.

Also at some point I asked a player what do his character do. Jokingly he said “Ok, I kick a Tarrasque”. I didn’t laugh and reply “all right, you do. It’s a really small one that goes flying, falls against a tree and then runs away”. Everyone laughed. A couple of sessions later they discovered an imprisioned group of tieflings summoned the devourer of planes to get their revenge, except that they failed the invocation due to anti-magical measures present on their eternal prision. When they were released along with the dragon’s orb of power (the item that kept them imprisioned and got cut in half by one of the PCs cursed sword) I tell the player: “At that point, distracted by the battle, you see a small shadow jump at half of the orb of power… yes, it’s the Tarrasque you kicked weeks ago, now growing to full size and looking at you reaaally pissed”

I made an end-session mechanic where players could try to improve their Bonds with other characters. I gave Bonds a durability score like if they were items, so, In the middle of the session, whenever they rolled a fumble they could chose to fail foward and take damage to their bonds. At the end of the session they could play scenes to try and fix these by roleplaying, so we got some downtime scenes where either their character got warming bonding moments or drama further ensued.

The instant character-relevant secrets might be easier to introduce as a blank Bond that can be either created by the player or suggested by the GM when it makes sense. Like, whenever players choose to fail foward they could put instead points into this “dark secret” bond and once it reaches a value (4 or 6, nothing too high so it acts sooner) their secret is discovered. Either at the start of the game or just when it’s discovered, the player can talk it with the GM and decide what it is.

I’ve also been working on another procedure to create/discover mysteries at the same time. I’ll try to sketch what I have so far:

First step can be prepped by the GM or done with the player’s help, it doesn’t change things too much either way as long as players keep what they wrote in secret. The GM/the group fills 10 cards with simple generic clues: “a corpse”, “somebody dissapears”, “something important is missing”, “tracks of blood”, “a tomb”, etc. All cards are mixed into a single pile. The GM draws and shows everyone the first card to set a starting point for the mistery and then takes 4 cards.

On each scene a card from the pile is revealed, though players have to explain what makes this clue particular, interesting or relevant and write it down on the card. If they can’t link it yet to the case, the GM can reveal one of their own cards as another clue, or save it for later if she can’t make the connection. If the GM uses all her cards, it’s game over and the GM narrates a bad ending: the mystery isn’t completely resolved, the problem continues, the culprit escapes, etc. If the players manage to connect 5 cards with the case and explain it, the mystery is solved and a positive outcome is narrated.

If players need to use any of the GM clues to solve the mystery, the GM can introduce a negative twist or consequence for each one used.

This is totally untested but if you can see any potential pitfalls please let me know. Perhaps the clues can be predefined with a random table like Fiasco’s sets? Still needs a lot of work.

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Are you going to copy / paste this to your blog some time ?

Yeah, I should update the worldbuilding tool too, but I’ve got some work to finish first. It may take a while :stuck_out_tongue:

Worldbuilding tool updated!

This improved version includes technology and population into the Palette, as it’s actually this moment in the brainstorming where players mention such things. It gets rid of the third front because players usually become a front themselves, so another one rarely sees enough use, becomes decorative or just makes short campaigns confusing. Anyway, the tool is there if you really want to make more fronts. The fronts stats were an additional step that in practice proved to be unnecessary, even if rolling dice to generate them randomly was kinda fun. I think it’s best if this tool keeps track of things useful to the GM, so a big part of that got replaced with space for PCs, NPCs, and all sorts of bonds. I found that these bonds really do get things in motion, better than an Event Generator, so that one went away too. As long as you keep building upon the player’s input and link their characters to everything you can and between themselves, players will give you motivations and kickers they will really be invested into.


This is wonderful. I’ve also just discovered your actual setting palette tool, very cool. I wrote a post on collab worldbuilding earlier this year, this is making me feel inspired all over again!


Great post! A few additional things I’ve discovered with playtesting:
-On Why? I can add that brainstorming the setting together get’s everyone in the same page quicker and gets everybody’s expectations on the same level. No more lengthy introductions to the setting or expectations betrayed by the focus taken by the GM.
-Asking players for facts (like your “One Truth” happens to be a bit aggressive on them. As in may cause a blank page syndrome because nobody still knows how wild or even gonzo things can go, or what’s the atmosphere others are looking for. Of course, eventually everyone adapts, but the first player giving input ends up focusing on being bold instead of just saying what they would like to see. The GM is usually that first player, so she usually won’t have problems being bold. However by using the Palette and letting everyone just say a single word on what they want to see or not in the game, they get more relaxed as nothing is set on stone yet.

All the rest is great advice, especially build upon whatever has been said before. I do a lot of follow-up questions too to keep building upon things, specially after players create their PCs. By nature everyone will create characters that could inhabit that world but at the same time those characters will imply the existence of more material, like cultures, history, etc. I still need to add the follow-up questions as part of the process though, I totally forgot to mention them!

There’s a limit to how much material you really need and will see use in the game in short term, that’s why my worldbuilding process is that brief and limited to a single kingdom/region/area or even just one town. So, while it’s cool to have lots of stuff to choose from, leaving too much outside betrays the expectations of some players. That’s the reason I chose to keep player input somewhat limited, at least until more material is needed.

And I totally agree there’s nothing better than being surprised by your own players wild ideas.