2009-06-15 : GM Agenda

Saith John Harper:

GM Agenda: yeah, that's a thing. Reading AW (and Dogs again) really helped me think about that more clearly. I could talk about it, but maybe it's too much of a tangent here. I think it's working the way I want.

Last time I started to talk about it it was a tangent in that thread too, and didn't nearly get the attention it deserved. It's about time it got a thread of its own. Want to start off, John?

1. On 2009-06-15, John Harper said:


So, we were talking about IIEE in the other thread. And I said this about how it works in my game:

Player: Say what action your character undertakes. If no one interrupts you, then say how the character accomplishes the action. (if your character is in danger during any of this, mark Danger on your sheet)

GM: Listen to the player saying what action the character undertakes. Does that action match anything on the list of tests? If it does, interrupt them and say what trait they need to test.

So it's like Poison'd. The player says the fictional action, and the GM listens and prompts until there's a concrete thing that calls for a roll.

So then Vincent said:

In your game, what's the GM's agenda? Most importantly, when she calls for a player to roll, does it contribute to, or compete with, her interests in the game? If the former, you're good. If the latter, problematic.

So, yes. Now we're caught up. We know that in my game, the GM calls for rolls and we know that calling for rolls should contribute to the GM's interest in the game. Next I'll say what the GM agenda is for my game and then we'll see.


2. On 2009-06-15, John Harper said:

Right now, it's written this way:

GM: Your job is to make the lives of the heroes dangerous and exciting at every opportunity. To do that: 1) Make cool threats and bring them into play. 2) Inflict danger and conditions by taking action with your threats. 3) Test the abilities of the heroes. 4) Escalate or resolve the threats (based on the actions of the heroes and the outcomes of the tests).

Then those four things are broken out and explained in detail.

I think the GM agenda is served when she calls for a roll because she's instructed to "test their abilities" as part of her job, and also because only by testing the heroes and resolving the current threats can the GM bring in the *even nastier* threats she has sitting on the sidelines.

(I guess that's part of the agenda, too, now that I think of it: To make cool threats, bring them into play, then utterly disown them. They are already dead to you. In your mind, you move on to your next, even cooler and more dangerous threats, which you can bring in once the current ones are dealt with by the heroes.)

I'm still working out how to say it, but that's the idea. I bet there are things I'm not saying that I ought to be, and vice versa.


3. On 2009-06-16, Ron Edwards said:

Is that really describable as an agenda? It sounds to me more like simple "job," in the sense that to contribute to this particular game, this is what you as GM need to do.

I'm having an interesting time refining the ashcan of Instar Inc for GenCon regarding this very issue. One of the game's features is that the GM is to play completely benevolently, specifically constantly to offer opportunities that are consistent with the character's two wistful, plaintive statements on each character sheet:

- "I guess I'll never get to ..."
- "... never seems to happen to/for me."

Situational adversity is strictly a matter of the other player-characters, or rather, the nasty psychic-parasite larvae implanted in their chests. Mechanics adversity is exacerbated by the within-character instar too, depending on how you wish to take action.

As I say, I'm having an interesting time writing it. "The GM" as a phrase tends to carry so much weight that I find myself having to clarify this point over and over.

So I think I know what you *mean,* John, and I agree it's a big deal. I don't want to split hairs over terms unnecessarily, but "agenda" does strike me as not quite the thing because we're simply talking about a concrete context for whatever the GM does. And whether you care about consistency/clash with existing Big Model terminology, I dunno, but if you do, the term agenda is pulling special weight in it, and what you're describing isn't the same thing.


4. On 2009-06-16, Vincent said:

Here are mine for a couple of my games, from an earlier thread:

When you create a town in Dogs in the Vineyard, the whole point is to find out what the poor players' poor characters are going to do about it. You create a problematic mess, and you're like "oh lord what on EARTH are they going to do to put THIS mess right?" You don't plan out a solution yourself - that'd be contrary to the point. In play, you don't try to block or guide the players' solutions - that'd be contrary to the point too. You have your NPCs do what they would do, given all that you know about them, and you let the players do the same with their characters, and you play the dice scrupulously, even generously. Anything else and you'd be throwing the question, you'd be invalidating the whole reason you're playing to begin with.

It's very similar in Storming the Wizard's Tower. When you create a monster, the whole point is to find out how the players' characters are going to beat it, and whether they even are. You create a cool, threatening monster, and you're like "sweet! I wonder what they're going to do about THIS!" You don't plan out yourself how or whether they'll beat it - that'd be contrary to the point. In play, you don't try to block or guide them - that'd be contrary to the point too. You have the monster do whatever it'd do, given its nature and circumstances, and you let the players have their characters do whatever they want them to, and you play the dice scrupulously, even generously. Anything else and you'd be throwing the question. Anything else and you might as well not even play!

I think of those two in particular as a story now instance and a step on up instance of the same GM agenda, the same approach to GMing.


5. On 2009-06-16, Roger said:

It's interesting how much of this stands in stark contrast to the model of the GM who is an impartial observer and objective arbiter of the rules.

Is that model achievable?  Or desirable?


6. On 2009-06-16, Vincent said:

Sure! If that's the approach to GMing that'll best serve your particular game, you can (probably) make it happen.

I bet that the number of games for which it's the best approach is pretty small, though. For most games, I'd want a participant in the game to be enthusiastic, contributing, and emotionally engaged.

I'm happy it stands in contrast, by the way. Some people (named Ben) have read me to be advocating emotional detachment for DMs and StWT GMs. But I'm not.


7. On 2009-06-16, John Harper said:

"I wonder what they're going to do about THIS!" is a good way of saying the GM agenda for my game.  I think the StWT blurb pretty much nails it.

Ron, I think for this discussion, among these people, we can use agenda without getting tripped up on jargon similarities. But out in the wider world... maybe a different term is called for.


8. On 2009-06-17, Emily said:

It's so funny! I was just reading some old rgfa posts and what do I see but that the rgfa threefold was originally used for analysis of the types of decisions GMs make:

~~[wayback machine]~~
Threefold faq:
What the Threefold applies to is an open question. It is frequently used to look at GM decisions during a session about what should happen in the game-world, and to a lesser extent at adventure design during a campaign.

Mary Kuhner:
Simulation vs. drama/game:


The PCs are setting up to make a daring raid into the enemy fortress when one of them decides it would be better for them to ask an NPC group to make the raid instead.  On world considerations, it would be reasonable for the NPCs to agree.  Do they?

Simulation analysis:

If that's what would happen, that's what would happen:  world considerations are more important than the possible anti-climax and player disappointment.  (Maybe try speeding up the pacing to keep the disappointment brief.)

Drama analysis:

Is there some way to make the players' proposed continuation interesting? If so, it can be allowed:  this may mean, for example, having the NPCs fail and need rescue, or hurrying past this scene into a PC/NPC rivalry built on the event.  But if it's headed hopelessly for anticlimax, better disallow it and have the NPCs refuse.

Game analysis:

Having the NPCs do the challenging raid while the PCs sit around is pretty clearly bad for the game, as game, and should be avoided if at all possible; the NPCs should refuse.  (And you may want to talk to the player who made the original suggestion; it was inappropriate.)


9. On 2009-06-19, Josh W said:

Is it possible for more than one player to assume this role? I mean your basically putting someone on the spot to react to your cool thing, which is something that people can take turns to do in any improv situation.

There is a danger there, which might be called "what if" tennis, that would be that players are so into creating stuff for people to interact with that they don't bother to properly respond to what they were just given. This is so common if you see certain types of clever people in conversation:
They both are trying to make the other pause in thought as they get their subtle puzzle, but they get into a sort of "but this is cooler" battle, which will never succeed, because however cool the stuff being made is, no one is spending the time to give each other what they really want!

The requirements for someone's answer to your situation are in this case not very high, they pretty much just have to engage with it and twist it how they like. Now in some situations that can allow players to flip a question straight back to the GM: How would your npc deal with this! Whereas in storming the wizards tower I'm not sure that back and forth is as strong; as far as I know, the players don't have as strong an ability to "change the game" for the GM.

Actually, scrap that, DITV works the same way; low level responsive back and forth on a character to character basis, the tactical level, where everyone has pretty equal power to re-contextualise someone???s character and see how they deal with it. This contrasts with the bigger scale, where the dogs are strategically a form of answer to a question. For it to be true back and forth the GM could have one of his NPCs join the dogs, and another player take on producing the town, or some other equally strange dynamics. The problem with such a situation is that characters designed as NPCs have a different purpose, particularly in that game, so I think it would only be an occasional thing that a character embodies enough of what the GM would be interested in as a player to form a PC.


10. On 2009-06-20, Vincent said:

It's true! Yes, you can of course have more than one player assume that role, or any role.

Here's how I think of it: every player has responsibilities to the group, and the group gives every player tools, or authority. When the responsibilities are clean and clear, and the tools are adequate to them, the game goes well. When they aren't - when the responsibilities aren't clear or when they're in internal tension, or when the players' tools don't allow them to fulfill their responsibilities - the game doesn't go well.

What makes sole-GMing a persistent feature in roleplaying (not a universal one, obviously) is just that it's a really tidy way to coordinate responsibilities with tools. You can give one single player the more demanding responsibilities and the commensurately more powerful tools, and thereby not have to figure out how to get multiple players to share cleanly demanding responsibilities and powerful tools.


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