Dabbling in the GMIS

Repost from Gametime

I was having a chat to a couple of others about the challenges and difficulties of running games at roleplaying conventions, such as at KapCon. Basically, there are a lot of campaign GMs that don’t feel like they’ve got a good handle on how to run a very short game, such as a CON game. Intrigued, I started to probe a little to see where the area of difficulty was. They didn’t seem worried by the challenge of being the NPCs, or keeping track of information, managing screen time or knowing the game engine. These are, broadly, what I’ve described in the past as “game management”. What the problem seemed to be was in how they went about preparing for the game.

I was primed, I admit, to read the GMIS into this. And it seemed to fit reasonably well. In a campaign the idea is that you float a range of possibilities and then hone in on what interests the players. 3 hours isn’t long enough to do this in a satisfying way, so you need to restrict the play options in a host of meaningful ways. The GMIS in a campaign is effectively infinite, and the SIS becomes any happenstance subset of that. In a convention game, the GMIS is necessarily limited. Only certain possibilities are imagined by the GM, and the shape of the SIS is thus constrained.

In his first post, Morgue talked a bit about the core objects in the GMIS: entities and aspects. But what the difference seems to me between the one-off and campaign is not that the initial set of entities are different, but that the story processes those entities can experience are limited. Perhaps this can also be visualized in terms of aspects; but I think that aspects are insufficient to explain the maximum possible extent of the constraint placed by the GM.

I then sat down and started to think about what I actually make notes on when writing my GM material, both for conventions and for campaign games, and came up with a quite different list to Morgue’s for the “building blocks” of my games. Some of these, as I say, may be equally manageable through careful use of aspect-thinking, but for your interest, my basic list is this:

– Personas (generally similar to Morgue’s “aspected entities”, that are capable of action independent of the PCs)
– Locations (unable to act, per se. They are passive entities)
– Encounters (encounters might be considered similar to “bangs”, although they don’t wield the full power usually associated with bangs, because they might not demand a choice on the part of a PC.)
– Activities (generally a directive for designing other blocks)

In my campaign games, I’ve noticed a preponderance of Personas and Encounters, while my convention game notes talk a lot about encounters and activities, with a minimum number of personas. Which matched somewhat with what I was being told about the difficulties of planning for a convention game.

Using a pseudo example: Let’s say you’re running an investigation game where the PCs have to locate a sequence of clues and find a killer. In a campaign game you would devise all the personas in the drama, and a sequence of locations/encounters (clues). Then the players are left to interrogate each persona and examine each location. As a result of PC activity a persona might decide to take some action which would generally be framed in my notes as an “encounter.”

In a convention game, however, your way of setting this out could be very different. Instead of scattering the clues all over the show, you designate an activity of “the players solve the mystery”. Based on this, you designate a series of encounters each of which delivers up some vital clue. Ideally you will put these in some kind of pretty likely-seeming string, each of which leads pretty safely to the next, or does not particularly rely on the correct outcome of the previous encounter. Then you fill in the necessary personas to make the game work.

The first is entity based, the second is activity based.

In the first, there is no real set path through the adventure. It is, I think, the classic mode of game writing for traditional play. The PCs interact with a wide world that exists beyond them: the GMIS is large. The second is more of a “path of least resistance”, where the GM invents only the bits needed to get the players through the game.

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