Mother May I (part IV)

Hello, all, 🙂

This is the fourth and final post in my Mother May I series. To recap:

  • The first post was the rules to the children’s game that titles the series
  • The second post was my description of how certain ways of playing RPGs are similar to the game
  • The third post was a description of two exceptions to Mother May I play

In this post, I finally want to talk about some rules sets and play techniques you might use if you wanted to get away from this sort of play. This post is mostly aimed at people who are in camp n. 3. In other words, if you’re a player and want to find out how to have more cretive input into the game, or if you’re a GM and want your players to have more creative input, this is for you.

Note that what follows is not a comprehensive list of all the possible ways to share creative input, but merely some that I know of as of this writing.

Playing the Exceptions

Your first two alternatives are, of course, the two exceptions presented in the previous post.

Making detailed resolution the point of play is immediately obvious. In D&D, for instance, players simply decide to care more about the outcome of the fight than about its consequences.

Consciously making PvP play the point of the game, however, is not so easy. Players have to actively decide that they’re going to be at each other’s throats all the way, and they have to embrace competitiveness amidst themselves as players, rather than as characters. As I mentioned, Rune plays very well in this spirit. I’m told that Amber Diceless RPG can fit the bill as well. 

Stakes Negotiation – Front Loaded Meaning

One good way to have the players put meaning on the table is to have the GM negotiate with them what it is they’re trying to achieve as they decide on their course of action. This means having the GM asking the players not only what it is they do, but also why they want to do it.

Player: How hard is the cliff to climb?
GM: Fairly hard, but not beyond you. Why do you want to climb it?
Player: I think it’ll be harder for the bad guys to follow me, that way.
GM: Ok, then, you just want to pick a hard route to follow. Roll. If you succeed, the bad guys won’t be able to follow you.

Player: I want to crack the safe.
GM: Why?
Player: I want to find that diamond, and I think it might be in there.
GM: Ok, then, you just want to find the diamond. Roll. If you succeed, you’ll find it.

Advantage: players get immediate input as to possible consequences of their actions, which translates into real creative input regarding the meaning of what goes on at the table.

Disadvantage: effective stakes negotiation is not obvious, and sometimes, it’s hard to know where to stop. “Why do you want to climb the cliff? Because I want to save the world. Ok, roll.”

Game example: almost any game can be tweaked to include this, but some explicitly have it in their base rules, most notably, The Shadow Of Yesterday.

Shared Narration Rights – Back Loaded Meaning

Another good way to have players put meaning on the table is to simply give them control of the actual consequences of their actions, at least as far as immediate consequences are concerned. The best way to do this is to simply let the players actually describe the outcomes of their actions.

Player: I want to climb the cliff.
GM: the cliff is rated Hard. Roll.
Player: success. As I reach the top and look down, I notice the hunting party arrive at the foot of the cliff. They have clearly lost my tracks. I turn and ontinue on.

Player: I want to crack the safe.
GM: the safe is rated Hard. Roll.
Player: success. I open it, and inside, I find the diamond. I take it and leave.

Depending on the actual rules of the game, players may be able to narrate all the time, on success only, on failure only, or depending on some other variable altogether.

Advantage: whenever they gain narration rights, players have as much creative input into a game as is possible to have.

Disadvantage: as with stakes negotiation, it’s sometimes hard to know where to stop. “I crack the safe and find the diamond. The next day, I sell it fo half a million dollars and buy my own island, where I retire to live out the rest of my days in bliss.”

Game example: the first game I tried that gave explicit narration rights to players was InSpectres.

Aggressive Scene Framing – Front Loaded Context

One good way to give players control over the context of their decisions and actions is to give them explicit story control rights, such as the right to actually frame scenes.

GM: what’s next?
Player: I want a scene in the Professor’s study, where I attempt to steal the diamond
GM: very well, the study is classically furnished, there’s a fireplace, lit, and a huge book case filled with titles you don’t reallyt recognize; the desk has three locked drawers and there’s a safe. You’re alone. What do you do?

Advantage: depending on how scene framing authority is apportioned, this puts some or all players (indlucing the GM) in almost completely shared control of the game’s story line, and is likely to demand creative input from each player in proportion to this authority.

Disadvantage: this makes it hard for any one player to put long term plans into place. Though not impossible, it requires careful planning and forethought.

Game example: the prototype for this particular game play technique is undeniably Primetime Adventures.

Shared Content Creation – Back Loaded Context

Another good way to give players more creative input is to allow them limited control of the scene content.

GM: you’re following the tunnel and it comes to an intersection
Player: I’m going to find tracks and then follow them
GM: the tunnel you’re now following comes to a dead end
Player: I’m going to follow the tracks up to the secret passage, and then open it

Many game groups already do this without realising it, though they have the natural tendency to squelsh it when it gets out of hand. If the GM describes a certain room as a living room, for instance, players naturally assume the existence of a couch or a sofa of some sort. When a player asks to peek behind the grandfather clock, however, many GMs openly state that no such thing is in sight.

Advantage: players get ongoing input as to the context of their actions and can therefore contribute towards the developing storyline.

Disadvantage: as with aggressive scene framing, the GM is no longer in sole total control of the story, although to a lesser degree. As such, the nature of GM prep work changes significantly.

Game example: one game that takes clear and constant advantage of this technique in order to drive the story forward is Donjon.

Strict Conflict Resolution – Meaning As Context

This one is highly tied to stakes negotiation, as presented above. It refers to the fact that explicit resolution mechanics in the game are engaged if and only if there are two characters in the game that have an actual conflict of interests. It practically forces players to creates meaning by making them actually establish what their characters’ interests are and actually figure out where they clash.

Player: I want to climb that cliff.
GM: it’s a hard climb, but not beyond you. Ok, you climb the cliff. Now what?
Player: did I climb it faster than the tracker?
GM: did you want to? That’s different. He wants to outshine you. Let’s roll.

Note that this is not the same as “having only opposed rolls” or other such nonsense. In a game with strict conflict resolution, you’d never roll against the cliff itself, for instance, as the cliff really cannot have “an interest in not being climbed”. (Unless it actually really does, of course.)

Advantage: this technique eliminates gratuitous dice rolling and gives actual story meaning to each roll.

Disadvantage: finding an appropriate scale for conflict resolution is not always easy. If two characters are nemeses, for instance, their interests are likely to be at odds with each other on many levels, and finding the right one to resolve might not be obvious.

Game example: to my knowledge, the first game to be published that featured strict conflict resolution was Sorcerer.

Thematic Information – Context As Meaning

If content and meaning are all about players making choices that have contexts and consequences, then perhaps an obvious way is to simply inform the players of those contexts and consequences, regardless of whether it’s something their characters would now or not.

GM: there are bandits behind those rocks, but you haven’t seen them yet; they use poison in their weapons, so if you go forward, you’re in for a potentially lethal fight; if you go around, however, you’ll probably be late to save the princess. What do you do?

Advantage: by directly informing the player of the context and probable consequences of his decisions, the GM is giving him direct control over the thematic meaning of his character’s actions.

Disadvantage: some people feel that this breaks their sense of “realism” in the game, encouraging decision-making on the part of the characters that is not actually ground in information they have. As such, they feel that the thematic meaning in those decisions is actually “distorted” in some way.

Game example: one game that states this outright in its very introduction is Dogs in the Vineyard.

GMless Play

Finally, the one sure fire way to hand over creative input to the players is to simply remove the Game Master. Without a GM, there is simply no one person around which the flow of creative input is focused, and each player at the table is thus on equal footing.

Advantage: context, consequences and meaning are in the hands of all.

Disadvantage: this is extremely alien to many role-players, to the point of some people actually (and wrongfully) claiming that these games can’t even be considered RPGs.

Game example: GMless games range the gamut from the lightest of abstract play to the crunchiest of procedural play. Capes is a good example of a crunchy, competitive, well-structured GMless game with a point to make.

In Conclusion

If you’re really looking to have more creative input into an RPG session, I hope I’ve shown you, not only that it is possible, but also, that there are about as many ways to do it as there are different games. But mostly, I hope I have inspired you to take a look at what’s out there and try it out for yourself.

Good gaming!


10 Responses to “Mother May I (part IV)”

  1. jmariano says:

    Great write-up of most of the possible ways of having creative input. This essay is quite handy for filtering all the studied cases of doing it and will help me in my present playing and future game designing.

    Keep up the good work, João!

  2. The Opposed One says:

    I’m totally in camp n.3.
    For a long time I didn’t know there was more than the usual D&D structure (GM vs Players).

    You’re Posts have been a big teaser. I’d like to try some different roleplay.
    Maybe in begginning my mind will be saying: Nah.
    Maybe not.

    I would go for Prime Time Adventures.

    Thank you for the continuous enlightenment, Master João.

  3. Rui Anselmo says:

    Hey João, very nice analisys there! 😀

    I have just the minor twitch to point, and this is obviously a matter of taste, that you could have done it better with games that are more well known to the big audience, those commercially available that anyone can see in a magazine. Get my point? 😉

  4. joao-mendes says:

    Hey, 🙂

    JMariano, Opposed, cool. Inspiring and informing play is what this was all about. 🙂

    Rui, yes, but, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Mainstream games don’t do these things. If Mother May I play were a minority, it probably wouldn’t need to be talked about. 🙂

    To be fair, there are some mainstream games take make honest attempts at this stuff. Mutants and Masterminds has that Hero Point mechanic, but without knowing more, I can’t tell whether it counts as Shared Content Creation or Shared Narration Rights. HeroQuest has Stakes Negotiation, but that’s really either the most indie of the mainstream games or the most mainstream of the indie games.

    But as far as I know, that’s it. D&D, ShadowRun, Legend of the Five Rings, 7th Sea, Vampire, Exalted, even Aria, the game about building nations, but with rules for drowning and falling, these are the mainstream commercial games in the magazines, and they simply aren’t there.

    I could be wrong. There might be mainstream games that do some of these things. If I am, I’d like to hear about it. 🙂


  5. Elora says:

    Então e se só quiseres ficar acordado?

  6. joao-mendes says:

    Hi, 🙂

    Elora asks us what to do if we just want to manage staying awake for the sessions.

    None of this stuff can help you there, dear. :/ You can look for and/or ask for more exciting stuff in the sessions, but eventually, sleepiness gets the better of you.


  7. Rui Anselmo says:

    Hey João!

    While we are all eagerly awainting your AP’s report, I’m also reading some posts in my sweetheart

    Namely this one which I think you should take a closer look at:

    Also, this poster’s input seems of note:

  8. Rui Anselmo says:


    I’d also like to point you to this post by Mike Mearls, dating February 2005, where he also mentions Mother May I.

    Care to address it?

  9. joao-mendes says:

    Hi, 🙂

    Geh. Posts held up for moderation… It was because of the URLs. Sorry about that.

    I took a look at the RPGNet threads, but they’re eleven pages long, both of them, so I read the first page, then let it go. I have no idea what’s in them…

    As for the Mike Mearls post, I didn’t know it existed. Also, he’s talking about something slightly different. He’s talking about the GM intervening on the players’ use of their characters’ abilities, whereas I’m talking about a playstyle altogether. Our two posts (and our usage of the term Mother May I) are not related, as far as I can see.


  10. Rui Anselmo says:

    Shame on you. 🙂

    That stuff in is the exact food for thought that you and me crave alike. 🙂

    Give it another look when you have the time.