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Rutskarn’s GMinars CH7: The Gamesbow 8-10

By Rutskarn
on Saturday Sep 17, 2016
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


With this miniseries, I hope I’m demonstrating how important a game’s rules are. Mechanics direct and shape gameplay on a profound level. The first few games we talked about stretched their rules across the entire world, for GM and players alike, and asked the player characters to be essentially plugged in to an objective framework. The middle games demand only creativity and initiative of the GM and reserve almost all of their rules for players to interestingly determine success and failure. Now we’re onto the latter games, where the rules define how the players tell the story–and the GM doesn’t exist at all.

Mist-Robed Gate (2008)

The elevator pitch for Mist-Robed Gate: instead of dice, you use poker chips and a knife.

Seriously. Mist-Robed Gate is a wushu RPG that’s all about dramatic, symbolic gestures, and one of these is that the pace of the game is dictated by how visible, accessible, and in-use the real, actual knife in the center of the game is. In purely mechanical terms, there’s a sort of “tension level” that increases as characters take decisive actions, with higher tensions levels both allowing and demanding that character actions have serious consequences. In not-purely-mechanical terms, the “tension level” is a goddamn knife. It starts the game covered. Then you uncover it. Then you unsheathe it, or unfold it, or however your knife works. Then you stab character sheets. You actually stab character sheets in this game.

I can’t promise you’ll love MRG, but I can promise you that after playing it, rolling to see if you climb a 45-degree slope successfully will lose some of its luster.

It’s also worth talking about how the game resolves its central wushu combats. Players don’t roll anything–they simply narrate back and forth, describing how they counter and return each attack, how they use the environment, etc. The other players vote on who they think should be winning by dropping poker chips of the player’s color into a bag. Ultimately, the winner is decided by a random draw from the bag. There are several games that frame combat as performance, and define success by the skill and appeal of the narration, but Mist-Robed Gate is one of the few I’ve encountered that does so for relatively serious drama–as befits a more solemn wushu epic, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon–rather than Western pulpish shenanigans. It’s an interesting and nearly wholly unique experience.

Fiasco (2009)


Fiasco is designed to create self-contained stories where a broad cast of eccentric people get themselves into bad situations because they’re bad people. As these bad people realize their ship is sinking, they try to make things better–badly. If you’ve seen a Coen brothers movie, you’ve got the basic premise.

What’s interesting is that Fiasco doesn’t waste much time explaining this idea to its players. It manages to get across the basic idea solely through its mechanics.

Players begin by choosing a prewritten playset. Every playset is designed around a premise; they range from fantastical, like “You’re adventurers who’ve just killed a dragon and now you’re bringing the loot back to town,” to mundane, like, “You’re a particularly quarrelsome homeowner’s association,” to historically grounded and frankly dark, like “It’s the day of the Kennedy Assassination.” More importantly, playsets contain information for character creation, which in Fiasco is a very creative and communal process. There’s no stats, there’s no skills–there’s just relationships, which are defined as the group distributes items from a long list of places, qualities, and objects. These are unique to the playset and are usually as specific as possible–players might share the “need” to “get out of dodge before the heat comes down,'” the “item” “a bloody golf club with Dickie Harrisburg engraved on the shaft,'” etc. Players use these relationships to figure out who their characters are and how they fit together.

From then on, the game is broken up into “scenes.” The rules explicitly allow scenes to be out of chronological order, to be short or long–there’s very few constraints. Scenes are nearly entirely improvisation on the part of the players, who might play characters in the scene or might provide a little GM service (“The rain’s coming down hard,” “There’s a knock on the door,” “Suddenly a shotgun goes off,” etc.) There’s only three things that must be defined:

  • Who the scene is about (players take turns; if it’s my turn, it’s my character’s scene)
  • Who defines what happens in the scene
  • Whether the scene will ultimately end well or poorly for the subject.

Whomever is the subject of the scene gets to choose at the beginning either to set the scene–describing where and when it is and basically what will happen in it–or how the scene goes. Whatever duty the player chooses not to do, the rest of the group does for them. And then the scene plays out as it will.

There’s one catch: in the center pool is a limited quantity of good and bad dice. You can essentially only choose a “good” outcome if there’s a good die to take, and you can only have a “bad” outcome if there’s a bad die to take. You’ll want to have all of your dice be the same at the end of the game, so it’s prudent to shoot for whatever the other players aren’t taking or getting. In this way, strictly through mechanics, the game encourages some players to be the sad sacks who never get what they want and some players to be the lucky ones who always do well.

At the end of the game “good” and “bad” dice are rolled together, with “bad” dice results being subtracted from the “good” dice total. A very high result or a very low result means the character gets a good ending. Mixed results mean the character gets a bad ending–possibly a very bad ending.

I’m going to get straight to it: I’ve had a lot of fun with Fiasco, but it feels like a playtest of a game with more serious potential. There are a lot of little ways the desired madcap outcome is frustrated–the way the players set their own scenes gives the game a meandering flow, which I imagine is partially intentional, but unlike a Coen brothers movie where random events create a poignant and interesting tapestry Fiasco games just feel random. The sum of the scenes is exactly equal to the total of the scenes; the payoff generally feels contrived and a little rushed. I’ve played a dozen Fiasco games with some pretty diverse groups, and I’ve never had an endgame that wasn’t at least a little disappointing. Fiasco is an incredibly bold game that accesses an experience few other games have gotten close to, but having accessed it there’s no effective mechanics in place for making memorable use of it. Fiasco was designed by Jason Morningstar, and as best as I can tell it’s one of his most famous ventures–probably more famous than his next big release…

Durance (2011)

…which I consider one of the better story games ever made.

Fiasco‘s scene-setting was the kernel of a great idea. The main problem is that defining the circumstances of a scene, the place and event that might go well or poorly, is the part that gets all the focus–which it doesn’t need, because it’s the easy part. Setting a scene often fails to produce drama because it fails to invite it. Time, place, and person are the prerequisites for any scene–not just a good or dramatically interesting one.

Durance hit upon a solution too good to ignore: don’t found scenes on settings, or even on outcome quality, but upon questions. When it’s your turn to set a scene in Durance, you have only one contribution: you ask a question. Possibly a very leading question.

“What will happen when Robbie discovers Margaret’s infidelity?” This can be asked even if Margaret wasn’t established yet to be unfaithful.

“What does Samantha find in a lockbock in the wasteland?” This can be asked even if a lockbox hasn’t been established or Samantha isn’t in the wasteland yet.

“Who fired the shot that took down the overseer?” This can be asked even if the overseer is still in power–and another player’s character.

The rest of the group decides what the scene is, how long it goes, who’s in it–your character (rather, characters–you’ve got two in Durance) will not usually be directly involved. This means you don’t pick questions based on what you want your character to do, which in a game without objective threats and obstacles is often boring, but what you want to see happen–which every single time I’ve played it, has made for a more engrossing and dramatic experience than Fiasco.

I’m in love with the central mechanic to the point that I’m having to remember to mention the setting or premise, which are also pretty great–Durance is about the tension between colonial officials and transported criminals on an inhospitable nightmare planet. You play one colonist and one criminal of roughly opposite standings–you can play the governor, or you can play the boss of the prisoners, but you can’t play both. Status is baked into the character creation of the game, which is much simpler than in Fiasco–characters are simply a rank, which the player chooses, and a guiding principle-cum-oath, which another player will generally choose for them.

The game ends when half of the characters are either dead or have broken their oaths. Unlike Fiasco, there’s no mechanics to outline how long this should take. Make no mistake, Durance requires cooperation, creativity, and thoughtful storytelling–but I’m not convinced its mechanical tools could be better designed to make use of them.

Comments (36)

  1. Cybron says:

    I played Fiasco once. One of the players insisted on trying to play a Lupin-the-3rd type character and was shocked to discover how much he got destroyed during the epilogue, even though I repeatedly informed him of how the game was generally meant to go.

    Story games are weird like that. If people aren’t really ‘in’ on the shared agreement which forms the backbone of any story game, they just fall apart.

    • Perceptiveman says:

      This is in no way specific to storygames. Just ask the guy who wants to play the moody political vampire in the superheroes-with-fangs game, or the party-face-all-social-skills-bard in the kick-in-the-door dungeon crawl…

  2. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “What does Samantha find in a lockbock in the wasteland?”

    And more importantly,what the hell is a lockbock?

  3. Fiasco and Durance are two of my all-time favorite games. Really anything that Jason Morningstar/Bully Pulpit Games. Everything they’ve done I’ve loved.

    Durance can be tough to get right. The first time I played we seriously floundered through the whole game. But I’ve played it a number of times and and have had a really great time with it.

    The # 1 most important thing is making sure to ask direct, leading, unavoidable questions. If you don’t it will quickly fall apart.

    But when it’s working? Damn is it amazing.

  4. Christopher says:

    One of my gaming podcasts played Fiasco as a Christmas special once. It was great fun, but it definitely had the problem Rutskarn talks about. The ending just has to come out of nowhere before everyone’s out of dice. So it’s 90% establishing scenes that resolves haphazardly in seconds, with really long epilogues. Durance sounds good as a solution to that, though not as great as a goddamn knife.

  5. Paul Spooner says:

    I’m curious if there will be a fourth article, or, if not, why Microscope didn’t make the cut.

    • droid says:

      I also would recommend Microscope a “fractal role-playing game of epic histories”. It is the most story game I know of. It has a minimal amount of rules. Though it isn’t really a game, there is no victory condition, no failure condition, no player character.

    • Merlin says:

      I was going to say, the “ask a leading question to set the scene” thing felt really familiar to the point that I assumed it was from Fiasco. That’s a great reminder though – we actually picked that up from Microscope.

      It’s a neat game, but a bit of a weird one. You spend so much more time world-building than directly role-playing that it almost feels like a GM-less game tailor-made for groups of people who all want to GM. Some friends and I have long discussed the idea of using it to build a setting that we’d play in another system, which strikes me as maybe the best use of it.

  6. The Right Trousers says:

    Just thought of a challenge for you, Ruts. What system would one use to run a story-heavy tabletop RPG with four players ages 9-16?

    • silver Harloe says:

      What was wrong with Mist-Robed Gate? There’s no way that could go wrong with 9-16 year olds.

    • ehlijen says:

      I’d use a barebones version of nWOD or savage worlds. Just the core dice mechanics and keep everything else free form.

      Fate would probably be a better choice if the players are slightly older or have exceptional patience for that age group, but the amount of aspects to keep track off could otherwise become a bit of a strain on attention span.

    • Chad says:

      I haven’t played it yet, but I’ve been seriously looking into Dungeon World (from Rut’s last post) and I think that would have potential for your target age group.

    • AdamS says:

      If they’re new to rpgs, you can’t go wrong with Lady Blackbird. It’s a wholly-improvised game, designed to be run in one or two sessions. (Running it over skype with a full five person party, I stretched it to 3.) I’ve run it dozens of times, and never had a group come away disappointed. It also only uses d6s, and is completely free, so buy-in is minimal.

      • Perceptiveman says:

        Lady Blackbird is a great choice.

        So is Monster of the Week.

        So is Ryuutama.

        So is Lasers & Feelings.

        So is Mouse Guard.

        In fact, I think the list of bad choices is shorter than the list of good ones.

  7. Alexander The 1st says:

    So…about that knife in Mist-Robed Gate – presumably you’ve played a D&D game where instead of miniatures, you’ve used whatever was around at the time.

    Any thoughts on the idea of changing that out for something safer, and just ripping character sheets instead of stabbing them – for in cases like silver Harloe implied above, for people whom you would *not* trust with a knife?

    • Echo Tango says:

      Well, the instructions do technically specify a dull knife. Not much harm you can do with a plastic Halloween prop, or a fake wooden knife, or something else like that. :)

      • silver Harloe says:

        Heck, if you want to go the full safety route and have a copy of Clue, there should be a “knife card” which is sheathed/unsheathed by flipping it face down/up. But you’re probably losing the point of the game, which is to have the tension of a knife near you. And probably also not having as much as if you used a more structured game with the kids, anyway, since they likely don’t have the years of experience with a variety of other RPGs I suspect it would take to make this game work.

      • AdamS says:

        Pish posh. If you can’t kill someone with a wooden prop knife you’re just not trying hard enough.

  8. Droid says:

    I find the idea of storytelling games great and I’d love to see a game of Durance in action, but I myself cannot really draw lines in the sand e.g. which questions should be allowed and which are too OP.
    After all, how would you respond if the first question was “What happens after the mine shaft explosion killed [all the opposing sides’ player characters]?”

    • Alexander The 1st says:

      That happens, and before the evaluation of half the characters being dead at the end of the scene, the next person asks “What lead everyone being stuck in the mine shaft in the first place?”

      • Droid says:

        Ah, yes, I realized this was a bit of a dumb question after asking it, the idea of the players shaping the story instead of the GM is just too alien to me. Still, if one player is trying to be disruptive to the story, that’s not really a problem a rulebook should or could solve, I’d imagine.

        • Perceptiveman says:

          One player being disruptive to the story often isn’t a problem a GM can solve either, except that sometimes it’s easier for a GM to kick a person out than it is for a group as a whole to kick a person out. But sometimes it’s the reverse.

          • MrG says:

            I think the other question is what qualifies as a “problem,” and what qualifies as being disruptive.

            Storytelling in the moment is sort of like improv comedy, and one of the key rules of improv is “yes and.” In other words, always build on what came before, always be raising the stakes. Let’s say you’re trying to come up with a reason why your team can’t walk from one side of the room to the other.
            A: “Oh my god! The handle just broke on the sink and water is spraying everywhere making the floor totally slippery!”
            B: “Yes, AND I just tripped and dropped my collection of vintage banana peels all over the floor!”
            A: “Yes, AND I’m beginning to think ‘wear roller skates to work day was a mistake!”
            B: “Yes, AND why are we doing this on a small boat in the middle of a hurricane, anyways?”

            Done well, everyone can find a way to build on what was done before and make the situation evolve.

            Sometimes the fun is getting thrown a curveball and having to run with it and see where it takes you, even if you’re not sure how to recover.
            C: “My pet dragon just broke his chain, spit out his muzzle, and just set fire to half the furniture in the room.”
            D: “Yes, and…..um….I just found out the fire extinguishers are just novelty noisemakers.”

            But sometimes you get someone who isn’t really interested in playing – they’re not trying to throw out something for the others to build on, but rather want to “win” by getting the last word in. They don’t understand the game, or they don’t care and are trying to grief the other players.
            E: “A magician just erected a 10 foot high unbreakable, impenetrable, and indestructible barrier across the entire length of the room, and then vanished.”

            The guy who throws curveballs can be fun to play with, as long as he’s got some modicum of control and only breaks out the crazy as an occasional spice (as opposed to being a one-trick pony).

            But the guy who wants the last word is no fun to play with. Why invite them to the game?

    • tmtvl says:

      A more serious version of “they train for a year with King Kai and are then resurrected with greater power than before.”

    • Rutskarn says:

      There’s no “opposing side” in Durance, actually. Everyone plays one convict and one colonist.

      There’s a much different mindset in storytelling games than in campaign games. In most games, you try to keep your character alive. In Durance–well, in Durance, I’ve actually murdered my own characters WITH my own characters.

  9. dp says:

    OK after reading the quick start rules it looks like the setting of Durance is pretty much Botany Bay in Space (going so far as to quote Sir Arthur Phillip). I’m now eagerly awaiting the Rum Rebellion campaign source book.

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