Category Archives: GMing

Three Fights vs. Three Acts

A few folks brought up the three act structure in response to the three fight model, and while I get where they were coming from, there’s a distinction I want to call out that I think is REALLY important.

First, it is SUPER useful to understand the three act model for plotting your games. I would also say it’s very much worth learning other versions, most notably the 5 act model which is very common on television. Understanding these structures and tools can make you a better GM. Not because they provide strict rules to follow, but because if you get why they work on the screen and stage, then you can apply them in your play.

This is deep, valuable stuff. But I fear I consider the three fight model to be much simpler for one reason: it is much, much dumber.

That probably feels like a criticism, but it’s not. There are tools we want to be smart, and tools we want to be dumb, and the three fight model is in the latter camp. Its virtue lies in its simplicity, and I can illustrate this very simply:

  1. Imagine the cast of, say, Voltron. Any version. Pick one you know. If you don’t know Voltron, pick an action-y cartoon you like.
  2. Now, imagine that’s the game you’re running and those are the character’s played by your usual stablemates, with all their tastes and interests.
  3. Next, try to think of three cool fight scenes. Don’t go too deep, just sketch out the idea.
  4. Now set those aside, and instead think of a three act arc for them.

Was there a difference in ease between #3 and #4? If not, I envy you more than a little. See, for me #3 is super easy – I just mash up a few elements (Location, status, enemy type, maybe a gimmick) and I’m good to go. But when we get to #4, I have questions. I need to know more about the characters, the players, their interests and how to hook them in. I don’t want to tell a three act story, I want to deliver the experience the players want, which means I need a lot from them.

Heck, even if I didn’t need more information, I’ll end up struggling with the blank page problem. Building a three act structure is so profoundly open ended that I will be paralyzed just starting. In contrast, a fight scene is a constrained enough idea that I can churn it out.

That is why the three fight system is amazing to me where a lot of other structured models are merely interesting, informative or helpful. It strikes a solid balance between constrained enough for focus, but open ended enough that there are still bazillions of things to be done with it.

Now, having separated these two ideas, I should add that they do eventually grow together. Once you have the idea of three fights in your heart, it becomes possible to do more with the model (such as have the fights correspond with three act pacing, or finding other scene types that you can build as easily and well as you can fights). But I really want to call out that there’s nothing magical about structure or the number, three, the power is in how usable it is.

Three Fight Scenes Redux

Back of heads in an elevator.  Precursor moment to an amazing fight scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The original Feng Shui RPG (by the ever-brilliant Robin Laws) had the absolute best adventure design guidelines of any RPG I’ve encountered. They boiled down to this:

  1. Think of 3 really awesome fight scenes.
  2. Apply some loose connective tissue to move the characters between them

That’s it. There is no 3.

Boiled down to two bullets, it’s is a little bare bones, but Feng Shui gave a LOT of guidance on what makes a good fight scene, and enough (totally wacky) background to easily justify the connective tissue. Taken as a whole, it made it staggeringly easy to write up solid, engaging adventures without undue strain on the GM. If you want to dive into it more, I’ve got some more word for you.

A lot of people who have used this model have translated it across to other games (I know I have) but it’s always interesting to me the ways in which it can be easy or hard to do so. It reveals some interesting things about assumptions of play that feel like they could unpack indefinitely.

First off, let’s consider the fight scene. This is a staple of fiction and play, but it’s worth considering what this means in play. That’s opaque, so let me approach it another way: is every scene with a fight in a a fight scene?

Technically? Yes. But in the way that Feng Shui meant it, not really. Those fights are Set Pieces1, which is entirely apt because Feng Shui is a game about Hong Kong cinematic style fight scenes. They are big, have lots of moving parts, many points of engagement on a mechanical and character level, and they’re what players are here to do2.

It’s also going to take a lot of time. Which is good. Time the budget we have to spend on things, and this approach explicitly “spends” more on the things that are most important to the game.

This is part of why it’s relatively easy to map the three fights model to other games which also have set piece fight scenes. It worked spectacularly well for Fourth Edition D&D, and there are a number of other fights games that it can do equally well with.

But beyond that, there are two difficulties with taking the model further afield.

The first is logistical. Feng Shui has the benefit that it’s 100% cool for all of its set pieces to be fight scenes, but if you take it to another game that may not be true. Other games may want social, investigation or exploration set pieces. In that case the underlying idea (three set pieces and some connective tissue) still absolutely works, but that is definitely a less simple model. It will take more energy to think of the variety of set pieces, they’re less modular and interchangeable, and they’re harder to write up3. In short, it’s more work.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done – it can, and quite well – but it’s hard to learn to the point where it’s comfortable. If you learn it with fight scenes and then expand your repertoire, that’s more practical than doing it all at once.

The second barrier is philosophical. “Loose connective tissue” isn’t going to fly in every game. The reason I say this works very well for 4e D&D, but don’t call out other editions is because dungeon crawling is all about very explicit connective tissue. Playing through and engaging the transitions and choices along the way is what brings some people to the table. Tables like that want to spend their time budget differently, and you need to plan for that.

On the other end of the spectrum, there will always be players who will treat any level of GM direction as railroading. They expect to be making the decisions about what’s important and taking the game in those directions. Again, this calls for a different set of “budget” priorities, so the GM is better armed for flexible response.

Now, for all that, there is a lot of space available between these objections. As noted, the model can work beyond fight scenes, and while it isn’t necessarily suited to full player authorship, it can work with even very empowered players.

The key is that the set pieces are what the players are these for. That is what justifies their budget in time an energy. If they are what everyone wants, then it will all click. If they aren’t, the model will fail, and in doing so will probably reveal a deeper disconnect.

Anyway, if you are a GM and feeling skeptical about this, I encourage you to just try it. Whatever your game is – even if it’s not normally very fighty. Just think of three awesome fight scenes that would be super fun to run4, then loosely sketch out how they might be connected. It will take you less time than you think (especially if you just sketch out the fights – don’t go full stat block until you’re happy with the structure) and I am willing to bet you will be surprised at how well it hangs together.

  1. In film, a Set Piece is a scene requiring a lot of work to plan and shoot, usually at great cost. Since money matters, you only really want to do this when there’s a real payoff. While this is a necessity of budget, it is also a fruitful constraint, since it works naturally with an upswing in focus with an upswing in importance. ↩︎
  2. Critically, that does not mean it’s the only thing they can do. There is still space for other awesome things, but if none of those materialize organically, then the game is still going to deliver these fight scenes. ↩︎
  3. Howso? As a hobby, we have honed the technology for writing up a fight scene to a fine art. Stat blocks. Maps and Zones. Tactics and roles. We know how to put information on paper that someone else can read and know how to run that fight effectively. We do not have anything like that kind of polish or sophistication for communication and running other scene types. ↩︎
  4. Tip: The more wildly diverse they are, the better. It serves as a kind f inspirational fuel when you think about connecting things. ↩︎

Lessons From The Young

Musical score with the text "Don't mess with the Bard"The roles seem well received so, at some point, I may need to write those up a little more. I suspect there’s also a player version to be had, but that seems like a daunting task, so we’ll see how that shakes up.

But I’m still chewing on the underlying Santorini issue, and have ended up looping back to it from a strange vector. My son is 9 years old, and we had the opportunity to play some RPGs this weekend. This is not new, but we got to do more than we usually do, and it was somewhat illuminating to me because on many levels he is looking at the same issues as our Santorini player – he is enthusiastic and engaged, but disinterested in work getting in the way of play.

The first two sessions we played were back to back 5e D&D and Fate Accelerated, with the additional twist that it was the same character between the two. Neither game was a perfect match, but the things that worked and didn’t were very interesting to me.

For starters, his primary motivation in making a character was to get a pseudo-dragon familiar, something he had discovered existed in an enthusiastic read-through of the Monster Manual. I 100% cannot fault this and wanted to support it, so we did charge and talked about what it would mean for various classes and races, and he ended up making a human bard (with a 20 Charisma and the Actor feat, no less). He loved some of the explicit bits – the skills he was exceptionally good at, the specific spells, stuff like that. He really enjoyed looking through the backgrounds and considering the RP hooks, but he also ended up reading ALL of them in order to find ones he liked. He groaned at some of the bookkeeping and largely wanted me to write stuff down. All in all, there were a LOT of choices to be made, and he cared a lot about maybe half of them.

Actual play was decent. I stuck primarily to things involving skill rolls because – as the one fight reminded me – a lone level 1 character can be killed by a stiff breeze. That actually made it a little hard to GM, because I had to be VERY CAREFUL about potential threats, but he had fun.

The next session started with just porting the character to FAE and starting up. He was not too excited by the character. It had taken a long-but-specific list of cool things he could do and replaced it with a shorter-but-broader list that pushed more of the creative work onto him. Now, the Little Dude has no shortage of creativity, but he definitely felt this was less exciting than having explicit cool abilities. I could theorize a lot about this – the balance of prompts vs. creation, the dangers of the blank page, constraints breeding creativity and so on – but in practice lists of cool things are pretty fun and they are more what he wanted. I “cheated” and gave him 3 stunts to start out to try to mitigate this, but the reality is that it would really need to be longer. Also, aspects didn’t really grab him – I think they felt more like constraints than opportunities to his eyes, but it may also have been that because I ported quickly, his aspect list was a little uninspiring.

The actual play part went great. He did lots of cool stuff, I had less need of kid gloves, and he absolutely got to be a hero working towards his big plot (defeating the evil priest that had killed his noble parents and seized their lands, a hook that had come out of the 5e prompts). But in the end, he had liked D&D better.

All of which suggests a sweet spot somewhere between these two. A little bit less bookkeeping than D&D, but a bit more explicit than FAE. Curiously, those are probably also very good Santorini style goals. The “Less Bookkeeping” part is pretty obvious, but the “more explicit” bit might need a little unpacking because it is easy to think of FAE as a “light” game, one that’s easy to pick up and play. That’s largely true in terms of pure page count, but it absolutely pushes the burden of creative labor onto the reader and player.

That is not a bad thing in general, but it’s a problem for an introduction. Worse, it’s also a blind spot for our community as we think about these things. When things don’t work because of the level of creative labor they demand, we have a habit of (overtly or passive-aggressively) blaming the reader of the game for not being creative enough. This is…well, it’s lazy bullshit. The idea that “creative players” (carefully distinguished from “normal players”, of course) will solve these problems at the table is a tool of shame that spares the designer from needing to actually think about the human beings using their game. This problem is independent of whether you feel authority likes with the rules or the GM – this is about the utility of the rules, and authority is just a smokescreen to hide that. While I may personally lean towards the GM as authority in my play, holy crap do I appreciate how much clarity a system-centric approach brings to writing because there is less of an easy cop out (though it can still find its way in).

Anyway.

The game he ran is nominally a Fate game, but in practice, the only overlap is the use of the dice. The rest of it is all born out of his head in an amalgam of terms and visuals he’s encountered in other places (our character sheets look a LOT like something from the World of Warcraft UI). He has a lot of classic GM foibles – his insertion NPC can be a bit scene-stealing, and he sometimes narrates our response to events – but they’re normal learning stuff. What intrigues me most is that at some point he very strongly picked up the idea of mixed results (“You succeed but…”) to the point where he uses them ALL THE TIME, so that part may take a little practice.

But it also revealed another tidbit to me in his relationship with the dice. When he rolls, he is really looking at the dice for what happens. He will occasionally remember that there are modifiers and such, but he does not have any instinctive sense of there being some invisible target number which is translated too and from somewhere off the table. This was weird to me at first (since target numbers, difficulties, move tables and such are all second nature to me by now) but if I remove my own baggage, it makes all the sense in the world. Why would he want interstitial steps?

So assuming I want to build to that, there are a few options, and the double-edged part of it is that they lean towards die pool systems. That’s double-edged because die pools are incredibly robust in a mechanical sense, but also can quickly become cumbersome game delays.

Option 1 is Blades in the Dark or a variant (possibly Blades of Fate). The number of dice equates to the chance of success, the highest single result tells you what kind of outcome (good, mixed, bad) you get. Building the pool is pretty simple, so it’s speedy, but there’s room for a little mechanical tooth.

Option 2 is something in the Cortex family. The idea of the size of dice matching to effectiveness is very intuitive, and the trick is all in how pools are built and how rolls are used. More mechanical versatility here, but also greater risk of feature creep.

Option 3 is diceless fate dice. Use a simple diceless system to answer Yes/No, but then add in a fate die roll (I’d be partial to 2df, but whatever) to reflect the situation. Very easy to do, quite powerful and intuitive, but it would also take him on a path very far from “normal” RPGs, especially in terms of what dice mean. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something to keep in mind.

(Since someone will surely ask, no, PBTA is not option 4. It’s a table lookup system, and while I suspect he’d enjoy that exercise, it seems like a dead end. The parts of PBTA I think he’d respond well to – playbooks and stunt like things – are better represented with Blades in the Dark tech, at least for my needs).

All of which is bubbling in my head. Practically, we’ll stick to D&D. Once he’s comfortable with 5e, that is a game that he can play with people who aren’t me, and that’s valuable. But also, there is nothing this kid wants more than a Magic: The Gathering tabletop experience and the Ravnica Books have only fueled the fire for this. I feel like that setting prompt, plus his system needs could dovetail very well.

The Social Roles

So, up til this point I’ve been talking about GM roles in terms of what responsibilities might be picked up by the game.  It is possible that the GM can do less heavy lifting as an authority, entertainer or celebrant if the game is designed to account for that.

But there are a couple of other roles that traditionally fall on the GM that are probably not something that the game can provide, the roles of host and facilitator. These are both roles that are outside of the game, but are all the same necessary for the game to happen.  The facilitator is responsible for the logistics of the game – scheduling it, making decisions about where it will be, who will be in it, making sure everyone has supplies and generally making the game possible.  The host role is complimentary (and sometimes synonymous with) the facilitator – providing space to play and all the things that come with that (parking, seating, lighting, a reasonable environment and so on).

As a young gamer, I developed a habit of considering these to be GM’s roles.  Sometimes someone else might take responsibility for hosting, but they tended to take on the minimum responsibility, otherwise deferring to the GM as facilitator.  Everything else was pretty much on the GM.

The roots of this were not great.  At least in my experience, the GM was the reason the game was happening, and if the GM didn’t make it all happen, then the group could just do something else with their evening.  Baked in that is an assumption that the group is kind of grudgingly playing, which is a very high school kind of take on it.   I grew older and grew out of those patterns of being embarrassed about my hobby and desperate for players, but that habit that the GM had to “make it go” stuck with me for a long time.

That was pretty dumb.

See, while these roles are ones the game can’t provide, that doesn’t mean that the GM is solely responsible for them.  Everyone at the table wants to be there, and this sort of load can be distributed. Hell, doing so will make your game better – not only does it give the GM more bandwidth to focus on what she’s there to do, it helps eliminate lingering ideas of GMs being “in charge” of the game in some creepy or unhealthy way[1].  When the work around a game is everyone’s job, it is easier to accept that it’s everyone’s game.

For some of you, this is all probably obvious.  It’s possible that you never fell into the bad patterns in the first place.  I genuinely envy you that.  But for the GMs out there who are running themselves ragged in service of their games, take a second and consider whether you are clinging to these roles out of genuine necessity, or if it’s just a function of habit.

EDIT: Other roles that have come up in discussion of online play and LARP


1 – Because if you see GMing as being about power, you want to claim as many roles as possible to assert that power, even if it’s a pain.  Sure, it may suck to schedule things, but if you get an emotional reward from being in charge, then this helps reinforce that.  It’s not automatically a bad thing, but it is a red flag – if your enjoyment of play is predicated on maintaining a power dynamic, there is a good chance you are using the wrong tool to find your happiness.