Agreement & Engagement - An approach to teaching the more complex principles of story-gaming?

Okay, thought for the day (which I thought the lovely people here could help me refine!) - all rules and table stuff (for me!) come down to either:

  1. Agreement, or
  2. Engagement.

Any rule or table moment (“story speed bump,” if you will) ends up being about resolving an issue one or the other, for me. I’m meditating on how to categorize all the things I do as a GM AND designer using these two as catch-all.

Some quick examples:

A kid wants to play a Pokemon in a game - and insists that he can only say his own name. This is about both agreement and engagement - his insistence on playing a Pokemon is about engaging in the story: “If I can’t play this character, I don’t want to engage!”

My response was about agreement AND a bit of a lesson on engagement (in story games, I think you sometimes can add “Yes, but” to the “Yes, and” approach, as in “here’s the condition you’ll need to meet if that’s a requirement for you”):

“Okay, but if you can only say your name, you may have a hard time engaging in the story - getting into scenes, having opinions, figuring out who you are, and so on. If you REALLY don’t want to be able to talk, it’ll be a challenge! You’ll have to figure out OTHER ways to engage - describe how you act and look and HOW you say your name in ways that help you and others engage with the story. If you think you can do that, go for it!”

A lot of design elements sort into these categories for me, as well. A lot of rules in classic games are designed to overcome “agreement speedbumps.” Can’t agree on who wins? Roll! Some are also about engagement. Can’t figure out what to play? Choose one of these options!

I’m interested (in an FKR sort of way) in how to articulate approaches to story gaming that will help lessen the rules in place of teaching good practice - especially to new (kids, first-timers) gamers. Another interesting way in which this plays out is in design - if the document ITSELF (or board, cards, whatever artifact the game communicates itself with) doesn’t engage the reader, then it can be hard to get people to invest the necessary time and energy to learn what could, eventually, be a highly engaging way to hand with friends and generate amazing stories.

Anyhoo, things I’m thinking today I thought I’d kick out to the crew to consider! Hope y’all are having an amazing morning, and thanks for letting me ramble in public!

Thoughts? Resources? Links? Cheers!


Can you expand on this a bit? What do you mean “lessen the rules in place of teaching good practice” exactly? Do you think that it’s not necessarily good to makes things more rules-lite, if it replaces good practice?

Also @DreamingDragonslayer this is your jam…

PS this reminded me of Ben Milton’s “The Real D&D DIY-ers”

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Sure! And yeah, I think @DreamingDragonslayer and I are very much aligned in LOTS of ways … the only reason I’m not jumping into the scene-based structure thread he’s got going is I’m about to release one, and if I read too much I might end up wanting to re-write the whole thing! :sweat_smile:

So, to clarify:

Mechanics can do lots of things. One service they often provide is to adjudicate interactions by “resolving” something people can’t agree on. They can also ramp up drama - increase engagement - by making outcomes uncertain or more intense. Rules-lite is great - if you’ve got a great storyteller helping it happen. Even kids hit “story speedbumps” without rules, however - moments when they disagree on outcomes, or disengage from story. In my games, I have a million ways to get them back in without rules, but I’m interested in helping non-gamer parents play with kids. I’m also interested in helping kids get into gaming without having to have someone to introduce them - to let them DIY themselves into the GM seat without that first formative table experience.

I’m interested in teaching non-gamers - specifically, parents and kids, who I work with and design for - some of the bits n’ bobs that mechanics don’t tackle. Things like “how to resolve a disagreement about what’s allowed in the setting” and “how to engage in a game and encourage engagement in others.”

Since my audience isn’t one that will sit still for long or dense explanations, I want to simplify some of the complexity most gamers have figured out. I’m coming up with a list of moves you can make that are about story, not mechanics - I suppose “meta-moves” would work.

So, a question: what simple advice would (or do) you give new gamers (both the GM and the players) to help them understand how to engage and come to agreement? I tend to think of simple prompts, like on For the Queen cards: “Do this.”


I have a section in Adventure Hour! labelled “Troubleshooting” for some of what you’re talking about.

Things like

  • When players take too long.
  • When players go “off-grid,” be it off the map, away from the action, or in an unexpected direction.
  • When players declare an action that is rash or potentially devastating to the group.
  • When there is inappropriate or unwanted content in the game.

Three-ish steps for each one to execute in order. I’ll show one off I already did a blogpost about:

When players declare an action that is rash or potentially devastating to the group. “I attack the queen!” A player may not know what consequences will naturally follow their declared action. This shouldn’t prevent a player from acting but instead give them a chance to reconsider.
• Describe the situation again. Highlight key details that makes the situation precarious. “There are armed guards in the room that protect the queen.”
• Cut to another player. Another player may have a better grasp of the situation and be able to talk reason to their fellow group member. “Chris, you see Beau reaching for their weapon in this guarded royal throne room. What do you do?”
• Ask “are you sure?” A final warning. “The guards would attack and attempt to lock you away, whether or not you actually succeeded. Are you sure you want to do that?”
• Let it happen. Don’t block or stall a hard-headed player forever. Some lessons are best learned with consequences. Be sure to play those consequences out.

I’ll throw a problem your way that I haven’t identified how to word a procedure for exactly (totally paraphrasing):

Willowby Hall.
Me: What do you do?
Kid 1: I’ll grab the Halo missile launcher from the basement and blast the giant away.
Kid 2: Oooh I like Halo!
Me: Erm. No. Kid 2, what do you do?
Kid 1: Wait, no! The needler! I’ll use the needler!
Me: Halo and Halo weapons don’t exist in this universe and you’re in the kitchen of a manor, not the dock of a spaceship. There are no guns of any sort in this room.
Kid 2: Can we get back to the game?

It’s cross genre and role boundaries (though there are better phrases, no doubt) and a slew of other things.

Does that get at the kinds of problems you’re looking to address Michael?

Hi Sam! Man, your stuff sounds like so many of my games! To clarify, I’m interested in communicating how - and why - you and I do what WE do in a game to people who don’t have our skills or experience.

Love your “describe it again,” “move the spotlight” (this one’s interesting - VERY solid choice when engagement with one kid’s engagement is flagging!), and “give a warning” advice. My original question was about translating our choices into simple moves or parameters that a parent or first-time kid GM could use without too much backdrop. My approach is less GM-focused, and more collaborative.

Here’s my current list of “stuff to do as a Teller to get things moving”:

  • Reframe It (engagement OR agreement): Repeat what someone did or said to make the act more dramatic, or demonstrate the cool impact of the move. Kid 1: I put the seed in the trunk. Me: You slam the seed into the trunk and a shockwave of green energy echoes out in waves from the impact. The World Tree’s bark, which was grey, begins flaking off, and fresh, green growth begins bubbling up from beneath!
  • Repeat It (engagement or agreement): Here’s an agreement approach: Me: You look around for a weapon and realize the room is a kitchen - the best you can do here is a cooking knife, since nobody in this house cooks with a Needler! For an engagement approach, if a kid is stuck, it might be more like: Me: You’re wondering what to do and you look around in desperation - there’s a ton of ingredients here, and knives, a rolling pin, some cutting boards … what do you want to do?
  • Suggest Something (engagement): This is a more specific example of Repeating - it’s giving some options. I have some rough PbtA-style “moves” in my game, though they’re more like stage directions for the GM and players than mechanical things. So, the ship is stalling out and taking fire, and your character is super-smart. Do you want to try to Figure Out what’s wrong with the engine, Know The Lore to say there’s a nearby portal you can jump through?
  • Redirect It (agreement): This is your Halo example. “There are no guns here” is reminding them of the constraints - the agreements of the setting. If they come back with “But I have them on me!” I might try a condition or consequence.
  • Add a condition (agreement, mostly; sometimes engagement): This is my “yes, but” response - okay, I’ll let you have the thing, but in order to agree, there has to be a compromise to keep it in check. Kid 1: I wanna play a dragon! Me: Yes, but remember, dragons disappeared long ago - nobody has seen one in millennia. Kid 2: Yeah, but I wanna play a dragon, too! Me: Okay, let’s do this - you can play dragons, but it’s going to be a big deal when you show up. Lots of people are going to be after your magic, weirded out by you, scared of you, or otherwise think it’s a huge deal. If that’s the game you want to play, I’m in if you are!
  • Explain the consequence (agreement): Not for the action in the game, but for the experience. “If you attack the council, you and likely everyone else will be thrown in jail - you’re outnumbered and out-classed. If everyone else is cool with that, great - but if not, we should talk about other options. This is everyone’s game, so I want to check in to see that everyone’s good with this.”

The “agreement/engagement” principle is one I was using to organize my thoughts on WHAT I do to get kids to learn how to engage at the table - both themselves, and how to encourage engagement from other kids. I want to work on some kid-focused “meta-moves,” too - like how to invite other kids into the moment, how to support other kids’ moves, how to help other kids shine in the spotlight, and so on. Trying to use the basic approach of “engage/agree” as a guide.

THANK YOU! This is great - it’s super helpful in putting my own stuff together!