How do you GM themes that you "don't know" how to GM?

Basically, all I’ve ever GMed so far has been

  • “Wandering a wasteland in search of an artefact, with combat and random encounters”
  • “Making our way through an urban fantasy city, with combat and random encounters”
  • “D&D adventure against the big bad, so combat and predestined encounters”

Then, in the Game ideas mega thread I see people wanting to run multi-generational games, “Fantasy British Bake-Off”, games about musical bands, Hogwarts, Christmas games…

I feel a sort of dread well up in me, as well as many questions. Where would I even begin with games like that? What would I even prepare, if not magic items, maps and monsters (the three Ms?). Would the roleplaying get so personal or focused that I’d feel uncomfortable? Would I even know what to say, or would the players know what to do?

So my question is this… how do you GM anything other than adventuring? How do you approach unfamiliar topics, and how do you prepare for them?

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Often I’m able to leverage the feedback of my players, a lot more than say 2-3 years ago. If I say, “Hey, what if we do a Bake Off in the next session. Would that be fun? What do you think that might look like?” I’ll get a lot more ideas than if I simply tried to formulate everything by myself. Taking their suggestions isn’t mandatory, either, but it also helps prime them for, “Oh yeah, the GM said they might try a crazy new thing. Sounds fun!”
Growing my range has been a process. I’ve done a lot of unorthodox things in some of my games, but it’s just been incremental stages of challenging myself a tiny bit here or there.

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I think there are a lot of things that are not adventuring. That, to me, is only a very narrow subset of potential stories. Yes it happens to be the type of story for the biggest game in the hobby. But it is by no means the only style of story that exists and there are a lot of other games out there with other rules that help support those other stories.

Monsterhearts is not an adventure story. To me, it’s a story about teenagers who are trying to be teens and their bodies are doing all sorts of messed up things they can’t control and trying to figure out what their body is telling them and what they want and how to navigate that and be discover who they want to be. I don’t think that’s an adventure story, maybe at one point a character does something that would be called an “adventure” but the game as a whole is not all about telling adventure stories. I also think that the material in the game helps support the types of story Monsterhearts tells well. It gives you first session/campaign help. It tells you what to prepare, it tells you how to engage the different playbooks, etc.

I have done somethings that many would call adventures (I use to be an outdoor rock climbing, kayaking, backpacking guide). But those adventures are nothing like the type of adventures in many TTRPG adventure stories. I’ve never done anything close to those stories.

I prepare for those stories by looking at what I do know that could relate. Whether there are small aspects that are relatable, or there are other media sources I can look at.

To me, I would say if you don’t know the style of story I would look first to your own life and experiences and see what can relate, even small stuff. Second I would look to other media that tell those style of stories, whether that’s movies, tv, comics, novels, short stories, poems, etc…

I would try to get an idea of what the expectations for that style of story are, then try to make those expectations happen in play.

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For me personally really well designed PbtA games have allowed me to do this, especially in concert with watching some APs of those games. When I first got back into the hobby back at the end of 2015 I hadn’t played or run a game in over ten years. I don’t know how it happened but I ended up watching APs of Monsterhearts and was amazed. It is not something whose genre I knew particularly well and certainly not something I consumed then (or now really) other than having watched some Buffy back in the day. But after watching some APs and then after reading the text I offered to run it for a few people. I watched some movies in the mediaography as prep. It went well. I’ve run it a bunch since then.

From there I ended up running a few sessions of The Watch (when it was in playtest) - I had gotten to play in a session at a con so had a model to base my running off and I had the materials. A massive strength in my mind of PbtA games is that there is a certain idiom that, once it clicks, leaves you pretty comfortable with being able to run many of them whether you know the source material well or not. The best ones really go out of their way to support the GM and are designed to be pretty much pick-up-and-play in that the whole playbook and moves structure teaches the genre as you play.

In a lot of ways we are kind of in a golden age in that for a lot of games you can find APs of the games you might be interested in playing. You can watch them and then decide whether to buy them. You can then read the texts and see if with that (and the APs) you feel ok running something. At least that has been how it worked for me.

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My own take is that the best way to run a new kind of game, scenario or rule hack is simply to do it. Besides a bit of meeting management skill being an RPG referee isn’t some sort of complex technical skill.

It doesn’t need to be mystified and proclaimed as high art, even if there a plenty of people who will do so. Run the game, trust your players and be trustworthy with them. If a new play style or idea doesn’t feel right, change it to something your table likes. Every table and referee is a little different but with honesty, a willingness to be wrong sometimes, and a lack of antagonistic refereeing, almost every table will have fun.

Just try the new thing, play test it, refine it, make it one’s own.

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Take your mind outside the system and just feel the world around the characters. This will help to shed the false limitations baked into your brain by however you initially learned to play. Challenge yourself to just play imagination. Worry about how to resolve the random last.

There is a natural structure to storied play that is universal. We bake a cake or delve a dungeon this all works the same. Materials need to be gathered. Skill gets applied over a set amount of time. The reward of our labour signifies a level of accomplishment.

The dramatic moments that flow through this structure will generate from the will of your players and whatever RNG system might be implemented.

So how do you prepare?

Walk through your world and feel what it means to perform an amazing show with the band. Ask what is on the line if the performance fails? What fears propel the characters to chase these dreams? What interesting obstacles might hinder the characters? Then fill your scenes with NPCs and environments that allow these questions to form an interplay. Follow your three M’s if you must. Map out the performance venue and the journey required to get there. List all the fun objects that provide extra benefits to the performance. Stat out the forces working against the characters to ruin the performance.

Make it all up and have fun!

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I’m happy my zany ideas have sparked a thread with questions!

First off, I donot imagine zany games tobe years long campaigns, bit rather some fun one shots or like one season’s worth of play.

Secondly, my experience with the hobby was playing dnd with friends in highschool (3.5 at the time) and not being terribly into min maxing. I looked around the internet and found that there were different games and rulesets for different stories. GURPS opened my mind to the idea that you can use a system to play any type of game.

My struggles to combine the hobby with my faith made me find the Multiverser game by MJ Young and I played in that for a while through pbp. It basically means you’re a character that doesn’t die when you die, but you hop to another world, another universe, as such there can be a lot of different genre’s represented. Still, all of these games are pretty crunchy, which is something I personally can do without.

Anyway, I’m rambling. I found my way to risus which I love a great deal. It even explains how it’s simple system can be used to do other types of conflict than combat. It could be a lawsuit, a competition, a domestic fight spread out over days or weeks, … I also discovered fate, which introduced the bronze rule of the fate fractal which explains that you could stat up everything to emulate a conflict. (risus kind of does this too) A forest fire can have stats like a character and be fought (or run from) using the skills and aspects of the game.

And lastly, I think, the tension of my evangelical faith and the hobby tends me towards games where magic is less of a thing, or just a clearly silly thing, not taken to seriously. While I myself have no problem with interesting magic systems, most of the friends I play boardgames with tend to be church people, and I’d rather avoid awkward conversations because of a game. So trying to find other types of stories rather than grimdark fantasy or wathever is a bit of a thing for me. Besides that I like comedy and being weird and creative, so my brain is constantly asking “what if x, but y?” types of questions.

But yeah, I think mainly Risus and once getting a boardgame version of Ninja Burger got me thinking silly and creative about games.

Also: By all means, if you like what you’ve got, keep doing it. Don’t let my silly thread pressure you into something you don’t like. If only I had the time, I would try to make one of these things into a type of adventure module.

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The first game that really broke non-d&d style gaming open for me was Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year. It’s a collaborative story game where the players are a group of survivors after an apocalyptic event, and must rebuild their community before an ominous (or perhaps not?) group called the Frost Shepards arrive.

It does a great job of guiding the players through building a world collaboratively, while emulating the experience of a community going through a difficult (albeit hopeful) time together.

I had an amazing first playthrough with my best friend and my wife, and then took it to my regular 5e group. It did not go over well; a few of my players simply did not know how to interact or relate to a game like this. That’s when I had the revelation that it wasn’t the game that was the problem, it was the players! And perhaps I was going to need to find a new group if I wanted to play these sorts of games from time to time. I love exploration and shared worldbuilding; these were less interesting to the people I’d been playing with for years and recognizing that fact led me to discover a host of new and fascinating games.

I’m using this experience to describe a key ingredient in playing or running non-d&d style games: the players have to have buy-in more than anything. It’s a learning curve, and you’ll definitely screw it up the first few times. But none of that matters if you have the right crew.

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This may sound trite (it’s not meant to!) but I read.

Nonfiction, biographies, fiction, it doesn’t matter as long as I make the effort to try to dissect or at least understand the narrative structure. I think it helps with being comfortable with what you might run into because often you can see why the ingredients in a scene which might the recipe for a Greek Tragedy or a Bake Off or inept Hornblower scuttling a ship because of rice.

In art school, we got told repeatedly that almost as important as practicing was seeing as much design and art as we could and building a internal visual library to draw from. Since RPGs are all about communal storytelling so watching movies or shows and reading is the same thing: building your own narrative library.

Last bit: sometimes you can pull off a Bake Off without your players realizing until after. The “Eureka moment” they have is a sight to see and almost always leads to laughter and great memories. So go ahead and do what all great artists do: Steal. (For instance, I’m kicking around stealing somethings from Gravity Falls. I’m not sure how or what but that’s part of the fun!)

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Re: prepping for non-D&D adventuring style games, I think the best piece of technology I’ve found has been bangs, from Sorcerer. They’re really generally applicable for any kind of improvised GMing situation, and especially good for character-focused games.

Here’s a link to some exploration of bangs and related ideas on The Alexandrian, another source of good help for prepping various types of situations (The Alexandrian » The Art of Pacing: Prepping Bangs)

I think more modern games have sort of incorporated the idea into complications from failed rolls or partial successes, like GM moves in PbtA games.

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You don’t have to prep for that kind of thing, really. The game is a conversation. Don’t be afraid to start the conversation without knowing where it’ll go.

Also let the whole table share the work. Example:

“Ah, the great centennial invitational cake bake-off. What an honor it must be to have been invited to compete in such a prestigious event.

Hobart - what stage of the competition do YOU feel most apprehensive about?”

Jot his answer down, that’s a challenge/scene you can improvise later; then ask everyone else variations of the same question.

“What have you trained hardest for?”

“What part of the competition do you think you’ll breeze through easily?”

Etc.

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