A thin crescent moon hangs sickly pale...

A thin crescent moon hangs sickly pale over the ancient city of Umma Sabikh.

The SULTAN sleeps soundly in a room atop the Royal Palace. The hangings by the window hardly stir in the heavy, thick air of midnight.

His youngest CONCUBINE lies sleepless at the foot of his bed, looking out at the moon and wondering about her past: how did she come to be here, in this ancient and dusty place?

Outside, scaling the wall in total silence, the Sumerian ASSASSIN has finally reached the top of the minaret and is but a short leap from the Sultan's bedroom.

What is about to happen?


You are playing this game. One person is the Narrator, establishing the above description.

The SULTAN, CONCUBINE, and ASSASSIN could all be played by your friends, or maybe just one or two of them for now.

You, however, are simply watching and listening. You don't have a character in the scene.

However, the GAME allows you a variety of clever (and sometimes subtle) ways to influence the events in play and the outcome of this scene.

Which do you choose, and what does it look like?

Tell us.


  • Didn't Jonathan Walton write this game like ten years ago? Why am I remembering something like that?

    My choice, though: I choose the time-honored technique of asking questions. I ask the character players more about what their characters think and feel. My questions are pointed and they do not hide my own impressions and expectations about the story and events.
  • (Eero, I don't know what you're remembering, but it's not familiar to me!)

    What kinds of questions do you ask, and what do you try to accomplish? Do you question particular characters or players? Do you try to influence outcomes?

    Do your questions carry any mechanical repercussions or other effect on the resolution methods of the game?
  • I don't think that the questioning has any mechanical weight, no. Its main significance is that it communicates my perspective on what's happening, and the answers clarify and improve the fiction all around.

    I do not try to influence outcomes; rather, I try to influence the process towards excellence, so that whatever happens now between these characters, it is well-considered, powerfully expressed and meaningful, rather than being shallow and perfunctorily performed.

    I suppose a game mechanic that allowed me to judge as well as question might be interesting, too. (For example, an opportunity to grant a boon to the most deserving character, or something like that.) Or perhaps something where good answers are rewarded, or ignoring my curiousity is punished. These are context to my activity of exploring the fiction, though, more than being the action itself.
  • (Thanks, Eero!)
  • edited May 2017
    As the story develops you ask the questions you want to see played out and answered in the story's narrative. These questions are written down and the players direct the story (in their scene play) toward these questions and ultimately answer them; in this way you (i.e. the question poser) are choosing the direction of the story and what is important in it. You continue to pose and write down these questions for the entire length of the story.

    This mechanic works extremely well to address one of the major problems in story gaming: story threads branching off into incongruent directions and creating a poor, unsatisfying story and ending. This mechanic tends to creates stories in which the narrative threads are weaved tightly. The narrative threads don't branch off into multiple unconnected directions making it difficult or impossible to bring the threads back together for a satisfying ending. It tends to produce good stories and good endings.

    My upcoming story game "House of Spiders" uses a form of this mechanic. I'm designing five story games right now and all of them have a version of this mechanic in them; that's how much I believe in it and it's ability to help shape a great game story. In most of the games the group comes up with these narrative questions; in one of them a single player does, as in the above example.
  • Heh yeah, Jeph - that's exactly what I was thinking of.
  • Jeff and Eero -

    Asking questions is a great technique, I agree. (And Jeff - oddly enough, unless I'm misreading you, that's exactly what I have in the game I'm working on, which we might play together in the near future.)

    What else might you do, how else might you influence play?

    You can invent mechanics or modes of interaction as you like for the purposes of your answer.
  • As I touched upon earlier, I wouldn't mind being able to judge the events between the characters. This implies, of course, an ability to bestow meaningful consequences from my judgement.

    This could be giving out XP for good roleplaying, or straight-up bonuses to an immediate roll, or whatever.

    A third thing I might do could, conseivably, be wielding some sort of deeper authority over the milieu. For example, perhaps there is a barbarian army out there somewhere, or a volcano about to erupt; I wouldn't mind being the player who gets to choose when and if that happens.

    A fourth thing I might consider would be an ability to call for internal conflicts within the characters other people are playing - virtue challenges and such, requiring the player to prove their character's true commitment to whatever it is that they think they believe in.

    A fifth thing would be being able to improve upon the milieu description directly, to ensure that the characters do whatever it is they're going to do in a fully realized and atmospheric environment.

    I don't think I have any further ideas, though - once you give me those, I've got all the core competencies of the traditional GM [grin].
  • Good stuff, Eero!

    What would this look like?

    A fourth thing I might consider would be an ability to call for internal conflicts within the characters other people are playing - virtue challenges and such, requiring the player to prove their character's true commitment to whatever it is that they think they believe in.
    People reading and answering:

    Feel free to get as specific and detailed as you like in your answers, including inventing mechanics for this imaginary game or additional fiction.

    Perhaps the scene will even play out in this thread if that happens.
  • I assume that the internal conflict thing would technically work like so:

    1) The audience player has formulated a concept or claim about what a player character feels or believes or thinks or values. This probably has to do with how the other player has been playing their character.
    2) As the claim about the character's internal state is floated to the other players, the advocate player (the player whose character it is) gets to refute the claim - they disagree about this, or think that while there is some merit to the claim, their character has the strength of will to refuse it and not act on the impulse the other player introduced.
    3) An appropriate sort of conflict resolution procedure is called to resolve the issue. We find out what merit, if any, the call had. Maybe the advocate player just buys off the claim with some willpower points or something. There's a continuum of wise choices here, rooted in the kind of understanding the game fosters about the nature of human cognition.

    Pendragon has a system for this, to pick a famous example: you get a character into a situation that tests their virtue, you call for a test, and then we find out whether the character can keep it together in the face of temptation. I like this because it polices the players and enforces psychological realism better than a system where the players cannot question each other's roleplaying choices.
  • What if -after a certain amount of questions are answered- the audience player could make up a connection between two characters and reveal it as a twist when they interact? It could be, I dunno, like an end-game feature, discovering not only each character personal story but how it's intertwined with the other character's stories in unexpected ways.
  • edited May 2017
    However, the GAME allows you a variety of clever (and sometimes subtle) ways to influence the events in play and the outcome of this scene.

    Which do you choose, and what does it look like?

    Tell us.
    I force all the other narrating participants to slow down and give me more of the details I care about.

    Assassin, are you straining to climb the minaret, or is this a piece of cake?
    What do you look like? Clothing? Gear? Style?
    With the sultan's bedroom in your sights, do you look impassively intent, nervous, angry, what?
    Okay, don't tell me exactly why you're here to kill him yet, but tell me the obvious reasons why you might be -- who would everyone justly suspect if the sultan were killed?

    I can and should keep asking until I care about this Assassin character and am invested in whether his effort succeeds or fails.

    If the assassin player is out of ideas, I get to rope in other input, maybe even my own.

    If they are underwhelming me with their answers, I'm not sure what happens -- perhaps we move on to the next character in hopes that I can come to care about them. But we should never play a scene where I don't care about anyone.
    influence the events in play and the outcome of this scene
    Oh, huh, I didn't really do that, did I? I guess if I'm not GMing or controlling a character, I just want to make sure I'm engaged.

    Once I'm engaged, then I might have ideas pop into my head that'd be cool things to have happen. So it'd be fun to jump in and have my way. But only if it adds to the other players' input instead of superseding it.

    It might be fun to express my hopes, as prompts to the other players.

    Oh man, I can see why that worked, but that was a dick move, I really hope that comes back to bite him.

    No, actually, that'd ruin the uncertainty, transforming it from a fictional concern to a "Do we abide Dave's wishes" concern. Never mind. Maybe I should just write it down and then reveal later?

    No, wait, I've got it: I don't want input into which way an outcome goes, but I do want input into whether an outcome is covered.


    That'd be my prompt to the other players to address whether the sinner gets off scot free or gets what's coming to them.
  • Excellent ideas, folks! Keep them coming.

    Dave, I'm not sure I like "repercussions?" better than your initial statement. I think leading questions are totally fine, so long as we don't see them as binding, and statements like yours give a lot more of a sense of the "audience reaction", which is fun (and useful).

    I'll add something from a totally different angle:

    As I watch, I judge how difficult things might be for the characters involved, and assign mechanical weight to them.

    For instance, if this was D&D:

    * "You're throwing your rope across, to the window to the bedroom? That sounds hard. DC 20."
  • edited May 2017
    Dunno if I'd block the player's intent by stating a bet where failing that roll has hard repercussions, but maybe losing time, risking making noise or looking for another way in... but then again the assasin's part becomes more interesting in a gamey sense, while the other characters are just waiting and doing dramatic development. Maybe If the audience player were limited to asking these rolls once per player it could work.

    What if instead of a roll, to get past the obstacle the player has to add something randomly determined to their character's past? Like "something they deeply regret" or "a wound -physical or psychological- that never healed"?
  • That depends on what kind of game this is, right? Maybe judging the challenge level of things and rolling for them very much is the game (like in D&D), or maybe we're looking for drama and story (as in your example).

    I'd like to explore all the possibilities here!
  • "I rule that your acrobatics skill makes a small difference, the difficult angle of the throw makes a huge difference, and the lack of light makes no difference," for example, might be satisfying if it established some sort of convention for how situations were handled.
  • I describe sensory details of the scene. Sometimes I describe them from a particular character's point of view, sometimes in general.

    I make guesses out loud about the different characters' motivations.

    I describe possible interpretations of the events, as they will be understood by the crowds that gather in the marketplace and gossip about politics.

    I describe far-future consequences that seem likely, based on what is happening so far. These consequences are both personal and political.

    The players can only communicate their actions indirectly to each other, through me, as though I were an interpreter; I emphasize different aspects of what they said, or rephrase certain remarks.

    I discuss the history of particular objects in the room, or in possession of one of the characters.

    I choose songs to play as the scene progresses, soundtracking the scene from a library I have prepared (or all the players have prepared.)

    I offer the players different foods as they play.

    I make drawings of the characters and of the action, showing them to the players periodically.
  • +1 to IceCreamEmperah!

    I'd also let players venture their own ideas about the other characters motivations, expectatives and future, as well as how they see the big picture in this world, but from their character's point of view. Then everyone is free to take whatever they have heard and build upon it. However they can only confirm the things that fall under their character's agency.

    For example, both the sultan and the assassin's player can say that the concubine looks scared, but not that she is scared. This can only be confirmed or denied by the concubine, who could narrate this as "my plan to catch them off-guard by appearing scared seems to have worked"
  • Excellent ideas, thank you! That's a really thought-provoking list.

    Some other ideas I've seen:

    * I can say, more detail, please, to prompt more description from the players.

    * I can say, that might not be so easy, to prompt a mechanical process to determine success.

    (Both of the above from Archipelago.)

    * I can use a tool to indicate a change in focus or tone.


    David Berg's Delve has a Pacing Dial, which determines the speed of "action" on-screen and level of detail. An observing player could use that to "upshift" or "downshift" the speed at which effective time passes in play.

    Games like Monkeydome or Swords Without Master switch tones, from Grim to Zany (or whatever other terms). An observing player could have a means of "flipping that switch" mid-scene.

    * I can say, "Cut!", to close/end the scene.

    The power to end the scene changes the dynamic in play (the participants are suddenly much more aware of the presence of the observing player, and that player has a different level of attention to the scene, too). It also allows one to place emphasis on a certain line of dialogue or action: if the scene closes immediately after that bit of dialogue, it lends a certain weight.

    "She says, 'I'm done with this marriage!' and storms out of the room, slamming the door."

    If we cut the scene immediately after that, it has a very different weight than if we continue the scene to show the reaction of the other party and what they do next - not just in terms of the fiction, but also in terms of the experience for the players.
  • Is that all we've got? I'm counting on you, Story Games!

    Here's another:

    Label or mark elements of the game or story with mechanical rewards. For instance, in D&D:

    "Hey, if you can get past that trap, I'll give you 25 XPs."

    Or in Monsterhearts:

    "If you use any of your moves on Mrs. Ross in this scene, mark experience!"
  • I decide which BENEVOLENT OR MALEVOLENT GODS are watching, and how they feel about the character's actions. The gods cannot affect the characters directly, but their favor and disfavor can be used by the players in their conflict resolution.
  • edited May 2017
    @Adam_Dray That's awesome! Along similar lines...

    1. I quickly interject/narrate cut-away scenes, e.g.

    Assassin player: I stand over the Sultan's bed, looking into his sleeping eyes.
    Audience player: Meanwhile, the Sultan's troops are rounding up heretics like you all over the land.


    Assassin player: My dagger strikes true.
    Audience player: Meanwhile, on his order's, the sultan's guards are releasing your sister from his dungeon.

    2. I control the weather and other similar natural phenomena, e.g.

    Assassin player: I raise my dagger over my head ready to plunge it in.
    Audience player: Lightning flashes across the sky.


    Concubine player: I longingly recollect the days of my childhood wandering the savanna with my young friends learning the ways of all the animals there.
    Audience player: A lion roars in the distance, but it's just one of the animals in the sultan's menagerie.

  • Those are both excellent! I dig.
  • edited October 2017
    I haven't read all the intervening posts so this response reaches back to the OP. In my version of this, I am not in the scene but I do have a character that I will bring in to later scenes. My characters powers are acquired by introducing wrinkles that result in mixed outcomes. If the things I introduce result in either an unmitigated success or failure, I earn nothing. If the result instead expands the story, my character is powered up.
    Would have to be a particular game where there is both a narrator and a player contributing as the narrators sidekick in a given scene.

    I say: a tile clatters from the conical minaret roof. It tumbles ringing once on a rock wall as it falls, landing with the sugary sound of a distant shattering. The assasin has slid half the way down the steep pitch, arresting himself, his body spread out against the slick tiles. Far below a sentry pivots in His small pool of torchlight to investigate the sound. The concubine lies motionless, listening. Perhaps making her mind up. At length she rises languidly from her furs and draws back the heavy curtains. Unguarded and delicately curious in the still night, she peers into the night. The assasin is directly across from her. She whispers: "Deenka?" Dumbstruck. What is her brother doing clinging to a minarets pitch in the sultans palace?
  • So many cool ideas. The cut away scenes are great. The interlocutor is super cool. I'd like to combine that one with the overlooking gods idea and let other players nudge the story. The gm and other players can send even a great deal of communication through this transmogrifying medium.
  • I play the scenery : As the assassin climbs, a pebble falls and the sound of its fall echoes in the night. A night bird takes off and passes close to the window.
  • Good stuff! Thank you for keeping the thread alive.
  • @Paul_T I've been thinking about this game a lot lately.

    "The SULTAN, CONCUBINE, and ASSASSIN could all be played by your friends"

    What are the goals of these characters vis-a-vis the game system?
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