Thursday 28 July 2022

Liquid Flesh on an Iron Skeleton

Last week I wrote about how I was prepping for my Primeval Bastionland playtest (which went well!). In particular, how I wanted a world that felt real, like it existed outside of the players, but didn't require reams of prepared notes and detailed maps.

An IRON SKELETON of truths, fleshed out in broad strokes, and plenty of procedures and tables on hand to improvise to fill the gaps.

(this analogy was more gross and organic on the first draft, so I decided to make it absurd instead)

Not quite fully emergent improvised play, not quite full-on blorb.

The Iron Skeleton is immutable. If you put a castle on the map that castle isn't moving anywhere unless that's its whole thing.

The Broad Strokes are firm but flexible. You can choose the route to take, but the direction is mostly set. 

The Gaps are wide open. Freeing but daunting.

Really it's the "filling the gaps" part which can be the trickiest, and the one that I've heard most people struggling with. As such, consider this post to be a hodgepodge of thoughts I've had around running filling those gaps, especially in the context of Primeval Bastionland.

Also we're in an apocalyptic heatwave over here, and as our homes are generally built to retain heat I've gone to work in a local co-working space, which was boasting about it's AC and cold drinks.

It also happens to be a pub, but what choice did I have?

No, the pub is not called THE IRON SKELETON but I wish it was.  


As I wrote in that patching post, improvisation can feel arbitrary if you're too generous or too strict. I've played in games where it felt like we could convince the GM of just about anything, making success just a case of thinking of something cool. We definitely had fun, but I didn't feel challenged or satisfied. 

It's an old one, but I think it's really worth sitting down with new players and telling them that your role is to be impartial, and while you're not out to get them, and you want everybody to have fun, you're also not going to hand their characters success on a silver platter. Note that this is absolutely not mutually exclusive with being a friendly, welcoming host for the game and having fun at the table.


Lots of procedure talk going around lately. It's easy to think that procedures have to involve rolls, and while they absolutely can it's often those that don't which really open up the possibilities when improvising.

Part of the reason I like these is that they can give you mechanical permission to be more generous or punishing than you would normally feel appropriate.

I know, the GM can do anything, right? You don't need a rule to tell you what's allowed! Well, like I mentioned above in Impartiality, sometimes it helps to stay within a certain range until you're given a nudge by the game.

To look at Primeval Bastionland, the Running the Game page sets clear guidelines for when the players Succeed or Fail at an action. When they fail you're prompted to create a new problem, escalate an existing problem, or deliver on a hanging threat. Now go wild. 

Are guidelines procedures? I'll let somebody else write a blogpost debating that.

Heed the direction of the procedures, and don't be afraid to deliver big impact when they prompt it. 


I've written before about Cheap Tricks that a GM can use in their game. 

But check this out... Dice are the cheapest trick of all.

When you roll these things, or get the players to roll, it's like you're invoking the power of fate, absolving yourself of all responsibility. 

Throw ten dragons at your players while they're travelling and you'll get a bad reputation.

Put ten dragons on the encounter table? Now when the players roll that encounter their fear is directed at the world instead. What kind of place has 10 Dragons as a wandering encounter? Let's get out of here!

Well, you might get some protests... 

But the point is that this power is yours to wield. When you roll on a Spark Table you're both restricting yourself to ideas that grow from the result, but freeing yourself to interpret the result in a more impactful way than you might normally feel is fair. 

If I roll Death/Lizard then you can't really blame me when the encounter is some highly venomous reptile. If I'd pulled that out of thin air then you might wonder if I'm out to get you.


Similar to impartiality, I like to think of the GM as a medium between the players and the world. 

The players speak and I translate that into worldtongue, making an impact on the world, calling for a roll if necessary.

The world speaks to me through notes, procedures, rolls, and I translate that back to the players. 

It should never really feel like I'm telling the players what I think should happen, and likewise I should avoid changing the world as written based on my own decisions, only those of the players. To me, a great GM isn't one that leaves the players fawning over their skills, but one that leaves the players in love with their world.  

This leads nicely to...


This is a new addition to Primeval. It goes like this:

Even when using the rules for travel, exploration, and combat, remember this, the most important thing.

No rule or system within the game should override the Actions the players take.

Remember the core of giving players information, honouring their choices, and describing the impact of their actions.

So a Knight is off doing a Task, let's say they're searching for a vantage point to get a good view of the Hex. 

They fluff their roll, so I figure they hit a Complication.

Sure, you could pick a random Complication Element as inspiration, but what about that Hunter who the Knight thoroughly humiliated just yesterday? Do we think they'd be seeking revenge? They live around these woods, right? Should we just have them show up looking for revenge?

Now I don't think this counts as illusionism. That idea is primarily based around protecting player agency, and here we want to increase that agency. 

We didn't pre-plan an encounter with the angry hunter and force the players into it. Instead the player's past action (humiliating the hunter) combined with their present action (hitting a complication in the woods) to present an opportunity to show the lasting impact of their decisions.

Of course you can go too far. If you travel to a remote land and that old enemy just so happens to be there, it might feel contrived, so always do a quick check to make sure the previous and current actions line up convincingly. 

Hope this is useful if you're hitting similar snags when "filling the gaps". 



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  1. Chris McDowall is the Riddling Reaver confirmed

    1. That's a name I've not heard in a long time.

  2. Wonderful post Chris. Very insightful