GM Gym #2: Game From Nothing

Welcome back!

Last time, we used repetition to establish a comfortable environment for growth. Today, let’s explore the opposite approach with an advanced improvisational challenge.

Today’s exercise: Inventing the system, setting, and plot for a oneshot on the fly.

I’ve always wanted to do this one, and about two months ago, I finally had the chance. Some friends of mine wanted to meet up online for a chat and maybe some sort of game. It was all rather spontaneous, and only myself and two others actually showed up. Since we hadn’t prepared any other game, I suggested that we try playing some Pen & Paper.

Both of my friends had played D&D with me once or twice, but were by no means experienced. I warned them that this was going to be experimental – they excitedly agreed.

How it went

All in all, we had about four hours. The first of those was spent inventing the setting, system, and characters. Then followed three hours of pretty fluid and engaged gameplay.

I had feared the prep work most, but since our system was rather simple and we came up with things in parallel, it was neither too long nor too boring. I started by asking them which type of story and setting they felt like playing; they rather quickly agreed to a sci-fi adventure in which they were heroic warriors.

I then asked them what instruments of randomness they could find around them; dice, coins, cards, etc. – I wanted us all to have such physical tokens, as I think they can make the online gaming experience more immersive. We found that each of us had 3d6 around.

After we talked a bit about both of their characters’ stories and traits as well as how they knew each other, we decided on which character stats would be relevant for our heroic space adventure.* I then gave them a set number of points to distribute between those stats, while I tried to come up with 3d6-based mechanics for basic checks, contests, and combat rolls.

Guesstimating the balance on these mechanics while my players were rapidly expanding on their character concepts was perhaps the scariest part of the evening – especially since I also had to come up with a story (hook). I was able to gain some time by expanding the point-buy mechanic to equipment and contacts, which the players gladly obsessed over. When they were done with this, I had constructed a somewhat robust ruleset, and listening to what skills and tools they were most excited about had given me some ideas as to where to take the story.

And then the game was on. There was way more collaborative worldbuilding than in most other games I’ve run – probably since it was clear to everyone that I didn’t have a pre-planned vision but was rather trying to guide the players through our collective fantasy. Other than that, it was pretty much your standard TTRPG session; conflicting interests, a quest to save the world, and combat with weird space monsters. It was a blast.

What I learnt

That making up a game already knowing what you want out of it doesn’t necessarily cheapen the experience, and that shifting ownership of a world from the GM to the entire group can be healthy and freeing for both the world and the GM.

With my recent campaigns, I am still rather attached to the concept of creating a world and then inviting others to explore and expand on it with me, within the perimeters that I set. But this doesn’t have to be the model for every game. You do not have to have all these worlds at the ready. You are not a storytelling machine. Sometimes it’s fine to take the game back to its roots and just make stuff up together.

Also, I guess that ownership in this context is not an either-or, all-or-nothing affair. Perhaps I will try to open up my other worlds a bit more in the future, and more frequently ask players for their ideas on how things should look and what should happen.

Aside from training you to ask for and accept player input and make it work within the game, I think today’s exercise can further your understanding of what basic concepts make TTRPG rulesets tick (though I’m not entirely sure to which parts this is a requirement or a result). It can also train your ability to improvise plot and gloss over the rules when it serves said plot and doesn’t damage consistency too much. Both the plot and the rules are made up. Both are crucial to the TTRPG experience. I think this exercise does a good job of showing what purposes they serve and how they click together.

Till next time, back in the gym.


* Understandably given my players’ limited experience, there was hardly any discussion about which stats to add, and given my also limited, very D&D-heavy experience, they were not exactly revolutionary.


Cover photo by Nate Rayfield on Unsplash

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