Push Me, Pull You

Last night we ran our third session of Forbidden Lands. After hewing closely to the game’s campaign materials last session (The Hollows, a sample town in the Gamemaster’s Guide) and grinding against, well, everything about it, this time I decided to run the game more in the vein of Mutant: Year Zero. That is: zero prep, generate everything on the fly, see where the game takes us.

It was a lot more satisfying! And it got me thinking about two divergent approaches to GMing and why I’m attracted to one of them and repelled by the other.

(To be sure, there are lots more than two GMing approaches. I just wanted to talk about these two. Be calm. Deep breaths.)

Pull You

For the sake of a framing device, I’m going to call this first one the “pull you” school of GMing. That is: the GM is there to facilitate a grand design, a module, or some other flavor of pre-planned setting and plot. On the one hand, you can hope there’s been more thought and care put into work that’s been done ahead of time: the designer has worked out the bugs, the facilitator has internalized the material, it’s a shiny present waiting to be unwrapped. Those things may or may not be true but that’s the promise, yeah?

You need some specific tools or talents, I think, to make this shine. It seems to me like the big one is knowing how to sell someone else’s stuff. When I was spooling out The Hollows last session, a lot of my bandwidth was spent trying to present material I didn’t believe in in the best possible light. There were also some insurmountable organizational problems, along with the fact that it’s just not that good. But I think, if you’re a super-good pull-me GM, you’ve learned to make the absolute best of what you’ve been given.

I’ve never been a fan of modules, but I’ve put in my (decades of) time on prep, setting stuff, NPCs, “fronts” or whatever we called unresolved pressing issues before we had that language. Sometimes I find this kind of deep prep deeply rewarding! There’s a crapton of work that needs to be done before campaign-scale Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, for example. And fronts work per orthodox PbtA doctrine is the good kind of prep. But stuff like the Raven’s Purge campaign material is just not fun for me, as the GM. It’s too hard to use, it’s too inflexible, it’s too detached from the concerns of the PCs and the players.

The players are playing to find out, but I’m not. Which brings me to push me.

Push Me

The other approach I want to talk about I’m calling “push me,” mostly because it fits nicely with the Dolittle critter. This is pretty much the opposite of pull you: nothing is prepared, everything is improvised, and we’re all playing to find out. I like it because I like being pushed along with the players.

Obviously there’s a very long, fine-grained continuum between total-prep module-style games and zero-prep full-improv games. I get that, you get that, there’s no reason to get angry. My point is, this session of Forbidden Lands revealed to me that I’m so much happier on the push me end of the spectrum for this game in particular.

I have to think there’s a central tension to Forbidden Lands that’s almost certainly the same tension in lots of hexcrawl-y sandbox-y trad-slash-old-school games, yeah? You do all this procedural creation on the fly for journeys via tables or oracles or card draws, whatever, but that’s just kind of filler until you get to the carefully crafted adventure site where, one supposes, the “real” game lies. But jeez…maybe this is specific to how bad the Forbidden Lands campaign material is, but I’ll be perfectly happy never, ever revisiting the “real” game again. I’m just so bored, or maybe dissatisfied, trying my level best to present someone else’s materials in the best possible light.

In the end, I think it comes down to wanting to play with the players. I am much happier right there in the mix with them, struggling and improvising and fighting, really, to make this thing work. I could have stayed home and practiced my piece until it was perfect, but instead I’m in there playing my instrument along with them.

Anyway! The session!

Since this session ran in the vein of pure on-the-fly procedural creation (like most of how Mutant runs), I got a much better feel for the game’s mechanical ebb and flow this time.

The players decided they needed to start making some coin, so they looked around the map near their area and found a castle-type adventure site on the shores of Lake Varda (X-15 on the map). We were reintroduced to how small the Forbidden Lands are: about 300km east to west, maybe 250km north to south. A smidge bigger than Massachusetts. Yeahhh. There are some dissonances to reconcile once you realize how small that is. Like, why has nobody yet checked out this weird structure that’s literally 10-ish miles away from the town? You can get there and back by foot in a day. Heck, you can be back at the inn for lunch if you take a horse out there. Who fuckin’ knows? The lands, they’re forbidden.

One thing that popped out at me, now that we’re a bit into our campaign, is that this is the most play-the-day game we’ve done. Every day is broken into quarters, and every quarter every player must declare what their character is doing. So we’ve played, in three sessions, 5 days x 4 quarters: 20 increments of play. Lots of those just zoom by because everyone but the lookout is asleep, or everyone is doing support stuff (foraging, hunting, repairing) while the lookout rests up for his long lonely night. I like that, because it feels like the logistics of long through-hikes I’ve done: we get up at sunrise and need to be to the river by lunch, then to our campsite by six-ish before the sun goes down, then Paul and Andy set up camp while Bruce and Tina set up the kitchen and get us fed. Like, the scales are all pretty correct: you really can get in a not-brutal cross-country hike of 10 to 12 miles in a day, you really do spend a good chunk of your day with the tedious logistics of self-contained travel, you really do need to divide the labor, you really do need to get your sleep in.

I spent about 10 minutes generating the adventure site at X-15: an outpost-sized structure, built during the last Alder War (ie before the Blood Mist) by dwarves as a trade house, kind of a small caravansery. It got partially destroyed by raiders, and now it’s inhabited by a dozen skeletons trudging their way through the rituals of the living: some go on guard, others “till” a field outside with old rotted tools, others still sit three times a day at a table and “eat.” This weird automaton behavior keeps repeating through the day.

Meanwhile, camp is not uneventful. The late-night lookout discovers the Blood Mist itself has come roiling out of the dark forest that looms to the north. Yikes! This is great because this is the players’ introduction to the thing that kept their characters penned up in their various communities their whole lives. There’s a clusterfuck of Move rolls to escape, and Insight rolls to tolerate the Mist lest it saps their Empathy and leaves them broken and lost inside. After a couple Lore tests, I went ahead and revealed that the Blood Mist seeks out loneliness and homesickness. “But isn’t our party a community?” someone asks. Later on, that very same player declines to send his character into the heat of battle straight away. It’s a nice moment, joining those threads.

Oh yeah and of course the Mist has arrived in the night quarter. Everyone starts their next day Sleepy and fucked up, their first-ever Conditions. They spend another day rolling against their rations, slowly grinding away at their supplies, killing another day because they absolutely do not want to head into skeleton central at night. It’s still spring and the nights are still long.

The game provides zero support, none, regarding what might be found in an adventure site. Should there be an artifact? What about small or large treasures left behind? It’s entirely left to the GM’s discretion. My very smart players, realizing their characters have started out their lives woefully underprepared, realized the skeletal soldiers themselves were the biggest payday: they had a rip-roaring fight (the halfling sorcerer child busted out a six willpower Stun spell, rolled and overpowered it, taking out half the guards in one shout…and ended up Thirsty, the spell having taxed the poor kid) and scored a bunch of old broadswords, spears and leather armor. There was stuff left in the old outpost as well, again totally just eyeballed by me: some coins, a decent pair of boots, a couple bits of jewelry, and a compellingly mysterious old book.

One thing I didn’t realize until I was a ways into the game is that there aren’t any rules for magical artifacts, other than the artifacts that come listed in the book itself. There are no enchanted swords or potions or anything. I like this quite a lot, truth be told, because I also gave them their first artifact (an enchanted/cursed evil spear) and it’s special. Nice! I just had to get past the expectation that one could find the lands littered with old magical shit. Crafting talents (Smithing, Bowyer, etc.) let you build exceptional goodies with bonus gear dice. Those (wildly overpriced) artifact dice are hardly ever going to get rolled.

After our skeleton fight, we agreed that the card-based combat scripting game is too much overhead. That’s a shame, since the Legends & Adventurers supplement provides talents that rely on it. I had folks pick new talents so they weren’t saddled with bennies we’re never going to use. Just too darned much handling time. Maybe, perhaps if there’s an important fight with a major NPC we might try it out. I suspect Free League were trying for the Fight! scripting from Burning Wheel but I’m skeptical about using it there too.

The party ended up with a decent haul from this little outpost once they combined the weapons, armor, and various goodies. They’re struggling a bit with the logistics of hauling shit around, but they have horses so it’s not impossible. I think they’re working out an overall tempo of going out to an adventure site, grabbing what they can, and cashing out in a town. I wish there was better support for what happens in villages, though, because I can’t fathom that The Hollows’ various NPCs have unlimited funds with which to buy expensive trinkets. I’m already imagining that trade will mostly come down to barter, rather than passing through coinage first.

We’re playing again next week. I’m perfectly content to continue getting pushed along with the rest of the players into the countryside as it reveals itself. I might try to use another of the pre-created adventure sites at some point, but it’s not something that, in the words of Marie Kondo, sparks joy.

6 thoughts on “Push Me, Pull You”

  1. I love the idea of a game that accurately (or at least pleasingly) simulates the planning and logistics of backcountry hiking, but mostly because I really really want to do more backcountry hiking.

    That map scale is really weird. 10 miles to the spooky tower! That’s a not-that-difficult run, round-trip for a healthy adult! Almost seems like a society in those conditions would develop a “runner” class, like the Inca chasqui, or the Runners in Zombies, Run! Heck, the Rarámuri of Mexico run hundreds of miles a day in rough terrain.

    Though that said, I don’t know what impact the Blood Mist might have.

  2. From a sandbox OSR referee perspective:

    In the “pull you”-section, the modules are parts of the setting. As you know, they are not prepared stories. The emergent events are the interesting part, and a good module will facilitate interesting and unexpected events and narratives. The unexpectedness is part of the promise; otherwise, why bother running the things when you already know what is going to happen?

    If you are not playing to find out, the module is boring. It sounds like this is the case with the game you are using.

    “I have to think there’s a central tension to Forbidden Lands that’s almost certainly the same tension in lots of hexcrawl-y sandbox-y trad-slash-old-school games, yeah? You do all this procedural creation on the fly for journeys via tables or oracles or card draws, whatever, but that’s just kind of filler until you get to the carefully crafted adventure site where, one supposes, the “real” game lies.”

    No, certainly not. Your game procedures are built to create interesting content. If the travel is inconsequential and boring, you skip it (by handwavery or rulings). But when running a sandbox game, what happens on the road is definitely interesting; otherwise you would be running a point-crawl.
    If the stuff is not interesting and create exciting emergent outcomes, your travel and random encounter procedures are failing.

  3. Then I think it’s just the module-type content that does not click with me. Everyone’s enjoying what emerges from the travel stuff and the on-the-spot creation. I can speculate as to why but I’m not psychic. But good grief, I try and dig into the module-style materials in Raven’s Purge or whatever and I just stall out.

    One funny thing was when a bunch of players — there were five at the time — started interrogating me about just how it is this NPC maintains power and authority over this tiny town. And I’m like…tradition? And they start pushing back on that. So I start digging, digging, digging into the material at hand. It’s not addressed (I don’t think) and then I’m like…I could make up an answer but that’ll most likely contradict something else later on. It happens with depressing regularity when I try to use pre-made stuff.

    I suspect the Forbidden Lands adventure site materials themselves are just not that good. And that’s fine, because the rest of the game can do the heavy lifting.

  4. I started with Whitebox D&D, but never had any interest in modules, other than one or two written by friends in the last few years. Back in the day (the ’70s) we took the view that they were what unoriginal people used and played.

    So for me, I don’t really see playing modules as the core of old school gaming. However, I suspect there are strong regional preferences. Here in Minneapolis, where the ties to Geneva were strong, there certainly is a cult-like devotion to them. That wasn’t the case in Upstate NY, at least among the people with whom I gamed.

    1. I agree with all this. In the 90s I would often buy adventure modules for reading, but ran about 5% of what I owned. The packaged things we’re always harder to run than if I just reused bits of the content and made up my own shit. And no one knew the difference!

  5. “One funny thing was when a bunch of players — there were five at the time — started interrogating me about just how it is this NPC maintains power and authority over this tiny town. And I’m like…tradition? And they start pushing back on that. So I start digging, digging, digging into the material at hand. It’s not addressed (I don’t think) and then I’m like…I could make up an answer but that’ll most likely contradict something else later on. It happens with depressing regularity when I try to use pre-made stuff.”

    I see three possible causes: Complicated scenario, poorly presented information, or lack of skills/wrong approach on your part.

    1. The situation presented by the adventure might be complicated. I usually have pretty easy time internalizing modules. For me, a difficult one is, for example, Melford murder (free on Dragonsfoot, I think), because there are a large number of NPCs with particular agendas, relationships and knowledge of each other. Furthermore, players can meet any of them at any point, so it is difficult to know what to prepare for. Maybe you know better how to process this with relationship maps and what not, as this kind of content is more abundant in many Forge games.
    Another complicated thing might be intricate special effects in rooms or dungeons with strange geometry (hypercubes being famous) or with lever to change orientation or water level or gravity and what not. These might be difficult to understand because the phenomenon is inherently complicated. Good presentation can simplify it, to a point.
    Third thing might be that the thing is big. Since movement options within dungeons are often limited, I try to read carefully the areas where it is easy to end up in, and the obstacles to moving to other places, so that if the players start planning something strange I can read up on the next room while they are figuring out what to do about the pit with a wall of force above it to prevent jumping.

    2. If the information is poorly presented, one has to do more work to get it out, or give up.

    3. I have no idea how you approach preparing a dungeon game.
    I have usually read the dungeon before and placed it in my game world. I will also have processed it: figured out which, if any, ancient culture it is related (in my head), drawn out rumours from the adventure background and NPC descriptions (inserted them into rumour tables of nearby settlements and then forgotten them), expanded the random encounter table to include most creatures living in the place (and forgotten all about it), added references to nearby other random encounter tables and the regional encounter table (and forgotten all about it), and considered how to express mechanically the parts of the adventure which were written for a different rules system (in my head or forgotten). The processing typically requires a reread or two of the relevant parts – background knowledge for rumours and which creatures are mobile and how many there are for random encounters.
    Then, at some point, the players might get there. If I know of this ahead of time, I will reread the adventure so that I check the map when reading the room descriptions to get a better idea of what is where and which rooms they will be entering first. During play I keep doing this when the players are planning or speculating if I feel uncertain about the contents of the next room; their plans and speculations are not really my concern, anyway, their actions are.

    This works for me. If you think this is a problem for you and you want to get better, maybe find a local OSR referee to mentor you. Or talk with someone online.

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