Discourses on GMing Series 1 Post 7
Today’s discourse will feature chapters 5 and 6 from Jamison’s “Gamemastering” eBook. It’s free, so I encourage you to read along – else I might not make a lot of sense!
Notecards, Notecards Everywhere…
At first I was convinced Jamison’s advice about notecards was similar to his advice about player-characters of a non-player gender or so on. It seemed like taking a minor problem and exaggerating it into overkill proportions. Who needs this many notecards?
Bluntly, I was wrong. The notecards are more important than they appear, and it’s because of something psychologists call cognitive load theory.
You know that saying that goes something like “you can only think about 5 to 9 things at once”? It’s true, except it’s actually even more restrictive than it sounds. If you’re manipulating the information, like how you would combine “character is good at jumping” with “a pit obstacle requires jumping” during prep, then the number of items you can keep in mind drops to between 2 and 4.
There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is: the more familiar you are with the information you’re using the more of it you can use at once. That’s why this list of letters –
…is a lot harder for most Americans to memorize than this list of letters –
It’s the same list of letters, but by re-grouping them in a meaningful way you can remember them much more easily due to the familiarity. The same goes for things like the player-characters’ lists of skills, goals, NPC verbal tics, and so on. So that’s the bad news: we don’t have eight spare hours to become familiar with (read: memorize) all this stuff.
That’s where externalizing the information in the form of notecards comes in. By moving the information onto notecards instead of holding it in your head you can manipulate a lot more of it at once without having to first memorize it all. Think of it like that cork board filled with news clippings and photos and red string connected by thumb tacks in police procedural TV shows. Those detectives know how important it is to externalize the vast amount of information in their cases, and the same goes for you and your campaign!
Giving ’em What They Want
This is the core theme of the book: to have a fun game, give the players what they want in a way they don’t expect. This is why assembling all that information before the game began was so important. The players have by this point told you what they want: the NPCs, the kinds of challenges, and so on. Now it’s your job as the GM to decide how they get it. Changing game prep from inventing new content to instead merely inventing a new presentation is how Jamison can say with a straight face that he can prepare a 4 hour game every week in only 15 minutes.
The result of the method is what I consider a nearly air-tight adventure design. Here is a dumb example to bluntly highlight how it works:
Jumpman (PC) is a superhero who can jump really high (skills). He needs to defeat his nemesis Runman (Foe NPC) who is wrecking Peaceburg (starting location), but he can never catch him and needs some help. Jumpman’s teacher, Mentorman (Friend NPC), offers to help him. However, first he needs Jumpman to go retrieve the Widget of Goodness from the top of a mountain (obstacle resolved with skills) so that he can recharge his super powers and come out of retirement (woe).
While hopelessly boorish by actual writing standards I think it illustrates my point nicely. If you’re Jumpman and you’re presented with the adventure to the top of Mount Highjump in return for help in defeating your nefarious rival why wouldn’t you take up that offer? You get to do something challenging, show off how cool you are, and achieve your goals if all goes to plan.
This is why “giving ’em what they want” is such a successful method of preparing games. The players tell you what they want, and then you spend a few minutes a week shuffling notecards around a table and – voila – out pops an irresistible, bespoke adventure better than any you could have ever bought at a store.
Just, uh, make sure your players are more creative than “Jumpman” here.
Next time I’ll be discussing the finer details of building adventures and some more of Jamison’s pointed advice from sidebars that completely miss the point.