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Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #1: Co-Starring

Today I’ve decided to roll out my first new post to completion in more than 6 months. As the briefest of status updates I’ve had several posts simmering on the back-burner for a while now, but this is my first crack at a good series in a long time and they should be pretty regular updates. They’re also going to be a lot shorter than most of what I tend to write because I struggle with that and the practice of being concise is good for me.

What is this series about?

I’ve read a lot of RPGs. Even more than I’ve played or run, and I’ve played or run a lot of RPGs. One of the advantages to being widely-read is that you come upon ideas all the time. This is pretty usual advice given to a GM who wants to make more cool adventures: if you aren’t publishing the adventure feel free to steal the premise of a story you already know and love and just change the trimming a bit. The title of this post in fact is based on a much more pithily phrased piece of advice offered by the author T.S. Elliot – good authors borrow, great authors steal.

This advice, however, rings true not just for adventure design, but also for campaign mastery. There are some things that some games do that I’ve outright liberated from their respective works and continue to use in most games that I run regardless of what system I run them in. I’d like to go over as many of those as I can while pointing out their exact origins.

Co-Starring: What is it?

The Fate system was created many years ago as an offshoot of Fudge, and rests roughly in the smack center of crunch vs. fluff, GM vs. player narrative ownership, and improvisational vs. prep driven. As a system it’s given rise to one of my all-time favorite mechanics: co-starring.

The first example of this in the Fate game lineup that I can think of was created for Spirit of the Century and goes a little something like this –

  1. Most of the player characters have met before.
  2. Each player writes (most of) a short (paragraph length or so) story blurb about one of their previous adventures.
  3. Then one or more of the other players adds a sentence or two to that story that incorporates how they were involved, too.

That’s it. It’s a paragraph length cooperatively authored (very) short story about a previous adventure that involved at least two of the player characters. Simple, right?

Co-Starring: Why should you use it?

This method solves a common complaint that has existed as long as roleplaying games have: how do I get the player characters to join together in a way that feels natural? The oldest solution to this problem is “dump them in a tavern, say ‘go’, and hope they cooperate for the sake of the game”, but this is a much more elegant method. Here’s the breakdown of the goods –

  • As it’s a story it will have at least one antagonist if it’s done properly (and if it doesn’t you should be helping the player to create a more exciting story with more conflict!). It’s not only less work to use that (those) antagonist(s), but also you have less fear of player rejection since it’s their own creation. The same goes for any other established NPCs, antagonist or not!
  • The player characters will for the most part know each other already, which means they’re all at most a single “I know him and you can trust him” away from total group cohesion in a natural way once the game itself begins.
  • It’s short enough that even the most crunch-oriented players won’t mind giving it a go.

The House Rule Test

I have a very simple test I use for house rules. I ask three questions:

  1. Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
  2. Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
  3. Is this rule as simple as possible?

There are some overlap in those questions, of course, and the first one probably has the most precedence, but the other two are critical for making sure it’s the best house rule it can possibly be. In most cases of narrative-focused games, however, lifting this concept nails all three questions. It’s extremely short, taking at most 10 minutes for each one and being very easy to understand, and it definitely does what it set out to do: make the beginning of the game more natural than plopping a bunch of characters into a story as if they sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus.

The only question that’s left, then, is if it benefits the particular game you’re playing. In most cases of a traditional PC-centric tale of high adventure I’d have to say it definitely does.

This is the first of a series of posts on general mechanics you can take from one RPG system and use in another. You can find further entries as follows:
#2: Drawbacks
#3: Skilled Backstories
#4: Abstract Inventories
#5: All About Initiative