Gamemastering 1 – General Prep

TL;DR - This is a first of three posts describing how to prepare and gamemaster Forged Facets. Forged Facets is designed to be run in two different ways; either by collaboratively playing-to-find-out or by generating an event set to explore. Regardless of what model you choose, or if you create your own, you need to start with the general prep, which is what this post will dive into.

General Prep

Before starting to play you need to prepare a few cornerstones that will help you uphold the rest of the narrative, regardless of which method you prefer. If you as a Gamemaster already have a concept to build from, pin it down and share it with the group, so everyone knows what goes and what doesn't. If not, keep it open and invite the players to discuss and collaborate on the outlines.

World-Building

To get everyone on the same page, start to build the world around the characters, which in turn will help everyone to get the picture of what the game will be about, and their place in the world. Take a gameplay sheet, and describe the following points with your own words;

  1. The known kingdoms and their rulers and potential powers.
  2. The environmental and mystical aspects of the world.
  3. The names of a few nearby and important locations and individuals.
  4. The big issues every commoner struggles with.
  5. Some urgent or looming threats the player characters must respond to.
  6. Dire consequences and potential rewards for the aftermath.

A few of the world-building components listed above are essential to address, and if you have played story games story games Powered by the Apocalypse before, you may be familiar with them;

  1. BIG ISSUES
    The big issues are troubles everyone in the world has to deal with, like war, famine, natural disasters, world-changing catastrophes everyone have been affected by.
  2. LOOMING THREATS
    Looming threats are things on the horizon not yet perceptible, but will be felt unless characters or others intervene.
  3. DIRE CONSEQUENCES
    Dire consequences are world-changing effects on various levels, depending on the scale of play. Regardless, they should be felt profoundly by the characters.

Character Highlight

When you have described the outlines of the setting, each player presents their character, how their facets and levers relate to the big issues and other aspects of the world-building. They explain what their yearnings, homages, and burdens are, and how they could be integrated into the game. No more than a couple of minutes are required for this. If you want to, set aside some time for questions and answers to provide an opportunity to deepen the players' understanding and views of each other.

Storyline Levers

From the world-building you’ve just collaborated on, you then define a set of storyline levers. In a previous post, I have described more into detail what levers are and how they are used. The benefit is that everyone around the table gets a clear, shared idea of what the game will be about, and what everyone should strive towards. Worth mentioning is that not all levers must be known to the players, as the Gamemaster can hide and hold on to a few for discovery later during play. These levers are meant to be used as surprise elements, or rewards after discoveries or accomplishments. Secret or hidden levers could also generate new levers once they are hit.

Coming up with new story levers during play is also encouraged, as an emerging narrative tend to set off in directions not previously planned for, and collaboration can spark new, exciting opportunities. A few examples;

  • Help a merchant home through dangerous mountains.
  • Avoid bands of brigands and mountain beasts.
  • Fortify merchant’s waystation and help defend it.
  • Locate the mountain tribe and return the merchant’s captured family (hidden).
  • Discover the tribe’s ancient altar and face the ancient mountain demon (hidden).

What’s important, and at the same time, a challenge for the Gamemaster is to keep the storyline levers relevant over time. Here follow a few tips on how to use them more efficiently;

  • Somewhere around three to five storyline levers will do it.
  • The fewer storyline levers you use, the clearer the view of the story you get.
  • One or two storyline levers are perfect for a one-shot!
  • Give room to discuss and reframe levers if they become too hard to understand or aim for.
  • Paint with broad strokes from the start, and add more details as the fiction evolves.
  • If necessary, polish their descriptions when characters close in on them.
  • Don’t be afraid to cross out a storyline lever that has lost its appeal.
  • Create a new storyline levers as needed.

Location Levers

Sometimes, a location holds special meaning to the story, either by just being a mood-setting scenery or by framing the characters' interactions with limitations and requirements. Add one or two to clarify where the story could meet its climax. Location levers are best used when;

  • Correlated to the storyline levers.
  • They consist of exotic whereabouts and environments.
  • They may be hard to find or reach.
  • They may be guarded.
  • They may offer rewards.
  • They are linked to a upcoming climax.

A Side Note

Remember that a grand narrative in no small part is unexplored ground, so don’t try to come up with all answers beforehand. With your general prep done before the gameplay starts, you will have plenty of material to work with. Moreover, if the players have had a chance to answer questions about the world, built on earlier answers, they will feel invested and everyone will have an idea where to take it. Make room to fill out details later in play, and dare yourself to leave space for it.

If you want to read more about Forged Facets, I have previously written about character facets and levers, that dig deeper into how characters are modeled and how they inform play. As you can see, when you gamemaster Forged Facets, facets and levers play a vital role as well.

Facets in Forged Facets

TL;DR - In Forged Facets facets replace much of the numerics found in other games. This is deliberate as the design goals have been to reduce the gap between the fiction created between the Gamemaster and players around the table, and the resolution mechanics.

Human Interaction

I've always been fascinated by human interaction, what creates motivation in people to interact, and what facilitates interaction. When I started out with roleplaying games in 1984, I was nine years old, had no game preferences at all besides Monopoly and Yatzy. I was blown away by the dices we rolled in the Swedish BRP clones we got in our hands, and couldn't almost understand how cool it was to have a friend 's older brother guide us through mazes and labyrinths guarded by monsters. With time, we explored other games and started to shape opinions on what was good and what wasn't. And slowly, preferences were formed. When I look back today, I can still remember what we experienced then, the feelings from the stories that emerged among us, and how we took them with us.

What I noticed early, and what I still feel today, is there is often a discrepancy between what a game says it wants you to feel, and what you are actually forced to interpret from the rules. The interpretation is a layer of cognitive load a brain has to process or bypass before the actual fiction can happen. And more complex rules or mechanics require more focus from your mind, while simplicity makes the transition smoother. This means that your brain is forced to do a context switch every time you are in the fiction, but need to discuss or wrap your head around mechanics, and thereby leaving the narrative to do a calculation.

Here, story games did its magic for me; reducing mechanical load, not only in complexity but also in terms of control - leaving much more room for narration and interaction, aspects of gaming I always thought were more fun. And with distributed narration authority, the Gamemaster can focus more on facilitating narration, rather than taking full responsibility for it. But to me, many story games still rely much on numerics to get the job done, to describe a character, or to say something about the world. Sometimes, I agree, it is necessary, but often, it isn't.

Facets

Based on this, one of the design goals when I started with this project, was to reduce the gap between the narration and the mechanics further. One of the core concepts introduce facets instead of numerics and values. Facets are short descriptive terms meant to say something to the players about the characters and the world. They should be seen as fictional truths, and can be addressed in conversations and assumptions in play, and can work in three ways;

1) As Fiction

The facets are always there for you to build on, talk about, and invite others to interact with. Facets are preferably used as fiction when you want to do something that isn't very difficult or challenging. If a facet is present, make use of it in your narration!

Example: If a river is frozen solid, the players can assume everything that comes with it. As a part of the fiction, there is no need for rolls or discussion about solidity. If the nearby stone bridge is razed, anything about that facet can be used as fiction; passersby can hide there, and stone resources can be extracted. Narrate anything that suits the fiction.

2) As Influence

As facets are aspects of the fiction everyone can deal with, anyone can use them to their advantage. If you as a player can argue why a facet is to your advantage when facing a challenge and the Gamemaster agrees, you may roll with advantage. The same goes the opposite way; the Gamemaster may force you to roll with disadvantage if you ignore facets presented in the fiction that complicates things for you. Dis/advantages in Forged Facets are added dice to the dice pool and makes you either drop the best or the worst result from it.

Example: If a band of outlaws chases you, you could make good use of the ruins of the razed bridge to hide in, from the example above. But if you decided to dash over the frozen river, which is a clear open space, you would easily be spotted and gain a disadvantage when trying to escape.

3) As Competence

A specific set, called core facets, make up your dice pool when attempting to face a challenge. The core facets; traits, backgrounds, and expertise, each add a die to your pool if that facet is relevant for the situation. When using them, you present your potential after a user story-like model;

As a ________ with a _________ background, and expertise about ________, I try to... [rolling dice].

Add any or none of your facets applicable in the context, and explain how they relate to your actions. If a situation only allows you to use one or two, formulate the presentation accordingly. Once you get the hang of it, and the rest of the players get to know your character, the presentation can be shortened appropriately. The model is malleable and should be adjusted to fit your style, so reformulate it to your liking.

Example: Cerelinde is a witch from the far ends of the northern kingdoms. She has the trait patient, a wilderness background, and expertise in crafts. If she were trying to discern a secret from a feverish, sluggish old dying woodchopper she cares for, she would roll one die (patient) to meet the challenge. If she were hunting in the forest, hiding and waiting for a deer to come by, she would roll two (patient + wilderness) dice to see if she can catch it. If she were foraging the windy summits for rare but powerful herbs to brew a healing potion, she would roll three dice (patient + wilderness + craft) to see what the outcome would be. Other facets would benefit her in different ways, as would these facets in other contexts. So as long as Cerelined's player narrates what she is doing, and can explain how she does it, different facets can be used and generate a broad set of outcomes.

Summary

With all said above, facets can provide you with a tool to talk about character aspects and mechanics without leaving the narrative, without being forced to step completely out of character and sort out resolutions to actions. The simple mechanics governing them allows anyone with a minimum of math skills to partake in the calculation of possibilities and odds, without sacrificing granularity or emotional investment. Facets facilitate means to experience play and the setting while staying immersed.

Levers in Forged Facets

TL;DR - Forged Facets use levers to model character motivations and key elements in the story. Levers are pushed and pulled during play and can be seen as descriptive statements, formatted as powerful cues for roleplaying and character motivation. They are also designed to create player agency and ties into the experience system.  

Lack of Focus

Have you ever played a game where characters run around trying to find a common thread to cling onto? Or a game where the players struggle with creating engaging motivations that matter over time? Or have you gamemastered a group with a very unevenly spread narration experience - or knowledge? If so, you know how much time and energy you could spend to align and get everyone going in the same direction.

In Forged Facets, this natural, but quite tedious lack of focus, is addressed by introducing levers. A lever is a descriptive narration cue attached to characters, the storyline, and the world around them, obvious for everyone around the table to 'hit,' which creates a clear goal or aim for everyone to roleplay towards.

Before the beginning of gameplay, the collaborative world-building process invites everyone to think big about upcoming problems and challenges the characters will face. The Gamemaster then funnel down a few ideas from that into a handful of levers. Most should be known, but some aren't, but through play they can all be discovered - or remain hidden. These levers should be formatted like a suggestion, like 'Find and retrieve X,' 'Change Y's mind,' or 'Stop Z at any cost,' so everyone understands what must be done.

For the player, each playbook has a set of suggestions, but everyone is free to create their own, making their character unique.

Why Use Levers?

The purpose of the lever is to formalize a description about the character, an object, or the world that players can understand, integrate into their thinking, and align their narration around. Without forcing the players on a railroading journey, levers make it fun to create characters and explore their motivations and to have them interact with the surroundings during play. But what also makes them super-useful, is that they are tied to the character improvement cycle, which makes them so much more than just a suggestion; they align with character experience, insights, and learning.

Characters have three to begin with; a yearning that describes the character's ambitions, a homage which represents a debt or tribute, and finally an optional burden, which is a powerful negative drive, that affects or control a large part of the character's life. They are created during character creation, by the player, and can be formatted as an ending to I want to / I need to / I have to / I must. But as the game focus on collaborative world-building, it is highly recommended to open up for discussions, even though the player has final say over what the character ends up with. During development and testing, I've come to realize they really come to life when players synchronize and integrate them with one another.

The Gamemaster's add context to the story and locations in it, and possibly a few secret ones, waiting to be unlocked during play. They should entice the players to act accordingly, but as actions aligned with levers reward the characters, they become both interesting to work with, and a tool to drive the narrative.

At the start of a session, and during play, everyone can address levers, and discuss them openly, so they become an integral part of the conversation and the narrative.

Levers and Experience

Besides being powerful cues for how a character can interact with the world, the lever mechanics are also tightly integrated with the experience system and long-term character development. Every time the player narrates the character's actions, and the attempt is aligned with a lever (regardless of failure or success), the player marks one of six experience conditions. Once all six are marked, the character earns an insight. With insights, the character advances and develops over time.

For example, Anna plays the grim human mystic Ciurwen the Pale, who she imagines has lost everything she holds dear. Not yet a necromancer, but definitely a dabbler in dark, forbidden arts, Anna wants Ciurwen to aspire for hidden arcane secrets to save her lost loved ones. So for her levers, she writes down;

  • I Must Master the Secrets of Resurrection (yearning)
  • I Have to Adhere to the Laws of the Crone (homage)
  • I Am Known as a Sorceress (burden)

All her levers tell Anna something about what is important to Ciurwen, besides the adventure that gameplay offer. Whenever she acts in a way that promotes her levers (also referred to as 'hit levers') fulfilling the experience conditions, she may mark experience.

Lars is Gamemaster for Anna and her friends and prepares for a few sessions of a sandbox adventure, based on a play-to-find-out approach (a thing in running a game of Forged Facets). For the world-building phase, which is a collaborative thing, they detail a bit more around the big issues, looming threats, and dire consequences. They have come out with the following; the setting revolves around the wild marches north of the Granite Kingdoms, a frosty swamp region of great mystery. The prince asks the characters to help him find the lost Scepter of the Hero King Merron, to unite the unruly dukes and sorcerer-barons of the kingdom, otherwise, they will all plunge into an age of darkness. Lars prepares a few levers from that to work from. He writes down;

  • Locate the Trade Post
  • Find the Ancient Troll Temple
  • Explore the Death Barrows
  • Return the Merron's Scepter to the King

He also adds three hidden ones that can be discovered by exploring the known levers;

  • Find the Fey Queen's Lost Mirror
  • Do Not Disturb the Dead Tribes
  • Explore the Labyrinthine Burial Mound of Lor-Gor

After the world-building, Anna along with the other players start to discuss Lars outlines for the adventure. They look at the levers (all, except the hidden ones which Lars will reveal in the game when it suits the narrative and context of play), and can see quite clearly what they will be tasked with. Each time Ciurwen hit any of the levers Lars has described, she may mark experience, just as she does when hitting her own levers.

Would you find this a useful tool?