Casual Perception Check: Enabling the Narrative

I became a GM almost entirely by accident. Somewhere along the line, somebody in our circle of friends and co-workers casually brought up the idea of putting together a tabletop RPG group. I expressed approval, but I didn’t expect it to go any further than an idea sitting on the periphery. That was until I got a text from one of those people a few weeks later, which read: “When are we doing the RPG?” It might only have been the confidence with which she asked the question that made me actually take the initiative and start looking for a system to learn and introduce to the fledgling group. It couldn’t be too rules-heavy, since I knew from experience that several members were casual gamers, and it had to be flexible enough that we wouldn’t be forced into a setting that nobody found particularly engaging. I ended up settling on Monte Cook Games’ Cypher System, a generic abstraction of the rules powering its smashingly popular Numenera line of products. This was my first step into the rabbit hole which plunged into the strange and magical world of GMing.

I’ll start off with a disclaimer that my impostor syndrome insists is necessary: I am anything but an expert GM. Prior to this little foray into GMing, my only experience was leafing through the D&D Monster Manual back in middle school and imagining all the cool adventures that could spawn around those bizarre and terrible creatures. Even with a bit north of a dozen sessions under my belt split between two very different groups, I am still very much a novice. I will not pretend to be in a position to give advice on GMing. Instead, I wanted to share some experiences with the groups I run, and reflect on what I believe to be a key tool of any GM: namely, knowing when and how to step aside and allow the players to craft their own story.

The first Cypher campaign I ran was (and as of writing, still is) set in a unique universe of my own creation. The high concept: psychic pirates pillage the known seas for knowledge and secrets of the old world. In short, it’s high fantasy with a couple twists. I sketched up a backstory, made a world map in Campaign Cartographer, and planned altogether too much material for the first few sessions. The RPG group’s initial meeting began with a brief overview of the rules, and we were off. It was clear by the end of the first session that the RPG was a huge success among the group.

Fast forward to the fourth game session. The crew was cutting through the seas on their ship, map to an unexplored island in hand. All signs pointed toward something strange and wondrous awaiting them on its shores (based on the odd notes left on the map by the Cartographer’s Guild). But just as the island came into sight, the crew’s navigator caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye: a ship on the horizon, seemingly drawing nearer.

It was a key moment in the loose narrative I had planned for the campaign; having at last ventured far enough from the core of civilization on the Known Seas, the player characters would encounter a faction whose existence changed the entire context of the campaign. The Psychic Ninjas were closing in, just a dot on the horizon. It was to be a humbling moment, I had thought. Up until then, the players had only faced off with level 2 to 3 opponents, except for a level 4 boss in the previous session. Each of the psi-ninjas was level 5, and most had either a psi-weapon capable of piercing armor or an array of mental abilities to inflict Intellect damage to the caster-heavy party. The intention behind this was two-fold. First, the party had had it too easy so far. They were beginning to get cocky. It was time to introduce a real threat to their existence and worldview. Second, they had been hoarding cyphers, and I wanted to nudge them in the direction of using them more liberally.

The stage was set. The actors were assembled. It was going to be a climactic battle to tie off the first arc of the campaign. Or so I thought.

The crew, suddenly, was less than eager to make landing. They realized that if this ship was hostile, making a landing would leave them vulnerable and exposed. They began to reason through the situation. “Does anyone else know about this island?” one of them asked. “The Cartographer’s Guild said it was only recently discovered.” “But the Nexus probably kept a copy of the map. It could be one of their ships. This could be a chance to ambush them and get information. I take another look to see if it resembles a Nexus ship.” Perception check.

“The silhouette is strange,” I said. “You think it’s unlikely to be a Nexus ship, although it’s very difficult to make out any meaningful details at this distance.”

More discussions were tensely carried out as the shore grew nearer and nearer. The crew decided that it was too risky to attempt a landing, and there was only one course of action remaining. The captain ordered the ship about, and they sailed to meet the mysterious vessel head-on.

The climactic battle to conclude the first arc never came. Instead, what followed was two intense hours of negotiation and diplomacy. Not a single attack was made in the entire session, but the Cypher System handled the mechanics beautifully. The hostile psi-ninjas, led by Shingou the Slaughter (a character who until then had not existed anywhere in my mentalverse), were bound by honor to parlay with the crew. During this parlay, the captain and the crew were able to convince the psi-ninjas that they were chasing the same objective: the destruction of the mysterious Nexus. By the end, the crew had established ties with a powerful new ally and received a new mission that would bring them into the good graces of the mysterious Shingou. The entire storyline of the campaign had shifted dramatically.

Later, two of the players independently expressed that it was the best session yet of the campaign. It was music to my ears. This was one of the reasons I had chosen Cypher over something more traditionally popular like Pathfinder. In a way, it was a religious experience; it has probably done more to influence my style of GMing than anything else. Because for that session, I was no longer directing. I was the audience to a story being woven by the players themselves. Sure, I had to play the role of the mysterious faction’s captain. I had to answer their questions, press them back in places it hurt, dredge up uncomfortable truths to confront, plant plot seeds and peel back the skin on certain brewing revelations. But the narrative was completely driven by the actions of the players. I was not there to guide them; I was only there to enable them to guide themselves.

This is what I think is so magical about Monte Cook Games and all flavors of the Cypher System; it emphasizes emergent storytelling in a way that (from my experience) more traditional RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons fail to accomplish, at least on the same level. It provides a toolkit to define characters and objects in your universe, binds them together with a set of highly malleable rules, and thrusts the players into the roles of storytellers. Unlike the classic, miniature-combat-focused systems I grew up with, the Cypher System and Numenera make the players the driving force they never knew they could be. As a result, the GM does not necessarily craft the narrative; she does, however, enable it.

I’m sure this is anything but news; after all, the sandbox style of GMing is hardly a novel concept, especially in the Cypher System and its siblings. Numenera and Cypher’s core books are full of advice that can be paraphrased as “shut up and let the players do the thing”, and include pages and pages of advice about how to do just that. It’s a refreshing and liberating position to be in as a GM once you accept that you don’t need to guide the players through an intricately sculpted dungeon; you need only nudge them toward a locked door. This moves the lion’s share of the GM’s burden from game preparation to being able to roll with the punches and introduce new plot elements and complications on the fly.

I’ll give another anecdote. In a separate group, a Numenera group run over Roll20 (which presents its own GMing challenges), I’d crafted a prior-world ruin for the players to explore. It was a clearly artificial crater in the landscape adorned with standing blades of strange, mirror-like glass. The glass reflected the person looking into it, but the environment around them was different and strange, and no two people who looked into it saw the same thing. At the center of the crater was a pit leading underground to a cave system of some kind.

As the players made their way down, Alicoru, the group’s glaive, tried to break off a piece of the weird glass. Might check. Failure; not a high enough roll to pass a difficulty 4 task. But instead of the group pressing on and accepting that the glass could not be broken, Avacyn, one of the nanos in the party, noted that she had some tools that might act as an asset in chipping off a piece of the substance. Very well, might roll. Success. She took the piece of glass, observed that it still functioned in distorting her surroundings, and the group continued on. But after lowering themselves into the unlit pit, something odd happened.

“I take a look at the glass,” Avacyn said, “to see if it’s any different than it was on the surface.”

Until that moment, I had never thought about it; the glass was just going to be a minor oddity on the surface of a mostly unmapped dungeon. But in the moment, it was far more interesting to say “yes” than “no”. Seizing the opportunity (and wondering how I hadn’t thought of this myself), I informed her that in the glass, their pitch-black surroundings were actually well illuminated, glaringly white, almost sanitized in appearance. The shard of glass, whose acquisition was purely incidental, became the key to navigating the entire dungeon. It revealed false walls, allowed navigation through illusions, and forced the party to accept that their senses could not be trusted. Eventually, the dungeon’s polarity reversed; the facility became white and spotless around the players while the shard came to reflect blackness and untruth.

After the game, the player behind the glaive Alicoru messaged me. He wanted to know what would have happened if Avacyn hadn’t made a second attempt to break the glass off and they’d ventured underground without it. I conceded that the only reason the glass was needed to navigate the dungeon in the first place was that Avacyn had asked if it looked different or not. Even though we were on opposites sides of the world, I could feel a tiny but distinct spark of wonder in his reply. “It didn’t feel improvised,” he remarked–which is damn high praise considering how hard I struggle at bringing even planned locations to life in my games. Once again, the narrative emerged organically from the interaction of the players with the world, and the result was a dungeon-delve more interesting than just the sum of its oddities.

Of course, it’s hard to take much credit for that experience; all I did was surreptitiously plagiarize a player’s idea before they realized what was going on. And there’s nothing wrong with that (in most jurisdictions, anyway). Outsourcing creative load to the players not only makes the GM’s job easier, but it rewards imaginative play and leads to more personalized experiences. That goes just as well for things like broader plot elements and NPCs. Sometimes in the course of a session, the players’ table-talk and speculation will give you some really cool ideas, and even if you don’t lift them wholesale they may very well lead your mind down paths it hadn’t been before. As a final example, the players in the Cypher psi-pirate group became zealously convinced that a red herring of a one-off NPC I had thrown into the story was uncompromisingly evil. Later, I brought that NPC back as the villain of an entire arc, completely validating their suspicions and inciting cries of “I knew it!” and “I told you we should have murdered him!”.

It’s these experiences that have made me fall in love with GMing. The group and the story can surprise you just as much as it does the players, if you allow it. That’s why I feel, more and more, like I’m becoming something of an evangelist for Monte Cook Games. Of course, any skilled GM could do the same things in a system like Pathfinder or Exalted; but in Cypher / Numenera, the GM doesn’t even have to be skilled! From the ground up, these systems are built to enable the GM to take a light-touch approach and ditch the structure of campaign guides and monster statistics, and do so confidently. But in the end, it’s not about what system you choose to run your game in. It’s about the stories the players create.

Stepping back from the role of active storyteller and letting the campaign’s narrative take form through the actions of the characters allows it to grow and become something far more memorable than a collection of pre-planned scenarios punctuated by the occasional natural 20. With this approach, the players’ agency becomes the co-GM of the game, which can make the story take some beautifully unexpected turns. And although I firmly believe I know where our psychic pirate campaign will end up now that the end is only two sessions away, I can never be certain. As a GM, that uncertainty is the greatest wonder to me.