Holes in RPGs

I like to leave holes in my games. It works with how I run games, how I think my games are best run. But not everyone likes holes.

I’ve received lots of “feedback” from people who have read or played my games, where they think the games are incomplete. It’s not uncommon for me to read things like “I don’t know how this game is supposed to be played” or “It feels like the GM has to make a lot of things up for this to work”

These are fair. Some folks like structure in their games. Especially if they are coming from another system that has mechanical levers and buttons for most things. But, my games don’t. And I thought I’d write a little bit about that.

Here’s how I typically run my games. Three sentences. That’s it. That’s not profound, or new, in fact lots of people embrace low to no prep. But really, that’s all I prefer. Three sentences that set up a premise for the session, and we build it from there. These sentences are spaced out, they have gaps and holes separating them, and the table will fill those gaps.

Lots of ways to do that, my favorite is questions. If you’ve ever watched me play on stream, you’ll see that most of my sessions involve asking the players questions. Sure, part of that is character creation, but it goes beyond that. For example, I know there is a valuable piece of tech in a building the players need to get. Do I know what it is? No, someone else will tell me. Do I know what happens if they fail? No, the table dictates that.

I used to do the full prep approach. Write out the whole dungeon, spell out all the NPCs and items and rooms and make sure I was ready for everything. I stopped doing that really quickly. Here’s why.

I didn’t start playing RPGs until I was in grad school. I didn’t start with the dragon game. I started with Dungeon World, a PBTA game. PBTA games on their own invite the idea of holes in the story filled by the table. But my table in particular exaggerated that point.

I played exclusively with improvisers. Specifically, trained improvisers from Second City in Chicago. So like, really really good improvisers. This immediately taught me two things:

  1. Yes, And. You’ve probably heard it before, a concept that comes from improvisation. You aren’t supposed to shut down ideas someone brings to a scene, but instead supposed to say “yes, and ___” to keep things moving forward. When I first tried to resist these players, the second they went off my meticulously planned rails, they were confused as to why I was fighting them so much. It was antithetical to how they tell stories.
  2. No matter how much I tried to prepare, nothing went to plan. They weren’t intentionally trying to destroy sessions, but instead they knew that as a unit, they could tell a hell of a good story than if just one person (me) was trying to do it.

So, I stopped preparing things. And the sessions became about 1000 times more fun. I embraced no prep, because my table was built for it.

Those early days are foundational in my thoughts on design. It’s why I leave holes in my games. It’s not because I don’t want to design for every possible scenario (but honestly, that sounds horrible). It’s because I think it can tell the best stories.

“But Spencer, not everyone is an improviser!” Sure, of course not. But For The Queen, a game many of us point to as an excellent introductory RPG, is nothing but holes and improvisation, and people are great at that. I’ve seen it year after year, as I teach students in my Psychology of RPGs course.

So, what’s the thesis to all of this? There isn’t one. Or at least, I didn’t prep one. It’s just another hole I’ve left in my writing, trusting you to fill it.

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