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My first attempt at running a session of Storybrewers' game Good Society completely stalled out in terms of plot. Good Society is a collaborative storytelling-style game. The facilitator's role is more to guide the narrative from the third person perspective. The players build the story through their characters, and each main character has their own particular motive to follow through on.

During the game, my players seemed to spend the entire time trying to get their characters to avoid interacting with each other or engaging in the collaborative process. Two players were coming from a D&D background and didn't seem to understand how to proceed forward in the plot with their given motivations without the facilitator's guidance.

With that said, how can I, as the facilitator, encourage players to push the game forward? I want to try running the game again with a different set of players, but I would like to start off with some potential strategies in place to avoid this in future sessions.

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Right, here's some rough advice for you, most general to least. Let's start with the most important:

Never be ashamed of doing your job.

Every storytelling game has a "facilitator" role in it somewhere, often times just assumed in GMless games to be something the owner picks up alongside being a player. Someone takes charge of the rules, teaches the game, and keeps it moving. As you might have read later on in Good Society, the role can be spread out among the players as they get more familiar with the game, but for now? It's on you to do what you can to get everybody else to participate in and create the story, and it isn't somehow a failure of teaching on your part that you need to poke and prod to get things going.

I mean, even boardgames aren't really taught just in the rules explanation. It's important to understand the limits of what you can do, but the game is in the playing of it, and actually playing a game is as important a part of learning it as, well, learning it, to the point that the first play session can teach more about the game than any amount of reading the rules.

You are playing not only the setting, the pressures and judgments and incidental characters of Regency England, but also to some extent the editor, pulling out character motivations, prying out sketches of backstory, looking for interesting bits. The Facilitator chapter outlines your responsibilities and provides some sample questions, but it doesn't really point out the secret sauce it's using in them, which can definitely help get a scene going.

How to Ask Charged Questions

So lemme pair up some of these sample questions with worse versions of the same:

How does your family prepare for the party? --vs-- What is your family doing?

Does the carriage make it before the storm? --vs-- When does the carraige arrive?

Did you know her before she left for London? --vs-- Do you know her?

Sample questions on the left, if it wasn't clear. Let me expand them and it'll be clear what they're doing.

Your family is preparing for the party. What are they doing?

There's going to be a tremendous storm tonight just after dark, lightning, rain, and mud. When does the carriage arrive?

And here's Dame Madsen, back in the country after six years in London. Did you know her before?

These questions aren't open-ended, asking after anything. They present some fact of the setting and ask for a character's answer, either as an interesting explanation or a dramatic or productive response. More importantly, they give a player something specific to think about, to orient themselves. More importantly for you, they let you present a character with some fact of the setting that will be dramatic to think about.

Charged questions aren't always necessary; sometimes your players will already be charged, because of ideas they brought to the table or which were raised in the scene. But even in that case, after they volunteer a course of action, it's best to restate it for the entire table - and that's going to sound a whole lot like a charged question.

Be Aware of Character Drama

I'm assuming you're playing with inner conflicts off for your first go at things? Less to think about that way? I won't be talking about them in any case, because there's already a lot you should be keeping track of as the editor. Unfortunately there's no master GM sheet to do this, so you'll need to press a humble notepad into service, with or without capital N. You need to know:

  • character names
  • character relationships to each other
  • current character desires
  • the features of the character role that should appear in the story (The [role] is...)
  • the tensions in the character's family background that affect their reputation, both the common tensions of desire vs. morality and desire vs. societal convention, and the other one specific to family background
  • character connections, a brief summary of each, and who's playing them

And there's more to write down than this. Interesting responses to questions that you want to keep in mind for later, incidental characters or places you introduce that could wind up being important later, all sorts of stuff.

I'm not saying you should expect to stop and flip pages every other sentence - just the act of writing them down for yourself should help keep them bubbling at the top of your mind. But when things seem stuck, look between your list of sample questions and all the things the plot says the character should be interested in, and you should be able to find something to introduce to keep going. As long as you're not destructive about your introductions you don't even need to spend resolve to do them!

But, okay, a game is a thing that involves multiple people. What to talk about with anyone else? Well...

Have you shared the Beginner's Guide?

The one that came with the game, not the Source engine meditation on the relationship between author and game by Davey Wreden. It's a different kind of game, something some of them haven't played before, so there's no shame in looking through a beginner's guide.

Though hey, come to speak of it, one of the most important elements of the Beginner's Guide (the Good Society one) is how it talks about the relationship between author and game. For purposes of having a good game, everyone is an author trying to write a good story, and if the story is satisfying and dramatic and touching and holds together, then everyone wins the game. So all the cards down in front of you that say your clergy socialite wants to manipulate two couples into being married without being found out and while helping any lost souls they happen across? That's not what wins you the game. In a sense, they barely even matter, except as they're there to provide things that your character is trying to frame scenes and spend resolve tokens to make happen in the story.

So if people are worried about seeing their character's reputation tarnished or their character's desire foiled, well, they shouldn't be. No one's trying to do it on purpose. It'll happen, or not happen, as makes for a good story.

Sacrifice by example, if you can.

I hope the setup has left you as facilitator with room to play a few connections, or even to pick up a main character. Because if it hasn't, it means you're trying to run this thing with the maximum of 5, and these kinds of heavy-involvement games get exponentially more difficult to manage as you add more players.

If you have connections, use them to prod their original players towards their notional desires, possibly in a way that brushes up against questions of reputation. If you have a main character, facetank all the bad things that can happen with a smile. See your desires foiled, let your reputation plummet, accept all the resolve anyone wants to offer you for throwing complications into your own life.

Perhaps, play for lower stakes.

If you can't play connections or a main character, or in addition to doing that, you might want to twist the game's dials off the default settings Collaboration puts you on and play it as a farce with no hidden info. (Though perhaps this is just my own also-fandom of Jeeves and Wooster talking.) Everyone is ridiculous, everyone's desire is known so everyone else can toss knives at it, and the entire point is just to shamble from disaster to glorious disaster. Mind the X-Card while this is happening all the same, but it can be easier to accept characters taking risks and failing grandly when that's what expectation is from the get-go.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you! The examples of better-structured charged questions was definitely the most helpful part - I was definitely not asking enough questions and structuring them in the more vague way you pointed out ("What are you doing at the party?") \$\endgroup\$ – Fiyera Jan 25 at 15:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Added a little extra to that charged question section, come to think of it. A lot of times they're not really necessary, but it's useful to get in the habit all the time anyhow. \$\endgroup\$ – Glazius Jan 25 at 21:01
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Have a Session Zero where you give the players the expectations of the game.

Be very clear and direct with your expectations. If you're planning a Jane Austen game, say so. If the players are not excited with that concept, either find different players or a different game.

If you're planning on all the characters having reasons to interact, say so. Have the players make connections between the characters that would give them reasons to interact before the game starts.

It is much better to lay these expectations out before character generation, since players are more accepting of campaign baselines than feeling that their choices aren't being respected after they've made them.

Explain what a narrative game is and how it works.

Many players simply are unused to the concept, especially if they haven't played one before (or are used to games where they only control their character and nothing else in the world). Explain that they can make narrative choices and mold the reality of the world -- that they have control and input in the environment, the results of their actions, the world at large, NPC's reactions, and the like -- whatever would be appropriate for your story. Give examples of what you mean.

Explain any specific rules or limits on the narration.

If you can only cause a scandal by spending a token, be very explicit about the rules controlling that. It is better to make sure that the players are aware of their limits beforehand, rather than shooting down their suggestions during the game.

Flesh out the details.

"Why" is a great question to ask while the stage is still being set. If the motivation is to be rich, ask them why, or what they plan on doing once they become rich. If the motivation is to ruin the duke who had their father hung, ask them how they plan on doing this, or how long they've been plotting it.

Leading questions can also help to flesh out a character: "What is their dark secret that no one knows?", "What are they deathly afraid of?", or "What popular fad can they simply not stand?" are all ways of creating depth and giving hooks.

Even completely mundane things will help flesh a character out: "What is their favorite food?", "What do they do on Saturday night?", or "What's their brother like?"

If no one is pushing the game forward, take responsibility to do it yourself.

This is really your role as a facilitator. If none of the players are taking the initiative to pursue their motivations, initiate situations that directly tie in to their motivations yourself.

If one character has the motivation of amassing great wealth, set the scene of a new wealthy bachelor introducing themselves to society, or a stranger with a shady business plan. The character who is looking for revenge on the Duke may get a clue about a disgruntled servant who knows something, or that the Duke is secretly in debt to a wealthy banker.

Once the players have a concrete direction, you can then open it up to them (or the other players) to start narrating other details.

If they do not react to this and continue to do nothing, give them a direct and obvious situation that requires them to react somehow and do something.

Prompt with specific questions.

It is much easier for a newer player to respond to a specific question than to come up with an idea from nothing. "You're at the ball. What do you do?" can be a difficult question for some people to answer; "You're at the ball when your brother throws a drink into another man's face and challenges him to a duel. What do you do?" is easier. If you ask them a specific question, they can focus on answering that; these questions can become more and more open-ended as time goes by.

This is easiest to do in response to statements like "I attempt to." "I attempt to spread rumors about my rival" can be, depending upon the level of narrative control, met with questions like:

  • "What are the rumors about?" Narrative description is a learned skill; this allows the player to practice it.
  • "Are the rumors believed?" This teaches the player that they can be in control of results.
  • "How does your rival react?" This teaches the player that they can be in control of NPCs. An alternative is to ask questions like this of other players, to teach them that they can collaboratively insert their input.

Demonstrate "Yes, and..."

If a player describes something and it gets shot down, they are discouraged from describing the next thing. Reward them for their contributions. This also has the benefit of pushing the game forward instead of stalling on one particular thing.

If at all possible, roll with what they describe. Responding to "I convince the lawyer to replace the will with one that names me as sole beneficiary" with "You can't do that, the lawyer would never go for it", they will be discouraged from contributing. Instead, responses like "Ok. Can you describe how you're convincing this lawyer to perform this incredibly dangerous act?", "You convince the lawyer to do so. A week later, your social rival offhandedly mentions the lawyer and a dark secret," or "You do. Your will is read, and your sister gasps in shock and surprise when you are named the sole heir. A few days later, you are approached by the lawyer, stating that someone is trying to have the will overturned as a forgery."

Callback their suggestions.

Refer to things that the players have previously established, even if it's a trivial or irrelevant matter; it shows a respect for a player's contributions. If a player mentioned that their favorite food is Brie cheese, specifically mention whether there is or is not Brie cheese at the fancy gathering. If a player has described a scandalous brother who fled to America years ago, have them receive a letter from the brother asking for forgiveness.

Prompt the players for suggestions.

Ask the group as a whole "What should happen now?" or "Does the plan work?" or "What's the complication that comes up?" Since it can be easy to avoid responsibility when a group is asked a question, it can also be useful to ask this of a specific player instead of the whole table. You need to be careful with this, though; if you ask a specific person and they are floundering for an answer, switch to a different person, or answer the question yourself; don't leave the the spotlight on them, as it will only make them uncomfortable.

Many players may not be comfortable suggesting results or complications for their own character. That's fine; prompt them for suggestions for other people's characters instead.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you familiar with Good Society? I ask because your example of one player trying to spread rumors isn't actually something one player can do; the game has a separate collaborative procedure for generating rumors and determining if they have narrative weight, and players aren't playing their own characters during it. \$\endgroup\$ – Glazius Jan 22 at 23:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Only what I read on the provided link; I made up examples that felt Austen-esque. I'm more familiar with fully narrative games like Fall of Magic and Fiasco where rules are essentially only story prompts. \$\endgroup\$ – Magua Jan 23 at 0:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ So you have no idea how much of this advice is already part of or contradicted by the game rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Glazius Jan 23 at 0:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ It does not appear to me that OP has any questions about the rules or their application, but was instead asking about the social dynamics of a collaborative game. \$\endgroup\$ – Magua Jan 23 at 4:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ If OP had asked "How do I reduce plot stalling in Good Society", I would wholeheartedly agree with you. \$\endgroup\$ – Magua Jan 23 at 5:07
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There are two angles to consider: the metagame/OOC1 angle and the in-game/IC² angle.

The Meta Level

Evaluate Readiness and Willingness

Make sure that the players actually understand the expectations (you say two don't, but this may concern the third one), and are aboard with them. Even if a player professes understanding, there may still be some misconceptions that need clearing up. So try asking them how they see the game. Actually, even when it comes to players who seem to not understand the game/style, ask them what do they understand; that should give you a better idea about how to approach teaching them.

Make sure they're either having fun (assuming that at least a few times the collaborative style did work out before stalling), or are open to trying out the new style despite currently being stumped. If it's not the case, the chances of success are much lower, and it might be a better idea to try something else, or to play collaboratively with other players.

Once you're reasonably sure that you know the limits of the players' ignorance and understanding, and that they are open to learning, you can start tackling the teaching process.

Explaining and Showing Collaboration

If the very concept of collaborative gaming is unfamiliar, you may want to start with reiterating its definition and/or description. You may want to compare the role of players in Good Society with the role of the GM³ in other games (also explaining the limitations).

If the players avoiding the collaborative plot-shaping process, check whether they are doing so because they're afraid of overstepping the expected limits of their power, or having their intents twisted in the style of Wishmaster. If that's the case, you'll need to explain the limits to them, show how to signal overstepping, and do what you can to convince them that this isn't a game of Twist-a-Wish (and keep that promise).

It may be the case that a player or several don't understand how to create a satisfying plot specifically with their characters. Even for a self-made character, such a problem may not be self-evident until the game already started. In that case, you'll need to start by showing (preferably starting in broad strokes) the ways of weaving this character into a satisfying plot. Also remember that 'satisfying' can mean very different things to different players - ensure you understand what the player is willing to seek out and work for. Hopefully such joint examination of the character's plot options would make future stalls less likely. However, there's also a chance that the player will want to change something about the PC4, or even to replace the PC entirely; if so, you'll need to discuss how to handle that.

It may be the case that Player A doesn't know how to intertwine a plot with Player B's without it causing friction of the unfun sort. This sort of problem's solutions are likely to be highly situational and may be worth a separate question.

In general, when explaining and showing the options for working collaborative plots, try to give examples that both of you can relate to. An example is worthless if the listener doesn't know or understand it; it is likewise worthless if the speaker only vaguely knows it, because then the speaker may misrepresent and mis-explain things due to it.

The In-Game Level

While meta problems are best tackled with meta solutions, some in-game changes may nonetheless help people get out of the stall:

Try to nudge the plot towards moving somewhere. It doesn't need to move in 'your' direction, just make adjustments to situations that would incentivise characters to interact, and players to want to push the storyline away from its current position. A simplest example of that would be showing an upcoming crisis of some sort that nobody wants to face, but make it so that preventing the crisis would require co-operation and proactivity - ideally both from the characters and for the players.


If you give out more details about your problem and inform me, I'll try to expand my answer further.


1 OOC: Out of character.
² IC: In character.
³ GM: Game Master.
4 PC: Player Character.

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