Many years ago, amongst my peak design stage, I wrote the Galaxy Quest rules:
I managed to run a game for the first time today and it was crazy fun. I don't want to give away the "plot", but the PCs ended up sailing out to sea on a boat full of monkeys.
- The basic concept of the game: characters with no innate abilities adding chaos to a chaotic situation.
- Player-driven narrative.
- Having minions was as critical to the success of the game as I anticipated.
- The system itself. I started keeping track of Irony and Pomposity and I quickly gave up.
- I am not sure having someone play it straight was necessary.
- The climax wasn't as epic as I would like.
As well as the rules on the page (minimal as they are), before the game I gave a slightly expanded version of the following play rules:
- If you ask “is there..?”, you should assume the answer is Yes.
- If you ask “can I..?”, you should assume the answer is No, describe how you fail at this.
- (I was also prompted to set a red flag system if a triggering topic came up up in game.)
I wrote a very brief IC intro which I rushed through, to set the scene. One of the PCs was very vain so I made all the PCs get changed into this horrible clothing, a theme which came up throughout the game. But at that point, nothing else was going to happen until the PCs made it happen.
The players got the hang of this very quickly. I felt there was a little stumbling at first as to what was suitable to inflict on other players, and what was funny, but it wasn't clunky, more like driving one gear out. Once everyone was covered in foam and monkey bites, I think it was all gelling. My job at this point was largely to smooth things forward (e.g. pulling together the PCs, getting everyone involved) and reminding them of the rules ("Sure you can throw that; where's the worst place for it to land?"). I will call this the first act.
After that point I didn't really need to do any rule reminders. In the second act, the players generated their own problems, or exacerbated them, or took actions which happened but with terrible and hilarious costs. They introduced elements that developed the story but with the barest nod to the plot. During this period, my main task was smoothing things along. I introduced the plot element, developed it, brought in NPCs that fitted what was going on. I also skipped time forward when it was appropriate - if the scene is getting stale, or there's travelling with no drama, then skipping forward didn't hurt. Any thoughts or conversations can still be continued in the new location.
The second act was split in two by the tea break.
The third act, was the PCs getting some idea what was going on and starting to show some competence (at least in some elements). There was a high speed chase leading to the climax. Except I didn't really feel like the climax was particularly exciting; I may have contributed to that by getting an OOC steer on where we were going and skipping to that part; but equally I'm not sure there really was the dramatic tension required to make it exciting. But.. it was the ending the players wanted, it came about dynamically and everyone enjoyed the game.
I was a lot more involved in the third act, as the plot came to the fore and to bring in dangers (in this case, all were a direct response to what had been happening), and I used these to force the pace a bit more than previously (by not means truly rushed).
The key thing to note here is that for most of the game, 70% of the story was created by the players and about 25% spawned from who the PCs were and what they did. Only a tiny fraction of the game was prewritten (essentially the plot was 5 bullet points with 4 ideas for solutions in case I needed to prompt the players). One of the reason that it works, and that it works without dice, is that the players knew they were going to fail at everything. Even when they succeeded they failed: e.g. "I throw a life buoy" "It was a bad replica off Ebay, it couldn't save a duck"; also e.g. "I tell them to do X" "They do Y. Which is close to X, but really not what you intended." They can go anywhere they like, they can do anything they like, they can speak to anybody they like - but they will fail. I feel it's liberating.
The other thing about this is that it was uncommon to drop out of character. The game flowed in a way which is very difficult to pull off with dice.
I said in the original notes that minions were recommended and I stand by that for all the same reasons. However I can't think of a useful way of explaining why beyond that.
I will note first of all that we were playing online so I couldn't throw poker chips at players and I think that influenced me. Throwing poker chips is slower than altering numbers on a computer and I think if I was playing in person I would be more inclined to wait for truly good fails or comedy gold before assigning points. As it was, as soon as all the PCs were together they just kept riffing off each other and I couldn't keep up. And I was getting confused, and second guessing what was worth a point; or wondering if fully contributing players would object to having fewer points because they didn't hit quite the same notes. Also, without the rewards being handed out on the spot, there was no way for the players to know which things they said had merited or not merited reward.
So I stopped, and told the players that I was doing so. By then it didn't matter. This was the end of the first act, the players were in the swing of the game and they didn't need any further rewards for keeping in the spirit of the game. In the fourth act, when players started wanting to achieve things, I talked about spending non-existent points, to remind them that their ability to be successful with limited, but they didn't abuse it. Success at that point was still juxtaposed with humerous failure and it was done because the players were enjoying it.
I am keeping the points though and, if I were to rewrite the rules, all I would do is add an important caveat: "These points are purely optional. If you find your players no longer need tangible rewards for choosing to fail and for having silly things happen to them, then by all means skip them." In other words: they exist for you to reward your players for keeping on theme; and if they don't need those any more, free up the game further by ditching the mechanics.
On the same topic, we did have a player volunteer to play it straight and she did a fine job of steering the players forward. But actually they didn't need that, the players tended to do move forward (eventually) anyway. I found it much more useful to set the pace with NPCs and time/scene skips than rely on a PC to do it. I also found that the accumulation of pomposity points didn't work in reality as it did on paper. All in all, I would not call out that role in future; at best I would hold the option of asking one or more players to take on a leadership role during the game if I felt the pacing needed it.
I had assumed that the players would create their own obstacles to overcome at the climax, but I don't really think that's reliable. At best, like this game, obsctacles were brought together collaboratively but it is hard to present them as a tangible threat without ST instigation. In hindsight, I think I could have led the players down a path where their escape was dogged with their opponents; and if we were using strict irony points then their dwindling stash might have led to some tension. Now timing matters here: current politics put me off serious violent confrontation even in a silly game. On top of that, I'm not sure it mattered. The confrontation wasn't actually important to the story, only the idea of the confrontation.
My only conclusion, then, is that it is another sign that the system mechanics don't really work since they largely assume that a climax is what you are leading to.
There's a couple of other notes from the original I didn't mention. I think the beginning of the story is the only plot the storyteller needs to flesh out. It doesn't need to be a script, in fact it will rarely be a script. And I am not sure about the random archetypes and motivations, but I suppose they could be useful if you have players struggling to find concepts. If this was a convention, I would think that some very short character backgrounds for the scenario you are running would be more appropriate.
Two things really pleased me: the players really enjoyed themselves and the game 95% flowed the way I hoped it would. That the points system didn't work doesn't really bother me at all, other than as an intellectual exercise.
If the game ever became a roleplaying book, 40% of it would be trying to explain how to play and run a game like this, 20% would be storytelling tips and ideas, 10% would be example, 20% of it would be story ideas and just 10% would be on the mechanics.
I will run this again.