Strategic gamemastering, part 5 : Converting THACOSG links into scenes

Having performed the prescribed steps of the strategic gamemastering methodology, the strategist GM now has obtained the requisite THACOSG.

Accordingly, this THACOSG provides the GM with :

  • an overview of all objects (Themes, Locations, NPCs & Items) which are common to your players' respective creative agendas ;
  • a list of all the links that the GM has created in order to increase the number and interdependencies of objects across the player-characters.

A question remains : how to switch from a strategic level of gamemastering to a tactical level ? Which concepts should be converted into scenes ? How to create these scenes ?

This post aims at answering these questions.

Main scene drivers : the player-characters (PCs)

The main scene drivers are, and must be, the PCs. This is basically the whole point of the strategic gamemastering method : catering to apparently incompatible player creative agendas by making each PC action consistent with the creative agenda of his own player, and activate concepts and elements from background & objectives from the other PC. Therefore, most of the scene setup will be provided by the players themselves, by triggering either concepts common to their PC and another player's, or concepts linked by a similar notion (partial synonyms or antonyms) or GM input.

Transforming a link between 2 PCs into a scene requires that :

  • either at least one of these PCs must be present and be active in the scene ;
  • either a third PC who has an interest in the very link between these 2 PCs must be present and active in the scene.

A scene which can unfold without any PC present, or worse, with a PC present but no possibility for the PC to alter the possible outcome of the scene is not interesting to the narration. Note that a PC being present as a watcher and being able to act accordingly, but who chooses to remain passive is perfectly appropriate.

Determining the appropriate links for conversion to scenes

As noted earlier, most scenes in the scenario will naturally stem from the exploration of its background or objectives by the player-character. However, the GM may also trigger specific scenes based on his own creative agenda as a gamemaster, which the strategic gamemastering method translates as the GM-driven concept links.

The two main scenes which can be derived from the THACOSG itself are the following :

High creative agenda potential (HCAP) scenes

The more often a THACOSG entry occurs in different player-character outlines, the higher the chances that a scene based in part or in whole on this entry will simultaneously fulfill the creative agendas of the relevant players.

It stands to reason to identify HCAP scenes on a purely statistical level, as the scenes based on the THACOSG entries presenting the highest number of occurrences and links to the most player-characters.

Most of the time, HCAP scenes will be triggered not by the GM, but by the player trying to fulfill his own creative agenda, by exploring one or more of the concepts in his own THACOSG outline, which are common to PCs belonging to other players.

Playing a HCAP scene will involve a natural psychological gratification for the participating players : they're getting what they've come to the gaming table for !

Gamemaster-link (GML) scenes

The links that may provide the most interesting scenes for the players are the links that the GM has created himself between naturally unrelated objects in the THACOSG.

This stems from the fact that the players may know each other's characters and therefore have an intuitive knowledge of the commonalities of their respective creative agendas, as well as an inkling of the scenes which may therefore unfold during the game itself. No such intuition is possible with the indirect GM-driven links determined in the latter phases of the strategic gamemastering methodology, because they rise from information which is completely unavailable to the players. They may guess at it, but if the GM did his job correctly, there cannot be any logical connection between the concept that the GM chose to link unless the players have access to the relevant information.

Therefore, GML scenes are usually triggered by the GM, and will probably bring forth narrative elements to the shared imagined space that the players are unprepared for. GML scenes are discoveries, realizations, NPC interventions or betrayals, plot twists, sudden events which move forward the whole narrative.

Being linked to the concepts of their character outlines at a remote, second or even third level, GML scenes are opportunities for the players' to fulfill their own creative agendas in an unexpected, deeper manner - by finding & following the mysterious narrative threads that the GM has sprinkled his plot with.

Narrative waypoints & lone concepts

HCAP and GML scenes do not exclude "narrative waypoints", as made manifest through THACOSGs based on already-existing scenarios or campaigns.

Such waypoints, however, will mostly be GML scenes, as they will answer the creative agenda of the scenario/campaign author as expressed through its interpretation by the GM.

Alternately, the GM may choose to trigger an unlinked concept in a character outline, usually based on NPC actions & decisions. For example, the GM may decide that the next scene involves an attack by tribal warriors, triggered by the fact that PC#1s nephew, who had usurped his uncle place as chieftain of the tribes, has sent assassins to remove this PC and any allies of his from the equation.

This is a case of a lone concept in an outline being deliberately used by the GM to fuel a scene.

Continuous creative agenda load balancing

When the THACOSG has been correctly filled, and the GM has devised the required conceptual links between characters and between character and plot, then the various creative agendas should automatically be fulfilled through actual gameplay. In the vast majority of cases, there is no need for the GM to try and achieve a balance between the various narrative threads for the player-characters in the aim of catering to distinct player creative agendas, because the strategic gamemastering method itself is designed to provide this creative agenda balancing.

Even if the GM has followed the method faithfully, creative agenda load imbalance may still occur in a case where, for example, one or several players are taking up too much game time to explore the background or objectives of their character, and not leaving enough space for other players to have their fun too. Though this is not an issue with the strategic gamemastering method itself, this is an issue both for the players and the GM, and there is a need to identify and correct such situations. Fortunately, the strategic gamemastering method makes it very simple to do just that.

Checking the creative agenda balanced fulfillment status

When one or several HCAP or GML scenes have been played, the GM may wish to check the status of common creative agenda fulfillment. This status checking is by no means mandatory. It is, however, one key indicator that the strategic gamemastering method is functioning in a nominal condition and that the game is unfolding in a manner consistent with the aim of equally fulfilling the players' differing creative agendas.

For example, if 3 out of 4 PCs have "Magical research" as a Theme in the objectives section of their character outline, and the last two scenes have been purely focused on "Magical research", this concept has been activated twice, potentially twice fulfilling the player creative agendas for these three PCs. However, this also means that the creative agenda of the fourth player may not have been fulfilled at all during these last two scenes.

Let's take our usual example :

For example, if one scene consists in a nightly, gritty fight against time-traveling thieving murderers, beneath the city walls but with the added stake of avoiding alerting guards, this scene would potentially activate the following concepts :

  • Combat (PC#1)
  • Assassination (PC#3)
  • Savagery (PC#1)
  • City slums (PC#1 & PC#3)
  • Stealth (PC#3)
  • Assassins guild contact (PC#3)
  • Time-travel (PC#4)
  • Shadows (PC#4)
  • Thieves guild contact (PC#2)

At the outcome of this scene, if the GM performs this concept activation check, he will note that this scene incurs 4 concept activations for PC#3, 3 for PC#1, 2 for PC#4, and only one for PC#2.

The GM may carry on with the unfolding of the plot, during which the various concept activations will probably balance themselves while players roleplay their respective PCs and explore their background & objectives.

For the sake of the example, let's assume that the GM is not confident that the next scene will involve different concepts, and expects a possible imbalance between creative agendas to occur and probably worsen during the game. In that case, he may engage in creative agenda load balancing.

Creative agenda load balancing operation

The creative agenda load balancing operation is quite simple and does not incur any significant energy expenditure.

It consists in checking which PC outlines were triggered in the latest HCAP or GML scenes, and if necessary to select concepts belonging to less-often triggered PC outlines for imagining the next scene, in order to restore a balance among the player creative agendas activated during the gameplay.

Continuous creative agenda load balancing is achieved by focusing each successive scene on a concept belonging to the character outline of another character.

Let's take up our usual example again :

Reviewing the nightly assault scene, the GM noted as stated earlier that this scene incurred 4 concept activations for PC#3, 3 for PC#1, 2 for PC#4, and only one for PC#2.

In order to restore a balance between concept activation, the next scene should ideally activate more concepts belonging to PC#2 and PC#4 than to PCs #1 & 3, ideally through a GML scene.

The obvious GML scene common to PCs #2 and #4 rests, of course, on the GM-driven commonality based on the Arcane research and Technology concepts. A scene based on this link would activate the concepts of both these player-characters.

The obvious PC outline concept for PC#2 which could be used in the scene is, of course, Magic.

Additionally, in the PC#2 outline, there is this "Great arcane library" location, which is not linked to any other PC concept. This location uniquely belongs to the objectives of PC#2.

The next scene is therefore an opportunity to make the narration focus on an objective of importance for PC#2 and cater to the PC#2 player creative agenda :

After having defeated the murderous time-traveling thieves, the PCs search the bodies, and find a curious, dog-eared tome in an unknown language, which seems to describe an unusual combination of magic and unfathomable technology in order to create dangerous weapons, which reading plunges the young thaumocracy magician in the depths of perplexity. Strangely, the book itself bears the seal of the forbidden section of the Great arcane library. Has it been stolen from it ? The activated concepts in this next scene are the following :

  • Magic (PC#2)
  • Arcane research (PC#2)
  • Great arcane library (PC#2)
  • Technology (PC#4)
  • Technological arms & armor (PC#4)

Through remote commonalities & GM-driven links, the following concepts have also been activated :

  • Hyperborean obsidian broadsword (PC#1)
  • Cursed blade (PC#3)

The outcome of this scene restores a relative balance between the PC outline concepts. After the two scenes have unfolded, the GM checks the concept activation status again, and notes that outline concepts activations for the combined two scenes are :

  • PC#1 : 4 concept activations
  • PC#2 : 4 concept activations
  • PC#3 : 5 concept activations
  • PC#4 : 4 concept activations

Given the globally balanced concept activations for the various PCs, at the outcome of the second scene, the GM may confidently surmise that the players have experienced a relatively even fulfillment of their respective creative agendas.

Scene contents

Once the HCAP scene has been triggered, or the GML scene decided by the GM, the question remains of deciding the precise contents of the scene.

For HCAP scenes, their manner of unfolding will be determined by the motivations, objectives and actions of the player-characters.

For GML scenes, the GM will have to provide the following data, in accordance to the various concepts which will be activated.

If the concept that the GM wants to trigger is a character (either PC or NPC) or a theme linked to a character, it will have to be a character whose concepts in its background and/or objectives correspond, in whole or in part, with the concerned PC background or objectives concepts. This character may be another PC, the "big bad" at the end of the adventure, another antagonist, an ally, or may not even be present in the scene yet have a stake in the manner that the scene will unfold : this stake may be the planned actions of the character in the scene, or simply the fact that the scene will bring a revelation or a misleading piece of information about this character.

If the concept which the GM wishes to trigger is a location or a theme linked to a location, the GM may decide that the scene will occur at this location, or the scene will have to provide information about the location which the concerned PC will want to act upon ("- Suddenly, a soot-covered, disheveled man bursts wild-eyed into the tavern. In a wheezing voice, between pants, he gasps 'The Great Arcane Library... By my ancestors... The Library is on fire !'")

If the concept which the GM wishes to trigger is an item or a theme linked to an item, the GM may decide that this item is found / lost / stolen / retrieved / chased after / used / made unusable, or that information (correct or misleading) has been uncovered about this item. During the scene, the GM will have to provide information about the updated data regarding this item to the concerned player-characters.

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