Over on Knife Fight, Vincent “Lumpley” Baker offered some advice for how to change the way a group plays to a method that resembles the set-up that’s used for towns in Dogs in the Vineyard. It’s pretty cool stuff, and I’m going to reproduce it here so that you can see for yourself without having to join Knife Fight.

The first comment is:

Never ever discuss anything with your group. Your group is made up entirely of self-ignorant liars, same as everybody’s. You’ve already seen the crap that happens when you try to talk about things.

Instead, shit man, you’re the GM. That’s not nothing. You have the power to change the way your group plays, without ever mentioning it. It’s easy, it’s painless, and it’ll work. Ready?

Don’t give up DMing, you’ll just be miserable.

Don’t ask your players to do a lick of work. ESPECIALLY don’t ask them for backgrounds or childhood friends, we hate that shit.

Change the way you prep. Don’t plan events ahead. If you imagine an event, notice it and set it aside. You aren’t responsible for what happens.

Instead, create a knot of NPCs who all want interesting, incompatible things from the PCs. I can give you very reliable instructions how to do this, but here’s a start: orcs are raiding nearby villages. This one village is doing its best to prepare for the coming raids. There are six people who matter in the village: 1. a pretty young married woman; 2. her husband, the guy who runs the village; 3. this headman’s nephew, a teenage kid who has his dad’s sword; 4. the village wisewoman, who’s responsible for the village’s relationship with the gods or the ancestors or whomever; 5. a competent, reliable older man, like a builder; 6. the headman’s right-hand man.

The pretty young married woman wants the PCs to help her husband make the village ready for the attacks. However, if anyone makes her husband look foolish, she will immediately hate that person with a fiery hate. She won’t sacrifice the village for this, she’s smart enough to see that her husband’s not going to be able to protect the village by himself, but she will hate.

Her husband, the village headman, sees the PCs as a big old threat to his status in the town. He’ll show them hospitality (otherwise he looks bad) but he doesn’t want their help. He wants to control them and make them inept, so accordingly he’ll a) demand that they undertake suicide missions and/or b) demand that they trench out the latrines. He’ll sacrifice the whole village for this.

The headman’s teenage nephew sees the PCs as people who’ll see his value and treat him as a man and a soldier, the way his uncle will not. Ultimately his plan is for them to make his uncle look like a moron for underestimating and belittling him. He’ll sacrifice the whole village for this.

The wisewoman sees the PCs as an opportunity to be rid of this good-for-nothing headman. She doesn’t dare speak out against him in public, but in private she’ll tell the PCs that this guy doesn’t have the support of the gods or ancestors or whomever, and shouldn’t run the village. She hopes that the PCs will settle here and she’ll say that the gods or ancestors or whomever have spoken. She’ll sacrifice the whole village for this, and say that they deserve it for this headman guy’s sins.

The competent older man won’t sacrifice the village for anything. He’s reliable, he’s strong, he’s smart, he sees the problems with the current headman. However, he’d be shit as a replacement – he lacks imagination, initiative and charisma. He’s with the wisewoman, hoping that the PCs are somehow a long-term solution to the problem.

And finally the lieutenant. This guy is an opportunist, a flatterer, and a bully. He sees the PCs as a threat to his position, where he gets to boss the village around. But also he wants real bad to fuck the pretty young married woman, so he also sees the PCs as an opportunity – if they overthrow the headman, he’ll be right there pressing the headman’s wife to jump ship. However, he won’t sacrifice the whole village for any of this; when it comes down to it, he’ll do what he needs to do to save the village.

Okay! Now, there are six outstanding things that the village needs to solve before the raid comes, to maximize its chances: 1. They’ve started building a stockade wall; they should finish it. 2. What are they going to do with the children and old people? 3. The wilderness has independent shepherds and woodspeople living in it, but the village doesn’t have much to do with them – if there were communication lines, the village would have warning before the raid. 4. The able-bodied in the village aren’t prepared to fight together; they don’t know basic things like holding a line and moving as a group. A little training will make a huge difference. 5. They somehow have to get the gods or the ancestors or whomever to support the village’s survival (or at least for the people of the village to believe that they do). 6. The village has an old feud with the village over the hill, and it’s a mean, dirty one. Both villages hope for the other’s destruction. There’s no solution to the feud in this generation, but the two villages should absolutely set it aside for purposes of surviving these raids.

That’s all the prep. It’s about 15 minutes’ worth (although it took me 30 because I was typing to be understood, not making notes for myself.) Don’t prep the fate of the village, it’s not your job. For all you care the village burns. Prepare the raids for the second session.

I’ll tell you some techniques for play in my next post.

And the second comment:

I don’t think that your skill as a GM is in doubt, and I think that the skills you’ve developed will be a huge help in making this work. For the most part GMing well is a matter of what you apply your skills to, not what your skills are.

So here’s what to do in play. I wouldn’t recommend telling your players that you’ll be doing these things, just do them. If they notice and ask, just say “sure, I’m done making you roll for bullshit” or whatever.

1. Play short sessions. These techniques will let you cover a lot of ground at a good, gripping pace, and they’ll leave you feeling like you’ve worked out. Three hour sessions are about right. Call the session when you feel your energy start to flag, don’t run it into the ground.

2. The PCs don’t have to earn their basic competence. Also known as, don’t bother rolling for bullshit. Whatever reasonable thing the PCs undertake to do, just let them do it, right up until a) they do something that someone will try to prevent, or b) they do something beyond their basic competence.

This village? It won’t be too long before they do something that someone will try to prevent. Even fixing the damn stockade wall will make the headman look bad.

3. Have two different kinds of die rolling in your head: fights and leadup. If it’s not a fight, it’s leadup. The value of leadup is that successful leadup gives you a bonus in upcoming fights.

If they’re doing something beyond their basic competence, it’s leadup. If they’re doing something that someone else tries to stop, it’s leadup, unless it’s a fight. In other words, fights are always opposed rolls; leadup can be opposed as well as unopposed.

Whenever they win a leadup roll, make a note of it. If a fight happens where you can possibly reach-for-it-possibly give them a bonus for the leadup, give them the bonus. Be generous with these bonuses. “You remember how you finished the stockade fence despite the headman’s interference? Now that he’s attacking you, it shook his confidence. Take a +2.” And then later, “here come the orcs! Take a +2 for the stockade fence.” Make sure everybody can see that a successful roll now will mean a bonus later, if at all applicable (but again, don’t tell them the technique upfront, just do it and let them learn it by experience).

Whenever they lose a leadup roll, on the other hand, bring the fight closer. Bring it right now, if there’s a fight handy; otherwise say out loud how the fight’s coming and this is going to make it worse. “The lieutenant goes away for now, but he’s sneering like he doesn’t think you’ll put up much of a fight” or “so you don’t manage to rally the villagers to finish the fence. They straggle off. If you were an orc, man, this half-a-crappy-fence wouldn’t slow you down a bit.”

4. The NPCs don’t keep secrets for shit. Notice first off that none of them really have secrets – the lieutenant doesn’t want his nature to be widely made known, but it’s not like he has some key information he’s not sharing. The wisewoman has a self-serving take on what the gods want, but whether she’s lying or just letting her biases rule her we don’t know (or especially care, it’s the same in the end). When you play these people, play them close to the surface. Do you know what I mean? None of them have poker faces. Even when the lieutenant’s doing his poker face, be clear that he’s doing his poker face. “The lieutenant’s watching you trench the latrines. He has his poker face on.”

5. Whatever the PCs do, run down the list of NPCs and see how they react, then play them accordingly. You aren’t responsible for moving the plot forward, and you aren’t responsible for predicting what the PCs will do, those will take care of themselves. Your job is just to make the NPCs’ reactions to the PCs’ actions real.

This includes sometimes changing how they see the PCs and what they want from them – the starting positions are just starting positions, not binding over play. You may occasionally need to call a potty break to sort through the NPCs’ motivations, if the PCs do something really startling.

6. Those six things I listed that the village should deal with before the raids? Those are just my (and now your) six things, in case the players sit there blinking at you. “Well, so do you just sit there or what? If you’re looking for things to do, there’s that unfinished wall, and what about the kids and old people, and the builder guy asked you to give the village fighters some pointers, and so on – anybody want to take any of those on?”

If the players come up with other things to do, fantastic. “Let’s scout out the raiding parties,” they might say. That’s cool, it’ll have the same effect on the coming fight as doing any of your six things would: you give them a bonus if they do it successfully, you bring a fight if they don’t, and either way the NPCs react according to their natures.

So. There’s 6 techniques you can use to get the kind of play you’re after, all within your job description as DM, without changing games and without needing your players’ buy-in upfront. I can explain to you how I came up with the village and NPCs, if you want, but first I’d like to hear back from you about all this stuff I’ve written. Any questions? Any thoughts?

There’s a lot of great points in there, and they can allow a GM to drive play this way no matter what system they’re using to run the game. I think a lot of it would work just as well for either Amber Diceless or D&D 3.5.