Sparked by the Flags discussion at Andy's Story-games forum, and (hopefully) better restatement of what I wrote on rpg.net a few years back.
What is it?
This a method I've used to help myself improvise and scene frame, initially an outgrowth of techniques from my Feng Shui days to now. It works with most traditional games and replaces the need to pre-plan events and scenes (whether linear or branching) and cuts down prep time by a LOT.
The Basic Idea
Traditionally improvisation has been considered an advanced technique. Mostly because all the advice we've seen is about preparing adventures either like a videogame level (map, NPCs, monsters go here), or else preparing a set of events, either linear or branching and then trying to engineer the player characters into the events.
The players show up every week with just a character sheet and seem to improvise just fine. "But wait! Players only have to deal with just one character! They don't have to figure out what will happen!"
But that's not the key difference in play. The difference is that the players have prepared a tool for improvisation -the character. With the character, the players don't need to prep a list of possible events and responses, they simply use the character as a focus to improvise with. They can make up on the spot how a "hot-headed young knight out for glory" ought to act without thinking too hard.
What the GM needs is to prep tools that do the same thing. Instead of trying to guess what might happen, what the players might do, what they might find interesting, you can instead prep tools that react to what IS happening, what the players SHOW you they want to do.
The GM's role really boils down to helping make interesting stuff happen. This breaks out into framing engaging scenes (and conflicts) and presenting neat NPCs. So let's talk about how to make that happen...
The Focus is the basic idea or situation of what the game is going to be about. Everyone in the group ought to know what this is- "A fight for the throne!", "Destroy the One Ring", "The Battle of Troy", whatever. The Focus can be created as a group, though one person can take the lead if the group doesn't really have direction.
The players need to know the Focus to make appropriate characters and know what kind of conflicts to expect in the game. You, the GM, need them to know this because you're going to play off of what they do with it.
The players build their characters together, building with the Focus in mind, and also looking to build characters that play off of each other. If the players build their characters seperately, you might end up with the usual rpg motley crew- "A rabbi, a monkey, and a half-elf necromancer walk into a bar..." (aside from octaNe, I can't think of any games that this would be a good sign for the campaign...)
Flags are mechanics that the players can use to indicate what they find interesting in the game and what they want the game to be about. Some games make this overt- such as Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, Sorcerer, Shadow of Yesterday etc. They put up beliefs, ideals, or conflicts in a big way, saying to the GM, "Hey, do this! Make the game about THIS!" Flags are a way for the player to tell the GM what they think is interesting and important.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE FLAGS. WRITE THEM DOWN.
"What about games that don't have obvious flagging mechanics?"- Most traditional games lack overt flagging mechanics, at which point you have to play detective. Look at the things the player does to create the character in terms of taking goals, vows, background traits, advantages, disadvantages, relationships, contacts, abilities, back story, etc. If the player is playing a priest, but takes "Hated Enemy- The Bishop", there's probably something interesting going on there. But don't just stop there, mention it- "Hey, it seems like this guy's thing is about THIS, what's your take on it?" And let the player spill their guts. Note it down and figure out what the big conflict, issue or ideals are behind that.
Now, that the players are set up, you set up your characters. You know what the players want the game to be about, so the NPCs are just tools to make that happen. The NPCs exist SOLELY to produce scenes and conflicts that hit what the players have asked for via Flags.
Look at the Focus, build characters who fit in with that, and either oppose, support, or make things complicated for as many Flags as possible. For example, if two Flags involve "Loyalty to Family" and "Always do what is right", it's easy to produce a family member who is corrupt. Notice that two different PC's can have these flags, and it still will be interesting.
Any NPCs of importance want one of three things:
1) Help from the PCs
2) Oppose the PCs
3) Use the PCs
WRITE DOWN WHAT THE NPCs WANT/NEED. WRITE DOWN GENERAL PERSONALITY TRAITS THAT WILL HELP YOU ROLEPLAY THEM.
Good conflict happens when someone is:
7) Hiding Something
9) Any/all of the above.
Basically, someone's willing to do something crazy and fuck someone over. You don't even need a lot of characters like this- even one will do, provided he or she sets the rest of the characters off in a chain reaction.
The NPCs should be set up in a web of problems- some allied, some against each other, for a variety of reasons. For short term play, you want between 1-3 problems depending on how likely the players are to buy into the conflict. For most games, I'd recommend around 3-4 seperate problems tangled together. In all likelihood, the players are going to latch onto one or more of them as interesting, and in the event you toss out a dud or two, you still have something to work with.
No NPCs should be isolated, you want to be able to follow a chain of connections between them (which can be blood, sex, friendship, opposition, duty, etc.)
YOU WILL WANT BETWEEN 3-12 NPCS DEPENDING ON HOW LARGE OF A SITUATION YOU ARE BUILDING.
A lot of characters will have secondary allies, servants, minions, friends, gangs, etc. These folks basically exist to serve main NPCs, you might have to stat them up for the system, but you don't need to give them motivations or consider them independently. Only do the above process for characters likely to make their own decisions.
Your Conflict Sheet
Take a sheet of paper, down the left side, write down the names of the PC's and their Flags, relationships, etc. Down the right side, write down the NPCs and their needs/wants, flags, relationships, etc. Also include a little bit of personality bits to have in mind. The players use their characters to help them improvise during play, you will use your Conflict Sheet.
Those of you experienced in this kind of play will recognize that this serves exactly the same purpose as Sorcerer's Relationship Maps or Dogs in the Vineyard's Towns.
Throw a problem in the players' faces
Frame a scene with one or more NPCs that sets up a conflict or problem. This shouldn't be hard- ALL of the NPCS on your list either want help, oppose, or want to use the PCs, so you ought to have plenty of ammo at your disposal. The players will react, and whatever happens, you react in return. How should you react? Roleplay your characters! It's just like what the players are doing!
When the scene slows down, cut away
Don't let the scene die out. Cut it. You want the excitement to carry over into the next scene, instead of having to build it back up again. "Excitement" here doesn't have to be crazy action, good roleplaying produces excitement, tender moments produce excitement, etc.
Now, introduce a new situation and a new NPC. You're going to introduce the whole cast, sooner or later. They don't all need to be conflict based scenes, but you want to keep dropping tidbits of the NPCs Flags and keep hitting the PCs Flags at the same time. Remember, every NPC wants something from the PCs. And at least some of them are going to take drastic measures! And some of the other NPCS are going to react to that as well! When the players react, you react with your characters. Other characters are likely to take actions, and then you can frame new scenes.
Using the List
Between Scenes, look down both sets of Flags and figure out which characters are going to fit together in exciting ways. "Exciting" meaning trouble. Put characters together who are likely to oppose each other. Put characters together who ought to be on the same side, but will hate each other's guts. Put characters together who will misunderstand and overreact.
It's not hard to think of worse-case-scenarios, and make them happen. As both the players react and you react in return, it's easy to figure what kind of conflicts happen next, based on playing your NPCs and hitting the players' Flags.
If things slow down, remember, you can always have an NPC:
- Get Violent
- Reveal a Secret
- Be an Asshole
These 4 things alone or in combination, always make for interesting times.
Reacting to the Players
Watch the players! Traditionally the players have looked to the GM to pick up cues as to what they should do next. NO! You watch the players to see what you ought to do next. When the players are excited, you're doing good. When the players are bored, you're doing bad! There's no prepped events to distract you, there's no preplanned story for you to remember- just look around the table and pay attention in the game.
What you're doing is using the Conflict Sheet to crib note what the players want to see and things you think would be interesting. If you throw out a scene, situation, and conflict that the players ignore, don't sweat it. In fact, maybe you should note or cross it out on the Conflict Sheet, and circle the ones they do find interesting. The players might actually be interested in something that ISN'T on their Flags, so note it for yourself. Change the NPCs Flags in response to the actions of the PCs, perhaps enemies have become friends and friends enemies?
The Conflict Sheet is a draft in progress- not set in stone. Between sessions, you will make changes, but pretty much it'll just be cleaning up or rewriting what is there based on what has happened in play.
Remove NPCs who no longer are part of the situation, change NPC Flags and attitudes according to the events in play, add another 1-3 NPCs if things are looking sparse but you want to keep going with the situation. Or, you can let the situation keep going until it feels "done". Then make a new one. Making a new one is easier than making an initial set of NPCs, because you'll have a good feel for the PCs Flags.
How much work is this?
So, players generate characters- that's not much different than most games. Initial set up requires thinking up good sets of NPCs that hit the PCs Flags. At the least, you can make a bunch of NPCs opposed to the PCs Flags. Me personally? It's usually taken between an hour to a few hours, depending on the number of NPCs being made and how crunchy the system for character generation is.
But- between sessions? Usually 10 minutes or less. The initial setup is heavy (about as heavy as making characters) but after that, it's a breeze. You don't have to generate new events for each session- you've got a tool to improvise.
What does this work for?
This technique works good for Narrativist style play, though I think it'd work just as well for Sim play as well. The only thing it doesn't do good is Gamist play, mostly because Gamism isn't really concerned with these sorts of things.
The Short Version
1) Pick a Focus
2) Players make Characters
3) What are the Flags?
4) Make NPCs to hit the Flags.
5) Write down the PCs & their Flags, write down the NPCs and their Flags.
6) Look at the list- put characters together who will make drama.
7) Cut Scenes, Get Violent, Reveal a Secret, Betrayal, Be an Asshole
8) WATCH THE PLAYERS!
I use this for a LOT of games, mostly stuff like Riddle of Steel and Burning Wheel, though pretty much it's what I'll also use for traditional games if I run those as well. It began when I realized that I was running Feng Shui by just running the NPCs as I would PCs, and things worked just fine. Add in a few years of exposure to stuff like Sorcerer, Riddle of Steel, etc., and here we are.
I hope you find it useful for your games, and let me know how it works for you.
Also, check out Vincent's example of Situation building.