Dan Harmon and RPGs as a medium of execution
I was watching a Rick and Morty panel featuring Dan Harmon, and he made an interesting comment when asked about the show’s origins (paraphrased): “There are no bad ideas. TV isn’t about ideas; TV is about execution”. Community was his go-to example for this, in that people told him a show set in a community college sounded like a dumb idea. Obviously, he proved them wrong.
It makes sense. How many series are “a TV show about cops/doctors/lawyers”? It’s not the premise that differentiates these shows, it’s how they’re pulled off.
It seems to me that RPGs work the same way. How many successful games have their been about dungeon-crawling? Or super-powered beings who plot and scheme? And who hasn’t encountered games or scenarios that were enticingly high-concept, yet, when the dice hit the table, begged the question: “What are we actually supposed to do?”
This past weekend I ran an event that faced the latter problem. I seem to be really good at coming up with grabby, initial concepts, but then totally fail at developing these ideas beyond the elevator pitch. I get serious “GM’s block”, even with games with very explicit GM prep procedures (e.g., PbtA games). I have to wonder if this is because my ideas tend to be very player-facing (“Wouldn’t it be cool to play a group of [nifty team concept]?”), but lack an inherent crisis, or if it’s just that I can’t imagine an implementation that lives up to my idea (“Maybe… no, that’s dumb”).
So, Harmon’s quote has me thinking that, with GM-directed games, it may be better to focus on seemingly uninteresting ideas — “Fetch the MacGuffin”, “The queen is dead” — and direct my efforts and implementing them well. I.e., worry less about the event blurb/pitch and more about what’s actually going to drive play at the table.
(That, and I need to get in a habit of thinking from the GM’s POV and not the players’. Less, “What would be a cool character to play?” and more “What’s the situation that demands action?”)
FYI, I’m looking at this from the perspective of crafting one-shot events for Gamedays, but I think the sentiment is still applicable to ongoing play. And, obviously, this isn’t as relevant to games that are no-prep or that share GM duties around the table.