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.

44 thoughts on “Dan Harmon and RPGs as a medium of execution

  1. This is why I spend the most prep time up front – it’s not starting up things or writing plot – it’s figuring out characters and situations that will produce conflict and make it easy to improvise new problems on the fly.

  2. < ![CDATA[This is why I spend the most prep time up front - it's not starting up things or writing plot - it's figuring out characters and situations that will produce conflict and make it easy to improvise new problems on the fly.]]>

  3. Execution in RPGs and TV writing have different benchmarks for achievement. If Harmon had to arrange for an improvised, live performance of each Community script every week, I think his execution would suffer.

    To me, “actual play at the table” in this context is another way of saying “improvisation,” which is hard if everyone at the table isn’t as good at it. It’s not just that players (and the GM) need to be good improvisers, but they need to be good improvisers in the idiom that is the game’s focus. DM prep can help smooth over some of those rough patches, so I think you’re onto something there.

    But it also feels like you’re reinventing the wheel a bit. Wouldn’t most D&D DMs read your thoughts and think, “Of course, that’s what DMs do! Where’s the problem?” D&D is obviously a GM-directed game, so that seems like it fits.

  4. < ![CDATA[Execution in RPGs and TV writing have different benchmarks for achievement. If Harmon had to arrange for an improvised, live performance of each Community script every week, I think his execution would suffer.
    To me, “actual play at the table” in this context is another way of saying “improvisation,” which is hard if everyone at the table isn’t as good at it. It’s not just that players (and the GM) need to be good improvisers, but they need to be good improvisers in the idiom that is the game’s focus. DM prep can help smooth over some of those rough patches, so I think you’re onto something there.
    But it also feels like you’re reinventing the wheel a bit. Wouldn’t most D&D DMs read your thoughts and think, “Of course, that’s what DMs do! Where’s the problem?” D&D is obviously a GM-directed game, so that seems like it fits.]]>

  5. I agree that execution is everything in all art forms.

    Also, I wouldn’t say Powered by the Apocalypse games are highly procedural. The ones I’ve read cover-to-cover (which, to be fair, may only be Apocalypse World itself) didn’t have sufficient structure to me, nor did I get the sense in playing other such games that they are highly structured, either. It feels like they’re all the “fuck around and see what happens” game.

  6. < ![CDATA[I agree that execution is everything in all art forms. Also, I wouldn't say Powered by the Apocalypse games are highly procedural. The ones I've read cover-to-cover (which, to be fair, may only be Apocalypse World itself) didn’t have sufficient structure to me, nor did I get the sense in playing other such games that they are highly structured, either. It feels like they’re all the “fuck around and see what happens” game.]]>

  7. Robert Bohl Compared to a lot of games, the PbtA games I’ve seen give the GM very explicit procedures (or “orientation” as Baker put it) that govern how they do pretty much everything. Monster of the Week has a whole process for creating mysteries (i.e., MotW scenarios), ApWo and DW have Fronts, and so on. Compare that to GURPS or HERO, which give you exactly nothing in terms of tools for making a session’s play happen.

  8. < ![CDATA[Robert Bohl Compared to a lot of games, the PbtA games I've seen give the GM very explicit procedures (or "orientation" as Baker put it) that govern how they do pretty much everything. Monster of the Week has a whole process for creating mysteries (i.e., MotW scenarios), ApWo and DW have Fronts, and so on. Compare that to GURPS or HERO, which give you exactly nothing in terms of tools for making a session’s play happen.]]>

  9. Dave Turner What I’m talking about might not be news to anyone, D&D players or otherwise. I guess what I am trying to articulate is that having stuff for the players to do is a lot more valuable than having a really cool reason for why they are doing said stuff. Hence millions of gamers who are happy to run dungeons every week, compared to ones who looked at, say, GURPS Transhuman Space and had no freaking idea what to do with it.

    An example from my game this weekend is that the players were cosplayers at a gaming convention who had been transformed into their costumes, which happened to be four of fiction’s greatest monster-hunters. That’s what grew out of my general idea to have an all-star team of horror heroes. But beyond that, I had fuck-all idea of what they were actually going to do, and the game suffered for it.

    In hindsight, I might have been better off using some standard characters and one of the sample scenarios from the book. Not nearly as sexy a hook, but the actual game experience probably would have been stronger.

  10. < ![CDATA[Dave Turner What I'm talking about might not be news to anyone, D&D players or otherwise. I guess what I am trying to articulate is that having stuff for the players to do is a lot more valuable than having a really cool reason for why they are doing said stuff. Hence millions of gamers who are happy to run dungeons every week, compared to ones who looked at, say, GURPS Transhuman Space and had no freaking idea what to do with it.
    An example from my game this weekend is that the players were cosplayers at a gaming convention who had been transformed into their costumes, which happened to be four of fiction’s greatest monster-hunters. That’s what grew out of my general idea to have an all-star team of horror heroes. But beyond that, I had fuck-all idea of what they were actually going to do, and the game suffered for it.
    In hindsight, I might have been better off using some standard characters and one of the sample scenarios from the book. Not nearly as sexy a hook, but the actual game experience probably would have been stronger.]]>

  11. I guess, yeah, Fronts. I find Fronts frustrating though. Like, how am I supposed to both play to see what happens and set up 6 conditions in sequence 3-4 times? That’s a lot of potentially-unused prep work. And even doing it … I’m too lazy now.

  12. < ![CDATA[I guess, yeah, Fronts. I find Fronts frustrating though. Like, how am I supposed to both play to see what happens and set up 6 conditions in sequence 3-4 times? That's a lot of potentially-unused prep work. And even doing it ... I'm too lazy now.]]>

  13. Robert Bohl Another example might be all of the random generators in the games Kevin Crawford makes, e.g., Stars Without Number. Half of each of his rulebooks are dedicated to tools to help the GM regenerate content for play.

  14. < ![CDATA[Robert Bohl Another example might be all of the random generators in the games Kevin Crawford makes, e.g., Stars Without Number. Half of each of his rulebooks are dedicated to tools to help the GM regenerate content for play.]]>

  15. Sorry to be a bit weird in your thread, Mark Delsing. It feels like you and I in particular have been haunting each other’s feeds recently on topics like this. I’m worried I’ve reached the point of being a broken record. I think we’re mulling over the same things, but my frustration at not having a satisfactory answer is scratching to get out.

    Transhuman Space is my go-to example for discussions like this and my original reply included it. I deleted it because I worried I was being repetitive over time. Trying to build off of what Robert Bohl said, part of the answer might just be that you need to bite the bullet on a certain amount of prep. Better make it smart prep, which I think is part of what you’re aiming at.

    “Play to see what happens” can be a harsh mistress. I’ve now settled on the idea that I’m not very good at playing to see what happens when I’m the GM, i.e. I’m not a good improviser as a GM and I have minimum standards that I want to reach as a GM. Until I get better at being a GM improviser, I’m now resolved to do more prep, to have pre-made opponents and situations to drop into play as organically as I can.

    Can’t there be a hybrid approach to “play to see what happens”? Can’t it be something like “play to see how the players’ choices might influence the GM’s prep?”

  16. < ![CDATA[Sorry to be a bit weird in your thread, Mark Delsing. It feels like you and I in particular have been haunting each other's feeds recently on topics like this. I'm worried I've reached the point of being a broken record. I think we're mulling over the same things, but my frustration at not having a satisfactory answer is scratching to get out. Transhuman Space is my go-to example for discussions like this and my original reply included it. I deleted it because I worried I was being repetitive over time. Trying to build off of what Robert Bohl said, part of the answer might just be that you need to bite the bullet on a certain amount of prep. Better make it smart prep, which I think is part of what you’re aiming at.
    “Play to see what happens” can be a harsh mistress. I’ve now settled on the idea that I’m not very good at playing to see what happens when I’m the GM, i.e. I’m not a good improviser as a GM and I have minimum standards that I want to reach as a GM. Until I get better at being a GM improviser, I’m now resolved to do more prep, to have pre-made opponents and situations to drop into play as organically as I can.
    Can’t there be a hybrid approach to “play to see what happens”? Can’t it be something like “play to see how the players’ choices might influence the GM’s prep?”]]>

  17. I suspect you need to internalize Sorcerer’s Bangs and then use them everywhere.

    For a less snarky reply, your post reminded me of something an old friend once said about prepping convention one-shots. “It is easier to put complex characters in a simple situation than it is to put simple characters in a complex situation.” By “complex characters” he meant characters that wanted different things, and, particularly, wanted them from each other.

    You’ve got your monster hunters. Great. What do they each want? Probably some kind of monster to defeat, I’d guess.

    What other thing do they each want? Glory? Love? To break a specific curse? To rescue a specific person?

    Arrange things so that character A’s primary goal is related to the secondary goal of character B and that character A’s secondary goal is related to the primary goal of character C. Now the PCs have reasons to talk and bargain with one another. (Note that “related to” does not mean “has the same goal as.” That’s boring. If A wants Dracula dead, B should want to know some secret from Dracula, something that would be complicated by killing him.)

    Put those two goals in big, bold type on the character sheet. Use short, direct sentences. You can fill in a little color text for context, but in a traditional-style con game, you want to give the players goals as clearly as possible.

    Now it’s just a matter of asking “Who is stopping them from getting their goals?” and coming up with obstacles. Don’t worry about how these obstacles might be overcome, that’s the players job. Just throw in some opposition. If the players completely circumnavigate it, that’s fine. If they solve their problem in another way, that’s fine, too.

    Anyway, that’s the way I used to do it back when I ran those type of con games. It worked pretty well.

  18. < ![CDATA[I suspect you need to internalize Sorcerer's Bangs and then use them everywhere.
    For a less snarky reply, your post reminded me of something an old friend once said about prepping convention one-shots. “It is easier to put complex characters in a simple situation than it is to put simple characters in a complex situation.” By “complex characters” he meant characters that wanted different things, and, particularly, wanted them from each other.
    You’ve got your monster hunters. Great. What do they each want? Probably some kind of monster to defeat, I’d guess.
    What other thing do they each want? Glory? Love? To break a specific curse? To rescue a specific person?
    Arrange things so that character A’s primary goal is related to the secondary goal of character B and that character A’s secondary goal is related to the primary goal of character C. Now the PCs have reasons to talk and bargain with one another. (Note that “related to” does not mean “has the same goal as.” That’s boring. If A wants Dracula dead, B should want to know some secret from Dracula, something that would be complicated by killing him.)
    Put those two goals in big, bold type on the character sheet. Use short, direct sentences. You can fill in a little color text for context, but in a traditional-style con game, you want to give the players goals as clearly as possible.
    Now it’s just a matter of asking “Who is stopping them from getting their goals?” and coming up with obstacles. Don’t worry about how these obstacles might be overcome, that’s the players job. Just throw in some opposition. If the players completely circumnavigate it, that’s fine. If they solve their problem in another way, that’s fine, too.
    Anyway, that’s the way I used to do it back when I ran those type of con games. It worked pretty well.]]>

  19. Michael Miller Great advice; I really need to dig deeper into Sorcerer.

    One of the many problems with the event that inspired this post was that my team concept obviated all of the character relationship bits in MotW. Ergo, the PCs had no ties to each other at all. Plus, there’s no immediate goal-setting in MotW. You’re monster hunters, so you hunt monsters. “Deal with the immediate situation” was all I had. Granted, I could have given them goals, but I didn’t really think of that.

    The explicit existence of goals and beliefs is one of the many reasons I love BWHQ games.

  20. < ![CDATA[Michael Miller Great advice; I really need to dig deeper into Sorcerer.
    One of the many problems with the event that inspired this post was that my team concept obviated all of the character relationship bits in MotW. Ergo, the PCs had no ties to each other at all. Plus, there’s no immediate goal-setting in MotW. You’re monster hunters, so you hunt monsters. “Deal with the immediate situation” was all I had. Granted, I could have given them goals, but I didn’t really think of that.
    The explicit existence of goals and beliefs is one of the many reasons I love BWHQ games.]]>

  21. I missed that it was a Monster of the Week game. I seem to recall that the version I own has some pretty robust GM procedures for developing the monsters, developing weaknesses, placing clues and the like. Did you do all that stuff?

    If you want someone to talk about your next convention game with, let me know.

  22. < ![CDATA[I missed that it was a Monster of the Week game. I seem to recall that the version I own has some pretty robust GM procedures for developing the monsters, developing weaknesses, placing clues and the like. Did you do all that stuff? If you want someone to talk about your next convention game with, let me know.]]>

  23. Dave Turner “The Sword” is a great example of “complex characters in a simple situation”. The situation is literally a riff on a dungeon-crawl, the most well-trodden trope in gaming.

    And you’re not being weird at all! I think we’re both struggling with some of the same issues.

    Prep is definitely one of my weak spots. Often time doesn’t even factor into it; I can spend a lot of time and end up with very little. I posted elsewhere about debriefing the MotW game with with Willow, and she was actually surprised how much time I spent prepping my MotW scenario. For a PbtA game, I was apparently spending way too much time. Granted, a lot of that time was spent banging my head on my desk.

    I think the hybrid approach is actually how most successful games work. The sample scenarios in MotW are actually pretty fleshed out; no less so than a five-room dungeon. The game’s use of countdowns is essentially the GM creating plot, though int he “plot is what happens if the players do noting” sense.

    I think the real issue here is me. I have a feeling that I tend to think like a player — “What would be a cool character to play?” — and that simply doesn’t result in compelling situations. The coolest character in the world with nothing to do is still just someone with nothing to do.

  24. < ![CDATA[Dave Turner "The Sword" is a great example of "complex characters in a simple situation". The situation is literally a riff on a dungeon-crawl, the most well-trodden trope in gaming. And you're not being weird at all! I think we're both struggling with some of the same issues. Prep is definitely one of my weak spots. Often time doesn't even factor into it; I can spend a lot of time and end up with very little. I posted elsewhere about debriefing the MotW game with with Willow, and she was actually surprised how much time I spent prepping my MotW scenario. For a PbtA game, I was apparently spending way too much time. Granted, a lot of that time was spent banging my head on my desk. I think the hybrid approach is actually how most successful games work. The sample scenarios in MotW are actually pretty fleshed out; no less so than a five-room dungeon. The game's use of countdowns is essentially the GM creating plot, though int he “plot is what happens if the players do noting” sense.
    I think the real issue here is me. I have a feeling that I tend to think like a player — “What would be a cool character to play?” — and that simply doesn’t result in compelling situations. The coolest character in the world with nothing to do is still just someone with nothing to do.]]>

  25. Michael Miller I tried to do all that stuff, but I admit that a) I procrastinated, and b) my GM’s block prevented me from doing most of it well. E.g., my countdown was really vague, and I just re-used/-skinned monsters that were already in the book.

    Again, instead of starting with, “What would be a cool team of hunters to play?”, I should have started with “What would be a really cool monster to hunt?:

  26. < ![CDATA[Michael Miller I tried to do all that stuff, but I admit that a) I procrastinated, and b) my GM's block prevented me from doing most of it well. E.g., my countdown was really vague, and I just re-used/-skinned monsters that were already in the book. Again, instead of starting with, "What would be a cool team of hunters to play?", I should have started with "What would be a really cool monster to hunt?:]]>

  27. You can still start with the characters, if that’s where your passion is. You just need to be sure to not stop there. “What foe is worthy of Van Helsing? What does Sherlock Holmes want? Why can’t Mina Harker get what she wants?”

  28. < ![CDATA[You can still start with the characters, if that's where your passion is. You just need to be sure to not stop there. "What foe is worthy of Van Helsing? What does Sherlock Holmes want? Why can't Mina Harker get what she wants?"]]>

  29. Mark Delsing
    You could have had their pre-transformation characters have all the overlapping relationship stuff, maybe? I don’t know MotW.

    As a dyed in the wool “see what happens” guy, I usually have a few random things I can throw in if things get slow, sort of a “deck of many things” version of the “two guys with guns kick in the door” GM tool.

    Also, side note, Dan Harmon is great at TV but he is fucking AWFUL at rpgs. AWFUL.

  30. < ![CDATA[Mark Delsing You could have had their pre-transformation characters have all the overlapping relationship stuff, maybe? I don't know MotW. As a dyed in the wool "see what happens" guy, I usually have a few random things I can throw in if things get slow, sort of a "deck of many things" version of the "two guys with guns kick in the door" GM tool. Also, side note, Dan Harmon is great at TV but he is fucking AWFUL at rpgs. AWFUL.]]>