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GM Like Neil Gaiman Writes

I do - and that isn't meant as a boast!


I just came across this video of Gaiman explaining how his stories change in subsequent drafts, and it's a perfect way of explaining how to run a game where players can author story!


First, watch this. Actually, if you JUST watch this, that's enough, cause Neil Gaiman is the BEST! I promise it's got a GREAT metaphor for how to help a group author stories together (I'll explain more below).



Hang with me, here - I promise I'm coming back to this, but let me set the problem that this explanation helps solve first.


 

The Collaborative Authorship Problem


I've been struggling, for a long time, to articulate something I do in my games with students. My students get to write stories between sessions, with the understanding that 1) whatever the write will become true for the shared world of our game, and 2) they can claim Story Points for their work - more if they push themselves. Now the thing many role-players don't understand about my approach? HOW can I pull off the best MC (Master of Ceremonies, as in "facilitator of joyous celebration," which I prefer to the term "GM") tricks while letting players author not just THEIR character's story, but the world's?


 

Authorial Rewards

You see, what most MCs know is that there's this brilliant, breathless moment possible in a really great game - a moment when an MC reveals a trusted ally has been lying, or that amain character's quirky robot companion has held the secret code, programmed by their mother, the whole time. This moment is a delight most authors only dream of: getting to SEE their audience gasp, lean forward in their chairs - become well and truly immersed in the story. It's a moment of intellectual - they planned this the whole time! - and emotional - how COULD they?! - engagement, the best possible compliment one can pay a storyteller.


And the MC gets to bask in it. To know that they've truly transported, maybe even transformed, their audience.


This is much like the experience teachers have when a unit truly moves students - when they feel agency and pride and power and can see that they understand something most people don't, can DO something better than most people can. That moment is absolutely magic, and if you've ever wondered why some people stick with such a demanding career, I'd argue it's a huge part of it. It's the same thing that keeps "forever GMs" creating immense worlds and plots for their game groups, and it's lovely.


And most MCs - especially those used to the "author first" approach of DnD, in which the "DM" scripts everything from NPCs to plot points to settings - find the idea of collaborative storytelling daunting because of it (in much the same way teachers who have strict classrooms fear offering students more agency). They're used to getting that lovely moment as a sort of "grand reveal" - it's their reward for all their investment. "Ta da - look how clever I was!" And how on earth are you supposed to PLAN for that if the players get to poke behind the curtain and mess around with all your toys?

Neil Gaiman's description of how he drafts a book answers that question PERFECTLY.


Let's break it down.


 

Draft 1: Mud on the Wall


I don't plan for my class sessions. In fact, planning for my classes is a bad idea.


Why? Story!


Kids write each week. Sure, I can try to read up before class, but a fair number write at the last possible minute (you know who you are 😉). Often, there are some questions I need answered that the authors didn't think to include; anything they DID write needs a bit of clarification. They may have forgotten some of what we agreed on as lore for the setting (though there are lore slides to refer to, kids don't - and that's FINE!), even countered it in their pieces. So if I plan anything? Chances are, I'm not just going to be wrong, I'm going to be ignoring my students' voices - actively writing WITHOUT them. What I'm trying to do is GIVE them agency, not take it away!


So no planning.


Instead, we read together. They throw mud at the wall, and the conversations we all have are looking for shapes.


Here's an example from an afterschool club:


We were playing Luna Uni - a game about misfit genius punks in a utopian future. This is an explicitly science (but wild, weird, science FICTION science!) oriented setting, and one kid? They write in that they have a "ghost" friend no-one else can see. Another? She's from a planet where they believe in gods (to be more specific, ancient Greek ones), and establishes in her story that they are, in fact, REAL.


Now ghosts and gods feel explicitly contrary to science fiction, but this is where I started asking questions. So how do these gods affect the lives of people on this planet? Are your planet's people from Earth, or did they pick up ancient Greek gods another way - like, could this planet have been WHERE people who ended up in ancient Greece were FROM, originally? This ghost - did you know it when you were living? Do they know anything about the afterlife, or just "I guess I'm just following you around, now, and can move through objects ... weird!" When did they first show up - did you invent some tech that caused them to appear?


This is the start of ...


 

Draft 2: Shaping the Images


Every answer told me something, offered a chance to figure out a shape for the plot. I do, explicitly, list a lot of these things up on a slide in every deck titled "Threads, Themes, and Dreams": Threads being loose ends that need tying up, Themes being moods or feels, and Dreams being things characters - or players! - would like to see happen.


So here's how I created a shape out of the "gods n' ghosts" issue. First, I needed an explanation for these extra-real entities that worked pseudo-scientifically ... hmmm ...


How could countless ghosts and gods exist but never be detected? Well, there IS a scientific THEORY that lends itself SPLENDIDLY to science fiction: Dark Matter! 90% of the universe's matter can't be seen or perceived? PERFECT! What if Dark Matter were really some sort of dimension of reality created by Belief - if belief had real weight and substance on that plane? After all, the collected beliefs of every being in the universe would have to be, if physical, WAY more massive than the bodies of those beings themselves, right?


So now I had an explanation - how to turn this into a plot hook? I already had a Professor they were slated to meet: "Brillo," an armadillo-like character obsessed with sound, originally from the podcast. Perhaps he would be trying to open a portal, using sound, to the Dark Matter dimension! And then, when these kids showed up, specific entities would try to come through into ours ...


This led to a wild, wonderful plot in which the kids all ended up facing their own beliefs in a mission to the Dark Matter Dimension. The dragon who came from a world where they told tales of an impossibly huge dragon who birthed the universe? He struggled to stop himself from expanding endlessly and becoming that creature. The goblins who had myths about an ancient war over objects of power? They found them, then had to work together to first avoid their impulse to fight one another, then use them to escape the Greek Gods, who were trying to get their "scion," the character whose story involved them in our plot, to open a portal back to the "real" to take it over.


In the end, we had multiple "MC" moments. When it was revealed ghosts and gods were dark matter dimension inhabitants, the whole room erupted. When the girl character found out she was Zeus's "daughter," and that was why she could "see" the gods? The kids lost their minds!


But I didn't engineer all this. Rather, I helped the student see patterns in their mud splatters and shape them to connect and look like a plot, adding just the littlest bit of help to make it feel surprising and thematically aligned.



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