RPGs: The Anthology Session

Original Photo by Laura Desnoit

A couple of weeks ago, I ran a different kind of RPG session, something I called an “anthology” session. Since some people online were asking me how it went, and because I believe Gamemastering is best viewed as a shared education, I finally got some time to sit down and write up the experience.

Like most of the experiments I do at the table, this came from necessity. In this case, I had been running a series of The Dresden Files, and I was left with a few extraneous scenes that didn’t really warrant a full session. I debated doing them in downtime between sessions, but part of the Dresden Files mechanics is a bit where other players can jump in by spending a Fate Point. In fact, much of the design of the system involves the players as audience as well as participants, and running sessions without that audience cheapens that (have I mentioned that the FATE system is very, very clever?) I started thinking about the metaphor of the game as a series of connected novels (in this case, I’m shooting for a rough “trilogy” of novels), and I wondered if the metaphor would extend. What if I did the scenes as a collection of “short stories”?

I decided that if I was going to do this, each person should be the star of their own scene. This gave me a chance to dig into each character’s backstory (via Aspects and the various brainstormed materials from the City Creation session) and pull out one scene that made sense for each. I then realized that there was a bit of a progression between each scene, as there were connections and references to a particular plot thread — the introduction of a new drug — over and over. I tweaked a couple of things in my notes to take advantage of that.

Then it was just a matter of setting the stage. I gratefully stole an idea from Matt McFarland of having the characters meeting in a bar and trading stories of what happened to them over the course of the previous few weeks. I gave each player a notecard with a number on the back for the order of the stories, and the rough first sentence of their story. The first sentences were designed to get the interest of the characters (and the player holding it), so it was things like “Well, I almost died a few weeks back” or “That reminds me of the time I had to meet the dragon. Alone.” I explained this all to the players, set the scene, and let them go. When they worked the story opening in, I started the short story.

Things That Went Well

Showcasing characters: The session went really well for making sure each character got their moment to shine. Only one character didn’t really have a whole lot of character development, and he and I agreed that we needed to sit down and dig into his background a bit more.

The notecards: Handing out the notecards ahead of time was a good idea. It helped me to keep things moving, and the players seemed interested in finding ways to inject the snippets of information into the roleplay.

Teaching the system: I somewhat intentionally structured each scene to have a key conflict. Partially this was because of my years working on the Storytelling Adventure System and identifying the key mechanical conflict in each scene, and partially because I felt the group (myself included) still didn’t quite “get” the game mechanics, and it was a good way to push that issue. In that respect, it worked great, and I think we all understand how the game works a lot better.

Things That Could Have Gone Better

The notecards: At one point, I had to change the order of the scenes, which meant I had to put the current story on pause and start a new one. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have pre-determined the order of the scenes and went with something more organic. I don’t have an idea what that would be, though.

Forwards and backwards in time: Which led to another problem — the constantly time-shuffling led to some confusion. The previous example had three different timeframes happening at once, and a couple of times players were afraid to take actions lest it cause the scene in the bar where they were trading stories to be invalidated. I think next time I’ll use a different frame that doesn’t require any predetermined continuity.

All in all, it was a really good experience, and a couple of the players want to try it again at some point (probably between the second and third “novels” in the series).

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