Recently, I was given a chance to run a game for a group that I previously GMed. This was back before my playing style changed over, from a more traditional prep-medium, linear story, to where I am now with a lite-prep, more improv/collaborative style. At first, I was a bit hesitant to run for this group, since their focus is not improv play, and more on what might be labeled as “traditional play”. My concerns centered on if my improv style would mesh with their play style. After some thought, I decided to run for the group, despite my concerns. But in order to make this enjoyable for both myself and the players, I needed to run the game the way I wanted, but have it provide the experience they were expecting, even if those were not in alignment. I was banking on the idea that we could play the game with asymmetrical goals.

NOTE – I am going to use the terms Indie and Traditional a few times in this article. They are not my favorite terms, but for the sake of word count, I stuck with their use. Take both terms with a grain of salt.

Asymmetrical play-what?

We all come to the table with different wants and needs from a game. Robin D. Laws defined some of these, from the player side, years ago (here). Over the years, here on the ‘Stew, both Walt and I have taken a crack at defining GM types (here and here). Everyone comes to a game with different desires, but we often work during the formation of a new game/campaign to find a middle ground, a consensus, that achieves most of what everyone desires, but often not everything everyone desires. This is a perfectly reasonable approach, one that we advocated in Odyssey, and I have used for years. We can call that a symmetrical play style.

The thing that occurred to me on this occasion, is that the consensus and alignment of desires may not be the only way to set up a campaign. If a group had different play styles, but they could be all addressed within the confines of the game, then it may be possible to play asymmetrically; each person getting what they want from the game.

On a micro level, this always happens, the player with the Wizard has different desires from the player with the Rogue, etc. But at the macro level, the group may be symmetrical in their style of playing an adventuring party, going through a published adventure arc. So for our definition of asymmetrical play, we will look at the macro application of the term.

How Can This Work?

In order to explain asymmetrical play, I am going to tell you the story of how I set up the most recent campaign, and what I learned along the way. This whole idea came about when the group and I started listing games we would like to play. Mine were all more “Indie” style games (Dungeon World, Fate etc) and theirs were more traditional games (D&D, Vampire, etc). We were clearly in two different places in terms of play experience. In order to see if there was some common ground, I started a discussion about wants and needs, which lead me to the first step in this process…

Determine What Everyone Wants From the Game

It was clear from our divergent list of games that we were looking for different things from the game. That became a springboard of determining what our desires were for the game. In my case, it broke down like this:

  • GM’s desires – run a little/no prep game, that is improvised by the players actions each session. Games would focus on players proactively picking what plots they wanted to explore during the session. Lesser focus on gaining money/gear, and more on developing story.
  • Player’s desires– create mechanically interesting characters and develop character options through the rewards of play (new gear,money, etc). Engage in a more mission-driven story.

The challenge in the initial list of games is that Indie games trend towards my GM desires, but they are often thinner on character options. Likewise, the games the players selected had more character options, but were not quite as easy to do in a low/no-prep style (not impossible but definitely more difficult)

Once our desires were listed, we were both able to describe what was important in the new campaign. With that understanding something else became clear…

No Exclusive Objectives

 After all, I was not going to submit my prep for review… 

What we wanted from the game was not really mutually exclusive from each other, in terms of styles of play. My focus was really about what happened at the table while the players wanted some more crunch for their characters, which is often done between games. Also, if a low/no prep game is done well, the players would not be able to tell. After all, I was not going to submit my prep for review, and their desire for tricking out characters was not going to affect my NPC’s and plots.

Had we run into some direct conflicts we may not have been able to progress further, and we may have needed to go back to some kind of collaboration. But since nothing was exclusive, we pressed on and started working on…

Finding The Right System

In order to be able to play an asymmetrical game you need a system that can deliver what everyone is looking for. This might be the hardest part of the process. Systems tend to be either hyper-focused, delivering a specific play-experience (not uncommon for Indie games) or they tend to be very generalized delivering a wide variety of experiences but not in great depth (more common for Traditional games). When you are looking at a game for asymmetrical play you have try to find something that encompasses as many of your needs as possible.

In our case, we selected Corporation, a game that long-time readers know is a favorite of mine. Corporation has a rich world, but is actually fairly light on rules, making it flexible and easy to run with low/no prep. Add to that the work I had done a few years ago on Wireframes, and I had a set of NPC stat blocks that I could use to improv NPC’s during a game. For the players, Corporation also has a bewildering array of character options.

While Corporation was a great starting point, I knew the game well enough to know that I would need to…

Account for Shortcomings

No rules system is going to be perfect for this type of play, and there are bound to be some gaps. Once you know what they are you can address them with either some house rules or some additional rules found in supplements. For me I saw two issues that needed addressing.

Harvesting Gear

A lot of times in Corporation harvesting cyberware and gear off of opponents is a typical in-game activity. This is a way to get extra money or gear over typical mission pay. Since I was going to use my Wireframes and not stat out each NPC, this would be a problem. The Wireframes do not list specific gear, but abstract the bonuses that go with them. So I asked the players if we could keep this activity to a minimum, allowing me to use my Wireframes. In return I would give everyone more starting money, to increase their initial options.

Failing Forward

Corporation lacks a Fail Forward mechanic; a tool I find invaluable in improv playing. This was an easy fix, and I proposed a simple house rule to include this into the game.

A Work In Progress

All of this is a work in progress, and our first session is coming up. I feel like I should be able to pull this off, but there are no guarantees. So this is by no means a final dissertation on the subject, but rather an experiment. If successful, this game will allow me to run the game in a way that I find interesting while giving the players the different experience that they desire.

Have you ever run a game for your own reasons, that were not complementary to some or all of the players? How did it work out? What were the challenges?