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The Art of the Off the Wall Con Game


Renaissance Venice is sinking. Our heroes meet in a square, trying to form a plan to save the already historic city.  The pigeons settle around them, until one particular bird arrives with a message tied to its leg. My players immediately laugh, joking that the pigeon is itself the bad guy — and in this moment, the name that my villain goes by immediately changes to “the Pigeon.” His method of communication is now purely by pigeon and no one knows who he really is. But why stop there?  The submersible is shaped like a clam; the players tell me it runs on pigeons. How do you catch them and keep them to run this machine, I ask? We pull their wings off so they can’t get away, they tell me. All of this is logical—warped, but logical—and none of it effects my story or preparation, except that none of these players will ever forget this game. A year and a half later I am still hearing these stories repeated at conventions.

Why run a crazy game?

Since I run most games as one shots, crazy ideas don’t phase me. Yes, you have a clammersible and off we go! Unless it runs into a safety/comfort issue for you or your players, there’s really no reason to say no. In fact, here are my top reasons to make sure you say YES*:

*Your mileage may vary; not recommended for games that are intended to be scary or purely dramatic.

But my players will be out of control!

It’s important to note that absurdity in the shared world doesn’t mean that your plot stops, or that all your time and effort should be converted to handling ongoing jokes. What is key is taking the elements that your players create — remember that they’re invested in these pieces far more than anything you randomly create for them — and working them in to the shape of your world and story. Not everything has to be connected, of course, but it’s worth taking the things that make the biggest splash and connecting them in the background to your previous plans.  As long as the absurdity isn’t pulling your game momentum to a screeching halt, lean in to that interest and pull. You’re basically playing chicken with your players — building in layers of logical absurdity in your characters and world together. Sometimes players find the place where they stop pushing, and sometimes they don’t…it depends on who’s at your table. A game that runs in the land of sheer ridiculous one session can be comparatively tame the next. That’s okay. Everyone has a different threshold for gaming farce (you can hear mine on She’s A Super Geek [1]).

Ready to Jump In?

Okay, Senda! I’m ready to run some off the wall games! What do I do?

Well, there are some game systems that encourage more absurdity than others, but even good old classics like D&D can push the envelope.  Here are my personal key ingredients:

If you’re ready to run a whacky game and try saying yes to everything, picking a rules system that supports this kind of play can be a good starting place. A few of my favorites are All Outta Bubblegum, Lasers and Feelings, and One Last Job. Depending on the audience, All Outta Bubblegum can be made even crazier by stealing James D’Amato’s wonderful plan of using Cards Against Humanity cards to define things about your world (check out his episodes here [2]) — he used them for magic, but since I usually play it sci fi they become what alien tech can do to a human body or mind.

How much crazy do you allow in your games?  Does it matter if you’re running a campaign or a one shot? I’d love to hear about your crazy gaming moments! 

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4 Comments To "The Art of the Off the Wall Con Game"

#1 Comment By NikMak On May 11, 2016 @ 5:03 am

we are playing Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish Granting Engine at the moment – i think that fits into your category of off the wall 🙂

we go from serene flute playing and tea ceremony practice to the pc participating in a performance the 1812 overture – complete with a recreation in miniature of the Battle of Jutland with synchronized barrage blasts form the mini navy!

its crazy but fun. i do feel nervous going into each session but I am getting better at letting go of the steering wheel!

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On May 11, 2016 @ 11:24 am

It sounds like a ton of fun. As a GM, this isn’t the area where I’m strongest… well, except for the hot cocoa machine/santa’s elves game. Hmm… maybe that’s the trick–going into the game as the GM, knowing that it’s going to go somewhere wacky. That’d help keep you from tugging at cross purposes with the players.

Okay, I can see how you techniques and control points would work well for that. Thanks for writing it down!

#3 Comment By Angela Murray On May 11, 2016 @ 12:23 pm

I find I tend to walk a fine line with the crazy in my games. I love fun and humor and creativity, but I’m not a fan of cartoon slapstick ridiculousness. I think the issue for me is that when things cross my ‘crazy comfort line’ and get too silly, the emotion the players put into the game stops being real. When that happens, I disconnect and can’t really play or run properly for the game.

That said, some of my best games have been fueled by the players giving me off the wall. Monster of the Week, where the players decided they were a demon hunting death metal band and they defeated a demon at a desert rave by playing a killer guitar solo is one that stands out. It was as if Josie and the Pussy Cats and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a baby and it was born tattooed and ready to rumble.

#4 Comment By complexmath On May 11, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

I think it’s really important to note that roleplaying games are for the players. They aren’t platforms for you to tell a story you’ve personally decided is awesome. So running a game, to me, is exactly what Senda has said–listening to the players and reinforcing creativity via liberal use of “yes, and.”

The other job of the GM is more mundane and is basically about keeping the game on track. Not necessarily on track towards where you intended to go, but on track to go somewhere fun with a conclusion the players will find rewarding. It’s easy for creative players to totally derail a game, and so it’s important to find ways to keep things moving within the context of the story (again that “yes, and”). I find this to be a really interesting challenge and it’s a lot of what I love about GMing.

As for anecdotes, Senda mentioned that even classics like D&D can push the envelope. So rather than telling a recent story, I’ll tell a D&D story. A tale of my youth.

When I was a kid, my friends and I played a lot of RPGs. And because we did a lot of our playing while at school, things like books and dice just weren’t going to happen, so while we played D&D or Traveller or whatever (this was the 80s, in case the games weren’t a dead giveaway), it was basically freeform improv in whatever setting we’d chosen for the day. What ended up happening most of the time was that the only chance for survival was ingenuity. Creativity stood in place of dice rolls. Which is important to note because it set the tone for all games we played together, even when were older and had books and dice available.

So one day in high school (this gets grim really fast, because high school), I’d gotten my hands on a cool sounding D&D module and I wanted to run it for my friends. It took place, like most modules did, in a cave, and though we weren’t running a campaign at the time I thought it would be fun to have a bit of lead-up to the adventure. They started a few days journey from the area, and I figured they’d head into a nearby city, get pointed in the right direction, and we’d be off and running.

The first night they stopped at an inn some distance still from town and bedded down for the night. Or most of them did. In the middle of the night, one of the players decided they wanted to rob the inn, so they snuck downstairs, failed a few critical rolls, and were discovered in the attempt. Clearly, at that point, the only reasonable solution was to kill the innkeeper, and then murder all the other patrons in their sleep (did I forget to mention that this player had a thing for playing “evil” characters? now you know). That done, he decided it would be great fun to pose as the innkeeper, cook all the dead people into a stew, serve that stew to future patrons, then murder them in their sleep to continue the cycle. And since the other players fell in line, this happened, and it went on for a while. But it never occurred to anyone to tell me what was being done about the horses and wagons the patrons had been riding, and so before long the starving horses and wagons full of rotting produce began to draw unwanted attention. Thus ended what was meant to be a one night stay in a throwaway inn, nowhere near anything related to what we had planned to do, invented simply because travel time is a thing you can track in D&D and the players needed a place to rest for the night. The game continued in a similar vein, as everything with that group tended to, but the “Inn of Evil” remained the most memorable part of that particular adventure.

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