Lee's DM-as-Nature Mode has become a common way to play RPGs. It reflects the "everyone plays by the same rules, and you have to out-think your opponent" ethos of the wargames that D&D originated from. 3rd and 4th edition D&D and Pathfinder are the ultimate examples of it. John Wick stirred up a lot of controversy by claiming this mode of play is not roleplaying. Though most of us disagreed with him, it caused us to re-examine what the different tools in our GM toolbox really are for, and how we can use them better. The essence of DM-as-Nature is that it requires the GM to generate tension by designing "chess" challenges, where the players and GM play by essentially the same rules, the players are set up with advantages that will lead to their success, but the tactics they use to achieve that success are not easy and not immediately apparent. DM-as-Nature mode relies on the tactical situation (in combat or not) as a sort of puzzle for the players to solve, either as a chess match (active opposition -- fighting an invisible stalker) or a chess puzzle (passive opposition -- circumventing out a complex trap).
I'm going to re-name it Tactical Mode for its reliance on the adversarial tactical relationship between the GM and players in a scene where both play by essentially the same rules.
According to his own description, Lee's Cinematic Mode clearly covers two different styles of play, so let's break it up.
First, Lee describes cinematic mode in terms of actual cinema. "Sometimes everyone has just rewatched the Lord of the Rings extended editions and all the players are pumped to have an experience where they’re the heroes of the story, fighting supreme evil. They want to do amazing stuff, swinging from chandeliers to land in a silver punchbowl while severing orc heads. They want to live the fantasy dream. In this mode, I put on a movie director hat." This version of Cinematic Mode uses genre emulation (Lookee! I wrote an article about genre emulation on Critical Hits!) to activate the players' emotional equity invested in genre tropes, along with a host of other techniques to build tension outside the game system. Then it uses the game system to resolve them, often with some permissive GMing to let the players better emulate the protagonists of the game's genre. The chandelier swinging style Lee describes works for D&D's sword-and-sorcery fantasy, but this mode isn't always so over-the-top: When you're emulating gothic horror, you're not going to be leaping into any punchbowls. I'm calling it Theatrical Mode.
Then Lee describes a style of play he runs that's pretty goofy: "Cinematic is also the mode in which to goof around. You can let players make up the craziest characters possible, then do outrageous things to shock and horrify each other." But I've seen other GMs run this mode of play more seriously, simply setting the player characters up in situations where they'll be like a bull in a china shop, then letting the natural chaos drive the story. They're likely to screw things up, make bad decisions (in character), and fail checks (generating complications). I'll call this Improvisational Mode. It's not always as goofy as Lee describes it. Back to gothic horror, Trail of Cthulhu was designed to be run as an improvisational, investigative gothic horror RPG. I'll give it to Lee, though: The more improvisational you get, the more silly situations arise.
In fact, Theatrical Mode and Improvisational Mode reside on a sliding scale. At the extreme theatrical end, everything that happens is somehow connected to existing dramatic conflicts in the story. At the extreme improvisational end, events sort of careen off one another, and the players feel like balls in a pachinko machine, bouncing from one complication to the next until they reach an unpredictable end, which is pretty much what a game of Paranoia feels like.
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Let me illustrate with an example. If you've played under multiple GMs, you may have noticed that each GM runs most games they run in a particular way. Their style is more than just a little flavor on top of a common game.
In every game Anna runs, there is no black and white morality: What really matters is who you care about and the love and loyalty you have for them. When we feel tension in Anna's games, it's because she jacked up the threats to the people we care about. She loves the 5th edition D&D Ideals and Bonds, and a lot of encounters with monsters are run by narration or skill checks instead of combat, because they're often about something bigger than just "a monster attacks!" Anna runs in Theatrical Mode.
In every game Barry runs, we know there's going to be a group of important NPCs who are totally mishandling a crisis, and we're going to have to pick up the pieces. We'll have to go into some kind of dangerous situation they caused, and figure out how to fix it - and the tension comes from having to figure out Barry's tricky encounters, traps, and puzzles. He's a die-hard Pathfinder fan, but sometimes he runs Shadowrun or GURPS. Barry runs in Tactical Mode.
In every game Candace runs, we start off with a lofty goal, but we lose track of it real quick because we wind up screwing things up and spending all our time running away from or fixing the problems we caused. Candace generates tension by surprising us with awkward situations and unexpected consequences and complications, then making us scramble to pick up the pieces. She's been running a lot of old World of Darkness, because she loves riffing off our characters' Flaws; and she's very excited about the new edition of Apocalypse World coming out. She's thinking of demoing FFG's Star Wars games at cons.
In every game Dave runs, he lets us come up with, and sometimes even play the important NPCs in some scenes. He used to run Adventure! a lot, and now he runs Dresden Files and Atomic Robo because he's really into Fate. We sit around at "session zero" talking about what the big problems in the world should be. He takes a lot of suggestions about the events of the game and things in the world. It's almost like we're his co-GMs. Because we're really invested in the world, it can be really tense when his nasty bad guys throw everything we created into disarray. And ironically, he runs the best mysteries. Dave runs in Author Mode.
A Taxonomy of ModesLee's modes resemble the RPG theory concept of Stance (Recap: Actor, Author, Director), which elsewhere I describe in terms of bleed and sphere of influence. But they're a lot bigger than that. Still, the ideas of bleed and sphere of influence will be useful in understanding these modes and the clusters of GM skills that go into them. Another defining factor is how chaotic/random the GM's style is vs. how much everything is generated by the game's plots.
Tactical ModeCreate a puzzle that's hard to solve; that difficulty creates tension.
Tension from: System Wagers
Bleed: Lots of bleed-in as players are constantly using their real-life problem-solving skills. Actor, Author, and Pawn stance are common.
Sphere of Influence: The players have very limited sphere of influence, but so does the GM. The GM also has to follow the rules in order to make the world a mechanical place that the players can interface with using the player-facing system, at least "on screen." Once a dragon shows up, the dragon is limited to what Dragons can do in the rule book, so that the players can figure out how to beat it. If the dragon differs from the Monster Manual version, the Tactical GM will still use the rules, maybe applying Templates or giving it a spell from the Player's Handbook.
Tension source: The puzzle has to be hard to solve, but not impossible. The challenge of solving it generates tension.
System Note: More complicated systems facilitate tactical mode play, but only to a limited extent. The GM and players have to be familiar with the system to use it, and that can be troublesome with highly complex systems. Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Burning Wheel, and D&D are good for Tactical Mode play.
Sub-Modes (Colloquial Terms): A Tactical Mode game that's high on plot where the GM doesn't improvise much off the main course of events is often called a "linear" or "railroad" game. A Tactical Mode game that's low on plot can be a "sandbox," and if it's really, really chaotic, it's a "beer and pretzels" game. I remember the random dungeon generators in 2nd and 3rd edition D&D. If the DM canceled on you, you could just roll up a random character, enter a random dungeon, and collect random treasure. It was basically a board game, it got pretty goofy, and it was often really fun.
Skills: See: illusionism, system mastery, game balance, time pressure, GM-as-toymaker
Improvisational Mode(AKA Chaos Mode) Put the players in an interesting situation and let the players' decisions and die roll results generate complications; add chaos if necessary.
Tension from: The Unexpected
Bleed: Rarely is there much bleed-out in Chaos Mode, unless it's played very seriously. I've seen it played very seriously, with bleed-out starting fights between players, even. Improvisational Mode is strongest when taken lightly. It's baked into the dice mechanic for FFG's Star Wars RPGs, because Star Wars is best played as lighthearted space opera.
Sphere of Influence: The GM doesn't run as mechanical a world as in Tactical Mode, so the GM's sphere of influence tends to be broader. The players are open to surprise more, so the GM isn't as limited by the system. The players sometimes suggest chaotic action, and they can signal the directions they want the improvised events to move with their characters and their actions, giving them more influence as well.
Tension source: The system generates problems partly (or totally) at random, which the players resolve just like in Tactical Mode, but the tension doesn't come from the challenge of solving the problem - it comes from the unexpected appearance of the problem to begin with. Instead of creating the problems careuflly as puzzles, the GM lets them arise organically either from events (story improvisation) or mechanics (system-facilitated improvisation). The GM doesn't try to make things hard for the players. Instead, the GM lets the system and situation spin out challenging externalities that the PCs have to chase down and resolve.
System Note: Systems that have skill niches are great for Improvisational Mode, so Shadowrun, World of Darkness, and those sorts of games are great for it. Fate Core is also great for it (Fate Accelerated is closer to Theater or Author mode). The Powered by the Apocalypse series of games and FFG's Star Wars games have Improvisational Mode baked into the core dice mechanics. The idea of "fail forward" is a powerful improvisational mode tool. Games with character Flaws, like the World of Darkness games and Fate (your "Trouble" aspect) tend to be great for Improvisational Mode. 5e D&D's Bonds and Flaws also help run this style.
Skills: See "yes, and", fail forward, mystery design, complicated NPCs, sense of humor
Theater Mode(AKA Cinematic Mode, Stakes Mode) Manipulate the players into feeling tension, then use the system to resolve it.
Tension from: Emotional Investment
Bleed: Bleed-out is the goal here. The GM is trying to make you care about what's going on in the world. Players have to be willing and able to cooperate with the GM by choosing to have their characters vulnerable by caring about things that are outside their control. The players choose what their characters care about, and then feel the fear, pride, sorrow, love, and occasional panic that comes from what the GM does to the stuff they care about.
Sphere of influence: Like in Improvisational Mode, the players can signal the things they want to see arise in the story - this time by choosing what their characters care about. Further, the more the story revolves around the PCs' motivations, the more the GM can use them to build tension. Theater mode isn't just "the GM telling a story" but instead, the GM lets the PCs' motivations and connections drive the story.
Tension source: Bleed-out provides all the excitement. The GM uses social skills, the social contract, powerless mechanics, illusionism, and genre emulation to build tension to excite the players. Then the GM turns on the procedural system to resolve it.
System Note: Traditional game mechanics (attack rolls, damage, initiative, skill modifiers, etc.) exist to resolve tension. Mechaincs that cannot resolve tension and only serve to heighten it include resource management (hit points, sanity, rations, blood points), bond mechanics (mechanics that invest your character in things outside your control), powerlessness mechanics (mechanics that take away your freedom to act effectively), and influence mechanics (mechanics that allow/force you to rely on NPCs). Games that make players connect their characters to the world help by giving the GM levers to pull to motivate the PCs. Games with mechanics that emulate their genre well also help, because they let you use resonance to generate tension.
Skills: Tension building, stakes, illusionism, genre emulation, resonance, scene framing, EQ
Author ModeCreate a story together, using system to prevent one player from dominating. Tension is in getting your way.
Tension from: Authors' Will
Bleed: As you're usually in author and director stance, there's significantly less bleed-out, but there can be quite a lot of bleed-in.
Sphere of influence: Author Mode is defined by giving the players more influence than a traditional RPG does. At the extreme end, the players have quite a lot of influence. The breadth of the players' sphere of influence determines how "Author Mode" the game is.
Tension source: The tension inside the game world is not felt by the players, though they may empathize with the charaters. There's a meta-game tension between the players as they negotiate the story in directions they like best. Tension between the players is actually bad. The fun comes from the players inspiring and "riffing off" one another.
System Note: Author mode has a gradient/continuum. In Microscope, there is no GM, and the players tell stories, acting out scenes occasionally. In Fiasco, there's no GM, and the players control almost everything that happens to their characters. A game of Fate Core starts with the players and GM talking about what the setting is like and what the big problems of the campaign are going to be. Throughout the game, they can place Aspects (descriptors) on characters and settings, Compel NPCs to behave in specific ways, and even narrate their own defeats if they concede a fight. That's significantly more influence than players have in a D&D module, but not as much as a game of Microscope.
Skills: When there is a GM, the key skills are utilizing player input, improv skills like "yes, and" and passing the ball ("what do you think she's doing here?"), and facilitator skills such as step up / step back