Monday, 21 October 2019

Let's Discover: The Nicobobinus Gambit

"This is the story of the most extraordinary child who ever stuck his tongue out at the Prime Minister. His name was Nicobobinus. He lived a long time ago, in a city called Venice, and he could do anything.
"Of course, not everyone knew he could do anything. In fact, only his best friend, Rosie, knew, and nobody took any notice of anything Rosie said, because she was always having wild ideas anyway.
"One day, for example, Rosie said to Nicobobinus, 'Let's pull up every weed on your doorstep.'
"'Let's not,' said Nicobobinus (which is what Rosie thought he would say).
"'In that case,' replied Rosie, 'Let's discover the Land of Dragons!'
"'Don't be daft,' said Nicobobinus, 'How can we do that?'
"'Because you can do anything,' said Rosie."
I recently came across a copy of Nicobobinus in a second-hand book shop and snatched it up. It was a vague memory from my childhood, which I probably read when I was about 8 or 9 years old. But something of it had always stuck with me - nothing much more than an evocative mood, really, most likely thanks to Michael Foreman's wonderful illustrations (which were always a winning combination with Terry Jones - see this old post for more on this), but one powerful enough to have never quite been forgotten.

The concept of somebody who can "do anything" deliberately going to discover a place which does not exist, and in doing so thereby calling it into existence, is fairy tale logic at its finest. But something like this also happens a lot in games, whether by design or otherwise. No, one doesn't tend to begin a campaign with the PCs announcing they want to discover a place one of them has plucked from thin air. (Although you certainly could.) But one does tend as the DM to create people, places and things on the fly as the players ask questions either in- or out-of-character. Hence:

Player: "I ask NPC X where he's from."
DM [who has just invented NPC X because the situation has called for it, perhaps because the players are in a tavern and asked something like "Who is sitting next to us?" and has given his background no thought]: "Er, he says he's from the land behind the mountain."
Player: "Ooh, I wonder what that's like..."

And suddenly there's a land behind the mountain where there was none before. One which the PCs might well end up visiting and which the DM is going to have to detail when all it was originally was a phrase which popped into his head in the heat of the moment.

I intend to call this form of knock-on creation the Nicobobinus Gambit from now on. The DM in the mini-scenario I just described deployed the Nicobobinus Gambit as an emergency measure. (It was an Emergency Nicobobinus Gambit, if you will.) But it is entirely possible to use the Gambit in a pre-planned way. The most obvious example I can think of is that DM beginning his campaign by sitting down the players and asking them, "So, where is your PC from? Make something up."


  1. I think you should let your childhood memories go. Worrying about it hampers your development as an adult. Adults playing AD&D should bring mature thought to the table. Nostalgia has middle-aged gamers Larping as teenagers at the game table.

    1. "To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown."

    2. Well said. FOr an adult, there is no longer any concern to be something other than what you are (with maybe a desire to just be a better version of yourself).

    3. That includes making type-o's.

  2. A "DM beginning his campaign by sitting down the players and asking them, 'So, where is your PC from? Make something up.'"
    This is a great idea to include the players in world building.

    1. There has to be a reasonably high level of trust among friends when doing it - but I always like to put stuff like that in a campaign.

  3. Apocalypse World makes heavy use of this. It gives the DM the traditional authority over describing the world, but explicitly instructs them to cede that authority to players, by freely asking them the sort of questions players typically ask the DM: about the circumstances, about what has gone on before, about the motivations of other people.

    A memorable (and copypastable) example:

    Here’s a fun thing to do: “Keeler, this person named III corners
    you that night. She’s fucking pissed off, she comes straight at
    you, fists first. What did you do to her?”

    1. Yes, I liked that aspect of AW. Has to be in relatively small doses I think.

    2. I find it works well no matter what system you are using. There are things that are definitely going to happen based on the shared "real world". Then there are things that haven't been decided yet. You can figure out what those actually are by asking the DM, asking the dice, or asking the players, and I find a mix of those three works well.
      But once it has been decided? That's it, no backsies.

  4. I think it depends on tastes and group dynamics, which is why I think AW is very right in not trying to prescribe a dosage. The DM gets to ask freely, and the players should expect to engage, but there's no defined areas of responsibility or amounts, it's up to the group find their own.

    I like how that makes it perfectly portable to other games, where a more traditional DM-world players-PCs split would normally be expected.

    1. Yes - I might make a post about that actually.