Oblique Strategies for GMs

Tod's picture

So, as people know, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt once created a deck of cards called "Oblique Strategies" to serve as prompts for creativity. Although mainly intended for use by musicians, the ambiguous nature of the cards' contents can often be applied to other artforms, including painting, dance, and - to a lesser degree - story-weaving.

That's where we come in. Below I've listed the contents of the original Oblique Strategies deck. Some of these cards work just fine for GMs, requiring neither modification nor translation. But some of em need work. Let's address those.

How to Play: Select a card that seems difficult to apply to GMing, and then - using metonymy or metaphor, complex conceptual Fourier translation or sudden flash of irrational insight - rewrite it. If we rewrite all of those "problem cards", we'll be left with a GM's Deck we can print out and use to test the limits of copyright law. Yay Hegemony!


  1. A line has two sides
  2. Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities
  3. Don't be frightened of cliches
  4. What is the reality of the situation?
  5. Are there sections? Consider transitions
  6. Turn it upside down
  7. Think of the radio
  8. Allow an easement (an easement is the abandonment of a stricture)
  9. Simple subtraction
  10. Go slowly all the way round the outside
  11. Make an exhaustive list of everything you might do and do the last thing on the list
  12. Into the impossible
  13. Ask people to work against their better judgement
  14. Take away the elements in order of apparent non-importance
  15. Infinitesimal gradations
  16. Change instrument roles
  17. Accretion
  18. Disconnect from desire
  19. Emphasize repetitions
  20. Don't be afraid of things because they're easy to do
  21. Don't be frightened to display your talents
  22. Breathe more deeply
  23. Honor thy error as a hidden intention
  24. Only one element of each kind
  25. Is there something missing?
  26. Use 'unqualified' people
  27. How would you have done it?
  28. Emphasize differences
  29. Do nothing for as long as possible
  30. Bridges -build -burn
  31. You don't have to be ashamed of using your own ideas
  32. Tidy up
  33. Do the words need changing?
  34. Ask your body
  35. Water
  36. Make a sudden, destructive unpredictable action; incorporate
  37. Consult other sources -promising -unpromising
  38. Use an unacceptable color
  39. Humanize something free of error
  40. Use filters
  41. Fill every beat with something
  42. Discard an axiom
  43. What wouldn't you do?
  44. Decorate, decorate
  45. Balance the consistency principle with the inconsistency principle
  46. Listen to the quiet voice
  47. Is it finished?
  48. Put in earplugs
  49. Give the game away
  50. Abandon normal instruments
  51. Use fewer notes
  52. Repetition is a form of change
  53. Give way to your worst impulse
  54. Reverse
  55. Trust in the you of now
  56. What would your closest friend do?
  57. Distorting time
  58. Make a blank valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame
  59. Ghost echoes
  60. You can only make one dot at a time
  61. Just carry on
  62. (Organic) machinery
  63. The inconsistency principle
  64. Don't break the silence
  65. Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them
  66. Cascades
  67. Courage!
  68. What mistakes did you make last time?
  69. Consider different fading systems
  70. Mute and continue
  71. It is quite possible (after all)
  72. Don't stress one thing more than another
  73. You are an engineer
  74. Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics
  75. Look at the order in which you do things
  76. Go outside. Shut the door.
  77. Do we need holes?
  78. Cluster analysis
  79. Do something boring
  80. Define an area as 'safe' and use it as an anchor
  81. Overtly resist change
  82. Accept advice
  83. Work at a different speed
  84. Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them
  85. Mechanicalize something idiosyncratic
  86. Emphasize the flaws
  87. Remember those quiet evenings
  88. Take a break
  89. Short circuit (example; a man eating peas with the idea that they will improve his virility shovels them straight into his lap)
  90. Use an old idea
  91. Destroy -nothing -the most important thing
  92. Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency
  93. The tape is now the music
  94. Be dirty
  95. What are the sections sections of? Imagine a caterpillar moving
  96. Intentions -nobility of -humility of -credibility of
  97. Imagine the piece as a set of disconnected events
  98. What are you really thinking about just now?
  99. Assemble some of the elements in a group and treat the group
  100. Shut the door and listen from outside
  101. Is the intonation correct?
  102. Look at a very small object, look at its centre
  103. Children's voices -speaking -singing
  104. Feed the recording back out of the medium
  105. Towards the insignificant
  106. Simply a matter of work
  107. Not building a wall but making a brick
  108. Revaluation (a warm feeling)
  109. The most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten
  110. Idiot glee
  111. Be extravagant
  112. State the problem in words as clearly as possible
  113. Disciplined self-indulgence
  114. Always first steps
  115. Question the heroic approach
  116. Lost in useless territory
  117. Always give yourself credit for having more than personality
  118. Faced with a choice, do both
  119. Tape your mouth
  120. Get your neck massaged
  121. Do the washing up
  122. Convert a melodic element into a rhythmic element
  123. Spectrum analysis
  124. Twist the spine
  125. Left channel, right channel, centre channel
  126. Lowest common denominator check -single beat -single note -single riff
  127. In total darkness, or in a very large room, very quietly
  128. Would anybody want it?
  129. Retrace your steps
  130. Go to an extreme, move back to a more comfortable place
  131. Once the search is in progress, something will be found
  132. Only a part, not the whole
  133. From nothing to more than nothing
  134. Be less critical more often
nickwedig's picture

I remember looking through these and trying once to make a game out of them (for the Indie Games Mixtape charity project http://www.jwalton.media/mixtape ) but I never finished that game. The plan for that game was to hash these things out at the table as you played. Specifically, it used a different trick I've done for oracle play in lots of other games (based on a technique in A Penny For My Thoughts): You draw a card and ask two players to each describe what it means for the scene. Both give a description of what the card means in this scene. You then choose one to be the true one, and the player who wasn't chosen gets to be the person who next draws and decides.

Paul T.'s picture

...but it seems to me that the list serves its purpose well as is. I skimmed through and they all seemed like good head-scratchers... after all, that's the whole point, isn't it? For it to be, you know, entirely oblique? :P

Tod's picture

I agree that most of 'em can probably stay as they are, but there are a few that lean so specifically into music or sound production, I figure we could easily replace those with more fitting replacements for our particular creative territory.

Nathan H.'s picture

I don't find these kind of things incredibly useful, creatively. I mean, if you're stumped, froze on some detail or confused, a card that's not related to the why isn't going to help much, and don't you want yourself to ask questions?

I mean, if story is an attempt at making meaning out of life/death, it seems weird to place this in the hands of something that doesn't connect very easily with the meaning that was eluded to previously, or partly constructed.

Do you have these kind of problems crop up in rpgs? It just seems like a neat thing, more than it's filling a needful role. Do you get what I'm saying?

Story is all about the change of perspective that happens, usually through hardship. The Eno cards are an attempt to playfully change perspective, without all that story shit. They're an attempt at jump-starting a different creative view.

It's why I think I Ching isn't great for storytelling. Why would you want something that already answers/resolves the questions?

Nathan H.'s picture

I bought the cards a decade or so ago, and they weren't helpful to my problems(music-making), which are more logistic, real-world stuff. Like how do I get a bunch of people together to do this thing? How do I get time to do this? How do I make this and still keep my shitty day job?

I think there are "cool idea-things that we want to fit into role-playing games" and "idea-things that hopefully make an aspect of our role-playing better".
I think those are different things.