Smart prep and conceptual density

Some good articles I’ve read recently:

  • Joseph Manola observes that good setting and adventure materials have a kind of conceptual density that makes them novel yet cohesive.
  • Justin Alexander has written two articles about what he calls “smart prep”. I agree with just about everything in the first one; I think that’s true for the second one as well, but I feel like I need to process it some more.

Joseph is talking about using third-party sources, while Justin is talking about making your own material, but there is a common theme — support material that’s no better than the ideas you can improvise on the fly is a waste of time. It’s not just neutral — it’s actively bad.

House rules — necessary vs fat

Nathan Dowdell (lead rules developer for Modiphius’ Star Trek) made a distinction on rpg.net between necessary and desirable house rules —

  • Necessary rules fix problems with the game. He needs to make the game playable and enjoyable for him. Making these is a pain; making these is work.
  • Desirable rules take a good game and make it better. They extend the game, adding new options or adding detail in areas he’s interested in. Making these is fun; it’s a leisure activity.

I see an analogy here to Zak Smith’s distinction between Fat and Skinny games — fat games have extensive library content, while skinny games just have the rules. Fat is easy to cull, easy to add; skin is not. Changing skin is hard work. Change the skin wrong, and all the fat falls out, and stains the carpet.

Nuances on ignoring rules

For my posts Why Do RPG Players Ignore Rules? and What Do Rules Ever Do For Us?, there are some important nuances to bear in mind.

There are at least three different kinds of rules

  1. Rules as Written (RAW) — rules coming from a single game text (or a set of designed-to-be-coherent texts) that is written by someone outside the group
  2. House rules — explicitly agreed (or at least communicated) rules used in play. (These may be developed by the group, be cannibalised from other games, be syncretised from blogs …)
  3. Conventions — informal and implicit table conventions, habits, and norms

Continue reading “Nuances on ignoring rules”

Responding to Burning Wheel -style Beliefs

I’m using Burning Wheel -style Beliefs in two new campaigns, the first time I’ve done so in many years. I’m finding my tendency is to challenge them directly — to say “Even if this?” or “Is that really true?”. This can be powerful, but I suspect it could be frustrating for players if that’s all that I do.

Michael Prescott has a standard list of Belief-response tactics, of which the above (“undermining”) is only one. The original was on the BW forums; a revised version is in a free sample of the Burning Wheel Codex. In summary, the tactics are:

  • Validate — make circumstances such that the belief is fully deserved (their arch-enemy is indeed a monster; the rightful queen is indeed wise and kind)
  • Undermine — make circumstances such that their belief is unreasonable (their arch-enemy is a great guy; the rightful queen is a spoilt, vicious child)
  • Flip — switch from validation to undermining or v-v (their arch-enemy surrenders and promises to change his spots; the child queen shows signs of maturing) Continue reading “Responding to Burning Wheel -style Beliefs”

On “Texts versus Culture”

Brendan S has written a blog post on how  some people treat rpg rules as primarily in texts, while others treat them as residing primarily in culture of a play group and its hinterland —

“I contend that one of the major causes of misunderstanding in discussions of tabletop roleplaying games is differential prioritization of where rules should live. At base, games are bundles of practices that can be stored and communicated in various ways. For example, baseball in the United States started as a game played by amateurs using informal rules that lacked textual basis. A social club wrote the first baseball text in 1845: the Knickerbocker Rules. Tabletop roleplaying game rules can also reside ultimately in culture or in texts.”

The post felt very important when I read it, and I felt I should blog about it. Now, several days later, I cannot remember what I planned to say in such a blog post. I know it indirectly lead to Why do rpg players ignore rules? and What Do Rules Ever Do For Us?, but I thought I had something more specific to say.

I remember thinking that this clearly relates to the comments by Zak Smith and Eero Tuovinen I summarise in Valuable insights into OSR play, and to my position in A Ruleset is an Intervention Tool (in Brendan’s terms, the latter talks about written rules as a way to modify culture).

If I remember more, I will put it here.

Why do RPG groups so often ignore the rules?

Status: I’m fairly confident of validity and completeness

Over on G+, Dan Maruschak laments that many rpg groups will not or cannot follow rpg rules as written. I said

“In most life contexts, believing written rules and procedures is of dubious value. When you enter a new community, you’re usually better to follow what others do rather than what the rules say you should do. The real rules — those that most people follow in practice — are unlikely to be exactly those that are written down.”

to which he replied

“Which is why I find it so aggravating that that “follow the written rules of a game” is such a hard sell. People can get no-rules everywhere else, why demand no-rules here, too?”

In other words, Dan is asking why people don’t take rpg play as a chance to enter a well-defined magic circle — to play, for a change, in an environment defined by rules.

I think the following reasons are all factors here:

Continue reading “Why do RPG groups so often ignore the rules?”