I mostly care about rules that help me shape the narrative

I’ve often been confused about how rules matter in traditional GMed games. But over time I’ve got clearer that explicit, formal rules are:

  • Huge for GMless games (there’s a huge space to play with there, with all kinds of interesting effects possible)
  • Nearly as huge for weak-GM games (think Inspectres or Swords Without Master)
  • … then progressively less important as the GM role gets stronger.

Justin Alexander then clinched it for me — “most RPG systems don’t actually carry a lot of weight, and are largely indistinguishable from each other in terms of the type of weight they carry.” (source). Most rpgs, at least those of a “traditional”, “mainstream”, big-book kind, are very similar to each other, having rules that cover much the same space of substantive rules about how the major game events develop. They often have huge fine-detail subsystems, but they don’t fundamentally change how the game plays out — they don’t change the kind of larger-scale narratives that it produces.

And it’s those large-scale narratives that I care about, whether as player or as GM. I care about how we shape the emerging story in meaningful ways. I can’t care much, any more, about fine details of how fireballs work or how magic recharges. What I care about is the big-picture shape of how the story develops, and whether I (as a player, as a GM, whatever) have control and/or responsibly.

The best explanation I’ve seen of this is Vincent Baker discussing the diceless core of Apocalypse World (see my post on that). AW’s agenda, principles and “always” say lay out rules for conducting yourself as an AW MC. They have you hand over a lot of responsibility to the players. They are not rules in a narrow mechanical sense, but rules of conduct that require human interpretation. If you follow a reasonable interpretation of those rules, they will shape how you GM. They will rule out railroading, rule out forcing the players to listen you, and rule out several other pathologies.

It’s those kind of fundamental rules that I find interesting now — those rules that have real power to meaningfully shape play.

The AW MCing rules are similar to broad-strokes GMing guidance like McDowall’s ICI Doctrine. That’s not presented as rules at all, but it can be interpreted as such, and if followed it can have a powerful shaping effect on play. It certainly shapes how I GM at the moment, in the way that e.g. a particular combat system wouldn’t have.

To summarise — the vast majority of rpg rules changes don’t change how the game plays in terms of the high-level things I care about. If the rules hand the GM arbitrary narrative power, and give them no specific responsibilities or principles, then the other rules details don’t much change how players can shape the narrative. And to me, that’s boring. I don’t want to think much about those unimportant details — I want to get straight to the substantive agreement about how we will really play.

Collected resources for interesting magic items

I often find magic item ideas online or in books. I quite often want magic item ideas when running or prepping games. I often can’t find the magic items I found when I want them

So I am going to keep lists of them here.

We should value playing rpgs over reading rpgs

Edit – I’ve been discussing this online and I don’t entirely agree with it myself anymore.

Edit 2 — Though it’s of course more complicated than that. Those discussions have shown up a number of related issues with reading vs playing (especially wrt designing-to-read). A good article on some of them, which Pandatheist on Twitter reminded me about, is Jason Manola’s RPG books as fiction.

A while back, David Perry said on Twitter “… I think we should not place the act of playing a game/content on a separate, higher plane of value than the act of reading and appreciating it on an individual level.”

I’m uncomfortable with this.

I associate writing-rpgs-to-be-read with the hobby’s nadir in the 1990s, when non-gaming writers churned out splatbook after splatbook with no understanding of play implications. It lead to a hobby with little value to me. I don’t want to see that happen again.

And this is a risk, because the reading-rpgs hobby is naturally robust, while the playing-rpgs hobby is much more fragile. It’s easy to buy and read rpg books; it’s hard to find good players, harder to find good GMs, and hard for busy adults to find time and space to play. Anything that moves rpg materials away from supporting the act of play is, consequently, risky to the playing-rpgs hobby.

Another problem is that people who read and theorise about rpgs, but don’t play them (or don’t play the kinds of rpgs they theorise about), can also damage the online discussion of rpgs. It’s very easy for them to get lost in theorising, compared to people who encounter the reality of actual play on a regular basis.

It follows from the above that we might need to place the playing-rpgs hobby “on a higher plane” in order to protect it.

What next for prep guidance goal-method cards?

About a month ago, I started talking about structuring GM prep guidance using goal-method cards. Those ideas had a more positive response, in multiple forums, than just about anything I’ve come up with before.

I’m not sure where to go with this next, though. Some people have suggested crowdsourcing a very large set, but at the moment I’m more interested in slowly refining the set that I actually use. That way, I can vouch for any examples I put up.

Nothing to stop someone else crowdsourcing such a collection, of course.

A video on the pollaxe and the horseman’s pick

Jason Kingsley has another good video on the weapons that medieval knights actually used on the battlefield. Top billing goes to the horseman’s pick, used from the saddle to hole the skulls of infantry. He also covers the pollaxe (note the spelling, from “poll” meaning the top of the head), which was for fighting other knights while dismounted.

Swords get only a brief mention — for all their symbolic value, they’re just not much use against serious plate armour.

tSoY-style Keys in AD&D 2e

Over on Monsters & Manuals, noisms dug some optional per-class xp rules out of the AD&D 2e DMG:

Fighters get XP for “defeating” enemies

Priests get XP for successfully using their powers, casting spells to further their ethos, and making stuff

Wizards get XP for casting spells to overcome “foes or problems”, researching things and making stuff

Rogues get XP for using their special abilities and, er, treasure

This sounds similar to (and was probably a direct ancestor of) “Keys” in the Shadow of Yesterday. There’s a pdf of that at http://downloads.darkon.info/pdf/tsoy.pdf — the list of standard Keys starts on p27.

I’ve had good times with Keys, but I’ve only used them in the kind of games (like tSoY) where we leap from scene to scene, resolving big conflicts in a single roll, and so forth. In a turns-and-rooms D&D game it would be harder to make them sing.

Rules matter, but you have to make them matter

There are lots of ways that rules, not just written rules, can change your game. I wrote a big list of ways they can do this.

But rules only work if you enact them. No rule can make you do anything, make your group do anything — you have to make rules work by following them.

This sounds obvious, when you say it like that, but looking at arguments online it’s clearly not obvious to everybody. I’m not sure it was always obvious to me.

Question — but don’t people generally follow the rules in rpgs?

No. People routinely ignore and customise rpg rules. Often for good reasons, but also often because they don’t notice, or don’t realise what they’re losing by doing so.

Objection — rules aren’t the only thing that matter

No. Of course not. Personalities, relationships, playing environment, skill and experience all matter.

(There was a trend at one time to make hierarchies — “people, environment, snacks, system, in that order”. Those are silly — you can’t pull a complex system apart like that. A good starting point is to think about bottlenecks or weakest points — a serious problem with any one of rules, personalities or play environment can make a mess of things.)

Objection — most games have basically the same rules

Yes. Rules can change your game, in interesting and desirable ways, but many rules don’t do that. Justin Alexander gave us good wording for this“most RPG systems don’t actually carry a lot of weight, and are largely indistinguishable from each other in terms of the type of weight they carry”. Most trad rpgs have the same very lightweight framework around major game events and “plot”-significant elements; to a large extent, they say “the GM decides”. They also have huge fine-detail subsystems, but those don’t fundamentally change how the game plays out — they don’t change the kind of larger scale narratives that it produces.

Once you step outside the trad-rpg circle, though, there are a host of games that can radically change the way you play.

Saying “system matters” is almost never useful

Saying “system matters” is almost never useful, at least in a public forum where you don’t know everybody in your audience and what jargon they understand.

If the reader doesn’t speak Forge, they’re likely to read it as “rules matter”. And that’s true, and worth saying … but there are enough Forge-speakers still in circulation that one might crop up and read it in a different way. Or, worse, derail your thread by starting a fight about what it means.

Such Forge-fluent readers are likely to read it as something like “there are a wide variety of factors that shape your play experience, including, but not limited to, explicit rules, and this can be investigated, described, and deliberately changed”.

But they might also read it as “the most important thing in gaming is that the whole group is on board with how you play — explicit rules, implicit norms, habits, and assumptions”.

Or as “rather than try to force your game concept into those rules you always used, you’d be better off trying a ruleset built for that kind of concept”.

(If you go to the Forge Provisional Glossary or the Big Model Wiki, you can find out the Forge definition of system, but slotting that into the phrase doesn’t help get to (1). You end up with ““The means by which imaginary events are established during play, including character creation, resolution of imaginary events, reward procedures, and more, matters”, which is pretty opaque)

So, if you want people to reliably understand what you say:

  • If you want to say “rules matter”, then say that.
  • If you want to say “there are a wide variety of factors that shape your play experience, including, but not limited to, explicit rules, and this can be investigated, described, and deliberately changed”, then say that.
  • If you want to say “the most important thing in gaming is that the whole group…” … etc

As ever, if in doubt, be concrete and specific.

Just don’t say “system matters”. You’ll just obscure your own message.

D&D 5e’s art and design is not all bad

I don’t like the presentation of D&D 5e. I particularly don’t like the art. If you’ve read There is an aesthetic that I want and a way I want to feel, this may not surprise you. But I can see its properties support the aims and desires of the creators and their audiences.

The key challenge for 5e is appealling to a very wide audience. It’s going for the broadest possible market share, and has a wide range of player groups who consider it “their game”. It’s not a niche-niche game, at least not compared to LotFP or Vampire or Burning Wheel.

And of course its owners want to get money out of it, or at least to maintain brand value that they can use elsewhere. And the fan base has diverse interests and values

First, some simple good things that are compatible with the aesthetic I’m describing:

  • Diverse ethnic and gender representation
    • (e.g. they represent “human” by a black woman who looks tough and is not sexualised)
  • The organisation of the text, the typography, and the graphic design are all very clear.
  • Their way of describing rules is very precise and consistent. It’s too precise, and too detailed for my liking, but there are advantages to pedantic precision.

Then, some things incompatible with my aesthetic, but that have other benefits:

  • Colourful, attracts the eye
  • Generally controlled and competent — doesn’t ever look very clumsy
  • Consistent with what a lot of people like – cf many video games, comics, and their associated fan art
  • Implies a fairly wide range of possible settings, in both environment and costume
    • (this is common to most generic system, and I find it off-putting — FATE and Hero Quest have the same problem)
  • Inoffensive to the vast majority of people [1]
  • Broadly suitable for children, even in the eyes of fairly censorious parents.
    • (And most adult owners will be happy for their children, of any age, to flick through it. So it can go anywhere in the house)
  • Not upsettingly gory or painful for almost anyone.
    • (Issues around this are killers for a fair few people. And even I, despite my commitment to things with extra tubes, won’t watch e.g. Saw or The Human Centipede.)
  • Possibly the background pattern has some anti-piracy value, making copies harder to print, or at least more expensive [2]

Footnotes

[1] Exception is a certain class of bigot. But I think most of us can live with that.

[2] Though may be a problem for people with limited vision? Though a comment on Stack Exchange suggests probably not.

An rpg prep checklist needs goals and techniques

Conjecture — A good handy guide to GM prep moves needs to have, for each move:

  • A goal, desire, or applicable situation — when should you use this? When is it worthwhile?
  • A name of the move/technique — as a reminder for moves you know well
  • A brief summary/prompt set — so you can do it there and then, from the aforementioned handy guide, if you’re moderately familiar with the technique

For example:

Continue reading “An rpg prep checklist needs goals and techniques”