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 of 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.

I value playing rpgs over reading rpgs

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 understand the various impulses behind this, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea.

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. The world is different now, of course, with online play and online ways to meet potential players, but the structure of the problem remains.

(One factor in my view of this — I get very meagre enjoyment from online play, even with offline friends. It just doesn’t give me the same payoffs as face-to-face does.)

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. And they might have good ideas… but odds are they will have an unusually large number of bad ones.

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

I’m sympathetic to people who might be excluded from the discussing-rpg-online hobby because of this, because for whatever reason they can’t play with any regularity, but in the end I discuss rpgs online, and read online discussion, for my purposes, not theirs.

(Edit: A good related article, which Pandatheist on Twitter reminded me about, is Jason Manola’s RPG books as fiction.)

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.