What Do Rules Ever Do For Us?

Status:  fairly confident in this now

Why bother with rules for roleplaying games? Whether RAW from a third party text, hand-crafted by the GM, or assembled by the play group through a democratic process, rules require effort to understand, require effort to remember in play, and may give weird, unwanted results at times.

So why not just freeform, using group consensus of equals or by appointing a GM and respecting their judgement? After all, freeform games are easier to set up and more flexible in play. And if you have a stable group, or a stable play circle, you can hone your freeform play with informal procedures and conventions that meet precisely your needs. Why try to impose formal rules on top of that?

In other words, what do rules ever do for us?

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Fundamental scarcity of attention

Attention is a critical resource to manage in game design. The enjoyment of players (and GMs) is contingent on getting it right. It’s particularly important when you want to move from “passable” to “excellent”. In design and prep and postmortem you will benefit from thinking hard about attention and where it’s going.

I know I’ve not been thinking about it enough because I’ve been distracted by other concerns in my designs and GMing (e.g. world simulation, inter-PC balance).

Design is about resolving conflicts between goals. And the biggest bottleneck in rpg design is attention. Primarily GM attention, but players too. And central to design is tradeoffs. For example:

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Why don’t I run Burning Wheel?

A player in The Edge of the Forest asked about Burning Wheel the other day, and there’s a Reddit thread asking “what is BW?” right now. The discussion in the latter focusses on the experience it leads to, on what Burning Wheel well and as designed achieves. E.g.

What is Burning Wheel?

Well, there’s this novel idea that whatever is the important thing about your game, you should design the rules around that thing. There’s a limit to how fast we can communicate, and so we abstract the things that don’t matter and focus on what does. I won’t go deeper, but there’s a whole philosophy to it.

Burning Wheel follows this philosophy. Burning Wheel says, “Who gives a crap how much gold you have or how many goblins you have murdered? That’s not important. The important things are those moments when you stand at a pivotal crossroad, where your choices either affirm your core sense of who you are or change you forever. The moments when you are purified in the crucible of decision.”

So the game is structured around your character’s beliefs. You roll when it is important to your beliefs. You advance when your beliefs get challenged. A character can wade through a battlefield of goblins and gain nothing, if he has no core belief challenged by the event. He can bake a cake the next day and have a life-changing epiphany if he has a core belief about bakery.

That’s why it’s awesome.

(https://www.reddit.com/r/rpg/comments/7t4usm/just_what_is_burning_wheel/dta0bv4/)

And I think that’s the right way to describe it — tell people, first, what it achieves. If they want more, tell them, how it does it. And it does do those things, so it’s important to tell people. I don’t know anything that does them better — nothing I’ve run, anway.

(Admittedly, the description above is inaccurate in details, and overstates how focussed BW is. If you want a more prosaic and accurate version, try the top-rated post in that thread — https://www.reddit.com/r/rpg/comments/7t4usm/just_what_is_burning_wheel/dt9um91/)

But I don’t run it now, and don’t plan to. Why?

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Notes on Mountainlands

A former player in my Mountainlands game asked me some questions to help him set up his own similar game.

The house rules and player guide — The Mountain Lands Campaign – player briefing v5

The player-created map as it stood after the 19 sessions we played — player_map_2015_04_06

 

Compared to more open styles / systems (where you adapt the game for players, improvise or fudge dice rolls) west marches seems more inflexible. Did you stick to this West Marches style or where you flexible behind the GM screen?

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Comments on Scum & Villainy v1.6

Status: May be obsolete, given the 1.7 release, but I haven’t checked in detail.

I’ve run seven sessions of Scum & Villainy, based on the 1.6 release that is current at the time of writing, and have tried to compose my thoughts on it below. This isn’t really a review, and is rather premature until the final release is out, but may be useful if you’re thinking of trying it. My primary audience is the S&V developers — I want to write my comments down for them before I forget and before they have to commit to the final text.

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Hitting Harder, Casting Faster

I’ve made some tweaks to the Immergleich rules.

Evening out the speed of combat

Despite considerable design efforts on my part [1], melee with comparably-strong opponents tends to take longer as PCs go up in level. High-end single monsters, in particular, take time to grind down. That’s tedious.

Complication — my previous previous changes have left high-end monsters already very vulnerable to big-hit special attacks (e.g. the Thief’s backstab ability, or the Magic Missile spell). So I can’t just further reduce their hp. I could reign those attacks in a bit, or I could increase PC damage more subtly. I have done the latter:

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Working with the Design Space of a Tabletop RPG’s Resolution System

I want to make decisions about the main resolution system for a game I’m designing, but feel stymied because I don’t know what the relevant design space is. I don’t feel confident that I know the questions I can usefully ask. You can see  a similar problem (while designing a different game) in my previous posts Combining Dungeon World attribute checks with LotFP skills, badly, and in Some numbers for Dungeon World rolls with LotFP skills — I’m coming up with ideas, and generating some stats about them, but I don’t have any clear idea of my goals so it’s all a bit aimless.

I want to know:

  • What is the space of plausibly-useful resolution systems that I can use for a game like the one I am designing?
  • How can I “navigate” that space for a particular game so as to home in on the system that gaves me game behaviour I like?

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