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.

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.

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.

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”

Some motivations for rpg prep are better than others

As a GM, There are lots of reasons you might want to spend time on prep. I’ve sketched out below what I think are the major ones.

Prep as support for play

  • I.e. your motivation is to prep so that your game is good when you run it

  • This is the healthiest relationship, both psychologically and for the health of any game community who sees you at work. It’s the one that best matches the ostensible goal, so least likely to be distorted by motivations that aren’t obvious.

Prep as pure leisure

Continue reading “Some motivations for rpg prep are better than others”

PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1b — Addendum to “Momentum and the Rollercoaster”

Previously, I talked about Baker’s idea of the “rollercoaster” that is Apocalypse World, whereby “real things, the dice and stats and so on, … give momentum to the fictional things”. I found his description pretty opaque [1], but managed to summarise it as “real-world actions are triggered from events in the fiction that are potentially interesting, and those actions make those fictional events more interesting”.

Mark Diaz Truman has since refined that a bit for me. He says Baker is talking about explicitly narrative momentum, a kind of energy in running game whereby a story is moving forwards. That doesn’t have to mean “following a pre-written story” [2]; it just means creating something that the players recognise as a story. As Mark puts it, it manifests as the “sense of making decisions that close doors and open other doors, of moving toward conflicts and decisions instead of just sitting and talking.”

In most games, the work of maintaining this energy lands on the GM, especially outside combat. PbtA rules, by contrast, often create momentum directly. Mark — “the moves themselves generate momentum. Even when you [trigger] a move and “things go smooth” a good move will generate new information and options that will pull you down the path of the story instead of just succeeding or failing on a test.”

In other words, the rules provide opportunities, building blocks, playing pieces, from which the the MC and players can build a story. And they put on pressure, rule out some things, make other seem natural or inevitable. This is often true even on 10+ (or 12+) results — PC successes can still have messy side effects.

As an example, Mark points to the basic move “Escape” from his Urban Shadows:

Continue reading “PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1b — Addendum to “Momentum and the Rollercoaster””

PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 2 — (Possibly) Graceful Collapse

In a previous post, I talked about a claim Vincent Baker made about Apocalypse World in a recent article. Here, I’m going to discuss another one.

In Section 4, Baker claims that PbtA games “collapse gracefully inward”. I.e. forgetting a few rules, unless they are from a small core set (e.g. the conversation structure) will have only minor effect on the game experience.

Questions that come to mind:

  1. Is that true?
  2. Is it more true than for other kinds of games (e.g. those that fall under Baker’s “D&D”, “point-buy”, or “Forge” design approaches? I.e. is this distinctive about AW (and, by extension, PbtA games in general)

I discussed those questions online, and concluded that Baker is right, with some caveats.

Continue reading “PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 2 — (Possibly) Graceful Collapse”

PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1 — Momentum and the Rollercoaster

Vincent Baker recently posted an overview of Apocalypse World’s design, consolidating points that have previously been scattered. His main claim seems to be that “PbtA” is a distinctive approach to system design, one that’s particularly well-suited to game prototyping, and that it is so because of particular properties of it that he describes in sections 3–5 of his overview.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the property described in section 3, where he claims that in AW all the “real things, the dice and stats and so on, … give momentum to the fictional things”. This is tricky, because it’s not obvious what it means for something in the real world to “give momentum” to something in a fictional one.

I think he means that real-world things “given momentum” to fictional events when real-world actions are triggered from events in the fiction that are potentially interesting, and those actions make those fictional events more interesting. E.g. rules can take fictional events and generate consequences that are interesting and exciting, that provide pressing dangers, difficult choices, and worrying lose ends.

The opposite here would be real-world actions that take a potentially exciting fictional event and resolves it neatly with no threads left hanging (no serious harm, no-one upset, nothing radically changed).

Insofar as AW’s real-world actions give momentum to the fiction, I guess this it does so by specific design of moves – defining move triggers that are potentially interesting events, and defining move consequences that are interesting and exciting.

As an enabler to that, you need to keep the group’s attention on the fiction, and you need to keep events moving quickly.

The opposite of that would be real-world actions derailling fictional excitement and momentum, e.g. checking multiple places in rulebooks, complex out-of-character planning, or a rules argument.

I think AW achieves attention and speed by:

  • expressing the vast majority of its rules as concise, self-contained moves
  • keeping a fairly strict policy of fiction->(one move)->fiction (rather than fiction->(multiple moves or others mechanical processes)->fiction)

My questions at this point are:

  1. Does Apocalypse World actually achieve this? Do many PbtA games achieve this?
  2. If so, is it for the reasons I list above?

From my reading and play (the latter mostly of Dungeon World, never AW proper), I’m thinking “yes to both”, but I’m interested in any and all other views.

Update 2 March 2020 — I’ve refined my understanding of this, and written a follow-on post.

Three things on games and rules and conventions and precedent

First, read this paper — Beyond the Rules of the Game: Why Are Rooie Rules Nice? The main take away is that the children there are using ostensible rules that aren’t about what they claim to be about. They’re not about discrete, clear actions in the game, they’re about an ill-defined way of interacting “nicely”. And that’s more important than the literal rules.

The article is about children of decidedly modest years. We adults are much more sophisticated. Does that mean we’re also more confused by our own smoke and mirrors?

Next, read Shroeder on Tuovinen on D&D play as a system of rulings with precedent. Tuovinen’s thread wouldn’t load for me (Forge archive structure has changed?) but Schroeder summarise it thus:

One fascinating document is the discussion of Eero Tuovinen’s D&D campaign. There, he treats D&D rules as oral tradition. If people remember a rule, it is applied. If a new rule is proposed on the spot, it is applied and if it remembered the next time such a situation comes up, it is applied again. The rules are what people can remember. Slowly, rules fade out and new ones fade in. It’s a living, mutual understanding of how the game will be played.

Third, read this Twitter thread by John Harper on how Blades in the Dark is no more complex than World of Dungeons. Key quote:

They feel similar to me in play, but one text leaves it to the players to figure out all the steps and methods, and the other text spells everything out. …

I’m pretty sure Harper is wrong here. Most groups, if they took World of Dungeons as a text, wouldn’t explicitly figure out steps and methods. They’d figure out something, for sure, but it is not “steps and methods”, not in the sense that Blades’ rules consist of that.

Finally, go and write your own blog post explaining the important connection between the three articles above that I have failed to describe or indeed to know.

(Bonus activity, for the very eager and alive — (re-) read Patrick Stuart on how BX/Moldvay D&D is the common language that makes the OSR space work, and try to work out how it can be true, given the above)