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.

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.

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”

My session prep checklist

I have made a checklist for session prep (Word version). I haven’t used it much yet, but my hope it is that will do two things for me:

  1. Remind me to check things I tend to do badly. E.g. I am bad at giving out any treasure at all, even in games that need it and have guidance about it
  2. Give me ideas to try when I’m happy with my basic prep but want to improve it more

Because there is so much of the latter, I’ve split it into two parts (levels 2 and 3), with the second part containing things that are less important, more advanced. They’re the kind of thing I’d spend time on for a published adventure, but usually wouldn’t for a single session.

This checklist is explicitly for me, and only contains things that I have problems with and things I don’t always think to do. You’ll notice level 1 is missing a lot of basic activities. This is because I find them easy and natural (or don’t give a fuck about them, so don’t do them).

This list is not meant to help a rank beginner do this well. They would probably want something different, something more basic. And, as usual for checklists and processes, it’s no substitute for expertise — it just gives you reminders to use the expertise you have.

Question for the crowd — Does anyone else have an analogous list, in that it’s specific to you, that it only includes things you don’t instinctively do? What’s on it? How do you organise it?

Related question — What do you tend to miss when doing session prep? What do you do to remind yourself?