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.

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.

Some notes on fixing BX D&D

As Patrick Stuart notes, BX D&D is core to the OSR. It has clarity, it has concision, and it is very clearly “D&D”. It has a clear modern presentation in Old School Essentials. Sadly, it has some serious problems. Here are some fixes. Maybe later there will be more.

First, up the amount of gold needed to advance in level is absurd, unless you want advancement to be ponderous. I’ve mostly concerned myself with how to meet that demand, but if you read my articles about it you’ll find links that suggest other solutions. (the comments on those links are often good).

Specifically, look at the intro to Tomb of the Serpent Kings“Treasure amounts are balanced around the idea that 200gp is enough to level a single character”. That’s likely to be my model going forwards.

If you’re not writing adventures for others, I’d suggest you (a) give more than one xp per gp or (b) rescale all the level charts so they give the pace you want.

It’s not clear at all, in OSE or otherwise, how thief skills relate to the (obvious) ability of non-thieves to do those same things. James  V West has about twelve ways to fix that — start reading at http://doomslakers.blogspot.com/2019/01/once-again-with-thieves.html.

Requiring “Read Magic” to use scrolls is excessive. Give Read Magic as an unlimited-use ability to all Magic Users — http://doomslakers.blogspot.com/2020/03/read-that-magic.html.

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”

Some links about fixing Dungeon World

Dungeon World is eight years old now. Its flaws are naked, visible, throbbing. My views on it are very mixed — it’s a good system for largely-improvised high-energy adventure, but there are many things (from the plethora of move triggers to the bland nature of its presentation) that drive me to hot madness. It needs work.

Mechanically, I have worked on understanding it:

Meanwhile, several others have worked to actually improve it. In particular Jeremy Strandberg cannot cease from this labour:

Strandberg has covered various other moves in what look like good ways. Read his whole blog. Put those things down. Read it now. He is your god now.

Finally, see John Harper’s classic article on “Crossing the line”. It’s written for Apocalypse World, but it is True and Correct about Dungeon World, too. And it’s not in Dungeon World’s text.

Caveat on that — you can cross the line and survive. You can make a habit of crossing the line, and your game might still be viable. You might have a good time, and your group might eventually move to Scotland and found a successful anarchist commune. However, crossing the line upsets many people, especially when it’s a sudden jarring insertion into a line-respecting game. Look at the player in Harper’s second example. Imagine their face.

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)