How does system matter? (part 2: house rules, mods and hacks)

This is the second in a series of articles. In the first I talked about designer intent, and mechanical procedures.

As discussed in the previous article, designer intent is important but only so far as it is successfully communicated and/or implemented through the game text. We’ve talked about how the procedures of play can shape what the game is like: now let’s talk about what happens when you modify those rules through house rules or hacking.

First up, what’s the difference between house rules and hacks? I think it’s a difference of scope and formality, and can reasonably be said to exist on a sliding scale. A house rule is generally a focused change to the rules given in the official game, a hack is a much broader set of changes which, taken far enough, can become a completely new game. It’s a slightly arbitrary distinction but when you’re far enough apart on that spectrum, the distinction will matter, as we’ll see.

So starting with house rules: small, focused changes to the rules. In my experience these tend to come about when someone is playing a game, and a situation comes up that they want to handle by something other than fiat, but the official rules don’t give a mechanistic way of doing that. I emphasise mechanistic, because as we’ll see later, plenty of games give you tips or guidelines for making decisions in spaces that aren’t covered by the mechanical procedures of the game. But usually when a house rule comes about, it’s because the group wants something harder edged, that defines something you definitely can or can’t do, or that involves picking up the dice.

So we’re talking about discrete, focused, mechanical changes. They are the same as what I call “procedures”, meaning they are pretty much fixed in their operation: give them input A, they’ll give you output B (or perhaps randomly either output B or C, say). There will be interpretation about when something in the game has triggered input A, and how output B or C manifests, no doubt, but still – a fairly rigid mechanism that compels B/C to happen when A happens. And like other procedures, that means they force the game into a particular shape.

It’s useful to now contemplate the designer’s intentions again. The designer, we may hope and assume, has created a functioning whole: a collection of rules that work effectively to generate the type or types of play that the designer envisages[*]. Your intervention is hopefully giving you the type of play that you wanted, but it might push the game outside of its original parameters and into an entirely different play space. Or! It might not. Maybe your new rule is on just the same page as the designer, and it’s more of an incidental thing that they happened never to include such a rule – perhaps they didn’t have the space, or never thought of it.

Point is, by introducing a new rule, you’re changing the system. Maybe only a little bit, or maybe it’s more significant than that, either because it has a big impact on play, or because it interacts with other mechanical parts of the existing rules in unexpected ways. That’s a good thing! You wanted to change how the game worked, and that’s what you did. Just, it’s important to understand that you’re now playing a new game, and because system matters, that might make a big difference to the experience you have at the table.

An example may be useful. I was chatting to Ben Riggs on his podcast Plot Points the other day, and mid-way through a conversation about why Last Fleet isn’t a D&D hack, we came to an idea that you could allow characters in D&D to heal some hit points when they have an emotionally meaningful conversation. Ben was quite taken with this idea, and hopefully will try it out.

Here’s what I think will happen when he does: the players will start talking to each other about stuff that they never previously bothered to talk about, or at any rate will do so more frequently than they did before. Talking about feelings. Talking about things that give us feelings – happy or sad events, hopes or dreams, worries or fears.

More than that, if they’re clever they’ll start to set up stuff that they could talk about at some future juncture. Like, if you’re using the official D&D rules, the only incentive to introduce an ailing mother into your background is if you’re a drama llama who likes that sort of thing. But under the new Ben hack, doing this is an excellent idea, because when you’re low on hit points later on, you can talk about how worried you are about your mother and ker-ching! you get some hit points back.

And because it’s docked into hit points specifically, they will be having these conversations at a specific time i.e. after a fight. No point having the conversation just before a fight, in fact you’re squandering a future opportunity to heal! So you’ll get a rhythm: encounter, conversation; encounter, conversation. Now imagine if it was docked into the advantage system instead, so that you got advantage on your next roll. Or if it was docked into the XP system, so you just got some XP. That incentivises totally different types of play.

So you can see that even quite a small change to the rules could create a fairly radical change to the play experience. Now when you get into much broader changes to the rules, that’s the danger zone when it comes to system. Think of the system like a garden. If you plant a small herbaceous plant somewhere in there, it could potentially harm or benefit neighbouring plants, or those plants might harm or benefit it, but the garden as a whole won’t change that much. If you plant a gallumphing pine tree in the middle of that garden, you’re definitely going to change the look and feel of the garden, and maybe kill off some other plants. If you do that a lot, before you know it you’ve got a different garden entirely. And the key thing is, if you do it at random, the garden will be a mess, and many of the original plants may become unhappy.

Don’t get me wrong: a hotchpotch, higgledy piggledy garden could be beautiful and enjoyable. I’m not saying “you must design your game to be completely coherent and perfect”. But on the other hand if you simply throw things together randomly, you’re trusting to luck that it’s all going to work in combination. The more you venture from house rule to hack, the more you can benefit from thinking about that garden – that eco-system – as a whole, and designing stuff to fit together.

Ok, that’s enough for now. Next time I’ll start thinking about the softer stuff – venturing beyond procedures and into principles and culture.

This article is supported through the Black Armada Patreon

Become a Patron!

[*] But what about generic systems, I hear you cry! Well, so-called generic systems are generally promoting a particular type of play, too. D&D is sometimes held up as generic, but its systems aren’t designed to do just anything – for instance, they ignore completely the emotional life of the characters to focus on practical matters like whether I can kill this orc or get past this trap or seduce this guardsman. The designers of D&D thought their game would focus on orcs and traps and guardsmen, not hopes and fears; other games do the opposite. That’s the sort of thing I mean when I say the game is going to generate a specific type of experience.

How does system matter? (part 1: designer intent, and mechanical procedures)

There seems to be a mini-rash of “system matters” discussion happening at the moment. I’ve often found these discussions get lost in differing definitions – you can’t agree whether system matters if you don’t agree what system is. More importantly, different aspects of system matter in entirely different ways. So rather than debate whether it matters, I’m going to break down different aspects of “system” and consider what’s important about them. This will be a multi-part series.

Here’s a list of things I’m planning to talk about in this context. Possibly more will come up later.

  • Designer intent
  • Formal written procedures of play (“the rules”)
  • House rules, mods and hacks
  • Written principles and implicit directions
  • Unspoken rules at the table
  • Play culture

Let’s start with designer intent. You might think this is not part of system (and I pretty much agree) but it obviously shapes many of the other items on the list above, specifically the formal procedures, written principles and implicit directions.

A designer can have a greater or lesser focus on specific themes, a specific type of experience they want you to have, or particular styles of play that they favour. The important thing to say here is that designer intent only matters to the extent it’s communicated to actual or potential players. This can be done through the rules, through the background material, through guidance, through the game art, even through marketing or interventions on social media.

But let’s face it: in most cases, people will only have take in what’s in the game book. Anything else, no matter how important, is likely going to be missed by most of your target audience.

Regardless of how it’s communicated, it doesn’t matter what you meant when you designed your game, only what the players understand. This isn’t a philosophical point about the nature of meaning, but a practical point about the nature of game design. Of course different audiences will take different meanings from what you say, and with the variety of game culture that’s out there it is very likely that someone, somewhere is going to misunderstand what you intended.

In fact it’s even worse than that, because (in my experience) many people don’t properly read the rules at all. They skim, they grab the printouts and run, they make assumptions or ignore rules they don’t understand. This is one of the things that makes playtesting important, because you don’t know how people outside your circles will read (or not) your words.

Game design is communication. Communication is messy and imperfect. No amount of playtesting can eliminate misunderstandings. You aren’t designing a car, where the systems interlock and perform in exactly the way you imagined; you’re designing practices for humans, and humans never perform the same way twice.

Anyway, that’s a long and rambly way of saying that design intent is hella important, but ultimately once you put the game out there in the world, no longer matters.

So what does matter? Well, let’s get our teeth into what most people probably think of when they hear the word “system”: the rules.

Here I like to talk about procedures. A procedure is a structured way of doing something. It takes an input, and turns it into an output, according to a fixed, mechanistic formula. Or in the case of roleplaying, it more typically takes many and complex fictional inputs, turns them into fewer and simpler mechanical components, futzes around with them (in a structured, mechanical way) to generate mechanical outputs, which in turn are translated back into fictional outputs.

Still: the distinction I’m making when I talk about procedures is that they’re mechanical. No matter how complex your rules, the procedural parts of them can be boiled down into simple if-then statements. That’s not all there is to rules – we’ll get to principles and directions, later on – but it’s an important aspect of “rules” that dominates many people’s thinking, perhaps because everyone is familiar with rules from other contexts like board games and wargames.

But it is worth pausing to note that in a roleplaying game, you cannot activate a mechanical procedure without first making a fictional interpretation. Even something simple like an attack roll requires you first to recognise that someone has attacked someone else in the game’s fiction. You have to interpret the fiction to do that. “I hit him with my sword”, cool, make an attack roll. “Did I mention my sword is made out of marshmallow”, oh, uh… I guess not then. So, as I’ll discuss in a moment, clearly rules are important, they matter, but they only function as filtered through the human and fictional medium: your brain and the brains of the other people at the table and the stuff they’re trying to imagine together. (Maybe we’ll get back to that later.)

The key thing about procedures is that they are fixed. Once you’ve decided that it’s time to make an attack roll, you must roll a d20, and if it equals or exceeds the target’s AC, you must roll damage and subtract it from the target’s hit points. If the target’s hit points reach zero, they die.

Seems pretty hard-edged, and with examples like that we can all clearly see that the rules are going to matter. If the rules say that short swords do d6 damage, and a normal human has d8 hit points, we can see that humans will typically last a lot longer than if short swords do 2d6 damage and a normal human has d4 hit points, or if we skip damage rolls altogether and just say that a successful hit roll kills the target.

All this is deciding is how quickly we go from “roll initiative” to “everyone is dead”, but it will make a huge impact on the play experience. Would you want to start a fight if one successful hit roll will kill you? That will feel a lot differently than if you and your buddies each get 50 HP while your opponents get about 10. And that’s without even getting into whether the game includes rules for fighting in the first place.

So one way in which the rules matter is that they compel you to change the fiction, and they compel you to do it in particular ways. If your game rules say that one successful hit roll = death, you’re compelled to play a game where fighting is really dangerous, and so we either won’t have very much of it, or we’ll have a lot of people dying. If your game rules say that player characters have tons of hit points but NPCs don’t, we’re compelled to play a game where fighting is pretty safe for PCs, which is very different.

Compelled? Well, yes. If you use the rules as written. We’ll be coming back to house rules, play culture and all sorts of ways in which you can ignore the rules. But enough to say here: obviously if you ignore the rules then they don’t matter. Rules only compel you if you let them. Still, something isn’t really a rule at all if you don’t obey it, right? As long as you’re following the procedures to the letter, they really fucking matter.

One other way in which the procedures of play matter is that they generally cover only specific types of thing, not everything you could possibly do. D&D Basic*, the ancient and revered forefather of the biggest fish in the roleplaying sea, didn’t have any skill system. If you wanted to, I dunno, deceive a guard, there weren’t any rules for that. You could houserule it, you could make something up on the fly (and we’ll get to the ways in which a game can actively encourage you to do that, or not). But it wasn’t in the book, and that meant that deception was only a part of play if the group decided to make it part of play. Unlike stabbing things with swords, which was explicitly and formally coded into the game.

Now obviously many people put deception into their D&D Basic game. This may have been an inevitable consequence of the narrowness of the rules in that game, the massive gaps it left, and the incentives of play: obviously someone was going to want to lie to a guard at some point. Obviously someone would need to come up with a way to do that. And so a thousand house rules were spawned, and eventually D&D 5e. But meanwhile, there wasn’t any fixed way to handle deception, and very probably many games didn’t have it in at all. And practically nobody ran D&D without fighting in it. Because, amongst other reasons, that’s what the rules were focused on: fighting, not lying.

So that’s two ways in which the procedures of play matter: they fix certain ways of doing things by making them mechanical; and they channel you towards doing certain things rather than other things. Those are pretty big impacts!

Next up, we’ll think about some things that modify the procedures of play, and some things that aren’t procedures (as I’ve defined them) at all. The next article in this series is here.

This article is supported through the Black Armada Patreon

Become a Patron!

*Ok, it wasn’t called D&D Basic** back then, and many people don’t call it that now. Probably it wasn’t even the first, because once it was chainmail or whatever. The point stands.
** I’m told I should head of pedants by saying I’m referring to the original edition of the game, circa 1974. Honestly, I’m not even sure. If that version didn’t have skills mechanics, great, it’s an example of what I’m talking about.

Push and pull mechanics

A popular mechanic which crops up in a lot of excellent games is Conditions. A Condition is a problem that’s affecting your character, like “broken leg”, “on fire” or “suspected traitor”. The idea is that the GM will hit you with trouble when your Condition would be relevant, or penalise you when it would get in the way. But this doesn’t work as well as you might think.

The trouble is, Conditions hardly ever get used. Why? Because they require the GM to Push them into the game[*]. In other words, the GM has to remember that the Condition is in play and bring it to bear on the game’s fiction and/or mechanics. This requires the GM to divert their limited attention and make a decision. I found this out to my cost in recent playtests of Last Fleet, where a whole bunch of Condition-type mechanics just never seemed to bite.

There are various ways you can increase the salience of these GM-Push mechanics, to help avoid them disappearing into the general cacophony of demands on the GM’s attention. Taking a mechanic off the player’s character sheet and putting it onto the GM’s reference sheet where the GM can more easily see it, for instance. Or better yet, put it in big letters on a nice, visible index card that sits in plain sight right in front of the relevant player. But even so, that’s just greasing the GM’s cognitive wheels a little. You’re still putting the onus on the GM to turn those wheels.

But there’s two ways you can restructure your mechanics to make them work without needing a GM push:

  • Turn them into a Pull mechanic
  • Turn them into a Player-Push mechanic

Let’s start with Pull mechanics. A Pull mechanic is automatically activated in fixed circumstances, drastically reducing the cognitive demands of the mechanic. For example, where a Condition relating to an injury generates work for someone to apply it in the fiction, a simple Harm or Hit Points mechanic are much easier to track.

You might think that sounds kind of boring: am I really recommending Hit Points as a mechanic? Well, it needn’t be dull. The system of Marks in Night Witches is essentially a Hit Point system, but it’s one where every time you take damage, something interesting happens. It’s just that the interesting thing happens automatically. Whenever certain Moves are triggered, someone has to choose consequences which include taking a Mark, and when someone takes a Mark, the fictional or mechanical consequence is applied right away.

The other approach is to use Player-Push mechanics. The difference here is, you put the onus on the owning player to activate the relevant mechanic. A good example is the Conditions found in Masks: A New Generation. Although having the same name as the GM-Push mechanic mentioned above, these work differently. Each Condition is tied to a particular Move or Moves in the game, and creates an automatic penalty each and every time that Move is used. The penalty itself is a Pull mechanic: whenever you use those Moves, the penalty applies, so no thought or judgement required. But removing the Condition is a Player-Push mechanic: if a player wants to remove the “Angry” Condition, they have to break something important, which requires them to choose that action. Now a player character’s Anger can be applied to create interesting complications in scenes, but it’s up to the player to choose when instead of the GM. And there’s a clear incentive for them to do it, because as long as they’ve got that Condition they’re continuing to take the penalty.

Another nice thing about Player-Push mechanics, by the way, is that they hand more power and narrative control to the players. That’s usually a good thing in my view: it means they’re more engaged with the game, and it means that the trouble that is created is something they’re eager to get to grips with – after all they chose it.

You can even combine the two. An example is Pressure in my own WIP game Last Fleet. Pressure is used as a kind of Hit Point system, whenever a character takes harm but also when they take an emotional shock – a Pull mechanic that happens automatically when the rules say so. But players can also voluntarily Mark Pressure to get bonuses to rolls – a Player-Push mechanic that provides a clear incentive for the players to make trouble for themselves. Finally, when you get to 5 Pressure, you hit Breaking Point, forcing you to choose from a list of irrational or risky actions to take that will complicate your character’s life. Breaking Point is another Pull mechanic: it kicks in without any decision needing to be taken.

There’s definitely room for GM-Pull mechanics. In most games, part of the fun of being the GM is to exercise your attention and judgement to spot opportunities to make interesting stuff happen. You wouldn’t get to do that as much if only a mechanical trigger or player decision enabled you to do it. But, in the interests of lightening the burden on the GM and ensuring your mechanics actually come into play instead of sitting unused on someone’s character sheet, consider using Pull and Player-Push mechanics instead.

As a coda to this, I took three distinct GM-Push mechanics in Last Fleet and converted them over to a mix of Pull and Player-Push mechanics. I’m really happy with how they bring into sharp focus elements that were previously relegated to a minor role or just plain didn’t work.

This article is supported through the Black Armada Patreon

Become a Patron!

[*] Ok, to be fair, in a lot of games other players can activate Conditions too, using another player’s Condition against them. But the principle is the same – it requires someone else to think of the Condition and bring it into play.

Breaking down hard moves

Apocalypse World introduced the concept of Hard Moves, i.e. the individual interventions the GM makes in response to players’ actions and rolls. Subsequent PBTA games have tended to distinguish between “hard” and “soft” moves. But they vary wildly in how much time they put into explaining the distinction. Here I’m going to talk about the different ways in which a move can be “harder” or “softer”.

Before I get started I should pause to acknowledge that Magpie Games have done a pretty great job of talking about this in the past. Check out Urban Shadows and Masks: A New Generation for a particularly good treatment of the topic. What I’m trying to do here, building on that, is to break down and codify the different types of move “hardness”.

My thinking about moves is informed by my professional life, where I have some experience of risk management. Risk management is the discipline of recording and managing all the bad stuff that might happen to your business. Sometimes people use similar techniques to manage potential good stuff too (opportunities); and you can also manage “issues” which is essentially a risk or opportunity that has already come to fruition.

In risk management, we think about the probability of a risk coming to pass, and the impact if it comes to pass. You can have an absolutely terrible risk that would devastate your business, but which isn’t very likely to happen, or a fairly mild risk that would cause you problems, but is highly likely to occur. You’ll treat those two very differently, and its debatable which you ought to focus on. But for our purposes, you can apply a similar(ish) approach to thinking about moves.

Start with probability and a related concept, proximity. Let’s compare some scenarios where the GM is making a move:

  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher, and she’s fired it at you. It’s going to explode at your feet in a few seconds’ time. What do you do?
  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher, and she’s aiming it at you. What do you do?
  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher, and she’s aiming it at your party. What do you do?
  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher, a few metres away. She hasn’t seen you yet, but she’s about to. What do you do?
  • There’s a woman with a grenade launcher a few blocks away. She’s heading in your general direction. What do you do?
  • You get a message warning you about this bounty hunter, Screwball. Her favoured weapon is a grenade launcher. Apparently she’s taken a contract to take you out. What do you do?

Obviously, all these scenarios vary in hardness. In all cases, there’s a potential threat – a woman with a grenade launcher. What’s different between the scenarios is how definite that threat is (how likely it is that the threat will come to pass) and/or how immediate that threat is (how close the threat is in time or space). In all cases the basic worry is “I might get blown up with a grenade”, but the hardness of the move is hugely different depending on the probability and the proximity of the threat.

A caveat to the above is that in most PBTA games, if the GM has mentioned something as a threat then we kind of know that, if we do nothing, the threat will come to pass. There’s not really any such thing as probability – the GM decides what happens. Of course other games are different; in OSR games, for instance, the GM might well roll to decide if an extant threat heads your way or not. In that case probability can be a genuine factor. Either way, a move that is currently low-probability and/or low-proximity at the very least gives me longer to react, so it’s a softer move.

Now let’s think about impact. In risk management this is broken down simply by severity, i.e. where does this sit between being an existential threat down to simply a minor inconvenience. That applies to GM moves as well. But in roleplaying we can also think about significance, i.e. how much do we care about the outcome. Some examples may help to illustrate:

  • A gang has hired an assassin to kill you. What do you do?
  • A gang his hired a local leg-breaker to rough you up. What do you do?
  • A gang has decided to burn your house down. What do you do?
  • A gang has hired a local leg-breaker to rough up your nephew. What do you do?

Now obviously in the examples above, you’re more worried about an assassin than a leg-breaker, because the severity of the threat is lower in the second case. But which is more of a threat – having your own legs broken, or those of your beloved nephew? We don’t know the answer to that unless we know how significant your nephew is. If they’re your beloved nephew, you might put their wellbeing above your own. Similarly, what about your house? Losing your house is probably less severe than losing your life, but the significance is unknown.

Moves that are significant are often much more of a body-blow than a far more severe move that’s of lower significance. Here’s some fun examples:

  • Your hated mother has hired a local assassin to kill you. What do you do?
  • Your beloved mother has hired a local assassin to kill you. What do you do?
  • Your beloved mother has tears in her eyes. Her lip trembles but she hardens her face and says “Get out. I never want to see you again.”

It seems like having your mother target you with a move is probably more significant than when it’s some gang. But it’s a big difference if your mother is beloved or not. How terrible, that your mother – who you love – has gone so far as to have you killed! But the final example is perhaps the most significant: even though the severity is lower (we aren’t talking about life and death anymore, after all) having your beloved mother cut you out of her life might be seen as a “harder” move than the other two.

In my view, significance is the key to really effective hard moves, because they hit you in your emotions. It is worth reflecting, though, that a really significant threat requires some ground-work. My nephew is going to seem more significant to me, the player, if we’ve spent some time establishing who he is and building him up as beloved, than if he’s simply introduced as “your beloved nephew, who is now under threat from a local leg-breaker”.

Related to the above is target. We tend to assume that a move that targets you is harder than one which targets someone else. But that isn’t necessarily the case – after all, people will risk their own life to save that of someone they love. Similarly, we can ask which is a harder move: your beloved mother cuts you out of her life, or your beloved mother cuts your dying father out of her life? The answer, of course, goes back to significance, but I mention target as a separate issue simply because it’s easy to forget that you have the option to target someone other than the players.

Another layer you can add on top of all this is choice, because forcing people to make decisions automatically makes a move harder, and because a choice between two bad outcomes means it might be literally impossible to avoid both. The mere fact that you had to choose the bad outcome can make the resulting badness seem more significant, too.

The final variable I want to mention is sign, as in positive or negative. That is, we can distinguish between moves that have consequences that a character perceives as bad, versus those which have consequences that the character perceives as good. I mention this mostly because – just as most risk managers focus on bad stuff over opportunities – most GMs focus on escalating bad situations over offering potential rewards. It’s a totally valid move, even in response to a bad roll, to offer an opportunity. A “positive” move might even be seen as a fairly hard move in the right circumstances, if it’s an opportunity that comes with risks.

So that’s the seven ways you can vary the hardness of a move:

  • Probability
  • Proximity (in time and space)
  • Severity
  • Significance
  • Target
  • Choice
  • Sign

What techniques do you use to keep your moves interesting? Let me know in comments!

This article is supported through our generous supporters on the Black Armada Patreon.

Become a Patron!

Is it ok to fudge rolls?

I was bodding about on Twitter recently and I came across this:

Reading through the comments I saw a lot of pushback against point 2. People saying “But it sucks if some random roll means I get killed by an orc in the first encounter.” “Some players don’t like it when they die, it isn’t fun.” “It’s ok if I got the threat level wrong, so I’m just correcting my mistake.” “You shouldn’t have rolled the dice if you weren’t ready for that outcome.” And so on. This got me thinking about why people fudge dice rolls at all.

Now as I see it, the answer is pretty straightforward. People fudge dice rolls because their chosen game isn’t giving them sufficient discretion in decision-making. They rolled the dice, and what they rolled means they are forced to either implement a fictional outcome they didn’t want, or fudge the roll.

When this happens, it is probably because the game is premised on a simple linear process:

Someone makes an attack -> roll dice -> inflict damage (or not)

See how that works? As soon as the GM picks up the dice, they’re committing to possibly inflicting damage on you. Maybe it will kill you. But that’s all that can happen. They can’t knock you out, they can’t take your stuff and leave you tied up. They can’t leave you beaten but humiliated. And that’s just thinking about possibilities relating to us fighting. We haven’t even got started on how they can’t reveal a terrible secret that will leave you crushed and sobbing, or have a totally different threat raise its head.

My point is, I think a lot of people are playing games with what you might call ballistic mechanics. You get to choose whether to pull the trigger (i.e. roll the dice) but once you’ve done that, you have no choice in where the bullet hits (i.e. what the outcome of the dice roll is). You can solve the problem by cheating – by ignoring the die roll – or by using a system that fires smart missiles instead of dumb bullets.

There’s plenty of games out there which continue to give you choices after you’ve rolled the dice. A failure doesn’t have to imply a mechanically fixed outcome. If you’re reading this and wondering what games I mean, one good avenue to google is Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark, both of which give real, hard consequences to dice rolls – but in a way that gives you interesting choices rather than automatic pre-defined outcomes.

Even D&D (which I assume is what we’re all thinking about here) doesn’t need to be implemented like that. I mean, come on. It isn’t like you haven’t used house rules or not-technically-RAW “roll a d20 and I’ll tell you what happens” for umpteen other things. So why be a stickler about the attack roll? Why not say that on a hit, the orc disarms you, then headbutts you into unconsciousness. You wake up in chains. Hard consequences that generate more fun, instead of snuffing out interesting possibilities.

So if I’m so keen on interesting outcomes, why not just fudge the roll and do it that way? Well, like the Tweet said, this is about social contract. If you’re playing in a group where the expectation is that successful attack rolls lead to hit point loss and hit point loss leads to death, then you’re playing with fire if you don’t enforce that. You’re essentially saying “your choices were meaningless; you thought you were risking death to achieve your goals; you thought there was a point to me rolling these dice; but you weren’t and there isn’t. You might as well stop recording your hit points and stop rolling the dice because the real decision-maker is me, the GM, and I’ll ignore the dice when it suits me.” The whole point of systems with dice rolls is to create risk and drama and make choices meaningful.

The same applies to games where hit point loss and death aren’t automatic consequences of a roll, by the way. Just because I can opt to have you KO’d and captured by the orc instead of killed, doesn’t mean its all just arbitrary GM fiat. I have to abide by the fact that the dice were rolled, so something bad happens. I can’t just shrug my shoulders and say “nothing happens”. If I do that, I’m equally guilty of denying you the fruits of your decisions as the GM who refuses to inflict those hit points because they think it wouldn’t be fun.

But I think that a lot of groups in their heart of hearts don’t want a social contract like the one we see in D&D, RAW. Dying at an arbitrary moment because of bad dice rolls is not everyone’s idea of fun. I think that’s why we see so much fudging going on – because people don’t actually like what the rules tell them they must do. The point is, you’re breaking the social contract if people thought hit point loss and death was a possibility but it actually never was; but you can have a different social contract if you want. You have to ask yourself in advance whether you want arbitrary death or not. You have to talk to your group about how you play the game, and get their consent.

“Hey, I’d like to play some D&D, but I’m not really into the whole ‘one bad roll and you die’ thing, so I’m using a different set of rules. Ok?”

If you do that, then you’ll get the outcome you wanted – you remove arbitrary “un-fun” death from your game. But you get it without having to cheat people out of meaningful choice, and waste time rolling dice when you have no intention of enforcing the results of your rolls. Everyone can engage with the encounters you present, knowing what’s on the table and what isn’t.

Indie games aren’t all about narrative

I hear a lot of people saying that indie games are more focused on narrative or story. This is said in implicit (or explicit) contrast with traditional games, which are more… I don’t know… gamey? It often flows from the said people having read and (IMO) misunderstood GNS theory. So here’s the thing: it isn’t true. Or at least, it’s an extremely partial view of the indie market.

Let’s start with those last two words – indie market. I use them advisedly: “indie” isn’t a design school or a brand. It’s just stuff that’s independently published, meaning creator-owned. So indie games includes some stuff which is part of the OSR, or “trad” gaming. Yes, there’s some definite trends visible in the indie market that are different from those in the mainstream market, and so it’s not entirely unjustified to talk about “indie design”. The point is, #notallindiegames, let’s not pretend they’re all the same.

With that said, there is definitely a chunk of the indie games market that could be justly called “games focused on narrative”. My own game (with Becky Annison) Lovecraftesque fits into this part of the market. It aims to emulate the structure of a Lovecraftian tale, and it bakes that structure directly into the rules of the game, at the level of the scene. The rules literally require you to play through a series of scenes in which clues are gradually revealed, before playing through a rapidly accelerating scary sequence, followed by a terrifying finale. Similarly Fiasco has story structure baked into it. There’s plenty more where they came from. These games have “story” in their bones, and you know when you play them, at a high level, what kind of story you’re going to tell.

But a lot of indie games that are not at all like this still get painted with the “narrative” brush. A prime example is the Himalayan range of indie game design, PBTA, and that’s what I’m going to focus on now- though I think it’s true of wider indie design.

PBTA (well, most PBTA anyway) does not at all do anything to bake narrative structure into the game, except perhaps at the very high level of the GM’s prep. In fact PBTA is, to my eye, extremely similar in structure to more traditional games: each player focuses on one character, using their abilities and skills as the main mechanical interface with the world, but also interacting with it through straightforwardly roleplaying a character, with outcomes adjudicated in a fairly freeform way by a GM. Yes, there are differences – what is traditionally regarded as GM advice is baked into the rules, each player skill/ability has its own custom rule, and so forth – but at a structural level it isn’t really that different from (say) D&D.

The point is, “the story” is something that only exists after the fact. You play the game, you play your character, the GM describes the world and plays their NPCs, and only after you’ve done that can you look back and say what the story was. Just like traditional games. There’s no “narrative” in this narrative game, or no more than any other RPG.

So why does PBTA often get described as being a narrative game? I mean, partly it’s a branding thing. It’s part of the “story games” movement, which is strongly identified with “narrativism”. It’s probably partly because the rules of a PBTA game engage directly with the “fiction”, and are typically designed to never be more than one step away from re-engaging with “the fiction”, either.

But “the fiction” isn’t story. The fiction is just the game world, from the places in that world, through to the characters, the situations they find themselves in, the minute details of their exact position as described by the words you speak at the table. A character walks into a bar, two pistols cocked, and challenges the bartender to a duel: that’s the fiction. That character is standing next to a honky-tonk piano as she does it: that’s also the fiction. The honky-tonk is playing “baby elephant walking” and its middle C is slightly flat: also the fiction. None of this is story per se. None of it would be out of place in a traditional RPG. And probably this character will next roll to taunt or manipulate or intimidate the bartender, and possibly later to shoot at him with those pistols, and that will all be mechanically fairly similar to what happens in a traditional game. And again, not story.

I think it all comes back to the decision to describe one of the three prongs of GNS as “narrativism” or “story now”. Narrativism isn’t (as I see it) about focusing on “the story”. It’s about playing to engage with human issues, in such a way that it’s more likely to make a compelling story. But “the story” per se still arises from micro decisions that you make during the game. “Story now” is so called because you get straight to the interesting bits of a story, not because you in some sense consciously try to generate a story. I’m aware that like everyone else I’m no doubt misinterpreting goddamn GNS; but no RPG theory article is complete without that, is it? The point is, narrativism isn’t about turning roleplaying into story writing, and by the way (most) indie games are mostly not especially narrativist except to the extent that they empower you to play that way if you want to.

So what? Isn’t this just a tedious argument about semantics? Probably at some level it is. But I think probably some of the holy wars of the roleplaying community – the imagined conflict between OSR and indie and trad, for instance – are rooted in these wrongheaded ideas about indie. And I think the idea that indie games are “about story” makes them seem kind of intimidating and highfalutin to players who are used to D&D. The truth is, they are different from traditional RPGs. They do play differently – otherwise they would be the same game. But they aren’t a fundamentally different “story-focused” thing, so if you’ve heard tales of scary story games, those tales are wide of the mark. Maybe it’s worth giving them a try.

PBTA – Moves overload

Part of the job of a game designer is to consider the level of cognitive burden and handling time required to run a game, and pitch that at a level which works for the intended audience. I have been noticing recently how that counts in spades for PBTA.

The player-facing side of most PBTA games consists of a series of Moves, each of which has some sort of fictional trigger, and then mechanical steps you execute whenever that trigger occurs, which in turn feed back into the fiction. It’s the first of these – the fictional trigger – that makes cognitive burden a particular challenge for the PBTA designer.

The reason is that, because each Move has a fictional trigger, and because that fictional trigger is (typically) a fairly specific circumstance occurring, you have to constantly scan the fiction as it develops to check if that trigger has happened. Most PBTA games take as fundamental “to do it, you have to do it” and “if you do it, you do it” which is PBTA-speak for “if the fictional thing happens, the Move is triggered” (and vice versa, though I’m less interested in that here). This means you can’t just wait for someone to decide they want to use a particular Move and call it out – their actions in the fiction may mandate that Move.

Take a typical example from Night Witches “when you act up (by acting like a hooligan, by acting like a lady, by acting like a natural born soviet airwoman). This Move requires you to notice when someone is acting outside their normal social boundaries, and then decide whether that acting out fits with either of the three categories (if not, it doesn’t trigger the Move). So it’s a fairly complex, nuanced decision you have to take. You could miss a moment where the Move should have triggered, if you don’t pay attention.

All of this is therefore inherently cognitively burdensome, and the designer must therefore consider in each case whether that level of burden is worth the benefits delivered. Sometimes a complex, nuanced Move is worth it, sometimes it’s better to go for something simpler than might not be as precise.

Of course, it’s not just the complexity of individual triggers (though that is a factor), it’s the sheer combined weight of all the triggers that have to be considered. You could write a PBTA game with 100 basic Moves, but nobody could play it; they’d constantly fail to notice when they were triggering Moves, even if they were fairly simple.

This leads me to some critique of PBTA games I’ve played recently. They’re games I like and have enjoyed, and which are pretty popular, so hopefully it’s clear that I’m not going for a take-down of anyone’s game here. I’m using them as examples of an issue which needn’t be fatal to a game, but which I find difficult in play.

The first example is Sagas of the Icelanders, a game which attempts to emulate the eponymous stories of the early Icelandic settlers. In doing so, it imposes some quite restrictive roles on the characters, specifically relating to their gender. If you play a man, your Moves are focused on physical feats and (rather more complex) defending your honour and attacking the honour and dignity of other men. If you play a woman, your Moves are focused on influencing other characters (particularly, but not exclusively, men) through reason, emotion and sexual attraction. (The way this is set up creates a focus on male characters that is interesting but not the focus of my critique.)

Whenever a character takes action in Sagas, like every PBTA game, you have to mentally compare what they did to the Moves to see if one was triggered. Of course, you first have to focus on the correct set of gendered Moves, since actions that would trigger a Move for a man won’t necessarily do so for a woman, and vice versa. So gender introduces an element of complexity up-front. But – particularly for women – the specific triggers are quite nuanced. You can raise your voice and talk sense, but only to player characters. You can goad to action, but only aimed at a man. And because of the very specific and culturally relevant triggers, many things that intuitively feel like Moves aren’t. All of which is fine, but kind of hard work to parse in play.

Next example is Urban Shadows. Urban Shadows has Moves which are somewhat more intuitive (for me) than the likes of Sagas, which is a plus. Many of the Moves only trigger in fairly well-defined contexts (more on this in a moment). However, it has a lot of Moves. The Urban Shadows Basic Moves sheet has 15 Moves on it, not counting the rules on advancement. That is a lot of mental checks to go through every time someone does something! It’s a lot of possible mechanical triggers to remember, full stop. [Edit: discussion elsewhere has reminded me that the theoretical limit of human short-term memory is seven items, plus or minus two.] On top of that, there are four different triggers for advancement, and a trigger for corruption, that you have to keep an eye on. Again, this is fine, but kind of hard work.

So what can you do about this, if you’re designing a game? Well, the obvious stuff is:

– Keep your Moves simple, with straightforward, intuitive triggers that don’t require a lot of thought to judge.

– Try to keep your Moves list as short as you can. This in turn means…

– …focus on the Moves that really matter for the game you’re trying to write. Don’t waste your players’ mental space with Moves that aren’t all that important – PBTA lets the players and MC negotiate the fiction pretty well even if a Move isn’t triggered.

Another trick is to try and group your Moves by the context in which they occur. Apocalypse World, for instance, has Battle Moves. Including them roughly doubles the number of Moves in the game, taking it from a pretty simple half-a-dozen Moves up to more like a dozen. But you only have to think about the Battle Moves if you’re in battle. If nobody has any weapons out, you needn’t waste any brain space thinking about them. Similarly, Night Witches divides its Moves into day and night Moves, and in almost all cases you therefore only have to think about half the potential Moves at any given moment.

You might think that the Sagas approach is kind of like grouping Moves by context. Well… I don’t know what to tell you. That’s not how I experience it. Two characters are having a conversation, one of them starts to talk sense, and then I realise that person is a man, so the “talk sense” Move doesn’t apply. That small mental effort, repeated several times a session, is burdensome in a way that “am I in a battle right now” isn’t.

None of this is to say that you can’t write a game with complex, nuanced Moves. With lots of Moves. With Moves that only apply in specific circumstances that require a bit of thought to judge. All of this is permissible, and can be good design. But it is a cost that you are making your players pay to play your game. Make sure you’ve chosen punchy Moves that deliver something worthwhile, so that it’s a cost they’ll be glad they paid.

Some thoughts about GMless gaming

I’m a big fan of what is sometimes called GMless[1][2] gaming. I get things from it that I don’t get from GM’d gaming (whether I’m GMing or not). But there are also problems I or others in my group have experienced with GMless games, sometimes bad enough that it makes the experience unenjoyable. I’m going to use this post to talk about the good stuff and the bad stuff, and some things I like to do in my GMless design to mitigate the bad stuff.

This is the good shit

So why do I like GMless gaming? The main reason is simply that I love focusing in on one character, creating and developing them, advocating for them and pushing them along whatever journey they turn out to be on; but I also love getting my hands dirty creating and developing a world and situations, using those situations to create problems and opportunities for others and portraying more than one character. Some GM’d games allow me a bit of both[3], but it’s unusual for a GM’d game to scratch both itches at once. By contrast my best GMless experiences have given me both in spades. It’s a particular issue for campaign play, where I’m effectively committing to stay in one role for a long time – this nearly always leads to frustration that I can’t switch roles.[4]

There’s more, though! A big part of the fun of roleplaying, for me, is when I create something or do something and then others input to that in unexpected ways, and my own creation ends up going somewhere I couldn’t have planned or better yet boomeranging back and hitting me in the face. And while this does happen in GM’d games – everything the GM says or does can prompt unexpected action by a player, and vice versa – with GMless games I can literally create something and have someone else run off with it and make it part of something I had nothing to do with. A character I created could end up played by someone else, could literally hit my character in the face. The potential for creative interaction in a GMless game is particularly rich.[5]

Issues with GM’d play

There’s also an issue that can arise with GM’d play where the fact of one person having a superior position in terms of information and mechanical power leads to the rest of the players becoming kind of passive. At the extreme, it can lead to a sort of spoon feeding, where the GM is responsible for all the fun, and the players are only there to react to what they create. Many GM’d games have tried to break out of this in various ways (see footnote 3 below for examples) but it is devilishly difficult to create the mindset of active contribution once it sets in. In fact, it can be extremely difficult to get a group into GMless gaming, once they’ve got into this mindset – something I’ll discuss later.

Indeed, GM’d play can create a lot of pressure for the Chosen One who must turn up every week with ideas and energy. There’s no rest for them. A player can sit back and be a bit passive on a given session (or even over a whole campaign, if they’re so inclined). As long as they haven’t ended up in the role of group leader (which has some similar issues), they can engage or coast and the game mostly copes. This can be a plus for the individual and for the group, since the game doesn’t fall over if one person is wiped out. But by contrast if the GM is exhausted or not in the mood (or worse, burned out), the game cannot proceed. It dies. So many games have met this fate – I can’t imagine anyone who has played a GM’d game hasn’t experienced it. GMless play carries risks of its own in this regard (see below) but it doesn’t rely on one person to be awesome all the time.

Problems with GMless play

Alright, that’s my two big positives for GMless gaming, and my two big negatives for GM’d gaming. But I’ve said that I have had problems with GMless too – let’s talk about those. Let me say right now that some of these issues aren’t exactly new blinding insights, and there’s lots of tools out there for dealing with them, which I’ll talk about as we go.

Direction, energy and structure

There’s a big one around direction, energy and structure. Sometimes in the absence of a GM there’s nothing to stop the game kind of meandering or stalling. There’s several ways this can happen. One is on a scene-by-scene basis, where nobody really has an idea for what a scene should be “about” or where it’s going, and so it just fizzles. But then, on a story level, a bunch of energetic scenes may not really add up to much, and the overall arc of the game becomes frustrating or boring. This is I think a particular problem if a group includes players who aren’t used to being in a GM-like role, who tend to play passively and not want to push things in any given direction.

On the other hand, the opposite can happen. One person might be so pushy or definite in their ideas that they take over every scene and become de facto GM. Or two or more people may be trying to do stuff at the same time, creating a different type of lack of direction. And one way that this can spill over in the opposite direction is where people feel the only way to effectively contribute to the game is to fire exciting things at each other, in an escalating pattern that is sometimes called Going Gonzo.

Direction, energy and structure problems generally come from two things: a lack of common creative ideas, and a lack of structure in the game design itself. This can easily lead to meandering or chaotic play, and if players aren’t listening to each other and simply pushing their own ideas, it can also lead down the path of Gonzo. Fortunately there’s lots of approaches to help deal with this:

  • For the group, discussing and agreeing what the game might be about before the game, and perhaps during as well. Things like Microscope’s palette are simple tools to get yourselves on the same page.[6] Caerllion introduces the neat idea of a Lodestone which tells everyone broadly what the story is going to focus on.
  • For the individual, actively listening to others’ contributions and responding to them, as opposed to waiting for them to guide the scene to wherever they might be headed or trying to jump in and provide some impetus of your own.
  • For the designer, avoiding an entirely freeform approach to the game’s design, but helping to provide nudges towards the particular kind of play you want to see in your game. This can take many forms: you can create specific types of scene which help the players to focus on a particular kind of action; you can structure the overall arc of the game; you can provide prompt lists so people don’t draw a blank; you can mechanise the way that players contribute, constraining what they can do; and more besides. What you’re trying to do here is make sure that nobody comes to a scene without a clear focus, and perhaps give them a menu of approaches to reduce the risk of drawing a blank and reinforce the tone of the game.
  • (When it comes to introducing structure you have to be careful, of course, that you don’t remove all the interest from the game. There has to be player input to the action, else why play at all? The best structured games exert a light touch and leave a lot of undefined space where player creativity steps in.)
  • A particular approach I’m fond of is to explicitly call out who is responsible for the direction of a particular scene. I’m not saying someone has an idea and then railroads everyone else into following it (though you could do that). But in every scene someone – mandated by the rules – is responsible for framing a difficult situation, or introducing adversity, or preceding the scene with a question which everyone is trying to answer, or similar. This avoids diffusion of responsibility and reduces the risk of meandering; and as long as this responsibility rotates, it can help prevent one person taking over.

Mysteries, secrecy and black boxes

By the way, a particular subset of direction issues arises from the Black Hole problem, where someone creates a mystery or black box of some sort and then neglects to resolve it. For example, I introduce a character who is clearly up to something, but I refuse to make it clear what that something is and seem to be hoping someone else will make the decision for me. The bottom line here is that you shouldn’t do this, and not doing it needs to be a part of every GMless game’s guidance. It can be ok to introduce something and ask someone else to define it for you, but this does generally require you to explicitly ask them to do so, not simply expect them to guess that you’re hoping they’ll do it. So, it’s ok to have a mysterious stranger carrying a black box – but then you either need to decide what’s in it and make that true, or ask someone else what’s in it and be guided by what they say.

Related to the above is the general problem of secrecy. If I want to play a game with a mystery in it, one that is genuinely mysterious, it necessary to have a person who owns that mystery and secretly knows what’s really going on? You might think so, because otherwise two people with conflicting ideas might unknowingly undermine each other, and anyway how can something be really mysterious unless I have no part in defining that mystery? Having ownership of mysteries is not a bad idea – and it doesn’t necessarily require a GM, you could just make it clear when you introduce your black box that it’s yours, you know what’s in it, and everyone else should defer to you in matters black box-related. But it is possible to have a mystery that nobody owns without it not being mysterious. Lovecraftesque does this – at the end of every scene, the players individually and secretly “leap to conclusions” about what happened in the scene, so that everyone has their own pet theory about what’s in any black boxes that may have been introduced. And because only one person is Narrator at one time in Lovecraftesque, there will always be moment-to-moment consistency about what the black box seems to be. This does require you to pay attention in every scene, so that your pet theory remains consistent with everything that has happened! But I would argue that’s a good thing.

Role hopping

Another problem which seems to be more major for some people than for others is the issue of hopping between roles, so that you feel a lack of connection or commitment to any one of them. A particularly important subset of this is a feeling of not being able to “immerse” in a character, because you’re too busy trying to think about things outside of them. It seems as though there can be a conflict of interest – and a difference of mental attitude – between advocating for one character and guiding the “story”[7] or the broader elements of the game world, which can prevent people from really getting into either one.

This, it seems to me, is a challenge that hasn’t quite been answered by any one game as yet. However the approach we took with Lovecraftesque, and which I’m taking with my game Flotsam, is to avoid it by making role changes much more structured and well delineated. In other words, I don’t ask you to play your character and be the GM at the same time – I ask you to do both roles, but at different times. In this way you can dedicate yourself to one job at a time. Flotsam attempts to make this flexible, by giving you permission to step outside your character and make GM-like contributions, but also making sure there’s nearly always at least one person who is on point as GM, who will deal with any GM-like contributions when they’re needed, so that you have permission not to do it when you’re focusing on your character. Flotsam is being playtested at the moment, so it remains to be seen how successful I’ve been there. Another possible approach to mitigate the problem is to make parts of the game off-limits to GMly intervention, safe spaces for “pure” in character interaction where you can focus on being your character. Indeed, When the Dark is Gone applies such an approach to an entire game (I suspect it may also be a common approach in LARP, where GM interventions pose other problems).

Too much like hard work

A final problem to mention is the “everyone awesome, all the time” problem. The problem with everyone being GM is that the issue I identified earlier on, of constant pressure on the GM, applies to everyone. I’m expected to contribute to every scene, I have to be always creatively ready to pick up what others create and build on it. This can be exhilarating! It can also be exhausting. And it means if anyone comes to the game not really ready to contribute, then the game may stall. If a lot of the group are tired or feeling passive, then it can start to feel like a GM’d game where one person ends up taking the reins. It also can be off-putting for many groups who aren’t used to the pressure of being switched on for a whole session, or simply don’t want to have to be. This may explain why a lot of GMless games are designed for one-shot play: short, intense, and over before you get too tired.

I think this last is chiefly a problem for us game designers. We need to find ways to design our games that allow people to step back and take a break. Don’t create a setup where everyone is always on. (Or maybe do, but then make it a one-shot and/or encourage breaks.) You can do this by not having a fixed requirement on who is involved in a scene, so that those with the energy pick it up and get involved, while those who are tired spectate; or you can do it by having a fixed requirement by making sure that it rotates around, leaving everyone with quiet periods they can just watch and listen. Again, in Flotsam I’m trying to design a system that lets people switch in and out in a fairly flexible way, choosing how actively they want to be involved – we’ll see how well it works in practice.

Final thoughts

I’ll just finish off by saying that a lot of these problems can be solved on a group-by-group basis through a culture of listening, give and take, common ideas about what’s fun and so forth. Some groups may be so good at this that these problems don’t even arise. That’s great – but not every group has this, and it can be challenging to develop such a culture. As a game designer I want to help everyone to get a good experience from my games by providing tools which reduce these problems regardless of what group they’re in.

Ok! That was long. I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences or approaches to cracking some of these problems. Please do give your views in comments.

 

[1] “GMless” is sometimes replaced by the word “GMful”, which I believe to be interchangeable with “GMless”, and merely a way of emphasising that in a GMless game, everyone gets to be GM. I have also seen “GMful” used to mean a game where the GM role exists but different people occupy it at different times.

[2] As far as I’m concerned, any game that doesn’t have a single person who has primary responsibility for describing the world, playing the bulk of the characters (except for the “player characters”) and generating any adversity required for the game, is at least partly GMless. Sometimes that’s because the role exists but rotates, sometimes it’s broken down or structured and handed out amongst the group, sometimes it simply doesn’t exist.

[3] Games like FATE have mechanics that give me temporary ability to narrate stuff outside my character, PBTA games usually include a bit of co-authorship for the world in the form of question-asking, and arguably most GM’d games at least give you some creative input on stuff outside your character such as key NPCs connected to them.

[4] GM burnout being a good example – though that is also caused by the pressure that a highly GM-led gaming approach tends to heap on the GM.

[5] There’s a whole set of ways in GM’d gaming where you can create stuff that literally never interacts with anyone else. The secret backstory nobody ever finds out about. The mega-plot that nobody knew was happening. Even the notorious cases where the plot is a railroad, with the players forming a passive audience to it. I’m not going to say this can’t happen in GMless gaming, but the whole setup makes it pretty obvious to all concerned that if you didn’t say it out loud, it hasn’t happened yet, so secret plot and backstories could get nixed by someone else any time; and railroading is essentially impossible. Good!

[6] These same tools are useful for ensuring a consistent genre and tone as well – which can potentially be a problem, but in my experience much easier to solve.

[7] I put “story” in quotes there because I don’t buy into the often-promulgated idea that GMless games mean everyone just focuses on the story and everything else is secondary. This is not how I play GMless games at all! It is true that I sometimes take individual decisions differently “for the good of the story” but it’s very much not the main approach. I dedicate myself to the fictional situation and push it forward, while actively trying to get my contributions to engage with what others are doing, and I don’t particularly worry about “is this making a good story”. For me, story is something that doesn’t happen in any given decision or moment, and it’s something that one only really needs to pay attention to when things are going wrong.

The power of asking

Over at Department V, Smiorgan writes about Everway’s three methods to decide a conflict: Karma, drama and llama.

Smiorgan discusses the issue of who decides what the plot should be (in order to rule in accordance with drama), and how randomness (fortune) can introduce something new and unpredictable.

I mostly want to talk about the latter here. It’s a ubiquitous way to keep the game unpredictable: Pick up some dice and let fate decide what happens. An observation I make is that this is very often restricted to determining “can I do X”, which is in itself only one of the interesting things one needs to decide during a roleplaying game, but that’s a topic for another day. What I want to talk about here is an alternative approach to introducing unpredictability – one which I am increasingly favouring in my game design.

Here I am going to refer to the method as asking. More broadly, it is about giving away decision-making power to someone else. You see, your decisions as GM (or a player, for that matter) may be based on drama or karma or something else entirely, but to you they can seem predictable. You have perhaps already thought about what the needs of the story are, or what the demands of the fictional situation are, so making that decision can seem predictable to you.

So an obvious way to get the sense of unpredictability for as many people as possible is to spread those decisions around. I’m not talking about discussion and consensus; in many ways that feels like the most predictable method of all for resolving things. I’m talking about varying who makes the decisions.

In a traditional GM-and-players game, you get this a bit. The GM takes decisions about the NPCs, the world, and often some conflict resolution. so they provide a sense of unpredictability to the other players. And it’s often remarked by GMs how the players’ surprising actions make the game exciting and unpredictable. But it’s clear that the GM has much broader scope for making decisions, and it is they who provide the chief source of unpredictability outside of the dice: the question is not “what will happen”, but “what will the GM decide”.

What I’m increasingly finding is that having all the players involved in those GM decisions, by making individual calls, creates a fantastic sense of unpredictability for everyone. No one person has their hand on the tiller, so the boat goes where it will.

I’ve called it asking, because a very straightforward way to make it happen is by asking questions to another player. Instead of it being either the dice or the GM who decides what happens next, it’s another person whose mind you can’t read. And even the person you ask, moments ago, didn’t know what the question would be or that they would be answering it.

Similarly though, rotating roles (as seen in Microscope and Lovecraftesque, for example) ensures that the story isn’t moving in a straight line. Each person guides it a bit, and no one person could have forseen where it would go. In effect, here, it’s the system doing the asking, but instead of always asking the same person, it’s a different person every time.

It’s important to emphasise this is about one person deciding. If you turn to group discussion for this, you quickly find that you’re relying on negotiation, social dynamics and (often) a rather turgid laying out of the reasons for and against each course of action. This is far from unpredictable.

This is also the method that lies behind improv-based approaches to GMless roleplaying. Each person leaps forward and inserts their ideas into the story higgledy piggledy, like having a jam session. But what improv approaches tend to leave space for a small number of people (maybe just one) to dominate the game, subtly or not-so-subtly steering things so that they are not so much a product of the group as the product of an organising committee. This is why games like Lovecraftesque and Microscope impose a no-discussion rule, forcing every player to contribute to the flow of the game.

So there you go – karma, drama, llama and banana, I guess.

Anatomy of a roleplaying game (LONG)

Georges Cuvier, totally relevant to gaming.

Georges Cuvier, the legendary father of palaeontology, boasted that he could deduce the class and even genus of an animal based on a single bone, because the “correlation of parts” ensures that every component of the animal’s body are related. In other words, every animal is specialised for a particular way of functioning, and therefore every part of the animal reflects that way of functioning.

You can say the same of roleplaying games. There are plenty of games which boast of being completely generic, or of being able to handle just about any situation. But upon close inspection of even individual parts of a game, it is possible to discern a great deal about that game’s way of functioning. Just as an animal has a specialised “design”, games have a literal specialised design that can be observed in individual components of the game.

Before I go on, let’s pause to consider the difference between the design of a game – its procedures, guidance and fictional material – and the way it’s actually played. A game is, after all, not really an organism but a tool. We can learn a great deal from studying a tool, but its full functioning only emerges when we see how it is used. Even so, if a tool is well-designed, its designer will have envisaged a particular way of using it which the design will then promote and support. You can use a kitchen knife to cut paper, and you may even get quite good at using it that way, but it is designed to cut food and that is where it comes into its own.

Let’s take as a simple case study the so-called “traditional” game. This is a class of beasts rather than a single animal, but its members have components in common from which we can deduce a common function. I’m going to look at three such components: the GM; difficulty checks; and ratings for weapons and armour.

First and most fundamental, the GM. Games vary wildly in how they implement this component, but the “traditional” approach is for one person to exercise their judgement and creativity to plan a fictional setting and events, which form the context for a situation that same person creates, populated by people,

Your guide in the realm of…

creatures and phenomena that person describes and controls, regulated by rules that person adjudicates up to and including ignoring the rules in favour of their own rules or ad-hoc decisions. Everyone else describes and controls one character within that setting and situation.

Given that description of a GM, a game design Cuvier would conclude that this was an incredibly important role. The backbone of the game in which it featured. It is possible for a GM to take a highly collaborative, discursive approach, but the role’s natural oeuvre is autocratic – there’s nothing in that description I just gave about collaboration except at the interface between the player characters’ actions and the rest of the world. And because they control so much, they dictate the terms by which the other players must engage with the game.

Returning briefly to what I said earlier about the way a game is actually played, it’s really important to acknowledge that a lot of groups, whether their particular game tells them to or not, do in fact adopt this more collaborative approach. GMs may look to their players for subtle cues to help them craft an experience that will be satisfying for their players, or they may be much more explicit, discussing what the players want from the game and giving them creative input on setting and even situation. But that is not what the game component known as the GM is designed for.

No, the GM as a design component is clearly aimed at producing a specific experience: highly guided play, where one person decides broadly what the game is going to be about and then prepares and moderates the game accordingly. As an experience it’s close to a choose-your-own-adventure story, but with the vastly expanded flexibility for action implied by decisions being run through a human brain instead of a branching flowchart. I’m not going to go into a discussion of other approaches but it should be obvious that there are many other possible experiences a game could promote.

Moving on: difficulty checks. These

Polyhedral dice, how I love thee.

are a ubiquitous mechanic across a range of games, and in most games that have difficulty check mechanic, that is the single core mechanic for handling conflict (outside of combat which sometimes has its own dedicated mechanic). Characters have some numerical stat (attribute, skill, talent, whatever) and via some kind of randomisation they either succeed at a task (if they beat a difficulty number) or fail (if they don’t). Maybe there will be degrees of failure, yes-and, no-but, etc, but fundamentally the mechanic is about: can this character overcome this obstacle, avoid this risk, complete this task.

The fact that so many games make this sort of mechanic the core of their ruleset tells you one simple thing: they want you to tell stories that are about trying to do stuff and succeeding or failing. In other words, what Robin Laws would call “procedural beats”. There are lots of great stories you can tell that revolve around success and failure: action movies and police procedurals, for instance[*]. But, once again, there are many other possible experiences a game could provide.

Let’s also pause to note the link between these first two components: the GM typically decides when a difficulty check is needed, what the difficulty level should be and what the consequences of success of failure are. So in games with a GM, difficulty checks are a key tool that can and often are used to help the GM control pacing and dictate the terms of the story; they help to make the game even more of a guided experience. Once again, we observe Cuvier’s principle of the correlation of parts.

Finally, ratings for weapons and armour. A lot of games, and virtually all games that have both a GM and difficulty checks, include rules for inflicting damage on characters. This very often means a set of numbers telling you how much damage weapons do, and how good armour is at blocking that damage. (Sometimes the “weapon” is a spell, or the “armour” might be a mutation or something, but it’s the same principle.) In most such games, no other sphere of activity is delved into in that level of detail: we don’t (usually) have ratings for various investigative tools, or for how different types of terrain interact with stealth, or anything like that.

What this tells us should be obvious: the game is about fighting. We need all that detail about weapons and armour because we’re going to be doing a lot of fighting and we care about giving it a level of granularity (perhaps “realism”) that we don’t need for other areas.

Now this last one is so ubiquitous that many games that really are not supposed to be about fighting nevertheless include it. Call of Cthulhu is about investigation and being traumatised by gribblies. Fighting is mostly futile, and not a central part of the Lovecraftian genre at all. Yet it includes special skills for different kinds of weapon, and ratings for their damage levels (pre-7th edition, at least – I haven’t seen it). This is arguably bad design: it doesn’t seem necessary or particularly useful as a component of that type of game. Such games typically fall back on guidance to let you know what the game is “really” about, or a well-understood culture amongst the fan-base.

The point is, these are not “generic” rules or vanilla design choices, they support a specific type of play. Each of these rules reinforces that type of play, promoting a very specific experience. A single person plans and guides the experience, which is mostly about struggling with obstacles and fighting threats. Individual groups may graft on other aspects of the experience or house-rule or ignore the rules to get the experience they want: but a study of the anatomy of those games provides a clear view of what they’re designed to do.

[*] Aside: I’m not actually sure there are that many great stories about success and failure. When I think about stories I’ve enjoyed even within the broad category of “mostly procedural”, the heroes largely succeed unless they’re overmatched. When they’re overmatched it usually marks out the key obstacle of the story, which the heroes must then struggle to somehow overcome through cleverness, a macguffin, some kind of montage, whatever. It’s pretty rare for random success or failure to generate interest. But whatever, it’s a popular model.