The Artifact random encounter tables have been updated to 3e rules and got a big addition. These tables have been really useful in our games and now they’ll be even more indispensable.
Category Archives: GM Advice
If you’re unfamiliar with the RPG Gumshoe, the central premise is that failure is usually less interesting than success. An investigator in the system, automatically gets clues if they apply the right ability, because not getting the clue is can stop the story dead in its tracks.
This always struck me as wrong. I couldn’t quite pin down why, it was definitely wrong. But why?
It’s the automatic success that bothered me. It does eliminate the problem of a game that has stalled because of a failed roll. In this case you have a problem with information flow so Gumshoe yanks off the valve that controlled it and declared the problem solved.
The solution is also not leaving the status quo. If the flow of a game stops, adjust the valve, open it up a bit more.
The premise for removing rolling is that for investigation stories, you don’t see the characters fail to collect clues. But that’s not true. There are plenty of times when Sherlock Holmes doesn’t get the clue. There are plenty of times when the Enterprise crew pass over information because they don’t know what to do with it, until later.
There are times when it’s just an issue of not having the right skill set but Gumshoe addresses that. I mean that there’s a skill that the character has and the clue is beyond them.
So I disagree with Gumshoe. It solves a problem, but not in a way that properly sets up the fiction.
What am I going to do about it? Propose a better solution. It’s one thing to disagree, it’s another to bring your own solution to the table.
Ask yourself, what is the most robust system in most RPGs? Combat. Most games spend an inordinate amount of time on combat and it’s effects. One reason for this is, it works. The most developed part of the game is also what attracts many players.
How well would combat work if you got one roll to take down a foe and if you failed, you cannot beat them? That would be a strange and very different game. Yet that’s what a lot of skill tests are in games. They were secondary to the early RPGs and so designed to get out of the way quickly. If you want skills to be more important to your game, they must have a more robust system.
There could be any number of things that you could do to model skill. My assertion is to go with what has been tried and tested. A contest that depletes a less skilled person’s resources faster than a skilled person. A contest that is not solved by a single roll. A contest that establishes how a person with that skill, overcame the test. This is basically what combat is in most games.
Let’s apply that to an investigation. The skills in use are not really in question, they can stay as is. The amount of skill can also remain the same for whatever game system you’re using. What resources are involved in an investigation? Usually the big one is time. The other is effort, a highly skilled investigator needs to put out less effort to get the same result as a less skilled investigator. Given infinite time and effort, it would seem that any investigation should be solvable.*
Is the investigation going to be solved by a single roll? No, that would be dull. Should each clue be discovered by a single roll? Maybe some, but not all. Each roll takes time, effort or both. Failure takes more time and effort without delivering results, while success delivers. Each clue has a certain resistance to being found. It would have a difficulty value that is worn down as rolls are passed. When the difficulty is zero, the clue is discovered
How much time and effort should a roll cost? If we use combat as a model, and damage as our model, some games have variable damage while others have a constant amount of damage. So maybe the result of a failure costs a variable amount roll a die for how many minutes or hours, maybe it’s constant. That’s up to taste.
Effort is the x factor here. Some games have fatigue mechanics, many don’t. But really, if you have more time, you can output more effort because you can rest and recoup. For games without fatigue mechanics, more time can be substituted but it misses the same in game impact of character’s getting worn out and still trying to push through the story.
That’s the mechanical end, how does this work out for the story? Each attempt at a roll gives a bit of how the investigators work at solving the puzzle. What skills were used? How hard a time did they have? Those have all been answered at this point by the system. There is still the question of how the clues get put together to solve the mystery. Should the players be given this task, or should they be able to use character skill?
The answer I like best is that if the players figure out how to assemble the clues, it costs them nothing. If they use their character’s ability, it costs them more time and effort. Again, assign the “solve” a difficulty number. If the players guess something right, it lowers the number. If they want to roll, that’s fine, but it will cost them. In order for the costs to really matter, there has to be a final showdown where the character uses whatever is left over to seal the deal, to get a confession, to convince the police chief, to finally track down the culprit. This way there’s an incentive for the players to think it out, but if they’re stuck they can still work out a solution.
This is really the same way I modeled Tech Challenges in the Fraction Column system for Artifact. It’s also how the energy system is put together. So, yeah, this is my solution, but I feel it matches the stories that I’m familiar with in mystery fiction.
*Unless opposed by someone with equal or greater skill, time and effort.
I’ve been making a mistake when GMing my games. I’ve been trying to jam more and more intellectual and social challenges into my games. What I didn’t realize is that some of my players aren’t interested in this kind of game and it wasn’t who I expected.
Maybe you already know this, but some players are workers and some are bashers. For some reason I always imagined that players usually start out as bashers and then eventually develop into workers. That’s not true though.
There’s something that is missed by a lot of GMs, because we are involved mentally in the game we imagine that the players are similarly mentally involved. Some, possibly most, are there to be entertained. They are there passively. Yes they roll the dice and go for obvious advantages, but they’re not making strategy and only take the lead when there’s a direct threat.
Now, I understand that this may be self evident to some GMs, I didn’t realize it because my players tend to be intelligent and don’t shy away from thinking. They seem like they’d make good workers. If you have players that overtly say “I’m just here to hang out and blow stuff up.” Then you know what you’re dealing with. Many bashers will dabble in intellectual challenges and even enjoy them. It’s not the center of their experience though, they’re most interested in some action and enjoying what everyone else is doing.
Workers tend to be the ones that develop the strategies, they take the lead in puzzles and social situations because the way forward may be less clear. They may be more interested in avoiding combat because it reduces their resources. They may be rules lawyers because they want to squeeze out every advantage they can out of the game.
Are workers better than bashers? It might seem so, but here’s something to consider. The majority of the populace are more interested in sitting back and passively allowing entertainment to happen to them. That’s not a level of intelligence or ability, it’s an approach to recreation. Would you rather have a healthy gaming group that’s happy and enjoying the game, or a small handful of players that are looking to take the reigns?
Bashers can be intelligent and imaginative but they’re in the game for the action, for the fun. Workers are interested in making the game happen the way they want it to. Bashers allow the game to happen to them. GMs tend to be workers, or maybe the role of GMing turns the player into a worker.
When developing a game, either for print, or just for a game that you’re going to run as a GM, there is a seemingly endless amount of world building that you can indulge in. The question is, how much world building is useful? How do you know how deep into the core of your world to go?
Most of the time, we think of a story setting as the players will experience it. Then we try and work out why the world is that way. In effect, working history backwards until we can explain why the setting is the way it is. Why do these people hate those people? What made people build this city? Why do people use a particular greeting? The problem is, these questions are endless. You can always work things a little further back. Most of the time, this is a fun exercise by itself so it could seem like there’s no problem with delving as far into the background as we can. There is however a rate of diminishing returns that we get from these efforts.
For one, it begins to be difficult to record and remember all the setting details. When it’s hard to keep track of what has been established already, you run the risk of players getting confused and breaking their immersion in the setting. The game may even break down into arguments and dissension. Some of the errors can be hand waved away but surprisingly often, setting errors and revisions effect the player characters.
There is also the danger of a setting designer trying to force the players to experience all the minutia of their creation. The designer has invested a lot of time into the setting, and it may be that the players are going to miss out on some of it. The designer might respond by railroading, or not giving the players the spotlight. In very small quantities, this may be tolerated, but it can quickly get out of hand. The designer should never be so invested in the setting that parading it out in front of the players gets in the way of playing the game.
With that in mind, here are some questions to ask yourself as you dig deeper in the setting.
- When would this setting material make it into the game?
- Would it make more sense to fill in this detail during play so I can adapt to the players?
- Can the majority of the setting be understood by a new player without a lengthy introduction?
- Can the players use this information more than once?
- Is the setting information so detailed that material has to frequently be looked up?
I have to admit that I am way past some of these criteria for The Artifact but that’s partly because it’s been played for over eighteen years. A lot of our adventures have opened up new territory for us. I wouldn’t expect another gaming group to play the setting in exactly the same way that we have.
A setting feels deep when it reacts authentically according to it’s own history and culture. Having peasants talk about their favorite bands is usually going to seem inauthentic. Peasants in a remote village usually would only get to hear music if they learned to play it or if there was someone that could play music in their local area. Your favorite is going to be everyone else’s favorite in town because it’s their only choice.
On the other hand, in a city full of millions of people are likely to have some kind of entertainment available. To not have an idea of what city folk do for fun is going to cause the GM to default to what they’ve seen before.
To avoid this kind of oversight, plan out the following.
- What do people do for work? (In the city, in remote areas)
- Where do they get the things they need?
- How much extra do they have? (Money, time, food)
- How much do people travel? (This is effected by how much extra they have)
- How does society keep order? (Police, religion, mob rule)
- What unusual thing is allowed? Why?
- What unusual thing is forbidden? Why?
- What do people do for amusement? (In the city, in remote areas)
- What pets/labor animals do people have?
- What are the important landmarks? (Cities, land forms, bodies of water)
- Who is important? (Heads of state, scribes, lawyers, warriors, hunters, etc)
- Who are disliked? (Garbage men, itinerant salesmen, immigrants, lawyers)
- What luxuries are most prized? (In historical settings, medicine is one of the most valuable commodities)
It’s unlikely that you have to go very deeply into any one of these questions to get the feeling of the setting. Beyond the basics, long descriptions are probably unimportant unless they are counterintuitive.
For a bit of flair, give the setting something unusual to hang on. Maybe the people here don’t use any utensils when eating. Maybe they really like big hats. You really only want one or two things to stand out because otherwise nothing stands out.
To make the setting seem really deep, pick something that society has gotten wrong but thinks they have right. It could be something about history or some pseudoscientific belief. It’s often best to assume the players won’t cure this ignorance with a simple explanation of the facts, so there has to be something to anchor their misunderstanding. All the better if the players take up the belief too.
In most cases, going any deeper isn’t necessary until the players are asking for more information. If something strikes the players as odd, they’ll ask. Otherwise, they aren’t looking for more information and more information isn’t desirable. Sure, if your game relies on the lineage of the emperor then go ahead and make it up. Isn’t it better though, to have left that kind of information open, until you need it locked down? Don’t assume that because you write it down the players will read it. The players are probably more interested in their own actions than what happened in the setting’s history. When they need a history lesson, culture lesson or geography lesson, have a helpful NPC explain it to them and keep it short.
There is an intersection in any game, where the player and the game structure meet. For nearly everyone, where that intersection lies it hidden to us. We just feel it out.
For example for video games, I like playing Sim City. I really liked Age of Empires. These days I’ve looked around for games like them that I might also like. But the popular interface in almost all the new games is wrong for me.
Some games just don’t feel right. I think this interface between the game’s structure and the player is something that deserves to be explored for a possible cause to that.
One aspect of this interface is control. Is the player the one that dictates what’s about to happen next, or is it the game? There are a huge number of variations of that one question. There is a texture of the interface. I think we pick up on it instinctively and we know what we want when we find it.
For me, I like a game that has a very heavy structure for low-level choices. Video games and table top RPGs I like have a rigid set of options but there are a large number of options. There may be dozens to hundreds of things that the player can activate, but the set is finite. For example, in an RPG, the player can choose to attack, defend or any of other concrete defined actions, there are options within each of those options. In a video game, I can build, destroy, move, with a myriad of possibilities within those.
But I like my high level options to be open. There is no structure that says I can’t make certain moves when I want to. Sim City is a good example of this. The play is open ended. The only thing that limits my options is money. In Age of Empires, there is no explicit winning strategy other than gather materials before you are wiped out by an enemy.
My likes in RPGs are similar, although this high level control is usually the default. In some cases it’s not though. Games that have phases of certain kinds of action bother me. Games that have scenes that dictate what can and can’t be done in them bother me.
Video games often limit a player’s options on the high level these days. Even building games seem to be doing this more and more by giving the player an endless string of “Missions” or “Goals” that you can’t ignore. A lot of them will not allow you to continue playing the game until you’ve accomplished those missions.
In these games, I wonder, who is in control? The player or the game? To me it feels like the game is playing itself an I’m just along for the ride. On the other hand, this kind of game set up is apparently very popular since there are so many of them.
I assume then that I’m in the minority in wanting open ended freedom to take the game where I want. That makes me wonder, is that a reason RPGs are not attractive to many people? Precisely what attracts a player like me, is not desirable to others?
This would seem to be bolstered by the fact that a lot of people that play RPG for a short time and then move on may be playing because of the GM’s style. Maybe the GM is giving them what they want, by sending them on very specific missions. They’re not there for the high level choices. They’re there to push the button, or roll the die that they’re being told to.
This might seem cynical but it seems to be borne out by the evidence. Games are obviously not a one size fits all endeavor. In a lot of situations, we have a lack of language to figure out why. So let’s try and create some language to talk about it.
Some games give some control to the player, others give control to the game. Although in RPGs the control can be shared between the two. It’s often up to a Game Master to set the levels of control. In some cases though, RPGs can set these exclusively to player control.
High Level Control
This is an open ended game that the player sets the agenda. There may be an overall mechanism for survival (this is usually defined in the low level), but beyond that, the player calls the shots.
Player Control Examples: Sandbox RPG play, many story games, Microscope, Archipelago, Sim City, Legos, building blocks
Mid Level Control
There may be a stated goal, take over the world, defeat your enemies, get to the finish line first. How to accomplish that goal is up to the player.
Player Control Examples: Traditional RPG play, many story games, Archipelago, Fate, Age of Empires, Risk, Chess, Catan, Sim City, Legos, building blocks
Low Level Control
The player can define how the game will work on a mechanical level.
Player Control Examples: Some story games, Archipelago, Fate (to a minor degree) building blocks, toy soldiers, cops and robbers
For me, I enjoy games with high level control (HLC) and Mid Level control (MLC) but tend to not enjoy games with low level control (LLC). For example, Legos. They don’t set the goal, they don’t set how to get to the goal, but they do have a low level set of rules that if written out, would be extensive.
Building blocks on the other hand, have almost no rules other than gravity (although I could glue them together) and their geometry. There’s relatively few mechanisms that enforce how they are played with. This makes them easy to learn, but also have limited options.
I think a lot of story games are in that way similar to building blocks. They’re easy to learn and there’s nothing preventing you doing what you want. However they don’t always have a structure that tells you how to accomplish the higher level goals.
Where do you fall in the games you like? Do you think this language is useful for figuring out what kinds of games you like? Are there other variations that you think would need to be accounted for?
Update: I thought of one more control level that’s worth mentioning.
World Level Control
This is the ability to define the world in which the game is played in.
Examples: Microscope, Possibly home-brew games since the GM is creating the world, Generic games like Risus and Gurps don’t make world level control part of the game but require it by default, I’ve included limited world control in a few games like SPF and my 24hr game Starpunk.
I know that there should be more of these out there, I’m not thinking of them at the moment though.
Yesterday, we looked at how sharing a character with others can go wrong. I don’t like to leave things on a negative note though. It’s one thing to have a list of don’ts. It’s another to have a useful list of do’s.
So how can we share and have it got well? Like I said last time, people are often willing to hear a GM talk about their games. I’ll add the criteria that they’re willing to listen when said GM is brief and doesn’t delve into all the minutia of their “well laid out” campaign plans. “Let me tell you about my campaign” can be nearly as painful. The important thing is that people listen to the places where characters, players and the campaign intersect. That’s where the sharing is worth while.
What does that mean? That when your character does something in a game, it’s more interesting than anything you planned out on the character sheet. What you planned out on the character sheet may have made it possible for you to do cool things but stick to the action. It’s even more interesting when you ran into something you thought you couldn’t handle and then pulled it off anyway. Emphasize the reason you thought you weren’t going to make it. That’s your hook. That’s how you get your listener to say “I wonder what happened next!”
GMs are used to dealing with hooks, but hooks are something that work when you want to share a story.
Show what it’s like to have your character interact with the other PCs and the GM. Is there a funny conversation you can relate?
Is there a part where your character became pivotal to the campaign? That could be an interesting story too. Is that something the GM planned? Was it something that happened by accident?
You want to focus on the action of the game, it doesn’t have to be the fighting but is should be where something happened. Got the deal you wanted on the new equipment? Didn’t get it? Had a funny interaction with an NPC?
The intersection of the players and the rules can sometimes be interesting, but the feelings you have during those interactions are more important. Rolling two or three perfect rolls in a row is not that significant. The feeling it gave you is. “I rolled three perfect rolls! Do you know what the chances of that are?” is a dull conversation piece. “I rolled three perfect rolls in a row! Do you know how good that felt? It was amazing!” is something that will get even veteran players nodding their head. Positive feelings and energy are infectious.
Some things are just general good conversation rules. Remember shorter is better. Enthusiasm can make us ramble but fight it! Know when the story is done and make it time for someone else to talk. Maybe they’ll ask you to continue, that’s a sign that you’re doing well but again, give room for them to talk if they want to. Or maybe they have to do something and would like the story to end so they can. Give your listener that dignity. They’ll appreciate it.
So tell me your character’s story. Tell me your story. That’s something unique. That’s something entertaining. Lets learn to share so that it’s not just the guys at our table that get to share our experience. Let’s get good at brining in people from outside our gaming group in on the fun we’ve had. Maybe they’ll join you in your next game.
Cringe! That phrase is probably the most frightful thing a game designer can be cornered with. On the one hand, it’s your game, and you want to reward the player’s enthusiasm for your game. On the other, your brain is screaming “Dull! Boring! Painful!”.
Why is this? Where is the player’s enthusiasm for the thing they’ve built, failing to come out as an interesting story? You have people that pride themselves in complex back stories and acting out what their character would do, telling a painfully dull explanation of their character.
Maybe it’s because we’re given tools for playing the games but we’re not given tools to tell people about them. Lets look at some examples of other story telling that is boring and see what it teaches us.
“Mary Sue” is a label given to a character that is good at everything. A Mary Sue is often seen in fanfic writing where an enthusiastic fan is writing about their favorite character. The beloved character overcomes every obstacle with ease, nothing can stop them. Mary Sue characters are boring. Any enjoyment from a story featuring such a character is purely on the part of the writer.
A lot of player characters are Mary Sues. At least their player is trying to make them into one. At one time, most of us tried to build an uber character that would beat everything in their path. It can be an interesting goal, it can be highly rewarding to reach toward. Once a character gets to that point, they usually get retired. Why? They’re no longer fun to play. They’re not making an interesting story anymore.
What do we learn from this? Telling about all the monsters you can beat and all the toys you have is dull. Telling me about your “fascinating” back story is usually an exercise in Mary Sue character building.
Why does this fail? After some examination, “legitimate” characters might seem like they fall into this category.
It’s not the skill of a character that’s interesting. It’s the challenges they face. But the challenges don’t usually get written down on the character sheet. It’s the GM that comes up with challenges. People will much more often listen to a GM’s tale of the games they’re running or even the plots they’re concocting, than listen to a character’s back story.
The second area that players run into when telling about their characters is they focus too much on stats and possessions. Do you want to read a book full of measurements of Mount Rushmore, or would you rather hear a story about the faces carved into the rock, why they’re important, and the great effort that it took to do the work and the current efforts to preserve it? Obviously it’s the latter.
Why? Stats tell a story but a good story, shows. There’s a huge difference in telling the story and making the listener feel like they’re in the middle of it. Showing them what it’s like to be there. Yes, on occasion a stat may be important but they’re rare, often one time thing and they should be connected to a story the tells the listener what it would be like to have such a good stat.
Early players frequently obsess about stats, but stats enable great things to happen. They aren’t great things happening.
These are two of the reasons that “Let me tell you about my character” fails. Next, let’s see if there’s a good way to share a character with others and make it interesting.
RPGs are complicated webs of a game. They can be immensely satisfying or to many, far too dense to cut through to find satisfaction. For a while, a number of game designers (myself included) thought that maybe, if you could explain the kernel of what makes an RPG fun, you could help more people play.
That may still be a goal worth chasing.
In the process, we found that the fun being had was very deep and difficult to describe. Maybe too deep for some.
I tried my own interpretations multiple times. I focus on the ground level, the technical so a lot of my efforts fell flat but I’ve gotten closer over time.
The experience of playing RPGs can be likened to a number of entertainment experiences. Reading a book, watching a movie, playing a board game among others. The simple reason for that is they all are telling a story. Most are where you the one being entertained is passive. Some, when likening to other kinds of games, you’re more active. But you’re telling a story.
There’s been a lot made of this and some have reacted by saying that if it’s just a story we want, who needs rules? Let’s just freeform it. After all, the only thing those rules are doing is getting in my way.
But we’re not just here to tell a story. That’s why freeform isn’t more popular than traditional games.
We’re here for a shared experience.
What’s the difference? What does that even mean? A story is a series of events that are interesting in some way. A shared experience is what happens when we all agree to the same story.
When we all watch a movie and one person hates it, you don’t go quoting the movie with them. It’s almost like they’ve rejected that experience. Even if you loved it, you don’t share it.
But when a beloved movie is quoted, everyone chimes in. You can trigger the emotions of that story with a phrase. You share an experience.
It is possible to have a shared experience with freeform story telling. It happens all the time in improv theater and comedy. That’s not what’s happening in RPGs though. An RPG is a game, and games have rules.
Why do games have rules?
It’s because rules show that some things are allowed, and other things not allowed. Rules are a contract that tell us when we’ve done it right or wrong.
This is another reason people get rid of rules for. They don’t want to be told they’re doing it wrong. What they’re missing out on, is the rules that are telling them how to do it right. Rules can restrict but they can also exalt.
This is why an RPG is different than telling a story. If I follow the rules and I do well, even great, my fellow players accept my experience. We now share that I’ve done these great things, because I followed the rules. It’s no longer me just telling you about a character in a story you’ve never heard of and how great they are. It’s something built. Something that I had to follow a path for.
I’m not just saying to you that I beat Usain Bolt in a race. You’d look at me like I’m nuts since I’m a lousy runner.
Without rules I could say that I beat him because I drive my car faster than he can run. I didn’t follow any rules. I didn’t really do anything.
But what if I say, I beat Usain Bolt in a race. He and I met (this did not happen) and he said he could outrun my car. I took him up on this challenge and I beat him. Well now, you may not be overly impressed with my accomplishment but because there were agreed on conditions (AKA rules), you’d understand how I could validly make that claim.
Rules validate accomplishment. Rules establish a shared experience.
There is a disconnect between groups of role players. It is often the case that a player will try and translate their character to another player. “Let me tell you about my character!” But listening is painful to the other player, even the game’s designer. Why is this? I can say “I made it to level 8 of Super Mario Bros” and then tell about how I got there, and it can be interesting. Why can’t we tell each other about our characters? Don’t the rules validate our accomplishments?
Yes and no. Theres an admonition to writers, to make an interesting story, show, don’t tell. More verbosely, walk me through the action, don’t tell me about it like it’s a history lesson. We need to learn to tell each other about the games we’ve played, not the possessions or skills of the character. If we could learn to do that, “let me tell you about my character” could become a joyful thing to hear instead of something cringe worthy.
I think this is important. There are walls that separate role players from enjoying each other’s story. We’ve always wanted to tell our stories to other groups but it rarely goes well. We need an inter party language that makes the translation process enjoyable.
I’ve mulled over this question before but now I’m thinking of changing my answer. My first attempt still has a lot of value but it missed the goal.
That’s the point of this post, goals. The way you win an RPG is by achieving goals. Now, that’s really true of most games but they’re goals that are given to you. The difference between those games and RPGs is that you can decide on your own goals to reach out for. The nice thing is that if you’re not sure what you want, the GM or even other players can suggest goals for you.
A stranger approaches you and offers you a grand sum to find the sparkly whozit. Do you take the job?
You can even take the goals offered you while you work on your own. RPGs are very flexible.
Why that’s important
It’s difficult to underestimate how important knowing that achieving goals are the way a player wins. For a while I knew that some players preferred to set their own goals and others were more passive about it but I didn’t realize the value of that.
I knew that some players like the game Fate and some didn’t. I knew that some players have a blast with Fiasco and others thought they would but don’t.
On the flip side some players get bored with more traditional games and they gravitate toward narrative games.
The difference is how they like to set their goals. It’s not that players that like more traditional games don’t set their own goals, it’s just the priority they put on their own goals. They will take up goals presented to them as an avenue to reach their own. Players that gravitate toward more open games prefer their own. They’d rather skip the slog through someone else’s ideas and reach directly for their own.
Preferring one’s own goals tends to be something that players gravitate toward as they become more experienced. They learn about the kinds of experiences they like and want a short circuit to get there. They’ve done zero to hero, now they want to be the hero without the zero. That’s understandable, you don’t usually want to tell the same kind of story over and over.
That doesn’t mean that a player that never takes up narrative games is less experienced. It may be that zero to hero is their favorite kind of story. Maybe they feel that just skipping to the hero part is less satisfying. It’s more a matter of preference.
Its that the large majority of first time players start off not knowing what they want, other than an adventure. As they play, they can sense the gaps in their play experience and want to fill them.
Summing it up
When a prospective player asks “How do you win?” I would answer them like this.
You win by taking up goals and accomplishing them. They can be ones that I’ll offer to you as a GM or if you already know what you want to do, you can set your own goals and work towards them.
There! Nice and concise, it’s a simple answer that assures the player that knows what they want but doesn’t scare the player that is overwhelmed by choice.
In my original post I talked about the game as being collaborative, challenging and social. I think the idea that the players, even the GM collaborate can be reassuring to other players. Some players may like challenges but players like my wife would be turned off by that. Social might attract some but range from unattractive to even scary to some.
They’re selling points that could be used for the right person.
Games have rules or at the very least a rule. RPGs tend toward having a lot of rules. Even rules lite games usually have as many pages of rules as a board game of standard complexity. Why is that? Is there any way around it? If you do get around it, what are the consequences?
First, a quick and dirty history of RPGs. Early RPGs were fairly light compared to what came in the 90’s. Then there was a move toward heavy books full of rules. In the next decade narrative driven games emerged that tend to have a smaller page count. Next came the Old School Revolution that focused its efforts on early RPGs that ran lite.
There’s a constant struggle to both expand what an RPG can govern and a wish to cut the discreet number of rules in the game. If the market of RPG customers have more free time, better visual acuity and the focus to support a large set of rules in their head, (usually late teen players) the size of RPGs get bigger. This has the effect of making it more difficult for young players (pre or early teens) to grasp the game and slows the rate that new players take up the hobby. It also is harder for working parents and older players who may have a hard time reading small type to adopt these large tomes.
Many games reduce their rule sets by having a central mechanic that is intended to govern (nearly) all interactions. This has gone a long way to make games easier to comprehend but the discrete rules that can spin off the core rules are also effectively endless so a game designer can still easily fill hundreds of pages with special case rules.
A game can reduce its rule set by applying what’s called “rule 0” or “the GM’s word is final”. Old School Revolution games rely in this heavily. The GM decides how rolls apply and often spot rule when a question arises. They make up a rule on the spot of how to resolve the situation. This can change from instance to instance but many gaming groups develop their own set of house rules, that if ever written down would bloat their lite game into something more comparable to a new school game from the 90’s.
A third way to reduce the set of rules is to not model a world but to give rules to govern the story being told. These “Narrative” games have a double edged sword to deal with in that they give lots of power to the players. This power if not carefully managed can lead to the game breaking down into something that is no longer a game because the rules do not sufficiently control play.
Large Rule Sets, Good For Players?
Early on in my gaming, I was a rules lawyer and I caused plenty of trouble as one. I wasn’t malicious, but I did cause arguments and I did use the rules to break the game when it served me. Back then, I probably couldn’t tell you why I rules lawyered. Now I understand things a bit better.
Rules that don’t change give power to the players. They allow the players to know how the game is played and helps them to tell the kind of story they want with their characters. Because of this, I’ve always viewed the written rules as my friend and any unwritten and malleable rule handed down from the GM as something I couldn’t rely on.
Think about a game of football where a player scores but the Referee can change the score based on how he felt about the effort? Would you know how to produce a strategy that would win the game? Possibly if that Ref was consistent you could. But what if he wasn’t consistent? What if he was mostly consistent but occasionally he would change his mind at the last moment? These are things I have seen GMs do.
Rules Help The GM
Another reason comprehensive rule sets can be good is that the GM has a heavy load to lift running a game. When there isn’t a rule to cover something, I’ve seen GMs default to “you can’t do that” even though most games tell the GM to make something up. When trying to handle all the other responsibilities of a game though, it can be hard for a GM to suddenly come up with how a novel solution should work. What’s worse is when the players want to replicate the effect of a novel solution and it threatens to unbalance the game.
Rules can also help build trust in a GM if they apply the rules evenly and the players see them doing so.
Pros vs Cons
On the one hand, a comprehensive rule set can help a game but on the other, it’s a barrier to new players, especially the young and the time strapped. There was a lot of wisdom in the “Basic” and “Advanced” rule sets of yesteryear. Get started with the basic and move onto the Advanced when you’re ready. Sometimes Quickstarts are a good approximation of the old Basic rule sets but they rarely are as flexible, usually only providing the GM an understanding of how to play a single adventure.