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Tabletop RPGs

There is no curtain

This morning, out of the blue, it hit me that I can summarize my approach to GMing tabletop RPGs in a single, concise principle: There is no curtain.

Frame from The Wizard of Oz

The curtain is, of course, a reference to The Wizard of Oz — in which a curtain conceals what the titular Wizard is actually up to in his chamber. When his deception is laid bare, Dorothy and her companions see the Wizard, his power, and his machinations in an entirely different light.

That accurs’d drape

So what does “There is no curtain” actually mean?

It means that when I GM, I don’t hide what I’m doing from the other players. That means no fudging die rolls, of course, and no literal curtain-analog in the form of a GM screen, but it’s bigger than that. I’m upfront about not doing any session prep beyond thinking about the game and perhaps looking over my notes from the last session. Likewise, if something is decided on the spur of the moment — my favorite way to make decisions as a GM, because I want there to be a roughly equal distribution of surprise around the table — I don’t try to conceal that.

“There is no curtain” is shorthand, encompassing a lot of what’s in my lengthy, comprehensive 2016 Yore post “Alchemy, agency, and surprises.” Play is what happens at the table, not what I’ve plotted out in advance behind my curtain; that in turn means that what makes the game fun is player agency, and the attendant consequences thereof. It also emphasizes that we’re all players, I’m just a player who (probably, depending on the game) has a few different responsibilities — and not, say, an all-powerful wizard who knows all and sees all…or at least deceives the other players into thinking that.

“Deceive” is kind of a strong word in this context, isn’t it? There’s nothing inherently wrong with “playing behind a curtain” — it’s just not a GMing style that interests me in any way. (Though if a group isn’t on the same page about how the game is being played, that can lead to serious problems.) But it’s the correct word for me, because of the Czege Principle: “when one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.” The curtain is a metaphor for the deception required to pretend that it’s interesting when the GM is in charge of challenges and their resolution.

This has nothing to do with, say, hiding the dungeon map from the other players, or keeping monster stat blocks to yourself during play, or even running a prepared module — provided you don’t force the other players to stick to it, or bend the game to ensure that the module works as written. There’s no deception there; everyone at the table wants that dungeon to be full of surprises. But if, say, I’m planning to use a randomly generated dungeon during a session, I’d share that — because I don’t want it to be a secret. The randomness is a feature, not a bug.

What’s interesting is what comes next, and that’s up to the other players. And, as a massive added benefit, when everyone at the table has the same set of expectations about how the game is going to work, all of the players — GM included — can much more easily support each other in making it fun for everyone. If there’s a curtain then that responsibility falls largely to the GM, and I can’t abide that model of play.

I learned this from you, tremulus

Lots of stuff in my gaming past has contributed to my current perspective, but one of the biggest influences on this principle was tremulus.

tremulus is PbtA Call of Cthulhu, more or less, and right up front that premise begs a question: How can you play a satisfying mystery when the GM doesn’t plot out the mystery in advance for the other players to solve? The answer is twofold.

Firstly, instead of plotting out the mystery, the GM comes up with some story threads and how they might resolve themselves if the PCs never showed up. And secondly, everyone at the table knows the mystery isn’t prewritten. There are mechanics enabling players to contribute elements to the mystery; there are moves that ensure that core bits of the unfolding game don’t exist until the moment they unfold. There’s no curtain in tremulus, and seeing that in action was a powerful experience for me.

So there it is: There is no curtain. I enjoy thinking about, and coming up with, GMing principles[1] — and I hope this one has some utility for other gamers, too.

[1] Set the time machine to 2008: this post from the salad days of Gnome Stew collects seven of my maxims for GMs. The aphorism in this vein that I’m most proud of, though, comes from even earlier — 2006, when I was writing Treasure Tables: Being a GM is like using a 150-watt bulb.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Two handy S. John Ross game evaluation metrics

Game designer S. John Ross recently posted two game design tidbits — more aimed at RPG evaluation than design, but applicable to either — that are just too good not to share.

RRIP is — as I see it — a quick-and-dirty way to assess a game’s crunchiness, and the Videogame Rule is an axiom which takes no prisoners.

RRIP

Here’s S. John’s definition of RRIP[1]:

RRIP stands for Ratings Referenced In Play. The idea is, when I’m staring down the barrel of an all-new game, pondering if I want to learn it, one of the things I want to see is a filled-in character sheet, to get a feel for what it implies.

I do this too, but I’ve never considered formalizing it. For me, it’s more of a sniff test. “Dude, there’s a LOT of shit on this character sheet. I’m out!”

He takes it a step further:

The RRIP is a simple count of the number of values specified on that sheet. So, in most games, that means things like stats, skill-levels and power-levels.

His example connects that count with the “referenced in play” portion of the first quote:

He’s got a gun!” has a RRIP value of zero, but “He’s got a gun with a Range of Short, 6+1 Ammo, a Reload Speed of d8 and a Cover Penetration Power of 9!” would add 4 to the RRIP

That’s a useful metric, and one that I can pretty easily put into practice. Here’s a stab at it.

Two characters enter

I grabbed my current Savage Worlds character, a speleo-herepotlogist in my group’s Day After Ragnarok (paid link) game, and gave his character sheet the RRIP treatment. For context, he’s had 7 advances, which makes him more mechanically complex than a starting character, but he also doesn’t carry a huge amount of gear (since the Crown provides mission-specific gear). Total RRIP score: 46.

For comparison purposes, I grabbed my character from my online group’s first tremulus campaign. For context, he was a psychic medium and I think he earned at least one advance. Total RRIP score: 19.

As a back-of-the-napkin metric, I really like RRIP. Both games shook out higher than I’d expected, but the gulf between their RRIP scores says a lot about the difference between Savage Worlds and tremulus.

The Videogame Rule

S. John’s Videogame Rule is short and pithy:

Any challenge or obstacle that could be GMed by a machine isn’t good enough for tabletop.

Whoa. That’s like Czege Principle-brutal! But I find myself nodding, because when I want to play a video game, I go play a video game. I play tabletop RPGs for different reasons, and in search of different experiences. I like it.

S. John uses G+ a bit differently than most folks, leaving comments disabled on most of his posts. I can’t tell him there how much I enjoy his posts, especially stuff like this, but I can say it here — thanks, S. John!

[1] And he’s right, it is fun to say!

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Alchemy, agency, and surprises

I was struggling to articulate my play style preferences last night, during a session debrief, and I kept thinking, “Didn’t I write about this on G+ like a year ago? I wish I could find that — and all those great posts that helped me figure out what I wanted in gaming, too!” What I was trying to find took some digging, G+ searching not — ironically — being all that robust, so I decided to collect it all here for easy reference.

Putting it all together turned out to be a useful exercise in its own right, too. I reread some of the posts mentioned below, many of them quite long, and tried to distill my thoughts into points that could be expressed succinctly.

Play style preferences

Here are the results of that unpacking and distillation, the core of what I want out of gaming:

  • Plot is what happens at the table. If the GM preps a bunch of stuff that will happen, and the PCs are supposed to follow along, I’m out. I played and GMed that way for years, and I’m not willing to play or GM that way anymore. I make an exception for small doses of plot — convention one-shots, a session or two to try out a system, that sort of thing.
  • No prep, or at least very little. I figured out that I don’t enjoy prep back in 2005, and that hasn’t changed. I’ll read a book (the shorter the better), and I’ll putter at some stuff before the first session if it’s useful for the whole campaign, but that’s about it. On the flipside, if I’m a player and the GM has done a lot of prep (excluding things like making a sandbox or prepping situations), that’s a pretty good indicator that the game might not be for me.
  • Roughly equal distribution of surprise. Whether I’m GMing or playing, I want to come to the table and be as surprised as everyone else by what happens. In my experience, the more prep there is, the more likely it is that the GM will steer the game to employ that prep and the players will feel pressure to follow along because they feel bad about all the work the GM has done. If the GM doesn’t have to do any work away from the table, those problems vanish.
  • Player agency and emergent play. The only plot that interests me is the one that emerges from play, based on meaningful player choices with meaningful consequences. The more player agency in a game, the better.
  • No railroading and no fudging. This might be redundant, but it’s worth calling out. If my choices as a player are being negated, or, as a GM, if I feel compelled to negate a player’s choices, we’re doing it wrong.
  • Alchemy. The magic of gaming, the thing I can’t get from a video game (as compared to a tight, scripted experience, which video games generally do much better than tabletop RPGs), is the alchemy the comes from meaningful player choices, random die rolls, and playing to find out what happens.

My thinking on these topics, and on play style in general, has been heavily informed by these excellent pieces of writing:

The Czege Principle

Paul Czege has a principle named after him, although the references to it that I found (one, two) are both followed by Paul saying that the Czege Principle isn’t the Czege Principle. In any case, the principle is both splendid and concise:

when one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun

Lots of awesome stuff flows from understanding this principle and applying it to games, and it neatly encapsulates a lot of what I wrote up top — no railroading, no fudging, emergent play, and more.

Brain damage

This excellent summary of “the brain damage posts” hit my radar about a year ago, and it changed the way I think about gaming — and about Ron Edwards. I might have chosen a different term than “brain damage,” but Ron’s observations are spot-on.

That summary thread, which includes links and nested threads, offers up a huge amount of content to digest. But it’s worth reading all of it, especially if your only prior contact with it is hearing that “Ron Edwards says gamers have brain damage.”

Here’s one bit that stands out for me:

To engage in a social, creative activity, three things are absolutely required. Think of music, theater, quilting, whatever you’d like. These principles also apply to competitive games and sports, but that is not to the present point.

1. You have to trust that the procedures work – look, these instruments make different noises, so we can make music; look, this ball is bouncey, so we can toss and dribble it

2. You have to want to do it, now, here, with these people – important! (a) as opposed to other activities, (b) as opposed to “with anybody who’ll let me”

3. You have to try it out, to reflect meaningfully on the results, and to try again – if it’s worth doing, it’s worth learning to do better; failure is not disaster, improvement is a virtue

I refer back to these principles often, and they help me look critically at whether I’m doing the kind of gaming I actually want to be doing, rather than making excuses for why unsatisfying gaming is okay.

Railroading and not prepping plots

Taken together, these seven posts by The Alexandrian comprise one of the biggest influences on why I want what I want out of gaming. Here they are in order:

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from these posts.

From Part 1, a clear and useful definition of railroading:

Railroads happen when the GM negates a player’s choice in order to enforce a preconceived outcome.

Note, however, that both parts of this equation are important: The choice must be negated and the reason it’s being negated is because the GM is trying to create a specific outcome. The players must try to get off the train and the GM has to lock the doors.

From Part 2, why railroading gargles dicks and makes GMing feel like work:

When a GM predetermines what’s going to happen in the game, they become solely responsible for the entire experience. And that’s a ridiculously heavy burden to bear. Are your encounters balanced? Did you include enough “cool stuff” for every player to participate in? Did you incorporate enough elements from each PC’s back story? The list goes on and on.

This is how you end up with GMs stringing together precariously balanced My Precious Encounters™ in a desperate juggling act as they try to keep all of their players happy.

When you allow the players to make their own decisions, all of the pressure and responsibility melts away: They’ll choose the fights they can win. They’ll approach situations in ways that let them do cool stuff. If there’s not enough stuff from their back story seeking them out, then they’ll go looking for it.

From Part 3, about playing to see what happens:

What tabletop RPGs have going for them is the alchemy of player agency. Of presenting a situation and seeing what happens when a unique set of players make a unique set of decisions and produce a unique set of outcomes. When you railroad your players, you specifically set yourself at odds with the very thing that makes playing an RPG worthwhile in the first place.

And, lastly, one from Don’t Prep Plots:

For me, the entire reason to play a roleplaying game is to see what happens when the players make meaningful choices. In my experience, the result is almost always different than anything I could have anticipated or planned for.

If I wanted to tell my players a story (which is what plot-based design really boils down to), then it’s far more efficient and effective to simply write a story. In my opinion, if you’re playing a roleplaying game then you should play to the strengths of the medium: The magical creativity which only happens when people get together.

The whole series of posts is fantastic. They’re long, but not long-winded — rather, they’re packed with examples, special cases, and dissections of common arguments in favor of railroading.

Fudging, emergent play, and systems

I often feel like Bryan R. Shipp of Room 209 Gaming is living inside my brain. He has a knack for putting things succinctly, well, and in such a way that I can feel the gears in my brain clicking into a new configuration as I read them.

Fudging can die in a fucking fire. Here’s a handy summary of exactly why, from Fudging is Bad Form:

Even in situations where the GM only fudges “once in a while,” or fudges only to the players’ benefit, the fact remains that the GM, once fudging is introduced, could fudge at any time. The inevitable result of this is that all rolls are irrelevant because they can be overruled by GM fiat.

Deciding to stop fudging has been one of the best gaming-related decisions I’ve ever made. Few things make me less happy at the gaming table, as a player or the GM, than fudging.

Here’s Bryan at his succinct best, from Emergent Play is the Only Way:

When you’re playing a game, you shouldn’t know how it’s going to end. No one should. That’s the benefit of gaming over watching TV or reading a book – your participation means you can affect change.

Lastly, here’s a quote from Game Systems That Get Out Of The Way:

If you’re looking for a game system that gets out of the way when you want it to, you’re looking for the wrong kind of game. You’re looking for D&D without the specific fiddly bits you don’t like. But I have a different proposition: look for a game system that doesn’t get out of the way when you want it to. Look for a game system that, instead, reinforces what you’re trying to do.

For me, wanting to ignore a portion of a game’s rules — or seeing a GM ignoring rules — is a canary in the coal mine, a signal that I’m probably playing the wrong game.

To choose just one example, a few years ago I GMed a long-running game where I removed possibility of PC death because it fit the genre (without telling my players, because I assumed the illusion of danger was important). As well-intentioned as that choice was, in hindsight it meant that much of the system didn’t actually matter, and the parts that did matter were working less efficiently in support of the group’s play than would a system designed to do what we wanted in the first place.

Looking back on a lifetime of gaming, my tastes have changed over the years. I’m sure they’ll change again, but for now this is a good snapshot of where my head has been at for the past year or two, and where it’s at now.