Session Zero


Several times now, I've come across GM advice on the importance of leading questions. The problem such questions aren't meant to address is that we sometimes want players to contribute to the fiction, and they’re not always sure how to do that. The solution some GMs have struck upon is to ask questions that guide their players toward a playable response. So instead of asking a player how the NPC bartender feels about their character, the GM asks something more pointed: “What happened in your past to make the bartender hate your guts.”

“Leading question,” in that sense, has become a veritable term of art in GMing, but what we’re looking for generally aren’t leading questions in the popular sense. Leading questions are what lawyers ask witnesses when they already know the answer and want it entered into the record. Sometimes, they're used to surreptitiously suggest what the witness ought to say, as opposed to what they would say on their own, much to the judge's ire.

Hopefully, that's not what most GMs are after. We may have an idea of what a player could answer, and their actual answer may even match that expectation. But if the questions we're asking are genuinely leading, then the GM is still dictating the fiction, just behind the guise of involving the players. In such cases, everyone's better off dispensing with the pretense that the broader fiction is, in any meaningful sense, collaborative.

Nevertheless, asking well-calibrated questions can be a good strategy for nudging players to shape the world beyond their characters. Understanding why is essential for figuring out how to.

Why are some players reluctant to contribute ideas about the world of the game? The range of possible reasons is broad, but often it’s simply that they’re not sure about the state of the fiction they’re being asked to shape. The GM is given general charge over worldbuilding, and will typically have a more substantial — and often underplayed — conception of the setting. As a result, players aren’t always sure what additions would makes sense. The question cedes some of the GM's authority to the player, but they don't necessarily feel competent to exercise that authority. What we need, then, is a question that nudges them not toward any particular answer, but into a position where they feel competent to give a good answer.

The NPC bartender for whom they're being asked to improvise a backstory was introduced only moments ago and is still just an abstraction to them. “Why does the bartender hate you?” is a stronger prompt than “Tell me about the bartender” precisely because it adds to their information about the state of the fiction. That, in turn, gives the player a bit more expertise about the world, which is something they can build on. They can build on it not only because it gives them a better command of the state of the fiction, but also because it relates the fiction back to their characters, which is the part of the game over which the rules give them the most authority.

#worldbuilding #GMing

The more time I spend in OSR/NSR conversations on the internet, the more I'm struck by the quietly contested state of system in those communities. On the one hand, there is an absolute welter of rulesets out there, ranging from relatively true-to-model adaptations of various editions of D&D, to radical reinventions of the form. But at the same time, there seems to be a broad consensus that none of these systems are essential to actual play. They're taken more in the spirit of suggestions. At best, each is a tool shed that may be ransacked for parts.

There appears to be a general aversion to playing games “as written.” GMs certainly haven't stopped bringing new games and supplements to the table, but to hear them speak of it, many run those materials using not the printed rules, but rather bespoke systems, hacked together out of elements from here and there. One designer of a well-known horror/sci-fi game is even said to have admitted he doesn't run his own game as written.

This makes conversation tricky. To what extent are we talking about the same activity when we discuss a game we've both modified, each to our own tastes? I'm reminded of the comment sections underneath recipes on food blogs: “Loved this dish, made it with turkey instead of beef, added oregano, and used a different cooking method.” Serve whatever you enjoy at your own table, but those changes complicate how we talk about what the recipe does or does not achieve.

The attitude shapes design as well. New games are routinely presented as hacks, by which I take them to mean a formalization of their own approach to running some other system. Some are written on the assumption that players will pick-and-choose which rules they'll implement. Maybe that's merely realism about the state of the hobby. In some cases, it's almost reads like a moral imperative. For people just cutting their teeth in the hobby, it can pose challenges.

There are, of course, historical reasons for these tensions. GURPS, heartbreakers, the Arneson–Gygax rift, D&D's release of a SRD. Ours is a haunted hobby. Cumulatively, these points along the last half-century of its development have contributed to a conception of system that suggests some underlying game we're all playing, an unattained object toward which this endless proliferation of rules is aimed.

Many paths, one destination. For me, that premise locked into focus a while back when someone on Twitter (I don't recall who) alluded to the “one perfect system” every GM is seeking — a semi-mythical ruleset particular enough to suit your own personal play-style, but flexible enough to accommodate any setting or story you might want to explore.

Deliberately or not, that trope correlates to a certain diminution of the rules. What function does a rule serve if you can change it out for another and ostensibly arrive at the same game? Are they even rules once they've been made interchangeable? At the far end of that trajectory is free kriegspiel, which dispenses with most rules in favor of judgments. All well and good. Your table, your rules. Or no rules, as the case may be. In the middle ground, though? The territory between D&D and FKR? Rules appear to have been replaced by system.

Would it be uncharitable to characterize the OSR as a movement built on devising new systems for playing old games? Perhaps; but it's also true that one standard by which OSR systems are judged is their compatibility with existing modules. That, in itself, exerts a formative pressure on design. It favors rules — or are they methods? — that do what has already been done, or which, at the very least, ensure that past modules, some of them nearly half a century old, don't break at the table.

Which is not to deny that there are innovations in the ever-growing catalog of new games and systems. There are substantive differences between them, even if the changes are sometimes incremental. But the demands of adaptability and modularity ensure that many of them are disposable. New games are made to be functional without any given rule or method because the odds of the system making it to the table intact are low.

I'm painting with a broad brush, but only to highlight a general trend. There are, of course, a great many games that take seriously the constructive power of a clever rule. There are games that daisy-chain a slew of well-crafted rules to foster novel modes of play at the table. There are games with rulesets so carefully calibrated that removing any one rule would undermine how the game as a whole plays. These games sacrifice the ideal of a universal system that can be used to role-play in any world, but in doing so, they make it possible to role-play some worlds and some stories better.

#system #rules #OSR #NSR #GMing

Let's draw another distinction. Rules, let's say, are imperatives. Roll the dice, and abide by the results: that's a rule, one basic to most tabletop role-playing. When they're well-designed, rules give a game the internal coherence that makes it a game.

Not everything you do to make a game work well is necessarily a rule, though. The looser a game is — by which I mean, the less it uses rules to proscribe play — the more inclined we are to lean on methods. By methods, I mean all of those repeatable but optional behaviors that fill the gaps left by the rules. Opting to roll the dice from a cup is a method. So is using a table to generate unplanned elements of the narrative or world.

I'd go so far as to suggest that most of what we find in the guides and rule books are better understood as methods. In practice, role-playing games tend to need fewer hard-and-fast rules than we imagine them having — particularly if we prefer to run our games like a monk. So-called “rules-lite” games demonstrate just how little is truly imperative, but much of what gets carved away the pursuit of lite-ness are the methods that keep play from bogging down in indecision.

Even games that don't present themselves as rules-lite tend to lavish more attention on some methods than others. Most games leave very little to the imagination when it comes to combat. Head into town, though, and it's easy to find yourselves staring at your character sheets while you try to figure out what's worth doing and how to make it not just playable but also interesting. Those lacunae pose less of a problem for long-time GMs than it does for a late bloomer like myself. The long-timers have a stock of methods to draw on, many of them adopted from more elaborately designed games. Me? I'm just trying to keep things from grinding to a halt.

#rules #methods #ruleslite #GMing

I've started to think of approaches to running an RPG in terms of two GM styles: the monastic and the skaldic.

For the monastic GM, you can find the correct answer to any question — or, at least, should be able to find it — in the game's guides and supplements. For the GM, then, resolving problems at the table is mostly a matter of finding and implementing the proper citation or reference. Like the scholars of medieval monasteries, the monastic GM is beholden to the established authorities, and innovation is largely a matter of applying their wisdom creatively as demanded by the situation.

Other GMs, by contrast, are guided more by narrative and audience. Skalds were the extemporaneous poets of Old Norse society, composing, reciting and (more importantly, for our purpose) improvising heroic verse for their audiences. When a question about how to proceed arises at the table, the skaldic GM may draw in a general way on the rules, conventions or background material, much as skalds fell back on legends, stock phrases, and metrical form, but their answer will ultimately be shaped by the GM's own assessment of what's most likely to move the players.

These archetypes are idealized, of course. Few GMs operate entirely at one pole or the other. But the distinction can also help us understand the contrast between different titles and rule systems. The old school, driven in no small part by a business model that thrives on selling supplements, is built on a publishing cycle that fosters and caters to the monastic impulse. Much (though by no means all) of the indie market has grown around a more skaldic play-style that relies on the GM and players' familiarity with the generic conventions of one or another setting to supplement a “rules-lite” base.