The Amber Diceless Roleplaying game is the greatest diceless RPG of all time. That is a statement of opinion but one that I will joyously discuss with anyone to explain the virtues of this most excellent system. To say that Amber DRPG changed my life would be a bit melodramatic. To say that it changed me as a gamer and a game master, not so much.
I had not even read the Amber novels when I was drawn into the game by the spectacular Phage Press ad which ran in Dragon Magazine. I was sold without even knowing the setting. I wanted to play this game with a “mature and demanding” character creation system and its weird auction rules that forced character creation to be both collaborative and competitive. As someone whose gaming life up until that point was dominated by D&D and GURPS, I couldn’t even imagine how profoundly I would be shaped by the ideas presented in that book and then explored through years of campaigns.
So far, my admiration for 5e D&D has probably been pretty obvious on my blog. I’m really enjoying the game I’m running and overall, my perception of the way the game plays is very positive.
But I do have, I suppose, one complaint. It’s a really personal complaint so I don’t expect it to resonate with everyone… But it has been a stark moment for me.
I was eight years old when I got my first D&D box set. So I date that as the beginning of my time as a gamer. Really though, I’d been introduced to gaming even earlier with Dungeon (the 1981 Third Edition) and Fantasy Forest from TSR, as well as copies of the RPGs owned by my friends. And I’d been introduced to fantasy from the time I could understand movies and stories by a mother who instilled a deep love of all things geeky in me.
And I was one of those kids who, when I got ahold of the reading lists offered by the games of the time, well, I just wanted to read it all…
…And Peter S. Beagle, while probably not the most profound influence on my style of gaming, is probably the most long-lasting and joyous influence on my love of fantasy.
So I’ve started a D&D 5e game. And I like it. I’m a fan – as my review noted – but now with character creation and two full sessions under our belt, it seems that 5e is going to work for me. A few of my immediate observations, which I’m looking forward to writing about more, have to do with the incredible ease of character creation (the first player I helped create a character we were done in under 10 minutes), and the easy, freewheeling sense I have that I can just do whatever the heck I want (and so can my players) during a session. I don’t feel the obsessive, painful need for three full working days worth of prep just to get an adventure right. Maybe I was doing that to myself… but maybe the games I was playing had something to do with it as well. I think it’s a little of both.
Anyway, my real inspiration for this post came when one of my players – during character creation – asked a pivotal question of his fellow gamers, “Do you pronounce it Drow or Drow?”
The range of responses was pretty spectacular, from “what is that?” to “Oh, definitely this way.” to “does it matter?” Of course it matters!
I have a friend who hates using the d20. He pretty much hates any version of the d20 system. His primary gripe – although there are many other well-founded ones – is rooted in the randomness of rolling a single d20 to determine outcomes. Basically, no matter how good he is, bad rolling can ruin that at any time.
My own gripes with the d20 system(s) trend toward a different direction but ultimately, the randomness of these activities really grates on me as well, sometimes doing a disservice to another convenient part of many d20 related games – Niche Protection.
This is a post about expectations and the interaction of reality and fantasy at the table. I don’t want to bog myself down thinking too much about the extremes of reality in games where people can throw fireballs and routinely get attacked by undead creatures. Overall, that dichotomy doesn’t bother me too much, I genuinely enjoy fantasy. But I’ve noticed that certain expectations are dictated as much mechanically as they are narratively, and the interactions are sometimes jarring for me.
This one is a little personal. If you aren’t interested – that’s okay. There’s a little gaming in here but it’s mostly reflective. Fair warning. This one’s about work, lack of work, and a desire to do things a certain way… it’s about management and leadership.
I haven’t been posting a lot for a while now. This isn’t an apology post – I either post or I don’t – but my goal is to get back on a regular schedule starting with this post today.
I want to talk about backward design. It’s an interesting concept we discuss in Higher Ed pedagogy that involves deciding first what you are going to assess, then how you are going to assess it, then working backward all the way to “and this is what we do each day in class.” This is, in so many ways, a gross oversimplification of backward design, but it makes the point I need to move forward.
When I read Houses of the Blooded for the first time I was struck by the section where John Wick discusses Jared Sorenson’s three questions. I’ll quote them here:
* What is my game about?
* How does my game do that?
* What behaviors does my game reward and punish?
Now, it’s interesting to me because I often find myself struggling when designing to stay focused. I’m often caught up not so much in “what do I want the game to do…” as I am “how can the game work smoothly for the largest audience?”
I suppose that’s the other side of the education coin… differentiation. But that’s an entirely different post.
I game design terms I suppose, “what do I want to assess?” would really be a question about end-results at the table. How much fun is it? Does it work well? Do the mechanical bits feel right? I suppose there are a million questions I could ask along this line but those three seem pretty vital.
The concept of how to assess this – I suppose – would come down to playtesting. You can’t be at every table that plays your game (though wouldn’t it be nice) but you can engage with those who are trying to play your game and get their feedback. Playtesting is a pretty crucial piece of the puzzle when designing a game, even if you don’t have the means to do it large scale, there is a lot to be learned from engaging with players and GMs and hearing what their interactions with your system (in whatever form it currently takes) went. It’s even better if you can observe some of these sessions.
The important point here though is that this is one area where backward design is difficult to translate… I have run many, many Amber DRPG campaigns, some quite long, and I can honestly say that we are “not doing it right” most of the time. That’s said in jest but honestly, when I run Amber, I tend toward keeping the group together, building actual trust among the younger generation (the failures of their parents as examples and all that) and having external threats to kingdom and beloved NPCs shape much of the early game.Then it tends to evolve into the drama of the lives of characters in the Amber universe…
How do we assess a game’s success at achieving its goals? Does it matter whether it sells a ton of copies or gets x many downloads? What about if it manages to survive 40 years in a variety of incarnations (well, many of us won’t ever have the luxury of knowing if one of our games has this kind of success)? What about spawning imitators?
Notice that none of those criteria have anything at all to do with “is it fun to play?” or “do the people playing it enjoy themselves?” See, while those things might go hand-in-hand, they don’t necessarily. After all, not every prolific set of rules is great. And some otherwise great games get lost to time as publishers die out, etc. And of course, some “dead” games continue to be played by groups all over the place no matter the status of their publication.
I’m drifting a little – but it is another valid question to ask… how do you measure the success of a roleplaying game? If it seems murky and like there are competing answers… well, Higher Ed feels that way too about assessment.
But let’s move on. I think the great question is the last one. What activities will support the stated outcomes? In a classroom, I want to create a set of activities – suited to my students – which allow them to reach the outcomes the professor will be assessing. This part of game design, the boots-on-the-ground, practical, what happens at the table, part is the stuff I’m most interested in. Leave the theorizing behind and just play!
As a designer though, that is incredibly hard. How do you differentiate the experience for different kinds of players? How can you ensure that your system supports its setting in a faithful manner? How do you avoid combat grind, and grappling debacles, and player arguments over who shot first?
Well, one way to do that is to give the GM tools to differentiate at their table. You may not need to create everything because a well-armed GM can overcome many obstacles. In many ways I think this supports the “rulings over rules” philosophy of Old School play. At the same time though, I get into my head the Sorenson question, “What behaviors does my game reward and punish?” and I’m left shaking my head a little because, if the old school has a significant flaw, it is the possibility of paranoia that develops at a table because everything is so deadly. And you can’t just roll a D20 Perception check to bail you out.
It’s that balancing act again.
So maybe I’m focusing my efforts in the wrong direction. I tried out a backward design exercise on my current system project and found it to be incredibly frustrating. Thinking about Jared Sorenson’s questions leaves me equally flummoxed though because I – speaking as a long-tenured GM of many systems (too many) – find that my best gaming experiences have only come when I’ve left the “game” behind and transcended that into the weird homebrew-stew-space that is, “the game works well for us like this.” And maybe, at the end of the day, that’s what really matters and the game, as written, is allowed to just, work one way and every group will figure it out for themselves.
But it’s a terrifying thought.
That’s enough rumination for now. Time to get back to the actual planning and writing bits.
As always, thanks for reading.
When I was teaching writing a few years ago, we would get approached by vendors from various publishers – hoping that we would adopt their book for our classroom use. One such book that I got a sample copy of and used a few times was titled, Everything’s an Argument. The fundamental idea is that everything is persuasive. Students were exposed to the idea that they were surrounded by argument in their lives and attempted to prepare them to not only analyze arguments but to write their own effective arguments.
While I find some value in that approach, I find that overall I’m uncomfortable framing the world with the idea that everything is an argument. I mention this mainly because I think one of the things I find myself disappointed with in most of the conversations I read about gaming these days is the idea that the players and the gamemaster are in an argument-space when they are playing. Even if not specifically adversarial I get the sense that the belief is that the players and GM are in some form of opposing alignment. And I think that is a fair characterization of many games but I would propose a different perspective.
Everything is a conversation.
I know, before you ask, that I am splitting hairs. Sometimes the players and GM are going to work to persuade one another (and I’m completely okay with that) but I find that shifting the basic premise from persuasive argument to collaborative conversation is a small rhetorical shift which potentially pays big dividends. Characterizing the interaction as collaborative conversation – if everyone is willing to go in on that together – has often been enough to improve my gaming experiences.
Here at the Rhetorical Gamer I’ve made little secret of my love of the Amber Diceless RPG. Amber and 2e D&D are the games where I truly cut my teeth as a gamer. 2e D&D taught me a lot, but Amber taught me how to really be a GM. I didn’t have to supply adventure, didn’t have to worry about playing “DMPCs,” or feel like I was working at cross purposes with my players. Amber taught me to relax and just embrace the flow of the game. I learned how – or perhaps taught myself – to just be a part of the game at the table beside my players while still existing in a space where I was able to help them shape the game, adjudicate their encounters, and set stages as needed. Usually, in Amber, I was the most comfortable I ever am when running a game.
Because the game is a conversation. The rules are so light but so useful that I can improvise anything I need to. More than that though, the game creates an incredible space for just diving headfirst into the play experience without pulling up short. I am able to embrace the spirit of conversation with my players.
And while I don’t want to speak ill of rules-heavy systems – I am a very happy Pathfinder player – I can say with confidence that one of my favorite things about the old school spirit of Adventurer Conqueror King System has been the fact that I feel that same freedom to embrace the play experience and just immerse myself in the conversation of the game. When I was running 3.5 and 4e D&D I often felt constricted – like if I didn’t know the rules inside and out I was somehow letting my players down. But have you seen the Pathfinder rulebook? It’s hefty. And I know that my attitude about the game is my problem. But it’s a fair cop to say that Pathfinder, 3.5, 4e, reward player skill in the form of system mastery over other values.
I find that small shift in perspective also makes a significant difference at the table. It changes and shapes the conversation at the table. And that’s a fair trade-off if that is the gaming experience you want. I try to embrace the spirit of conversation even when running a rules-heavy game but it’s harder. The weight of the rules tends to overshadow things and the desire to create argument tends to creep back in.
As I write this I understand (and kind of discover) how counter-intuitive this seems. It would seem to follow that a tight, comprehensive rule set would discourage argument more than a loose, interpretive rule set. But I find that my players relax more too when the rules are more open. No one is quite as tense to make sure that we are “doing it right” or taking advantage of every corner of the rules. Trust between players and GM is one of the hallmarks (perhaps the most important) of a good game in my mind. Framing the game as a conversation really makes that so much easier.
This attitude is also why I can’t frequent gaming forums anymore. The contentious nature of most boards is painful to observe. I have to wonder if those people are even having fun at their home tables. If they are, good for them.
But I suppose for me the game only really works when I work to remove the sense that Everything is an Argument and re-frame the table space as an ongoing conversation larger than one session, one fight, or one character.
Thanks for reading.
I’ve been chewing on writing this post for about a week now. I feel like a spend a lot of words/energy talking about why the GM/DM/Judge is significantly, uniquely important to the experience of a role-playing game as opposed to the experience of any other game. I feel like it’s one of those weird intersections of the gaming populous that leaves me thinking that – to me – it feels self-evident but clearly it isn’t.
This rumination started with reading Rob Donoghue’s post, GM Constraints which is focused on FATE games but it led me to a weird place. I’ll admit, when I see a post with the title, GM Constraints, it’s almost irresistible bait for me. I’m only a little ashamed of that. Ultimately though, his post didn’t rile me up and get my nerd-rage flowing. It just confused me.
Of course, I admit freely that I don’t understand the appeal of FATE games anyway (that’s a lie – I understand their appeal at a cognitive level, I just don’t really see the payoff). It’s possible that my overall confusion stems from that fundamental disconnect but I don’t think so. I’m going to put two statements out there…
1. GM constraints don’t make a game better.
2. That said, the best GM constraint is the players.
Here’s where my confusion starts with the post:
I have been chewing a bit on the mechanization of GM restrictions. Often they take the form of things that the GM cannot do, but such restrictions are usually designed to curb abuses. While that’s admirable, it often has elements of fighting the last war, which feels wasteful.
But what if you begin from a position of high GM trust? It’s the position I like to take – I am happy to empower any GM who is good enough to know when not to use that power.
Do you see my confusion? Beginning from a position of high GM trust. Connect this next statement to my above statements:
3. If the players don’t trust the GM, the game has already failed.
If you don’t trust your GM, why are you playing with him/her?
The rest of the post goes on to discuss creating a set of mechanized GM choices which restrict the available actions to attempt to push some different kind of creativity out of the GM which he or she might not be able to achieve in a completely freeform environment. While I’m all for thought experiments, I find the entire concept of mechanizing “gamey” restrictions to be an odd choice for trying to make a better RPG experience.
The trick, of course, is to make the direction useful. If it’s merely random, then it’s likely to produce random results. The constraint needs to be something that moves play in rewarding directions. This is, on paper, what a GM is often trying to do when “railroading” players, but in that case it is based on the GM’s decision to trust her sensibilities over the organic direction of play.
I’m not entirely certain that I agree with his definition of “railroading” in the above paragraph but that is a word I think we – as a community – have used so poorly and so often in our anti-GM rants that it has lost all useful meaning. Railroading is another of those intersections of ideas in our culture that seems to have taken on a magical life of its own that ignores the necessary role of the GM as gentle director of the action. A GM can railroad as effectively by simply describing a scene a certain way as they can by only putting one door in every dungeon room. I didn’t even use sarcastic quotes when I wrote that… be proud of me.
The point I’m dancing around here is that the GM is not the most important player of the game at the table but he/she is the one that the other players place the most trust in. Everyone is working together to make the game good (one assumes) but the GM is burdened with everyone else’s fun along with assuring their own. And as someone who is the GM for 90% of my gaming experiences, I can say that there is a skill to it. You practice making the little tricks and nonsense work to ensure that everyone (including you) gets to have fun. But that also comes with the group as a whole agreeing that the GM gets a little more latitude than everyone else because you know, it’s necessary.
Forcing the GM to work toward some arbitrary (even if well-defined) end creates far more problems than a GM forcing the hands of the players. Sure, it might be fun for the GM to take on a challenge like this in a specific, limited context once in a blue moon but it probably only works well if it is kept from the players.
In the post he comments on the difference between the GM acting based on some imposed order of action vs. simply trusting his or her own sensibilities. For me, that’s precisely the wrong tack to take. What we need to be teaching our GMs to do is be better at using their sensibilities and interacting with their players to protect the organic growth of the game while also preserving the unique nature of the RPG experience which is only truly achieved when the GM is unfettered. That’s why I’ve devoted so much of my life to playing these games versus any other hobby I could have picked up… because they are unique experiences, and the role of the GM is the most interesting innovation of RPGs.
Just my two cents.