Wednesday, April 12, 2017

My Life as a Gamer: Y'know, Braunstein Damn Near Nailed All You Need In Tabletop RPGs

My previous post on tabletop RPGs and mechanical complexity got a post at the Castalia House blog after Jeffro Johnson posted a link to it at Google Plus. I hadn't even noticed until late on Tuesday that this happened, so I'm a bit late to the party here, but this got a reaction from Alexander Macris (of Adventurer, Conqueror, King).

The line of logic in Alexander's comment runs on the assumption that the rules of the game have to be recorded in order to be known, and they have to be known so players can make informed decisions in the game, with the combination being a feedback loop that leads to inevitable mechanical complexity bloat over time.

These assumptions are false. The players don't need to know a god-damned thing, ever, in terms of rules- and the rules don't need to be written down either. These days, I run games with notes, dice, and that's it. What players need to know I tell them when they need to know it, and that's rarely more than "Roll (X), get above/below (Y)." It works, and it's very newbie-friendly. Magicians know nothing about their spells other than what they observe during play, priests know only that their powers are endowments from the divine (and can be lost if disfavored), and so on. No rulebooks are even present anymore, because they are not necessary to play the game- and the game is the campaign.


Because the medium of the tabletop RPG requires participants to focus on their words. Having some wargame elements works from time to time, and by that I mean tokens to indicate position and distance, but otherwise focusing entirely on the use of natural language to handle things as they occur is the way to go. You need only a rubric for measurements (which allows comparisons), and the rest can be left to having Infogalactic or whatever information sources you need handy- and only the Game Master needs anything like that written down (and that is optional; I don't).

It's not storytelling as such. Instead, it's closer to Braunstein than anything else. Relying on real-world referents whenever they are not superseded by a fantastic one makes running the game much easier, such that I don't even need Hit Points anymore, thanks (once again) to the Internet and the bounty of information on damn near everything I might need to know at a given moment during a game. Orcs are now scary monsters again because you can't go "I have 90 Hit Points. Whatever.", and you're not always wearing your Power Armor even in the toliet.

"But isn't that tedious?" Nope, because you're going to be too busy dealing with the moment to care. Remember what I said above about using your words? That's how you make a virtue--an asset--of ambiguity and the liminal space such creates. A little back-and-forth goes a long way during play, just to ensure everyone's on the same page. Such as:

Game Master: You're maintaining pursuit on the Imperial Ace in the red robot. What do you do?

Player 1: Can I get a lock on him?

GM: You intend to fire, right? Using what?

Player 2: Use the beam rifle. He'll just pull an Itano on you if you fire the missiles.

GM: Roll 8 or better on two dice.

(Rolls, succeeds)

GM: You have a target lock.

P1: I fire the beam rifle.

GM: Your lock ensures that your shot moves into the space he attempted to dodge into, hitting him square in the back. You see a heretofore invisible screen flash and explode.

P2: That's the shield I told you about.

GM: Okay, now what?

P2: I have line of sight to him, correct?

GM: To the robot, yes. To the pilot, no.

P1: That screen blocked your magic too, didn't it?

P2: Not anymore. I call upon the Archangel of Fire of Fire (Note: That's not a typo; that's Enochian magic) to incinerate the robot out from under the pilot.

GM: Quite confident of your charisma, aren't we? Okay then, Roll two dice and get a 10 or higher.

(Rolls. Nope.)

GM: Your call is heard. It is not to your liking. You sense a meteor shower about to hit.

That's the core of tabletop RPG gameplay. The back-and-forth between the participants, revolving around the fundamental feedback loop of "What do you do?" No player, ever, needs to know a goddamned thing other than that. The Game Master doesn't need to know much more anymore, which will make those of you wondering what the role of RPG designers are ask "Well, what do I do?"

You train people how to do this, and you connect participants together. That's your business model now: you are service providers. Mechanical complexity is for videogames, where they need piles of code higher than the Himalayas to do what tabletop RPGs can do emergently with natural language, knowledge of any source material required, and a page on probability bookmarked.


  1. I agree with many of your points in this post and the previous post. I've been saying similar things on my blog over the last year and a half.* Your phrasing of "piloting the mech" is EXACTLY the analogy I've been searching for the past few weeks to describe a kind of play I sometimes encounter but don't enjoy very much.

    A question: When you write about the Players not needing to know the spells, I suppose I don't understand. I were playing OD&D or B/X, you're saying they would not know the effect of the spell until they cast it and the Referee interpreted the result? Or they define the intended result on the fly? Or perhaps such games don't work in the kind of play you are talking about?

    Could you give some examples or open this up a bit?


    * I don't take the same absolutist position you do, but that's me. There are many ways of playing RPGs, and if someone wants to play differently than me, that's fine. That's neither here nor there.

    1. For your Magic-User types, I rely on the research process being a thing you play out at the table, which means that making magic is a reason to adventure in itself because the source of practical magic effects means either you're dealing with a supernatural thing that does the effect you're after or decyphering the notes of another magician- both of which require that you'll need to seek things out in the world in order to make that happen.

      The effects themselves are never put in hard-coded terms (no die codes, etc.), but rather only in what the caster would directly experience in terms of observation- that's why I've gone over to having players just use spiral notebooks instead of formal sheets. Cheaper, easier, and more room for note-taking.

    2. For your holy men, I'm using the Turning table to replace spell-casting for anything properly miraculous in D&D-like games and coming up with something similar in other contexts. Depending on the specifics of the religion, effects get constrained and requirements imposed; a Templar is not a Shaman.

  2. How do you decide what dice to use in what rolls? Is it all like the example you give - two eight die - or do you vary it? How do you vary it if you do, and why?

    1. Context determines what dice get used and how. You can get enough d6 for a Yatzee game for $2 at a supermarket or a drug store where I live, and normies are used to the d6 being "dice", so it's easy to run with 1-6 d6 for a lot of homebrews or rules-lite adaptations.

      For more D&D-like games, I'll use the other Platonic solids (and the d10), but I find it easier for most normies to just get told what to roll and what to aim for regardless of the game's genre or struction.