Appendix N and Game Mastering

Friday , 13, October 2017 2 Comments

I am one of the least creative Game Masters I know.

Look back over my session reports and you’ll find that I rarely ever ventured far outside the bounds of other peoples modules. “Keep on the Borderlands”, “The Isle of Dread”, “Steading of the Hill Giant Chief”… all of these can be run as is with very little elaboration for much longer than I would care to even play. Games like Car Wars and Traveller have so many prefab scenarios available, its possible to run a campaign by stringing which ever ones fit the constraints of the next session while doing little more than adjudicating the rules and keeping up with the bookkeeping.

What this means is this it’s very possible to dedicate a great deal of time playing role playing games without ever feeling any pressure to do the one thing that nearly all such games assumed Game Masters would do: create their own campaign setting, people it with monsters and situations, and then turn the players loose to roam around with it as they will.

How anyone could really do that baffled me for decades. Part of this is due to temperament– I’m just not the sort of person to work up scads of notebooks full of my original fantasy and science fiction gaming ideas. (A lot of people that take on the duties of Game Master are that sort, but not me.) But part of it was also due to the fact that whole swaths of the supplements and modules created for these games were not designed to help novices get the sort of gameplay that the first wave of rule sets assumed would be the norm. Indeed, the material was oftentimes predicated on an entirely different approach to role-playing or that introduced a a significant amount of dissonance with the original rules.

Now this is not quite the problem I make it out to be. There would be a certain amount of strangeness in store anyone that went back and read the original iterations of the rules for themselves. I think most people have a tremendous capacity to tune this out and interpolate what they think “ought” to be there. Certainly, everyone that sorts out for themselves how to make these sorts of games work tends to come away with incredibly strong opinions about the “right” way to do them.

And D&D is itself such an effective game. The rules (if faithfully applied in even a modestly consistent manner) will overcome a great many of the problems surrounding the strangeness of the rules. Dungeons, for example, don’t really need to be designed to produce “balanced” play. The game not only doesn’t break, it thrives when a mixture of too hard and too easy encounters are allowed to emerge from the Wandering Monster Table. And there’s plenty of excitement to be had in simply letting players make their choices even when the setting and the creatures involved are silly, goofy, and otherwise “unrealistic.”

Does being familiar with the game’s literary antecedents make it run better in practice…? Not necessarily. The rules distilled into something like the old Moldvay Basic set are just too good for that to be a perquisite. The problem is that D&D changed how most people even conceived of fantasy. And that change was so powerful and touched so many other media, they have a very hard time playing the game without imposing something foreign to it on top of it.

The main use in knowing where the game came from is that it helps gamers see how many of its constituent elements aren’t as shoddy, haphazard, or weird as they appear when viewed outside of their original contexts. Knowing where alignment, spell memorization, mega-dungeons, and thief abilities come from can give the flummoxed Game Master a great deal of insight in how to get play out of game elements he would otherwise ignore, gloss over, or explain away.

Mostly it’s just cool. Given the ubiquity of concepts pioneered in early role-playing games in tabletop games, video games, and fantasy in general… delving into this feels like a combination of unearthed arcana and deep magic from the dawn of time. But in a game where a failure to trust the rules leads inexorably to all manner of gaming sins, I wouldn’t want to sell this point short.

Nevertheless, the most important question in all this is whether or not reading the stories that inspired these sorts of games can unlock actual creativity or else pay dividends to someone that wants to run the old rulesets the way they were intended: in a wide open and original campaign world teeming with adventure. I think it does.

Reading the old books doesn’t just load up your brain with countless situations and characters that are a perfect fit for the games as they were originally intended to be played– and make no mistake, that stuff is invaluable if you are ever pressed to improvise something due to the players strolling outside the bounds of your preparations. Mostly it just sets you free from doing a bunch of stuff to make your campaign “good” or “correct” or “right”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent countless hours digging through all kinds of supplements and magazines daydreaming about how I would have the more sprawling campaign setting, the most nuanced non-player characters, the more realistic dungeon environment that even have sorted out where the monsters go to the bathroom. I’m the sort of guy that really really wanted his Traveller campaign to use the best bits from a half dozen editions will toking up on the latest stellar science and the mounds of “official” canon background.

But the implied campaign that could actually be distilled from all of that…? You know, I don’t think it actually exists. The amount of mental effort it takes to keep up with real life players in actual play…? It just doesn’t leave a lot of room for all that data. And you’re talking about decades worth of accretions there meant to “fix” things in the old rules that weren’t actually broken to begin with.

You don’t need it.

Read a few dozen old books that were plundered to get these games off the ground in the first place, and things start to look a lot different. Your campaign map doesn’t have to be this sort of perfectly engineered walled garden. The rules themselves are a hodgepodge of totally incompatible fiction elements glommed together into an impossible Frankenstein’s monster. They aren’t inviting you clean them up and make them “consistent” and “believable” and “realistic.”

They’re inviting you to add in anything you like!

For the type of person that tends to go cold at the prospects of stocking a dungeon map or else filling in a blank hex map, this really is a revelation. It also turns out to be a lot of fun.

2 Comments
  • There are a lot of similarities between running an RPG and writing fiction, but there are also some very important differences.

    I have always prefered the concept of GM as “Referee” rather than GM as “Storyteller”. I see the primary job of the GM as being the enforcer of genre.

    The GM sets the tone and mood of the game world–the metaphysical alignment. The players should then tell the story within those genre conventions.

    Consistency is, in my opinion, the hallmark of a good GM, not imagination. Much has been written of late about “coming up with things for the players to do” and “keeping the game interesting”.

    I don’t think that’s the GM’s job. The GM’s job is to present a world that is concrete enough that the players are free to do whatever they want, secure in the understanding that whatever they choose to do will result in an outcome that makes sense.

    Good worldbuilding is about the big picture, not the details. It’s about setting the scene. If you establish that the Desert of Despair is an arid wasteland inhabited only by scattered bands of fearsome nomads, then you don’t have to map out each settlement and roll up stats for the nomad chiefs–if the players decide to go there, both you and they will know what to expect in enough detail that you can easily create encounters on the fly.

    If you set the tone as being fun and a little bit crazy, then the players will not be surprised by finding a tribe of post-apocalyptic mimes armed with cream pies and squirting flowers, and will accept a dozen of them crammed into an oxcart.

    On the other hand, if the tone has been set as brutal and harsh, a ceaseless struggle for survival, such an encounter is going to break the mood, and once broken, mood is a very hard thing to recapture.

    Players should not know what to expect, but they should know what kind of thing to expect. Even if you are introducing a robot into a medieval Fantasy campaign, the type of robot should reflect the type of world it is, in terms of tone.

    A dangerous world filled with monsters and frequent character death is going to give rise to Terminator style killing machine, while a slapdash action based game would be best served by something more like Johnny Five or Wall*E.

    Tone is hard to explain, but if you can establish that, then the details will take care of themselves.

  • Astrsorceror says:

    4th and 5th Edition D&D were much more focused on rules, balance and set-piece modules. 3rd and 3.5, in my opinion, work best for world-building because of the flexibility built into the system.

    The thing is, different people want different things from a game. Some people want to focus on dungeon running and tactics, others focus on just beating challenges and leveling up, others are interested in the story and background happening, and some just want a good excuse to sit down with friends.

    The trick for a game-master is finding something to get everyone together and interested.

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