Dozens and Dragons

How I Run A Game

People Over Process

2021-12-11

Introduction

So this weekend I ran a cute little game of Giraffe Wants Best Leaves (itch/www) with a couple of internet pals. We hadn’t played together before and had a jolly good time. They were very good giraffes.

During the course of play, one of my pals told me he was having a really good time, and asked if there is a name for the style of GM-ing I do, because they GM too and would like to learn more about this school of GM-ing.

The question really caught me off guard! Because I didn’t really feel like I was doing anything besides improvising and trying to create interesting scenarios for my friends.1

I ended up following up with them later and asking for more details because we didn’t take much time during the game to stop and chat about that at the time.

And what they told me was this:

I liked the framework you were using, where you helped players think through an expected outcome, and possible consequences for each action. It seemed like something intentional you were doing, and I haven’t encountered anything quite like it, so I was wondering if it’s a specific style or trick you learned, and if there’s a name for it. If so, I’d like to read up on it, in case I ever GM anything again.

So I thought about it for a while, which was fun, because it forced me to really try to consolidate and condense my feelings and thoughts on how to run a game.

My values when I play are collaboration, negotiation, and transparency. And I think a lot of my style is rooted in concepts from Free Kriegsspiel.

I’ll talk about those values and Free Kriegsspiel below

Values

For a game I’ve never actually played2, Blades In The Dark has had a pretty large impact on how I think about running a game.

Specifically its idea of position and effect, in which every roll has a position or risk (desperate, risky, controlled), that will make it easier or harder to accomplish your goals, but also with increased or decreased effect (limited, standard, great).

All of which has mechanical meaning in the game. But if you strip away the mechanics, the idea of saying up front the stakes and the effect of each roll still naturally leads to a bargaining phase in which the player can try a different approach. “Oh, can I try to risk more for increased effect?” “Yes, you can.”

It creates a consensus. And each roll is a contract agreed upon by all parties. Everybody is perfectly aware of the risks and rewards, because they were negotiated and agreed upon.

Collaboration, negotiation, and transparency.

Free Kriegsspiel

Hundreds of years ago, wargames were a really big deal among military officers and other people too, and playing them was really complicated. There were huge rulebooks that had to be consulted for basically any move.3 Until the Free Kriegsspiel (“Free wargame”) movement, which threw out most of the rules in favor of a highly trusted referee who was allowed to make rulings based on judgement, experience, and sense.

At least that’s the story I was told. I wasn’t around for any of that, and I’m just repeating what I’ve heard.

Anyway, that’s what FKR is for tabletop roleplaying games today. Fiction first. Rulings over rules.

It’s basically the agile manifesto for rpgs:

We are uncovering better ways of playing games by doing it and helping others do it. Through this play we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Fictional worlds over comprehensive rulebooks

Player collaboration over rules lawyering

Responding to change over following a plan

One natural conclusion to this way of thinking is to attempt to create the most minimal ruleset possible for your game that still achieves what you want out of your game.

At one point, I think the rules for Oz’s Ultimate were, in their entirety:

  1. Describe the situation

  2. Agree on what happens

Which is a fun exercise in minimalism.

Anyway, at the end of the day, for me, FKR emphasizes people over process; and fiction, worlds, and rulings over rules.

Conclusion

So I still don’t know if there’s one name for the style of GM-ing I do. But I think it’s mostly minimal, high-trust FKR with some bargaining and communication tools borrowed from Blades in the Dark.

Let’s try to sum it up in a pithy little list:

  1. GM describes the situation (Create scenarios not plots) (Players can definitely help with this step!)

  2. Player describes what they want to do.

  3. If there’s no risk, it happens.

  4. If there is uncertainty, or if you all agree it would be fun to roll, agree on risk vs reward ahead of time, and then agree on what happens, probably via a dice roll.

  5. Repeat.

Resources

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  1. This is a kind of foreshadowing, because the author will eventually conclude that improvising and creating interesting scenarios is in fact a core component of their style of running a game.↩︎

  2. I have played a rather lengthy session of Wicked Ones, which is built on BitD’s core Forged In The Dark system.↩︎

  3. Just like Pathfinder today.↩︎