How Exactly Do I Play This?

The world of role-playing games has been expanding outward ever since Dungeons and Dragons was first released. Within five years of the first published system, games which used different fundamental assumptions and mechanics not only existed but had started to find popularity. Within 15 years, games existed which used the medium in a completely different way than D&D ever intended or expected to. Now, over 45 years later, the RPG world is a vast plane of games with GMs, without GMs, games with dice, with cards, with block towers and with no randomizers at all. There are games which exist to simulate worlds, games which exist to be played optimally, and games which trace out the creation of a story scene by scene. It is, as they say, a glorious time to be alive.

It’s also a confusing time to be alive. As I’ve said before, D&D is simultaneously a huge part of the player base and an infinitesimally small portion of what RPGs can be or do, no matter how much you hack it. So imagine if D&D Fifth Edition is your first game. The foundations of how traditional RPGs work are embedded in Fifth Edition just like many others, so if someone invited you to their campaign of Traveller or Shadowrun, most of the table concepts would be familiar. Table concepts aren’t rules per se, they’re norms like “you’re playing a character” and “there is a GM” and “characters are defined by attributes”. This also means that if your friends instead invited you to play Fiasco, or test out the play kit for Wanderhome, or even play Apocalypse World, your assumptions don’t entirely work. This means everyone in the position of trying to sell their friends on a new game is going to have to field the question “How Exactly Do You Play This?”

Teaching someone how a game is supposed to work at the table is not always easy. While there are examples like the above mentioned Fiasco which are clear, concise, and understandable, many games, no matter how well the mechanical rules are written, are strikingly spare in explaining how the game is actually supposed to work. Some of this may be intentional; I have seen a designer recently state that the omission of play examples in their work was deliberate. A lot of it, though, is that designers spend a lot of time in their preferred play space and, whether by only testing at their own tables or not considering the self-selection bias of the average Metatopia attendee, playtest only with likeminded people. It may not be the end of the world for selling the game, but you, its buyer, did want to play it with other people at some point.

This is not to imply that I have the magic formula to get someone who’s only played D&D to grok Dream Askew on first read, I don’t. But, I do have some considerations about some of the most jarring shifts in table mindset which might make it easier for your friendly local gaming group to push out of their comfort zones a little bit.

Rules-Light Games

Let’s start with an easy one. In theory, rules-light games should be easier to play than ‘crunchy’ games, yes? The truth of the matter is that the more detailed rules are, the less mental load is dedicated to interpreting them, so *in play* more rules-intensive games are almost always easier, barring the need to look something up. This is the essence of why D&D Fifth Edition is the most popular RPG of all time while the OSR is a niche movement; both are using similar fundamental rules but one is entirely based around the players doing more work than the ruleset in order to have a more rewarding play experience. On the other hand, as any aspiring GM knows, the fewer rules you have to understand, the easier it is to fit any concept, character, or genre into your ruleset. The best way to make rules-light games work effectively is to understand what playing with fewer rules requires. Imagine that your game is a dollar. In a traditional game with a defined setting, you might pay 50 cents to the rules for providing structure and assumptions, 30 cents to the GM for writing the specific scenario and administering the game, and then five cents to each of the players for bringing their character concepts and attendant plot hooks. If you play with a ruleset that provides less structure, either from mechanics or setting, some of that 50 cents is picked up by either the GM or the players. If you want to play the same sort of game with lighter rules, it usually involves doing more work to establish what everything means and how everything works outside of whatever’s in the rules document. As an example, consider the mental overhead of using the word ‘Ranger’ as a call-on instead of listing out a number of skills and abilities. The two approaches could have the same result if the players envision what a ranger is in the same way as the ruleset. If they don’t, on one hand now there needs to be work done at the table to level-set what a ranger is, work the more in-depth system did for them. On the other hand, if what the table wants a ranger to be is different than what the book says, one of these systems allows that in a much simpler way. The key is that rules density does not define how rich and involved your game is, it just defines how much of the work has been done for you.

Player-Facing Mechanics

I don’t necessarily think player-facing mechanics are hard to understand. There’s two different phenomena at work which make them a mental stumbling block for experienced gamers. First, the most popular player-facing games are also lighter in rules density than most traditional games, which gives gamers coming from those systems the impression that they have leeway to ‘make stuff up’. Second, I truly believe (and see this reinforced whenever I have the misfortune of reading D&D memes) that the hobby has a fair bit of collective trauma around player-GM power dynamics, which makes the idea of the player/GM divide being a fluid one very foreign to someone who’s been bumping around this space for more than a year or so.

The key to understanding player-facing mechanics is not a need to understand what’s different, it’s a need to understand what is still the same. Player-facing mechanics have never been an “I win” button in a game, nor do they reduce the challenge or rate of failure. Player-facing mechanics in most games that employ them (we’re talking games with GMs, GMless games come later) give players narrative control over the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the mechanical ‘what’ which is established at the same mechanical level as any other game. The dice still state if you succeed or fail, but the player is allowed to adjudicate a context for that success or failure that makes sense for the character. While these structures are essential for some systems, like Powered by the Apocalypse, they’re incredibly portable and honestly calling them mechanics can be a bit of a misnomer. Still, while giving players the leeway to interpret the results of their own rolls and add key setting elements doesn’t sound like anything revolutionary (and it’s really not, even GURPS has rules for this), games like Fate which do hand players a higher degree of control are beset by strawman arguments which belie how interesting these games can truly be.

Task Resolution v. Conflict Resolution

This subject is getting into the weeds, but it’s essential for understanding, if not how to play, at least how to run Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games. A task resolution system is one where you roll the dice to achieve a specific action, a task if you will. A conflict resolution system is one where you roll the dice to achieve a goal which you define prior to the roll. In many scenarios these concepts aren’t that distant, but they imply two very different ways to adjudicate results. Task-based resolution systems are concerned with how a character accomplishes a goal; they’re dependent on at least some degree of specification regarding what skills your character possesses, what physical and mental capabilities they have. Conflict resolution systems are concerned with if the goal is accomplished, without necessarily adjudicating how it’s accomplished. This is where the idea of Moves in PbtA games comes from. When you roll to ‘Unleash Your Powers’ in Masks, the game couldn’t care less what the power is or whether you took ice or fire proficiency or whatever. You roll the move, consult the result, and then adjudicate what happened. This enables two things. First, it can separate the notion of success and failure from ability. This is a significant boon in more cinematic games where the characters literally failing is essentially a non-issue, and it’s very helpful in any game where character capability isn’t considered the primary measure of what makes them interesting. Second, it allows for an increase in resolution in dice results. PbtA’s three tiered dice mechanic doesn’t really have degrees of success, it has three outcomes. In addition to the outcome not necessarily being dependent on whether the character was capable of doing what they tried to do, the wonderfully ambiguous 7-9 dice results only work as well as they do because the GM has the context of the entire conflict with which to bring in consequences and complications.

The key difference between task resolution and conflict resolution mechanics is the nature of the questions you’re answering with dice. In task resolution, the question is simply ‘can I do the thing’. In conflict resolution, the question is ‘do I accomplish my goal’. When you do the thing, you do the thing, and play moves on. When you accomplish your goal, often the method by which you accomplished your goal as well as the consequences of that goal being accomplished are given back to either you or the GM to adjudicate, making that single dice roll represent a large piece of narrative within the game.

GMless Games

In a perfect world, every player would come to the table with a dynamic character with strong motivations, loads of interesting quirks, and plenty of ideas to make all of those things come out at the table. In this perfect world, all of these things would also align under the same stars as the new GMless game you’ve pulled out for the evening, and everyone will be wowed by the adventure they go on. Since we don’t live in a perfect world, a large swathe of the RPG hobby either actively dislikes GMless games or has had such bad experiences that they just don’t think they’re good at them.

This all goes back to the same dollar analogy from talking about rules-light games. If you have fifty cents from the system, thirty cents from the GM, and five cents each from four players, you have a balance where, for the most part, the players do very little work. In more accessible GMless games like Fiasco, you end up having a system giving sixty cents and each player giving ten; in exchange for using a highly structured system, the players do some more work but not much, and everyone has a grand time. If you’re looking at a system like Dream Askew or other games using the same No Dice No Masters mechanics, you have what’s basically a PbtA derivative with the diceless token system instead of the standard 2d6. Even if we assume Dream Askew provides the same mechanical richness as something like 5e (fewer rules but a narrower premise and more setting-building mechanics), we’ve lost 30 cents worth of GM. What many people I know describe when trying to play games like these, even game designers and long-time indie fans, is a night where everyone runs through the starting procedures, gets their characters, and then either falters or slowly staggers through a session after realizing no one’s telling them what happens next.

GMless games are hard to pull off because no matter how hard you try, the rules can never be a storyteller. You need to have the storytelling distributed amongst the players, and generally the most successful way to do that is with structure. The games I’ve seen people have the most difficulty with are either games like Dream Askew which are close to just RPGs with no GM, or games like Microscope which, while they provide gameplay structure, are wildly open-ended in terms of concept, set, and setting and often provide little stable ground to start from. Fact is that setting creation or session zero can be a halting process even with a GM actively guiding it, and GMless games which expect to give their players the same sort of freedom they’d expect from a game with a GM are generally assuming that the players are going to be significantly more self-guided and coordinated than players typically are. After all, the average gaming group usually only has one out of five people willing to actually run games, otherwise the ‘forever GM’ trope wouldn’t be so prevalent.

There’s some easy advice, though, in figuring out how to make these games work for your group: try running them with a GM. I’m not saying forever, I’m not saying give up on GMless games. Pick one person to be a facilitator and have it be their job to keep the game moving. Note where things slow down, definitely note the places where people get stuck, either mechanically or with making an in-game decision. Get everyone comfortable with cutting scenes off; you don’t have to keep roleplaying a scene if people aren’t enthusiastic about it, even if you aren’t at a specific end. That has greatly increased the completion rate of my Fiasco games, and is valuable advice for anyone trying to pace a game, GMless or not.

The world of RPGs is only getting bigger. No matter what sort of game you most enjoy there will continue to be mechanical innovations which force you to think differently about how games are played. These innovations haven’t been changing the hobby, per se, merely expanding it. With that expansion, though, the range of play experiences that you or I are unfamiliar with is increasing every day. I’ve had some deeply rewarding experiences trying new systems and modes of play over the years, as well as some that, well, taught me a lot in how purely they failed me. Nonetheless, variety is the spice of life, and being willing to ask ‘How Exactly Do You Play This’ will help keep you open to new experiences.

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2 thoughts on “How Exactly Do I Play This?”

  1. 5E
    ” I charge up my arms with lightning, slam my tower shield into the ground bending the corner and releasing the strap. As it clatters to the ground I kick it at the lich and run hell for leather after it. As it connects with his feet I’m there slamming my arms into the back of his head and knocking him to the ground. As he falls I step on the bent edge of the shield and flip it back onto my arm where the lightning flows around it protecting me from the arrows of the skeleton archers.”

    – Game terms. I move up (move) and shove (action) the lich to the ground and cast Shield of Faith ( bonus).

    Pathfinder – You don’t have “throw anything” and the shield is an improvised weapon with a 10 foot range increment so you’ll take a -4 for that and a -4 for this and then you only have one attack this round so you can’t hit him over the head. If you pick your shield back up it provokes an attack of opportunity….

    I’d been thinking the same sort of thing myself. I think the way the dollar gets split also depends on just what play style your PC’s have.


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