Role-playing games are different from any other type of analog game because of their relationship with rules and procedures. When you sit down to play a board game, or a card game, or even a game of darts, you follow a set procedure to determine an outcome. Wargames took half the steps away from board games by introducing rulesets which could be adapted to a wide range of scenarios, the only limits being how many minis you had and how big your sand table was. The early ‘Braunstein’ campaigns started the other half, walking away from simple win/lose conditions in scenarios. For the role-playing game to turn from a weirdo version of wargaming a couple nerds were running to a repeatable, salable product, existing wargaming rules had to be supplemented with rules for writing and executing free-form scenarios which very much didn’t resemble battles any more. Every traditional role-playing game, from the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons onward, has rules for players and rules for the person running the game.
This is not being stated as if it’s controversial; it should be common knowledge given that D&D has sold with a ‘Dungeon Master’s Guide’ since well before I was born. That said, as a game design principle it’s on shakier ground. The procedures which make up said ‘Dungeon Master’s Guide’ have become more and more vague over the years. As much as D&D still provides a lot of information to the prospective Dungeon Master, it doesn’t provide much in the way of concrete rules. Some would argue that that is intentional and is a feature; one need not track turns throughout the whole dungeon and constantly roll on tables to have a good role-playing experience. There is some truth to this; the closest we have to a hobby-specific dirty word is ‘railroad’ after all. The question, then, is fairly simple: If we aren’t providing rules for how to run a game, how do people learn how to run games?
D&D is the most popular role-playing game in the world, it is the Kleenex of the role-playing world, and one of the ways it got there was by failing to teach people how to play or run the game for decades. For at least the run of Basic D&D (which persisted in one form or another until 1999), the game was played with a combination of written rules and tribal knowledge which came in the form of house rules and ‘that kid who knows how to be a DM’. This melange is, at its core, the progenitor of the OSR, the desire to return to a style of play that isn’t centered around mechanics. It also amplified the network effects of the game. While there are some games that got popular enough to have some level of tribal knowledge (Traveller comes to mind, as does Shadowrun and the original Cyberpunk), D&D was always the 800 pound gorilla and the relative barrier to entry kept it that way.
Fast forward a few decades. Children of The Forge are putting out games, games that gain strong reputations. Burning Wheel comes out in 2002, and it’s built around mechanics to help players tell a GM what stories their character cares about (Beliefs). Apocalypse World comes out in 2010, and the GM gets their own set of Moves in parallel to the characters. Game designers know about the two sets of rules, even though many (most?) traditional games avoid talking about one of them. So where’s the line? We know at some level few rules are needed for the GM side of the table, but how many are wanted? What sort of GM-facing rules are helpful? On the other hand, how many isn’t enough? Is the fact that 5e’s GMing guidance is so much thinner than AD&D because of good editorial streamlining, or is it because the book’s omitting necessary information and players just get by on that tribal knowledge? And what would it need to look like for more modern games to better teach complete neophytes how to both play and GM?
What Rules Does a GM need?
The trouble with internalizing the idea of two sets of rules comes mostly from the fact that GMs don’t need many of their own rules, at least at first blush. For most traditional games, little guidance is given beyond how to set difficulties for the players’ rolls and how to create opponents, and in some cases even these are omitted. This ends up working fine for most people who buy these games, but the reason is not because GMs don’t need rules but rather because most GMs are going to emulate those who have already run the game for them.
Teaching others how to GM and passing on GMing tribal knowledge are a storied tradition in the RPG hobby, and one that became central to the hobby because, frankly, the first version of D&D was incredibly poorly written. While this forced a degree of interpretation on pretty much any player, it also gave leeway to interpretation and helped the hobby fragment in a rich way very early on.
The problem now comes from the fact that most games don’t particularly resemble D&D. While this gets obvious if you go even a little indie and look at games like Fate or Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark, it’s true even for games that share many more design elements with D&D. One thing that is central to D&D, even as its current marketing downplays it, is that it’s a narrow game that’s intended to work with two basic activities: exploring dungeons and killing monsters (hence the name). For a long time, the games which competed with D&D successfully were ones that provided the same degree of focus in activity. Call of Cthulhu is a great example, and the investigation/horror arc of CoC has maintained more of its narrowness over the years than D&D has. Traveller is a game of many possible activities, but the core of the game was always around the spaceship, with the frame of the campaign hung on the retaining walls of space travel and the star map. Even Shadowrun (and also its cousin Cyberpunk) have focused their gameplay around shadowrunners (edgerunners), who break into facilities, hack computers and kill people.
To circle back to the key question, GMs need to know two things. First they need to know the activities the game is intended to consist of (and with many, many games you can guess the answer is combat and traversing between combats), and then what the rules are for staging these activities for the players. While everything else is, in a way, optional, even my blunt descriptions should begin to imply that there’s more to running a good game than what rules you need to know.
Rules Innovations for GMs
Consider a coffee shop. A local coffee shop, a good one. You can walk there from your house or apartment, order what you want, get it in a couple minutes, and it’s going to taste good. Modules are the coffee shops of the RPG world. You walk in, get what you want, and walk out. And, in RPG terms, I don’t go to coffee shops. I make my own coffee, and what I want is the RPG equivalent of an Aeropress: a simple tool which, with a little practice, will help you make great coffee (run a great gaming session) consistently and without headache. When the reality of RPG modules runs parallel to coffee shops also in that there are good ones but also many bad ones…the need for good GM tools and GM rules should be apparent to everyone, whether you like running modules or not.
The reason a discussion of new rules for GMs must start with modules is that the module market is exactly why there’s no emphasis on providing GMs with good, robust tools. In addition to that, the structure of the modules on sale now, especially for mainstream games like D&D, illustrate that the skills of running good games aren’t evenly distributed throughout the game design profession. Even in 5e the adventure library is rife with linear modules which are at best extremely low-trust (i.e. the module implies or presumes the solution to each problem contained within) and at worst actively difficult to run without railroading a party into plot hooks. While there are some incredibly neat things going on with modules outside the mainstream, the fact remains that most of the modules a typical gamer in 2021 will see aren’t that good.
This is where GM rules come in. Apocalypse World tells you how to structure threats that will drive conflict in your story. The game also tells you what these threats will do in the fiction, and how often they’re going to come up. And, more to what I think of when I think GM-facing mechanics, you have a list of moves that tell you what to do next and several (admittedly vague) conditions that tell you when to make a move. Apocalypse World takes a huge step towards casting the GM as just a different kind of player rather than the singled-out person who has to write the game and probably host the game and maybe buy all the snacks. And of course, other PbtA games have further expanded and refined this GM-Player Move loop over the decade or so in which PbtA has existed.
The other major GM rules innovation sitting on the opposite end of the taxonomic spectrum from the indie scene is OSR’s push to rehabilitate the random table. While procedural generation has its limits (when either digital or analogue), random tables and a lean toward emergent play is another wonderful expansion of the options GMs have. What random tables and hexcrawl procedures are is rulesets for GMs, and rulesets which when designed well can significantly reduce the amount of effort it takes for a GM to create a world big enough and interesting enough to make for a compelling long-term campaign. And ultimately, that’s the intent of rules for GMs, more than anything else: provide the structure to help GMs run better games than they would be able to themselves.
Being the person running the game can be fraught. The amount of guidance you have is often minimal, and examples of bad GMing are discussed a lot more often than examples of good GMing. It’s not really hard to imagine that good GMing has rules…but I want to see them written out! As much as there are modules and even GMing advice books that exist for mainstream games, guidelines for GMing belong in core rulebooks just as much as guidelines for play. With the rate that the hobby’s expanding in form, tribal knowledge rapidly becomes out of date and results in the mistaken belief that older games are “easier” to run. My pie in the sky belief is that rules for GMs should be written as clearly as rules for players, treating both roles as what they are…players of the game.
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