Saturday, February 16, 2019

Game Manifestos

One of the most important jobs a game master has is managing expectations. This is a hard won lesson because I'm actually pretty bad at it--both personally and professionally. I tend to assume that people know what I know because to do otherwise feels insulting to them. I know this is stupid, but it's a hard habit to break.

I'm currently writing a game called His Majesty the Worm. It is, essentially, a tabletop Metroidvania about how it feels to be being friends and lovers with fantasy misfits in the mythic Underworld. For this project, I have to manage expectations not just with the people I'm playtesting with--who are my friends, trust me to operate in good faith, and are close to me in experience--but with total strangers. This feels challenging to me.

Dungeon World does an awesome job of this. Its agenda and its principles are often lauded as both "good general GM advice" and a good way to on-board GMs into the game. Skerples did a good job with this for players in his Rat on a Stick GLOG.

Because I also want to create a good praxis for HMtW, I've been working on a series of game principles that let people know what the game is "about." Additionally, I've written two manifestos: one to tell GMs how I expect them to run the game, and one for players to tell them how I expect the game to be played.

I've reproduced them here to solicit feedback and talk about the idea in general.

Image result for dungeon solitaire devil
The Throne from Dungeon Solitaire by Matthew Lowes

Game Principles

This game’s design principles are centered around creating a particular experience. The following are core themes for this experience.

A theme of His Majesty the Worm is the discovery of world lore. Who really made the Underworld? What happened there? How did it come to the City? How does magic work? How are orcs related to dragons? What is the Worm’s purpose? These questions don't have answers in this text.

Players, be up front about what questions your hero is wondering. Say what you think is cool or mysterious. GMs, listen to your players. Infuse the Underworld with lore. Be generous with it. Give it to your players hand over fist. Ancient tomes, mosaics, tapestries, wandering ghosts, the research pried from the hands of dead wizards—all of these can be used to move your lore forward. Good lore both answers and asks questions.

For example, if it's revealed in your game that the Underworld was once the city of heaven, where are the gods that dwelt there? What gods dwelt there? Who dared to rival the gods?

The Scaling Underworld
Adventurers are expected to visit and revisit places within the Underworld. There are lots of locked rooms, mysterious puzzles whose answers only seem obvious with experience, and obstacles unpassable without special precautions. That said, the dungeon is what the dungeon is. Few places are totally unreachable, even for younger guilds. A sleeping wyrmling might be an unbeatable guardian for a beginning party, and must be snuck past. A somewhat more experienced guild might try and defeat the wyrmling to win the treasure he sleeps on. Either way, the wyrmling provides some type of challenge for the adventurers, whether they are fresh or veterans.

His Majesty the Worm isn’t concerned about “challenge ratings” or “appropriate party level.” It’s somewhat hard to even track that sort of statistic—starting heroes might have dramatically different strengths which make some encounters very easy, whereas others might be difficult. Rather, this game is concerned about allowing players and GMs an open space to explore and experience realistic consequences. If the players overreach, the entire Guild might die. If the players move cautiously and think orthogonally, however, they might be able to achieve success at a depth of the dungeon far outside of their “level.”  GMs should be generous in information, so that players will know when they tread into deadly danger. Players should be ready to fall back and return later to a part of the Underworld that is too challenging. GMs should be fair arbiters, both while rewarding players who get great rewards for their cleverness and elaborating on the dire consequences of failure.

The Changing Underworld
Though it might seem like it to many of the adventuring guilds that have delved into the Underworld over and over, the Underworld in your game will not remain static. Adventurers are going to be a force of change. They might make minor changes—collapsing a certain tunnel or driving a nest of goblins from their old haunt. But, in time, they will make major changes too. Perhaps they will drain the Boundless Moat, allowing a whole new area to be explored without magic. Perhaps the diverted water flows along the channel that had been intended for it, and begins to power great waterwheels and other machines. Maybe these machines open up new sections of the Underworld, hitherto unexplored.

Also, whenever a dungeon lord is defeated, the consequences will be felt throughout the Underworld. The balance of power will shift. Perhaps the adventurers will seize power and become denizens of the dungeon in their own right.

A fair bit of His Majesty the Worm is whimsy. This is an RPG that knows it’s an RPG. You play adventurers who know they are adventurers. This is an adventure into tropes. It’s unpretentious.

During a game, both players and GMs will deconstruct and reconstruct common dungeon delving tropes. You’ll convert them covertly, avert them, and invert them to suit your purposes. This should be fun. This should be delightful
Vengeance from Dungeon Solitaire by Matthew Lowes

The Player’s Manifesto

An RPG is simply an exchange of questions and answers between the players and the GM. These questions and answers can have nuance and texture. When playing His Majesty the Worm, these principles will allow you to have the appropriate conversations with your GM.

Engage the World
You don’t have to talk in a silly voice or wear a costume[1]. You do, however, have to interact with the fiction of the world in a logical way.

For example, if you want to talk your way past a guard, you don’t have to role-play each and every word you say, but it’s not fair to say “I try and talk my way past the guard.” What’s your argument? Are you going to try and bribe him? Are you going to find common ground based on a similar political or religious view? Are you going to insult his wife? How does your approach differ when you’re trying to get on the right side a member of the city watch vs. when you’re trying to schmooze with the king?

The game is about you using your real-life thinking brain to solve problems, overcome obstacles, and figure things out. There are no stats or powers that are going to help you solve the essential issues.

Ask Questions
The essential way you have to interact with the fictional world is to ask questions. By engaging your GM in a give-and-take, you make the game real. The game world is sort of like an onion: it has layers. By asking questions, you begin to understand its bounds.

There are no abilities on your character sheet that give you the sort of insight that asking questions will provide. You have no “Perception score.” If you’re looking for a trap, pour water on the ground and see if you can find any trap doors. If you’re looking for a secret door, tap on the walls and listen for something hollow.
The corollary to this is that you need to take notes. You think you’re going to remember the details the NPC spills to you, but you won’t. You think you’ll remember the room’s contents, but you won’t. Keep an in-character journal. You’ll be glad you did.

Solve Problems Orthogonally
You should be trying to make your GM say: “I didn’t even think of that.”

In an RPG, you can do anything. That’s the appeal! When you’re playing a computer game, you can only do the things the game designer programmed in. They anticipated you moving left, right, and up. Going down is out of the question. Not so in a tabletop game.

Think outside of your character sheet. Don’t expect to “use” your Talents and Motifs to solve a problem. The abilities and items you have listed are just tools—and they’re only one of the many tools in your arsenal.

Most problems aren’t solved by fighting them. People can be reasoned with. Monsters can be placated. Traps can be avoided. Monsters can be led into traps. People can be sold monster’s guts. Monsters can be given the people’s guts.

Be Careful, Be Fierce
You don’t start out a hero. The only thing between you and a salivating dragon’s jaws are a few status effects unchecked on your character sheet. You should never expect the world around you to be fair. You’re not in a tutorial level; your character is journeying through a mythological underworld that wants your character to stay forever and ever. Keeping your character alive requires caution and thoughtfulness.

Encountering a dragon is different when you’re character is inexperienced versus when they’re experienced. At first, the focus might be stealth—how much gold can you get away with before the dragon notices you? After you’ve built up your strength, you might feel confident enough to engage in combat with the dragon. But don’t fight fair. Make sure you choose the battleground. Ambush the dragon. Drop a rock on its head. 

And, when the going gets tough, don’t be afraid to cut your losses and run away.

Embrace the Chaos
Part of the game is skill. Part of the game is chance. Sometimes, you can’t be careful or fierce enough to avoid a test of fate. And when fate isn’t on your side, you have to embrace it. Having something bad does not mean that you’ve made a mistake. It’s just part of the game.

It is easy to create a new character. This is on purpose. If your character dies, throw yourself into the next one. If your character completes their quest, be excited to retire them.

Games without consequences have no teeth. How boring would it be if you knew you would never fail and never die? The essential gimmick of question/answer with the GM would be boring: “How will your character succeed today?” Thus, love the chaos.

[1] But you can. I won’t stop you.

From Dungeon Solitaire by Matthew Lowes

GM Manifesto

There are two dozen different styles of role-playing games and no two tables play those styles exactly the same. This game has been designed to work well with certain overarching principles of game design and table talk. I’ve found it useful in my home games to be very upfront about these principles and keep them in my mind while I run the game—I go so far as to write them down on notecards and keep them in front of me as reminders. Of course, your table is going to be different than mine, but His Majesty the Worm benefits from the following “best practices.”

Rulings, Not Rules
Ultimately, no rule system completely encapsulates every possibility of player action—and that’s the fun of RPGs: there are fringe cases, strange situations, and unconsidered possibilities that inevitably arise during play. Having a GM be able to arbitrate these situations is one of the advantages of tabletop games compared to computer games or board games. As such, all the rules of the game are a resource for the GM to use and adapt from, not a straight-jacket.

When unexpected questions arise, GMs can adapt the rules to fit the situation at hand. When that situation comes up frequently, the GM and the table can collaborate on turning that ruling into a more hard-and-fast rule. And, when hard-and-fast rules seem to fail the tests of common sense, verisimilitude, and fun, it’s the GM’s responsibility to make calls that change the rules for the better.

Sidebar: Arbitrating Rules Questions
What should be done if there is a genuine rules dispute during gameplay? One of the GM's duties is to arbitrate these questions and decide how the rule should be played. If you're still learning the rules, you might want to look them up every time until the flow of narrative and mechanics feels natural. If you have the rules down pretty well, but encounter a speedbump, we offer this suggestion: arbitrate in favor of the players, and look up the rule later. Don't slow down a fun combat with page turning. Just make a temporary rule that is beneficial for the players, and ask your best rules lawyer at the table to look it up after the combat is over.

Let Smart Plans Work 
HMtW is not a game of balanced encounters. GMs don’t have to make experience point banks and dole out appropriate levels of monsters or treasure. The player heroes should find themselves alone in alone in a large, daunting, dangerous, and fantastic world. There’s no expectation that the players are ever in a “level appropriate” place.

The game—and the character sheet—are actually pretty simple. There are few numbers, and not a lot of special powers or abilities. Players should feel empowered to experiment and take risks, with all the rewards and consequences that that entails. There are no “spot checks”—only players describing where and how they’re searching. There are no “disarm trap” skills—only players describing how they move the knife across the tripwire or tap their ten-foot pole ahead of them.

As the GM, you can give difficult situations to the players with no idea how to solve them yourself. The players will surprise you with their ingenuity and problem-solving skills. When they come up with something surprising and cool, let it work.

Engage the Senses
The principles of “Rulings Not Rules” and “Let Smart Plans Work” only work when the players have a good sense of what is going on. Since the players are not actually in the shared hallucination, they need the GM to tell them as much information as possible about the environment their heroes are acting within. GMs should paint pictures with their descriptions, actually sketch out rooms when mental pictures are difficult to conjure, and be vivid about all five senses. GMs should not leave out any salient details about things that players can see, hear, feel, or smell.

Speak Generously
“Engaging the Senses” flows from the idea that the GM is acting in good faith to the players. GMs should not fall into the trap of thinking that doling out half-secrets and hints are interesting. Information sharing games are only fun when information is actually shared. Maybe the information comes with a price (“You’re not sure if the dragon is truly sleeping or only faking it. You’ll have to move closer to get a better look at him…”), but when it comes time to pay the piper, GMs should give the players as much information as he can. “Gotcha” moments are not fun.

This is particularly true when players Bid Lore. If you accept a lore bid, you have a social obligation to speak generously to the player and give as much information as is appropriate.

Meaningful Exploration
Decisions in an RPG should be interesting, not arbitrary. It is essential that, during the Crawl, the GM provides meaningful choices so that exploration is fun and engaging. Nobody cares about taking the left path or taking the right path. The players don't have enough information to make an informed or interesting choice. A coin flip could determine the "best" way to go. However, you could put graffiti on the walls of the right path that says in Cant "Undead ahead! Do not enter! Turn back! All is lost!" For the left path, you could hear the distinctively peacock-esque cry of the cockatrice. Now the players have information to make a decision with: would they rather face a basilisk or the undead? What are they most prepared for? Could they lure the undead towards the basilisk?

Gloss over details or choices that aren't interesting. Only zoom in on the action when the players have meaningful choices to make.

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