If you pay careful attention to absolutely everything I do, you might know that I don’t ONLY write about whatever current issue is sticking in my craw in a given week. Sometimes, I write about the things that are sticking in OTHER people’s craws. That is, I solicit questions from members of the community and answer them on a weekly basis. Generally, I stick these in their own little Ask Angry column on my own site and leave it at that. But SOMETIMES, I get several people asking the same or very similar questions. And sometimes, those questions stick in MY craw.
It isn’t that people ask bad or dumb questions. There are no bad or dumb questions. Except those asked by bad or dumb GMs, of course. And I get a lot of those. It’s just that some questions make me a little sad. And when I get a question from several different people at once and it’s a jimmy-rustling question to begin with, it’s time to move on from advice columns and rant it out. And thus this week’s Angry Rant is inspired by a question I have received multiple times via e-mail, direct message, Twitter, various comment sections, telegraph, and pony express.
Basically, the question runs like this.
“Hi Angry. Thank you for being an awesome and sexy genius. You have made my game infinitely better just by existing, but also by writing your amazing articles week after week.” And it goes on like this. For a while. I’m not bragging. It’s just that people constantly feel the need to remind me how amazing I am. It’s embarrassing really. And I’m only including it here for accuracy. Eventually, it settles down into the actual question. “I have a question,” it settles down into. “In my game, I have these factions or armies or supernatural entities or city-states or guilds or trade guilds or whatever and, while the adventurers are doing things, those various entities are also doing things and sometimes they interact. Can you tell me how to build a good system for all of that off-screen interaction and how to keep track of it all?”
This isn’t a new phenomenon. For as long as there have been RPGs, there have been GMs looking to build rules and mechanics so they can determine the outcomes of events that happen off camera. Sure, the events themselves will influence the game down the road. But for right now, it’s just stuff happening elsewhere in the campaign world.
And here’s the thing. I don’t f$&%ing get it. I just don’t.
Once upon a time, I used to answer “why.”
“Can you help me develop a system to determine how these various NPC factions interact and what the outcomes are?”
But lately, my answer has changed. Now it’s just “no.” And sometimes, I throw a punch. That’s why it’s’ probably just as well that most of my questions come via e-mail these days.
Let’s broadly classify these things as “campaign management rules.” Essentially, you have an entire goddamned world beyond the PCs and you want to build rules and systems whereby you can determine what is going on in the rest of world when the PCs aren’t f$&%ing with it. Like a cute little sim game. SimCity. Or Civilization. Only misguided and dumb and way more work than it’s worth. And, honestly, I personally feel it makes you a worse GM. It hobbles you.
Now that I’ve riled you all up, let me explain.
I’ve said before that there’s three reasons why RPGs have rules and mechanics. First of all, mechanics exist to help determine the outcome of player actions. I call those ‘Rules of Adjudication’ because making up important sounding academic terms makes my ego feel good. Rules of Adjudication exist to define how players can influence the outcomes of particular actions and prevent the outcomes from ever being entirely certain. Those two aspects create yin and yang that is “consistency” and “uncertainty.” You need consistency so players can make choices. That’s the “role-playing” part. You need uncertainty so that there’s tension and a possibility for failure. That’s the “game” part.
Second of all, mechanics and rules exist to add a structure to the game. See, if the game was just a bunch of people sitting around and making up a story, it’d be chaos. Rules of Structure pace the game, they keep it flowing, they put the invisible walls around what is possible and what is not. In essence, they constrain the game. Rules of Structure, apart from providing consistency and fairness, also help create pace and tone. Both of which are important to a good interactive narrative experience.
Third of all, rules and mechanics exist to define things we can’t possibly comprehend because they don’t exist in our world. They exist to define things completely unique to the game world. Or, at least, things with which we have limited experiences. These Rules of the Impossible help us understand how magic works and what an elf is.
But the important thing to keep in mind is that all of these rules exist solely to help players make good choices while also keeping the outcome uncertain. That is literally the only thing the rules exist to do: to facilitate the players PLAYING the f$&%ing game.
Now, the more rules you add to something, the more complicated you make it. So, in general, all else being equal, you only want as many rules as you actually need. And that means that any rule that isn’t serving the players as a Rule of Adjudication, Structure, or Impossible can be dumped as unnecessary. That’s a concept called elegance. Use the fewest number of rules and mechanics possible for what you want to accomplish.
And I’m sure you can already see how this leads to the idea that rules for factional interactions or economic systems that determine how different cities interact or rules for determining the outcome of battles in which the players are not involved are kind of vestigial and useless and lack economy. They don’t accomplish any of those things because they happen off screen. At the end of the day, if the PCs arrive in a city that is occupied because I — the GM — decided that the invading army conquered the city before the PCs got there, it is exactly the same as if I — the GM — had used some army simulator table mechanic rule thing to determine if the army conquered the city. To the players, there’s no difference. There was a cause (an army attacked) and an outcome (and occupied the city). Done and done.
Remember that backstory is the least interesting part of the story. Otherwise, you’d include it in the story, right? All this background crap is just the world’s backstory. It’s boring. That’s why you’re doing it off screen.
But here’s an important parallel. Imagine you tell a player: “suddenly, a goblin jumps out of the bushes and demands food or he’ll stab you.” He looks undernourished and desperate. What do you do?” Imagine the player responds by pulling out a notebook filled with handwritten tables and starts rolling dice. He cross references things, checks different pages, rolls more dice. And, in the end, he announces “I’ll offer the goblin some meat, but tell him to go away.” You ask what the hell that was all about. And he explains to you that he’s developed a system of tables to determine how his character reacts to all sorts of different situations. You’d think the player was f$&%ing nuts. The point of a role-playing game is to role-play. Right? That means thinking about the situation and the characters and making choices. And a game and a story emerge from those decisions.
Well, in effect, the world is YOUR character as a GM. And that means that all of the little conflicts and interactions between all of the little pieces of it? Those are akin to the different motivations that players have to sort through when they make a decision. The world is not a set of externalities. The only external elements — the only things that should f$&% up the way the world works — are the players and their characters. Everything else is part of the world. Part of the system.
Now, maybe you don’t agree with that last paragraph. And, as I’ve said before, that’s your prerogative. Feel free to be as wrong as you want. But I actually think that these sorts of campaign management systems weaken you as a GM.
If all you’re good for — as a GM — is banging stats and rules together, you’re a f$&%ing video game. You’re a computer. I mean, adjudication of actions is already pretty mechanical the way some GMs do it. And if you then turn the rest of the world into an elaborate system of rules and conditionals and random-number generators, you might as well just hang up your screen. Figuring out what happens, improvising, creating interesting plot hooks and exciting external events? Those are important skills. They are what keep an RPG from being a video game or board game. They are the reason people WANT a GM behind the screen.
You really need to learn — for yourself — how to run the world using your brain and your logic and your sense of building a good narrative. The random number generator adds some excitement and uncertainty when the players are on-screen. But the background stuff doesn’t need excitement or uncertainty because the players only ever see the outcomes. They aren’t rolling the dice, they don’t know there was a chance for things to go different. Only you do.
So, what’s the system for determining the outcome of distant wars or factional infighting? Sit there, imagine the situation, and imagine an outcome. Then, imagine how your game world reacts to that outcome. Use your f$&%ing imagination. That’s what the players are paying you for.
Now, that said, I understand the motives behind “campaign management systems.” There’s really two of them. The first is that having systems and rules and dice somehow makes it seem more fair and balanced and real. But that’s an illusion. The only time fair and balanced and real matter are when the players are involved in determining the outcome. And fair and balanced only exist to create tension for the players. The second motive is because sometimes, it’s fun to play simulation games. And sometimes it’s fun to be surprised by the outcomes. I totally get that. As a GM, it can be fun to sit there and execute a series of instructions to determine what happens in a distant corner of your world. To surprise yourself and force yourself to scramble to decide how the world reacts to an unexpected change. I totally get that.
But, you don’t need elaborate systems for that. What you need is a coin to flip. Heads the city wins, tails the army occupies it. Or, if 50-50 isn’t good enough, grab some percentile dice and assign some chances. “30% the army wins, 50% the city wins, 20% chance of a protracted siege that is still going on when the PCs arrive.” That’s all.
And remember, that’s all purely dice masturbation. It’s there so you can get your own rocks off as a GM by rolling some dice and coping with the result. And, frankly, if you need that much mechanical masturbation, go buy Civilization V or SimCity or whatever.