Session Zero

Indie TTRPG, GMing, and the philosophy of play.

Reading through Perilous Wilds and Slumbering Ursine Dunes, I've started to form some ideas for how to address my frustrations with Dungeon World. One way role-playing games express the character of their respective worlds is through encounters. The party is given an opportunity to engage with some other person or creature. Sometimes, the subject of the encounter is a proper noun, like the principle antagonist of a written adventure. Others times, we're dealing with common nouns, the conventional fodder of the setting or scenario, usually summoned up by rolling a die and consulting a table.

It's the potential of those tables that I find interesting. As noted previously, my goal is to inject more specificity into the game world. The proper nouns might seems like the most obvious vehicle for that. They talk. They recur. They follow their own agendas and have names that conjure fictitious languages. They're better developed qua character — or, at least, they should be. But it occurs to me that you can do just as much worldbuilding by designing thoughtful tables for random encounters. Indeed, table design may even be better for worldbuilding.

For my purposes, what's left off is almost as important as what's included. The DW rulebook includes a catalog of monsters. A GM could very easily number the entries and use the section as a table for rolling random encounters. It's even sorted by environment. But the list is a hodgepodge of elements, compiled mostly from the greatest hits of other RPG settings. Each on its own may deliver that small jolt of enthusiasm we demand from genre adventures, but all thrown together they're a hodgepodge. Rather than a thematically cohesive world, what they suggest is, well, Dungeons & Dragons, and since this is not D&D, it often feels generic. Throwing in bespoke creatures is one way to assert an identity, but unless it's accompanied by a process of winnowing away the vestiges of other games, that identity is apt to get lost.

Just as importantly, building the world this way goes a long way toward preserving the flexibility of a game like DW. Yes, I'm talking about prepping stock creatures for encounters, but because they're the common nouns of the game world, they can be deployed randomly, as part of the process where you “play to find out what happens.”

#DungeonWorld #worldbuilding

My group has recently wrapped up a high fantasy campaign, our first time using Dungeon World. It was rocky in most of the ways that the first time using an unfamiliar system will tend to be rocky. Those hitches get ironed out with practice. But there were also dissatisfactions that have more to do, I reckon, with Dungeon World itself. Now that we've moved on to a different game for a while, I'm actively looking for ways to address them the next time we circle back to DW.

The tricky part, I realize, is that I want two things that, though not quite diametrically opposed, tend to pull in different directions. One is flexibility. The other is specificity.

A major strength of DW is the way it fosters improvisation. A GM is free, of course, to prep as much material as they'd like ahead of time, and in our initial campaign I spent an appreciable amount of time each week doing just that. But the core rules are distinctly tooled for building out a world through play. Why would I eschew that? High fantasy games are numerous enough that there's little point in sticking to one if you're not going to lean into the features that distinguish it. So choosing a different game the next time we want to play high fantasy is an option, but I enjoy the way DW plays. Part of that is its flexibility, and I want to preserve that quality.

The specificity I want has to do with setting. As I understand it, DW was designed to make the conventions of old-school high fantasy games playable in the newer style ushered in by Apocalypse World. The game's setting is generic out of fidelity to those conventions. It defines some character classes and includes a bestiary, but to the degree that DW presents a broader world, it does so mostly by gesturing toward the familiar. All of which is fine, but lends itself very easily to a generality that, by tasting a bit like everything, ends up having no distinct flavor of which to speak. Maybe I've been spoiled by Ultraviolet Grasslands, but what I'd like is for DW to present a world that asserts some identity of its own.

The major options offered by the game for fleshing out its setting are to either “convert” material from other games, or elaborate your own. The first has limited appeal. Converting D&D modules wouldn't really address my complaint, of course. Converting a more idiosyncratic setting might, but at least for comparison's sake, I'd rather run the more specific setting by its own ruleset at least once or twice.

So that leaves devising a completely new setting and gearing it to work with DW. The trick is to get it to do that without undermining the strength of either.

#DungeonWorld

Let's draw another distinction. Rules, let's say, are imperatives. Roll the dice, and abide by the results: that's a rule, one basic to most tabletop role-playing. When they're well-designed, rules give a game the internal coherence that makes it a game.

Not everything you do to make a game work well is necessarily a rule, though. The looser a game is — by which I mean, the less it uses rules to proscribe play — the more inclined we are to lean on methods. By methods, I mean all of those repeatable but optional behaviors that fill the gaps left by the rules. Opting to roll the dice from a cup is a method. So is using a table to generate unplanned elements of the narrative or world.

I'd go so far as to suggest that most of what we find in the guides and rule books are better understood as methods. In practice, role-playing games tend to need fewer hard-and-fast rules than we imagine them having — particularly if we prefer to run our games like a monk. So-called “rules-lite” games demonstrate just how little is truly imperative, but much of what gets carved away the pursuit of lite-ness are the methods that keep play from bogging down in indecision.

Even games that don't present themselves as rules-lite tend to lavish more attention on some methods than others. Most games leave very little to the imagination when it comes to combat. Head into town, though, and it's easy to find yourselves staring at your character sheets while you try to figure out what's worth doing and how to make it not just playable but also interesting. Those lacunae pose less of a problem for long-time GMs than it does for a late bloomer like myself. The long-timers have a stock of methods to draw on, many of them adopted from more elaborately designed games. Me? I'm just trying to keep things from grinding to a halt.

#rules #methods #ruleslite #GMing

I've started to think of approaches to running an RPG in terms of two GM styles: the monastic and the skaldic.

For the monastic GM, you can find the correct answer to any question — or, at least, should be able to find it — in the game's guides and supplements. For the GM, then, resolving problems at the table is mostly a matter of finding and implementing the proper citation or reference. Like the scholars of medieval monasteries, the monastic GM is beholden to the established authorities, and innovation is largely a matter of applying their wisdom creatively as demanded by the situation.

Other GMs, by contrast, are guided more by narrative and audience. Skalds were the extemporaneous poets of Old Norse society, composing, reciting and (more importantly, for our purpose) improvising heroic verse for their audiences. When a question about how to proceed arises at the table, the skaldic GM may draw in a general way on the rules, conventions or background material, much as skalds fell back on legends, stock phrases, and metrical form, but their answer will ultimately be shaped by the GM's own assessment of what's most likely to move the players.

These archetypes are idealized, of course. Few GMs operate entirely at one pole or the other. But the distinction can also help us understand the contrast between different titles and rule systems. The old school, driven in no small part by a business model that thrives on selling supplements, is built on a publishing cycle that fosters and caters to the monastic impulse. Much (though by no means all) of the indie market has grown around a more skaldic play-style that relies on the GM and players' familiarity with the generic conventions of one or another setting to supplement a “rules-lite” base.

#GMing

My first tabletop role-playing game was an AD&D starter set that I bought from a Waldenbooks when I was still in high school. This would have been the 2nd Edition, years after the heyday of the satanic panic, but moral panics cast long shadows in small towns, and my parents threw it out before I managed to find anyone interested in playing. No hard feelings.

I only came back around to tabletop role-playing last year, when a global pandemic forced much of the world into lockdown. Having grown up using online forums to fill social voids, my immediate response was to host a Slack so that my circle of friends could continue to socialize, even as circumstances kept us away from our usual haunts. As the pandemic dragged on, I cast about for activities we could engage in virtually, to break up the fugue state of messages sent and received at odd intervals throughout the day, the week, the month, the year. We watched bad movies remotely, discussed books, and eventually some of us retreated to a side-channel to play RPGs.

Zero is the session before play proper begins. It's when players first shape their characters, the GM explains the game, and the world begins to emerge. I've since lost interest in the D&D behemoth, so what you'll read about here will mostly be games arising out of the indie scene: Dungeon World, Ultraviolet Grasslands, Mothership, and so on. More recently, I've begun to explore solo RPGs, so expect detours there, as well.