Monday, 13 January 2020

Many Voices at the Table

I think we are at a place now in RPG design where most people have moved beyond the idea of equating game texts with game experiences directly. We understand the rulebook does not have sole authority in defining what kind of game will play out in any given game session. The rulebook is, at most, an equal participant along with the people involved in the game.

With this understanding comes new language. Instead of thinking of the rulebook as "a game that we are playing", we think of it as a tool for the participants to use. Or alternatively, as another "voice" at the table - the voice of the game designer.

In storygames, the designer's voice is generally singular, and often the human participants will put a fair amount of effort into "listening to" that voice. When people play The Clay That Woke, they play with an interest in hearing what Paul Czege had to say when he wrote the game. This is not unreasonable since Paul Czege is really smart.

On the other hand, participants in OSR games tend to lack respect for the designer's voice. Instead, the GM's voice is privileged. Almost every GM has their own unique "rulebook", whether it's a full-blown heartbreaker or a hacked version of another game. Frequently, these GM-designers (myself included) talk in terms of creating a singular rules text that will work in concert with the GM during play. Unsurprisingly, when game master and rulebook are one entity, a large amount of power resides there (for good or ill).

But these rulebooks are not sprung fully formed from the GM's mind. They are assembled from bits and pieces of other designers' work. If you've spent much time reading OSR blogs or the OSR discord you will be familiar with discussions like this: "I'll take Into the Odd damage and mix it with stunts from Knave. I want to include GLOG magic and spell breeding, but I'm not sure if I should use the panoply rules or just give Magic Dice per level..."

This suggests a different approach to the "designer's voice" metaphor. Rather than hearing one voice from a rulebook by a singular designer, in OSR games we are hearing many voices from many designers. Maybe we are hearing Chris McDowell during combat, then Emmy Allen during exploration, and then Historian interjects briefly when the PCs decide to cook some monsters in the dungeon.

Thinking of it this way frees the GM from the Sisyphean task of creating "the perfect ruleset". Instead, the GM can speak with their own voice while calling up the voices of others as the game requires. Maybe one session is a long drawn-out skirmish, so the table needs relatively complex combat rules. The next session is a wilderness crawl, so we need rules for resource management with harsh penalties.

Of course, being able to do this on the fly requires broad knowledge and virtuosity. You still need to be the sort of GM who reads lots of design blogs and obsessively tinkers with rulesets. Perhaps there are techniques that can make this easier, like keeping a binder of modular rules hacks for quick access at the table.

A final thought: if the GM can summon designers out of thin air, why not players too? Next time you are taking the PC role in a game, try saying: "Can I breed these two spells together to make a new one? I have the rules for it right here..."

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