Thursday, January 26, 2017

Getting Principled

I've been reading the new edition of Apocalypse World, which is way outside of the D&D and OSR type games that I usually play. I like a lot about it, but want to focus on one area in particular. AW has a list of principles that the Master of Ceremonies (that's what AW calls the referee) is supposed to follow when running the game. They're a bullet point list of ideas - "Barf forth apocalyptica", "Look through crosshairs", "Ask provocative questions and build on the answers," "Respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards", and several others.

While the particular principles of Apocalypse World are idiosyncratic to that game, I think the broad idea of making such a list is sound. When GMing, it's easy to get lost in a back-and-forth of things, and a bullet list of ideas is a good reminder of what you want to do and how you want your game to run. This is a first draft of my own set of ideas on how I run and things I'd like to make sure I do when I run D&D.

  • Make a balanced world, and then throw off-kilter weirdness into it.
This is important to me because weirdness stands out better against a more prosaic backdrop than in a sea of unending oddity. But it's not just a sea of bland, it's interrupted in real and strange ways.

  • The hidden parts of the world contain danger and wonder, often side by side.
This is why I like OSR style gaming. You find amazing stuff sometimes, but either it's trying to kill you or its owner is.

  • Don't go out of your way to kill PCs or to save them.
I place a high value on fairness, which is the only way to be a referee in a world that has real danger and the possibility of death.

  • Don't fall in love with your own creations.
A puzzle, trap, or monster might go totally missed, or take 2 minutes to solve. Don't worry about your special piece as long as everybody has fun.

  • When it drags, drop a clue or up the stakes
When players spend too much time debating what to do next, either give them an extra factor to help them decide, or have someone show up with a crossbow.

  • The world goes on when the PCs aren't there
Things should happen when PCs leave an adventure site, a town, or any area for a period of time. Monsters build defenses, people leave or change, factions make and break alliances.

  • Run with good ideas from the players
Whether it's a misinterpretation or an addition or just a stray thought, when players bring up something excellent, always go with it.

  • Always offer meaningful choices
No quantum ogres. Have at least two viable options open to the PCs, and a reason to choose or not choose at least one of them..

  • When in doubt, roll on some kind of table.
I always try to have multiple books with tables so I can roll something up on the fly. It's hard to do improv straight from your own head and I should probably do more of just rolling on a table to throw something at the players.

If you've read this far, I'd be interested to read your own list of principles for games you run.


  1. "When in doubt, roll on some kind of table." This is my thing! In PbtA, traditionally at least, GMs don't roll dice at all, so this definitely isn't a principle for those games. But if there's a shtick that I have as a GM, it's random rolling. What loot to grant? Roll it. How long till the guards get here? Roll it. What's the weather like? Roll it.

    This is a big part of why OSR appeals to me, and it's a great principle for evoking that style of game. Therefore, it's a huge contributing factor for Freebooters on the Frontier being my favorite TTRPG. It's an OSR hack of Dungeon World, and is simply saturated with random tables. Even Spell names are randomly rolled, and determine the effects of the spell. The initial version of the game is a small booklet that was simply a stretch goal for the Dungeon World supplement "The Perilous Wilds" (also saturated with random tables), but a fully stand-alone 2nd Edition is in the works.

    If you're an OSR fan who's intrigued by Apocalypse World, check out Freebooters on the Frontier on drivethrurpg, or follow Jason Lutes on google plus.

  2. The dynamic of each group of players can affect world balance. If you are playing with the same group of friends since your childhood or just your little brother and your cousin all of the time, you probably think your a great DM. Playing with 5 or more strangers changes everything. Sandbox games only work so long. The idea of the DM railroading you is different than another player railroading you. By 5th level, players start to drop out of sandboxes or the DM quits because nobody can agree on anything or agree to do anything. Backstories in 5e that put characters on a personal quest usually disrupt the party as well. This has been my experience in the last years. Balancing the world is easy.

    1. On the contrary, I've had sandbox games go the longest because it is the players pushing things along, and keeping with the game because they are deciding what they are interested in.

    2. Railroads literally have an end point.
      My sandbox game's been going for years at an open table, and we've never had any problems with people being unable to agree on what to do.

      It's not like you can't go off on your own. It's just dangerous.

  3. "When it drags, drop a clue or up the stakes"

    I don't agree with that; it's not neutral DMing. And after the crossbow fight is over, they still might not know what to do. Sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and let them be boring.

    1. That's an interesting viewpoint, and I've done that, but I feel life is too short. What I am talking about here is nothing more or less than what the wandering monster roll represents, or allowing an extra thing to be noticed.

    2. I see this as just an extension of "when the PCs aren't doing something, the world goes on". If you stay idle, the world takes a turn, and often for the worse.
      And not just in games, but I digress. ;)

  4. These are excellent examples of DM strategy. All are tried and true, and still stand IMHO as some of the best strategies you can adopt. As for the "drop a clue or up the stakes", yeah... An encounter check or giving the party a tiny bit more information, especially about an adventure opportunity that they seem more intent upon is a great idea.

  5. This is fantastic! I'm going to steal your principles - really good stuff.


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