Thursday, May 7, 2009

Rules of Gaming

Well, I feel like I'm on a roll, and although I'm probably overdoing it here, it's best to strike while the iron's hot, I believe. So here I am, posting again, and this time I'm veering a little bit more overtly away from pulp and into gaming. Gaming that has a pulp aesthetic. Maybe we can all convince Corey to start talking about DINO PIRATES this way, but in the meantime, you've got me.

I'm a fan of the Ray Winninger methodology of running a game. To be perfectly honest, I was already kinda doing things that way naturally, because it suits my personality so well. But, he kinda codified and made me think about things that I was just doing "by feel" rather than with premeditation, and so I give him some credit with helping me focus my efforts on running better games. If you're not already familiar with Ray's methodology, detailed during his run of the "Dungeoncraft" column in Dragon Magazine during the last year or two of Second Edition, and overlapping the switch to Third, you should be. It's good stuff. The articles all used to be online on the old Dragon Magazine website, archived, but they're obviously not anymore. However, the good folks at have archived them as simple text files. You should check them out.

Anyway, I won't really discuss them, but Ray's four main rules of Dungeoncraft are, cut and pasted from the source:

1) Never force yourself to create more than you must
2) Whenever you design a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece.
3) Whenever you have no idea what the probability of success should be for a particular situation, consider it 50%. Note: The Third Rule of Dungeoncraft is a useful tool for keeping the game moving, not a replacement for your own good judgment and knowledge of the rules. Use it wisely!
4) Always challenge both the players and their characters
I've got a few rules of my own about setting development. Now these, I will talk about briefly.
• When you have an idea for the campaign, write it up now---strike while the iron's hot!
• Don't be afraid to swipe good ideas from another source---but don't let your source be obvious
The first was kinda a caveat to Ray's own Rule #1: Never force yourself to create more than you must. Well, yeah, don't force yourself, but my experience with setting development is that when you're really excited about it, ideas flow easily. However, this excitement waxes and wanes, and sometimes you can get a lot of stuff done, while other times, the well seems dry. It's best to take advantage of the former times rather than putting your nose to the grindstone during the latter. You'll have to use some discipline and actually do enough hard work as it is; no reason to make that any worse than it's going to be.
The second idea; that you shouldn't be afraid to swipe from another source, is the secret of my success, such as it is. Really, how many times have you read a book, or seen a movie, and thought, "holy cow, I've never seen anything like that at all?" I'd wager... not often. Even Glen Cook, who barsoomcore rightly calls a voice for innovation in the fantasy genre wasn't really doing anything new with the Black Company books; he was swiping the voice and feel of war stories, blue collar soldiers, and applying that to fantasy. The combination was new, but none of the individual elements really were. As a GM, you've got to come up with an awful lot of stuff, and much of it you'll need to come up with without much warning. Don't be afraid to steal plots, characters, or setting elements from anywhere that you think is cool.
However... there is a caveat. If you do that, you should modify it so that it's not obviously recognizable. If you want a character who's basically Darth Vader in your fantasy game, he's so well known that your players will roll their eyes, groan and start making jokes about him as soon as that becomes apparent. Take a little bit of time to "camouflage" your stolen elements. Change some details of the plots. Customize your characters.
There's nothing intellectually dishonest about using someone else's good idea, and few writers would tell you otherwise; they'd in fact be among the first to say that they are more than happy to pilfer elements from their collegues as long as they can "make it their own" in some way. If writers can do it, then certainly GMs can and should.