GMs are not Game Designers

I’ve not put much time into discussing story games lately. Yet there is one concept that I feel is very important to the discussion. Too bad it’s not flattering to story games.

Rules lite means that the GM is left deciding much on the fly. We talked about shared mechanics allowing GMs and players a lot of Freedom to narrate, but I failed to elaborate on the burden that puts on the GM. Not all situations are within the purview of a GM. Not all on the fly resolutions will make sense or meet player expectations. Put more simply, GMs are not Game Designers.

Overly detailed games, those with charts and graphs for every little detail, come across as cumbersome.  Yet this ignores a basic fact about these charts. They are well researched.  A game designer has put time into translating (abstracting) a real life concept into game mechanics. For all of their faults, at least the details are consistent. They will likely live up to player expectations simply because they are predictable.

This is one of the unique aspects of Creatures!.  The book leaves most mechanical decisions up to the GM’s interpretation and still contains numerous lists of common details needed in such a game. It’s a fun trade off between both approaches. In fact, the plain English approach to rules makes the Hazard list in Creatures! a valuable resource for any system.

This isn’t to discount the value of free narrative. There are many downsides to cumbersome charts. So far in this series only the time aspect was discussed sufficiently.  What’s more important is the “exclusion through definition.” Everyone designing a set of rules, whether they be user interaction to a computer program, laws, or an RPG, will run into the difference of explicit rules and implied rules.

Explicit rules apply to verbose statement that includes all information needed to understand it, and it applies only to what is described. The surprising thing about explicit rules and implied rules is that implied rules are clearer. Implied rules, however, choose a category and ask the person to rationally come up with the boundaries of it. Being a broad category, it’s hard to expand it further than the existing category. Telling children to be quiet is a pretty clear guideline. There’s not much confusion that they can talk about elephants or play a video game with the sound off. It’s implied that they can’t bang pots on walls or use party blowers. The real implicit detail is a forbidden category that these only certain activities fit into.

The problem, though, is that explicit rules suffer from implied consequences. Explicitly telling a child that they can only play a video game for 1 hour after they finish their homework raises questions. What if the child has no homework? What about weekends? Does it have to be a video game, or could it be TV? If there is no other explicit rule on the subject then all or none of these questions are true. This is an example of exclusion through definition. We see it in RPGs more than anything else. If one class has a trait that says “a paladin can make attacks while riding a horse”, we suddenly define attacking from a horse as a forbidden activity to all other classes. Otherwise, riding a horse would have implied the ability to attack from a horse until we read the paladin skill. This is where details cause exclusion. In fact it’s a logical requirement of being explicit. For every positive, the negative must also be true. If all all cogs are sprockets, then anything that is not a sprocket cannot be a cog.

The more detailed that a game is mechanically, the more likely an explicit rule creates exclusion to an activity. Because telling puns is a character flaw in GURPS, your character shouldn’t tell puns without it. And if you decide to, you’ve lost the mechanical advantage of more build points. But GURPS is way more special when it comes to definition and exclusion. Take GURPS vehicles. Before you may have made a car that flies but suddenly it needs flaps for braking, or wings instead of jet boosters. The computer brain made from used dog parts no longer works, because it doesn’t fit with another magical component of the car. The expansion expands on research, and consistency, but it does not expand on options. For every new rule in the expansion there are negatives enforced by the rule there were not already enforced.

In the end this comes down to GMs and their individual groups. Decide what aspects you are comfortable improvising as a GM and which concepts you’d like to have more defined. The beauty of story games is that charts made for other systems tend to have a pretty easy conversion. So if it’s a hit location and ballistics chart from Aftermath! or a terrain restriction, having a conversion ready for the system is a great way to get the best of both worlds.

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