How to build a better "Rulings not Rules" type GM

komradebob's picture

The System? Ce Moi!

Okay, joking aside, what can go into making a better ( for whatever version of better you like) GM, when the assumption is effectively that the GM is the system.

Also, once that is hashed out, how do you pass that knowledge on to help new GMs become Good GMs in that mold, rather than making it into some weirdo, mystified, mythified apprenticeship into the HiDDen MYstery CulT (tm)?

I did realize that I still really do like this style of game set up. I just dislike poorly considered, unreflected, undiscussed, and poorly implemented versions of it.

DeReel's picture

*C'est (='t is)
Make them study storytelling : feed them lots of fiction, shed some light by experts and traditions, make them tell lots of story drafts.
That's a good start.

Silmenume's picture

Hi komradebob,

For all my seemingly pointless theorizing about Sim and how it works, its been for the purpose to help people to GM this style of play which happens to match your "rulings" not "rules" mode of play you are looking for. As you know I am no game designer but as you indicated in your OP the ultimately the skills set does lie with the person accepting the mantle of the GM. Please note that is chose the phrase "skills set" very carefully. As you noted the mechanics are in a secondary position to the skills of the GM to run a game of the type you are advocating.

I believe it is both more complex and yet more organic than might be thought. One could scour the internet and maybe even some other academic disciplines that touch on similar issues but in the end, it is my opinion and only an opinion, that such a GMing style is some that can only be learned but not taught. IOW the most efficient method to get to that point of GM skill is by mentoring and practice. Its like any other performance art. The GM can learn some theory but then must practice, practice, practice to encourage the growth of these creative/subjective skills. Why would a GM rule this way is in these circumstances? Because at the time it "felt" appropriate. Why? That is the difficult question.

My GM and his writing partner are very good motion picture screen play writers. When they decided they wanted to going this terrible industry they moved out here and started writing. They bought every book they could find on the subject. Probably over a 100. Many had nothing of worth. The rest were 99% dross. A precious few had some good bits. They would go to movies 3 times a week with a note pad noting what they liked or didn't. They wrote and they wrote and they wrote and slowly they got better. But they are an unusual pair. Cary, the GM, is the emotional creative think outside the box by birth. The other is near genius level intelligence, logical but creative, and both their memories are extraordinary. The point is that the process of self-learning and mastering the art form took about 10 years. I know this isn't what you are looking for as you are looking for something that WILL help cut down that learning curve and make it accessible to many others more easily. Just as a side note they started a project to write a book on screen play writing and as a start have over 500 pages of citations alone. IOW there has been a lot said about story and structure and character and so over the past 2500 years. In the end though, all that information is just an analysis that helps guide a writer but the act of creating is something can only be learned and not imparted.

I am not without hope on this though. I do think like DeReel indicated in his post that practice and examples can help. But do understand that this mode of play requires judgement calls on the part of the GM and as such it is a skill that is unique to every GM and not a piece of knowledge like an algorithm that can be handed out to be followed step by step as from a check list.

Re: "Also, once that is hashed out, how do you pass that knowledge on to help new GMs become Good GMs in that mold, rather than making it into some weirdo, mystified, mythified apprenticeship into the HiDDen MYstery CulT (tm)?"

I don't know what that truly means as I've never run into one like that so I don't have first hand knowledge. But it does sound like some sort of power or ego trip. Whatever method that is ultimately worked out to help nascent GM's develop their skills set on point that can be hammered on time and again is that the GM is there to serve the players not the other way around. The GM is there to help create a gaming experience that is enjoyable for THE PLAYERS and that the GM is nothing without them. It is all a group effort and it will not and can not succeed unless everyone is there to help make the experience enjoyable. However the temperamental and egotistical artiste is a cliche for a reason. If the GM becomes some monster talk to him. If the doesn't work toss him. Walk away. The whole point of role-play is to have fun and if the GM is making the players uncomfortable and is not willing to change after a constructive conversation then its time to part ways. But in the how-to-GM materials a constant theme should be the idea of the servant GM, not the showman GM.

My 2 bits.



Tod's picture

I don't think you need to be an egotist to appear as a mystifying weirdo. I liken it to music, in which there's a well-known dichotomy between "technical" and "feeling" musicians. The best musicians are a blend of both of course, but most of us tip one way or the other.

Techniques can be taught, and if practiced enough, you'll get better and faster at them, until they become "second nature" to you. But Feeling is trickier. Some people seem to be born with it. Some people seem to never really get it.

If you stop me in the middle of GMing and ask me why I said/did this or that, I'd think about it and I could probably give you a very reasonable sounding answer, drawing on artistic and philosophical values as well as the contingencies of story, setting, and genre, and making way for the agency and creativity of the players. But in truth: At the moment I said/did it, I really wasn't "thinking" about it in a "rational" way at all. It just "felt right."

I've written thousands of words and dozens of essays attempting to post-rationalize the sort of parameters and concepts I seem to be operating under. Some of them -- like "Psychic Content" -- can be found in the DayTrippers GameMasters Guide, others right here on this forum. But if I'm totally honest with you, I don't know if I can actually "teach" it to someone who doesn't already (at least kinda) "get it."

DeReel's picture

We are in agreement that trying to put storytelling and stuff into words is going to be a "never quite that" endeavour, but I don't fully agree with you @Silmenume out @AsIf on this GM point, or maybe I am just adding a limit to it.

In my experience, "feeling" can be taught just as much as anything. It's just that when some things go contrary to you nature or to your environment, they're going to be costly to learn. An example : in a world of competition and rush, when feelgood magazines tell us to "just relax and get in touch with our creative part", it's a farce. Another example : I see flocks of kids who have a hard time learning techniques because that's not how they are used to approach things. And when you switch to "intuitive", hollisitic approaches, they do well. On the other hand, I've seen my kids learn arts with sensible teachers, and how they developed their attention to "feeling". Also, I recognize in what you describe of the GM my own professional "gesture and positioning". And these sure can be taught, only like Silmenume says, you can't write yourself outside of the equation : you need to know about your "positioning", what you're here to do, what's your intent (for instance : "be there for the players"), what's in it for you. The rest stems from there. From there I think we're in an environment that values technique, but it doesn't mean anything on the teachability of feeling and technique.

That's also why I am opposed to asking from the GM that they do all the work and renounce all glory. This is bound to produce monsters. It's an impossible "positioning". I'll take a social worker analogy : if you position yourself as a social worker because you want to help people, you're going to do more harm than good. First find what's in it for you. Root into your own personal position, and from there you can be a support to others. Likewise, I think it's possible to have a sensible GM agenda for yourself, and make a sensible GM-player chart with your players, and cut on the 10 years learning process, because you'll be learning with your table and it'll be faster. With a political analogy : instead of waiting for the perfect monarch, organize your local council through democratic procedures. Then, midgame, you can revel in GM absolutism all you like. Then if something needs to be corrected, see if it's on the chart and else amend it.

Billy's picture

Thanks for this thread, Bob. This is a big question that has been occupying my thoughts, in some form or another, for the last several years (ever since I read Jeph's first "Spicy Dice" thread, in fact).

I'm afraid my ideas about the topic having been running off are all over the place, so hopefully my posts will not be too incoherent.

First, for context, I guess I will link to/summarize a few things I've been reading lately on the topic.

Free Kriegsspiel Renaissance

In just the last few months I've seen quite an explosion of discussion about this "c'est moi" (strong GM) style of game in the OSR blogosphere. There, the label used has been "Free Kriegsspiel Roleplaying" (FKR, by analogy to OSR). Of course, the allusion is to a kriegsspiel umpire who decides outcomes quickly and instinctually based on his own military experience, rather than with careful reference to charts and tables. I'm sure this surge of interest has been driven by the Secrets of Blackmoor documentary, which contains vivid and inspiring descriptions of how early role-playing games emerged from the Napoleonic wargames run by the group including Major Wesely and Dave Arneson.

The central discussion place for all this is their FKR discord server (, which anyone can join/read if you make a discord account. There is some good stuff in there, although sadly it takes a lot of digging to find it among the conversation archives.

A few of the major themes of discussion I've seen are:

  • "Tools not rules" - The GM can have a toolkit full of procedures to use, and then apply whichever one seems most appropriate to the situation.
  • "Worlds not rules" - Information should be presented to players in diegetic terms, to encourage them to approach problems from an in-universe perspective rather than from an abstract rules perspective.
  • "High-trust games" - Meaning both that the game places a lot of trust in the GM/players to resolve things without rules; and that the players have to place a lot of trust in the GM for the game to work
  • "HUD-less games" - Meaning the GM is using rules behind the screen, but rules details are hidden from players and everything is presented fictionally (like playing a video game with the healthbar display turned off).
  • Diceless games - The GM simply adjudicates the result, rolling dice only if he is unsure of what is the most likely outcome

That said, I find the conversations there are mostly full of enthusiasm and excitement, without much concern about possible pitfalls to avoid or best practices to avoid them. This is much better than the opposite (harping solely on the negatives), and I'm optimistic about what will come out of the community in the long run. But so far it is not quite what we're looking for. There is more discussion about how to get your group out of the rules-focused mindset than what to do once you have done so.

In fact, the best thing I have read from the scene is from Story-Games' own inestimable Sandra Snan, who wrote this essay:

Her major arguments are:

  1. that if the GM is making up everything on the fly (rules, scenario, action outcomes), then the result will be meaningless mush; you need to have some things solid (e.g. map-and-key prep) to base the other things on;
  2. playing a high-trust game *spends* trust rather than building it; ideally there should be some way to verify or confirm that the GM really was making reasonable and impartial judgements

I've also been talking a bit about the topic with my friend Jon (whom you may also remember from Story-Games). The point he made was that, sure, running a Napoleonics wargame in Free Kriegsspiel style is easy... if you're a senior miliary officer with years of battlefield experience. If you aren't, then you might be better off with some charts and tables.

Or, in other words, "rules are training wheels for genre." It would be easy enough for me to run D&D with short, vague, open-ended rules, because I've played the game for years with detailed rules, and I've built up an intuitive sense of what happens when a fireball is cast, whether a third-level fighter can kill a gnoll in one-on-one combat, and so forth.

The Negative Space at the Heart of the Game

Here is the bottom line for me: Removing the rules leaves a negative space at the centre of the game. That space has to be filled with something. It is impossible to leave it empty. If you did, then you'd be left staring with no idea what to say as soon as your player said, "I attack the skeletons!"

In practice, if you make a decision, you are filling that space in with something. Maybe it's your ideas about skeletons from playing Dark Souls, or from watching Jason and the Argonauts, or The Mummy. Maybe it's your sense of difficulty; you make sure the fight is hard enough that the player feels threatened, but not so hard that the character might really die. Maybe it's your sense of humour; you describe the ridiculous things that happen as the players' attacks goes right through the holes in the skelton, and then as the parts of the skeleton break off and go bouncing around the room.

Ideally, I think that that negative space should best be filled with some real study about the intended subject area of the game. If it's a Tolkien game, you gotta go read that Silmarillion. If it's Napoleonics, hit the history books. If you want to run Daytrippers, then dust off those Philip K. Dick stories.

Here's a little tangent about game design: Often, games are not about the thing they appear to be about. I read an essay (I forget by whom) which made the point that D&D is supposed to be about fantastic adventures, yet D&D 3e is really about five-foot steps and attacks of opportunity; D&D 4e is really about marks and daily powers; D&D 5e is really about making optimal use of your bonus action. It's almost like a bait-and-switch. We can say the same thing about many other popular games. You won't learn much about settling from Settlers of Catan, or much about trains from Ticket to Ride.

Personally, my favourite games are usually those that are closer to "being about what they are really about." If I'm in the mood for trains, I'd rather play Railroad Tycoon than Ticket To Ride.

So, to me, the beauty of playing one of these "c'est moi" games is that when you are prepping the game, and when you are running the game, and when you are playing the game, your thoughts are focused on the true subject matter of the game, the same thing that attracted you to it in the first place.

That subject matter may be the details of a world or time period; or, with a slightly more genre-sim bent, it may be the rules of storytelling in a particular genre; or, with a narrativist bent, it could be issues and themes that the game will explore; or, with a gamist bent, it may be effective small-group guerilla tactics. Anything other than optimizing victory-points-per-action!

Doing It Well

I'd say to do this thing well, you should do it in a principled way. That means you should:

  1. know what your principles are;
  2. tell your players your principles;
  3. follow the principles you said you would; and
  4. reflect on what happened to see if it was good.

So maybe your principle is: "I'm an impartial referee. Whatever happens, I will rule on what I consider the most likely outcome given the fictional situation. If I'm not sure, I'll privately enumerate the probabilities for the most likely outcomes and roll the die."

Then you tell your players that, and they can take that into account and play accordingly (perhaps in a gamist manner, trying to arrange circumstances so the most likely outcome favours them).

And then when you are running the game, you have to really follow those principles -- no choosing implausible results to bring about a particular outcome.

After your game, you have a big think about what did/didn't go well; or better, you have a big talk with your players about what they did/didn't like. You need to be open to realizing that either (a) you aren't doing a good job following your principles; or (b) your principles don't actually lead to a fun game for your players.

Your principles could absolutely be something different than the above. It could be that you want to create a thrilling three-act story full of suspense; so you will always rule in such a way as to keep that story going. It could be your principle is that you will generally follow the most likely outcome, but you will always allow a dice roll for a better outcome, even if only with a tiny probability of success. If so, then be clear about that and follow through with it.

It could be that what you really want is to encourage your players to get in character and immerse themselves in the world, so you will deliberately reward players with better outcomes if they play their role better. That's a valid goal, but you better tell the players that that's what you are doing, so they don't waste their time discussing perfect small-group infantry tactics when they should be acting in character.

I'd say the mystery-cult DM happens when either

  1. you don't know what your own principles are, so you can't state them; or
  2. you do have principles, but you aren't willing to admit what they are, because they aren't what you'd like your players to think they are.

The first is innocent and understandable, albeit unhelpful for passing on your techniques to other GM's. The latter case is nasty, and surely responsible for why people immediately fear deprotagonization when this type of game is discussed.

Teaching It Well

Of course, it is the same as teaching any good GM skills. Only it matters a lot more because you don't have the rules to support you.

The most useful things I've ever come across in this domain are:

  1. Transcripts with commentary. These can be real, or fake with examples made up to demonstrate specific points. A wonderful example in this genre is Iserith's guide to action adjudication for D&D 5e: Even when I disagree with how he rules in a situation, I love love love how clearly he lays out what he would be thinking as the DM in each situation.
  2. Actual play. Listening to (in total) about 9 hours of Cary's Tolkien game has given me a way deeper understanding of how such a game can possibly work. (That said, this kind of thing would be even more useful with behind-the-screen commentary like the above example. I would love to see a short segment annotated with what Cary was thinking between when he hears the dice result and when he announces the fictional result).
  3. Explicit enumeration of principles. Sandra's writings on Blorb are gold-standard here. Reading this kind of thing (ALWAYS do X; NEVER do Y) really challenges you to think about whether you follow the same principles, and if not, why not?

(whew! possibly to be continued as more of my thoughts about this topic percolate to the surface)

Silmenume's picture

Hi Billy!

Long time, no read!

Don't want to add at present because I don't want to risk derailing what you have going (Like Sandra's take on Trust - By her reasoning it would be impossible for a veteran military unit to have any cohesion because they've literally entrusted each other with very their lives numerous times in past combat/lethal situations) and I'm curious to see what you have yet to post. Much of what you have posted is either directly in line with what I've been talking about or that which I have failed to formulate in a coherent matter.

Brilliant post! Well written! Keep 'em coming!



komradebob's picture

I really do like the concept of laying out your principles to be used, both for yourself and for the players, and being honest and clear about them.

I can also see very much how a person might be somewhat self deceptive about what they say they want versus what they actually want as GM. I can certainly think of an early case where I did that sort of violation of stated principle and it blew up in my face.

Post game personal analysis and feedback really do both seem very important.

I also like the idea that there is something to reference, post game, t help with analyzing what the stated principles were compared with actual play and decision-making as it occurred during play.

With reference to FKR, I know Verdi's book involves him often explaining how he decides on his spread of die throw outcomes as he creates them during play, in his play -through example. Probably not a bad way to go. The Mythic RPG/Mythic GM Emulator uses something similar to create a sort of -create-as-you-go system for skills/abilities/powers.

Anyway, good stuff. I'd love to hear more thoughts.

DeReel: I'm awfully embarrassed by my rookie language error. I really have no excuse!

Billy's picture

Don't want to add at present because I don't want to risk derailing what you have going (Like Sandra's take on Trust - By her reasoning it would be impossible for a veteran military unit to have any cohesion because they've literally entrusted each other with very their lives numerous times in past combat/lethal situations)

Oops, I guess I'm derailed because now I want to comment on this more.

I think the trust aspect is a fruitful topic to think about to understand why a game does (or does not) work.

From Sandra's essay:

A “trust fall” exercise builds trust because you can feel for yourself that you will get caught. Similarly, verifiable hidden mechanics builds trust if you trust them and then you can check that the referee played it honestly.

Whereas just hidden, unverifiable play depends on trust, uses trust, spends trust. It doesn’t really create new trust, or it shouldn’t.

I suppose I'm not so sure about the "spends trust" aspect -- the "depends on trust, uses trust" makes more sense to me.

So in the case of a military unit, I imagine you build up trust through training and marching together, because you can see your comrades-in-arms there beside you every day. Then on the battlefield, your trust is tested. But note that it is verifiable; you will find out for real if your comrades can be trusted. If they come through for you, your trust will be solidified and greatly strengthened, so much so that you may form lifelong bonds. If your comrades deserted you on the battlefield, your trust would be shattered and betrayed. You would not trust your life to false comrades again.

From what I understand, in the games Sandra is criticizing, there was no verification at all for the DM's rulings. Examples of such mechanics:

  • the GM rolls all the dice behind the screen; the player has no idea if the roll was high or low
  • the GM draws Tarot cards and decides the outcome purely impressionistically (the Four of Swords shows a knight's tomb, but it could mean you kill the other guy, or the other guy kills you, or you fall through the floor into the crypts, or you draw strength from your fallen ancestors...)
  • the GM simply makes up whatever he/she wants with no dice result at all
  • the flowchart from Theatrix, which includes suggestions like "Does the plot demand success or failure?" and "Give them false hope."

I don't personally have much experience with any of these techniques, so I am inclined to trust the report of those who have. My own guess would be you would need to have high trust already for them to work, and they would not inherently increase or decrease trust (because no verification).

Actually, the one of those I can see working the best is the tarot cards, because over time you build up associations with the different cards (bricolage!), so it might come to be understood by everyone at the table that Death is always bad, The Sun is always good, The Tower always means the intrusion of an unexpected force, etc. Then you would start to have some verification, because you can see how the GM's interpretation does or does not correspond to the shared understanding of the card's meaning. Each time the GM faithfully interprets Death as a bad outcome, I'd expect trust to increase; each time the GM creatively reinterprets Death as a good outcome, I'd expect trust to decrease.

Now, if we look at Cary's game, in my opinion, we do see verification methods. The obvious one is that the players roll the dice and call out a number. Then the GM makes a call as to what happens. The players all know if the result should be good or bad. It would seem to me that trust is built up through the many times that the GM's call matches the players' expectations. You know from experience that the GM (almost) always gives a good result on a high number and a bad result on a low number.

But let's consider the (comparatively less common) case where the GM's call is unexpected. You rolled high, but the outcome was bad. Now your trust is being tested. Later, you will probably find out why--perhaps it emerges that this particular orc is a 12th level Initiate of Morgul, so of course he survived an attack that would have killed a common orc. If you accept this as a good reason (it's consistent with what you know about the game world, previous scenarios where the Initiates of Morgul had appeared, foreshadowing that the Enemy was angry and was dispatching more powerful servants), then your trust is further increased. On the other hand, if you think this is a bogus call (you've never heard of the Initiates of Morgul, they have no reason to be here, he was acting just like a common orc until the moment you attacked), then your trust could be decreased.

If I imagine trying to play the same game with Cary rolling all the dice secretly behind his screen, I don't think it would work as well.

Edit to add: It looks like Sandra added an addendum to her essay (linked above), further addressing the trust topic.

DeReel's picture

I love Sandra's sense of humour when she talks about what I'd call the *sunken costs* of trust in the GM mystery cult.

As for me this trust business made me realize I have been fishing for gold nuggets on this Mythic playstyle a long time and it yields so little : be a good storyteller, school the newbie, use mechanics when the feeling's right, be ready to fudge for better enjoyment. Any little draft of a game gives me more than that. In a shorter form. Without requiring that I mute all my safety alarms.

Because in a nutshell, being a good ruling GM is making decisions to which the group can identify. But this doesn't say anything about the cost of say, authoritarianism vs consensus building. The choice is not made in a vacuum : would you rather endure long debates ? little snowflakes stomped into slush ? or perchance would you enjoy any of these ?

The form of the game can inform that choice. In a campaign long play, you've got time to build consensus. In a convention 3h slot, you want to check safety, frame hard, and rollercoaster away - and back. In most games, you want to burn through your rulings like an astropilot managing its fuel or a captain managing rations.

Also, as with all asymetrical power (eg : knowledge) consented situation, you want it to be compatible with safety measures. An I am back to the trust problem. So, say as a GM you want to go all rulings. If you're a bit considerate, you need to play safe on so many things, like little phials on shelves all around, or you're bound to break glass. Maybe not the phial of anyone in the room. Glass nonetheless. Or instead, you can just, you now, wield that bastard sword like a god, but once again, that's like ignoring the question of how you become that good, and what phials are there, and ignoring so many things that it looks like ignoring them is a very important part of the exercise. There's no way around this : with power come responsibilities.

So I said I'd come back to this with little exercises that we did done when we were kids. Shortitude approximates safitude here, and debriefing is intended to be a self-teaching moment :
- initiating a little story on a minimal canvass (you're on a road) and make the subject paint the landscape, the encounters. Then apply a set piece explicative pattern (the road is your life, the landscape is your friends and family, etc.) ; let the player debrief and GM keep their thoughts. (tip : not questioning the "set piece" nature of the pattern is unhealthy)
- the GM rolls the character on a random table ; the PC wakes up alone, the GM communicates only raw sensation and pre-thought ; the player experiments and probes the world ; until they have guessed WHAT they are (I'll always remember the bat one) ; let the player debrief and GM keep their thoughts.
- trust building : one is solidly blindfolded, the other the guide. In a room. In a park. In the street. In a crowd. ; let the player debrief and GM keep their thoughts.
- collective building : the We-ness
- collective trust building : walk around the room, trust fall (signal theatrically and go to the ground slowly) when your number is called out ; every body take care of the others ; after each fall, let the players debrief and GM keep their thoughts.

I am noticing something strange : nothing in this list is about storytelling per se, but everything about the relations between GM and players. These relations are channeled through storytelling during play, but are not less important. That is, group dynamics are like politics : if you don't take care of them, they will take care of you without a remorse.

DeReel's picture

... the question in OP is biased in a way that prevents a complete answer. Like Improv, RPGs require dramatic coordination. You don't want to build trust per se : you want a collective. Like band members that listen to and support and balance each other and... well : coordinate its actions. There's no good GM on their own.

Billy's picture

Putting aside the topic of trust, I have one other piece of wisdom (?) to offer in response to the original question.

My advice is that when unsure how to resolve something, the answer is to lean in: look closer, zoom in, slow down, get more detail on the situation.

Combat example:

Player: I attack the goblin!

DM's internal monolgue: Uh oh, what are the odds of this action succeeding?

Brain damage from too many abstract mechanics: Well, goblins are a first-level monster, and she's playing a first-level character, so let's say it's a 50/50 chance to hit....

But that's pulling back. You're leaning away from the fiction, ignoring the details, abstracting everything to a number. And you're doing that because you can't see the situation clearly.

If you did roll 50% and decide it was a "hit", you wouldn't know what that "hit" meant, so you'd then have to make an abstract roll for "damage"... and then if it didn't kill the goblin, you'd reason it was now the goblin's "turn" and it should now get to "hit back", so you make another "attack roll".... Next thing you know, you're back to playing D&D.

But what you should have done, the moment you weren't sure what the result would be, was to slow down, zoom in, and build up the details of the situation.

Player: I attack the goblin!

DM: OK, well, he's like this (assuming pose of goblin), he's holding a spear out in front of himself, how are you going to attack him?

So then the player (ideally) has to clarify what she's doing, and now at least you can see what a "hit" would mean and what the consequences of failure might be. And these consequences will feel like the natural outcome of the situation instead of a random thing you made up after seeing the roll.

She's swinging for the neck. Well, is the goblin wearing armour there? What's the armour made of? How sharp is her sword? How hard is she swinging it? Run the simulation in your head--what's about to happen?

As long as you're unsure, keep narrating the key details (or calling on the players for details), trying to build up the situation to the point where you start to have an intuitive "feel" for the most likely possible outcomes. Close attention to the fiction + plenty of research about the subject area of the game = reasonable basis for good referee judgment.

komradebob's picture

Apologies to everyone for being so lax in getting back to this thread after starting it. The last few weeks have been strange here IRL.

I've been sort of chewing over one thing that posters have mentioned, a kind of Be Prepared to Show Your Work concept for the GM.

Essentially, I'm talking about practices where the GM, presumably not during play but after, can be asked to show at least some of what they based their play and decision making on by other players.

Verdi does a bit of that in his book about Free Kriegspiel, talking about his ad hoc d6 charts/result spread that he uses in his training scenario ( it's been some time since I read the book, so I don't honestly recall whether this is something he does for the cadets or just for the reader).

Anyway, the general concept does fascinate me, and I'm wondering what sorts of procedures/methods/tools could be built to promote this.

One tool that I came up with, but haven't yet deployed ( so I don't know how well it would work in practice) is what I refer to as the Auteur Envelope. It's for the common situation where a scenario designer is also the GM and it's meant to help relieve the GM of an urge to tweak the scenario and rulings during play to the point of unhappy railroading.

Essentially, the GM writes what they think will or should happen during the play of the scenario on some sheets of paper and seals them in an envelope.

After the play of the scenario, the envelope may be opened and the contents revealed to the other players ( either verbally or by other means if it is lengthy).

There's a high probability that one of two possible outcomes have occurred: Either everyone was largely on the same page and it went down mostly as envisioned with the players adding color and characterization with a few unexpected twists or it completely blew up as the players took their characters in entirely unexpected directions.

In a way, it doesn't matter which outcome occurred. By writing it down, the designer effectively frees themselves of the urge to push things too far in their desired direction, and hopefully finds it easier to roll with whatever direction the players take.

The other suggestion for a possible tool I've been thinking about is a series of d6 based spreads of results with a quick explanation of when and how to use them. Essentially a small booklet for GM/Referees who are doing Verdi/ Free Kriegspiel style judgment calls regularly. It would include situational weighting, but also non-binary spreads that can be useful.
By having maybe a dozen or so explained examples, it helps jumpstart the new-to-this-approach GM's rulings making and is something easily shown to players before, after, or outside of play to show off at least one major tool in the GM's tool kit.

Oh, uh wait, I do have another tool suggestion or two ( I will continue to use a d6 roll as a base line for these, per Verdi or Engle Matrix Game procedures)

Genre, Realism, or Preference?
This is for setting "target numbers" on the d6 prior to the roll. The GM should openly state which of these is most impacting their thinking in setting that target number or the roll. They may then state if either or both of the remaining categories are influencing the target number, and may then add a =1/-1 modifier as they see fit based on either or both of those.

Example: "Based on the real world, your idea is a horrible, unlikely concept almost destined to fail. You need to roll a 6 on the d6 to succeed here. OTOH, it is really in-genre for heroic adventure fiction (+1) and I think it would be hilarious if it works (+1), so you need a 4, 5, or 6 for this to work".

GMs of course could choose to alter from roll to roll which is most important to them in making their decisions, but it becomes another "show your work" tool for informing player expectations during play.

Let the players decide the probability, with the GM only acting as tie-breaker ( stolen from Mythic GM Emulator)

I know, letting the players choose the likelihood seems fraught but it did seem to work really well when I used MGME before with a buddy. Basically the players always decide the likelihoods for themselves, but the GM has a vote available only in the case of ties ( In the two player game I was in, we switched the tie breaker vote back and forth from scene to scene). Sure, players used to a strong central GM and hard challenges might go wild for a bit making everything super easy for their characters, but I suspect it becomes self-correcting quickly.

Billy's picture

Really great stuff, Bob!

For anyone reading who doesn't know about the "outcome spreads" mechanic, here is a little game text I came across recently that describes the technique a little more concisely than the Verdy du Vernois book:

Here is the key passage:

When the umpire has all relevant information at his disposal, he ought to be able to give an informed opinion on the probabilities of the result. He will not simply say something like ‘The French infantry has successfully stormed the hill’, but will quote possibilities, such as: ‘The French have a 50% chance of storming the hill successfully; a 30% chance of capturing half of it, while disputing the rest; and a 20% chance of being totally repulsed. High scores favour the French’. It is important that the umpire is as specific as possible with these figures, as this forces him to consider all the factors involved in the combat and to think through the full implications of his decision. He must also be clear whether a high dice roll will be good or bad for the attacker, i.e., whether the top 50% (a die roll of 5-9) or the bottom 50% (a roll of 0-4) will mean the hill has been carried. In this case he has stated that the high score will be good for the attacker.

Finally, after odds have been quoted the umpire rolls a nugget [a ten-sided die], to represent chance. This will give a percentage, from which the final result of the combat may be read off. Thus in our example a nugget score of 1 would be under 20%, so the attack would be repulsed. A score of 8 would be within the top 50%, so the attack would succeed, and so on. The system works by the umpire giving his opinion on the probabilities, and then rolling a nugget to find which of the possible results actually came up.

One thing I'm seeing more clearly here now is that there are two different parts of the topic we can separate:

  • The referee making decisions without the aid of deterministic rules.
  • The referee making decisions while hiding the rolls from the players.

You can certainly have either one without the other.

Case 1: Our Kriegsspiel referee can make up any probability spreads he feels is appropriate, but he quote them with total transparency to the players before rolling. They can dispute the referee's fairness ("My troops should have more than 20% chance to repulse the French!") but won't doubt the referee's honesty. And they can understand what factors went into the decision.

(Actually, this is a technique I use all the time in D&D. "Well, that sounds difficult. Let's call that a DC 15 Climb check. Well, make it DC 17, since it's raining. If you fail, you'll fall down.")

Case 2: Our DM runs totally by-the-book AD&D, but rolls all the dice in secret behind his screen, narrating only the results. After the game, the players can look at the Monster Manual and see what they would have needed to roll, but they don't know what they actually did roll in the event.

Case 1 has a lot going for it in terms of allowing the GM to take everything into account without complex rules, while still preserving trust. However, Case 2 is probably the one that's more powerful for immersion, since you're removing the abstract game elements from the conversation during play. Case 2 is more like the one Sandra is musing about in her essay when she talks about using cards instead of dice, so as to leave a record of the rolls (which could then be cross-checked against the game rules).

DeReel's picture

Thank you for distinguishing so clearly the two options. Case 1 is simple and intuitive because it's transparent, and would be my go to. But I now have be given enough context to understand what players lose with it. (I'm still confused why, if you want immersion, you'd chose to play kriegspiel, though)

So, for Case 2, you need a black box, like in a plane.
As you said, komradebob, it can be an envelope where the DM puts their combat sheets, outcome spreads, notes, etc. one after the other during play.
For ease of use, I think it could be a webcam filming the area "behind the DM screen" (a mic, even bad quality, will help time stamping). The DM would still need to write some things to make them visible. No more quantum ogres nor undead cats : put a webcam in the box.

Billy's picture

(I'm still confused why, if you want immersion, you'd chose to play kriegspiel, though)

I should clarify -- I'm using the kriegsspiel as an example, but really I'm talking about analogous resolution techniques in an RPG. The same with the "FKR" ("Free Kriegsspiel Renaissance") folks -- for the most part they aren't really playing wargames; they're just using the kriegsspiel method as an analogy to describe a similar "Rulings Not Rules" technique for use in RPGs.

You could run either a wargame or an RPG in either of the two methods above (or in the combined method, where the GM is both making subjective rulings AND hiding the process of doing so from the players).

komradebob's picture

That was meant for a fairly specific situation in something I was working on, where the designer of the scenario set up was also a participant in play in a largely shared gm-duties play style. ( It could certainly apply to a more traditional set up as well where the scenario designer was also the GM)

It was meant to prevent the designer+player ( one person) from falling to the urge to dominate the actual play once things started in pursuit of their personal vision.

By writing out some form of their personal vison, then sealing it away until after the scenario was played, it is meant as a tool to help the designer unclench and go with the flow of what the play group will do with the things the designer has given them to play with.

It's meant to be anti-railroading, because the would be railroader has already written their "story" and saved it. Now, therefore it's acceptable for actual play to develop as Our Story as opposed to My Story.

Does that make any sense at all?

Now, the reveal of the envelope later for other participants after the play of the scenario has ended is to act as a kind insurance that they weren't railroaded.

If it turned out that the play of the scenario was fairly close to the designer vision, it doesn't necessarily indicate railroading. It just means the group shares enough commonality of vision that it came together fairly well. Success for everyone involved.

On the flip side, if the vision the designer had ends up being wildly different from the actual events as played, it acts as proof that the designer wasn't unfairly asserting "hidden" power over actual play and that the story really did develop organically during play with everyone having input on it. Also a success, but of a different sort.

Deodatus's picture

Paraphrasing Sandra, you need to have some things solid to base the other things on.

I totally agree with her!

However this solid thing could be any kind of Myth, right?

For location exploration, it can be map & key.
For PbtA type gaming, it can be fractions and fronts.
For trve Lovecraftian horror it can be the scene structure from Lovecraftesque.
For intrigue, it could be Transition tables a la TechNoir.
For an epic story, it could be Heroes journey.
For participationist railroad, it can be the titles of the chapters.

Or not?

DeReel's picture

Yes but in Sandra's idea it's about information asymmetry : map, Transmission, railroad blorb, and in cases where my little cousin doesn't know how I come up with such great ideas, Heroes journey do this. While fractions and fronts, and scene structure are not really something I would play the Kim's game with. I would always tell the players what they are.

Anyway, following your idea, elements and structures are close equivalent. That is totally valid : a point on the map, an event, or a faction can be something you navigate away from or to, make contact with or explore up close. And this equivalence opens up possibilities

Billy's picture

For ease of use, I think it could be a webcam filming the area "behind the DM screen" (a mic, even bad quality, will help time stamping). The DM would still need to write some things to make them visible.

Yeah, that should work. My first thought is a laptop and a chat session with a dice bot, so it saves each roll with a timestamp. Then you can cross-reference with a recording; or even type a word or two in after each roll to remember the context.

/roll 1d20+4 #goblins

However this solid thing could be any kind of Myth, right?

Yeah, I was being a little vague on purpose! I don't have an exhaustive list of all the things that could work.

Map/key/encounter table is the most traditional. The factions and fronts also makes a lot of sense to me.

By the time we get to the participationist railroad example, I'm not sure if the same thinking applies. If the players have already accepted that the GM will guide the story, what are you worried about? (Maybe they fear that the GM will start secretly letting them have input?) But for the most part, the reason to have something solid is to avoid the situation where the GM controls all.

A concept I've been thinking about lately is the "list of truths". You might write down before the game a brief list like this:

  • An army of 2,000 goblins arrive at midnight on the second night
  • Their secret goal is to kidnap Princess Aurora
  • Goblins are brave only in large numbers; they fear sunlight above all
  • Prince Wendrik will fight to the death before he abandons the princess
  • The princess is actually in love with Hans, the stable boy

Then you treat those things as absolutely true, taking them into account whenever they are applicable. When you aren't sure what to say as the GM, you say something to hint at one of those truths. Meanwhile, you make up everything else.

We have had a bunch of discussion on this board about "bricolage," that is, building with whatever comes to hand, the gradual accumulation of detail and happenstance into a large and meaningful structure. So if you start with a small list of truths, but keep adding to it with everything that happens in the game, soon you will have built up quite a sturdy library of facts and precedents.

Deodatus's picture

I think you are all familiar with the joke that things can be solved fast, well and cheaply. Pick two!

I'm also sure that this trilemma can be imported to our discussion.

So in this case what is the real purpose of the OP's 'rulings not rules' style? What do we try to achieve by it?

To have absolutely zero 'rules', only principles and rulings for the sake of it?

To have only GM/umpire facing symbolic mechanisms, thus liberating the players from rule-gaming?

To have non-intrusive procedures which do not stall the game?

I'm afraid that most of the times absolutely zero rules make the uncertain situations unnecessary long to solve and/or they are trust degrading.

What do you think?

Silmenume's picture


Anyway, following your idea, elements and structures are close equivalent. That is totally valid : a point on the map, an event, or a faction can be something you navigate away from or to, make contact with or explore up close. And this equivalence opens up possibilities

Don't have much to add but to say that I strongly agree with this observation! Also include such things as personal relationships, obligations, taboos or anything else that functions at the personal, social, cultural, "political", economic, et. al., level that is important and of interest to the players.



Tod's picture

I think a whole dimension of this discussion opens up when you consider (as we should) the Granularity of a mechanical output. IOW, just how precise, specific or descriptive is the data returned by a mechanic, or better: how precise, specific or descriptive does the player/GM expect (or want) it to be?

"Granularity" as I mean it here is related to, but not the same as, "Crunch." Crunch is about the operation of the system. Granularity is about its output.

This is a thing we can measure by comparison only, as no universally-applicable "scale" is imaginable. And certainly one game might have many different subsystems, and each subsystem might have its own degree of granularity. So it's not an easy thing to define, but still a clear factor, and the answer will be all sorts of different. It seems at first blush that RNR play would be more compatible with lower granularity, but I'm not yet ready to state that as a general postulate. :-)

By way of example, I offer some of my own work. DayTrippers and CORE use a universal action resolution mechanic which returns deliberately vague data: the general "category" of success, failure, or an unexpected event. Qua Archipelago (yes and, yes, yes but, no but, no and). Obviously (and deliberately), this is an extremely "low-resolution" piece of data. As such, both GM and Players* are forced to interpret it ad-hoc, and in order to do that, they must take into account the current surrounding circumstances, often even potential "oddities" (buts or ands) - yet notice that even these oddities must be "assembled" out of elements that make sense in the gameworld.

* Regardless of the YES/NO component, a positive AND/BUT is interpreted by the Player, a negative one by the GM. Whatever it is, the AND/BUT thing does not need to be directly related to the action being rolled. It simply needs to be possible in the gameworld. It could be a sudden thunderstorm in the middle of combat, for instance.

We might call this an act of "assisted bricolage." On the unimaginable "scale" mentioned above, it falls somewhere midway between the fine-resolution of crunchy determinism and the cloudy haze of authorial improvisation, but always informed by the shared imaginary space (SIS).

Certainly different playstyles, rulesets and people have their own positions and preferences along this Granularity Scale. Thinking outside the box is the norm in "rulings not rules" play, and that requires thinking on your feet, using the SIS, and basically doing a quick bit of bricolage. When thinking about introducing this technique to new Players, you may want to take into account the level of Granularity that (for them as a group) would be optimal/acceptable/applicable/preferred/easy (especially at first). This last one -- "easy" -- can lean on existing familiarity with any well-developed and well-known IP or genre, though the specificity it enjoys in early adoption may come at the cost of creative flexibility later.

Billy's picture

So in this case what is the real purpose of the OP's 'rulings not rules' style? What do we try to achieve by it?

Ha, good question! That's probably the question we should have started with!

As for me, I am attracted towards the "Rulings Not Rules" design by some mix of all the following:

1 - Support/encourage creative problem solving ("tactical infinity")
2 - Discourage/prevent use of strategies that don't make diegetic sense (e.g., based on exploiting the imperfections of how the world is represented in the rules)
3 - Support/encourage feeling of immersion by removing distracting non-diegetic elements
4 - Encourage intellectual engagement with actual subject matter of game
5 - Speed up play by removing need for time-consuming calculations and reference to rules and tables
6 - Reduce prep time; only need to develop fictional concept, not concept PLUS detailed mechanics

I think that's probably mostly overlapping with the same reasons you suggested.

Conversely, some factors that make me wary of it:

1 - Easy for referee to be arbitrary, inconsistent, capricious, or simply wrong (despite best intentions)
2 - Players may feel results are arbitrary, even if referee is behaving in a fair and principled way
3 - Places more burden on social skills/social contract to resolve disagreement (normally, clear rules help protect both the referee from unreasonable players and players from an unreasonable referee)
4 - Removes mechanism for producing unwanted outcomes (e.g., character death) without blame
5 - Potentially more demanding; requires more detailed knowledge of game subject matter

There's definitely some tradeoffs here.

komradebob's picture

As said OP, Billy's last post covers the basics from my point of view.

One that wasn't hit on in the post, and which has been on my mind the last couple of nights is the situation of the one-off, large group, convention game.

In that situation, I want to stick relatively written rules minimal, and get into play fast, to get as much as possible accomplished in a four or six hour slot.

DeReel's picture

I can't help thinking content from the "list of truths" as "1 grain rules" (from AsIf Granularity), re-introducing a distinction between "cognitive load" and "symbolic material". Going this road would further refine the trilemma and 1-6 (+1) bullet points of the playstyle. It's probably not worth it though : I think cognitive load or content is not seen as a problem for most enjoying Rulings Not Rules, more as a challenge : remembering the history of a people, managing maps, learning DM information management tricks (random tables, initiative tracking, improv technology, etc.) from great blogs and forums.

Silmenume's picture

Hi komradebob,

One that wasn't hit on in the post, and which has been on my mind the last couple of nights is the situation of the one-off, large group, convention game.

In that situation, I want to stick relatively written rules minimal, and get into play fast, to get as much as possible accomplished in a four or six hour slot.

You'd be surprised at how easy it is for the players. My GM once ran 40 players at a one off at game store. He split the table in half and on one side he had Vikings trying to capture a castle and on the other he had the defenders of the castle. Motivations set on both sides. Populated a couple of "strong" NPC's so the players could see what could be done in game as well as push things along and pretty much started with a description of the situation. The sheets were minimal, pre-made, with just the barest of numbers like plusses to hit with the weapon listed and hit points. For all intents and purposes the characters on both sides were nearly the same as "mechanics" went but each side had their situations laid out. From there he told the players when to roll and off he went. It was a roaring success with an emphasis on roaring! Exact numbers didn't matter too much as so long as "high" was good and "low" not good. The players got immediate feedback on their actions but described concretely and viscerally (limb hacked off, blood flying, screaming in pain or rage, etc.) and not abstractly.

I know that I haven't touched on the GMing side but on the player side it is doesn't take much as long as the can understand the scene playing out. They just need act as either an aggressor or a defender. Make it descriptive, keep the pacing fast and they will drawn in quickly. If they roll two "1's" in a roll they are killed (if diegetically logical) otherwise don't worry about hit points. Once the number of players drops to a manageable level you can get into more detail if you wish. Finally do insert some moments of critical decisions to spice up the players choices.

I will say that it is difficult for a beginner GM to manage but it is a learnable skill. Watch the players and see what they are reacting to. Have a couple tense events prepared just in case you need something to keep the tension high and you can't think of anything on the spot. Maybe the wall is near breaching. Maybe a leader or high officer is killed. Etc.

Just some off the cuff thoughts.



Deodatus's picture

Wow, so many great ideas. I will chew on them during the weekend. Now I only want to respond to one sentence.

for the most part, the reason to have something solid is to avoid the situation where the GM controls all.

IMHO there is a very exciting hidden agenda here!

By filling the negative space with principles and procedures I think I could make a system which is quite transparent for the players but still controlled by me as a GM.

What I feel is that the OP's 'no rules, only rulings' goal and the FKR as an example do not necesseraly involves (more) solid things. On the contrary, in my experience, FKR often has less solid things than the 'mainstream' RPG style.

I hope that this disagreement is not just semantics! I hope it's a fruitful void, so to speak!

Now, a slight detour!

When is it important for me to feel that the GM does not control everything? I think it's when the players and the GM are in a playful but antagonistic relationship. (It could be called gamism but I try to avoid GNS terminology and be way more precise.)

In a trad rpg context where I play my character and the GM plays everything else, I (only?) need 'solid things' if I want to compete with my GM (or I want to compete with my players) fairly, on the basis of these solid things.

If we put aside the fact that Burning Empires is an extremely complicated RPG, at the heart of it it is a very nicely designed antagonistic game where the players try to beat the GM and vice versa. It is only possible because there are these solid things in the system (scene economy, key NPCs, disposition) which the GM had to adhere to.

As a GM these are a very liberating limitations because in BE I do not have to pull my punches so to speak. I fight with everything I can in the ring and no matter which side wins in the end it's gonna be an intense experience and well earned victory!!!

So maybe, just maybe the purpose to have 'solid things to limit the GM' is more fruitful in an antagonistic context than in a more generic 'no rules, only rulings' framework. Or at least it seems closer to competition than world immersion.

What do you think?

Silmenume's picture

Hi Deodatus,

So maybe, just maybe the purpose to have 'solid things to limit the GM' is more fruitful in an antagonistic context than in a more generic 'no rules, only rulings' framework. Or at least it seems closer to competition than world immersion.

I would think it not only would be more fruitful but almost necessary in a player vs GM antagonist game. Just as a point of reference, from what I'm reading here, I believe that a FKG is "immersionist" (Ugh...hate the term! :) ) in that the idea is to put the player/commander into a situation where decisions are made just as they are in a battlefield situation. Mechanics aren't there but the effects of choices made and actions taken are given diegetically. How does the nascent commander hold up under "real" pressure? However in an antagonistic game there does need to be a limit to the GM's power or the contest is unfair.



Billy's picture

So maybe, just maybe the purpose to have 'solid things to limit the GM' is more fruitful in an antagonistic context than in a more generic 'no rules, only rulings' framework.

Right, I'll agree with that. And as soon as we're talking about what is more fruitful, we do have to talk within the context of our creative agenda or anything else we want out of the game, not just about the rules framework itself.

I do think the same point (the benefit of solid prep and/or other constraints on the GM) can apply outside of a gamist or antagonistic context. More broadly I think it's applicable to any game where the excitement comes from uncertain outcomes -- "Play to find out what happens", as the saying goes. It could be that the players and the DM are both equally excited to find out whether a character succeeds or fails at their task, because of the fun of discovering that story together. I'd say something is lost for this agenda if the GM is simply deciding what happens at each point in the story.

Or at least it seems closer to competition than world immersion.

More tenuously, I think the principle can apply in any game where the player cares about their choices making an impact on the fantasy world. There may be no question of whether the players fail/succeed or win/lose, but they want to see the things they do make a difference. Might it not feel like more of a difference if there is something solid being affected by and interacting with their actions?

I say this tenuously because it isn't an area where I have a lot of personal experience--I have mostly played in games with at least some antagonist component. Still, we started from Sandra's essay, and when she talks about her past experiences with referee-controlled games, it sounds to me like she is talking about games that are not antagonistic in nature. When she talks about her first experience with a game where the GM didn't control everything, her excitement is about the sense that the world feels solid and she can interact with it as if it were real--not her excitement about finding a more fair playing field. This is what she refers to as "buy-in immersion".

I hate to use a video game example on a tabletop RPG forum of all places, but I'm thinking about a game like Minecraft, where the real goal is creative (building cool stuff) more than challenge-oriented; but there's still something appealing about the fact the world is "out there" (procedurally generated by a formula) before you explore it, and then you change it and it's different. It wouldn't be the same game if you couldn't see your own actions having an impact on the pre-existing landscape.

I agree that this is a matter of preference or goals, rather than something inherently required by the style. But I wouldn't limit the possible goals only to competition.

I'm not so certain it matters whether the solid stuff is based on hidden information. It may be that the constraints on the GM are things equally known to both the GM and the players, as in the bricolage case where there is a lot of detailed knowledge about the world build up through prior play. The hidden information version is especially good if the game is about exploration (in the literal sense of discovering terrain, not the Forge sense of exploring subject matter) or about a mystery (where the hidden solution lets the GM provide meaningful clues and makes it possible for the players to guess the answer).

I'd also agree that an FKR approach should work great for a participationist game if this is what everyone wants to play. Why go through the façade of having rules if the GM determines the outcome anyway? Better to focus on immersion in the cool story! What I'm not so clear on is what would be the benefit of having some solid prep in this context. For example, if the GM thinks of a better ending halfway through, is there a benefit to sticking with the original one?

jeph's picture

@Billy I very much agree that "solid things" are important in any context where the players care about their choices having an impact, and certainly not just in antagonistic or competitive games.

For the last several months, I've been returning to a game I ran for a ~dozen sessions a few years ago in Cary & Jay's style. (This is a game where we very much care about choices carrying weight, but is utterly un-antagonistic.) We've been playing in 2-ish hour chunks once or twice a week with 1-3 players present at a time, over video chat. I think the thing I've been worst about, thus far, is prepping solid things: how satisfying and grounded a session turns out has so far been pretty much a function of how much there is there, before play starts. (I'll blame my toddler & another baby coming in a few months for my lax prep.)

When I've fallen down on prep, solid sessions are mostly a result of the game being focused on things that have been strongly established earlier in play: interacting with characters, relationships, situations, and a setting elements that everyone is already deeply familiar with from past games.

komradebob's picture


The Viking Raiders vs. Castle Defenders example is very, very close to exactly the sorts of games I'm talking about, although I'd also been considering more traditional set ups run in a similar fashion.

DeReel's picture

@Billy : you introduced a different kind of "solid-ness". It's one thing to have a neutral, objective basis for the content you will feed the players, so that you won't be moving goal posts. That's refereeing. From subjective to objective : total nose-pull < encounter threat range (HD) < monster type and count < detailed monster stats, tactics and position.
And it's another thing to give the feeling that things were there all along. This second type is gamefeel. From flimsiest to rock solidest : nose-pull < making up a random table on the fly < rolling on a pre-existing table < flipping the encounter card that was lying there all along < reading from the module what the encounter is = nose-pulling an encounter while looking intently at the module (just make sure you are not holding the book upside-down).
The techniques at work are roughly similar (nose-pull vs prep) but the "play agendas" are different enough that keeping the distinction in mind can help.

Precedents seems to be the main counter authority to the DM for validating content in this type of game. Even the DM needs to have some proof "from the past" (prep, module) to be fully validated. I have a lingering questions since I heard of simulationist play : how to keep track of precedents ? Travel logs and maps, are efficient, but can also look like work when you ask players to handle them. Also, the devil is in the details, and so much is forgotten from one session to the other. Any tips to keep the past track of precedents?

komradebob's picture

Billy said:

A concept I've been thinking about lately is the "list of truths". You might write down before the game a brief list like this:

An army of 2,000 goblins arrive at midnight on the second night
Their secret goal is to kidnap Princess Aurora
Goblins are brave only in large numbers; they fear sunlight above all
Prince Wendrik will fight to the death before he abandons the princess
The princess is actually in love with Hans, the stable boy
Then you treat those things as absolutely true, taking them into account whenever they are applicable. When you aren't sure what to say as the GM, you say something to hint at one of those truths. Meanwhile, you make up everything else.

We have had a bunch of discussion on this board about "bricolage," that is, building with whatever comes to hand, the gradual accumulation of detail and happenstance into a large and meaningful structure. So if you start with a small list of truths, but keep adding to it with everything that happens in the game, soon you will have built up quite a sturdy library of facts and precedents.

Hi, I had a second before work today and I wanted to talk about this a bit, although a tangent to the overall conversation.

In one of the things I've been working on, where more shered GMing/GM-full techniques would be employed in play, but the core of the scenario was still being designed by one person ( who also likely would play, hence the post game envelope I mentioned), one of the things I was working on was a shared "open book" for the kinds of ideas you mention being listed as "truths".

These would be literally placed near the play space/table using sometihing like dry erase boards/chalk boards/large paper pads like you use for certain party games.

The big differenec in my use is that they aren't so much absolute truths as scenario designer suggested possible truths.

It's during play that they get used, or modified, re-evaluated, or ignored ( including specifically ignored/excluded) as events are developed by the group as a whole.

Conceptually. like the Author Vision seqaled envelope, it's meant as a technique to show the "starting vision" of the scenario designer without chaining the group to that vision.

OTOH, it's also really important that those elements not be over-developed nor all encompassing. They need to be necessarily somewhat vague or limited in numbers so as not to become a simple info dump stop on a railroad adventure. So there becomes a bit of a skill in balancing scenario design involved, a kind of creative constraint the designer needs to ask themselves about: These are my toys I've created. How ready am I to really let the other kids play with them? :D

Deodatus's picture

We tried to play the TRVE FKR way.

I was the umpire. I had a short list of guidelines and one oracle mechanism: roll 1d6, low bad, high good. I used a module from the excellent Gabor 'Melan' Lux to have something 'solid': a map & key perfect for Thief-esque immersive sim-style.

The others were my regular and semi regular players with various game experiences ranging from OSR thru wargaming to dirty hippie Story Games. They did not have any sort of character sheet. They did not roll any dice. The whole session was diegetic. They were just 'playing the world'.

Noone had problem with having no rules. Noone had issues with trust. I think noone noticed the difference between prep and improvisation. They said that the guidelines in fact did enhance their immersion. Everybody agreed that it's was not that different from previous experiences. We had fun but nothing special. This might be liberating for someone accustomed to 4E I guess??

It's just a small (ex)sample but maybe the whole issue is a bit exaggerated in theory.

komradebob's picture

I haven't mentioned this before, but wrt Deodatus' last post, a common bit of advice I've seen from those running things more Verdy du Venois' style is, well, it helps to screen people a bit before play.

Some people take to it really well. For other people...egads. Their reaction to the style can cause things to come to a screeching halt.

I don't think it's merely libnerating for a specific player poool, 4e or otherwise. I think it's liberating for folks who were never especially interested in the mechanics to begin with, or who were only kinda-sorta using them, especially in game designs that fit firmly within RPG mechanical mainstream.

Edited to add:

Having said that, I've had pretty good luck with this style in-person in the past, even as a kid GM. So, maybe that's a case of the whole Rules-as-training-wheels bit mentioned upthread.

It may also be that there isn't really a whole lot to write about this style, which then doesn't especially encourage profitable documentation, especially in those years between f2f wargaming groups being a niche but not uncommon hobby and the current age of the almost-totally-available internet, with video and discussion easily available.
In that intermediary period, publishing isn't just a means of making profit ( often it didn't, hence the original purpose of the website The Forge), it was also a way of staking out mindshare. A person was may more likely to pay attention, read, and refer to something they had paid money for in hard copy, especially the more expensive or refined it was. But the product had to also to justify its cost in the first place. That's hard to do with Vermois style ad hoc rulings being the core element of mechanics.

komradebob's picture

To spur discussion:

What tips or techniques do you use to help yourself be a more Neutral Ref when you're also the designer of the scenario/situation/geographic area ?

(I somehow suspect it is easier to be more neutral when either there are multpile players pointed at one another like in LARPs or Braunsteins and/or when you didn't personally put all the design effort in, as when using a pre-made module).

Deodatus's picture

I really liked Tods angle. I hope that I do not misinterpret it:

just how precise, specific or descriptive is the data returned by a mechanic, or better: how precise, specific or descriptive does the player/GM expect (or want) it to be?

So, how do we define the output? This is strongly liked to the question of time: When do we define the output? Thus we are back to IIEE:

1. Intent
2. Initiation
3. Execution
4. Effect

In original Free Kriegspiel the players announced their orders (intents) and then it entered the (fictional) chain of command. The umpire resolved the case. The way I imagine it, it was an intent vs intent game.

Using this in RPGs would be very "story gamey", very close to John Harpers 50/50. But as far as I understand, the 'No rules, only rulings' GM style is very far from it.

Standard RPG routines tend to resort to mechanics between Initiation & Execution (and before Effect for damage).

But FKRs "lean in" principle and Silmenume's fighting examples suggest a style where as much detail as possible is established thru bricolage and the actual mechanics only decide a final uncertainity (a Y/N question) or even less, only spices up the narration of the GM.

As far as I see, Ce Moi GMing is very far from the original FR in this regard.

komradebob's picture

"Using this in RPGs would be very "story gamey", very close to John Harpers 50/50. But as far as I understand, the 'No rules, only rulings' GM style is very far from it."

I'm not clear on what you mean by this? In what way are you seeing the second soprtof GMing as being radically different?

Deodatus's picture

Check 50/50!

"Mechanics after intent" is basically "conflict resolution". The whole encounter, every action is flashed out retroactively after determining the final outcome. The narration is often less detailed than in "task resolution" default RPGs. While playstyles steering toward situation immersion will try to establish as much detail as possible before using mechanics. Examples:

I want to kill him! Roll! This and this and this happens!


I want to stab him in the face! Roll! This and this happens!


I want to manipulate him into focusing on my right hand reaching for my purse, signalling surrender with my whole body, while simultaniously getting the hidden blade into my left palm to stab him in the eye with in surprise attack! Roll! This happens!

komradebob's picture

I looked at 50/50.

I don't really see how 50/50 is radically different from Ruling,Not Rules style GMing taken to a fairly far point along the possible spectrum of what Rulings, Not Rules could mean in terms of approach.

I mean, it could be that the style advocated in 50/50 just happens to coincide pretty well with how I'd approach RNR GMing, so I'm blind to the difference you're seeing.

Deodatus's picture

It is absolutely possible to define RNR GMing as an umbrella term encompassing all of these distinct playstyles frpm my examples!

I wrongly assumed that you are primarily interested in the "establish as much detail through bricolage as possible before mechanics" path, because in my experience, the "mechanics after intent" (conflict resolution) style is explored and discussed to the death by the Forge-(diaspora) games and circles.

Before Silmenumes arrival to the S-G forums the "mechanics only after intensively detailed fictional positioning" style was heavily undervalued in my circles. Or at least this is how I saw it. Silmenumes examples were eye opening for a lot of us but IMHO this style still lacks well generalized best practices & know-hows. I initially thought that FKR could fill these holes but I recently realized that the original FK style is not a good candidate for it because it is mostly "mechanics instantly after intent" (conflict resolution). What most of the FKR folks tries to do is very interesting but very far from the original FK in these respect.

DeReel's picture

To me, preparing a roll in Blades in the Dark is "intensively detail(ing) fictional positioning" and also you've got a lot to tell afterwards. I don't think its either / or. I think @Deodatus you introduced lots of new variables and I like that : it makes things complex in theory but it shows there's something very close to your practical use there. Just saying.

komradebob's picture

I'm probably still missing part of the point, but here are my take-aways:

There are all kinds of variations on these spot rolls, but a few things seem common, and they can be picked apart and recombined as necessary ( on-the-spot rolls being only one of many elements of the unwritten mechanics often seen in this style or approach).

Show your work on the player side (as per them simple d6 rolls in Engles' Matrix games). This can be formal or informal, although the GM/Ref judgemennt on their validityu is treated holistically, as opposed to each argument/advantage/whatever having a set, cumulative value.

Explain your reasoning on the GM side. Almost the mirror of the first point. Optionally, per my suggestion above, state which of the three criteria ("realism", genre, personal preference) the GM most used to determine odds ( or outcomes) and which if aeither/both remaining criteria influenced or modified the odds.

Optionally allow back out or modification at this point. Personal preference here, but if the player finds their odds of their preferred outcome too low here, they should be allowed to reconsider or try a slightly modified approach, based on info from the ref, before finally committing to course of action.

Only roll for the relevent and variable.I think this is mostly what 50/50 is getting at in the examples in the link. If the action is clearrly going to be successful or unsuccessful, really we can skip trhat roll and instead drill down to degrees of success/failure and make the roll about that instead.

It doesn't have to be binary outcomes. ( As per Frei Kriegspiel) Even on an ad hoc die-roll, it's relatively easy to create a "chart" on the spot of possibilities. This may interact strangely with some of the above methods, so some thought should be put into how they interact, if at all, and whether both sorts of rolls ( binary results rolls and ad hoc "chart" rolls are going to both be used in a single game).

Ad Hoc "Chart" rolls can also be weighted ( also as per FK) There's no particular reason why a roll on a given die type chart needs to have all results equally likely, as noted on the page with the linked FK discussion upthread. OTOH, I don't think I have ever once seen a discussion of possible spreaads that might be commonly deployed and why you might choose that "template" over another. This might be a fruitful area of exploration in itself for the would be RNR-GM.

How much does precedent matter? Strcitly in terms of binary and ad hoc chart results, if unlikely results begin to turn up in a string, does that start to impact later decision making? Why or why not? Or, to put it another way, if a string of unlikely results comes up, is it in factmnere random chance or should we begin to conclude that some unknown element within the fiction is at play? And how does that interact with prepared material? Is this justifiable, a Big NoNo, or somewhere in between depending upon other confirmatory methods being deoployed by the GM, either sevretly or openly?