Monday, May 28, 2018

How I Run Dungeon Fantasy

I have recently bowed out of a fantasy game run using some of the rules from the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game. I initially joined that game under the premise that it was a DFRPG game – something that carries some baggage I think the GM didn’t recognize. See, DFRPG is the child of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, and both games are quite old-school at heart. That is, they are all about player agency, and getting right down to the action. The GM was really running a “new-school” game using some DFRPG rules. It was plot-heavy, railroaded players into certain courses of action, and just wasn’t what I wanted. So I left.

But I didn’t leave empty-handed. That experience left me with a newfound appreciation for two things: an understanding of the important of accurately pitching your game up front, and a better understanding of what an old-school game means to me. I won’t get into the former because a lengthy post on how to promote something is better suited to a marketing blog, not a gaming blog. The latter, however, is ripe fodder, so sit down, buckle in, and prepare for an opinionated rant!

Player Versus Character

I’ve heard it said that GURPS is too rule-heavy – and compared to some systems, I would have to agree –, but compared to early editions of Dungeons and Dragons, I’d venture that it is every bit as rules-heavy. I think the big issue people have with GURPS is that where in most games, the PCs are defined by their character sheets, GURPS characters can very much be defined by a combination of their sheets and their players’ skill. For an old-school game, this is perfect! I remember coming up in AD&D, where the players were responsible for finding solutions to problems, and then dice were rolled to see if it worked. And that is exactly how I intend to run GURPS.

As a GM, my responsibility is to provide problems for the players to solve. GURPS’ responsibility is to provide a framework within which the players must work to solve them. That framework is the ruleset I, as GM, choose, and how it interacts with the players’ character sheets. In less esoteric terms, the players decide how they want their characters to approach problems, and their character sheets determine through various dice rolls, if their characters actually solve the problems that way. That is to say, the player decides how to approach a problem, and the character sheet places constraints on that approach.

And this leads us to…

The Oracular Power of Dice

If you haven’t ever read this, then go do it. I have a hard time adding to it. So instead, I will simply say that I will roll as openly as possible as often as possible and never fudge dice rolls. Why? Because I am playing this game, too, and I don’t have any aspirations toward being a fiction author. I want to be surprised. I want to see how things go.

If I start dictating the outcomes of actions directly, I rob the entire group of the joy of being surprised by the dice. Maybe I do have a great idea that people would love, but there is a reason there is a saying that “truth is stranger than fiction”. I want to find that truth with my fellow gamers, and that won’t happen if I insist on running my fiction down everybody’s throats. So I will simply set the stage and let the dice decide how things go.

Player-Driven, not Plot Driven

Similar to what I said above, I am here to present challenges, not solutions. I don’t have some special plot the players have to run through; that just isn’t any fun for me. I might have some vague ideas I’m willing to implement if the players start to lean in a particular direction, and I might provide some background scenery in the form of larger-scale plot elements – wars, political maneuverings, droughts, etc. –, but by and large, I merely set the stage for action. It is the players that create the action.

This definitely places a burden on the players – they will drive the plot through their actions –, but that is part of the fun! There is no railroading, and the PCs’ actions have a very real impact on the world around them. That means everyone at the table is both responsible for and partakes in the fun. I, as GM, don’t know what will happen any more than my players, and they don’t know any more than I do. Sure, I have a map with monsters and treasure on it, but I don’t know what they’ll do with anything they encounter. And none of us know what the dice will do to all of our ideas, dreams, and hopes.

Game Balance Is a Lie

At this point, one might be wondering how game balance can even be justified. After all, the whole point of this post, thus far, has been to say that this is all about the players deciding to whatever they want. I, as the GM, cannot plan for that without affecting their agency. And that’s why I don’t! But what implications does this have? It means that the PCs might go too deep and run up against a lethal encounter. It means they might cleverly approach a challenge that relegates it to meaninglessness. But I ask, is any of that bad? I don’t think so.

Accomplishments are robbed of all meaningfulness if they are easy to come by. That’s right. I just said, “Nothing worth doing is ever easy.” Or to put it far more eloquently, “We do not choose to do these things because they are easy, but because they are hard.” That applies to games as much as to life. The entire point, here, is to provide a fun and meaningful gaming experience, and if I rig every encounter so it is just tough enough to drain some resources but never truly threaten the PCs, then the players are robbed of the joy of pulling off the seemingly impossible. Or of talking about that time they call got massacred because they forgot to check what was on the other side of the portal.

More than just that, this goes back to the idea that I am not an aspiring fiction author. If I start fixing encounters so that the PCs will always have a fair shot at success, I may not be fudging individual dice rolls, but I am fudging the encounter as a whole. So nope. Won’t do it. Life is hard, and sometimes shit happens. That’s what makes us stronger, and that is what makes life memorable.

I want my games to be memorable, so I don’t hand out easy wins. Smart players will make sure they always plan an escape route, and I won’t alter the dungeon so they get trapped unless that was the nature of the encounter from the start. I am willing to provide clues for players who look, but because player agency is paramount, I won’t run those clues down the players’ throats, either.

Ultimately, I am aiming to play a fun game, and for me, that means laying out challenges and hopefully being surprised by how the PCs handle them.

Rules Lawyers Need Not Apply

As may have been gleaned from previous sections, a mastery of the rules and an ability to exploit rules will get you nowhere here. GURPS is a very Rule Zero game, and I prefer to keep it that way. This isn’t because I am a power-tripping asshole. It’s because neither circumventing the spirit of rules nor arguing over rules is fun. And I want my games to be fun. So if there any questions about the rules should arise, the GM simply makes a ruling and the players should take note of anything they disagree with for a later civil discussion.

Many times, it will turn out that the wrong rule was applied or that a rule was applied wrongly. That’s fine. The goal in the moment is to keep the action moving and keep the good times rolling. Players should raise issues with rulings after the session is over so that further clarification can be had. Maybe the GM made a mistake. Maybe the players were mistaken. Maybe the rules as written just aren’t as much fun as they could be in this context. This is something we can work out as a group after we are finished slaying and looting.

So what do you think? Is this your idea of fun? Is this your idea of “old-school”?

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