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D&D General D&D's Evolution: Rulings, Rules, and "System Matters"


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In addition, giving the referee active goals that depart from neutrality (or placing rules upon the referee that force decision making in certain directions) is certainly an interesting distinction.

So the idea of a neutral GM comes up a lot, and it’s one that always sticks out to me. I’ve very rarely felt it was all that necessary nor all that common.

When you use the term here, in what context do you mean? Neutral to what?

I ask because in kriegspiel games, there were opposing participants, so a neutral ref makes sense. But carrying over that idea to RPGs seems…less direct? Less one for one or like for like? Not sure what word I’m looking for here, but I hope I’m being clear.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
The OP:

This isn't meant as a slam on any particular approach, or even advocacy for any approach. But I am putting out the topic in case people find it interesting!

Two posts above this one:

….so, you do understand that discussion of something isn’t the same as advocacy, right?

How about in my reply to you earlier:

I think that if you drop your preconceptions about a desired outcome of this discussion- in other words, if you assume it is a discussion and not a debate...

So I will make this abundantly clear; there are three things that really annoy me:
1. People who continue to argue with me when I've repeatedly tried to tell them to stop.
2. People who cannot seem to understand that discussing something isn't advocacy for that thing.
3. Bards.

Since you refuse to get the hint, I will make this very clear: the only thing keeping you from the trifecta right now is a lyre.

Is that clear enough for you?

I understand your intention isn't advocacy. However, also from the OP

So a question might obviously arise- if it was all so simple, if it was all just some FK "rulings not rules" with a neutral referee, why do we see the explosion of rules? Why do we see Gygax, at the beginning of 1e, insist that the standardized rules are to be followed? I am sure others might have their own reasons and speculations, but I would put it simply- money. There is very little commercial return in telling people, "Make up stuff. Then a referee will tell you if it's okay. Maybe roll some dice." On the other hand ... selling rules? And more rules? There ... there you get into the serious money.


You can say you aren't advocating for one style over the other, but if you see no benefit in rules and see the existence of increasing rules as only being because the game designers wish to make a profit, then you are making a very strong statement against a game run by rules. If you truly believe that the reason rules have increased beyond "Make up stuff. Then a referee will tell you if it's okay. Maybe roll some dice." is only because of profit, then you are saying that people who use a different approach are being mislead about the value they see in rules.

Which is why I am trying to act as a bit of an advocate for a level of rules. There is a value in them, but you have not engaged in discussing the other side and the value of rules at all. Or if you have, I have completely missed it, and I apologize for missing you addressing both sides of the discussion. But you can't only discuss the value of a ruleless system, because such a system also has downsides, and those downsides are addressed by a system with robust rules. I think the best way forward is a balanced approach. And I'm going to push back against the idea that rules are negative to the game experience.
 

So the idea of a neutral GM comes up a lot, and it’s one that always sticks out to me. I’ve very rarely felt it was all that necessary nor all that common.

When you use the term here, in what context do you mean? Neutral to what?

I ask because in kriegspiel games, there were opposing participants, so a neutral ref makes sense. But carrying over that idea to RPGs seems…less direct? Less one for one or like for like? Not sure what word I’m looking for here, but I hope I’m being clear.
Neutral between the entities that they're emulating (the world, the monsters, whatever) and the entities they aren't emulating (the players and their characters) in other words, the GM is playing the orcs, but isn't cheating in their favor, and in theory they may kind of want the players to win, they aren't cheating in the player's favor either, so the simulation is unbiased by a desired outcome, but instead plays to its logical conclusions based off the actions of both entities.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
I don't think silliness has anything to do with it. Prince Valiant is relatively light-hearted but not in any sense a silly game - but in the context of typical dice pools from 4 to 10+ dice, morale bonuses can add +1 or +2 dice.

Burning Wheel is (by default) neither light-hearted nor silly, but when I play my knight of a holy order I'm more likely to encounter a member of my family than a random stranger, because I have a +1D affiliation with my family which is a direct bonus die to my Circles checks (which by default are on 3 dice).

The way, as a player, I know what is possible is by having a good knowledge of how obstacles are set and how my dice pool is built.

Maybe silly isn't the right word, but I've encountered a few fictional worlds built on the idea that tropes are physical laws, and I find them more whimisical and fun than anything else. To me, that is them being a bit silly (not that that is bad) compared to more serious worlds.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
So the idea of a neutral GM comes up a lot, and it’s one that always sticks out to me. I’ve very rarely felt it was all that necessary nor all that common.

When you use the term here, in what context do you mean? Neutral to what?

I ask because in kriegspiel games, there were opposing participants, so a neutral ref makes sense. But carrying over that idea to RPGs seems…less direct? Less one for one or like for like? Not sure what word I’m looking for here, but I hope I’m being clear.

So the idea of a neutral referee (GM, DM, whatever) when it comes to TTRPGs, and more specifically to FKR, is a little nuanced.

I think that @The-Magic-Sword captured an important part of the essence with the following statement:
Neutral between the entities that they're emulating (the world, the monsters, whatever) and the entities they aren't emulating (the players and their characters)...

That said, imagine you have two referees, both running narrative heavy games-
A is a neutral referee.
B is a "fan of the players" referee.

In both cases, I think that there will likely be certain choices made that help advance the narrative; but in the case of A, there will be no "thumb on the scale" for the players- the referee will attempt to say yes with actions that are consistent with the fiction, negotiate risk and uncertainty, and say no to those actions inconsistent to the fiction. This is a different position (IMO) than B, who would be looking to not just advance narratives, but to do so in ways that likely feature the players in certain aspects.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I understand your intention isn't advocacy. However, also from the OP

So a question might obviously arise- if it was all so simple, if it was all just some FK "rulings not rules" with a neutral referee, why do we see the explosion of rules? Why do we see Gygax, at the beginning of 1e, insist that the standardized rules are to be followed? I am sure others might have their own reasons and speculations, but I would put it simply- money. There is very little commercial return in telling people, "Make up stuff. Then a referee will tell you if it's okay. Maybe roll some dice." On the other hand ... selling rules? And more rules? There ... there you get into the serious money.

That is a specific reference to Gygax's evolution of thought from OD&D (when he was adamant that rules were malleable, and to be discarded at will) to his statements regarding 1e. There is a well-documented shift (which Rob Kuntz brought up recently) with his statements.

Not a general statement. A specific about Gygax and D&D.

To the extent that you understood that differently, it isn't meant that way.

Finally, you seem very invested in rules. Good for you! There is nothing wrong with that. If rules didn't have value, we wouldn't have them. The only thing worse than too few rules, is too many rules. Or vice versa? One of those!

The trouble is understanding what "too many" and "too few" are- which are stubborn values that are notoriously resistant to a universal solution.
 

MarkB

Legend
So the idea of a neutral GM comes up a lot, and it’s one that always sticks out to me. I’ve very rarely felt it was all that necessary nor all that common.

When you use the term here, in what context do you mean? Neutral to what?

I ask because in kriegspiel games, there were opposing participants, so a neutral ref makes sense. But carrying over that idea to RPGs seems…less direct? Less one for one or like for like? Not sure what word I’m looking for here, but I hope I’m being clear.
There's still an element of neutrality between players even if they're on the same side, because in these games the DM is practically the only interface between them and the narrative, moreso than in rules-heavy games. A DM who favours one player, even unconsciously, may tend to adjudicate their actions as being effective and successful more often than those of other players.

It may not even be a matter of favour - the DM may simply know that player better, be more in-tune with them, and so grasp the ideas they're describing more readily.

When a player sees their proposed actions fail or go awry, when a similar set of actions described by another player worked out seamlessly, that's not going to feel very neutral.

That is a specific reference to Gygax's evolution of thought from OD&D (when he was adamant that rules were malleable, and to be discarded at will) to his statements regarding 1e. There is a well-documented shift (which Rob Kuntz brought up recently) with his statements.

Not a general statement. A specific about Gygax and D&D.

To the extent that you understood that differently, it isn't meant that way.

Finally, you seem very invested in rules. Good for you! There is nothing wrong with that. If rules didn't have value, we wouldn't have them. The only thing worse than too few rules, is too many rules. Or vice versa? One of those!

The trouble is understanding what "too many" and "too few" are- which are stubborn values that are notoriously resistant to a universal solution.
It's not just "too many" or "too few", it's whether the ones that are there are doing a good job of supporting the game you want to play. If a particular ruleset is hampering you, the solution isn't necessarily "fewer rules" - it may simply be "different rules".
 

pemerton

Legend
Maybe silly isn't the right word, but I've encountered a few fictional worlds built on the idea that tropes are physical laws, and I find them more whimisical and fun than anything else. To me, that is them being a bit silly (not that that is bad) compared to more serious worlds.
Sure, those would be silly worlds. But RPGs like Prince Valiant or HeroQuest revised that have player-side morale/emotion bonuses are not concerned with those sorts of worlds.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
A COC-genre Freeform? If you mean, like a freeform RP based on the same milieu as Call of Cthulu, my experience would expect that to simply be the player pacing a portrayal of their character falling into insanity, with the other players prodding them if they don't seem to be effected by things they should be. Introducing a mechanic to decide when could be a good addition (and I think, that's when you're starting into get into something like Fizzy Bubbles, which is such a delightful case because it demonstrates a completely different lineage for what is essentially the convergent evolution of a TTRPG style system, unless people had way more TTRPG experience than they let on) but it would have been unusual back in the day. But to be clear, I'm talking of forum play-by-post fandom roleplaying, which is likely a bit different than what you're thinking of.

Interestingly though, this style of game matches the origin story for 'OC' or 'Neotrad' from the six cultures of play blog we've been talking about so much, so to my mind, understanding where the narrative drive comes from, and what mechanics are for from that line of thinking is actually a super interesting demonstration of how it really is its own animal and we're seeing that mentality play out in terms of the new players of 5e and their expectations for how the game should work. In my eyes, modular systems are the way to go, where the players of the game ARE playing freeform in the abstract, but are pulling in things that are useful to the kind of game they're playing as necessary, kinda like your COC mechanic lycnhpinning an otherwise freeform game.

To understand what I mean, the way we played 4e, was actually very roleplay heavy, because we (I, from my forum roleplaying days, and I could teach others) only needed the system for its combat simulator for the extensive combat scenes from the media we wanted to emulate and the tactical experience of that, simple action resolution to handle uncertainty if it comes up, and freeformed the narrative drama between encounters, giving our characters applications of powers the game system implied they have from what they took, but doesn't actually give us-- e.g. my swordmage could teleport every round of combat, but it required a marked target to attack someone other than me to do in am echanical context... but it made sense that in the fiction, my character could do a short range teleport every six seconds, and that made its way into my casual roleplaying, and into my animations for other powers, and so forth.

I think your point about modular systems is fairly spot on. I've often found myself looking for a rule system outside of the traditional rules, to take pieces from an adapt to the purposes I need to help support and scaffold the game we want to play.

In theory, we don't need the rule sets to do what we want anyways, but they can allow for deeper interactions and more nuanced decision making and play than just making things up on the fly.
 

pemerton

Legend
This was posted less than two months ago:
This came up in a conversation on another thread; one poster mentioned the inherent superiority of Cthulhu Dark, which is a lite, two-page rule system. It is certainly an elegant set of rules, but for it to work, it presupposes a number of things- that the table (the whole table) have a working knowledge of the Lovecraft/Cthulhu mythos, that everyone at the table is familiar with RPGs and how they work, and that everyone at the table have a level of comfort with a specific type of narrative-oriented RPG.

<snip>

5e has the inherent benefit- despite being occasionally clunky, and more complicated, and weird at times ... there are so many places and ways to learn how to play it (both in-person and on-line) that any difficulties are overwhelmed by scale.

<snip>

I circle all the way back to the original quote:
Other games do that. D&D doesn't. Could you houserule D&D to be like that? Sure. But it wouldn't be D&D anymore, so why? Just play that other game.

The essential nature of D&D is that D&D is a game that is houseruled. There is nothing that is "more D&D" than a houseruled version. D&D doesn't just expect that you alter it- D&D DEMANDS IT.
Have you now changed your mind?

The last time we discussed Cthulhu Dark you mocked me for referencing and playing the original (lite) version rather than the kickstarted lengthy version. Have you now changed your mind on that too?

I'm trying to understand the perspective from which you now claim to be able to extol to me and others the virtues of Cthulhu Dark and comparable RPGs.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
Neutral between the entities that they're emulating (the world, the monsters, whatever) and the entities they aren't emulating (the players and their characters) in other words, the GM is playing the orcs, but isn't cheating in their favor, and in theory they may kind of want the players to win, they aren't cheating in the player's favor either, so the simulation is unbiased by a desired outcome, but instead plays to its logical conclusions based off the actions of both entities.


Here is an interesting question though. If you are in a "ruleless" system, like is being discussed in Free Kriegspiel models, then "cheating" would seem to be an impossible measure.

So, how do you run truly neutrally if there are no rules for what one side can or can't do? Especially when you control one side.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This was posted less than two months ago:
Have you now changed your mind?

The last time we discussed Cthulhu Dark you mocked me for referencing and playing the original (lite) version rather than the kickstarted lengthy version. Have you now changed your mind on that too?

I'm trying to understand the perspective from which you now claim to be able to extol to me and others the virtues of Cthulhu Dark and comparable RPGs.

Um, what? The specific issue I was referencing was that when people (including you) extol lite versions of games as complete, they often ignore the vast amount of knowledge and work that goes into the game that is not expressed in the ruleset. That's the Kitchen Nightmares/Gordon Ramsay problem; it's easy to say (for example), "This is simple to run and adjudicate. Look, only a few pages!" But that's usually because the people doing it have been doing similar games, or have experience reading Cthulhu mythos, and so on. You can't ignore your abilities going in.

If you actually read what you just quoted from a neutral position, you will see that is exactly what I said- that it is an "an elegant set of rules, but for it to work, it presupposes a number of things..." If you weren't familiar with this style of game and/or Cthlhu, you would be much better off running the more detailed version of the game.

Also? Seriously what the heck is this- "you now claim to be able to extol to me and others the virtues of Cthulhu Dark and comparable RPGs." It's one thing to misunderstand people; it's truly bizarre that you are actively being a jerk to someone for having the temerity for enjoying a system and praising its elegant rules that you also like!

So .. yeah. Thanks for that. I don't know why you constantly have to bash systems like 5e (which I also like, for different reasons) but .... what is that phrase that is so popular here... oh yeah, "You do you."
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
That is a specific reference to Gygax's evolution of thought from OD&D (when he was adamant that rules were malleable, and to be discarded at will) to his statements regarding 1e. There is a well-documented shift (which Rob Kuntz brought up recently) with his statements.

Not a general statement. A specific about Gygax and D&D.

To the extent that you understood that differently, it isn't meant that way.

Ah, I see. That does seem rather confusing, especially when you followed up later with "D&D, from the beginning to 5e's emphasis on "rulings, not rules," is a game that cries out to be FK, to be a game of players doing whatever they want with a neutral referee providing the results ... yet ends up encumbered by rules, cruft, and debates about RAW." in your conclusion.

It makes it seem less about Gygax's personal journey and more a statement that DnD desires to not have rules, and yet is "encumbered" with these neccessary evils despite that desire, because the company wishes to make a profit.

Finally, you seem very invested in rules. Good for you! There is nothing wrong with that. If rules didn't have value, we wouldn't have them. The only thing worse than too few rules, is too many rules. Or vice versa? One of those!

The trouble is understanding what "too many" and "too few" are- which are stubborn values that are notoriously resistant to a universal solution.

I very much agree that the trouble is finding the balance. Which makes me question why we would look to Free Kriegspiel as more than something historical. Considering the vastly different role of the "referee" in TTRPGS and FK and the push that FK seems to have towards no rules, it seems like something that we would look to only in the contexts of narration, or results that automatically succeed or fail.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
Sure, those would be silly worlds. But RPGs like Prince Valiant or HeroQuest revised that have player-side morale/emotion bonuses are not concerned with those sorts of worlds.

I'm not familiar with those systems, so they didn't play into my point. Apologies if you thought they did.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Here is an interesting question though. If you are in a "ruleless" system, like is being discussed in Free Kriegspiel models, then "cheating" would seem to be an impossible measure.

So, how do you run truly neutrally if there are no rules for what one side can or can't do? Especially when you control one side.

1. The DM/GM/Referee can't cheat- they can abuse their authority. It's a difference. I understand that you have vociferously argued this point on another thread, but just as an FYI, many people would disagree with you on this.

2. FKR is "high trust". That's .. the whole point. It's kind of baked into the definition. If you are worried about cheating and/or abusing authority, then you shouldn't be playing FKR games.

3. Finally, the types of games that FKR produces don't tend to lend themselves to "cheating" scenarios. See also the whole "high trust" thing.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I very much agree that the trouble is finding the balance. Which makes me question why we would look to Free Kriegspiel as more than something historical. Considering the vastly different role of the "referee" in TTRPGS and FK and the push that FK seems to have towards no rules, it seems like something that we would look to only in the contexts of narration, or results that automatically succeed or fail.

I think that there are many FKR resources (that I have linked to) that provide better explanations than I can. I also think that given that the rule-sets tend to be very short, it would be best that you read them as source material than to take someone's word for it- I believe a link to the itch page with a bunch of them was already provided, along with the link in the OP to a designer who has his game.

Obviously (not so obviously?) 5e is not FKR. But I think that exposure to multiple ways of running games and thinking about them helps the overall experience. Maybe it's just a change in how you choose to prep, or discuss things with your group; maybe it's as far as trying to run a 5e game entirely in a FKR mode (in other words, appropriate the tropes of D&D but run it without the rules). But it's a useful exercise to sometime think about what, if anything, we can take to make our individual games better.

Maybe it's nothing! YMMV.
 

On one hand, I take it you are not making the inference that breaking down and critiquing a style or type of game means that one has to be thinking that those on the other side are aiming to privilege that style? That is, to assume that a critical analysis must be arguing against.

On the other hand, this is the internet: if someone writes something then they should be prepared for what they wrote to be addressed with sincerity. They shouldn't shield behind 'just discussion', 'just joshing', 'not advocating', because there's no way to know if that is truth or camouflage.
Yes, my point was that critical analysis and discussion--which is great--is sometimes characterized as onetruewayism or as advocating badwrongfun. Or, relatedly, is met with the platitude, "Anything is fine as long as your table is having fun," "The goal of the game is to have fun," etc. And then you have to qualify everything you say with copious "in my opinion," "you can play the game any way you want," and so forth. There was recently a thread about this dynamic:

 

I think that the idea of tying this (FKR) explicitly to a wargaming culture, as opposed being inspired by it, is not helpful. It is more useful for me to think of conceptual approaches; for example, in wargaming there was a long push-pull between rules-heavy (or rigid) systems and rules-lite (or free) systems.

Yeah I think a hard analogy of kriegsspiel : free kriegsspiel :: DnD : OSR/Rules lite/FKR games doesn't work for reasons people have pointed out. Mostly, that 19th c. wargames are different than modern roleplaying games--the goals and purposes of both are different, and the cultural context in which both are played is vastly different. Though I would wager that wargames weren't just played in order to learn how to fight a war, but also for fun. Certainly by the Braunstein days people are playing to have fun and as a social activity.

But I don't think the intention of FKR is to make a strict analogy? Rather it is to notice out a dynamic that is present in the wargaming--the role of rules vs/and the role of the referee--and see how and where it has resonance for modern games. In particular, it seems to be OSR people who are interested in that resonance, and in the same spirit that drew them back to OD&D and even pre-OD&D era play styles. That is, you can have the discussion of rules vs referee discretion even before getting to thinking about FKR, which I think functionally is just another step in the OD&D direction.

To give a practical example, I have all these dnd-inspired rulesets on my shelf/hard drive: 5e and other official editions, retroclones, black hack, white hack, into the odd, maze rats, cairn, worlds without number etc. And I often stress over which ruleset is best, which will my players enjoy, which is easiest to teach. But in the end, if I'm doing a dungeon crawl, does it really matter? So in that way, FKR is actually an intervention into the OSR scene that has been proliferating rulesets, and asks, does it matter? And if so, when and where does it matter what rules you use.

What I think is interesting is OSR people digging down to an FKR ideal of "play worlds, not rules," and ending up in storygame land on the other side of the rpg world. In terms of trust, maybe it becomes a little bit less trust in just the gm, and more trust of everyone at the table in everyone else, and the way that a story emerges collectively, guided but not determined by the gm.

Anyway, this conversation has gotten unexpectedly heated. You guys are nerds. 😋 💚
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
What I think is interesting is OSR people digging down to an FKR ideal of "play worlds, not rules," and ending up in storygame land on the other side of the rpg world. In terms of trust, maybe it becomes a little bit less trust in just the gm, and more trust of everyone at the table in everyone else, and the way that a story emerges collectively, guided but not determined by the gm.

I'm glad you mentioned this. Because of the ... peculiarities ... of many of the conversations we have here, I usually focus on the DM when looking at the "high trust" nature of FKR, but it really is about the amount of trust at the table, which is multidirectional, not just a unidirectional trust flowing from the players to the DM.

I would only also add that the very earliest OD&D (especially the Arnesonian proto-D&D, pre-Gygax) was more similar to what we would call FKR than to any other particular model.
 

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