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"Prescription" and RPGing procedures

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I dont think think the rulebook needs to precisely, although depending on design it might want to (like AW, for example). I think that it more cases than not the rules are somewhat mum on this topic, leaving it open to a variety of GMing styles, which is fine IMO.

I have no issue modding games that I feel are overly restrictive in terms of player input either. Torchbearer is something of an exception there for me as it's already so exquisitely balanced I don't want to mess with it. Mostly though, I just GM as I see fit, regardless of system, which usually means transparency and plus player agency to some degree.

Do you acknowledge that by changing that play process you are fundamentally changing the play experience? That the difference in play structure means the game does not provide the same sort of experience?
 
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If this is a potshot, please stop taking them. I find them contrary to constructive conversation.
If this has some more relevance, please explain what you mean.
I mean, A) 4e D&D IS D&D, so it is not a 'reaction' to D&D, but more of an exercise in giving it a clearer emphasis on some aspects of the game. I mean, D&D was, and is, an encounter-based game, primarily. 5e, for example, doesn't really offer a ton of structure in the way of free-form exploration, but has a huge set of rules for encounter-based combat and a pretty fair amount relating to social encounters.

Beyond that, I agree pretty much with @pemerton, all RPGs by the very nature of the beast, are pretty reliant on episodic framing. I mean, unless we're talking about some pretty alternative designs like journaling games and such.

Finally, I am not sure I understand how your original post really addressed the prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy.
 

5e, for example, doesn't really offer a ton of structure in the way of free-form exploration, but has a huge set of rules for encounter-based combat and a pretty fair amount relating to social encounters.
The exploration pillar has far more embedded within class features, equipment, skills, feats and spells.
In the 5e DMG there are several pages that deal with various settings, weather and light conditions.
The exhaustion track is tied to thirst, hunger and forced marches.

In the 5e DMG the social pillar has 3 or so small tables that one may use for the various disposition of the NPC.
Not seeing how it has 'a pretty fair amount'
 


Does, and should, the rulebook for a given RPG tell the GM what approach to take here? And what is the result if it doesn't?

I don't see this as a one size fits all. Ideally the rulebook should outline an approach, or not outline one at all, based on the style the game is trying to achieve, what the audience wants to do with the game, and based on how much flexibility they want individual game groups to have. Once you are prescriptive, that does make people feel more locked into one way of doing things. For some games that is going to work, for others it isn't. My own preference, even for things like fireball, more recently has been less prescriptive and as open as possible to GM interoperation (but that is just preference and it still requires some basic outlining of mechanics).

All RPGing includes basic units of fictional happenings in which the PCs participate, whether or not the rulebook and the participants self-consciously use the terminology of "scenes".

Here's an illustration from p 2 of the 5e Basic pdf:

Dungeon Master (DM): After passing through the craggy peaks, the road takes a sudden turn to the east and Castle Ravenloft towers before you. Crumbling towers of stone keep a silent watch over the approach. They look like abandoned guardhouses. Beyond these, a wide chasm gapes, disappearing into the deep fog below. A lowered drawbridge spans the chasm, leading to an arched entrance to the castle courtyard. The chains of the drawbridge creak in the wind, their rust-eaten iron straining with the weight. From atop the high strong walls, stone gargoyles stare at you from hollow sockets and grin hideously. A rotting wooden portcullis, green with growth, hangs in the entry tunnel. Beyond this, the main doors of Castle Ravenloft stand open, a rich warm light spilling into the courtyard.​

D&D can't be played without these sorts of fictional happenings or states of affairs being established and agreed among the participants.

We can look at this particular example and notice certain features:

*It elides time, and also movement by the PCs ("After passing through the craggy peaks, the road takes a sudden turn to the east");​
*It assumes that information about the nature of this building, and its immediate surrounds, flows one-way (from GM to players): the GM confidently describes the castle, its architecture, the chasm, the fog in the chasm, the wind, the growth on the portcullis, etc;​
*Some of that information imposes a certain logic onto the situation, both an aesthetic one (the narrator tells us that the towers "keep a silent watch", that the gargoyles "stare . . . and grin hideously", that the light is "rich [and] warm") and a functional one (the protagonists recognise the towers as "abandoned guardhouses" and can tell that the chains "strain[i[ with the weight" of the drawbridge).​

This raises immediate questions, such as

*When is it OK to elide time and movement in this way?​
*Do the players ever get to provide information about the buildings and environs in which the PCs find themselves, and if so when and how?​
*Are there limits on the GM's imposition of aesthetic logic, and do the players get to contribute to the aesthetic?​
*When should the GM hold back from conveying a functional logic and (for instance) wait for the players to ask a question ("Do the chains seem sturdy?") and/or call for a check ("Roll INT(Investigation)")?​

Moldvay Basic provides answers to some of these:

*It's OK to elide time and movement between dungeon expeditions, and it's OK to elide time when resting in a dungeon;​
*The players do not get to provide information about buildings and environs.​

It also tends to suggest the GM should hold back on the aesthetics (it doesn't figure in discussions or examples of the GM's role, and seems at odds with the emphasis on GM "distance"/impartiality). I think it's not entirely clear on functional logic, but tends to suggest - again from the examples - that the GM should be waiting more on questions from the players.

Torchbearer discusses most of these:

*It has clear rules about when and how time and movement get elided, with adventure phase, journeys as a subset of that, camp phase and town phase;​
*The players don't get to provide information about buildings and environs - even for their friends and family, a roll is made on a table (and a comment in the rules notes the unreliability of the PC's memory of the family home);​
*There is a good discussion of when and how to convey a functional logic, call for checks, etc.​

It doesn't say much about aesthetic logic. The only RPG rulebook I can think of that does expressly discuss that is In A Wicked Age, which (p 10) tells the GM, when describing things, to "Use your senses, including senses beyond the five, like your moral sense, your sense of humor, your sense of direction. Give your observer a voice."

Anyway, the assertion of the OP is that the objection to "prescription" is an objection to including rules or principles that address the sorts of questions I've identified. (And others too, that are also about these sorts of aspects of RPGing - managing scenes, and establishing what flows from them.)

I think this is really a question though of how formalized a procedure you want for moments of play. I think Umbran meant scene in the sense of a scene from fiction or a movie, which is different from the sense of a scene happening in life or happening in a game not trying to emulate fictional scenes (when I think scene from a movie, book, or play, I associate those with framing, structure, etc). Outlining process for how this stuff is managed can be helpful, especially if groups are struggling with it, or if they want some of the benefits that come with a more structured approach. But I also find this stuff can be very stifling (at least for me). I need a much more fluid approach, that arises naturally through the conversation the players and GM are having. Not every instance of that plays out the same, and in every group I find it is different. But the problem with formalizing it to me, is it imposes a process on people and means that pattern is going to play out each time (rather than allowing different patterns to emerge naturally and fluidly over the course of play and conversation). I do think this varies from game to game in terms of whether it is useful or needed, and from group to group. Offering advice on this is probably helpful in a Game Master Book, but it probably ought to be done non-prescriptively, where an array of approaches to it are offered and a discussion of not using a process is covered as well. In a game like Hillfolk, having a clear structure to how scenes operate really help in my opinion. That game wouldn't play the same if we approached it like we approach our bog standard fantasy RPG campaigns. But but the same token, applying that structure to my bog standard fantasy campaigns, which I've done, makes them very different (not worse, not better, just different). There may be times when I'd welcome that kind of process to my regular campaign, but most often I just want a relaxing evening where the conversation around what is happening and where things go next, is natural and fluid (and not something where we are ether trying to pin down a process or imposing a process)
 

The exploration pillar has far more embedded within class features, equipment, skills, feats and spells.
In the 5e DMG there are several pages that deal with various settings, weather and light conditions.
The exhaustion track is tied to thirst, hunger and forced marches.

In the 5e DMG the social pillar has 3 or so small tables that one may use for the various disposition of the NPC.
Not seeing how it has 'a pretty fair amount'
Albeit 5e's description of social encounters is remarkably full of "GM Decides" it is a pretty detailed description of the process to be used, and it invokes the skill/ability check rules, as well as providing a fairly well-defined point at which other subsystems such as spell casting would apply. While it is far less prescriptive than systems like, say, Torch Bearer, with its conflict mechanics, there is still something there.

Exploration OTOH is very vague. The overall structure is described by nothing more than the play loop, which is the most general rule in all of 5e. Sure, there are potentially many resources that can be applied, and subsystems invoked, but it is CERTAINLY the least well-defined sort of play in 5e, and doesn't even specifically invoke the idea of a scene, or any sort of resolution at all (it is not only standard for the GM to handle this entirely on his side, it is COMMON for that to happen). Contrast this with the exploration rules of 1e, which specifically break time down into turns, describe the types of decisions the party is likely to need to make, provides specific rules for resource usage, etc.
 

I don't see this as a one size fits all. Ideally the rulebook should outline an approach, or not outline one at all, based on the style the game is trying to achieve, what the audience wants to do with the game, and based on how much flexibility they want individual game groups to have. Once you are prescriptive, that does make people feel more locked into one way of doing things. For some games that is going to work, for others it isn't. My own preference, even for things like fireball, more recently has been less prescriptive and as open as possible to GM interoperation (but that is just preference and it still requires some basic outlining of mechanics).
Here's my question: Does the later approach, 'not outlining an approach' (by approach I mean a process of play more elaborate than "the GM tells you what happens."), work unless the game actually rests on 'received wisdom'? That is, is it really possible to pick up something like the 5e core books, without any prior understanding of what an RPG is or how D&D is played, and actually run a game based on what is there? A milder form of the question being, if such a thing is possible, to what degree will that game resemble a typical 5e play structure as it is generally understood in the community?
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I do not think it makes a good deal of sense to confuse leaning on cultural practices learned over years of play to organic or natural. It undervalues the discipline and work involved in the process. At the same time it treats other sorts of practice as unnatural and inorganic. I can tell you that the common cultural practices of this hobby often feel unnatural to me. I can embrace them, but it requires active effort to play a traditional game where running/playing other sorts of roleplaying games feels pretty natural, almost second nature. That's due to years of practice. Just like stepping onto a wrestling mat still feels natural, but jiujitsu requires more active effort and attention to detail for me.
 

Contrast this with the exploration rules of 1e, which specifically break time down into turns, describe the types of decisions the party is likely to need to make, provides specific rules for resource usage, etc.
I may need to relook at the 1e DMG and get some inspiration.

To be honest personally I'm more comfortable doing the work for the exploration pillar - as I can look at a map, determine the terrain, travel time needed, determine weather and light conditions, skills to play on, and whether I will be using tables for interesting locales, exploration challenges, colour montage, leaving it to the dice gods (random encounters) or a combination thereof.
I can do similar for dungeon crawling - have it pre-structured or loose with some rolling from the random generating tables at the back of the 5e DMG. Same with inputting traps and obstacles.
Finding curious trinkets, worrying about supplies, shelter and forced marches are easy enough to slide in as well.

I find the social pillar tables are for quick fixes, simple social encounters, - for something more protracted (political, lengthy debates) I would have preferred they included skill challenge examples. The current rules are too sparse for my liking.
 

Here's my question: Does the later approach, 'not outlining an approach' (by approach I mean a process of play more elaborate than "the GM tells you what happens."), work unless the game actually rests on 'received wisdom'?

Little on the foggy side today so I hope this answers your question without me getting lost in the weeds (feel free to ask for clarifications)

It really could mean anything. I just meant not all games will need to outline an approach (there may be a culture of play already, the designer may want to present game mechanics and a setting but offer no prescription in terms of how it is GM'd etc). I wouldn't use language like received wisdom here though. Both because that isn't the only way one could use such material (if there is no direction in terms of how you manage adjudicating rulings, dealing with 'scenes', etc that means its open to a variety of methods, so it could also mean you are keeping that aspect of play open or neutral so GMs and players can bring in methods from other systems or styles. I.E. you may just be writing a book that is meant to be played by both old school players and by new school players, by people who want dungeon crawls, and people who want to explore themes and drama, etc. But it could also mean you are leaving it open so it as fluid as possible because you are hesitant to reduce the flow of play to a clearly dillineated process. That might be filled in by what people have learned from other games, but also what they've learned through experimentation, what they've devised in response to the present group they are in, etc.

Keep in mind I wasn't saying all books should be this way, just I don't think it's necessary for all RPG books to prescribe a process.


That is, is it really possible to pick up something like the 5e core books, without any prior understanding of what an RPG is or how D&D is played, and actually run a game based on what is there?

I don't play 5E so I can't speak to that, but I know back when I first started, books were all over the map in terms of advice, and we often just blatantly ignored whatever methods they described for what seemed to work for us, what we saw other people doing that we liked, etc. It wasn't so much about received wisdom, as seeing how other people played. You did need a culture of play, but I think that is part of my point. Part of what makes the hobby function is not just those words on the page but the cultures of play that have emerged. I can think of many instances where a book had the obligatory "What is an RPG" section and the obligatory "here is how you play an RPG" and it seemed to capture a sliver of what was really going on (it is simplified for the reader, but seemed more meant as a guard rail for beginners because after a while you just played in a much more intuitive and fluid way based on whatever your preferences were).

Maybe some of this is coming from a place of liking different tables to have slightly different styles. For me, one of the worst things to happen in the d20 era (at least for what I like) was all the tables starting to look and play the same. I don't know how that happened, I don't know how widespread it was, but I did begin to see, at least where I was gaming, a lack of variety from table to table in terms of the things we are discussing (and other things as well, like how an adventure is designed). For me I always loved the experience of showing up to a game and having the GM tell me they did things a little differently, explained what they meant and I got exposed to new ways that I could use or not use, tools to carry in my belt of tricks. Or going to a group that just did things radically different for reasons of their own. One of the best examples of this is the group in my area that had co-GMs. I had never seen this before, I had never seen it in an RPG book (its probably in one somewhere, but I'd never heard of it). And the way they divided the GM labor up was really cool (if I recall one was in charge of 'running the game' while the other managed NPCs and things like that). It was an interesting set up. By the same token, I've been in groups where things moved from scene to scene in a structured way (and how this was done would be different depending on the group).


A milder form of the question being, if such a thing is possible, to what degree will that game resemble a typical 5e play structure as it is generally understood in the community?

I don't play 5E so I don't know. But I think the point in cases where this is left open, games would be free to resemble whatever approach they want. There wouldn't be one way that the community understands play to be. It would vary from table to table. Whether this is the approach D&D needs to take or not. I don't know. I am not invested in the latest editions of D&D, I don't really have a dog in that argument. All I can say is D&D needs to do whatever it can to retain the largest audience possible, perhaps while growing that audience (though I would say I think they've probably reached close to the peak of what the hobby can be but maybe I am wrong). I am guessing the best way to do that is provide an overview of some of the prescriptive approaches Pemerton has suggested, while also explaining looser approaches and how people might want to make it their own or learn by observing and participating in other peoples campaigns. I think D&D, since it is a game for everyone, probably needs to take a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach. But again, I am not invested in it. I don't know what the D&D audience wants or needs. They should do whatever is going to help them retain the audience they have while growing that audience if they can.
 

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