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System matters and free kriegsspiel

pemerton

Legend
This thread has been prompted by some of the recent discussions of the topics mentioned in the thread title.

System matters
To the best of my knowledge, Ron Edwards is the person who coined this slogan.

When Edwards and those influenced by him (eg Vincent Baker) talk about system they're not focusing on things like whether turning undead uses 2d6 (Moldvay Basic) or 1d20 (AD&D). Of course those sorts of rule minutiae are not irrelevant - not only does the use of dice affect the experience of play, it affects the maths (eg a +1 amulet of turning behaves differently on a 2d6 spread compared to the linear 1d20). But the core of system is something else.

The core of system is what the shared fiction consists in and how that shared fiction is established. In this post, I'm not even going to try and point to all the considerations that can go into this. But some of them are:

* What sorts of elements make up the player-character? For instance, does the PC include relationships with others as part of the build?​
* How do those elements affect action resolution? For instance, if a PC is acting to protect someone with whom they have a relationship, does that feed into the resolution process?​
* Which participant establishes the situations that confront the PCs? For instance, does the system use "kickers" (player-authored starting situations)?​
* What principles govern the establishment of situations? For instance, if a GM has the authority to establish situation, do they have to have regard to any elements of PC build in doing so? If situation is related to pre-authored backstory, how is this relationship mediated (eg via a map and a key)?​
* What authority does the GM have to determine that a PC fails in a declared action? For instance, is the GM entitled to declare failure (or say "no") by reference to pre-authored and as-yet unrevealed fiction?​

Different ways of answering these questions produce pretty different RPGing experiences. Those differences go not only to the content of the shared fiction (including outcomes of action declarations), but also - and at least as importantly - the process and experience of establishing the shared fiction. It's not clear what an argument to the contrary would even look like.

Free kriegsspiel
My understanding of free kriegsspiel is that it is a process of adjudicating much if not all of the action declarations in a wargame: instead of using formal charts and tables, the umpire decides what happens based on extrapolation from the imagined situation. The basis for that extrapolation is the umpire's own experience and familiarity with military manoeuvres, terrain, and/or warfare. In free kriegsspiel the umpire does not declare actions.

Historically, there are well-known connections between free kriegsspiel-type wargaming and (proto-)RPGing. Arneson and Wesely are prominent figures in this respect. But rather than looking at the relationship historically, we can look at it in "logical" terms, ie what sort of system is free kriegsspiel?

I'm not going to try and answer that question fully in this post. But here are some features of free kriegsspiel as a system:

* The umpire does not have an interest in the outcome of action declarations; their interest is in the "truth" of the situation;​
* Following from the above, the umpire is not advocating for the opposition - the adversity posed by the opposition has already been established, and is simply part of the circumstances that the umpire is adjudicating;​
* The umpire is able to understand and interpret the connection between the player's "gamepiece" and the declared action just as well as the player is;​
* Once the action is declared, the player has no more control over how it unfolds or resolves - it is "out there" in the world of the fiction, for the umpire to adjudicated.​

It's obvious that a RPG that exhibits these features is going to be pretty distinctive, relative to the overall known variety of RPGs. The first point, about the neutrality of the umpire, excludes approaches to GMing that deliberately lean into particular thematic or emotional elements of the fiction. The second point, about the "fixedness" of the opposition, excludes many approaches to RPGing which assume a degree of dynamic improvisation of adversity. The third and fourth points are at odds with a whole lot of approaches to "augments", "fate points", etc - especially those which flow from a player's ability to activate idiosyncratic or "subjective" aspects of their PC build, like relationships or emotional commitments, as a contribution to the success of a declared action.

Some obvious limits of free kriegsspiel
Free kriegsspiel is intended as a system of adjudication of tactical decisions made in a domain in which the adjudicator has expertise and the context of resolution is already established.

In the context of a RPG, there are some obvious contexts in which it is not going to be very applicable:

* If the context of resolution is not already established - eg it is very complex or dynamic in ways that would matter to resolution;​
* If the adjudicator is not especially familiar with the context of resolution (and doubly so if the players are more expert than the adjudicator);​
* If the parameters that need to be adjudicated are not really tactical, but involve a high degree of evaluative or aesthetic or emotional interpretation.​

These contexts would include a wide variety of urban and social situations.

Many RPGers advocate GM decides as an approach to such situations. It's worth noting that, whatever one thinks of that sort of approach, it's not free kriegsspiel. It's much closer to GM as storyteller.
 

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I think of the FKR proposition as being something like, "what is the minimal amount of stuff you need to play an rpg." Like, if a bunch of Lovecraft fans wanted to play 'call of cthulhu,' but they were in the woods, without any technology, and for some reason only brought 4-sided dice with them. It might not be CoC that they were running exactly, but I'm sure they could figure out how to collaboratively create and play stories in a Lovecraftian setting. This is a helpful mindset to me because it takes the ethos of "rulings not rules" to the extreme, in the sense that all you really need to play a game is a group that is knowledgeable about genre and has trust in a gm to make fair rulings.

There is something similar there to the emphasis on the "conversation" and on genre in more story-oriented games, even though those games like to codify with mechanics the roles of the player and gm in order to empower the former (compared to trad games).

I was thinking about this because I'm running blades in the dark, and having a little bit of an issue with my players (who are familiar with dnd mostly) approaching bitd as a dnd game. That is, instead of treating the dice as an opportunity to resolve a narrative beat, they still think of it in terms of skill and challenge. This means that a "failed" roll means their character failed to do something, not, here's the next interesting twist in the story. Thinking about it further, I realized this is an entirely natural way for them to approach the situation, not just because dnd is a challenge-based game, but because it encodes a particular relationship between player and character. In dnd, the player is responsible for everything to do with the character (the character's psychology, motivations, and aptitudes) while the dm "plays the world." Whereas I think bitd works better if players take a bit more abstracted or distanced view of things. It's less like they are 3d Roleplaying their character, and more like they are screenwriters collaborating with everyone on the narrative but maybe more in charge of one particular element of the story (their characters).

Caveat: I am still fairly new to "system matters"-derived story games, so it's very possible the above is inaccurate. I would certainly appreciate thoughts on how other people handle the differences between trad and story games!
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This thread has been prompted by some of the recent discussions of the topics mentioned in the thread title.

...

Many RPGers advocate GM decides as an approach to such situations. It's worth noting that, whatever one thinks of that sort of approach, it's not free kriegsspiel. It's much closer to GM as storyteller.

Given that there are, in fact, numerous other sources that discuss the specific issue of Free Kriegsspiel both in history (and the application to early TTRPGs) and its more recent application in indie games (usually referred to as FKR), it would probably be best to use the actual sources and definitions that the people themselves use. You could google it, or use one of any number of sources such as this one-


I think people that are making and playing FKR games would prefer that you read their games and play them than just idly speculate as to what the games might be like using terminology many of them don't use.

Your entire section on FK(R) appears to completely miss the current conversation. IMO.
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
I think of the FKR proposition as being something like, "what is the minimal amount of stuff you need to play an rpg." Like, if a bunch of Lovecraft fans wanted to play 'call of cthulhu,' but they were in the woods, without any technology, and for some reason only brought 4-sided dice with them. It might not be CoC that they were running exactly, but I'm sure they could figure out how to collaboratively create and play stories in a Lovecraftian setting. This is a helpful mindset to me because it takes the ethos of "rulings not rules" to the extreme, in the sense that all you really need to play a game is a group that is knowledgeable about genre and has trust in a gm to make fair rulings.

There is something similar there to the emphasis on the "conversation" and on genre in more story-oriented games, even though those games like to codify with mechanics the roles of the player and gm in order to empower the former (compared to trad games).
If that is what FKR is then the FK conceit seems misleading. Likewise adducing 'rulings not rules', I think, as I most often see that term referencing an orientation to rules.

We used to call the approach diceless role-playing, and over the years have iterated several distinct guides to managing it.
 

pemerton

Legend
I think of the FKR proposition as being something like, "what is the minimal amount of stuff you need to play an rpg."
The answer to that, surely, is some people.

We divide them into one GM and the remainder as players. The GM does all the framing. The players declare actions for their PCs. The GM tells them what happens. (This is what Tweet and Edwards call drama resolution.)

Lewis Pulsipher described this sort of RPGing in the late 70s, and as actual not just theoretical. He wasn't a big fan, but he recognised it as a form of RPGing.

I think a fair bit of contemporary D&D play looks quite a bit like this, except that there is a vague sense that the PC sheet has descriptors on it that the GM has to honour in some respect when deciding what happens.

Like, if a bunch of Lovecraft fans wanted to play 'call of cthulhu,' but they were in the woods, without any technology, and for some reason only brought 4-sided dice with them. It might not be CoC that they were running exactly, but I'm sure they could figure out how to collaboratively create and play stories in a Lovecraftian setting.
That's an interesting example.

A lot of CoC play is very close to what I described just above: the PC sheet is just a set of descriptors to help channel the GM's decision-making, and the dice rolls are basically theatre. The written scenario is basically a set of instructions to the GM to tell them what to say next - replacing it with the GM just making stuff up might lead to a reduction in intricacy and perhaps in consistency of detail, but won't necessarily be a profound change in method!

The group you refer to could also use Cthulhu Dark, replacing its D6 with D4 which won't change the gameplay significantly except to accelerate the race to insanity. The difference between Cthulhu Dark and GM decides is that the result of a die roll can constrain the narration of what happens next, shifting authority from the GM to another participant.

I'm sure they could figure out how to collaboratively create and play stories in a Lovecraftian setting. This is a helpful mindset to me because it takes the ethos of "rulings not rules" to the extreme, in the sense that all you really need to play a game is a group that is knowledgeable about genre and has trust in a gm to make fair rulings.
I'm not sure what work collaboratively is doing there. As in, suppose we delete that word from your description, what changes?

Related to this is the notion of the GM making fair rulings. I don't see what the collaborative element is in a GM making rulings. And suppose we delete the word fair. What changes? What would an unfair ruling look like, in this sort of set-up?

A system in which the players declare actions for their PCs and the GM tells them what happens next seems like a RPG to me, and describing it as collaborative or suggesting that the GM's rulings need to be fair strikes me as distracting verbiage.

There is something similar there to the emphasis on the "conversation" and on genre in more story-oriented games, even though those games like to codify with mechanics the roles of the player and gm in order to empower the former (compared to trad games).

I was thinking about this because I'm running blades in the dark
I've never played nor read BitD, though of course have heard a fair bit about it.

I'm not sure which other "story-oriented" games you've got in mind (if any). Apocalypse World is a fairly well known one. Prince Valiant is a classic one, that I play a fair bit and like very much. The mechanics for these systems don't codify the role of the player and GM any differently from D&D - Prince Valiant is mechanically simpler than any version of D&D (including original D&D) and I would say that AW is mechanically simpler than any version of D&D since AD&D.

The change those RPGs make to the role of player and GM, when compared to (say) AD&D or its predecessors, are not in mechanics but in the principles that govern how situations are framed, and how what happens next is decided. You can adopt those principles using a system as simple as Cthulhu Dark, where a PC consists of a one-word/phase descriptor chosen by the player (I've seen longshoreman, legal secretary, investigative reporter and very English butler) together with an insanity rating (starts at 1, caps at 6 assuming D6s are being used) and the resolution rules can be (and are) stated in a single page of text.

In dnd, the player is responsible for everything to do with the character (the character's psychology, motivations, and aptitudes) while the dm "plays the world." Whereas I think bitd works better if players take a bit more abstracted or distanced view of things. It's less like they are 3d Roleplaying their character, and more like they are screenwriters collaborating with everyone on the narrative but maybe more in charge of one particular element of the story (their characters).
Maybe. As I said, I've not played or read BitD.

What you describe is not a feature of the games I play and enjoy, which tend to emphasise the player's identification with the PC and leave "the story" as something to emerge organically out of the framing + action resolution process. Those RPGs do tend to expect that the story that emerges will be, in some sense, worthwhile; but they rely on the combination of principles and techniques around framing and resolution to achieve that outcome, rather than giving anyone the job of making sure the story is a good one.

Caveat: I am still fairly new to "system matters"-derived story games, so it's very possible the above is inaccurate. I would certainly appreciate thoughts on how other people handle the differences between trad and story games!
Well to me the differences can be found in both principles and techniques.

In AD&D and other forms of "classic" D&D, backstory/setting is primarily map + key; framing is achieved by reading off the map + key depending on where the players have taken their PCs to (which also means movement rates and passage-of-time rules matter - these regulate the relationship between wandering monster checks and the players getting their PCs to where they want to be); the referee should be non-neutral when preparing the map + key (at a minimum it should be interesting), but should be as neutral as possible at the point of framing and resolution.

In post-DL "storyteller" style RPGing, the GM controls not only backstory/setting (via map + key + timelines of events that both have already happened and are yet to happen) but also framing: where the players take their PCs on the map might influence framing decisions a bit but the GM is not constrained by prep in the same way as a classic D&D GM is. The notion of neutrality in framing thus has no real work to do. Because in this sort of play the framed situations and stakes are likely to sit outside the formal mechanics, and are likely to be too complex for genuine free kriegsspiel-type resolution, GM decides becomes a very important mode of resolution (perhaps using dice rolls as some sort of non-constraining input). You can see this style of play everywhere you look on ENworld, from Iron DM entries to the How Was Your Last Session Thread to most 6-8 encounter per day lamentation threads to a good chunk of the posters on any thread that I or @chaochou has started!

In scene-framed play (Prince Valiant and Burning Wheel are the two examples I'm most familiar with), backstory and setting are secondary concerns, and may come from the players as much as the GM. They are not determined via prep, except to the extent that this might be the by-product of prepping a situation for play. (Eg if as a Prince Valiant GM I write up an evil knight to use in an encounter, that implicates some backstory such as that the knight has a castle somewhere, probably some retainers etc.) Framing of situations is fundamental, and is to be done having regard to the known interests/aspirations of the players for their PCs. (In BW these are recorded on the PC sheet via a formal system of Beliefs, Instincts, Relationships etc; in Prince Valiant these are conveyed purely informally, with genre also doing some heavy lifting.) Resolution is via stakes ("say 'yes' or roll the dice"), intent and task. The interaction of the framing principles and the resolution method means that some of the time situations drive the players' self-authored agendas forward, and sometimes they thwart them (depending on how the dice fall). This modulation of the rising action via success and failure is what makes the story "worthwhile".

In "fiction-first" play (Apocalypse World is the example I'm most familiar with, though my play is confined to some DW experience; I also referee Classic Traveller in a way that is fairly close to this) backstory and prep are a bit more important than in scene-framed play, but the GM is expected not only to follow player leads but also to leave "blanks" that can be filled in, during play, by asking players questions and building on those answers. The basic motto for resolution in this sort of play is if you do it, you do it - there is no "saying 'yes'" if a player declares an action that invokes a mechanically-defined move. Thus, designing moves that will speak to the key concerns of your game is pretty important to this sort of RPG design! The outcomes of moves should generate a fairly clear trajectory of what the GM should say next ("faithfully following the fiction" is very important in these games), with the idea of "snowballing" being important. The main difference between this sort of RPGing, and the "storyteller" RPGing I described above, is that the motto to which "storyteller" RPGing aspires is We didn't roll the dice all night! - ie either consensual or GM-decides resolution is highly valued - whereas in AW-ish fiction first play the expectation is that play will naturally lead to moves being invoked, which require rolls to be made, which then constrain in various ways what happens next. Consensus and GM-decides don't have much work to do once the rubber hits the road! (Again, this drives home how important it is in these games to get your moves designed well. Classic Traveller is OK, but Vincent Baker is a genius in this respect.)

Sorry for the long reply: I'll close it with a self-quote where I say a bit about the difference between scene-framed and fiction-first RPGing, and where my preferences land:

@Campbell is the poster on these boards who I think most clearly articulates the contrast between (i) BW and (ii) AW or DW that arises from the different roles that intention plays in action declaration and hence in the narration of consequences (especially failures). I tried to explain this in another recent post:

One reason that Campbell has hesitancy about BW (and similar systems - Prince Valiant, and our indie-style 4e D&D probably both tick that "similarity" box) is that its resolution prioritises a player's goals for his/her PC (expressed via Beliefs) and his/her intention in action declaration

<snip>

it does this via its general framing principles, its intent-and-task resolution, its approach to consequence narration on a failure (which draws on both the preceding features), and its principle of "say 'yes' or roll the dice". Campbell's concern about this package is that it can elevate the conception of the character as a character over the purist fidelity to the fiction, both as established and its unfolding trajectory. And I think he's right. But I still love it, and prefer it, because of the thematic intensity I find in it. (And maybe it also fits better with my sentimentality.)
To elaborate just a bit on the above: the framing principles are to frame into conflict by putting pressure on Beliefs; intent-and-task and consequence narration I think are already clear in this thread; and "say 'yes' or roll the dice" means that where there is on conflict then no dice are rolled - which is very different from the AW/DW principle of if you do it, you do it.
 
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Alright, so being a giant noob in matters Free Kriegsspiel, I'm finding the lead post interesting (as it relates to a subject I'm only partially equipped to engage with).

However, subsequent posts bring up FKR...which appears to be some kind of modern cultural movement of Free Kriegsspeil which has some kind of ethos and/or system drift? Its not clear to me what is happening here and/or what it has to do with the lead post (which doesn't seem to reference or be about this revolution)? In my parsing, am I (an FK noob trying to parse a post related to 1st gen FK) meant to take onboard this FK ethos and system drift of the current (I guess?...I don't know...the lead post doesn't mention it and its not clear that its meant to?) Revolution in FK in a way that fundamentally affects the message of the lead post (the synopsis of which seems to be the final statement of the lead post)?

What is happening here?
 

pemerton

Legend
subsequent posts bring up FKR...which appears to be some kind of modern cultural movement of Free Kriegsspeil which has some kind of ethos and/or system drift? Its not clear to me what is happening here and/or what it has to do with the lead post (which doesn't seem to reference or be about this revolution)?
The OP was a statement of some ideas I had prompted by reading some recent posts (especially from @Malmuria) which contrasted free kriegsspiel with system.

You can get my ideas from the OP, but the basic one is that free kriegsspiel is not an alternative to system but a type of system. I think it can be used in RPGing, but - as I try to explain in the OP - the result will be a particular sort of RPG and RPG experience. In terms of RPGs you're familiar with, think a really stripped-back Moldvay Basic: the situation and opposition are already established via the (inviolable) prep; action declarations are made on the premise of brave but oh-too-mortal spelunkers exploring this dungeon; and most if not all of the adjudication is by the GM's direct extrapolation from the fiction.

Features of Moldvay Basic that push it away from free kreigsspiel include the regularisation of stats, magical abilities, and perhaps most evidently (because the hardest to hive off from the basic premise of brave but oh-too-mortal spelunkers exploring this dungeon) thieves' skills. (Remember how Luke Crane made a mistake in allowing a non-thief to make a DEX check to move silently, and only retrospectively realised that adjudication clashed with the thief Move Silently rules? That's an example of stipulated mechanics clashing with a free kriegsspiel ethos.)

@Malmuria linked to this blog in another thread: Free Kriegsspiel: Worlds, Not Rules, Etc.

Here's the core of that blog, which I think you'll be able to correlate pretty easily with my comparison to a stripped-back Moldvay Basic:

At its heart, FKR suggests that the world is a real place, the players/characters can act in any way which reasonably interacts with the fictional environment, and that narrative concepts reign over and above numbers and abstraction. John Ross sums this up wonderfully with the term "Tactical Infinity":​
The freedom of the Player Characters to attempt any tactic to solve a problem, subject to the adjudication of the Game Master.

In my parsing, am I (an FK noob trying to parse a post related to 1st gen FK) meant to take onboard this FK ethos and system drift of the current (I guess?...I don't know...the lead post doesn't mention it and its not clear that its meant to?) Revolution in FK in a way that fundamentally affects the message of the lead post (the synopsis of which seems to be the final statement of the lead post)?

What is happening here?
I can't answer that final question, because I'm not quite sure myself. The lead post doesn't mention, and isn't particularly about, any FKR. It's about free kriegsspiel as a system.

But in this post you can see what I think some of the connections are between free kriegsspiel and FKR.

The blog above links to this game authored by the blogger: Any Planet Is Earth is LIVE

I haven't purchased or read the game, but from the description of it that I've linked to, it seems pretty clear what style of RPG it is. (And doesn't seem especially free kriegsspiel to be honest.)
 

@pemerton

So...effectively...

1) Take Calvinball.

2) Retain Calvin but...

3) Sub out Machiavellian lack of competitive integrity.

4) Sub in competitive integrity as apex priority of play and, to that end, an earnest attempt to integrate player input into the gamestate with the persistent gamestate prior to that input and resolve the collision via skillful and informed extrapolation.


Now....

juxtapose with storyteller imperative as apex priority of play and an earnest attempt to ensure the collision of player input and persistent gamestate yield a through line of dramatically fulfilling content.
 

pemerton

Legend
@Manbearcat

(EDIT for clarity: what follows is written keeping in mind the FKR blog I linked to, rather than nineteenth century Prussian military wargaming.)

I don't think starting with Calvinball is the right explanatory paradigm, even taking account of your (3) which basically means it's no longer Calvinball. (Likewise I wouldn't really start explaining broccoli by beginning with ice cream.) You are correct to identify skilful and informed extrapolation as key. I think this is why the blog I linked to keeps referring to "realism" - that is a signal of non-gonzo, all-too-mortal gameplay (so eg completely different from both 4e D&D and Prince Valiant, although both of those are quite different from one another).

I think the core apex of play sits somewhere between or across competition and exploration (the latter in The Forge sense). The object of exploration is, I think, primarily setting with a sprinkling of situation and maybe just a hint of character. Plot will be emergent; and there will be no story guaranteed in any sense beyond a sequence of events in which some of the same characters figure. (Which is exactly what you posit in your juxtaposed contrast.)

The competition is primarily going to be solving the puzzle, completing the raid, escaping the pursuers, etc: the promo blog for Any Planet Is Earth has Classic Traveller written all over it!

We could call that beating the immediate setting/situation content by thinking of realistic ways to defeat it given a shared conception of what the PCs are able to do. It relies on holding that content rock-steady based on prep (otherwise we do have Calvinball) and on keeping everything within the parameters where skilful and informed extrapolation can take place.
 

@pemerton , to clarify where my (working through my own) thinking on this was, here is may "map to grok".

Take a "design" (very loosely here) model that shares DNA overlap of constituent parts but pivots at a key nexus for play priorities:

* Authority Distribution

Calvin is THE authority of resolution of collision of interests in the gamestate. Calvin is the system so "the system's say" is "Calvin's say."

* Procedures for Gamestate Evolution

Calvin presents shared imagined space which includes obstacles/situation/backstory + competing interests where players want something the setting/Calvin doesn't want to give up = collision. Calvin resolves collision which this includes developing new procedures or foregoing old ones as required to maintain agenda primacy (below).

* Agenda

This is the lynchpin and it feeds into and back from procedures. When Calvin's agenda changes from "don't give up stuff I don't want to" to "preserve competitive integrity at all costs (in D&D this cost might be story)", play pivots in the most fundamental way possible. Whereas Calvinball is a degenerate form of FK (where "the system's say" has a compromised agenda which feeds from and back into the procedures of extrapolation and ongoing rules iterating, thus destroying the point of play - distilling skilled play in the crucible of an environment governed by competitive integrity), FK played authentically denies Calvin the entire point of his play (so Calvin would perceive it as degenerate).


EDIT - To circle this back to D&D and conversations we've been having a long time:

The issue I see with a FK approach to D&D is when an agenda of "story imperative" tries to "ride shotgun" with "competitive integrity." You can sub out Calvin's agenda of "get what I want" and sub in "story imperative" and (in a large distribution of D&D play moments/trajectories played under this model) end up exactly where Calvin and his buddies were. Buddy x or Buddy y wanted this moment of play to be governed by competitive integrity but it got subordinated where it collided with story imperative (which is what Calvin perceived as the apex priority in that moment).
 
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