Discourses on GMing Series 1 Post 5
The End of Chapter 2: The Rules
To wrap up chapter 2 I want to talk about something Jamison wrote that reminded me of my theory of Game-as-Training-Wheels. I have noticed the trend he references – heavier systems being deemed less useful for experts – in myself as well as in many people I know. This seems to support my idea that rules are useful as guidelines for newbies, but they are more cumbersome than informative for experts who have already developed a deep understanding of “what works”. That said, it’s not easy to find players for a game listed as “homebrew,” so making your own custom light RPG after 20 years of play experience is really advice that only applies to those who have a group of players already on board, I think.
Even just with house rules something I tried to do in my last campaign was to make them as GM-facing as possible. Nobody likes to be confronted with a 20 page errata booklet. Learning rules from a book is tedious and hard and takes too long. So it’s best if you can make the changes invisible to the players as you strip down the rules and customize them to your heart’s content. Other than that I am on board with Jamison’s advice here.
Chapter 3: Creating the Universe
Jamison is right. Most GMs do spend too long making the universe. Nobody is going to buy the 300 page setting book you crank out, unfortunately, and most of it probably won’t even feature in the game you run. That’s a lot of wasted effort. That said, that’s not necessarily a reason to just wing it all at the table as we’ve established earlier. So let’s see what Jamison thinks are the high-impact-low-time elements.
Jamison recommends making at most two societies: the one the characters are from and the antagonist society. This is not a hard and fast rule in my eyes – an easy way to make more societies is for a player to decide they want their character to be from somewhere you haven’t made yet. But when it comes to the GM making societies, I think it’s fair to say “the place you start” and “the place a lot of your obstacles come from” are pretty high-impact.
Additionally, Jamison’s tables of suggestions here and throughout the book are very handy. They aren’t anything an expert couldn’t think of themselves, but they are useful story stuff. You need to know who’s in charge, why they’re in charge, and what rules they’ve decreed to inform your cast of NPCs and creation of conflicts in the world. You need to know how to tell different people apart (in terms of social class and beliefs and so on) so you can describe them, and how they speak so you can act them out.
The economics is similarly basic: what does the society make and what do they need on the whole? But it’s similarly very useful. Conflict is created by scarcity, and good stories are driven by conflict because conflict is action. So knowing what’s scarce and what’s in abundance is going to be a key ingredient in creating interesting conflict. Is every conflict going to be about mustard smuggling? Well, that’s up to your personal taste.
(Me? I like a little mustard on my adventure once in a blue moon or so…)
The map-making procedure is similarly utilitarian. You can make a visually brilliant map if you like, but that really brings us to two major understandings of world building that are critically important:
Most GMs do most of their world-building because they think it’s fun, not because it’s useful.
As demonstrated, you can crank out the important details of a society (village, town, city, empire, these things scale up and down as you like) in, like, an hour. Then you can sketch a map in another hour or so. Maybe spend a third hour on an antagonist faction and boom your world is ready.
So why do we spend weeks on this stuff? Frankly, it’s because we like it. And if we don’t like it? Well, it turns out we don’t need to spend very long on it. So remember that the next time you’re feeling the burn(out).
Most GMs like their world a lot more than their players do.
Additionally, if you look at how people value things one important fact that stands out is the IKEA effect. Basically, people strongly over-value things that they make compared to identical items they did not make. By about 50%, if we’re being specific. As the GM you probably care about the world you’re making 50% more than your players do, so try to keep that in perspective.
Similarly, the same team that discovered the IKEA effect went on to do more experiments in a similar vein. For example, having people construct LEGO robots for 2 dollars a piece. In one condition they were disassembled for parts and you could build another if you liked, while the other you could build another out of entirely new parts while the original remained assembled. Participants completed over 50% more robots when given new parts – when their existing work was valued.
The point is that this goes both ways. GMs overvalue their work and will put in extra effort if they see their work being “properly” valued by the players. Similarly, GMs, try not to value your world too much – and know that players value their own creations as much as you do, even if you are putting in more work than they are overall.
This effect is part of why I think a particular step of Jamison’s character creation method is brilliant, and I’ll say more about that next time!
Next Time: Character Creation
Jamison’s rules for this are a bit idiosyncratic, much like some of his “how to play RPGs right” preferences were. Should be interesting!