A few weeks ago, VintageRPG posted about the Dungeon Master’s Guide and mentioned how they’ve “kind of doubted the utility of DMGs for a long time. The only one that holds genuine, continued interest for [them] is Gygax’s, for 1E, and even that is mostly because it is incredibly idiosyncratic rather than terribly useful.”
Then, a bit later, Vintage goes on “Outside of the magic items table, though, is it going to get much use after the initial read or two? I don’t know. I suspect not.“
I agreed, and in that moment a question crystallized in my head: why is the whole rpg industry constantly producing books for just one of the players?
I’ve begun pushing back against referee-only books with Longwinter, which is split two, one book for all the players, and an additional one of tools for the referee player. I’m trying something similar with Red Sky | Dead City (notice how neatly the title splits over two books). But it wasn’t until this post about the DMG that it really gelled.
I look around at the plethora of modules and adventures and settings, and they almost all focus on the ‘game master’ first. Secrets, spells, abilities, bestiaries, adventures, plots, railroads, screens, dice, features, and more.
I think it may be because a lot of of classical tabletop roleplaying games divide the group at the table into players and masters or referees or whathaveyous. Basically, one person is the serious “adult in the playroom” and the others are “players” there to have fun.
Sometimes the “master” is advised to be a fan of the “players”. They might even have their dice taken away, because, you know … they’re fans, not players. Or impartial referees and world builders. Or designers of fair combat encounters using arcane formulae for encounter economies. And often the structure of play assumes that the “master” will invest much more time to learn the system and prepare the world, while the players will bring their time and good will and set their characters loose upon the world.
And I hate this. I think it is deeply, deeply stupid. Every one of us meeting for some roleplaytime is a player. It’s just that we play multiple and diverse roles. It’s an asymmetric roleplaytime, but that doesn’t mean one (or more) of us is exempt from being players and having our fun. It also doesn’t mean one of the players should shoulder 80 or 90% of the burden of making a roleplaytime happen.
Ok, so if we’re all in this playtime together, what does that mean? Are we all the same? Have we all been doing everything wrong all this time?
No, no, no. Of course not. That would be silly. This is about my preference as a player, my preference at my table, my laziness when it comes to extensive preparation or building intricate combat encounters using page-long stat blocks. But since I am in the unenviable position of actually writing and illustrating roleplaytime toys, it does let me posit a possible design constraint.
What if every roleplaying product tried to be useful and accessible to every player at the table? How would we go about this?
Now, I’m not saying it would be equally useful to every player in every situation, but that it would assume broader readership.
An adventure module might skip the read out loud text and provide location descriptions, rumor tables, equipment, encounter tables, and more directly to the protagonists.
A hero book might be designed with more pre-built characters and random character generators so that a referee can simply lift out non-player characters to improvise at the table.
A bestiary might include useful materials and mechanics for heroes (recipes, steeds) and narrators (myths, story seeds,) and referees (combat mechanics).
A referee (or DM book) book would have reference materials for all the players. It would compile the rules and provide tables for generating encounters, dungeons, and more … and encourage all the players to collaborate in generating those dungeons.
A setting guide might provide world-building tables for all the players to collaboratively build a world of their own, expanding from the core presented in the guide.
And what would be the starting point?
I suggest we drop the common dichotomy of dungeon master and role player, and look at what kind of things actually-existing humans do at actually-existing tables. At what kind of roles they play, if you will.
Once we have those roles in mind, we can try to figure out the needs of the different humans enjoying their roleplaytime together, and work to create toys that work for them.
This is something I’m trying to do with SEACAT. I may well only partly succeed, but such is the name of the game. By half-steps we climb towards a roleplaying we want … and this is a roleplaying I want. A playtime where I am no longer a master, but another kind of player, discovering what kind of living stories dice and decisions will unfold for us at the table from the dead, ink-stamped pages.
—Luka, A February
P.S. – if somebody mentions, “But Luka, what you are looking for is a collaborative story game without a referee or dungeon-master! They already exist!” I will say: “No. I explicitly want games with referees. But games that acknowledge that referees are also players.”
P.P.S. – in terms of world building, one game that is quite fascinating is Microscope. There may be others. Perhaps they shall appear in the comments?
Also News: UVG Hard Copies Have Appeared!
I’ve announced it on kickstarter, but should do it here too. The physical copies of the Ultraviolet Grasslands have arrived and soon they’ll start shipping out. Here are some initial rough photos … and even in these, they look dashing.
Also News: finally a logo for WizardThiefFighter
it’s modeled on the hero we deserve: Pointyhelmet.
And Per Standard
The patreon plug. The place where I post .pdfs. And books. And arts. More regularly than here. For no particular reason. Support the artist. Enjoy the books. See the seacats.
27 replies on “No Masters, Only Dungeons”
I like the idea of ensuring more fun for the referee and more books for the other players.
Have you read, or played, Ryuutama? In that the GM gets a special dragon character which travels alongside the group and it grows as they do. It’s pretty cool.
Yes, I have! Ryuutama is definitely part of the inspiration.
Hot Springs Island is the only book I know of that did this well; basically gave a half-true bestiary to the players along with misleading lore and quest hooks.
Yes. I thought that was absolutely excellent.
I would take it a step further and remove truth entirely … but that might be too radical.
I think completely removing the facts from a guidebook of that sort would make it far less useful. The players will only look at it as long as they think it will help them, so if they look up a monster in it 3 times and all 3 times it’s wrong, they’ll probably stop using it. But if it’s wrong once, and right twice, they’ll keep reading it, and try to guess what might be true.
Hey, sorry I only spotted your comment late!
I don’t think completely removing facts would be useful. But, imagine the player’s book has an Imaginary Beast and it’s described as: Combat: very dangerous in melee, Weakness: soft underbelly, Danger: venomous teeth.
While the referee’s book lists the precise numbers. Players can then flesh out those numbers as they experience the creature. Or not.
All I can say is, I’m very much looking forward to where this train of thought leads!
Choo choo, all aboard the Ashpiercer!
Have you heard of Symbaroum? I was a huge fan of it for a while, and while the system itself is a mess, one thing it does a really good job at is every book they’ve published so far has something for everyone. Even the main campaign books are broken into three parts: 1), players introduction to the adventure, 2) tools for the DM+new rules, 3) the adventure.
It is an interesting design, and one that I’m not sure I agree with, but with the correct implementation it could work nicely. I just don’t think they’ve done it right.
Yes, I’ve seen it. It’s interesting but still … a little bit. Well … it does that thing again, where the DM section is just for the DM. And it’s totally fine, but I’d like to see those tools shared out more. I have a feeling that lots of us are getting more and more inspired by the new and more interactive board games coming up on the market, too …
I really don’t think hiding rules from players achieves anything: no matter how well you’ve memorised a magic item table, it won’t enable you to influence the roll of the dice. Resources being open to all players does not hinder gameplay.
So as I risk just repeating everything you’ve already said I’m going to try and add something else!
1. Collaborative world building gameother than Microscope would be Dawn of Worlds: simple and free. 100% would play again!
2. My goodness, those covers are breathtaking!
Oooh, thank you for sharing Dawn of Worlds. I will check it out!
Also … glad you like the covers. I’m happy how they turned out!
I particularly am intrigued by the idea “A setting guide might provide world-building tables for all the players to collaboratively build a world of their own, expanding from the core presented in the guide.”
We ran a game for about 15 years with rotating DMs, either solo or co-DMs, which was very cool because everyone got a chance to play and DM. (My good friend Sick Rick told me he never really understood the rules well until he DMed.)
There was some kind if conceit that the party was “unstuck” in the multi-verse in some way, but only a few of the DMs over the years even referenced that as part of game play, and only once I think was it an integral part of a chapter, and we just bounced from world to world. (https://www.dropbox.com/s/9dxhqdw6glspxdy/BlipCampaignHistoryPost.pdf?dl=0)
Basically only I have DMed this last 15, so in our new Labyrinth Lord campaign we are rotating DMs once again, and I tried to set up a process for shared-world building using “Anomalous Subsurface Environment” and a starting map that could be added on using Worldographer.
Talking with the next couple DMs in line no one is interested in following much of the stuff prior to their scenario, and mostly desire to go off in their preferred direction (what we did from 1989-2004, which rocked).
However, it would be neat to have a process for themes, recurring characters, perhaps unifying mechanics (our campaign included elements along the way from Star Trek, Cyberpunk, kaijyu, nano-tech, and on and on). Something that could be passed from DM to DM and added to with sections on different worlds, planes, locales, NPCs.
I did start a game notes book using journal stuff from: http://warlockshomebrew.blogspot.com/p/fantasy-rpg-aids.html
Having a substantial book with sections to be completed at the campaign progressed would be excellent. Hmmm….
Yes – something like a campaign playbook would be great, where you generate (or play out) the ramifications of your actions, change the world, and pass it on!
While you’ve dismissed storygames and given brief mention of one of the very common PbtA principles, I think you might find it worthwhile to take a look at the work a lot of these kinds of games have done to pull apart how different player roles work. Most of these games are designed with the assumption that the “GM” is equally a player.
Band of Blades by Off Guard Games, for example, splits up some GM responsibilities among the players, and empowers players to drive play themselves, while still having a referee.
Amazons by Vincent Baker has two GMs! It’s surprisingly freeing and reassuring to have someone to turn to when making decisions to say “I dunno, what do you think?”
The Wizard’s Grimoire (also by Vincent Baker) flips the script entirely, and has a single player responsible for driving play and knowing the rules, but who also controls the sole player character, while all the other players describe the world and NPCs.
Which is to say, there are interesting lessons to learn about different ways of thinking about the roles players have at the table, that could be applied to the OSR.
Mmm … Actually, if you read carefully, I dismissed “a collaborative story game without a referee or dungeon-master” because I want “…games with referees. But games that acknowledge that referees are also players.” I have absolutely nothing against games that call themselves story games and I did not dismiss them, though I don’t think the term “story game” is actually very useful. Then again, I don’t think the term “OSR” game is super useful, either, but we have what we have.
I do know Band of Blades and think it has a very interesting structure, with the players working to forward the campaign. I found it a lot of fun, and got a few ideas from it. I wouldn’t like the structure of the Wizard’s Grimoire, but that’s just preference. As for Amazons and shared responsibilities – that sounds interesting and I’ll check it out, thank you.
I guess what I was trying to say was that while you ultimately prefer games with referees, if you want to work towards solving this problem I think there is something to learn from games that mess with the referee role in a quite extreme way.
What we call a “referee” is not a single, coherent role. It’s just a collection of tasks, objectives, and design elements grouped together. For the most part, those tasks, objectives, and design elements still need to happen to make a game work, regardless of who does them. That’s part of what games without referees do; they redistribute the functions of a referee in different ways, and in the process help illustrate what the functions of a referee can be (a particularly elegant example of this is Dream Askew by Avery Alder).
So what I mean to say is that just because these games are working at one extreme doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn from them that can’t be transported back to your preferred design space.
Oh, yeah. I completely agree that it’s not a single coherent role. 100% with you on that.
I’ll have a look at Dream Askew, thanks!
Hmm… I love the message here, but it makes me think…
1) Is this mostly a problem for non-OSR adjacent and non-story games (that category I’ve heard called “trad games”? I think maybe it is. The reason The World’s Most Popular RPG has to hide so much from the players is the nature of the game. If done “right”, the party isn’t metagaming. This is facilitated by keeping info from the party players so that we don’t break the “balance”. Most OSRish games aren’t too concerned about protecting balance, so maybe they keep hidden info out of habit.
2) On the other hand, is there stuff that one can find in many RPG games that should be kept secret? I think the answer is “Yes”. I think clearly “Is this door trapped?” should be a ref secret. Or hell, “What’s on the other side of this door?” is a secret. There’s a lot of this kind of stuff that one can come up with… but it’s all in the specifics. So, what do you think about RPG products that get into that level of detail (e.g. “here be a dungeon” books)? Should the specifics be randomized and the nature of the randomization be well-known? Are things that get into that level of printed detail flawed and should be more open-ended? Should the “here be a dungeon” book just not exist? Or, in this case, is it alright for ref-only info?
And, sorry. I hit submit before proofreading…
Sorry, I didn’t see I had unapproved comments! And no worries about the proofread. 🙂
1) Very possible.
2) Very true, too. I think the “here-be-a-dungeon” book might be (to a large extent) the exception that proves the rule. One thing I like is the way Hot Springs splits it out with a player book … but if, for example, possible monsters were listed, but without stats. Same for treasures. Locations. Etc. An interesting twist would be awarding XP for the players filling out information. So their book becomes almost … hmm … an exploration book? Figuring out what is going on?
Another good collaborative world building tool is A Quiet Year by Avery Alder.
The players draw a map of an area surrounding a small community of survivors of some sort of cataclysm. Going through one suit of a card deck at a time (to represent the weeks of a season), the players draw cards and consult a table for possible meanings for the card, representing events affecting the community, then decide to either add something new to the map, or make progress on projects established by the community, or have a discussion.
Generally, the cards create a number of important NPCs, develop the local religion, help establish relationships with other communities, and create dangers.
Players do not debate or plan. Instead, if they disagree with a direction the game is going in, they add a contempt counter to a pool. These can be removed if players feel like their intention for the community are being respected again.
Once the King of Spades shows up, the community is visited by the vaguely defined “Frost Heralds” and the peaceful year of exploration and development is over, time to switch to the group’s RPG of choice to interact with the world.
The last time I played I wound up with a tropical island of animists that was slowly being subverted by a psionic cult worshipping a mad AI. The villagers also were obsessed with seeking our a coatl spotted in the mountains, which, combined with the new divide, lead to a dangerous breakout of fundamentalism among the animists. Meanwhile, we were also waging a low-key war against a hive mind of mutant snakes that were born with biomechanical components. We lost many warriors to an expedition to contact a lost trading partner, and the search party was lost to unknown attackers. Lots to do by the time we turned it into a Numenéra game…
Wow, that sounds really cool. I think I have A Quiet Year somewhere and skimmed it, but this really makes me want to re-read it.
How did the contempt tokens work?
Contempt tokens are mostly a means of constraining player discussion. Part of the point is to keep talking out of turn, social pressure, and excesdive planning down to a minimum. It is both a “quiet” year for the virtual community, insofar as there is little danger, but also “quiet” in that players are expected to use those tokens instead of argue or pressure others to follow their vision for the story. When and how you speak is directed bh the game.
If you are not happy with the direction, especially if players seem to be blocking or meddling with your contributions, you can put the token out. You can then retract the token if others seem to be listening or respecting your aims. It is a visual reminder to steand in for an argument. It also allows you to create a settingbwith tensions collaboratively… nobody gets to control the table, just put their counters down.
If you want to actually talk or plan, you have to spend your turn doing it.
Players can also discard a contempt token to just do something they want to the detriment of the community, giving you an incentive not to let them pile up. Otherwise, players are expected to show restraint redtraint in creating disasters and mayhem, just as they are expected to show restraint in speech.
I feel that as a tool, the tokens have potential: once you are done creating the setting and diving in to it in an RPG, any remaining contempt pool might serve as a pool the GM can use to complicate the story unexpectedly. Maybe by rolling on a random table of disasters and conflicts like the community trouble table in the old BD&D Rules Cyclopaedia’s “Dominions” chapter.
Huh … I can’t visualize it perfectly and I’d really like to see it “in play.” It seems like it would make very interesting results. Any idea where I could learn more?
Can you work with Arnold K? He is amazing you are amazing. He needs a push to publish I think, its dreamy.
Oh gosh, thank you for reminding me! Yes, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while!