Principles: Can’t Wrong

This is part 1 in a series of short posts on how I understand the principles behind Synthetic Dream Machine. They are thinkings-through, not pronouncements from on high.

“You can’t do roleplaying wrong.”

This is fundamental. A zero principle, if you will.

Roleplaying is not a game like football, there is no authority that sets the rules for throwing dice or making scenarios. Neither is the book the player(s) hold in their hands a final authority to decide right and wrong. It’s the players as a group that decide the norms and procedures and rules they play by, and amend them as they see fit.

I suspect some will disagree, but it is how I see the activity of roleplay.

For their own reasons, they may contend otherwise. And they’re not wrong … for themselves. However, their position is entirely irrelevant to how anyone else roleplays. In a sense, anyone who argues that the way one group roleplays is somehow incorrect, is only right as far as anyone listens to them.

In the context of SDM, I lay out this as the basic principle for the referee (and, indeed, all the players) to emphasize that:

  • The game belongs to them and their table.
  • How they play is up to them. They can hack the rules or stick to them, modify the setting or hew to it.
  • I describe principles and guidelines to show how I built the game and make it easier for them to make it their own.

So, to repeat, you can’t do roleplaying wrong.

Well, Actually

Ok, ok. I’ll make an aside. You can actually do roleplaying wrong, but that’s not a matter of roleplaying. It’s a social activity, and you can make any social activity pretty unpleasant for the people involved. How and what makes a social activity unpleasant depends on the people involved, the culture, context, and a hundred other factors.

So, perhaps, I could add a subtext to this zero principle: “unless you’re being horrible to the people you’re playing with.”

But, honestly, I feel like adding a general rule about how to behave in social contexts is more the purview of an etiquette manual than a roleplaying game book!

Personal Background

I think roleplaying games are better when they start as their creator’s preferred style of play, rather than a notionally abstract or folk game, honed and polished over time. Or, in some cases, designed by committee to meet a deadline fast-approaching. At least, I feel as though such idiosyncratic games are more unique and flavorful. Whichever way a game is designed, however, each group will adapt it in their own way.

This is a personal stylistic preference on my part and a consequence of my own foibles: over and again, as I learned to play and then make roleplaying games, I ascribed too much weight to authority and tradition. Whenever I came across a mechanic or a plot point that didn’t work for me and my group, I thought I was doing something wrong and labored to find a workaround to make the designed mechanic work.

Eventually, I realized that as often as not, the problem was not one of personal failure or mechanical error, rather the rules were simply not a fit for the table or the mood or even our momentary inebriation level. Once I stopped worrying and learned to love the social experience of play, over some notional platonic game, I found my experience much improved.

In a way, with this zero principle, I’m trying to absolve future players from repeating my folly and giving them space to make follies all their own.

These principles are an excerpt from the referee section of Our Golden Age, a companion to the Ultraviolet Grasslands (back in stock!) that I’m currently assembling on my patreon from the SDM, the simplified shell of Uranium Butterflies, notes on the Rainbowlands and the Circle Sea, maps, and more. It brings more backgrounds, traits, equipment, and spells to the game, as well as some more setting stuff, like mechanics for sacrificing to the so-called gods, exploring the noösphere, and more.