December 11, 2009

The Complete, Unabridged Manual Of How To Play Roleplaying Games

Has it all been said before?

The RPG internet community has roots that extend back more than two decades. Yes, it's true - people were discussing roleplaying games on the internet before it was even the internet. Shocking. I know. Go here to boggle your brain. OK... back? Now that you have read advice on gaming that is some 25+ years old... you might now be wondering the same thing: Is it possible that everything there is to say about gaming has been said? Is tabletop gaming a finite creative space? If you take the collective meta-mind of the tubes (read:teh intehnetz or teh blogezfear) - is there anything really new for the community to discover? Has the community as a whole really made any DING! groundbreaking revelations in the last few years?

I might argue NO. I might even say that everything the RPG blogging community rants about has been ranted about by thousands of people for close to 30 years. I should really post some screenshots from some early Dragon magazine "Letters to the Editor" columns... but I think you get my point.

I'm not talking about new creatures, adventures, villains, worlds, creative settings, dice, types of miniatures, or even rule systems. That's all in the field of content - which is arguably inexhuastible. That would be like asking if every story that could be written has been written. Of course... that may very be true too. But that's another issue.

I'm talking about advice. Comments, shared with others, about HOW to play. HOW to be a better game referee, GM, DM, storyteller, marshall, or whatever you call it. What works - what doesn't. How to build tight social groups that faciliate immersive play. etc. What's new? If you were to read everything that has been written before, in chronological order: at what point in time would you say "OK... nothing new here". Would it be the early 80's? Gaming has changed alot since then. Perhaps the mid-1990's? Maybe never?

Is it possible that I'm completely out-of-the-park off base here?

I'm still going to say no - so if I'm not off base, and I am on to something... then has anyone tried to make a definative guide to roleplaying games? I'm not talking about D&D For Dummies. I'm talking about something akin to Black's Law , but for tabletop roleplaying games. A reference that everyone hails as being the de facto jumping off point for further discussion. A manual on RPGs in general, in all its crazy variations on a theme that is not tied to any one game.

A manual on HOW TO GAME.

If such a book exists, please let me know. Perhaps Gygax's Master of the Game counts - but I have yet to read it yet. Have you? Is it any good?


  1. Hahaha. Well, if there was a new manual on how to game, it would surely open the floodgates for endless rants about how wrong or right it is.

    I think advice and content are linked. Anytime new content appears new advice will develop on how to use said content. So if content is inexhaustible, then so is advice.

    I think John Kirk's Design Patterns of Successful Role-Playing Games (all the way at the bottom of the page) may be a good start for what you're wanting.

  2. Wow.. thanks MadBrew... didn't know about that resource -- although that book is about how to design the mechanics of a game (which I will definately revisit later)... I'm talking more about the narrative, social aspects of how to manage (read:"RUN") a campaign that is engaging and fun. These are things that bridge games and are at 10,000 feet above the rules/mechanics of a game. Do GM's behave differently when playing different games? I don't think so - or to ask it another way: can the rules of a game change the way you perform, plan, and run a campaign? Maybe what i'm looking for is a definately guide like "7 Habits of Highly Effective GMs" or something...

  3. I would argue that while it would be possible to create a "Hoyle's Rules for RPG's" or even an "Emily Post's Guide to Proper Game Conduction".; you'll still have new people and scenarios that have to be managed.

    Much like an advice column, folks are still going to want gaming suggestions for "their specific scenario". I doubt all these could be codified in one book. I don't cover that kind of advice stuff in my own blog that much, but I do think it's still important for others to do so.

  4. I'm proposing that the way you run a game is directly linked to the rules. A good Call of Cthulhu narrative may not work as well with Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition or Champions and vice versa. Or at least when more thought is put into how narrative and mechanics interact, the better a game tends to be.

    The skills of storytelling and improv transcend the rules, but then you are talking about those two elements in their pure art forms. So a book on Ultimate Storytelling Methods (The Dramatica Theory and the Monomyth are proven storytelling methods) or Theatrical Improv would be good references.

    But roleplaying games are not just narrative (otherwise they would probably be called interactive or shared narratives). There is the game part.

    RPG campaigns are not just telling stories, because in stories the author knows the ending and what character choices best bring that ending about. While in RPGs, players may make choices that don't necessarily help the story.

    You'll find that many people play RPGs to engage in the simple elements of exploration (what's down that road that DM didn't prepare for), achievement (finally getting that last two-weapon fighting feat), and IC/OOC social interaction (roleplaying a merchant... which is a really boring story for everyon else); all of which I ripped straight from Bartle's player types.

    Some rules have mechanics that directly connect with these elements, so it would be important to know the why/how of using them.

    Which is why I think that any book dealing with how to play tabletop RPGs would need to speak about both the Narrative and the Mechanics and how they interact (which is why I mentioned Kirk's RPG Design Patterns because it abstracts the common mechanics of RPGs).

    It would also be beneficial to discuss the meta-game aspects of RPGs as well. How players interact with characters and the impact of out of character knowledge. Not mention the often overlooked "beer & pizza" properties of gaming and inter-player interactions and expectations.

    An excellent theory to look at when thinking about creating such a manual would be Gleichman's Layers of Design.

    Anyways, sorry for the verbose response and I might be misunderstanding what you're saying (or may disagreeing at a fundamental level).

  5. So - from your perspective - all that is "GM Advice" has _not_ been said before? If that's the case; I suppose I'm leaning towards we disagree.

    Maybe I need to branch out to some completely different games.. LowLife.. or perhaps Nobilis come to mind. All I'm saying is that "advice" columns in magazines, blogs, and source books usually prompt a guy reaction in me that I've read this somewhere else before (hence this post). But.. maybe I'm just a victim of playing the same types of games for 20+ years...

  6. Oh, I think a LOT, the majority of it, has been said before. But there wasn't any advice on how to run D&D 4e encounters before D&D 4e came out. Sure, a lot of stuff from previous editions apply, but 4e is a unique animal has it's own needs.

    Take a look at the new Warhammer FRPG... I bet it will need advice tailored to that system.

    No doubt much of the advice will be old board/card/rpg game advice repurposed for Warhammer, but some may be completely new.

    It is in fact sort of like the Monomyth. Gilgamesh, Horus, Baldur, Jesus Christ, Luke Skywalker, Neo... they are all basically the same story, yet we don't get tired of seeing it reinvented.

    Has it been said before? Yes AND no. Does RPGs have it's own Joseph Campbell (the guy who made the Monomyth famous)? If so I don't think he has made his mark yet.

  7. I think you're off base. :)

    We're still in the process of figuring out why we play these games, and discovering new games to play, so I think a definitive answer on how is a long way off.

    MadBrew has a point when he separates out the how we play from the specific systems. Why we play influences both what games we choose (or create), and then how we use the high-level improv and other general skills to make the specific system go to our satisfaction.

    Some people play for rules mastery, some for catharsis, some for environmental immersion, some for fulfilling character interactions, some for the chance to be dramatic, some to continue the adventures of their favourite books, some to show that they're the best player, some to kick the most enemy butt…

    The reasons to play are so varied, and each ends will need different methods to succeed. There are answers to the How question for one play goal that will actually completely wreck a game that has players who are aiming for a different play goal. The classic example: powergamers in a non-powergamer group. Powergaming is a fine goal in itself, but only when played with other people with compatible goals. Flip that around, and it's equally true that being the one character-driven narrative player in a group of players who want to just do the dungeon and kick monster butt is not going to end well. How best to play is different for all those players, and mismatches are the death of groups.

    Of course, that all assumes that satisfying diametrically-opposed play goals all in the same game is a How that hasn't been answered, but I think I'm safe in saying that it hasn't been answered yet. :)


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