Certain Values of Fun

My current Godbound game has gotten me thinking about games that have taken measures to ensure they’re fun to facilitate.

I mean…running games is its own reward, of course. I could speculate as to why: my frustrated creative impulses as a failed novelist are high on my own list, as is the pleasure of hosting a social event for my friends every week. But what’s been on my mind lately is how some games make facilitation fun on its own. For certain values of fun.

Tabula Rasa

Not all games bother doing anything special to make facilitation fun. Or if they do, the fun is invisible to me as I run games today. Games that provide nothing in terms of prompting and constraining creativity, that demand all the creative lifting emerge fully formed from my skull, are examples of not-fun. That includes the full range of generic “systems” like GURPS and Hero, and a whole range of games that feel half-baked when I finally take them out for a spin (despite feeling stoked leading up to the moment we start playing). If I were the kind of GM who had lots of time to prep My Plot amongst the set pieces of My Setting filled with My Characters – and I was, for decades! – then tabula rasa systems don’t need to make that job fun. They’re just there to (fill in the blank): mechanize my plans, give the players dice to roll, create tension but not disruption. To “get out of the way,” as the ad copy says.

I can play anything? Really? Anything at all?

If you’re the kind of tabletop player who sees “gets out of the way” and runs screaming, you’re probably on the lookout for games that make facilitation more fun for you. I’m not just talking lonely fun, either! There are plenty of games that are more just more fun to run, too. The rules very much “get in the way,” like how a ladder gets in the way of clawing your way up a wall or how a hammer gets in the way of your fist and a nail.

Here are some ways games I’ve played make facilitating more fun for me.

Gimme those dots! More dots! It all makes sense now.

Connect the Dots

I adore games that provide random inputs. Not all of them! There are plenty of gonzo tables in OSR-style games that don’t really work for me. Examples of better-for-me versions include:

Mutant: Year Zero: you can run the game entirely as a reaction to Ark crises drawn from a deck, and then Zone features generated entirely from tables. The tables are tightly programmed to deliver a particular range of outcomes and to layer chances for the game’s campaign to come through. It’s organic and marvelous and my all-time best-in-class game for campaign delivery. Forbidden Lands tries something similar by providing huge lists of encounters keyed to terrain types, but it’s much less organic, more programmed and complete encounters.

King Arthur Pendragon: the Winter process has the GM roll on a bunch of interlocking tables, all of which provide a bunch of connectable dots. The core game has you roll for family-related events on a series of tables. Expansion books add even more inputs via estate management, land management, and so on – it can get pretty elaborate! (Of course I used all of them.) As the years go by, each winter’s round of rolls interact with previous winters’ rolls, and you end up with a really rich, realistic range of crises and windfalls for the characters to contend with. I’ve never played a more rewarding game, dots-wise.

Godbound/Stars Without Number: I mean, Sine Nomine is the king of the OSR sandbox, right? Both these games provide Mad Libs style helper tools for darned near any kind of process you can think of. I think Crawford also has a good eye for the processes I actually want, rather than tables for every damned thing. I find it interesting to try and reconcile, say, the interaction of a particular Court attached to a Faction within a Ruin facing a Sorrow. That’s a whole evening’s worth of action! Much more useful than, say, rolling to see what teas a Yoon-Suin shop stocks.

Urban Shadows and other PbtA games: The start of session move makes it the players’ responsibility to create new dots, rather than rolling on a third-party table. That’s flexible and democratic, and helps the table build and enforce its own customs. It’s still on the GM to connect those dots into the existing game, though, and that’s pretty fun. It’s more challenging than a Godbound style Mad Libs process, because this stuff is coming out of someone’s brain and I have to manage it in situ (and then massage the results later into my Fronts). If you’re into the challenge it’s pretty thrilling.

Blades in the Dark/Scum and Villainy: I’ve only run these two Forged in the Dark games, but in both cases, the downtime phase players run between jobs generates interesting dots for the GM to connect between sessions. It feels descended from Pendragon style Winter Phase rolls, but smaller and more focused on the internal economies of cash, heat and stress. I found I needed to do a bit of creative lifting to map these system-level concerns into the fiction, rather than starting with the fiction. Still, pretty fun.

Rich!

Genesys: I gotta say, I kind of like the rich dice in Edge of the Empire and the other Star Wars games. I think they’re not well implemented there, and Genesys has provided additional guidance in interpreting the outcomes of boosts and setbacks and all that. But the basic idea is that you get a win/lose result, a benefit/complication result, and occasionally a much larger benefit or complication. I don’t love having to deal with that on every roll – it makes every roll feel like an Apocalypse World style 7-9 Act Under Fire result – but usually it’s a good challenge and a reminder to constantly be nudging and complicating the fiction.

Guided Prep

While having prep guidelines is almost always useful in terms of delivering a reliable outcome, it’s not always fun. The fun ones challenge me to think in surprising ways.

Dogs in the Vineyard: the Town creation rules are fun because you really have to think about the nature of evil, and what the players might do with it. I’ve done very little Town prep so the rules aren’t super-fresh, but I recall enjoying the process. It’s a very precise step-by-step list – Pride that manifests as Injustice, a Sin takes place in response that manifests as a demon, False Doctrine that leads to a False Priesthood, aaaaand finally some good old Hate and Murder. Every step of that is an interesting little exercise, and if you go back and read it you can see the first inklings of what would become…

Apocalypse World Fronts and Threats: these changed between first and second editions, but both versions are just fun to engage with. I’ve run plenty of PbtA games where I’ve been just kind of fast and loose with the action, but if I’m serious about keeping a campaign together, I will create formal Fronts. The list of types of Threats that go into a Front are really colorful and weird and provocative, and I have yet to play a PbtA style game that’s nailed them down as well. They’re an invitation to get into a particular kind of specific Baker-flavored weirdness, rather than just leaning on generic post-apocalypse tropes. Blah genre emulation is what happens when I run a PbtA game fast-and-loose, without Fronts.

Burning Wheel/Burning Empires: the Burning * games don’t have tightly scripted prep guidelines, but the process of constantly evaluating and tweaking Beliefs is fun to engage with. Since I’m already a skilled Burning Wheel player, it’s fun to engineer NPC BITs (beliefs, instincts, and traits) such that I’m working hard at earning artha awards every session just like the PCs. Even making NPCs in these games is good lonely fun.

The Clay That Woke: this game asks the GM come up with challenges in Degringolade that are drawn from your real world concerns. The example in the book is a monstrous blue-skinned gossiper based on Facebook! But it’s an interesting mental exercise. It gets me thinking hard about the real world and how to filter that back into the game. Not always “fun!” But definitely an interesting exercise.

Torchbearer: the dungeon-creation rules are terrific and terrific lonely fun. The steps are each fun in their own right, and then pulling the steps together into a single overarching setting and distinct challenge areas, just marvelous. I’ve put together Torchbearer dungeons just for the pleasure of doing it.

Mini Games

One of my favorite ways a game can engage me as facilitator is to give me my own game to play.

Godbound’s Faction Move game is a mechanized situation map. Bliss!

Godbound: my current best-in-class facilitator game is Godbound’s Faction Moves system. The rules as written sound like they’re meant to be played with other players, but a close reading of them reveals it’s all for the GM. That means you have to be super-principled when you carry out their Moves, as well as a little schizophrenic. Every Faction in Godbound has a stat block, right? Power and a die size they roll, Cohesion which is a kind of “hit points” for the faction, features, problems, Trouble (the more it has, the more difficult the roll), their own Dominion pool, and Interest aimed at other factions. The Interest values basically create a situation map of the game’s societies, which is terrific for making the game human-centered. Then you randomize when Factions act, and then each one takes an “internal action” and one “external action” for each other Faction in which they have Interest. The result is a rich, complex campaign backdrop that evolves in a interesting but unexpected ways.

Mutant: Genlab Alpha: each of the Mutant games has its own campaign process, but Genlab Alpha stands out for me in terms of the GM having the most direct input. The PCs are running an insurrection against the robotic masters managing their enclosed habitat, right? So each turn, the GM decides how and where the robots are pushing against the insurrection. Then the players make their moves, make some rolls, and earn some benefits during play and against the meta-game of the insurrection writ large. It’s not perfect but it’s certainly fun to play.

Constrained Outcomes

PbtA moves. That is all.

But to expand: the list of MC Moves in any PbtA-style game I’ve ever run or read is never that constraining. They’re more like…tonal reminders, usually, or a shopping list to remind you to say things other than “they attack!” It’s the Moves that tell the MC what to do that are fun for me to work within.

I think this category is both too big to really get into in this post, and the sort of thing you’re either into or virulently opposed to. I’m into creative constraints, but I wasn’t always so, and can totally appreciate that big swaths of players out there do not love this approach.

Playing Hard

There’s always a tension in facilitating between the rules, the players and the facilitator. It’s a three-legged stool but the facilitator role has an outsized impact on the stability of that stool. If I need to balance threats or otherwise throttle my effort, that’s work. But if I can play as hard as the other players? Nice.

Burning Wheel: everything about the Burning Wheel transaction is premised on the GM playing as hard as the players. At every step, everyone agrees to what’s at stake, what dice they’re rolling, what the winner and loser gets, what outside resources they’re spending, and what happens after. It’s super procedural but at the end, everyone’s fully informed. It maps so well to most trad-style games that I’ve taken a version of this transaction into games that haven’t bothered thinking through this stuff.

Godbound: I’ve really come to appreciate the Enemy Tactics rolls that are attached to the foe listings. Every foe has a d6 table you roll on when it’s their turn to act. I don’t get to optimize my play, but once I’ve got direction from the table, I feel free to push as hard as I can to carry out that directive. That’s more fun than deciding if I’m being too hard on the heroes, and I think it’s more exciting for the players to know I’m pushing as hard as I can within a narrow range of activity.

Fate: I don’t love that I need to set target numbers for large conflicts, but the whole game of creating and managing Aspects and Fate Points really is pretty fun to engage with when you’re running it. When I’ve run the (very occasional) game of Spirit of the Century or Diaspora, say, it’s fun to work within a tight economy just like the players. I think this is a big philosophical split with GMs who despise these kinds of constraints, and would rather do what they want. And some games still push that button in me! For example…

Coriolis: this Mutant Engine game has a GM-facing economy called Darkness Points. I feel like it’s supposed to be something like Marvel Heroic Roleplaying’s Doom Pool, but there’s no DP scarcity, therefore no real creative constraints on the GM. If I can trivially give myself all the DPs I could ever use, then it’s no longer an interesting exercise to try and earn them, or carefully spend them.

Certain Values of Fun

Of course, not everyone has the same fun. Don’t @ me, everyone knows it, it’s not a fight anyone’s having. Personally? These are the kinds of things in games that make them more fun to facilitate. There’s also a list of things I don’t find fun, or actively interfere with my facilitating fun.

Too much challenge-setting discretion is the big one. Any game that makes me set a target number? Awful. If it provides a table, you know like “1 if it’s easy, 2 if it’s normal, 3 if it’s hard” type stuff, that’s usually just my cue to default to “normal.” The Zero Engine games, for example, have a difficulty modifier that I never use. I mostly just go with “2” if I’m running Burning Wheel. And so on.

The other big one is what I picked out in the intro: the completely blank creative slate. More power to the folks who actually want a game “where there are no limits” and the players can “create any character imaginable.” I just don’t have an interest in those any more, and I think it may actually be a different hobby at this point.

I think the key to games that are fun for me to facilitate are the ones that make my job uncertain, that surprise me while I’m prepping or running. Like, I’m okay with reading box text and maintaining a strictly neutral job as referee/arbiter. But that’s not where I find the fun.

What games have gone the extra mile to be fun for you to run?

3 thoughts on “Certain Values of Fun

  1. I have owned Godbound since its release (i backed the Kickstarter cause I back everything Sine Nomine Press releases) and yet I missed some of this entirely. I really need to go back and dig into this book again.

    This might sound kind of strange, but the easiest game I’ve ever run was WotC’s most recent version of Gamma World. Loosely based on the 4E D&D system, everything gets generated randomly on the character side, and for the GM, they provide a series of linked adventures for you to run the players through. if you go through all three of them (which I have at least once) its a fun couple of months of play in a very entertaining world and then you just put it back on your shelf and move on. Canned adventures aren’t normally my thing, but it worked really well here and I wish they had done more with it.

    1. A lot about Godbound only becomes apparent when you start playing the game. I went back a few weeks and read my first post about it and I’ve already learned a lot. The big Revelation was how integrated a Pantheon actually is! It’s just not spelled out on its own page.

  2. I am sad to say that I havn’t had a change to actually run a game. I played in a very short game (died after 2 sessions) but the GM was more interested in using the system to tell his own story than to really engage with the mechanics provided. I wanted to explore the mechanics for Dominion which i quickly grasped was supposed to be pretty central to the game, alas I was the only one. I’m excited to read more about your campaign as it moves forward

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