The Misery of Precedent

This morning I was chatting with a friend about how I actively dislike the thing in fantasy RPGs where a magic-using character’s player wants to learn a spell (in reference to this week’s post about Invisible Sun), and it lands in the GM’s lap to make that happen. It’s a really weird tic in my brain! It trips me up in a way that, say, setting arbitrary target numbers or throwing monsters at them does not. It’s all under the umbrella of trad GM authority, so what’s different?

After some back and forth, I realized it was my old enemy: setting precedent.

God I hate setting precedent in RPGs. It feels too much like parenting, but for grownups with actual attention spans.

When I’ve set a precedent, I feel defensive and confrontational with the players I know will run with it. I hate having to remember. I hate fearing I might forget them. I hate chewing over how I might have gotten it wrong.

Precedent-setting rulings sit at the crossroads of ad hoc game design and expedience. What you end up with, though, is just unplaytested game design.

This tic was a lot worse for me when I was fully in the clutches of wanting to appear infallible in my GMing. Facilitation wasn’t even in my vocabulary yet, and when it arrived I met it with deep scorn. The same scorn I had upon first exposure to the X Card, radical transparency, and games without explicit combat systems. Dark times, friends. I’ve figured out how to establish credibility since then, but that’s a topic for another day.

A piece of this feeling stems from my distaste for being seen just making shit up. Hilarious, because I make shit up most of the time. But there is something different about the transaction when the player who wants a spell and the GM contrives to provide that spell. Should I make it a challenge? Is this fictionally interesting? Are we accomplishing anything other than powering up a PC?

Two terrific solutions come to my mind, and the fact they exist tells me I’m not alone in experiencing the tic. One is the Circles test in Burning Wheel: you need something — including magic — you roll to see if someone you know has it (or, if you miss your roll, you might discover the cost of getting it comes with more strings than you realized). The other is the Workshop rules from Apocalypse World: you tell the GM what you want, and the GM tells you what you need to do to get it. Workshop is great because it gives me, the GM/MC/facilitator, an alibi. Look, I’m totally going to give this thing to you but I’m also going to set a cost for it. It’s explicit and straightforward and nobody has to be coy about asking for what they want.

OSR style play offers a less good (to my mind) solution, because it relies entirely on your table’s play culture. That is, rulings, not rules. Throughout the game, the GM is expected to make shit up. But rulings-not-rules is explicitly ad-hoc and not intended to set precedent. The players won’t waggle their fingers in your face when it’s time to make another ruling.

And Now Let’s Talk About Band of Blades

We’re nearing the end of our Band of Blades campaign here, with two or three sessions ahead of us before the Legion (maybe) makes it to Skydagger Keep. The game has been going fairly well, but I’ve been feeling so worn out by it. Our session this week left me positively bedraggled.

The main thing wearing me out is the game’s perpetual cycle of ad-hoc game design. A distinction of the Forged in the Dark model is there are several ways of resolving actions. You can eyeball your position and effect, or you can carefully work it out. You can make a roll a one-off thing, or you can set a clock. If you set a clock, there are tons of ways of doing that. And when they miss the roll, you have a lot of leeway in delivering consequences. But the book provides very little advice on best practices. “Follow the fiction” is pithy but not practical advice.

On the one hand, the freedom is fun and challenging. The GM can meter out the game’s tempo exactly, based entirely on clock sizes and interactions, and consequences, and how potent you want resistance rolls to be. (In the FitD games I’ve run, it’s on the GM to let the players resist some or all of any given consequence; it’s the main tone dial in the game.) On the other hand, you’re designing little games every time the players want to do anything. And every little game you design is unplaytested.

Sometimes it works fine. I’ve got a good intuition for clock size and consequences across all Forged in the Dark games. That is hard earned experience. But in our Band of Blades game, there’s real tension between the boardgaminess of the campaign (the campaign involves managing the Legion’s assets, everything from squad members to food to “supplies”) and the fact I’m mostly making shit up as I go. I have no idea whether my consequences are too heavy, if my clocks are too long, if I should be eliding the action by making them one-off rolls. The system is a big box of paints and brushes and barely any explanation of how to use them, but the game is a constant prescriptive grind and barely any explanation of how to succeed.

That said: If the game were any tighter it’d probably squeeze the last bit of roleplaying out of the play space. It’s probably the right balance, as right as you can get in a game that mandates perpetual rulings throughout every mission. I think our campaign would have turned out much different if I made every mission three quick rolls and then spent most of our time back at camp talking about it.

Bringing this back to my lede, the great part about FitD, and Band of Blades in particular, is that there are so many implications behind every roll that it’s nearly impossible to game those out. The players won’t know the consequences until I announce them — contra Burning Wheel, one of Blades‘ inspirations, which mandates the players always be informed before a roll. Hell, I won’t know the consequences either! I hold off until I see how they rolled before I decide how hard to hit them. That means we’re not wasting time running multiple scenarios based on what those scenarios might cost. The decision the players make is what combination of position, effect, die pool size and fiction they’re happy with. That’s still a lot, and we usually concede to a final configuration based on fatigue. Yes, I know I started this graf talking about the great part. What’s great about it is that at no point am I setting any kind of precedent. I don’t need to keep track of how some prior roll was evaluated, because we evaluate every roll in isolation.

I don’t have a good conclusion to share. I still hate the stifling feeling of precedent setting, but mostly I play games now where that doesn’t need to happen. But when I do need to make a ruling, it’s in games where that’s the game, and it’s clear that rulings don’t set precedents: Forged in the Dark, Fate, Cortex, and so on.

Meanwhile Invisible Sun is looming on our horizon. A game built largely on providing spells and other power-ups to the players as they want them. Exposure therapy is probably the only cure.

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