Ask Angry: Running New Systems and Owning Your Rules

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

We’re doing a double feature today. Yes, that’s right, I’m solving TWO dilemmas. It’s An Angry GM Double Problem Episode. An Angry DP.

Ennui XP, Who Blogs at Ennui XP Asks:

I’ve played D&D for a while and am a tolerable GM. Recently I’ve started to run an Eclipse Phase game because I wanted to engage with the system and nobody I knew would run it. I’m only a couple sessions in and am doing an ok job. My question: When you are running a game in a new system, how do you (if at all) manage your expectations to fit the new game. Or, if not, how do you transfer your skills across genre’s and systems.

Hi. I don’t have anything funny to say because you follow instructions and asked a good question without a whole lot of extraneous bulls$&% and gave me your name and your hyperlink. Congratulations. You can follow the most basic of instructions without your entire f$&%ing brain shorting out. Unlike a lot of people.


But I digress.

There is only way to manage expectations. Don’t have them. The problem is, it would literally require you taking a drill to a very precise area of your prefrontal cortex to actually remove expectations. And biases. And that’s a lot to go through just to run a decent RPG for a group of entitled s$%&s who won’t thank yo… for a group of fellow gamers.

See, there’s two parts to running a game. There’s the mechanical part and there’s the setting part. The mechanical part is the rules, sure, but it’s also about these unseen things the rules are trying to do. Like how D&D is always trying to get you to plan in terms of encounters and adventuring days whereas Savage Worlds is trying to get you to think in terms of quick actions in the moment and GURPS is getting you to think about how much you hated high school algebra and how Fate is always trying to suck.

The way a game fits together is actually way more complex than people realize. Good designers build all sorts of stuff into their games to encourage a certain style of play. And if you go into Savage Worlds with a D&D mindset, it just won’t work. Or vice versa. Unfortunately, most games don’t bother to spell out their intentions. And unless you get really good at reading between the lines, it’s impossible to spot them without playing the game for a bit to see what’s what.

On top of that, slathered on top of the mechanics is a setting. I would say genre, but it’s not always entirely about genre. Dungeon World and D&D and The One Ring and Torchbearer are all TECHNICALLY the same genre. But they are very different games. But they do different things. Not just mechanically, but because of the themes and setting details and other stuff caked into the game.

I mean, sure, themes and tone and setting and genre and mechanics all do work together. In theory. In well-designed games. But that’s not always true.

The point is, as a GM, if you’re going to write and run your own game, there’s a lot you need to understand about the game you’re running. The mechanics, why they work the way they do, the genre, the themes, the tone, and how much you can f$&% with absolutely every part of it before you break it.

Some GMs do not give a s$&%. I’ve seen them. They have a favorite system and everything they run becomes that system. So, if they love Pathfinder, everything feels like a Pathfinder adventure. Whether it works in the setting or system or whether it doesn’t.

The trick is to give the game and the setting a chance to tell YOU how to run it.

Here’s what I do when I’m running a brand new system for the first time: I don’t start a campaign. I follow pretty much the same rules I tell brand new GMs to follow when running their first game. Run a limited adventure. A few sessions at most. Use pregenerated characters and a prewritten adventure. If you can get your hands on a quick start (lots of games offer those now, or free RPG day things, or starter sets), run one of those. That way, you can see what the game was designed to handle. It also makes it easier for you to learn the system since the first few adventures always involve a lot of confusion and page-flipping anyway.

At the very least, run a one-shot you can discard and start a proper campaign of. Sort of a test run.

Now, if you want to go above and beyond. There’s ANOTHER thing you can do. But this takes a little bit more investment. I HAVE done it. But I don’t do it every time. I’ll tell you about that in a second. Try to absorb some stuff that matches the setting. Eclipse Phase is transhuman sci-fi, right? So, see if the book has a list of inspiring sources and read a few short stories or watch a few shows or movies or whatever. Get used to the setting and the themes and also steal ideas. That isn’t always necessary. After all, people generally run what they enjoy. I run fantasy adventure because I know fantasy adventure tropes inside and out. I also would have no problem running hard sci-fi like Star Trek. But if you asked me to run Lovecraftian horror or WWII espionage, I’d be at a loss.

True story. A few years ago, some friends wanted me to run the Marvel Superhero Herioc Super RPG thing from Margaret Weis studios. And I have zero f$&%s to give about comics and the insipid Marvel Universe where joy goes to die. Most of my experience with Marvel involved whiny, angsty superheroes mourning how hard it is to be a superhero. Or complete and utter bulls$&%. But, there was one bit of Marvel I liked. The X-Men cartoon. Ultimately, that’s what I ran. I ran side stories in the X-Men cartoon universe. Basically, adventures that happened between cartoon episodes. And before I started, I binge-watched the show.

So, run a low stakes, disposable, pre-published game first so you can learn the system and how it functions. Immerse yourself in the genre and setting if it isn’t something you are intimately familiar with. That will give you a little bit of a head start. The rest is just about just running games and running games and running games until it clicks.

And, by the way, running games the best way to get good at running games. But you also have to learn to listen to the game first.

Dillon, A Son of a B$&% Asks:

How do you respond to players using the laws of realism to dictate how the world works, while also using the rules (even word for word) to override the laws of realism?

*sigh* Why do people think this is clever. Isn’t Dillon enough? I’m going to use your name for one paragraph tops. This one, right here. After that, it’s all about me and what I have to say. So why do we have to do this. I mean, Ennui XP is the name of a blog and online person. That makes sense. It isn’t just a tacked on little jokey aside. Anyway…

Great question DASOB. I actually had an argument that was sort of tangentially related to the underlying principles behind this question a few weeks ago with someone I can’t remember now. So, it’s the closest to topical anything gets in my life.

This question shows that the GM doesn’t know how to run a game or why rules exist.

I understand what is happening. This week, when someone gets set on fire and there’s no rule for extinguishing the fire, they complain that there should be a way to extinguish the fire because that is how fire works. Next week, when an enemy gets set on fire, they stop the enemy from extinguishing himself because a strict reading of the rules says the enemy can’t do that.

And that is because the players want to win and they are using every tool in their arsenal to make it happen. And there is also nothing inherently wrong with that. Some players treat the game as a challenge to be overcome. That’s what a GAME is, after all. And they will use any tool at their disposal.

Now, there are OTHER reasons why this mindset might infect players. And they come from signals the GM is sending. The GM can create an environment where playing the rules instead of the world is beneficial or necessary. For example, a GM who runs a particularly challenging, high stakes game for a group of players who are very attached to their characters or who are tired of the extreme consequences for losing can create a group of players who play the rules, not the world. As can a GM who, himself, flipflops between using realism and using the letter of the law. Inconsistency, high stakes, and frustration can drive players to try to game the system.

Whatever the reason though, there is a fundamental flaw in the idea of players using the rules as a tool at their disposal. The rules are not at the disposal of the players. The rules are for the GM.

Here’s how an RPG works: the GM describes a situation, the players envision the situation and think about their characters and decide how their characters act, and then the GM resolves the action and describes the outcome. Now, an understanding of the rules can be important. That is to say, the players need to assess what is and is not possible for their characters. And how much risk is involved. And how much reward. And those things often come down to game mechanics. Assuming the game mechanics cover the situation. And it is up to the GM to make sure the players understand the risks and rewards of their actions, whether the rules cover them or not.

It is ALSO up to the GM to ensure that anything that SHOULD be possible in a situation based on an understanding of how that situation would work IF IT AND THE WORLD WERE REAL actually IS possible. That is to say, if someone gets set on fire and wants to extinguish the fire, either it has to be possible or there has to be a damned good fictional reason for it not to work. Like that magical fire doesn’t work that way. Which is fine. It’s perfectly fine to change the rules of reality to suit a different reality.

But it is ALSO ALSO up to the GM to ensure that the world behaves in a consistent way. Everyone – player and GM alike – need to know that the world will work the same way every week. So, it falls to the GM to remember that once magical fire doesn’t work that way, it continues to not work that way every time it shouldn’t.

All of that – ALL OF IT – falls to the GM. And it is so necessary to running a successful game that the GM has to keep a firm hold of it.

The GM and the players should never, ever get into debates over how the rules work during the game. A player can raise a concern or ask a question or even point out an inconsistency, but the GMs job is then to make a ruling and explain why that ruling is the correct one and apply it and move on.

The players DON’T apply the rules. That isn’t their job. Their job is to imagine a world and characters and take actions in them. The GM resolves the actions. And the rules are ONE TOOL for those resolutions.

The argument I had, by the way, was about the GM allowing a player to use Strength as the modifier for an Intimidate check. I said “yes, absolutely, you should do that.” And then, the other person went off on their weird panicked bulls$&% thing about setting a precedent for the players to use any ability scores they wanted for any skills because the GM was letting them.

And I couldn’t figure out a way – in Tweets – to explain why the very idea of “setting a precedent” and “letting the players use any ability scores they wanted” was complete nonsense. Because the game doesn’t work that way.

If the barbarian is towering over some peasant, flexing his muscles, hefting his act, and chewing bricks in his teeth, his Strength – his raw physical power – is what’s involved in that test. The GM is entirely within his rights to say “that sounds like Strength instead of Charisma to me.” The player is NOT, however, within his rights to say “I want to use my Strength to Intimidate the dude.” The player’s job was to describe the action in some way. Even if it’s “I just want to loom over the guy and look scary.”

The GM decides how the rules work. But they have to work the same way every time.

So the very premise of your question is f$&%ed up. The players don’t dictate what rules apply to the world and when. They have no say in it. Players can declare actions or ask questions. The GM applies the rules. And if the players don’t like that, they can run their own games. But the GM needs to keep a firm hand on the rules and put the kibosh on that bulls$&% by being willing to stop the debate after one round of “umm, the rules say…” “Yes, but those rules don’t make sense in this situation, here’s why, now roll the dice unless you want to try something else.”

Players don’t get a say. If players want a say in how the rules apply, they should be game masters. See how long they last putting up with this bulls$&%.

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9 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Running New Systems and Owning Your Rules

  1. I appreciate the point made with respect to how the game is supposed to “feel,” irrespective of player/GM preferences. Two RPGs I actually prefer to play over D&D are James Bond and Tales From the Floating Vagabond (both Victory Games). In both cases, the rules are less complicated, and in many ways, full of a lot more “holes” than something like D&D or Pathfinder, but it works perfectly well. Both games clearly articulate what the “feel” is supposed to be. In James Bond, players are supposed to be ass-kicking MI6 agents capable of near-impossible feats, and the rules clearly state that they are meant to favor the players over the NPCs. Similarly, TFFV clearly states that it is a silly and nonsensical campaign setting, where even the rules you have in your hand are shite and should be thrown out at a moment’s notice in favor of whatever would be funnier in the situation. I feel like these games really empower the GM and allow for a much more relaxed experience for GM and players than the constant “lawyering” of D&D and its ilk.

  2. I can understand this approach of the GM telling the players what rules that apply for a particular situation.
    As a player, this can be pretty vexing if their GM is too dependent on the rules for all of their decisions. We were once told that nothing could catch fire in a particular room because there wasn’t a rule for it–even though everything was carved out of combustible materials. This makes my brain hurt, but I can indeed run my own game if I don’t want to deal with that.

  3. Angry’s got good advice as always.

    I’m working on a Changeling: The Lost campaign in anticipation of 2E coming out, and reading a lot of forums to get advice on how to handle the feel of the setting and horror in general. One of the new features in 2E is the Huntsmen, who will do anything to get their quarry, including handing out “get out of Arcadia free” Tokens of Reprieve to encourage betrayal by the players’ fellow Changelings. I’ve seen plenty of people complaining about how it’ll be like running from the T-1000 all the time. But the smarter posters know that’s not what the setting is about, or what the Huntsmen exist to accomplish. It’s about paranoia. You need fear to be out of proportion to actual danger. The Huntsmen exist to put the idea that someone might sell you out to one, so you have to be careful about who to trust. Each Huntsmen has a unique “tell” in their transformations so that players will be paranoid when they see something repeated enough to wonder if they’re being stalked by a Huntsman, when it could just be coincidence.

    And, of course, since the game’s in the horror genre, the players really aren’t supposed to be know-it-alls. If I say the monster shrugs off getting blasted by a shotgun at point blank, the rules lawyer isn’t going to bring it down with technicalities. It doesn’t matter how much damage they calculate they’ve done or how many dots of Shotgun-Fu they have. Note to players in horror games: Sometimes running and hiding is the most rational course of action.

    But if the player was smart enough to decipher the code in the MacGuffin book and figure out the monster was weak to silver buckshot that’s been dipped in holy water by a virgin before they were “supposed” to, then I’ll happily reconsider the outcome.

  4. I believe the setting precedent concern comes from trying to do the same thing over and over again. Start flexing muscles, come to expect Strength to be used, and if you want to be consistent then you’d have to do that, no?

  5. So, regarding rules, I guess an analogy can be that the players are like ordinary citizens and the GM is the judge. A citizen can most of the time live his life jolly well without knowing the rules (the law) – that’s what jurisdiction is for. But of course in some situation they can ask for legal advice, like what kind of papers they need to run an enterprise legally. But they don’t get to apply the laws. They can sue someone based on their own interpretation on the situation (this is probably not right even though I couldn’t cite the exact legislation) or based on a certain law (I actually read up on this, and the law says XYZ). But then it’s ultimately up to the judge to interpret the law and to make a decision that counts and the citizen must live with it. And of course there is the principle of legal certainty that demands that similar legal questions are answered in a similar way (see also case law).
    And if it didn’t work that way, there would be vigilantism and chaos.

    I wrote all that down mainly for myself – it’s easier to understand something for me, if I reiterate it with my own words. And the part about how “players don’t apply the rules” set me off at first, because I misunderstood it.

  6. If your goal is to have the rules work the same way every time, then you’ll stop deciding to change them. That means if the book says it uses charisma, you use charisma. If the book says pick the attribute most correct, then you might pick strength.

    If I’m playing the firefly RPG, skills and stats are not coupled. I could roll intimidate with social, mental, or physical depending on how I’m going about it. If I’m playing pathfinder then I roll with charisma unless I have the specific feat that lets me use strength as well. Why? Because a lot of complex decisions were made at character creation that depended on the player knowing how those rules worked. If you wanted to use a house rule, The player should have known back then. Changing the underlying framework of the game after its beginning screws with those complex decisions.

    So why is someone getting pissed off? Well, maybe that person invested in charisma in order to be good at that skill. If they had known they could use strength, perhaps they wouldn’t have made that suboptimal decision. The issue was never about the GM getting to dictate the rules. The issue is that the rules that player thought he was agreeing to didn’t work that way.

    A more agregious example: I describe an attack I’m making with a rapier. The GM then tells me to roll Dex + whatever. Hold the phone, I took strength and not Dex as my best stat. So instead of making an attack with a good chance to hit and decent damage I now have a garbage attack. Ugh. Don’t be this GM.

    No one is saying you can’t make decisions about things not explicitly laid out, but don’t up and change things that are. Everyone is depending on those constants to stay constant. As a side note, D&D 5th actually does lay out that the abilities that link to skills may change, so in that game the player should be okay with it. Of course we must keep in mind that what we agreed to and what we thought we agreed to can differ. It is hard to know everything in a several hundred page manual. Crossover from similar games or editions can trick you up, so what is kosher in 5th edition D&D makes the GM a giant asshole in Pathfinder.

    Always keep in mind that the GM may be the guy mixing up his editions or rules. Thus when he starts explaining why he is ‘right’, smile and nod. If he is wrong you can bring it up later (unless it is a matter of life and death, in which case maybe now is okay). The guy did put in the effort to run the game (which can be daunting), so he deserves some slack.

  7. Basically, it depends on what a character is doing. Not what it is trying to accomplish. Let’s take the “Intimidating with Strength” thing, because I love that one:
    What you are TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH is that the other character is cowed into doing what you want it to do, i.e. run away, give you his lunch money etc. You can not do this simply by “being strong.” You can have rippling muscles all over your body, but if you somehow fail to give off an aura of “I will fucking snap your neck if you don’t co-operate” it won’t help. Meanwhile, you can be a stereotypical halfling but know just how to position yourself to seem like a serial killer. That’s charisma. That’s why, for a normal “intimidate” roll, where all you’re trying to do is intimidate someoen, you roll charisma.

    But there are other, more inventive ways to get stuff done if you lack the right skills. You can take a lead pipe twice as thick as the char-to-be-cowed’s arm, and bend it as if it’s a bendy-straw. That’d scare me. In this scenario, you don’t have to be extremely charismatic. You don’t have to make sure they know you mean business. You just showed them that you mean business. And this would obviously be a strength check.

    Alternatively, you might be able to intimidate him with intelligence. If it is a particularly simple-minded person, maybe big words just scare him.

    Or you can intimidate him with a handle animal. If he has a big guard dog that’s growling at you, but you manage to get that beast to turn around and start growling at its boss, that’d scare the crap outta me.

    TLDR: There’s a lot of ways to get things done. What skill you should use depends on what you are doing, not on what you want to happen. After all, what will happen depends on the GM anyway.

      • I blame 3e. I don’t think it created the mindset that the rules are in the players toolkit but it certainly fostered it. I never played 4e but from what I’ve read of it, it took the concept and ran with it. One of the reasons 5e was so refreshing (and polarizing) was that it explicitly reversed that mentality.

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