Stop The Rules Talk

The past 48 hours have been a strong reminder of the wisdom I began to glimpse back in September when I wrote about not teaching the rules to players.

When I first suggested the radical idea that it might be better to run a roleplaying game with all the rules behind the GM’s Screen – i.e. out of sight of the players – I was met with a certain amount of incredulity.

What I have discovered since trying this methodology out is that it’s really pretty easy and, yes, it’s also leading to some much more enjoyable games. Well, at least that’s what the players in my Northern Isles game are telling me. But my experimentation has not been limited to the most radical forms of this idea.

Yesterday, while playing in the Third Imperium universe using the GURPS game system, I did two things that shifted our play style a few steps away from how I used to play – the old style being the regular kind of game where I expect the players to know all the rules, at least over time, and also let them build their own characters using the rules. You know, the usual approach where it’s rules first and description as an optional add-on.

The two shifts were:

  1. Asking players to describe their characters and “interviewing” them so that I could later go and put that described character into the system.
  2. Outlining only the most basic of rules of play and then keeping mechanical talk to the minimum.

Admittedly, two players did deviate from my character generation approach – people who REALLY wanted to build their own character using the rules – but all but one tagged along with the character interview approach. This deeply enriched my ability to both understand the majority of characters as well as include their goals and inferred/stated NPC associates in the game universe.

In play, the focus on description and in-character dialogue – instead of using game mechanical terminology – really paid off. This felt especially positive during combat, which licked along at a good pace and avoided bogging down in meta-game terminology.

It appears that some of the players also noticed this and the impact it had on the game experience. Take, for example, this example comment from a player in yesterday’s game:

You did a really good job of keeping the system in the background. You ran the combat really well, there was no over complication about meta terms which can come up etc. The story was engaging and I loved the fact you brought in people’s enemies and back stories etc.

For me, this was high praise and deeply appreciated specific feedback.

As a bonus, I found it much easier to interpret the described action from each of the players and translate it in my head into GURPS terms, rather than relying on the player to know the rules, use the GURPS terms, and then apply those terms. In other words, I found my theory of keeping things descriptive in the player realm was easier to manage as GM.

So, here I am back at a deepening appreciation for the simple wisdom I wrote about back in September. Instead of applying this to the kids at the school club, however, I now recognise the more general application at my gaming table.

Focus on asking them not only what they want to do, but how they are doing it. What we do and how we do it matters. For the player, the description is where the game is at.

Be gritty, gory, and detailed with the results. Focus on the interesting, messy outcomes. Show them, through description, what happens. Or, if they are up for it, ask them: I find that some players love to join in the with the describing. Their stuff is way better than my stuff.

Game on!

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