Sunday, December 2, 2018

Oh DM Tools, Where Art Thou?

Every now and then I encounter some problem with a system and I start to wonder: when is a system complete? Because it sure ain't as soon as it's playable. At least not in my experience. So I thought, as those things often go, I write a post about why we need DM Tools and see what I end up with.

Playable versus Fully Realized

This is, if you want, my "all-in" at the beginning of the argument: I say that something like a "fully realized rpg" does indeed exist. What could I possibly mean by that, you might ask, and I would answer that I mean a game that has all the tools it needs to support play for an entire campaign. In other words you could buy that book without having a clue what a rpg is to begin with and it would give you the full picture.

Those games are not unheard of (if rare) and you could call me out on beating a dead horse (again), but one of those games would be the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. I might have talked about how great this game is before :) Anyway, if you haven't read my opinion on it (and want to) you could follow this link and come back afterwards.

Fully Realized in this context doesn't mean that there is no work to be done with the game or that it is by any means complete, it means that enough of the tools a game might need are present to gather an informed opinion about it, which is possible today because the hobby is now over 4 decades old and necessary to form the game to your liking. People wrote books about that, rpg-design had time to experiment and gather information about what's needed, what works and what doesn't and why. It's all there.

However, people tend to take the short cut and put games out there that work, but aren't complete. My litmus test for this when looking at games is the amount of DM Tools they offer. If they don't, it's not a complete game. Full stop.

Close, but no cigar ... [source]

Yeah, of course. I've been on record for saying that I was disappointed with Sword & Sorcery White Box leaving the Encounter Reactions and Morale out of the rules. The ignorance regarding the importance (and brilliance) of those rules is astonishing, if not telling. They are (imo) the single, most important rules in any game of D&D (followed by the Random Encounter Tables), because they show that there are creatures not always willing to fight to the death or even that they would not fight to begin with but have reason to parley instead.

Even if you disregard the impact those two little rules have on the game itself (completely changing combat dynamics and even exploration tactics, for instance), it should be obvious that not every DM is aware of those dimensions of the game, especially those new to DMing. (I blame video games to some extent for that, but that's material for another post ...)

I'll give you a second example, just because we happen to play with it  right now: Castle Falkenstein. You might not know it, you might have heard of it. I always held CF in high regard for all the lovely details it offers for a steampunk setting, but I never got to explore the rules in full until just recently.

I love everything about the core mechanics. They are light and fast and fit the atmosphere and style of the game (using cards in a steampunk setting is a no-brainer, imo). The rules for magic are some of the best out there and the dueling rules are great fun. What the rules lack, however, is support rules for the DM and that is really bumming me out right now. It honestly takes the fun out of DMing, because it gives a DM nothing to play with.

To Challenge and Inspire

The system offers no challenge for the DM, that's a big part of it, but it also gives no indication how the setting and the world function beyond the literary examples it summons to illustrate the kind of stories it wants to tell. That's just bad design, because it assumes that literary examples translate 1:1 into a gaming experience.

Okay, Castle Falkenstein is a couple of years old and was exploring new ground back then and all that. Agreed. But shouldn't we know better by now? I've been reading this more and more lately: the DMs are players as well, they are just playing a different game. My argument in this is, that the rules for that (part of the) game need to be part of the rules and those rules are just as important as those for the players. Leaving them out of a game reduces a DM to playing referee of an advanced game of cops and robbers.

DM tools inform and form a game. They expand a DMs narrative range by challenging the necessarily narrow perception or scope a DM could muster of the stage the game is manifesting on. It helps a DM explore the gaming world by experiencing it with a designer's eyes through the mechanics the game offers. That's crucial for new DMs and for those willing to actually play a fully realized game instead of just bringing their own notion of how every game has to be played.

I know, I know, most "experienced" DMs out there are able to play/DM any game out there because of the games they already have played. They bring their own tools, so to say, and wing it. Considering the above, they are not wrong in doing so, because lots of games lack that kind of support and need you to bring something extra. However, they are missing out when ignoring those games that offer DM tools specifically designed for the game they are in.

You cannot ... [source]
 The lack of DM tools in Castle Falkenstein brought that point home for me fully, because I also have my own tools for the games I DM and I can "wing it" if I want to. However, for CF it would have meant to take out the dice to compensate for that lack and it just wouldn't fit with a game featuring cards as the core rules.

I'm basically forced to either come up with my own rules to use at the table or arbitrarily deciding what I think the game needs in any given moment. If I wanted to do the latter, I'd be better off writing a novel, as the amount of preparation needed to do it properly does not justify the time we play the game (although it's an interesting exercise, no doubt, but I just don't have the time). So I have to write my own rules for it. Which sucks as well, for some of the same reasons (time, research, etc.) and one more:

Designing DM Tools is hard, though ...

The main crux of the problem is that writing those rules is hard to begin with, doing so for a specific game is where the real challenge lies. You need to know the scope and impact on the core rules in all phases of the game, and the transition needs to work from one system to the other. The results need to match or at least conversion needs to be simple and fast (ideally). Easy example for this? Mass combat.

It's an art to write a set of rules for a completely different play-style in a way that seamlessly translates to the player-side of the core rules. The thousands and thousands of soldiers of an army just can't all have stats and levels and items as the players do. Maybe some of them do (important NPCs and whatnot), but never to the level of detail or depth the players do.

This is a well known problem, of course. Let a group of high level adventurers (players) meet another group of high level adventurers (NPC) and you will see some of the problems. Or a high level wizard. What spells does he have memorized? Did he use any of them already? The easy way out is to just create the NPC somewhat like the player character and use the player-side core rules to play him. But is that satisfying? Are there any better solutions to that? And what about mass combat? Or colossal creatures?

Do that without reducing it to a narrative ... [source]
It's hard to write those rules. I know, because that's what I'm facing right now for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (and for Castle Falkenstein, as if I had needed that kind of additional workload). Way harder than writing a core resolution system for the player side. Still necessary, though, and games that don't offer those rules shouldn't be considered "complete", imo. 

Final thoughts

Fully realized games offer DM tools that either address those problems for the DM or offer examples how to DIY problems when they arise in a campaign. I know it can be done. I argue it should be done. I close in saying that there should be a discussion about games that don't offer DM tools and the impact it has on a game or the implications it has for the DM. For one, it is actually unfair to leave DMs out there unsupported ... It'd be a start to at least educate new DMs in a way that they know what is needed and what to look for.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. And one for the brain pool: are there supplements out there offering just tools for the DM? Not advice (those are plenty), but an actual "game within the game" for DMs to drop into games that lack that kind of thing? Just wondering :)


  1. Just a couple of observations after the fact: modules and adventures are a good way to introduce even more specific rules to games. I think seeing it this way on the one hand shows how much role playing games actually rely on DM Tools to work, and on the other that the level of resolution (or detail) can vary a huge deal beyond what a game should offer (not that there are any norms about it).

    I'd also like to explore that idea a little bit more that the DM has to do all the heavy lifting if the game doesn't provide it and what that means. In CF it means that I have to be fluent in the setting and the Weird Wild West in general or at least well enough informed to make ad hoc decisions about anything random the players can come up with. That's why the level of preparation doesn't match the potential output: you have to know a lot to be able to use little parts of it at any given time (works for writing fiction, though, since you don't have the players as random agents in the narrative, which means, nothing has to go to waste). Anyway, just a little bit more food for thought ...

  2. For my bit , this makes me want to pull apart my explorers game then rebuild it starting with the GM' side (Because that's where the meat of the game is anyway) Working "backwards" to the player experience. Mostly as a thought experiment.

    1. Building it from the DM side first ... that's a brilliant idea, Mark. Thanks for commenting! That should have been in the post :P

  3. Bonus round: That is, incidentally, why the development of a new roleplaying game will take years instead of months. It just takes a lot of testing and tinkering to get it done right. Coming up with new ways to make it work isn't easy, either.

  4. This is one of the reasons I like John Stater's zine Nod; for his hexcrawl he produces exstensive worked examples using the random encounter tables from (originally AD&D) Swords & Wizardry and later his game Blood & Treasure. It is an excellent deminstrationof DM tools at work

    1. Thanks for commenting! Yes, there's definitely some great stuff out there and Stater is out there with it. Crawford comes to mind as well (Stars Without Numbers and all that). Good call.

    2. John is one of the more underappreciated creatives of the scene. He's been churning out gaming materials very consistently (albeit he slowed down a little recently).

  5. Food for thought as always, Jens.

    Are there games that you think do have the right tools? You mention the Reaction Table and Morale rules from Basic/RC being missing in S&S, and you say that there are things missing in Castle Falkenstein... what is it that you think is missing? What are the tools that you think are needed? If they don't exist and you (and other DMs) need to write them, what are the tasks you need to accomplish (or at least make easier) with these tools?

    1. Good question, Red. It is somewhat hard to pin down, actually, since it might differ greatly from system to system. I'll try: take a very basic system, say enough information to have bare bones characters and all the rules necessarily to resolve actions those chararcters attempt. Nothing more. Now imagine using that system with a setting or genre you don't know anything about. The only way to make it work im that situation, would be to accumulate enough knowledge about setting and genre to be ableb to fulfill all expectations the game could manifest in that regard. Only if a DM is able to reach that point in his research, he could extrapolate tools to make the systems interactions with setting and genre. You either know or you have tools producing output equivalent to said knowledge. Does that help answering your question?

    2. Sort of! I was hoping for some concrete examples either from systems where it does work or where you've identified specific things missing. But, perhaps everything is system-dependent. Or system-setting-interplay dependent.

      As you know, I'm a fan of your narrative generator; also, a fan of the fact that you, as it were, had a look under the bonnet and decided 'what we need is...'. The way you link character backgrounds in LSotN is really interesting too. I can't remember now whose blog I saw this on, but someone was suggesting using something like the Reaction Table for rumours to simulate a changing world - I asked my PCs for some bit of background information and I'm using the table to track their relationship to that information. All of these systems can be built, often using tools that already exist ('what can the rolls for stats mean?' for example) or extrapolating from one system to another ('can Reactions be repurposed for other interactions?')

      But these are Rumsfeldian 'known unknows' I guess. I'm always interested in new and exciting mechanics to generate the kind of stuff that I think is 'missing' from B/X, and I wondered if you had come across any interesting systems in your travels that I could repurpose...

    3. That's a tall order :) I think D&D pre-3e is a good way to start, especially the DMGs of AD&D 1e/2e and HackMaster 4e, but also the D&D RC (naturally). In a way they are experimenting with what a DM would need to run a proper campaign and you could argue that it is a discussion still going on (one of the reasons, imho, that the "OSR" was so popular in the beginning, all those years ago). There's tons of blogs out there around the 2010s that explored a little further that way (mostly searching for tools to help DMs create proper content on the fly, which is partly what I'm talking about). Results of those experiments are games like Hulks & Horrors, Arcane Rising, Renegade (and Renegade - Corruption), Machinations of the Space Princess, Adventurer Conqueror King and Stars Without Number, to name but a few. I think Runequest did a rather decent job integrating culture into rules, indirectly helping the DM that way (2nd or 3rd edition, not sure which one they translated). Pendragon is another prime example for offering the DM some proper tools to facilitate a game ... I hope that helps a bit? I'm sure there is more (maybe even better?) examples for games like that. Torchbearer might lean heavily in that direction, but I haven't read it. I think a good way to find out if a game is wired that way is looking at its DM-section. If there's nothing, it's probably a bad sign.

    4. Yes, of course. I have ACKS, and I think the 'domain' stuff in particular is very well-written. And I've loved Pendragon (only from afar, never played it) since about 1990.

      And indeed there's some amazing things on blogs (several of them built by you)... Welsh Piper's tools for building hexcrawls have been inspiring me recently, but I'm trying to slim them down to be faster and tighter. And I'm still looking for a way to build page B51 of Moldvay into a generator that will produce both quests and settings...


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