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A li’l FKR caveat

So the Free Kriegspiel Revolution (FKR) is a thing where you as player don’t roll dice, you just say what you do. Fun fun fun♥

But I wanna give a warning that this does not mash well with a DM or GM who is improvising.

I’ve been down that road and I played that way (on both sides of the screen) for many years and it was consistently unsatisfying and hard to keep a group together.

I got into it via the news group (yes I’m old) with games like Everway, Fudge and SLUG.

Even though I spent years on it, it was ultimately a frustrating affair; I felt like nothing really mattered. The GM just made up what would happen according to their whim of what would fit the drama or what would be cool in the moment or what they thought made sense. It wasn’t the story gamesy “improv based on characters or mechanics that promote emergence”, it was just a mushy improvy freeform.

Now, if you have a solid foundation of prep, then dicelessly roleplaying through a conversation or searching for traps or treasure or solving a mystery works fantastically well.

Conversations were the fun part back in the freeform impro days too, but, they’re a heck of a lot more fun now that the NPCs actually are designed with opinions and secrets and not just meant as weird infodumps & mood setters. Exploration was utterly meaningless except as a way to see supposedly cool stuff from the DM’s imagination, and forget traps or mysteries when every whodunnit had a quantum perp.

Fights were the worst of all. The combat examples in Everway or this horrible “Train Combat” example are an exercise in frustration.

Me and my friends spent what for me was my teens and early twenties perfecting “mood immersion” a.k.a. “sensory immersion”—never any books or character sheets at the table, always playing in candlelight, always being in character, starting every session with “see you on the other side”…

Until one moment in an old school dungeon changed all that. Suddenly, I got a strong sensation that what I did or said mattered — not just in a “what cool stuff I can say at the table that impresses my GM”, but as in—if I mess up around this trap, my character will die! While if we are smart, we can use this trap against our foes!

This was another kind of immersion, one I’ve taken to calling “buy-in immersion”.

Now, I discarded all my aims of mood immersion (I didn’t want to attempt to walk and chew gum at the same time) and staked everything on “buy-in immersion”. Not only did I go relatively rules heavy, for combat at least, even if we didn’t do rolls for “Persuade” or “Search”… I, especially at first, went to great lengths of radical transparency, showing parts of the module that the players and their characters had already visited, like “see, the text here says two wolves, that’s why there were two wolves there”.

Because what I had realized was that to really get invested in the outcome of the game, we need to have trust that the outcomes are real and not fudged.

I kinda threw out the baby with the bathwater and I wish I could figure out a way to have both kinds of immersion. I definitely care waaaay more about “buy-in immersion”—the feeling of knowing that it’s not anyone at the table “deciding” if this character lives or dies. It’s the system, it’s the “gloracle”. But sometimes I can get sick of all the numbers and feats and abilities being tossed around and get a li’l bit nostalgic for the time when we could just play uninterrupted and focused, in the dark.

So yeah, I could go for a simpler game — blorb’s relationship to the rules-light vs rules-heavy question is interesting, because on the one hand, having a solid, blorby prep makes rules and builds actually mean something. The difficulty of that lock isn’t gonna adapt itself to the group’s needs and there is no fail forward—you just might never get in there. On the other hand, blorb makes it possible to solve a lot of situations just via role playing. There’s no point in rolling for search when the player is actually looking in the right place.

Kriegspiel writes:

Have you read Brideshead Revisited? The Wizard of Earthsea? Foundation and Empire? Any captivating novel or work of nonfiction, regardless of timeframe, setting, or genre? Well now you can run a full FKR game based on that book. You don’t need an RPG sourcebook because all books are now sourcebooks.

That’s actually exactly what I’d do sometimes. I’d read a book, or preferably mash two books up together, and improvise from my vague memory of those books. What I’ve since learned is that a sourcebook isn’t the whole of the whole.

Instead, a keyed map and event table is the sort of structure in which the players can really play, make their mark on the world, goof around, do things, find things. It’s not all just off the top of the dome, they’re interacting with something that is solidly there.

Kriegspiel (or I guess Jim Parkin) goes on to write:

The point is that for FKR, the rules are not the crux of the game. You can have a rich, trusting game experience with little more than “you’ve got three hits and can roll 1d6 when things go south,” as the entire game system.

“Trusting” is a key word there. When I started playing with rules and with radical transparency, the trust factor jumped up like 100×.

A “trust fall” exercise builds trust because you can feel for yourself that you will get caught. Similarly, verifiable hidden mechanics builds trust if you trust them and then you can check that the referee played it honestly.

Whereas just hidden, unverifiable play depends on trust, uses trust, spends trust. It doesn’t really create new trust, or it shouldn’t.

For example, I played in a HUD-less Call of Cthulhu campaign in the early 00s. It wasn’t a rules-lite game, the DM had our sheets and made all rolls behind the screen, but, the game didn’t built up trust, so after a while it felt like the DM was just pulling stuff out of his own hat. We as players stopped take stakes seriously.

It’s so interesting coming at this from the complete 180° direction from a lot of trad gamers from, for example, the Pathfinder generation, who are finding the rules-lightness of OSR refreshing, whereas I lived in the land of rules light, most often completely freeform, and I’m discovering the joy of there actually being a “there” there.

I’ve been reading through the backlog of Traveller Out of the Box and sometimes I take notes because he has fantastic techniques♥ that work great with blorb, while at other times I’m just shaking my head at the unblorbiness of things like the “just decide some dice mods on the fly” suggestion. I’ve been there and I don’t want to go back.

The conversation between player and DM, that “interface”, I’d love to cut down on what I call “symbolic mechanics” there. Symbolic mechanics: things like stats, numbers, dice, as opposed to diegetic mechanics: things like “the key is in the bottom drawer”, “you need to eat food every day”, “the tunnel here is only two foot high”. (Or as Lumps like to call these two categories, “Cloud” and “Dice”.)

I don’t want to cut down on “mechanics”, especially diegetic mechanics, on the DM’s side.

Let me paint a hitherto unattained ideal:

That’s, for me, the dream.

Now, since that dream is unattained, there are compromises to be made.

Either the mood can be sacrificed and some dice and stats and “let me look up that rule”, or “let me find the right map” can be endured, for the sake of buy-in.

Or, buy-in can be sacrificed and the player can trust completely in the DM, for the sake of mood and speed of play.

The only way forward for game design is ABT—”always be testing”—so I’m happy to hear that all kinds of groups are trying out all kinds of play, blorby or unblorby, moody or unmoody, so we can learn down the line what extreme, or a mix, was the best.

Not everyone prioritizes the same thing and some people might easily and gladly give up one for even just a chance at the other, or vice versa.

Perhaps, with this ideal drawn as polar star on the night sky new ludemes can be invented so we can reach the goal without compromise—perhaps cards placed in piles that could later be checked, perhaps the aid of recording tech (whether electronic or paper based), perhaps a logged VTT or dice rolling app that the players later can go through.

Especially for life-and-death situations (not that every game needs combat) rules serve an important purpose. The DM can’t be like “OK you die”. The rules are there to protect the player from that happening, and to protect the DM from getting the blame if the character does die.

This note from Less Rules to Do More: Wounds suggests that GMs throw that out the window:

recently I have decided to opt for the less is more approach – almost all of the wounds in Primeval 2D6 games have been ruled on the fly within the context that they have occurred.

Personally, I am happy to finally be free from that type of play.

Y’all know from the injury table in Oh Injury, which yeah, is part of my super heavy rule set, so not super on-topic for FKR, but you know that I love some slack to adjudicate “what happens at the table”.

A few years ago, I changed a table that said

into one that said

The severity of the injury is set by a mechanic, but if it’s obvious from context (such as “I try to parry the attack with my sword arm!”) we don’t have to go “Aaaand you suddenly lose your… leg?” but can instead go with what’s being established in the free description.

And if it’s not, if there was murk, well, then now the dice have spoken. Instead of the DM and her whim.

Some more

A lot of peeps are taking the same old 90s “rules light” stuff a la SLUG, The Window, Risus etc and calling it FKR and I’m not onboard.

One of the rule sets these FKR dorks propose is “we both roll a die, and who rolls high gets their way”.

Lumpley already back in 2008 did a better job than me explaining why this is weak sauce. I sure as heckfire feel that way!

I use rules in order to get outcomes that makes me hate the game and makes me want to throw the game out the window and 🐋 and 😭 like a sea-creature!

I don’t wanna gatekeep against them and their game and I do hope they discover some awesome new game tech♥

They’re heading down a road I wore out my feet on but maybe with some changed parameters, some different ingredients in the mix, they might strike gold.

Lumpley replied

I still do feel that way. Sure as heckfire for me too!

This afternoon, having thought about it for under a whole minute, I’d say that the entirety of the field of game design lives in the tension between consent, communication, & safety on one hand and the unwanted & unwelcome on the other.

Maro said something once that a normal designer makes a lamp, they make it easy to figure out, to turn on and off the light etc. A game designer makes a lamp, their job is different. Their job to make it challenging.♥ I think that’s sort of the same vibe as Lumpley’s two field poles there.

Like, an unsolvable puzzle is no fun, an overly easy puzzle is no fun. Same goes for many other vectors in game design, unlike normal design♥

Even later

Or instead of the 4dF thing I should make a system with cards. Each character (heroes and monsters) has their own pile of attacks made against them so people can later (optionally) verify that yes, a defeating blow was made, then and no sooner.

Cards have two dimensions (for example the normal 4×13 of a standard deck) so one axis can be “the attacker needs to have a value at least such-and-such for the card to ‘count’”, and the other for a defender. (Like, a fighter maybe attacks on diamonds, spades and hearts, on a skeleton that blocks five or lower.) And, similar to the other idea, number of cards in the pile, or number of cards with a particular quality, would influence one of those two dimensions. If so, the pile needs to stay in order, for verification purps.

After thinking about this for a few more seconds, I realize that I want defending to be suit-based (since I want a coarser granularity there) and attacking to be rank-based, since I want more nuance there.

Let’s say a shield adds another suit to the blocklist, for example. Let’s say we have a one to ten deck (I have another idea in mind for the face cards).

An unblocked attack that reaches a particular rank, a rank that for PCs start higher than what’s in the deck probably, but lower for horde enemies like skellies, means instant defeat.

An unblocked attack lower than the insta-defeat, but higher than the monster’s attack threshold, means an Advantage. Very strong monsters can also start with a couple of Advantages (“flying”, “firebreathing” etc).

Each advantage on you turns a particular rank into the same rank but 10 higher! So two advantages means that 1 → 11 and 2 → 12. Threes are still threes.

So if PCs have, say, 13 as their “instant defeat” level, a dragon with three advantages could still insta-toast them while more weenie style monsters would need to successfully attack a couple of times to build up advantages in order to be able to defeat them.

So weak skellies, goblins etc with a high attack threshold rarely build up any advantages and are less likely to defeat a PC than a dangerous dragon is—but they can still do it, since every successful attack they do land gives them more advantages and more likely to land attacks in the future! The more advantages, the more likely to land even more advantages, along with a higher chance ofhitting that “insta defeat” thresh!

So this gives me two “knobs” to tweak for monster attack strength—starting advantages and attack threshold—even without having to do pure symbolic layer futzing around like “count odd heart cards as if they were diamonds” and garbage like that.

Getting stoked about this system! Too bad a card driven-system is probably 100% useless in this video era!

And then even more later

I actually do like it when the players interacting with, and get invested in, player facing complex systems and mechanics. IDK.

But maybe I could get that kick anyway without the player facing symbolic layer. For example, I love the inventory sheet but I could put the limitations on the DM side and then tell them “OK, if you put that in your backpack you feel it getting too heavy” or whatever. They’d still get to do the resource management just wrapped in more diegetical terms.

On the other hand, it’s… mechanics give them an overview of their options in the particular subsystem (in this example inventory management) that translate to an overview or expertise their character would have in real life.

But back to the first hand, they could learn that sense of what’s too heavy, what’s not anyway through trial and error?

On the third hand I’d have to do a lot more work on my side of the screen which would detract from being present in the moment, listening to them etc. As it is I can say “OK, that’s a medium item” and then move on to Bob while Alice updates her backpack sheet. Offloading my work so that I can put even more energy into making what is my job as awesome as possible.

And then better later than never

I got an email clueing me in that peeps were discussing this post on a forum. Billy on that site writes:

I’d say the mystery-cult DM happens when either

  1. you don’t know what your own principles are, so you can’t state them; or
  2. you do have principles, but you aren’t willing to admit what they are, because they aren’t what you’d like your players to think they are.

Yes, that’s gold. So many messed up games were when I was GMing and I was in the first of those two modes, or someone else was GMing and they were in… I don’t know which of the two modes they were in, I can only guess I’ve been in plenty games of the first mode and plenty of games in the second mode.

And Silmenume takes another snipe at me by writing:

Like Sandra’s take on Trust - By her reasoning it would be impossible for a veteran military unit to have any cohesion because they’ve literally entrusted each other with very their lives numerous times in past combat/lethal situations

He obviously didn’t read this text because that’s an example of something that builds trust since it’s verifiable.

They trust each other with their lives, and then later, if they have survived, they now trust each other more. Which is just what I wrote.

The other example I like to use is from one of my favorite novels, Kallocain, where a group takes turns sleeping next to each other and the waking person has a knife. It’s a trust-building exercise for them. They wake up, they can verify that they’re alive, and they now trust each other more. Verifiable trust builds trust. Taking risks and being rewarded for taking that risk builds trust in that particular risk. Is this rational? Not necessarily (someone can be trustworthy five times and then stab you the sixth). But it’s just how people, and trust, works.

Whereas unverifiable trust uses, relies on trust that needs to have been built up elsewhere. To what extent it consumes, and spends the trust that it uses is a matter of personality. Not everyone is as paranoid as me (yet). Maybe I’ll trust you for one roll behind that screen but the more time passes and the more rolls you make back there the less I’m gonna trust you, the more suspicious I’m gonna get.

Later (and to some extent, alligator)

I wanna comment some more on the spends/consumes trust thing. I think it could be a personality type thing. Let’s say a player (in any game, does not have to be a RPG) rolls, then immediately snatches up the dice before anyone can see and exclaims “yes! Another crit!”. If this is is a player doing it one time who has built up a lot of trust it might be OK. If this keeps happening, then not so much. So that’s how I work. Ask me for unverifiable trust over and over again and eventually I’ll stop really trusting you and start thinking “Yeah, sure, buddy. Uh-huh.”

Other people of less paranoid nature might be more liable to become, uh, a less charitable word for it is “numb”. They have so much cost sunk into trusting in the relationship already that they just become more and more determined to trust the players. This is how we get to hear such illogical nonsense as “I know for 100% sure my friends don’t cheat and the only way I know this is because I wouldn’t want to play with cheaters, why would anyone ever play with cheaters lol? Similarly I only eat healthy food and only smoke healthy cigarettes and take healthy heroin because I obviously wouldn’t want to do unhealthy stuff, QED, lol” or the less illogical way to phrase it “I need to trust the people I play with, I have decided to trust them, I might as well trust them fully”.

Neither of these three behaviors is that inherently rational.

Past behavior of trust, either verifiable or non-verifiable, doesn’t really guarantee future behavior. We all just have different instincts around this stuff and I personally will trust Clark Kent less and less the more time he is never seen together with his supposed friend Superman. One time is a fluke, repeatedly is weird.