I regularly see commentary online that treats Angry GM’s columns as a guilty pleasure.
The usual take goes something like this: “I like his ideas, but I don’t like how he presents them.” How he presents them, of course, is through a bluntly unapologetic voice. I suspect that most readers realize this is a persona — one he’s established right in his name. Angry is the Lewis Black of gaming columnists. Despite what they say, I also suspect many of his readers know, deep down, that the Angry shtick is part of the draw. Too many writers out there are too diplomatic. Bluntness has some appeal.
Read between the lines and it’s pretty clear that Angry cares a lot about his players and their experience, so he’s not a jerk, even if his online persona cheerfully waves that flag. It’s also clear that he really knows how to run a game. He’s a font of good advice — some of the best advice on the Web.
I highly recommend a recent Angry column for GMs because it hits on some principles that could make nearly any GM better. Titled “You Don’t Need a System,” his article argues that any rule system you create (or use) to manage what happens “off-screen” in your campaign setting is a waste of energy. His thesis boils down mostly to this: You’re not a computer and your players aren’t playing a computer game, so use your imagination to work out those off-screen details.
He’s right, of course. It’s an easy trap to fall into. When I was a young and inexperienced GM, decades ago, I once came up with a system for figuring out what happened in a large battle scene, on those parts of the battlefield that the PCs weren’t directly affecting. The unintended side effect of that system was that the players ended up waiting, bored and glassy-eyed, as I rolled dice, consulted tables, and declared what hordes of NPCs were doing. Not one of my finer moments.
As Angry points out, you want as few rules and mechanics as possible. He identifies two reasons for rules, and they’re worth keeping in mind:
- To provide consistency so players can make choices without fearing arbitrary results.
- To create uncertainty, so that players experience dramatic tension.
Those two guideposts are well worth keeping in mind. After all, they apply to more than just the kinds of off-screen systems that Angry was talking about. For instance, many scenes don’t call for dramatic tension. Imagine that the party’s bard says she wants to entertain a crowd in a tavern. In this case, her character is just doing her thing; she isn’t trying to convince the crowd to storm a keep, win a contest, or impress a possible party benefactor. There’s no dramatic tension to milk. So why do so many GMs have her roll dice? Or worse, consult a fumble table on a roll of 1 (that is, 1 out of every 20 times)? That’s how you convince your party not to do anything it doesn’t absolutely have to do. She’s a bard. They’re used to mere minstrels. So she amazes the crowd. Case closed. No dice need apply.
The same principles underscore other advice that Angry has given elsewhere. For instance, in an article on encounter design, he argues (correctly) that most encounters go on too long — that the GM needs to end them as soon as (or shortly after) the dramatic question at the heart of the encounter is answered. Put another way, once the encounter has no dramatic tension, continuing to roll dice until every goblin is dead can make your adventure go from “action-packed” to “dreary slog” very quickly.
Similarly, many skill checks outside of combat are unnecessary. Let’s say a clue is hidden in a room that the PCs pass through, and you already know the PCs will need the clue to succeed at the adventure. If you have a player roll, you risk having the party fail — and if it fails, your adventure stalls, killing dramatic tension. Moreover, the party didn’t know the clue was there, so it didn’t experience any dramatic tension while you rolled to see whether they found it. Instead of rolling, pick the most observant character, or the character with the most relevant expertise, and simply tell that character’s player what he or she discovered. The adventure will continue, game play will speed up, and the players won’t miss out on any dramatic tension.
In short, if you’re planning a night of adventure, you can improve your game considerably by looking through your beats, choices, or encounters of the night. Identify any moments when rolling dice or consulting tables might create Slog rather than Consistency and Dramatic Tension. Decide for each case whether you can leave out the dice, or whether you have missed an opportunity to create dramatic tension. Adjust accordingly. †
♦ Graham Robert Scott writes regularly for Ludus Ludorum when not teaching or writing scholarly stuff. Graham has also written a Dungeon Magazine city adventure titled “Thirds of Purloined Vellum” and a fantasy novella titled Godfathom. Like the Ludus on Facebook to get a heads-up when we publish new content.