How do you play RPGs? Putting tribal knowledge in one place

As I do near final-edits of my game (you can check it out here) I find myself removing a ton of references that were not actual rules, but best practices for roleplaying games in general. It occurs to me that there isn’t really an ur-text (that I’m aware of) on how to play ttrpgs. Because so much of the how is essentially bespoke tradition within every playgroup, it seems like every rulebook needs to either reinvent the wheel or just assume the reader knows how wheels work.

So it follows, do people think it would be valuable to have a micro-book on how to play rpgs?

I won’t presume to be the authority, but I think it’s possible to provide a mostly unbiased primer of how to play RPGs along with common tools to use for players and GMs alike. my vision is as follows

  • Price is cheap to free, like $1 at most to ensure high proliferation
  • Length is short with a summation that’s 1-2 pages long for quick reference
  • Presentation is very clear that the content is advice/philosophy and not one-true-way rules

Does this sound useful? Does it sound like blasphemy?

In the interest of collating the wide world of how we play RPGs, feel free to provide your own advice (try to limit to one sentence or aphorism) . Since the idea is to collect knowledge, please refrain from calling out any concept unless it would create an unsafe experience for players. If a piece of knowledge offends you, provide a counterexample.

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It is a good and valid question, but I think that there isn’t going to be “one true way”, but rather different kinds of traditions, right? Some games are more like strategy games, some are more like storytelling games and some are almost boardgames. Some involve dice, some don’t, some are rules as written, some are most decidedly not. I think there would be different categories and techniques, since some use storytelling approaches to strategy games, while others try to strategically play story games.

It’d be a big undertaking I think.

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I agree with @The_Bearded_Belgian that there can be no single, authoritative book on play (unless it’s massive and unhelpful to new players). At the same time I see the problem you’re having, @Radmad. What I think would work for “Hesitation…” (but that would require some work for, potentially, little return) is a dedicated book on how it should be played. All of the stuff you’re cutting from the handbook, put in a free pamphlet that works as an optional guide for the uninitiated and as a marketing vehicle for your game. Groups with established traditions will play their way, newcomers will have some help to boot.

But again, it’s easy for me to say “release stuff for free, it’s great marketing” without me being the one doing the job and without any numbers to back this statement up. :wink: So take it for what it is, an uninformed opinion of an internet rando.

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I would buy a kit for a game I want to GM. If it contains characters, ready made pieces of descriptive prose or random tables, and examples of situations with multiple choices for treatment / arbitration by the GM with their (astute) analysis.
It would have to be grounded in a setting (or 3) and most of all, in a game system.
Else, I’d just reread Push volume 1. :wink:

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I think there’s a lot to be said about it - but I also think there’s a lot of equally correct answers. How one plays X kind of RPG vs. Y kind can be contradictory and more confusing then helpful. General advice - e.g. something like “play with people you like - it’s a social activity” - isn’t bad but by its nature it’s extremely general.

I think a “How I play X RPG” is an interesting project, and one that might find an audience as a blog post or theory essay.

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I really like this idea! I think a lot of players could benefit from this kind of on-ramp.

I could imagine this being a short series of zines/pamphlets on different playstyles, like the tiny nature guides you can get at state parks. They could be crowdsourced from the Gauntlet, or guestwritten by accomplished players. One pamphlet that gives condensed advice for being a good player in PbtA, another for OSR, another for Forge-era storygames, another for freeform, etc. Then maybe an intro pamphlet on best practices for hosting, listening, being courteous, and exercising safety at any table?

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I don’t think you can do this “generically” because best practices for one game may be terrible practices for another.

This is why each game should/does have its own section on this topic.

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Thank you for all the responses, I concur with what many people have posted. My shower epiphany is reaching for the stars. A complete “how to play RPGs” is probably not possible given the gamut of play styles that exist, but I can at least speak authoritatively on my own style. I’m really liking the idea of making a free pamphlet for general onboarding but that I can also reference in any game I make saying “if this your first RPG, check out this primer”

This would also be a great way to collate safety tools.

I will definitely keep everyone on the Gauntlet in the loop for how that goes, very interested to see how people respond to it. I’ll leave the door open in the this thread for further discussion though. Please continue the discussion on possible “how to play RPG” sources, best practices you may have, and your own project planning.

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Yeah, I was actually thinking about the Consent in Gaming by Monte Cook Games as sort of a blueprint for any free pamphlet. I like the idea of writing about your own style and yes, this should include safety tools you employ while playing.

We could, perhaps, imagine a text which includes topics or groups of techniques (e.g. “Safety and Consent”, “Collaborative Improvisation”, “Impartial Refereeing”, “Competitive Character Building”) and a guide on each section which tells you what games these techniques might be suited for, and where you might use them and where you might not.

I don’t believe such a document could ever be exhaustive, though; every new game and genre that gets created often calls for completely different techniques or advice.

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I also had to think about the Book of Hanz for Fate, which helped me tremendous with understanding the Fate system better. Some of the tips are generally for roleplaying, handling scenes and encounters, etc. Others are more system specific. All tend towards epic, action forward, story/character based gameplay.

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Dunno if this is off topic, but I think this is a problem with most roleplaying games in general - the lack of structure of play. A boardgame have normally a pretty clear structure, starting by introducing a win condition and then describing the round(s). By introducing a win condition, the reader then understands why they should go through with the round. Anyways …

Why this never was a thing for roleplaying games - a clear procedure for how to play - can differ, but it’s probably because most of the early roleplaying games had a “do whatever you want, it’s your game” mentality over it. Other roleplaying games followed this mentality, and never created a clear structure of play, and even more game writers just copied the structure (character creation, world, rules) from the previous roleplaying games. We could see this with early Forge games; there were a “new” way of playing roleplaying games, but none understood how to play these games, because the writers followed the previous established writing pattern of not having a clear structure of play. The only thing the previous games had were a “What is roleplaying games” and a lacking “game master chapter”.


My point is I think it’s a mistake of removing how to play this game. These “tips” should be incorporated in a structure of play, that the game master (or rule facilitator) should follow. In order to succeed with this, we need to be better at describing the win condition. What should the characters strive for? When is an adventure over? To be able to do this, we can’t create games where it’s up to the group itself to do whatever they want with the game. You should tell them. If it’s not they forte, then it’s not a game for them.

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While I agree that all that can be incorporated in the rules should be, like butter in a kouign amann, I also suppose Radmad has come to the conclusion that these bits don’t belong to the rules for some reason. I guess that’s a question for them : why don’t you think these advice fit in the rules ? Do they
1- … crowd the layout ?
2-… crawl out from behind your neat mechanics and swallow them in text ?
3-… or what ?
But I note that this is only indirectly answering OP.

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Absolutely, let’s get concrete.

For example, take the following rules text, During editing I removed the bold text.

Each art is described in brief below. These descriptions are not exhaustive but should give sufficient description to comprehend their uses. If a situation calls for actions that do not fully fall within one art, either call on the most applicable art or the most appropriate personal bonds. Each art will also list potential Specializations. These lists are not exhaustive, feel free to come up with your own!

The reasoning being that I want to encourage the players to collaborate and add onto the foundation the rules are providing. But when I include notes like that in every rules blurb (along with things like “but of course change modify or change X if you see fit”) it undermines the authority of the text. I want players to engage with the rules and feel comfortable tinkering with them, but I also need the rules to stand as a skeleton that the players can craft their own muscle around. I think the rules are stronger now because

A: the text is no longer clogged up with exceptions like but don’t forget… or feel free to change if…

and

B: That overall sentiment has been summarized in a “how to run a game HatG” chapter

So now that kind of how to play philosophy is more GM focused, but I’m leaning on the idea that the GM for the game is the one who will read the rules front to back and then be teaching other people to play verbally. Considering this is how most games are taught, I’m trying to make this one teachable clearly and quickly.(based on playtests with strangers I’m optimistic that I’ve succeeded)

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I think this particular example is more an issue about editing, rather than removing GM advice. You’re just like when when I published my first game - it’s too much text that gives nothing to the reader. The text is babbling.

“Show, don’t tell”, meaning - in this case - “Say how something is used, not that something exists”.

If a situation calls for actions that do not fully fall within [of the one] art [below], either call on the most applicable art or the most appropriate personal bonds.

This is the only thing you need from the text above, with my addition in the text within brackets.

Yeah, I felt that too when I wrote my published game, so I separated all the notes into a game master chapter in each chapter, where I described how the game master could use skills to create adventures. It worked, but it wasn’t ideal. Something I’m in awe over is how Robin D Laws creates game master advice in form of rules.

In Feng Shui, there is a rule that if the player says “KA-CHINK” and makes a shotgun reload movement, the shotgun makes +1 damage. That instead of actually giving this as an advice. Or if a player starts spitting out stats for a monster, that monster gets +5 on everything. This instead of actually giving the advice that revealing stats during a session makes the game boring.

In Esoterrorist, the investigator skills automatically succeeds. This instead of telling the game master that people shouldn’t roll to get clues, but the important part is instead of what players are doing with the clues.

It’s game advice disguised as rules.

This is what I mean with baking in the advice in a clear structure of play.

In The Murder of Mr. Crow, I intentionally made the lists of suspects and clues very limited, and I especially pointed out that the group should pick from this list. My intention was that, by making the list really narrow, the group wanted to break the rules. A fellow game designer thought I was bonkers when I told him that, but I don’t know if any group have actually followed the list. All I gave were pointers, and then they took it from there.

This is what you can do with your Specializations. Just give them one or two suggestions, and let the group take it from there. You don’t need to explain that they can make up new ones.

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All of these answers are valid :

  • comments about the rules and examples in snappy incident propositions
  • comments and discussion in side frames
  • preliminary principles and howto chapter (or booklet or video)
    The decision depends on how “wordy” you and your reader are.

To come back to OP, who would be the target audience? I like @noah_t 's idea to have various leaflets, each with a different topic and audience, like “So you want to be a GM…” or “So you want to play RPGs / close to home / with minis…”

I’d be eager to produce and discuss such articles free of rights allowing commercial use, leaving for others the care and trouble of finding the best way to publish them. Already (slowly) building a TTRPGWiki, this would complement it on the practical side, as Play is to Design.

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Just wanted to speak up and say how great this discussion is for my understanding of how rules & advice can work together to create a culture of play at the table.

It’s also making me think about the type of advice that would be appropriate for a little “So you want to play RPGs” pamphlet. In the spirit of @Radmad’s original question—I love how so many PBTA games (particularly those by creators of color, feminist &/or queer designers) make players consider the social structures their characters are informed by.

I would (tentatively) propose that a Move like Bring their gender into it probably isn’t appropriate for every table or game. The particular women I game with, for instance, have to put up with enough misogyny in real life that they don’t always want that shit in their gaming.

However, it’s hard to think of a table/game that WOULDN’T benefit from some combination of Avery Alder’s Give everyone a messy life (“It’s important to remember that when these characters are off-screen they don’t just power down or go on standby”) and Robert Bohl’s Diversify monocultures (“Just as you are striving to make everyone a person, it is important that the troupe’s saga depicts real, breathing cultures rather than stereotypical ones”).

That would be my vote for inclusion in a general how-to text.

I think this is a worthy endeavor, but I also think it’s been eclipsed by the fact that nowadays anyone who could access a general text on how to play roleplaying games could also go to YouTube and just watch other people play - in fact, I would guess that these days most people who are getting into the hobby but haven’t played yet have already done that.

However, general advice and best practices can still be very useful since those aren’t usually explicit in actual play videos.

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Not just “aren’t usually explicit”… they may display or reinforce bad habits, bad ideas, or incorrect practices. Or, at best, contradict each other.

But the fact that they’re not explicit doesn’t help, layered on top of that! Many gamers, for example, claim they’re doing one thing, while doing another (e.g. any railroading or dice fudging practices, but also happens sometimes at a subconscious level - I once watched a D&D campaign in progress, and there was a married couple playing. The wife said to the husband - who was the GM - “if you kill my character, I’m divorcing you!” He replied, “Hey, now, it’s up to the dice and your decisions!” We can see that they view the very same game they’re playing quite differently, and are emphasizing different aspects of the power dynamics in the play experience).

A long time ago, over on Story Games, we had a thread about ‘the ideal RPG curriculum’. I wrote a bit about what I think makes a great player. I’ll paste it here, as it might inspire some ideas or discussion:

I think the ‘ultimate roleplayer’, for me, would consist of three things (as a foundation):

  1. A good ability to communicate with others.

This includes both the ability to express yourself and also the ability to notice when others are quiet or when they need to speak, and facilitating that. Listening skills, in short. Being aware when to speak and when to keep quiet, and how to help others do the same.

Likewise, being able to clearly express your interests and draw out other peoples’.

  1. The ability to “share” the toys of roleplaying.

Knowing when to step into the spotlight, when to step back, and how to draw good play out of others. Being able to support another player when they need support (such as playing a villain when another player wants to be a hero, and being prepared to lose to them) and being able to challenge them when the situation demands it.

I believe that this may be the hardest thing about roleplaying games: our natural instinct is generally either to sit and listen (passively), or step in and take control of the entire process (like a railroading GM). For functional roleplaying/story gaming, a person needs to learn to occupy the middle space: to make contributions to play which always demand response from others - ideas which are incomplete, and require another to “fill in” the gaps. That’s where the game is born.

  1. A broad knowledge of different games, different people, and the understanding of how to adapt to each.

A great player, in my opinion, is capable of understanding what a given game is about and then playing to that as well as possible, instead of trying to play every game the same way.

That player doesn’t try to “immerse in their character” in an intensive rules-heavy game which demands mastery of the rules, and knows to ignore the rules when they don’t contribute to what the group is trying to do (like a group which “hardly ever rolls the dice”).

Someone with a wide range of experience and the understanding that each game is its own beast* is my ideal player, and one of the things I look for in people I want to play with.

*: “Each game” could mean “each ruleset”, “each group”, or even “each session” or any other context. You almost certainly should play differently in a convention game with strangers than you would in a long-term home campaign with your older sister, for example.

There are other factors which enhance the experience: the ability to master rules quickly, a great knowledge of genre fiction, good acting skills, excellent “creative skills”, good vocal mimicry, art skills (painting minis, drawing maps, making costumes), excellent descriptive skills/language ability, the social savvy to organize groups, reliability (do you show up when you said you would), etc, etc,.

In my opinion, none of those are as fundamental. I’d happily play with a group of people with zero experience with, say, “fantasy fiction”, no acting skills, and no ability to remember rules, so long as they met the three above criteria.

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