Thursday, 16 March 2017

Content, Advice, Procedures and a Rat Carpet

Chris McDowall on G+ asks:

GM Sections

Advice is better than Content
Procedures are better than Advice.

Where does this sit on the Truth to Horseshit Spectrum? 

I reply:

I just see a continuum of description from static to active. Pure content just describes what is there and lets you (GM) figure out what is going to happen. Add advice, and there are some suggestions as to likely things which will happen. Add procedures, and you have detailed mini-rules for some of these things. I don't think there is a law for balancing the three, but I do think that good game writing contains all three.

To elaborate:

Writing rules or scenario for a game that will be run by a Game Master is actually a very forgiving job. What you omit, the Game Master can just fill in using improvisation. What you overwrite, the GM can just ignore. Every GM wrestles somewhat with the texts they interpret. Some even enjoy wrestling -- as I enjoy filling in the details of the mainly bare-bones Castle of the Mad Archmage, as others enjoy using a stripped-down rule set and making with the rulings.

But there are also costs to each of these excesses. 

Working on-the-day to fill in gaps is necessarily going to be slapdash. Cliches will be reached for. Things won't connect. I take it as an article of faith that GMs have more trouble inflicting great ruin or reward on a party if those consequences are not written down. 

Overwriting descriptions and rules has three costs. First, the cost in time for you to think it through and write it. Second, the physical cost to print it - there is less adventure for the buck in a tome stuffed with page-long rooms. Third, the cost for the GM to locate what's important in a piece of writing.

How to get the balance right? In the megadungeon I'm writing these days, each room is described in 50 to 500 words. 

Content is the usual monster, treasure, and hazard description; beyond that, each description must pull its weight either as potential player interaction, as atmosphere, or as a "clue" that gives meaning to the larger structure of the dungeon.

Advice comes about when there is an obvious thing the player can do or the room can do. Advice should not try to out-think the players. There should be gaps for the players to surprise the GM. If this creates an advantage you didn't anticipate, you are allowed one cry of "My precious ENCOUNTER" and then just roll with it. They are sure enough to compensate with some incredible bonehead move somewhere else.

Procedures are needed when the action in the advice can lead either to gain or harm in a way not covered by the rules. Most rule sets will cover the basics of combat, some simple hazards like falling, and treasure gain. For anything else important it is better to rules-write than to hand-wave at the table. Most GMs have a soft spot and writing down the butcher's bill ahead of time is a way to keep yourself honest.

Rat king rug by Pupsam

Here's one room, inspired by Margaret St, Clair, with Content, Advice, Procedures in different colors.


56. MINOTAUR BARRACKS. Both doors to the room are closed. Above each door, in the lintel, is carved the head and arms of a minotaur with a two-headed axe. Opening them is difficult because the floor beyond is a living, chirping carpet of 100 pink-eyed albino rat swarms, stinking of urine and musk. A pulsing mauve light suffuses the room, from something blue glowing through the mass of bodies in the middle, piled up 2’. The room’s 50 bunk beds have been turned against the walls, so that the carpet is 14’ wide.

The rats will not leave the room and will not bite, but en masse they are psychically sensitive and very frail. In their midst the mind fills with their agitation, frustration and hatred. Being trod on or roughly handled kills d4 rats per 10’ trodden, broadcasting their death agonies to sentient minds within 10’, who must save (spell/Will/WIS) or take 1 damage per killed rat. If multiple groups are killed at the same time, the range of the death throes is increased by 2’ for every 10’ x 10’ area cleansed, and the base damage is 2d20 per 10’ x 10’ square.

The pile in the middle is a couple of fallen bunks stacked under the rat carpet, with a Lamp of the Azurite shining through, and silver coins worth 1200$ falling out of perforated, urine-soaked bags.


So, the Description gives the room meaning, both in-setting (it is part of a series of barracks for units named after mythical monsters; the bunks establish this) and out (the minotaur and axe pay homage to Sign of the Labrys and its carpet of white rats). It establishes atmosphere through light, sound, smell. It gives the "monster" (more of a trap really) and the treasure. Things, too, are described in the order players are likely to find them.

The Advice is short and covers the most likely actions: opening the door, going through the rats to investigate the light. "Psychically sensitive and very frail" plus the other descriptions help judge what might happen if players take creative action. The GM can decide whether, for example, scooping the rats with a shovel is also fatal to them, or how players might fare if they try to leap 7' onto the bunks on the side and make their way to the things in the middle.

The Procedures are necessary to regulate how the "trap" deals out damage. The mass-death effect is important to spell out because of the temptation of dealing with the mass using a fireball or flaming oil. Observing what happens when just a few rats are killed should be enough warning to avoid the disaster. A more merciful GM can alter the damage to stunning, but the level is swarming with very frequent wandering monsters, so this only gives the players a half-fighting chance.


  1. I think there is also a user experience variable that needs to be included on that spectrum. The window for what is "perfect" needs to be moved depending on how much experience a GM has running a game. My 18 yr. old self needed a LOT more help in terms of procedure and advice. Bare bones settings and adventures were difficult things to use. My present self needs a lot less advice and procedure. I hate using products that aren't bare bones because I waste too much time trying to find the bit of info that I need right now.

    Of course, this doesn't help the end product unless you are specifically designing for a certain demographic. Although, it would be an interesting experiment to create a short adventure with three different layouts with three different end-users in mind to see what the feedback would be...