Monday, February 24, 2014

Horrors: Player-Viewable GM Content

Player-Viewable GM Content is a pretty handy consideration for me now that I'm thinking again about whether I want to have a core rulebook and a Game Warden's Guide. The trouble with splitting the two too thoroughly is that a person may purchase the core book without thinking to purchase the other and that should be okay. The trouble with including them both in the core book is that players often do read ahead, especially if they are the ones who discovered the system and setting. Heck, some players are notorious system collectors who purchase anything in their favourite genre to read greedily. If they like it enough, they may even convince their current GM to give it a spin. In that case, though, they'll normally stop short of reading any pre-generated adventures and may cast a less intensive eye on the monsters but everything else is fair grame.

There's a number of ways that Game Designers are now coping with this habit, especially as Game Designers generally would like players to purchase a copy because it lines our pockets and provides a wonderful financial excuse to keep producing content (notice I say 'excuse', because it's generally not something you can rely on to pay the bills so most folks do it because they're driven to do it).

Some Game Designers throw it all into the same book. This is appropriate when it really doesn't matter what the players read, when the players are assumed to have experienced the setting elsewhere or when the characters should have a firm understanding of the setting. I particularly noticed that in books based on other properties like Firefly tend to put it all in one. They may then release 'specialty' GM-focused books which target secret areas which players should not immediately know about.

Some Game Designers only put the system in the one book and everything else can be found elsewhere. Even Pathfinder does this -- likely because it's already a mammoth weighty weapon with all the rules packed between its firm covers. If the players only read the core rulebook they'd be likely to pick up on certain cursed weapons, magic item uses, and guess at an NPC's class based off their spells but even in those case they'd need an impressive memory to do so. The rest of the information is packed into 'specialty' books which are divided between Player Friendly and GM only.

Some Game Designers create a core rulebook and then create a player friendly book. Normally both of these contain the rules which is a bit of a repetitive dump of information. The advantage of this is that players normally don't get a lot of advice and have to read the GM advice sections (which is normally, but not always, reasonably player friendly) and then apply the advice backwards to figure out what to do. The disadvantage of this is that normally the same content could benefit both. Normally what actually happens is that the Player's Guide is a cut down version of the core rulebook. Stats, some tips and some setting without any monstrous goodness.

The other method is to create a core rulebook and then a GM focused book. The GM book has the monsters, secret setting, rules and other special sundry items inside of it. Normally what this boils down to is that the core rulebook has a little bit of everything but the GM book goes into things a lot more deeply. Oftentimes the GM's book suffers from a bit of bloat, either because some information is still being withheld so the Game Designers can sell more 'specialty books' or because the writers haven't learned the art of succinct yet evocative detail-oriented text. In other words, there's a lot of fluff and not much delivery. This doesn't mean it's not a good read, you just don't get as much actual advice and information out of it. (NB: Too much brevity can actually cloud learning as the brain sometimes needs the same detail put three different ways to soak it in and because there needs to be breathing space between each major point which can be assisted by expanding on a single point for at least a paragraph).

I'm not sure which direction I will go with mine. I know that I will include some Player-Viewable GM content even if I create a single core rulebook or a focused GM's book because, well, some secrets don't need to be secret. Hiding information on how to create a crime scene with forensic detail also means hiding information on how to analyse one, after all, and never revealing a single potential monster also means the player has to fall back to expected methods of despatch borrowed from other games which may not actually either a) work or b) involve something a person would actually do.

In other words, drop Slenderman among a group of D&D players and they will understandingly attack it if they don't know any better. They will then die and have to create new characters. This would potentially be a good start to a horror campaign in D&D where the in-game assumptions are turned on its head but would suck as a start for a Call of Cthulhu campaign where the academics really should have fled screaming because that's what an academic would do the first time they were confronted by a bizarre otherworldly being. The main reason the D&Ders *would* and *should* attempt to attack a monster outright the first time around is because that's what they're expect in the rules of the game.

Seeing chapters on "Constructing and deconstructing crime scenes", as an example, could help kerb such behaviour as the players, through reading it, get a better idea of what they should and shouldn't be doing.

Anyway, what do you guys think of the different methods of rules and setting delivery? Prefer a Player's Guide or a GM's one to come out alongside a core rulebook (core meaning one that both can read)? Prefer it all in one?


  1. As you say, in lots of cases it really doesn’t matter what players read. As well as licensed properties or other situations where players know everything already, there are games that just don’t include anything secret. Even setting detail can easily be spoiler-free if it doesn’t go into plot and mysteries.

    Call of Cthulhu doesn’t really need separate books, for example. Monsters and objects are easy enough to reskin to always seem weird, and most players are going to be Lovecraft enthusiasts who will probably enjoy the familiarity, just as they might with a TV franchise game. Because its premise is that weird things happen just about anywhere, and ultimately come from outside our reality, it doesn’t have very much setting or mystery to conceal.

    Generally I think monster and spell details aren’t that important either. Players tend to pick up that stuff over time or because they rotate between GM and player. Of course, unknown monsters and spells can still be much more effective sometimes than familiar ones, but I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker. To my mind, the kind of players who’re likely to read rulebooks at all (not most of mine) are probably going to delve into monster books as well, and often want to know the actual mechanical abilities and numbers they’re dealing with because they prefer playing that way.

    If you’re dealing with a very plot-heavy or secret-heavy setting or genre, then keeping those kinds of things quiet is a different issue.

    I think general GM advice can get away with player reading as well. As you say, some specific techniques might give away too much to players, but then again we already know that players and GMs often overlap, and players can learn GM techniques over time. It isn’t always a problem either, sometimes it’s a useful metagame clue that helps everyone play smoothly.

    Stuff that probably is best kept from players includes What Is Going On in games with conspiracy or a lot of secrets that provide the setting or the adventures. My Los Diablos setting for Cthulhu has a mere handful of key points that are supposed to lie behind all the scenarios (if we ever actually resume it) and I’ve tried to guard those carefully, because otherwise solving everything becomes trivially easy and/or continuing play will rely entirely on players’ ability to pretend they don’t know what’s going on. And also, admittedly, because I really want to see if anyone can work out where I got the idea.

    So, the actual question!

    I think a big question for me would be the physical size of the books. Pathfinder and Numenera are really bigger than I want a single book to be. On the other hand, if two books were very small and inexpensive I’d wonder why they didn’t just combine them.

    My very general take would be to work from the assumption of a single book, preferably with player content tending towards the front and more technical stuff or setting detail that’s mostly relevant to GMs tending towards the end, and GM-only stuff in a clearly-marked section at the back. If there was a lot of underlying setting, NPC and plot detail then I’d be inclined to move that into a GM-only book. But it also depends on how much information you want to give specifically to players... D&D benefits from the Players’ Guide because it has so much information on spells, abilities and equipment, whereas I suspect the Numenera equivalent would be a pamphlet.

    1. Sorry, long comment is long... but you're probably used to that by now!

  2. I tend not to like games that require more than one book (although D&D gets a pass for reasons of sheer cultural inertia), although I don't mind games with a stripped-down "just the rules" version for people who don't want all the setting bumpf.

    I also really don't like labelling things "GMs only". I don't like the hierarchical implications. If the players want to read secret setting information, why stop them? It's not like players aren't required to separate in and out of character information all the time anyway. I mean your average starting character in a horror game has no knowledge that they're in a horror scenario, but that doesn't mean it's desirable for that information to be kept from the player as well.

    1. I think there's a couple of different types of "GM only", and in both cases I think it is useful to flag them up for players.

      The first type is basically spoilers. I know that's not something you tend to be very bothered about, but some people are. In cases where a setting NPC has a massive secret, or once you start talking about scenarios, then a lot of people would much rather actually go through the puzzlement and discover the secret for themselves rather than rely on PC ignorance. For example, I really enjoyed having no idea what was going on in yesterday's game and piecing it together. For some people it's also fun to be surprised by things like monsters' abilities, or even their existence, rather than being able to guess instantly which entity will be involved - although of course that may come with repeated play. Because there are people who *do* care about spoilers, I think it's sensible to make it clear which sections contain that stuff because it's not necessarily obvious and varies between games - in D&D I think there's a reasonable argument that PCs should actually know a lot about monsters, whereas in Cthulhu they should know essentially nothing.

      The other type is stuff that just isn't relevant to players. Quite a lot of setting detail, some types of mechanical stuff, and info on setting up scenarios and running the game isn't necessary or even particularly helpful. Again, it's useful to indicate this as intended for GMs so people can make decisions on what they care to read. But probably not what you're talking about.

      Labellingwise, I can see what you're getting at, and perhaps some other wording would shake off the hierarchical implications (although a lot of that is historical baggage about GM roles). At the same time, in a trad RPG GMs do have a specifically different role in the game and there's material that's targeted as more relevant to them, so I don't think the labelling itself is a problem. If someone wants to read stuff knowing that it contains spoilers, surely adding "This section is intended for the Facilitator and contains major spoilers, players may prefer to skip it" isn't going to stop them?

    2. Incidentally, I think the D&D books thing also has a lot to do with its mechanics. A huge amount of pagecount for D&D is either:
      * specific items of equipment
      * specific spells
      * specific monsters and their abilities
      * specific feats

      Because it uses prewritten fixed Xs with relatively complex rules for many things, you need a lot of pages to provide a significant number of those things to allow variation. A lot of it comes down to combat being central and the desire for different enemies to feel very different.

      If most of that content was user-defined instead (combine school + effect to determine spell difficulty, invent traits in place of feats, monsters have a minimal profile and a very short list of special properties) then you possibly could get it all in one book. Indeed, Numenera does something along those lines, but then sticks in several hundred pages of setting.

    3. Some GMs may also derive a lot of joy from the look of dawning realisation on the *player's* faces, which is the other reason I considered it. Of course a GM can just say "Pretty please, this means a big deal to me," in which case, most players would just self-censor those extra pages.

      In truth, a big part of the consideration stemmed from the fact that it seems like the fashionable thing to do which is why I'm glad we've had this Commentary Conversation. Sometimes things are fashionable because one group did what seemed necessary (i.e. Pathfinder / D&D who just have too much information for one book) and everyone copied it.

    4. Yet more wittering:

      Obviously I don't know at this point quite what kind of content you're going to have. There are always different ways to structure information, and how useful it is to separate player and GM material will depend on how everything works, and where complexities and differences appear.

      For example, D&D. It makes sense for the rules for handling combat to be basically in one place; you need most of these at the same time, and monsters and PCs follow the same rules and are built the same way. However, feats that affect combat appear in the Feats section, class abilities that affect combat are with class descriptions, and so on. This is because there are so many exceptions (D&D being exception-based) that it would be unwieldy to include all these amongst the main combat rules. Only a small selection will be relevant at any time, and many are level-dependent. Much more elegant to keep the rules with PC information, so players who take those abilities can easily find them, and the rest can be ignored.

      An alternate version of D&D could go even further than 4E. In this version, monsters are built differently from PCs and work differently, distinguishing long-term multi-combat PCs and one-appearance monsters. Where a PC uses a standard action and rolls d20 + modifiers to hit a skeleton with a sword, the skeleton expends dice from the DM's refreshable pool to use Rusty Maul Strike. Where PCs have hit points, the skeleton rolls on a Damage Chart to see what effect the hit has. In a model like this, it could make sense to separate PC and DM combat because they follow different rules.

      They might abandon feats and spells. Instead, they define a small number of effects that might be triggered in combat, and players create custom powers. Rather than exception-based, this would work on existing combat rules, so all the information could sensibly be contained in the combat section, along the lines of: “X provokes an attack of opportunity, unless you have a feat that exempts you from X-based AoOs”. Social and survival abilities could be compressed down the same way, and their rules includes in the social and adventuring sections.

      In this case, it might still make sense to have player and DM books (for convenience of carrying and commerical reasons, if nothing else), but they’d be very different. The player book would have most of the rules for ordinary situations, including the PC combat rules (and summary of how monsters work), adventuring rules, magic item rules (players use ‘em, let the players look ‘em up), advancement, and creating and playing characters. The DM book would have rules for building NPCs, monsters, encounters and campaigns, monster combat rules (and a quick overview of how PCs work), a different subset of adventuring information, and DMing advice. Monsters would be mechanically simple and brief to describe, so no need for a monster manual.

      Another approach might separate mundane and magical content, with wizards and magic items in a separate section from thieves, with the aim of making a game that can be played anywhere from pseudohistorical to high fantasy by choosing what content to allow. They might even be in a separate book, perhaps offering a range of magical traditions and archetypes to choose from to suit your game.

      I have a weakness for normal-book-sized rulebooks because they’re convenient and take up less room. The FATE Core rulebook is a lovely small hardback that should stay open easily while fitting on a crowded table. At the same time, having a large page to lay out information can work better, especially if massive tables come into play. Having all the rules for X on one double-page spread is certainly nice. And some games have too much information to fit in any but a dictionary-thick small book. It can of course also be handy to have things split if you’re likely to consult multiple sections at once.