Monday, December 23, 2019

Reviewish: Arbiter of Worlds

Autarch recently put out a book of DMing advice, titled Arbiter of Worlds.  I picked it up because someone in the ACKS discord mentioned that it had a section on competitive player-group dynamics, which I have enjoyed in the past, and read it on the plane during holiday travel recently.  It has been a long time since I last read a DMing advice book (the last being How to Run, by Alexis, which I should probably finish and review at some point).

Impressions:

I agree with much of what he says about the functions of the DM / judge, their relative importance, and the importance of agency, and I think it's a pretty good statement of the position.  Reasonably concise (but longer than a blog post would bear) and well-argued.

His framing of the sandbox region as a story-web was interesting.  Much of the actionable advice on stocking a sandbox and linking things together was either repeated from ACKS or similar to the existing wilderness exploration literature (Western Marches on danger pockets and Treasure Tells a Story, for example), but the ACKS region-construction guidelines were elaborated on in the context of agency, and thinking of it as a planned web for potential emergent stories was interesting and different from how I usually do things (links emerging as a result of random treasure maps rolled during play).  One thing that I'd've liked to see was extrapolation of this structure into the dungeon, since I think it does generalize - a large, jayquayed, exploration-oriented dungeon could certainly have a structure of hooks/pointers within it, which point players into different parts of the dungeon.

I liked that he talked about his personal worldbuilding process and the player's guide and gazetteer outputs of that process.  Would be fine material for the Secrets chapter of ACKS 2e, if that ever happens.  Also waaay more work up front than I will ever do.

I was surprised that he uses triggers in his living worlds.  "When the players enter town X for the first time, they find signs for a tournament in three days", as opposed to "The tournament occurs annually on the 15th of Juntober, and signs are posted two weeks prior."  Less hard-simulationist than I expected (there was more to the living worlds section that that, but triggers were the biggest surprise to me).

I was a little disappointed to find that the social dynamic I enjoyed watching during the 2012 campaign wasn't quite covered by his categorization of group social norms into collective, competitive-collective, and individualist.  I think we fell somewhere between competitive-collective and individualist.  Maybe I should go back and really figure out what the norms we were playing by were, and get them down in writing.  It might've been an unstable equilibrium; it did break down eventually.

The discussion of limiting the powers of villains explains a lot of the changes to high-level spells in ACKS.

Canons of interpretation is a very lawyer way to look at the process of making rulings during play.  I think my process of rulings is somewhat more consequentialist - what is the function of this ambiguous rule, why is it here, what are the consequences for the system of each possible interpretation or change?  It's the "legacy software maintainer" perspective on rules changes (at work the other day I was dealing with a codebase that had comments that affected the function of the code.  Load-bearing comments.  Terrifying).  The canons seem to be mostly about dealing with the semantics of natural language.  Maybe they were developed in acknowledgement of the impossibility of understanding all the consequences of a ruling in a complex system.  Food for thought.

I found the focus on describing blows in combat in graphic detail surprising, but it explains the mortal wounds table pretty well.
Given that everyone comes into RPGs wanting to use their imagination, the reasons why combat devolves to simple mechanics are somewhat mysterious to me.  I think it may be because nothing is at stake.  It's hard to conjure up the energy for vivid imagery when it doesn't really matter.
Personally, I run very mechanical, low-description combat.  Playing 3.x, maybe it was because the stakes were low.  Playing ACKS, it might be habit carry-over, but it might also be because of the rules.  I don't want to describe a player's killing blow as decapitating a foe by fiat, because the correct procedure within the rules is to wait for the party to check him for mortal wounds if they decide they want a prisoner to interrogate or take hostage.  Maybe they'll want to RL&L him later, in which case a decapitation would close that course of action to them.  Detailed, fiat kill descriptions have implications for agency.

As a player, I also don't much like DMs who waste time on combat descriptions - I'd rather they kept combat moving quickly.  I've definitely had the "oh boy, here goes this R.A. Salvatore wannabe again, narrating every attack" feeling at the table before.  The clock's ticking towards end of session, we got places to be and stuff to steal, and it's only a six-to-ten-second combat round anyway.  I think there's value in keeping the combat loop tight, and descriptions are a very easy thing to cut.  I recognize that it's a wargamer perspective.

Anyway, I expect that rather then the 300-style descriptions being advocated for, I'll stick with at most saga-style descriptions:
But when Egil sees this, he runs at Gunnar and makes a cut at him; Gunnar thrusts at him with the bill and struck him in the middle, and Gunnar hoists him up on the bill and hurls him out into Rangriver.
While I was happy to re-learn the term abduction, and I appreciate its importance in play when using random tables heavily, and I'm a Musashi enthusiast, I still thought that the repeated Musashi references in that chapter were kind of...  eh.  It's an acknowledgement of metis, but a somewhat opaque and unhelpful acknowledgement.

The mashups chapter was very different from how I hack up systems; an interesting perspective, but not what I expected.  I was a little disappointed, I think, because an earlier chapter referred to the mashups chapter for suggestions on system modification, and then it only covered a very specific method of modification.  It does dispel any doubt about parts of ACKS being Traveller-derived, though.

Conclusions:

Overall, I thought the kindle version was worth the $5 and three to four hours to read.  I think for ACKS DMs and players, it's a good look into why some things are the way they are, and how they were intended to be used.

I think the most interesting section to a broader slice of the OSR who are into "Rulings, not Rules" is the Canons of Interpretation.  This is probably the most unique part of the book; you can find other people talking about agency, or how to link pieces in a sandbox, or how to not wargame (or only sometimes wargame) your opposition, but nobody's talking about jurisprudence.  I think it would've been really interesting to see an alternate ordering of the chapters of this book, talking about the four roles of the DM and discussing those roles in order of priority, with the section on judging and rulings coming first, then worldbuilding, then playing the opposition, and finally concerns of storytelling.  I get why it's laid out the way it is, though; it's in opposition to the position that Guarantor of Fun and Storytelling are the central functions, and it has to deal with those before shifting into assertion.

I think the book is squarely aimed at the "new DM running 5e", and I think the ordering is pretty reasonable for that case.  I don't know how effective it would be at persuading DMs of that demographic to pursue agency, since I am not in that situation.  I speculate that it might be effective if they've had some negative experiences with low-agency play previously, but I dunno if it'll work otherwise; I think usually you already have to have a little doubt in your own position in order to be persuaded effectively.

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