locating the creative burden

Arguably all RPGs place some creative burden on someone. It’s practically what they do: leave stuff out for the players to fill in. I feel like a critical difference between a role-playing game and a board game is exactly that: a space where there are no rules and yet there must be play.

Games like D&D (and many OSR games) are sometimes derided for where they place this creative burden: the whole “rulings not rules” is exactly a declaration of where the burden lies. It lies at least partly in the ref’s lap as the ref is expected to choose rules and even to fabricate rules on the fly in order to mediate play. One could see this as a defect, as an incomplete game, but if I’m right that all RPGs leave some creative burden somewhere then this is just a design choice and not a defect. No one “forgot” to put rules there. The rules are absent or partial in order to supply a specific kind of creative space for someone at the table. Hence, I would argue, the diversity of tastes in RPGs. Maybe even the diversity of RPGs as a whole.

Forced to think about that, of course I need to think specifically about the creative load that Soft Horizon games force on players. And now that I have this formulation, this perspective in my head it’s a design tool. Doing anything deliberately is a tool for design, and understanding what your options are extends what you do deliberately. Because I guarantee that if you are designing a role-playing game you are certainly placing creative burdens in specific places. You just might not have thought about it in those terms. You probably do it intuitively. Now you can look it in the eyes.

In Soft Horizon the critical place where we lay out a creative burden is on the ref when setting the risks. When a conflict is asserted a method and a risk are chosen. Choosing the risk is easy: you just choose between harm, cost, waste, confusion, revelation, delay, spillover, and ineffectiveness.ย That’s no burden. But as referee what you need to do next is plan in your head what will happen if that risk gets realized. That’s your creative load. It’s immediate and it’s improvisational. It’s where the ref brings skill to the game.

gzot.jpg
Whoah watch the range! You might HARM yourself.

Some are easy. If we’re risking harm then someone’s going to get wounded. Same with cost — someone gets a debt. Those are your easy outs.

Spillover is almost easy. Someone who’s not a player character nor an enemy is going to get hurt. Or something is. You need some creative juice to make this have an impact but not much: an innocent coming to harm already carries weight.

Waste usually springs to mind because you already have an idea. You get in a firefight with risk waste and your gasoline tanks are all punctured. Someone throws a grenade in your water supply. Something you need is gone.

Confusion will mean that player characters no longer have clarity about what’s going on. The easiest to come up with on the fly is them getting lost. But it might also mean that they no longer know friend from foe. Or even who they are (a short term amnesia might be a confusion result). You can be a little creative with this risk.

Delay is only interesting if someone has a timeline. If they do have a timeline, this one will spring to mind instantly and often because almost every conflict does delay. Your creative burden is to make a delay relevant.

The most interesting is revelation: the conflict outcome will reveal something unexpected. This can be hard because the best ones are ones you, the ref, weren’t planning either. These can make the campaign take a hard turn into new territory which is refreshing as hell. It’s also easy to shy away from, to protect yourself from derailing your own plans. I would encourage you to embrace it, let the system drive off your rails. That’s what it’s for.

That’s not the only place where a creative burden is placed on the players, but it’s the most deliberate, it’s the most intentional. It’s there for a reason. It’s there to challenge me, when I play, with something I’m pretty good at and keeps me from doing things I’m comfortable with. There are plenty of other examples, though, because it’s the heart of any role-playing game: when does it demand the players make shit up? That’s what we’re here for.

So in the “rulings not rules” discussion my problem with where the creative burden lies in D&D and similar is not that it feels under-designed. It’s that it places the creative demand inside the system instead of inside the story. The question it demands I answer is “how do we make the system handle this” and not “what’s the story here”? This is obviously just a matter of taste when you see it in this light.

So where is the creative burden in your favourite game?

7 thoughts on “locating the creative burden

  1. My current favorite game is Tales From The Loop. I’d say the biggest creative burden on the GM is what to do when Kids (PCs) get crazy good rolls generating a lot of extra successes. Since this game is mostly about solving mysteries, then you run into the quandary of at what level of success do you consider giving the Kids a revelation and not just another clue.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is right where my head space is at the moment too and I like the term `creative burden’. I think that it is the negative space of game design. Over focus on defining the rules and you are supporting the GM with the part of the game that.. the game already supports them to do during play.
    Also, I see the Confusion Risk as also being an opportunity to introduce uncertainty about values. Not only `are they friend or foe?’ in terms of motive but `I thought that they were a friend because we shared value X but now I’m not sure if they share this value so… are they a friend?’

    Liked by 1 person

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