Starting the Playtest Scenario

I have started work on the playtest scenario for Universitas Magarum, the current name for the School of Magic game. I’m not absolutely confident that I’ll finish it by the end of this month, but that is looking entirely realistic, and even if I fall behind, I might well be close enough to motivate a final push to get it done at the last minute.

As I have mentioned before, this game has no gamemaster. One thing that has really come home to me while writing it is just how much conventional roleplaying games rely on the gamemaster’s creativity and knowledge of the game rules and world. This is particularly true when writing the playtest scenario, because this scenario has to be run by people with no prior knowledge of the game, its rules, or its setting. There is no other public information available, so they have to play it based entirely on the scenario. That makes the writing quite taxing.

Let’s take a couple of examples from contemporary game design. The first is from the 7th Sea Second Edition Quickstart. (The Kickstarter for that is still live at the time of writing, and arguably the most successful RPG Kickstarter so far; you should probably back it at the Scholar level if you have any interest in RPGs at all.) In the very first scene, there is the possibility that one or more of the characters will get no successes: “You (the GM) say what happens.” The GM is supposed to make it interesting and fun, and make the failure meaningful without seriously derailing the rest of the plot. Obviously, a good GM can do that, but it is not a trivial skill.

The second example is from Kult: Divinity Lost (which also has a live Kickstarter as I write this, and is also doing well). This is based on the Apocalypse Engine, and when characters investigate something, they have to roll. If a player rolls high, she can ask two questions about the scenario. If she doesn’t roll so high, she asks one question, but there is a cost. The GM sets the cost; maybe she puts herself in danger, or there is some cost. What sort of danger is appropriate? What would be a reasonable cost? For the most part, those sorts of questions are left to the GM to answer.

This is quite possibly a large part of the reason for the conventional observation that the quality of a game depends almost entirely on the quality of the GM, with a very weak influence from the quality of the rules.

In Universitas Magarum, the players are bound to succeed at the core part of their task, so the game always moves forward. However, that success might come with added benefits, or with associated problems. When that happens, and to what extent, has to be built explicitly into the structure of the rules, because there is no GM to whom I can turn and say “you decide!”.

It is not easy to make this work, but I’m getting there.