Thursday, April 1, 2021

How I Run and Play an Ultralight Game

I take it for granted that I know how I run and have been running my games for a few years now according to the "free kriegsspiel/FKR" (henceforth "ultralight") approach. For almost a calendar year since this concept has become increasingly vogue across the interwebs, many earnest folks have raised repeat questions not about "what is this?" but "how does it actually work?" At the risk of being overly ironic, think of this post as an introductory rulebook to a style of play that assumes a rulebook is patently unnecessary. I'm going to make this quick, because that's something I especially appreciate about this method: it's fast, it's intuitive, and it only needs a little nudge to get going. 

Disclaimer: This is how I run my games. This is not "how it always works." It is a (hopefully clarifying) example. The approach here is a varied spectrum. Two referees adopting similar styles may yet produce very different tables. This is, of course, how any two different people running any two different games will pan out, but it's worth stating here since there is not, in fact, "one way" to adopt this method. There are various preferences, emphases, and relationships to consider. So, to reiterate, here is how I go about it.

SETTING UP THE TABLE

Let's agree on a setting to play. This is the oft-parroted "worlds, not rules" bit, which simply means we decide on how the game is played based on where it is played. Is this a Michael Bay film? Explosions and probably more explosions. Is this Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell? Capricious outsiders, stuffy society, and myth come alive. Is this slant-fantasy Cretaceous Period? Oh, this last one sounds fun, let's do that (more below).

When in doubt, lean into tropes. If I had the opportunity to sit down at a table where we all knew the detailed ins and outs of 17th century French fur trapping, I'd love to play that game. But that's very likely not going to happen. However, if we come around the table and say "hey, let's play a goofy/gritty crime game in the vein of a Guy Ritchie movie," then all we need as a group is to have watched Snatch at some point. And if one of us hasn't, I could sum it up with "modern world, conflicted hitmen, ominous kingpins, gambling and bookies, double-crosses, surreal humor, and nosy henchmen."

Have a conversation about the chosen setting. "So it's dinosaurs, but also with people." Let's dial in a little further and establish that it's the Jurassic Park caricature of dinosaurs we're all thinking (even if the game is taking place in some old epoch). A T-Rex biting another T-Rex isn't a done deal, but it's a close call, right? Okay. Could a bow and arrow drop a deinonychus? Yes? Maybe two arrows? Okay. And the tech level, something like neolithic? Bone and stone tools? Maybe rumors about bronze somewhere over the horizon? Cool. Anything else? Oh, maybe some weird stuff like monkey sorcerers? Ah, so we're just paying Primal now, aren't we? Good, because that will be a blast.


TAKEAWAYKnowledge is one of your greatest assets in ultralight gaming, but mastery is not a requirement. So long as we set the expectation together, we know what we're doing. If you ARE an expert on subject material, leverage it, but it's not mandatory.

RUNNING THE GAME

I keep a number of adages in mind which guide my approach. You'll find that common sense is the underlying denominator to all of them. Rulings as setting osmosis, if you will.

tl;dr - Ultralight games = setting and world + common sense rulings + tools you find useful.

If the fiction fits, try it. Since we established what the setting looks like and spitballed/reached a consensus as to what sorts of things happen naturally therein, I am inclined to give a thumbs up to anything a player wants to attempt if it gels with the context. Most often, I rule it as a "sure, that happens." Sometimes I negotiate a bit regarding risk and likely impact. Other times (and rarely, honestly) I flat out reject something as impossible. Again, the table is aligned on what's reasonable, so most of this is cruise control. Agree on an approach and hold to it. Consistency is king, but flexibility is not a bad thing.

Numbers don't add up to a game. Again, we're all operating a fictional world together, one which we agree "makes sense" internally. In this way, we're less interested in quantifying characters with statistics or numbers as we are with keywords or descriptions. I have a much better grasp on what a "strong" person is like than what a "STR 18" person is like. If we're playing Primal (to continue our example above), a character is likely a talent/skill combo. Let's say you're "agile" and "good with tools." These are helpful distinctions for the player and me as the referee, and beyond that, we'll assume the character is average in everything else. 

Give information and eliminate ambiguity. I am convinced that I sign up to run games because I am always hungry for player agency. I want to be as surprised at the table as the players who don't even know what I may have prepped. That is, I make puzzles, traps, and encounters without a known solution, so that the players don't need to press one specific button to progress. Instead, I load them up with the information they could reasonably know (including, say, something someone "good with tools" would recognize while others wouldn't), then see what they do with it. If they can know it, they should. It improves the experience for everyone present.

Tools rather than rules. Rules are not bad or dumb. Nor are dice. These are panned caricatures I've seen crop up aplenty since this form of play became more well known. Rules, however, exist here in service to play, not the other way around. That is, I might decide there is a best practice for a certain element in our setting, perhaps it's a magic system or crafting or social prestige. I can soldifiy a consistent ruling into a rule, use it when it makes sense, and perhaps drop it later when it doesn't. I tend not to use many player-facing rules in practice, though I enjoy leveraging random tables, overloaded dice, and the like.


TAKEAWAY: Everything comes back to the common sense ruling based on the setting. If a player wants to leverage the world as we understand it, let them. I trust you in good faith. You trust me in good faith.

FURTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Every book, movie, and game product works. My RPG library is infinitely more useful now with the ultralight lens than otherwise. Everything is fodder for any game. Rather than tying setting strictly to a system, I can graft inspiration, flavor, and even tools and guides from one medium and plug it into what I'm running. Any source is gameable.

There is no right/wrong, pure/tainted method. Some ultralight referees are not only diceless, they're total improv artists. No random generation, no prep, nothing. I definitely can't do that, nor would I like to. I leverage my zounds of random tables and a few stalwart tools, but even when I go diceless in play I still roll as a tool for oracles or content. The spirit of this approach is trust and ease of rulings. How that functions from table to table will differ.

It can take some getting used to. Experience dismantles preconceptions. Approach a situation and then try it without a hard rule. See if it works for you and your friends. There is no problem with playing the same game session to session even if a lot of the guts of that same game change between meeting. To quote Wizard Lizard, "Play revolves around the conversation -- Referee describes the world. Players ask questions and say what they want to do. Referee decides what happens, based on what would make sense in the world. Adventures happen."

You might not like this form of play. And you don't have to. What matters is that if you simply aren't interested in super-stripped-down "systemless systems" which are often showcased in this mode of play, skip it. There are excellent games, some of which are almost as lean, that still allow more of a flex on mechanics, mini-games, and numerical crunch than you'll find here. 

ANECDOTAL TAKEAWAY: I've mentioned this a time or two before, but the more I play pared-down and diceless/semi-diceless "ultralight" games in good faith with my young son (almost six years old) the more I enjoy how great the approach is. No cruft. Nothing in the way of talking things through. Honestly I find MORE realism and sincerity of action and intent than I've experiened in years of running anything crunchier. It's collaborative storytelling but grounded in earnest ripple effects of actions. That's the big difference from story game concepts, I think, in that the ultralight sandbox is much more about taking the game world at face value and treating it like a real, breathing place where anything goes but everything has consequences, rather than THIS must happen or THAT should be the outcome. My five year old gets it. We all can as adults, too.

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If you're looking for examples of these games put together more formally than a homespun dining room table conversation, I heartily recommend the following (among many others):

24XX by Jason Tocci

Blood of Pangea by James & Robyn George

Cthulhu Dark by Graham Walmsley

Landshut by Norbert Matausch

Messerspiel by OZ

Revenant's Hack by Sigve Solvaag

Skorne by Dreaming Dragonslayer

I'm also partial to Any Planet Is Earth and Galaxy Far Away, of course...

6 comments:

  1. My own summary from the NSR Discord, if anyone needs a TL;DR:

    (1) Pick a setting you and your friends like, from a book, movie, another game, whatever. It helps if you are all familiar, but if one or two players are not, you can give them a basic summary and be fine.

    (2) Make rulings based on your intuitions about the setting (or genre) rather than on any written rules. (If you're playing a published game that was designed without FKR in mind, you can still play it the FKR way by ruling based on intuitions rather than the rules.)

    (3) Add rules to taste as the campaign goes on, building the runway as the plane is taking off. It's okay to add rules the referee has to know (referee-facing), but try to avoid adding rules the players have to know (player-facing).

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  2. Great post Jim. That's exactly how I play with my kids. We play while having dinner, in the car, wherever... No material needed. All action consequences are diegetic. It's easy to remember so no need to track anything on paper. I have a file on my phone where I keep a list of adventure seeds. Whenever the kids want to play, I take one minute to mentally prep and we're good to go.

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    1. That's wonderful to hear! I am much the same way. Even simpler than "walking around D&D" as it's fully grounded in a shared setting. Kids are amazing adventurers!

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  3. When I was a teacher, I used to use the analogue of set custard for the proper consistency -- uses only a few things to create, and is stable but not firm and unyielding

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  4. Excellent post. The more I read these articles on FKR gaming (here and other blogs), the more I realize this is really how I run games already, just pulling in rules when I am stuck (or too lazy to make up a ruling).

    I very much want to play a primitive dino game!

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