30 September 2023

Open systems and open table gaming

tl;dr: some 'I roll perception' is fine when open gaming with mixed cultures and generations where the shared references might be fewer than in beforetimes.

A thing I like to encourage at my tables is 'describe what you are doing don't just roll the ability.' This is one of the tenets of old-school play that I think particularly worthy - maximising the opportunity of us being a bunch of creative humans around a (perhaps virtual) table.

But for this to work, either the DM has to go into high detail for each new environment or the table has a strong 'open system' of shared cultural references - otherwise nothing can be assumed and the DM has to go to tedious length to cover all the detail.

So what does this mean for open table gaming? What does this mean for gaming with mixed generations? With mixed cultures? What do you do when you cannot assume any shared cultural touchstones?

Let me back up a bit to open and closed systems. Grumpy Wizard lays out open and closed systems - closed systems are the rule-sets, these are fixed, open systems are permeable, these are all the things you soak up from wherever. This includes what everyone should understand when you say 'wizard' - are we talking Rincewind, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Raistlin, Harry Dresden or Soulcatcher?

We sit to table, we all have the ruleset we are playing, fine. But the world thrown around us by the DM has to be crafted with words and ideally as succinctly as possible. For players to exercise their skill in dealing with the environment, making the call their characters would make - reasonable or not, courageous or not - they need to know what is around them.

To visualise all this the DM needs to describe it, in a way that gives the players enough to work with but without giving the whole game away immediately. If only one flagstone gets any kind of description in an otherwise undescribed room, that flagstone may as well have a handle on it.

But being able to reasonably assume what other people will think is present when you say 'old temple' is a reach. Perhaps around one table someone just came back from a tour of ruins in Jordan, someone frequents active temples, someone else is a sword and sorcery buff, someone else is recalling what they saw in old Xena: Warrior Princess episodes. To keep things moving you need to be snappy in your descriptions but to keep everyone on the same page you need to give them enough to get them there. So how much is enough?

Sparking a bit off BX Blackrazors heated blog-post and the 'I know my group' subtext of shared understanding - I have been thinking for a bit on the open and closed systems that interlock over the table - particularly in the context of open table games, particularly where you have a range of generations and nationalities.

Shared open systems cannot be assumed - where once you could been relatively confident most folk has seen the same core block of movies and TV shows, now with the wild proliferation of entertainments - from obscure streaming series that get destroyed for tax purposes, through to the huge variety of books, to the sheer scale of the back-catalog of all media - all make it a lot harder to guess at what grab bag of imagery might live in someones head.

I play open table games in a cosmopolitan European city - some locals, some Anglophones, some neighbours from ex-Warsaw Pact, some of them 80's kids, a bunch of them 90's kids and now a solid block of post-millenium digital natives. Even among them the rural/urban thing and when the internet got to you makes a difference in what your references are. Its a toss up which bunch is doing the Cpt. America meme at any given time.

Under these circumstances, I think a greater tolerance for 'what would my character think of this' or the flat 'can I roll perception' might be ok to keep things moving in general. One can still encourage description as much as possible and also feel free to reward cunning player behaviour with straight-up wins.

That is for open-table, drop in games. For even semi-open where you've got the same pool of players returning, handing out a list of your references - movies, books, music, whatever - so they at least know where *you* are coming from can be constructive. Too much to ask of someone who is just joining you but time well spent over the long haul.

I am going to try and be more rigorous in implementing my Joesky tax - "NEW COOL RULE, OR A MONSTER(S), OR SOME SPELLS, OR MAGIC ITEMS OR REGULAR ITEMS THAT ARE DIFFERENT, OR EVEN BETTER A MAP."

This is a deep time reach - an encounter table for Sholtipec (half ruined, cult infested, lizard-run city)
2War cultists challenge passersbyMonster!Foreigners arrivingFire!
3Wealth cultists demanding tributeCook outPerformers, a showBuilding hazard
4Shrine fixersMigrating swarmArgument at houseStreet duel
5Cult processionBig slow draft beastWork crewWatch patrol
6Offering collectorsAngry scavengersTraders w/ stallPrisoners in chains
7Arcane cultists discussingHunters w/ trophy killThieveryStreet gang
8Cult beastsCaged creature breaks freeNoble processionRaid on house

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