MASS Part Five – Narrative Splatbook Narrative


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Or, I really enjoyed reading the Villains and Vigilantes combat/play example and really wish I could read a whole RPG rule book written just like that by gosh, why don’t I write one.

Back in my halcyon days I would read game systems like other people drank beer. I plundered the books of the eighties and nineties end to end and section by section, sucking the marrow out … wow this metaphor got mixed quickly. Bone beer. Must include that in my next dwarf encounter.

Ahem. I remember coming to a level of deep antipathy for the ‘what is role playing’ and ‘how to play this game’ sections of the books. Having read many different approaches to this topic, I ended up skimming past these sections more and more often, and soon enough found that the only bits I did read were the sample play dialogues. I found the sample fiction for most games dissonant and unhelpful, even in illustrating what the setting was. At no point was any game I ran in the system going to emulate the fiction, and the fiction was unhelpful because it rarely resonated with what the game play would be like.

In spite of my thorough weariness with this kind of section, I would still look for the play examples with a ravenous hunger and be entirely disappointed when they ended so quickly. I learned more about how the writer expected the game to be played and what elements of the setting would come to life in a tabletop from these snippets than thousands of words describing what the rules were or paragraphs of GM advice.

Nowadays the actual play video examples that people do for games are invaluable in this regards, but I still miss the ever-so-much-more-scripted play snippets aimed at demonstrating system particulars through play. There was something nuanced about them, and they enabled me to pour over the rules in detail and in my own time, based on the outcomes demonstrated in the write up.

Since I had such a narrativist system in mind for MASS, it behooved me to try my hand at actually doing an entire system description in this fashion. I figured there might be other folks out there with my proclivities, or at least people that would appreciate a different tack on things.

Naturally enough, backing the story up with a standard Rules Handout and Play Book would support people of a more standard bent. But I determined to put the foremost of my work in making the game book into creating a narrative of play, and using it to explain the system and demonstrate play.

I thought about what the play scenario would be and in short order it fell into place. I would need to create personas for a number of players and a GM, and describe them so that the reader could identify with at least some of the elements of them in people they know. Then these players would be roped into a game by a GM new to the MASS system, and they would collectively learn to play the game together. I defined the rules of the game, built the resolution mechanics, and then effectively ran my first play test entirely through constructed dialogue with my imaginary players.

30,000 words and sixty pages later I was much more educated on why most game books don’t do it this way. It is time consuming, and there are logistical concerns about layout and conveying the narrative of player interaction overlaid with system description. But if I were to compare the efficiency of describing a system element in a flat paragraph by comparison to a narrative introduction, I would say that the narrative is longer, but more nuanced, and serves as a solid means of playing out a concept in lieu of actual play testing. In writing the dialogue I found myself clarifying and correcting rules that I had thought would play well in my mind, to the point that the entire ruleset required a re-write after my first pass at the story. It was a self-check play through, the long winded way.

With that being said, I’m glad I did it, and I hope that it appeals as a different tack on how to start things in a system book.
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