Last updated on September 23, 2020
D&D is like a Jazz Combo
A tabletop role playing game is like a Jazz Combo. It’s freeform, creative, and fun. It also has an underlying structure that keeps everyone improvising together. This provides the scaffolding necessary to create fun songs in the moment with people you care about. It’s a lot like riding a bike. It’s a little tough to get the feel for it at first, but in the end the simple, rhythmic cadence gets you anywhere you want to go.
I like to call this rhythm the Functional Unit of DND.
A functional unit is the smallest unit that functions in a system. With RPGs, the functional unit is the shifting cycle between players and the game master. Each group plays a crucial role in keeping the story moving through the session. The game master keeps things ticking by creating the fabric of the world, while the players develop the story by making choices and making that fabric their own.
Game Masters Rule
The game master rules the world, literally. They create the rules of the world, and enforce the rules of the game. Game rules are described in all the books. There can be hundreds of pages of rules to arbitrate all aspects of the game.
To put it simply, game rules keep things consistent and fair. Your job is to figure out what’s possible and how hard it is to do it. This is represented by the Difficulty Class, or DC. When players want to do an action, the GM sets a DC and the players roll the D20 to see if they can get that number or higher. If they do, success! If not, failures and complications happen. Remember, the higher the DC, the harder it is.
The Game Master’s role also extends to building a world with internally consistent rules. The setting needs consistency. If your setting has aggressive goblins, then make sure goblins stay aggressive, or provide a good reason for them not to be. If your world has normal gravity, then you can’t jump to the moon. Politics, magic systems, and cultural norms are all rules that give your world the structure to stand on its own.
Why are the rules so Important?
Because they make choices matter.
Making Choices Matter
Meaningful choices start with wanting something. When you know what you want you can work to achieve it. How do you know what choices would get you to your goal? The rules.
When confronting a noble could throw you in jail, there are risks to apprehending the Big Bad in the Royal Courts. The structure of the world informs the players how their actions could play out. The more consistent and sensible those rules, the better players can plan, act, and execute on their goals.
Without consistent rules, players’ decisions don’t matter. When you can’t reasonably predict an outcome to your choice, then there is no true agency. It doesn’t matter what you do. Choices don’t matter if the outcome is random. If everything is random, then the story isn’t theirs.
Game Masters, the cadence starts with you. Learn the rules. Build the Rules. Enforce the Rules. Only then will your players gain true freedom to act.
Game Masters - Scenarios
Once you have the rules, you provide situations. Populate your world with fun characters, interesting situations, and compelling set pieces. Craft distinct situations for your players to explore. Then, hand it off to the player.
Players - Choices
Players, your job is to know your rules. Just like Game Masters, you need to know game rules and story rules governing your character. Each character has abilities and strengths, make sure you know them. Characters also have personal beliefs, connections, and structures that knit your character into the fabric of the world.
Know what your characters do. Understand the mechanics of your class. Learn how spellcasting works. Figure out how combat, exploration, and social encounters play out at the table. If it’s overwhelming, don’t worry, I built a cheat sheet that puts all the most important rules on one page. Sign up here.
Your social rules are really the beliefs, core values, ideals, bonds, and flaws that describe your character. They describe your character’s persona and give you a foundation to understand how they would interact with the world. Think moral code, ethical beliefs, personal preferences, and internal fears. Each of these give rules they use to help them understand, and engage with, their world.
The Functional Unit Explained
Here’s how the functional unit plays out at the table. The Game Master sets the scene, provides a situation, and invites the players to act. The players, with their characters, explore and make a choice. The more the approach aligns with the character’s skills, the better the chance of success. Plus, The more aligned the choice is with your character’s beliefs, the more authentic the story.
Continuing the Cycle
The game master takes the action and combines it with the rules. If the world says it’s impossible, then it’s impossible. If there’s a chance though, that’s where the GM sets the DC and the player rolls the dice. The higher the DC, the more difficult the outcome. Whether a success or failure, the world changes, consequences happen, and the Game Master narrates to the next scene for the characters to explore.
This cycle is where the magic happens. Stories come from the rhythm of the game. When you and your table master this functional unit, the structure falls away and epic stories flourish.
The Game Master and Players know the rules of the game, the characters, and the world.
The Game Master sets the scene and invites the players to act
The players view the world and act, with a specific approach, to reach a specific goal
The Game Master uses the rules to resolve the action and changes the rules
The Game Master resets the scene and invites the players to act again
This process works. My games have gotten better. Stories are richer, people are more engaged, and things are just better.
I’ve got this cheat sheet to help you out.
Try it out and let me know how it goes.
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