At the Mountains of Mathness – GMing a Difficult System

At the Mountains of Mathness - GMing a Difficult System

One of the most difficult things for a GM to deal with is the divide between a good setting and a difficult system. Depending on your group’s preference, the table can share responsibility for understanding the rules, like having certain players specialize in specific aspects of the game (having a “combat czar” or a “magic czar” for instance) or just voting altogether to do away with chunks of the system that you don’t like. Other times, however, the burden of understanding the system falls squarely on the shoulders of the GM.

My advice: Suck it up, learn the system, and then you can cut what you want.

With the exception of some rules-light systems, most games carry mechanics that can confuse players, and as GM it’s your job to present these rules in a digestible format so that players can focus on their characters, the plot and their options therein. These mechanics often make sense, and a well-designed game can organize its ruleset in a logical and lucid manner. When this optimal experience is not available, however, you may find yourself not just the keeper of knowledge but protecting your players from the things you have learned that may simply confuse the hell out of them. You may be literally protecting them from math. But with great power… You know the rest.

No one said running a game is easy. As Game Master, your responsibilities are often a cross between a wedding planner and legal counsel without any of the pay or prestige. Schedules, personalities, and play preferences are all aspects of a successful game and the enjoyment of your players; they want to be part of your story, and the quiet manner in which you keep the pieces of the engine running can offer a fluid and enjoyable experience. They may use that engine to drive the game like a lunatic meth-head on the run from the cops, but hey, at least they still believe in Santa!

You may also take sips surreptitiously from a flask you keep behind the GM screen, but I’m not judging you.

This brings us back to the idea of “cutting,” or omitting certain rules from the game for the sake of yourself and others. This can be a powerful thing for the GM to do, as well as liberating and extremely gratifying. (“Fuck you, complicated movement rates! I cast thee down!” you say, hopefully in your head or perhaps to yourself in the mirror because otherwise you made it weird.) But just like modifying a machine to run the way you want it, you first have to know how the whole thing works. The wholesale elimination of some rules can break a game down the road, leading to the uncomfortable moment where your players realize something doesn’t work and you have to explain what’s going on and maybe go back to the mirror and be like “Look, movement rates, we’ve all said things we regret. Come back to me (at a speed determined by terrain, weather and visibility) and we can work this out.”

So if your dilemma is what to do with a complicated system, I suggest these three options:

  1. Learn the entire thing yourself
  2. Delegate the responsibility to other people at the table
  3. Cut away parts you don’t like as you go and hope for the best

I humbly (wait, no, fuck humble: I’ve stared into the eyes of the beast I’m telling you) suggest you explore the first option. So while your players may do things that jump the rails of the plot and ruins your pages (and pages!) of notes and meticulous planning, you can lean back, smile and watch the game careen towards a cliff, because at least you don’t have to worry about those bullshit movement rates.

Or you could play Fiasco.

So what about you? Any advice for other gamers dealing with a complicated system? What about stories of when things worked out or went totally pear-shaped? Tell us in the comments below!


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About the Author
David is a human, standing at average human size with human features. He is not an android, that would be ridiculous. He is fond of horror movies, so-bad-it’s-good movies, stand-up comedy and humor sometimes inappropriate for a given setting but within the accepted parameters of average human interaction. David reads H.P. Lovecraft with human eyes, speaks about Cyberpunk with his human mouth (using vocal chords, not embedded speakers) listens to podcasts with his human ears and typed this from an undisclosed location with his human hands. He was created in New England.

3 comments on “At the Mountains of Mathness – GMing a Difficult System

  1. MDMann says:

    Math is good. We all need more math. If you’re not calculating the mean of three stats to get a derived star there isn’t enough math in your system. Targeted targeting we hail you! Resource management …

  2. Jake says:

    I feel like familiarity with a system is the best qualification for being a GM. I have been super into running a Great Pendragon Campaign game, and 11 sessions later my group is almost finished the Uther Years (also known as the Prologue). The system completely clicks with me, but most of my players still seem lost with it at times.

    We’ve had the same experience with other games. Having the person who’s the most comfortable with the system GMing gives extra weight and authority to narrating scenes and cutting down on arguments like “Yes I’m sure you can’t invoke your Honour as you stab this guy while he’s sleeping.”

    Appropriately in that game, I have gotten rid of movement rates in combat. People now just quietly teleport from opponent to opponent in combat depending on what they feel like.

  3. MDMann says:

    I’ve just realised: part-time God’s, the God of Maths… Grognardia we hail you!

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