Tuesday 12 October 2021

Running a Minimalist Game

After writing a bit about how I design games with minimalism in mind, my thoughts turned to whether this carries over to how I run games.

Standard disclaimer that this isn't the only way to run a game, this is just a look at how I tend to run games like Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland.

As with so many things, we're breaking this down into three parts.

Use Little

I must confess, I do occasionally break out an erasable battle mat but it's really just a whiteboard and I deliberately keep my maps super abstract. For the characters I use coloured pawns from Pandemic. 

But aside from physical tools, remember that you don't have to use every part of the rules buffalo. I still stand by this guidance and note that it doesn't include a section for "now begin using the combat rules". I can absolutely see somebody running a really fun game of ITO or EB just using this process and adjudicating combat through Dilemmas, Saves, and Consequences. 

So much of what makes for an enjoyable game for me exists outside of the rules, so the less I'm thinking about systems the more I can think about the world, the players, and their characters. 

Ask for Little

Perhaps it's because I often play with brand new players, or friends that only have a tangential interest in RPGs, but I always run my games in a way that asks for as little as possible from the players. 

"No, don't worry about reading any rules before we play. Yeah we'll do character creation right there on the night, nothing needed ahead of time. The setting? Aaah it's this big city called Bastion and it's weird but we'll discover that as we go". 

Now, just because I'm asking for little doesn't mean that I don't secretly expect a lot from them, but laying those expectations on them ahead of the game hasn't always been a fruitful approach for me. If I want players to get invested in their characters then I'll lay out opportunities to characterise them through play and ask them the occasional probing question. If I want them to care about the world then I'll do my best to make the world immediately interesting to both themselves and their character. 

Make it Matter

When running very simple systems there's always a risk that things start to feel arbitrary or inconsequential. The lightness of rules infects the fiction and you start to feel disconnected from the ground of your fictional world. 

Personally, I feel like simple rules let you make things matter more if you remember to keep it as a key focus of your game. 

The rules on the page won't give any distinction between wielding a Claymore (d8, bulky) and a Billhook (d8, bulky), but because nobody is worrying about a million small rules your mind is free to make that distinction significant. Description is a huge part of this, and should never be underestimated just because it doesn't carry mechanical weight, but in a rules-lite game of exploration and problem solving the difference of utility between a heavy blade and a spiky polearm often emerge gradually. 


  1. "Ask for little" also very much comes into play when running for kids. "Don't feel the need to read the rules ever and we'll do character creation in less than 10 minutes. Alright, here we go."

    "Ask for little" also applies to time. I never run a game over two hours anymore. The movie-length maximum keeps it fresh. Lower commitment makes players more likely to return and try again, which keeps everyone (including me) playing.

  2. I would really love to see a written-out example of the kind of combat you described.

  3. One of the best things about minimalist design is the capacity for growth and understanding. Someone else called it the "fruitful void", the fact that leaving rules unwritten allows the DM and the table to work out what works best for them, instead of locking them in with rules-as-written. I as the designer probably don't have a clue about a whole range of things that you know much better!

  4. I started replying to your post but realized it would be way too long. I feel that "Ask for Little" is a key component to running better games. In my experience people will put in more work if they want to, but pressuring people on having to commit time outside of the game to play only leads to frustration on both sides.

    My thoughts on this are here: https://200orcs.blogspot.com/2021/10/ask-for-little.html

    On another note, I am patiently waiting for your Into the Odd Remastered. The original is great and the previews you have shared looked good. I like the art I have seenas well,