HOMEWORLD: Revelations and the Learning to GM Problem

A good mate made sure to put some recent news in the tabletop roleplaying game sector in front of me yesterday: British tabletop game publisher Modiphius have acquired the tabletop rights to the video game franchise Homeworld, a universe I’ve loved since the first game came out in 1999 (holy shit; has it really been 20 years?), and are aiming to release HOMEWORLD: Revelations, a roleplaying game set in in the epic Homeworld galaxy, next year.

From the Modiphius website, October 19th, 2019.

What’s got me intrigued, though, are comments by Modiphius’ publisher Chris Birch and assistant line developer Virginia Page in an interview with Polygon’s Charlie Hall about how they are designing the starter set so that an entire roleplaying game group – including the game master – can get stuck straight in and start playing as soon as they open the box.

According to Birch, “… you get this box at a convention and you go, ‘We’re playing this right now!’ You go to the bar, or you sit on the carpet in the hall outside of Gen Con, and you start playing. There’s no prep time at all.”

Page goes on to state, “The GM is the barrier to entry… we very much also wanted to kind of develop something where actually you could kind of show the GM how it worked at the same time (as the players).”

I find this very intriguing. I’ve long been enamoured with the idea of what some call “pick-up-and-play”; the idea you can go from zero to having fun in the RPG hobby within a very short space of time (ideally, less half the time needed for the average unfamiliar-with-RPGs-but-curious person to lose interest and wander off).

It’s easy to say (or write), however, and much more tricky to execute.

See, the game master’s role in an RPG has always involved a burden of study. Even if no one in the group, the prospective game master included, has actually played a roleplaying game before, the GM is always expected to be, at least, a self-educated expert.

The GM must understand the rules of the game enough to adjudicate their use by the entire group, GM included, and be familiar enough with the broader world and immediate milieu of the game’s setting to be able to improvise consistently as the players fumble about and come up with novel solutions to the problems the GM sets them.

I still chuckle at the thought of one of my favourite RPG rule sets of recent years, Atomic Robo: The Roleplaying Game, which features on the back, “This is multi-era, pick-up-and-play gaming at its best; get playing in ten minutes, or take your time and make the most of behind-the-scenes rules for added depth.”

As I read the book, though, it became clear that while the players have a quick-and-easy way of making action scientist characters with enough game statistics to be play-ready in ten minutes (not that that happens; players will always find minutiae to faff around over in the simplest of processes), the GM isn’t so lucky. Hell, it says so on page 12: “If you’re a new GM, this is just the tip of the iceberg for you. You should read and get familiar with the whole book.”

So, yeah. More pick-up-and-study-before-play.

The frustrating thing is, I can see why.

A player playing their character to entertain the other three to five friends at the table requires skill not just in maths and grasping rule concepts but also characterisation, performance and an ability to read a room to ensure their play isn’t hampering anyone else’s.

A game master has that work load amplified to the power of the number of other players at the table. The GM has to make sure the multiplicity of characters, situations and challenges they present to the players are entertaining, compelling and are balanced between tough-but-fair and easy-but-not-boring, as well as ensuring the game’s tone of the is consistent and each session’s pace is on the exciting side of comfortable.

Even in a fairly simple system like Atomic Robo, which uses a slightly rendered-down implementation of the FATE rule set, there are some odd concepts, like Aspects and Brainstorming, which may take a little time to wrap one’s head around.

(I’m of the opinion that Brainstorming needed a lot more supporting text in the game master’s chapter; it’s intended as a way to model the scientific method of investigation AND let the players tell the game master the actual cause of the piece of weirdness they’re investigating, but the game master’s section ignores it in favour of advice on pre-preparing conspiracies for the players to uncover and defeat.)

(Also, the example sequence of scenes from the source comic books that Brainstorming is meant to model is basically foreshadowing for a core plot element that the writers had in mind from the beginning.)

It seems as though one person in any given RPG group having to spend time studying the core rulebook/s like a wizard poring over an arcane text is a truism of the hobby.

(I do love the Beginner Game kit for the Star Wars: Force and Destiny RPG for actually doing a good job at introducing its rules concepts at a slow, steady and interesting pace, although it does weigh rather heavily on combat-related encounters.)

Can novice game masters avoid this burden of initial study? I think so. I’ve been working on a project for Atomic Robo: The Roleplaying Game for the past couple of years; a combination of one-shot module and starter kit-style introduction that I hope will allow game masters to be just as ready to go in ten minutes from cold as the players will be.

As such, I am really keen to find out more about the approach Modiphius will be taking with the planned starter boxed set for HOMEWORLD: Revelations.

Any development in the RPG scene that lets any group of enthusiastic folks commence enjoying one of the most creative and flat-out entertaining hobbies out there without one of them having to go sit in a corner for a few hours buried in a book, even a slim one, will be most welcome.