Safety and Stretching in RPGs

Games are inherently antagonistic. Even co-operative ones or solo ones. There are things we want to do, like put the cards in order from Ace to King. There are things preventing us from doing so: the rules.

In most roleplaying games, where there is a GM or GMs, the antagonism is between GM and player(s). As much as we pretend it isn’t, that they are working together, the core standard model requires there to be some antagonism. Ultimately, what players want is to use their characters’ abilities to not just tell a good story but to command situations, to interact with the fictional reality using their fictional instrument (their character) and the constraints placed upon them, and interact in such a way that they get what their character desires, or what they then player want.

The rules play a part in this, of course, but for a lot of RPGs, there’s grey areas. Because RPGs simulate some sort of reality, fictional or otherwise, it involves images in people’s heads. Players and GMs attempt to imagine the same thing but usually (usually, don’t heat up my inbox with all your famous exceptions) there’s questions to be answered. How far away from him am I? Would I know if I can cold-cock him, since my combat skills would allow me to read the body language and see what kind of fighter he is? Can I get to him before he pulls the trigger? Do I know how to pick this lock? The last two questions can be answered by the rules, generally. The first two are more up to the GM. Individual rules systems vary about how much they leave open and free, and how much they specify; individual groups and GMs also vary about how much they feel like locking down, and how much they’re happy to hand to the players.

But no system ever is going to let the players make the bad guys just vanish in a puff of logic when the players want. They have to use their character’s abilities and use them in situations where the full application of them is not entirely clear, because no rules set can cover every possible interpretation in a fictional reality. And the GM is the arbiter of whether those things work. Inherently, this conversation is antagonistic, because the players want everything to work. They want every +1 they can get. And the only person telling them no is the GM.

“Stretching” is the word we use for this in Relics. When something might or almost cover a situation, but doesn’t as written. Yes, you know about how to fix a car but that doesn’t mean you know where the nearest garage is. Or how to identify tire marks. But it could? I guess? Does it let you know where to shoot the car to disable it? Which car the bad guy chose to steal based on easiness? Where the nearest chopshop is? How long it takes to get new plates? Longer and longer the stretched skill gets, pulled from repair to forensics to local knowledge to grand theft auto…

The thing is, stretching is inevitable. And it’s natural. Players want to win. They also want to feel safe from failure. They don’t want to feel like they chose the wrong skill. They took repair and then the car didn’t break down at all and they need something else. That makes them feel stupid and exposed to danger that could hurt their sole playing piece and that piece’s sense of being awesome. Human beings will go a long way to avoid feeling unsafe, unready or foolish. So we stretch.

What’s the point of all this? The point is be aware of it and indeed, think about building it into rules. I don’t mean just “let skills be broad”. It’s more than that. Because broad skills and narrow skills will both get stretched. EVERYTHING will get stretched. The trick is making explicit rules about stretching.

Famously, the old West End Star Wars game had rules for this. If a player is making a big argument about why an action technically shouldn’t reeeeeally be giving them a Dark Side point because it is good, then hoo boy do they get the Dark Side point. Stretching is a sign of the Dark Side indeed. In the third edition of Over the Edge, they build this right into character generation. Everyone gets a Main Trait that defines their core skill set, and a Side Trait that gives it flair and difference. You might be a BODYGUARD who can TALK TO SPIDERS. If Bodyguard is your main trait, then it can stretch. It can be about any part of the bodyguarding business. You’re gonna be like Eliot on Leverage, baby. You can tell who is ex-CIA because those guys protect people with a very distinctive stance. And so on. But your side trait doesn’t stretch. You can’t talk to crabs. You can’t intuit how to treat a spider bite. Don’t try it on. The GM will tell you to shut the hell up.

We actually made the same rule in Relics, although not quite so perfectly and succinctly. Memories are the abilities that cost points and play time in Relics, and give control of your character to someone else. Therefore, Memories can stretch. Anything else you basically get for free or is a powerful supernatural element. So those DON’T stretch. If you paid for it, it goes a fair way. If you didn’t, shut up and pay for something new to cover the gap.

Generally, in RPGs, the rules we actually play by aren’t written in the book. They’re social rules and they’re about things like who can stretch (people who the GM likes more?) and how they can stretch (if they talk a good game?) and how the rules and setting bend to help them (horror games less than fantasy?). It’s actually worth thinking about these rubbery invisible rules and pulling them right into the forefront and shining a light on them (and maybe even making games where they are explicit). Then you can actually figure out what’s really going on and make things better and richer for everyone. Instead of say, allowing that one player who whines to stretch all he wants and ignoring the players who try not to stretch at all.

Just something to think about – and a tip for Relics GMs. If they paid for it, they can stretch it. Otherwise, tell them to pull their damn heads in. There’s a rule in the GM’s section that we put there that says you can tell your players to shut the hell up. Feel free to point to it when you need it.


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