On Top Down vs. Bottom Up GMing

Today I'm here to talk about systems. Specifically, the Grand Unified Theory of Skills as put forth by @ryvencedrylle earlier today. It talks about how D&D 4e powers can be expressed as skill "stunts" that have additional effects (damage/healing, movement, giving/removing statuses, etc.) and count as auto-successes in rolling that skill. It talks about removing powers from the game and creating them on the fly with skill stunts.

There's so much meat to this idea, including:
  • A Tabula Rasa game where players start with a blank sheet and try skill stunts to build their character.
  • Stealing powers from other character classes, much like the Incantatrix from Dragon #90.
  • Having characters learn powers by first working out the skill stunt and then creating a power to "solidify" the stunt.
But those are ideas for different posts...

In a later Twitter conversation about how this would be philosophically simpler than D&D 4e as written, I came out with this:
The One Thing begets the 10,000 things. If I can master the One Thing, then I have all 10,000 things when needed.
And that fits how I run a game. I've made it my goal to internalize as much of the rules as possible, making me the only rulebook needed at the table. Remove the rulebook, remove the delays inherent in looking up rules, get a game that flows like a waterfall. And since there's more time to devote to the players and their characters, nobody misses the rulebooks.

To that end, I need a structure that I can learn and improvise with. I think the CortexPlus system will do that - I'm reading the Leverage rules right now. But this Grand Unified Theory of Skills does it for 4e. I can finally get my head around the core of the rules and powers without memorizing power lists. And that's the way I think and function.

That said, this way of thinking is not for everyone. I'm a very Top-Down person: I need a big-picture context to fit my day-to-day actions into. Others work more on a Bottom-Up basis: they need to know exactly what they can do right now and not worry so much about the big picture. Some blend both approaches.

I understand how working things on the fly would seem like much more work to a Bottom-Up person, much like I find memorizing power lists much more work than extemporizing in a system to make whatever I need at the time. Can we work together? Absolutely! Perhaps not in the same game, but we can learn to speak each other's language.

These are choices to make when getting into the game, right at the first sit-down when you're working on the social contract (consciously or not). If it's going to be very by-the-book, that's fine. If every session will be "Hey, let's try this and see if it works," that's also fine. But either way everyone at the table needs to be in agreement.

So yeah. I finally have a theory of 4e to play with, which makes me really stoked to run a game. Now to find the time.


  1. I'm excited to see where you go with this. I'm definitely a top down person too, so I share your excitement at understanding the/a holistic theory of 4e.

    I'll definitely be chewing on this, especially as I've been leaning my 4e toward CortexPlus for these very reasons, but now I might be able to find a nicer middle ground or point of contact.

  2. Thanks! Not sure where it's going to fit on the Gaming Projects list, but it's on my mind...