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Tabletop RPGs

A lesser-known Gary Gygax quote

Back in 2015, I came across a Gary Gygax quote I hadn’t seen before — one that resonated deeply with me then, and which still resonates just as deeply 18 months later:

Role-playing isn’t storytelling. If the dungeon master is directing it, it’s not a game.

I love this quote. It’s a strong stance, and it’s one of the cornerstones of how I see Gary and his work.

I do see roleplaying as a form of storytelling, but a collaborative one; I guess I part ways with Gary on the definition. But the second half? That sums up my feelings perfectly.

I don’t have a stake in what anyone else considers a game, or how anyone else plays. But for me, if the GM is directing the game, I’m out. Video games do that style of play so much better than tabletop RPGs, and that’s where I go for that particular fix.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Never go in against a Sicilian

Over the years, I’ve played a ton of games where the PCs had hit points and didn’t need them. It took me a long time to figure out why that was a problem.

If the PCs in an RPG have hit points — used here to mean “a stat which determines whether a character is alive or dead” — and the actual game being played with that RPG at the table doesn’t include a real chance that PCs can die, it’s the wrong RPG for that game.

I think of that mismatch like this: Is death on the line, or isn’t it? If it’s not, we should play something else; if it is, then cool.

(The words “death on the line” instantly cause this scene from The Princess Bride (paid link) to replay in my head.)

Emulation and mismatches

In my experience, this mismatch happens most often with games intended to emulate a licensed property, since they’re necessarily more closely associated with a different medium for storytelling than other RPGs. But it also comes up with games that the group wants to feel like a TV show, or a movie, or a novel — media where the story is under someone’s control.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard is never going to get killed by a stray disruptor blast from Romulan #3. It just wouldn’t be good TV. So why do the PCs in Star Trek RPGs have hit points?[1]

If those hit points don’t mean anything, that’s a fundamental disconnect between what we say we’re doing at the table — playing a game where the PCs can die — and what we’re actually doing. The illusion of those hit points meaning something is wholly unsatisfying in play.[2]

The PTA question

When I hear “I want the game to feel like [a TV show],” a version of the Risus question[3] immediately pops into my head: “Why aren’t we playing this game with Primetime Adventures?”

PTA is designed, from the group up, to emulate TV shows. In play, it ticks along like a Swiss fucking watch, sublimely in sync with its stated design goals, as it does exactly what it says on the tin. Nothing needs to be ignored (like hit points) for the game to feel like a TV show, but it simultaneously and explicitly embraces the fact that it’s a roleplaying game. It’s brilliant.

In a PTA Star Trek game, no one has hit points. Picard only gets killed by a disruptor bolt if his player wants him to die (likely because it would feel right for the episode and for the show as a whole). The show isn’t about random character deaths, so neither is the RPG. Poof! Mismatch neatly avoided.

The older I get, the less willing I am to play RPGs where portions of the rules have to be ignored — whether overtly or covertly — to get them to work as desired.

[1] I’m using Star Trek as an example, but the same goes for Star Wars, Doctor Who, or [insert many, many things that have been translated into RPG form here].

[2] The knock-on problem is that there’s now a whole swath of the game that we probably don’t really need. What’s the whole combat system for if the PCs can’t die? Why is there a section about what to do when a PC dies?

[3] “Can Risus do this?” If Risus can do it, and do it as well as RPG X, do I really need RPG X?

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

One choice, two consequences

Over on Monsters and Manuals, David McGrogan (author of the excellent Yoon-Suin, one of the starred recommendations on my big list of RPG stuff on Lulu) wrote a neat post about a rule of thumb for sandbox games: Two Problems for Every Solution.

David shares an example from his campaign that explains it well:

For example, in one of the games I am running, the PCs solved the disappearance of a group of villagers – but as a result of this they now have a vengeful demigoddess to deal with and a magic potion to track down, not to mention having to act as a go-between for two power centres and becoming entangled in an apparently unrelated issue to do with the enchantment of a young noblewoman.

Emergent play with a high degree of player agency is my jam, and I love this rule of thumb. It reminds me of last Sunday’s Star Wars World session, which makes sense because, as David points out, Star Wars is full of solutions that only beget new problems.

One bad roll popped us out of hyperspace in the wrong place, and we crashed our ship. We survived, and learned of a settlement not far away . . . full of dangerous poachers, and about to be attacked by angry natives. Problem > solution > problem, problem, and so forth. It’s a good fit.

For where I’m at in terms of sandbox experience, though, I’d like to offer up a related, but not identical rule of thumb: one problem, two consequences.

Making meaningful choices which have meaningful consequences is a hallmark of sandbox play (and other sorts of game with no predetermined plot), and “problem” is just another way of saying “meaningful consequence.” Reminding myself that choices ripple, and those ripples don’t lead to a single new choice, or consequence, or problem, should help my sandbox stay vital and alive.

When I’m stumped for how the world might react in my DCC RPG hexcrawl campaign, I’m going to keep both of these rules of thumb in mind.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Alchemy, agency, and surprises

I was struggling to articulate my play style preferences last night, during a session debrief, and I kept thinking, “Didn’t I write about this on G+ like a year ago? I wish I could find that — and all those great posts that helped me figure out what I wanted in gaming, too!” What I was trying to find took some digging, G+ searching not — ironically — being all that robust, so I decided to collect it all here for easy reference.

Putting it all together turned out to be a useful exercise in its own right, too. I reread some of the posts mentioned below, many of them quite long, and tried to distill my thoughts into points that could be expressed succinctly.

Play style preferences

Here are the results of that unpacking and distillation, the core of what I want out of gaming:

  • Plot is what happens at the table. If the GM preps a bunch of stuff that will happen, and the PCs are supposed to follow along, I’m out. I played and GMed that way for years, and I’m not willing to play or GM that way anymore. I make an exception for small doses of plot — convention one-shots, a session or two to try out a system, that sort of thing.
  • No prep, or at least very little. I figured out that I don’t enjoy prep back in 2005, and that hasn’t changed. I’ll read a book (the shorter the better), and I’ll putter at some stuff before the first session if it’s useful for the whole campaign, but that’s about it. On the flipside, if I’m a player and the GM has done a lot of prep (excluding things like making a sandbox or prepping situations), that’s a pretty good indicator that the game might not be for me.
  • Roughly equal distribution of surprise. Whether I’m GMing or playing, I want to come to the table and be as surprised as everyone else by what happens. In my experience, the more prep there is, the more likely it is that the GM will steer the game to employ that prep and the players will feel pressure to follow along because they feel bad about all the work the GM has done. If the GM doesn’t have to do any work away from the table, those problems vanish.
  • Player agency and emergent play. The only plot that interests me is the one that emerges from play, based on meaningful player choices with meaningful consequences. The more player agency in a game, the better.
  • No railroading and no fudging. This might be redundant, but it’s worth calling out. If my choices as a player are being negated, or, as a GM, if I feel compelled to negate a player’s choices, we’re doing it wrong.
  • Alchemy. The magic of gaming, the thing I can’t get from a video game (as compared to a tight, scripted experience, which video games generally do much better than tabletop RPGs), is the alchemy the comes from meaningful player choices, random die rolls, and playing to find out what happens.

My thinking on these topics, and on play style in general, has been heavily informed by these excellent pieces of writing:

The Czege Principle

Paul Czege has a principle named after him, although the references to it that I found (one, two) are both followed by Paul saying that the Czege Principle isn’t the Czege Principle. In any case, the principle is both splendid and concise:

when one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun

Lots of awesome stuff flows from understanding this principle and applying it to games, and it neatly encapsulates a lot of what I wrote up top — no railroading, no fudging, emergent play, and more.

Brain damage

This excellent summary of “the brain damage posts” hit my radar about a year ago, and it changed the way I think about gaming — and about Ron Edwards. I might have chosen a different term than “brain damage,” but Ron’s observations are spot-on.

That summary thread, which includes links and nested threads, offers up a huge amount of content to digest. But it’s worth reading all of it, especially if your only prior contact with it is hearing that “Ron Edwards says gamers have brain damage.”

Here’s one bit that stands out for me:

To engage in a social, creative activity, three things are absolutely required. Think of music, theater, quilting, whatever you’d like. These principles also apply to competitive games and sports, but that is not to the present point.

1. You have to trust that the procedures work – look, these instruments make different noises, so we can make music; look, this ball is bouncey, so we can toss and dribble it

2. You have to want to do it, now, here, with these people – important! (a) as opposed to other activities, (b) as opposed to “with anybody who’ll let me”

3. You have to try it out, to reflect meaningfully on the results, and to try again – if it’s worth doing, it’s worth learning to do better; failure is not disaster, improvement is a virtue

I refer back to these principles often, and they help me look critically at whether I’m doing the kind of gaming I actually want to be doing, rather than making excuses for why unsatisfying gaming is okay.

Railroading and not prepping plots

Taken together, these seven posts by The Alexandrian comprise one of the biggest influences on why I want what I want out of gaming. Here they are in order:

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from these posts.

From Part 1, a clear and useful definition of railroading:

Railroads happen when the GM negates a player’s choice in order to enforce a preconceived outcome.

Note, however, that both parts of this equation are important: The choice must be negated and the reason it’s being negated is because the GM is trying to create a specific outcome. The players must try to get off the train and the GM has to lock the doors.

From Part 2, why railroading gargles dicks and makes GMing feel like work:

When a GM predetermines what’s going to happen in the game, they become solely responsible for the entire experience. And that’s a ridiculously heavy burden to bear. Are your encounters balanced? Did you include enough “cool stuff” for every player to participate in? Did you incorporate enough elements from each PC’s back story? The list goes on and on.

This is how you end up with GMs stringing together precariously balanced My Precious Encounters™ in a desperate juggling act as they try to keep all of their players happy.

When you allow the players to make their own decisions, all of the pressure and responsibility melts away: They’ll choose the fights they can win. They’ll approach situations in ways that let them do cool stuff. If there’s not enough stuff from their back story seeking them out, then they’ll go looking for it.

From Part 3, about playing to see what happens:

What tabletop RPGs have going for them is the alchemy of player agency. Of presenting a situation and seeing what happens when a unique set of players make a unique set of decisions and produce a unique set of outcomes. When you railroad your players, you specifically set yourself at odds with the very thing that makes playing an RPG worthwhile in the first place.

And, lastly, one from Don’t Prep Plots:

For me, the entire reason to play a roleplaying game is to see what happens when the players make meaningful choices. In my experience, the result is almost always different than anything I could have anticipated or planned for.

If I wanted to tell my players a story (which is what plot-based design really boils down to), then it’s far more efficient and effective to simply write a story. In my opinion, if you’re playing a roleplaying game then you should play to the strengths of the medium: The magical creativity which only happens when people get together.

The whole series of posts is fantastic. They’re long, but not long-winded — rather, they’re packed with examples, special cases, and dissections of common arguments in favor of railroading.

Fudging, emergent play, and systems

I often feel like Bryan R. Shipp of Room 209 Gaming is living inside my brain. He has a knack for putting things succinctly, well, and in such a way that I can feel the gears in my brain clicking into a new configuration as I read them.

Fudging can die in a fucking fire. Here’s a handy summary of exactly why, from Fudging is Bad Form:

Even in situations where the GM only fudges “once in a while,” or fudges only to the players’ benefit, the fact remains that the GM, once fudging is introduced, could fudge at any time. The inevitable result of this is that all rolls are irrelevant because they can be overruled by GM fiat.

Deciding to stop fudging has been one of the best gaming-related decisions I’ve ever made. Few things make me less happy at the gaming table, as a player or the GM, than fudging.

Here’s Bryan at his succinct best, from Emergent Play is the Only Way:

When you’re playing a game, you shouldn’t know how it’s going to end. No one should. That’s the benefit of gaming over watching TV or reading a book – your participation means you can affect change.

Lastly, here’s a quote from Game Systems That Get Out Of The Way:

If you’re looking for a game system that gets out of the way when you want it to, you’re looking for the wrong kind of game. You’re looking for D&D without the specific fiddly bits you don’t like. But I have a different proposition: look for a game system that doesn’t get out of the way when you want it to. Look for a game system that, instead, reinforces what you’re trying to do.

For me, wanting to ignore a portion of a game’s rules — or seeing a GM ignoring rules — is a canary in the coal mine, a signal that I’m probably playing the wrong game.

To choose just one example, a few years ago I GMed a long-running game where I removed possibility of PC death because it fit the genre (without telling my players, because I assumed the illusion of danger was important). As well-intentioned as that choice was, in hindsight it meant that much of the system didn’t actually matter, and the parts that did matter were working less efficiently in support of the group’s play than would a system designed to do what we wanted in the first place.

Looking back on a lifetime of gaming, my tastes have changed over the years. I’m sure they’ll change again, but for now this is a good snapshot of where my head has been at for the past year or two, and where it’s at now.