Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tyranny and You

Chgowiz today discusses a post over at ars ludi describing "the benefits of tyranny". Riffing off both, I just want to make a few comments on old versus new school gaming.

Mr. Robbins points out that the tyrannical DM is actually shouldering a large chunk of work, and can be described as taking one for the team:

But with the tyrannical GM, you have one person who steps up and says “this is my game, it is my creation, I’m in absolute control and make everything happen. I resolve all disputes and I make sure all players are entertained.” Which means you, the player, are completely off the hook. You can be as selfish as you want, or as rude as you want, or as lazy as you want, because the GM has taken responsibility for making the game work and taking care of everyone at the table.

I think that's a tad extreme, but not entirely off the mark. However, I also think there's a marked difference between what is accepted tyranny in old school play and new school play, and that this leads to some, if not most, of the friction between us RPGers.

Old school tyranny is best summed up in the phrase "rulings, not rules". The old school DM has the final say on what can and can't happen. Can Rukmini sew a bag from scavenged sail cloth to keep the enchanted jade eggs safe in? Old school versions of D&D don't have skill systems, so it's entirely up to the DM to decide. However, this is great freedom for the players. They don't have to worry about what the rules do and don't cover. If they want to try to disguise themselves, or kick sand in the face of an enemy, or distract the guards with a Punch & Judy show, they can just dive in and do it, letting the DM worry about how such things intersect with the rules.

New school tyranny is a different sort. Ok, first off, let me say I don't have a copy of Keep on the Shadowfells handy, so I'm working off memory here. If I'm wrong about something, someone please tell me so I can eat crow, but...

The new school tyranny is the tyranny of plot. The DM has a plot, a story, that they expect the players to play through, just like in a computer game. Minor deviations might be permissible, but if you go off the reservation, you risk derailing the entire evening's gaming, because the DM isn't prepared for it. Take a look at Keep on the Shadowfells. There's some wiggle-room in the order in which events take place, but not a lot. First this ambush, and then that ambush, and then into the tunnels...

The players, for their part, don't need to look for action. It's up to the DM to point them towards the next way-station in the plot. They show up, interact with whatever the situation is, and then move on to the next. It's pretty low-impact, and if you're digging what the DM has planned, it's pretty much guaranteed entertainment.

Now, compare this to Keep on the Borderlands. The first thing some folks notice about KotB is that the people in the keep are described with stats and treasure. Yep, that's right, if the PCs decide to, they can kill everyone in the keep and take their stuff. Some, of course, scoff at this, saying it plays right into the fight-and-loot myopia of old school gaming. But, in truth, it opens up all sorts of possibilities for play. Yes, the PCs can fight the monsters in the Caves of Chaos and use the keep as their base. But they can also decide to become burglars, breaking into the homes of the keep's denizens and stealing their loot. Or they join the evil cult and lead an army of monsters against the keep. Or they can play the monsters and the keep off against each other, Yojimbo-style.

But what if the players want to try something like that in 4e's Keep on the Shadowfell? The poor DM is all on his own. The adventure as published assumes the players will fight the cultists and their monster minions on behalf of the town of Winterhaven. If you want to loot and pillage the town instead, you've gone off the rails. The DM has to come up with stats and treasures without much help from the game at all. I suppose you could use the Human Rabble and Guard monsters from the Monster Manual to flush things out, and then (speaking of tyranny) use the 4e treasure system to dictate what the players can loot. But I wouldn't call that optimal.


Christopher B said...

One quibble:

"Old school versions of D&D don't have skill systems, so it's entirely up to the DM to decide. However, this is great freedom for the players."

The term "tyrannical DM" indicates that this is likely not true. It would probably be true of a truly unbiased absolutist DM, but "tyrannical" implies an abuse of that power, which more than likely impinges upon player freedom.

trollsmyth said...

True, so I suppose I'm talking more about benevolent dictatorship rather than full-on, boot-in-the-face tyranny.

Blotz said...

I like your comparison between KotSF and KotBL. I think i can flip it around a bit though. The original Keep was completely devoid of plot! Whilst all of the NPC's have stats and treasure, what they don't have is Names. Sure, there's an evil Temple in the caves of chaos, but there's little if any indication as to what Evil or Chaos they might be up too. The Original Keep leaves a LOT of work up to the GM. So sure, many PC groups may have taken the options you've described over the course of many groups playing the game, my hypothesis would be that the majority of them took the first option. And I believe that collation of decades of playtesting such adventures has led to the evolution of such heavily railroaded modules. Not necessarily a welcome development, but I think it's eminently explainable. In WotC's defense, they do seem aware of what they are doing. I've run the first two of the Adventure Path "The Scales of War" and the second module especially is peppered with "if the pc's choose to do something else-then" statements, offering up really good ideas on how the gm can wing it if the pc's go "off the rails" or even if they "gasp" fail!

Ok, toddler's crying, must stop typing...

trollsmyth said...

I don't think anything needs to be said in WotC's defense. They offer one option, and the past another. The new game is really well set up to take up and play, once you've tackled the PHB tome. (And I've never seen a version of the game so ready for a new Basic set of streamlined rules to get new players into the hobby.) In the past, I've enjoyed games where not derailing the GM's plot was a serious consideration. Obviously, that's not my first choice, but I know it works for some. Still, I'm very glad to see they are spending serious time helping the DM deal with the unexpected.

Dwayanu said...

I think it's always good to have something (preferably multiple things) going on -- a shortcoming of B1 In Search of the Unknown that really hit me after all these years. That's a dynamic to counter the frozen tableau endemic to both plot-railroaded and "plot-free" scenarios; the whole world does not revolve (much less go into stasis) around the PCs.

"Features" already prominent in 3E and overwhelming in 4E seem to me strongly to encourage a tyranny of rules shaping things with a sheer inertia like that of a dull and callous bureaucracy.

The mass of rules, their focus, the time taken to resolve the combats making up that focus, and the general acceptance of manipulating those rules -- rather than "getting into the shoes" of one's character -- as the definition of play ... all combine to make any but a pretty "railroad" approach difficult.

Although "stat blocks" for monsters are now more compact and user-friendly than in 3E, they still take up much more space than the equivalents in old-style scenarios. "Five orcs (hp 8, 7, 5, 3, 2)" is pretty common therein. Even the more verbose style (AC, HD, MV, #AT and D) is a relative model of brevity.

Working up all the new encounter data in keeping with the rules looks like a big job. How to maintain the new notions of "balance" throughout a campaign without resorting to heavy-handed management is so far beyond me.

trollsmyth said...

How to maintain the new notions of "balance" throughout a campaign without resorting to heavy-handed management is so far beyond me.

Here's a dirty little secret I should probably keep close to my chest, but what the heck...

In my Thursday night Labyrinth Lord game, I've tossed balance out the window. Right now, one of the players has a vastly more powerful character than the others, though I doubt she recognizes it at this moment. ;)

Dwayanu said...

Well, that is to my mind rather the (or at least a) point of old-style D&D: The player whose characters get XP and magic instead of getting killed ends up with more powerful characters than the one whose strategies produce the opposite results!

Improvisation is simply quicker and easier in old D&D and similar games. It's not in my experience any harder in (e.g.) RuneQuest for the addition of skill ratings and other tools, because the Game Master still has final authority.

RQ doesn't have hundreds of spells, monsters and magic items as rules, so even more is left up to the GM's creativity. T&T is even more sketchy in that regard, and the common practices of using Saving Rolls as a "universal mechanic" and adding specific skills have not one whit changed its fundamentally freewheeling attitude. TSR-worshiping cultists too often overlook those factors, and indeed may reverse their "rulings, not rules" stance on a dime when some sacred cow of a rule is considered alterable or dispensible by heretics with the effrontery to prefer a different approach.