Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Expectations, Jerks, and Unintended Consequences

I got pointed again to Malcolm Sheppard’s Mob United blog recently, and he’s got another take on his “Fire the Fans” post from a while back. I find this one very interesting because I think it speaks to a disconnect between designers and players.

This is partly also inspired by his comments on friendship and how RPGs seem to be designed under the assumption that we don’t play with our friends. And maybe I’m believing the marketing too much, but I find it interesting how design features in modern games are described differently by the designers and by the players.

The designers speak of guidelines, things like treasure packets and not having rustmonsters, in order to reinforce the focus of the game. These are tools to help the GM hit the statistical sweetspots of the mechanics. Players, on the other hand, frequently speak of limits that keep the GM from being a jerk. One of the common complaints against Old School design and play style is that it puts too much on the GM, and allows the sort of “abuse” that gets bandied about on various forums.

Frankly, I don’t play with folks like that, certainly not more than once. Heck, most players I know won’t play with a GM even after single instances of lesser offenses. But the assumption persists that the game isn’t fun because people are not playing it right, and that you can force them to play it properly through the rules. I do have a hint of sympathy for this view, as I think rules do matter and having rules that reinforce your themes and styles is important. But that sort of reinforcement is a far cry from dictating the actions of others at the table.

This reminds me very much of common advice you’d see in the magazines back in the ‘80s. If the players decided to go off and behave “badly” during the adventure, you were to inflict nasty in-game consequences on their characters. In effect, GMs were advised to engage in passive-aggressive cycles of permissiveness and punishment, and this was supposed to be the key to avoiding railroading. At the time, I thought such advice was brilliant.

Hey, I was 13, what can I say? ;p

The problems with this sort of thing should be obvious. First, if the players are just exercising what they see as the freedom of the sandbox, then punishing them by having the internal world of the game react to them is like spanking a masochist; it’s likely to encourage what you want to discourage. If they don’t enjoy it, then you’re just frustrating and annoying your players, who may or may not (quite likely don’t at all) understand the bizarre map of cause-and-effect in your mind (unless you make it clear through bizarre monologues).

But this is all beside the point. The problem, at its base here, is frustrated expectations. People have conflicting ideas of what they want from the game. The classic example of this is the GM who wants passion and drama and the players who are simply playing the numbers, the classic “roll playing vs. role playing.” In another example, a game I was recently playing in ended because the GM wanted something more episode-focused while the players were all about the “B-plots” of personal struggle and interpersonal conflicts.

It’s easy enough to say, “just talk about these things before the game begins” but that only works if everyone really knows what they want. A lot of people don’t. I thought 3e was going to be the greatest game ever, even after I’d read through the PHB. My Doom & Tea Parties campaign isn’t quite what we expected it to be at first, and if we’d been rigorous about nailing down *exactly* what the campaign was going to be like, we might have locked ourselves too firmly in one style for it to have morphed into what it is now.

Right now, my style is very much based on finding like-minded people to play with, being as clear as possible about my style up front, and being open to pleasant surprises. It works for me (usually, but not always) and it seems to work for my current crop of players. It does require a lot of open communication (made a bit more difficult by all my current games being online and not in person) but that’s just healthy for relationships in general. I need to be better at recognizing issues and addressing them directly from the outset, but my players have been incredibly open to taking our games in strange new directions that would confound a game built upon a rigorous attempt to recreate a certain style of play.

5 comments:

Roger the GS said...

> In effect, GMs were advised to engage in passive-aggressive cycles of permissiveness and punishment, and this was supposed to be the key to avoiding railroading. At the time, I thought such advice was brilliant.

Amen. Me taking that kinds of advice seriously ruined by high school campaign.

tandw said...

If the players decided to go off and behave “badly” during the adventure, you were to inflict nasty in-game consequences on their characters.

That's straight out of the 1e DMG--it's part of the way Gygax recommended the game be run. (One of the many elements of by-the-book Gygaxian gaming that I had no patience for.)

Incidentally, here via Sandbox of Doom.

Robert Fisher said...

As I’ve said before, rules cannot make a DM better. Only experience and maturity can do that.

Rules also make me a worse player. The more rules you put in front of me, the more I tend to be a rules lawyer and think “inside the box” of the rules.

One of the things that struck me about the North Texas RPG Con was the lack of jerkitude from everyone. It turns out that playing these games with such unclear rules with strangers actually seems to work just as well as with friends. Granted, we may have been a more homogenous lot that RPGers in general, but I’m betting it has more to do with the higher average age.

Nick Crayon said...

I always thought it was silly to punish people in-game for bad behavior, even when I was a wee lad. It always seemed more productive to have a quiet chat with the "offender", but more than likely, I'd just go with it.

I never saw the point in insisting that your adventurers act "good" and refrain from slaying mayors and town guardsmen and from cheating the innkeeper. It's just as much fun as the pre-plotted "Hey, go slay the dragon" spiel, if a little more unpredictable.

But then again, I've always played with my friends and they're a cooperative sort. If one of us isn't having fun, we'll quickly try and find fun for all of us.

Mr. Gone said...

"If the players decided to go off and behave “badly” during the adventure, you were to inflict nasty in-game consequences on their characters."

As uncreative as it sounds, I keep karma notes on major things my players decide to do. If a player willingly chooses to do something out of their alignment, I make note of it. For instance, if a PC kills someone for no reason at all, odds are something bad will make its way back to their character. But, I always take faith in the dice. Sometimes in life, bad people can do terrible things and get away with it, and live happily ever after. If the karma die rolls in a PC's favor after they just commited some heinous unspeakable act for no good or bad reason, I play as it lands.