Friday, December 03, 2010

More Poking at Rules and Actions

Oddyssey told me that I should just keep it simple. I should just point out that different games require different mechanics. But instead I wrote something long and slightly rambling.

Shlominus replied with a rather long, point-by-point rebuttal. It highlights certain areas where I need to be more clear. So that's what this post is about. Let's start near the top:
this statement of yours baffles me. what you are saying is considering any non-physical ablilites you always play within your "real" personal limits.

Well, not exactly. Let's go back to the ideas that got this whole ball rolling. Mr. Dancey wants an RPG that is not targeted so heavily at the Rules Masters and Number Crunchers. He points to Dogs in the Vineyard as a way to move forward. The problem with this is that, in truth, if you look at what actually happens at the table, he's just replacing one set of rules with another. When I played Dogs in the Vineyard at GenCon, it was once again the ace rules guy who dominated the game. In short, if you want to make an RPG that appeals to people who aren't all about the rules, you'll need to offer them something other than more rules.

Here is my argument in a nutshell: what the players do at the table is what your game is about. Does this mean he should never have rules for social interaction? Of course not. What it means is you should not have mechanics for social interaction if the goal of the game is to have the players interact socially. In the same way that the combat rules in D&D mean that the players don't have to actually swing swords in the air, mechanics to handle social situations mean the players don't actually have to engage in any sort of social interaction.

If social interaction is just something that's going to happen, but is not a primary focus of your game, feel free to throw in all the social interaction mechanics you want. If, for instance, your game is all about being space merchants, and your focus is on buying, transporting, and selling commodities, you might not want spend too much time on bribing port officials. So, you make a real quick mechanic, maybe based on the characters’ reputation versus the honesty or the greed of the port official in question. That way, you can quickly adjudicate what the cost of corruption is to the PCs, and get right back into the heart of your game.

This is why the social mechanics of early D&D mentioned by DHBoggs are so simple. One quick dice roll defines how the people you meet feel about you. Because the game is more interested in exploration than combat, only a third of such encounters will result automatically in a fight. Probably less, if you allow a PC’s Charisma to influence the role. The situation can be swiftly adjudicated, allowing everyone return to the primary activity.

The rules, in short, allow us to quickly get through things we do not wish to linger on. It's not the only job they do, however. Let's take a look at another of shlominus' comments:

but in an rpg all the players do is make their characters do something.

Ah, but this is not true at all. Most RPGs, especially more recently produced ones, are chock full of mechanics that have nothing to do with the actions of the characters. Saving throws are a good example. A saving throw is pretty much a get-out-of-jail-free card, a last chance for some mitigating force, usually luck, to save a character’s bacon. Usually, it's entirely up to the DM to decide exactly why a successful save is effective. Most don't even bother; we just assume when successfully saving that through a quirk of luck, positioning, and some sort of native resistance to magic, your character only suffers half the damage they would have otherwise.

Another example is Fate Points and the like. Lots of games these days have a mechanic by which you earn points, usually via some nonmechanical means like "good role-playing”. These points can later be spent in all sorts of ways. Among these are rerolls, automatic successes, or the transformation of a fatal wound to a lesser injury.

This is an example of a resource that the player can spend that is completely invisible to the character. Aragorn and Legolas can't have a discussion about how many Fate Points they have left. They can discuss how battered they are, how low they are in provisions, or how many arrows they have left in their quivers, but Fate Points are a resource that only the players can discuss. In some instances, their use can be described as an extra effort on the part of the character, but in most cases this isn't so. (These sorts of mechanics really annoy people who love immersion in RPGs because it forces them to think about issues in ways their characters absolutely can't. But that's a discussion for another day.)

Again, this highlights the distance between the actions of the players and the actions of the characters. Characters might be leading massive armies, wading up to their knees through sewers, falling in love, engaging in character assassination, or struggling with existential fears, but through all of this the players may only be rolling dice and managing abstract resource points.

Which brings us back to my central point: what your game is about is what the players are actually doing. If Mr. Dancey wants to make a game that appeals to people who are not attracted to the current iteration of D&D, he’s going to have to make game that isn't simply a reskinning of D&D.

This is why mechanics are important. They can either support your fun, or get in the way. As shlominus pointed out:

you may have chosen the wrong system for this game, but i bet you had fun, so... what's wrong?! :)

And the honest answer is, nothing that can't be fixed with a few minor tweaks. But these things still bear fixing. If there is something in your game that inhibits the fun, rather than supports it, you absolutely ought to remove it. Of course, you need to know what removing that aspect will do to the rest of the game, which is why it is important to understand exactly how the whole thing hangs together. This is one of the benefits of working with a simpler system.

In this case, while Oddyssey was still having a blast, the fact that her character was not increasing in level was a minor annoyance. It was, quite simply, making the game much less fun that could be. It's not so much an on/off Boolean thing as a matter of efficiency. Rules should support the fun.

The intriguing thing about RPGs, however, is that while rules can support the fun they cannot bring the fun. Again, to quote shlominus:

an endless series of empty rooms filled with monsters and a bit of treasure works perfectly within the rules. sure, it would be a terrible game and it won't be fun but it wouldn't "break" anything.

unlike your game with oddysey, which "broke" the game, but most likely was fun for you both.

hm...

Hm, indeed. Or, to quote Mr. Gygax:

"The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules."

16 comments:

Carter Soles said...

Brilliantly summed up! Thanks for the enlightening series of posts on this topic.

shlominus said...

i think i understand a bit better now where you are coming from. i still don't agree with some of your points, but that's hardly a problem. :)

may i repeat a question from my last post? in your solo-game, how do you resolve social interactions?

purely by talking, are stats or dice involved (in what way?), or is it a combination of both? i would be greatful for an example.

shlominus said...

actually i would be grateful... :/

trollsmyth said...

shlominus: It's almost entirely purely talking. So long as magic isn't invoked, I tend to leave the stats out of it, and the dice on the table.

It's not quite the free-for-all that implies, however. There are certain principles that help shape those interactions, and I hang just about everything on my campaign's themes.

Erin Palette said...

What it means is you should not have mechanics for [X] if the goal of the game is to have the players [do X].

The illogic of this statement baffles me.

In the same way that the combat rules in D&D mean that the players don't have to actually swing swords in the air, mechanics to handle social situations mean the players don't actually have to engage in any sort of social interaction.

This is patently ludicrous, as I (and doubtless many others) can give tons of anecdotal evidence in the form of game stories that this is simply not true.

There are at least two ways for a player to handle combat in D&D. One is to say "I try to hit it" and roll the dice. Another way involves saying "I raise my sword high above my head, and with a fierce battle cry, I seek to cleave my foe in twain" before rolling. Mechanically, the two approaches are identical, though a DM might be inclined to grant a small modifier to the second player in the name of being entertaining.

Similarly, there are two ways to handle a social interaction. One is to say "I seduce the barmaid" and throw the dice. The other is to actually role-play trying to seduce her, which might give a bonus for good RP or a penalty for saying a horribly wrong thing. Regardless, it is the skill of the character being tested, not the player, although a player can certainly help adjust the modifier.

The key point here is "Do not penalize the awkward, for lack of ability. Instead, reward those go beyond mere dice-rolling."

trollsmyth said...

Erin: The illogic of this statement baffles me.

I'm not sure I have the skill to make it any clearer than that. When playing golf, the players whack a little white ball with clubs in attempts to make it go into a small hole in the ground. That's what golf is about.

In soccer, players work together to get a ball to enter the other team's goal, while striving to prevent the other team from putting the ball through their goal. That's what soccer is about.

Both games can involve lots of shouting and cheering, the drinking of Gatorade, and possibly hanging out over burgers and beer afterwards, but those are not what those games are about (even if it is exactly why some people play).

In 4e D&D, you build a character and work cooperatively with other players to achieve tactical victory against the DM's challenges via maneuver, the use of your character's special powers, and synergizing your character's abilities with those of the other players' characters. That's what 4e is about. Rules are provided to explain how your character moves and what their special powers do, but you're left to your own devices to decide how your characters move and how they use those powers.

In 1e D&D, you build a character and work cooperatively with other players to explore a mysterious location that's slowly revealed to you by the DM. That's what 1e D&D is about. Rules are supplied, again, to impose limits and challenges to your exploration (just as 4e's rules provide limits and challenges to your tactical actions), but you're pretty much left to your own devices when it comes to working within, or overcoming, those limits.

In DitV, you create a character and, in concert with the other players, involve your character in various conflicts. Rules are provided to encourage the escalation of those conflicts, as well as their resolution, creating a series of rising tensions, climaxes, and falling tensions. That's what' DitV is about. Again, rules are provided to encourage the shape of these waves, but you are left to your own devices when it comes to when, how far, and about what for each wave.

In each game, the magic happens in the blank spaces between the rules. Is that any clearer?

This is patently ludicrous, as I (and doubtless many others) can give tons of anecdotal evidence in the form of game stories that this is simply not true...

There are at least two ways for a player to handle combat in D&D. One is to say "I try to hit it" and roll the dice. Another way involves saying "I raise my sword high above my head, and with a fierce battle cry, I seek to cleave my foe in twain" before rolling. Mechanically, the two approaches are identical, though a DM might be inclined to grant a small modifier to the second player in the name of being entertaining.


Sure, you can, but as I said, you don't have to. And, in fact, doing so may unnecessarily slow the game down and distract you from what the game's primary focus is. As above, if that's what you really want in a game, you may need to tweak the game you're playing, or play a different one.

The key point here is "Do not penalize the awkward, for lack of ability. Instead, reward those go beyond mere dice-rolling."

Again, Madden NFL 11 is no substitute for actually playing football. If we're playing 4e, and a player can't or doesn't want to deal with tactical combat, than they're best playing another game. Thankfully, there are lots of other RPGs out there, with different focuses, for them to play. But if I'm running a game that's about social interaction within the setting of the game itself, and that doesn't float your boat, then you should probably play something else.

Erin Palette said...

So here's the thing: You keep saying "I want my players to do X, so I will actively not use rules which encourage X so that the players will do X themselves instead of simulating it through rules."

And what I keep saying is, "You have been spoiled by good players." I think you have never seen the look of utter shock and forlorn horror on the face of a gamer when they realize that they are completely on their own, and no one else in their party knows what to do either.

Case in point: Back in 1995-ish, I was asked by some college students to run a game for me. They didn't know me, just knew me by reputation as a kick-ass GM. We all agreed that Vampire: the Masquerade would be the game of choice, because I was good at it and vampires were cool and it would be a decade before Twilight came out and ruined that genre.

So. I explain the game to them, both how it works and how I like to play it. I help them make their characters, subtly influencing character generation so there will be some lots of juicy plot hooks for each character. I begin weaving my web of evil.

The day of the game, everyone shows up. I start the game, introduce the PCs to the campaign world and each other, tug slightly on plot threads, and then.... I sit back and say "OK, now what do you do?"

I had six sets of blank eyes looking back at me.

They had no clue what to do next. They'd never been in this situation before. Always, in every other game, they'd had a GM point them in the direction they needed to go. Instead of relishing the freedom to direct the fate of their characters, they were paralyzed by it. Needless to say, I had to adjust my GMing style rapidly.

To summarize: There were no rules to "Make the players realize they have the power to implement their own plots," just as you suggest, and the players failed utterly at this.

Erin Palette said...

But if I'm running a game that's about social interaction within the setting of the game itself, and that doesn't float your boat, then you should probably play something else.

On this, at least, we can both agree.

trollsmyth said...

Erin: There were no rules to "Make the players realize they have the power to implement their own plots," just as you suggest, and the players failed utterly at this.

This is more a matter of expectations, I think. After all, there are no rules in D&D to make the players follow the directions of the mysterious cloaked man to the nearby dungeon, but most folks seem to quickly grok that doing so will get them to the fun pretty quickly.

But to address your larger point, yes, absolutely. Not all games fit all gamers. Both Paranoia and 4e fail to float my boat. But I know folks who have a blast with both. You need to fit the rules to the activities your players think are fun. Otherwise, your players will not have fun, or you'll be fighting against the rules for what fun you do have.

shlominus said...

It's almost entirely purely talking. So long as magic isn't invoked, I tend to leave the stats out of it, and the dice on the table.

do you think this approach only works for your solo game? or do you also use it in regular group sessions as well?

Zzarchov said...

I will still have to disagree. If you want most players to do something, they have to have a way to guage success and more importantly, fail. Social situations are a prime example of this and I can back that up with both "before" and "after" control of resolving things through dialog rather than hammer to the face.

You cannot have a social conflict resolved that is anything but player A vs DM or a patronizing auto-win. Because PEOPLE have a hard time (Read impossible time) to behave exactly as someone else would. You can act like someone, but bias will always prevent you from truly thinking like someone radically different, especially when dealing with hot emotional states.

This means any of the (shock) gamist thrill and excitement to screams of "You can't handle the truth!" level of tension in a social conflict don't work. There is a reason D&D has grown more and more about combat. It was the only system with partial success and partial failure mechanics so it became the focus.

Upon adding those rules to a game I found much more willingness to engage in dialogue to solve problems, with the usual grandstanding, pomp and downright sleezy political speeches that implies.."We fight for our FREEDOM!!" .."(to be ruled by a king marginally closer who we claim is our nationality but would really still murder us before letting us so much as peer into your courtyard)".

D&D was about exploring, but it had a damn lot of rules about exploring (comparatively), but the combat rules were more interesting so the game (over years) shifted towards combat.

trollsmyth said...

shlominus: The optimal use I've found is in small, intimate games of one to three players plus DM using online text chat. However, I've used some variation on this since I started gaming. It really came together in its present form in my college game, which was face-to-face 2e D&D with six players around a table.

That game generally fell into a pattern of:

1) acquire goal

2) investigate obstacles to goal (this part involved a lot of interaction and some calling in favors to learn hidden info)

3) devise strategy for getting around/overcoming obstacles (this part also revolved around a lot of calling in favors or getting resources and help)

4) revise strategy (often on the fly) when part or all of it falls apart on contact with the enemy (and this part usually involved a combination of old-fashioned exploration and combat, with a bit of more social interaction, but that was generally just flavoring at this point).

I've also used nearly this same pattern successfully in games of Shadowrun, Alternity, and Starfrontiers.

trollsmyth said...

Zzarchov: I will still have to disagree. If you want most players to do something, they have to have a way to guage success and more importantly, fail. I'll admit, you've lost me a little bit here. Gauging levels of success is usually pretty simple. Did you convince the other person or not? Did you offer them an exchange they feel is fair or, even better, gives them more than they feel they are losing? Have you assuaged their fears, properly invoked their hopes, and given them concrete reasons to believe you'll follow through with your end? It really isn't more difficult than that in most instances, and it's easy to offer more or less cooperation based on how well the players addressed each criteria.

You cannot have a social conflict resolved that is anything but player A vs DM or a patronizing auto-win. Because PEOPLE have a hard time (Read impossible time) to behave exactly as someone else would. You can act like someone, but bias will always prevent you from truly thinking like someone radically different, especially when dealing with hot emotional states.

Ok, now I'm very confused. Why would it ever require anyone "to behave exactly as someone else would"? The players play their characters just as they always do, being as immersionist or not as they decide. I focus on the aspects of NPC personality that apply to the situation, and most folks the PCs will encounter are very much about their own self-interest, mitigated frequently by a few more altruistic concerns, and that's usually enough to base their reactions on.

You can act like someone, but bias will always prevent you from truly thinking like someone radically different, especially when dealing with hot emotional states. Ok, are you talking about personality mechanics, like the Pendragon hubris system, or GURPS-style disadvantages? Because I see that as a related but very different topic.

There is a reason D&D has grown more and more about combat. It was the only system with partial success and partial failure mechanics so it became the focus. I'm in complete agreement with that first sentence, but not the second. I think the reasons for the shift are more cultural than mechanical; much of what changed in 3e and 4e came about because the early versions of the rules really didn't support combat-focused play well at all. People wanted the combat because fights are more exciting to lots of folks than juggling rations vs. encumbrance issues. Plus, combat plays directly to the sort of power fantasy fun that older boys and younger men (and even us middle-aged farts from time-to-time) really enjoy wallowing in.

But now we're really drifting far from the topic at hand.

Spawn of Endra said...

I have tried to read through the trail of posts that are referenced here, and I honestly think the head-to-head between Mr. Trollsmyth and Ms. Palette is choice. I think some interesting ideas are being articulated.

What I don't get is: Why does anyone give a shit about Mr. Dancey's opinion about grafting whatever mechanic on to D&D?

What is at stake? Everyone seems to deal with this their own way in their game, no one seems to have a problem with "social mechanics" in their own milieux. As for a debate about game mechanics or "ethos" or whatever, there is something that simply doesn't catch on for me.

I just have a feeling that envoking Mr. Dancey allows for a straw man to be erected that fuels all of these, what to me are at best cross-purposed, arguments about either a necessary or an unnecessary game mechanic.

E.G.Palmer said...

Very well stated,Trollsmyth. I quite enjoyed this post. I'm just about entirely in agreement with your view here.

My Dungeons & Dinner Parties comment from your last post wasn't ment to be a poke by the way. I realized it looked more harsh than I intended when you replied.

I'm actually interested in your game with Oddysey. My guys are ruthless hackers whereas I love description and atmosphere.

I couldn't run a game with the degree of social interaction you do with Oddysey, but I'd like to have the guys spend more attention on immersion.

Dan said...

Erin, here's a question which I think illustrates the point a little more.

In, say 4E, what die does the player roll to decide whether their PC makes the right tactical choice of which power to use?

There isn't one. The tactical choices are made by the player, not the character. A high intelligence fighter-warlord can still make a dumb error if the player just ins't very good at the tactics needed. The DM can help them out maybe, but that's outside the systems of the game.

This is because the game is about the tactics. If you take that decision away from the player, the game is no longer about tactics.

So there's not that much disconnect in saying that social choices are made by the player, not the character. Actions sure, but the choice of what to actually say, no.

That's as I understand this post anyway. I should say that I go for something in-between - I like my players to engage meaningfully with NPCs and each other's characters, but I don't mind them rolling a few dice to bring results in line with their character concept, as long as it gets re-filtered through in-character. It's a style I'm still developing, so there we go.