Erin over at Lurking Rhythmically (and congrats to her on the LotFP contract) has a lot to disagree with me about from my last post. I'm going to tackle her arguments here because I think they get at the heart of a number of misconceptions about gaming in general. They also give me the opportunity to take some of the ideas I was playing with in the last post and apply them to other aspects of design.
I'm going to save the abuse issue for later. Instead, I'd like to start with the issues of fairness and prejudice. Erin asks, "What if I, the player, have no social skills whatsoever, but I still want to play a smooth-talking seducer or a quick-witted scoundrel?" It's an interesting question. I've got one in response: what if you have no skill at throwing the ball, but you want to be the quarterback in your local backyard football game? Can you all just go inside, start up a game of Madden NFL 11, and still say you played football?
Let's tackle this another way: what if I want to play a tactical genius in a game of fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons? Should I be allowed to simply win combats through a single skill check? Of course not. 4e is about tactical combat. That would make about as much sense as changing the rules of Dogs in the Vineyard to make combat more fun and less deadly.
Again, this comes back to questions of what a game is about. Is chess about homicidal queens teleporting across the battlefield and slaughtering all who stand before them, or about enraged war elephants trampling clergyman into bloody stains on the turf? Of course not. Those are just the trappings of the game, the fluff. Chess is about maneuver and positioning. In the same way, Go Fish is about memorization, not about worms or boats.
Let's take a more complex game. Warhammer 40K isn't about the moral dilemma that arises when the only hope for humanity's survival is a bloody-handed and cruel dictatorship. That, as the fans of the game are wont to say, is the fluff. The actual game is about building an army of units with various strengths and weaknesses, and then maneuvering that army on the board to maximize the strengths and minimize those weaknesses. The game works just fine if you don't know any of the fluff. The game is an utter disaster if you have encyclopedic knowledge of the fluff, but don't know the actual rules. You could, with only a little effort, replace space marines with Care Bears and Eldar with My Little Ponies, not change a single number or dice mechanic, and the game would play just fine.
What a game is about is not what the characters do. It is about what the players do. This brings us back to the issue of abuse. Erin is worried that replacing dice rolls and resource management with actual actions on the part of the players will lead to min-maxing. She's absolutely correct, of course. Quite frankly, if I was running a game in which some aspect like a stat was useless, I would just remove it from the game. For instance, if I did not play with retainers or morale, I probably would drop Charisma from my D&D games. After all, my games already don't include a Comeliness stat, or a Luck stat in spite of the fact that every time characters do something that requires the players roll the dice, they are testing their luck.
My suggestions yesterday demonstrated how to add small elements to an already existing game to add more flavor. The goal was not to turn D&D into a game about social interaction. These additions simply add an element of social interaction to the game. I know this, because I play with most of those suggestions. In one instance, the solo game I run for Oddysey, the game has become about social interaction and cultural, as opposed to geographical, exploration. This utterly broke the game. Since her character was not going into dangerous places and retrieving treasure, the advancement system completely collapsed. The result? Next month will be the second year anniversary of the game, and her character, the same character she's played since day one, only recently achieved third level. And she only did that because I completely jettisoned D&D's advancement mechanic.
First edition D&D is about exploration. Remove exploration, and the game no longer works. This is why linear dungeons are such a disaster in first edition D&D. Fourth edition D&D is a game about tactical skirmishes. Remove the tactical skirmishes and a game falls apart. This is why linear dungeons are not a problem in fourth edition D&D. You can easily add social mechanics to either game. Heck, you could use the exact same social mechanics for either game. However, you should not delude yourself into believing that by doing so you have created a game about social interaction. On that basis, you could argue effectively, I believe, against the suggestions I've made in my last post. If Mr. Dancey wants a game that is actually about social interaction, he will need to make sure that his rules support players interacting socially with the setting and the NPCs. Simply replacing that with dice rolls and resource management will not achieve that goal. I got the chance to play Dogs in the Vineyard at this past GenCon. Among the players was the real rules mechanic and min-maxer from one of Oddysey's old groups. He looked over the rules, figured out the central mechanic involved betting dice and raising stakes, and optimized his character for that behavior. He ended up with the character who couldn't shoot his way out of a paper bag, but who could sell ice cream to Eskimos.
And this is because Dogs in the Vineyard is not about social interaction. What you, the player, say makes no difference to the outcome of a conflict. What matters is how many dice you can and do risk in the exchange. What is hiding at the center of Lumpley’s diagram? Story. Dogs in the Vineyard is about creating a series of rising actions, climaxes, and dénouements. It might not actually be good story, but it will have that sequence of waves that we, in the West, recognized as the architecture of story.
Personally, I don't think story is a winning topic for a game. Quite simply, writing stories is work. In and of itself, it isn't fun for most people. This is why procrastination is the bane of all professional writers. It's quite often easier to clean the kitchen then is to write your story. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. D&D worked because exploration is fun. Going somewhere you've never been before is exciting, scary, and intriguing. So is pulling off a caper, achieving victory in a contest of skill (either individually or as part of a team), and uncovering the truth through assembling a diverse collection of clues. Games about resource management can be a lot of fun. They can also easily be replicated on a computer. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if the resources you are managing are called hit points, mana, or prestige.