Thursday, December 02, 2010

What is this Game About Revisited: a Reply to Erin

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.

27 comments:

E.G.Palmer said...

Very interesting,Trollsmyth!
I havent' read the topic starter at RPGnet, but I did see mention of it at the RPGsite, I think.

I think trying to modify D&D for a contemporary audience is probably pointless. It's a product of it's time, and while the elements that went into it's foundation,(Sword&Sorcery, wargaming, etc),are just as interesting to me now as then, they don't have the influence in pop culture that they did then.

Also, I'm not interested in playing Dungeons & Dinner Parties.

Georgios said...

"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."

I don't think that is true. It is a common mistake when beginner DitV-GMs try their hand at this game, though.

What a player says matters exactly as much as the number of dice you can put forward. If the player does not have a valid description for his "raise" it does not count. And if he does not have the right number of dice for his raise, it doesn't count. An action during a conflict has to satisfy both conditions to come into effect.

shlominus said...

interesting post. can't wait for erin's response.

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?

when you play football you are physically present on the field and obviously have to have the necessary skills (especially the physical ones).

when you play 40k your wits (and the dice) decide the outcome, so your wits matter most.

when you roleplay you "pretend" to be someone, including all abilities this person might have. otherwise noone could ever play a mage.

this statement of yours baffles me. what you are saying is considering any non-physical ablilites you always play within your "real" personal limits. not my idea of roleplaying.

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?

no, you should not. but there might be a mechanic that allows your skills to influence the combat. just like a mechanic that allows you to shoot magic missiles from your fingertips. because your character is a master tactician and should be able to act like one.

What a game is about is not what the characters do. It is about what the players do.

but in an rpg all the players do is make their characters do something. so what the characters do is what the game is about! what the characters do is the core of the whole game.

In one instance, the solo game I run for Oddysey, the game has become about social interaction and cultural, as opposed to geographical, exploration.

something d&d might not be perfect for, but i don't see how you "broke" anything. the aim of your game was to enjoy yourself, not level up, right? you may have chosen the wrong system for this game, but i bet you had fun, so... what's wrong?! :)

assuming you are using some kind of old school d&d variant, how do you resolve social interaction in this game? i doubt morale checks will do the trick.

Remove exploration, and the game no longer works.

this, i fear, is simply not true.

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...

DHBoggs said...

Great post with a lot of meat to chew on, although I tend to agree with Shlominus on certain points.

Anyway, I just wanted to point out that D&D does have, even in the original 1974 version, several mechanics for resolving social encounters via die rolls, including of course at least two "reaction" tables. One might also point out a number of things in the supplements and Dave Arnesons First Fantasy Campaign. It seems to me that people make arguments about D&D based on half remembered ways they used to play or "starter set" rules rather than what is actually in the full rules.

trollsmyth said...

E.G.Palmer: Also, I'm not interested in playing Dungeons & Dinner Parties.

Different strokes for different folks. There's a reason Oddysey dubbed our game Doom & Tea Parties. ;)

trollsmyth said...

Georgios: Ah, interesting. I need to get my hands on a copy of those so I can poke at the details. Thanks!

Erin Palette said...

Shlominus basically said everything I was going to say except for this:

You keep going on about "Social Interaction," but what you appear to be forgetting is that ANY role-playing game, by its very nature, is a socially interactive game. The DM interacts with the players; the players interact with the DM and each other. There is laughing and chatting and bullshitting constantly occurring.

This is what makes the game splendid.

The notion that a game isn't "socially interactive" if everyone isn't talking in character is just wrong on a basic, fundamental level.

Case in point: 2 of my last 3 non-online gaming groups have been composed chiefly of engineers and pilots. These are highly technical people who love solving highly complex, fluid equations -- such as how you might assess the tactical probabilities of actions in combat -- and of course rolling dice. Tossing funny-shaped bits of bright plastic and cheering or booing at the result seems to have nearly-universal appeal, and since it is fun they do it as often as possible. And while all this happens we are laughing and poking fun at each other and eating junk food and making nerdy references.

Don't you DARE tell me that we aren't interacting socially.

But here is the thing: these same people, being overly-analytical types, are absolute crap at talking in-character, because there is no objective way to analyze it. Because it is an area they don't understand, they aren't comfortable with it, and therefore whenever I ask them to role-play as their character they respond with embarrassment. Perhaps they feel that they are being judged or laughed at, or they have a fear of doing it "wrong", or maybe they just don't see the appeal of it. Regardless of their reasons for it, some days the best I could ever hope to get from them was "My character says something nice" or "My character tries to get information about the dungeon."

So guess what? If I used your rules, these people would be utterly screwed. Instead, however, I took exactly the same approach you took with Odyssey and used rules to supplement their weaknesses.

Funny how it's fine when you do it, but when I do it it's wrong. But then I suppose it's because my approach actually adds more crunch, and the entire crux of the OSR seems to be "Complex Rules are Baaaaad."

And that's not always true. Some of us LIKE having fiddly bits with which to tweak and play. Others like running things fast and loose. And as long as you and your players are having a blast, then you are playing the game right.

Even if none of you are "socially interacting" in an approved manner.

Erin Palette said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
trollsmyth said...

Erin: Don't you DARE tell me that we aren't interacting socially.

Um, I didn't, and I'm afraid I'm failing to see what this has to do with the topic at hand. :/

Rhetorical Gamer said...

I may be wrong, but I think I see -- in your comment concerning the game not "caring" what you do -- that you might be talking about mechanics. Of course, I'm speculating and could be off base, but is your point something akin to "D&D doesn't have a real mechanical way to resolve social situations, so it doesn't matter what you do RP'wise because mechanically there's no rule to resolve it"?

That aside...

I disagree, respectfully, with most of your premise here. I think you are right that some games are "more" mechanically capable of handling certain aspects of play, but where I disagree is that most games are still capable of modeling any aspect of play just fine.

I fundamentally disagree with the rather "indie" notion that a game has to provide you mechanics or reward/encourage certain behaviors mechanically.

My favorite game of all time is the Amber Diceless system. It's about as rules-less as you can possibly go, but I've never had players -- even my weakest RP'ers struggle to socialize in character just because the game didn't give them mechanics to hang their hats on.

And I can only speak for my own groups here, but I've run several D&D games from OD&D through 3rd edition which were primarily talky games and never had a problem with the mechanics getting in the way.

Of course, it's also late, and I'm tired so I'm going to leave it at that and sign off.

trollsmyth said...

Rhetorical Gamer:
...but is your point something akin to "D&D doesn't have a real mechanical way to resolve social situations, so it doesn't matter what you do RP'wise because mechanically there's no rule to resolve it"?

Quite the opposite, in fact. It would be better to say that the best rules are those which support the primary activity of your game obliquely, rather than replacing it with dice-rolls or resource management. What you buy when you purchase books or a boxed-set, is a lifeless skeleton. The heart of the game comes from what happens when the players interact with it. This is Lumpley's Fruitful Void.

So I'd say Amber Diceless is a good argument for my theory. The game gives players things for their characters to care about, some hard rules to give them a few boundaries, and then lets them decide the hows and whys in a game which is (correct me if I'm wrong here, please) primarily about making deals and forging alliances with the other PCs.

Erin Palette said...

Rhetorical Gamer:
My favorite game of all time is the Amber Diceless system. It's about as rules-less as you can possibly go, but I've never had players -- even my weakest RP'ers struggle to socialize in character just because the game didn't give them mechanics to hang their hats on.

Thank you. That perfectly sums up what I've been trying to say for the past two days.


Trollsmyth:
Um, I didn't, and I'm afraid I'm failing to see what this has to do with the topic at hand.

I freely admit that I am carrying a lot of baggage here, but all your posts on this subject have left me rankled as I detect the subtle odor of contempt.

First, there's that unspoken vibe of "REAL roleplayers don't need rules." Then there's the elitist angle that you can't just get together and have fun doing whatever it is you do around a gaming table; instead, there is some kind of social interaction agenda to which you must hew, else you are playing the game wrong.("Replacing activities with dice rolls.") And finally, when I mention that sometimes rules can be good things, you whip out terms like "resource management" and use them like they're profanities.

Yeah, it really does feel like you're telling me that anyone who uses social interaction rules is
somehow emotionally stunted and isn't playing the game properly.


Look. I get that you and Odyssey are playing some strange hodgepodge game of D&D sans dungeons -- and let be perfectly clear, I am cool with that and I'm not telling you that you are wrong for so doing -- but the tone of your last three posts seems to indicate that you think this is how all games should operate.

This bugs me. This bugs me on a very deep level. This bugs me even more when (whoops, baggage alert!) I think back to how I tried to run a 7th Sea game for you and Odyssey and the rest, and how I banged my head against the wall to somehow convince you guys to just let go and run with the wahoo swashbuckling nature of it -- a nature which, I hasten to point out, is something that you two agreed upon as "fun" and "refreshing" -- only to be stymied, time and time again, as all the two of you EVER wanted to do was revert back to form and TALK instead of DOING.

I think sometimes you talk too much instead of actually playing the game.

Of course, unless I am very wrong I predict your next statement will be along the lines of "Talking IS how we play the game." And to that I say great, fine, knock yourself out. But you need to realize that you occupy some prime real estate on the periphery, and most of the player base is less fringe and more core than you two.

trollsmyth said...

Erin: I really don't know what to tell you. I'm certainly not saying that I've discovered the One True Way to play. Maybe a core of good design, but that's a completely different issue, I'm sure you'd agree.

Let's try demonstrating with a counterexample of a game that would best be served by extensive social mechanics. Let's see when to make an RPG about Vikings. What this game will be about is plundering and pillaging. The players will design characters, outfit ships and crews, pick their targets, lead assaults, and divide the plunder. Since that's the core, the rest of our mechanics shouldn't distract from that but instead support it. So, we don't want to make attacking a hapless village too simple. We want to give the players lots of leeway for creativity, and lots of issues to deal with. Take too long in your assault, and some of the loot will escape. Lots of Vikings in ships means a quicker conquest, but it also means less room for loot. These are exactly the sorts of difficulties we want our players to face and overcome because this is the heart of the fun of the game.

Obviously, there's lots of room for social interaction here. From handling the morale of our Viking raiders, arguing questions before the All Thing, or tricking your way into a heavily fortified city, we have lots of opportunities for in-game social interaction. However, in this case, because this sort of thing isn't the focus of the game, we probably want fairly robust mechanics to tackle these for us. Morale is going to be more about having adequate food and fairly distributing the loot than stirring speeches given by the players.

I'm fully aware that my preferences in an RPG are simply that: my own personal preferences. There are a few games that fit my preferences well, and a lot of games that don't. All of those games that don't have folks who play in them regularly and have lots of fun doing so. I'd be the last person to argue that this wasn't the case. I am simply arguing that if you do wish to make a game focused on social interaction, having that interaction replaced with dice rolls undercuts the game's effectiveness.

(As for the 7th Sea game, if you'd like my post-mortem on that, I'd be happy to give it to you in private. We should probably share that via text-chat or something more immediate.)

Anonymous said...

I'm not agreeing or disagreeing, but how can you break a game that is explicitly defined by the designer as a set of guidelines, meant to be changed as needed by the referee to suit his or her group?

Oddysey said...

By "break" I think what Trollsmyth means is "stop functioning as intended" not "stop functioning in any manner." He's referring to the point at which the XP system in D&D shuts down. That doesn't necessarily mean that there's anything wrong with the game.

trollsmyth said...

Yep, what Oddysey said. The rules we had been playing with stopped working completely and catastrophically, but not in a way that was beyond repair. As it was, the fix was fairly simple, but rather focused on the rhythms of the game right now, and may need further tweaking down the line.

trollsmyth said...

Er, rather, the rules for advancement stopped working completely and catastrophically. Everything else was chugging along just fine.

Robert Fisher said...

For me, this hobby is all about playing “Let’s pretend!” with a way to resolve “I blah!” ... “No you didn’t!” It’s a text adventure game backed by a living, creative narrator rather than just an preprogramed tree of responses. No rules necessary. Some guidelines and some sketches of a game can be fun, but too much or too much focus on the gamey bits, and you’ve lost what—for me— is the unique and interesting bit.

Rules for interpersonal interactions? Yeah, I use them why run systems that have them. I’ve come to terms with how to do that without making it become simply “I employ my Diplomacy skill against the antagonist!” That’s not my preference, though.

As the shy person with weak social skills in the group, I’ve never felt at a disadvantage when it comes to in-character interpersonal interactions without mechanics. The judges I’ve played with have almost universally had the imagination and maturity to keep this from becoming an issue.

And advancement? Don’t care. I’m all about in-game rewards. Mechanical rewards are gravy. If your goals aren’t aligned with the things that bring mechanical advancement...shrug If that’s not what you’re shooting for, that’s not the reward you should get. There’s a good chance you’re getting other rewards, though.

And, no, I’m not saying my way to play is right and anyone else’s is wrong. I’m merely trying to share what works for me. Because it was other people saying what worked for them that helped (...are helping...) me find what works best for me.

faustusnotes said...

I know this is late to the party but...

Trollsmyth, that comment near the top of your post about football and physical skills really rankles me.

Are you saying that people with no social skills shouldn't play D&D? Because if so, you are on a hiding to nothing. Have you noticed the level of social skills in the gaming world?

I just can't understand privileging combat over everything else for the application of rules. What is the justification for that, in a game where the majority of players are socially marginal at best?

Robert Fisher said...

I just can't understand privileging combat over everything else for the application of rules. What is the justification for that, in a game where the majority of players are socially marginal at best?

That assumes that providing rules for something will make someone better at that thing. In reality, though, that merely shifts the advantage to those who are good at analyzing and manipulating rule systems.

And I’ll repeat... As the shy guy with poor social skills at the table, I’ve never found this to be a real issue. Any judge with the imagination to create an interesting world to adventure can see past my disadvantages.

Oddysey said...

Are you saying that people with no social skills shouldn't play D&D? Because if so, you are on a hiding to nothing. Have you noticed the level of social skills in the gaming world?

Are you people TRYING to misunderstand the man? Do you wake up in the morning and think to yourself, "I'm going to go on the internet and not understand a goddamned word anyone says?"

I admit that Trollsmyth is being ridiculously long-winded here, but how can you read:
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.

and think, "Bah! That mean old Trollsmyth! He doesn't want social mechanics in ANY GAME ANYWHERE?"

If you want your game to mostly revolve around the players interacting in person with each other and various other characters, don't replace talking with die rolls.

And yeah, if your players have literally no social skills, and no interest in acquiring them, they shouldn't play that kind of game. I don't have any real tactical acumen and have no interest in acquiring it; I have no business playing chess.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

What if I'm trying to get past the guard so that I can speak with/kill/kidnap a local lord? The way I'm used to doing it, the encounter would go something like this:

I make my pitch to the GM. I roll to see how this guy took it. If it's good enough, the GM says something to the effect of "All right, you can go in. Just don't cause any trouble.", or the applicable response for that NPC. If not the GM will respond with whatever they deem to be an in character refusal, and several things can happen: 1. I make a counter-argument, and roll again. 2. I get thrown out, which either leads to my leaving (possibly with a few new bruises from being thrown down the stairs), or my getting into a fight with the guy. Or 3. I leave without getting kicked out, and either someone else tries to get in for me, or I head back in later once the guard has changed, depending on whether or not they describe me (that I know of) to the rest of the guards, distributed fliers/posters etc. Sure, there will be modifiers based on how well they did but they still have a chance to succeed if they put enough points into the skill needed for this particular bit of fast-talking.

What I'm confused about is how that same encounter would work in your game. What are your rules for social interaction?

trollsmyth said...

C'nor: It just comes down to context. The DM has to know enough about the guard (culture, background, personal life) to have some idea what would convince the guard to let the PCs pass. The players then must figure this out (through knowing things in general about the culture, or specifically about the guard) to find which ones would work. Or they have to guess and hope they hit the right one, which is almost certain to fail considering the huge range of choices the players have. But usually, the players have at least some idea of what will or won't work.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

Ah! This isn't about the way they determine success, but more the way you choose modifiers?

trollsmyth said...

If I'm playing a game where dice are rolled, yes. But in my default game, if you've got the right key, the door always opens; no dice-rolling required.

trollsmyth said...

And just to be clear, there are usually a handful of keys for any door, to continue the metaphor.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

So Behatzailea is a mid-level leader for Txertatu Taldearen izena. He owes money to the Bigarren Frakzioa, and is hiding from them. He also has a close family member who can be held hostage, and is easily seduced. Things like that?