Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Hit the Road

In light of this post from last week, and the considerable thought I have given on the matter, I have come to the conclusion that role-playing gets in the way of throwing the dice.

I propose a moment in time.  You and your party have just encountered a massive, 18-foot-high earth elemental.  You are well aware that it is immune to most of your weapons, that it has somewhere upwards of 200 hit points (as this is my world), and that at the moment it is within striking distance of you.

We have just rolled our dice and we find that the party is surprised.  As the DM, the next move is therefore mine.

Let's examine two possibilities.

1)  I stand, look at the party, and clear my throat.
2)  I reach for a d20.

Which of these two options produces the greater emotional effect?

If you say (1), then you are a play-actor.  You believe that the crushing of your character offers very little in the way of drama, as you are more concerned with what a strange creature has to say than you are with your character's own life.  It makes little difference to you what the creature says, so long as it choosing to speak enables you to strut and fret your hour upon the stage.  You perceive yourself as an important protagonist in a performance, working out your personal conflicts, gnawing away upon the stale angst bagel you keep in your pocket, ready to wave it at whatever foil approaches you.  Talk talk talk, that's what you love, for every moment you talk you feel your own importance rising.  When you hear others speak, you quickly parse and deconstruct their words so that your come-back will be brilliant, that it will bring laughter and applause.

If you say (2), then you are a role-player.  You feel tension because you want to live.  You're worried about the die because you're concerned that if it falls wrong, you'll die.  You have no illusion of being in control.  You know that even if the creature misses, winning is going to be a long, hard, difficult struggle.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Moreover, you don't care if you're the one to kill it.  You'll be happy if anyone in the party kills it.  Thus, you're not concerned with your own limitations, you're hoping that together you and the party are going to take this thing down.

Undoubtedly, my words have relayed my feelings about those who choose (1).  That is because you don't belong at my table.  You need to take up acting.  That is where you belong.  You've confused role-playing for self-aggrandizement.  If you go into the theatre, I think you'll discover a lot of people who feel about the sound of their own voice very much like you feel about the sound of yours.

See, 'play-acting' isn't emotional.  It's posturing.  And the elemental that clears its throat is a relief. Therefore, less emotion.  Less effect.  The party is grateful that they're going to live, but on the whole their adrenaline-status is much diminished.  If, on the other hand, you are the sort that sees me reach for the die with the thought, "oh gawd, combat again," then you have failed to understand what it means to BE a character.  You're posturing as a character.  You're a fake.  You're an imposter, pretending to be a role-player because you've forgotten the way to the theatre.

We all here, we're working at actually being our characters, not presenting them in an affected and artificial manner.  That is why you, friend, have to go.  You don't belong here.

You see that, don't you?


JDJarvis said...

#2 is definitely more emotional but as a player I'd want #1 to happen, so I can possibly gain more information and something to leverage to my advantage in defeating, bypassing, or manipulating the monster.
I want to win and dice rolling is not the only way to win (or lose).

Alexis Smolensk said...

Granted, JD, but the question wasn't "What do the players want."

You've answered the question I did ask, and that is appreciated. I rush to point out that there's no reason at all to suppose that the elemental is going to tell you anything encouraging . . . but I appreciate your sense of hope.

Ozymandias said...

Must these two positions be mutually exclusive?

I agree that the dice are necessary. I accept that they are more necessary than the acting component. If I had to choose between two DMs - one who used dice to produce an emotional response but had no real acting skills, and another who rarely used dice but was an exceptional actor - I would go with the former.

But does that mean that the acting component should be ignored? That we should push the play-actor out of the game? That there is no hope of redeeming or instructing the play-actor in the proper way to play the game?

There is a place for acting in role-playing games and it can have an impact on how visceral the game feels. It's just not as important as the dice.

JDJarvis said...

Yes, that's why I said "possibly gain more information". As a player I want more information, not necessarily a Shakespearean soliloquy and hopefully not a novella worth of blather. The d20 roll tells me what I know (someone is probably getting whacked). What I know is what has my stupid ill-prepared PC standing there worrying about a d20 roll. What I don't know yet holds a host of options.

Jeremiah Scott said...

I've read over the last week where some have said that the game mechanics serve to support the role-playing. That always sounded right to me.

But I've since come to believe the exact opposite. Any acting on the part of the DM or players only serves to endear the characters and enrich the world to the players where the game itself is really capable of generating drama.

I do think there some exceptions in certain moments. But very, very few.

Alexis Smolensk said...

You answered your question with your last statement, Ozymandias. "Not as important." That's the issue.

My concern as a DM is primarily to promote tension and the hopeful resolution of tension. When I am told by people that my concern ought to be couched in dialogue, this tells me that tension does not matter to these people.

I think what many role-players inherently understand, JD included, is that while there's much to be gained in dialogue, it IS better if I pick up the d20 first, then stand up and clear my throat. In effect, my hand must be on the weapon when I talk. And the players' hands, too.

All too often, this nonsense "we'll talk our way of out it" crap is based upon living in the 21st century, where people insist that once given a chance to explain themselves, everything will be all right. Other people with guns are proving that wrong every day, but the delusion remains.

Jeremiah Scott said...

I've changed my mind about the exceptions too. I was thinking about the dramatic moments where the party is working out larger strategy with NPCS, but that often comes down to a die roll as well.

I do, on occasion, enjoy a good villainous monologue from an opponent (perhaps, as you say, I'm the only one at the table who enjoys it). But that's not really the same thing as this negotiation mentality. I went through a phase with my players where they wanted to negotiate with every enemy, even at the very cusp of violence. I don't know what I did to make feel that was okay. A character or two died before they rewlized that enemies who had them by surprise weren't going to throw away their advantage to shoot the shit with them.

Alexis Smolensk said...

You'll notice that film and television is taking that approach lately also, Jeremiah. I watched E03S03 of Sherlock last night, for an example.

In the old days, the character would say, "You won't shoot me," and would start moving forward, and there'd be all this mock tension and ultimately no one would get shot. After fifty years of that, presently the character that says, "You won't shoot me" gets immediately shot.

It is very encouraging.

Butch said...

I always liked this scene from Serenity.

I have to admit I'm the #1 kind of player. Perhaps because it's an Earth Elemental less so; I don't know if you can really parley with an Earth Elemental.

But I really enjoyed negotiating with the white dragon in the kobold cave rather than duking it out, and later with the dwarven beastmaster. And with our conversations with Hieronymus and Madame Salvador and Hadji Lazaro and Mullah Yazigi and countless other NPCs. I can recall all those conversations far more than the results of any one particular die roll. Don't you?

I guess at heart I look at D&D as a story being told, not a miniatures battle being fought, despite its roots as such. So when the DM stands up and clears his throat, yeah, that's much more intriguing to me than a die roll.

I think the situation you described in Apex about pointless 20 minute conversations between the player and the wench can be laid at the feet of the DM. As you said, you can cut to the quick: "After a lot of argument, the butcher tells you." Or, "The villagers all seem to be afraid of the heavily armed strangers and refuse to talk with any of you." The players will learn to move along, and have conversations with the NPCs who matter, not every extra on the street.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I think you have a very selective memory, Butch.

The white dragon was ready to parlay; if I had ever intended it to be purely evil, nothing you would have said would have changed its breath weapon. That one example hardly changes the other events where you were NOT given an option . . . such as in the house with Devereaux or the lizard men you had to beat down on the island.

As I remember it, there was great intensity in fighting the kobalds, on the top of the tower, against Madam when you first met her men, against the Boroge and so on . . . those don't ring a bell? Because I can go find the text that reads, "THIS WAS AWESOME!"

I think at heart you WANT it to be a story, but over and over I've proved that the dice drive the tale. The most DIFFICULT part of the whole campaign, and the least meaningful to the general party, and to me, was your own stubbornness, Butch, to play-act rather than play . . . to the point where I got so tired of feeling jerked around that I thought I was going to have to have the whole village burn your ass for behaving like a complete asshole to a very attractive, helpless woman. Is that the story you remember?

Because I remember how the party's description of fighting the boroge, with 'miniatures,' was an incredible on the edge of their seat struggle.

You know I love play-acting. I used to be a real actor, right? But even I know there comes a point where its time to get down to the dice and make something happen. A lot of talk - too much talk - just drags the campaign in the mud.

We only just witnessed that, didn't we?

Butch said...

Yes, that is the story I remember -- with no dice being rolled!

I'm not saying we don't need combat, or that I want some weird form of diceless combat where we cooperatively decide what should happen next. The randomness of combat, as told by the dice, is part of the story. If we didn't have combat, we wouldn't need to carry weapons; we could merrily wander from town to town, telling tales and singing songs, and maybe, Murder, She Wrote style, solving crimes and righting wrongs without actually ever having to shed blood. But that's boring.

I like combat; I loved the fights you named, as well as the battle against the crab and the ghouls and a dozen others. I thought for sure we were doomed against the Boroge, but in the end the dice went our way.

But I'm not arguing against combat -- I'm just saying, in the scenario you described, going up against a supremely difficult, maybe even impossible opponent, you don't need the 20-sider in your hand to get me to listen. You'd have to roll a lot of 1's in a row for me to win that battle.

But if my choice is, "watch me roll or hear me talk", I'd rather hear you talk.

James C. said...

But if my choice is, "watch me roll or hear me talk", I'd rather hear you talk.

Isn't the point being missed here that the DMs talking should be in large part just interpreting what was rolled?

There's this 4 quadrant plot I imagine with Game on the y axis and Story on the z, and we should all be somewhere in the upper right quadrant. Yes the game comes first, but the story assembled from playing the game is what separates an RPG from Risk! Ignoring one for the sake of the other strikes me as disingenuous or, at best, myopic.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Oh, I'm not suggesting that anything be gotten rid of, far from it.

Once again, the question was not, "What makes a good game?" I suppose that with a topic like this, people are going to again and again try to jump past the specifics and rush to the BIG PICTURE, but here I'm just talking about specifics.

A DM has to be aware of what message is being sent from second to second during the game. The DM that thinks, "Oh, it's fine, I'm being interesting enough by having the creature chat" is in a state of delusion. Presuming a lot of build towards meeting the elemental (which you are, James, and you, Butch, and you JD), then yes, a chat may be very fine just then.

But hell, let's not kid ourselves. The reality is that there are games where there is NO build, there's just chatting that gets the players to more chatting, so they can have another chat and so on. And this is the point of the post. People think chatting for it's own sake is enough. These are the same people carping about how dice get in the way of their precious chatting.

So in the big picture, players in my world can always count on there being some chance that the elemental will have something to say. And they can always count on there being dice, with life and success hinging on those rolls. I personally will never let role-play get in the way of the game.

We all know of campaigns where it does, however. Don't we?

James C. said...

Maybe we should we call it dice-playing then? As a player you're not interpreting a predefined role and as DM you're not relaying a predefined outcome. You're each just making choices then giving voice to the dice.

You don't need to tell me the dice are important agents: