Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Apex of Role-play

I don't see how people can say that this blog is abusive.  I simply make it clear what I like and what I don't like, then tailor the content on the blog towards that measure.  If the neighbor's dog poops on may lawn, I don't let the shit lay untouched in the interest of free expression.

I've been very deliberate about that metaphor.  The neighbour's dog is blameless.  It doesn't know any better.  The same can be said for many of the people who come and comment here.  They believe they have something of merit to say.  They say what they can the best way they know how. They are blameless when the content just doesn't make the cut.

Of course they are hurt.  The neighbour's dog is hurt when I catch it in the hindquarters with a broom. So it goes.  It is the only message the neighbour's dog understands.

Is it unfair.  I suppose it must be.  I am very unfair about considering myself to be the last and only arbiter of the content on this blog.  Frankly, I delight in the unfairness the position offers.  Having followed through upon the agreement between myself and blogger, I have been accorded the privilege of moderating comments, deleting things that I don't like and generally controlling the content on this blog.

However, recently I was told this policy has resulted in there being only sycophants that read or comment on this blog.  The former I know to be not true.  The stats plainly indicate that a fair number of people come here from sites that have universally condemned this site.  As regards to the latter, the commenters . . . well, hello sycophants.

Apparently, you don't disagree with me enough to ease the consciences of those people who "don't" read this blog because of all the abuse.  You are not taking me to task enough.  Or rather, those of you out there who dare to take me to task are being brutally suppressed and thrown out with the trash. Therefore, to those of you who wisely lick my boots, good on you, glad to have you here . . . and watch your step.

This week we had a dialogue about 'role-play' vs. 'roll-play' - and I must admit to being quite bored of it.  In fact, I find myself increasingly bored of the standard memes of role-play flame wars.  None of these things really matters.  The fellow on here yesterday defending the right to subvert the dice in order to promote role-play because it makes his game better completely missed the point, because he plays the same old game in the same old way, with the same old assumptions about what makes good game play: be interesting.  He is convinced, just as so many are convinced, that because the name of the game is 'role-play,' the most interesting thing about RPGs is the common, ordinary, day-to-day discourse between the players and the guy on the street.  As if the most interesting thing about your life is the chat you had today with the guy at the bus stop.  Or the coffee bar.  Or the five minute blather about nothing you shared with a co-worker.  So interesting.

Is this all we have?  Do our 'dreams' really come down to "I want to pretend to speak to a guy on the street and ask directions?"  Is that as far as it goes?  It sure sounds like that.  It sounds as if the 'apex' of RPGs comes when the harbour master saunters over to ask us our business.  Big whup.  I'm sure excited now.

No, no, don't bother to agree.  I already know you do.  You all know your place.

I had this stupid idea when I began playing that fantasy had something to do with fulfilling ambitions, along with the will to acquire, and apply myself to those tasks.  I had aspirations - and those weren't quite managed by bullshit dialogues that take twenty minutes of game time between me and the bartender, or me and the wench that brings the beer.  Seriously.  I've spent quite a lot of time playing this game, and I cannot imagine anything more boring than another twenty minute dialogue with another cardboard cut-out of a bartender's persona as invented by a guy who reads David Eddings. Shoot me in the head, okay?  (I know you will, you sycophantic drones, you).  When does it come about that another bartender convo has edged into the "holy crap not again" zone?  Because as near as I can tell, with some of the folk here who unwisely disagree with me, it never does.

Really.  I have four hours to run a game and I'm going to dedicate 12.5% of that time to another shit dialogue between the party and a bartender, a harbour master, a butcher, a baker or the chandler, er, candlestick maker?  No thank you.  You know how long these conversations should go on?  Two sentences.  You know how many dice I want to roll for that?  None.  Why?  Because I don't freaking care what their answers are.  I can't think of a single question that the party would ask one of these people that wouldn't simply be answered straight.  I will roll dice when a player gets physical.

The reason for that is because I don't make a village the Land Of A Million Secrets.  Villages are, you know, villages.  People grow food.  They slaughter cows. They don't have educations.  If they do know a secret about the local lord that eats little children, the party is never going to know about it from them because they don't want to die.  This isn't cheap television where everyone furtively pauses and hesitates and runs their words together and are plainly hiding something, so that it takes twenty freaking minutes to pull a plot point out of them.

Holy crap that is just bad play.

Even television manages these scenes in 90 seconds.  And since the DM wants to tell the player the plot point, why don't we just say, "After a lot of argument, the butcher tells you."  For the love of green apples in a girl's special cupboard, let's get the fuck on with the adventuring huh?

Oh, but 'role-playing' is the 'apex' of RPGs.  Yeah.  Right.   I'm just going to move over here a moment and pound my head on this table.  No reason.  When you have a lot of sycophants that agree with you all the time, you'll understand.

Now, I think every player in every campaign already knows this.  I think they know it because they sit, and wait, and wait, and sit, and listen to the one player that wants to talk to the butcher run through every . . . single . . . damn . . . facet of this conversation.  I think they know how much they just wish that we would get the hell on with things, but they don't say so, because, well, because they have bought into the argument that this is the game, because they have been told this is the game and because it is the only style of play that they have ever seen.  So it is a necessity.  Got to have role-playing in a role-playing game.  Can't have a game without role-playing.  No sirree.

Except, you know, role-playing is rushing somewhere, and fleeing, and fighting the clock, and making a choice between dilemmas, and suffering great loss, and having everything suddenly go to shit, and having to figure out how you're still going to do the thing you were going to do before that guy died and left you holding the bag.  Role-playing is a lot of gawddamn things, but most of all it is getting past all the dross and the boring and the let's-act-this-out-in-painful-detail . . . because hell, I only have four hours to let these guys find the guy that will tell them where the guy is, so they can ask the guy the one question they need to ask to get the answer that will get them past the door and face-to-face with the frightening dude who has his hand on the lever already that's going to guarantee that the thing is lost.  I don't have time to saunter and rub my false mustache and dream up clever character traits that no one right now gives a shit about.  All they care about is that damn lever and its position right now.  Character?  Character is found in whether or not the guy pulls or doesn't pull.  That's all the party cares about.

The rest of it, the stuff I see when I watch other people play, the lacklustre dull dragging blandfest that's going on when I'm sitting next to a table that's supposed to be in combat but looks like six people waiting for a job interview, is just awful.  That is what the people arguing the nonsensical particulars about role-play vs. dice-play just don't understand. They're not in the same ballgame. Hell, it ain't the same ballpark, it ain't the same league, it ain't even the same fuckin' sport.

The role-play they get themselves wet over don't mean shit.


Maxwell Joslyn said...

B-b-but Alexis, the bartenders in my fantasy novels all know lots of secrets! Why wouldn't I try to drag those secrets out of them?

And the settlements, which are always scattered impossibly thin across the landscape, are all unique and special and provide 20-30 hours of adventuring each, because they're so rich with hidden or long-forgotten adventuring sites! Why, the protagonists of "Barzalom the Eldermancer" spent two whole books in Kape Kod, uncovering the underground mystery of the Bonerizer that the whole town turned out to be in on! They must have talked to a dozen bartenders and learned something new each time! Isn't that suspenseful? Doesn't that get your RP tingling?

Matt said...

I like talking in character, and relaying in-character information sometimes. Maybe my players and I have a bit of a circle-jerk with this kind of thing.

I still at least try to make those between NPCs that will be showing up again though. I don't think I've had a conversation with an "extra" in quite a while. I'll keep this post in mind in the future, and hopefully speed things up.

Ozymandias said...

I diasagree.


Actually, I don't. But I don't appreciate being classified a 'sycophant,' so I feel a need to voice my disagreement with Alexis.


Give me a moment...

Truth be told, I don't disagree. I mean, I don't agree with everything Alexis has ever written or everything he has ever said. I don't worship him or his work. But when it comes to D&D, I agree with his position: there is a better way to play the game. There is a way to elevate it above the infantile status it currently holds. There exists a standard of excellence we can and should aspire to achieve.

What I'd like to see is more people accepting of this concept so that we can have a real dialogue about how to get there.

Vlad Malkav said...

Damn … Ok, call me a sycophant here, but DAMN ! Just read this post, just got my mind blown, my ass handed to me on top.

Got that problem, in my campaign, and in the one I’m playing with. Lulls, too many useless RPs that sometimes garner some attention, but mostly just make us loose time from the Adventure. From the rushing, the fleeing, the fighting of ourselves, our enemies, and our fate, or, you know, just – fucking – have – a – fulfilling – time. Being driven by our ambitions, our goals, and all the shit that goes between us and them.

So, yeah, this one is definitely going in my “Best Practices” folder. Gotta revise it soon, ‘cause it has been some times since last updating it, and you wrote some very good posts that clarified much for me.

I’m impatient to put this to use …

Ian Pinder said...

Prior warning - there will be some statements that some people might define as sycophancy in this comment. I will attempt flag it up so those of a delicate disposition don't stumble across it unawares.

I actually found the discussion with Mr Knapp quite interesting. That's probably because I have not really spent much time reading about role-playing online in the past so I've missed most of these arguments.

What I found most interesting about it was that to me your positions seemed to be a lot closer than one might expect.

You both basically argued that there was no need to rely on a die to tell you the outcome in many cases. Where you disagreed was in when a die should be used and when not.

Mr Knapp seemed to take the view that dice should be used when the rules said so and the result followed unless he felt the result was wrong (or alternatively that there should be no need for a roll if he felt the RP was good enough).

That may be an unfair summary but I really can't tell from his comments what other yardstick he uses.


I have no real difficulty with the above position but the main thing I have taken from your blog posts over the years is to think about the game you want to achieve, think about the situations where you feel the rules don't work and try and come up with a better rule.

I think that is where Mr Knapp (and to be fair most of us) fall short.

If you feel the mechanics don't achieve the result you want - change the mechanics until they do.

Just saying "the rules don't give the result I think is fair in this case, so I'm going to ignore them in this one case" is intellectually lazy.

It is not only lazy, it also creates more difficulty for the DM.

By operating an essentially arbitrary system, you lay yourself open to interminable discussions in future whenever the dice go against your players.

I suspect we've all had those arguments and every time the DM has made an arbitrary decision in the past, it weakens their ability to maintain their position in the future.

By the way I agree that 30 minute conversations with every bartender, ale-wench and cooper do not constitute good role-playing.

Those people are in the game for a purpose. They're either background colour, a service provider (i.e. shop), an obstacle or have useful information.

If they're background colour I have no need or desire to interact with them. If they're a shop - just let me buy what I need, hand over my money and go.

If they're an obstacle, let's just cut to the chase and deal with the issue (in character yes but quickly and efficiently). If they have useful information that I need, just give it to me.

There is really no fun in spending half an hour cajoling some imaginary barmaid into telling me about the three farmers who went missing after poking around the abandoned Black Castle of the Terrible Doom of the Left-handed Swordsman.

As you say in your post, the information will either be common knowledge or secret. If it's secret, the person I'm talking to knows the secret and will tell me, knows but won't tell me or they don't know and can't tell me.

All that can and should be determined in advance.

Jomo Rising said...

I agree with Alexis most often in areas of philosophy, which is often what his posts are about. When I disagree, I generally don't post, mainly because the points I differ on are less philosophical and more systematic.
So how can anyone tell if I'm a syncophant? My omissions don't speak.

ProfessorOats said...

People need to get their heads out of their asses about what it means to "role-play" (nevermind that D&D didn't even bill itself as an RPG until, what, the early 80s?). We're not a bunch of improv actors, pulling off silly voices while navigating the ref's shitty story; role-play does not equate to talking. We are, first and foremost, playing a GAME, and that means making meaningful choices. The role-play aspect is secondary, a descriptor of the mechanics, and simply means those choices are primarily tied to the characters we play. That's the problem with hero points - using them is a choice I make during play that bears absolutely no relation to any choice my character might make. Many of these choices have nothing to do with talking to NPCs. When they do, they should be something that actually advances the game, like negotiations, not twenty minutes of the pet NPCs "tragic" backstory. There's plenty of crappy fanfiction and whole series of Japanese "games" I could endure if I wanted that

Homer2101 said...

It seems the bigger issue is that most DMs do not understand conservation of detail in storytelling. Conservation of detail means that irrelevant and unnecessary details are eliminated from a story -- whether it is a book, a play, a film, or a campaign, because irrelevant details compete for the audience's limited attention. Corollary: almost every scene in a story should advance or resolve some conflict pertinent to the protagonist's goals.

There are exceptions, but often scenes with no pertinent conflict are signs of poor editing; whatever purpose they serve can usually be shifted onto other scenes.

The generic expository scenes have no place in a campaign, because there is no conflict -- as you've so aptly noted, the player characters will inevitably get the information, so there is no reason for the scene to occur. Combat scenes in campaigns fall flat where there is no conflict -- where the players know that they will win so long as they continue to roll the dice.

The underlying trouble may be that tabletop rulesets usually do not handle noncombat conflict well, if at all. Fourth Edition makes a valiant effort with skill challenges. In theory, skill challenges should give players agency because they can choose how to tackle a noncombat encounter, while multiple sequential dice rolls help build tension and give more than one player something to do; in practice the DM usually just uses a fixed menu of skills to roll against a single DC, which is about as interesting as an encounter against immobile statues in a 10x10 room.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I did explore an interactive mechanic - but I found that immediately the players use it for power gaming. This is the same problem DMs are finding with 'diplomacy checks.' If they're there, use them all the time.

My error in the interactive mechanic was that while I produced a strong ideal for 'method' of discourse, the 'result' portion still sucked. I give thought to it now and then. The thing that is accomplished with an interactive mechanic CANNOT contribute to power gaming . . . and as yet, I don't know how that is possible.

James said...

When I was playing in my first D&D game a few years ago, and my wife (fiancee at the time) was DMing, another player after his first session remarked "I think I like it, but I could use more roleplaying."

I immediately started laughing, and he was confused, and inquired as to why. I explained that you find roleplaying everywhere in the game, from how your character fights to what your character does in his off-time described in a sentence or two. For example, I played my wizard as the kind who wanted to avoid getting hit at all costs, and would always stay behind his personal bodyguard and try to talk his way out of everything. It then became a big character moment when, in a fight that was looking dire and I could have easily fled, I chose to take to the front lines to give the cleric time to recover.

My point was, to him and in general, is that I agree with you. I don't care about conversations with bartenders; they were cliche before I ever rolled a d20. Unless this is a recurring NPC who matters, please don't waste my time with a 10+ minute conversation. Let us get in and out, just describe the interaction and move on.

This idea that roleplaying ceases to exist once a die is rolled is toxic. The mechanics exist to enhance the roleplaying; it is a false dichotomy to have them suddenly at odds.