Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Collaborate at Arm's Length

In the last post, I talked about "agile design." Some readers will be aware that two posts ago, I also talked about agile design.  With this post, I'm going to talk about agile again.

I have just finished saying that as DMs, we need to communicate more with our players about what they want, in order to determine what can work and what won't work in a campaign.  I spoke about recognizing that fog of war is a secondary consideration to addressing the greater issue of determining how players respond to ideas and experiences they have in our campaign.

For those of you willing to take the risk of letting players choose the nature and species of their next encounters, it will not be long before a series of problems will emerge.  Players will not want the circumstances between themselves and success lengthened or frustrated by inefficiencies.  They will want the path between themselves and total power to be completely efficiently; if they feel they're in a position to negotiate, they will argue for efficiency every time.  And just so we're on the same page, understand that "efficiency" for a player will be: a) as little risk as possible; and b) as much reward as possible.

If we take a stroll through a casino anywhere, and issue a questionnaire among the casino's players, asking what the casino could do to increase their personal satisfaction, the players would answer: a) make us lose less often; and b) make the pots that we can win larger.

Yet strangely, though no casino does this, not even in tiny incremental degrees, players keep showing up to participate.  What does this mean?

It means that what the player says and what the player does are largely unrelated concepts.  Players always want the best possible results for their investment.  That is why they are players, to get the best possible results!  Of course they have to get them through game play; but if we think about it, "game play" is a question of finding the best possible path towards game success.  Players see questionnaires and investigations as potential angles that can be played, just as the rules of the game can be played.  The DM might show weakness; if the DM does, then I want to be first in line to exploit it.

So where it comes to managing our players and learning about them, we need to be wary.  This is not a contract negotiation. This is a way of turning the players onto their backs like turtles, then seeing how long it takes to right themselves.

In the end, we're going to give the players what we want.  We want inefficiency in the rules, requiring innovation.  We want a sense of doubt where it comes to risk-taking.  But we can't do that well unless we investigate what makes the players innovate or take risks.

However, though we don't want to negotiate, we do want to collaborate, and often.  Collaboration is the key to the game universe.

I was recently watching a video on Dark Souls and The Stanley Parable, which some of you will have played.  I'm not going to talk about that link (and, quite honestly, I could beat Mark to death with a hammer and feel nothing at all). Rather, I'll link this video instead, which talks about why circumventing the narrator is central to the value that we find in games that enable rather than deny:

"If you go on a rampage in Dark Souls and kill every last friendly NPC you will actually unlock whole new side stories and dungeons and bosses.  This is not simply emergent or procedural, this is intended play.  If there is crafted content on the other side of your misbehaviour, then it's not actually 'misbehaviour' ~ because it turns out that murdering everyone is also the correct way to behave. What a game intends for you to do includes not only the things the fiction of the game tells you to do, but also the broader things the game permits you to do."

With this sort of understanding, we are right through the looking glass.  This describes the awfulness and poor game thinking of pre-writing a "story" that players need to pursue.  In fact, anything that the players do has the potential to just create another story, which a fast-moving DM can manage by evaluating, changing plans in mid-stream and then moving forward to build a new adventure with agility, this being, agile design that interprets what the customer, er user . . . ah, I mean player, what the player wants.  Sorry, sometimes I get confused when I realize that everything that designers are doing to satisfy people in the real world is exactly what we as DMs need to do in our game worlds.

That evaluation that I mentioned, along with the changing of plans (or iterations), can't be done without collaborating with the player.  Take a very common situation, one that seems to aggravate story-DMs no end.
DM: an old man moves up to the party and begins to speak.  "I have something very important to tell you," he begins.
Typical Munchkin Player: I kill the old man.

There.  The story is ruined, right?  And at this point, the DM usually shouts, "You can't do that!" or "Why did you do that?"  To which the player answers, "Seemed like a good idea."

Is the story done?  No.  Is this even remotely a problem in a flexible, inefficient role-playing game? Absolutely not.  The player has just stepped up to the tee and sliced the ball into the woods.  In golf, that means taking a penalty.  In an RPG, the penalty is simple:

DM: Three men hear the old man's shout as he dies and rush out of the nearby doorway. They see the player with the bloody sword and the old man dead on the ground.  "He's a murderer!" they shout, immediately reaching for a group of ax-handles that happen to be collected in a nearby barrel.  They approach the party intending to use them as clubs.

Chances are, the munchkin is now happy.  Fuck the story, fuck the old man, none of that matters.  The player is getting what the player wants: a fight.  But let's make it a hard, brutal fight, one that nearly ends in the player's death, but at the same time promises a chance that the player will win.  We're not punishing the player, we're merely supplying a reasonable penalty that promotes a certain inefficiency to the player's survival.  That's all.

We could ask, "Do you find stories and old men relating them boring?"  If the answer is yes, we could move on other strategies and techniques to introduce adventures.  We could stretch ourselves and be creative.  We could give the players what they want.

Giving it the way we want to give it, obviously.  This is a collaboration, not a service, not submission.  As designers, we'll try to make the player happy; but we're still going to be the ones designing this thing.  Players can be made to understand that.


JB said...

Mmm...if only every munchkin player could be bludgeoned with axe handles...

Sorry, but the Steinbeckian image put a smile on my face that quite made me lose the point of the post.
; )

Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't think that it did, Bright Boy. I'm sure the post got through just fine.

Yes, an extreme example. I don't have any munchkins like this in my games.

Vlad Malkav said...

Hello Alexis,
Just finished reading all the recent posts from the last week or so, and they're really, really Great.

They are clear, precise, shed light unto the game, and they motivate Changes. That's just splendid.

Maxwell Joslyn said...


You've had nothing but hits in this series. I want to try these strategies and report back, to contribute to all of our understanding how to run a game on these principles, but my group is currently on hiatus for the summer. What do you recommend I do?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Email them, call them on the phone, talk on facebook, and find out what they'd like to fight in Sep-Oct. Then start designing.